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It was cool and dark blue on the Norfolk's veranda. Nightjars and crockery clinked in the same key. "I've run in the Safari since 1963," said Palm. "Then the average speed was 70 kilometers an hour. What's that—42 mph? Now it's up to 63. It's a flat-out road race, no matter what the organizers say. We'll have to hit 120 or 130 over the good stretches to maintain those averages. Of course, the roads have improved immensely. Much less mud now than in years past. The mudholes detract from the sport—it's simply a matter of luck, finding someone to push or pull you out when you stick."
The talk swung to rallying in general. A few rally drivers—notably England's Vic Elford, Gerard Larrousse of France and the Finn, Leo Kinnunen—had made a successful conversion to sports-car racing. By contrast, of the drivers who grew up in road racing, only the late Jim Clark had achieved quick success in rallying. How come? "In rallying you have to face many new problems instantaneously," said Palm. "It's not like going around the same course over and over again, getting the problems of cornering and shifting and braking taped into your unconscious. On any given rally route, conditions change constantly. You cannot hold back—you must thrust yourself into the situation and trust your reflexes. It's what the hippies would call 'Now' driving."
Eyes, a driver's most important tools, are thus doubly important to the rallyist, who must read the road quickly as it unrolls before him. "You have to see the pothole over the hill, the washout around the bend," said Palm. "It's a subliminal thing—you learn a lot you could never explain in words about the effect of rain on gravel, say, as opposed to mud. Your eyes get so sharp that you can see trouble before it appears. During the Monte Carlo Rally, when I was navigating for Erik Carlsson, he and I got so acute that we could spot friends in the crowd at 120 mph and have time enough to wave at them—sometimes obscenely."
It was quite dark by now, and a few stings of sheet lightning illuminated the scene. "I don't know," said Palm finally. "Should rally results run on the sports pages or the entertainment pages? Or maybe on the commercial pages—after all, the whole point is to sell cars. For us, though, it's a test. I lose about 15 pounds during a Safari, even though I can drink 10 liters of lemon squash during a rest stop. Physically it's tough. Socially, too. You need a lot of democracy in a car—as co-driver you must be able to tell the driver when he needs a rest, when he is making mistakes. That can be difficult. Sometimes the Africans throw stones at you—in '67 or '68 we took a boulder through the windscreen. That same year they built a stone wall across the road and Pat Moss—Stirling's sister—pranged it. Finished the car, all right. The Africans aren't malicious exactly. They throw rocks because it's a challenge to hit such a fast-moving target. I hope they will throw fewer stones this year, since there are three All-African teams driving. I also hope it stays dry. Then we might have our first victory here by a European driver, which is long overdue. How do the Americans say it? For the European driver, there is no joy in Mudville." The laughter was erased by a peal of thunder.
One would expect that in a country as vast and powerful as East Africa, the arrival of the rains would be Biblical in scope. Great crashing walls of water cascading across the land; lightning on the megaton level; thunder fit to shatter whole cities. Not so. The "long rains" of April and early May are sporadic—usually localized and brief, though heavy enough to swamp out a road where they fall. It is precisely this random pattern of rainfall that makes the Safari such a challenge. A driver might be tooling along comfortably on dry murrum (British colonial for a dirt road), then, in the flick of a windshield wiper, find himself "cutting doughnuts" on a wet spot where the rain has turned the red-clay surface into the equivalent of a freshly buttered frying pan. After half a dozen cars have passed through the wet spot it becomes a bottomless quagmire. With the advent of factory team competition in the Safari two years ago wet spots became less of a threat: at places like Morogoro and Mbulu in Tanzania or the 90-mile stretch of hairpins between Meru and Embu on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, a factory outfit might spot 10 or 15 Land Rovers to drag its cars through. In the old days a driving team had to extricate itself. That usually meant hiring local help, which gave the East African drivers a great advantage since they could speak Swahili and carried about them some remnant of the waning white man's mantle and mystique. In 1964 Gunnar Palm and Erik Carlsson found themselves bogged down with no local help. Using a little Scandinavian ingenuity, they simply turned their Saab onto its roof and skidded it out like a turned turtle. When rally officials indicated a bit of polite skepticism at the tale, Palm and Carlsson flipped the Saab right in front of Nairobi's city hall and gave a demonstration. In any event, "wet" Safaris have always been tougher than dry ones. In the two wettest runs in the Safaris' 19-year history, only seven of the starters finished—mainly because of mud.
