Beasts for charity in the bush

By Paul Udoto

On the cusp of dawn, revving sounds from the engines of competing cars rent the air as adrenaline-charged spectators jeer and cheer at the hitherto sleepy Kalama Community Conservancy in Samburu East, 40 km north of Isiolo.

We were in for the 26th edition of Rhino Charge, a unique and exciting competition that requires incredible bravery as well as a high level of off-road driving and navigation skills.

The unique motorsport, held in sweltering heat and unforgiving terrain of the conservancy teeming with wildlife, is the ultimate test for drivers and their monstrous 4WD vehicles.

The 64 competing cars maneuvered their monster machines on the hills and dry rugged terrains of the 46,100 hectares of land.

For motorsport enthusiasts and conservationists, it’s another of those Madaraka Day weekend rituals for the last 25 years.

The event is usually held at the end of May and beginning of June each year and is open to all. For this year, Kalama in Samburu County, 120 km from Nanyuki, was ideal as it provided one of the most challenging off-road experiences with the drivers having to navigate through the extremely rocky course filled with dense bush.

The exciting Rhino Charge event lived up to expectations for the entrants who were flagged off at dawn from the spread of guard posts scattered through the rugged rock strewn hills and gullies.

It involved vehicles establishing their own route through extremely rough terrain to reach a series of 13 pre-arranged points in the shortest possible distance.  The venue was designed with challenge in mind, and like in the past, off-road vehicles are pushed to their absolute limits.

The location of the race was never revealed in advance to prevent people from the temptation to look at the site ahead of time and gain undue advantage.  Rhino charge vehicles were crewed by a full team of driver, navigator and a support crew of runners. 

The race was a light-hearted affair and a get-together of sorts, indeed a social event in itself but for a cause: Environmental conservation. However, for some spectators, it was just an excuse to booze in the bush once a year. Large camps were set up to support the race, and these are the venue for both pre and post-race celebrations

The Rhino Charge is an off-road event in which competitors are required to visit 13 points scattered over approximately 100 of rough terrain within a 10 hour period. Competitors were supplied with a 1:50,000 scale map of the venue, co-ordinates of the 13 Control Points and their Start position (at one of the Controls). Each competitor must plot the Control Points on the map and decide his/her route. Navigation is by compass/GPS and the winner is the competitor who visits the most controls in the shortest distance (GPS measured). During the rally, teams had to decide between taking a safer, wider route or a riskier, more direct route.

The Rhino Charge was a truly unique event, both sporting and social. Thousands of spectators head into the bush for the weekend to watch the event, setting up campsites and starting off early to get to the Gauntlet (a combination of 3 checkpoints that invariably involve river crossings or other difficult obstacles). This year, it involved the area between KWS, Kingsway and KQ Cargo guard posts. 

The competitors had all sorts of fancy names such as ‘Team Bushbabes’, ‘The Smiling Shenzies’, ‘Team Victorious Secret’, ‘Team Rhino Rouge’, ‘Hatarious Chargers’, ‘Team Kurutu Chargers’ and ‘Laughing Hyenas’

Aside from the adrenaline-packed action, breath-taking views, sorely testing one’s bush craft, battling thorns and insects, engine failure, punctures, holed radiators, and driving without brakes – just to name a few; Rhino Charge was also a time to reflect on dwindling ecological resources and community contribution to conservation through group ranches and conservancies.

Out of the 64 teams that participated in the dare-devil competition, Car 05 led by Alan McKittrick completed the course in the shortest distance of 31.34km against a theoretical shortest distance of 24.6 km, capturing the first place and was the overall winner of the 2014 Rhino Charge. Car 22 led by Gray Cullen finished second, whilst Jamie Manuel and Brandon Barbour’s Car 53 took home third place.

Winner of the most prestigious Victor Ludorum – highest fundraiser and best placed by formula – was again Alan McKittrick, Car 5. According to Rhino Charge records, McKittrick’s team has been highest fundraiser for 12 years in a row. This year, the team raised Sh7,236,768. Since Car 5 entered of Sh108,477,303, all for conservation. 

