What East Africa Safari Rally Classic drivers missed

Baldev Cheqev and Drew Sturrock celebrate after winning the East African Safari rally classic at Watamu in Kilifi County. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The gang woke up early Wednesday morning to one of Africa’s most beautiful sights — Mount Kilimanjaro in all her glory. At the border town of Loitokitok, there is a feeling that one can almost touch the glittering snows with the golden glow of the rising sun.

Back at Kibo Slopes Cottages, there was the sweet aroma of coffee, both from the kitchen and the garden outside. The volcanic soils from the mountain present the perfect conditions for propagating the famed plant. The berries at the camp were still green. In another visit, we shall sample the farm’s produce.

Amos, our driver, had warned us that it was going to be a long drive to the coastal Watamu enclave for the final leg of the East Africa Safari Rally Classic.

“Prepare for the African back massage,” he cautioned, alluding to the rough route, first through the rough Loitokitok-Taveta Road and later, Voi-Sala Gate route that cuts through Tsavo East National Park.

With light rains around the mountain, farms were lush around Rombo, the small town towards Taveta. But as we drove closer to Taveta, the greenery gave way to scrubland made of acacia trees devoid of any moisture. Yet, driving on the newly-paved Taveta-Voi Road was a consolation.

On both sides of the road lie several First World War memorial sites that remind the country about the sacrifices made by African soldiers.

A few kilometres from Taveta Town is the sniper’s baobab, a giant tree with a large hole where word has it that a certain German woman waylaid British troops, killing scores from here.

Right opposite the tree is Salaita Hill (slaughter is what the British meant), one of the well-known battlefield sites.

Hemmed in between Pare Mountains and Kilimanjaro, the hill provided the Germans with sweeping views over much of Taitaland, with the British suffering massive losses.

On the right side of the road is the Voi-Taveta railway that was exclusively built to ferry British soldiers and supplies to Maktau, the location of the first airstrip in East Africa and where the British had a large military camp.

Nothing would have pleased the Germans more than to blow up a nearby railway bridge and cut off supplies to British soldiers.

But while there are monuments to honour foreign soldiers, there is none to remember thousands of Africans who fought in a war they knew little about and who, due to poor communication, continued fighting long after the war had ended in Europe!

As the rally drivers cruised through Taita and Tsavo areas on Day Eight, they probably gave a thought to these soldiers who paid the ultimate price so that such events could be held in peace.

The drive through Tsavo East was equally spectacular. There are no war memorials here, but the sheer numbers of wild animals make the long drive bearable.

Unlike their Amboseli cousins, Tsavo elephants are a little wild and must be approached with caution. They are ‘colourful’ too, owing to the red dust they smear on their bodies to ward off flies.

We passed by a small pride of lions, partly sheltering from the midday sun under a croton bush. Their forefathers were ferocious beasts that wreaked havoc on railway construction workers just before the turn of the 20th century.

So scared were the workers that they thought the ‘man-eaters of Tsavo’ were not lions, but the spirits of dead African chiefs who were serving retribution for desecrating the land with the railway line.

The Sala Gate-Malindi Road is another beauty that runs parallel to the Sabaki River. The little vehicular traffic made the drive to Watamu less stressful.

Like much of the lower Eastern region, it is dry here with little economic opportunities. But the resilient spirit of Kenyans was still evident as scores hawked weaved items and cashew nuts along the road.

Then there was Watamu, the ‘village’ that never sleeps. We checked in at the nine-roomed Sabasaba Villa and with the heat now at unbearable levels, the team plunged into the swimming pool even before their luggage could be sorted.

Then it was a scramble for the rooms, a dash to get an ‘ocean facing’ one, never mind that some never got close to the ocean during our stay.

On Friday morning at Ocean Sports Resort, the drivers were revving off for the final leg that saw them raise some dust around Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

With the cars gone for hours, it was time to explore Watamu’s sweet spots. I declined an offer to go snorkelling at the nearby marine park. I cited the need to beat some work deadlines but the truth is, I do not do well underwater.

Later, two of our company regaled us with the dolphin tales - at least they had some photos to prove the rare sightings. I consoled myself with a drive around the coastal forest where Johnson, our tour guide, mesmerised us with his knowledge of the complex botanical names of almost every tree.

I got to know that to the Waata tribe, Arabuko Sokoke means the ‘forest of the thin elephant.’

Another hot afternoon and we decided to throw in a brief tour of Gede Ruins, another Watamu classic attraction. The ruins paint a once robust city that had its own water treatment works, no small feat for a 12th-century settlement.

Few have the answers as to why it was abandoned so abruptly, never to be rebuilt. However, the National Museums of Kenya under whose jurisdiction the ruins lie may need to streamline the guiding activities here and discourage commercial vendors from vexing visitors. And garbage ought not to be discarded in the small pit near the entrance.

By early afternoon, the roar of cars heading back to the podium at Ocean Sports could be heard miles away.

Baldev Chager savoured his win after taking the lead for eight consecutive days. Champagne popped late into the night.

By one in the morning, hordes of revellers were still shaking to the pulsating beat of the one-man live band. Watamu was not about to sleep. It never sleeps.