Our favorite Safari Rally memories

The DirtFish team shares their fondest memories from years gone by on the African classic

Rovanpera act fre 52

Ever since DirtFish began covering the World Rally Championship comprehensively at the beginning of 2020, the team has always enjoyed rally week. That anticipation of what might happen next and the thrill of competition is hard to beat.

But it’s fair to say that few rally weeks are as exciting for us as Safari Rally Kenya – we can’t wait!

Since its return to the WRC in 2021, the Safari has delivered huge challenge for the current crop of drivers, while of course the roaming wildlife still make it an aesthetic dream.

But before we explore more specifically what we can look forward to on this year’s event, we asked our team to share their favorite Safari moments and memories – whether that be a personal experience or something they remember from competition.

Here’s what they came up with.

David Evans

DirtFish head of media

Tommi Makinen / Seppo Harjanne - 1996 WRC Safari Rally

Tommi Mäkinen’s took an unlikely Safari victory in 1996

I had so much to say here. So much to talk about. There were Piero Sodano’s stories of co-driving Sandro Munari in a Lancia Stratos on one of the wettest rallies on record in 1977. Or the time Lancia landed its service plane on the main road to Mombasa in an effort to deliver more parts to the Stratos.

Or Derek Dauncey’s brilliant recollection of Tommi Mäkinen’s unexpected 1996 win.

Or the.. or the… the list and the stories just go on and on.

But then I stopped reading and decided just to tell you about my own memories. I only did one ‘original’ Safari, the last one. It was brilliant. By 2002, I’d done a bit of travelling, been around the world, done New Zealand and Australia, the Middle and Far East. I thought I’d seen it all. I’d seen nothing.

Markku Martin Story

The 2002 Safari Rally was David Evans' first

Africa is different. My Nissan hire car came with three inflated tires and a slipping clutch. Navigating the centre of Nairobi, map on my lap, surrounded by a life and a world I knew absolutely nothing of, terrified the life out of me.

Going around a grassy area in the center of what remains one of the biggest roundabouts I’ve ever driven around, I was sitting in traffic enjoying the smell of my own gently baking clutch, when a vulture of some sort swooped down not 10ft away. It lifted a snake from the grass and flew away.

I laughed. Relaxed. Beckoned a taxi, told him where my hotel was and followed him.

The sights, sounds and smells of what are coming this week will be like nothing like anywhere else the WRC visits.

Africa. You never forget it.

George Donaldson

Former WRC team manager and sporting director

1986 Safari Rallycopyright:Mcklein

George Donaldson has fond recollections of the Group B era cars in Kenya

The Safari Rally was pretty well still an old-fashioned ‘road race’ up to and including 1995. Can you imagine that now? It was like something from the 1930s! I have the image of seeing rally cars neck-and-neck into the start control of a section on the first night in 1986 going into the Rukanga section south of Taita hills.

Bjorn Waldegård in our Toyota Celica and Juha Kankkunen in his Peugeot 205 T16 were on the same minute, but Bjorn was in front. They started at the same time but in tandem. It was imperative to be first to the control but there were 99 miles to the next fuel stop and basically sections all the way.

We pulled a flanker, making it look like we were going to change all the tires plus we had practiced fast fueling, so as Bjorn pulled in we staged a show as Juha arrived to undertake the same task. As the Peugeot mechanics pulled off the wheels we simply filled the car with fuel – I think we may have changed the rear tires but in any case a short service – which allowed Bjorn an easy first to the control and the prize of a dust-free run through the night.

As they approached, Bjorn was still leading but most amazingly Juha was still right on his tail. It was like that all night George Donaldson

Five hours later we met the cars at Kajiado emergency service just as dawn arrived, a three and a half hour drive for us the short way round, and as the cars streaked into view over the veldt, we spotted them about five miles away. As they approached, Bjorn was still leading but most amazingly Juha was still right on his tail. It was like that all night. Barely a minute separated them after about 400 miles of sections. It was the most awesome sight.

