Bush Babes: Conquering the unforgiving terrain for conservation

All women team, the Bush Babes, in action during the 32nd edition of Rhino Charge at Sabor village in Baringo County on July 17, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Nestled deep within the Naromoru Forest, beneath the awe-inspiring silhouette of Mount Kenya, six remarkable women gather on a serene afternoon.

Shoulder to shoulder, they share the weight of a wooden post, symbolising the unity that defines one of the world’s most gruelling off-road challenges.

Meet the Bush Babes, an all-female team affectionately known as the “Chicks in Charge,” dedicated participants in Kenya’s prestigious Rhino Charge competition.

Dressed in vibrant blue T-shirts emblazoned with their cherished car number 19 and the spirited moniker “Chicks in Charge,” complemented by matching pink caps, these remarkable women fondly refer to themselves as “the girls.”

Guided by their unwavering captain, Petra Somen, they toil together, epitomizing steadfast determination and camaraderie reminiscent of their Rhino Charge experiences.

“We draw our motivation from the Rhino Charge, a means to support conservation efforts and enhance the well-being of communities and wildlife in these critical conservation areas.

The Rhino Charge is no ordinary race, it is an annual off-road 4x4 competition with a noble purpose, surpassing mere adrenaline rushes and trophies. Its primary objective is to raise essential funds for the Rhino Ark Kenya Charitable Trust, a dedicated NGO committed to preserving and safeguarding Kenya’s vital Water Towers.

Chief Conservator of Forests Julius Kimani  presents a trophy to the Bush Babes during the 32nd edition of Rhino Charge at Sabor village in Baringo County on July 18, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Each year, up to 65 teams assemble at dawn, ready to conquer unfamiliar Kenyan terrains in their trusted 4x4 vehicles. Their mission is to locate 13 checkpoints known only through GPS coordinates provided a few hours before sunset on the preceding night. This challenge defies conventions and is renowned as the most extreme off-road event globally.

The Bush Babes participate annually, exploring unknown Kenyan terrains; the challenge defies all conventions. Their journey began in 2012, inspired by their involvement in the event and their support for their husbands, part of car number 21. Their newfound enthusiasm led them to form their own team, marking their inaugural charge in 2013 in Magadi.

“We used to attend every year to support and cheer for our husbands who participated in the Rhino Charge and while we were watching and supporting them, we had a realisation: ‘Let’s do it! We can do it. We are women, and we are capable.”

At the heart of Car Number 19 are sisters Petra and Sabine Kontos, with Petra as the team captain and Sabine as the driver. Their modified Range Rover has claimed the Coupe des Dames, the ladies’ cup, an impressive eight times. Navigating through dense bush is entrusted to Emma Morton, while mechanic Catherine Coulson keeps the vehicle in perfect working order. “Our unwavering commitment to conservation and the protection of Kenya’s vital water towers is the driving force behind our participation in the Rhino Charge. Some of us have been charging for 13 years and are deeply passionate about these causes,” says Emma.

“I am the navigator, responsible for keeping us on track, ensuring we take the shortest route possible, and always striving for victory.”

Over 13 years, these women have become intimately familiar with regions across the country, traversing challenging terrains in locations like Baringo, Samburu, Kajiado and Isiolo.

“It is tough, but the most significant challenge was in Il Ngwesi a few years back when we encountered a bee attack. We had started well, heading towards our second checkpoint when we disturbed a beehive. Unfortunately, the car was swarmed by bees, and we were covered in bee stings.”

“Helicopters flew over, potentially for a rescue, but we chose to persevere. We smoked out the bees and continued, and that’s the year we secured the 8th place,” Petra recalls.

Navigating through the lush bushes and rugged terrains of the Kenyan landscapes is no easy feat and requires meticulous preparation, both physically and mentally. Additionally, their vehicle must be in impeccable shape.

“We ensure we are physically fit so that moving around all day is not burdensome. Our car is meticulously prepared, and we focus on navigation work. We’ve ceased test rides to avoid damaging the vehicle before the event. We practice winching and ensure that we have a full toolbox with all spare parts ready,” Petra explains.

The Bush Babes participating in fence construction at Naromoru forest, Nyeri. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Petra further says each year, they spend between 100,000 to 150,000 Kenyan shillings to successfully participate in the Rhino Charge.

“The costs depend on the extent of damage to the car in the previous year, but on average, we allocate 100,000 to 150,000 Kenyan shillings annually. Initially, the investment is higher due to the need for modifications to make the car Rhino Charge-ready.”

Regarding personal relationships and any potential rivalry between the Bush Babes and their husbands’ team Car number 21 , Petra laughs it off, stating, “There’s no real rivalry, just playful banter. We believe we can outperform the boys, and we’ve proven it in the past. It’s all in good fun and adds a healthy competitive edge to the event.”

Petra emphasizes the importance of women’s empowerment and diversity in such activities, saying, “Women should be empowered and encouraged to participate in activities traditionally perceived as male-dominated.”

Their goal for the upcoming year is to secure victory in the Rhino Charge, although they would be content with a top-10 finish and another win in the ladies’ cup. In the 2023 Rhino Charge, held in June in Nkoteyia, Samburu County, the Bush Babes raised Sh1.5 million. The total amount raised that year was Sh173 million,

In partnership with Rhino Ark and the Kenya Wildlife Service, the ongoing Mt Kenya Forest fencing project has already covered 290 kilometres of the required 450 kilometres. This ambitious project, estimated to cost Sh1.5 billion, aims to safeguard Kenya’s critical water towers, protect its wildlife, and support local communities.

Adams Mwangi, the Rhino Ark Fence and Community Manager, explains that to fund this ambitious initiative, they heavily rely on donors, with a significant contribution originating from their annual event, the Rhino Charge.

The annual Rhino Charge has raised over Sh1.9 billion for Rhino Ark’s vital projects, ensuring a balance between local communities’ needs and nature conservation. Rhino Ark has erected 650km of electric fences, safeguarding over 80,000 families from human-wildlife conflicts.  

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