Peter stares towards the obstruction, a sharp tumulus of ancient lava rising sharply from the tortured and rutted tangle of scrub which constitutes Kenya’s western savannah; stares at it, judging the incline, assessing possible winch points, the lie of the land, estimating how far he will get before the inevitable and indomitable forces of gravity drag him back down to earth: a bead of sweat forms upon his furrowed brow, gains mass. The Danish roller-skater, he won’t be anymore precise than that, considers his options: to the right, a dense thicket of what the locals call ‘Ngoj ja Kideo’, the wait-a-while bush, a naturally occurring barbwire, that once snared into the soft flesh of the unwary forces a painful and bloody retreat, but no match for the 3.5 litre V8 engine of his heavily modified Range Rover. Five minutes and he’d be around and on his way, as opposed to the half-hour it will take for him to get up and over the hill, but the dashboard mounted GPS shows the next guard post lies directly over the hill, and when it comes down to who wins and who loses in Africa’s most gruelling road race, Kenya’s Rhino Charge, it’s distance, not speed, that’s paramount.
There is no course, no official route and, what roads there are invariably lead in the direction that you don’t want to go, just 12 checkpoints spread out over harsh, damn near impassable African terrain. The rules are simple, visit all 12 checkpoints in the shortest possible distance, and do it before the equatorial sunset beknights you in some puff adder riddled lugga. In order to win, everything is considered fair game; trees, luggas, wash-outs where the rains have cut steep sharp gulleys into the African dirt, and the low lying hills of Nyrango that rise to the north must be navigated, run over if necessary, in order to clock the least possible distance on the specially installed GPS which each car carries. Of course, this sort of driving can be extremely hazardous, on both cars and competitors, accidents invariably occur.
Doctor Pramod Shah has been the Charge’s CMO since the inaugural race back in ’89. The sprightly 70 year-old Professor, second generation Kenyan Indian, has the demeanour and energy of someone half his age and knows better than anyone else the dangers of competing in a Charge. The most common injuries?
‘Sprained ankles without a doubt,’ Shah replies. I presume this has to do with the ‘runners’, usually four in number, who scout ahead of the cars looking for the quickest and shortest route but, according to Shah, this is not the case. ‘No, no, no,’ he reprimands me. It’s mainly the spectators who injure themselves. ‘They get too bloody pissed and fall over while watching the Gauntlet.’ He takes me to a table upon which is laid out his medical kit, and points out the various drugs. ‘Condoms, morning-after-pills, anti-histamine.’ and there I was, expecting blood transfusion units, gruesome medical hacksaws, defibrillators and the such like. The Charge has grown in popularity in recent years, larger and larger numbers of spectators have been drawn to the annual spectacle, especially the Gauntlet a gruelling section designed specially in mind for the spectacle of watching cars flip and the crowds appear to have adopted a fairly ‘British’ attitude to the whole event, that is to say, they spend the entire weekend getting severely pissed.
So what will be the biggest threat to the competitors in this charge? Snake bite? scorpions? elephants or lions? Shah shakes his head, ‘Bees, they’re bloody everywhere.’
The pre-race briefing had been very specific about this threat. The Mogoswok region of the Baringo District, the location for this year’s charge, is renowned in these parts for its honey: each team had been issued with enough anti-histamine to take down a bull elephant, the consequences of accidentally knocking down a bee’s nest into a packed pick-up truck ensuring all but the most fool hardy swallowed their pre-race medicine.
‘What’s this?’ pointing to a small, white, rectangular cardboard box.
‘Haven’t they been banned?’ picking up the packet beloved of long haul travellers and date rapists the world over.
‘In your country yes, but not here. I love Rohypnol,’ says Shah with an honesty one doesn’t usually associate with the Hippocratic Order. ‘Drop one and you’re out for seven hours, and when you wake up, no side effects.’
‘What’s the worst injury you’ve had to treat?’
‘A thigh artery cut through after a winch cable snapped and sliced through a competitor’s thigh.’ Later, in the bar, a guy tells me that the car had then rolled over the unfortunate guy’s head but he looked like he was on the point of spraining an ankle, having collected an impressive collection of Tusker Beer bottles on the table before him.
