Stand a chance to win a col­lec­tor’s book of beau­ti­ful car art on the East African Sa­fari Rally by KZN artist Mike Nor­ris.

The Witness - Wheels - - FRONT PAGE - PHOTO: 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 nor­ris.mikeh@gmail.com.

PHOTO: MIKE NOR­RIS.

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.

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