East African Safari Rally 1971
Easter time and, after a gap of three years, we are off once more to Nairobi for the East African Safari Rally.
Our crew comprised Paul Badin, Julian Botras and Jacques Hubinet. The day after we arrived, we were invited over to Mohinder Dhillon’s House which he shared with his wife, Ambi, and son Sam. Sam was only three or four years old, but already he could speak in three languages. English, Urdu and Swahili, the latter between him and the house boy.
The balance of the crew was made up by Mohinder and Satwant Singh of Africapix.
Mohinder’s wife gave us a wonderful curry lunch which set us up for the day.
Once again, I hoped we could use a helicopter. We went to see the proprietor only to be told that the helicopter was undergoing repairs and would not be ready for two weeks, long after we had gone home.
Mohinder offered to speak to the police who had two Bell helicopters. We went to see the Commissioner of Police who told us that he could only let us use a police helicopter if all the commercial helicopters were either rented out already or grounded. How fortunate we were.
The problem we had was that the Bell only had a range of 75 miles and we needed to go twice that distance (and still remain in Kenya). A cunning plan was devised, probably by Mohinder Dhillon, whereby a truck would drive out to an agreed location in wild and open country identified only by a grid reference on an Ordnance Survey map. There, the truck would unload several drums of petrol. Because of the location, it would be almost impossible for them to be discovered and stolen.
The plan was that the helicopter would carry Paul Badin, who was an ace helicopter cameraman, and fly him 75 miles north-west of Nairobi to the location in the region of Lake Naivasha. There he could refuel and go on towards Uganda at Kericho. He would return by the same route.
There were many advantages of using the police helicopter. First, it was agreed that we paid a sum of money (less than we would have paid the commercial helicopter company) to a local police charity.
Second, the pilot was highly experienced in flying the Kenyan terrain and thirdly, unlike the south of France, the pilot could fly at any altitude he thought to be safe.
The Japanese were entering a new model, the Datsun 240Z which was rather like an E-Type Jaguar, but, as they said, cheaper,
What we noticed first was that the cars had wipers on the headlamps. It did not last.
British Caledonian Airways were the main sponsors of the rally and they did a deal with us on air fares. They bought us cheap flights and we provided “exposure” of their name. This was not difficult in that their advertising was predominant all over the place. In fact it would have been more difficult to exclude references to B-Cal. In addition, I received a B-Cal tie and an embossed pewter tankard. Such rewards. We were invited to attend a reception at the town hall. The host was the daughter of Jomo Kenyatta who was also the Mayor.
There were lots of rally teams, drivers, the press and us.
I went up to get a drink and having obtained it, I turned to my right which is my blind side. I bumped into a gentlemen of a religious persuasion. He turned out to be the Papal Nuncio. I apologised and we spoke for some while. He was on a tour of Africa and had some special mission to the Kenya Government. I would have thought that he could have given them a sermon on the evils of corruption and nepotism.
Before the rally started, I bought myself a second safari suit. These suits were ideal for the job. They were light and tailored with short sleeves and an open neck under which one wore a collared, open-necked shirt. One of the suits was in tan while the other was light blue.
Watanabe went off with his taxi driver to find a leaping Thomson’s Gazelle. When he came back, he was all smiles saying that he thought he had got his ideal picture. However, he would have to wait until it was processed to find out how perfect it was.
Mohinder arranged for the processing and soon we were able to see his work. It was perfect. He had a Thompson’s Gazelle in full flight leaping with front legs forward and back legs back so that one could only see one front leg and one back leg. That would have netted him a goodly return.
Mohinder went off to get some wildlife shots in Amboseli National Park. When he returned, he, too, was jubilant. Whilst there, he had seen that Kilimanjaro was clear of cloud. He set up his camera on a tripod and started to shoot when a giraffe walked across the scene from left to right. He could not have timed it better if he had a tame giraffe.
The Japanese were well pleased.
The rally was what we regarded, by now, as routine, however, when the rally cars set off to the north west, bound for Uganda, Paul Badin and I went with them. We were flown up to Jinja in a light aircraft and then we walked along the rally route which took the cars into Kampala.
By lunchtime, we were hungry. The problem was that there was nowhere for us to eat. In fact there was no signs of civilisation on the road. After a while, we could see a truck approaching from about a mile away. It was at an angle as if it had been overloaded on one side. As it approached, we could see that it was carrying huge bunches of bananas.
There would have been around forty or fifty bananas to the bunch.
Badin stepped out into the road and signalled for the driver to stop. I was amazed that he was not run over. The driver, who spoke no English or French, asked what he wanted. Badin, realising what he was saying, pointed to the bananas and then to his mouth, chewing the cud, and then held out his hand with some money in it. The driver took a shilling from Badin’s display of wealth and then climbed up the side of the truck and brought down one of his huge bunches of bananas. Badin took the bunch, removed about half a dozen and then gave the rest back to the driver. He was well pleased and we had our early lunch before the rally cars came down the road.
