They boiled onto the scene minutes later: a distant buzz from the rock knobs to the. west, .then faint plumes of dust rising above the thornbush, then the sound of gear changes, of acceleration through the corners, and finally the first car itself, an explosion of light and noise that grew and swayed and snapped past with its headlights staring ahead like the amber eyes of a blue-and-white buffalo. It was the No. 8 Ford Escort—Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm. As if to underscore his earlier claim to keen eyesight at speed, Palm waved at the Passenger as he flicked past. He might even have winked. Next came the Datsun of Herrmann and Schuller, then Blomqvist's Saab, then another Datsun, then a Porsche, a Ford, a Porsche and a Peugeot. The 12th car through was the Datsun driven by Ben Pont's sugar-king buddy, Shekhar Mehta. "He starts 31st and now he's 12th," exulted Ben. "Just the proper rate of climb!"
Pont's own rate of climb out of Dodoma an hour later took him over the Safari route back to Nairobi. The radio crackled with obscene limericks, exchanged extemporaneously between the official observation plane and the clerk of course back at headquarters. The road below was dusty and mucky by turns, and as the red-and-white zebra-striped Ford driven by Vic Preston Jr. wound its way up a switchback north of Dodoma, one could tell by the slides and dust bursts just how intermittent the rains had been. It was late afternoon of a 30-hour day. A long evening light lay on Lake Manyara, and off to the east Mount Kilimanjaro had come clear from its clouds. Though the mountains were thick with towering greenery, which seemed to glower down at the cars as they snaked past below, the flatlands were arid.
"This is where they grow most of Tanzania's seed beans and wheat," said Ben Pont, always ready with a geography lesson. "I did a lot of crop-dusting here. There's a bird called the Sudan quelea—sparrowlike with a red, curved beak—that comes through here in flocks of from five to 20 million. Each quelea eats four times its weight a day in grain. Our Land Rovers would track them to their roosts and then outline the roosting areas with lighted poles. We'd fly from an airstrip, cut right next to the roost and spray at night—parathion mixed with diesel oil. Sometimes we'd find up to 33 dead birds per square foot the next day. Jackals and hyenas and vultures would eat the dead birds and die themselves. In 1967 we killed 360 million birds that would have eaten 4,500 tons of grain." Pontius Pilot told the anecdote proudly. Then he readied his instruments to land at Nairobi for the mid-Safari layover.
The first leg of the Safari is always the key to the finish. The weak cars are dead by the end of it. Strong cars lie at the top, like cream on raw milk. During the Nairobi layover, much was revealed. Only 56 of the 107 starters had made it halfway. The first three cars into Nairobi were Datsun 240Zs—Herrmann-Schuller, Aaltonen-Easter, Mehta-Doughty. Next came two ailing Porsche 911 Ss—Zasada-Bien and Waldegaard-Helmer. Bert Shankland's Peugeot lay a strong sixth, a portent for the future. The Ford Twin Cams were getting sickly—"Tin Cans," they were beginning to be called—though they still occupied four of the spots between sixth and 12th place. All of the women drivers had been eliminated, most of them time-barred because this had been a very speedy Safari so far and the ladies had not stood the pace. Or so the talk ran in the male chauvinist bars of Nairobi that night, with not a single protest.
The roughest sections had been those run at night through the wet—many of the dropouts during the first half of the rally had fallen after dark. A vocal clue to the ultimate finish was provided by Shekhar Mehta's co-driver, doughty Mike Doughty of Nairobi. During the first night-stretch, as their Datsun approached Dar-es-Salaam, the well-read Doughty had bellowed Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard into Shekhar's ear: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, /The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea, /The plowman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me."
What an ego trip. Racing blind and full throttle through the African night, trusting only machinery and their own reflexes to duck around death if it should appear at the bottom of the washout, an Asian and an Anglo had pushed to the front in the world's meanest race. For a moment, with Doughty's quotation, the superiority of the Machine Age over the Neolithic seemed quite evident. Men freed by science from the quagmire of mystery could indeed challenge the night. Men in motion were indeed tougher, smarter, more capable than men at rest behind some thorn tree eating their curds and myth.
As a result, the final half of the Safari was almost an anticlimax. It came through to the Passenger as a sequence of surrealisms, gaudy enough to the observer but obviously a pure Boschian hell to the participant. The run out of Nairobi was cold and wet under an overcast sky: Kikuyu cottage industrialists hawked beadwork and sheepskins along the lip of the Rift Valley. At Elmenteita five kinds of weather could be seen in the sky at once, everything from steel-gray storm clouds to desert azure. There were other things to be noted: Masai standing storklike in the weeds. A charcoal sky over Mau Narok, with the cars skidding under a filigreed-iron railroad bridge. A hasty and misspelled road sign: BEAWARE FLOODED RIVER. Pines and wattle replacing cactus on the escarpment's lip. The marshes of Lake Victoria flat and horse-maned in the evening light. A Peugeot blaring its horn up and down the road before the hotel in Kampala, where the drivers were trying to sleep—was it sent there by the factory to keep the opposition awake?
Just beyond Kampala, Edgar Herrmann blew a tire on his Datsun and relinquished the road lead to Shekhar Mehta. The tire change was quick, and soon Herrmann had once again overtaken the Ugandan. "It's almost impossible to get ahead of another car of the same make," he said later. "I broke ahead, but this kept most of my concentration on the rearview mirror." As a result Herrmann fishtailed into a cliff alongside the road and broke a half-shaft. Later he said, "Schuller is an excellent mechanic, and after he pulled the broken half-shaft we drove ahead for 40 miles on the remaining one to the next service stop. With the accident we must have lost 45 minutes." But not the overall lead: Mehta was still 15 points behind the Germans, though ahead on the road.
The Mountains of the Moon passed in a blur, as did the monkey-festooned rain forest of northern Uganda. Then, during the night, the cars poured back down into Kenya. It was flank speed past Lake Nakuru, where the famed flamingos only raised their heads at the passing racket. Lately, it seems, they fly in their vast, undulating pink wave only in daylight tourist hours. "Our strategy at Nakuru was to go flat out," Herrmann said later, "banking on using the heavy mud around Mount Kenya—in daylight—to jump well ahead of Mehta."
By the time Herrmann's car reached Meru, the entry-way to the Mount Kenya mud, which was a 90-mile ripple of switchbacks that reached clear to Embu, Mehta was only three points behind and one minute ahead on the road.