In a typical year, up to 65 teams will line up at dawn, ready to thrash their way through unknown Kenyan terrain in their trusted 4x4s, all in search of 13 checkpoints known to them only through GPS coordinates provided a couple of hours before sunset the night before. There’s little else “typical” about this challenge, billed as the most extreme off-road event in the world.
Rhino Charge is the primary annual fundraiser for Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, working to protect the mountain ecosystems that provide most of Kenya’s water and preserve and enhance the many communities surrounding them. The gist is simple: locate the 13 checkpoints called “controls” and visit them in the shortest distance possible before time expires in the early evening. The execution, however, is beyond complex.
Courses change location around Kenya each year, and the terrains are entirely undeveloped, consisting of cliffs, enormous boulders, riverbeds, and dense vegetation—all of which contribute to countless breakdowns, on-the-spot mechanical repairs, and somewhat regular injuries (there are med-evac helicopters on hand, and it’s not rare to see them used). The level of competition is healthy, but there are no cash prizes. This is the culmination of a year of tireless fundraising for Rhino Ark’s critical work. Even staff pay their way and volunteer their time, taking nothing from the organization’s bottom line.
The only true goal here is to support Rhino Ark for another year, but almost everyone takes the Charge very seriously, and there are plenty of friendly rivalries. Between cars 19 and 21, there’s some pretty personal competition: the all-female Bush Babes drive car 19, and two of the teammates’ husbands are in car 21. Here, in the words of Bush Babes’ navigator, Emma Morton, the day before Rhino Charge 2021, is how they often outperform the men, including their own husbands.
How long have the Bush Babes been together?
Emma Morton (EM): Petra and Sabina are sisters and are part of the original team that started back in 2010. I joined in 2013 as the navigator, and now we have Catherine, who is doing the mechanics, and Millie. You can have six people on a team, so one or two people will come in and out of our team in different years, but this is the core.
Are there other all-female teams competing?
EM: Most years, there might be three or four all-female teams, but there are only two this year. We’re short about 20 teams from the Charge this year because of scheduling changes due to the pandemic. There’s a prize for the top women’s team—the Coupe des Dames—and we’ve won that several times, but we’re really competitive now within the full Rhino Charge.
Not very many people finish the full Charge, but we are usually around the top 20. We would love to be more consistently in the top 10 to be really competitive. There are two classes of cars, modified and unmodified. Nothing fundamental has changed in our car, so we are classed as unmodified, and we won that category in 2019.
How does scoring for the Charge work?
EM: Your team is classed by how many controls you complete, then ranked by your distance within each. The shortest distance, tracked by GPS installed on our cars at scrutineering the day before the Charge, wins. In a difficult year, maybe ten teams will complete all 13, so if you’re in that group, you’ve done very well. Then the 12s are ranked and added in, then the 11s, and so on. You can still be top 20 without completing all controls for many years.
What’s the Bush Babes’ approach to attacking the course?
EM: As a female team, we’re restricted by our physiology more than anything. The men tend to be much more gung-ho and will attack slopes that we wouldn’t dream of attacking. Car 21, the husbands’ team, will do a huge amount of winching. Their winch will come and stay out for almost the whole day, whereas we will only winch when we have to. We try to avoid getting stuck.
But you don’t take the easy way out, do you?
EM: Not at all. Once the car gets to camp, we take off everything that makes it roadworthy. We want to take the shortest distance in the Charge at every chance, so we will literally just pile through the bush, and all of these extra parts would be ruined. You can see all the dents and scratches from previous years all over the car, and we usually break our windscreen with a log or something.
What gives you the edge to outperform so many teams despite the limitations you’ve mentioned?
EM: Strategy. A lot of our success comes down to navigation and Sabina’s driving skills. She’s an amazing driver. And then there are the runners. They’re out in the bush running ahead of the car and noticing if there’s something like an anthill or other obstacle that we need to avoid. Or, if we’re on very rocky ground with huge boulders, we don’t want to get stuck on a massive boulder and tear anything up underneath.
We overcompensate in that sense, and, as a result, we tend not to break the car, so we often complete more controls than a lot of the men because they end up busting something. It’s challenging to navigate in this type of environment. We come with alternatives. So, it’s a level playing field. It’s definitely feasible for us to place at the top. Our best has been 8th position.
How do you plan your route?
EM: The night before the Charge, you’re given a topographical map and the coordinates of the controls. You then have to work out where those controls are and plot them on the map. To plan your route, you have to understand the maps, like whether the contours are going up or down, for example. The first route decision is whether to go clockwise or anti-clockwise to reach the 13 controls.
After I complete the map, we’ll discuss it as a team and decide the direction, and then I’ll add extra waypoints. I add these so that when we’re on the ground, having found our spot using GPS if we find it’s too difficult, we can navigate to an alternative waypoint I’ve marked. At no point are we lost if we have to redirect from where we thought we’d go.
How much technology do you use to help you during the Charge?
EM: Nowadays, there are all sorts of tracking apps and tools to help, and a lot of the teams are using those, but we’ve always done very well with the system we have, so we don’t use them.
After I’ve made the map with all the waypoints, I’ll enter them on the computer and feed it to the Garmin GPS. That’s what we’ll take with us. Some teams will take their computer because they have measuring tools and other things, but I prefer to leave the technology behind because it can take up all your attention, and you forget to look at the actual land to make decisions.
Petra is a very visual person and can read the land very well, and I map read quite well and can work out what will be a good or bad idea from looking at the basic map. Normally, there’s no phone reception where we are, but we seem to have it this year, so I’ve been able to go into Google Earth and look down at the land in a different season.
What can win or lose you the race is finding goat tracks because those are the best ways up and down steep slopes that we’d otherwise want to avoid. Right now, there’s been so much rain that you can’t see the tracks on the ground under all the growth, but looking at Google, I can see where those tracks are and enter those points in the GPS.
But there can be too much information. No matter what information you prepare, the actual lay of the land is what determines whether you finish the race or not, and that’s a strength of ours.
How personal does it get between Bush Babes and car 21?
EM: Not only car 21! Petra and Sabina have husbands in car 21, but my husband and son compete in car 23. That team often wins Victor Ludorum, the prize for the most money raised by a single team. But it definitely adds to the competitive spirit. Some years they beat us, and some years we beat them, so it all comes out in the wash, which is how it should be.
There’s a huge amount of enjoyment beforehand while we’re getting ready. We have to get the cars ready, do all the fundraising, and then our camp is different from many other teams’. Other teams might bring in a company to do all the catering and camp set-up for them, but we do everything ourselves. Our whole families have thrown ourselves into it, and we all contribute different bits, and that’s great. It adds to the fun of the entire event.
UPDATE: The next day, the Bush Babes completed all 13 controls, finished 3rd in the unmodified class and 21st in the overall rankings, and won the Coupes des Dames.