The Pioneer Rally

In 2006 my, then, manager told me I’d been asked to do a rally in Cape Town to help raise funds for a school for the blind in Worcester. Clueless as to the ins and outs of the exercise, I said, “No problem!” A short while later I discovered that I would be driving the car and my navigator would be blind and all the navigation would be in Braille! I nearly had a heart attack. How on God’s green earth was I going to do this? I had already signed up for it so there was no going back but, boy, was I nervous!

Upon arriving at the venue, I was introduced to my navigator, Andre Steyn. He was a very sweet, middle-aged man and the first thing that struck me was that he had a wonderful air of peace and tranquility about him. We struck up a conversation and pretty much hit it off from the beginning. I remember feeling very much like a fish out of water at the time. Here I was, surrounded by celebrities and a crowd of people I didn’t know and, to be honest, I was just terrified to get into that car! Andre tried to explain the concept to me but, until I’d actually done it myself, it was very hard to grasp. It turned out to be not as scary as I had anticipated.

The concept of the rally is brilliant in its simplicity. The ENTIRE DAY is designed to make people more aware of the daily challenges facing visually impaired people by literally taking the control out of the hands of seeing people and making them vulnerable and reliant on another person. The driver has no idea what the route is, it is merely their job to get to the places they’re told to go. The navigator reads the driver the instructions out of a booklet typed in Braille. This effectively strips the driver of their independence and forces them to rely on someone else to get them to where they need to be. Add to this the fact that there can only be one winner and suddenly the pressure is on!

It is the celebrity’s “job” to look after their navigator for the entire day. To that end, the celebrity’s partners aren’t invited to the gala dinner as the driver and the navigator are partners from the beginning to the end of the day. What greater way to discover how it feels to be a visually impaired person, than to actually experience life “through the eyes” of a visually impaired person? One takes it for granted that, when you stand up to go to the bathroom, you can just simply GO. However, when you have to consider a person who can’t see where they’re actually going, things change drastically. Suddenly your mind is wondering what obstacles you will need to get past, how much time you should allow to get to the bathroom, and how challenging something like a bathroom can be for a person who can’t see.

Everywhere you look, on rally day, you see people walking in twos, one in front, and one slightly behind, attached to the front peron’s elbow. This is how we travel with our navigators from A to B. We are their “eyes” for the whole day. It’s a task that comes with many responsibilities. Wherever you walk you have to bear in mind that, behind you, is a person who can see absolutely nothing. You may take for granted that, when you walk through the doorway, you will have to compensate for the width of two people and turn your body slightly to avoid knocking an elbow. Your navigator has NO IDEA where the doorway even starts. If you don’t take that into consideration, you will be fine, but your navigator will probably be nursing a bruised elbow!

Amazingly, Andre seems to be in tune with every move my body makes so that, when I turn slightly, so does he. Obviously when one sense is impaired, the rest become far more acute. He has spent so many years relying on all his other senses, that he can get from A to B with incredible ease and confidence, with his walking stick in hand. However, he takes a chance and places his faith in me for rally day because I am taking a chance and placing my faith in him and his ability to get me to the place I need to be at the end of the race. It’s a mutual trust thing and it’s a brilliant way to force you to walk around in someone else’s shoes. You really feel what they go through and you get a small taste of the frustration they must feel at times. Visually able people take so much for granted. I wonder how I would handle it if I lost my ability to see. It would be a challenge I’m not sure I’d be up to facing.

Andre is a lawyer. He had his own practice for many years up until a few months back when he decided to join another firm. He lives on his own and he is self-sufficient in every way. He travels often with his work, he’s highly intelligent and has a busy social life. I’ve just described thousands of other South African men BUT add “visually impaired” to that list and things change considerably. It’s never been an obstacle to Andre and I can only stand in awe of his achievements and his ability to face life’s challenges head-on. He participates in rallies, like this, throughout the year, often winning them.

Let me explain how the rally works for those who have never experienced one. A rally is not a race based on speed. It is a race based on strategising and calculating and requires patience and quick thinking. The complicated part of the rally is that you are on public roads so there are many factors to take into consideration like traffic, road works and traffic lights. There is also the possibility that the navigator may misunderstand the instructions which is an easy thing to do when you are thinking of so many things at once. I have obviously never read a navigating schedule on account of the fact that it’s all in Braille! However, an example of one of the instructions Andre gives to me goes something like this: “You will reach a speed sign reading 120km, when your odometer reads 59.5, slow your speed to 60kms per hours for 5kms.” When you leave the start, you have to zero your odometer and from then on you figure out where you are supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do based on the odometer readings that they give you as part of the instructions. However, if you miss a turn and have to come back to find the route, that adds to your distance on the odometer and from then on you have to start adding which just adds to all the other things you’re having to think about! Make two or three wrong turns and it can get extremely complicated.

