2011 Dakar in South America

March 7, 2011

Day 12, Copiapo to Chilecito

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Mid afternoon on the 12th day of the 2011 Dakar, about 100 km into the special, we felt that our race has come to an end. We were stuck 2/3 up a steep sand dune, and our engine won’t start. An air-sucking noise from the fuel pumps indicated that for some reason diesel was not getting to the engine. It was weird because we were supposed to have at least 50 more liters in the tank, but the noise from the fuel pump wasn’t lying, and the engine just won’t start.

We tied a tow rope to the front of the car, hoping we could convince another competitor to stop by and give us a short tow, just to point the car downhill and allow for better fuel flow. We dismantled our safety water tank and emptied it, hoping to use the empty tank as a container for diesel if a truck or a car would stop by and give us some diesel.

But no one wanted to risk getting stuck up that dune. One by one the competitors went by us, accelerating up the dune and leaving us in the dust, literally.

It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind picked up and sand blew into our eyes, mouths, and ears. We were sweating and getting dehydrated.

Two hours or more went by. Fewer and fewer cars and trucks went by us.  We started to fear we will be left to fend for ourselves, no way to get off that dune without help, and therefore that our race was over. After fighting tooth and nail every hour of the race and making it so far, it really sucked.

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But then one of the very last cars to go by couldn’t get over the dune the first try, and so on their way down to try again, they stopped by and gave us the short tow we needed. The support truck of team Hamburger Software stopped at the top of the dune and gave us a whole Jerry can of diesel, and we got some more diesel from BMW support truck as well.

We were back in business! Another 80 KM of very soft sand, and with more air than diesel in our fuel system, we somehow made it to the finish just a few minutes past sundown. We lived to see another day, and felt that nothing could stop us now, only three, much easier, days to go until the finish in Buenos Aires.

The Start in Buenos Aires, New Year’s eve 2011

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The race started in Buenos Aires with the same fantastic celebration as we experienced in our prior attempt in 2009. There were several hundred thousands people in the streets, cheering and celebrating as about 600 motorcycles, cars, and trucks, all new and shiny, started their 15 days, 10,000 KM race from Buenos Aires, over the Andes to Chile, up the Atacama desert to the Peruvian border, and all the way back to Buenos Aires.

Race statistics say that only 1/3 of the competitors will actually make it all the way to the finish line. But at the start, everyone thinks they will be within the lucky 1/3.

Aviv and Izhar at scruteneering

This year the Rally Raid Intl’ team has three cars in the race: Paul and Henk (who as a team competed and finished the 2010 Dakar), an Australian team, and Aviv and me.  Also, we have a T4 race-support truck with Pali, Jon, and Joris, and a T5 support truck with Henky (who has been our mechanic in all our races so far), Arjan, and Ivan.

So we all went out to celebrate New Year’s eve in Buenos Aires. Only one vehicle of the 5 will make it to the finish line in 15 days from now, but we do not know that yet…

Day 3, Cordoba to Tucuman

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First couple of days we race in a lush, green and rainy mountain range. The track is very slippery, and indeed dozens of vehicles roll over, crash into rocks, and drop off very early in the race. We have some mud tires on, and Aviv drives very well, so we make it through the first couple of days without a hitch.

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As we are about to start on day 3, a spectator points to the bottom of the engine, where, to our horror, we see a steady stream of engine oil. We have no time so we take the start, and a few kilometers after stop by the roadside to examine. By now we have ran almost completely out of oil. This is serious. We notice that one of two pressurized hoses that takes oil from the engine to the oil radiator is leaking, more like gushing, oil. We have no spare part like this. What to do? I try to call the truck on the satellite phone to see if they have one, but no one answers. We cannot continue without fixing the leak.

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Then Aviv has a strike of genius, and realizes he can cutoff the oil radiator and run the oil in a closed loop using just one of the pressurized hose. The engine will run hotter than normally, but at least we will be able to finish the stage. Aviv switches the hoses, I refill the engine with all the spare oil we’ve got, and off we go, we’re back in business!

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Day 5, Jujuy to Calama

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Yesterday we’ve done well, but late in the day started to have fuel problems, the engine just cut off and it seems that something is wrong with the fuel pumps, or the fuel filter, or maybe the fuel tank itself. Hard to tell, and overnight the mechanics think they found a problem with the filter, fix it, and declare the car good as new.

But as we climb the mountains, crossing the Andes on our way to Chile at 4,500 meters, not only Aviv gets headaches from the altitude, so does the car: every once in a while, in a pattern we do not fully recognize yet, it loses power, stutters, and sometimes the engine shuts itself off as if it is not getting enough diesel. Weird.

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The stage starts very high in the Atacama desert at 3,500 meters. Fast and somewhat rocky terrain. We are making excellent time and overtake many competitors, despite a flat tire and a couple of small navigation errors.

But then, again, the engine starts stuttering and shuts down, it seems that it is not getting enough fuel. In frustration we watch all the cars we overtook earlier go by, we cannot do much about it.

Later Paul and Henk stop by, and we take as much diesel from them as they feel comfortable giving us. We also seem to have an electrical problem with the car’s main computer (ECU). We fix it, and one of those things helps and we get the car driving again. We are not sure we know what the problem is, and therefore are concerned we haven’t really solved it and that it might (better yet, will) come back to bite us. But for now we are moving, and finish the stage driving very fast in a beautiful narrow and winding Rio that takes us all the way straight to the bivouac.

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Day 6, Calama to Iquique

The day starts great. Aviv is in his elements, and so is the car. Driving a couple of hundreds kilometers in deep Fesh-Fesh, which is a very fine, nasty dry powder. The cars sink in it to their bottom and have to push through the stuff like mud or snow; the Fesh Fesh gets into air filters and clogs them in minutes; so most cars heat up real fast and you have no choice but to stop, tap the air filter to clean it as much as possible, and let the engine cool down. Our car is lighter and has higher ground clearance than most so it does well in this terrain, and we find ourselves overtaking dozens of competitors.

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400 kilometers into the day, and there is still ~200 KM to go, we hear a squeaking noise from the back and we smell something burning. Turns out a rear-left wheel bearing cracked, and the heat from the friction melted the brake system. We have to stop and wait for the T4 truck for a new bearing. We do what we can in terms of pulling all the parts apart, but have to wait for the part. We wait and wait, as the sun quickly drops to the west and we realize that for the rest of this day, a day that started so well, we’ll have to drive in darkness.

