Baldev Chager roared away in Car No 1 as the East African Safari Classic Rally got underway in Mombasa last Thursday.
He was followed by Stiq Blomqvist. Both drove Porsche 911s but it is not those machines on my mind now. In a way it is about Chager, as you will see at the tail end of this story, but mostly it is about an event that underscores the joys of being a young newspaper reporter when the boundaries between work and recreation disappear to leave nothing but a beautiful memory.
The old Safari Rally, which the Classic valiantly attempts to recreate, was a lot more than a sports event. It was an integral part of our national culture; it came to almost all the provinces we lived in and produced a steady stream of national heroes who, in the optimistic early years of independence, were not always black Kenyans. Some were Asian, others were white.
After many years of closely following the rally as a schoolboy, I finally got to cover it as a cub reporter in 1978. I was more than prepared. The entry field was large, but I easily knew three quarters of them.
But first I had to readjust some mental images: the legends you see in the papers can be quite different when you meet them in person.
They could be bigger, smaller, taller or shorter and speak in tones quite removed from what your mind has constructed for them. I was puzzled that most of the tough drivers I met were shorter in height than I had imagined them to be.
As the years went by, I noticed a trend among most of us journalists: we lionised the drivers a great deal and treated the co-drivers as supporting cast. Then one day in 1982, now reasonably experienced, a brainwave came upon me. I decided to do a story on the other crucial man: the navigator.
In the days of the East African Safari, they called him the co-driver. Later, in the shortened version of the event, the Safari Rally, he became the navigator.
What was his role in that cockpit? What did he really do? What did David Doig do for Joginder Singh? What did Mike Doughty do for Shekhar Mehta? John Lyall for Vic Preston Junior. Lofty Drews for Rauno Aaltonen. Hans Thorsellius for Bjorn Waldegaard. Silvio Maiga for Sandro Munari.
I sought the expertise of a great navigator, Surinder Thathi, to help me. Surinder gave me directions to his house on Waiyaki Way. Among the impressive machines I found packed in his garage was a full works Opel Ascona 400 Group B rally car.
At that time, Surinder was the co-ordinator for the Opel Rally Team in Kenya and this car had arrived for testing with Rauno Aaltonen. Before the rally, it was used as a recce car and during the competition, as a chase car.
Surinder said: “Let’s go for a spin. You’ll be my navigator today.” We walked over to the Ascona and strapped up. I was desperately eager for the ride.
The thing I remember most about the drive from Surinder’s house was how polite and considerate he was to other road users.
He drove slowly, instinctively giving way to any road glutton who wanted to race him. And some did, attracted to the sound and beauty of our car. But Surinder ignored them, like a tiger that knows when to pounce on its prey and when to merely contemplate it with benevolent disdain.
None of these provocateurs knew what the Ascona could do and it was not necessary to show them. Following a very twisty course, we eventually got into the open country roads in Dagoretti in the shadow of the Ngong Hills. There were no vehicles in sight and, of course, those were the pre-boda boda days.
“Ready,” Surinder said to me, almost in a whisper. “We start.”
Responding to an infusion of explosive energy, the Ascona burst into speed and out of my window now was just a blur of green as we accelerated at the highest speed I had ever travelled in a car in all my life. Before and beneath me, a brown sheet formed as she consumed the dusty earth at a rate of 170 kilometres per hour.
I could feel her acoustic energy vibrating inside my chest as her roar screamed for heaven. Because it was humanly impossible to ignore such a tremendous show of speed and sound, people tilling the fields stopped to look. Some waved. Those on the roadside gazed in awe before being buried in the dust rising in the Ascona’s wake.
Surinder was doing some very energetic work on the steering wheel, turning it left and right in quick dexterous movements. Astonishingly, despite these applications, the Ascona was maintaining a straight course. It flew over the potholes. Then we came upon a sharp bank to the left. Surinder decelerated slightly and next our vehicle was sliding sideways into the bank and I almost thought that its “ribs” on the driver’s side were going to slam into it. That never happened.
