The birth of the world’s toughest rally
If there is any single event that fired the imagination of Kenyans and became the most talked, most liked and enjoyed event then Safari Rally has no equal.
Even today 17 years after the best rally drivers in the best machines closed shop never to return, the name Safari or in Sheng Safo refers to any rally car or event.
It is a brand that defines what Kenya could produce and sell worldwide. It is older than athletics or even football at international platforms only surpassed by cricket which was introduced in 1896 in Mombasa by a group of British soldiers.
Sometime in January 1952, so the story goes on, the founder of the Safari Rally Eric Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and a friend Eric Tromp were sharing a drink in a bar at Limuru when an interesting motorsport topic cropped up.
There were odd hill climbs including the “Rolund the Mountain Trial “ and a racing track at Langa Langa in Nakuru. At some point, Cecil told this writer 17 years ago that they asked Vincent why he never competed at Langa Langa.
‘I can’t be bothered running around in circles. But if you could organise an event where we get into our cars, slam the doors and go halfway across Africa and back and the first car was the winner, then I will enter,” said Vincent.
“ He wanted something challenging, better than the October 1936 Nairobi-Johannesburg 4,800km road race which was won by C.L. “Fairly” Engelbrecht.”
Cecil recalled that this was the ultimate test for man and machine because he was the winner in 1946 in a Skoda. As a committed adventurer, he was the man to actualise Vincent’s challenge in his capacity as the Chairman of the Competition Committee of the East African Automobile Association (EAAA).
Cecil was hooked and several challenging events were suggested, dissected and either trashed or shelved including a trip around the 68,000km Lake Victoria. Drivers would choose any direction with only two control points near Bukoba.
Vincent rejected the idea to avoid cheating, especially at the ferry crossing area. They needed a rally that would test the stamina of man and technical potency of a car. It would be exciting to rally and Cecil finally settled for rallying.
But when Cecil told the EAAA about his idea, the bosses firmly told him that they were there to serve the general motoring fraternity and not some “crazy ideas of cowboys.”
“They told me that they were not interested,” Cecil told this writer in an interview at the exclusive Muthaiga Country Club in 2002 when he came to Kenya as a guest of the Safari Rally which lost the WRC status that year.
“But God presented me with a gift,” he said.
Not one to give up easily, he returned to the EAAA in February 1952 days after Queen Elizabeth of England received the news of his father’s death King George VI while lodging at the Treetops in Nyeri and ascended to the throne.
“Please do allow the motoring public in Kenya commemorates the Coronation of the Queen through a long-distance event,” Cecil pleaded with the EAAA.
Kenya was a British colony and EAAA, knowing the national importance of this request for the Crown relented.
However, he had to find money and personnel. He managed to secure commercial sponsorship from the East African Standard newspaper and Shell Oil who gave 500 pounds each, a lot of money then. This gave birth to the Safari Rally, named Coronation Safari Rally.
There were 15 finishers in the first 1953 Safari Rally which he was the winner. The next hurdle to clear was a suitable date of which they settled for the long Easter weekend.
Though never an economics student, Cecil settled on the “toughness slogan as a marketing tool, though the “Toughest Rally in the World”.
With more and more drivers competing and less and less finishing, word got around the world that there existed a very tough rally through relatives, coverage in local media which later reached the European motoring magazines.
The first Safari was 3,200 miles (5,160km) long in a hostile country as Kenya was under the state of emergency because of the Mau Mau uprising agitated by Africans who wanted their grabbed land back.
European and later drivers from Asia started coming and for 19 years returned home empty-handed until 1972 when Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm in a Ford Escort RS1600 returned the Safari coveted trophy to Europe.
The following year FIA, then FISA included the Safari in the World Rally Championship (WRC). Mikola became an overnight sensation. Manufacturer teams’ beehived into Kenya. They were to be denied the following year by young Shekha Mehta who gave Datsun/Nissan their third victory after Edgar Hermann and Hans Schuller in 1970/71 in a Datsun 1600SSS.
