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02 December 2023
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Spectators were able to get up close to the action : credit: © Rhino Charge
The epic 2023 Rhino Charge yielded fantastic results for Team Gumtree 4x4, winning the Unmodified class for the third year running. John Bowden reports

Where to begin? Having been Rhino Charging in Car 9 since 1997, the results are just the beginning of the story. You know you are somewhere truly special when you drive to an event past rhinos, elephants, giraffe and zebras; when friends lend you their 4x4 at the drop of a hat just so you can get your camp to the venue; and when the vast horizons of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands provide a location that is both stunningly beautiful and truly challenging at the same time. However, when you also learn that the 2023 Rhino Charge raised just over £1 million once again in support of the conservation charity Rhino Ark, few can fail to be impressed.

Because the annual Rhino Charge involves going to a different, vast and top-secret venue miles from anywhere and only being given the locations of the 13 checkpoints scattered over up to 100 square kilometres the evening before the start, it is pretty unique. These checkpoints are to be visited simply by travelling to them in the shortest distance possible within ten hours, but no one will have done so before, so you’re very much on your own. In fact, this year, Don White, the amazing clerk of the course, admitted at the drivers’ briefing that he had only managed to reach a couple of checkpoints to inspect them three days before the event because of the extreme terrain and bad weather.

Teams have to find their own way up and down cliffs, across washed-out erosion gulleys (luggas), along dry river beds blocked by giant boulders and through thick bush full of the descriptively named Wait-a-Bit thorn tree using GPS and Google Earth to navigate. To record the distances travelled, each competing vehicle has a unique GPS tracking device fitted.

Noisy steering needed a check; team’s runners needed a rest

The Gumtree 4x4 Land Rover 90 (aka Car 9) was flown out to Kenya by BA World Cargo as a charitable gesture in 2000, and has now competed in 21 Rhino Charges there, as well as three earlier ones back in the UK. This year’s event was at the very scenic Nkoteyia Community Conservancy in Samburu County, with the overall winner being Mark Glen in his well-prepared and trusty Range Rover-based Car 48. They covered only 26.7km to reach all 13 checkpoints – an impressive 3.16km better than second placed Sean Avery and Team Bundufundi. Graham McKittrick and Ian Duncan came in third and fourth and these top four experienced teams and previous winners were the only ones to reach all 13 checkpoints out of 52 starters, indicating just how tough this Charge was. Gurmeet Mehta and Ajitesh Kapoor were taking some good, direct routes to reach 12 checkpoints and came in 5th and 6th. The first six teams were all in the Super-modified class, primarily meaning they are allowed unlimited bodywork modifications, portal axles and high-speed winches. Then, much to our great surprise and delight, little old Car 9 popped up in 7th place overall, and 1st in the Unmodified class with 32.1km covered.

Teams were faced with several steep-sided valleys this year and had to make some serious navigational judgement calls. Each crew has up to four runners as well as the driver and navigator, and it is their job to scout out the best possible routes to avoid the cars travelling any further than they have to, as literally every metre counts at the end of the day. This year our first section involved a tricky but possible downhill start for which we deployed our rear winch to try keeping the wheels planted. As we were lowering the 90 down, the winch drive jammed as the mounting had twisted, leaving us dangling with the load on the winch but no way of releasing it. After a bit of head scratching, we rigged the plasma rope from the front winch up to run over the top of the roll cage and roof and take the weight of the car while we unhooked the rear winch rope. Then we had to let it down the boulder-strewn hillside in stages with the front wheels hardly touching the ground and thus precious little steering control. Once down we battled onwards and reached our first checkpoint, sponsored by Slater and Whittaker, after taking three hours to cover just 1.374km… At this stage it looked as if we had blown our chances already, but the team pushed themselves and our Land Rover hard, and Lorian Campbell Clause navigated us efficiently and calmly.

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Massive thorn got wedged in tread, but General X3 stayed inflated

Driver error and a late puncture put us on our side a couple of times. The Britpart 12,000IR front winch was used far more on this Charge than normal, showing how hard it was to take a decent line. Apparently, there were times when all four General Grabbers were not on the ground as we bounced down hillsides, and the V8 powered us up the slopes.

When the results were published the morning after the Charge, we were even more surprised to find that we came second on the ‘Tiger Line’ between the OceanAgri and Sandstorm checkpoints, with a distance of 2.743km, behind Gray Cullen who did an amazing 1.391 route in his new Car 22. Once the niggles are sorted, they will be a team to watch.

To explain, a Tiger Line is a route choice deemed by the clerk of the course to be a tougher than average one to straight-line, and as the third placed team on this section did 3.097km we had excelled ourselves. Thanks should go to all our sponsors and supporters for helping us to win the Unmodified class for the third year running, and probably more rewardingly to beat many of the Modified and Supermodified teams.

 

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