EVERY YEAR, round about the beginning of February, just like newspapers and travel agents, the rally world turns its eyes from the ice and snow of the Monte to blue skies and sunshine. But not for holidays, oh no. No sooner has the last battered wreck been towed down off the Col de Turini than it's time to think of East Africa and the Safari, the most horrifying exercise in mass mobile masochism I've ever seen, let alone taken part in.
Even hard-bitten rallymen forget their usual terseness when they talk about the Safari. Three thousand miles in four days and under 200 miles of the course is over asphalt roads. The rest is dirt, dust, mud, slime, grass, stones, rocks and general frightfulness. The roads are always changing, the weather is unpredictable and reliable maps are non-existent. Add to that mountain roads with horrifying drops, wild animals, sparse fuel supplies and averages up near the 60 mph figure for hundreds of miles and you may begin to have an idea of what kind of event makes even the professionals use words like "tricky," "difficult". .or on one occasion, "severe. "
As you may remember, I once did a fair bit of rallying myself in events like the Monte and the Alpine. And though they've always been difficult, there use to be much better chances for the amateur to do well. Recces, or reconnoitering trips, were almost unknown. If you had the time and the money to spare, you might travel over early and take a quick look at one or two of the trickiest bits on the course, but anything like today's military operations was unheard of. And cars were still pretty standard, as competition between the big manufacturers hadn't really got off the ground.
In some ways, the Safari still has a lot in common with those days. The big teams (those that dare) do compete, but then so do many local drivers in all kinds of machinery. Cars have to be standard apart from a few closely specified modifications for reasons of safety, and as local knowledge can often be worth more than factory assistance or experience in European rallies, the 'eventual winner can be anyone's guess. Last year 'the Singh brothers of Nairobi won in a second-hand Volvo that had already seen some 50,000 miles of local rallies. Then they used some of the prize money to clear off the payments still- due on the car-so it's not necessarily a rich man's rally either.
The point about the Safari is that it's tough, really tough, first, last and all the time. Everything about it is impossible, the roads, the navigating, the weather and the speeds. The idea is that you send off up to 120 ordinary I series-production touring cars (just like the ones at your friendly neighborhood dealer) at 3-minute intervals on a huge figure-8 course over the worst that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania can provide in the way of natural car-breaking.
Average speeds are set so high that they'd be difficult on asphalt, and all the cars are checked for repairs and replacements at points along the route and at the finish. ,If you lose any marks (and everybody does), they're lost for good and if you replace any bits you lose penalty points for the time you take to fix it. And if you change the engine (or the chassis!) you're out altogether. Speed traps check that you obey the 30 mph limit in the towns and all the time you're in Uganda you have to stay below 55 mph the whole way.
If you do exceed any of the limits, you lose fifty points and the penalty points double for each time you're caught. You can carry three drivers (most people go in twos) and you can carry any amount of spares, tools and spare wheels, but parts and people must be securely strapped down and you have to take a full stock of emergency rations and drinking water.
There's no question here of the amateur being handicapped by not being able to make a recce. You must make a thorough reece, checking every yard of the course in the smallest detail if you're even going to find your way round it, never mind stand a chance of being competitive. And even then you ought to cover the whole course twice, once in the wet and once in the dry, so that you have an idea of what to expect in any kind of weather. But you're lucky if you can manage this-usually all you can do is drive over it in the dry and try and imagine what the roads will be like in the wet. At least that's better than the alternative-for example, you can take bearings on local landmarks that will take you safely across swollen rivers at the shallowest point, when you can't even see the bottom.
Signposts are very rare. So on your recce notes you mark down every tree, every bend in the road and every mud hut and the distances between them, so you know exactly where you are all the time. And you mustn't forget the ruts, the bone jolting wheel-ruts and the deep gullies scoured across the road by flood waters in, the rainy season. Hit one of these at speed and, man, you:re out for keeps. Sometimes, where the water-courses are permanent, they have little wooden bridges over them. These are usually about the same width as a car and after a few people have driven over them, they're coated with greasy mud. They don't have any siderailings and to make matters worse they're often located on a bend or down at the bottom of a hill. So you have to note them down too. And any parts where the surface is bumpy, slippery or non-existent. And while you're doing all this, you have to remember, that your mileage figures will only be accurate if the road's dry. If it's muddy then you'll have wheelspin to contend with, and this is bound to throw your distance reading out, so you have to allow for this, recalibrating your odometer at every landmark you can be sure of.
The amount of recce work you have to do each day depends most of all on where you can find to stay the night. Amenities are sparse out in the bush, and some days you find you have to cover 400 miles, others only a hundred or so. Last year, when I went on the Safari with Eric Carlsson, we used to try and make a picnic trip of it. We'd take a packed lunch with us and some cans- of beer and coke and we'd look out for a pleasant spot where we could stop and eat. But it was still damned hard work, thanks largely to the official directions leaving a lot to the imagination. For instance, you'd read something like "Turn right at Bagga Bagga market" and you'd wear your eyes out looking for this damned market. In the end, you'd swallow your pride and ask someone, and they'd tell you that the market was only held on Tuesdays, and it so happened you were passing through on a Thursday. This is typical. Then there was the case where Eric and I were driving along this road, alongside a stretch of telephone wires slung on poles. The directions said, "In three miles, turn left," and written alongside were the words, "Telephone wires stop here." Well, we drove for three miles, then four, then five. We finally stopped in desperation, as there were no, other landmarks to look for and there was no sign of these poles coming to an end. In the end, we went back to, the 3-mile point and turned off the road regardless. And as we discovered afterwards, this was just what we were supposed to do-the telephone wires "stopped" because we turned away from them! But there are compensations. When we lost ourselves on another occasion, there was nobody around we could ask, so we went and knocked on the door of this rather imposing house. "Oh hello," they said, without batting an eyelid, "do come in and have a cup of tea."But the recce is still only field maneuvers. The real thing starts when they finish picking the names out of the hat for starting positions and the first car rolls down that ramp in Nairobi: Then it's war. And just like in any other war, the first thing you find out is that nothing ever goes according to plan. You imagine that really carefully detailed notes would take most of the guesswork out of the fight, but they don't. They're essential all right, but you still. have to improvise from them. The trouble is that the road itself is changing all the time. If someone comes across a patch where the previous runners have churned up the surface to a point where it might be difficult to get through, there's nothing to stop him taking avoiding action by going right off the road altogether and rejoining it beyond the obstacle. And after five or six other drivers have come to the same conclusion, then that is the road until someone tries something else.
We noted down every control, danger, obstacle, junction and landmark with. mileages and remarks on the state of the surface. At each control we wrote down the distance, time and average speed set for the next stage. You could always tell the easy ones-they'd have averages in the 60s, and an 50 mile stage would occupy only half a page of our notebook with occasional remarks. The difficult ones took up two or three pages for a shorter distance, but they still had high averages. There was one stage of 26 miles which started at a place called Donyo Sambu" and which had to be completed in 31 minutes, giving an average of just over 50 mph.
That's very low by Safari standards, so you can bet it's one of the more difficult stages. And it was. The surface was dusty with vicious dips and bumps and blind corners, and the idea was to go flat-out until you knew you were approaching a tricky bit. Then you slammed the brakes on hard, leaving it as late as you dared, slowed down to a reasonable speed for what was facing you, then accelerated away as hard as you could. On this stage the first dip was 1000 yards from the control, the second was 700 yards beyond that, two miles further on there's a bad dip on a sharp left-hand bend, three bumps in quick succession after another half-mile, a deep dip after a blind right-hander 350 yards on, two more dips at intervals of 700 yards, and so it goes on.
This is a tough rally for navigators. Although you've been over the course very carefully, you're concentrating just as hard as the driver, and that means you're working very hard. You've got to trust your own judgment too. There are plenty of places where you turn off a road on to a track which seems to peter out into nothing. There's nothing you can do except press on until you spot the next landmark.
Fuel is another problem. You can stop and fuel pretty well anywhere you like but the route is so long and the country is so wild that pumps and dumps are few and far beween., Sometimes it's easy and you have no choice you have to stop and refuel even if you do lose valuable minutes. It's more difficult when you can choose, do you lose time here and fill up or do you risk pres~ing on to the next one and cut out one whole fuel stop? And even then, the decision isn't as simple as that. You've got to bear in mind the next two or more stops to make the most economical use of your time.
But ,it really is amazing how all' these worries sort themselves out at night. It's almost as if the sheer physical and mental effort of getting through at all stops you from thinking about anything else, even wild animals, or bugs or scorpions or things like that. My chief worry was the fact that I'm a very bad passenger, and there were plenty of times when Eric had me sitting there crossing myself while he was really thrashing along, using the handbrake to break the backwheels away whenever he wanted to get round a really bad bend. I was lucky that it was dark over one of the worst stages, right over the top of this mountain, rutted and twisty with a very steep drop on one side of the road. We arrived at the control only half a minute late over this stage we were fastest of all in a 850 Saab, while the second fastest man had a 300 Mercedes. That's how quick Eric is.
We were lucky with the car. A Saab is one of the smoothest-riding small cars on a trip like this. It's a fairly long car and it's certainly a rigid one, so we were bumped around a lot less than we might have been in many other vehicles. But the bumping isn't all that bad after a while. You tend to tune yourself to the movement of the car and, with practice, you can even forget the 2-stroke scream too. But the rattling and banging is furious and I was absolutely amazed that cars could be driven over this kind of country at all, let alone at Safari speeds.
Safety harness is a great help. With well-fitting seats and a good set of straps, you can concentrate on your notes and the road ahead without losing your seat altogether. I didn't wear full harness, as I found a single lapstrap and diagonal shoulder strap was enough. It's important not to be too constricted as the inside of the car gets very hot, and too many straps can chafe the skin badly. And sometimes you do have to leave in a hurry, as when you get stuck in the mud, or as I did once when we came to the foot of a hill, where we could see the lights of twenty or more competitors, all stuck in the
mud. Eric shouted, "We, keep going!" and charged at the hill full-tilt. And we did quite well, until the front wheels started to slip and we began to lose speed. I knew that if we once stopped we hadn't a chance of getting started again. So I slipped out of my harness, climbed out through the window and laid on. the bonnet to give the wheels extra traction. And that seemed to do the trick, but as we drew nearer to the top of the hill, one of the stranded cars started to reverse into. our path. Eric swerved, bounced off the back of the car, battered his way down one side, and we scraped past. And there I was haQ.ging on to the windscreen pillars like grim death, and screaming at Eric to keep going. Then I felt this gentle tap on my shoulder. I nearly died, I thought it was can animal at first. But it was Eric-with me in the way, and all the mud thrown up off the road, he couldn't
see ahead so he'd switched the windshield wipers on. That was a nasty moment, though. .
Of course there were times when we did get stuck, just like all the others. We came round one corner and it was so muddy that we couldn't do anything about it. We just slid gently sideways and came to rest at the side of the road. I jumped out and started to push, at the same time screaming "Sukuma! Sukuma!" at the crowd of locals who were watching. "Come and push!" And they came. They all rallied round ap.d heaved till the veins stooel out, and eventually we got the car
moving. As soon as it was under way I had to jump back in, but as we accelerated away, I w~s flinging cigarettes to the crowd for all I was worth. You always load the car up with cigarettes or small-denomination notes for the Safari, so that you've always got something you can give people for coming to help you out.
If there's an.y doubt about any stage, they s"end a Land Rover out on .patrol just
before the first drivers are due. If this can get through, even in bottom' gear and using 4-wheel-drive, then that stage is on. But they can't allow for the weather worsening after the Land Rover goes round, especially as far as the .later. drivers are concerned. Of course, the back-markers are lucky sometimes and they find that conditions over a stage may have improved since the leaders went through,
but usually it's the other way around. That's why they have to be so scrupulously
fair when they allot- the starting positions. In fact, the-only possible advantage to a late start that I can see is that the first cars -may have scared off the. animals. But then, I doubt that the kind of animals that it's really important not to hit, like rhinos and elephants, are going to be scared off by a few cars. Even smaller animals can be nasty though: Eric hit an anteater once and that wasn't pleasant.
Another time, when we stopped to check something, I heard heavy breathing close by. I looked up, and there was a lion right beside the car. It was so close I couldn't get it all inside the field of view of my camera.
It was a pity our own part of the Safari was so unsuccessful. First of all the drive on our Halda packed up, so that we had no idea of distance or average speed. We kept going, using a stopwatch and working from what we thought our average would be to give us an approximate idea of distance, but this was a great strain. Then we had trouble with the carburetor icing-up and that eventually put us out of the rally altogether. But I'll always be glad that I tried the Safari because I'd heard long ago what a fantastic rally it was. And I'm glad I went with Eric. He asked me to go along as his co-driver/navigator, even though it was almost a federal case to get him to agree to my doing any actual driving. Normally he does all his own driving on these rallies and to see him really going is very, very impressive. You can't help respecting him as a driver, even though he scares the pants off you sometimes.
The other half of the Safari's appeal for me lies in the glorious country that the rally is held in. The size of the scenery is so impressive and the views are some of the most magnificent I've ever seen. I don't think I've ever been reminded so pointedly that the world is so vast. And the mountains. . . You climb for mile after mile up a dirt road that winds upward like a goat-track, past jagged rocks and boulders and over yawning drops. And when you reach the top, there's only one mud hut with a couple of people living in it. You can't help wondering why the devil they built the road private cars wouldn't want to use it and you could never get, a truck up there.I don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like the Safari in any branch of motor sport anywhere. The road conditions, the scenery, the toughness of the rally itself and the enthusiasm of competitors and organizers made it completely unforgettable. I'm sorry we didn't manage our first attempt with a little more success, but I wouldn't have missed the Safari for anything. Next time, maybe?