By Marvin Hokstam: Caribbean CorrespondentThe team of Antoine Brahim and Piem Reiziger emerged as victor from the Savannah Rally 2005, organised annually by the Suriname Auto Rally Klub (SARK). Apparently this team excelled in skills necessary to drive and navigate a car through the rugged terrains sadistically chosen by officials of the rally club. “You have to be prepared, both physically and technically,” Reiziger commented on the win later, leaning against his Isuzu Trooper that was sponsored by locally produced detergent Ozone. Their win was an impressive achievement indeed; but to tell the truth: during the race it was apparent that most participants could’ve cared less if they won. It was about sheer fun. Spanning 163,820 square kilometers and with a population that barely tops 500,000, there are still parts of this former Dutch colony on the north-eastern shoulder of South America that are literally untouched. Close to 90 percent of the country is still blanketed by a thick rainforest; the Savannah Rally this year took 80 teams through rugged landscape of dirt roads, bush trails, shallow blackwater creeks and white plains, on the outskirts of civilization, just before the real forests take over.
“This year it became a real rally,” said SARK chairman Mark Waaldijk. He spoke of a perfect start that signaled the beginning of an event that just kept getting better as the days proceeded. “It was organised on a very high level, by people who just don’t seem capable of low-standard thinking,” he said.
Indeed, the massive November 11 kick-off had signalled that the event would be among the greater ones. Music blared from loudspeakers and crowds gathered at the Independence Square in the capital Paramaribo to marvel at the adventurously decorated vehicles as they made their way over the start; it was a scene reminiscent of the famed Dakar Rally, where drivers battle the waterless deserts of west Africa.
Drivers had a fierce look in their eyes, while the navigators concentrated their attention on the maps they were just handed by the SARK officials. They had long hours of night-time driving ahead of them. Adventure was in the air.
This year the rally attracted the most international teams ever; 11 from Trinidad, two Curacaolanean and one American. The slow-but-sure addition of more and more international teams pleased Waaldijk. “When we took over the board, one of our prime goals was the internationalization of our sport. We grew and we were able to attract international teams,” he said, lamenting though the high costs foreign teams encounter when trying to ship over their own cars. “But we still made good advance in involving the Caribbean region.” Most international teams were driving around in rented cars. EuropCar, which recently opened up shop in Suriname even had a team participating. “It’s a start,” said EuropCar franchisee Jan van Charante.
He concurred that the rally was a prime event Suriname’s modestly developing tourism industry should take advantage of . “It is true. Through the rally visitors can get a two-for-one deal. Rally teams don’t only get to drive their cars, but they also get to enjoy stunning landscape. This is eco-tourism at its best. We get to show that it’s not only palmtree-lined beaches that can make for a good holiday. With our rally we get to prove that it is possible to do it differently.” His next aim is to convince the EuropCar head office to actually send down a vehicle.
The landscape took Kumar Ramdass -an experienced Trinidadian rally-driver who went to Suriname for the first time- by surprise. While battling the treasonous white plains at about 80- kilometers distance from Paramaribo, his Suzuki Grand Vitara eventually threw in the towel. First the four-wheel drive suspension succumbed and then the sand had caught the left rear tire in a deadlock.
A rescue team had to be sent in to dig the vehicle out after all other participants had gone through this the sand; some with ease, some after some battle.
This area, a small dried up lake served well to differentiate who and what could or couldn’t. Obviously the Grand Vitara couldn’t. Raj Persad, driving a red younger 3500 GDI Pajero, obviously had fewer problems. The six-cylinder beefed-up gasoline engine made the SUV literally fly over the sand; Raj rapidly became one of the more popular drivers, restoring Pajero owners’ faith in their vehicles. But the mid-nineties Pajero the brothers Jessurun were driving could be heard complaining from afar. It took them several takes to make this pass.
As all the vehicles made their way through this torturous spot, the scent of burned-out clutch-plates filled the air. Out of place in the savannahs, but testimonial of how testing the race was.
Trinidadian driver Kumar Ramdass claimed that it was his inexperience with the terrain that caught him off-guard; not his inexperience as a driver. “I have rallied back home, and in Barbados, Brazil and Jamaica. Never like this. Those races were mostly speed rallies,” he said. “This is very challenging ... very demanding. You have to know how to drive in this kind of terrain, but your navigator also has to be very cautious.” Ramdass too complained about the sadism the rally organizers had displayed, placing markings and navigational points just out of sight of the less knowledgeables. “But it’s great. I love the rally sport and through this I get to experience nature at its best in places regular visitors of this beautiful country don’t easily venture into,” he said, vowing to return for the 2006 rally. “I will come to win. Trinis have a habit of trying to win.”
