What you need to know:
- You can obviously guess the background to Egyptian discus thrower Muhammad Neguib. It has to be against the Great Sphinx of Giza with the Pyramids looming beyond.
The decision to include the hills overlooking Hell’s Gate National Park in the finishing segment of the 2020 Safari Rally was an inspired one. If you have been there, you will agree that the views are breathtaking.
The former Rift Valley province, where I went to school many decades ago, has stunning sights especially from the central regions around Ngong to the border with Ethiopia. Hell’s Gate is a jewel. When I first visited the place as a youth who knew nothing about the power of branding and marketing, I thought Kenya was a beautiful country, worth living in and worth visiting.
Without knowing it, I was in good company. When I graduated from reading high school story books to the world’s premier news magazines, I came upon an advertisement from Boeing, the American aerospace giant. It was in Time Magazine.
I can’t remember which model of their planes they were advertising but the photo and tone of the text read like an introduction to one of the wonders of the world. It asked its readers: “Have you ever seen a Lamu sunset?” In a world with uncountable places vying for a tourist’s choices, Boeing thought Kenya ranked among the few that the passengers who travelled in its planes had to see. In itself, I found that remarkable.
I asked Phineas Kimathi, the president of the Kenya Motorsports Federation and team leader of the people who have restored our iconic Safari Rally to World Rally Championship status about the choice of Hell’s Gate as the climax to the eagerly-awaited July event.
He said: “The idea was to market our country. Hell’s Gate is an adventure park. There are very few animals. It is a dream location for a landscape photographer; I think it is the best Kenya has. The WRC has a total viewership of 850 million viewers in 155 countries. For this kind of audience, we had to put our best foot forward.”
The “Power Stage”, which is the last stage of the competition and which will take place at Hell’s Gate, will be beamed live across the world. According to Kimathi, who is also the newly-feted Kenya Motorsports Personality of the Year in part because of returning the Safari to its rightful place in the world calendar, 4.9 million spectators watched the 2018 WRC’s 14 events.
By conservatively working with only 2.5 per cent of this number for this year’s Rally, Kenya can realistically look forward to hosting 100,000 visitors – an eight per cent increase for a single year. If that is achieved, it would be a remarkable achievement attributable to a single event.
“We can’t think like we used to do in the 1960s,” Kimathi told me. “Telling people not to forget to enjoy our national parks won’t work. We must think of innovative new ways.”
In sports, countries around the world leverage their most iconic places to attract tourist dollars. Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, South Africa’s Table Mountain and Australia’s Sydney Opera House have always provided some of the most stunning backdrops to international sporting activity.
In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, organisers arranged the marathon route around Flamengo Park which has awe-inspiring views of Sugar Loaf Mountain, a landmark of arguably one of the world’s most scenic cities.
Sports as a billboard to a country’s cultural heritage, technological prowess and natural beauty is in a class of its own. This is the resource that Kenya has only half-heartedly exploited in the past. Organisers of the WRC Safari Rally need to be encouraged and supported to continue on the course they have taken.
When Los Angeles was named as host city for the 1984 Olympics, Time Magazine undertook a project that powerfully illustrated the fusion between sports and tourism. The legendary photographer, Neil Leifer, embarked on an 18-month world journey to take pictures of some of the greatest sportsmen and women against their country’s most famous symbols and landmarks.
When I pull it from a shelf in my study and leaf through its pages, I find the photo essay that resulted from that project as fascinating today as I found it then. Kenya’s Kipkoech Cheruiyot, a past 1,500 metres junior world record holder, was photographed running against a backdrop of towering giraffes in Nairobi National Park.
Picture in your mind’s eye leafing through a photo essay that looks like this: Mary Decker, US middle distance runner, against Mount Rushmore in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest. Four gigantic sculptures depicting the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are curved in stone there. Decker’s exuberance is in sharp contrast to the stony faces.