Previously the Safari was dominated by European makes with VW Beetle in the 50s before Ford, Mercedes and Peugeot ruled the roost in the 60s.
There was one notable driver of Asian descent, Joginder Sing, winner in 1965 in Volvo PV544 navigated by his brother Jaswant Singh. He became a national hero and household name, aka Simba ya Kenya.
Mehta won in 1973 in a Datsun 240Z, the year the Safari skipped Uganda because of political turmoil following a successful military coup by dictator Id Amin Dada, who, however, rubbished Kenya’s “misplaced sense of Mehta’s ownership”.
“As far as am concerned Mehta is a Ugandan,” he said. FIA President Jean Todt navigated Timo Makinen to the third position in a Peugeot 504.
The Safari was renamed Kenya Safari Rally in 1974 after Tanzania whose political relationship with Kenya was beginning to wane opted out. Joginder won that year and in 1976 in a Colt Lancer.
Knowing they had to conquer Africa comprehensively, European resorted to using local drivers to develop their cars and give them one-off complete support. The first such person was Vic Preston Junior, whose father Vic Preston Senior dominated in the 60s.
Junior finished third in 1972 in a works Ford Escort RS1600 and repeated similar feats in 1978 and 1981. He always out-paced the best before something happened.
He was always on pole position and sampled drives from Lancia, Nissan, Porsche, and Mercedes factory team. Others were Joginder, Mehta, Mike Kirkland, Ian Duncan, and Patrick Njiru.
Factory and European drivers continued producing mixed results winning in 1975, ’77 and 78 before Mehta produced four back to back victories (1979-82). For the next 12 years, Kenyan drivers played second fiddle until Duncan’s 1994 victory in a works Toyota Celica.
This was the last victory by a Kenyan and maybe forever as works teams’ domination became absolute. So big was the gap that it was only Duncan who could take on the best, finishing third in 1993, ’96 and’97 in works Celicas.
There was one exceptional case though: Rauno Aaltonen of Finland who tried to win the Safari for 23 years without success. “Maybe it was a curse, a thahu of a medicine man, a Mundu Mugo,” wrote John Davenport in the glossy Safari Rally book of 2003.
As a final epithet for the Safari, no Kenyan finished it in the 2002 Safari, the last WRC in Kenya.
Kenya is a major communications and logistics hub, with an important Indian Ocean port and strategic land borders with Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Somalia.
Situated on the equator on Africa’s east coast, Kenya has been described as “the cradle of humanity”.
In the Great Rift Valley paleontologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of man’s ancestors.
In the present day, Kenya’s ethnic diversity has produced a vibrant culture.
the wealth of unique fossil evidence tells us that the East African Rift Valley has been inhabited by our hominin ancestors for perhaps 6 million years. Archeological discoveries at several sites in Kenya, including Olorgesailie in the Rift Valley south of Nairobi and Kariandusi near Lake Elmentaita, (One of the areas which the Safari Rally will pass) have been key to our understanding of human evolution.
Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, Kenya’s Swahili Coast enjoyed a golden age of trade. Portuguese dominance came to end when the region became part of the Sultanate of Oman at the end of the 17th century.
An uneasy truce – marked by sporadic outbreaks of violent dissensions – endured between the established Swahili sultanates and their Omani supplanters until the coming of the British and Germans in the 19th century. A combination of missionary zeal, imperial ambition and a simple desire to explore attracted the European powers to East Africa who then proceeded to carve up the entire African interior.
Kenya’s transition from British colony to independent state began in 1922 and involved four decades of fervent political debate and, at times, bloody armed conflict which finally came to an end in 1963. Hardly had Independence been achieved, however, than Kenya found itself in the midst of a region where one neighbouring state after the other was set aflame by revolutions and/or coups, and rumours of communist subversion were rife. As with many African states, natural disasters and terrorist attacks have impeded the country’s progress in recent years, but Kenya has coped better than most.
