A cloud of dust slowly settled. The white Subaru gradually became visible, plastered with sponsorship stickers and vinyl inside it. Mohamed Essa’s car seemed to stare back at me menacingly as I took another picture of it. My heart raced and I swallowed more dirt flavoured saliva. What a show…
On our way to Siavonga, Maurice Diamond frantically worked the steering wheel and two cell phones in both ears in an awe inspiring juggle. It reminded me of how I often wished for multiple arms before my girlfriend told me that would mean more armpits.
“People ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I tell them, ‘I’m a delegator,’” Maurice joked about being the Managing Director at Lake Safari Lodge. He made multiple phone calls and had the District Commissioner of Siavonga in one ear, and someone from Lake Safari — where the Siavonga Goodyear Motor Rally was set to start — in the other. He was pulling all the stops to push the event to Sunday 8th December 2013, because of the national mourning. Our Deputy Health Minister and Nelson Mandela had both answered the call of God that week.
After much phone juggling, traffic violations and oil slick negotiation, Maurice, with some help from the people on the other end of the phones, succeeded in moving the event to Sunday morning. And he did all this with only two armpits. What showmanship!
“Yesterday we gave them a bit of a carrot to nibble on, but they wanted more,” said Paul Monge of Zambia Motor Sports Association about the practice run on Saturday. Poncho, as the rally world knows him, said the crowd was going wild but could only get a taste of what was to follow due to national mourning.
He peered over my notepad suspiciously as I scribbled down his remarks. Poncho didn’t like to be quoted it seemed. He pointed at, and asked me to talk to, one Robert Zeravica from Trentyre/Goodyear, the co-sponsors of the event. Mr Zeravica told me about how he believed this rally could be a national event and that it was all the rave back in the 80’s. I was bubbling with anticipation. I could feel it in my gut, that this would be one heck of a show.
More drivers and navigators arrived, all dressed in their astronaut-esque jumpsuits, walking tall and proud. Showmen, ready to risk life and limb in a dusty display of daredevil devotion. A middle aged man sat alone by a table with his breakfast half finished as he scanned a time card with symbols I couldn’t quite recognise. His name was Roy Thornicroft and he was navigating for Poncho’s son, Miles.
“As a navigator, you’re basically the manager of the car,” he said. He had been racing with Poncho for over ten years. He wore his motor sports branded cap the way my father would, signifying he was a veteran. “If you’re a good driver, you’ll listen to the navigator.” Asked if there were any treacherous areas in the course he was looking out for, he mentioned the school. It had just recently been constructed and they were afraid of skidding rocks through classroom windows.
At about 7:15 that morning, all of the eight participating cars had arrived. Some of the racers couldn’t make it because the rally had been postponed. The machines rambled and revved signifying their eagerness to get started.
Mohammed Essa, 2012’s African Rally Champion ,was pulling a few last minute strings together before the spectacle could begin. “I’m trying to run the rally, running my crew…its like 15 things at once,” he said as I ran beside him taking down notes. “Why do you race?” I asked him. “Passion, pure passion,” he said. “Before me, my dad did it, so, you know…”
His goal that day was to wow the locals. To put on a show the little ones would have skid-marked into their memories for a long time to come. He had a certain charisma about him, smiled when he had to and didn’t make it seem like I was delaying him. And it’s no wonder — he has 82 trophies under his belt. I almost asked him if I could ride in his car with him.
The hot sun glinted off the multi coloured cars lined up at the starting line just before 8:00 am. Their hoods and car doors were plastered with branded oil, fuel, tyre and energy drink sponsorship stickers. Their drivers suited up, zipped up and fastened their helmets. One by one they peeled off and the race began.
The Siavonga denizens lined the boundaries of the rally course, waving excitedly as the vehicles passed. I was driven to the first stop in a non-competing car and hopped out to take a few pictures. I was on the dirt course and could have easily been hit by one of the cars at any second. You would think I had been trading paint with the drivers the way their fearless attitude had rubbed off on me.
