There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet.... The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom and unequaled nobility...you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
—Isak Dinesen, "Out of Africa"
The man in the death seat was not unfamiliar with speed. Over the years he had grown accustomed to that relinquishment of fate that constitutes a ride with a fast driver. Helpless, he surrendered any hope of a future to the hands of the man at the wheel. He sat with his own hands curled in his lap, wondering if they would sweat this time or keep their cool. He learned to concentrate on the scenery and gradually found his fear transmuting itself into exhilaration. Speed was no longer a threat; speed was fun. Thus does the lowercase coward become the uppercase Passenger.
Now the Passenger was in Africa strapped into the co-driver's seat of a Datsun 240Z sports coupe, not a fast car by racing standards, maybe 130 miles an hour flat out, getting ready for his first taste of rally riding. The red-and-black automobile was parked outside a scabby, stuccoed garage in the outskirts of Nairobi, where the Datsun team had its headquarters for the 19th Annual East African Safari rally. It was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet—hot both inside the car and out. Wreaths of gray fungus floated in the ditches flanking the parking lot, a rich reminder of Kenya's status as an underdeveloped nation. Fortunately the interior of the Datsun smelled of new cars and new tires—a stack of snow radials and boxes of spare parts were tied down on the rear deck, enough to apply first aid anywhere along the rally route. Hans Schuller, 39, a plump, blond, heavy-shouldered German who had won the Safari the year before as co-driver with Kenya's Edgar Herrmann, climbed in and flashed a sadistic grin. When he was not rallying, Schuller served as an insurance company executive. "Let's find us some rally roads," he said.
The Datsun whipped gracefully through Nairobi's heavy afternoon traffic, with Schuller's Safari horn—dah-dee-dah-dow-dah-dee-dee—clearing the way as effectively as a police siren. Buses and trucks and weaving sedans flew backward as the Datsun surged down the Tarmac toward Mombasa. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom and unequaled mobility. Or is it nobility? thought the Passenger. He felt a bit giddy from the combination of engine and solar heat. "You don't need a sauna after this!" bellowed Schuller, sweating merrily. Then he pulled off to the left, leaving the paved highway for a wasted, two-rutted track that wound back into the chocolate-colored hills embracing the town of Machakos. "Zese are our rally roats," chortled Hans, his accent suddenly strengthening as he approached his personal Valhalla. He stopped for a moment, as if to underscore the transition.
August 1, 1971
Then, windows up against the dust, its unmuffled engine suddenly embedded in the Passenger's skull, its steel-girder suspension transmitting every crease in the road directly up the spine, its tires spewing a twin rooster tail of tan silken dust, the Datsun 240Z did its number up the dirt road. For the first time in years the Passenger shook hands with panic. "Here I am," he thought, "where I ought not to be."
Impressions born of anxiety blossomed in the Passenger's forebrain. A road no wider than a fat man, humped and pitted more mercilessly than the world's worst cripple. A sudden rotting bridge. A washboard straightaway where the speedometer needle leaped to 130 mph. A linked chain of slides through hairpin corners with Schuller locking the wheel full left, then right, then left again. Another straight. Then cattle on the road ahead, growing almost instantly from black wormlike blobs into full-sized cows replete with stupid eyes, and then—fortunately—scuttling out of the way. A green bus wobbling up toward the car, an instant in which its windows blaze with black faces and white-toothed grins, then the bus whisks out of sight: past. Dust filtering up through the floorboards and crunching in gritted teeth. A wrenching right-hand slew through a village—where did it come from?—with black schoolchildren in sky-blue uniforms pouring out to watch the Safari car blast past; beautiful, astounded faces. Then, miracle of miracles, Schuller misses a gear change and decides to stop. "I make a boo-boo," he says.
A cool, desiccating breeze blows across the ridge where the Datsun is parked. Heat waves rising from the hood distort the air. To the north, beyond the pallid, high-rise profile of Nairobi, Mount Kenya stands blue and white, its head in the equatorial clouds. "Beautiful country, nicht?" says Schuller.
Truly it is. The combination of altitude—Nairobi stands 5,500 feet above sea level—and equatorial sunlight produce a jolting intensity of color. The people are equally beautiful. As Schuller talks, a dozen Africans emerge from the bunda—Swahili for the uncultivated, spidery, biting thornbush that covers their land. Most of them are women. During the heat of the day East African men stay in the shade, talking and swatting flies, while their womenfolk haul Herculean loads of firewood, bananas, roofing beams, bathtubs, 10-gallon jerricans of water, children, etc. up and down the steep countryside. The men may act a bit surly from time to time, as is a man's wont anywhere, but the women are inevitably smiling. One of these women is quite comely in a red bandana and the Kenyan equivalent of a miniskirt. "You want go Nairobi?" Hans asks. Hans intensifies his German accent. "You come Nairobi wiss me I tich you Englisch." The girl lowers her eyes and coyly swings her panga—the curved, short-bladed bush knife all wayfaring East Africans carry. "Hey!" yells Hans happily, "what you do dat panga?" She: "Me chop dat panga." Giggling, she decapitates a thornbush at her feet. She smiles like a black madonna. Schuller climbs back into the now-cooled Datsun and, as it bellows off back toward Nairobi, the girl yells "Bye-bye!"
