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The last great adventure

Team OD  | Published: August 26, 2011, 01:25 AM IST

"How can you be so stupeeed?" howls the rabid French official as our English colleague attempts a stutter. "Where are you from? I will ban you. I will cut your pass. Who are you with? Volkswagen? Volkswagen!!! But they are so professional! You are an idiot. I will ban the team. I will… I will…," shrieks and stomps the Frenchie as Her Majesty's subject heroically attempts another stutter. Peter is red as a tomato. Soaked. In perspiration. In the Frenchie's shower of garlic-laced spittle. In sheer terror as he sees a Kamaz barrelling down, with a terrifically deranged Russian sawing away at the wheel.

As the ground rumbles under us we, Captain America, the South African dude and I (the only Indian on the entire Dakar), ditch our shovels and sand boards and huddle in front of the car. There's real fear â€" this is a four-tonne truck going flat-out over a dune and we are right in its path as he crests the blind rise. If he's momentarily distracted by, let's say, a vodka sign, it will be messy. But apart from the vast expanse of nothingness and of course three idiots cowering in front of a shiny silver pick-up bang in his path, there are no distractions. The Kamaz thunders past a metre to my right, so close I could feel each of those eight pistons thumping. And we return to the digging.

Welcome to the last great adventure. The Dakar. The greatest rally in the world. The most arduous, most spectacular, most unforgiving, heck, the mostest motorsport event in the world. Fifteen days from Buenos Aires all the way west across the South American continent to Arica on the Pacific coast and then back to the east coast via the Atacama desert, into the treacherous Fiambala, over the Andes, across the Pampas and into the shrieking arms of a million rabid spectators. Ten thousand kilometres in 15 days, of which 5020km are special stages. An event that the rallying community holds in greater awe, greater esteem than the World Rally Championship.

Our story begins in Arica, the northernmost city of Chile, 18km from the Peruvian border, on the Pacific coast and on the edge of the Atacama desert. After a gruelling week of rallying the Dakar is taking a break at Arica. After a gruelling 47 hours of travelling (and seven airports) I've made it to Arica and hook up with the Volkswagen Motorsport guys. I've got myself on to the VW press fleet but this isn't the usual ask-and-thou-shall-receive press junket. Markus, the man in charge, introduces me to my driving buddies, Vadim the Russian and Bo the Chinaman, runs through the routine: here's your pass, don't lose it, daily briefing at 6 at the media truck, dinner at the bivouac, don't forget to carry your packed lunches and water, here's your tent and sleeping bag and we leave at 5:30am whether you're there or not.

I look around and it sinks in, I'm in the Dakar bivouac, the one event I've dreamed of attending more than anything else. I poke around the individual service areas, the massive VW, BMW and Kamaz set-ups, the small nooks for the privateers and their one metal box of tools, spares and supplies. Marvel at the ridiculous contrasts and the family atmosphere. Wander into the huge dining area and bump into Nasser Al-Attiyah who talks about the challenges of driving in the sand and asks me about India. There's Coma, Peterhansel, all the heroes, all joking, eating together. If this were a Formula 1 race the only time I'd see a driver is when he's running from his motorhome to the garage neatly ignoring any fans. Here we are all stuffing our face together. I slap myself ten times, to make sure I'm actually at the Dakar!

And I'll be on the Dakar for a whole week, all the way to Buenos Aires 5000km away on the other end of the South American continent, driving one of the 11 VW Amarok pick-ups assigned to the press. It's a hugely important model for VW in South America but has no relevance for us in India so I won't bother with the details. What you need to know is it was very silver, with very many Red Bull stickers and was done up with beefed up with suspension, rollcage, three individual rally seats, 6-point seat belts, four-wheel-drive, off-road tyres, air-con (thank you lord), shovels, sand boards, extra fuel and tyres at the back. IKE 216 was to be home for the next week, through the windows of which I would do much waving and signing of autographs. 'Sirish Al-Attiyah'.

Our cars are officially part of the Dakar and every evening we are given GPS points for the next days stages. That's Vadim's job, to get the GPS points and make sure the Trippy digital road book and GPS is properly set. Bo's job is to sleep and crib about the music which he promptly proceeds to do as we head out before dawn for day one of our adventure.