Following each instruction to the letter is not always so simple because, every time you get stuck at a traffic light you have to calculate how much time you have wasted and then try and make up that time on another road, even if they have told you to travel only at 50kms per hour. Sometimes you get stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. (At this point rally drivers have been known to take advantage of yellow lines and unsuspecting other drivers on the road!) Of course, one cannot forget that the navigator is blind. They have no idea if you have made the turn or not until you tell them and, at times, the instructions are slightly vague which means it could be one of a few things and you will have to make a quick choice. Your navigator can’t help you with any more that what is written on the page because they can’t see, so you have to do some improvising. On top of all THAT, my navigator is also hard of hearing which requires me repeating a lot of things. The problem with that is that some of the instructions come within 50 metres of each other and there is very little time to convey everything before you are supposed to take a turn off. It can be a highly stressful situation and the exercise here is patience; which is another good lesson to learn from the Pioneer Rally.

The aim of the rally is to finish the race in the time designated to you. Each car leaves the start at one minute intervals and, from then on you probably won’t see much of the other cars until the end of the rally. You go through 6 check points altogether, along the route, including the start and the finish and you have to reach each checkpoint within your designated time. For each second that you’re out, you lose points. If you arrive at the finish line ahead of car number 2, there is a chance you arrived too soon and you probably aren’t going to feature in the top 3. Then again, car number 2 could have gotten lost, in which case you may be right on time. It’s important to NOT worry about the other rally cars because their calculations will always be different to yours. It’s actually impossible to know how you fared in the race until the prize giving.

The first rally I did with Andre, as I said before, was a bit overwhelming. However, with very little understanding of the process, we succeeded in coming 3rd and, by the end of the day, I was hooked! I asked to do it again the following year and I also asked that Andre be my navigator again. We had swapped email addresses and numbers and started keeping in regular contact with each other. The second year we made some pretty serious mistakes and ended up coming 16th. Undaunted, I asked to do it again the following year. That year was possibly one of the hardest rallies I’ve ever done because I was also asked to perform at the gala dinner.

Between organising my band and rehearsals, getting the equipment and musicans to Worcester and making sure Andre was sorted, I barely had time to focus on the race. I also didn’t eat from 7am until about 8pm that night because I ran out of time to get myself anything and the only food available at the start of the rally, was beef, which my digestive system has never allowed me to digest! For that reason, I haven’t eaten beef for over 10 years and I wasn’t about to make myself ill just before the race. My only option was to go hungry but that made focusing extremely hard during the race. I made several wrong turns due to misunderstandings, ending up, at one stage, at a toll gate that I wasn’t supposed to be at. Despite other cars around me I didn’t think twice. I flung the car into reverse and floored it at about 100kms per hour weaving in and out of queuing cars. Spinning around mid-driving I crossed over the middle of the highway and headed back in the right direction losing only about a minute at the end of it all. Despite the mistake, that maneuver definitely sealed our partnership for Andre and he now has absolute faith in me as a driver! Although he couldn’t see anything, he realised something was wrong and, with my running commentary and the urgency in my voice, he knew I was under some serious strain! Andre still talks about it at every opportunity;)

By the end of the race my blood sugar was so low that my head was permanently buzzing and it felt like the world was slightly tilted. I still had to see to Andre and then get to the venue to do soundcheck and then back to the hotel to get myself dressed and ready to make an entrance with the other drivers. I am not sure how I actually made it through that day but all was forgotten when they announced the winners; me and Andre! I still don’t know how it happened with the drama of the day but it all made winning extremely worthwhile.

There was never a question of coming back again the following year to defend my title. What I didn’t expect was that there were definitely a few bruised male egos after my win the previous year and I wasn’t sure how to take that. I decided eventually to take it as a compliment;) I hadn’t come to win, I’d come to have fun the way I did every year. If I was competing with anyone, it was with myself. It’s how I’ve always been with anything I do. However, I know how much it means to Andre and, for that reason as well, I try and better my game every year. His face just lights up when we do well and that is one of the most rewarding things for me.

I was completely prepared for the race this time. I had a bag of chicken biltong and some cashews and dark chocolate to keep my energy levels up. I even made a flask of green tea to sip on during the race! (I learn from my mistakes thank goodness!) The race started off with an immediate delay when a car decided to pull out of his parking right in front of me just as the whistle blew for me to pull off from the starting point atAudi Centre at the V & A waterfront. A car’s hooter has never been used as much as mine has during a race;) With that delay, and a few red traffic lights, we decided to up the requested speed of 80kms per hour to 100kms per hour for a while. We were slowed down further when the course took us through several town centres and we hit a lot of traffic and several traffic lights.

