Bolivia – My Own Mini Dakar

Dakar Hero at Uyuni

Following the Dakar in Argentina had been straight forward. On arriving in Bolivia, this was about to change.

The ride north from Salta to Tupiza was easy – 400km of good tarmac to the border with Bolivia and then onwards for another 100km to Tupiza. The race would arrive in Tupiza the following day and then continue through the mountains along a 200km dirt road to the bivouac at Uyuni. With no other route through the mountains to Uyuni, our plan was to ride this dirt road early in the morning to reach the spectator zone at the midway point, then continue on to Uyuni after the motos had passed. But on arriving in Tupiza at 7pm, that plan went out the window – the police had closed the Uyuni road already. No amount of persuasion or outright lying (one of my Brazilian companeros told the police that we were the support team for a Brazilian rider) was going to get us through. So we needed a Plan B.

Bolivian FansAfter a night camping in a half built house, we set about finding a solution. It wasn’t easy – the Bolivians were taking a far less relaxed approach than the Argentinians and had closed off virtually every road in the village ahead of the race. But eventually we learnt of a small road that paralleled the race route on the other side of the river. We set off, forded the river and eventually came across a sizeable gathering of very excited Bolivians. They obviously knew how to evade the police road blocks, and we joined them beside the race route and awaited the first rider. It was a spectacular setting, amongst a beautiful sandstone gorge with raucous crowds atop every rocky outcrop waving the colourful Bolivian flag and the throaty sounds of the 450cc Dakar engines echoing up the canyon.

We had also been told of another route through the mountains to Uyuni, bypassing the race route. After watching some of the motoqueros race by, we set off on what we thought was this road; but an hour later, and with numerous conflicting directions from the locals, this option wasn’t looking good. Then we got some good news – all the Dakar motos had passed and the police had opened the road. Time to reach Uyuni before darkness was short – having ridden this route back in March I knew it took several hours. As my companeros rode all the way back to Tupiza to join the route, I bade my farewells, forded the river to join the Uyuni road and and and set off.

I don’t like riding South American dirt roads in the dark. When I rode this route in March it took me five hours. Now I had less than four. If I wanted to beat nightfall, I had no choice but to ride my own personal Dakar. However, I had gone barely a kilometre when I came across two policemen. I stopped to check with them at the road was indeed open – a mistake I wasn’t going to make again. They were hesitant, I thought I was done for, but they then said ‘yes.’ That was it, my green light – no more stopping. As it turned out, I didn’t need to.

Dakar BikeFrom the front, my moto looks very similar to a Dakar bike. The bike’s 660cc single cylinder and race exhaust sound like one. And with the pilot standing up on the pegs and gunning the engine, everyone thought I was the real deal. The route was still lined with spectators packing up and police preparing to head back to Tupiza. When they heard and then saw me coming, the cops cleared the road and the spectators cheered me on. Whilst I already had a good reason to ride fast due to the late hour, this support spurred me on further; I felt a moral obligation to put on a good show and at least look like I was racing – it was my part of the deal, so to speak. The route was clearly still closed ahead as there was no oncoming traffic, so I rode as hard as I felt I could with 30kg of kit strapped behind me. The road is a biker’s dream – dirt all the way, hairpins climbing up mountain sides, long sweeping stretches traversing ridge lines, streams to ford.  I couldn’t let my concentration slip for one moment, but it was exhilarating stuff.

Every time I came across police, I stood up, leaned forward over the fairing and gave the throttle an extra twist. All of them waved me through. I made good progress. After nearly three hours on non-stop riding, I found myself on the altiplano and able to really open it up on the straight gravel road. It had clearly been raining and the ground beside the road looked wet. After fording several relatively small streams, I came across a more significant one, dark brown with mud and cutting the road.  To try and cross this gingerly was asking to get bogged in, so I hit it at speed. It was deeper than I thought – a tidal wave of brown water engulfed me, blinding me as my goggles were washed out with mud. The bike, my kit and I were soaked and filthy.

With about 40km to go I thought was going to make Uyuni in less than three and a half hours, but then I came across an extraordinary sight – hundreds and hundreds of cars parked on the altiplano in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t expect this, but clearly half of Bolivia had come to Unuyi to watch the rally. They were now returning back to the town. The road was blocked by a traffic jam stretching to the horizon and a policeman directed me off the road to cut across the plain. The ground was wet and soft, and the best way to ride in such conditions is to keep the speed up – it stabilises the bike. This apparent tail-end Dakar pilot also now had a big audience – hundreds of people standing by there cars were watching – so again, I felt I had to go for it. The bike was sliding around, the engine was revving hard to power through the wet sand – I must have been a good spectacle.