And it promises to be spectacular. Arica is also on the World Surfing Championship calendar and for the most part the road hugs the breathtaking Pacific coastline. To the left is the Atacama desert, ending right at the ocean. And the road is brilliantly surfaced and arrow straight. There's no traffic and there really is nothing around except for mines. This is mining country. Arica used to have one of the largest silver mines in the world, and the little ports that dot the coastline feed copper, gold, silver, iron, coal, even salt to the rest of the world. Mile after mile of straight roads can get dreary, especially with our pick-ups capable of no more than 160kmph but the views are so mind-boggling that I'm scared to close my eyes, scared I'll miss out on yet another view.

By the time we reach the stage the top riders â€" Coma and Despres â€" are already at the finish line so we hurry to the top of the hill, huff and pant, get roasted by the merciless sun, dismally note the absence of a blade of grass to shelter under and almost pass out when we turn around. The view. Oh, the view. Picture this: a long, winding, dusty trail hugging the mountain for as far as the eye can see, a tight corner almost immediately overhead, cars roaring past and as we turn to follow the dust trail, there's the mighty Pacific in the distance, surf lapping the shore, a monstrous MAN service truck peacefully rolling past on a perfectly smooth, perfectly straight, perfectly black strip of blacktop. We stare for an hour or so, take copious pics (which I know won't do any justice) and then there are shouts. It's a car in the distance, a very fast car. Not too loud â€" that's the downside of these diesel engines â€" but with the dust flying and car always on opposite lock, incredibly dramatic. At the corner above the driver executes a perfect Scandinavian flick and slides around. It's the number 300 VW Touraeg 3, Carlos Sainz. All the drivers that follow later don't make the tight corner, have to back up, do a three-point turn. The 48-year-old El-Matador still has it.

Our total distance for the day is 760km and by the time we get to the bivouac in Antofagasta we're pooped. It's hot, dry, dusty and despite the SPF 50 my skin is roasting. And today there's no hot shower or hotel room to look forward to. We're camping in the bivouac just like the privateers and mechanics. Dinner is surprisingly good (thank the French), the beer tastes incredible, the portaloos don't stink and in any case are too dark to be repulsive and the Quechu tents take barely a minute to set up. The VW guys really think of everything â€" our kitbag includes a nice sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, pillow, even bug spray and with the earplugs and eye mask whacked from the plane I sleep like a baby.

Next day I'm up at 5, surprised not to find a line for the loos (or that it is clogged and stinking), grab breakfast, dust down my shorts and struggle to pack up the tent (As easy it is to set up, that much difficult it is to pack up). As the sun peeps out we're on the road and into Antofagasta which turns out to be a rather big city. The unwashed bunch of us notice very many hotels too. Never mind, we're men, on the Dakar. Captain America fist-bumps us all and we set course for Copiapo, 670km a way, into the heart of the Atacama desert where 33 Chilean miners had been trapped for 69 days last year. Between themselves the Germans decide the GPS point we will be going to but we get split up and land up at the end of the stage in Copiapo. And again we pass out at the view. This is probably getting a bit tedious but visualise this: the bivouac nestled in a valley formed by the mountains and dunes, dry, hot and dusty, wind billowing the sands, a massive dune leading to the bivouac, and bikes, cars and trucks flying down the dune chased by helicopters. You see it on TV and go wow. To be there, to soak it in, taste the sand, makes you pinch yourself a million times.

The rally itself was running to the form book. Defending champions Volkswagen were in a dominant 1-2-3 with 2010 winner and WRC legend Carlos Sainz leading Qatari sensation (and 2010 runner-up) Nasser Al-Attiyah in their Race Touareg 3s. Their closest, actually only rival, the BMW X-Raid team (not a factory effort but run by Sven Quandt, scion of the family that owns BMW) haven't had a great run with Stephan Peterhansel (bonafide legend â€" the only person to have won the Dakar on bikes and cars, he with the most Dakar stage wins to his name) lying fourth in the X3 behind the VW platoon. Between the bikes, as expected, the battle was between the new 450 KTMs of Cyril Depres and Marc Coma with the latter in a strong position after Cyril was slapped with a penalty. And the Russian Kamaz trucks were leading 1-2-3 with two-time winner Kabirov leading six-time winner Vladimir 'the Tzar' Chagin.

