I loved the Safari Rally. Loved it. Looking back, it’s a genuine privilege to have competed on such an amazing event. I did seven, won two. But every minute of every hour was an adventure in Kenya.
The anticipation started as you were coming in to land in Nairobi. You’d be straining to look out of the window to catch a sight of what the land looked like. If it was green, you knew that meant it had been raining and it was going to be rough as hell. If it was still burned and scorched by the sun, you knew the rains hadn’t arrived and it would be smoother. Smoother? OK, less rough!
When I went there for the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. Having people like ‘Kiki’ (Markku Alén’s co-driver Ilkka Kivimaki) around was a help. The Safari’s got a reputation for being rough and quite slow, but, trust me, there are some very, very quick sections. ‘Kiki’ told me: “You know when you’re going fast on the Safari… you start to taste the insects.”
It’s true. In the early days the gauze on the roof vents wasn’t the most durable and once you got up over 100mph all sorts would be coming in through there. As well as the insects, we had a good few birds and, er, bits of other things…
In a week when the WRC would have been going back to Kenya for the first time since 2002, there’s been an awful lot of talk about the ‘real Safari’. I can understand that. I did two of what I would consider to be ‘real’ ones. They were the timed-to-the-minute events, before everything changed and the format was more akin to a European-style sprint-type event in 1996.
The first Safari that Richard Burns and I did was with [Subaru Tecnica International founder, Noriyuki] Koseki’s Group N team. We drove a Group N Impreza in 1994. Essentially, it was a 3000-mile road rally through Africa. Brilliant. We competed in tee shirts and mountain bike helmets.
We broke down in the recce in the pitch darkness and plum in the middle of nowhere. We knew we had to just sit in the car and wait. We waited for quite a long time and, trust me, there are some strange noises out there as night grows longer.
Timed-to-the-minute meant just that, when you reached the control at the end of a competitive section, you were given the minute you arrived on. That meant your approach to the control was either a fairly leisurely one; if you ticked over to the next minute with 500 metres to the control you could take fairly steady. But when you were just a handful of seconds out with a couple of hundred metres to go, you’d be going in hell-for-leather.
The controls had a ‘card catcher’ and it was my job to get the time card into their hand as quickly as possible – hence the belts undone, door open, leaping out while the car’s all locked up kind of effort we’ve seen a few times. It was great fun.
Part of the fun came because everything was so different. I remember being on the recce once and feeling pretty unwell. I said as much to Richard and he said he felt the same. We stopped the car and took a bit of time to walk around and just get some air. It didn’t get much better until we got to the hotel that night and spoke to some of the engineers.
They said: “That might have something to do with being at 11,500 feet.”
Altitude sickness wasn’t exactly common on Drummond Hill! And nor was the sort of wildlife we saw on the Safari.
I remember looking up at one point in a particularly long section in that Group N car and seeing a gatepost. “Odd,” I thought, but carried on reading the notes. At the end of the section I said to Burnsie: “That was quite a close one with that gatepost about halfway through…”
Richard looked at me slightly quizzically and then remembered.
He smiled: “That wasn’t a gatepost. That was a giraffe’s leg.”
Obviously the wins in 1998 and 2000 were really special for Richard and I, but that era of driving on that event was all special.
Sitting in the car, calling notes at 130mph with your spotter helicopter in your ear and the corner of your eye… more than once I remember thinking: “I really do have the best job in the world.”
Back in the days of open roads, helicopters were an absolute necessity. While we were at Prodrive, we had Nigel Riddle up there for us. Nige was a lovely west country bloke and a fantastic technician. His voice was always really calm, apart from the moments when he had a fairly urgent message.
Some of the drivers liked to be in contact with the heli themselves, but Richard always preferred me to deal with communications with Nige. On one section, Richard could see some dust up front and asked me to ask Nige what was going on.
“Keep left,” was the instruction. “Pass through the dust on the left. Matatu.”
Obviously they were up above, with the perfect view of what was going on. On this occasion there was a matatu, a local minibus driving down the open road. I relayed the information to Richard and, with barely a lift, he moved us to the left.
“STOP, STOP, STOP!” shouted Nige. I did the same to Richard, who slammed the brakes on and got us stopped just as we went into the dust to see not one by two matatus, one of which had pulled out to overtake the other one.
The helis were absolutely invaluable for letting you know what was coming. But they did struggle to keep up sometimes. Once you got a World Rally Car up through the gears and away from a junction onto a long, fast section, the heli would always disappear briefly.
They would climb to be able to trade altitude for speed to be able to keep up. When we braked hard into a slow corner, you’d see the heli standing on its tail trying to slow down to follow you.
I loved the challenge of having to manage the incoming communication from the heli as well as letting Richard know what was coming. The two did, occasionally, get confused.
As we turned in one slow junction, the car created a lot of dust and, as we headed left down a track, I saw Nige and the heli turning right.
“Wrong way!” I shouted.
“What?” said Richard, “I’ve gone the wrong way?”
“No! Not you, the heli!”
They were soon back with us.
I could go on. And on. The Safari has written so many stories – we’ve only scratched the surface here. That’s what happens when you go out back and beyond in Africa.