Sunday, January 28, 2007

The golden days of Bert Shankland

The golden days of Bert Shankland and Joginder Singh in the East African Safari

THE East African Safari Rally which died with the collapse of the East African Community, EAC, was one of the sporting events that brought East Africans together. But after the collapse of the Community, it was not surprising that the motor rally also disappeared into oblivion. Staff Writer, ATTILIO TAGALILE looks back with nostalgia at the event that kept East Africans on their toes as it lasted. Read on.

AFTER the collapse of the EAC on June 30th in 19977, a number of things were affected, including the East African Safari Rally which was normally organized in April and usually ended on Easter Monday with the competition starting and ending in Nairobi.

The beauty of that competition was that after being flagged off from the rump in Nairobi, usually by Kenya’s President, initially by the founding Father of that country, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and later, Daniel Arap Moi, participants would head for Uganda in the first leg of the rally.

The second leg would take them back to Kenya and later drive into Tanzania through Tanga and move on to one of the most difficult patches in the rally, the Usambara Mountains.

The rally which drew local and international drivers from East Africa and other parts of the world was one of the most exciting sporting events in the region.

After the collapse of the Community, the rally was confined to Kenya although Tanzanian drivers continued to participate in the rally for between two and three years.

However, the removal of the Tanzanian section from the rally robbed motor rally fans of the fun they had enjoyed for years as the rally existed.

Although the rally has since resumed, it is not what it used to be because it no longer provides that particular kind of test to both the drivers and their cars.

As the East African rally existed, one of the leading mottos then was that it provided what came to be known as the test of man and his or her machine.

As for Tanzania, the highlight of the East African rally as it existed, was the two victories scored by a pair of Tanzanian drivers (who were however, British citizens), Bert Shankland and Chris Rothwell.

Shankland was then the chief executive officer and sales representatives of Marshall Peugeot in Tanzania and his office and motor showroom was then located in the same building where the City Bank is presently located in the city centre.

Shankland who drove Peugeot 404 won the rally back to back in 1965 and 1966, hence putting Tanzania and the car model in regional and international map.

Even before he won the rally, the Tanganyika and later Tanzanian motor car market had been dominated by Peugeots.

After his double victory, the cars’ sales shot up and for any upcoming Tanzanian or East African for that matter to consider himself a modern man to own a top of the range car in those days he was supposed to drive a Peugeot.

The cars were believed to be the fastest in the realm of motor cars after the two Britons won the regional rally two years in succession.

Later came the second version, faster and more robust, Peugeot 504, and Shankland turned to the new car but the best he did in the rally was to finish second and third.

This time his navigator was not Rothwell who had returned to England, but Chris Bates. However, the participation of Shankland and Bates continued to bring a lot of excitement and thrill in the regional rally.

Other regional drivers who won the rally during different years included Kenya’s flying Singh, Joginder whose favourite car was Volvo, made in Sweden, Vic Preston senior who drove a British made car, Ford Cortina and later the new kid on the block, Shekhar Mehta, who would win the rally through a Japanese car, Datsun 1600 SSS.

Mehta could actually be described as a man who introduced Japanese cars into East African market through his victories in Japanese made cars.

For it was his victories coupled with the introduction of another Japanese car make, Toyota 160Y which finally killed the European car market in East Africa.

From then on, Japanese cars started not only to dominate the East African rally, but more and more affluent people in the region preferred Japanese cars to European cars.

There were apparently a number of reasons for that. These included the fact that they were cheaper and their fuel consumption was lower than European cars, especially those which used petrol.

The other factor was the easy availability of spare parts which were cheaper than those of European made cars.

And like Joginder Singh, Shankland and Mehta, Preston also won at least once in the regional motor rally before he retired to leave his son, Preston junior to take over.

What was however, interesting about the regional rally is that international foreign drivers, for a long time, failed to win the rally despite their vast experience on the international motor rally circuit.

For instance international drivers who had won motor rallies in Europe like the Polish driver, Zasada, brought in Porsche (which was then being made in West Germany) in the rally.

Since October 3rd 1990, the Porsche is made in the united Federal Republic of Germany and presently beats Italian made car, Ferrari in speed although its price is almost a quarter that charged on Ferrari!

In the first few two to three hundred kilometers, the Polish driver sent a chilling cold into the spines of East African drivers.

However, by the time he had reached Uganda and was now returning to Nairobi, he was forced to pull out of the rally after a fuel tank was pierced through by a sharp object.

But before the mishap, he had given Shankland, Joginder and the rest of the top East African drivers a run for their money.

Zasada’s speed in his Porsche was such that Joginder Singh had this to say about the Polish driver: “It is difficult to beat Zasada on a straight road”.

Joginger would later tell sports journalists that he was far ahead and driving over 130 kilometres per hour.

He then saw the Polish driver in the sight mirror. Before he knew what was happening, Zasada went past him as if he had stopped driving!

That was certainly German engineering at its best. The latest Porsche is not only a speedster monster but can not roll on a flat road on account of application of prompt brakes.

The other famous Tanzanian driver, apart from Shankland, Rothwell and Bates, was Zully Rhemtullah who was then living in Mwanza.

Rhemtullah’s favourite car was Peugeot 404 and for those who may not know this man, it is actually the same old man who is presently involved in cricket development in the country.

That goes to show that for Rhemtullah, sports runs in his blood. Although, as noted, he was unable to win the East African Safari Rally, he has turned round and done an extremely good and quite a commendable job in developing cricket in the country. I pay tribute and gallantly salute this old man!

Why was EA Safari Rally exciting?

As already pointed out, as the rally was being run throughout the three East African countries, it provided extremely difficult driving conditions to drivers, especially international drivers from Europe who were not used to driving in the rugged East African terrain.

