Bonita started blind navigator rallying for fun – now she’s a champion.
Running her hand slowly across the table, Bonita Blakenberg carefully puts her mug of coffee down. With a large smile, she starts talking about how motor sports changed her life and helped her prove to everyone, but most importantly to herself, that anything is possible.
She may be blind, but that hasn’t stopped Bonita from doing what she loves best. This local lady from Midrand, Gauteng, started rally blind navigating when she was just 19 – and just for fun. Today at age 30, she is the reigning Regularity Rallying Blind Navigator Champion. Bonita was born in Cape Town on the Cape Flats. When she was three months old her parents took her to see an eye specialist who confirmed their worst fears – Bonita was blind in both eyes and only had slight light perception. Doctors couldn’t say for sure whether Bonita had been born blind and the optic muscles had not developed properly, or if she had suffered some kind of optical nerve damage as an infant, but it was very likely she would never be able to see. Growing up, Bonita’s disability never prevented this fiery spirit from fulfilling everything she wanted in life – from riding bicycles to climbing trees – until she hit her late teens.
“I have always loved cars and when all my friends started getting their drivers’ licences and with that, their independence, I realised that being behind the wheel was one thing I would never be able to do as a blind person. It was a big blow for me,” she says. “I hated having to always ask people for lifts (I still do) and always felt a bit jealous knowing that I couldn’t just hop in my car and go somewhere on the spur of the moment.”
Bonita refused to give up her driving dreams and instead turned her sights to blind navigating. Blind navigating is a unique sport that not only encourages blind participants, but puts them in a position of control – the route schedules are all in Braille. So unlike other sports for the disabled, the Blind Navigators Series uses the unique skills learnt by the blind navigator to empower them – a sighted navigator could not do what they do, unless he or she first learnt to read Braille.
The re-introduction of a rally series for blind navigators came about at the beginning of 2005, thanks to the social responsibility action of Total South Africa and Lions International, together with SARRA, The South African Regularity Rally Association.
At first, Bonita navigated just for fun, but then, when she moved to Joburg, she began blind navigating competitively, joining forces with experienced rally driver Jerry Paice, who had been involved in blind navigator rallies since 1985. Steering a 1984 Alfa Romeo Giulietta – that has clearly been around the block a few times – the duo is a formidable force.
“Blind rallying allows me to be competitive on an equal level,” explains Bonita. “Being a navigator is challenging. You have to ensure your driver follows the route without getting any penalties. Penalties are given by marshalls if you arrive late at any destination, so every wrong turn counts against you. I have never been good with numbers and in the beginning, would get sidetracked easily, but with each race I have ‘programmed’ myself to focus all my attention when I read the route maps and remind the driver all the time about what twists and turns are coming up,” says Bonita. “Trophies are given out to the best navigator. A bit like a golf handicap – if your index improves you also get a trophy.”
And Bonita’s trophy cabinet is already impressive. Not only has she won several races, but she is also the reigning Regularity Rallying Blind Navigator Champion. “I still have to remind myself that we won the championship last year. It was a great feeling, especially since I had to work very hard to win it. This year, I’m hoping to retain my title. So far we have won the first rally but lost the second, so although we are still in the running to win, we are going to have to give it our all, but that’s something we do in every competition anyway. Whatever the outcome, I still think doing what I love and having fun doing it is the most important thing.”
While Bonita says many blind navigators get ‘a bit highly strung at times and tempers do sometimes flare’, she prefers taking a light-hearted approach to rallying.
“My driver says I’m a great karaoke singer (who can do Celine Dion better than anyone, including the singer herself) and we do share lots of laughs while competing. I think our down to earth approach definitely helps us do well in competitions!”
Bonita hopes more ‘blindies’ turn their sights to blind navigating, as the sport provides one with the perfect opportunity to experience freedom on the road. “I have tried playing blind cricket and running, but I’ve never felt the adrenalin that I feel when navigating. Every journey is different and every journey is exhilarating.”
blind, champion, rallying, Bonita Blakenberg, racing