If you ask any male from the developed world or Kenya over the age of eighteen, “Can you drive?” he will probably be irritated with what he considers a totally unnecessary question and will reply that of course he can and he will think to himself, and better than most. This presupposes that both the questioner and the questioned will automatically assume driving ability is a macho necessity and all drivers, even those who have just paid a bribe for their driving license, are amongst the best drivers in the world.
I believed I really was amongst the best drivers in the world! I had been driving since I was thirteen years old, when I helped park up my father’s fleet of five-ton tipper trucks every evening after the drivers had clocked off. At eighteen years of age I was driving tank transport across the British Zone in Germany on the one and only motorway in Europe at that time which was the one autobahn Hitler managed to construct before his war. Before I was twenty-one I had raced vintage cars at Silverstone and motorcycles in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. I had driven from Nairobi to Capetown return on three occasions, and also from East Coast to West Coast of the United States on two occasions.
I thought it was time I show these local drivers a thing or two so I found myself a co-driver for The East African Safari Rally and entered the 1964 Safari Rally to prove my ability.
My boastfulness and confidence were suitably shattered and deflated before I was halfway round the first leg. There were some dozen of us all stuck in the same section of black cotton soil in the flooded foothills of the mountain ranges found in the Kenyan Northern Rift Valley Province. We were heading for the Iten, Tot and Tambach section. My co-driver and I were amongst the early competitors to become completely stuck up to our axles in black cotton. We had been stuck for one and a half hours. We could see the lights of many cars ahead of us all firmly stuck in the same section all over the muddy track. The routine for the past hour had been to lay a plank we were carrying for the purpose parallel with our rear bumper, then place the quick-lift Tanganyika jack on the plank and slot it into a jacking point we had welded into the centre rear of the car. In this way we could lift the rear wheels of the car out of the mud. We could then remove them from the hubs and with a pangaand our bare hands claw out the mud, which had compressed itself between the tire, and the wheel arches so firmly that the engine could not raise enough power to turn the jammed wheels. The clutch would slip and spin and so we would have to clear the mud. We would replace the wheels and lower the car back into the mud and we could then travel a hundred yards slithering up the muddy slope for perhaps a hundred yards at maximum revs in first before the mud would jam up the wheels, the clutch start spinning and the process would be repeated. Both my co-driver and I were convinced that the section would have to be removed from the rally route and the rally officials would find an alternative route. There were some cars ahead of us that had succeeded in traversing the track before it started to pelt with rain. It was now past midnight and there had been thunder and lightening for two hours.
To give you some idea of the desperation of the competitors I will describe what was happening to the Volkswagen Beetle, the leading car to be stuck right across the track of our batch of dozen cars. Even two farm tractors would have been unable to tow these cars out of the bottomless black cotton. They would only have pulled the cars deeper in to the mud and them become an immovable anchor, which would make even the tractors wheels spin. Ten hefty men, the drivers and navigators from the five cars stuck immediately behind the Volkswagen Beetle in question, bent down and grabbing the body from beneath the offside door of the Beetle lifted it first on to its side, rolled it over on to its roof, back on to its other side and finally back on to all four wheels again. The Volkswagen was now on the side of the track leaving room for any car to pass had it been able, but there was absolutely no sign of any car or crew moving. The rear lights of the cars and in some cases the reversing lights illuminated the scene supplementing the scanty moonlight through patches in the thunderclouds, but it was the flashes of lightening which best illuminated the state of affairs.
Imagine our surprise when shortly after the Volkswagen had been rolled out of the way we at first heard the distant roar and crackle sounding like several motorcars approaching. The thunderstorm had turned the track in to a river and then we saw the headlights of three or four cars in line approaching the impassable section in which we were stuck. We all watched in disbelief but it was no dream. The cars were roaring towards us as if they were on a dry section of tarmac on some Sunday afternoon motor-cross meeting. They must have been traveling at around 30 mph as they snaked and swerved, skidded and spun and weaved their way past each of us in turn. We were all stuck up to our axles and completely immovable. They, with the same type of cars, with the same power weight ratios, and none of them having 4-wheel drive or even front-wheel drive were navigating through the mud. The track’s condition was slightly worse than it had been when we got stuck, yet not one of them even slowed down. Joginder Singh was in this group of cars and he roared past in his privately entered second-hand Volvo. His co-driver even wound his side window down to wave at us cheerfully as he sailed past.
In those conditions it could not have been money or timing or superior tyre tread. I realized there could only be one explanation. The twelve of us stuck drivers we were amongst the best drivers in Africa, but none of us had ever finished in the top ten of any rally of this kind. Those who had tackled the same section so successfully all turned out to be the same names known to anyone who followed East African rallying at that time – names like Nick Nowicki, Paddy Cliff, Burt Shankland and Joginder Singh – all of whom were invariably found amongst the first ten to finish any competition they entered. It could not be coincidence. It could not be put down to luck. I had to admit it. I was not good enough.