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A couple of hours later the truck appears and the guys help us fix the bearing and get going. I am pretty anxious about navigating at night, but with the help of some tail-lights of competitors ahead of us we make good time and at round midnight get to the last dunes of the days, just 20 KMs or so from the finish.

However, that last part of dunes turns out to be pretty nasty, and in the darkness we cannot find the right path through the dunes. All around us there are many, many cars and trucks driving aimlessly around looking for the way out of the dune. After a couple of hours we realize it is probably better to stop and rest, and try to finish the last few kilometers during the day.

Stepping out of the cabin we feel the freezing temperature of the clear, cloudless desert night. We put on every smelly and dirty piece of cloths we have and cover ourselves with tent sheets, but it is just too cold to sleep. We shiver for what seems like eternity until first light.

At first light we take off and make good time, getting very close to the camp, only 5 KM or so, and then, again, the same wheel bearing fails, this time the whole wheel drops, and a small fire starts where the bearing and the brake used to be… it is just not our day!

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We are near the road so we stop a cab, take a quick ride to the camp, and get back with some spare parts. The mechanics do whatever they can in a the short time available, and we are back in the car, racing to make it to the start time of Day 7, no time for food, shower or sleep.

Day 7, Iquique to Arica.

The 7th day, that for us is a continuation of the 6th day following the cold night in the desert, starts great. By now Aviv and I work well as a team, the navigation is more precise, we communicate better, and as a result make great progress over two pretty tough dune sections. Again we overtake many cars and trucks and making great time.

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But this is the Dakar… after some 300 KM, with still 200 KM to go and just before the last dune section of the day, we hear a bang from underneath the car. Turns out of prop shaft, the part that transfers power from the central differential to the front axle, broke into two. No specific cause, maybe just fatigue. Also we identify a small but alarming water leak from the engine, which we need to fix. Aviv is doing his best with some super glue and fasteners to reduce the water leakage, and I dismantle the prop shaft. But we have to wait for the T4 to get a new prop shaft. And the T4 is hours and hours behind us.

Again, like so many times in this race, I start to lose faith and a depressing feeling starts creeping on me that this may be our last stand. After some time Paul and Henk stop by. They suggest that we continue anyway because the T4 may not be able to get there as it has its own problems with broken springs. After all we still have rear wheel drive so it is worth a try.

At last light we get into the dunes together with Paul and Henk. However, it was a bit of a wishful thinking to hope we could pass through the dunes without front wheel drive. As soon as we hit the first difficult dune, the stress on the rear axle is too much without front wheel drive and with a big BANG the rear differential breaks.

Now we have no front wheel drive, no rear wheel drive, and cannot move. Paul turns around to pulls us out of the dunes to the flats, says good bye, and continues. He and Henk will end up spending a difficult and long night in the dunes, but will manage to finish the stage by sun raise.

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We, on the other hand, have no choice but to lay down, try to get some sleep, and wait for the T4. We are in a bad spot, a deep ravine that is hard to get to and it will be impossible to spot us until the truck is very, very close. So we are not optimistic the truck will find us that night. Without much enthusiasm we ready ourselves for another, second in a row, chilling night in the desert.

And then, at 3:00 AM, out of nowhere, the T4 appears. The guys drove all night in the darkness, with broken springs, navigated beautifully, and dropped right on top of us! Pali gets to work, and within a couple of hours we have a new differential and a new prop shaft. We are, again, good to go.

With first light we continue. We go over the dunes with some difficulties, it would have been impossible to try and cross them at night. Another 200 KM of deep, nasty Fesh Fesh await, and after that additional 200 KM drive to Arica, on the Peruvian border. Day 8 is rest day, so, as long as we get into camp by 6:00 PM we are OK to continue the next day.

Day 9, Arica to Antofagasta

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Rest “day” turned into rest “hours” for Aviv and me, but still very welcome after the two nights in a row in the desert. Had a chance to eat a warm meal, take a shower, and the mechanics had time to work on the car. All is well and we feel great.

Unfortunately the T4 is now out of the race, so we cannot depend on it to save us as it did on day 4 (wheel bearing) and day 7 (prop shaft and rear diff). We will have to manage, although it is not realistic to assume that we won’t have further serious mechanical problems in the stage. I am starting to think that this car’s MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) is around 200 KM. So, with the average stage being about 400 KM, we are almost certain to have to deal with more serious stuff down the road without the T4.

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Nevertheless, our luck seems to have changed for the better for the next two days. Minor things like a leaking wheel bearing and a wheel that gets loose and falls off while driving, do not slow us down much and we are making great time.

After a long ride in the Atacama Fesh Fesh, day 9 ends with a spectacular drive down a very narrow, undulating, canyon with soft shoulders. It is so narrow there is only room for one side of the wheels on the ground, while the other side travels on the canyon walls. It feels very much like a ride in an amusement park. Then, suddenly, the Rio opens up to a surprising view on the Atlantic Ocean! What a day!

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We finish with a 250 KM drive on the tarmac along the coast, and have a chance to help our Australian teammates who need a tow all the way into camp.

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Day10 Antofagasta to Copiapo

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Another great day. We are finally out of Fesh Fesh country, and enjoy the fast, hard surfaces of the Atacama as we pull further South towards Copiapo. Several hundred kilometers south of Antofagasta we encounter a patch of soft, hard to cross dunes. Many motorcycles, cars and trucks are scattered around in various stages of being stuck. It is a tricky Erg with many bowls, once you drop into one it is very hard to get out of it, your best just is to pick a course that avoids the bowls. We realize the truck drivers are the most experienced on the bunch and we follow a group of them. It is slow going but it pays off, we find an easier route on sand ridges, avoiding the bowls, and out of the sand.

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A race against darkness brings us over the last patch of dunes into Copiapo, the Chilean city who became famous with the rescue of the trapped miners last summer.

Day 11 Copiapo to Copiapo.

This is a circular stage, with a lot of sand dunes. We feel great as the Desert Warrior excels in the dunes.

Well, sort of. less than 1 km from the start in front of many spectators, we snap a prop shaft and break the front differential. Not a great way to start the day. Remember that we do not have a T4 in the race anymore, so we somehow need to get the car back to the road and get our T5 truck to help.

