Descriptions of this year’s Dakar Rally in the media, once it had finished, ranged from
‘Brutal. Punishing. Exhausting. Back-breaking. Insane’ (Top Gear);
… the jaw-dropping beauty and brutality of the most prestigious off-road rally on the planet. (Red Bull)
The Longest and Hardest Rally in the World (Red Bull)
It is my first trip to Paraguay, and as always I remember too late to look at a map and find out exactly where I am – although I pretty much know because I lived in South America for a few years. I know vaguely that it is inland from Uruguay and above Argentina, but is it landlocked? How big is it, and is the capital city Asuncion in the middle or forced to one side by geography? Who knows. I’m here for the infamous Dakar Rally and it is hot.
I work with the organisers, but not in any key capacity. Like many of the people working on the event we do it because we are passionate about it. Over the next two weeks and 9,000km this passion is to be tested.
Asuncion, start. Quite a quirky place, the people extremely friendly and the temperature hot. There was a sense of curiosity about what was happening the outside world as if it was another planet, in spite of the internet and proximity of Argentina and Brazil. The night before the start we head out for dinner at about 9pm to a local restaurant called “Un Torre y Siete Vacas” – one bull and seven cows. We are served an enormous amount of meat on a parrillada at about 10pm, with a decent Malbec.
There are roadworks on the way there and the way back, that loses us about 20 min each way. The taxi driver says that the simultaneous construction of a tunnel and an overpass has been going on for the last two years and no one thinks that it will be finished anytime soon.
The Presidents of Paraguay and Bolivia attend the start. The President of Paraguay probably lives across the lawn from the podium at the palace, but arrives by Jeep. Presumably it is armoured, but looks like a pretty normal Jeep.
Asuncion to Resistencia: 454km *
Even hotter and more humid that Asuncion. According to averages, humidity is between 80% and 90%, temperatures in the high 30 degrees to low 40s. It is so uncomfortable that people came near to fainting in the bivouac. And so humid that the alcohol that is available at the entry to restauracion for hand washing purposes doesn’t evaporate. I am left with sticky hands. We are not complaining (yet) that only cold water is available in the showers.
The restauracion is a U-shaped compound, that can seat 1,000 people at a sitting for three meals a day. In fact we are not often there for lunch, so that takes some pressure off. But another fact is that 2,000+ people need to be fed. Because of the way the competition runs they are never all there at one time, plus it’s a bit self-selecting – a long queue for dinner will ensure that people work out their own best time to eat.
In terms of logistics, there are three of these compounds that bunny hop to keep in front of the rally. There is an advance team that goes ahead of us by one or two days, depending on their function.
* total distance for competitors.
Resistencia to Tucumán: 812km
Hot and humid but it doesn’t feel as bad as in Resistencia.
Competitors are required to wear fire-retardant clothing so must be melting. It is recommended that they drink 5lt of water per day. But is that enough ? How much water can a camel bak carry?
Tucumán to Jujuy: 757km
When we were in Jujuy last year it rained heavily, and there were rivers running through the bivouac and flooding the low lying areas and covering everyone in mud. This year we’ve moved to a different location, but it doesn’t rain so we’re good.
Jujuy to Tupiza: 521km
Dry and dusty. On my first Dakar we stayed in Calama, and I was warned that there would be a dust storm in the afternoon and sure enough there was. What amazed me was that everyone whipped out their scarves, ski goggles and balaclavas and carried on. Strange conversations were taking place about normal things – where you didn’t actually know who you talking to because you can’t see their face. In Tupiza there were no surprises when the scarves came out again to cover eyes and mouth to stop the dust.
The competitors get up to 3,500m altitude and pretty much stay there or higher until we leave Bolivia in six days time. The bivouac is at 2,800m.
My favourite rider, Toby Price*, goes out with a busted femur / other rider catches on fire.
Carlos Sainz also out after a spectacular crash close to the end of the stage.
* he’s Australian and awesome.
Tupiza to Oruro (3,700m): 447km of competition, 692km total distance
Raining & cold. The bivouac ends up under water. We build a path out of wooden pallets to get through to the restauracion. Less successful with the path to the shared, portable toilets. To get there you must get ankle deep in mud and then avert your eyes to avoid looking at what’s already in the toilets.
