Sand River in the Masai Mara is usually dry with a little more than shrubbery scattered here and there. But last year, the usually sandy area was covered with lush green thicket, adding to the challenge of the terrain for competitors of the Rhino Charge, an annual off-road competition.
Team 51, dubbed the Deranged Rovers, driver Dominic Rebelo recalls the thicket cutting three of the four brake lines of the modified Range Rover. “We had to use the bush and gear to stop,” he explains.
Now, a year later, Dominic and his team are nothing short of excited to take part in this year’s edition of the Rhino Charge. The car has had most parts replaced, including a new gear box that recently arrived.
Teams across the country and different parts of the globe have been putting in hours of practice and repair work on their vehicles in anticipation of the Charge, whose location will only be released to the participants on the day of travel.
“We only know that it is 250 kilometres from Isiolo,” explains Dominic. The mystery of the venue race seems to add to the anticipation of the 65 teams taking part in the charity event.
On the motor junkie circuit, spectator and racing enthusiasts alike, Rhino Charge tops as one of the most diverse and engaging in the country.
Dominic has been taking part in the conservation race for over a decade, driving through the different terrains. Each year, he says, offers a distinct challenge for the car as well as his driving skills.
First time entrants, the Pink Horns, are gearing up to take on the challenge of unknown territory in their virgin race. The all-ladies’ team has been practising on and off the track to hone skills in driving as well as the mechanical and navigation skills for the event.
One evening at around 7pm, Glena Jiwani, driver for the Pink Horns, called up her friend Nili Dodhia and asked if the she would be interested in taking part in the 2017 Rhino Charge. For Nili, it was as simple as saying yes.
Glena had been attending the Rhino Charge since 2002, partly due to her love for the outdoors and also due to the fact that her husband and his best friend were participants in the challenge. She and his wife would be on the sidelines watching their spouses take on the challenge of nature versus machine, when they decided they wanted in on the action.
A conversation later, the two decided that they would take part in the next event. They then embarked on the task of finding team mates as well as the skills to take part in the elite 4 by4 race.
“My husband sponsored us with a car. They were building a new car so they gave us the one they had been using,” said Glena.
The ladies have been learning the endurance, technical and mechanical skills needed to complete the 10-hour race that will be held in a yet- to-be disclosed location.
Across town, another first time entrant is wrapping up the body work on its car. Team Bundu Bandits which includes brothers Alykhan and Amaan Fazal are buzzing with excitement for the race to take place on the first weekend of June.
Alykhan and Amaan have always been motor heads with a love for cars and adventure so the rhino charge was a big puzzle that they could not wait to give a try.
“We started with Quattro charges and have also my uncle who was part of the charge for a couple of years,” says Alykhan.
“We go round talking to our friends trying to find different people who are good at different things. We have one who is good with electrical, another with engines and such,” says Amaan.
The brothers, along with their four teammates, have been getting their vehicle ready for the past year, like all other teams.
They have been renovating a vehicle which belonged to a Swedish friend, who had been taking part in the race for several years. The car has been fitted with a new GPS, Topography and satellite navigation courtesy of Navigation Systems Limited.
“The runners will have GPS watches that will read coordinates, temperature, heart rate and altitude,” said Amaan.
Every year, in the middle of nowhere, in what can basically be described as a secret rendezvous, teams meet up to cover some of the most challenging terrains in the country. Armed with nothing but coordinates, the 65 teams will leave Nairobi to the second assembly point where they will receive coordinates to the campsite, close to where the Charge will take place.
On Friday evening, the teams are then furnished with contour maps to the 13 checkpoints that they must manoeuvre through in a time of 10 hours, covering the shortest distance possible.
“We spend the evening mapping the route that we will take from one checkpoint into the next on the map,” explains Dominic.
The route on the map may be easy cut. But the situation on the ground is usually quite different. Once each team chooses a starting station, they are guided by the event organisers to the start point on Saturday morning where the race will begin.
“The cars are custom built for the charge. The bodies are modified and strengthened to withstand the course,” says Dominic.
Each team at the Charge is made up of six people, namely a driver, a navigator as well as four runners. The runners help steer the car from the ground as well as aid in the winching process. A winch is a mechanical device used to pull in or let out a rope or wire cable.
“As first time entrants to the event, there is a lot of learning to be done. The backbone being the navigation. You cannot stay on a competitive route if you do not know how to read the maps. We have a designated mechanic, a tech survey navigator, a water engineer, (Amaan) is a mechanical engineer and I am the driver,” says Alykhan.
This is an aspect that Glena and Nili relate to so well. According to Glena, watching is a different experience from actually taking part. The ladies team has been going out for practice runs in the untamed wild to test the car as well as their team work.
“Three weeks ago, we had car trouble and had to be rescued,” explains Nili. “It taught us how much the car can endure and how to handle the situation.”
Nili will be a runner for the team. She and three others are tasked with physically charting out a route for the car in places where the driver does not have clear visibility or needs extra help to save on time. The team has been taking part in offroad challenges and sessions to build the team dynamic.
“Teamwork is very important in the charge. To build teamwork and gain experience you must go out for practices to see how the car is running and communication and team dynamics as well as see how you deal with time constraints and mechanical failure,” says Alykhan.
The backbone of the race is the navigation aspect, especially for the new teams. They must read and decipher the contour maps as well as plot coordinates to the destination and get there.
Participating in the Rhino Charge does not come cheap. This year, the teams will have to raise a minimum Sh1.5 million for the conservation cause so as to participate. Further, the teams pay for the vehicle modifications, fuel for the practice races, accommodation, repairs and all other costs that arise for the race.
According to the three teams, this is usually done with the assistance of sponsors. Direct sponsors help raise funds for the cause each year while there is indirect sponsorship like provision of water, vehicle parts and paints, mechanical services, accommodation and even navigation systems among other essentials.