Stuck near the start day 11

I find the support crew of a Chinese team, and recruit them to help push the car downhill.  Aviv dismantles the broken parts and drives the car, slowly on rear drive only, back towards the road.  I hitch a ride with a friendly Chilean fan who drove 1000 km all the way from Santiago to watch the race, back into camp, to get our mechanics.

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with Rodrigo day 11

Pali and Jon ride with me in the truck and we meet Aviv who managed by now to get the car back to the road. Pali and Jon work their magic, and in a couple of hours we have a new differential, and a prop shaft broken but welded back together, ready to return to the race.

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We lost a lot of time, and the stage is officially closed, but because we already took the start on time, we can go back and try to finish.

Not far from the start we spot Paul and Henk, car’s not moving and they do not look good. Turns out their engine died, end of the race for them. They are exhausted and deflated, after fighting the good fight for 10 days, their car won’t move further.

Nothing we can do for them, so we continue and drive/navigate very well thorough a series of sand dunes alternating with fast, hard-packed dirt roads. We even manage to get into camp in day light, not much to do with the car. We have time for shower, food, and a decent night’s sleep.

Day 13, Chilecito to San Juan

After getting stuck in the dunes on day 12 with the fuel problem and managing to still finish the stage, our moral is high and we feel great. We are very, very tired, having slept only 2-4 hours a night for the last two weeks, sometimes not sleeping at all, and after overcoming a long list of serious mechanical problems. But from now on the terrain is easier, and people around us start talking about the finish at Buenos Aires just 2 days from now. The end is very tangible and real now.

We wish.

As we drive to the start of the day, Aviv senses that the engine doesn’t produce its normal power. We have to turn around to catch the mechanics before they take off to San Juan.

They quickly determine that there’s a problem with the turbo charger system, the system that compresses air into the pistons to achieve greater power. But they cannot diagnose which component is faulty. There are four possible component, it takes about one hour to replace any of them, and we only have 2 hours of “grace” time in which we can still join the race.

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We gamble and decide to replace the exhaust manifold. One hour later, turns out it was not causing of the problem. Next is the turbo itself. Pali works like mad, gets his hands burned couple of times, and within an hour we have a new turbo. But it is not that either. Next is the high-pressure pump. Another hour goes by, and we know that officially we may be out of the race, but continue to work. It is not the high pressure pump, though. Last component to be replaced is an air flow regulator. An hour later- it works!

We do not have much hope as we are already two hours beyond the grace period, but decide to give a go now, and plead our case with the officials at night.

It is not meant to be, though. On a twisty mountain road, in a turn, we break a steering rod and the car hits the mountain side, and then crashes into rock on the cliff side and stops. We do carry a spare steering rod, replace it and continue.

We then smell burned oil coming from underneath the car. We stop and see that the whole undercarriage is sprayed with dark oil, but cannot diagnose where it is leaking from. The quantity of oil we lost is alarming; we are concerned about getting into the stage in that condition.

Eventually one of the official trucks of the organizers catches on to us and tells us in no uncertain terms we have been disqualified (for missing the start time) and that we should not get into the stage.

We are done. This is the end.

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We gave it our best shot but it was not meant to be. In days the car worked fine, we preformed well as a team and achieved great results, some days getting in in the 20s and 30s places (among about 150 cars that started). But we just had too many mechanical problems, the vehicle wasn’t up to the challenge this time, and eventually a mechanical problem brought us to our knees.

Still, we had amazing 13 days of great adventure and although it would have been better to finish and have 15 days of adventure, 13 weren’t too bad either.

What’s next? I do not know, but Aviv wants to race next year in a truck.


Back from the Tuareg Rally

June 6, 2010

Biker in the Erg Chebi

So it is the Armony brothers together again, this time at the Tuareg Rally in Morocco and Spain, March 2010.  My brother Nadav (in this picture with Paul Round), with whom I did the Central European Rally, finished his medical school and was free and clear for an adventure in the dunes.

Paul and Nadav

The Tuareg rally is geared towards a more amateur crowd and draws hundreds of bikers and dozens of car drivers from all over Europe.  It is not as long as the Dakar, “only” 8 days and roughly 2,500 KM, but it is very technical with fantastic dunes and many, many hours in very difficult sand.  This race costs less and requires less logistics, so it is very popular in Europe. 

Another big advantage of this race is that you really have only two camps/hotels in Morocco, and the days start and finish at the same spot.  Which means that if you have a serious technical problem you can work on it and get back into the race the next day, unlike in the Dakar where the whole caravan moves on about 500-800 km a day so any major problem will knock you off the race.

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Which we found very useful, because indeed every day we had at least one major technical problem…

We started from Almeria in Spain and crossed the Mediterranean on a ferry over night.  First racing day took us into the Atlas Mountains and to Misour. There is still snow at the tops of the mountains, the Waddies (dry river beds) were muddy and there is risk of flash floods.  Only problem for the day is that the ECU (central car computer) fails and everything shuts down; this is not uncommon, we have a spare one, which we replace and off we go.

At dawn

Next day a flood blocked our way, so we had to drive around it for about 100 KM to start a very fast day on a dry and high plateau, eventually getting at sunset to Marzuga, home of the famous Erg Chebi.  Nadav and I trained here with Rally Raid UK in 2006 and 2007, so we know the terrain and it sure helps.  Broke a drive shaft but were able to keep going and replaced at camp.

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Days 3, 4, and 5 are in the dunes around Marzuga.  Day 3 begins badly: in the first few hundred yards of the dunes I feel that the steering is very tough, I run into camel grass and knock a tier of the rim.  Turns out all the hydraulic oil is leaking out of the power steering system.  we refill, drive a few hundred yards more, lose power steering again and again knock a tier off the rim.  More digging… we fall behind and decide to pull into camp.  As usual Pauli the mechanic is super resourceful, won’t take failure as an option, and in no time we are back in the race.  A lot of sand, good technical day, but the steering system continues to leak and we lose steering for the 3rd time for the day, stuck in the heart of the dunes..digging.

digging in the dunes

Day 4 is known at the King Day, it is 100% dunes, very tough and technical day.   Nadav is taking the day off and I ride with Chris, Beady’s brother who came as a mechanic.  we are doing quite well, until somewhere in the middle of nowhere, late in the afternoon, we hear a BANG from the rear of the car, and then a horrible grinding noise, as if someone dropped a knife or a spoon into an in-sink-erator.  Turns out the rear differential is broken (for those of you who know how a functional differential is supposed to look like, see how ours ended).  So now we only have front wheel drive, which is very difficult in the dunes. 