No experience as vast and anomalous as the East African Safari can be distilled into a single impression. After all, in this year's Safari 107 cars manned by 214 drivers set out to cover 3,800 miles of the world's meanest, nastiest, loveliest continent—all in a mere four days. Along the way they traveled only 500 miles of paved roads. The rest was dust, mud, potholes, washouts, flashfloods, cliffs and washboard. There were moving hazards as well: reluctant herds of goats and cattle, aggressive big-game animals from the Pleistocene, giant double-lorries that can be as obstinate as a rhino and twice as destructive, panicky pedestrians, the ubiquitous "whammy wagons"—ancient buses belching black stink and weaving like a Bowery lush. Mainly there was the African earth: timeless, gaudy, redolent of death and the Stone Age, violated during th se four Eastertide days by 20th-century speed. No way to pull the whole of it together into one convenient, tell-it-all metaphor. Yet the ride with Hans Schuller contained the essence of the Safari. The rest of it would have to come out in fragments.
That night the Passenger went over to the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi to talk with Gunnar Palm, the Scandinavian rally navigator. Palm is 34, a lean, dark-haired, boyish Swede who co-drove the winning Ford Escort Twin Cam that won last year's World Cup Rally. He was working on his navigational notebooks in the airy cottage he shared with Hannu Mikkola, his Finnish driving partner. The caged birds in the Norfolk's courtyard squawked as Palm looked up. "I write about 15 of these notebooks for this rally," he said. "I've already been around the course twice, and I reckon I'll cover 15,000 kilometers before we're ready to run. I don't note every single kilometer, of course, just a rough shorthand coverage of the tricky corners, the potential washouts and mudholes, the places where we ought to look out for buses or cattle or people crossing the road. Or game. Sometimes at night you run the risk of hitting a zebra or a warthog or even a rhino. Elephants usually get out of the way, though a couple of years back when Herrmann and Schuller broke down, a big old bull gave them a push. Giraffes aren't too dangerous if you drive between their legs. But if they fall on you, they'll crush the car for certain."
It was cool and dark blue on the Norfolk's veranda. Nightjars and crockery clinked in the same key. "I've run in the Safari since 1963," said Palm. "Then the average speed was 70 kilometers an hour. What's that—42 mph? Now it's up to 63. It's a flat-out road race, no matter what the organizers say. We'll have to hit 120 or 130 over the good stretches to maintain those averages. Of course, the roads have improved immensely. Much less mud now than in years past. The mudholes detract from the sport—it's simply a matter of luck, finding someone to push or pull you out when you stick."
The talk swung to rallying in general. A few rally drivers—notably England's Vic Elford, Gerard Larrousse of France and the Finn, Leo Kinnunen—had made a successful conversion to sports-car racing. By contrast, of the drivers who grew up in road racing, only the late Jim Clark had achieved quick success in rallying. How come? "In rallying you have to face many new problems instantaneously," said Palm. "It's not like going around the same course over and over again, getting the problems of cornering and shifting and braking taped into your unconscious. On any given rally route, conditions change constantly. You cannot hold back—you must thrust yourself into the situation and trust your reflexes. It's what the hippies would call 'Now' driving."
Eyes, a driver's most important tools, are thus doubly important to the rallyist, who must read the road quickly as it unrolls before him. "You have to see the pothole over the hill, the washout around the bend," said Palm. "It's a subliminal thing—you learn a lot you could never explain in words about the effect of rain on gravel, say, as opposed to mud. Your eyes get so sharp that you can see trouble before it appears. During the Monte Carlo Rally, when I was navigating for Erik Carlsson, he and I got so acute that we could spot friends in the crowd at 120 mph and have time enough to wave at them—sometimes obscenely."
It was quite dark by now, and a few stings of sheet lightning illuminated the scene. "I don't know," said Palm finally. "Should rally results run on the sports pages or the entertainment pages? Or maybe on the commercial pages—after all, the whole point is to sell cars. For us, though, it's a test. I lose about 15 pounds during a Safari, even though I can drink 10 liters of lemon squash during a rest stop. Physically it's tough. Socially, too. You need a lot of democracy in a car—as co-driver you must be able to tell the driver when he needs a rest, when he is making mistakes. That can be difficult. Sometimes the Africans throw stones at you—in '67 or '68 we took a boulder through the windscreen. That same year they built a stone wall across the road and Pat Moss—Stirling's sister—pranged it. Finished the car, all right. The Africans aren't malicious exactly. They throw rocks because it's a challenge to hit such a fast-moving target. I hope they will throw fewer stones this year, since there are three All-African teams driving. I also hope it stays dry. Then we might have our first victory here by a European driver, which is long overdue. How do the Americans say it? For the European driver, there is no joy in Mudville." The laughter was erased by a peal of thunder.
