East African Safari Rally

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In the 16 years since its inception in Coronation year’, the East African Safari Rally has escalated almost to the top of the ladder of rallying recognition, and is now commonly regarded as the most severe competitive test of a motor car yet devised by man.

I say “almost” because, although it is now as World famous as the Monte, it still does not attract as many factory teams as an event of comparable length in the European Rally Championship. The basic reasons for this are obvious: first the expense of shipping a team to Africa from Europe, second the apparent supremacy of local crews whose long experience of bush conditions give them a distinct advantage, and third the inadequacy of the East African market potential, bearing in mind that the object of works-rallying is to sell more cars.

The latter reason is fast disappearing, however, owing to the Worldwide publicity that the event gets, and there can be little doubt that Peugeot will benefit now that one of their cars has won the event for the third time in succession.

The Safari differs widely from any of its European counterparts. In fact, it would be fair to say that it is completely unique. There are no special stages or circuit races punctuating the route to create artificial competition. The whole of the 3,000-mile route is on public roads, although the term road is really a misnomer, for even the main Nairobi to Mombasa route has not been metalled along all its 300-odd miles. Murrum, a brown earth which is hard, bumpy and dusty when dry, and incredibly muddy and sticky when wet, is the most widely used surfacing material, although the Safari route included scores-of patches of what is referred to in East Africa as Black Cotton Soil. When wet, it has a consistency more like glue than mud, and it clings to the undersides of vehicles with the tenacity of the strongest adhesive.

The Safari always takes place over the Easter Holiday, a time when the rainy season is just beginning in East-Africa. The rains came early this year and produced what was the wettest, muddiest Safari on record, reducing the field of 92 starters to seven finishers.

The main cause of retirement was the abundance of mud, which sucked down motor cars until they were bogged down to over the tops of their wheels. This characteristic of the event has given rise to the opinion that there is a greater element of chance in the Safari than in any other rally, because success or failure often depends on who is lucky enough to be able to find a tractor or Land-Rover first, or offer most money to bands of tribesmen for a manual push. In fact, “push money” is an essential part of every Safari crew’s equipment.

But, chance or not, skill is certainly essential and it would be a short-sighted man indeed who would go over to Africa to compete against the experts and expect to do well merely on the turn of fate.

The route remains largely unchanged each year and consists of two legs separated by a 24-hour break at Nairobi, the start and finish point. The Northern Leg—the first this year—takes its North Kenya and Uganda, whilst the Southern Leg goes around South Kenya and Tanzania. Last year the event was held before the rains came and the ever-watchful organisers took careful note of the times put up by the fastest crews. This year, those same times were used and they demanded averages faster than any ever before used on a Safari. Several of the 75 sections were set at more than 70 m.p.h. and there were many more at over 60!

Under the flood and mud conditions of this year, those averages were pretty well impossible and the organisers were obliged to increase the maximum permitted lateness to 10 hours on the Northern Leg and 12 hours on the Southern Leg. This was another controversial issue, some competitors, particularly those from overseas, taking the view that they should know at the start exactly what they were going to be up against throughout the event and that this ought not to be varied once the rally had started.

This, of course, does not take into account the variations of weather, which can jump from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes, and the organisers have to allow themselves the privilege of extending the permitted lateness in order to obviate any chance of the rally coming to a complete stop as a result of a sudden thunderstorm washing away an entire road.

B.M.C. sent a team of three cars, complete with mechanics, to Nairobi and combined with the local distributors to enter a team of four 1800s, but all four retired on the first leg, one with engine seizure following an oil leak and the others with steering and suspension failures.

Ford were better placed and one of their five Lotus-Cortinas finished the first leg, in first place. But misfortune followed when the car, driven by Vic Preston and Bob Gerrish, was disqualified because their route card did not bear the stamp of one of the controls, although there is no doubt at all that they did visit that control. This surprise exclusion gave rise to a feeling that the organisers were splitting hairs and becoming generally too “Europeanised,” but this was one of the rules which was stressed at the drivers’ pre-rally briefing and the decision to exclude the car was the right one under the circumstances.

Another strong team was that of Nissan Motors, which had brought five Datsun 2000s over from Japan, again complete with mechanics and a whole army of supporters and newsmen. Star of their side was Joginder Singh, who won the rally in 1965 in a second-hand Volvo. But gearbox and clutch troubles caused him several delays and he dropped down the list towards the end. A remarkable performance was put up by Lucille Cardwell and Geraldine Davies in one of the Datsuns. They finished seventh, an achievement worthy of the highest praise in an event where a capacity for prolonged physical exertion is as necessary as driving ability.

There were two teams of Peugeots, one of 404s and the other of the front-wheel-drive 204s, and by the time freak storms in the south had whittled the field down to eight cars, the three 404s were the only team left intact. But, only 200 miles from the finish, the car of Bert Shankland and Chris Rothweil was stricken by a con.-rod going through the side of the block and they retired. Not only did this rob Peugeot of the team prize but it meant that Shankland and Rothwell could not make a hat-trick, for they won the event both last year and the year before, each time in a fuel-injected Peugeot 404.

With Shankland out, there were only seven cars left, and these finally arrived at Nairobi, separated by nearly five hours, to a tumultuous reception from the huge crowds. Peter Huth and Iain Grant were the first to arrive in their Lotus-Cortina, and they were actually leading by 22 minutes, but they had changed their clutch unit during the rally and were therefore given a penalty equivalent to 30 minutes. “Nick” Nowicki and Paddy Cliff had made no such mechanical repairs to their 404 so they were declared the winners.

To someone who is accustomed only to the style of European rallying it is difficult to explain the niceties of the Safari and the whole atmosphere with which it is surrounded. It is a comparatively young event and has a format which cannot be copied anywhere else. It is looked upon locally as more of a reliability rally than one demanding sheer speed, and this is the reason for the impossibly tight averages—servicing and roadside rebuilding is cut to a minimum for there just isn’t time.

The Safari has plenty of critics, most of them saying that it should become more like the European events in order to attract more professional teams. But this would be a great mistake. As it is, it stands alone as the sole International example of its kind. Any attempt to meddle with its make-up, other than to sort out a few minor details, would inevitably reduce its value as one of the toughest tests of motor cars in the world.—G. P.

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