It has a population of about 47 million (2019). Devolution is the biggest gain from the 2010 constitution, transforming political and economic governance, and strengthening accountability and public service delivery at local levels. Kenya as one of the fastest-growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa has good road, rail and air networks as the gateway to the eastern Africa region.
This expansion was boosted by a stable macroeconomic environment, low oil prices, a rebound in tourism, strong remittance inflows, and government-led infrastructure development initiatives.
On social development, Kenya met some Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets, including reduced child mortality, near-universal primary school enrolment, and narrowed gender gaps in education. Interventions and increased spending on health and education are paying dividends.
Kenya’s youthful and growing population, dynamic private sector, highly skilled workforce, improved infrastructure, a new constitution, and pivotal role in East Africa, give it the potential to be one of Africa’s great success stories.
On sports, besides Kenya’s world-beating athletes, the country is also renowned as the home of the Safari Rally which was started in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the II of England. It gained worldwide fame until 2002 when it was dropped from the World Rally Championships.
Kenya historical timeline
6 million BC
The earliest known East African hominin Orrorin tugenensis lived in Kenya’s Tugen Hills.
1.8 million BC
Emergence of the tool-making Homo erectus.
Homo sapiens active near Lake Baringo.
c. 2,000 BC
Cushitic-speaking nomads arrive from Ethiopia.
500 BC–AD 500
Bantu-speaking migrants arrive in Kenya with metalworking skills.
Islamic settlers occupy Mombasa and other seaports, leading to the emergence of Swahili civilisation.
The arrival of Vasco da Gama in Malindi signals the start of Portuguese influence.
Portuguese sack Mombasa.
Portuguese begin construction of Fort Jesus in Mombasa.
Omani Arabs capture Fort Jesus, leading to the withdrawal of Portugal and a long era of Omani rule.
Captain Owen declares Mombasa a British protectorate, a status that is removed three years later.
Seyyid Said transfers his court to Zanzibar.
Slave trade flourished under Seyyid Said and his successors.
The Age of Exploration
Missionaries Krapf and Rebmann respectively the first Europeans to see Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro.
Burton and Speke discover lakes Tanganyika and Victoria.
Explorer Joseph Thomson travels from Mombasa to Lake Victoria through Maasailand.
Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) builds headquarters in Mombasa.
The Treaty of Berlin brings all Kenya and Uganda under British jurisdiction.
Jomo Kenyatta is born in the highlands north of Nairobi.
The British Government acquires IBEAC’s assets, and Kenya and Uganda become “British East Africa”.
Construction of the railway from Mombasa to Uganda begins.
Nairobi founded as railway headquarters.
The railway reaches Kisumu on Lake Victoria.
First daily newspaper, the East African Standard, founded in Mombasa.
After World War I, the British Government offers war veterans land in the Kenyan Highlands.
The Nationalist Movement
Nationalist leader Harry Thuku is arrested, leading to the massacre of protesters outside Nairobi Central Police Station.
The Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), known as Uhuru, is formed with Jomo Kenyatta as its secretary.
Kenyatta goes to England to plead the cause of Kenyan liberation.
In World War II, Britain uses Kenya as a base for operations in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). Many Kenyan Africans fight in the British army.
The KCA and other organisations are outlawed and their leaders detained.
The Mau Mau independence movement is founded.
Jomo Kenyatta becomes chairman of the newly formed Kenya African Union (KAU).
State of emergency declared. Kenyatta and 82 other nationalists arrested and imprisoned. War declared on Mau Mau.
First elected African representatives in the Legislative Council. Mau Mau rebellion ends.
Kenyatta released from prison but put under house arrest.
State of emergency ends. Kenya African National Union (KANU) formed by Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga.
Kenyatta released from house arrest and assumes presidency of KANU.
Kenya becomes independent with Jomo Kenyatta as Prime Minister.
President Kenyatta dies in office and is succeeded by former Vice-President, Daniel Arap Moi.
