An impressive dust cloud rises over the African rainforest. It seems as if the cloud is driven by the deafening roar of a race car engine. Definitely a 1.6 liter Cosworth V4, the professional ear can tell seconds before the white Ford Escort RS 1600 furiously charges around the corner. The rear drive of the car pushing the car into a drift, only inches past the curious crowd, assembled to get a peak glimpse at the “Wazungu” (Kiswaheli for “Europeans”; editors note). And the crowd has (almost) nothing to fear. The two Wazungu behind the dusty windscreen know very well what they are doing. And they should, for they are just competing against the clock at the 20th East African Safari Rally, one of the most challenging rallies in the world.
Fail or prevail.
The man franticly maneuvering the steering wheel of the respective Ford Escort is Hannu Mikkola from Finnland. The man at his side, trying to outscream the engine at the top of his lungs is his Swedish navigator Gunnar Palm. The year is 1972 and a few days later the two rally drivers will write history as the first European team to win the East African Safari Rally. Afterwards they would describe the race as “relentlessly challenging like no other”. Man and machine against the African wilderness, tropic thunderstorms alongside soaring heat, unpredictable route changes on roads riddled with potholes and the occasional herd of zebras crossing. All embraced in an ever-present red dust cloud, eagerly covering everything in a fine velvet cover. The East African Safari Rally: A competition stretching over 5000 kilometers, all across Kenia, Uganda and Tansania. Each year, from dozens of starting teams, only a handful make it to the finish line: in 1972, from an initial 84 cars, only 18 complete the race.
Tradition meets sweat and dust.
The sixty year tradition of the East Africa Safari Rally begins in 1953, when the Kenian racing team of Alan Dix and Johnny Larsen rode the rally out on a Volkswagen Beetle. Back then the race was known as „Coronation Safari Rally“ to honor the coronation of queen Elisabeth II. Initially an event for East African farmers and adventurers the race gradually starts attracting race drivers from all over the globe. As one of the wolrds toughest challenges the rally quickly gains international attention and in 1960 is therefore henceforth renamed to „East Africa Safari Rally“. Until in 1972 the European Team of Mikkola and Palm win the challenge, the race is traditionally dominated by white Kenians, well acquainted with the demanding circumstances of their home country since childhood days. For that reason, each year the exact route of the race is a well kept secret until 24hours prior to the event to prevent illegal course testing and training.The almost twelve hour stretch from Nairobi to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a recurring section of the famous rally, and one of the toughest and fastest. At top speeds up to 190 km/h the hard race sport suspension works the unfavourable road condition well into the bodies of the drivers.
When the fire of the starting pistol echoes back from the massive rock formations of an early morning fog covered Mount Kenya, startled giraffes raise and turn their long necks after the roaring engines. Well 500 kilometers later the white Ford Escort will be the first to reach the section goal at Lake Victoria, closely followed by the Porsche 911 S from the sovjet-unions team. The exertions of the past hours has carved deep marks into the red dust covered faces of Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm. The majestic red sun of Africa slowly descending into the calm waters of Lake Victoria sets the scene into a warm and comforting golden light. A light summer breeze slowly pushes the warm air masses towards the shore, thousands of flamingos floating in the thermal lift. But team ford does not loose much time to admire the pitoresk play with only hours left to ready their car for the next section. Because the East African Safari Rally has one other very important aspect besides racing: car manufacturers testing their products performance and durability in the harsh and demanding African wilds. Before the rally was accepted into the list of the World Rally Championship (WRC), the manufacturers had to solely manage the expensive sponsoring for this special event. Sad side fact for all the Porsche fans out there: although each year Porsche 911 racing cars are the favoured choice of transport, up to this day not a single Porsche won the challenge and collected the famous honors of victory. Hannu and Gunnar, today of course, could not care less. And as the fresh tires bite hard into the gravel of the African trails Lake Vicoria once again disappears into a cloud of fine red dust…
When the East African Safari Rally in 1972 finally reaches the finish line in the magnificent coast city of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania after long and demanding days, team Ford from Europe has ended the decades of british patronage and won the race.
Hannu Mikkola remembers that day like yesterday. And when you ask him why he still considers it one if the toughest racing challenges in the world, he smiles and says: „Because from 1972 till 1987, it took me some fifteen years of decent recovery until I could win it again…“, and with a cheeky wink he adds, „but this time with an Audi 200 Quattro. Four wheel drive. A rear drive race car forces you to admire the country and wildlife drifting, through the side windows of your car. And that really is a pitty when you are on a safari.“
Be part of it!
The inspired reader, eager to take on the challenge, is well advised to consult the official homepage of the East African Safari Classic Rally: just register with a suitable vehicle, navigator and a maximum of three mechanics. The technical advance of our modern age might have changed some challenges for the better, like satellite supported navigation, protective wear, hearing protection, helmets and four wheel drive. One should still never underestimate the worlds toughest race: a fact not only Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm could make a compelling case for.