One would expect that in a country as vast and powerful as East Africa, the arrival of the rains would be Biblical in scope. Great crashing walls of water cascading across the land; lightning on the megaton level; thunder fit to shatter whole cities. Not so. The "long rains" of April and early May are sporadic—usually localized and brief, though heavy enough to swamp out a road where they fall. It is precisely this random pattern of rainfall that makes the Safari such a challenge. A driver might be tooling along comfortably on dry murrum (British colonial for a dirt road), then, in the flick of a windshield wiper, find himself "cutting doughnuts" on a wet spot where the rain has turned the red-clay surface into the equivalent of a freshly buttered frying pan. After half a dozen cars have passed through the wet spot it becomes a bottomless quagmire. With the advent of factory team competition in the Safari two years ago wet spots became less of a threat: at places like Morogoro and Mbulu in Tanzania or the 90-mile stretch of hairpins between Meru and Embu on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, a factory outfit might spot 10 or 15 Land Rovers to drag its cars through. In the old days a driving team had to extricate itself. That usually meant hiring local help, which gave the East African drivers a great advantage since they could speak Swahili and carried about them some remnant of the waning white man's mantle and mystique. In 1964 Gunnar Palm and Erik Carlsson found themselves bogged down with no local help. Using a little Scandinavian ingenuity, they simply turned their Saab onto its roof and skidded it out like a turned turtle. When rally officials indicated a bit of polite skepticism at the tale, Palm and Carlsson flipped the Saab right in front of Nairobi's city hall and gave a demonstration. In any event, "wet" Safaris have always been tougher than dry ones. In the two wettest runs in the Safaris' 19-year history, only seven of the starters finished—mainly because of mud.
But this year looked like a dry Safari. East Africa was undergoing its worst drought since the Saab turtle—famine gripped the Northern Frontier and, with it, cholera was spreading from Wajir near the Ethiopian border down toward Garissa and the population centers around Mount Kenya. All of East Africa was praying for rain; only the European drivers hoped the drought would continue for another few days. It did not.
As the Passenger returned to the New Stanley Hotel after his talk with Palm, the first heavy downpour hit Nairobi. It was a warm, sweet rain, a touch of new life. The legless beggars outside the hotel lay back against their walls, faces to the sky, soaking it up and smiling. Back in the Long Bar of the New Stanley, where he was sipping a beer with friends, Edgar Herrmann also smiled at the rain. Herrmann is a lean, hard-eyed operator (a resort hotel on the coast at Malindi; a car dealership in Nairobi) who won the Safari last year for Datsun and was favored to do it again this year; a confident, competent man usually trailed by good-looking women. He tugged at a black sideburn and listened to the rain. "My kind of weather," said Edgar.
The Safari traditionally starts from Nairobi's city hall, a comfortably weatherworn brick edifice in the center of that clean, busy capital city. A decade earlier the city hall had been the tallest building in view; now it was dwarfed by other, uglier structures, diminished in a sense, just as East Africa seemed diminished by its graceless scramble to Westernize. Indeed, waking on the morning of the Safari's start, the Passenger had thought for one wild moment that he was in St. Louis: the cold clear light, the hard shadows thrown by sterile high-rise buildings, the yammer of traffic in the streets below his window. Fortunately, it was still Africa; out beyond the high rise, Mount Kenya was pulling the morning cloud cap over its ears.
Despite the esthetic absurdity of the Nairobi Hilton rearing its blunt tower over the scene, there was plenty of Africa to look at around city hall. Wananche, the people, had descended on the town in droves. "More people watch the start of the Safari than came to Nairobi for uhuru," said one white Kenyan. A brilliant wall of living color pressed up against the wire in front of the starting ramp—a Jackson Pollock sprawl of black-velvet faces and Day-Glo-brilliant cloth. The wananche were disturbingly intense—not like a cool, flippant sports-car crowd or a down-to-earth Indy crowd. This was the Neolithic looking at the Automobile Age and loving it. The Kenya police, leaner and tougher in their starched khakis than the L.A.P.D. in its hard hats and shades, knew the score. From time to time the Kenya cops would lash out at the crowd with their rhino-hide whips, splitting faces and ripping ears with the sole intention of keeping the wire fence intact. The wananche took the beatings merrily. Even the bloody ones kept right on staring and chuckling.