Italy’s Francesco Damiani, a boxer, stands arms akimbo against the Colosseum in Rome where gladiators fought and died in competition around 80 AD. Gymnast Koji Gushiken of Japan is balancing on rings against a spectacular view of Mt Fuji while Greek wrestling king Charalambos Holidis holds out his hands ready to grip somebody outside the Parthenon.
You can obviously guess the background to Egyptian discus thrower Muhammad Neguib. It has to be against the Great Sphinx of Giza with the Pyramids looming beyond. The Indian field hockey team has an elegant picture in the foreground of the Taj Mahal. In perfect symmetry, their shapely figures reflect in the pool on whose edge they are standing.
And yet again a no-brainer: Chinese diver Chen Xiaoxia has a radiant smile as she stands on a long stretch of the…you got it, the Great Wall. And finally, middle distance runner and current president of the International Association of Athletic Federations, Sebastian Coe, pounds the tarmac on the road leading to Windsor Castle.
Of his remarkable adventure, Leifer said: “Not only was this the best assignment I’ve ever had, it was also the best I’ve ever heard about.” But it came with quite a bit of doing. “Persuading star athletes to interrupt their training schedules and sometimes go hundreds of miles to pose for pictures took a lot of cajolery. So did getting officials at the Parthenon to close the temple early so we could shoot in late afternoon light and convincing the Chinese that I indeed wanted to shoot at the Great Wall and not at the Temple of Heaven.”
Hell’s Gate National Park is not the typical Kenyan animal sanctuary like Tsavo East and West, the Masai Mara or the Amboseli. It has a wide variety of birdlife, especially vultures, but only a limited number of wild animals. Needless to say, every last bit of care should be made to preserve and protect all the wildlife there is in the park. In fact, it should be the purpose of the authorities to plough back some of the pickings from a successful Safari Rally back into the park. It is only right.
Hell’s Gate is an adventurers’ haven. What it lacks in herds and prides it more than makes up in scenery and potential for activity. The Safari Rally in July is a great chance for the park to join the list of the fabled places listed above and it is encouraging to see the ownership of this event undertaken by the Ministry of Tourism.
In an earlier statement reported in Nation Sport, Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, said: “We have gone through the route (Hell’s Gate) of the Safari. It has minimum impact on the vultures and the ecosystem of the park. We have put up a very powerful team here, headed by the assistant director, as well as the chief warden of this park, and they have convinced me that this is the right event to be held here. We are going to have all the issues being drafted or written down properly and also a mitigating action path so that there is no interference of the ecosystem.”
The Safari Rally put Kenya on the world sports map when our great athletes were only getting started. It has been part of our culture for 67 years. It has had many ups and downs.
There was a time when, touted as the greatest test of man and machine, it was the biggest event in the local sports calendar and a major one in the world. It gave us heroes, one generation after another. And then it lost its world rally championship status in 2003. This 17-year hiatus has now come to an end and we are back to where we belong.
“I am happy with where we are at the moment,” KMSF chief Kimathi told me this week. “This is a government project and so we have full support there. We are also drawing on all the technical and organisational expertise of the WRC because it is their event. They have sent us the best experts and some of our people have gone abroad for specialised training. I think the people of Kenya are in for a good show. They are famous for their hospitality and they will like what they will see.”
The timing for the “Power Stage” at Hell’s Gate, which will be the climax of the rally, will be timed to the 1,000th of a second. Contrast this with the maiden event in 1953. In his book – now long out of print - “The Shell History of the East African Safari Rally,” Charles Disney writes:
“As the Mayoral car reached the City speed limit boundary [the mayoral car was leading the procession of competitors from City Hall and the speed limit was 30 miles per hour] it drew aside and then there occurred a remarkable metamorphosis. As each car reached this point, it behaved as if it had been kicked swiftly in the boot by some invisible giant.
It shot forward like a scalded cat, each driver’s right foot hard on the accelerator, and in a remarkably short space of time, the entire pack was flat out on the 97 miles of good, fast tarmac to Nakuru. Soon the leaders were cruising at a steady 70/75 m.p.h.”
That’s about 120 kph. Truly, as they say, the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.