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Chris is determined to get us out of there, so after deflating the tiers to the bare minimum of 0.5 Bar, he scouts the dunes on foot to find the best route out.  Thus, one dune at a time, with front wheel drive only, and with Chris on foot at 100+ degrees heat, we advance about 1.5 km in 5 hours…

Luckily for us back at camp Paul and Martin, who won the stage, heard  that we are in trouble and show up like the cavalry!  We are saved! They tow us out of the dunes, all seems to be going fantastically well, but then the rope breaks, and in an ill-advised attempt to use all the momentum our car has and clear the dune, I crest my last dune of the day too fast and, BANG!, the car lands straight on it nose… for a moment it rocks back and forth, we sense it might fall back on its wheels, but… no.  It completes its summersault and lands on its roof… a bit of damage to the panels and a shuttered windscreen, but Chris and I are fine. 

My car on its roof

Thus I failed my main goal for this race, and like in the central European rally and the Dakar in South America, I managed to flip the car yet again :(

So day 5 is used to work on the car and bring it back into shape.  Pauli, Ian, and Chris do their magic, and after some hard work but in no time, it is in racing condition again!

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I take advantage of this and switch places with Martin, to ride with Paul as his navigator for the day.  Day 5 is a fun day, short but super fast dune race, same track in the dunes over and over again.  I try to learn as much as I can from Paul.  He has so much experience in dune driving and with this vehicle.  He drives more calmly then I do, seems to be pushing less, finds the ideal way to move around the dune with less energy… i have a lot to learn :)

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Nadav is back in shape and he drives in Day 6, which starts with one last crossing of the Erg Chebi and then due north to Misour.  Very nice day, we have some sand, Hamadda (a plateau covered with shattered sand stone), and a rocky canyon with huge boulders.  Only damage for the day is another broken drive shaft.

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Day 7 is the last day in Morocco, we drive north to the port town of Nador.  We go through fast hard surface on a high plateau with the Atlas’ snowy peaks to the west, rocky Waddies, and muddy plains as we near the Mediterranean. 

bike merges from vally erg chebi

But we are not done with the mechanical problem, yet.  Again we lose power steering, and we finally find out why, when a pressure hose bursts (it was leaking all along).  Pauli, Chris, and Ian manage to find us and fix it.  Shortly after that another problem: the oil leaking from the power steering damaged the alternator, so we lose power and eventually when the battery dies the ECU has no power so it shuts down all systems.  Again luck is on our side, Pauli our savior is not that far behind, and he replaces the alternator and off we go.

Pally works on alternator Roadside assistance

After a night on the ferry, Day 8 is back in Spain we drive a short but scary narrow mountain road down the the Mediterranean, and the Tuareg comes to an end! 

End of the race

The Tuareg Rally is led by Rainer Autenrieth and a fantastic group of volunteer organizers, this is absolutely a great race you should consider, check them out at http://www.tuareg-rallye.com/

bike and dark sky over erg chebi


Veni Vidi but no Vici

February 13, 2009

The first Dakar in South America is over. It was quite a difficult race, maybe as an over-response by the organizers to criticism that such a race not held in the Sahara can not really be a “Dakar” race. Well, it sure was. More than half the bikes and cars that started did not get to the finish line, including some of the top drivers and unfortunately also car #423 driven by yours truly and my partner Aviv Kadshay.

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The scenery was amazing. To the East and to the South Argentina, with its big prairies, steppes, and deserts including some really tough dunes. To the West and to the North the amazingly beautiful Atacama Desert in Chile, with its pink granite mountains that give birth to some beautiful, very tall and very steep sand dunes. And in between the Andes where we had to cross the mountain range at altitudes of above 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet).

Paul in the Atacama

Every day the terrain was significantly different than the previous one. Competitors had to adjust their driving techniques. Some days the specials were just too demanding which led the organizers to shorten and even cancel specials. There were quite a lot of accidents as well. Since this is my first full scale Dakar (in retrospect the one we did in Central Europe was just a warm up) it is hard for me to compare, but to me it sure seemed that every day brought more news of competitors, mostly bikers, who were seriously injured and also some of the top drivers who had to drop from the race due to mechanical failures, sickness, and injuries. Tragically Pascal Terry, a French bike rider my age, somehow got lost and died on the 2nd special. But I am jumping ahead, so let’s start form the beginning:

Day 0, Buenos Aires:

IA and Aviv podium

On Friday eve, a day before the official start of the race, the competitors are asked to drive just a few kilometers in the streets and display the cars to the people of Buenos Aires. What was supposed to be a short ride turns into a very long and slow stroll. There are many, many thousands of people in the streets, cheering, shouting, wanting to touch the cars, and asking for autographs… amazing! Apparently motor sports are big in South America. The atmosphere is electrifying, and we feel like rock stars.

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Beady who this year runs the assistance takes the rest of the Armony family in his truck and they receive the same love and admiration from the crowds that the competitors get.

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Day 1, Buenos Aires to Santa Rosa:

It’s Saturday morning and we drive South West on fast, good roads to get to the start. I am driving and Aviv is co-pilot for the day. The course is on flat, very fast but super dusty dirt roads. We’re in the Pampas, so it still quite green around us, and there are people, a lot and lot of people, cheering and encouraging the competitors for hundreds of kilometers at every corner of the course.

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We have a delay at the start so the official gives us a sign to start just seconds behind the car ahead of us, much less than the 30 seconds required. I press on but cannot see much, too much dust from the vehicle just ahead of me. Aviv is starting to get organized and is not yet fully in sync with the road book. Then, the dust clears and, while I am way too fast and a few seconds too late, I notice a 90 degrees turn to the right just ahead of me; in these critical fractions of a second I forget all my training, makes the wrong maneuver, and… we roll over one and a half times to land on our side. How embarrassing, less than 10 minutes in the first stage of the first day!

With the help of the spectators we put the car back on its wheels, fix some of the damage and within 8 minutes and with a smashed windscreen and bruised ego, we go on. There are quite a few cars in the ditches along the way, the fast route combined with the thick dust are more dangerous than many of us realize. Within minutes we notice Greeny car spares or repair (5)Paul Green’s Desert Warrior laying smashed some 50 meters or so off the course. A helicopter landed by and we’re told that Paul and his co-pilot Mat are being evacuated to a hospital. Like us, they didn’t see a 90 degree turn ahead of them, but approached at a higher speed. It doesn’t look good at all, and the rumors are that both were hurt quite bad (see the damage Paul Green’s car above).