This was the essential anomaly of the Safari, the Passenger suddenly realized. Here were these cars—the finest pieces of road-eating machinery created by Western civilization, intricate, carefully tuned, laden with the fruit of a million technological insights, brought into being by a web of history and engineering that the vastest computer could never reproduce. And there were the fans. The fans were among the last of the world's full-time pedestrians. They could not differentiate between 20 and 200 mph. Both speeds were pesi pesi—Swahili for fast. The Passenger knew what made one car better than another, and so he could nod his head in approval of the tidy, tight Datsun 240Zs. To the African fan, all cars possessed dawa—magic—and all cars were fantastic. Perhaps the Passenger, too, would have put up with slashes from the cops if he had felt that way.
What the fans did not know was that there were only a few possibilities of victory among the 107 entries. A study of the form sheet made it all clear. Fully 34 of the entries were Datsuns—a fact that reflected on the Nissan Shimbun's win last year and its high finishes in the past three rallies. Three of the Datsun entries were factory cars, which meant they were supported by the best of Japan's industrial wizardry: tow cars and helicopters to ferry in spare engine parts or even full suspensions and transmissions and hordes of dour, dedicated, diminutive mechanics who could work 16 hours straight on a bite of fish and two Coca-Colas to the orders of a topnotch team manager known as "Mistah Namba" or, among the irreverent, "Solly, Long Namba." There were 16 Peugeots entered; slow machines, but one could not count Peugeot out because that marque had enjoyed immense success over the Safari roads during the mid-to-late '60s, and Tanzania's Bert Shankland, a double winner, was driving one of the three factory 504s. Then there was Ford—English Ford, mind you—with 15 machines. Five of the cars were spanking new factory Escort Twin-Cams prepared by that tough little Britisher, Bill Barnett, who had introduced Jim Clark to rallying with such success. Last year Ford let its fortunes rest in the hands of the local agency, a Nairobi firm (Hughes Ltd.) managed by Leo Leonard. His cars failed to finish for the first time in Ford's Safari involvement. Leonard is a sensible, realistic East African businessman, and he said, "The Safari counts for precisely sweet Fanny Adams as far as local sales go. Ford realizes that what sells cars internationally—internationally, now—is a combination of name drivers and victory. What sells cars locally, for my agency, is quite something else." So Bill Barnett was here, and he had as his drivers such internationally famous rally figures as Timo Makinen, Hannu Mikkola and Robin Hillyar, along with two of the most exciting names in East African driving—Joginder Singh, the 1965 Safari winner, and Vic Preston Jr., son of a double winner.
Finally there was Porsche to contend with. The Stuttgarters had sent down a three-car factory team of 911 Ss, the rugged little bugs that dominate low-displacement European and American road racing. Driving for Porsche were Bjorn Waldegaard, Ake Andersson and Poland's Sobieslav Zasada, the best of the breed. Zasada commanded instant respect. He had nearly won the Safari in 1970, failing only because of a damaged oil sump on the final leg. He had a hard face, an impenetrable cool. The Porsche was quickest of all the entries on good roads, but had a reputation for frailty in the Safari.
Beyond the factory teams, there were enough outsiders to make it a race. Five Lancias with good local drivers, seven slow but reliable Volvos, a brace of Saabs whose front-wheel drive would be valuable in the mud and a single, innovative Range Rover—a 100 mph variant on the Land Rover. If the Safari turned out to be glue and grease from the very start, the Range Rover just might stand a chance.
So much for the form chart. Now for the start. Out of city hall strode Jomo Kenyatta to do the honors. He is a wise old revolutionary who knew how to govern after the revolution. He was wearing a wise old revolutionary's uniform: charcoal-blue pinstripe suit, red boutonniere, a tasteful cravat. In his hand was his fly whisk, that symbol of authority created by Kenyatta instantly and effectively, like Castro and the fatigue cap. Kenyatta was conservative in his own choice of headgear: a pale, posh, ultracolonial Panama straw. As he appeared the wananche surged forward against the wire, and the whips snapped viciously again. No one seemed to mind.
After a few words with the Safari officials and the top-seeded drivers, Kenyatta raised his fly whisk for the start. The city hall clock read high noon when the whisk fell and the first car, a Kelly-green Porsche, sloped down the ramp with an unmuffled roar and scuttled around the corner. A wild hoo-raw went up from the crowd, as it would for every two minutes for the next 3½ hours while the field got thunderously into motion.
The route of the Safari snaked in a ragged figure eight, the first leg running southeast from Nairobi to the Indian Ocean coast, passing through the Tsavo game reserve and the muddy Taita Hills en route to Mombasa and the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. Then the way swung westward through the back country of Tanzania, over the notorious Usambara Range—more mud and high escarpments—to Dodoma, then north again through the game country inland of Mount Kilimanjaro to Arusha. Then from Arusha back to Nairobi. There the drivers would take an eight-hour rest stop—their only full night's sleep during the four days and nights of driving.
