I’ve been making my way slowly north. The infamous Dakar Rally, the world’s longest and toughest motor race and a thing of legends, starts today. It will reach where I am now in four days. I am thus both killing time and looking for the best places to watch it.
After two days of driving through the mountains on back roads, I am back on Ruta 40. ‘The Forty’ is to South America what Route 66 is to the northern part of the continent – an iconic road-trip route, running the entire length of Argentina in the shadow of the Andes, from the Bolivian border to the southern most part of Patagonia. I rode on it first over a year ago in Patagonia, where I encountered the only remaining stretch of any significant distance that had not been laid with asphalt. It had rained heavily the night before and turned the route into impassable mud – an epic two day’s ride. Here, the weather is different but the character of the road remains the same: it passes through stunning, vast landscapes; service stations are few and far between; and there is barely any traffic on the road. Yesterday, The Forty switch-backed its way into some hills; and as is the way with South American roads, it suddenly turned from a major ‘hard-top’ to a single lane dirt track, with only a row of painted barrels to stop you going over the edge. This is part of what gives such roads character.
Yesterday, I went looking for part of The Dakar route where I could watch the racing. A day’s driving in The Dakar is divided into three sections. The first and the third are what are called ‘liaisons’ – road sections to and from the part where the racing actually takes place, known as a ‘special’. When transiting along these road sections, drivers must obey local speed restrictions. It is therefore on the specials where the exciting riding and driving will take place, but the nature of the event means they are inevitably in the most inaccessible places – in the middle of the mountains and deserts. I hoped that, with the help of some local knowledge, I may be able to ride my moto to a place where I could watch the racers on a special.
Dakar fever must have hit the locals early, rendering them slightly delusional. When looking for a track that leads into the hills and along which I think the race will come, I took a wrong turn and I found myself effectively in someone’s front yard. A woman outside the adjacent house waved me over. By the time I had removed my helmet the whole family, grandparents included, had gathered. Cameras were out in force, and they all lined up to take photos of this Dakar warrior who for some reason had arrived four days early. Granted, I may cut the dash in my red enduro pants and peaked helmet, but the three bulky bags strapped to the back of my bike should be the give-away.
Photos taken and hands shaken, I set off up the track I had been looking for. It seemed promising. After about 10km I stopped when I found some small trees offering a little shade in which to eat lunch – and if I’m honest, the track had now turned into a dry stream bed of loose gravel and sand and my Dakar skills were starting to look inadequate. Still unsure if this was indeed the right track, I did what all good soldiers do and took to the high ground to scout the terrain. Fighting through cacti and thorny scrub, my tough, rip-proof moto trousers were perfect for the job. Unfortunately my soft, easily-puncture hands weren’t, as I discovered when I slipped on the decent. Note to self – wear my riding gloves next time. On the way back I couldn’t resist stopping for a ‘hero phot’. Until I can raise £100k, this will probably be the only time I ride a moto on The Dakar route.
When I return on 7th January, everything will be set up in preparation for the arrival of Stage 4. Officials will be out in force and I suspect that someone will stop me riding up the track, unless I can get away the night before and camp beside the route. If it turns out to be the case, I think there will be formal spectator areas set up which I can visit. For obvious reasons, details about the route are kept secret until 24 hours before the event. Indeed, with four days to go, there was no evidence whatsoever that the race was coming to town – except for the locals chatting excitedly about ‘Rally Dakar’. So for now I must wait, here in the small town of Chilecito.
Tune in to The Dakar on 8th January (You Tube or http://www.dakar.com will have daily highlights). If you see a bloke in red trousers with bleeding hands, getting led away from the side of the race route by a couple of cops, that will probably be me.