Veteran to classic
The roads of the 1920s As the summer of 1926 approached, Owen John was doing…
To explore the bush tracks of Kenya we used a Range Rover. eminently suitable Or this, but still nol proof against the penetrating African dust.
A rallyman’s guide to Kenya’s exotic Safari
A NUMBER of years ago, just before my first attempt at South Africa’s Total Rally, I asked a colleague on the racing side what that country was like. He had been several times to the South African Grand Prix and could tell me all about the circuit, hotels, restaurants and the like, but he couldn’t give me the answer I wanted. Apart from the environs of Johannesburg and Kyalami, he didn’t know South Africa at all. In my first visit I saw far more of the country than he had seen in several trips.
The reason is simple; rallying is far more than repetitive, five-star ferro-concrete, advertising, turnstiles and PR hoo-ha. It includes a generous helping of the unknown and that essential ingredient which adds the vital spice, adventure. Those who go rallying arc rewarded with far more contact with a country and its people than anyone who goes racing, for rallying demands such contact by its very nature. It is not just by coincidence that the rallies which offer the greatest adventure and the toughest competition are those which take place in terrain least
affected by the inroads of civilisatiOn. Many events have faded into oblivion simply because their characters have been destroyed by the relentless advance of what has been called modernisation, but many are still left and others remain (hopefully) to be tapped.
The great classic of adventure rallies is, without doubt, Kenya’s Safari Rally. With the modern city of Nairobi as a base, the organisers are blessed with a fantastic network of ideal rally roads right on their doorsteps. Indeed, it is possible to run a competitive event without resorting to the use of special stages. Everything is timed in minutes, not seconds, and the whole event is basically as simple as a British road rally on a much bigger and grander scale. It sounds like an organisational Utopia, but it most certainly is not. There are pitfalls without number and the country has so many peculiarities that no matter how many common conditions are applied by the CS! to European rallies, in Kenya exceptions must be made. How is the route determined? What criteria
are used to decide whether a bush track is too rough, too smooth or just right? How are the controls pin-pointed and how do the organisers decide the time to be allowed between them? The answers to these questions are basically simple, but there are so many little points to consider, as well as the overall general plan, that very often an obvious plan is ruled out by a collection of minor considerations. Let’s take the basic requirements first. The route is in two parts, a loop to the north and another to the south of Nairobi, that city being used as start, finish and half-way stop. The coastal city of Mombasa acts as a natural place for a stop to break up the southern leg, whilst in the north there are several townships which offer refreshment and accommodation facilities, not to mention the various game lodges here and there. Linking these, the route is laid out along bush tracks which are as twisty as can be found, in areas which are least populated. Since Africa’s rains can be so devastatingly violent, all-weather roads are chosen as much as possible. A sudden
thunderstorm can wash away bridges and even entire roads, so it is important not to choose roads in the direct paths of floodwater, which often descends in torrents from mountainous catchment areas. Easter, when the Safari is always held, is just about when Kenya’s Long Rains start: It is quite impossible to say in advance whether the rally will take place in dry weather or wet. Consequently roads must be chosen which are testing in both conditions, but not so vulnerable that they will become totally impassable (as some do) when it rains.
Controls are sited so that difficult sections are separated from easier ones, thus reducing the advantage of faster cars, which could make up on straight roads what they would lose on twisty ones. If at all possible, controls are placed near telephones (police posts, mission stations) so that times may be communicated to rally headquarters at Nairobi with the minimum delay. If there are no telephones available — and there are not in many cases — radio is clicked into service. Speech is used in cases of good reception, and Morse when reception is not so good. The police radio network is often used, as well as that of the Automobile Association, and even amateur radio enthusiasts provide their service readily.
Setting the section times is a tricky job, for what may be possible in 6o minutes one day may be impossible in 120M the next owing to a change of weather, Where sections have been used in past events, the fastest previous time is clipped by a few minutes in order to arrive at a realistic allowance. In the case of new sections, an estimate is made by driving over them as fast as possible. Then reduce the time taken, in order to take into account the superior skill of full-time professionals and hardened, tenacious local drivers. Ideally, the fastest car on any section should just make it on time, everyone else dropping one or more minutes, but it is virtually impossible to time the event so finely. Therefore the margin is always kept on the debit side, since it would destroy the competition if car after car were able to clean section after section, even if only by a minute or two. A most satisfactory system would be to award the fastest car zero penalty on each section and to penalise other cars an amount equal to the difference between their own times and that of the fastest. But this would mean that there would be no general timetable for the rally and no set goal at which to aim. But even the best laid plans go astray and the Organise rs have to reserve the right to increase the maximum permitted lateness (before exclusion) in order to prevent a sudden change of
weather stopping the rally altogether. Half an hour, or an hour at the most, is the general lateness maximum which European events provide, but in unpredictable Africa it often runs to six or seven, and has sometimes been as high as eleven. Lateness is always penalised, of course, from one minute upwards, but if he runs beyond the maximum, a competitor is excluded from the event.
That is the Safari in a nutshell. Over and above all that one has to consider the special problems created by the fantastic local interest, in what is the biggest international occasion in East Africa, with consequent interest taken by the Kenya Government. The pace of life and business is slow in Kenya. Overseas visitors often become frustrated to the point of distraction by the time taken to do things, but the rally organisers have taught themselves to live with the situation. Many of the criticisms levelled at the Safari in the past have resulted simply from a lack of appreciation of the peculiar Kenyan way Of life. As overseas visitors make more return visits, so they begin to grasp that there is more to running the Safari than selecting a route, sending out marshals and timing the cars from point to point. Behind the scenes there are countless problems which, taken alone, wouldn’t take more than a minute of a European organiser’s time, but lumped together in Kenya’s unique atmosphere they become magnified a hundredfold.
So much for the overall picture, simplified enormously since a detailed account of how the Safari is organised would fill this and several other editions of MOTOR SPORT. What about the little things? Why do competing cars carry pangas? Why would a wily local driver avoid a deep mud hole by driving to its left after a dozen overseas men had diverted to the right? What is push-money? Why do service crews use aircraft?
Africa is largely unspoilt by man’s inventive ability and there are countless natural hazards to catch the unwary. Predators, for instance, are not confined to the game reserves and one has to keep one’s eyes and cars wide open when stopping to change a punctured tyre in many areas. A panga may be no match for a disturbed lion, but it’s nevertheless comforting to have one at hand. Visitors to the Safari soon learn to distinguish between the slippery, red mud of murrarn soil and the deep, clinging bogs of black cotton soil, but they are no match for the local drivers in deciding what path to take to avoid a deep mud hole or other hazard. A visitor, for instance, would take the obvious way around, but the local
man would spot small thorn bushes at a glance, and would take steps to avoid picking up a puncture or two on these long, hard, and needle-sharp slivers. If one does become stuck in mud there are often plenty of bush dwellers at hand to give a push. Some of them will do so readily, just for the fun of it, but others will require payment for their efforts — hence the inclusion of push-money in every car’s equipment list. At one time a few shillings would be enough, but just as unthinking tourists have inflated Kenya’s prices, so have professional rally drivers over the years pushed up the recognised recompense for pushing. The once-familiar bag of coins has long since been
replaced by a wallet of paper money.
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