Shah’s radio crackles into life. A Unimog has rolled and smashed into another Unimog – good day for Mercedes then. The details are sketchy, like how on earth in the 100 square kilometres that define the course area, have two of the competing cars managed to smash into each other? But at that point everything goes a bit Mash: the thwack-thwack of rotor blades grows in strength, until the tent flaps start billowing in and a huge roll of dust has everyone choking and covering their eyes. Shah disappears in the direction of the helicopter and, momentarily, I’m overcome with the urge to slip the Forget-Me-Quick-pills into my pocket. Not that I view date rape as a viable alternative to a thinning hair line, it’s just Kenyan Airlines are being tight with their flights and it’s the cheapest way I know to upgrade from rendition to Business. I wander outside to cadge a lift.
Back at the hill, Troy Van Beek pops the lid off a high energy drink.
So Troy, exactly what were you doing out in Afganistan?
‘Shootin’ lootin’ manglin’ and murderin’.’ At 37, the ex-US Navy Seal Sniper has just about seen it all, having returned from a two year stint in Afghanistan with Dynacorp, that is one suspects, until he decided to ride shotgun on the Rhino Charge. True, the Kenyan Bundu is not riddled with IEDs, but it does present all manner of unique challenges one is unlikely to encounter on any other road race in the world. Not least, the equatorial heat, by mid-day the mercury is well into the forties, and Troy, in an effort to cool down, empties a bottle of water over his head. The water runs red. ‘What you get when you forget to duck.’ Referring to a thirty-mile hour encounter with an overhanging acacia branch, whose syringe-like needles make Craven’s Pinhead look cuddly.
Thirty-feet further up the slope, bare shirted and feet planted firmly in terra firma, stands Justin Mathews. A sixteen-year old Kenyan Cowboy, that is, he’s white Kenyan – the rest of Car 64’s team are just plain old ‘Mzunga’ – Swahili for white boy. He looks skyward in agitation wondering exactly what, in a young, dumb and full of cum sort of way, Rollerboy behind the wheel is waiting for? He would have been up and over half an hour ago. The two other members of Car 64, Brent Dunaway and Chris Wade, are both recent grads from Rift Valley Academy, an American Christian boarding school that sits right on the edge of the Kenyan Rift Valley. I know this because they pointed it out to me as we flew over it on the way in. Brent has just finished a theology degree and doesn’t drink, so it looks like God has got him by the balls. Chris on the other hand does but when he tells me what he does says that if I print it he’ll have me killed. I look at Troy who nods in affirmation.
‘I’ll put you down as a keen roller-skater then. Do you have cheerleaders at Rift Valley High?’ thinking a change in my line of questioning may be no bad thing.
‘Used to.’ I can’t tell you what effect that image has when you’re stuck out in the middle of the African bundu with nothing but a group of sweaty males for company but am pretty sure you can imagine.
The mirage of scantily clad young women doing intense physical exercise soon evaporates into the bundu haze that clouds just about everything as the Range Rover groans, spurts forward, humps over a series of broken, rocky ridges, spitting boulders in its haste and attains about a third of the hill before the forces of gravity reassert their authority. Not even a 3.5 litre V8 has enough power to reach escape velocity apparently. Barely has the car stopped however, rear wheels spinning uselessly and gouging deep groves into the traction-less surface, than Troy is unwinding the cable from the forward winch mounted on the bull bars and hauling arse up the hill. A scrawny Acacia, which appears barely capable of supporting its own weight let alone the dead weight of the Range Rover, is singled out, the cable wrapped and doubled back on itself at the tree’s base, when the low whine of the winch coupled with the roar of the V8 momentarily silences the constant buzz of cicadas.
The tree bends and groans under the load, the cable zips tight and Car 64 starts crawling, foot by foot, towards the hill’s zenith. Some ten minutes later, tree somehow still intact, Car 64 summits. There is no time to celebrate though. If getting up presented a challenge of Herculian proportions, getting down will hardly be a walk in the park either. Both Brent and Chris, with God, no doubt, on their side, have already been dispatched down into the surrounding canopy in search of a viable descent, Troy is busy recoiling the forward winch hawser, while Justin attaches the rear one to the much abused Acacia. Their destination, Brookhouse School Guard Post, is still some three miles distant. It’s going to be a very long day.
There is a point, other than general petrol head masochists’ tendencies, to all this. Before a competing car can even get to the start line it has to raise a minimum sponsorship of 38,000 Kenyan Shillings (£309), and many cars raise far in excess of this. In 2009, no less than £529,000 was raised for the organising charity, the Rhino Ark. The charity was set up to protect one of Kenya’s finest indigenous forests, the Aberdares National Park, initially in response to the threat of extinction of the Black Rhino. Latterly though, the importance of the Forest as a watershed, the capital Nairobi and its three million population are entirely dependent, has become an additional and pressing factor.