The northerly loop of the figure eight would take the Safari up the Great Rift Valley, the giant natural ditch that splits East Africa like a titanic plow furrow, and westward past Lake Victoria into Uganda. After a brief rest stop in the capital of Kampala the drivers would push on westward into the Ruwenzoris, the legendary Mountains of the Moon, loop eastward through Fort Portal on the Congolese border and then sweep back into Kenya to return to Nairobi on the slick, snaking roads that flank Mount Kenya on the east.
Each circle of the figure eight was nearly 2,000 miles long, and only a fraction of the total distance was paved. The rest of the route was demonically chosen on the basis of the most mud and the worst punishment the roads could dish out to suspensions, brakes, tires, steering and oil sumps. Not to mention drivers.
Since the Passenger was forbidden by Safari rules from riding as a real passenger in one of the rally cars, he planned to hopscotch ahead of the leaders by lightplane, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover. He wanted to see the cars through the widest possible variety of terrain, and since the area to be covered was roughly two-thirds the size of the United States, he would have to hop fast. From the starting ramps, a Land Rover lugged him out to Wilson Airport—East Africa's busiest strip, since it is home base for most of Kenya's bush planes—and on the way he stopped along the Uhuru Highway to watch some Safari cars pass. The highway was lined with spectators—gray-bearded Sikhs; ruddy-cheeked Europeans in khaki shorts; the occasional lone Masai leaning on his walking staff, cow dung in his hair and contempt on his ochred face. The cars whipped by in a hurry, some with as many as seven headlights blazing even though it was midday, and their Safari horns ululating like hyenas.
At the airport Captain Ben Pont was waiting in his brown-and-white Cessna 210. The captain, known as Pontius Pilot to friends and enemies alike, is an expatriate Dutchman who survived Starfighter jets in The Netherlands Air Force and five years of East African crop-dusting. He may be the best pilot in Africa; he certainly is the most daring. One of his riders on this trip took to calling him "The Green Baron—that's the color he leaves you." A vroom or two, lift-off, a wrenching turn, a few low-level runs on zebras in the Nairobi game park and Pontius was off in pursuit of the Safari.
He caught the lead cars in the dry hills behind Machakos, the same stretch of road to which the Passenger had been introduced by Hans Schuller. The road looked less believable from the air than from the ground: switchbacks, washouts, herds of cattle snoozing in the middle of the track, each car going flat out and trailing a half-mile plume of dust. Passing seemed impossible in the tan twilight created by the dust, yet a Datsun was doing just that to a Peugeot as Pont flew past. A waggle of wings and The Green Baron set his course for Ndi, in the Tsavo. "That's Shekhar Mehta in the Datsun," said Ben as he regained altitude. "The Uganda sugar king—sort of an East African Rockefeller—but he's only 25. Friend of mine. I bet him to win."
It was raining at Ndi, where the cars were taking service stops, then peeling off the tarmac into the mud of the Taita Hills. Just walking the shoulder of the road was treacherous—the red clay had gone berserk underfoot. The Passenger slid his way over to the Datsun service area where the Herrmann-Schuller car was taking on mud tires. A barrel-bellied German in a forage cap and brief trunks was cursing out the Japanese mechanics in bastard Axis. Rain sluiced through the hair on his fat back; he was red with gluey mud from the knees down. Hans Schuller stopped to chat. So far it was anyone's rally—Datsun, Ford and Porsche dominated the top 20. Dreadful weather, said Hans.
While Pontius Pilot winged ahead on a photo-recon mission, the Passenger proceeded by car down to the coast, cutting ahead of the Safari at one point by staying on the main road while the rallyists negotiated the Taita Hills. The Tsavo was grotesque and unsettling. The hulks of abandoned cars lay like bits of New Jersey along the highway. Back of the road the red elephants of Tsavo stood under the baobab trees, scratching themselves and looking surly. Where it had rained the elephants were gray; their red color comes from the clay. The squat bulbous baobabs looked like transmogrified people, like the Ents, those talking, walking trees in Tolkien. The thought came that they might be the damned souls of European elephant hunters, cursed to live out eternity as scratching posts for their erstwhile victims. It was a pleasant conceit.