For Freddie Rusch and Mike de Vries it was a nice experience that may well reboot the rally-sport in Curacao. “Ten years ago we had a big club, but Curacao’s rally has died. I haven’t driven in a rally for more then ten years. Well, this was great. Beautiful scenery; we’ve been places the average tourists doesn’t see. And we never used to drive for four days straight in Curacao. I hope that when I share this experience back home, we can revive the sport. That would be great,” said Rush.
Winston Ramautarsing, a two-time winner of the rally, this year claimed a modest 8th place. He knew early on not to expect too much, though he joked about being a challenge to everyone. “Participating in a rally is about fun. And if you do get to make some good points while having that fun, than that is okay,” he said during night II, when drivers overnighted at Overbridge, an eco-tourism resort.
A band had been brought in and a swinging party was going on. These overnightings became gatherings of camaraderie where drivers exchanged experiences and vented their anger at the cruelty of the plotters that planned the routes. Even at Overbridge the driver of a Nissan pick-up had managed to get his wheel stuck.
Ramautarsing laughed. “A lot can go wrong at a rally. The terrain doesn’t always work with a driver. And of course you need good weather, a good car with the right equipment, and the team has to comprise of a knowledgeable chauffeur and navigator. When I won it was because I managed to navigate well a couple of times. I would recommend that any beginning team first come to enjoy the nature,” he said. “To win this thing, you got to love the rally sport, love nature, be in good physical shape and have some knowledge of puzzling.”
An economist by profession, Ramautarsing admitted that his best time of the year is when doing the rally. “I take part every year and I have known some ups and downs ... ups being the two times that my team won. But believe me, when rally time comes around, my mood gets better and I get excited,” he said.
He said it is the same with every avid rally driver. “Some really go for it. Days before the rally starts, you can find them actually training in the forest.”
The biggest international annual sporting event in Suriname, the rally indeed demands a lot of preparation. Days before the start, cars were lined up at ABC, one of the more popular designing companies in the country, to get fitted with their “battle colors.” Designs varied. Jeep Cherokees left the shop in leopard colors and there was at least one zebra. All cars sported the logos and names of the companies that sponsored them.
But preparations obviously started months ahead. Heavy equipment had been directed into the savannahs to make rally roads and makeshift overpasses, and at points where the tracks would take drivers over rivers too wide for quick bridges, barges were brought in to ferry them over. An ambulance, staffed by two nurses followed the trail just in case ... as did a mobile tire-repair unit, mounted on the back of a pick-up truck. As the only major accidents involved foreign teams crashing their rented vehicles, the latter had more work then the first.
Most of these facilities were made with sponsorship from Staatsolie, Suriname’s oil refinery, which since 1997 produces diesel. The rally was therefore appropriately dubbed the Staatsolie Diesel Rally; a gesture that, though ambitious, still drew criticism from the community. Some thought that Suriname’s economy was in too precarious a state for Staatsolie to sponsor a sport that only a limited few could permit to take part in.
“This was unjustifiable (criticism),” said A. Jones from the company’s Marketing Division. “We’re a small, but dynamic company in a small community and our competitors are big, in huge communities with a lot of experience in this industry. How do we fight against them? These companies advertise 24-7; Staatsolie does so once a year, by sponsoring this event. We’re small, but we look to keep our brand in the foreground in this though global environment. And it is tough ... we produce 2,000 barrels a day, against a worldwide production of 85 million a day. It is not easy to keep our brand in people’s minds,” he argued.
Jones said there was no doubt whether Staatsolie would sponsor the event again in 2006. Because, if some individuals in this South American nation have it there way, their pearl in automotive sports may literally leave other Caribbean thrill sports in the dust.
In fact, why the “big boys’ haven’t discovered the value of this event yet, is difficult to understand; Waaldijk extended an invitation for other international teams to take part next year.
“Come and see if you can match our thrill. Besides that, we have a lot to offer. Untouched nature, different from the usual thing of the beaches,” he said. Kumar Ramdass added his two cents: “I don’t think the Suriname organization has to worry. The word will get around. Just look at me. I am here because the guys who were here last year spoke of how great it was.” It seems like great things are indeed in store for the Suriname rally sport.