A true Dakar riding experience isn’t complete without a good crash. As I was bouncing through the ruts made by cars trying to bypass the traffic jam, I came upon a ditch (or perhaps an extra-deep rut) and had no choice but to try to muscle through. It didn’t work. The front wheel dropped in and stopped. I went over the handlebars and landed in a heap. The crowds cheered as I picked myself and the bike up, got back on board and gunned the engine. Five minutes later I did it again. This time, I landed on my feet, but like a classic cartoon character I couldn’t run fast enough to regain my balance. I tried valiantly for about fifteen meters, then fell on my face.

I had to ride the remaining 40km or so steadily, working my way past the slow moving traffic. I reached Uyuni at dusk, to be confronted by a depressingly-long queue at the town’s only petrol station. Once again, the Dakar masquerade can in handy. After the obligatory photo shoot, I was ushered to the front of the queue. My tank was filled, more photos taken, then finally I could escape – or almost. I got stuck in a huge crowd in the town centre when I went down a blocked-off road and had to turn back. I was exhausted but couldn’t extract myself from the paparazzi. When I finally did I cut my losses, drove to the very edge of town, and asked if I could camp behind a small church. Finally, I could eat and rest.

imageI had ridden hard for about 150km and fours hours that day. I was knackered and my back ached from the constant pounding of riding over rough terrain. That same day, the real Dakar riders had raced twice as far, and beforehand had to complete a 400km liaison section along the route we had ridden from Salta. My admiration for them had increased tenfold. And they had to do it all over again the next day. I however only had to complete a leisurely 200km to the border with Chile, where I could watch the racers complete the day’s special. As they crossed into Chile and rode on to Calama, the ‘followers’ were prevented from crossing the border for about three hours. Eventually the spectator caravan was let through and we made our way through stunning scenery to Calama.  No frenzied fans here, thankfully.  Quite the contrary, in fact – I was greeted by my second only dog attack, a two-pronged attack from a pair of vicious hounds.  I spent the whole day riding with Alejandro, a Colombian on a Harley – a nice change from all the big, so called ‘adventure bikes’ that everyone else is riding. I took my hat of to him – he kept riding his heavy hog through some pretty tricky gravel and sand which made me concentrate a bit.

This morning I was due to set off early to follow the race north for one more day, but at 6.15am I found my bike with a flat tire. It was a good excuse to draw stumps – I’m knackered, my kit is filthy and my bike needs some post-Dakar attention. So I am taking a pit stop, a day of washing and eating. A week of following the Dakar has been pretty demanding. So what is two weeks of racing the Dakar like? Maybe I’ll find out one day.  (Anyone got £80k they want to donate?)

3 Comments on Bolivia – My Own Mini Dakar

  1. Well done matey!
    Yes, I will contribute $80,but not pounds and drop the K.
    As I read your account I can smell the dust and hear the noise….bloody hell I should be there.
    Yeah, sore back, you have to stand on the pegs more, obviously on the rough stuff. By the time I quit enduro racing my back was stuffed. Took a few years, many workouts and concerted effort to maintain correct posture for me to recover….OK now.
    Did you see that Oz beat England five games to none in the Ashes and we are one nil up in the one day series…..just thought I would mention it.
    Crickey, your Spanish must be great by now.
    Enjoy your great life. Best from Rex

  2. I think this might be your best one yet Pitch – i really enjoyed reading it. Inspirational stuff – and in my minds eye I’ve got you doing that fast but not fast enough running across the altiplano! best wishes, dave

  3. Sergio J. Contardo // 14/02/2014 at 12:53 am // Reply

    Bravo Paul, For every purpose you have been a real Dakar participant! Superb experience and story to tell your grand children. We really enjoy your descriptions of feelings, surroundings and action details such as your crash landings. Easily you could become a successful writer. Congratulations! In your previous blog, you left me with Paulina joining you at Calama on her own moto as your “wingman” (wingwoman rather) to continue your route to Mexico together, but in this one you dont mention her at all. Probably youll do it in future ones. Graham has confirmed his decision to visit us the two first weeks of next November. We are very happy about that. Is there any possibility that you were coming with him? All of us think of you following with much interest your daring ride and wishing you every luck and all the best. Saludos a Paulina Un abrazo Sergio

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