Wettest Safari ever!

Just as in racing, you have to go a long way to find a Rally that is different these days. Characters vary from country to country, but styles are largely very similar, especially in Europe where it is virtually’ impossible to run major events unless the competitive action is confined to special stages scaled off from all other traffic.

One Rally which has steadfastly stuck to the style of its beginnings 25 years ago is the Safari Rally, and it still shuns the use of seconds for timing and still contrives to be one of the most competitive events in the world without the use of special stages. It is a unique even inasmuch as the contest is something more than cars and crews against each other. The weather plays a big part in the proceeding, for in Africa mother nature can be at her most violent.

Traditionally held over the Easter weekend since it was set spits 1953 by a bunch of enthusiasts who wanted to devise a means for motor sportsmen to celebrate the Coronation of our Queen, it always takes place at a time when the longer of East Africa’s two rainy seasons is about to begin, and an essential part of its character has always been the absence of any firm knowledge of whether it will rain. There have been years when the rains have held off until after the Easter weekend, when the whole rally is a blinding struggle through dust of the thickest and most penetrating kind imaginable, and years when the rains have started before the Rally, causing flash floods, washaways, lost bridges and instant rivers all over the country. There have also been compromise years when part of the route has been in dry areas and part in others where normally hard roads have been turned into ribbons of mud.

The Safari is never an easy event, but it does have varying grades of difficulty, and it is always at its most popular and most satisfying when the storm clouds gather, break, and turn a dusty drive over firm, bumpy roads into an endless fight against mud and water, with physical endurance being tested to the limit just as much as skill and mechanical reliability. However, the severity of the rains is never certain, and if a storm comes up really violently and suddenly, the Rally route can become totally impassable, turning potential satisfaction into bitter frustration as happened to more than half the runners in 1976 when a mere watersplash became a raging torrent within minutes.

As if the weather man knew that the Silver Jubilee Safari Rally just had to be the most memorable since it began, the 1977 version turned out to be just about the toughest on record, with finishers and non-finishers grinning their appreciation when it was all over of an event which had given them immense satisfaction and pleasure. The rains began fairly gently about two weeks before the start, and even in practice competitors were getting stuck in mud and were having to wait at drifts (normally dry river beds through which the road dips) until fast-flowing water subsided.

On the day of the start there was a morning thunderstorm over Nairobi itself, and all over Kenya (the Rally hasn’t entered Uganda and Tanzania for some years) there were similar outbreaks. Roads were muddy, rivers were in flood, bridges were awash and in danger of collapse and vast tracts of open bush had been turned into swamps. In the planning stage, the organisers had endeavoured to use roads of an all-weather nature, only putting the Rally on to roads known to be subject to blockage in the rainy seasons when a reasonably good alternative was available. Many of these alternatives had been surveyed in advance, the longer ones made known to competitors early enough for them to practise, so that competitive times could be set, and the shorter ones merely kept in readiness at appropriate time controls to be issued to competitors when they arrived during the event only if the originally intended route became impassable. It was a wise precaution, for several alternatives had to be used and another mapped out in a hurry during the event when a road not expected to give trouble became impassable even for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

It was the wettest Safari ever, and the fierce rain was often such that even the fastest windscreen wipers couldn’t provide proper forward vision. Sections of up to too miles long (but Kenya now measures distances in kilometres) were often covered in deep, clinging mud from end to end, and flooded areas were often hundreds of yards across. These wide rivers were usually slow-flowing, and drivers merely charged through, keeping revs highs keep water out of exhaust pipes and hoping that it would not penetrate engine compartments and flood carburetter air intakes. Usually electrics were pretty safe, for every car had been given a thorough dose of silicone waterproofing which was renewed at every opportunity throughout the event. But narrow rivers were quite different, for these were usually so fast-flowing that cars would be washed away like bundles of straw as has happened in the past. Even this years few people had their hearts in their mouths as strong currents moved their cars sideways and threatened to wash them away. Munari’s Lancia Stratos did get carried downstream for about 30 yards, and it was a very relieved pair of Italians who eventually got out of that river after half-an-hour of manhandling.

