He caught the lead cars in the dry hills behind Machakos, the same stretch of road to which the Passenger had been introduced by Hans Schuller. The road looked less believable from the air than from the ground: switchbacks, washouts, herds of cattle snoozing in the middle of the track, each car going flat out and trailing a half-mile plume of dust. Passing seemed impossible in the tan twilight created by the dust, yet a Datsun was doing just that to a Peugeot as Pont flew past. A waggle of wings and The Green Baron set his course for Ndi, in the Tsavo. "That's Shekhar Mehta in the Datsun," said Ben as he regained altitude. "The Uganda sugar king—sort of an East African Rockefeller—but he's only 25. Friend of mine. I bet him to win."
It was raining at Ndi, where the cars were taking service stops, then peeling off the tarmac into the mud of the Taita Hills. Just walking the shoulder of the road was treacherous—the red clay had gone berserk underfoot. The Passenger slid his way over to the Datsun service area where the Herrmann-Schuller car was taking on mud tires. A barrel-bellied German in a forage cap and brief trunks was cursing out the Japanese mechanics in bastard Axis. Rain sluiced through the hair on his fat back; he was red with gluey mud from the knees down. Hans Schuller stopped to chat. So far it was anyone's rally—Datsun, Ford and Porsche dominated the top 20. Dreadful weather, said Hans.
While Pontius Pilot winged ahead on a photo-recon mission, the Passenger proceeded by car down to the coast, cutting ahead of the Safari at one point by staying on the main road while the rallyists negotiated the Taita Hills. The Tsavo was grotesque and unsettling. The hulks of abandoned cars lay like bits of New Jersey along the highway. Back of the road the red elephants of Tsavo stood under the baobab trees, scratching themselves and looking surly. Where it had rained the elephants were gray; their red color comes from the clay. The squat bulbous baobabs looked like transmogrified people, like the Ents, those talking, walking trees in Tolkien. The thought came that they might be the damned souls of European elephant hunters, cursed to live out eternity as scratching posts for their erstwhile victims. It was a pleasant conceit.
Suddenly, below the Tsavo, where the Safari cars rejoined the tarmac for a brief stretch, it was a whole new Africa. The coastal culture began abruptly where the elephants ended. Small mosques, topless bibis in gaudy, tie-dyed wraparounds and the ubiquitous Arab shopkeeper. An old Arab in a caftan, his face gray as his pajama-cloth robe, sat cynically behind the beaded curtain of his store, stirring spice into his mud-thick coffee. It was muggy and hot: this is the Fever Coast that killed the English like DDT-sprayed flies less than a century ago. Palms and pecans began to crowd out the baobabs. Some of the women wore black, head-covering robes. At Mombasa the shark-ridden harbor was studded with dhows, the high-pooped Arab trading ships that have dominated this corner of the Indian Ocean since prehistory. Then—zip—a Safari car blew over the bridge, past the dhows.
The leader was Ake Andersson in the green Porsche No. 1, but he was being pressed hard by the No. 4 Saab, which had Stig Blomqvist at the wheel. The Saab's front-wheel drive had paid off through the muddy Taita Hills. And the Porsche was not showing its vaunted speed—perhaps the roads were beginning to tell on the less-than-robust 911S. Next came a brace of Ford Escorts—Hillyar and Mikkola. Then a staggering of Datsuns. So it was still a mixed bag at Mombasa, but the Datsuns were moving up. Some critics had suggested that the 240Z was slung too low, that it would tear out sump and springs on the rough back roads between Nairobi and the coast. This hadn't happened yet, so it probably wouldn't at all.
It was too dark to fly when Pontius Pilot was rejoined at the resort town of Kilifi. But the next morning, as dhow crews chanted their prayers in the first light, came the takeoff for Tanzania. The sunrise bloodied the reefs offshore; looking down, the Passenger could see the dark torpedo shapes of wahoo feeding along the dropoffs. What looked like permit were nosing through the coral heads. Pont stooped on the fishing canoes in the shallows, diving the Cessna to within 10 feet of the glassy surface and leaving the fishermen cursing behind him. But it was all in fun—the kind of fun taught by air force kindergartens the world over.
Leaving the coast behind, Pont began a long climb over the Usambaras toward the Tanzanian district capital of Dodoma, the next interception point for the Safari cars. The tourist spots of Nairobi abounded with horror stories about Tanzania. Julius Nyerere's African socialist government was said to contain many black copies of Mao's Red Guards. Any white who offended them, even unintentionally, ran the risk of instant jail, and African prisons make even the Tijuana cooler seem luxurious. What is more, as the result of a growing alienation among the former members of the East African Community ( Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), any Kenyan or Ugandan currency brought into Tanzania would be confiscated on the spot. Immigration officials, who have come to be known as "customs and irritation" throughout black Africa, were reputed to be at their fiercest, most disdainful and bureaucratically bullheaded in Tanzania. Thanks to this reputation, Tanzania has suffered severely from a lack of tourism.
Not one of these horror stories materialized when the Passenger got to Dodoma. He breezed through customs and irritation with a cup of coffee in one hand and smiles all around. Every Tanzanian he met was friendly and helpful, and although a few had their hands out—particularly for American dollars—once they learned that the mark could not be conned they did their best to help him, with no further thought to exorbitant reward.
Typical of the lot was Mubarak Karamu, owner of the rustiest Peugeot taxicab in tropical Africa, which is going some. After holding out for half the federal transportation budget—payable in gold—then retreating through greenbacks and any non-Tanzanian currency to the equivalent of $5 in local shillings, Karamu cheerfully drove the Passenger 15 miles west of town to watch the Safari come through. Perhaps "drove" is the wrong word; "dribbled" was more like it. At first the Passenger thought a sandstorm was beginning, but the grit in his teeth proved only to be fine clouds of rust drifting up from the floorboards and down from the roof. "Very good for you," said Karamu. "Like vitamins. Eat it for the liver."
The road where Karamu stopped was two inches deep in fine, slippery dust, hot to the touch in the 105� temperature. White morning glories with purple eyes bloomed among the thornbush that flanked the road and ring-necked doves barrel-rolled from maize plot to maize plot, eliciting Ben Pont's admiration for their aerodynamic cleanliness. Karamu ran a mercy mission into the bush in search of watermelons, striding off into the thorn with the same tireless trot you see refined in the person of Kipchoge Keino. Back with him he brought not only a load of cool, crisp, red-seeded variants of our Sugar Babies but a band of shyly curious natives. Bare-breasted, shaven-headed women, mainly, with squads of laughing children whose voices rose like an umbrella against the sun. A lean old man bleated by with his herd of goats, but stopped when he learned the Safari cars were coming.