At the school, the cars coming around the dirt road sounded like a billion angry bumble bees as they ripped past the crowd and skidded up a veil of dust, coating shades, camera lenses and phone screens. The racers negotiated curves and obstacles in a bid to clock in the best times and impress the onlookers. I’d never seen anything like it.
After most of the racers had torn through the school and continued on their course, I was driven to the Service Stop in a football field in the town centre. Mohammed had clocked in first, followed by Azim Ticklay. But arriving first didn’t necessarily mean you were in the lead. Drivers had to take the least possible time to get from Lake Safari to the Service Stop and the rest of the course.
The pit crews at the stop jacked up the cars and unscrewed their tyres, adjusted bolts and bearings, put in more pressure if necessary, wiped the chariots down and generally worked on them before they could speed off again.
Next stop was ‘Sandy Beach’. It being a Siavonga rally, it was only right that the course include treacherous sands. I’d imagined the racers having to utilise every skill they had at their disposal to drive out of sinkholes and sandpits! It seemed only the racers were heading there, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world so I hitched a ride with the Mitsubishi service crew.
Our car had to swerve and stop to avoid being hit by one of the racers. I patted my lap to check if I’d wet myself as the driver set the car in motion again. It sped on, the inside smelling like hot oil and grease. The rush to the beach pumped excitement through me as the car hugged the dirt road. It felt like I was in the race myself.
Unfortunately we had to turn back because there was no way we would catch up with the speed junkies. The beach was many kilometres away and it seemed we had lost our way. The driver jumped out and looked at the tyre tracks in the dirt road with a pensive face. He stuck one finger in the dust, put it his mouth and said, “They went that way,” pointing us in the direction in which we would head off the racers.
At around 11:00 we had to return to the Service Stop where the racers were taking a break and giving the crowd a chance to trade stories of the amazing feats they had seen. I was still shaking.
Mr. Azim Ticklay, seasoned rally car racer, was helping his son out with his car. He listened to it and made a diagnosis based on its sound and his veteran car sense. His was a large utility vehicle, a brown Land Cruiser that had been racing for 8 years. He’d had it for 12. It was a beast bullying its way through the duration of the show. “Nick name is ‘Kabila’ or ‘Bally’ “, he said proudly.
The second half of the race was even trickier. The curves and bends in the town centre really put the daredevil’s skills to the test. They came in at high speed and chomped tight corners with tyre teeth, flinging small rocks at the crowd. But not one person flinched. They stood their ground and cheered the showmen on, basking in their dusty glory.
Walter Wasamunu (in his Yapa Manzi chariot) negotiated a bend by an island hard as his chariot snapped, crackled and popped at full speed. He lost his rear bumper at this vicious curve but carried on like nothing had happened. His exhaust pipe blew a smoky cloud of bravado.
When the rally was over, the District Commissioner requested a small show because he had been late. Mohammed Essa gladly obliged and had the town centre in a cloud of dust with a series of devilish doughnuts and stone flinging skids. The Siavonga crowd naturally went wild.
“We should have this every year!” exclaimed the Commissioner.
Mohammed Essa won first place, clocking in at an impressive 00:46:02 minutes. The prize giving had many light moments and a few penalties were handed out. Someone got penalised for not carrying a fire extinguisher (daredevil drivers only stop, drop and roll!) and Azim Ticklay was penalised for being beaten by his own son.
Everybody paid their fines in good spirits and the brave showmen laughed heartily like they hadn’t just performed some death defying feats of showmanship. I sat there watching them in admiration, still dusty from the event. I vowed never to wash again. I was covered in the dust that great rallies are made of. What a show!
Benny Blow is a backseat driver with a degree in road rage. You can shift into 5th gear and read his blog here; follow him and eat his dust on Twitter here and rally behind him on Facebook by clicking here.