I succumb to the altitude and visit the medical tent to receive oxygen and some paracetamol. Immediately feel better.
On the way out the next morning the Peugeot team are spotting trying to man-handle their mini-van out of the bog like in a tug of war. Eight to ten people pulling on a strap. Pretty funny.
Oruro to La Paz: approx. 220km
(Day 7, Stage 6) : the stage is supposed to pass Lake Titicaca, but it is cancelled due to ‘torrential rain and sinking in a quagmire of cloying mud’ (Foxsports) and we all travel into La Paz in a convoy.
Unbelievable amount of people lining the streets in La Paz to welcome the Dakar convoy of competitors and service vehicles. For about 40 minutes of driving, people lined the streets on either side. Millions?
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, and the bivouac was at about 3,500m. Even after these three days I still get out of breath walking around. In particular walking up steps, or up the hill to the restauracion.
La Paz – rest day
The second day in La Paz we are scheduled to have time off in the morning while the other half of the team works, and then we will take over from them at lunch time. To make the most of the time we hire a taxi and pay by the hour as he takes us on a short guided tour. My mission is to buy a woollen hat with ear flaps and to go on the teleferico that I’d seen on the way in.
Unbeknownst to us, but quickly discovered by a phone call at 1pm we are due to leave by bus for Tupiza at 3pm, in two hours time. Furthermore we should pack enough luggage for two days because our sleeping truck won’t be coming to Tupiza. Once I’m on the bus and we are leaving the bivouac I find out that the bus ride is likely to take 16 hours. Luckily it is equivalent to business class – the seats are comfy and can dropped back to almost horizontal. We have rations on board that will be our dinner. This turns out to be a tin of tuna, a packet of chips, orange juice and a small container of fois gras. Plus assorted packets of things like energy bars and nuts. Plenty enough.
As we drive out of La Paz and head south I am a bit saddened to see the poverty in the rural villages. One village in particular looks like a bomb has been dropped on it – it is either in a universal stage of construction or deconstruction it is hard to tell which.
At some stage during night I wake up with a piercing headache and wonder if I am dehydrated. But looking back it was probably when we went over the 4,000m high mountain pass.
The competitors will have been at even higher altitudes on their route, and altitude sickness and the degrees thereof is a frequent topic of conversation. One rider told me how hard it is to navigate if you can’t string two thoughts together.
We arrive in Tupiza the next morning at about 7am.
It is the first of two marathon days, meaning that the competitors have made their way to Uyuni where they will stay overnight. They will have to do their own repairs using the tools and spares that they are carrying. The ‘assistance’ vehicles and crews have come to Tupiza but according to the rules they can’t leave La Paz until after 9am when most of the competitors will have left. It decreases the chance of illegal interaction between competitors and the assistance crews.
But for us it means that assistance vehicles won’t arrive in Tupiza until about 9pm in the evening at the earliest. We have a lot of time on our hands in a place where there is not much to do.
We hitch a ride into the town of Tupiza and see the bike graveyard at the police lock up – Toby Price’s KTM and the bike that was burnt out. It is a few charred tubes of metal. Our trucks will come to pick these up in the next day or two and take them back to Buenos Aires will all the other busted and broken bikes and quad.
Interesting fact: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid were (most likely) killed mid-way between Tupiza and Uyuni.
Unscheduled stop in Tilicara, Argentina.
We leave on a Bolivian bus and then have to get off that bus and cross the border at Villazon / La Quiaca on foot and get the next bus on the Argentina side of the border. There are plenty of backpackers at the border who look aloof and ignore our (relatively) cheerful mass invasion.
Not far down the road I hear ‘Mai non! Mai non!’, and the phone call to my boss is to tell her that there is a mudslide down the road all the whole Dakar convoy has been blocked at a place called Tilicara. That is all we know initially.
Day 11 & 12:
We get off the bus at Tilicara and quickly sort ourselves out. There is a Time Control team here as well and they arrange themselves to check the competitors in as they arrive. The only information we have is what we are being told from the rest of the rally organising team. They went with the competitors are flying or have flown from Uyuni to Salta. They grapple with the situation that is unfolding, and try to give us as much information as they can.