In an amazing manoeuvre, Surinder had used the Ascona’s entire body as a brake and the wheels had stopped rotating. I was astonished that so much momentum could be diffused so dramatically and yet with such a high degree of safety.
The notion of risk never crossed my mind. We turned the corner and the vehicle’s rising speed played with my senses of sight and sound such as I had never experienced before. It was exhilarating.
Surinder had imagined that I would be scared. In fact, the opposite was true. I was totally immersed in the experience and I imagined that I was the navigator.
In my fantasy, I wondered what instructions to call out to the driver. There being none, I just enjoyed the ride. As for Surinder, he was a study in concentration. Later I would think: how does somebody, who has been concentrating that hard for several thousand kilometres, feel afterwards? When you draw that much energy out of your brain, how do you recuperate?
We were hurtling down a straight stretch when Surinder’s voice rose above the din: “Now!” he barked.
The Ascona decelerated rapidly as Surinder lifted his foot from the accelerator. But the bushes lining the narrow road were still whizzing past when he pulled up the hand brake using his left hand.
Suddenly, we were inside a dust storm. The Ascona seemed to lift its nose as we made a 180-degree turn. She was remarkably stable but her engine groaned as if she was straining.
I don’t know how Surinder knew when to release the handbrake because we were buried in the thick dust that we had been leaving in our wake. But in a continuous motion, we emerged from it and the Ascona was now accelerating down the road she had come, reaching 100kph in only six seconds.
We had done that U-turn at 60kph. Any faster than that and the Ascona was going to spin round and round like an out-of-control aircraft in a flat spin.
The Ascona emerging from the dust storm that it had itself created is the moment frozen in my mind’s eye as the most memorable action picture of my life that was never taken.
If only Anwar Sidi, a colossus of motor sports photography among the best that ever lived, was there to freeze it for me. What an image to adorn my living room! I would have used it to enthral my children about the epic activities I undertook in my youth. Of course, I would be stretching the truth but for this once, I am sure I would be allowed.
“Wooooooooh!” I screamed in exhilaration. Surinder smiled. “I like your confidence, man!” he complimented me.
“Let’s do it again,” I requested.
“Sorry, we can’t. It’s time to go back home,” he said. “We’re on reserve fuel.”
And so we did. I could have given the world to take a selfie with Surinder but smartphone technology was more than 10 years away into the future.
That is why he does not appear in this photo with me because he was the one taking it.
In October 2013, I was reunited with him and he filled me in on the career of his idol, Joginder Singh. He spoke in reverential tones about the old master, then living out his sunset years in England.
Joginder was the man whom everybody called Simba wa Kenya.
Surinder told me: “I went to Joginder and said to him: ‘Joginder, I have navigated many great drivers. I have navigated Mike Kirkland; I have navigated Vic Preston Junior, Rauno Aaltonen, Avin Weber, Patrick Njiru, Ian Duncan and many others. You are the greatest driver that I’ve never had a chance to navigate. Please give me a chance.’ Joginder shook his head and said to me: ‘Sorry, my rallying days are over.’ And indeed they were. That was in 1996.” And so Surinder never got to fulfil his life’s wish. Joginder Singh died in 2013.
What happened to my Ascona? The car was used by Walter Rohrl when he won the 1982 Rally Bandama Cote d’Ivoire. Rohrl subsequently won that year’s World Rally Championship using this same car.
After the 1983 Safari Rally, Opel sold it in Kenya to Bernd Strahl who re-sold it to Ann Taieth. Remember her? She was the trailblazing woman Safari Rally star. In the rally, she was always navigated by Sylvia King.
The Ascona finally found its last home in the stable of Daljit Chager, the father of multiple Kenya Rally champion Baldev Chager, the man first off the ramp in the Classic Safari last Thursday.
Edward Rodwell, once the world’s longest-running columnist always ended his Coast Causerie thus: ‘And so it goes.’
I was, of course, not Surinder’s navigator on that memorable day. I didn’t even know what pace notes were. I was just his star struck passenger. Yet the short but very dynamic ride helped me phrase some good questions.
Good luck to the drivers, navigators and service crews of the 2019 East African Safari Classic Rally. The mystique of this event goes on and on.