Kenya rally -- mud, elephants, and souped-up engines

When you add up all the remarkable things about Kenya -- including its thousands of square miles of open-air zoo, its 500,000 tourists every year, its uniquely stable (for Africa) political system, its stout claim to be the place where man originated --phenomenon.

It is the Kenya Safari Rally, regarded as the toughest road racing challenge for cars and men ever devised.

The rally has been held for 27 years without a break. It was started in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II back in the colonial era. It has grown bigger and better every year since Kenya's independence in 1963.

The race is always held during the Easter holidays, and when the Kenyans leave services at cathedrals, churches, and little mission chapels, they move toward the rally route to cheer the hurtling bits of modern technology with their world-famous drivers as they charge along some appalling roads.

The rally always comes at the start of Kenya's so-called long rains, when roads become quagmires, rivers flood, bridges and culverts are washed away, and cars get into nightmare stretches of red mud, which clogs tires and suspensions.

The smell of exhaust fumes, the noise of crashing gears, the roar of powerful souped-up engines stretches in a 3,000-mile route across the country in three legs lasting four days. It winds over the equator and back several times, climbs the foothills of Mt. Kenya, relaxes somewhat in the balmy air of the Indian Ocean coast: a rough ride over unique country.

Antipollutionists complain, and there are angry protests at the waste of precious gasoline, but again this year President Daniel arap Moi will flag off the first cars in Nairobi. The government view is that the rally brings fine publicity to Kenya, attracts a lot of tourists, and is good for commerce, trade, and industry.

This Easter more than 2 million people will watch this frenetic contest between men and machines.

But few of those lining the route, mainly poor black Africans, have any chance of owning one of those souped-up Peugeot 504s, Fiat Abarths, Porsches, Fords, Datsuns, and Colt Lancers -- or any car, for that matter. The African view is that the rally participants are insane, but that it is fun nonetheless.

Nobody stops the regular road traffic, so buses and trucks get involved with the rally cars, which get bumped, scraped, and even overturned in smashes.

This year for the first time the United States has a factory entry, four four-wheel-drive Dodge Ramchargers.

Animals usually get into the act. Last year a control officer ran into a giraffe in the middle of the night. An eagle flew straight through a Fiat Abarth's windshield. Cars have been held up by elephants and other big game strolling across the road.

Some 80 cars are entering this year, driven by the world's greatest rally drivers, men such as Mikkola, Alen, Aaltonen, Waldegaard, Nicholas, Kallstrom, Billstam, and Zasada, fresh from the world's other great road rallies.

But the rally is often won by local drivers. Last year and the year before it was the Ugandan Asian, Shekhar Mehta, a millionaire several times over. He is tipped to win again this year in a Datsun. Many years ago, the rally was won by a humble Volkswagen "beetle."

This year the rains came early. Already roads on two legs of the race have been washed away, and alternative routes have been planned. Rains were particularly severe on the northern route, with the heaviest downpour for 10 years. Teams are already out repairing bridges and culverts, some of which have been six feet under water.

The Kenya Safari Rally is unique in that it is run entirely by amateurs. Some 1,500 people will help along the route, manning control points and checkpoints. Ham operators of the Kenya Radio Society handle communications, aided by the police and Army. The famous Flying Doctors service of Kenya is always on duty.

To car factory teams, the rally is important for publicity. Last year, Mercedes spent $2 million to enter four cars.

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