The Great Run 4… by Four, which revved off on Saturday, November 30, this year, was our first off-road event. As usual, the petrolheads in the line-up had charitable intentions, and our target this time was St Francis Rehabilitation Project in Malindi. The place is right next to Malindi Airport, and is home to about 40 children who are in desperate need of help; and I do mean desperate. If ever there was a children’s home that needed The Great Run, it is this one.
The home struggles to sustain itself, it is tucked away almost out of sight behind an airport, but it is the children who etched themselves in our hearts and consciousness. They require various forms of rehabilitation: physical, emotional and psychological, but they still have a sunny disposition. The line-up was colourful, literally. There were two orange cars, one of which was The Paji’s. Various continents (and countries) were represented: someone showed up with a hunk of American metal in the form of a black Chevrolet Blazer. Another one had the nerve to bring a Chinese pick-up, which, incidentally, was the second orange car in the line-up (this chap also proved that it is not the car, but the driver, who determines the ultimate outcome of a driving event). There was an old, baby-diarrhoea-brown Land Rover Defender 110 Panel Van… at least we thought it was old until that rickety contraption hit the tarmac. Open-mouthed astonishment followed its (rapid) progress as people in newer, and supposedly more powerful cars found themselves overtaken by something that was being driven, for all intents and purposes, like a getaway vehicle. Whatever that man had under his bonnet only he and his mechanic know.
The Jaw managed to manipulate and finagle his way into the second Land Rover of the line-up, a blue Discovery 3. Unbeknownst to him, The Paji and I placed bets behind The Jaw’s back as to whether or not he and his pricey transport would finish the event. I think we are developing trust issues here at The Great Run… or maybe we enjoy ourselves a little too much.
The rest of the parade was more “normal”. There were some other Prados, a Pajero, a Landcruiser VX Cygnus, a black Lexus RX330 (this car tested our off-roading mettle… and patience), a black Nissan Navara and some smaller cars. Me? I split driving duties with some friends in a small lorry: a for-hire Isuzu D-Max double-cab with a turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine. Hardy vehicle, that one; it saw quite a lot of action during this particular Great Run. We set off from the Shell petrol station on Mombasa Road somewhere near South C. We headed down to the Machakos Junction, then turned left and went into Machakos Town. This is the exact same path we took during The Next Great Run (Great Run 2), going down to Wote through the twists-and-turns, past Makueni to Makindu. From there we went left towards Mombasa, blew past Mtito Andei (actually we stopped there briefly) and eventually wound up at Manyani, wherein lies one of the many inlets to Tsavo East National Park.
We entered the park. Those who were not driving SUVs were allowed to follow the tarmac all the way to Malindi, where we would all meet again. After a seemingly interminable drive through 97 kilometres of bush, murram and missing bridges, we ended up at the Sala Gate, the easternmost exit of the park. Those who were not in the know thought the off-roading was over, but it was only just beginning. The virtue of patience was forcefully instilled into the impatient as the next 104 kilometres proved a heavy cross to bear. Endless dust, a straight, featureless road, and an occasional passerby, or donkey, broke the monotony, as did several unseen crests that caught out the unwary, sending their vehicles flying several feet in the air. We arrived in Malindi late in the evening, tired, hungry, thirsty, sweaty, dusty, shaken (for some) but vey pleased with ourselves. The next day’s route was supposed to take us out of Malindi, head south to Mombasa, climb in a north-westerly direction to Mtito Andei where we would make an ingress to Tsavo West National Park, drive to Mzima Springs, appreciate the nature there briefly, then make our way to the Chyulu Gate, drive past Shetani, and exit at the Emali-Loitoktok road, which we would then take back to Nairobi. That did not quite happen.
Well, everything went swimmingly well until we entered Tsavo East, then things went... er, sideways. Literally. I encountered problems with oversteer within minutes of entering the park and had to tone down my pace considerably. A rear-drive pickup is not friendly on a loose surface, more so when driven aggressively. The lack of weight at the back means it is extremely light-footed, and it will forfeit grip with little or no warning at all. Thank God for selectable 4WD (with manually locking front wheel hubs). Several bridges had been washed away, so that meant we had to carve our own path through the shrubbery a number of times. That was fine for the Prados and whatnot, but not so fine for the black Lexus that was behind me. A bull-bar, side-steps and subtle body-kit proved to be an impediment to good progress when we had to ford a shallow river. We found ourselves digging up the earth with twigs and transporting stones all over the place as we sweated in the clammy Tsavo heat trying to make sure that no one was left behind. And it came to pass that no one was left behind… at first.
The drive was also scenic and it would have been unfair not to stop every now and then to take photos and marvel at what the government calls “tourist attractions”. The day was long and tiring, plus there are speed limits inside the park. Also, checking in and out of the park when the cars are bunched up takes some time. Those, and some other factors, led us to arrive in Malindi very late in the evening. However, we had made a promise to visit the children’s home on November 30; and The Great Run always delivers, come rain or poor traction.
We got to St Francis after dark amidst a cacophony of revving engines and popping exhausts to a sea of expectant faces and hearty cheering, where we held a brief ceremony, making our donations and presenting a massive cheque. That was the end of Day One… oh yes, this time The Great Run was a two-day affair. Some of us woke up late on Day Two. That, however, was not the issue. The issue was that there was rumour of traffic difficulties within Mombasa town, so how to avoid it? Options included:
1) Backtracking: go back the way we came, through Tsavo East. “Oh no, I’m not going back in there again” seemed to be the general consensus among the Great Runners.
2) Find a shortcut that leads from Malindi to the A109, but does not involve Tsavo East.
This was quickly adopted by the few stragglers at the back of the convoy (of which I was one). Nobody was sure of such a shortcut, so a GPS device was unleashed, and combined with the help of locals, served to make us hopelessly lost in short notice.
So, between losing our way, asking for directions, programming the GPS, unpredictable road conditions, heavy rain and fuel stops, we found ourselves arriving at Mariakani at a late-ish hour of the day (the “bypass”, we discovered, was Malindi-Kilifi-Kaloleni-Mariakani, part of which is still under construction). We tried our best to make it to Mtito Andei in time to check in, but more rain, trucks, more trucks and even more rain really slowed us down.
By the time we got to the Mtito Gate of Tsavo West National Park, we were duly informed that from that hour onwards, we would need an armed escort to take us through and out of the park. Maybe the animals have become intolerant of people who disturb their sleep at night with noisy vehicles and have taken to exchanging fire with anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path at the wrong time, I don’t know. More likely than not, there were bandits waiting to steal our branded shirts on the other side. That makes more sense.
It thus came to pass that some of us did not “do” Tsavo West. Which is just fine anyway; West or no West, this was the longest, hottest, wettest, dustiest, most exciting, most trying, most scenic, most adventurous and most satisfying Great Run of them all. And that is saying something. Next year will be interesting as we try to top this.