Suddenly, below the Tsavo, where the Safari cars rejoined the tarmac for a brief stretch, it was a whole new Africa. The coastal culture began abruptly where the elephants ended. Small mosques, topless bibis in gaudy, tie-dyed wraparounds and the ubiquitous Arab shopkeeper. An old Arab in a caftan, his face gray as his pajama-cloth robe, sat cynically behind the beaded curtain of his store, stirring spice into his mud-thick coffee. It was muggy and hot: this is the Fever Coast that killed the English like DDT-sprayed flies less than a century ago. Palms and pecans began to crowd out the baobabs. Some of the women wore black, head-covering robes. At Mombasa the shark-ridden harbor was studded with dhows, the high-pooped Arab trading ships that have dominated this corner of the Indian Ocean since prehistory. Then—zip—a Safari car blew over the bridge, past the dhows.
The leader was Ake Andersson in the green Porsche No. 1, but he was being pressed hard by the No. 4 Saab, which had Stig Blomqvist at the wheel. The Saab's front-wheel drive had paid off through the muddy Taita Hills. And the Porsche was not showing its vaunted speed—perhaps the roads were beginning to tell on the less-than-robust 911S. Next came a brace of Ford Escorts—Hillyar and Mikkola. Then a staggering of Datsuns. So it was still a mixed bag at Mombasa, but the Datsuns were moving up. Some critics had suggested that the 240Z was slung too low, that it would tear out sump and springs on the rough back roads between Nairobi and the coast. This hadn't happened yet, so it probably wouldn't at all.
It was too dark to fly when Pontius Pilot was rejoined at the resort town of Kilifi. But the next morning, as dhow crews chanted their prayers in the first light, came the takeoff for Tanzania. The sunrise bloodied the reefs offshore; looking down, the Passenger could see the dark torpedo shapes of wahoo feeding along the dropoffs. What looked like permit were nosing through the coral heads. Pont stooped on the fishing canoes in the shallows, diving the Cessna to within 10 feet of the glassy surface and leaving the fishermen cursing behind him. But it was all in fun—the kind of fun taught by air force kindergartens the world over.
Leaving the coast behind, Pont began a long climb over the Usambaras toward the Tanzanian district capital of Dodoma, the next interception point for the Safari cars. The tourist spots of Nairobi abounded with horror stories about Tanzania. Julius Nyerere's African socialist government was said to contain many black copies of Mao's Red Guards. Any white who offended them, even unintentionally, ran the risk of instant jail, and African prisons make even the Tijuana cooler seem luxurious. What is more, as the result of a growing alienation among the former members of the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), any Kenyan or Ugandan currency brought into Tanzania would be confiscated on the spot. Immigration officials, who have come to be known as "customs and irritation" throughout black Africa, were reputed to be at their fiercest, most disdainful and bureaucratically bullheaded in Tanzania. Thanks to this reputation, Tanzania has suffered severely from a lack of tourism.
Not one of these horror stories materialized when the Passenger got to Dodoma. He breezed through customs and irritation with a cup of coffee in one hand and smiles all around. Every Tanzanian he met was friendly and helpful, and although a few had their hands out—particularly for American dollars—once they learned that the mark could not be conned they did their best to help him, with no further thought to exorbitant reward.
Typical of the lot was Mubarak Karamu, owner of the rustiest Peugeot taxicab in tropical Africa, which is going some. After holding out for half the federal transportation budget—payable in gold—then retreating through greenbacks and any non-Tanzanian currency to the equivalent of $5 in local shillings, Karamu cheerfully drove the Passenger 15 miles west of town to watch the Safari come through. Perhaps "drove" is the wrong word; "dribbled" was more like it. At first the Passenger thought a sandstorm was beginning, but the grit in his teeth proved only to be fine clouds of rust drifting up from the floorboards and down from the roof. "Very good for you," said Karamu. "Like vitamins. Eat it for the liver."
The road where Karamu stopped was two inches deep in fine, slippery dust, hot to the touch in the 105° temperature. White morning glories with purple eyes bloomed among the thornbush that flanked the road and ring-necked doves barrel-rolled from maize plot to maize plot, eliciting Ben Pont's admiration for their aerodynamic cleanliness. Karamu ran a mercy mission into the bush in search of watermelons, striding off into the thorn with the same tireless trot you see refined in the person of Kipchoge Keino. Back with him he brought not only a load of cool, crisp, red-seeded variants of our Sugar Babies but a band of shyly curious natives. Bare-breasted, shaven-headed women, mainly, with squads of laughing children whose voices rose like an umbrella against the sun. A lean old man bleated by with his herd of goats, but stopped when he learned the Safari cars were coming.
They boiled onto the scene minutes later: a distant buzz from the rock knobs to the. west, .then faint plumes of dust rising above the thornbush, then the sound of gear changes, of acceleration through the corners, and finally the first car itself, an explosion of light and noise that grew and swayed and snapped past with its headlights staring ahead like the amber eyes of a blue-and-white buffalo. It was the No. 8 Ford Escort—Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm. As if to underscore his earlier claim to keen eyesight at speed, Palm waved at the Passenger as he flicked past. He might even have winked. Next came the Datsun of Herrmann and Schuller, then Blomqvist's Saab, then another Datsun, then a Porsche, a Ford, a Porsche and a Peugeot. The 12th car through was the Datsun driven by Ben Pont's sugar-king buddy, Shekhar Mehta. "He starts 31st and now he's 12th," exulted Ben. "Just the proper rate of climb!"