Can you imagine what that was like to drive? The sections included Taita hills, Rukanga and the long runs through the Chulya hills, a run up Pipeline road and then over the Kajiado where they met us again. We topped off about 30 liters of fuel and checked the tires. They were good and Bjorn was on his way. That was the first night of a five-day event with one night in bed for us.

In 1994 I got to pretty well drive the entire route in a rally car (test/recce car). It was for a six-day photoshoot with two cars. We had a helicopter, a film crew and a Reinhard Klein. I had no pacenotes at all and we basically followed Ian Duncan in the first car who kindly created a ‘dust marker’ for us before any killer unseen hazards. Think about that… not risky at all!

940331EAK Kankkunen 04 rk

The Safari has produced some incredible WRC imagery over the years

The one thing you don’t do in a rally team as support staff is damage a car. That is a one-way ticket home! I still had fun, believe me, and was heartened that Ian and David Williamson in the first car were doing timed runs at the sections so at the end of each we effectively got to check our time against this. I will happily say that Ian and Dave were reasonably impressed by my pace (no pacenotes, remember).

Dave worked out that my pace would have been easily good enough (if trouble-free no time loss) for a top-five position. I never checked myself as I love the myth! I do confess to having a few seriously big moments, one beginning at 220km/h on asphalt.

As I matured in the Toyota team to coordinator and then team manager, I was banished from the event and into the comms aircraft. The team could never get a reliable relay station so a human was the best bet. It was brilliant.

In daylight hours you got to see the cars on more than one occasion, albeit from three or four miles away (up). It was a really rewarding role as you were an integral part of the strategy calls to the drivers. The role had ended tragically for my first boss in Toyota in 1987 as light twin-engined aircraft are perhaps a bit more prone to failure or errors. I can certainly relay three or four ‘nasties’ but I guess I got lucky. It does not overshadow the memory of the role I got to play contributing in ‘controlling the game’ that was the Safari Rally!

I must now turn attention to Colin McRae and Richard Burns, who were both masters of this event. I remember on their first visits chatting to them about the event when they came to visit our Toyota workshop in Nairobi for a cup of tea. I recall their bemusement with my affection for the rally.

I’m happy to say they became great fans of the Safari and exercised a good degree of mastery of it too, both becoming winners. It was super that both drivers got a run at the longer classic events before the change in 1996 to a much shorter format, although it was just as challenging with similar-length sections.

1998 Safari Rally copyright: McKlein

The natural beauty of Kenya is hard to beat

What’s always remained is the beauty of the place. I swear you could place yourself in any country in the world at some time while in Kenya! It is the breadbasket of Africa. Very fertile, great variance in altitudes, a glacier and a second very spectacular snow capped mountain on the border with Tanzania – that is Kilimanjaro of course.

You could be in the fine forests of Finland up north in Kenya, one hour later you could be in the Scottish highlands or later again the rolling Border country between Scotland and England, and all of this in one day. Plus, you could cross the equator six or seven times on a rally day. Not to mention the incredible tea plantations up at Kericho which are mind-bogglingly green and uniform.

I watched one of Ninni Russo’s many helicopter crashes near there myself.. happily they all walked away. That makes it a positive memory! There are lots more but best regaled with friends around a log fire in a pub. Now, whose round is it?

Colin McMaster

McKlein photographer

Burns, Safari

To Colin McMaster, the Safari always felt like an adventure

The Safari is the rally that’s brought me the most adventures and diverse experiences in my 30-year career following rallying. From the sunrises to the sunsets, I’ve photographed rally cars slithering through black-cotton-soil, ploughing through fesh-fesh dust, and negotiating rock-strewn ravines.

The 2002 edition was a special event for me as I followed the rally aboard the TV helicopter as my taxi. I remember being dropped off in one remote location with cameraman Kevin Vernall and we convinced ourselves that the animal tracks we could see were lion or leopard paw prints. I didn’t mind because I knew I could outrun Kevin.

Having survived that, back in the heli we filmed Colin McRae driving mile-after-mile on the fields beside one stage, as he realized it was smoother than the road. Straight after that we returned to the Suswa Service Park where my good friend Richard Burns got his three-wheeled Peugeot 206 beached on the entrance.

