Nairobi, March 30th.
Being one whose work has taken him along the rally routes of Europe, the Middle East and beyond, and sampled roads which vary from multi-track, ferro concrete ribbons to little more than goat paths, I suffer from instant scepticism whenever I hear the expression “Best car in the world”. “Best for which country?” is the question I always ask myself. A car which is eminently suitable for the tarmac highways of Europe may be quite useless for earnest motoring on roads of a more natural quality.
A continent which abounds in such natural roads is Africa where, if you have the right car for the job, it is still possible to enjoy your motoring from the start of a journey all the way to its end.
Sitting here in the warm comfort of Nairobi, taking a rest from preparations for the East African Safari Rally, it is difficult to realise that not far out of the spacious, orderly Kenyan capital the tarmac roads end and in their place are those of packed dirt or murrum. They are dust-raisers par excellence in summer, and in the rainy season can be so incredibly muddy that accepted road classifications are “all weather” and “dry-only”.
But these are by no means the only hazards confronting motorists in Kenya. Dry or wet, murrum roads are often rutted and bumpy, and there is the occasional ditch so deep as to swallow up an entire motor car. Flooding is another problem, and if anyone has been surprised at the speed with which floods can appear in Britain, I suggest he visits East Africa, where tropical downpours in the rainy season can produce instant rivers where once roads used to be. Washaways, too, are frequent and if crossflows of water are strong enough (as they often are) entire roads can disappear.
As one can imagine, the heat has its effect on engines, and a car which tends to run hot in European climates would do no more than serve as a steam supply in Africa. But this is a question of adaptation, and even Volvos and Saabs from the cold of Sweden are made to run quite efficiently in Kenya. A greater problem is altitude variation. Nairobi stands nearly five and a half thousand feet above sea level, and the rare atmosphere renders an engine as lethargic as it does a human being. When carburation is set at optimum for Nairobi, it tends to become too weak when the cars are driven from the capital to, say, the coastal town of Mombasa.
Despite what film-makers would have us believe, Kenya is not all dense jungle, steamy swamps and crocodile-laden rivers. For the most part it is a land of open plains, so that when an oncoming vehicle is encountered on a narrow murrum road it is quite possible to take to the bush in order to pass, although one then runs the risk of punctures on the stout thorn bushes.
Animals are not really regarded as a traffic hazard in Kenya, although drivers invariably give right of way to, say, elephants which can become angry if approached and can reduce a motor car to so much scrap metal with little effort indeed. Although the greatest concentrations of animals are to be found in the game reserves, there are still plenty in the open bush and one can never really disregard the chances of meeting some of them. Baboon, for instance, seem to have an affinity for motor cars and tend to clamber up on the bonnets and roofs of those moving slowly enough. Needless to say, windows should be tightly closed whenever baboons are nearby.
But the motoring peculiarities which would be noticed by a visiting European are not given a second thought by those domiciled in the country. Of far greater import is the question of choice of motor car, and here two factors seem to have the greatest bearing on which car the Kenyans buy; simplicity and strength.
Although East Africa has no motor manufacturing industry, it has plenty of importers and dealers, all of whom have to put up with a sliding scale of duty which can be as high as 80% in the case of a large capacity, eight-cylinder car. Apart from this question of price of the original purchase, Kenyans are very much concerned about the cost and availability of spares. Some parts can cost as much as three times their value in Europe, and cars with expensive innards do not sell very well in East Africa.
Strength is a quality which is obviously sought after by those who use their cars out in the bush. Simplicity goes hand in hand with reliability, and the fewer a car’s complexities the lesser the chances of it breaking down. A breakdown in the bush can be embarrassing, expensive, and often dangerous, for garages are few and far between. Automatic transmission, for instance, has never caught on in Kenya, and even the reliable Kugelfischer fuel injection of the Peugeot is not nearly as popular as conventional carburation.
When driving through Nairobi’s streets, whether they be the wide avenues of the city centre or the narrow back streets, the sporting influence quickly becomes apparent. Although the average man in the street has no sporting ambitions himself, he appreciates the successes of others, and if a visitor did not know beforehand that a Peugeot has won the East African Safari Rally for the past three years, he would realise at once that something had occasioned the popularity of this French marque.
Peugeots, mainly 404s and their estate derivatives, dominate everyday motoring in East Africa. It is not uncommon to find something like half the content of a parking area made up of white Peugeots, white being the most popular colour for all cars since it doesn’t attract the heat as much as other colours. The prestige car is a Mercedes Benz, and among other popular makes are Volkswagen, Datsun, Toyota, Ford, B.M.C., Renault and Fiat. There is the occasional Alfa Romeo, Porsche and Jaguar, and I even caught a glimpse of a Ferrari once, although I was told that it is the only one in the country. Taxis are mainly Mk. I and Mk. II Consuls, minibuses used for tourist safaris are mainly Volkswagens, whilst farmers and hunters opt either for Land Rovers or for Toyota Land Cruisers.
Aside from rallying, which is the most popular of East Africa’s motor sporting activities, Kenya has two racing circuits, one at Nakuru, 100 miles north of the capital, and the other at Nairobi itself. Both are tarmac surfaced, although until last year the circuit at Nairobi had a highly abrasive murrum surface. Single-seaters are rare, and those which are around are pretty ancient compared with present cars in Europe. For the most part, racing is confined to modified production cars, with Escorts, Cortinas, Porsches, Renaults and Minis forming the bulk of the entries. The drivers are highly enthusiastic, although an idea of the class of racing can be gained by watching them leave the circuit in their competition cars, which are then used every day until the tyres are switched for the next race meeting.
In the space available it has been impossible to pen a complete picture of East African motoring. But perhaps the scratches I have made on the surface will serve as partial illustration of the wide gap between the driver in Kenya and his counterpart in Europe, both sporting and everyday. In this paradise of a country, motoring is still immensely pleasurable, and no doubt will remain so for decades to come. Perhaps my opinion is a little biased by an openly confessed liking for unsurfaced roads, but the unexpected always has an excitement potential—and where else in the world could you meet an elephant around one corner and half-clad spear-carrying tribesmen posing for photographs around the next?—G. P.