What it’s like to do the Safari for the first time

Thirty years ago, Nicky Grist made the biggest step into the unknown of his WRC career

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The recce’s done. The roads, the rocks and the ruts are noted. But still, this week’s Safari Rally Kenya is a massive step into the unknown. Talk about what to expect on the second pass and there’s a shrug of the shoulders. Talk about the weather and eyes widen. But still, nobody’s any the wiser.

Still, nobody knows.

By Sunday, everybody will know. It’s what comes between now and then that will decide the direction of this rally.

As the co-drivers settle down to re-write pages of notes, they do so with a sense of genuine trepidation.

“Sometimes you look,” Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville said, “but you cannot see the road. You have to find it again.”

That’s fine at 50mph on the recce, but coming full-bore down the same stretch at more than double the speed is going to provide one of the season’s biggest challenges.

That step into the unknown is one Nicky Grist can relate to all too well. He joined Toyota and Mikael Ericsson for the 1992 season. Priority number one for them at the start of the year was to dial in the Celica 4WD.

Ericsson was no stranger to the Safari, having finished second in a GT-4 the previous season. But for Grist, this was another world. Prior to this, the roughest roads he’d seen had been in Greece. Prior to that, it would have been a particularly challenging Scottish Rally.

“It was early December [1991] when I landed into Kenya for the first time,” Grist tells DirtFish. “Mikael picked me up from the airport and took me to the Serena Hotel in Nairobi. He told me to grab what I needed then come back to the car – we were going out for a two-week test.

Kenneth Eriksson - Toyota Celica ST165 - 1991 WRC Safari Rally

“When we got to the test, the team was all set up. We jumped in the recce car and drove out towards the test road. We were going down the road when the traffic ahead started to slow down.

“I looked around and saw the roadblock – like a proper, police roadblock. ‘Looks like we’re going to have to stop here, Mikael. The police are ahead.’ Just as I was saying that, Mikael started to accelerate and moved the car onto a gravel track next to the road. We were speeding up and overtaking all the traffic on the inside.

“Next thing, there’s a load of bollards blocking the gravel track. Bang! We go straight through those and straight past the police.

“I sat there, mouth open… ‘Mikael, what the hell are you doing?’

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We got into the test and we were seeing baboons, some zebras and everything and I remember thinking: 'Christ! This is wonderful! Nicky Grist

“He looked over and smiled. ‘Nicky, this is Africa. We do things differently in Africa. The police can see this is a rally car. They don’t care about us. We’re different.’

“I remember sitting there thinking: ‘My God, where have I come?’ But then we got into the test and we were seeing baboons, some zebras and everything and I remember thinking: ‘Christ! This is wonderful.’”

And with that, it was time to start the recce for the test road. A moment packed with even more surprises for Grist.

“I was doing the recce in my new TTE shorts,” said Grist. “I had no experience of these temperatures or working in this kind of environment – or with these kind of notes. Anyway we went in and Mikael started dictating the notes: ‘Keep left over washaway…’

“‘Washaway? What the f*** is a washaway and how do I write that in the notes?’ I made a note and thought I‘d sort that one later, but by now I was starting to notice that I was really starting to sweat.

“The roadbook the team co-ordinator had given me for the test road was just three photocopied pieces of paper. I’d had those pages on my lap and it was about this point that it became just chunks of paper – even my legs were sweating! But I knew we had to turn left at a junction, we turned left and went up and over some boulders. ‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘there’s not even a road here…’

“Mikael just laughed and we picked our way between the rocks.”

Over the next fortnight, Grist became more and more familiar with the Kenyan way. He fell in love with it and never forgot it.

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“We’d taken over this campsite and we were in these tents for 10 days,” he said. “I totally immersed myself in the whole thing. We had masai singing for us, game being cooked on the barbecue and an electric fence to keep the lions out.

“Early one morning, the doctor and I went out looking around – just taking things in. I couldn’t believe it. We went past these huge dollops of elephant s***; he was hanging out of the window of the car smelling it: ‘It’s fresh Nick, it’s fresh! Come on, they’re nearby!’

“It was another world.”

And, as the World Rally Championship will find out this week, it still is.

Rarely has a step into the unknown been quite so rewarding.