Travelling more than 6000km on this year’s Dakar Rally left a deep and sometimes disturbing impression on Pieter Oosthuizen, who produced a weird kind of balance sheet.
Getting up at 05:00 to drive for more than six hours to an almost secret viewing point for the media, with various distractions, makes you focus on the landscape. Your eagerness is bullied by the organisers’ watchdog on the 4×4’s dashboard (a GPS system called Trippy) and your composure undermined by your host’s inexperienced driver.
The scenery, plus your recollection of conversations in the bivouac, where none of the 3000 inhabitants are strangers, become blessings. You know you are living your dream, but you ponder, a little perplexed, whether it wouldn’t be better to watch the highlights package.
Years ago, when the fuel price in SA was still realistic, I used to sit up in bed at night with my big African map book stuck open in one place. My wife would look up from her love story and say: “What are you looking at? There’s nothing on that page.”
It is different when someone else tells you where to go. It tempers the imagination.
The Dakar organisers release their exclusive A4-sized media viewing point maps with GPS coordinates at 20:00 the night before each stage. You have to use this with your Carnet de Route (packed full of information and small, vague little maps), plus the Carte de sécurié routière (a big, vaguely simple map which service crews and other non-competitors use), along with your own little GPS.
There are no real cross references on these maps so, while calculating – sometimes after midnight — I questioned the practicality of it all. But then again, they also want 2000 euros for internet connection in the media tent. Helloooo!
It was fun to figure out when the first rally car or someone else further back would arrive at a point somewhere along a 600km special stage in the mountains or desert, even when you didn’t have the faintest idea what their average speed or situation might be. Like the competitors, you need luck.
Once you have decided where to go, you are ready to get smacked by the Dakar. What happens next teaches you about the capricious nature of the beast.
Early in the race, on a grey, sparsely vegetated hill overlooking a deep sand track across from another, dominant hill where hundreds of umbrella’d Argentines sat poised like ants in the 44ºC heat, waiting for the honey pot to explode, I eventually made myself even smaller and crawled under a thorny shrub. When I got up to take a leak, the cheering from the umbrellas seemed to shade the sun for a moment.
Four hours later, out of water and cookies, there was still no sign of our man. Heading for the bivouac, we heard about the broken suspension…
Two days later, the Dakar reminded us that it could blindside even the most vigilant observer. We got to a very remote point with time to spare. I was chuffed, for we had just bundu-bashed our way to what I thought was the most beautiful viewing point of the 2014 rally. Under a scorching sun, you enthusiastically work out all the camera angles for bikes, cars and trucks that will be coming down a deep, dry riverbed that winds through a lovely grassy plain between glorious mountains.
Three hours later, you are dehydrated by the time a call comes through on the satellite phone: “Second part of stage cancelled — see you at the bivouac”. Which is three hours away.
You carry on, reminding yourself how lucky you are to be on the Dakar, convinced that by now you have acclimatised to disappointment.
And things did get better. That was until we hit the Atacama.
We had been looking forward to one of the most iconic watching experiences – at the 3km- long dune descent into Iquique on the Pacific coast. We missed it, because we had been forced to spend most of the morning in the district attorney’s office in the shabby, dusty town of Calama, where two drops of rain fall every year.
No, we hadn’t been caught speeding. No, Sir. Even with hundreds of millions of US dollars being generated by the Dakar in South America, the inhabitants still helped themselves to my equipment.
Next day, fantastic Dakar scenes lifted my spirits. I also heard about Dutch photographers who had lost equipment worth six figures. A couple of days later, passports and money were stolen from the hotel room of fellow South Africans, including a major sponsor. This group had already suffered serious damage to property in Salta, Argentina, at the hands of hooligans.
I now understand why the real participants always talk about how the Dakar waits for no one; that it just carries on, irrespective of your setbacks.
Crime at the Dakar cost me dearly, including hundreds of photographs on my laptop, but no one can take away the memories of having been there.
About the author:
For someone who plans his expeditions on the full moon calendar, Pieter Oosthuizen may seem to be a super superstitious guy. But he’ll tell you that travelling alone by the light of a full moon is the most practical way to get scared, not scarred, when the wilderness kicks you out of your comfort zone. It also helps with navigation…