Red planet ADVENTURE
DRIVING.CA TAKES YOU INSIDE THE DAKAR RALLY
The Atacama Desert in the northern part of Chile is the driest place on Earth. In fact, there is so little water here that at its centre there is no life of any kind — not plants, animals nor even bacteria. Yet, through this normally silent, sterile world, right now, the engines of the competitors of Dakar roar.
This is the longest, most brutal off-road race in the world, with more than 5,000 kilometres run over 12 days — all testing machine and driver.
Certainly, this race is meant to be the ultimate statement of competitors’ will over nature. But, here in the Atacama, sometimes the climate alone begs to differ.
It’s the dead of summer here at the bottom of the world, and as you can imagine, it’s hot in the desert. However, because it’s so dry and at extreme elevation, the overall feeling is somewhat deceptive. The temperature falls into the single digits at night and rarely rises over 25C in the daytime.
It’s not unpleasant, but the strength of the sun on this wasteland of stone will cook any exposed skin in short order, as I’ve painfully discovered.
Even though I felt cool, the sun was quickly roasting me alive. After the first sunburn appeared, I noted that all our Chilean drivers were bundled head to toe, as if cold. I quickly learned that staying totally covered is necessary.
Dakar, originally called the Paris to Dakar Rally, is now in its third decade, having spent most of its years in Africa. But three years ago, it crossed the ocean to South America and it now runs through Argentina and Chile, in areas that are as formidable as anything the race used to cover in Africa.
It’s amazing to see the level of support and popularity here among the citizens who come out in droves to the start and ends of stages — no easy feat because these are often hundreds of kilometres from any populated area.
Flags abound in part to cheer for favourite riders/drivers, but also as a symbol of national pride.
Next to a World Cup final, this is the biggest international event to descend on these areas ever.
I’m at Dakar as a guest of Volkswagen, whose race-prepared Touaregs have won the past two years and, by the time the race ended Jan. 16, had swept the podium again.
But these are just two SUVs among several hundred motorcycles, ATVs, buggies, trucks and large transport vehicles, all churning through the desert in search of a championship.
And while most races are won or lost in an afternoon, these competitors have days of stress, fatigue and worry to cope with.
By the time I see them at the end of each day, they are bone weary, fixed with a permanent squinting stare and a walking state somewhere between a zombie and the dead.
Back out in the Atacama, waiting at checkpoint, looking for the contestants to pass, I remember reading recently that this out-ofthis-world landscape apparently has been chosen as the place where future Mars missions will train as it most resembles the surface of the red planet.
It’s desolate and vast; but it also sits at an elevation that would make most of us short of breath, rising and falling anywhere between 2,000 and 4,500 metres.
Bordered by the Andes mountains on the east and the coastal mountains of the west, it’s a landscape that changes only in millenniums or when one of the dozens of active volcanoes erupts.
Late in the afternoon of our sec- ond sunburned day, Volkswagen offered us the chance to do a little racing ourselves. By then, having to watch all this extreme driving had certainly wound my watch. My reaction: Let’s give’r!
Volkswagen set up 10 waypoints programmed into a GPS over a 40-km route in each of the Toyota Hilux pickups in which we were being chauffeured. In total, 14 trucks took part. These 2.5-litre diesel-powered four-door trucks carried three guests and a Chilean driver — we now switched spots. I drove first, while one of my South African companions acted as navigator.
The route started on the dead flat “Valley of the Moon,” then shot up into a series of mountain passes and down the other side into some long-dried-out creek beds. In the meantime, all kinds of tracks crossed diagonally and veered off at right angles — confusing when running at more than 100 km/h.
Walter, my navigator, shouted directions, ignoring everything but the GPS instructions, counting down in metres until the next turn, often obscured by berms of sand and rock. Even when I hesitated, his insistent “turn now!” proved right.
His contribution proved invaluable as getting lost out here wouldn’t only bring us in last, it might make it interesting finding our way back at all. This was a team effort.
Willy, Walter’s father, called out dangers from the back seat, while Claudio, our usual driver (who didn’t speak a word of English), clung to two grab handles with a sick smile permanently fixed to his face.
I left the diesel truck in 2WD and powered through the obstructions with my foot welded to the floor — these changed from sand to gravel to mixtures of both as quickly as we drifted through corners.
Then, as we headed uphill, large rocks appeared in the middle of the track; even fields of smooth river rocks, thrown up from some long-ago stream, appeared in front of me.
Then, abruptly, the track turned to dust, so fine that, even though we were in first, we were instantly blind on hitting it. Worse, it was like driving in oatmeal — it sapped the little power the truck had until I was forced to floor the truck in first just to wade out of this dust trap.
Worried about the second-place truck, I realized we had created such an impenetrable dust storm the truck would have to come to a stop until it cleared.
Out the other side, we were in the home stretch. I had driven the first seven stages of the race, urged on by Walter and his father, Willy, who was so pumped about winning he didn’t want to spare the 20 seconds to switch drivers.
Now, with the dust rising like a wildfire behind us, I skidded to a halt and chased around to the right as Willy dove in from the back seat. My other South African companion acquitted himself admirably as, over the last three stages, no one came within 500 metres of us — and with that we won.
My own personal Dakar in the Atacama Desert.