Day one proper of the Dakar dawned way too early for my liking after, once again, not enough sleep. If you’re reading this Mr Berghaus, your Peak Pro Inflatable Mattress is pants, hang your head in shame!
It was another night of sleep a little followed by re-inflating my supposedly inflatable sleeping mat every couple of hours. Actually, apologies Mr Berghaus, it does inflate, it just doesn’t bloody stay inflated!
Anyway, after the third deflation of the night I decided to give up on sleep and get up because I had a very big day in front of me.
Today was my first real taste of Dakar – and my goodness I’d waited a long time for this.
The guys who run the press office here do a great job of looking after us and they’d laid on a car for the day to take myself and another Dakar virgin journo out to the stage with our very jolly host, the affable Emanuele from Torino. I ask everyone from Torino if they know my good friend Andrea Adamo – he gave me the strangest of looks and answered in the negative. I was a touch disappointed.
Anyway, my disappointment didn’t last for long. In the early morning gloom, we headed out of the bivouac and north to the stage start. It’s all very French here so it’s not called the stage start obviously – c’est la depart. I’ll be fluent by the end of the event – I’m convinced of it.
Now, I have a massive amount of respect for the crews in the cars, buggies and trucks, it takes some skill and bucket loads of bravery to navigate your way through these 400km+ cross-country stages. But that level of respect goes up more than a notch or two for the boys and girls on the bikes – they are almost superhuman in their ability to ride, and they ride really fast, and navigate at the same time. They are a special breed, and it was the bikes who were first onto the opening stage.
I was fascinated by the navigational kit they have. If you read my previous post, you’ll know that I was introduced to the digital roadblock the other day. A contraption that I suspect would take me more than a few kilometers to master.
Well, the bikers have no such luxuries – they are handed a roll of route notes just 15 minutes before departure that they insert into something resembling a cash register’s till roll – but with a wee window in it. And this is how they navigate. They press a button after each note and the roll winds on to the next note. And they are reading all this, making almost life or death decisions, driving really, really fast as I’ve already said, and all the while trying to stay upright while dunes, wadies and ruts are ferociously trying to throw them off.
As I said, just the utmost respect for our friends on the bikes, they are truly remarkable motorsport exponents.
Oh, and one other really important observation I made. Australia’s Toby Price, a previous winner here at the Dakar, looks exactly like Keke Rosberg when he has his helmet on. I’ll do my best to get a photo for you [don’t worry Col, we’ve found one, below!], it’s the mullet and the bushy tash, almost doppelgänger like! And while we’re on the subject, can any of my Aussie friends please explain your nation’s obsession with mullets to me? It’s more than a little bizarre.
So having watched the bikes head off on their 9000km plus Odessa, we head off and onto the stage to do a little spectating.
The place was just spectacular. A long canyon borders by the mist brutally raw mountains I’ve ever experienced. There was nothing soft and welcoming about this place. It was hard and foreboding.
Actually, there was something all little incongruous about our surroundings – the greenery. It deluged with rain a few days ago and the floor of the canyon had sprouted a carpet of fresh, lush green grass. Quite some sight indeed.
And what else was quite some sight? Well for me it had to be the Audi. You could hear it whining from miles away. But the strangest observation is how a lack of sound impacts your perception of speed.
The spot we were at required a little bit of navigation over some loose sand steps and the other normally-aspirated cars slowed and then roared off into the distance at seemingly breakneck speed.
Now the Audi also slowed, but it whined away into the distance smoothly, but to my mind, slowly. I actually asked the guys who I was with if the car was having issues because it seemed so slow! Thing is, it wasn’t slow, it was Mattias Ekström and he was leading the stage at this point. It was just my brain failing to compute the speed without the assistance of a throaty roar. Another reason for me to be unsure of electric!
A quick pitstop for a little sustenance and myself and my driver Emanuele headed back out to catch some more of the field. And boy were we rewarded. I’ve been to a few cross-country events in the past, but I’ve never really witnessed the competition trucks driven in anger. They are so incongruous lumbering their way through the stages. But they’re quick, they’re very loud, they have enormous presence, and they are driven hard by some very brave pilots – great fun to watch.
Now our day ended at the side of the road with some new friends. That’ll be the boys in buggy number 341, Geoff Minnitt and his navigator Gerry Snymann. These boys had come a long way to compete here, Geoff is a regular competitor in cross-country events back home in his native South Africa. It was looking fairly bleak though when a busted suspension stopped them barely 100km into the event.
Now this must have been particularly galling for our driver Geoff. He’d tried his hand at the Dakar once before only to have his then navigator walk away after the fourth stage saying the Dakar is too dangerous!
Geoff is very much cut from a different cloth, however. I’ve only just met him, but I can tell you he’s as tough and tenacious as anyone and he wasn’t about to give in on day one. He set about redesigning his front right quarter with gusto that was commendable, enthusiasm that was boundless and energy that belied his evident age.
Gerry on the other hand reminded me a lot of myself. Lots of enthusiasm but clearly not so much technical knowledge. He played his part of theater nurse, keeping the ace surgeon Gerry with the correct tools in hand brilliantly. Hats off to both Gerry and Geoff, neither of them are mechanics. Gerry works in insurance and Geoff in the mining industry.
This was the true spirit of Dakar though. These competitors put out everything into getting that buggy back up and running, expending massive amounts of energy and all the while knowing that if they succeeded, they still had over 250km of perilous dunes and canyons to navigate.
In a way they did kind of succeed – they got the right quarter back together and were just about to put the wheel back on when the service truck arrived – and promptly took over changing even more of the suspension on their sorry Can-Am.
The chief mechanic wasn’t so impressed. “You’ve f****d the car less than 100km into the race – this a marathon not a bloody sprint”
He continued to make the boys feel better by offering some advice. “Drive the bloody car straight, no drifting, it’s not the WRC!”
Wise words but maybe not the best timing.
I’m yet to find out if my new friends did ultimately make it through the stage but I continue to keep everything creed that they did.
And by the way, I’m still formulating my thoughts on the potential for success of the new W2RC championship. I promise I’ll put them on paper in the coming days.
Now, if anyone knows of a spare inflatable compact roll mat, I can lay my hands on in the next few days, you’ll be my friend forever.