Besides the obvious fact that Kenya’s rallying groove will have come back home to roost and on July 19, 2020, we shall most definitely be hosting the 14th round of the World Rally Championship (WRC), there are many other meanings to be drawn from this historic move that ends nearly 2 decades of drought in one of the world’s toughest safari rally yet.
For starters, the magical era of the Safari Rally, when school-going children at home for their Easter holidays would line the edges of designated roads to cheer their heroes in 4 wheels, will have made a spectacular comeback – not exactly your bygone Easter sensation but it would still elicit the same euphoric aura.
That was also the era of the legendary African Safari when every tour company, big and small, scrambled to align with the rallying season if only to afford customers a glimpse of the world’s toughest race. As for the shutter-happy folk, the Safari Rally was the holy grail of photography.
To capture the image of a rally car high up in the sky as a Maasai moran balanced on one leg, watched in fascination, was considered a rarity experienced by only a few select. To catch, in one frame, a Big Five animal just as it passed in the foreground of a speeding car with Mount Kenya in the background, was the stuff of legend! That is what it meant to have the Safari Rally, that is what it will mean to have it back!
Yet, surprisingly enough, this iconic WRC sport was never much more than a casual commemorative gesture of the coronation of a queen. Princess Elizabeth’s father, King George VI had passed on a year before in February 1952 while she and her new husband, Prince Philip, were on honeymoon in central Kenya.
Legend has it that they were at the Treetops Hotel in Nyeri when the news broke. The popular narrative about how Elizabeth went up a tree a princess and came down a queen is not entirely correct. They actually had already left the Treetops and were at their Sagana Hotel home when Philip broke the news to the new queen of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth realms, Queen Elizabeth II.
On that day of the first rally in 1953, all the competitors needed to do was to ensure they got the signature of an official in Nairobi when they left and then that of the Mayors of Kampala and Dar es Salaam to prove they had been there. Since the idea was to do this within a set time, no one managed and so the first ever Safari Rally was never won!
On the 19th of July 2020, when it all goes down in Nairobi, it is hoped, the same notoriety that made the Safari Rally so coveted will be reawakened as competitors tackle rocky and rutted open-road gravel tracks across stunning picture-postcard scenery and exotic African wildlife, unpredictable weather and a route 3 times longer than other rallies.
The season of Shekhar Mehta, Björn Waldegård, Juha Kankkunen, Colin McRae and Joginder Singh, has come and gone. Now it is time for new names to be written in the books of rallying history as the African Safari days come back. I will not also be surprised if there are tour companies already reworking their travel itineraries towards this. July is about to become a hot month to watch.