The thrill of the chase: Rally racing in the heart of Africa

April 29

There is just one sport in which you can find yourself barrel-rolled into a craggy ditch or stuck behind a truck of villagers: rally racing. Drivers speed through timed stages of unforgiving terrain on days-long courses. The sport is highly popular in Uganda, where photographer Will Boase has been based since 2010. 

Boase traveled with Team Pili Pili last season as it tore through championships in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, coming in second in the overall FIA African Rally Championship. His project shows the team's tour against a background of vibrant fanaticism on some of the most treacherous courses on Earth. Team Pili Pili is composed of Richard Spence, mechanic; Jas Mangat, driver; Gihan De Silva, navigator and Danio Nirmal “Papu” Singh, mechanic.

Boase answered a few questions about his series by e-mail.

Can you describe what it is like to be at one of the rallies?

Entering a stage in the early morning is pretty tough — it’s dark and cold, and you don’t really know where you’re going. But sooner or later, as you trundle down some obscure mud road, you’ll spot somebody wearing a 'Rally Fans Club of Uganda' shirt. In Uganda, those are the people who know every twist of every stage and all the gossip from the service park.... The other people to look out for are the Sikhs, who are similarly rally-mad, and they are equally good company. The RFCU guys will have their first beers at 7 a.m. and be loud and exuberant all day; the Sikhs take it a little slower, but they get there, too.


Dust-covered fans in Mukono, Uganda. (Will Boase)

The rallies also have what are called spectator stages or super specials, which are stages designed in an enclosed space so that spectators can watch the entire stage instead of just a short bit. The spectator stages in Uganda are beyond anything else you will see on the continent — thousands of people, many in fancy dress (and a surprising number of men in drag), thumping music, the smell of roasting goat, and stall after stall selling local millet beer and local lagers. People try to get close to the track so that they get splashed with mud, and the whole scene feels like a really chaotic carnival.

I love the image of a rally car getting stuck behind the wedding party. How did that image happen? Don’t they temporarily block off public roads? 


Mohammed Essa, the 2012 African Rally Championship winner, is blocked during a stage by a pickup full of Masai on their way to a wedding. (Will Boase)

On one of the dawn stages, the first car on the road found its path blocked by several vehicles carrying guests to a Masai wedding. The guests were traveling in the backs of pickup trucks which had emerged from a side road inside the stage, and there were enough of them to block the stage, forcing the drivers to cancel that leg of the race.

... Most stages go through tens of villages along their routes, and often vehicles from those villages decide to chance it, getting out onto the track in the hopes of making it through the stage before the next car. This has, in the past, led to serious accidents between racers and motorcycles, as well as occasional incidents with larger vehicles, including a head-on collision last year in Kenya between a rally car and an ambulance. It’s a terrifying aspect of the sport and one which the drivers frequently protest to event organizers about, but it’s extremely hard to effectively police such huge stretches of rural roads.

However, the crowds do sometimes take matters into their own hands. If a driver is perceived to be putting racers, spectators or themselves at risk, they are liable to be forced off the road, dragged from their vehicle and given a severe beating to remind them of the rules. In one particularly memorable incident in Uganda, a car which entered a stage illegally was forced to a halt and then partially destroyed by irate fans.

Can you talk about challenges unique to rally racers in Africa? 

The terrain is often appalling, either very muddy or very dusty and with razor-sharp rocks, deep rain-cut gullies and log bridges, and the logistical aspect of the sport is so much more complex when access roads are either in terrible condition or, as is often the case, simply not there. The wildlife also plays a big part, with stray cows, goats, donkeys and chickens a common sight and danger, and as I mentioned earlier, the roads are not always clear. But most important in my opinion is the isolation — East Africa’s rally teams have no dedicated rally shops or garages where they can purchase suits and Peltors. Those things have to be imported from Europe, often in a friend’s bag.


A racer ends up in a ditch at Festino Cité, a track renowned for its dangerous layout. Mukono, Uganda. (Will Boase)

What kind of financial hardships did different members of this team have to undergo to attend these races?

Team Pili Pili is lucky to be quite well resourced. Excepting Gihan, they all have jobs related in some way to the sport, and Gihan takes the rallies as holidays. But many Ugandan and East African teams spend every available penny on the sport, which must mean losing out in other areas of life.

What are the team's future plans?

I sat with the team for a beer ... and they were filling out ARC [African Rally Championship]  license forms. I think they’re taking on Africa again, and this time I’m guessing they’ll win.

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