Continuing our rallyman's view of Kenya's Safari

A whole epic can be written about East African aviation, and only a slightly, smaller one about the use of aircraft in the Safari Rally. Distances are so great in Africa that people use light aircraft as Europeans drive motor cars. Farmers, those who are left after the compulsory purchase orders of Kenya’s Africanisation policy, use them from strips cleared alongside their farms. Business houses, the police, medical services, commercial travellers, hunters, plantation managers, tour operators and game lodge companies all have their own aircraft, as well as the several thriving charter companies, and the many who run their own purely for personal pleasure and convenience. Indeed, Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (quite separate from the international airport at Embakazi) probably matches any in the world for light aircraft movements.

It was unavoidable in such an air-minded country as Kenya that aircraft should be used in connection with the Safari Rally. The organisers used air transport many years ago to get about to have a look at the more remote parts of their routes. Friends of local competitors flew their own aeroplanes to go out spectating and to drop the odd drum of petrol and spare wheel in places where such things would not normally be available. Locally based teams, such as the one run by Marshalls, the Peugeot importers, long before Peugeot itself became interested in the Safari, used their company aircraft to transport mechanics and spares around the route to supplement ground service vehicles. The sophisticated air support and communications networks now being used by professional teams in the Safari owe their origins to these humble beginnings. Nowadays a team will have a fleet of service cars leap-frogging their way around the country to various service points. They will all have radio links with each other, and with their competing cars, so there will be an aircraft constantly in the air to relay messages from one car to another. This is vital in mountainous terrain, where car-to-car communications are impossible. The same aircraft, or perhaps another if budgets run to it, will be used to fly mechanics and emergency spares to bush airstrips adjacent to the rally route. The plane will drop spares by parachute, if the aircraft crew hear of a car in trouble, in an area where landing is impossible.

In many cases it is possible to arrange for a vehicle to meet the aircraft at landing strips and to take its crew to the service point. Some airstrips (or even flat ground) are so remote that this would be putting a car out of action for too long. In such cases, teams have been known to have collapsible bicycles stowed in their aircraft. One team uses little two-wheeled, flat-topped trolleys which they load up with one or two spare wheels, a can of fuel, a toolbox, and small spares. All of these supplies are then manhandled through the bush from landing strip to service point, always with eyes wide open and ears cocked for the slightest signs of wild animals.

So many works teams, and even a few privateers, use aircraft nowadays that air traffic has become almost as dense as that on the ground. One of the misuses of aircraft, one which will be difficult to prevent, is the calling of supplementary pace notes from air to ground. each competing crew will have made notes from its recce trips but it is completely impossible to be right up to date with the constantly changing face of Africa. During the rally a rainstorm may have washed away part of a road before the floodwaters subsided. Not enough to warrant changing the route, but certainly enough to send a car off the road if its driver took a line based on his original notes. There may be a herd of cows approaching around a blind bend, or another car stuck and blocking all or part of the road. These are things which can be spotted from the air and fed to the drivers below by radio. That, we feel, is carrying air support too far, but it is difficult to find a way of stopping it, short of banning the use of two-way radio altogether. That would not really be a good thing at all, for it would remove what has turned out to be excellent additional means of rescue and communication.

Whilst on the subject of rescue we must mention the Flying Doctor Service of East Africa which each year stands in readiness to come to the assistance of any Safari competitor, or anyone else for that matter, who needs medical aid. It is an extremely worthwhile enterprise and one which most fliers will readily help if required, even though the service does have its own aircraft. In this year’s Safari the Renault team manager was injured in a road accident and without hesitation one of Peugeot’s aircraft was used to take him back to Nairobi simply because that plane was the nearest one at the time.