But everything was set to change. Everybody expected Sainz to lead coming to Chile since most of the Argentinean stages were traditional gravel rally stages but people in the know whispered that the dunes of the Atacama would turn the tables. And so it turned out. On leg seven Nasser (a Qatari, the desert is their home) closed up the gap and then over the 508km competitive stage from Antofagasta to Copiapo, last year's runner-up moved into the lead. The desert was casting its spell over the Dakar and Sainz wasn't happy as he walked into the bivouac. We were. We grab our hotel vouchers and rush to have a hot shower and sleep on a comfy bed.

Up early the next morning to catch the fantastic spectacle of 20 bikes in a mass start charging together straight up the dune again chased by helicopters filming it. You got to hand it to these bikers. They are men of steel, machines. To be able to do the Dakar on a bike you need to be of a different composition, constitution, from us mere mortals. The bikes might have been progressively downsized from 990cc twins to 690cc singles and now 450cc but they are still intimidating. Stand next to one and the headlights are at eye level. It's so tall even the tall riders barely touch down with their toes. And since they ride solo they're also reading and navigating from the road book while riding flat-out. Deep respect.

Bikes done, Scotty "I've a gift man, a gift for direction" guides us into the stage, somewhere in the dunes where we can watch the cars. Our pick-ups are allowed on to the route but the dune at the start of the stage was so steep the Amaroks didn't make it 30 metres! So Scotty uses his 'gift' to hop on to little paths, charge over smaller dunes and get to … well… somewhere.

But first a bit on the Dakar route. Unlike normal rallies where you are given a road book and do a recce before the actual rally, here the co-drivers are given the road book on the evening before the day's stage. There is no recce. Nobody has seen the stage. The first cars create the tracks. When guys like Sainz and Nasser start the stage there is no track to follow â€" ahead of them is the vast desert, the co-driver has a road book and they go, flat-out (or as flat as loose sand and steep dunes allow). They don't know what's over the dune. How soft or firm the sand is. Or whether they've veered off course. Nothing.

And neither did we. Driving in the desert is incredibly difficult. You need a trained eye to pick out the loose and hard parts, avoid the sand holes, predict what's on the other side of the dune. At one point we almost topple off the dune, the drop on the other side was so steep. It's all about timing, carry enough momentum to not get beached at the very top but not so much that you can't stop before tumbling down the other side. After an hour of making our way through dunes we spot a good many spectators on top of a massive dune. That's probably the route, says Scotty and so I summon whatever I know of driving off-road, cane every last horse out of the Amarok's engine and charge up the dune, jumping tracks, trying to find traction, praying we don't get stuck. One hundred and sixty horsepower, even with four-low is just not enough and though we made it tantalisingly close to the summit there was no way we could get to the top.

And that should have been it.

Except Scotty decides to go back down, tell Angus, our South African friend, to follow us up and try attacking the dune again. Up until that point neither of us know Angus doesn't have four-low. Meanwhile Scotty realises the cars are about to start and we decide to play it safe and park up. And then Angus gets bogged down. As he tries to pry himself out he sinks even more and then the horror of it strikes us â€" we're on the track. On the freaking Dakar competitive stage. The shovels and sand boards are taken out, we start digging like mad and then Peter screams. It's Sainz. How hard Angus must have prayed is anybody's guess but Sainz drove around us. With that first track laid out Nasser and Giniel drove around us. And so did everybody else while we dig and dig, eventually prying the Amarok out.

Later on we venture further into the stages, judiciously avoiding the stage this time. Takes us four hours to get to the 5km mark and as we sit there, trying to locate the other Amaroks, call them on the sat phone, we see competitors crawling up to our vantage point. It's four hours after the stage started and they'd done only 5km. With 230km more to go. A vast expanse of empty desert, two cars to the east, a speck. One truck to the west, another speck. A car stuck in a valley in front of us, not enough power to climb out of it. All trying to find a path through the loose sand, all struggling, all running on fumes. One of the guys tells us he only got to the bivouac at 6 in the morning, slept for an hour and was back in his car. And the way he was going there was no way he'd finish the stage before nightfall.