But this year looked like a dry Safari. East Africa was undergoing its worst drought since the Saab turtle—famine gripped the Northern Frontier and, with it, cholera was spreading from Wajir near the Ethiopian border down toward Garissa and the population centers around Mount Kenya. All of East Africa was praying for rain; only the European drivers hoped the drought would continue for another few days. It did not.
As the Passenger returned to the New Stanley Hotel after his talk with Palm, the first heavy downpour hit Nairobi. It was a warm, sweet rain, a touch of new life. The legless beggars outside the hotel lay back against their walls, faces to the sky, soaking it up and smiling. Back in the Long Bar of the New Stanley, where he was sipping a beer with friends, Edgar Herrmann also smiled at the rain. Herrmann is a lean, hard-eyed operator (a resort hotel on the coast at Malindi; a car dealership in Nairobi) who won the Safari last year for Datsun and was favored to do it again this year; a confident, competent man usually trailed by good-looking women. He tugged at a black sideburn and listened to the rain. "My kind of weather," said Edgar.
The Safari traditionally starts from Nairobi's city hall, a comfortably weatherworn brick edifice in the center of that clean, busy capital city. A decade earlier the city hall had been the tallest building in view; now it was dwarfed by other, uglier structures, diminished in a sense, just as East Africa seemed diminished by its graceless scramble to Westernize. Indeed, waking on the morning of the Safari's start, the Passenger had thought for one wild moment that he was in St. Louis: the cold clear light, the hard shadows thrown by sterile high-rise buildings, the yammer of traffic in the streets below his window. Fortunately, it was still Africa; out beyond the high rise, Mount Kenya was pulling the morning cloud cap over its ears.
Despite the esthetic absurdity of the Nairobi Hilton rearing its blunt tower over the scene, there was plenty of Africa to look at around city hall. Wananche, the people, had descended on the town in droves. "More people watch the start of the Safari than came to Nairobi for uhuru," said one white Kenyan. A brilliant wall of living color pressed up against the wire in front of the starting ramp—a Jackson Pollock sprawl of black-velvet faces and Day-Glo-brilliant cloth. The wananche were disturbingly intense—not like a cool, flippant sports-car crowd or a down-to-earth Indy crowd. This was the Neolithic looking at the Automobile Age and loving it. The Kenya police, leaner and tougher in their starched khakis than the L.A.P.D. in its hard hats and shades, knew the score. From time to time the Kenya cops would lash out at the crowd with their rhino-hide whips, splitting faces and ripping ears with the sole intention of keeping the wire fence intact. The wananche took the beatings merrily. Even the bloody ones kept right on staring and chuckling.
This was the essential anomaly of the Safari, the Passenger suddenly realized. Here were these cars—the finest pieces of road-eating machinery created by Western civilization, intricate, carefully tuned, laden with the fruit of a million technological insights, brought into being by a web of history and engineering that the vastest computer could never reproduce. And there were the fans. The fans were among the last of the world's full-time pedestrians. They could not differentiate between 20 and 200 mph. Both speeds were pesi pesi—Swahili for fast. The Passenger knew what made one car better than another, and so he could nod his head in approval of the tidy, tight Datsun 240Zs. To the African fan, all cars possessed dawa—magic—and all cars were fantastic. Perhaps the Passenger, too, would have put up with slashes from the cops if he had felt that way.