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How to survive the Dakar

  1. This is a story about an Englishman, a German, an Italian and an American. It’s not a joke. Well, OK, it is a joke. I’m the Englishman, so let me introduce Uwe, Giovanni and Robert. I suspect you can match names to nationalities. Anyway, we’re in a Mini Countryman and we’re chasing the Dakar rally across Argentina. All we want to do is see some racing. This is the story of our day out.

  2. 4.54am

    Giovanni is outside my tent: “Okeee, wayke op everrryone!” He’s six minutes ahead of schedule. We’ve had a little over four hours sleep and the Italian is first up. I could be hallucinating of course, it would be forgivable with the fumes. We’re embedded with the X-Raid Mini team at the Dakar in Argentina, tents pitched next to the service trucks. Tents aren’t much defence against racing trucks arriving back into camp at 2.30am, nor motorbikes leaving at 4.15am, nor indeed the incessant all-night welding and hammering. There’s no campsite curfew here.

    Our tents are collapsible jobs, and the air mattress, sleeping bag and pillow all stuff into a single bag. Packing up takes less long than walking out of the bivouac. We weren’t allowed to park inside the Lago Potrero de los Funes race track near San Luis last night as we didn’t have the right passes. This will prove to be a bit of a theme.

    Uwe is driving. He’s a drive-first-get-directions-later sort of chap. Beyond ‘south’, we have no idea where we’re going. Our fold-out map shows the whole of Argentina, so we’re relying on a Garmin sat nav. As the only man in the car who knows how one of these works, I’m in charge of navigation.

    There are no maps on the Garmin. The screen is a grey blank with only the geo co-ordinates showing. Not helpful. We have a multi-lingual conversation. Chiefly English, plus gestures.

    The sun arrives out of the dark behind us at a distance of about two metres. It overtakes us. “A Meenee”, exclaims Giovanni. In the absence of any better ideas for directions, Uwe gives chase. We’re in a suburb of San Luis, doing speeds that you local neighbourhood watch might describe as ‘outrageous’. Here, at 5.30am in the morning, people are already outside their houses watching the race cars leave town. We hit a speedbump. This didn’t pose much of a problem to the race Mini, but at 45mph I thought all four wheels had exploded. In the back Giovanni smashes his head against the grabhandle, cutting his scalp. We’re not even clear of San Luis and one of us needs medical attention. In this case, a handkerchief.

    The race Mini pulls a U-turn ahead of us. While it’s good to know even the race teams make mistakes, it’s not helping our confidence in finding our way out of this maze, particularly since, after encouragement from us (mainly due to wanting to hand back our Countryman in one piece), Uwe has agreed to slow down. We hit another speedbump. Another Italian scream.

    The microSD card had fallen out of the Garmin sat nav. I can see it on the floor between my feet and between flings around roundabouts and pothole ricochets, I manage to grab it and press it back in. We have proper mapping. I pop in our first destination. It’s 248km away, pretty much dead straight across a scrubby desert. Not many towns. Nice, fast roads. Uwe gets the hammer down.

  3. 6.05am

    We’re ‘making progress’. Overtaking the race cars which are penalized if they break the speed limit. “Ooh-er”, I say (that’s how his name is pronounced apparently), “how much fuel have we got?”

    “Er, four bars”, comes the reply.

    “What’s the range?”

    Three of us crane over the driver with recommendations of how to make the trip computer work.


    I start stabbing at the Garmin. There’s a fuel station in 60km. Phew

    It’s in completely the wrong direction. Back where we came from. More stabbing. The next one in this direction is 230km…
    Silence descends.

    We’ve given up asking Uwe to slow down and conserve fuel. He doesn’t seem capable of it. Nerves are fraying and the sun is only just up. There’s a town called Beazley up ahead. It is the only town on our route.

    Crowds of people surround the only junction in town. The Dakar is a national event here - everyone comes out for it. Many dress up for the occasion. We search out the only policeman, but as we slow the whole crowd surrounds us, eager to get close to anything that has a hint of Dakar about it.
    We have three languages on board. None of them is Spanish and we’re in rural Argentina. We go with English. “Petrol?” Quizzical looks. Amazing how it took at least 30 seconds of random words before any of us thought to get out of the car and gesture at the fuel flap… “Ah, nafta” cheers the crowd and as one they look back to where we’ve come from. Oh God…

  4. 6.19am

    Actually they’re not pointing straight up the road, they’re pointing slightly off to the side. At a shack. “Nafta?” we ask. “Si, nafta, nafta” comes the reply. We drive over. A man comes tottering out. Five foot two and with legs so bowed it looks like he’s spent his whole life with his ankles hooked under a horses belly. Which he probably has. “Nafta?” we ask. “Si, nafta”, comes the reply, the broad grin revealing a shortage of teeth. He disappears and comes back lugging two 5-litre cans labeled, in English, cooking oil. The liquid inside is, I kid you not, bright blue. “Nafta?” I ask him. “Si, nafta, nafta”, he replies through the same keen grin, whipping out half an Evian bottle as the funnel. It’s while I’m holding this in place, watching the liquid glug in that I suddenly realize that nafta could just as easily be diesel as petrol…

    Having decided not to share my thoughts with my colleagues, I’m growing increasingly relieved as the miles pass. 20 litres of fluorescent fuel now reside in the Countryman’s tank, having cost us about a quid a litre - no more than the garages around these parts charge. I’m just hoping it’s not 50 per cent water.