Best placed overseas entrant was Peter Castle (Car 39), 11th overall in the event.

In the tough contest at the Gauntlet, Peter Bonde-Nielsen in Car 64 took the first position with a distance of 1.63km.

Alan McKittrick, aged 58, and who prides himself on being the only one who has entered all the 26 competitions since inception, noted that the course was well thought-out and interesting. Alan, who is also a Rhino Ark trustee, said efforts would be made to encourage more diversity in participation as the rally evolves.>

The event, which entered its 26 year since inception, attracted international competitors from the UK, US, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe.>

As expected, the Charge had its fair share of drama. When driver John Bowden from the Rhino Charge UK in Car 09 fell on hard times with his crew, the ‘charge spirit’ saw him get help from fellow competitors in Car 65.

Car 08 a Range Rover driven by Amaan Ali Fazal, who has been participating in the event for 13 years, rolled as the team attempted to conquer boulders in one of the guard posts. A medical doctor from nearby Car 38 and the medical team on the ground led by Dr Pramod Shah stabilized the occupants before they were flown to Nairobi for further treatment.

Dr Shah, who has been a Rhino Charge doctor for the last 10 years, said every year his team handles 70-100 cases of burns, minor injuries and dehydration, adding that: “As an off-road event, it has to be difficult but not dangerous to be a health hazard.”

He noted that unlike in other Rhino Charge venues where his clinic attracts 400-500 people for free medical camp, at Kalama he could attend to only some 60 patients.

Dr Shah, who practices in Nairobi after graduating from Makerere University, Uganda, in 1971, said: “We have no regrets for going back to Nairobi with our medicines because people here might be so well that they are not in need of such medical services.”

On site was Nakumatt on Wheels where the retailer chain stocked 400 different items including frozen and chilled products.

To prevent significant damage to the environment, the duration of the competition was limited to 10 hours and a maximum of 65 cars. Stringent rules were also been put in place to address refuse generated by competitors and spectators. To promote refuse recycling, a waste sorting station was set up at the venue whereby glass, cans, tins and plastic bottles are separated and taken to Nairobi for recycling.

Raymond Kibanga, a volunteer on waste management from the United Nations Office in Nairobi oversaw what he termed  “greening the charge” through a waste sorting station with assistance of another volunteer from the UN, 10 local community casual workers and three Multiple Waste Paper Company employees.

He said he foresees the Rhino Charge to get ISO certified as an environmentally friendly event. The greening charge initiative started last year in Magadi where the organizers sought to leave “zero ecological footprint in terms of litter”.

By the end of the event, the charge had raised a whopping Sh102.9 million for conservation, the highest amount ever since its inception 25 years ago and the first ever to cross the Sh100 million mark. 

The Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy and the high-end Saruni Safari Lodge not only benefited from massive marketing that placed the venue on the international tourism map but also from Sh2.9 from camping fees to be used on selected pre-agreed community projects.

The event is organised to raise funds for the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust conservation work in Mt Kenya, Aberdares and Mau Eburu. Competitors are required to raise the minimum sponsorship set by the organising committee. Most, however, raise considerably more – the record to date being Sh12,098,283 in 2013 from Car No.5 led by Alan McKittrick. Long-time supporters such as Sarah and (the late) Mike Higgins have raised a total of Sh39,604,399 over the last 20 years.

Sarah, a KWS honorary warden based in Naivasha, has gone on to organize “To Hells Gate on Wheelbarrow” event to raise funds for building a community education centre.

The Rhino Ark charity was formed in 1988 by conservationists who were alarmed by the ruthless poaching of Kenya’s black rhino – and other endangered species – in the Aberdare National Park. 

Whilst the first Rhino Charge raised only Sh250,000, this amount increased tremendously over the years to reach this year’s record-breaking Sh102 million. 

A 21-year project led to the successful completion of an electric fence which is almost 400km long and protects the vital ecosystem of the Aberdares and the small farms, outside the fence boundary, of the forest-edge communities.  This is now recognised as the longest wildlife conservation fence in the world and the blueprint for the future of conservation in threatened forested areas.

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