While in Kenya, I was commissioned to make two other films on the rally. One of these was for the local Shell company in Kenya who, when they saw the finished film, said that I had not given enough visual references to Shell. A count-up showed that there were no fewer than 33 visual references, many of which were full screen. The second film was for Peugeot in Paris. They were well pleased with their film.
The rally was sponsored by British Caledonian Airways with whom we had done a deal. We would make sure that all our clients got visual references to B-Cal signs where they appeared in return for a cheap flight for the crew to Nairobi and back. This was easy because they had great banners flying about all the venues involved in the rally from the start/finish line to the parks ferme. It would have been more difficult to exclude them.
One of the most interesting features of the Rally itself was that an entrant, I cannot recall which one, hit an Impala, one of the larger deer-like animals in Kenya, which bent his nearside wheel through some forty-five degrees. The Impala ran off into the bush never to be seen again.
The driver was determined to get back to Nairobi and the finish. So he persisted. He was followed home by a truck bearing dozens of tyres because after every few miles, the tyre on the bent wheel was ripped to shreds and had to be replaced. He made it back to great cheers from the waiting crowd.
This rally was noted for it being totally dry so that the cars averaging 100 kilometres an hour, sent up a huge plume of dust making it impossible for any following car to get within a quarter of a mile of it.
It was one of the better Rallies and Nissan were improving their performance every time.
Nairobi had been something of a surprise to me. I had heard of the various races getting on well together,. But here we could see it in the streets. The majority were, obviously, Africans, but many of the shops were run by Asians and there were plenty of Europeans to be seen. Many of the former British colonists had taken up Kenyan citizenship and this made them more popular there. It was not always a place of good relations. There was still some mistrust between some of the inhabitants which dated from the Mau Mau period.
Mohinder and I went to the Nairobi Game Park to shoot some material on the local wildlife. A notice advised us to go to the office to get permission. We had a long wait, but, eventually, we were shown into the office of the Head Ranger. He was a Swahili man and, like many of his contemporaries in the Government, he was overweight.
Mohinder told him that we were working for the Japanese car company and wished to film some animals in the Park. He called Mohinder “Bwana” which he spat out as if he had tasted something nasty. He used the word several times to show his racial dislike for Mohinder. Eventually, we got his permission and we entered the Park and started shooting.
The people at the level of the Head Ranger were of a kind, they were Government Appointees, as said, usually overweight, and clearly as ignorant as the proverbial pig in the poo. The only exception that I found was the Chief Commissioner of Police, but he was still overweight.
Some of them clearly resented the British ex-pats as well as the Asians. What they made of the Japanese I do not know.
The local Swahili people that we came across in the hotels and in the shops were charming. Out in the country there was always some suspicion towards us.
The inhabitants are made up of many different tribes, the largest being Kikuyu and one of the smallest are the Massai. The Massai are mercenary and seek money from anybody taking their photograph and serious money if they are asked to perform some sort of dance. They regard the territory as their land regarding all the other tribes as incomers, so that they demand money from camera crews to shoot on “their land”.
The land varies enormously from semi desert to heavy bush land. One of the most wonderful sights on Earth is the Great Rift Valley which, it is said, runs from Israel down through Ethiopia and Kenya to Tanzania.
In places, it produces huge gorges with rock cliffs rising hundreds of feet. The rocks are in a great variety of colours ranging from cream through to deep blue. There are places along it where it can be seen as far as the eye can see on a northerly and southerly direction.
When I first flew into Nairobi, the flight path went over what was then Lake Rudolph, renamed Lake Turkana, which is a rare desert lake where the water is known as potable but not palatable. It’s a salt lake.
Further south is Lake Nakuru which is now a Game Park and which is home to over a million Lesser Flamingo. These birds turn the shores pink with their droppings. The sight is a delight to ornithologists, scientists and tourists, but the same cannot be said for the smell. Around the lake, almost every variety of Kenya wildlife can be found with the exception of elephant. The Flamingos are awe inspiring to see as they take off and land resembling a Mexican Wave.
There are great rolling plains sometimes dotted by local cattle, the ground uncultivated. Elsewhere, there are great agricultural farms which were developed by the British Settlers and which brought many of the tribes into Kenya. Mostly these farms are still owned and run by European ex-pats. They produce a wide variety of product, much of which is sold in Europe, having been exported as Air Cargo. In the Nairobi Market, one can have a package made up to take home. The locals know exactly what condition the product must be in to last the journey and some. These packages are often made up to include Avocados, Mangos and fruit, all of which become fully ripe a few days after returning home.
Outside the hotels, it is possible to buy hand-carved animals, the Big Five which are Lion, Elephant, Giraffe, Cheetah and Rhino. In 1967, I bought all I wanted and the quality of the carving was high class. I noticed that, during the following years , the quality deteriorated to that of the standard one came to expect of the same product as sold in Europe – shoddy.
One of the carvers’ specialist items was a three legged stool from one piece of wood where the three legs intertwined offering the observer a puzzle as to how it could be done.
Oh, the Rally. Driving a newly introduced Datsun 240Z, Edgar Hermann and Jo Schuller won the rally while Shekha Mehta with Lofty Drews came in second, also in a 240Z.
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