For instance, each of the East African country had its own challenges. Kenya normally provided rugged, stony roads and when the rains were late, the route provided a lot of dust to the drivers.

The main disadvantage of the dust was that it provided visionary problems to the drivers. And the best way to avoid dust was to keep in front of the pack.

Ugandan roads were slippery, especially during rainy season while the Tanzanian roads, especially the Usambara Mountains section, was very muddy and most drivers’ dream to win the rally ended at Usambara Mountains.

There was not a single rally held that never experienced heavy rains and muddy conditions in Usambara Mountains.

It was actually because of such tough conditions that experienced East African motor rally drivers came up with the following saying:

“The East African Safari Rally is won or lost in Usambara Mountains”. While most drivers feared the section, Shankland loved it!

He drove his Peugeots in mud as if the car were a four wheel drive. Today, few Tanzanians have the ability to drive such cars in such muddy conditions, hence the present love for the four wheel drives.

Shankland was so good when it came to driving in the section that he collected most of his points in the rally once he entered the Usambara Mountains section.

Even when he won the rally back to back in 1965 and 1966, he had done quite well in Kenya and Uganda, keeping his car in the first ten leading cars.

However, when it came to Usambara Mountains, he moved to the first position and by the time he drove to Dar es Salaam and back to Nairobi he had already won the rally.

The same thing happened, more or less, when he finished second and third respectively, this time in the new, bigger Peugeot 504.

The East African roads conditions were such that they provided motor rally drivers with a major test in human endurance and machine.

It was therefore not surprising that when the East African Rally was finally killed, through the withdrawal of the Usambara Mountains, the rally lost its glamour and excitement.

Indeed, how could it continue to provide excitement when drivers and their vehicles had only Kenyan and Ugandan road conditions?

After the collapse of the East African Rally, (in the sense of the withdrawal of the Tanzanian route by those responsible for the event) Tanzania continued with its rally which came to be known as the 1,000 Kilometres Tanzania Motor Rally.

It was also quite exciting, because it included the treacherous Usambara Mountains. However, the rally later died when the Tanzanian government banned, for a few years, following a fuel crunch.

It however, later lifted the ban and Tanzania motor rallies are not only back, but have actually been growing from strength to strength.

However, for some of us who had the opportunity of bearing witness to the East African Safari Rally, the competition would never be the same again for a variety of reasons.

One, the treacherous Usambara Mountains section is no longer what it used to be!

This is because there have been such environmental degradation, in terms of indiscriminate felling of trees in the area that the rains are no longer as heavy as they used to be.

The implication of this is that the muddy conditions in the section which used to give motor rally drivers a run for their money are no longer there on account of lack of rains and this has taken away the fun.

Secondly, most of the so called local rallies which are presently being organised, separately, in the region are not worthy the name for the simple reason that most of them are not using new cars specially made for the competition, but second hand cars.

During the days of the East African Rally, all competitors used new, specially made cars for the rally because their manufacturers had one thing in mind, to test the man’s endurance and the ability or otherwise of the cars in such tough road conditions.

It was therefore on the basis of the performance of the cars in such tough road conditions that enabled motor vehicle manufacturers whose make of cars had participated in the rally to make further modifications in their cars.

And the aim of such modifications and improvement on the cars was to ensure that at the end of the day they produced cars that would stand tough road conditions and by extension, sell more cars to their customers the world over.

In short, the East African Rally was both a sport and an arena for motor cars production engineers from manufacturers to find out which parts of their cars could be improved.

Therefore the car which won most of the rallies was considered a better car in the sense that it had completed over 3,000 kilometres without breaking down.

It was through the rally that production engineers were able to find out which part of the car broke down more often than not, hence the need to improve its production.

As for the man in the street who would line up along the road and follow the race through his transistor radio, the East African Rally provided him with fun and excitement.

Motor rally enthusiasts in the rural areas would spend sleepless nights waiting for the cars to pass in their respective localities.

What was more, unlike these days when some people are known to put impediments on the roads in order to stop drivers and rob them of their valuables, during those days motor fans would help in extricating a motor rally car that had got stuck in mud.

And for the East African governments, the motor rally provided them with revenue through the participation of local and international drivers.

Let it not be forgotten that it was during this time when, during winter in Europe, that tourists from Europe and other parts of the world trooped into East Africa not only to visit the region’s rich tourist destinations which are second to none in the world, but also to watch the East African Rally.

After the collapse of the Community and the East African Safari Rally, there had been attempts to revive the latter but to no avail.

Tanzania on its part has continued to organize its own motor rallies some of which have seen the participation of drivers from neighbouring countries.

However, like Kenya, the local motor rallies have failed to bring the excitement and fun that used to be experienced during the good, old days.

Had the Community continued to exist, it is unlikely the regional motor rally would have died.

In fact these are some of the things that some people tend to forget when they talk of the old and the so called new Community.

The new Community would not succeed because it is based on a wrong premise, business and for a selected few and foreign companies whose tentacles are based in the region, rather than business for local people, especially for the man in the street.

Although the regional motor rally involved products that were not made in East Africa, cars and fuel, it brought in tourists who boosted our local economies.

Had the Community continued to survive, one wonders what would have become today of the regional motor rally.

It could certainly have joined the likes of Paris-Dakar motor rally.


1 comment:

Freddy Macha said...

Excellent piece Attilio. You have put it all in historical perspective. Sports, politics, business and technology. I would suggest that Bert Shankland and Chris Rothwell were as significant as todays Formula One drivers, Michael Schumacher, the late Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton, Nigel Mansell, Alan Prost, etc. This is one example of how important it is to highlight yesteryears' forgotten heroes. Mr Shankland showed love for Tanzania, we should have had a road named after him in exchange...