It thunders across the landscape, testy, truculent and typically enveloped in a cloud of dust. The Rhino Charge, like its namesake, puts its foot down first, and asks questions later. You hear it before you see it: a grinding, gear-screaming, metal-wrenching roar. Nothing stops it. Bends are crunched, inclines munched, rivers slurped; and the few kilometres of straight road that do exist are careered down with all the intent of an incensed rhino. Mud, dust-red and crusty, coats the cars, flies off the wheels, sprays the spectators and creates huge gushing chocolate brown tunnels through which the cars barrel like bats into hell. Mud and the Rhino Charge are synonymous, and everyone eats dust. This is a vehicular stampede with serious attitude. It’s hot and heavy and in your face. It’s also a high-octane spectator sport.
The actual route the ‘Charge’ takes is kept secret, for competitors and spectators alike, until the night before the event. But once the word is out people flock to watch the monster roar by. Picnics are packed, beers are cooled and cameras are primed. Goats are herded in the direction of the dust cloud. Patient herds of cattle are parked under trees whilst their guardians seek out the ultimate vantage point. Everybody wants to see the beast bolt by. Fathers hoist their young sons on to their shoulders, youths watch with car-hungry eyes, small boys caper in delight; pretty maidens marvel. Maasai warriors, red-cloaked and wearing sandals made from discarded tyres, lean on their spears and grin.
It’s a spectacle and a half.
But this is much more than a cross-country scramble. It’s a Kenyan icon, one that’s risen from a small-scale gathering to become one of the most daring 4×4 off-road events on the planet. It’s an endurance test for man and machine and a triumph of faith over fear. The navigator, hurled around the cab like a coffee bean in a grinder, must work with accurate orientation to determine the route. The driver, wrestling with the wheel like a cowboy with a steer, must follow his navigator’s instructions with implicit trust. And both must have blind belief in their runners and their primped and pampered darling, the snorting, slithering, beast of a vehicle. More importantly, the Rhino Charge is a conservation crusade in pursuit of a global eco-grail during which the competitors are doing much more than using their skill and judgement to navigate their way around 13 checkpoints in ten hours: they’re also raising money to save some of the planet’s most precious commodities: forests and water.
Life depends on water: water depends on forests. But forests now only cover around 7% of Kenya’s total land area, which is 3% less than that recommended by the United Nations and as provided for by the Kenyan Constitution. In recent years, however, the Kenyan government has worked hard to increase forest cover and by 2022 they hope to have raised it from around 7% to 10%. It’s a big ask and one that is going to put heavy pressure on the national engine. But the course demands it.
Forests are not only the lungs of the planet, but also the guardians of our future. In Kenya, the forests are estimated to harbour around half of the indigenous tree and shrub species, 40% of large mammals, 70% of threatened mammals, 30% of birds and 35% of butterflies. They also produce timber, fruit, medicine, fodder, domestic fuel and a livelihood for many thousands of forest-dependent people while laying down fossil fuels for the future, promoting rainfall, preventing drought, enriching the soil and preventing erosion. On a spiritual level, they nurture the national soul – ethnic groups depend on them for traditional medicines and places of reverence, and city dwellers rely on them for sport and recreation. Finally, in global terms, the planet’s forests help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus the rate of global warming.
And as if all this were not daunting enough, accelerating forest cover is not Kenya’s only conservational challenge; there is also that of lessening the instance of human versus wildlife conflict that inevitably results from the close proximity of wildlife and human habitation. But the Rhino Charge is man enough for this job too. By using the funds it raises to throw a cordon of electric fencing around mountains and forests alike, it has helped ensure that man and the elephant remain apart. And by providing underpasses beneath busy roads, and erecting fenced corridors through communities, it has allowed the elephants to pursue their ancestral migratory corridors. This uniquely far-reaching fencing project has also ensured the protection of Kenya’s precious population of black rhinos while allowing creatures great and small to prosper in all the nation’s key forest ecosystems. Finally, funds from the Rhino Charge have been instrumental in the provision of schools, health centres, community programmes and jobs. All of which promote community harmony and prosperity and create hope for a better tomorrow.
So you could say that the Rhino Charge is the ultimate application of ‘pedal to the metal’ in Kenyan conservation. And a fine illustration of how a little fossil fuel can be burned in the interests of preserving the treasures of today for the planet of tomorrow.
Need to know
WHAT: Kenya’s annual Rhino Charge is an off-road competition during which around fifty 4×4 vehicles are allocated ten hours to ‘charge’ around 13 pre-set guard posts scattered over an approximate 100 km² area of rough terrain. The drivers are supplied only with a starting position, a 1:50,000 scale map, and the co-ordinates of the 13 guard posts. The winner will be the team that visits the most guard posts in the shortest distance, the straight line route being the toughest. So speed is not the be all and end all of the Rhino Charge. Most vehicles have the backing of a dedicated team who help push, winch, scout ahead and clear the bush. This year’s event will take place between May 31 and June 2 and feature 58 vehicles.
WHY: established in 1989, the event aims to raise funds to support the activities of the Rhino Ark Kenya Charitable Trust, a non-government organization committed to the conservation of the rhino population of the Aberdare National Park against the wider backdrop of conserving Kenya’s mountain range ecosystems, protecting her water catchment areas, reducing human versus wildlife conflict and promoting community harmony and prosperity. Since its inception in 1989, the event has raised 15 million US dollars and built the world’s longest stretch of conservation fence. For further information: