I accepted an extended family invitation for an Easter weekend feast and that is where I will be as you read this. But my mind is not on the feast. It is on where it always was every Easter when I was a little boy. It is on cars. East African Safari Rally cars. I am repeatedly warned not to swear but I swear that there never was a better life than that one. Must every good thing in this world come to an end? Apparently.
First the build up to the main event. I was a cub reporter covering the end of the Coca Cola Rally at the Hotel Intercontinental in 1978. Vic Preston Junior returned first on the road but did not immediately cross the finish line. There was a problem. He stopped a few metres before and started shouting at the officials. Looking at him, I said to myself, “this man has quite a temper”. He railed on and on. Officials ran helter skelter.
I was near enough to hear him scream at them: “Don’t touch the car!” That happened when somebody apparently tried to open the bonnet. But for the scurrying officials, the rally seemed to have stopped. I never understood what the problem was. The announcer’s sorrowful voice, after a long pause in the proceedings, came over the public address system: “It is unfortunate that so successful an event could end like this.”
Finally, Vic Preston Junior drove across the finish line and packed his car. Whatever the problem was seemed to have been solved, somehow. Slim and handsome, puffing at a cigarette, shaggy hair blowing in the wind and clad in a dirty white T-shirt, he emerged from his car into the waiting hands of his weeping girlfriend. She had obviously been rattled, not by John Michuki’s snakes, but by the acrimonious proceedings of that hot afternoon.
Vic Preston Junior walked her in a cuddle, which I thought looked very romantic, all the while giving a menacing look at the officials while wagging the cigarette wedged between his fingers at them, until he and she disappeared somewhere inside the building. I couldn’t get my eyes off the scene.
I was watching Vic Preston Junior live. He was my hero. I had never seen him before and I almost couldn’t believe that it is him I was watching in person. I had read about him in the newspapers and I had heard his name over and over on Voice of Kenya radio. We all know of the hopeless anti-climax when the mythical hero turns out to be so ordinary a human being at the first meeting. Not me. I wasn’t disappointed. I decided that it was chic to cuddle your crying girlfriend in public and devil may care. So, so heroic.
Vic Preston Junior was one of the Kenyan stars of the East African Safari Rally. I learnt that his father, Vic Preston Senior, he of a tragic suicidal ending, used to be a great rally driver in the 1950s and early 60s. At that time, I was either not a Kenyan citizen by birth or my teacher, Mrs Timothy, was still helping me to clean my nose.
In Vic Preston Junior’s career, I was old enough to go and pay homage to the Shell Petrol Station on University Way that still bears the family name. Full disclosure: even today, when I am tanking there, I look around the pumps and the high ceiling and the vehicles and the staff and I get something like goose bumps. And all because of Vic Preston Junior, hero my hero, of so long ago.
His eternal co-driver was a man called John Lyall. I don’t know much about him but I liked the cars they drove in the Safari Rally. Always waiting with bated breath for the draw of the competition, billed the greatest test of man and machine, I impatiently scoured the news pages to see which car they would be driving. And as the years went by, I faithfully kept a tally of their cars in my personal Hall of Fame. I still have it.
Do you remember the Lancia Delta Integrale? Do you remember the Audi Quattro AI? What about the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT? Vic Preston Junior drove them all. He also drove the Nissan 200 SX. And the Ford Escort RS 1800. But the one I think I loved the most was the Lancia Stratos HF. The name sort of made me feel as if I could fly. Lancia Stratos, whooah! But he also drove the Ford Escort Twin Cam – Twin Cam, mark you, not twin towers like Nation. Twin Cam, sports car. Very powerful machine. To drive such a beast, I think with an outrageous top speed of 120 kph or thereabouts, he must have gained wide experience with the Ford Cortina GT.
I wanted to dedicate this Easter’s column to the extraordinary exploits of Vic Preston Junior alone. But on pain of experience, knowing what my fellow East African Safari Rally fans will do to me on feedback, I will spread the feast. Agreed, there’s only one Easter every year, so let’s remember others and their cars as well. No problem.
Sandro Munari. He was the eternal flag bearer of the Italian carrier, Alitalia. He was a member of Team Marlboro. But I had a debacle with Marlboro. I believe they ran the world’s slickest cigarette advertisements. I myself became obsessed with the Marlboro Man. He was a cowboy. He rode thoroughbred horses as he marshalled his heard.
The advert that killed me read: “It’s a good smoke, at the end of a workin’ day.” You should have seen the Marlboro Man in it. He was relaxing against a tree silhouetted on a stunning Grand Canyon sunset as his horses grazed around him. I took to smoking until I coughed myself out of it.
Sandro Munari, ambassador par excellence for his country, drove the cars star struck kids in the vanishing playgrounds of Nairobi’s Eastlands children made cardboard look-alikes of. Fiat 131 Abarth. Lancia Fulvia. Alfa Romeo GTV6. But he also drove romantic models like the Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo, the Porsche 911 SC and even the Dodge Ramcharger.
In my job, howlers heard in the peaks of Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro happen. They happened in the Safari Rally, too. The one that takes the cake was the one when the French woman, Michelle Mouton, powered her machine on top of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre ramp. Because of her gender, all roofs came tumbling down. A breathless Voice of Kenya commentator, live on converged national and general service radio – I prefer to spare him the embarrassment of naming him – asked her: “How does it feel to be a woman?”
The obviously tired Mouton rolled her eyes and smiled. She paused almost unnoticeably and then, with controlled exasperation and with a level voice, answered the question with another question: “How does it feel to be a man?” The interview ended abruptly.
At this Easter time, like so many these years, people are just plotting how they will gorge themselves on food and drink. But all I can think about is the drivers and cars of the East African Safari Rally of so long ago. It is a world gone, almost certainly never to return. It was a beautiful world. Remember when Finland’s Hanu Mikolla became the first overseas driver to win the rally.
It was a historic event, starting and ending in Dar es Salaam. Mikolla was partnered by Gunnar Palm and they were driving a Ford Escort. Later, he drove Mazda 323, Subaru Legacy RS and Opel Kadett GT/E.
Remember when Bert Shankland of Tanzania always brought home his Peugeot 504 Coupe? You couldn’t talk about Shankland without also mentioning his co-driver, Chris Bates. They always drove together. I miss the East African Safari Rally. I am wallowing in nostalgia. Easter was not just about eating and drinking.
It was about Nkubu in Kenya, where cars got stuck, the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda and the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. Sports journalists always called them “the tricky Usambaras” just like financial journalists unfailingly wrote about the Safari Rally drivers bringing in “the much-needed foreign exchange.”
Where did Easter go? Where did my culture go? I feel like a stranger in the land of my birth and upbringing. I rode a scheduled city bus to go to Hotel Intercontinental to watch my rally hero, Vic Preston Junior. Now, to go there, I must either drive and be charged Sh300 or I use a matatu or a boda boda. Both are primitive modes of public transport, an insult to 21st century city life. I can’t use them. They diminish me.
When I was growing up, I enjoyed far better. The city bus. Its unfailing timekeeping. Its polite staff. Its clean buses. Oh! Kenya Bus Services, licensed to carry 90 passengers, 50 standing and 40 sitting, please come back! I miss you. Every day I remember you. Your kindness and humanity to school children, old people, pregnant women and people with physical disabilities.
Today, I am forced to endure a brutal medieval life, marketed as progress by praise singers and court poets. They have seized the system, leaving me gasping for breath.
But for this once, I am not mourning the loss of a life I once lived. I am living it, in my mind. Right now, this Easter, Vic Preston Junior, Michelle Mouton, Bert Shankland, Joginder Singh, Shekhar Mehta et al, have captured my mind. It is such a wondrous journey into that beautiful bygone world.
It will never return but long may it last.