For the past four years we’ve observed the action in the Spirit of Africa competition, watching other people tackle speed stages, dunes, sand and mud. We decided to change the game: we would still report on the Spirit, but this time compete as well…
Text: Danie Botha
Photographs: Phillip van Zyl
“Number 14! Yellow card!” The voice over the two-way radio cuts through the Mitsubishi Triton’s cabin like a hot knife through butter. Then, inexplicably, the speeding Triton jumps out of the sandy tracks, flying towards an inevitable collision with a tree right next to the track.
I deftly apply opposite lock, working the brakes, the handbrake, and anything else I can reach. From the passenger seat, colleague Stephen Smith adds urgency to the moment: “Watch out for the …!”
He’s too late.
The Triton uproots the small tree, and slides very sideways, and heads towards even thicker bushes. Again I employ my years of performance and rally driving experience, and manipulate the steering wheel, throttle, brakes, handbrake.
The Triton 2.5Di-D shoots straight across the sandy track – sideways – to the other side. A route marker gets flattened, along with some small shrubbery.
But I’m not going to give up. Never. I counter-steer again, apply more brakes… and lose control of the Triton.
When the Mitsubishi grinds to a halt, about two metres off the road, I quickly hook first gear again, and aim it back towards the track, flooring the throttle. In the Triton’s wake lie new, sideways off -road tracks, a flattened little tree, wide-eyed marshals, and a couple of uprooted penalty poles.
It was a gamble gone wrong. We’d lost the plot, there and then.
It was all racing legend Sarel van der Merwe’s fault, you see. And his Spirit of Africa competition, this year held in KwaZulu- Natal’s Kosi Bay area.
We’d arrived the previous evening, full of Spirit for the two days of competition that lay ahead. Speed stages suited us, as did sand driving.
It was our first-ever hands-on Spirit event, having watched the action from the sidelines for the past three years.
And in a way, that was the beginning of our downfall. Speed is important, yes, but avoiding those penalty poles is essential. Which kind of went in one ear and out the other.
It works like this: Sarel sets up an “ideal” time on the speed stages, and the competitors have to get as close as possible to those times – but without hitting any of the many route markers, or penalty poles, that line the stages. And, as one would expect of Sarel, these poles are positioned exactly where the competitors are likely to get the Triton just a millimetre or ten out of shape.
Hittng just one of these poles results in a 30-second penalty for that stage. Even if you manage to beat Sarel’s time (highly unlikely) but hit a pole, you receive only 10 points out of a possible 100.
So, when the competition started in earnest with a speed stage on the first morning, we were aiming for Sarel’s times. As it turned out, it was a brave but rather foolish approach.
We indeed set a very quick time, just two seconds off Sarel’s time… but we also hit our first penalty pole in the process. Our competitive time meant zilch. We bagged only 10 points. Other teams, taking a more cautious approach and avoiding penalties, earned more respectable scores.
The next two stages were much the same story. Good stage times, but penalties. Aft er three stages, we had only 30 points on the board. We were slowly digging a hole for ourselves, and getting into it, too. Or I was, as Stephen kept pointing out from the passenger seat.
The first climb loomed, up a steep and sandy dune. Competitors could choose between three starting points. The farthest starting point (where more momentum could be achieved) was worth 60 points. The middle starting point could earn 80 points, and the closest one, virtually at the start of the climb, was worth the maximum of 100 points. But, if you fail to make it to the top, you get zero, no matter where you started from.
By now we had some serious ground to make up, so it was 100 or nothing. And finally, we bagged 100 points. The Spirit was returning to the Triton’s cabin.
Another speed stage followed, and a quickest stage time and no traumatised penalty poles saw us rake in more valuable points. The game was officially back on.
Aft er the lunch break, we were ready to continue in the same form… but it was here that the dreaded yellow card incident put paid to any chance of a podium position. And yes, the radio voice announcing the yellow card did come only aft er the Triton went off the road…
At this time I should explain Sarel’s new yellow (and red) card system. Go off -road at any ti me during a speed stage and you earn a yellow card. Do it again, and you earn a red version – which means you watch the rest of the event as a spectator. Since we were only halfway through the event, another “off ” would sideline us completely… So we did what we had to do for the following stages: we slowed down, making sure we stayed on track, and avoided any more penalties. And lo and behold, points started appearing behind Triton number 14’s name.
In the meantime other crews were also accumulating points. Most noteworthy were two Kalahari farmers, Salmon Victor and Theo Spengler – aptly nicknamed the Kalahari Ferraris – who were not only setting outstanding stage times but mostly managing to avoid penalties.
The competitor list included Jaco Scholtz and Jaco Scheepers, who came all the way from Zambia to compete in the Spirit, and Barto de Koning and Chris Meistre, who travelled from Port Elizabeth. The contestants resembled a box of expensive assorted chocolates… a little bit of everything, from everywhere.
The day’s last stage loomed… It was a gymkhana/climb/speed test, in reverse gear. Since it was the last stage of the day, and since we were by now trailing the Kalahari Ferraris by a mile, I took another brave but foolish decision: do the test in two-wheel drive, as the undriven front wheels would turn better. That was the theory, anyway.
It worked rather charmingly… until we got to the climb section. What had looked like a rocky climb from a distance proved to be sticky sand. Two-wheel drive, thick sand, a climb and reverse don’t mix well together, and we promptly ground to a halt. In the passenger seat Stephen sighed, dramatically.
Four-wheel drive got us to the top and over another penalty pole – by now beer, and lots of it, seemed the only way to restore some Spirit in Triton number 14’s cabin.
It was around 5am the next morning while I lay in my tent, surrounded by an out-of-tune snoring symphony, that the penny dropped: the differential lock! The so-and-so diff lock! We didn’t engage the diff lock on the first day’s speed stages!
And so, on our way to the day’s first stage, I engaged the rear diff lock. Traction and stability came to the Mitsubishi Triton like money comes to an oil sheik. It made a massive difference.
Unfortunately, the fi rst stage was not about speed. It was another reverse climb. We bagged some points. And yes, four-wheel drive was most certainly engaged.
Next up was a navigation and regularity exercise, about which we were quietly confi dent. Suffice to say that we didn’t bag a single point, and that I finally got a chance to utter a long and loud sigh too, aimed in navigator Stephen’s direction.
Finally, a speed stage… and we blasted it (with the aid of the diff lock), to set the quickest time. But then, just as we thought we’d got this speed thing down pat, Sarel took the wheel of a Triton to set the “ideal time” – and took another 2,5 seconds off our time. We completed the very last, short stage of the event without hitting any penalty poles, but the Kalahari Ferraris rectified the previous stage’s “loss” by recording an outstanding ti me.
In the end, aft er all the scores were added up, we finished sixth out of the 14 teams, with 754 points. It was not nearly as much as we’d hoped for.
But when all is said and done, we can only conclude that with master blaster Sarel at the helm, the new and faster version of the Spirit of Africa competition is a winning package. It’s not only a competitive affair, but also an extremely fun one – an event where the evenings around the campfire are pleasant and entertaining, and a place where new friendships are forged.
We will be back for the 2009 event… and then we will remember that diff lock, four-wheel drive, and practise our navigating skills. And we won’t have those campfire Jagermeister shots again.
But Sarel really needs to discipline those penalty poles so that they stop moving around, and jumping into Mitsubishi Triton number 14’s way…