It’s moments like these that I am very happy to be driving an Audi Quattro A5, 3.2 litre! Having lost much time in traffic, I needed to make up some time! Let me just state, for the record, that I am usually a very considerate driver! I keep to the speed limit and I allow other driver’s space if they need a gap but, on rally day, I drive like all the drivers on the road that I despise;) In short, I drive like an asshole;) (there is no word that fits better!) I weave in and out and take every gap I can find. When you’re doing a race you don’t have time to be considerate. Time is of the essence. I often joke to Andre that it’s a good thing he can’t see what I’m doing or he might have a stroke in the first 10 minutes of the race!

Fortunately the car has enough signage on it for most people to realise it’s a rally car and we very seldom have anyone give us a hard time. The embarrassing part comes when Andre tells me I need to do no less than 120kms per hour and I have to drive right on people’s bumpers to keep to that speed and then, 2 minutes later he tells me I need to slow down to 80kms per hour and those same people I forced aside, then come past me, looking at me like I’m completely mental and occasionally making a few rude signs in my direction! I can only laugh. In the end things like that don’t really matter. What matters is Andre’s face when we win.

At one stage of the race we were told to take the R44 to Franschoek. That is all well and good except that the only sign I could see for Franschoek was the R45! When I urgently told this to Andre he said, there must be another road further on. The navigation couldn’t be wrong. However, the turn for the R45 was exactly where the turn for the R44 was supposed to be, according to our odometer. I was pretty convinced they’d made a typo. (even in Braille, it happens!) However, Andre is the navigator and he said we need to keep going until we see the R44. After driving for probably 5 minutes I said I think we need to turn back and take the R45! He wasn’t completely convinced but I was and the handbrake turn told him he had no choice but to trust me;) If you have never driven an Audi A5 Quattro, you can’t possibly understand how it felt to cover those lost 5 minutes in less than one minute! We were low flying but I was determined to make up the time! A short while after being on the R45, the instructions were fitting which meant we were right. There was a typo on the navigation schedule. The only consolation was that EVERYONE had lost time there with the confusion and we still had a chance of making it up. The rest of the race was spent ignoring all the speed limit instructions while I drove far too fast through a few mountain passes. One of the many advantages of the Audi Quattro is that it’s a 4 wheel drive and it corners like nobody’s business! It’s the only reason I was able to drive like I did. We came racing into the finish line and it was over all too quickly. All we could do now was wait.

It was a long dinner for the two of us. Most of the time was spent discussing where we’d gone wrong and where we’d been right and weighing up all the pros and cons. I could sense Andre’s tension but I’d already decided we wouldn’t be placed this time. We’d made a few mistakes and that R44 debacle left everything up in the air. Nearly everyone had the same question for us, “So, do you think you nailed it this time?” I just smiled in response. To calm our nerves we enjoyed the steady stream of red wine being poured at our table;)

Suddenly, the moment arrived. I grabbed Andre’s hand and we held on tight as they began working their way from 41st place down to 1st. Every number they called out, my heart stopped beating for a split second. When we were down to 10th place Andre gave a little smile and I squeezed his hand. I would be happy with anything after 10th place. Then it was 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd… could this really be happening?! 2nd place was announced and there it was. We were 1st! Incredulous faces turned in our direction but I was throwing my arms around Andre and he was smiling from ear to ear and there were congratulations all around and then we were getting our trophies and cameras were flashing and we were both just grinning from ear to ear. The rest of the night is a blur after that!

I still don’t know how it happened but I’m pretty happy that it did! Andre went home smiling and I flew back to Jhb with my trophy in hand, feeling like I’d really accomplished something. I found out a bit later that Andre and I had 688 seconds error and the runner up’s time had 1160 seconds error so I think I have the Audi Quattro to thank for that big lead! I recently heard rumours that some of the other teams want to break up mine and Andre’s partnership and hearing that makes me a bit sad. I offered to drive for another navigator next year to keep the peace but the organisers don’t see the point of breaking up a good friendship and partnership. The point of the rally is not winning but the lessons we take away from it. I can’t deny it’s a good feeling winning, but I’d enjoy it just as much if I lost. Every year I leave there learning something new about myself, about life and about people. These are all lessons I value and that I carry with me from day to day.

Andre and I will be there next year to defend our title and, no doubt, we will have tougher competition from those who are determined to knock us off our perch and, guess what? I’ll fall off happily knowing that I did the best I could, and I had a good time doing it. If we win, it’ll be a wonderful bonus for us and I’ll make Andre a happy man in the process. I think that two wins, two years in a row is something for us to be proud of and, at the very least, definitely proof that women CAN drive;)

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