While some thirty years ago it was common to see Black Rhino in the wild, it has been preyed upon to the point of extinction, with some estimates suggesting the population may now be less than 500. Generally the finger gets pointed at the ‘shiftas’, armed gangs of Somalis who cross the porous border with Kenya, however, the Black Rhino’s horn is worth more than its weight in gold, either carved to make dagger handles, a prized symbol of manhood in Yemen or, when ground down to powder, is considered to have almost supernatural healing powers in the Far East. In an effort to protect the remaining animals, the Rhino Ark set out to fence the Aberdares National Park with an electric fence, no mean feat considering the Park covers an area of 766 square kilometres. On the 28th August 2009, after 21 years in construction, the final post of the 400 kilometre fence was driven in. So a job well done? Not quite. A fence that big still needs to be maintained and patrolled, something the Kenyan Government can ill afford to do, so the Rhino Charge charges on, continuing to raise funds to build up an endowment fund to ensure the fence and the future of the Aberdares is never in doubt.
Down at the Gauntlet a traffic jam is forming. A car has managed to hang itself up by front and back bumpers, its wheels spinning air a good foot from the ground. The team members try to winch the car out using a rock protruding from the steep river gorge, but it is not until members from the car stuck behind come to lend a hand that they finally get the car moving. Using a hi-jack they raise the front of the chassis and then tilt the car forward. Three times they have to do this until the front wheels finally gain traction and the car is on its way, a delay of some forty-five minutes. Perhaps they shouldn’t have bothered, for no sooner have they entered the same section, where the river bed narrows to a boulder strewn gorge, they attempt to avoid the fate that befell their predecessor but sticking to the heavily inclined and smooth rocks of the south side but only manage to turtle up as the car slips off the rock and inverts itself at the bottom of the river bed, much to the amusement of the large crowd lining the ledges above. Once again a combination of hi-jacks and winches are employed to right the car and some thirty minutes later the car is free, roaring down the pebble strewn river bed in an attempt to make up time, each car having to return to its starting gate before the allotted time is up. For most, this means dropping some of the check points and using the roads to get back as quickly as possible, distance no longer a consideration.
With time now at a premium, Car 64 elects to bypass the traffic jam at the Gauntlet which most drivers have elected to leave late in the day due to the damage it invariably inflicts on the competitor’s cars, and go straight over the hill. Peter, besides his love of roller skating, obviously enjoys the thrill of the climb. All goes well until the descent, when the rear winch cable snaps and the car hurtles down the steep slope towards the river bed. Perhaps realising that God hadn’t ordained this one, Chris and Brent bail out, Justin cursing them loudly as he hangs on for dear life in the back of the Range Rover. There is not a lot Peter at the wheel can do to control the rate of descent, other than using the dense riparian vegetation that lines the side of the gorge in attempt to slow the car’s progress.
To the spectators below it appears that an elephant is rolling down the hillside, the vegetation swaying and buckling recording Car 64’s descent. Some 10 feet of vertical drop awaits Car 64 at the bottom and even if Peter is aware of it, his runners are well behind him, there is little he can do to avoid it. Amazingly, the car and its remaining occupants survive, the car landing on it wheels, much to the delight of the cheering crowd. What’s more, it has arrived some 100 metres beyond the narrow gorge which has been causing so much trouble. Peter sits somewhat shocked, engine idling, waiting for Chris and Brent to return. When they finally do, Justin berates them long and loudly for their perceived cowardice, before they too disappear in a cloud of dust as they race off to get back to their starting checkpoint.
At 5.30 I get back to the main base camp and await the arrival of Peter and his crew. At the Race Control tent, Caroline Armstrong the driver of Car 18 Pinks in Charge!, one of the all female teams, is beside herself in despair. Despite visiting all 12 Guard Posts in the allotted time, the GPS installed to monitor her distance has malfunctioned, and instead of being in contention for winner’s podium, has been penalised. All the more galling, as an all female team has never won the Rhino Charge.
I hang around the bar waiting for Peter. Six comes, then six-thirty and still no show. I wander back over to Race Control who inform me that Car 64 didn’t return to their starting point within the allotted time, still haven’t returned. Two hours later they finally appear. The car may have survived its vertical ascent down the hill but two miles off their finishing checkpoint, the drive shaft gave up the ghost and they were forced to leave the car dead in a lugga. Let’s hope their efforts, and all those competing in the Rhino Charge, have ensured the same fate does not befall the last of the Black Rhinos. GREG NAYSMITH
With special thanks to Peter, the Danish roller-skater, and Car 64’s team. More info online at rhinocharge.co.ke.