A remarkable but logical feature of East African rallying is the incredible ease with which most of the local drivers can indulge in roadside repairs and get broken motor cars mobile again after the most incredible feats of improvisation. Not for nothing have local drivers a reputation as bush mechanics who are able to fabricate all manner of spare parts from such raw material as wood, wire and adhesive tape. Many of Kenya’s rally people live or work out in the bush, or at least are experienced in getting cars mobile as quickly as possible after a breakdown, and this has taught them an uncommon degree of ingenuity. A breakdown on an ordinary journey can result in a delay of hours, possibly more than a day, so most experienced Kenyans travel with plenty of food and water, tools and a box of spares and useful oddments. How many people would even dream, for instance, of repairing a split distributor rotor with adhesive and wire? In one Safari some years ago my partner in the rally was an up-country farmer named Pat Neylan. A fine driver and an expert bush fettler, he soon had the broken parts held together by Araldite and bound by a single winding of a welding rod. A makeshift repair took us several hundred miles and was good for up to 6,000 r.p.m. without a misfire.

Many Europeans have the habit of never throwing away anything which could conceivably have some kind of future use. Kenya it is more than a habit; it is a way of life and anyone who has any sort of home workshop usually has it well stocked with all manner of paraphernalia. It is good insurance, for spare parts are often difficult to get and expensive. What is more, it teaches one to be self-contained, and whilst overseas competitors in the Safari are often seen waiting around for their service vehicles to arrive (there are exceptions, of course) most local men will get on with repair work with whatever bits and pieces they have at hand. This has produced a tenacity which has become world famous. In straightforward, dry conditions overseas professionals with their better prepared cars are much faster than the local privateers and semi-professionals, but in bad conditions deep mud, for instance the locals keep plodding on whilst many of the visitors fall into delay after delay. What is more, local men with their command of Swahili find it easier to inject urgency into a group of pushing bush dwellers than the visitors do; they are more able to read the signs (of which there can be many) of impending danger and are generally more at home and relaxed in the vast bush than the foreigners, who are frequently just a little ill at ease if they have to stop in an area where not a single sign of civilisation can be seen as far as the eye can see.

Putting aside generalities for a moment, we would be doing the Safari a great injustice if we failed to mention, even just in passing, the event’s incredible number of characters and anecdotes. It would be impossible to do justice in the space available to the many tales which bring Eastertime smiles to Nairobi faces; tales of encounters with animals, people, places and things. Voice of Kenya, for instance, devotes considerable time to Safari coverage but makes a lamentably poor job of putting it over. However, like the jewel in the toad’s head, there is good in everything and remarks such as “The first car is due to arrive in 60 minutes, which is approximately equal to one hour” helps to create an atmosphere of hilarity around the hustle and bustle of a Nairobi in the grip of Safari Fever.

Mechanics putting petrol into oil tanks simply because they are in the boot and not in the usual place at the front; drivers staying in a stricken car for hours at night because they didn’t like the look of a pair of eyes peering at them from the undergrowth only to find later that the animal was no more than a little dik-dik; co-drivers sitting for days in their rooms writing the copious notes which eventually fill piles of exercise books; foreigners having amusing encounters with bush people during their recce trips and finding that a little more interest can be given to their photograph albums if they give a few shillings more than the one or two usually required in “modelling fees”; the inimitable belly laugh of Big Sembi, a jolly, rotund member of the Sikh community at Kakamega; the remarkable mutual hospitality of local residents who are always ready to offer beds to anyone who turns up, particularly Safari competitors on their recce trips; the delightfully vague arrangements of some airline officials at Nairobi and the sometimes infuriating delays which occur even when the simplest of things have to be done. Local residents are quite used to this, and explain to frustrated visitors that “this is the land of badu kidogo“, an expression which can best be translated from the Swahili by “a little later”.

Of all the world’s rallies, the Safari is undoubtedly the most colourful, the most adventurous, the most satisfying to those who complete it and the one with the greatest degree of unpredictability. One may practise for months and lay tactical plans so carefully that nothing is left to chance, but always there can be a hundred and one things which cause those plans to be changed or even reversed. One never knows what is around the next bend or over the next crest in Kenya, and that is what creates that essential, unknown ingredient which makes the Safari the great rally which it is.