Commander Eric Cecil started the Safari Rally together with his cousin Neil Vincent in 1953. Writing from Australia in July of 2002, he sent this STATEMENT to PETER NJENGA, then a reporter for Daily Nation, now Media Director for the WRC Safari Rally Project, but little did he know that this would be the epithet of Africa’s premier sporting event because in October of the same year the FIA dropped the Safari from the WRC
Bwana Safari comes back to Kenya in July 2002 to witness his beloved Safari Rally
Perth Australia, July 2002– Commander Eric Cecil, best known in Kenya as “Bwana Safari” is making his last visit to his beloved event, the Safari Rally in July 2002.
This is the 50th anniversary of the event which he originated as the Coronation Safari Rally and which, with time became the East African Safari Rally, considered the best rally in the world.
“Bwana Safari” has attended every Safari since he first organised it in 1953, an event which he later conducted as the chairman of the organizing committee for 21 years while serving the AA (Automobile Association – Kenya) chairman, for 35 years.
The Safari Rally was preceded by a very local ‘round-the-mountain’ rally which Eric Cecil organised as competition manager of the Motor Sports Department of the AA. This event was well supported by many Kenyans and, with the creation of the Langa Langa motor race track at Gilgil which he helped others to create, Kenya and, later East Africa, became well launched into motor racing and rallying sport.
It is interesting to note that Eric Cecil, in his DKW Auto Union (forerunner of the Audi) together with Tony Vickers as navigator, was the outright winner of the Safari in 1956.
Eric Cecil got the approval for the event from the chairman and Competition Committee of the AA providing it would not cost the members any money, hence he went out to market and sought the finances which was so generously given by the East African Standard, Shell Oil Company and East African Airways and the Coronation Safari Rally became a reality.
Just in case this is not generally known, it should be noted that these were all WORLD’s FIRSTs and were followed by all other organizers with the exception of “price classification” which had to be changed to “cubic capacity” to comply with international standards.
Eric Cecil was responsible for a number of innovations which he introduced such as:
- Competition by price into four categories of entries on the basis that “you got what you paid for”
- Competition numbers on the roof of the vehicles so that they could be indentified from the air
- With Alex Noon, a famous aviator at the time, he flew and gave the first air to ground commentaries through (Kenya Army) Forces Broadcasting Services in Nairobi (call and wireless)
- He was conscious that competing in rallies costs money. Many could not afford even the relatively small cost of that time. To help solve this problem, he requested the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) in England, governing body of motor sport in East Africa, to be allowed advertising on competing vehicles. The request was denied but on subsequent telephone conversation chairman to chairman, Eric Cecil emphasized the need for some assistance and went ahead on his own accord.
Since migrating to Australia from Kenya, and whenever he returned to the “old country” Eric ‘Bwana Safari” Cecil was a much-sought man for his anecdotes about the Safari Rally history.
Annually, “Bwana Safari” did not only meet up with old friends as well as witness his much loved Safari Rally but had to put up with endless press interviews by local and international media.
When “Bwana Safari” came for Safari Rally’s 50th Anniversary, the story Peter Njenga wrote after meeting Eric Cecil was, at the time, headlined:
‘The birth of world’s toughest rally’
MOTORSPORT is the oldest organised sporting event in Kenya after cricket which was introduced in 1896 in Mombasa by a group of British soldiers who docked there in Her Majesty war ships and wanted to stretch after many months in the sea.
There were few vehicles in Kenya at the turn of the last century and pioneer white settlers did odd hill climbs but nothing much to write about.
But Africa was opening up and once Nairobi was connected with Johannesburg by road, a group of “cowboys” mooted the idea of a road race between the two cities.
In October 1936 the cars started outside the Norfolk Hotel (Nairobi) for the 4,800km Nairobi-Johannesburg race which was won by C.L. “Fairly” Engelbrecht. The rallying seed been planted.
After the end of the Second World War, Eric Cecil, the chairman of the competition committee of the East African Automobile Association (EAAA), challenged his peers to attempt the journey south as individuals and compare times. He won one of the marathon races in a Skoda.
Cecil was driven by a single-minded purpose to establish a motorsport culture in Kenya and actually established the Langa Langa racing track in Nakuru and “Round the Mountain Trial” in Mount Kenya.
But to some, this was boring and a waste of time. They needed something with variables. So, in January 1952, as the story goes, Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and Eric Tromp were sharing a drink at a bar in Limuru, near Nairobi. As the night wore on, Cecil and Tromp asked Vincent why he shunned 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 is the winner, then I will enter,” said Vincent.
This simple statement led to the birth of the Safari Rally. Cecil’s mind went on a spin and several mugs of beer later; he suggested a trip around Lake Victoria. Drivers would choose any direction to start with only two control points near Bukoba.
Though corruption was nonexistent then, 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 try and Cecil finally settled for rallying.
Cecil returned to the EAAA and sold the long distance event concept but the bosses were not interested. They considered EAAA as a body solely there to serve the motoring public and not motorsports fans.
“They told me that they were not interested,” Cecil told this writer in an interview at the exclusive Muthaiga Country Club many years ago when he came to Kenya as a guest of the Safari Rally.
“But God presented me with a gift,” he added. Cecil returned to the EAAA in February 1952 days after Queen Elizabeth received the news of her father’s death — King George VI – while, incidentally in Kenya, lodging at the Treetops in Nyeri.
“Please do allow the motoring publics in Kenya commemorate the coronation of the queen through a long distance event,” Cecil pleaded with the EAAA.
Kenya was a British colony and EAAA had no alternative but to give their nod. But Cecil was told to look for money elsewhere. So he went looking for sponsors.
He did. The first financiers of the Safari were: East African Standard, Shell Oil Company and East African Airways and the Coronation Safari Rally became a reality.
1: The 1953 Safari Rally was the first sporting event in Africa to be broadcast “live” on radio in running commentaries by Eric Cecil from the air in an aircraft piloted by ace aviator Alex Noon through the Forces Broadcasting Services.
2: Commercial sponsorship was from the beginning the engine that has lasted the Safari Rally for 66 years. The first sponsors who gave British pounds 1,000 were the East African Standard newspapers, Shell Oil Company and East African Airways. In 2017 the Kenya Government provided a grant of British pounds 1.8 million for the actualisation of the WRC Safari Rally Project.
3: The DKW Auto Union Eric Cecil drove with navigator Tony Vickers in 1956, is the forerunner of Audi, winner of the 1987 Safari by Hannu Mikkola and Arnie Hertz.