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RALLY HO! IN EAST AFRICA
Tom Wisdom
May 01, 1961
In 1953 a group of racing enthusiasts in East Africa, wishing to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, set out on an extended motor rally through the bush, and called their race the Coronation Safari. The event was so successful that it has been repeated each year. Now formally organized as the East African Safari, it has become one of the most important, and certainly the most colorful, of major international rallies.
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May 01, 1961

Rally Ho! In East Africa

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In 1953 a group of racing enthusiasts in East Africa, wishing to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, set out on an extended motor rally through the bush, and called their race the Coronation Safari. The event was so successful that it has been repeated each year. Now formally organized as the East African Safari, it has become one of the most important, and certainly the most colorful, of major international rallies.

This year there were 63 time control points along the 3,300-mile route (radio hams maintained communications), with time allowances between each determined by road conditions. Only standard models were entered. Leaving Nairobi, cars streaked south over roads that were not much better than early covered-wagon trails in the U.S. West. The route, covered in some 90 hours, approached the jungle fastness where Stanley found Livingstone, turned to the African coast where slave traders once flourished, crossed vast game preserves, passed Mau Mau country and finally reached north to the plains of Uganda and Lake Victoria's south shore. The author of this account, a veteran of 30 years of European motor racing, this year drove on the winning team.

Before Europe's roads were tarred and their corners cossetted, the Monte Carlo Rally and the annual Alpine Trials were the top tests of an automobile. Modern traffic conditions have caught up with us, however, and in most parts of the world we no longer have those races in the mud and dust which not only proved the good car, but were good fun as well. Indeed, one of the few races left where drivers are confronted with sheer drops from fearful, dizzy heights as they speed over a mountain pass, or deep-rutted tracks that resemble nothing more than centuries-old bullock paths, is the annual East African Safari. It is one of the longest, the toughest and the most exciting of the international rallies. I know, for with 37 others I have just finished the ninth running of the race. It was over a 3,300-mile course through the wildest country I have ever seen.

Before we started off from Nairobi in Kenya we all knew what animals we could expect to meet at the end of a dust-spattered blind turn. Those of us who had driven in the Safari before knew of the other obstacles, too, especially the drifts and the washaways, which were startlingly new to those with experience only in the rallies of Europe.

Drifts are permanent. They are river beds, usually dry, crossed by a path of rocks or concrete, with sharp ascents on both sides. Drifts can be dangerous because they are usually at the end of a straight stretch, or around a tricky bend; they are narrow, and the car, at speed, must be exactly placed or you end upside down. With the worst drifts there is simply a leap into space, a crash through stone and mud, and then an almost vertical climb out. With all the trouble they cause, drifts, at least, always remain in the same place.

Washaways are more dangerous because they may be anywhere and cannot be plotted in advance. They are unexpected ditches across the track—I refuse to call it a road—caused by the torrents which follow the tropical rainstorms that start and stop so abruptly.

"Don't think you know the track," said an experienced East African driver. "It's altered since you were last there."

Of last year's 84 starters, only 25 reached the end. This year 77 set out on the first stage, an "easy" run due south from the skyscraper city of Nairobi. Beginning at 6 o'clock on a Thursday evening, we left at three-minute intervals. A crowd of 5,000 was on hand to witness the start. The cars were all standard machines—British, German, French, Italian and Swedish. The organizers of the East African Safari will not accept European rules, which permit scarcely disguised racing cars to compete. We were strapped in—and tightly—all the time; safety straps are essential on this Safari. Otherwise, the eternal crash, bang and wallop would leave us riding on the roof. And, of course, standard controls like windshield wipers, lights and other auxiliaries would be out of reach if mounted in the usual place. Ours were on a panel between the seats, within reach of the left hand.

The Zephyr that Peter Walker and I were driving was one of the last cars to get off. We drove into a star-studded tropical night. The whole route was divided into 63 "sections," with a time allowance for each; we were allowed three hours even for the 154-mile run from Nairobi to Ol Donyo Sambu. One car was out before we left the tarmac—it had hit a zebra. The zebra was killed, and the driver was unhurt, but the codriver, who was studying a road map at the moment, cut his head, not seriously, and was taken back to the hospital—it was only 18 miles from the start.

Beyond Ol Donyo Sambu came the first of many high-speed dashes. Nineteen minutes were allowed for the 17 miles from Ol Donyo Sambu to Ngare Nanyuki, and then 24 minutes for the next 17 miles, as the route circled Mount Meru to Usa. The first of these dashes was made to order for the bigger cars, but the second was not, and everyone dropped points on this stretch; the Safari became a race. Not far out of Usa a stately, dancing giraffe blocked our path. A few minutes later a leopard crossed our track briefly, illuminated in the headlights.

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