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Motorsport musings

November - Classic Safari 2013 – from a photographers point of view

The East African Safari Classic Rally is an amazing test of man and machine. This incredible nine day marathon event sees crews travel over 4 500 kilometres across some of the most scenic and scary African roads. And whilst much gets written about these competitors and their adventures, the world at large doesn't know about the adventures that go on behind the scenes…. Especially to those who capture the action on film. (Well, actually on memory card these days!)

subaru leoneI first photographed the Classic Safari in 2009. My father accompanied me for the first half of the adventure but he stepped down in Nairobi as he was so exhausted. For that trip we used a Subaru Leone with no rear suspension and, as I discovered to my horror, a handbrake that operated the front wheels! My one and only attempt at a handbrake turn in that car resulted in us understeering off the road and through a small bush at a not inconsiderable speed!

As it was our first time doing the rally we also had no idea of where to book accommodation and so often we would either sleep in the car (no fun when it's +35 celsius outside) or try and find somewhere clean and cheap to sleep at 11pm at night! But what an amazing adventure! And the photos were pretty good too. So good, in fact, that we returned in 2011, and dragged along a third photographer for this one.

isuzu trooperThe 2011 Safari was easier and harder all at the same time. Our expectations were higher, our level of preparation was better and yet the dramas seemed bigger! Our biggest mechanical issue in the Subaru of 2009 was a dodgy fuel pump. In preparation for a stress free 2011 I had the entire running gear on my Isuzu 4x4 "super Trooper" rebuilt before the event. It was fine until the stress of dragging countless rally cars out of a thick 2km stretch of black cotton mud proved too much and the poor car blew its entire 4x4 running gear! Thanks to this we completed that rally in my trusty Subaru. (Not the same one as in 09 but a newer version with a handbrake that operates the correct set of wheels!)

nissan x-trailFor 2013, armed with enough local knowledge to be dangerous, we felt prepared for everything! I'd even planned out the best combination of vehicle reliability versus the curse of these cars being driven hard by me. For the first half of the event I'd use a hired Nissan 4x4. Then we would use my girlfriends V8 Landrover for two days. (These were the two days I expected the most rally cars to get stuck and thus felt we needed a real vehicle to assist with!) And then, finally, we had the Subaru for the final two days of the event – it was comfortable and the roads of the last two days were pretty easy going for a low saloon car. And then, to spread our options, we also did a deal to palm Papa Mayes off on one of the video camera crews for the event. Cars sorted, accommodation booked, clients secured… it was rally time!

The trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, in the hire car, was relatively drama free. We explored a few of the rally sections we guessed would be used. The car handled well, even if the blasted handbrake wouldn't work. The only issue was that the headlights were loose and so tape was added to hold them in place.

The opening day of the rally saw the three amigos split up. I left Papa Mayes at the start with the idea that he would get everyone over the ceremonial ramp before dashing off to the final section of the day with Marcus Baronet. Jamie Mactavish, our Scottish import, would photograph a really dusty hairpin on the second section and I would wander into the opening stage and find something photographable. Amazingly this plan worked. Dad got the shots of the start and then proceeded to hit the jackpot as cars attacked a railway crossing waaaaaay too fast, resulting in some big air, and a few bent panels as cars crashed off the road and, in the case of poor Steve Troman's Porsche, rolled down the road on its roof!

jamie runningJamie also had fun with cars overshooting his junction and one or two almost running him over turning around! (This was the start of things to come as quite a few cars tried to attack poor Jamie during the rally!) I found a good t-junction left in the middle of a village. As well as having to persuade a local shop keeper to sell me his cherished brand new baseball cap as I'd lost mine, I also convinced him to build me a wooden platform to stand on so I had an elevated view through the village! The top cars were great but there were a few mid fielders who perhaps need a new co-driver. The notes said "! Drift 600m t left in village DNM (do not miss!) The overall mileage was correct and quite frankly a blind man would have gotten this junction correct. Well about a dozen cars got it wrong…. None more than local rally driver Manvir Bayran who not only went the wrong way and nearly crashed into a spectator car, but then proceeded down the wrong road for about ten minutes before roaring back up to the village!

After towing a rally car with a broken clutch out of the section I continued to our overnight rest halt. It was a good first day!

nissan x-trailDay two and Jamie joined me. Papa did the Taitas and we did the second section. We managed to find a huge dust bowl 30km into a section where we successfully got the Nissan beached! After embarrassingly being rescued by a Rav4 we managed to get some stunning photos of cars in thick swirling dust. As well as the now obligatory bunch getting lost we also had former rock n roll drummer Nick Mason chase Jamie through the dust bowl in his Datsun 240Z!

rainAfter all the cars had passed through we drove out through the section. About 30km from the end of the stage we hit some rain… the earth turned to ice… and the Nissan stopped moving! This was pathetic – turns out it had a button saying SNOW which did nothing in mud! So we had to wait to get towed out by the sweeper car. Then we found the same car that I had rescued yesterday, this time also stuck in the mud. Whilst trying to pass him we got stuck again. Then, when the recovery vehicle tried to pass me whilst towing the stranded rally car, we got smacked in the rear by the pair…. Thanks! Eventually, after many hours of frustration, we emerged from the ice like black cotton mud (ironically the same stretch that we had become heros by rescuing rally cars in 2011!!!) and raced for the border, muddy and stressed!

Amazingly the next two days in Tanzania went well and according to plan – the car behaved (but we did ensure that we avoided mud at ALL costs!) and we took some pretty amazing photos!

NamangaBy the time we returned to Kenya, we were completely exhausted and not even half way through this incredible event! The trip to Nairobi after the rest day saw one final drama with the hire car. The crazy corrugation on the road from Amboseli to Namanga saw the control arm on the rear of the Nissan snap in half, forcing us to limp into town at 5kph! There we found a friendly Police Inspector who arranged for the offending item to be welded up before we continued the trip to Nairobi, where we handed the Nissan back to the hire company….. along with enough cash to pay for the loose headlights and damaged rear bumper.

land roverNext up was a two day adventure with the Landrover. She was amazing for the first day and a half. We rescued countless rally cars from a flooded river in Soysambu and then, on our way home, the front diff blew which, in turn, destroyed the transfer box! Despite the best efforts of good friend, and former Subaru and Mitsubishi works mechanic Neil Demmert, the Landrover was injured. We had to abandon her and catch a taxi to Nairobi, where the Subaru awaited our arrival. But the adventure was not yet over…. Suddenly, once he'd picked us up, the taxi driver was demanding more money so we changed location and ended up in Naivasha with the Mazda RX7 rally team There we drank beer until 3am, caught a few hours sleep and then they took us to Nairobi and dropped us off.

The last two days were straightforward… well apart from me mis-judging a jump and flying a considerable distance. And then hitting a log hidden in the grass and ripping the exhaust loose. Or having the aforementioned exhaust falling off completely as we entered Mombasa, which meant we had to tie it back up with electrical wire that we bought for US$1!

the teamtired crewBut apart from all of these dramas, and surviving on about 5 hours a night sleep and minimal food and covering over 5000 kilometres…. Was it fun? Well we didn't kill each other – Jamie only asked me to slow down once and the police only wagged their fingers at me once in Tanzania when I overtook on the gravel on the wrong side of the road…. So yes, it was fun!

Bring on 2015! (Maybe we should just use the Subaru from the very start next time!)