How does a person who blogs about environmentalism, is not a fan of watching sports and doesn’t know the first thing about cars end up at an off-road 4×4 race? Let’s investigate.
What is the Rhino Charge?
According to their website, the “Rhino Charge is an annual off-road motorsport competition held in Kenya in which entrants are required to visit 13 points (guard posts) scattered over approximately 100 km² of rough terrain within a 10 hour period.” The winning team is not the fastest one, but rather the one that visits all guardposts within 10 hours while covering the shortest distance.
What distinguishes the Rhino Charge from other races?
The main purpose of the event (apart from being a spectacle for drivers and supporters alike) is to raise funds for wildlife protection. Each of the 65 participating teams has to raise between 250,000 and one million Kenyan Shillings (around 2,500 or 10,000 US dollars) from sponsors in order to compete. These funds are to support “the activities of the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, an NGO which works towards a noble cause: the conservation and protections of Kenya’s mountain range ecosystems”, according to the website.
How did I end up there?
About two weeks ago, a friend of mine was talking about how excited he was to go to Rhino Charge. When I asked what that was, he filled me in on the facts, told me that he was part of a competing team and immediately invited me to come along with him. Since I had not left Nairobi in about a month and am always open to try new things, I made room in my calendar and tagged along.
The team I was with was really lovely and welcoming. They were mostly Indian-Kenyans, most of whom had already participated in multiple Rhino Charges, plus three mzungu friends of the group, including myself. I was really impressed with how well-organized and comfortable everything was. We had electricity coming from a generator in the evenings, three warm buffets every day, and latrines and warm showers on the campsite.
Check out some of the photos I took at the event to get a feeling for how it was:
What are some of the critical points about the event?
While I had a lot of fun at the event, thanks to the beautiful surroundings, great organization, and of course the lovely people I was with, there are still some things I’d like to address.
1. Environmental concerns
The Rhino Charge’s organizers stressed repeatedly how important it was for them to reduce the ecological impact of the event. The goal was to leave no trace behind, there were recycling bins everywhere and a high fine for littering. Some areas were off limits to reduce the stress on the local ecosystem. And that ecosystem is really worth protecting: Each year, the event takes place in a different conservancy in Kenya. This time, we were very close to the Masai Mara.
But with an event like that, you can only do so much to protect the environment. Countless trees and bushes were cut down to make room for the camps, or mowed down by the racing cars. The fact that the ‘shortest distance wins’ mode encourages the drivers to iron straight through the bush makes for good entertainment, but also enhances the damages. Not to mention the tonnes of exhaust fumes blown into the air by the competing cars and the spectators coming from all over Kenya or even flying in from abroad.
All in all, 139 million Kenyan Shillings (about 1.39 million US dollars) were raised at the 2016 Rhino Charge, of which 4.4. million (about 44,000 US dollars) will go to the conservancy where the competition was held. This will surely help wildlife protection a great deal, but it can’t reverse the damages the race caused.
Rhino Charge is open to all who want to participate or be a spectator. I’d say the crowd was roughly split 45 : 40 : 15 between Kenyans of Indian, European and African descent, plus the odd foreigners like myself. But to me, it felt a little weird that most groups were fairly homogenous. This does not by any means imply that the participants or the organizers were racist. In fact everyone got along famously, I quite enjoyed the spirit of the event!
Still, I observed little mingling between the different ethnicities. On top, what is still a little outlandish to me is the fact that most of the participants were Caucasian or South-Asian, but all of the service staff was black. This is a common theme here in Kenya, but I still have not really gotten used to this correlation of race and social status. It makes me very uncomfortable, which is probably a good thing.
As might be to be expected at a motor race like the Rhino charge, the crowd and especially the competitors were predominantly male. A metaphorical cloud of testosterone was drifting over the site at any given time. Most of the guys, including all the men of my team, were really cool about it and made me and the other ladies feel very welcome and safe.
But especially at night, when the beer and whiskey were flowing, some men became pretty annoying. Picture the following situation, if you will:
It is about 11 p.m., I am at a fellow competing team’s camp with my friends. One guy from another team is so drunk he’s falling all over the place while trying to dance. A German term with no literal English translation comes to mind, Fremdschämen. A twenty-something guy comes up to me. “Are you a missionary?”, he asks me. Confused look on my part. “No, I’m a web editor.” Now it’s his turn to look confused. I don’t think he actually expected me to answer his silly question. “Well… doggy style, then?”, he blurts out. I roll my eyes and slowly step aside to hide behind a friend.
Now, again, this is by no means the organizers’ fault. This could have happened at any random party all around the world. But it’s a real shame that idiots like that ruin otherwise perfectly fine nights for women everywhere.
Enough about the context, how was the race??
The actual race was quite fun to watch. We were hanging out by the ‘gauntlet’ most of the day, a part of the race grounds characterized by three guard posts in close proximity and an especially challenging terrain. Most of the time, the crowd was just standing around in the blazing sun, waiting for a car to come by. So when one did, things got really exciting: Which path along the steep and rocky ground would the team choose? Would the car blast right through or get stuck?
I have to say, the guys in our team did a fantastic job. Now I am biased, of course, but see for yourself how they mastered a difficult climb:
In the end, our team made a very respectable 24th place out of 65. Thanks again to everyone for making this a very enjoyable experience for me!