Kenya officially declared a one-party state. Attempted coup d’état by Kenyan Air Force is put down.
First multi-party elections for 25 years, but Moi is returned as President, Economic crisis: World Bank withholds aid until Moi agrees to economic reforms.
Police clash with pro-democracy protesters. Moi is re-elected President in widely criticised elections.
Islamic terrorist car bomb at the US Embassy in Nairobi kills 224 and injures 4,500.
Terrorist attacks on an Israeli airliner and hotel in Mombasa leave 15 people dead. Moi’s 24-year rule ends with opposition presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki’s landslide victory.
Free primary education and anti-corruption measures introduced. International Monetary Fund resumes lending after a three-year gap.
Wangari Maathai is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
New constitution proposals rejected in the referendum.
Kibaki officially defeats his rival Raila Odinga by a margin of 3 percent in presidential elections. The result is disputed, leading to violence in which at least 800 people are killed.
A Unity Government is installed, with Kibaki as President and Odinga Prime Minister.
East African Common Market allows for free trade with Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
In October, Kenya invades neighbouring Somalia in pursuit of the Al-Shabaab insurgents blamed for a string of high-profile kidnappings in Lamu and Garissa Districts.
Oil discovered. President Kibaki hails it as a ”major breakthrough”.
2013 March –
Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, wins presidential election with just over 50% of the vote. A challenge to the results by his main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is rejected by the Supreme Court.
The British government says it sincerely regrets the torture of thousands of Kenyans during the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s and promises £20m in compensation.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court drop charges against President Kenyatta over the 2007 post-election violence, citing insufficient evidence.
President Barrack Obama visits Kenya
The government declares a drought affecting a large part of the country to be a national disaster.
A new multi-billion-dollar railway line (SGR) linking Mombasa to the capital Nairobi is opened – the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence.
President Kenyatta is declared the winner of the presidential election in August as well as the re-run in October.
Safari Rally return back to the FIA World Rally Championship
Kenya has a lively media scene and a small number of big players dominate the industry.
One of them, Nation Media Group, also operates in neighbouring countries. The state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) is funded from advertising and a government budget.
Television is the leading medium and free-to-air digital terrestrial TV is the most popular platform. Privately-owned Citizen TV is the top station in terms of audience and revenue.
Radio is flourishing and there were 173 licensed stations by the end of 2018, according to the Communications Authority. Entertainment, music, and phone-ins dominate their output. Radio is an important medium in rural areas, where most Kenyans live. Many stations broadcast in local languages other than English or Swahili.
Full-time FM relays of the BBC World Service are on the air in Nairobi (93.9), Mombasa (93.9) and Kisumu (88.1).
The highly-competitive press scene is the most sophisticated in East Africa. Print media are dominated by two publishing houses, the Nation and Standard.
Kenya leads the region in internet connectivity, mobile phone use, and social media engagement. Mobile devices are the main means of access. There were 43 million internet users by June 2019, comprising 83% of the population (InternetWorldStats).
There were around 7 million active Facebook users by the end of 2018 (InternetWorldStats). Media organisations, politicians, activists, influencers and brands dominate social media.
Daily Nation – market-leading daily published by the Nation Media Group
The Standard – privately-owned daily, Kenya’s oldest newspaper
The Star – privately-owned daily
The EastAfrican – weekly, published by the Nation Media Group
Taifa Leo – Swahili daily published by the Nation Media Group
Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) – state-owned
Citizen TV – private, most-watched network, owned by Royal Media Services (RMS)
Kenya Television Network (KTN) – private, operated by Standard Group
NTV – private, operated by Nation Media Group
K24 – private, news
Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) – state-owned, networks in English, and Swahili and other indigenous languages
Capital FM – national commercial network, music and hourly news
Kiss FM – national commercial network, music
Radio Citizen – national commercial network
Kenya News Agency – state-owned, English-language
Business Today – news website
Kenyans.co.ke – news website