Strictly come racing



For two days bubbly television personality Michelle Garforth swapped the glitz of the small screen for the thrill of dicing 4x4s in the dunes of the Northern Cape, behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Triton. And she loved every minute…

Text: Johann ven Loggerenberg
Photography: Jannie Herbst

It’s the semi-finals of the Spirit of Africa, the competition aimed at finding the best off-road driver in the country. With voice recorder in hand we join Michelle Garforth (remember Strictly Come Dancing?) and navigator Bennie van Rensburg in the cab of the Mitsubishi Triton.

“Number 11 – three, two, one and go!” We set off on task eight, for some obscure reason named “Wie’s jou pappa”. It’s a sort of regularity exercise, the aim being to arrive at four pre-set points on a sandy route at exactly the right time. One point penalty for every second late – or early.

Sounds easy enough. Go like hell, stop just before the marker, and then drive past at exactly the right moment. But then the course through the dunes has been set by a motorsport maestro, the wily Sarel van der Merwe. So it’s not that easy…

Markers are not easily visible from one to the next, and mostly placed atop a dune. Stop on the incline and wait for the right second, and risk bogging down when you try to pull off. Driving too slowly up the steep dune might have a similar effect. Too fast and you’re penalised for arriving too early. It’s a fine balance.

The first marker is visible from the start, though, and the crew has 40 seconds to get there. “Slowly, slowly,” says Bennie. The Triton creeps closer. Bennie consults his stopwatch. “Go, go!” Then frantically: “Go-go-go!” They miss the cut-off by three seconds.

The playback continues with Bennie’s voice: “Remember your steering wheel input.” Michelle admitted that she tended to turn too sharply into corners, then having to grab handfuls of steering to get the wheels back to the “straight ahead” position again.

“Put foot! …Ouch!” (Scrunching sounds of a thorn bush being flattened). Michelle didn’t straighten up quickly enough. Thirteen seconds late at the following marker. But they make up the time and go through the final control just 0,99s late. “Well done, Michelle,” comes Sarel’s voice.

This was but one of 12 driving exercises the group of semi-finalists had to do in an attempt to become one of an elite group of 16 finalists vying for the grand prize in the Spirit of Africa competition – a trip to the famous Dakar cross-country race at the beginning of 2008.

A total of 320 hopefuls were put through their paces over a period of seven weeks from 23 July to 8 September. To accommodate the larger number of participants in the same time-span, 16 teams were put to the test at a time, compared with 12 in previous years.

“Our experience in the previous two events stood us in good stead, and to run four more teams at a time through the semis didn’t present any problems,” said organiser Sarel van der Merwe.

The semi-finalists were accommodated at the Oranjerus Resort on the R359 between Upington and Keimoes, overlooking Kanon Island in the Orange River. This up-market new resort has excellent camping facilities and ablutions, so competitors didn’t have to rough it this year.

The driving tests were held in sand dunes, this time in the Keimoes region of the Kalahari, not far from the town. “The texture of the sand found among the huge boulders here is closer to that of the Namib, where the finals take place, and gave us a better idea of the competitors’ capabilities in sand,” said Sarel.

Regularity runs weren’t the only tasks competitors had to do. The 12 dune-driving exercises held over two days included hill climbs – highest up the dune wins; speed tests with 30-second penalties for every marker touched on the tight course; a reverse speed test through markers on a twisty course; and figure of eight speed tests, with two vehicles on the track at the same time.

And Michelle loved the experience. “It’s among the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” says the 36-year old who has dangled in a cage over a sea of circling sharks, been bitten by a cheetah, climbed Kilimanjaro twice, photographed snakes and other creepy-crawlies up really close for the SABC TV programmes she produces (Wild Ltd and Bush Radar), dived under ice in Alaska in search of a giant octopus with metre-long tentacles and danced 10 hours a day, six days a week for the TV reality show, Strictly Come Dancing.

So how did the latest adventure come about?

“It’s quite a long story. I worked in the US for a while and among other things hosted a weekly motorsport show, Inside CART, for the ESPN network. Whenever someone found out I was from South Africa, they wanted to know if I knew Sarel van der Merwe.”

The multiple SA rally champion indeed raced IMSA GT cars in the US with great success in the eighties, and became a household name in racing circles (although some commentators pronounced it “Cyril van der Meer”).

Michelle continues: “Some time later, back in South Africa, I approached Mitsubishi hoping to get vehicles to use in producing Wild Ltd. There I met Bennie van Rensburg, public relations manager at the time.

“When Mitsubishi decided to throw its weight behind the Spirit of Africa competition in 2005, Bennie asked whether I’d be interested in producing 13 half-hour episodes for TV of the finals, held in the Namib Desert. As this was also a chance to meet Sarel van der Merwe at last, I jumped at the opportunity.”

Michelle spent ten days with the finalists, much of the time at the Saddle Hill camp in the Namib Desert, which had very basic ablution facilities, but typically she made the best of the situation.

“That experience whetted my appetite,” says Michelle, who’s always had a love for fast cars and motorsport. “Then, earlier this year, I was invited to the launch of the Mitsubishi Triton. It was held in the Atlantis dunes in the Western Cape, where Sarel had laid out a course.

“We had a lot of fun driving over and around the sandy dunes, and I said to Sarel I would like to take part when this year’s semi-finals for the Spirit took place. The invitation came, and here I am.”

Bennie agreed to navigate for Michelle, and the pair were allocated car number 11 – like the others, a red Mitsubishi Triton 2.5 Di-D double cab.

“The event is far more difficult than it looks,” she says.

To get the adrenaline pumping, the first task was a race against the stopwatch, on a twisty, churned-up sand track winding its way through “wag ‘n bietjie” thorn bushes and trees.

“Wow, we came out of the gate fast. The track was rough and bumpy, and you had no idea what you were going into. I also thought the exercises were quite long, and physically very demanding.

“My biggest problem was to keep the wheels straight going up a dune and not to turn too much going into a corner. Otherwise you start fighting the steering wheel, which takes it out of you even further.”

Michelle was also worried that the tyres – deflated to 0,8 bar for the sand – would pull off the rim, as happened to her at the Atlantis launch. “That just messes up everything,” she says.

“I also battled with the climbs, although I don’t think I did too badly. I was never last.”

Her navigator played an important role.

“Bennie always had a smile or a funny remark. You could say we had a happy vehicle.”

And the most enjoyable part?

“Those figure of eight exercises. Although you’re not racing side by side – your competitor does one loop while you do the other – the finish lines are within sight of each other, and it’s very exciting to race for the flag, so to speak. I’m a very competitive person.”

Would she do it again?

“I would not even blink an eye.”