Still about 200 km to go, very dusty and narrow. Now the trucks start closing on us. You start sensing the vibration of their weight a few seconds before the loud buzzer in the cockpit goes off to signal that a truck is trying to overtake you. tire marksWhen that happens you really need to move, FAST, to the side of the road and let those monsters pass; easier said than done as there are irrigation ditches on both sides and I still cannot really see anything because of the dust. Apparently I didn’t clear the way fast enough for one truck, who doesn’t even slow down when it overtakes us and pushes us aside hard, its tires leave big smelly marks of melted rubber all over the desert warrior’s side.

My own rollover, Paul Green’s accident, and the close encounter with the truck all leave their mark on me and I finish the day quite shaken.

Day 2, Santa Rosa to Puerto Madryn:

The next day Aviv takes the steering wheel. Again it is very dusty and you cannot really see much, but today the track is also powdery in nature, what is called Fesh Fesh in Africa; it is very hard to get any traction on this stuff, you can get bogged down really quickly, and it also creeps into all systems: turbo chargers, clutches, breaks, etc., rendering them useless. As soon as we leave the starting point we see many cars stuck in the Fesh Fesh in all kinds of different angles, blocking the way; Aviv is undeterred, he leaves the main track and drives through the bush, cuts left and right, keeps the car moving at all times; this tactic works and we break away from the pack and off we go.

It is amazing to watch Aviv drive. He is a very experienced and talented off-road driver and it shows. Like yesterday we are constantly in a cloud of dust, but that doesn’t prevent him from driving very fast, attacking every turn, pushing the car to its limits, and also from overtaking a lot of other competitors who are visibly irritated by our aggressive driving this day.

Mahindru 15

All this driving makes a huge difference, and we are astounded to realize that we finished the day at the 30th place, up from 150th the day before. This is a huge achievement for an amateur team and for a car like ours, provided that the top 20 drivers or so are professional, seeded drivers who do those things for a living. We finish the day with a 500+ km drive on asphalt to Puerto Madryn, in the deep Argentinean south right on the Atlantic coast.

Getting in while there is still light, being the first in and thus allowing the mechanics to all swarm your car and give it their best, not to mention having the time to go to dinner and maybe even have a shower, is a huge advantage that I am starting to appreciate more and more. That was a great day!

Day 3, Puerto Madryn to Jacobacci:

Monday is the third day of the race. We start quite early due to yesterday’s performance. We find ourselves waiting our turn mostly among the top trucks. In the race there are trucks that are there to win, and other trucks that are listed as competitors but their real goal is to help the cars or bikes they are with. The true truck competitors are very, very fast. They may be slightly slower than the top car drivers, but certainly faster than all amateur car drivers like us. Due to their larger wheels they do not have to slow down for most obstacles, they just power through.

in the water

Today we enter Patagonia and the course is made up of very different terrains. We start on a very fast, firm dirt road, where we push the car to its limit of about 145 km/hr. After 100 km or so the terrain turns into nasty Fash Fash which slows us down and causes the engine to heat to dangerously high temperatures. Then very fast dirt roads again, then we get into the mountains where it is rocky, lots of water damage on the tracks, some dry river crossings; it is very challenging but lots of fun. Aviv drives today and he is doing great, despite actually losing our brakes for the last 200 km and not having a 5th gear as well.

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Again we get early into camp, which gives the mechanics plenty of time to work on the car. There is a lot of work tonight, as they need to replace the whole gear box (see Beady to the left,Henky with the gear box to the right, and Turbo with the brake at the  bottom). This extra time in camp gives me January 2009 1731a whole new perspective on how January 2009 1859difficult is to be a mechanic in a race like this. They start working when the first car gets in, typically late afternoon, and don’t stop until early in the morning, maybe 4 or 6AM. Then there is no time to sleep, they have to get into their own vehicles and make the hundreds of kilometers to the next camp. Imagine having this schedule for days and days, and still being asked to practically perform miracles for the competitors who completely rack their cars during the day. Many of the jobs done here in a couple of hours often after midnight, such as replacing gears, clutches, parts of the power train, etc., are jobs that in a normal garage will take days or weeks and will cost you thousands of dollars.

 January 2009 1672

Day 4, Jacobacci to Neuquen:

The sun raises, it is the 4th day of the race (therefore it must be Tuesday, right? We lose count of the dates), and we are ready to start pulling north. We’re still in northern Patagonia, and we will have the snow capped peaks of the Andes to our left/west for most of the day. We’re still going fast amid sections of Fesh Fesh, wet prairies, dried up steppes, and some sections of real sand and small dunes.

Mahindru 37

A couple of punctures slow us down, and then to our amazement we notice our rear-left wheel gets loose and flies through the air to land a hundred meters or so ahead of us. Aviv manages to stop safely, a couple of local spectators help us find the wheel, and with wheel nuts we unscrew from the remaining three wheels we proceed. We drive less than 10 kilometers, and the same wheel gets loose again, and again flies forward and forces us to make an emergency landing. Again locals provide much appreciated help, and again we have to take wheel nuts from the other wheels to put it back in its place. Now each wheel only has three wheel nuts (vs. the five it’s supposed to have), so we need to drive quite carefully to the finish. With mechanical problems accumulating over the last two days we’re down to place 50 or so, still very respectable for an amateur team and we are quite pleased.

IA near the T5 Aviv near the T5

Day 5: Neuquen to San Rafael:

After driving a couple of hundreds of kilometers on asphalt we are about to start day 5 of the race when we notice oil leaking from the rear left wheel, the same wheel we had a brake problems with and also the same one we lost twice the previous day and had some work done on it the prior night. Aviv’s mechanical knowledge comes handy and he notices that the O-Ring that was supposed to seal the bearing is missing. We have 15 minutes until the start, so we frantically start working. We have to dismantle the wheel and the brake to get to the bearing; then, MacGyver style, Aviv improvises with some glues and a piece of plastic he finds somewhere to create his best imitation of an O-Ring. It ain’t pretty but it will have to do, no time, just put everything together again and rush to the start, which we make just in time and off we go.