There was a time when the whole tithe Safari entry list was given start numbers by drawing from a hat, but nowadays there are seeding groups and draws take place for start positions within those groups. This ensures that, by and large, the faster and more expert crews are ahead of those less experienced, but it happens quite often that front runners are delayed by problems and are then unintentionally held up by back markers who might get stuck in a soft mud patch and prevent following cars from taking a run at it. This is all part of the Safari, of course, for in such unpredictable conditions it is quite impossible to regulate the going. Even the timetable of the Rally has to be kept flexible, and often maximum permitted lateness before exclusion (but not without penalty, of course) is increased to twelve or more hours. In Europe, it is more like an hour or even just 30 minutes.

Last year the Safari was divided into three parts by two long stops at Nairobi which provided more than adequate rest. This year it went back to its original style with a northern leg, a southern leg and one halfway stop in Nairobi. There were odd four-hour stops here and there, but lateness ate into these so much that in most cases they were whittled down to an hour or so. Even when fresh, competitors have to work hard to get their cars through such difficult terrain, but when you consider that the first leg lasted from 16.00 on the Thursday to early on the Saturday morning you will realise that the dreadful adversary of sheer fatigue is also present, sapping strength and determination just as much as physical exertion. When tiredness sets in, tenacity diminishes rapidly, and it is to the credit of all those who go on to finish the Safari that they can overcome this menace.

Runners in the Safari this year included works teams from Ford, Lancia, Datsun, Peugeot, Mitsubishi and Opel though the latter cars were driven by local crews and there was no official factory people present. Owing to the cost of Lancia’s presence, Fiat was giving this World Championship qualifier a miss, so the entry list did not include any team seriously in the running for points. Polski-Fiat had made plans to go, but again they cancelled them and didn’t turn up.

Sheer power is only of use when the going is dry and obstacle-free, so when the rain started it was seen as a great leveller, diminishing any advantage and making the Safari anyone’s rally. Right from the start the mud was encountered, for on the first easily-timed section out of Nairobi people were getting stuck as spectators’ cars, driven in thousands out of the city, blocked the firmest part of the road and forced competitors to use a pair of deep, rnuddy ruts. Later there came more mud, deeper, slimier and more clinging, causing all manner of stoppages and, after being baked hard by engine heat, acting as grindstones on moving parts and wearing them away.

Clark retired when his Escort’s water pump loosened and the belt fouled the cam-drive belt, Makinen when his Peugeot’s engine cooked after the oil filter seal leaked, Mikkola when his Peugeot’s engine seized, Vatanen after excessive lateness following problems such as two broken drive-shafts on his Escort, Preston when his Escort’s flywheel came loose and smashed the bell housing, both Lampinen and Ulyate when their Stratos’ head gaskets blew, Mehta when his Datsun’s engine blew apart after valve failure, KzIlstrom when he nose-dived his Datsun into a river, and Nicolas, when it was looking as though he would challenge for the lead in the second leg, when his Peugeot’s fan holed the radiator and the head gasket blew.

These sound like so many simple failures, but each of them was accompanied by various other tribulations, mechanical or meteorological, and the reasons listed above were merely the final ones which caused retirement.

Even those who finished had to fettle, push, pull and even dig their way around, crossing water sometimes deep enough almost to submerge a whole car, being pushed through mud by groups of Africans, most of them enthusiastic helpers but some with criminal tendencies, for poor Piero Sodano lost his watch and money at knife-point when engaged in a pushing session at night.

For Sweden’s Bjorn Waldegard and Hans Thorszelius it was a magnificent victory, particularly as they are relative newcomers to the Ford Works team. Their quiet, unruffled, unassuming manner earned the respect of all their rivals and their win was as popular among the local drivers as it was among the overseas visitors. For Ford it was a tremendous boost, particularly as they had first to undo some of the work which has gone into making the Escort an exceptionally good forest racer and then remake it into a strong, reliable, bushwhacker. For the two winners, the car builders, mechanics mudcar crews, service planners and airborne backers it was a splendid achievement. What is more, it was British technology which did it

As for the Rally itself, which has its little failings like any other and has to contend with all manner of difficulties unique to Kenya, we can give credit for a superb contest. It lives very much in the past and has changed little over the years, but for adventure and the need for sheer guts and spirit, it leaves other events standing.