Why Safari Rally was much more than just a motorcar race

Wednesday May 20 2020

Rally driver Sandro Munari stands next to his factory prepared Fiat Abarth 131 that he used for the 1983 Safari Rally. PHOTO | FILE |


Funny how life is sometimes. When we were young we were so eager to be considered older.

I entered Standard Eight at 13 years of age sometimes in the 1980s and turned 14 in September of that year. But I was always quick to tell anybody who asked me my age, that was 14, months before reaching that chronological mark.

But the reverse is true for me in my fourth decade of life. Until the day of by birthday I will cling to my previous age.

To the point. Those born after the 1980s will never understand why the Safari Rally was/is such a big deal.

“Safo” as we called it, was part of the Kenyan culture. As Nation columnist Roy Gachuhi, once wrote in this paper, the annual Easter holidays were not complete without the Safari Rally being staged.

My mind is full of memories of this iconic motorcar race that was so tough on man and machine, finishing it was in itself an achievement. Small wonder it was aptly dubbed the “toughest rally in the world”.

I grew up in Old Racecourse Estate in Nairobi and many an Easter holiday we would, as young lads full of adventure, walk to Kenyatta International Conference Centre (now Kenyatta International Convention Centre), City Hall Way or Uhuru Highway to mingle with the exuberant, massive crowd eager to catch a glimpse of the speeding, noisy machines as they returned to headquarters or made their way to the Kenyan wilderness.

We would also closely follow the action on Voice of Kenya radio, renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation in 1989, that brought the action live, with updates every hour. That radio in many a home, invariable, was owned by the “old man”, our slang name for the man of the house.

And we lived the rally, putting our budding engineering skills to work building toy cars. The best and most admired were those made of empty Kimbo and Cowboy cooking oil tin containers with tyres fashioned out of old Bata rubber slippers. One could also make a toy car from plastic (mostly empty Vim containers) or just plain cardboard with bottle tops as tyres.

But the most memorable activity in this make fantasy world was engaging in our very own “Safari Rally”. Routes would be crafted and a races organised in estates with each boy pulling his tiny machine with a string.

Penalties were slapped for a car overturning, losing a wheel, the string breaking and so on. The person who finished with the least number of penalties won the “rally”. Oh, the joys of youth.

Then there was the folklore. Pioneer African rally driver Peter Shiyuka would retire somewhere in Kitale ostensibly to tend to his neglected maize plantation whenever the rally route passed through Western Kenya.

One story that left me in childhood awe was how local man Joginder Singh once won the Rally in audacious fashion. He got a puncture in the closing stages. Lacking a spare tyre, the speedy Sikh bundled together dry grass and wrapped it round the wheel that had the punctured rubber to limp home and to victory.

Kenya’s Shekhar Mehta won the Safari an unprecedented four consecutive years. On his way to one of his victories, the story goes, Mehta deliberately blocked the faster Rauno Aaltonen of Finland from overtaking him.

Another version has it that a lorry mysteriously appeared on the road slowing the Finn. Aaltonen was the original Flying Finn, my all-time favourite, who finished second on six occasions, each time breaking an infatuated boy’s heart.

The names of these yesteryear drivers gleefully roll through my tongue without a pause: Hannu Mikkola, Bjorn Waldergad, Ari Vatanen, Miki Biasion, Tommi Makinen, Stig Blomqvist, Markku Alen, Juha Kankunnen, Andrew Cowan, Michelle Morton, Sandro Munari, Timo Salonen, Erwin Weber Possum Borne. Locals, Mike Doughty, Rob Collinge, Vic Preston Junior, Mike Kirkland, Frank Tundo, Jayant Shah, Ramesh Khoda, Prem and Paulu Choda.

Same with these Safari Rally classic machines: Datsun 240Z, Datsun 160J, Peugeot 504 Coupe, Nissan 240RS, Lancia Stratos, Opel Ascona 400, Ford Escort, Toyota Celica TCT, Audi Quattro 200 and Volkswagen Golf GTi.

The Safari Rally, started in 1953, became part of the prestigious World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1974. However, it lost its lustre when it ceased being a WRC event in 2003.

It regained that status last year and was due to be held in July only to be postponed last week to next year because of the novel coronavirus disease.

After a 17-year hiatus, one more year of waiting in anticipation can only fire up more rally nostalgia from us “Safo” generation.

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