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Of all the major rallies in the world, few have such a widespread reputation as the East African Safari. The event was first run in 1953 by some car enthusiasts who used the holiday granted to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth 1st to run a motoring event that they called “The Coronation Safari”. 

With time controls only at the start and finish, a 3,000 kilometre (1,875 mile) route, and set times rendered impossible by the rainy conditions, it proved to be a great success. Over the next seven years, it gradually grew and became more sophisticated. One major difference to European events, apart from the road conditions, was that the Safari catered only for standard cars, and these were often put into classes based on their Nairobi selling price rather than cylinder capacity.

Gradually European drivers and teams were attracted to this event since winning it had already proved to help international sales for VW, Mercedes, Ford and Peugeot. But the overseas drivers found it hard to get on terms with the local experts and right through the 1960s the likes of Erik Carlsson, Paddy Hopkirk, Eugen Böhringer, Tom Trana, Pat Moss and Rauno Aaltonen all failed to take that tantalising win. They often led the event but at the finish it was local men like Nick Nowicki, Bert Shankland, Peter Hughes, Edgar Herrmann and Robin Hillyar who went home with the trophies.

Weight of numbers plus hard-learned experience was bound to tell in the long run and in 1972 Hannu Mikkola finally became the first overseas driver to win the Safari, driving his Ford Escort RS1600. Second that year was another European, Sobieslaw Zasada, driving a Porsche 911. 

By this time, the Safari had become a very big event in every meaning of the phrase. Firstly, it was covering some 6,400 kilometres (4,000 miles) and stretched over all three countries in East Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Secondly, it was attracting up to a hundred entries each year, of which many were from factory teams. Lastly and not least, it was also inducted as a round of the new World Rally Championship that started in 1973. The media coverage and the reputation of the Safari was enormous.

As the years went on, Uganda and Tanzania dropped away and the Safari ran entirely within Kenya, with Nairobi as the traditional start and finish location. The route gradually shortened until in the mid-1980s it was some 5,200 kilometres (3,250 miles) but the ingenuity of the organisers and the introduction of larger number of time controls meant that the rally lost none of it tough reputation. 

There had been plenty of local wins in the 1970s with Joginder Singh and Shekhar Mehta clocking up seven wins between them – Mehta winning the rally four times in succession for Datsun between 1979 and 1982 – but the general trend was for overseas drivers from the factory teams to win. When the four wheel drive Group B cars arrived in the 1980s, they were not immediately dominant and conventional cars like the Opel Ascona 400 and the Toyota Celica Turbo continued to win. 

Indeed it was not until Group B had been banned at the end of 1986 and the new Group A cars were introduced that a four wheel drive car finally won the Safari. This distinction went again to Hannu Mikkola who drove an Audi 200 Quattro to success in 1987.

The effect of the Group B ban had been to force rally organisers in other parts of the world to vastly improve their crowd control, and rules came in to reduce, among other things, the length of World Championship rallies. These rules hit the Safari quite hard as it was an event that had traditionally been decided over long distances and with timing to the nearest minute. 

Now it was required to have short stages on guaranteed closed roads and timing to the second. As it moved into the 21st century, its route shrunk to 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) and the need to have the whole rally rigorously controlled had forced up the cost of running so that it was concentrated in a very confined area of Kenya. As well as taking away much of the adventure and the style of the old events, the budget could not be found to keep it alive and, after the fiftieth edition in 2002, the East African Safari ceased to exist as a World Championship event.

Fortunately for rallying, Mike Kirkland, Surinder Thatthi and several of the old competitors and organisers thought that it would be a good idea to run an old-style Safari – with some suitable changes – featuring cars that were around in the hey-day of the Safari. Out of this idea sprung the 2003 event, which proved a very popular success both with local teams and crews from abroad. With help from Kenya Airways and WEC Lines, both the competitors and their cars were conveyed to and from Kenya. The event ran again successfully in 2005 and with the announcement of the 2007 edition, looks set to become a regular feature on the calendar of classic events.

The East African Safari Classic is an FIA authorised international rally for cars built before 1975. These cars cannot have four wheel drive or a supercharged or turbocharged engine. Although the emphasis is on period authenticity, all the cars taking part have to be fitted with modern safety items such as roll cages, fire extinguishers and seat belts. The reason for that is simple: the Safari Classic is an event every bit as competitive as the original East African Safari and has been constructed in its mould.

Unlike its famous ancestor, however, the emphasis on fast driving is only for the designated competitive sections. The rally stops every night for rest, refreshment and relaxation. However it is still tough and demanding, characteristics that it copies from the original event, and it will not disappoint those seeking adventure. There are more than 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) of competitive sections in a total of 4,300 kilometres (2,700 miles) of motoring. And those competitive sections are largely run on tough sections borrowed from the old Safaris.

The driving may be hard, but the night halts make up for it in comfort. These are at some of the game lodges and hotels that have made Kenya and Tanzania famous. In the middle of the rally, one rest day will mean that competitors get two nights in the same lodge. In addition, this year competitors will be staying two nights at other halts, which will give more time to appreciate what they have to offer. The nine day event comprises eight days of competition and one of rest.

The rally starts and finishes from Mombasa, and the entry fee for overseas entries includes just about everything that a two-man crew could need, ranging from air tickets to hotel rooms, car shipping to and from Mombasa, hotel accommodation for their service crew, and all the help needed to get the car through customs. 

The entry fee is US$25,900 which can be paid in instalments. Entries are limited to a maximum of sixty and already a dozen firm bookings have been received.

For more information, contact the Rally Office which is run by Event Director, Surinder Thatthi at info@eastafricansafarirally.com

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