A team pushes their car over a hilly section during the Rhino Charge. [Photo: Peter Muiruri/Standard]


The Rhino Charge has never been for the faint-hearted. It is a tough undertaking, held in near punishing terrain. Indeed this year’s event lived up to its famous reputation, writes PETER MUIRURI

Each year since 1989, the toughest and bravest drivers have converged in a chosen location – mostly in the rural jungle – in the ultimate test between man and machine.

For starters, a brief overview of the event is in order. To help raise funds for the conservation of our water towers starting with the Aberdare forest, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust came up with the ingenious idea of the off road driving completion in which drivers cover over a dozen guard posts strewn over 100 square kilometres.

With no particular route, drivers then key in the coordinates of the checkpoints through GPS mapping. The driver who gets to all the checkpoints within the shortest period of time wins the event. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

The organisers have perfected the art of creating as many obstacles to the event as possible. These include setting up some guard posts in between a river, a valley, and a forest – anything that would make driving through a gruelling task. It is this sense of adventure that pulls thousands of Kenyans to these remote areas annually.

And so when some friends suggested that I accompany them to this year’s Rhino Charge, I was a little bit apprehensive. Camping on bare ground has not always been my idea of fun. Keeping scorpions and other creeping creatures company is not my fancy. In any case, there were very scanty details of the location a week to the event.

Friday June 1. I meet up with my group outside Sarit Centre, Westlands, ready to make the long drive to the unknown.

Secret venue

“So, where is the Rhino Charge?” I ask the driver.

“Am not sure but we shall get some details once we get to Nanyuki,” he told me. Secrecy, as you will learn, seems to be first rule of the game.

The drive through the hilly terrain of central Kenya is always exhilarating, what with the cool, gentle breeze blowing off your face. We arrive in Nanyuki just about lunch hour. With one main street that cuts through the town, Nanyuki may not account for much only that this is the last frontier before entering the northern Kenya wilderness.

We quickly refresh ourselves with some coffee at the Dormans. We are then directed to the nearby Braeburn School where we are to receive further instructions and directions to the Rhino Charge venue. By now word has it that it will be held around Isiolo.

“Please note that the area in which the Rhino Charge takes place requires 4WD vehicles. Saloon cars will NOT be able to negotiate the tracks on the venue,” screams the first caution on the route sheet.

The route sheet is no more than scanty notes with no description of the venue: Isiolo, turn left at sign, last fuel; 1.2 Km Caution, culverts with holes-straight on; 3.8 Km keep left at building, fork left and speed bump; 9.2 Kmdry river crossing; 18.4 Km, turn left at sign, do not miss; fork right, borehole left, ...and on and on ad infinitum. The unforgiving, dusty terrain around Isiolo is not for the fainthearted. Scattered acacia shrubs dot the area as far as the eye can see. There is little sign of life save for the occasional herdsman with some Borana cattle.

Plot ‘grabbing’

By five in the afternoon, our “map” takes us to the dustbowl that is II Ngwesi Conservancy, home to one of Kenya’s landmark community owned eco-lodges. Scouting for a suitable camping ground becomes a herculean tasks. Enterprising Kenyans, mostly Nairobians, have allocated themselves all the best ‘plots’ — creating a tent city in the middle of nowhere.

In their hurry to take the best flat sites, many had overlooked a waterfront open ground next to Ngare Ndare River. Here, we embark on the task of erecting tents for the night. A light meal of spaghetti with a glass of wine is enough to send the team dozing by the campfire.

The night would be cut short by the pulsating beat of music coming in from all directions. It is difficult to imagine how adventure loving Kenyans can set up such elaborate music systems in the semi desert, complete with a camp lighting system hung on top of the vehicles. There are comical sites as some lose their way “home” after one too many at the nearby “bush pubs.”

Saturday June 2: We wake up early so as not to miss the main action. The golden rays of the rising sun pierce through the campsite creating some magical scenes. After some refreshments, we head to the event’s ‘headquarters’ a short distance from the campsite. Ben, our group captain, purchases a map showing the different checkpoints.

Route map

“You can follow the action from any point but I suggest you head to the gauntlet,” an official tells us.

Ben carefully follows the small signposts leading to the centre of action. A small miscalculation will lead you to the opposite direction. The going gets tough and we are forced to abandon our Toyota Land cruiser on a dry riverbed, opting to join other trekkers to the gauntlet.

The thundering sound of James Kelmanson’s Range Rover gets us scampering to safety. His helmet has the inscription: “Drive it Like You Stole it.” We believe him and quickly get out of harm’s way. The first river crossing presents little challenge to the drivers. However, the ultimate challenge is to manoeuvre the thick foliage up the hill to the second checkpoint.

Veteran undone

It is here that local rally ace Ian Duncan falls into a series of misfortunes. While negotiating some steep hillside, his car rolls costing him some valuable time getting it on the road again. He rolls again while going down the same slope after the second checkpoint, this time sustaining some slight head injuries. After more than an hour, his car is once again on course. He earns himself the Spirit of the Charge trophy for his heroic endeavour.

However, it at the river below, under the welcoming shade of acacias, where the true Kenyan adventure spirit lives on. “Charged” fans converge on both sides of the river with animated discussions in true Kenyan fashion. Young and old, men and women put aside any cultural, tribal or racial barriers to embrace each other’s company.

Later in the evening, another group found it convenient holding a party literally on the shallow Ngare Ndare River by placing chairs on the soft river sand.

Sunday June 3: The curtain comes down on the 2012 Rhino Charge won by Terry Childs with the Braeburn Seven Squared team in car 49 having covered a distance of 47.6km. So tough was this year’s event that out of the 62 vehicles that started, only 15 went through all the guard posts in an event that netted over Sh 84million.

As quickly as it started, Rhino Charge was over having captured the true Kenyan adventure spirit.