Stand a chance to win a collector’s book of beautiful car art on the East African Safari Rally by KZN artist Mike Norris.
SAY the words “East Africa Safari Rally” among rally fans and they will go, “Aah, those were the days”.
And they really were, for nowhere else today can a car owner take his or her stock standard car, slap on any shape of hat to keep the sweat out of the eyes, and go racing through three countries with a bunch of like-mindeds.
The Royal East African Automobile Association ( today the AA of East Africa) founded and organised the first race, which is to say the secretary of the association’s competitions committee, Eric Cecil, coerced, cajoled and somehow steered the egos of the association’s 1 000 paidup members as best he could to a starting line. They used the holidays declared to mark the coronation of the new Queen of England as a good excuse to stage the first rally in 1953, racing flat out over a distance of over 6 400 km, taking 15 days from Nairobi, around Lake Victoria and through Uganda and Tanganyika before looping back to Kenya.
Of the many who entered very few finished, but the format was so popular that Cecil arranged a second race in 1954, which some of the old hands see as the first proper race.
Speeds then were nowhere as high as in the 1980s rallies, which were dominated by the various evolutions of the Mitsubishi Lancer and their factory teams.
In that second rally, Alan Dix and Johhny Larsen pottered around in a VW Beetle — as woefully an underpowered car as was ever sold in Africa — but because it was also light enough to lift out of the mud, they went on to win. In those golden years of the rally there were only eight control points and competitors had to arrange their own accommodation, sleeping at farms or camping en route.
No sponsors were allowed, only saloon cars could race and they were classified only according to their sales price. These unique rules quickly made the East Africa Safary Rally THE place to establish a model’s reputation and salesmen still learn how orders for cars that won would soar in the month following the rally.
‘ The Flying Sikh’
In a race that often saw 90% of the field retire before the end, Joginder Singh Bnachu, dubbed “The Flying Sikh”, became the East Africa Safari Rally’s living legend, with only three retirements in 22 years.
In his races up to 1980, Bnachu recorded three overall wins, 13 top 10 finishes and over 80 class wins, somehow always finding a route through the mud, past the animals and even going slow enough to avoid the speeding fines that saw other competitors retire.
But it was his solution to a broken gear selector in his Ford Escort in 1971 that cemented his status. Able to move the Escort only in reverse, he raced backwards for over three kilometres to the support crews, holding the reverse gear in place with a screw driver.
More than 70 cars passed him at high speed and back at camp, all but two of the mechanics had left. No matter, they stripped the gearbox, repaired it and The Flying Sikh was off, passing over 100 cars to end the day’s racing in third position. He died in 2013, a happy grandad with 81 summers behind him.
No race like it
Over the years, sponsors were encouraged, classification changed, professional factory racing teams moved in — making the race too expensive for amateurs — and populations continued to swell, which filled the corners with seemingly suicidal spectators.
When some of those spectators started hurling chunks of masonry at passing cars and placing large rocks around bends, it had the same impact on the historic race as local battles had on the Dakar. All came to a halt.
Today, the rally is remembered with a biennial “Classic” rally, which has comfortable luxury rooms at night, and there are several endurance races that retain some elements of the East Africa Safari Rally, like the Ethiopian Highlands Rally, the Moroccan Rally and the Dakar, now hosted in South America. But no race has the same gung- ho mix of all drivers welcome, 100 km/ h average speeds over gruelling conditions and a sparsely populated country with scenery unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
Magic recaptured in oils
Mike Norris, a self- taught Midlands artist who enjoys both the artistic freedom of painting giant murals and the discipline of depicting every bolt precisely right on oil paintings of vintage tractors and aircraft, has now captured the golden years of this race in a book with 28 prints of the most famous cars in the race.
A “Safari nutter”, Norris is uniquely qualified for the job.
He grew up in Kenya and was an avid teenage autograph collector at the race, served as a race official for four years and started the East Africa Safari Rally museum with Chris Carlisle- Kitz in Pietermaritzburg ( now hosted in Centurion).
He calls his book, Artist Round The Bend, “a museum in a book” and the car art in it alone is well worth the cover price of just over R300, depending which bookstore you buy from.
Norris told Wheels the worst thing that could happen to his book is for people to buy it as an Africana investment, although the limited print run will ensure a value increase in a few decades.
He would instead prefer his book is to end up in workshop waiting rooms where many readers can dip into it again and again.
Apart from the rarity value of the book, digital prints of the original art are also highly collectable, with prices starting at R1 300 for A3 printout.
These prints will be on sale at the Mercedes- Benz stand at Cars in the Park on May 15. • More on artsandartists.co.za • Contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amateur drivers Alan Dix and navigator Johhny Larson first boosted sales of the VW Beetle in 1954 by winning the second East Africa Safari Rally, a feat repeated in the 10th Safari in 1962 by Tommy Fjastad and Bernhard Schmider, shown here rounding a corner in a 1200 cc Beetle.