It’s 7:00 am and a group of 30 men, women, and children from the Nairobi Karen Vineyard church is standing in a clearing in the wild bush listening to the rumble of cars approaching. We’ve been up since 5:00 am getting ready for this moment, food and drinks in hand, and ready to start cheering for the six off-road teams. Suddenly, clear and close, we all hear something unexpected – the wild trumpeting of a startled mama elephant. It was a beautiful and strange moment – that combination of wild, testosterone-laden off-road vehicles ready to take on the wild bush, and the sound of the true wild, just a little bit unhappy about it.
This is the Rhino Charge – one of the most popular off-road competitions in the world in which teams are required to visit 13 points scattered over approximately 100 square kms of rough terrain within a 10-hour period. The winner must do it in the shortest distance, which means taking the most direct route possible. This year, the competition raised a record-breaking 102 million Kenyan shillings for conservation. Sixty-five cars entered the race – the maximum allowed – and Karen Vineyard ran one of the 14 checkpoints. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun.
The location this year was an eight-hour drive north of Nairobi in the Kalama Community Conservancy, a Samburu region that benefits greatly from the Rhino Charge. The Conservancy is a dusty open landscape, thick with every thorny bush and tree imaginable, scattered throughout with ravines and low mountain formations, plus wildlife ranging from dik dik to leopards to elephants (and a few scorpions to keep us on our toes). A large bull elephant hung out at the backside of our campsite the morning of the race, seemingly unfazed by the roar of engines.
Our job was to feed and rehydrate every team that passed through our checkpoint for 10 hours straight, plus our officials checked each car in. Six cars started at our checkpoint, and only one made it all the way back in the 10 hours, coming in 5th place. About 40 cars came through the checkpoint during the 10 hour period. All the cars have “runners”, guys (and the rare girls) who run ahead of the vehicle scoping out the terrain and best route, making sure the car doesn’t fly off a cliff or drop into a ravine unexpectedly. As the day wore on, the teams and cars start to look more and more ragged and beat up. Windshields smashed, doors twisted, tie-rods bent, and all kinds of other damage. The contestants all looked happy, whether they finished or not. Martini, an Italian on Team 13 and a first-timer to compete, beamed as they drove into camp just before the 5:30 pm cut-off, having only completed six checkpoints. With a wait-a-bit branch hanging from his turban, he looked like he couldn’t have been happier if he had won.