Pont's own rate of climb out of Dodoma an hour later took him over the Safari route back to Nairobi. The radio crackled with obscene limericks, exchanged extemporaneously between the official observation plane and the clerk of course back at headquarters. The road below was dusty and mucky by turns, and as the red-and-white zebra-striped Ford driven by Vic Preston Jr. wound its way up a switchback north of Dodoma, one could tell by the slides and dust bursts just how intermittent the rains had been. It was late afternoon of a 30-hour day. A long evening light lay on Lake Manyara, and off to the east Mount Kilimanjaro had come clear from its clouds. Though the mountains were thick with towering greenery, which seemed to glower down at the cars as they snaked past below, the flatlands were arid.
"This is where they grow most of Tanzania's seed beans and wheat," said Ben Pont, always ready with a geography lesson. "I did a lot of crop-dusting here. There's a bird called the Sudan quelea—sparrowlike with a red, curved beak—that comes through here in flocks of from five to 20 million. Each quelea eats four times its weight a day in grain. Our Land Rovers would track them to their roosts and then outline the roosting areas with lighted poles. We'd fly from an airstrip, cut right next to the roost and spray at night—parathion mixed with diesel oil. Sometimes we'd find up to 33 dead birds per square foot the next day. Jackals and hyenas and vultures would eat the dead birds and die themselves. In 1967 we killed 360 million birds that would have eaten 4,500 tons of grain." Pontius Pilot told the anecdote proudly. Then he readied his instruments to land at Nairobi for the mid-Safari layover.
The first leg of the Safari is always the key to the finish. The weak cars are dead by the end of it. Strong cars lie at the top, like cream on raw milk. During the Nairobi layover, much was revealed. Only 56 of the 107 starters had made it halfway. The first three cars into Nairobi were Datsun 240Zs—Herrmann-Schuller, Aaltonen-Easter, Mehta-Doughty. Next came two ailing Porsche 911 Ss—Zasada-Bien and Waldegaard-Helmer. Bert Shankland's Peugeot lay a strong sixth, a portent for the future. The Ford Twin Cams were getting sickly—"Tin Cans," they were beginning to be called—though they still occupied four of the spots between sixth and 12th place. All of the women drivers had been eliminated, most of them time-barred because this had been a very speedy Safari so far and the ladies had not stood the pace. Or so the talk ran in the male chauvinist bars of Nairobi that night, with not a single protest.
The roughest sections had been those run at night through the wet—many of the dropouts during the first half of the rally had fallen after dark. A vocal clue to the ultimate finish was provided by Shekhar Mehta's co-driver, doughty Mike Doughty of Nairobi. During the first night-stretch, as their Datsun approached Dar-es-Salaam, the well-read Doughty had bellowed Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard into Shekhar's ear: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, /The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea, /The plowman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me."
What an ego trip. Racing blind and full throttle through the African night, trusting only machinery and their own reflexes to duck around death if it should appear at the bottom of the washout, an Asian and an Anglo had pushed to the front in the world's meanest race. For a moment, with Doughty's quotation, the superiority of the Machine Age over the Neolithic seemed quite evident. Men freed by science from the quagmire of mystery could indeed challenge the night. Men in motion were indeed tougher, smarter, more capable than men at rest behind some thorn tree eating their curds and myth.
As a result, the final half of the Safari was almost an anticlimax. It came through to the Passenger as a sequence of surrealisms, gaudy enough to the observer but obviously a pure Boschian hell to the participant. The run out of Nairobi was cold and wet under an overcast sky: Kikuyu cottage industrialists hawked beadwork and sheepskins along the lip of the Rift Valley. At Elmenteita five kinds of weather could be seen in the sky at once, everything from steel-gray storm clouds to desert azure. There were other things to be noted: Masai standing storklike in the weeds. A charcoal sky over Mau Narok, with the cars skidding under a filigreed-iron railroad bridge. A hasty and misspelled road sign: BEAWARE FLOODED RIVER. Pines and wattle replacing cactus on the escarpment's lip. The marshes of Lake Victoria flat and horse-maned in the evening light. A Peugeot blaring its horn up and down the road before the hotel in Kampala, where the drivers were trying to sleep—was it sent there by the factory to keep the opposition awake?