Fesh Fesh and rocks off the start; many cars stuck including some top drivers; we cut left and right, run over bushes and small trees, just keep the momentum going. Very tough driving, tough terrain; the Fesh Fesh is bad by itself, but what really kills you are the rocks buried in the Fesh Fesh that will give you a puncture in no time at best, or will twist an axle or a radius arm at worse.

Ahead of us we see what appears to be a particularly thick flume of dust; as we get nearer we realize it is actually some thick smoke, a car must be on fire! Apparently a buggy stopped on the track in a cloud of dust, and a truck who didn’t have a chance to see it hit it hard right at the back where the engine and the gasoline fuel tank are; fire broke instantly and with the two vehicles entangled the crew had no choice but to jump out and watch the two vehicles burn to the ground. Luckily no one was hurt.

January 2009 1749

We push on. Very difficult day with multiple punctures but we’re doing very well so we are optimistic. Sometimes in the afternoon, after doing about 400 km and while in a fast, wide right-hand turn, Aviv loses control and the car smashes into a wall. We’re unhurt, and realize that again we lost a wheel while driving, this time it was the front left wheel. Local spectators help us look for it among the tall vegetation and the water (the track is along a stream). Because of earlier punctures we have no spare wheels so we have to find it. Finally a local guy finds the wheel, almost 200 meters ahead… we put it back in place, assess the damage and off we go. Because of the crash we lose the whole left-hand front of the body including the left lights, something that right now seems minor but will prove crucial as the day progresses.

After driving some 500 km and with only 50 km to go, we get into the dunes late, practically at dusk; to make things worse there are dark clouds above us which further limits the visibility, we have no lights, and it starts raining. The dunes are surprisingly difficult. We drop the air pressure to below one Bar and push on. The Desert Warrior is supposed to be a superior vehicle for this type of terrain. But if we are having such a tough time, what will happen to the rest of the cars? I have a bad feeling about this one.

Paul in the dunes

Now it is pitch dark, we successfully complete the first leg of the dunes and turn north-west to complete the second and last leg. Unlike on tracks where navigation is very precise and typically I now where we are within a 10 meters tolerance, navigating in the dunes is not a precise science. There are no tracks, and you often have to turn around and make wide circles to avoid the more difficult dunes. This is doable in day light where you can see the distant landmarks that appear in the road book. It doesn’t really work at night, and we slowly drift away from the main course. It is a very dark night, and we pay a price for having lost half our lights in the earlier accident.

After an hour or so we realize that we are about 1 km east of the main course, so we decide to cut across the bush in hopes to join the main track. At one point Aviv hit the brakes hard as he senses we are about to fall into a canyon, and quickly turns very hard to the right. However, to our right there is a steep ravine, and we slide right into it head first. This is bad, real bad. Time to stop the engine, get out and assess the situation.

We realize that in the dark as we were trying to cut across, we actually started to climb a mountain. There are many narrow ravines and canyons that run from the pick to the plateau below, and we fell into one of them. The ground is very soft, more sand than dirt. The ravine is so narrow we won’t be able to just drive out, even if we somehow get the car to its bottom. The GPS tells us we are just 5 km (after driving 545 km!) from the end, what a disaster!

stuck in the ravine improved 

It is 9 PM. What comes next are 7 hours of digging with shovels to somehow make room for the car at the bottom of the ravine; long hours of back and forth with the car, in which we manage to get stuck in the sand and get it unstuck countless times; in the process we manage to bend our hydraulic jack and to break our spare mechanical one; we are covered in sand, diesel and hydraulic oil, we are thirsty and exhausted; it is 4 AM, and in 7 hours of work we moved the car only 4 meters… it is not looking good at all and the thought begins to dawn on us that we might be out of the race. It is now freezing cold. We decide to pitch a tent, find cover under our emergency blankets and collapse for a couple of hours of sleep.

January 2009 1764

Day 6, San Rafael to Mendoza:

Today the race moves on from San Rafael to Mendoza. As much as we are exhausted and beaten, we are delighted to find out that the start point of day 6th is the same finish point of day 5th, meaning we are only 5 km away from the start. Also, we realize that our fate was not unique: of about 40 cars or so that went into the dunes last night, about 30-35 got stuck. When the organizers realized that, they diverted the majority of the cars and trucks around the dunes, straight to the finish. Which means that officially we did finish day 5, and, if we can somehow get the car out of that ravine and make it to the start, we might be back in business!

1st attempt: In the morning Aviv climbs to the top of the mountain just above us and surprise, surprise, he comes right back with 31st attempt with the bikers enthusiastic bikers who came to watch the race. With their help and renewed energy we make some progress, but not a lot. We also manage to get a tire of the rim, which is not a good thing provided we have no spares We also notice we have a front shaft broken which means we only had rear wheel drive. We need to go get a vehicle to pull us out of that mess, so I hitchhike with the bikers to the nearest village, where the start is, to see if I can find something.

2nd attempt: near the start I meet Paul and the rest of the Rally Raid UK crew; very happy to see them; we realize today’s course will go T4very near where we got stuck last night, so it makes sense for our T4 truck to try and help us. We are excited, this should work and we might actually be able to make to the start! But hours pass by and the T4 fails to get to where we are. Back to the village, the truck leaves us there, frustrated. It is already 4 PM and our hope to be back in the race is quickly fading away.

3rd attempt: within minutes from being dropped at the village center we find a very nice local guy and his Jeep. He helps us find a Gomeria: a garage to fix the flat tire and to get some diesel. We start towards the dunes at round 6:00 PM in his old Jeep. At dusk we get there, find our car, and we feel real good, we’re almost there! All is set, but then when the car changes position with its nose up, we run out of diesel… it seems that the odds are stacked against us, no lucky breaks at all! By 10:00 PM we give up and start driving back towards to village. But now we lose our way and spend the next six hours driving in circle in the dunes… we fill terrible about Wilson who just volunteered to help for a couple of hours, and ended up having to spend the whole night out in the freezing desert with his two young kids and us… morale is now really low, we realize we definitely missed our chance to join the race in day 6, as day 7 arrives…

January 2009 1798 January 2009 1791

Day 7, Mendoza to Valparaiso:

Today the race continues from Mendoza in Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile, but we are still stuck in the sands some 800 km to the South. We spent the last day and a half trying to get the car out of the ravine, no food at all and not much water, and so far no luck.

