Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and others
It’s become somewhat of a tradition. Wake up on New Year’s Day feeling a little worse for wear, look at the bedside clock and work out how long I have to wait until TV coverage of the Dakar starts. Then the countdown to 22h00 begins, which is when the first day of the Dakar Rally is broadcast on DSTV.
I normally monitor the day’s racing live on the internet while waiting impatiently for the evening’s highlights package. This ritual is repeated every day for a fortnight. Work productivity reaches an all-time low at this time of the year as I dream about the Dakar. This year is different though, as I’m fulfilling a lifetime wish: I’m on my way to Chile to watch a few stages of this tough, crazy event as a guest of Toyota SA, who have two Hilux bakkies running in the event. Actually they have four if you count the two they built for two of the Argentinean drivers.
When the Dakar was still hosted on the African continent, it was a logistical nightmare to for supporters, crew and journalists to see any action except for the start and finish of every stage. In South America with the better roads and other infrastructure such as half-decent lodgings, we’d be following several stages.Just getting to the race was an adventure that took nearly 48 hours. First I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then on to Buenos Aires in Argentina. The race had started in Mar del Plata, which is about 200 km south of the capital city, but by the time we arrived it had moved into Chile already. So we flew to Santiago, the capital of Chile. There we spent a night at an airport hotel.
The next morning while waiting for a connecting flight to Copiapo, I picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet to get some sort of an idea of what to expect as all I knew about Chile is that they make good wine and that they’re big on mining. Not to be mixed though. This is what the guide said about Copiapo: “Powerful hirsute men wrangle through the bars and strip halls of this not-ready-for-TV mining town. That said, it’s not really worth stopping for.” The Lonely Planet was not going to put me off the Copiapo and the Dakar Rally as I was here for the cars and not the bars or boobs. When landing in this Atacama Desert mining town I thought that maybe I’d taken the wrong plane as it looked exactly like the Walvis Bay airport. Nothing around us for miles, just brown lunar-type landscape. Then there was the glare and the hot air which seemed to throttle my throat. This was in stark contrast to the day before when the stage was cancelled due to the snow and rain that was falling during the high-altitude Andes crossing between Argentina and Chile.
Even though we’d been travelling for two days I was like a kid on Christmas Eve and wanted to get going, but the young lad at the car hire place had other ideas and it was only two hours later that we were headed for the end of the day’s stage on a big dune on the outskirts of the town. Thousands of people had beaten us to the dune, where they lined the sides, waiting for the action. They’d used every transport mode imaginable – from sedans to quad bikes to 4x4s – to get as high up on the dune as possible. Everyone seemed happy to be out witnessing this crazy, colourful spectacle. Some had bought along beer-filled cooler boxes to make the wait more pleasant.
The first few motorbikes had already finished the day’s 598 km stage but the first car was only minutes away according to some locals. They were right – soon Robbie Gordon’s orange Hummer literally came flying over the dune. In a flash he was gone again, flying towards the bivouac at the bottom of the dune where the stage finished. I was so in awe of the raw speed and power that I forgot to take a picture. The crowds went mad, they absolutely loved it. Gordon was challenging for a podium spot but mechanical issues over the next few days would move him out of the top three. Next it was the turn of the Minis to come flying by and then our own Giniel de Villiers sped past in his Hilux.
I tried to get a little closer to the action and joined some locals a little higher up on the dune. Soon the other Hummer in the event came over the dune, and as he neared us he started to go sideways so I ran away towards the safety of the crowds. The other photographers who’d been around me just fired away as if this was the most normal thing on the planet. Once again I’d missed the shot. A few moments later a dust-covered policeman on horseback came and herded us back towards the crowds. As we had press passes we were able to go into the fenced-in bivouac. Poor locals stood on the outside of the fence trying to catch a glimpse of their favourite riders or drivers.
To give you some idea of the enormity of the event, the bivouac houses 2 500 people – it is the heart of the event, home to the media centre, all the competitors and their support crew, an info centre where you can drink beer and watch the day’s highlights on TV, showers, toilets, a service area and a medical tent. The restaurant tent is open 24 hours a day so mechanics can enjoy supper at 03h00 if they like, although by that time they are already serving breakfast. I was one of the 1 800 journalists who were joining the event for some of the 14 stages. A further 260 journalists were covering the 8 373 km of the race from the start in Argentina’s Mar del Plata to the finish in Peru’s capital. Once at the Imperial Toyota service area we got to see the drivers who had just finished the day’s stage. Giniel de Villiers was already on the massage table where physiotherapist Tessa Loftus helped heal tired muscles. Tessa first worked with Giniel when he was recovering from a back injury in ’09, just before he won the Dakar. “This event is much tougher than I thought with the heat, dust, sand and lack of sleep. I am the woman in the team. I keep an eye on everyone.
I am like the team mom,” says Tessa with a smile. The next day is a rest day, slap bang in the middle of the event. The South African Hilux drivers and navigators head for a nearby coastal town where Argentinean Hilux driver Lucio Alvarez treats them to a seafood lunch. Meanwhile crews totally strip the Hilux bakkies and work non-stop to get ready for the next day’s stage. The next morning we’re up at 04h00 as the start is about 200 km away from our hotel; we skip past the start of the stage and head for one of the spectator points. It’s a dramatic setting, where participants have to come down a steep mountainside before hitting a dusty plain and then climbing out of a rocky valley. Perfect for photography. A biker finds the rocks too much too handle and falls over, about 100 metres away from me. Before I can reach him to help he has the bike up and is moving again.
