What you need to know:
- Brand Kenya will surely get a boost as the machines zoom through spectacular vistas.
- Many relive the heady days as they look forward to weekend action.
The nation came to a near standstill every April when race cars rumbled like thunder through the African jungle.
Easter was incomplete without the thrills and spills of the Safari Rally, the most gruelling leg of the World Rally Championship.
It was more of an endurance event than a sprint and, for decades, Kenyans bathed in the glory of hosting the roughest race in the circuit.
Imagination and art went wild and the expectation and anticipation of the rally excitement reached a crescendo as the vehicles were flagged off.
This feeling had congealed over time to a national pastime and nothing could have convinced Kenyans that it may no longer be one day in the future.
The long rains notwithstanding, children made little rally cars complete with the number of their preferred driver and the tiny details of the adverts emblazoned on them.
The daredevil driving and the adrenaline rush that kept navigators on the edge and fans on the road made the African adventure immensely popular. Stamina, courage and bushmanship were just as crucial for survival as driving skills.
But in 2002, the parade came to a screeching halt when the Federation Internationale l’Automobile (FIA) pulled the handbrake and broke the hearts of a nation.
And now, after a 19-year hiatus, normal transmission resumes with a special stage at Kasarani this afternoon that will send the cars to the Kenya Wildlife Training Institute service park in Naivasha.
Some 58 drivers will be foraging for laurels in the wilderness over four days after years of probing, pushing and praying.
Although it has been reduced to 320km from 5,000km in its heyday, everything in the original card remains, with unpredictable weather and challenging roads.
Back in the day, thousands of fans braved the rains to cheer their heroes in Mombasa, Voi, Kisii, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kapenguria, Eldama Ravine, Naivasha, Nakuru, Nyeri and Murang’a while millions followed the battle between man and machine live on the Swahili national service.
Those were the days.
For quadragenarians and above, spare a thought for Joginder Singh “the speedy Sikh”, Jonathan Toroitich, he who carried the presidential seal of approval, and the magical Shekhar Mehta, who was born across the border but made Kenya his home. These legends will, hopefully, be looking down upon us.
Six-time national champion Ian Duncan, the roaring Rob Collinge and the marvellous Mike Kirkland made mincemeat of the tourists, while the darling of the masses, Patrick Njiru, captured the imagination of a nation.
Meanwhile, the “Flying Finns” Juha Kankunnen, Markku Alen and Tomi Makkinen, the fearsome Frenchman Didier Auriol, the sensational Spaniard Carlos Sainz, Swedish speedster Stig Blomqvist and Japanese star Yoshio Fujimoto are now off the gas pedal after decades of service.
Even so, the talent on parade this weekend is set to drive up the popularity of rallying on the continent.
You can make a hefty bet that Baldev “Boldy” Chager, Carl “Flash” Tundo, Onkar Rai, Jasmeet Chana and Izhar Mirza will be firing on all cylinders as they lead the local charge.
From Europe, seven-time world champion and one of WRC’s all-time greats, Sébastien Ogier, will be at full-throttle as he chases yet another title. A ruthless driver, the Frenchman is clearly the cream of the crop in a star-studded field.
For Brand Kenya, spectacular scenery will be broadcast to over 70 million viewers in 150 countries as the cars vroom past the country’s spectacular vistas.
Tomorrow’s action takes drivers to Oserengoni Wildlife Conservancy. On Saturday, they will drive to Lake Elmenteita, with the final battle being fought around Lake Naivasha the next day.
Despite the night curfew, foreign crews will certainly enjoy the legendary warmth of Kenyans, experience their peculiar habits, enthuse their beautiful women, feast on nyama choma and beer, beer, beer…
“All those coming for the WRC will enjoy themselves immensely. They’ll meet the challenge, but they will also get to enjoy Kenya’s beauty and hospitality,” said rally driver Nzioka Waita.
Take the weekend off, if you can, to catch the action, but stay well out of harm’s way.
Va va vroom!