  5. 8.50am

    The last couple of hours have been broadly uneventful. Our relief at finding fuel has raised our spirits. Robert is swearing joyfully and then nodding off as only an American can, Giovanni has forgotten about his head and Uwe has welded the throttle to the bulkhead as we home in on the location where the race proper gets underway. We’re going to stop and fuel up in Monte Coman anyway - you never know when your next fuel will be available.

  6. 9.30am

    We’re not going to fuel up in Monte Coman. It’s a one-garage town and the only garage is for the exclusive use of the Dakar race bikes and quads. It’s a good sight though, so Robert dives out cameras clattering (well, he is a photographer) to capture the dust and chaos of 200-odd bikes trying to use four pumps at the same time. Uwe is impatient. He wants to get to press location 2, our chosen viewpoint for the day. I volunteer to go and pull Robert out. Somewhere we miss each. Now everyone is looking for me. 15 minutes later we’re all back at the car. Uwe is tearing is hair out. That’s OK, he’s got a good thatch.

    Turns out Monte Coman is a two-garage town. Whooppee! Even with Uwe driving 500km of fuel should get us through the rest of the day.

    We’re heading due south on the 179. The good roads seem to have run out and bad roads in Argentina are both temptingly clear and straight and packed full on unseen potholes that explode under the wheels like mines. At times it’s actually better to drive on the dirt at the side of the road than on the patchwork tarmac itself.

    Having to drive slowly raises another issue. It’s a cloudless 38 degrees outside. Four blokes may fit in a Mini Countryman, but they sure as hell force the air con to work hard. It’s not capable of the necessary feat. Robert’s in the front and likes to have the window down. He’s like the bloke on the aeroplane in front of you who reclines his seat. Giovanni and I suffer in the draught until the map and some other random papers that we’re planning to wave out the window as ‘credentials’ gust up into the air. There’s a light border skirmish between front and back seats.

    After 30 minutes of heading south amid arid fields with desert just beyond, we can see waving flags and banners in the distance. Odd, since my calculations show the press location is still 35km further on. It does at least show we’re going the right way. We draw up beside a man wearing desert fatigues.

    We don’t have the right passes. Well, we don’t have any proper accreditation as the race organisers charge thousands of euros for it and we thought we’d be able to wing it since we were with the X-Raid team and allowed in the campsite. Mistake. Basically we need more stickers on the side of the car. I get out of the car and try to reason with the obstinate Frenchman in his own lingo. I probably asked him for his aunt’s pen or his uncle’s desk or something. Uwe joins me. He tries the other method: speaking loudly and slowly. In English. Oh god. Obstinacy turns to aggression. A jabbing finger isn’t far away when I take Uwe by the arm and steer him gently back to the Mini.

    We’ve lost at least an hour and there’s no other way of getting to where we want to go. Well, there is, but I reckon it’s at least 180 miles round. Instead we spot another potential viewpoint…

    We barrel back north, hitting all the same potholes we hit on the way south.

  7. 12.22pm

    We’ve been all the way up to San Rafael, grabbed some biscuits and water, headed west a bit and now south again. Crumbs and empty bottles now litter the car. Gotta keep hydrated and, er, biscuited. The scenery has perked up - we’ve climbed several hundred metres through scrubby brown scenery and have popped out on to a high plain. On a distant hillside I spot a gaucho on a horse.

    We home in on the Embalse del Nihuil. It’s a lake. A dip would be tempting right now, even if our tee-shirts weren’t sticking to our backs. We sweep down round a couple of hairpins and spot a bar overlooking the water. There are shady tables outside and people eating chunky sandwiches. I can sense droplets glistening on Coke bottles..

    “Aw, c’mon”, says Robert.

    None of us reply. If we stop now, we’ll never get started again. We’ve been in the car seven hours and have yet to see a Dakar machine at race speeds.

    At the edge of El Nihuil there’s a turning circle. That’s how the road ends. Or rather that’s how the tarmac ends. The Garmin is still insisting route 180 continues and certainly there are tracks spearing off into the desert. We clump up over the kerb and continue.

  8. 12.48pm

    We’ve done 15km across the desert and seen three other cars. They were soon lost in our dust. Uwe has mentioned his off-road rally skills. Quite a bit actually. Oddly for an Italian, Giovanni is totally unnerved by this speed. Who’d have thought…

    The mood in the car’s good, though. We’re homing in on our point, there’s very few cars and the sandy scenery round here should mean the action will be worth seeing.

    I spot glints reflecting off things in the distance. Cars. Thousands of them, littering the sides of the roads. Where have they come from? How long have then been here? Wow, there’s even a checkpoint with a policeman. We wind down our windows and flap our papers at him. He waves us through, and we carry on driving down the road, edging between these lines of parked cars.

