There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet.... The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom and unequaled nobility...you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
—Isak Dinesen, "Out of Africa"
The man in the death seat was not unfamiliar with speed. Over the years he had grown accustomed to that relinquishment of fate that constitutes a ride with a fast driver. Helpless, he surrendered any hope of a future to the hands of the man at the wheel. He sat with his own hands curled in his lap, wondering if they would sweat this time or keep their cool. He learned to concentrate on the scenery and gradually found his fear transmuting itself into exhilaration. Speed was no longer a threat; speed was fun. Thus does the lowercase coward become the uppercase Passenger.
Now the Passenger was in Africa strapped into the co-driver's seat of a Datsun 240Z sports coupe, not a fast car by racing standards, maybe 130 miles an hour flat out, getting ready for his first taste of rally riding. The red-and-black automobile was parked outside a scabby, stuccoed garage in the outskirts of Nairobi, where the Datsun team had its headquarters for the 19th Annual East African Safari rally. It was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet—hot both inside the car and out. Wreaths of gray fungus floated in the ditches flanking the parking lot, a rich reminder of Kenya's status as an underdeveloped nation. Fortunately the interior of the Datsun smelled of new cars and new tires—a stack of snow radials and boxes of spare parts were tied down on the rear deck, enough to apply first aid anywhere along the rally route. Hans Schuller, 39, a plump, blond, heavy-shouldered German who had won the Safari the year before as co-driver with Kenya's Edgar Herrmann, climbed in and flashed a sadistic grin. When he was not rallying, Schuller served as an insurance company executive. "Let's find us some rally roads," he said.
The Datsun whipped gracefully through Nairobi's heavy afternoon traffic, with Schuller's Safari horn—dah-dee-dah-dow-dah-dee-dee—clearing the way as effectively as a police siren. Buses and trucks and weaving sedans flew backward as the Datsun surged down the Tarmac toward Mombasa. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom and unequaled mobility. Or is it nobility? thought the Passenger. He felt a bit giddy from the combination of engine and solar heat. "You don't need a sauna after this!" bellowed Schuller, sweating merrily. Then he pulled off to the left, leaving the paved highway for a wasted, two-rutted track that wound back into the chocolate-colored hills embracing the town of Machakos. "Zese are our rally roats," chortled Hans, his accent suddenly strengthening as he approached his personal Valhalla. He stopped for a moment, as if to underscore the transition.
Then, windows up against the dust, its unmuffled engine suddenly embedded in the Passenger's skull, its steel-girder suspension transmitting every crease in the road directly up the spine, its tires spewing a twin rooster tail of tan silken dust, the Datsun 240Z did its number up the dirt road. For the first time in years the Passenger shook hands with panic. "Here I am," he thought, "where I ought not to be."
Impressions born of anxiety blossomed in the Passenger's forebrain. A road no wider than a fat man, humped and pitted more mercilessly than the world's worst cripple. A sudden rotting bridge. A washboard straightaway where the speedometer needle leaped to 130 mph. A linked chain of slides through hairpin corners with Schuller locking the wheel full left, then right, then left again. Another straight. Then cattle on the road ahead, growing almost instantly from black wormlike blobs into full-sized cows replete with stupid eyes, and then—fortunately—scuttling out of the way. A green bus wobbling up toward the car, an instant in which its windows blaze with black faces and white-toothed grins, then the bus whisks out of sight: past. Dust filtering up through the floorboards and crunching in gritted teeth. A wrenching right-hand slew through a village—where did it come from?—with black schoolchildren in sky-blue uniforms pouring out to watch the Safari car blast past; beautiful, astounded faces. Then, miracle of miracles, Schuller misses a gear change and decides to stop. "I make a boo-boo," he says.
A cool, desiccating breeze blows across the ridge where the Datsun is parked. Heat waves rising from the hood distort the air. To the north, beyond the pallid, high-rise profile of Nairobi, Mount Kenya stands blue and white, its head in the equatorial clouds. "Beautiful country, nicht?" says Schuller.
Truly it is. The combination of altitude—Nairobi stands 5,500 feet above sea level—and equatorial sunlight produce a jolting intensity of color. The people are equally beautiful. As Schuller talks, a dozen Africans emerge from the bunda—Swahili for the uncultivated, spidery, biting thornbush that covers their land. Most of them are women. During the heat of the day East African men stay in the shade, talking and swatting flies, while their womenfolk haul Herculean loads of firewood, bananas, roofing beams, bathtubs, 10-gallon jerricans of water, children, etc. up and down the steep countryside. The men may act a bit surly from time to time, as is a man's wont anywhere, but the women are inevitably smiling. One of these women is quite comely in a red bandana and the Kenyan equivalent of a miniskirt. "You want go Nairobi?" Hans asks. Hans intensifies his German accent. "You come Nairobi wiss me I tich you Englisch." The girl lowers her eyes and coyly swings her panga—the curved, short-bladed bush knife all wayfaring East Africans carry. "Hey!" yells Hans happily, "what you do dat panga?" She: "Me chop dat panga." Giggling, she decapitates a thornbush at her feet. She smiles like a black madonna. Schuller climbs back into the now-cooled Datsun and, as it bellows off back toward Nairobi, the girl yells "Bye-bye!"
No experience as vast and anomalous as the East African Safari can be distilled into a single impression. After all, in this year's Safari 107 cars manned by 214 drivers set out to cover 3,800 miles of the world's meanest, nastiest, loveliest continent—all in a mere four days. Along the way they traveled only 500 miles of paved roads. The rest was dust, mud, potholes, washouts, flashfloods, cliffs and washboard. There were moving hazards as well: reluctant herds of goats and cattle, aggressive big-game animals from the Pleistocene, giant double-lorries that can be as obstinate as a rhino and twice as destructive, panicky pedestrians, the ubiquitous "whammy wagons"—ancient buses belching black stink and weaving like a Bowery lush. Mainly there was the African earth: timeless, gaudy, redolent of death and the Stone Age, violated during th se four Eastertide days by 20th-century speed. No way to pull the whole of it together into one convenient, tell-it-all metaphor. Yet the ride with Hans Schuller contained the essence of the Safari. The rest of it would have to come out in fragments.
That night the Passenger went over to the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi to talk with Gunnar Palm, the Scandinavian rally navigator. Palm is 34, a lean, dark-haired, boyish Swede who co-drove the winning Ford Escort Twin Cam that won last year's World Cup Rally. He was working on his navigational notebooks in the airy cottage he shared with Hannu Mikkola, his Finnish driving partner. The caged birds in the Norfolk's courtyard squawked as Palm looked up. "I write about 15 of these notebooks for this rally," he said. "I've already been around the course twice, and I reckon I'll cover 15,000 kilometers before we're ready to run. I don't note every single kilometer, of course, just a rough shorthand coverage of the tricky corners, the potential washouts and mudholes, the places where we ought to look out for buses or cattle or people crossing the road. Or game. Sometimes at night you run the risk of hitting a zebra or a warthog or even a rhino. Elephants usually get out of the way, though a couple of years back when Herrmann and Schuller broke down, a big old bull gave them a push. Giraffes aren't too dangerous if you drive between their legs. But if they fall on you, they'll crush the car for certain."