The story behind the Safari Rally
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

Coronation Safari Rally [Standard]

The much-touted Safari Rally has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis since its inception in the 1950s and with these changes, adopted different names. 

From the Coronation Safari Rally to the East African Safari Rally, to just Safari Rally, followed by Malboro Rally, and lately, the KCB Rally among others are some names that the once renowned, most spectacular and formidable challenge has been known as! And what an evolution that this World Rally Championship (WRC) has gone through.

An idea is born

The idea of the Safari Rally began with a princess being declared a Queen while holidaying at a treehouse in the world-famous Treetops Hotel in the Abadare slopes, Nyeri. At the time two motorsports devotees – Eric Cecil and Neil Vincent were involved in a heated debate about a boring rally circuit called the Langa, Langa circuit which involved in Vincent’s terms “going round in circles and nowhere in particular.”

After deliberations and a proposal to the rally competition committee for an exciting, adventurous long-distance rally and a rider “to pay tribute to the New Queen Elizabeth Coronation” the duo won the day. Hence the birth of the 1st Coronation Safari Rally. 

Little did Eric and Vincent know that they had birthed a legacy that was to survive for more than half a century!

Coronation Safari Rally [Standard]

The 3,200-kilometre-long safari from May 27th to June 1st, 1953 started from Nairobi to Morogoro Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) back to Nairobi. The second leg took the drivers to Kampala, Uganda and back to Nairobi. 

The rally drivers would have the Majors of Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi sign a special document as proof that they had been there. The driver who took the shortest time would be declared the winner.

The Coronation Safari rallies that happened from 1953 to 1959 were a white affair because special contact with indigenous Africans was prohibited under the then prevailing colour bar regulations. Ownership of vehicles was also restricted to the white minority. 

Kenya was a popular destination for commonwealth countries and soon the event garnered attention. In 1957 the rally was awarded international status and ten years later its reputation had spread far and wide, putting the event on the world map. Car manufacturers took the event seriously and started participating to see their cars take home the laurels. 

Apart from thrilling the crowds with their expertise in manoeuvring the sleek cars, the rally also acted like a car model show. Players in this parade included car manufacturers who used the Safari Rally event to launch their latest models that included Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Beetle, Mitsubishi, Ford Cortina, Ford Escort, Peugeot, Datsun, Toyota, Subaru, Fiat, and Volkswagen.

Changing trends

In 1960 during talks of Kenya’s independence, the rally opened up for Africans. The first African drivers who participated in the eighth and last Coronation Safari Rally were Danson Kiunge and his co-driver Karanja wa Njau, sponsored by Hughes Limited. 

Safari Rally's Patrick Njiru rushes to take off, 1989 [Standard]

Kiunge recollected in an interview how difficult it was for an African. When he went to purchase his rally car, a Peugeot 404 station wagon, the white sales lady couldn’t believe that an African could buy a car for himself. Unperturbed, he calmly told her he was doing so and went ahead to produce in cash the Sh6, 000 which was the value for his KHA 41 car then.

Back then he says, the KHA registrations number series had just been released and this was translated to mean “Kenyatta Home Again”. Many wealthy Kenyans, he adds, bought the series, thus adding political flavour to the gains of Kenya’s political liberation. 

A year later, the Coronation Safari became the East African Safari. It was organised by the Automobile Association of Kenya. In 1979, Kenya Safari Limited took over the event renaming it “Safari Rally.”

Of all the three safari rallies, the East African Safari Rally was the most spectacular and popular. The four-day event took place over the Easter holidays and became the biggest event in the African continent, actually globally and was run under the World Rally Championship (WRC). It was like a must-see movie by people from all walks of life.

Rally fervour

From old and young, women and men across  Kenya (Uganda and Tanzania during the East African Rally Safari),  all would turn up in their favourite spots to watch the fast-moving cars rocketing up steep hills, flying into the air, spinning through a bend, swirling through a steep valley with their engines roaring past the excited spectators.  

They would be hanging on cliffs, atop trees or popping their heads dangerously from behind a sharp corner at the deafening sound from a rally car – the rally cars had a special roar from the engine! To many spectators, the adrenaline rush the cars caused was worth the long hours wait, sometimes in the stark darkness of the night or under heavy rains.

Image [Standard]

Seventy-two-year old Michael Mwema has a living memory of big names such as Kenya’s Flying Sikh (Joginder Singh, (three times winner), Davinder Singh, Shekhar Mehta (five times winner). Other big names were Ian Duncan (still going strong), Bjorn Waldegard, Sandro Munari, Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankunnen, Vic Preston Jr and local boys such as Patrick Njiru, Kim Gatende, and George Githu among others who sent the spectators wild with excitement. These names were on the lips of many Kenyans, never mind the pronunciation!

There were daring women participants too. One was the flamboyant Orie Rogo Manduli (then known as Mary Ondieki) her co-driver, Sylvia Omino, who were the first African women to participant in the all-men sport in 1974. 

The confident Manduli declared that the duo was out to prove that "what a man can do, a woman can also do better!" The duo was flagged off by the first President of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in their brand new Mitsubishi Colt Gallant, amidst cheering from hundreds of supporters. Their entry earned them the name “rally girls.” 

Another woman who participated in the rally was Pauru Choda, who navigated her husband Prem Choda. This couple popularly referred to as “the Chodas” religiously participated in the rally just for the thrill of it, not necessarily for the win or finish.

Media and publicity

The publicity that the event received year after year was pulsating. Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), formerly Voice of Kenya (VoK) aired the event live. The airwaves were flooded with news of who was driving what vehicle, names of drivers and countries of origin and their progress in the rally route. 

The print media reserved prime pages including a table which readers and rally enthusiasts could fill in details on the performance of the drivers. Diligent reporters and photographers covered the event round the clock. 

The event was like a state function from the flagging off to the finishing with the winners popping champagne, with the winners given trophies and interviewed. Images of cars flying in the air, the splashing of water and dust along routes, helicopters trailing the cars, made their way in newspapers, TV, and radio!  

The event was beamed across the world to foreign radios and TV stations. The rally allowed the local and foreign journalists to prove their prowess by their imagination, creativity by capturing "the safari rally moments".

Kenyans and international guests and community loved the Safari Rally big time!

Maasai Morans waving at safari rally driver Eric Carlsson [Standard]

A sad twist

The Rally’s fall from grace was dramatic and hurting. First, in the late 1970s, the rally, a victim of regional political rivalries, became a Kenyan only affair after Tanzania and Uganda pulling out of the event. 

The biggest hurt came in after the 2002 edition when it was dropped from WRC in 2003 due to security, organization and finance lapses. Many Kenyans felt like a part of them had been taken away from them. There was nothing to look forward to or get excited about the Easter holidays, an opportunity for families and friends to drive into the rural areas and enjoy a strategic picnic along the safari route.

But who knows? Like the proverbial saying of rising from the ashes like the phoenix Kenyans never give up. The clamour for a return of the championship has been effective. In 2019, Kenya held a successful Candidate Event during the July 5-7 Safari Rally. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Kenya will be on the WRC's calendar to host the 2020-2022 season of the World Safari Rally.