Only three weeks have passed since the 2016 Rhino Charge – and already the organisers have sent us the regulations for the 2017 event! The Rhino Charge goes from strength to strength, attracting more entries and more sponsorship every year. It is an extraordinary formula when you think about it – men and women driving their machines through the bush for a single day to create an endowment for Kenya’s forests and wildlife. As a team we raised KES 2.8m (US$ 28,000) which was a fantastic achievement and, as always, very much down to the generosity of friends and family. This year Kieran also organized a “dinky car rally” at a school in London which was very popular and raised nearly $5,000! This was a great way to bring the Rhino Charge to a new audience, and something we are keen to replicate.
This year the event was held at Naikara and Olderkesi group ranches, close to the Maasai Mara reserve in Narok County. East of the Mara the terrain rises into a mix of thick bush hills and open country, dissected by a beautiful an acacia-lined river (the Sand River) which had recently flooded. This year the vegetation was thicker than ever and true to our mantra “no bush too thick” we spent most of the day carving a path through acacia and balanites thorns. Sean, Team 38’s founder and driver said of the Rhino Charge “the terrain is generally impassable to anything but sturdy goats, and we are given ten hours. The team must cover about 40 km, and it would be much faster to walk.” No truer thing said!
We arrived and made our camp two days before the event then set about checking the car, packing in equipment (ropes, shovels, etc) and ticking off our pre-event scrutineering during which we completed our sponsorship and had the GPS tracker unit installed. This is always quite exciting – there is a great pre-event buzz and many comparisons are made between cars, muscles and stories from previous years. The evening before the Charge, having collected our maps and planned our route for the next day, we were all in bed by 11pm. To reach our starting control we rose by 5am and met the convoy, driving to our first control as the sun came up. The course is always located away from the main camping area and so we were seeing the terrain for the first time, necks craned as we hung off the back of the car eating dust.
The route we selected ran anti-clockwise, placing some of the tougher legs at the beginning and counting on some more open country later on to catch up time. We ran fairly straight for the first couple of controls, generally setting our own route through the bush and trying to guess how straight others were going while watching the clock. It was soon apparent that this year’s event was a long one and that with bush this thick, we were moving slowly and might struggle to finish unless we picked up the pace. But these were crucial legs and there was no way around, so we kept on!
The middle of the day saw us falling behind our planned schedule, briefly stuck in a riverbed and winching for nearly 30 minutes we slipped even further behind. We also made a route decision – choosing not to attempt an ambitious line over a high saddle to reach Vineyard, which was an outlying control and one of the most technically challenging to reach. Instead we opted to tick off some other controls in the vicinity and then skirt the base of the ridge to approach the control from a different angle.
By mid afternoon we were urgently trying to catch up time with 5 controls to go and 3 hours left. We were now able to use routes that had been worn by other cars, as well as the odd section of road, cutting new straight lines where we could. At this point one of our fuel pumps packed up, stalling the engine. Once diagnosed, rerouting a spaghetti of fuel lines to bypass the pump was the solution, but then required regular transfer of fuel from the starboard tank to re-fill the left hand tank, into which the new feed was plumbed. With the heat of the engine and lots of ready kindling stuck into every cavity in the car’s body this was a little nerve-racking and we lost considerable time, putting us under greater pressure.
Late in the day, with only 30 minutes to go until being time barred, we were still having to sacrifice our distance to save time. Fuel problems persisted and when faced with the option of cutting over a hill saddle to save 1km of distance we opted to go around – we later found out that this would not have changed the final result. At this point half of the team ran back over the saddle to find the route home while the driver and other half rallied the car up a hill to the second last control. Finally we regrouped on the last ridge and raced up to our final control, finishing the event with a flat tyre and only 3 minutes to spare!
It was such a relief to finish, as earlier in the day this had seemed quite a remote possibility, especially when the fuel issue arose. Our support crew were at the final control and we managed a quick photo and sundowner before reporting our safe return at the parc ferme. The evening was spent speculating on how teams had fared– one of the exciting things about Rhino Charge is that you compete against other teams but never know how their day went, only occasionally bumping into another car at a control, or somewhere in the bush. The organisers spend the evening gathering data off the GPS trackers to figure out who won, and publish the results at 9am the next day!
The final results revealed only 15 finishers this year from a pool of 65 teams! A very tough event indeed. Alan Mc Kittrick won with a distance of 46.3km, and we came third with 50.6km. These are wide margins by Rhino Charge standards, and reflect the length of the course and the big impact of a few key decisions eg whether to climb over a ridge – on many of the legs our routes were very much alike. Thankfully no major injuries were reported apart from one guy who was attacked by a bee swarm after they drove into a tree containing a wild hive. We drove back to Nairobi in a relative hurry to meet work deadlines, breaking a shock absorber and claiming a couple of magnificent red flowering aloes enroute.
A week after the charge we were in The Southern Aberdare forest, fishing a river called the Lower Chania. It runs through a deep valley of indigenous forest filled with podocarpus, camphor and other highland tree species. The fence is doing a great job of preventing habitat loss through logging, which used to be a major issue. Wildlife numbers in this area are diminished due to proximity to farmland and hunting over the years but the forest is intact and can sustain them again. On some flat areas where colonial-era exotic tree plantations once stood the pines have been cleared and the land will revert to indigenous forest in the coming years. The management being put in place by Rhino Ark in partnership with government will be crucial to future success.
We will all continue to do what we can to support Rhino Ark through the Rhino Charge – thank you for supporting us this time around!