Everyone knows what happened to him next. However, this was one of few moments in my life where I put my job aside. With my cameras down I went to console my mate. I gave him a big hug and just reminded him that he’d already won two Safaris and he knew how to drive-to-win in Kenya. Later that night he showed me how ‘to drink’ in Kenya, when we downed many a Dawa cocktail on a big night out at Nairobi’s Carnivore restaurant.

On a happier note, back in 1998 Burnsie joined my business partner Reinhard Klein and I for a week-long holiday on Lamu island, straight after the rally. He had the winner’s trophy with him! Not bad for a 27-year-old, ginger-haired lad from Oxford.

“Ain’t no fun being ginger”, he used to say. All that was about to change. This was the era of Jaques Villeneuve and in Lamu, Richard decided to dye his hair blonde, just like the F1 driver. He’d bought a cheap and nasty coloring kit and when he put the solution into his hair things started to go wrong.

980227EAK Burns 1

Richard Burns relaxes after winning the 1998 event

The peroxide began burning his scalp, so he washed it out, but way too soon according to the instructions. Ginger became bright orange, like a carrot. The next step was to shave it all off. This time my camera stayed on!

Alasdair Lindsay

DirtFish head of content

There are some great stories from the past by the other guys. My standout memory is of Burns trying and failing to dig his way out of that hole in the sand – but Colin already touched on that, so let’s focus on more modern history.

Some worried that shoehorning the Safari’s return to the WRC calendar into a modern-day format would cause it to lose its challenge and its magic. But looking back, the 2022 edition thoroughly dispelled that notion: it was mad, it was chaotic, it was action-packed.


M-Sport's calamities in 2022 spring to mind for Alasdair Lindsay

Sébastien Loeb managed all of one Safari start in his long and illustrious career before 2022. When a part-time campaign with M-Sport materialized, Kenya was naturally on his to-do list. And, but for a moment, it seemed as if a dream Safari win could be on the cards, winning the Lolida stage and battling the Toyotas for top spot.

Then Kedong came along and the madness began. Once in a while you get a stage that’s like opening the cork in a bottle that’s been shaken hard – that’s what stage four was like in 2022.

Our starter arrived courtesy of Thierry Neuville, who limped his way to the finish in his ailing i20 N Rally1 – something that would become a bit of a theme as the rally wore on. Then, the main course of chaos: Loeb’s Ford Puma caught fire. Once the fire was out, he tried to limp on to service in EV mode; alas, there wasn’t enough juice in the battery to make it all the way back.

A helping of seconds came courtesy of Gus Greensmith. Facing the prospect of stopping to change a puncture and dropping two minutes, Greensmith instead elected to push on at speed. Disastrous consequences followed. All of that loose rubber flailing around destroyed the right-rear quarter of his Puma, to the point the damper caught fire.

To round out the four-course meal, a frustrated Solberg crawled to the end of the stage, his car also limping with power issues; his i20 had ingested more fesh-fesh than it could handle.


Solberg went on to finish 10th overall for Hyundai

Safari bared its teeth on Saturday morning; Adrien Fourmaux broke his suspension, then wouldn’t get out of the way of Craig Breen, his team-mate, while limping to the end – where he retired anyway. Then Greensmith went and rolled on the next stage; Safari had turned into a comedy of errors for M-Sport.

There were stories all over the place on Saturday: Rovanperä put in a drive on Elmenteita that highlighted that the world championship title heading his way was an inevitability; the rain had come pouring down and turned the stage into a mud bath and he proceeded to blitz the entire field. Thierry Neuville had a crazy day; he had to fix a broken alternator, with his Hyundai coughing and spluttering its way through the day until he hole-punched a tree with it – a deserved ending for a car that was acting like it didn’t want to live anyway.

Yes, Toyota dominated in the end with a 1-2-3-4 finish. But it was the sort of domination that was anything but boring: they’d won Safari in the most Safari way possible, by watching on as the rally picked off its rivals. Who says the modern Safari isn’t anything like the old days?

What do you remember most from the Safari Rally? Drop us a comment below and let us know.