Pulled out after 36 hours

4th attempt: back at the village with dawn; I find a bunch of young and enthusiastic guys who came all the way from Rosario (a 1,000 km away) to play with their motorcycles in the dunes. It doesn’t take much to convince them to come help us out with their Landrover; we get more diesel from the gas station, and an extra 20 litters from Hans Stacey, the famous truck driver who won the last Dakar and the last Transorientale, and is now stuck in the sand. We get back to our car; get back to work with renewed energy, and with some digging and some pulling, finally after 36 hours, success!!!! With a roar the Landrover pulls our car out of the ravine and we’re in business!

January 2009 1814 

The folks Rosario: Diego, Matias, Gonzalo, and Joaquin who got us out of the ravine.

We drive 800 km over the Andes and into Chile, to catch up with the Rally Raid team in Valparaiso on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.

Day 8: Rest day in Valparaiso;

After a week of competition we all got a day of rest; which is used to rebuild some of the cars and wash our dirty overalls. As always the mechanics get no rest, they have even more work then usual, at least they do not need to drive today.

rest day rally raid uk rest day KTM

rest day overalls rest day toyota

Our hopes are still high as we now realize how many competitors got stuck on days 5 & 6 just like we did. The organizers promise to look into the situation. After about 9 hours of deliberations and with our hopes that go up and down like a roller-coaster, the verdict is out: they came up with a new rule that allows competitors who missed either day 6 or day 7 go back into the race. So of the 35 cars in question, 14 can go back in the race, 21 cannot. Unfortunately we didn’t make the cut. This race is over for us.

Day 9 and beyond:

We are very frustrated to be out of the race after all the work we put into getting ourselves out of that ravine, and with a car that is actually in good racing condition.

The race goes on and we manage to get a press pass, which allows us to go anywhere we want to go, including the actual race track. We take full advantage of this, because unlike most journalists our car can actually go into the most difficult terrain. When the race leaves the Atacama desert and heads back to Argentina I catch a flight back to Boston via Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, back to the snow and ice of New England. Aviv stays with the race all the way back to Buenos Aires to fulfill his journalistic duties. Here are some great pictures Aviv took along the last few days:

Pics of Bikers in the Atacama Desert:

 
Pics of cars & trucks from the 2009 Dakar, Argentina and Chile:
 

 Mark Coma, the 2009 Dakar winner, makes a tight turn on day 13th:


South America: here we come!

December 4, 2008

The 2009 Dakar will be held in South America from Jan 3rd to 18th.  It is 6,000 miles (10,000 km) and 15 days from Buenos Aires, through the Pampas, Patagonia, over the Andes to Chile, and then up the Pacific Coast to the Atacama desert and over the Andes again back to Buenos Aires.

argentina chile map

As you recall last year’s race in Africa was canceled due to a terror threat, just hours before the start.  So this year the organizers felt it is still not safe to go back to Africa, and came up with a new and exciting route in South America instead.  We do not know much about the terrain; supposedly there is quite a lot of desert and sand, not sure how much of that is true dunes like in Africa, but I am sure it will be spectacular.  it is also going to be VERY long, many days are of 700 and 800 km… brutal.

reco

I will be driving the same car I drove in the Central European Rally.  The car of course had to go through some serious repair and overhaul after what Nadav and I did to it in Romania.  But it drives well and it looks great, here is how it looked earlier this week in Le Havre, France, where the race vehicles were loaded on a ship leaving for Buenos Aires.

With me this year is Aviv Kadshai.  Aviv is a very experienced rally driver, having participated in the Dakar twice (once on a bike, the other in a car) and finished twice!  He also finished the Pharos rally in Egypt, a European Rally, and participated several times in Baja races in the US.  I am lucky to have Aviv with me and hope to learn a lot from him. 

So here is a short video to give you a sense of the terrain:


Day 6: The Desert Warrior lands on its roof

May 5, 2008

 

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Days 5, 6, and 7 are done in the Veszprem area, more or less the same track, each day about 210 km of dirt roads; it is pretty fast going but every once in a while it gets very bumpy, the car gets airborne, and you have to slow down else…. On Day 5 Robby Gordon was doing very well and had a chance of winning the stage but broke his rear wheel bearing due to the bumps and lost a full hour fixing it.

The 6th day starts very well for us, we have more confidence and the events of Day 2 are all but forgotten.  The end is in sight and we are starting to think we might actually finish this race. But only 18 km into the stage Nadav is going quite fast on a hard-surfaced, bumpy track.   He gets into a 90 degree left turn and halfway into the turn we both realize we are too fast.  The deep ruts, left by the cars and trucks over the last three days pretty much dictate the car’s trajectory in the turn.  the Desert Warrior is sliding through the turn with both left wheels in the air… for a split second we think we might pull it off, but… the car rolls over, rather slowly, it seems, on its right hand side, won’t stop because of the momentum, until it ends on its roof, 4 wheels in the air…

We are hung by our harness, feet up, helmets pushed against the roof.  Very odd feeling, the air is filled with debris as if a bomb just went off, you can see some engine oil dripping on the smashed windscreen, but it drips in what seems like gravity deifying direction, from the hood to the roof.  It is all a bit surrealistic and hard to believe that, so close to the finish line, we might have just ended our journey.  

A few seconds to catch our breath, to realize we are both well and unharmed, and now open the latch that holds the harness, drop on your head/helmet, and push through the crashed door out.  

A bunch of spectators who strategically picked this turn help us to our feet.  Important lesson: whenever you see spectator near the track, slow down! they are there for the drama, and we just supplied that to them in spades! 

April 2008 136But they are very helpful and energetic and help us roll the car back to its wheels.  As the rest of the cars and then the truck zoom by, throwing clumps of dirt into the air and almost roll over in the very same turn, we try to put the car back into shape; the air snorkel is completely smashed so I just cut it off and leave it there.  the windscreen is broken but seems to hold together (we put goggles on in case it will break as we drive); duct tape is used liberally on many fiberglass panels, but other than that not much harm done, the engine starts so we are back in the game!

April 2008 140Quite shaken and a bit sore from the accident (mostly where the harness held us) we limp into camp, an hour later than our closets competitors, but still in the race.

