Off-road and out of control

Off-road and out of control

Illegally modified 4x4 tours have been responsible for a string of tourist deaths and horrific accidents on Koh Samui, yet they continue to operate with impunity.

A fleeting silence fell over the thick jungle, an ominously calm presage to the horror about to unfold. Seconds earlier, the sound of a revving engine had elicited excited cheers from the carload of tourists making their way up the precipitous mountain trail.

Sightseeing before safety: Tourists sit on the ‘crow’s nest’ of a safari truck last week, less than a month after the death of Alice Gehlen.

The flicker of stillness soon gave way to panicked cries and the unmistakable thud of crumpling metal.

Among these rugged inland trails, it is a painfully familiar sound.

The road leading up to Namuang waterfall, a popular attraction in Koh Samui’s south, is steep and perilous.

Barely a kilometre long, it is unsealed and poorly maintained, a stretch of loose rock and clay soil punctuated with ruts that deepen with the passing of each monsoon storm.

At the bottom of the hill, Belgian tourists Mark Blockhuys and Johanna Lowist had scarcely parked their rented scooter before they were offered a ride up to the waterfall in one of the 4x4 pickups idling nearby.

The vehicles had been heavily modified; a “crow’s nest” perched precariously above the driver cabins which tourists are encouraged to sit atop, and a steel frame encircled the open bench seats in the back.

“Now I am a huge 4x4 fan. I own a big Chevrolet off-road pickup myself which I take off-road frequently,” said Mr Blockhuys, 45. “But the idea of being shaken around in the back, or on top of, a truck did not appeal to me, and I clearly answered, ‘We walk.’ ”

German tourist Alice Gehlen and her cousin Josefine Marks arrived at the bottom of the hill around the same time. Nearing the end of their two-week trip to Thailand, they had decided to venture to the waterfall. They too were encouraged to take the 4x4 to the top of the hill.

They each paid 100 baht and climbed aboard the rooftop seats.

HORROR SCENARIO

As they made their way up the hill on foot, Mr Blockhuys and Ms Lowist arrived at a fork in the road. One path offered a steeper, more direct route to the top. But the couple opted for the longer, gentler option.

Behind them the 4x4s, now loaded with passengers, began moving out.

Life cut short: German tourist Alice Gehlen, 27, loved her adventures throughout Thailand and Asia.

“My wife told me to get off the track as we could clearly hear the engines revving but couldn’t see them any more and did not want to be too close in case they went by,” Mr Blockhuys said. “But they went straight on and took the steep option.”

What happened next remains the subject of a police investigation, but the truck that Gehlen and Ms Marks were travelling on somehow lurched back down the hill before flipping over onto its roof.

Mr Blockhuys and Ms Lowist ran towards the sounds of screaming and were confronted with what they described as a “horror scenario”; tourists, most of them from Singapore, were clambering out of the back of the truck, which was now leaking fuel.

Pinned beneath the vehicle was 27-year-old Gehlen. Both she and Ms Marks, 25, had been wearing seat belts, but perched in the open-air crow’s nest that may have done more harm than good.

Mr Blockhuys and Ms Lowist, a qualified first aid responder, leapt into action.

“Our first help went out to a man sticking out of the side of the vehicle,” Mr Blockhuys said.

“He was still helping his pregnant wife to detach her seat belt.”

But it soon became clear Gehlen was the most serious case and that the pickup needed to be lifted to get her free. The vehicle was equipped with a hi-lift jack, but it was bolted to the front bumper and could not be removed without tools.

Gehlen’s body temperature, meanwhile, was beginning to drop.

Eventually, with the help of six bystanders, the vehicle was raised enough for Gehlen to be dragged free of the wreckage.

“Joke [Ms Lowist] felt her wrist for a pulse and I did the same in her neck,” Mr Blockhuys said.

“Sadly there was nothing. Her body as well as her head suffered from severe injuries. These were so bad we decided not to give her CPR.

“We believe she died instantly.”

‘THE ACCIDENT WAS UNAVOIDABLE’

There are four companies operating off-road safari tours on Koh Samui. The largest, Samui Offroad Mountain Tours, is run by the owner of the Namuang Safari Park, where the accident took place on Aug 5.

