Sunday 3 January 2016

Safari Rally

The first time I met someone involved with the Rally was in the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. 

I love this very posh hotel because they have a tradition that you are allowed into the front bar when you come back from a safari and you are wearing bush clothes and you are covered in red dust! I have done this more than once and it is brilliant to be standing next to someone at the bar who is dressed up to the nines and is totally OK with my ragged state!!

On this particular day I wasn't dusty because I was meeting a friend so we could go across to the National Theatre where he was directing a play and I was in charge of the lighting.

As I arrived he was ending another meeting and as the members left he was discussing odds and ends with them. Just as I reached the table he was saying to the last guy to go "And are you doing the Rally again this year?" And the guy said "No - I am going to be back in the UK". I butted in and asked what "Doing the Rally" involved and the guy shrugged and said "Well if you want to be a Mud Car Driver you need a 4WD and you need to have radio skills because you have to drive the route in front of the Rally cars and you have to liaise with an overhead plane . . ." And I could tick the boxes so I took his place - for the next four years!

I started off doing local rallies with Guy, head dealer for Toyota in East Africa. I drove my LandRover loaded with spares and carried a couple of mechanics and we were on call on overnight rallies. One night we were parked by a track waiting for him to blow past. The mechanics had a bet on to see who could identify the next car by the sound of its engine - before it went past us. Every time a car approached (we were in pitch darkness) we would see the massive lights in the distance and then hear the engine and then they would bet. But one time we heard the engine - and there were no lights . . . and the car blasted past us - in total darkness - going as fast as the other cars. "That's Chris" said one of the guys. And he won the bet because when we got to the end of the rally we heard that Chris's wiring harness had come loose and shorted all the circuits except the ignition wires. Radios were banned in these local rallies and it was before cellphones. Without even a torch there was nothing they could do except drive in the dark. I still can't understand how he went so fast! He was also famous for another incident where he was running 2nd and the car in front took a jump (as per the pace notes) but landed in the middle of a washaway (which wasn't in the notes) on top of a rock which cracked his sump which killed his engine and left him on top of the rock. He and his navigator raced back to the jump to flag down the next car but when Chris saw them waving he took it as encouragement and floored it - and jumped right over their car and carried on down the track. All the other cars slowed down to go around the wreck and he finished the section with a huge lead. Tragically he died a few years later while driving from Nairobi to Mombasa at night to start a holiday. He hit the back of a broken down lorry with no lights. Hard to believe considering his amazing skills.

Guy's Toyota was modelled on the incredibly successful Ford Escort. In fact if you took the badges off you could not tell them apart. In one rally he had the same problem as Chris - except that his ignition circuit also shorted so he was immobilised. The first we knew of this was when another rally car slowed down as they went past and threw us a note saying where Guy was and what had happened. As we were not allowed into the rally route the wrong way we had to make a detour and Guy and his navigator were well on their way to hypothermia when we reached them. (This was up in the foothills of Mt Kenya) The mechanics grabbed a spare harness and got to work while I got Guy and his mate into our warm cab and gave them tea from our Thermos. Almost instantly we heard the crackling roar of the rally car (sans exhaust) coming back to life. I looked at Guy "Would you like me to drive your car home?" "Yes please!" and one of the mechanics, who used to practise pace notes with Guy jumped in beside me and we (literally) roared off. The next two sections of the route featured a distinctive road profile from up-country. At some point the road had been a single track tarmac road with sloping sides to let the considerable rainfall run off either side. Over the years the tarmac had broken up so much that no-one could drive on it any more and everyone drove on the sloping sides. However the rally car had such good suspension that once you got up to speed you could fly over the rough surface, and every time you came to a corner you could drop into the sloped side and use it like a banked curve on a racetrack. At one point a policeman appeared. Sadly they often demanded bribes and since I was certainly speeding and certainly breaking sound laws I was a ripe target. I slowed down and because the lack of a tailpipe affects the timing I kept blipping the throttle to make sure we didn't stall. He stood there, tall and stony-faced, with his hand raised until we were about 20 feet away and down to 2nd gear. Then his face lit up like a little boy who had pulled off a great practical joke and started waving madly to indicate we should get back up to speed. I didn't need to be told twice and 2nd is a great gear to take off from and we showed our gratitude with a healthy shower of gravel!! The mechanic later told me that I had done all the sections in a time that would have got me on the podium. Then we reached Nakuru which has a grand hotel owned by the Duke of Devonshire - who sponsors a lot of rallies. It was a traditional stop-off point after up-country rallies as they would serve free bacon sandwiches to all the crews. Being hungry for a bacon sandwich - and for my mates to see me driving a rally car - I loudly pulled in. It was my downfall. As I was walking back out to the car 40 minutes later, Guy arrived in our mud car. He was very happy to see me and said "Thank-you so much for your help David, I'll take it from here" as he put out his hand so we could  swap keys. We got in the mudcar and drove sadly, in silence, which was rudely shattered when Guy blew past going at least 50mph faster than us . . . . 

Vic was another driver who produced legendary stories. In one rally he was driving a Porsche. There was a ford across a river but when the two cars in front of him tried to cross they discovered the water had risen and they both destroyed their engines by taking in water. They also rushed back to warn the next car(s) and Vic also took this as encouragement and accelerated - and they watched in awe as his car flew across the top of the water! This would only work in a Porsche because the weight is at the back so the nose rises, and the floorpan is smooth underneath! Sadly for him all the other cars were stopped and the stage was cancelled.

