SI Vault
White Magic in a Noble Black Land
Robert F Jones
August 02, 1971
In the world's 'meanest and most beautiful' auto rally, the East African Safari, dare-death drivers bring the sorcery of motors to a culture that predates the wheel
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August 02, 1971

White Magic In A Noble Black Land

In the world's 'meanest and most beautiful' auto rally, the East African Safari, dare-death drivers bring the sorcery of motors to a culture that predates the wheel

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What the fans did not know was that there were only a few possibilities of victory among the 107 entries. A study of the form sheet made it all clear. Fully 34 of the entries were Datsuns—a fact that reflected on the Nissan Shimbun's win last year and its high finishes in the past three rallies. Three of the Datsun entries were factory cars, which meant they were supported by the best of Japan's industrial wizardry: tow cars and helicopters to ferry in spare engine parts or even full suspensions and transmissions and hordes of dour, dedicated, diminutive mechanics who could work 16 hours straight on a bite of fish and two Coca-Colas to the orders of a topnotch team manager known as "Mistah Namba" or, among the irreverent, "Solly, Long Namba." There were 16 Peugeots entered; slow machines, but one could not count Peugeot out because that marque had enjoyed immense success over the Safari roads during the mid-to-late '60s, and Tanzania's Bert Shankland, a double winner, was driving one of the three factory 504s. Then there was Ford—English Ford, mind you—with 15 machines. Five of the cars were spanking new factory Escort Twin-Cams prepared by that tough little Britisher, Bill Barnett, who had introduced Jim Clark to rallying with such success. Last year Ford let its fortunes rest in the hands of the local agency, a Nairobi firm (Hughes Ltd.) managed by Leo Leonard. His cars failed to finish for the first time in Ford's Safari involvement. Leonard is a sensible, realistic East African businessman, and he said, "The Safari counts for precisely sweet Fanny Adams as far as local sales go. Ford realizes that what sells cars internationally—internationally, now—is a combination of name drivers and victory. What sells cars locally, for my agency, is quite something else." So Bill Barnett was here, and he had as his drivers such internationally famous rally figures as Timo Makinen, Hannu Mikkola and Robin Hillyar, along with two of the most exciting names in East African driving—Joginder Singh, the 1965 Safari winner, and Vic Preston Jr., son of a double winner.

Finally there was Porsche to contend with. The Stuttgarters had sent down a three-car factory team of 911 Ss, the rugged little bugs that dominate low-displacement European and American road racing. Driving for Porsche were Bjorn Waldegaard, Ake Andersson and Poland's Sobieslav Zasada, the best of the breed. Zasada commanded instant respect. He had nearly won the Safari in 1970, failing only because of a damaged oil sump on the final leg. He had a hard face, an impenetrable cool. The Porsche was quickest of all the entries on good roads, but had a reputation for frailty in the Safari.

Beyond the factory teams, there were enough outsiders to make it a race. Five Lancias with good local drivers, seven slow but reliable Volvos, a brace of Saabs whose front-wheel drive would be valuable in the mud and a single, innovative Range Rover—a 100 mph variant on the Land Rover. If the Safari turned out to be glue and grease from the very start, the Range Rover just might stand a chance.

So much for the form chart. Now for the start. Out of city hall strode Jomo Kenyatta to do the honors. He is a wise old revolutionary who knew how to govern after the revolution. He was wearing a wise old revolutionary's uniform: charcoal-blue pinstripe suit, red boutonniere, a tasteful cravat. In his hand was his fly whisk, that symbol of authority created by Kenyatta instantly and effectively, like Castro and the fatigue cap. Kenyatta was conservative in his own choice of headgear: a pale, posh, ultracolonial Panama straw. As he appeared the wananche surged forward against the wire, and the whips snapped viciously again. No one seemed to mind.

After a few words with the Safari officials and the top-seeded drivers, Kenyatta raised his fly whisk for the start. The city hall clock read high noon when the whisk fell and the first car, a Kelly-green Porsche, sloped down the ramp with an unmuffled roar and scuttled around the corner. A wild hoo-raw went up from the crowd, as it would for every two minutes for the next 3� hours while the field got thunderously into motion.

The route of the Safari snaked in a ragged figure eight, the first leg running southeast from Nairobi to the Indian Ocean coast, passing through the Tsavo game reserve and the muddy Taita Hills en route to Mombasa and the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. Then the way swung westward through the back country of Tanzania, over the notorious Usambara Range—more mud and high escarpments—to Dodoma, then north again through the game country inland of Mount Kilimanjaro to Arusha. Then from Arusha back to Nairobi. There the drivers would take an eight-hour rest stop—their only full night's sleep during the four days and nights of driving.

The northerly loop of the figure eight would take the Safari up the Great Rift Valley, the giant natural ditch that splits East Africa like a titanic plow furrow, and westward past Lake Victoria into Uganda. After a brief rest stop in the capital of Kampala the drivers would push on westward into the Ruwenzoris, the legendary Mountains of the Moon, loop eastward through Fort Portal on the Congolese border and then sweep back into Kenya to return to Nairobi on the slick, snaking roads that flank Mount Kenya on the east.

Each circle of the figure eight was nearly 2,000 miles long, and only a fraction of the total distance was paved. The rest of the route was demonically chosen on the basis of the most mud and the worst punishment the roads could dish out to suspensions, brakes, tires, steering and oil sumps. Not to mention drivers.

Since the Passenger was forbidden by Safari rules from riding as a real passenger in one of the rally cars, he planned to hopscotch ahead of the leaders by lightplane, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover. He wanted to see the cars through the widest possible variety of terrain, and since the area to be covered was roughly two-thirds the size of the United States, he would have to hop fast. From the starting ramps, a Land Rover lugged him out to Wilson Airport—East Africa's busiest strip, since it is home base for most of Kenya's bush planes—and on the way he stopped along the Uhuru Highway to watch some Safari cars pass. The highway was lined with spectators—gray-bearded Sikhs; ruddy-cheeked Europeans in khaki shorts; the occasional lone Masai leaning on his walking staff, cow dung in his hair and contempt on his ochred face. The cars whipped by in a hurry, some with as many as seven headlights blazing even though it was midday, and their Safari horns ululating like hyenas.

At the airport Captain Ben Pont was waiting in his brown-and-white Cessna 210. The captain, known as Pontius Pilot to friends and enemies alike, is an expatriate Dutchman who survived Starfighter jets in The Netherlands Air Force and five years of East African crop-dusting. He may be the best pilot in Africa; he certainly is the most daring. One of his riders on this trip took to calling him "The Green Baron—that's the color he leaves you." A vroom or two, lift-off, a wrenching turn, a few low-level runs on zebras in the Nairobi game park and Pontius was off in pursuit of the Safari.

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