For residents of Koh Samui, the safari trucks have long been a familiar menace, notorious not only for frequent accidents along the island’s isolated inland trails, but for terrorising its network of narrow public roads.

A staff member from Namuang Safari Park acknowledged that some of the operators had a bad reputation, but told Spectrum the criticism is unwarranted.

“Since we are a big company, local villagers assume that all off-road safari tours are bad. Many people are against us because of this misunderstanding,” said the staff member, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“The accident was unavoidable, but we never avoid taking full responsibility for what happens.”

The company organises jungle safari day trips for tourists, who usually book the trips through travel agents or hotels.

But the drivers also frequently look to supplement their income by filling empty seats with travellers on their way up to the waterfall for 100 baht each.

The staff member said the company was responsible for all guests, even those who don’t buy the off-road tours, since they still have to pay to enter the private property which houses the safari park. They have the option of trekking to the waterfall or riding on the trucks, but either way the company “guarantees the safety and takes care of everyone equally”.

The company representative told Spectrum all of its drivers are required to be “quite experienced” before applying for the job. Once accepted, they are given professional off-road training before being allowed to carry tourists. Employees are subjected to regular alcohol and blood testing, the representative added.  

“We are not trying to do anything to prove that we are a quality company,” the staff member said. “We’d prefer to maintain our standards and let time show society that we are not an irresponsible company.”

But the accident on Aug 5 which led to Gehlen’s death is the second major accident that Samui Offroad Mountain Tours has been involved in over the past year. In August last year, eight tourists were injured when one of their vehicles suffered “brake failure” while descending a steep downhill section of Maenam Soi 5.

And the company is not alone in its poor safety record. In February, 12 tourists were injured near Na Nim waterfall when their safari truck, operated by Funny Day Safari, was involved in a similar crash. A witness reportedly told police he saw the vehicle driving “at a high speed” before it careered off the road.

Other reports are plentiful but mostly anecdotal, with locals too afraid to speak publicly. Residents who spoke to Spectrum paint a picture of a lawless island dominated by criminal interests and shady business deals, where damaging incidents — from safari accidents to brazen murders — are covered up to protect island’s tourism image.

Three other companies which operate similar off-road safari tours on Koh Samui declined requests for comment.

‘A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN’

Tourism Association of Koh Samui president Sene Puwasetthaworn said authorities had been aware of the safari issue for some time, but had done nothing to improve the safety of the operations.

Witnesses Mark Blockhuys and Johanna Lowist.

Mr Sene said the safari trucks usually drive more carefully on public roads to avoid legal repercussions, but once off-road, the drivers will stop the vehicle and allow passengers to climb onto the roof.

“I kept telling myself that one day there will be a tragic accident, since having a truck with people sitting on top driving on a rocky and hilly road is not at all safe,” he said. “It is a disaster waiting to happen.” 

Mr Sene said he had lobbied the governor and district chief to ban all tour operators from installing seats on the roofs of their safari trucks and raised concerns about the quality of driver training and education.

So far, nothing has been done.

“They follow the law when they are seen, but once they get in their private area they break every law,” Mr Sene said. “These groups of tourists also get wild. They are bouncing and dancing on the top of the trucks. It is such a dangerous situation.” 

Yet Mr Sene is quick to point out that the 4x4 accidents are just one of a litany of problems that are decimating Koh Samui’s image as a tourist-friendly destination; public land encroachment, jet-ski scams and motorcycle rental scams are also rampant, and law enforcement is lax.

“The NCPO came here to make sure everything was under control for a while,” he said. “But as soon as they left, things started to get back to the way they were. I wish we could have stricter laws to control all illegal activities here.”

ABOVE THE LAW

Gehlen’s death was the third fatal accident involving off-road safari trucks in recent years, according to Pol Col Paithoon Krajajang, the superintendent of Koh Samui police station. He did not have a figure for the number of injuries.

Yet Pol Col Paithoon said even though the modifications to the safari trucks were obviously illegal, police are largely powerless to intervene as the vehicles operate mostly on private property.

“This is a tourist town. There are many exemptions from the law to make tourists’ experience much more memorable. Sadly this is one of them,” he said.

“There are a lot of thrill seekers also want to experience this dangerous activity. When there’s the demand, there is the supply.”

The superintendent said his officers were doing what they could to control the safari trucks while they are on public roads, mainly by enforcing speed limits. But once they are off the main road and onto private property, there is nothing they can do.

