Two generations have passed since 1953 when the East African Coronation Safari Rally was born. That first race was named for the coronation of the beautiful young Princess who went to sleep in Treetops one night and woke up a Queen. All that seemed necessary for this delightfully casual motor rally was for competitors to get a Nairobi official to sign when they left Nairobi. Then they had to get the signatures of the Mayor of Kampala and the Mayor of Dar es Salaam to prove they’d been there and the one who did it in the shortest time would be the winner. Nobody won the first race as they all took a longer time than was allowed.
That first Rally grew to be the East African Safari Rally. Fifty years ago the Safari Rally was at the height of its popularity. In those days a whole generation of schoolboys from the far distant locations of the new Republic of Kenya became avid rally spectators. Of the 16 public holidays in the new constitution, the Easter holiday was by far the favourite because that’s when the Safari Rally was run. The eager onlookers would awake early and troop towards a nearby hilltop to cheer for the Safari Rally cars as they passed. The more popular the competitor, the louder the cheers. Despite the international competition, the leaders were always local Kenyans. For three days the names of the leading drivers would feature in banner headlines on the front of the broadsheet East African Standard and the new tabloid publication The Daily Nation.
My holiday safari company was commissioned over the years to supply service to the competing teams. We would criss-cross the country over thousands of miles setting up parts supply depots for competing factory teams. We would indicate our presence a mile before a checkpoint with a pile of new tyres ten-feet high by the side of the track. We always had spare parts available. Certain parts on the rally cars were sealed with special paints and seals and if those parts were removed and replaced, the drivers would be penalized. The seals ensured there could be no fraud.
Joginder Singh was our favourite driver. Other competitors would roar past our supply points leaving us in a cloud of dust if they did not require any parts. Joginder Singh would always find time to stop, even if he did not require any parts. Sometimes he stayed long enough to have a thermos of tea with us, thanking us for our efficient efforts and hard work for the benefit of the drivers. Every one of us felt the warmth of his appreciation.
In recent years a much shortened and emasculated version of the old Safari Rally has been waning in popularity. Stories and opinions about the rise and fall of rally vary, especially about how it was included and later excluded from the World Rally Championship. There was a suggestion that the organization was at fault and that the organizers were incapable of staging the event. This was a particularly unfair criticism as the Rally was one of the few events in East Africa that ran like clockwork without the hint of fault or bribe. Another suggestion for its waning was that it was becoming too expensive for private entries and was being dominated by manufacturers’ teams. But this applies to all such rallies and in the 1964 event our favourite Joginder Singh won in a privately entered second hand Volvo.
In my opinion the cause for the Rally’s decline was that it was becoming too great a test for the type of cars that were now being manufactured and their weaknesses were shown up on the 2000 miles of rocky African tracks. The fact that the world championships now went to the Paris-Dakar road race, which became the world’s favourite, underlines this conclusion. The Paris-Dakar is mainly tarmac and sand, which is far less a test of the strength of the cars. Driving on sand is no test of the suspension, for example.
The great days of the East African Safari Rally were perhaps the last days when man and machine were tested to their limits. With the increasing popularity of automatic transmissions and other ‘labour saving’ devices, the sheer joy of driving with all its achievements have gone forever. Less skill was required so less enjoyment was to be had from it.
It was a sad day for Nairobi when the exciting Easter Safari petered out. I can still remember the excitement of the Nairobi crowds watching the President himself flag off the first ten cars. And then there was the Grand Safari Ball in the town hall and prize giving the day after the end of the Safari.