The recently concluded World Rally Championship (WRC) Safari Rally has yet again lived up to its billing as one of the toughest rallies on earth. This is due in part to the unpredictable weather conditions in which the competitors did battle for the four days of the 350-kilometre action. On some stretches, like Hell’s Gate National Park, it was dry and dusty, and then, without warning, the skies opened up on Saturday the 24th in the Soysambu area and turned the fesh-fesh dusty tracks into cloying mud and bog.

The 2023 Safari Rally marked the 70th anniversary of the popular rally, whose slot in the WRC is guaranteed until 2026. It was won by Frenchman Sebastian Ogier navigated by Vincent Landais in a Toyota Yaris. Ogier, who clocked in at just 6.7 seconds ahead of hard-chasing second placed world champion Kalle Rovanpera, has eight world titles under his belt. Rovanpera was chasing a second win after bagging last year’s edition of the Safari. Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta came in third and fourth respectively, completing the 1-2-3-4 podium sweep for the Toyota Gazoo Racing team.

Although he finished second in this year’s Safari, Finnish Kalle Rovanpera is currently leading in World championship standings, with Sebastian Ogier ranking 4th. It was Ogier’s second win in the Safari, having bagged it previously in 2021.

The rally was meant to be readmitted to the WRC after the Federation Internationale de l’Automibile (FIA) president, Jean Todt gave his ascent in 2019, but the resumption was shelved due to the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. It resumed on 24 June 2021, with the first car being flagged off by then president Uhuru Kenyatta at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre after a total of 19 years in the cold. Sebastian Ogier went on to win that rally in a Toyota Yaris.

Before the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) put a brake on it in 2001, the Safari Rally was perhaps the one event in the year that was most anticipated by local motoring enthusiasts, both young and old. 

Back in the glory years when it was truly a spectacular battle between man and machine, it came around religiously in April during the Easter holidays, the wettest and muddiest month in the year, and guaranteed a dose of excitement like no other. 

For one, the roads were still mostly wild and untarred, especially outside the main cities, and the weather did not disappoint, crackling dry in one section and then dripping wet in the next. Secondly, school was out, meaning kids could indulge themselves whenever the rally route passed close to home.

Some of the most spectacular shots captured by photojournalists back in the day were those of the speed machines fording rivers where bridges had been washed away in a previous downpour. And the drivers could always count on the locals to jump in the swollen stream and lend a hand pushing the vehicles across whenever they got stuck or stalled; for that was the spirit of the Safari. The surrounding community was very much a part of it. Ace legend Joginder “Flying Sikh” Singh is captured on video being assisted across a swollen stream by wananchi when his famous Volvo PV44 got stuck in a swollen stream.

The 19 years in the cold haven’t dampened the popularity of the rally. According to the WRC Commercial Rights Holder, the WRC Promoter, this year’s Safari was watched by more than 100 million people in 150 countries, making it the most watched rally in the 13 rounds fixtures in the 50 years that the WRC has been in operation. 

But something has clearly changed about the following of this rally. I was following the footage that was coming in from Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park on TV and it occurred to me that the following has shifted from the ordinary folk who used to jump in the mud and help push stuck vehicles to a more urbane fanbase that drives to the rally venues in high-end Subarus and Toyota Land Cruisers or are flown in by choppers. The Safari, by virtue of where it is now held, is no longer about the bare-heeled kids in torn school shorts who cling precariously to high tree branches to catch a glimpse of the cars, and who will trek for miles in the bush in the dark to go see their heroes.

A friend, who works as a driver, told me that he was driving from Nakuru to Nairobi on June 24 and was surprised to find the road clear at the Naivasha turnoff. On an ‘ordinary’ Safari event, there would be a measure of excitement there. This time round all he saw were boda boda riders hustling the passengers disembarking from country buses for work. He only realized that the Safari was ending when he got to Nairobi, parked, and went to his local for a beer to dust off the dirt of the road.

Ordinarily, Hell’s Gate Park and those other places where the rally cars were racing are not accessible to the average Kenyan. Those are ‘mzungu’ places where the rich frequent on weekends to eat game meat and frolic in game lodges. The last time I visited I was taken there by a mobile phone company that wanted to entice us in a writing project. Even though the project was hijacked by a clever Kenyan, I was accorded a glimpse of what those Hollywood stars pay top dollar to come and see on holiday. It is an exotic place that you only get to see in ‘Magical Kenya’ tourism postcards.

It is understandable why the rally was staged there. Those treacherous roads that Joginder Singh and Shekhar Mehta used to race on in the 1970s and 1980s have since been tarred in most parts of the country, with permanent bridges built. They no longer pose the challenge for machines for which the Safari was renown.