So to express our solidarity we get stuck again. And have to bring out the sand boards. Digging out the car the first time is fun, a new experience. The second time you grumble. Then on it degenerates into a shouting match in the car, abusing driving standards in respective countries. But turns out the Chinaman, for all his godawful driving on the road, was surprisingly good in the sand so we strap up, shut up and let him get us out.

But instead of monkeying around we should have been at the finish to see Nasser going 'full yalla yalla'. Spectators got the first glimpse of that attacking style at Iquique where the Qatari flew down the massive 3000-foot dune clocking 220kmph in the Touareg that is supposed to have a top speed of 190kmph. And at Copiapo the two VW drivers were caught in a fierce fight, giving it everything, so much so that the two reached the finish of the stage together, racing flat-out to the finish, Nasser cutting across Sainz's bows, Sainz doing the same, pushing each other off the track, basically playing dodge-em cars at 190kmph in the desert while threading through crowds perched at vantage points. There's a helicopter shot of the madness, the two of them charging to the finish line and spectators running for dear life like in the old Group B days. Team orders? VW Motorsport boss Kris Neissen probably wished he had issued them.

Goodbye Chile, hello Argentina. Leg 10 takes us from Copiapo across the Andes to Chilecito. It's a 513km day for us and since it is over the mountains and we have a border to cross we get going even earlier. Turns out to be a hectic day but bloody hell the scenery keeps getting ever more spectacular. An interminably long dirt road through the plains with the Andes growing ever bigger and then a dusty climb up to the San Francisco pass (4726 metres). It's the same story as with every high altitude pass; at the base you're chirpy and full of energy both of which start to dip as you climb. Soon my passengers doze off, I get sick of all the dust and constant hairpin-ing, clock the drops and curb my enthusiasm for sliding the Amarok, progressively get breathless, watch the altitude climb on the GPS, long to be done with the pass and then at the summit the mother of all views. Laguna Verde. The green lake. It's like the first time you see Ladakh's Pangong Tso lake (only this is green). Stop, wake everybody up, a frantic rush to get the cameras out. Invariably somebody needs oxygen due to the altitude and as everybody's heads begin to throb we make our descent.

Customs and border checks take two minutes (the police had come to the bivouac the previous evening and stamped all our passports) and we say hello to Argentina. And Argentina welcomes us with mind-bogglingly spectacular roads, smooth as a baby's bottom, the clearest skies I've seen, a few brilliantly fast corners, zero traffic, some colour (after the sand, and more sand in Chile), a herd of llamas, and then some vegetation, clumps of cactii here and there. A huge contrast but equally eye-popping.

And then into the treacherous white sands of Fiambala. After what seems like years we have a nice hot lunch â€" pizzas at a small caf and then go hunting for our GPS point. As we trash around in the vast plains, getting lost, picking a trail around the thorny scrubs, we stumble on the best viewing spot of the entire rally, the best Markus says of all the times he's been to the Dakar. It's at the exit of a huge canyon, cars charge at us on what seems to be a dried up river bed with loose sand and right in front of us take a 90-degree uphill left on a very loose sandy patch to exit the canyon and get back on the plain. Apparently there's a GPS waypoint somewhere at the exit of the canyon and so the cars have to come here. But of course nobody can be absolutely sure and when an hour later we see a dust trail chased by the choppers going straight on in the distance we mutter under our breath. But â€" and that's the beauty of the Dakar â€" the entrance to the canyon was very tricky and the leaders till then, Peterhansel and Nasser, both missed it and went straight on. Giniel who was running third found the entrance and bam, won the stage. Of course once the tracks were laid the others didn't have problems finding the canyon â€" that's the downside of running in the lead â€" but with every passing car it became even more difficult to exit the canyon, so much so that even Chagin's Kamaz got stuck and he had to use all of those 1000 horses to trample over another path and make it up.

That's right, 1000 horsepower. That's what the leading racing trucks make from their 8-cylinder diesel engines (mid-mounted like a supercar). Standing close to it you can feel every one of those 1000 horses trampling the dune. It's like a small earthquake â€" everything shakes, the ground, the car you're in, everything. The suspension, twin Reiger dampers all round are as thick and as massive as tree stumps. Twin Reiger dampers like what we use on our Indian rally cars (and cry because of the cost â€" 8 lakh rupees) are used just to damp the cabin from the chassis. The rollcage bars look like tree stumps. I'm sure you're curious to know what's in the load bay. It's empty except for the fuel tank though some have a proper loo in there (it's not going to make much of a difference to the 4-tonne kerb weight). And those Russians really drive, jumping the trucks, getting sideways, causing an earthquake every time they floor it.