He said officers were still in the process of investigating the accident which led to Gehlen’s death. The driver has told investigators that one of the tourists sitting on the roof of the cabin — either Gehlen or Ms Marks — had knocked on the window to stop the truck because “the seat was coming loose”.

When the driver stepped out of the vehicle, he said the truck slid down the steep hill and overturned, though it’s not clear why that would have happened.

“I can guarantee that we are working on this case,” Pol Col Paithoon said. “We are not neglecting it. We are acting as the complainant in this matter since it is a criminal case.”

PASSING THE TEST

At least part of any legal action taken against Samui Offroad Mountain Tours will likely focus on whether the modifications made to the tour operator’s vehicles are illegal. Narong Chuming, a vehicle inspection expert from the Koh Samui Department of Land Transport office, said this is almost certainly the case.

The companies are, in essence, running vehicles that are not roadworthy on roads that are barely vehicle-worthy.

Mr Narong said any kind of modification to a vehicle without the DLT’s permission would be in breach of the law and would not pass annual registration inspections.

“I have never seen this type of truck come in here to renew their licence,” he said. “It is possible that they get the inspection done from a private company outside. If they know each other well enough, they can easily get away with it.

“They simply won’t pass the inspection if they come directly to us.”

A loophole in the registration laws, however, means the tour companies are able to escape inspections altogether. If their vehicles are less than seven years old, no inspection is required before renewing registration documents. The vehicles operated by Samui Offroad Mountain Tours appear to be late-model Toyota Hiluxes.

‘YOU WILL LIVE ON IN OUR HEARTS’

Less than a month after the most recent fatal crash, jungle safari tours on Koh Samui are continuing as usual.

Local sources say a police crackdown ended the use of the “crow’s nests” for a few days after the accident, but by last week the practice was back in full swing and tourists could be seen on Thursday riding atop the vehicles in Namuang Safari Park.

The owner of Samui Offroad Mountain Tours is reportedly in the process of expanding his lucrative business.

Gehlen’s family, meanwhile, have been left to deal with the frustrating process of repatriating her remains as they struggle to come to terms with her tragic and untimely death. Her father, Johannes, said his daughter, a senior economic consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was an experienced traveller who “loved Asia very much”.

“Alice was a frank and positive person and always friendly and open to other cultures. She loved Asia and especially Thailand because of the friendliness of people there,” he said. “Having returned from regular trips she always described her travel-adventures and experience enthusiastically.”

Gehlen had been due to return home to Dusseldorf with her cousin on Aug 8, three days after the accident.

Her father said he was first made aware of the accident in a call from Ms Marks, but after that a failure by authorities to communicate properly and assist in the case had prolonged his family’s anguish.

“It took 12 days just to get her remains back to Germany and this precious time was missing — in order to say goodbye to her properly and with dignity,” Mr Gehlen said.

“She has caused a loss to her family which cannot be described in words. Her fiance has lost his most precious partner who he wanted to stay with for his lifetime.”

A death notice published in German newspapers on Thursday said, “You are gone but you will live on in all our hearts.” Rather than flowers, the family asked for donations, which will be handed over to Gehlen’s godchild in Africa.

Mr Gehlen is now preparing to mount a civil case against Samui Offroad Mountain Tours. A Germany-based lawyer, Martin Rademacher, confirmed that he would be representing the family.

“The whole aftermath of the accident must have been terribly unprofessional and without the commitment of anybody there,” Mr Gehlen said. “We have never ever received appropriate help or information from any government officials, neither from our own country nor from Thailand.”

It is a sentiment echoed by the Belgian couple who first arrived at the scene of the accident.

“We are disappointed that so few people came to help us, angry that there was no organisational plan for emergencies, and frustrated that innocent people were pulled into a high-risk activity,” Mr Blockhuys said.

“No one deserves to be left in this situation. Everybody deserves a rescue attempt.”

site of tragedy: The Samui Offroad Mountain Tours pickup which overturned on Aug 5, killing Alice Gehlen and injuring several other tourists on board.

lesson not learned: Off-road safari tour companies were continuing to allow tourists to ride atop ‘crow’s nests’ on their trucks late last week, despite the fatal accident on Aug 5.

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