Or maybe the Safari is simply going back to the source. 

Originally, the Safari was a ‘mzungu’ sport, dominated by white Kenyans. It is Joginder Singh who broke this ceiling in his secondhand Volvo PV44 that he refurbished in his own workshop. And he didn’t beat them by a small margin. He beat them by an hour and a half. And the beauty of Joginder, who died of heart failure in London in October 2013, was that he was beating European drivers who had superior cars.

The Safari is closely linked to British royalty. It started out as the East African Coronation Rally in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, who learned of the death of her father while on holiday in Kenya. In the words of one of the founders of the Safari, Neil Vincent, they were looking for a rally that would “test the stamina of man and technical potency of a car.” Among the earliest sponsors of the Safari were the East African Standard newspaper and Shell Oil, who contributed 500 pounds each, a tidy sum at the time.

It was only in 1972 that the first European, Hannu Mikola, co-driven by Gunnar Palm, won the Safari in a Ford Escort RS1600. Drivers from Europe had been trying for long to win the “toughest rally in the world” in vain, thanks to local drivers like Joginder Singh who knew the terrain better.

The original East African safari was an enduring sport that traversed the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and which wasn’t so much designed for a showcase of speed as survival of the cars on the muddy, dusty and treacherous roads, and which tested the mettle of the drivers to the extreme. The aim was not so much to set a speed record as to simply see your severely punished vehicle back on the finishing ramp in Nairobi in one piece. Simply surviving that 5, 000-kilometer road ordeal was triumph enough.

Often, the first leg on flag off took the drivers on a circuitous route to the Kenyan coast and then back to Nairobi. The second face was another circuitous route through the bundus of Western Kenya that would take them to Kampala and then back to Nairobi. The final leg would take them south to Tanzania before the survivors returned to Nairobi for the finish. It was in all appearances an adventure into the East African bush.

But souring diplomatic relations with Tanzania and political turmoil in Uganda would put a stop to this three-country adventure that drew European drivers and fans here every Easter.

The legendary flamboyant Joginder Singh won the Safari three times, in 1965 co-driven by his brother Jaswant Singh in a Volvo PV544; in 1975 with David Doig in a Mitsubishi Colt Lancer; and in 1978 again with David Doig in a Mitsubishi Colt Lancer.

Back then, the routes the rally followed and the time when the vehicles were expected to zoom past were published in the dailies for fans to memorize and arrange to be at a strategic roadside location to catch a glimpse of their favourite drivers. Actually, for the rest of the rally, any other news was relegated to the sidelines and the rally practically took over the newspapers, radio and TV. The colourful frontpage blow-ups of the action by renowned rally photographers like Anwar Sidi would remind any visitor to the country that a phenomenal event was underway.

After Joginder Singh, the other local legend who gave European drivers a run for their money was Uganda-born Kenyan Shekhar Mehta, who won the safari a record five times,  in 1973 with Lofty Drews in a Datsun 240Z; in 1979 with Mike Doughty in a Datsun 160J; in 1980 with Mike Doughty in a Datsun 160J; in 1981 with Mike Doughty in a Datsun Violet GT and again in 1982 with Mike Doughty in a Datsun Violet GT. In 1981, Shekhar finished fifth in the World rally Championship

Unlike his contemporary Joginder who had blazed the trail in the seventies, and who was more swashbuckling on the road, Shekhar was the mild gentleman who was urbane, composed and calculated; or the rally “professor” as he was christened. Shekhar’s feats were pulled off in the then famous Datsun models that would later become Nissan after Datsun was acquired by Nissan. By this time the Japanese automakers had elbowed the earlier European automakers like Volvo, Ford and Peugeot out of the Safari and would go on to stamp their dominance as evidenced by the historic four-lead swoop by Toyota in 2022, a feat that hadn’t ever been attained in any Safari.

The Safari was removed from the World Rally Championship in 2002 after local organizers failed to meet their obligations to the governing body of motor sport, FIA, which licenses the WRC.

In 2021, the Safari Rally rejoined the World Rally Championship after a 18-year hiatus. But going by the last two events, a lot has changed. The Safari has lost its spirit, the sense of euphoria that came with it every Easter, and which infected fans of all ages all over the country. The management needs to repackage it to keep it from becoming a class act and take it back to the masses. The immense joy and excitement it can work up in ordinary Kenyans would be most welcome. The rally has the potential to bring them back their ‘Kenyanness’ if it is handled right.

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