 

 

 

April 2008 145The whole crew kicks into action, replacing the windscreen, applying duct tape on each and every panel to hold the car together, refilling a whole bunch of fluids, and, within what seems like just a few minutes, we are ready for the second special of the day.  We are sure to drive much, much slower now.  Our motto from now on: “get home safe with us and the car in one piece”.   Two close calls in one short race is more than enough for first-time amateurs :)

And so we make it through the rest of Day 6 and Day 7 without any further drama, and the podium at Lake Balaton is a bit anti-climatic.  Still, we made it through our first rally race!  We are ranked 53 out of 55 cars that finished, and ahead of 39 that didn’t finish. 

podium

 

So…, until next time, Arrivederci!

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Nadav resting

 


Day 4: The Rally Heroes

May 3, 2008

 

This was the longest day of the rally, 580 km. After a long liaison we arrive earlier than expected to the start at Dabas, so we have a chance to talk to the top drivers who just start to assemble there.

April 2008 061 

Milly, Beady and Nadav chat with Giniel De Villiers, a top VW driver from South Africa who is currently at 2nd place and has a good chance to win.  De Villiers went on to win the first special of Day 4.  See him flying on the course (#203) a few minutes after we talked, and then check out the video at the end of this entry, to see what happened to him the next day…

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De Villiers chats with Nasser Al Attiyah (#205), a really nice fellow and the top BMW driver from Qatar, currently ranked #4.   Al Attiyah will also have a good day, he will win the second special of the day.

 

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Luc Alphand (above, #202) is one of the top Mitsubishi drivers.  He will finish Day 4 ranked #5 overall.  Here, he sticks a snail that he found on the ground to Nasser Al Attiyah’s windscreen… joke not withstanding, Al Attiyah did better than Alphand that day :)

April 2008 121 Robby Gordon is yet to win a Dakar, and so far is doing well but not great in this race (will finished the day ranked #4), but he is by far the most popular driver and draws the most attention.  The “Hummer” he drives has huge vertical travel, Robby gets a lot of “air” and the crowed just loves that.   As I mentioned in a prior entry, we owe a lot to Robby’s race support truck team who towed us out of Day 2 special into camp.

While the top drivers get the most attention, to me the real heroes of the rally are definitely the mechanics.  Often times they are volunteers who have to pay their own airfare just to get to the event, they work very late into the night/early morning to put the cars, that the drivers absolutely abuse, back in top shape and in time for the start the next day.  Then they drive all day to get to the next camp, immediately start working on the cars, and seem to never get any sleep.

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Lubo “Turbo” (left) is with Rally Raid UK and works mostly on our car; Turbo came from neighboring Slovenia and happens to speak Hungarian, a great help in this race.  To his right is Pete who works on Paul Green’s car, all night and all day, it seems.

 

April 2008 087

Henky joins Rally Raid UK from Amsterdam.  In “real life” he is a mechanic for Ford in the Netherlands. He worked on the Desert Warrior in Dakar and other races.  Henky works mostly on our car.  Without Henky and Turbo’s effort there is no way we could have finished this race.  Thanks a lot, guys!!!

As promised, here is a video from Day 5.  Watch (1:25 into the segment) what happens to Giniel De Villiers who until that point was ranked #3 in the race, just 2:56 minutes behind the leader:


Day 2: the Desert Worrier went for a swim

May 2, 2008

 

April 2008 047

After a long night drive and a border crossing to Romania we end up at the town of Baia Mare.

Beautiful sunny weather, the competitors are more relaxed and are ready for the second day of about 140 km specials in the hills above Baia Mare. 

 

April 2008 048Here are some of the Rally Raid UK team members relaxing before the start (from left): Milly Jones (who is co-pilot for her husband Beady Jones), Paul Green who drives car #240, Mark Eland his co-pilot, and Chris Hammond who is co-pilot for Ian Rochelle.

 

April 2008 054

As we are waiting for the special to start, Nadav is chatting with a Romanian farmer; Nadav speaks Italian, and apparently Italian and Romanian are quite similar; clue: this will prove extremely important as the day progresses..

 

We kick off and are immediately launched into a mountainous terrain with narrow twisty dirt roads, mostly logging trails, barely the width of a car; it rained last night so the route is muddy, slippery, with quite a lot of snow on the sides; the ground is rocky and the inclines and declines are very steep; the Dessert Warrior is not built for this kind of terrain, but we are having a lot of fun and slowly gaining confidence.  A few cars pass us but then we are able to overtake a couple of others; there are already quite a few cars overturned by the roadside but we pay no attention and plow forward.

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After about 40 km I find myself going a bit too fast on a narrow flat track with a river in a deep ravine running alongside. The car jumps with all 4 wheels in the air, lands a bit diagonally to the track, loses traction, spins, and stops on river the bank.  The car is barely balanced, undecided whether it wants to stay on the track or fall 18 feet into the ravine, but the rear wheels still have some traction.

While we are scrambling out of the cabin and trying to think what to do, one of the competitors stops by and offers to pull us out of this risky situation with a towing rope.   Bad decision… our car is perpendicular to the track, the other car has to stay on the track and pull along the track… had I paid more attention in physics 101 I could have guessed what’s next… before we know it, our car loses the little traction it still had, and plunged into the river head first….

IMG00013

By some miracle is stays vertical and doesn’t flip into the water… no way we can pull it out now.  Hours pass by, and even Michel who drives our race support truck cannot offer much help given the narrow track.  The last cars and trucks of the race pass by, and we are on our own, alone, in the middle of the Romanian forest.  What to do?

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We vaguely recall seeing some sort of a camp with workers up stream where we came from.  Nadav volunteers to go talk to them.  I am skeptical, this is a pretty problematic situation, probably needs some heavy machinery, not to mention the language barrier..   However, within an hour he returns victorious, with a bunch of Romanian loggers.  Remember the old lady at the start of the day? Since Italian and Romanian are quite close, Nadav is able to explain to them our predicament, and they just happen to have a logging tractor.  It is ancient but perfect for the job; before we know it they place it on the track above our poor car, hook up two winches for balance, and… we our out of the water and back in business! 

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The car won’t start (the battery was damaged in the fall) but other than that all systems seem functional.  Luckily, Robby Gordon’s race support truck is still behind us, and the guys agree to tow us back to camp.  Our crew replaces the battery, refills a little bit of engine oil and we are ready to go!

What a day!  We had more luck than smarts, and many other competitors had to give up that day.  Watch the day’s video, and if you pay close attention towards the end of the segment you will see us with the desert warrior that went for a swim…


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