A local from Santiago, Eduardo Tyska, comes over to chat. He and his dad have been following the race since it entered Chile and have a hefty speeding fine to show as proof of this. Soon we see the first car – it’s Gordon again in his Hummer and instead of taking the pass down the mountain he just bolts down the side of it. He is the only driver to try this crazy move. De Villiers is well placed when he passes us and it’s time to race off again. By the time we reach the finish line we’ve missed the top cars but we’ve covered over 800 km! That’s more than the competitors. Stage 9 between Antofagasta and Iquique is the last one I’ll be attending and so in an attempt to see as much as I can we once again set off early bells, but opt to stop at one of the later checkpoints first. The reason for this is that we don’t want to miss the dramatic dune finish where last year’s winner Nasser Al-Attiyah raced his teammate Carlos Sainz. The place we stop is in the middle of nowhere and the only other spectators are some soldiers. We scout about and find a pipeline that’s been covered in gravel that contestants will have to cross. We set ourselves a leaving deadline and by the time it comes and goes we’ve seen many motorbikes jump over the pipe, but still no cars.
We’re in danger of missing the finish but decide to stay so that we can see the cars here. Gordon is first once again but with his 700 mm suspension travel he does not even notice the pipe. The Minis are next and they look like they’re starring in Driving Miss Daisy II. Giniel is next and with his stiffly-set suspension he doesn’t disappoint. We get the shot and hit the road. We still have 400 km to the stage finish. In all my time at the race the scenery in Chile did not change at all. It was not different to our own Richtersveld complete with the vineyards one might find next to the Orange River.
The only difference was the snow-capped Andes Mountains in the background. Now to get to the finish we were racing along the loveliest of coastal roads. The stony hills literally ran into the ocean but man had carved a road out along the sea. Every so often we’d get text messages from home about the progress of the South Africans. When we knew we could safely make it to the finish before the cars we decide to pull over to buy a Coke. The little roadside shop has nothing more than water and fish for sale so we push on. Just before the town of Iquique lies the finish line and bivouac. To get there competitors would have to come down the mother of all dunes.
The first few bikes are already down, and we get ourselves into a good position to see the action. I pass a man about to start a braai and the South African in me forces me to stop. We can’t speak the same language but the braai somehow connects us. Soon I have a beer in my hand and his family poses for a nice picture. His young daughter keeps on playing with the blond hairs on my arm, which is hardly surprising considering everyone here has dark hair and olive skin. Soon the cars start to roar down the dune and it’s not long before the three Hilux bakkies have all flown past me, all in the top ten. Pretty impressive for a first showing. I’m sad as I’m flying home tomorrow, just when the race crosses into its 27th country, Peru. While all the other journos head for their hotels I decide to sleep in a tent in the bivouac, as I haven’t had my fill of the event just yet. First stop is the Dakar shop where one can buy anything event-related, from a water bottle to a jacket. It was pretty expensive but I didn’t know when I’d be back, so I abused my credit card. Next was dinner, where they serve wine and local beer with a pretty decent meal.
The bivouac buzzes all night and I walk about till the wee hours of the morning. One of the Japanese Hino truck drivers invites me to share his pot of noodles and a Coke. A mechanic from Mongolia works tirelessly on his truck behind us while we chat away. This was like a United Nations of Motorsport gathering. Competitors represent 50 countries while the race is broadcast to 190 countries, such is the international appeal of the event. Just after midnight I walk to the entrance of the bivvy, and still the cars and bikes and trucks were coming in via that dune. There’s no cut-off at Dakar; the only requirement is that you have to make your start time the next morning. Competitors start in the order that they finish. To me the real heroes of the race are the privateers. I struck up good friendships with some of them. These poor fellas cross the daily stage finish line at all sorts of crazy hours. They then have to work on their own vehicles or bikes before hitting the sack for some shuteye. Some are so tired or late that they just fall asleep in their overalls next to their machines. This race is not for anyone who needs eight hours of sleep a night. At about 01h30 I go have a look at the Hummer camp; unusually there are many officials around Gordon’s Hummer.
The next day I find out why – he’s been thrown out of the race for the use of an illegal tyre inflation system. He appeals the decision and so the next day he’s free to race again. Eventually at around 02h00 I decide it’s time to get some sleep. I look up at that dune once more, and after a while some more headlights appear. Another brave stage finisher. The Imperial Toyota crew are still working on De Villiers’ Hilux. They will only finish up at 03h00. Luckily there was a spare tent and sleeping bag (part of the 4×4 MegaWorld sponsorship) for me to crawl into. At 05h00 my alarm goes off. I head for the motorbike start section; one of my mates has asked me to get his KTM cap signed by Marc Coma and Cyril Despres.
These two Dakar legends are only separated by a few seconds at the lead of the field and look totally focussed as they wait for their 06h00 start. Except for the officials there’s no-one else about and they’re happy to sign my cap. They both have earplugs in and don’t hear my good luck shout. I go pack my bags; the crew are up now and they start to prepare the Hilux bakkies. At 07h00 one of the big Toyota support trucks leaves. Not long after that the drivers arrive, and the tents and rest of the gear area packed away. The drivers check water bottles while the navigators scan the road book for the day’s challenges. I greet the drivers and wish them well for the rest of the event. They head off, they have 700 km to cover, and the Toyota support vehicles leave too. My Dakar adventure is over and I walk down to the coastal road to hitch a lift to the airport, which is about 10 km away.
As I walk I’m dumbstruck; it’s been so much to take in. In my 10 years of being a travel journalist this has been one of my best assignments. All I can say is that if you love motorsport and adventure then buy a ticket to South America, take along your tent and a cooler box, hire a bakkie, preferably a Hilux, and enjoy the motorsport event of the century.