When Easter was incomplete without Safari, the ‘world’s toughest rally’

Jonathan Toroitich on the wheel [File, Standard]
The passing of Jonathan Toroitich Moi yesterday evokes nostalgic memories of the Kenyan Easter that was not complete without the staging of the legendary Safari Rally.

Held every year to coincide with the Easter holiday as a leg of the World Rally Championship until 2002, the Safari Rally as it was known, bred cult heroes and captured the imagination of the nation at a scale that is yet to be matched.

Established in 1953 as the East Africa Coronation Safari in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to mark the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the British throne, the motorsports event acquired an exalted status, and was the very embodiment of Easter in Kenya.

At the height of its popularity through the 1980s and 90s, the Safari dominated airwaves and for most children, it was bigger than the school holidays and many would wake up deep into the night and walk long distances to catch the action which most times meant just watching the cars zoom past them.

Getting splashed with the mud from cars racing at breakneck speeds regardless of the dangers involved for most was a trophy that would see the lucky chap become an instant village hero from Kajiado to Mount Kenya.

The Safari created national heroes such as Patrick Njiru, Phineas Kimathi and the late Jonathan Toroitich, who proved indigenous Kenyans could compete with the best drivers in the world and their expensive works teams. Other Kenyan Safari legends worth mentioning include the late Joginder Singh, the late Shekhar Mehta, Ian Duncan, Azar Anwar and many more.

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It was almost mandatory to listen to Safari updates on KBC Radio Taifa every hour during the event; with crowds milling around sets to hear about the progress of their favourite drivers as they zoomed through wet, muddy and treacherous routes in what was famed as the ‘world’s toughest rally’.

The booming voice of veteran anchor Leonard Mambo Mbotela was a big part and parcel of the event. Such was the prominence given to the Safari that the job of updating Kenyans fell on the doyen of broadcasting.

Hadi kufikia sasa, gari nambari 5 aina ya Lancia Martini Intergrale lake Juha Kankunnen na Juha Pirronen linaongoza mashindano haya ya Safari kufikia kituo cha sita cha Kona Baridi. Vijana wa nyumbani, Patrick Njiru, Jonathan Toroitich na Phineas Kimathi bado wanajikakamua kufikia vituo sita… (At the moment, car number five of Juha Kankunnen and Juha Pironnen is leading the Safari at competitive stage five in Kona Baridi. Our local boys Patrick Njiru, Jonathan Toroitich and Phineas Kimathi are still going strong in the six stages…),” an update would go thus.

The nation would sink into collective despair whenever an update announced one of the local aces had crashed out of competition, with the whole country rallying behind the remaining locals to the very end of the gruelling three-day affair.

The ceremonial start and end of the Safari at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) was one of the few events televised live on the national broadcaster, KBC, with none other than former President Daniel Moi flagging off and receiving back the vehicles.

It was not just a motorsports event, but also a State event where government presence was not only felt at KICC but along the routes, what with heavy security deployed for the safety of the vehicles, the participants and the watching public.

All provincial, district and division officers of areas where the cars passed had to be actively involved in the Safari, sometimes marshalling the public to turn out in numbers to catch the eye of organisers so they can choose their locations as routes.

When Kanu lost power in 2002, the Narc administration led by President Mwai Kibaki refused to offer FIA, motor sports governing body the financial guarantees needed to host a round of the WRC in Kenya. Stripped of its global status, the Safari lost all its glory but after years of lobbying, this year’s edition will be a test event to return to the WRC in 2020. However, much to the disappointment of a generation who associated the Safari with Easter, the event will not be returning to its traditional slot.

“The WRC calendar is pre-determined and since the Easter holiday has moving dates unlike Christmas, it will be difficult to plan the event around that time,” Kimathi says.

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Jonathan ToroitichSafari RallyEasterDaniel Moi