Just beyond Kampala, Edgar Herrmann blew a tire on his Datsun and relinquished the road lead to Shekhar Mehta. The tire change was quick, and soon Herrmann had once again overtaken the Ugandan. "It's almost impossible to get ahead of another car of the same make," he said later. "I broke ahead, but this kept most of my concentration on the rearview mirror." As a result Herrmann fishtailed into a cliff alongside the road and broke a half-shaft. Later he said, "Schuller is an excellent mechanic, and after he pulled the broken half-shaft we drove ahead for 40 miles on the remaining one to the next service stop. With the accident we must have lost 45 minutes." But not the overall lead: Mehta was still 15 points behind the Germans, though ahead on the road.
The Mountains of the Moon passed in a blur, as did the monkey-festooned rain forest of northern Uganda. Then, during the night, the cars poured back down into Kenya. It was flank speed past Lake Nakuru, where the famed flamingos only raised their heads at the passing racket. Lately, it seems, they fly in their vast, undulating pink wave only in daylight tourist hours. "Our strategy at Nakuru was to go flat out," Herrmann said later, "banking on using the heavy mud around Mount Kenya—in daylight—to jump well ahead of Mehta."
By the time Herrmann's car reached Meru, the entry-way to the Mount Kenya mud, which was a 90-mile ripple of switchbacks that reached clear to Embu, Mehta was only three points behind and one minute ahead on the road.
Then fate and mud congealed—the climactic absurdity of the Safari. Scaling the north slopes of Mount Kenya, the Ugandan sugar king skidded into a mudhole. All of his sweets and shillings could not pull him loose. Finally, after a fatal half-hour in the muck, a Land Rover grumbled by and dragged Shekhar's Datsun free. A few moments later Herrmann and Schuller pulled up to the brink of the mudhole, and stopped in time. They had themselves towed through the sticky patch in moments, and saved themselves a loss on points in the process. In effect, the race was over.
So, for a brief return to subjectivity, let us view the Passenger for the last few hours of this Safari. He is standing at the apex of a hairpin turn on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, just outside the town of Embu. He had scouted the mountain in a Land Rover the day before. Not only had he found a good corner for viewing, but he had discovered that the Africans who lived on this slope were—like the rest—engaging, naive, honest, helpful human beings.
During his predawn drive to this corner, which was called Kiguku, a spray of tiny antelope had sprinted away in the headlights. Other small creatures, predators and prey alike, had fled his arrival: mongooses, rabbits, genets, rats, even a single, high-shouldered wild dog. Large voluble bats flickered through the banana leaves as the fog melted upward through the cover. A lone, hearty man came down the road, walking steadily and enjoying the wet warmth of the dawn. As he came closer, the Passenger saw that the man had no nose. Maybe it had been chewed off by a hyena when the man was drunk and sleeping out—said to be a common accident in the boondocks. The noseless man smiled and the Passenger smiled back. He might not have done it in New York. In Africa it seemed to be O.K.
Then the cars came through. Mehta was leading on the road—a great wild muddy splash as he went through the bottom of the corner. Herrmann and Schuller were close on the Indian's heels, thus clearly still ahead on points. Then Vic Preston Jr. in the Ford Tin Can—a victory for East African skill if not for British technology. Then, wonder of wonders, Joginder Singh in another Ford, hundreds of points behind after a broken gearbox early in the race but having regained all of the distance, at least, on the road in between. The Passenger watched Bert Shankland negotiate the hairpin in his straining Peugeot—slow and careful in the wet spots, but quick as anybody on the road in the dry.
On reflection, the order of finish now seemed immaterial. Datsun and Datsun would take the first two places on points and in order of arrival—for the second year in a row. Herrmann and Schuller could boast their back-to-back wins over champagne. The other marques would somehow salvage their prestige, editorially at least. Automobiles would continue to be sold in Europe, America and Asia. What the Passenger realized as he stood beneath the swooping bats, and with the noseless man walking by, was that Africa, too, would continue. Man could not mark it up too badly. He might wipe out animals and birds, burn off the woods and violate the moment in many ways. But the main thing about the Safari was that it gave a man a chance to run around Africa for a little while. And Africa would be there long after the Tin Cans had rusted away and the sweets of the sugar king had been consumed. It was reassuring, if a bit sentimental, to think about that.
The Passenger drove back to Nairobi, following Safari roads most of the way. When he crossed the Tana River in a patch of dense, vivid bush, his attention strayed for a moment to a crested guinea fowl that had been dusting on the road and flushed off into the cover alongside. As he watched it settle, the Passenger fell into a Safari trap—the road ahead was pure mud. The car began to fishtail madly. It was like shaking hands with panic, once again. It was the death seat revisited. Then memory became reality. The Passenger found the presence to apply lock, counter lock, and to hit the gas. The car straightened out and he began to breathe normally again. Here I am, he thought, where I ought to be.