Then we did the Safari Rally in 1983 with Guy as a private entry. Sadly he was mis-sold some av-gas as high grade fuel and blew his pistons - amazingly his crew of mechanics rebuilt the engine in half an hour after pushing it out of the parc ferme - but it blew up again! He was towed by another mud car back to Nairobi and I was following when some very stoned dudes in a VW beetle overtook me and started throwing beer bottles at Guy. Before I could react Guy used his car like a conker and simply swung from left to right on the end of the tow rope and swatted the VW away into the bush!

The next year Toyota Team Europe entered the Rally for the first time and Guy's mud cars became their local support crew. And we won!!

And the following year we came 1st and 2nd . . .

 And the next year we came 1st, 2nd and 4th . . . 

Probably the most amazing escape was down to Vic in a Lancia Martini. Insanely fast, with a very light fibreglass body, he lost it on a corner and flipped over ending up upside down in a ditch - which was exactly the same width as the car. His navigator told me afterwards they were strapped in, hanging upside down, with no way of getting out even if they got out of the straps, with avgas pouring over them from the fuel tank and a white-hot turbo behind them. I will never know why those fumes didn't explode. Another friend was on their service crew and he told me he had dropped a drop of oil onto the turbo as he was topping the car up and the oil had exploded into a foot-long spear of flame! Many parts of the rally are far from any habitation and have no audience bit (again amazingly) there was a village nearby and a bunch of guys rushed over and simply lifted the car out and turned it right way up! I was surprised they didn't just end up with chunks of bodywork in their hands, we had helped to bumpstart the car at one point and the fibreglass had become very brittle after the intense vibrations of travelling over rough surfaces at well over 100mph.

Most of the local support crews knew each other and there was a lot of camaraderie between us. Also, if all our cars had gone by and we were en route to our next duty point, if we found a car from a different team in distress we could help them out. 

One night we got to a service point well ahead of our clock and everyone else and bedded down to grab a short sleep. I decided the roof-rack was the safest place because I had seen a few scorpions on the ground. When I woke up about an hour before dawn the sky was just starting to lighten in the East and I could see that there were now at least a dozen other service vehicles lined up with ours - all emitting snores! I could also see a magnificent kopje between us and the East making a wonderful silhouette! It had an outcrop that looked like a huge beak. Wrapped in my blanket I clambered down and scrambled up the hill until I was behind it. To my delight the plane of the beak came down in a gentle slope to the ground and it was very easy to walk up and out to the end. Taking the corners of my blanket in my hands and pulling it up behind my neck to the base of my baseball cap I walked out knowing that I would appear as an un-identifiable birdman to those below. I started making a weird noise in my throat and slowly moved my arms up and down while getting louder and louder. Although I was facing 90 degrees away from the crews below - to make my outline more effective - I could hear a rising tide of comment "Wake up, wake up - there is a witch doctor on that rock up there!" I slowly reversed back off the rock, got below the skyline and trotted around to come up behind my mates, blanket folded under my arm with my cap in my pocket. I rubbed my eyes and yawned "What is going on guys?" "There is some kind of mad witchdoctor up there didn't you see it?" "Nope, just woke up." "Do you think he was putting a spell on us?" . . . .

I did the 1st and 2nd year in my trusty LandRover 

But in the 3rd year Guy asked me if I would consider driving a proto-type Toyota pick-up. With a 3l turbo-charged diesel engine . . .  I would not get paid as much - but they wanted it to have a tough test . ..  

It was awesome - I got an average of 30mpg even though we did over 100mph on dirt tracks. At one point I was asked to drive around Lake Naivasha and check which mudholes were the deepest. In my LandRover I would have waded in and out but in the beast I just smashed into them at top speed and then radioed the plane to tell our cars to keep left!

There is one part of the Rally that is always mentioned with a sigh! The Kerio Valley. I never got that assignment until the 3rd year. Then I was assigned to drive down the hairpins into the valley ahead of the rally cars and using their pace notes - at night. And I cleaned it - I did the stage in the same sort of time a rally car would take - in a pick-up! I could not understand what the fuss was about. It was one of the smoothest dirt roads I had ever driven in Kenya and the edge was very sharp with 2 foot high grass growing all along and I could skid right up to the edge. Then, 8 hours later I had to do the same route again - in daylight! And I realised that on the other side of the grass edge was a 2000 foot drop! For some reason it took me twice as long . . .

Sadly after the previous years when we would go back to the go-down and unload all the stuff and have some banter with the TTE crew like "Here are the 4 cans of WD40 you gave me" and they would say "Could you not just - have used them - then we wouldn't have to pay to ship them back?"

So we got a bonus. But on the last year the gates were on a chain and we were asked to hand everything through the gap and were invited to an auction the next day. None of us went. None of us volunteered the next year - and TTE never won another Safari Rally. So sad to see what bean counters can do!


  1. Lovely story, thanks for sharing this David :-)

  2. Love this! Witch doctor 😂😂

  3. What a brilliant read! Sounds like an amazing adventure and experience you had David. Some beautiful looking motors there as well!