Radio Bivouac – the rumours in Tilicara start. Things like ‘the mud slide will be cleared before lunch tomorrow’, ‘it will take 3 days to clear the mud slide’. ’50 people have been killed and 100s evacuated’. I thought for a while it had something to do with a volcano, but the village that was affected was called ‘Volcan’, which was confusing.
In order to keep the competitors in sync with the event, they are permitted to drive across a mountain pass to get to Salta, plus any 4WD vehicles – cars or trucks. A delay of more than a few of hours would see the event thrown into chaos because arriving at the next bivouac along (Chilecito), which is 1000km down the road, depends on having first been to Salta.
The problem, of course is that the assistance crews are also stuck on the wrong side of the mudslide and will likely take longer to get through to Salta and to Chilecito. A logistical nightmare for us, and a tragedy for people of Volcan.
No 2WD, no campers, no trailers and no semi-trailers were initially permitted to tackle the mountain pass as it was getting dark. We try to pass on the information that we are being given as best we can, but after a while we assess that it would be ok to eat and we had an excellent meal of bife and Malbec at a local restaurant that has likely never seen this many people.
In the morning everyone except semi-trailers were permitted to cross and we are airlifted out to Jujuy by helicopter. We fly across the mud slide and finally see the extent of it. The ‘three days to clear it’ story becomes much more believable, and we see on the news that two people were killed when they were trapped in their car.
Afterwards I heard that many of the motorhomes were damaged getting across the mountain pass, and that the bigger three-axle trucks were going around corners with the back of the truck over hanging the edge of the road, but everyone made in safely and in good spirits.
The next two days are spent trying to catch up with the rest of the Dakar Rally, and we lose track a bit. At some stage Toyota has some bad luck which puts them of contention but not out of the race.
We finally link up with the rest of the rally in San Juan (a.k.a ‘el infierno*).
* personal opinion.
Chilecito to San Juan : 449km competitive distance, 751km total distance for competitors
As it is every year, San Juan is a furnace. A bivouac set on tarmac in the +40C heat. Nothing to do but pile on the sun crème.
I think this must be one of the most hellish stages for competitors because they come through the mountains and into the heat. But maybe that’s just me. The dunes must be pretty awful as well, and the fesh fesh, the altitude, the cold …
We are up late waiting for the last competitors to either be back in the bivouac, or safely on their way back. There are two women who come every half an hour to ask about their driver which seems a bit excessive. I realise the next day that this is the driver who is wheelchair bound, and he is stuck out there repairing the car so that they can make it back into the bivouac in time to start again tomorrow morning. He makes it.
Our luggage and our beds are still stuck on the wrong side of the mudslide in semi-trailers. My boss asks around at the restauracion when she is having dinner and makes friends with a bus driver. There are always buses on standby and we are able to jump on one of these at about 1.30 am. Up again at 5am and we ready to wave off the first moto riders. ‘the Depart’.
San Juan to Rio Cuarto: 754km total distance.
Relief! What a lovely, green and cool pocket of the world.
We sleep on the tables and benches in the Officials’ tent. I would have sworn that I couldn’t sleep on wood until now – when I slept like a baby between 1 and 6 am when we were up and eating breakfast prior to heading off to catch the plane to Buenos Aires and the podium.
This is for all intents and purposes the end of the rally, and after about 4,000km of competition there is only one minute and ten seconds between 3rd and 4th position in the motorbike category. This the difference between finished on the podium and not. Hard to believe the level of focus and concentration that this requires, for such a long time.
Rio Cuarto into Buenos Aires: Distance 776km
Is in the program to start at 5pm and finish at 9pm.
We were still on the podium as the last trucks crossed after midnight. It is such an achievement to finish that everyone wants to stop on the podium, celebrate with their team and to take photos for posterity and also for the sponsors who are important for every team. So we don’t mind, but at the end I’m tired and go back to the hotel, as everyone else heads out for the party. My room mate doesn’t get in until it is light. Unbelievable !!
Wheelchair guy proposes to his girlfriend, or something similarly romantic. Incredible story, but I’m too tired to pay attention.
Congratulations to Sam Sunderland the winner in the moto category; Peterhansel in Peugeot who has won his 13th Dakar. The man is a machine; and to Eduard Nikolaev, Evgeny Yakovlev & Vladimir Rybakov the winners in a Kamaz truck and to us and to everyone who made it to the end.