Safari rally

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Gerry Phillips

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After that came a drive southwards to just beyond Voi, visiting the Chyula and Taita Hills before returning via sisal plantations and the road through Loitokitok under towering Kilimanjaro. Kirkland led after the first half of this leg, but was overtaken by Recalde, Biasion and Waldegard on the way back to Nairobi.

Eklund had the misfortune to slide into a ditch in the Taita Hills, the Nissan coming to rest on its side, but he and Eklund could hardly suppress their laughter when talking about it afterwards. It seems that spectators were so numerous and excited that their efforts to push the car only succeeded in dropping it over on to its roof. In the middle of this performance, along came John Horsey and Ian Street, former competitors who were driving a chase car for Toyota. They stopped to help and, by using very expressive Swahili, managed to marshal the crowd into a reasonable recovery machine. A rope was hitched, and the car was literally dragged up the very steep slope to the road. The damage was not serious and they were able to continue, albeit after a sizeable delay.

Twenty nine cars left on the second leg, which ran up to Nanyuki and beyond before returning for a night stop in the town which nestles beneath Mount Kenya. On the Saturday morning, the most northerly sections were tackled, through Wamba and on towards Maralal before returning via Lake Baringo to another rest stop at Kabarnet. Recalde held his lead throughout this loop, and was followed into Kabarnet by teammate Biasion, last year’s winner. Incidentally, this was Recalde’s first Safari, and he was enjoying every minute of it.

Yet another rest stop was taken at Kakamega before the return route to Nairobi via Nandi Hills, the very tricky road from the Mau Escarpment to Seyabei, near Narok, and the track through the Kedon Valley from Suswa to Olepolos. Recalde kept his lead throughout the first part of this leg, but on the way down to Seyabei, a very difficult road indeed, he ran full tilt into a herd of goats and wrecked the front of his car, including both the radiator and oil cooler. He did struggle on slowly for a while, but finally the engine packed up and his car had to continue its journey to Nairobi along the tarmac road, on the end of a rope! Gone was what had been a good prospect of another win by a driver tackling his first Safari.

There was some talk that Lancia’s own tactics may have indirectly caused Recalde’s retirement. Having lost one of its two helicopters due to engine failure and a heavy forced landing, the remaining one was following the rally leader very closely, both to render assistance if required and to give radio warnings of any obstructions ahead. It seems that a truck was spotted making its way along the rally route, towards the approaching Recalde, so the helicopter came down low over the road to slow the truck and to get the driver to pull over.

Unlike cows and sheep, horses and goats do not like helicopters and tend to panic when one gets too close. The proximity of Lancia’s aircraft may have scared the herd of animals into which the Argentinian drove, causing them to run into the road in front of his Lancia. It sounds a tall story, but one which could well be true. No-one’s fault, of course. These things just happen.

The final leg started from Nairobi at the uncivilised hour of 3am on Easter Monday, making a loop to the north of Narok and one southwards into the Mara before returning to Nairobi by the way it came, through the Kedong Valley. There was no stopping Biasion at this stage. He had enough of a lead to take things easy, and in any case he had something like a dozen mechanics working on his car at every service point, so that every possible precaution was taken to prevent a breakage.

Preston had a story to tell which amused others, although he himself doesn’t recall laughing at the time. The loop down into the Mara region, new to the Safari although it has passed quite close in the past, is in open country which abounds with wild life, and when his Nissan stopped with a jammed gearbox, Preston and Lyall looked cautiously around before getting out of the car to look underneath. True enough, there was a lion basking only yards away, and it was quite some time, after much shooing and hooting from inside the car, before the pair could risk emerging to begin removing the gearbox bolts. With a grin on his face, one wag in a rival team later remarked, “Who the hell would want to eat Preston, anyway?”

At this stage, all Biasion and Siviero had to do to score their second Safari victory was to drive back relatively carefully to Nairobi, although in the very dusty Kedong Valley they didn’t really want to be overtaken by anyone. On the previous afternoon there had been a stiff breeze to clear the dust quickly, but on the Monday it was windless towards the Ngong Hills and the dust hung in huge, expanding clouds.

To say that Lancia was cockahoop would be an understatement. It is well on its way to another World Championship walk-over and has scored its second Safari victory in succession. Quite a nice debut for engineer Claudio Lombardi who had recently taken over as team director from Cesare Fiorio who has moved on to Ferrari.

What a splendidly refreshing event the Safari is. Even if it does toe the FISA line to an extent, it is still unique, and its unpredictability makes a wonderful change from the stunting conformity of Europe. It’s a great pity that it’s been forced to abandon the style which demanded real bushmanship, but we must be grateful to the enthusiasts of Kenya for keeping alive what they rightly call “The World’s Greatest Motor Rally”. GP

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