The leader board in the truck category too had shifted with 'The Tzar' Chagin heading a Kamaz 1-2-3 and looking all set for his sixth Dakar title. The leading Tatra had retired due to a busted turbo and Gerard De Rooy's Iveco had pulled out on the second day itself as his back hadn't fully recovered after the massive shunt on the Silkway rally a few months back.

Leg 11, 622km competitive stage to San Juan. Back on hard gravel tracks that suit him Carlos Sainz was on a charge to make up the deficit, caught Nasser early on in the stage but blinded by the Qatari's dust he hit a huge hole and ripped off the front right corner. And that should have been the end of it. But this is the Dakar.

The Dakar is so hard and the stages so long that getting service at the bivouac at the end of the day is just not enough. So taking advantage of rules that allow competitors to assist other competitors on the stage Volkswagen (like all top teams) enter T4 (production-spec) race trucks filled with spares and manned by crews who are skilled mechanics. This year they had 4x4 and 6x6 MAN trucks laden with four tonnes of spares each (for a total of eight tonnes but their engines make only 400 horsepower) racing in the truck class to provide quick assistance but that's plan B. Plan A was the fourth Race Touareg.

With Mark Miller lying fifth and with no chance of a podium, his car was filled with 30 kilos of spares (over and above the usual allocation) and not only did he have a spare wishbone but his co-driver Pitchford was also an accomplished mechanic so they rolled up their sleeves, fixed Sainz's car and sent him on his way. Carlos eventually finished an hour and 14 minutes behind Nasser, dropping to third behind Giniel, but at least he was still in the rally.

There's a similar hierarchy among bikes â€" the lead rider and his water carrier. No, they don't carry jugs of iced water but their role is crucial â€" to allow the lead rider to be light and battle hard the water carrier's bike is loaded with spares and other essentials and if anything goes wrong his bike is the sacrificial lamb to the extent that even the engine is swapped (you can't just swap bikes). Water carriers are no monkeys though. They are expected to be as fast as the lead riders â€" who are the best off-road riders in the world, remember â€" to provide quick assistance and this year Despres' water carrier Ruben Faria even won two stages (with all that additional weight).

"Half yalla yalla," said Nasser at the start of the final day to Buenos Aires. With only the 181km special stage and 645km transport section, victory was all but sealed for the Qatari. And he duly became the first Arab driver to win the greatest race in the world. Giniel de Villiers, who in 2009 became the first driver from the African continent to win the Dakar took second. And Sainz was gracious in defeat and effusive in his thanks for Miller without whose support he wouldn't have finished on the podium. A Volkswagen podium lock-out and a worthy result for the best team. Kamaz similarly locked out the truck class with Chagin leading Kabirov and Nikolayev. And KTM dominated with Coma winning from Despres. But you know what they say about it never being over till it's over? Chilean rider (and huge crowd favourite) Chaleco Lopez was third on his Aprilia, a huge victory on his home event and then just 22km from the end, the end of a pounding 15 days of the Dakar, the rear shock of his Aprilia broke. He was eventually towed to the line by his water carrier but despite a 43-minute cushion he lost his podium. On his home rally. After 10,000km.

No such heartbreak for us; we all made it home tired and drained. Tired of the early morning starts. Tired of the heat. Tired of the sand in our hair, shoes, eyes, sick of emptying a small dune from our shoes every evening, sick of tasting sand in everything. Tired of asking for help to fold the tents. Tired of everything but longing, desperately, to return. Just the drive from Chile to Argentina would have been the greatest road trip of my life. Being on the Dakar, following the action, being part of the action (maybe not the right turn of phrase), meeting my heroes, having our own little adventures â€" the only thing that can better this is next year's Dakar that is planned to start in Brazil, take in rain forests, go into Peru, Bolivia, the seat of ancient civilisation, then Chile and the Atacama and finally into Argentina to end at Buenos Aires. A marathon of biblical proportions. The last great adventure.

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