    “Hope we don’t have to turn round”, I mutter. Everyone grins nervously.

    Another checkpoint. More paper waving, this time at a race official. “Press”, we holler, “s’il vous plait, nous continuer”.

    “Pas possible”, he shrugs.

    “Oui, c’est biensur possible” I grasp feebly.

    “Non, c’est la course.”

    At that moment a motocross bike comes howling over the road just ahead of us, leaping the dirt track and blasting off across the desert. We’ve arrived, then.

  9. 12.51pm

    It takes us several minutes to reverse back between the lines of cars. All the people patiently walking as we came past while edging up to the front give us the ‘stupid gringo’ look. We eventually manage to slot it end-on between a couple of cars, reversing into a shallow ditch. God knows if it’ll come out again, but we’re parked and happy.

  10. 12.55pm

    We load all the water we have into rucksacks. Giovanni spots a man selling something from the bonnet of his pick-up. We’re too hungry to care what it is. Some sort of bread bun by the looks of it. His tongs slip and one of them fires off in to the sand. To his credit he doesn’t try to foist that one on us. That’ll be for the next bloke in line.

    It’s scorching hot and there’s not a trace of shade. Well, not unless we can blag some space under someone’s awning. People line the edge next to the track, and they’ve come prepared: awnings, shelters, cool boxes of beer, some have even made small fire pits and are roasting meat. It smells divine.

  11. 13.03pm

    This is a sh*t viewpoint. All the bikes do is come straight past through a shallow channel and scrabble off into the distance. Sometimes there’s a quad to break the flow of bikes. We look at our feet and kick the sand a bit. Robert and Uwe half-heartedly take some pictures, but both know that they need a much better location than this. Robert stages a small personal explosion.

  12. 13.07

    While I marvel at the endurance of man and machine going on only a few feet away from us, our lack of preparation and knowledge has spoken volumes. I just feel gutted. There’s no point staying here, under a scorching sun, for several hours, only to watch the cars and trucks cover exactly the same bit of scruffy land. There’s no interest here, no corner, no jump, no nothing. I look east, up to high land about 5 miles away, where the bushes run out and it’s just dunes. Looks good, but walking 5 miles in this heat with so little preparation… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

  13. 13.55

    So we’re going to try and drive there. We’ve had a conflab and it’s our last shot. We head back to the car, mount up and drive back the way we came, looking for tracks into the desert. It’s altogether possible we could have sunstroke, but honestly, at the time, attempting to drive a boggo Mini Countryman into the desert seemed utterly reasonable. It had 4wd after all. And the Cooper S motor.

    We find one and know we’re on a winner when we spot a pick-up ahead of us. It’s ancient, and carries one of those camper van backs on its load bay. It’s also stopped in the middle of the track. As we close in five children spill out of the back and trot round to climb in the cab. Worried about traction on the shallow incline, Uwe has already committed the Mini to go round. Straight over bushes and cactus and all sorts. “Jesus, what about punctures, man?” cries Robert. Uwe shrugs. Some seconds pass. The we all have the same thought at once. We could improve traction by letting some air out of the tyres. We pull over.

  14. 14.17

    The Mini’s tyres are at 3.5 bar - about 55psi. Lord alone knows why, but I had wondered why the ride seemed even more awful than I remembered. With a hiss and whoosh we let them down to less than half that.

    We pass an oasis. There’s a small pond with a couple of skinny donkeys and sheep milling about, more cars parked in the shade of some bushes. We press on. It takes us two attempts to crest the dune at the far side of the oasis. The engine revs - is that a hint of clutch slip? Forget it. Onwards.

  15. 14.23

    No more. That’s it. We’ve made it maybe a tenth of the way to where we need to be and have pulled up next to a VW Amarok. He’s having difficulties and looks at our Mini in amazement. In that moment I feel inordinately proud of it. But not enough to chance taking it any further. The terrain is too inhospitable, the temperature too high, the Mini too exhausted, and none of us has enough experience to know what we’re doing.

    The Amarok man carries onwards, while we resolve to turn round and head back. Uwe crams it into reverse and now we’re stuck. Neither axle has traction. Three of us climb out, and rock it back and forward in time with the wheelspin. No good. And now the camping pick-up lumbers into view. Oh great, many children are about to laugh and point at us. They laugh and point. And then, like a mini-militia, they all swarm out of the cab and lend a hand. Two minutes later we’re free. We throw them some of the biscuits we picked up earlier and wave goodbye.

    We’re at the bar. The one we spotted earlier, overlooking the lake. I have an ice-cold Coke in one hand, a chunky sandwich in the other. Things are looking up. It’s a two hour drive to tonight’s bivouac and my turn to drive. On the way the satnav takes me through a rubbish dump and has me fording a surprisingly broad river. Giovanni loses the plot. Robert sleeps. Uwe curses. It’s been 12 hours and we haven’t seen a single race car in action. Heck of a day out. Welcome to Dakar.

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