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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Then fate and mud congealed—the climactic absurdity of the Safari. Scaling the north slopes of Mount Kenya, the Ugandan sugar king skidded into a mudhole. All of his sweets and shillings could not pull him loose. Finally, after a fatal half-hour in the muck, a Land Rover grumbled by and dragged Shekhar's Datsun free. A few moments later Herrmann and Schuller pulled up to the brink of the mudhole, and stopped in time. They had themselves towed through the sticky patch in moments, and saved themselves a loss on points in the process. In effect, the race was over.

So, for a brief return to subjectivity, let us view the Passenger for the last few hours of this Safari. He is standing at the apex of a hairpin turn on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, just outside the town of Embu. He had scouted the mountain in a Land Rover the day before. Not only had he found a good corner for viewing, but he had discovered that the Africans who lived on this slope were—like the rest—engaging, naive, honest, helpful human beings.

During his predawn drive to this corner, which was called Kiguku, a spray of tiny antelope had sprinted away in the headlights. Other small creatures, predators and prey alike, had fled his arrival: mongooses, rabbits, genets, rats, even a single, high-shouldered wild dog. Large voluble bats flickered through the banana leaves as the fog melted upward through the cover. A lone, hearty man came down the road, walking steadily and enjoying the wet warmth of the dawn. As he came closer, the Passenger saw that the man had no nose. Maybe it had been chewed off by a hyena when the man was drunk and sleeping out—said to be a common accident in the boondocks. The noseless man smiled and the Passenger smiled back. He might not have done it in New York. In Africa it seemed to be O.K.

Then the cars came through. Mehta was leading on the road—a great wild muddy splash as he went through the bottom of the corner. Herrmann and Schuller were close on the Indian's heels, thus clearly still ahead on points. Then Vic Preston Jr. in the Ford Tin Can—a victory for East African skill if not for British technology. Then, wonder of wonders, Joginder Singh in another Ford, hundreds of points behind after a broken gearbox early in the race but having regained all of the distance, at least, on the road in between. The Passenger watched Bert Shankland negotiate the hairpin in his straining Peugeot—slow and careful in the wet spots, but quick as anybody on the road in the dry.

On reflection, the order of finish now seemed immaterial. Datsun and Datsun would take the first two places on points and in order of arrival—for the second year in a row. Herrmann and Schuller could boast their back-to-back wins over champagne. The other marques would somehow salvage their prestige, editorially at least. Automobiles would continue to be sold in Europe, America and Asia. What the Passenger realized as he stood beneath the swooping bats, and with the noseless man walking by, was that Africa, too, would continue. Man could not mark it up too badly. He might wipe out animals and birds, burn off the woods and violate the moment in many ways. But the main thing about the Safari was that it gave a man a chance to run around Africa for a little while. And Africa would be there long after the Tin Cans had rusted away and the sweets of the sugar king had been consumed. It was reassuring, if a bit sentimental, to think about that.

The Passenger drove back to Nairobi, following Safari roads most of the way. When he crossed the Tana River in a patch of dense, vivid bush, his attention strayed for a moment to a crested guinea fowl that had been dusting on the road and flushed off into the cover alongside. As he watched it settle, the Passenger fell into a Safari trap—the road ahead was pure mud. The car began to fishtail madly. It was like shaking hands with panic, once again. It was the death seat revisited. Then memory became reality. The Passenger found the presence to apply lock, counter lock, and to hit the gas. The car straightened out and he began to breathe normally again. Here I am, he thought, where I ought to be.

1 2 3 4 5 6