The Dakar (www.dakar.com) is the ultimate off-road race. Each January, for about two weeks, some 1000 brave souls attempt to cross the Sahara desert riding cars, motorcycles and trucks, and covering some 6,000 miles over sand dunes, the Atlas mountains, and a variety of desert terrain. The actual route changes from year to year to keep it interesting, and it may start from different European cities, but it typically goes across Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, and ends at Dakar, the capital of Senegal on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. This year (2008) is the 30th anniversary of the Dakar, and about 500 vehicles will attempt to make it to Dakar: 200 cars, 200 motorcycles, and 100 trucks, not counting hundreds of support vehicles, dozen of cargo planes, etc. In recent years commercial interests have taken over, and as part of the rationalization, the privilege to host the start of the race in now being auctioned among European cities (hence why it is no longer the Paris-Dakar race, but just the Dakar). The 2008 race will start from Lisbon, Portugal. See a larger map of this year’s race at http://www.dakar.com/2008/DAK/presentation/docs/parcours_novembre.pdf
How does it work?
The Dakar is a stage race, somewhat similar to the Tour de France: each day there is a specific route to cover, and each day your time is captured and accounted for towards your overall time; the driver in each category (motorcycles, cars, trucks) with the fastest overall time wins. Most days start and finish with a “short” road section (typically 60-120 miles) for which you are not timed, and in between is the “special”, a 200-400 miles of off road section that you’re timed for, and in which you have to hit specific way points. A GPS in your car marks the fact that you drove close enough to the way point. However, the GPS is dormant most of the times, so it doesn’t help much in navigation.
For that, you have to closely follow a road book. The road book represents the route fairly accurately, it is being prepared each year by a reconnaissance team that the organizers send a few months prior to the race to pick the exact route and to prepare the road book. It is a set of pictorial instructions, e.g.,: “drive 1 km in direction 320 degrees, you will pass a dry creek, when you get to a tree, turn left”, and so on. You can imagine how in the desert there could be more than one dry creeks in the same section, you may or may not be able to see the tree, or there may be two of them, etc. So it is fairly easy to get lost and spend hours driving the wrong direction.
Mechanical problems and getting stuck in sand or mud are other common problems. The rules of the race are such that you are not allowed to receive help from people outside the race. In its early days the Dakar was more collegial and friendly, and the spirit was indeed that competitors helped each other. In recent years, with the immense popularity of the race, professional teams came in and the spirit is more competitive. What people do, though, is to enter a truck filled with spare parts in the race as a competitor in the truck category. That truck typically drives at the back of the caravan, and can help with mechanical problems if any of the competitors in the group needs that help.
Every night, if you’re lucky, you get into camp, the Bivouac, where food, medical assistant, more serious mechanical workshops, and a tent to sleep in are available. Because the professional drivers start early and drive VERY fast, they actually get to rest and enjoy the Bivouac so they can start fresh the next day. The amateurs, on the other hand, start later in the day, drive slower, and most likely will have to cover the last dozens or hundreds of miles in the dark. So you may get into the Bivouac very late at night, or, sometimes, as late as 8:00 AM the next day. But as long as you did get in, on your own without help, prior to 8:00 AM the next day, you are qualified to start that day. If not, well, that’s the end of the race for you.
So, either for mechanical problems, for getting lost and running out of fuel, or for serious damage to the car due to an accident, or just because of fatigue, about 70% of the competitors that start won’t finish the race. If you haven’t figured that out by now, our goal is not to win this race, but we will be thrilled to be among the 30% or so that get to see the Ocean in Dakar at the end.
So, why are we doing this?
Neither Nadav (my brother and partner in crime) nor I have a good answer to this question. Like many other folks we used to watch the Dakar every year on TV and were fascinated by the whole thing. We just love the combination of desert terrain, driving skills, mechanic-ing, and navigation challenges. It seemed like the ultimate off road challenge. A couple of years ago we looked at each other and said “OK, let’s do it”. None of us thought the other was too serious, it was a bit of a “dare”, but one thing led to another, both of us are a bit stubborn and don’t want to lose face, so almost three years later, and many dollars short, we are embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.
Nadav (32) and I (44) are brothers, he is the youngest and I am the oldest out of a family of five; maybe this is why we get along well, too many years between us to be preoccupied with sense of competition, obligation, role models, etc. We grew up in Israel in a Kibbutz which is a form of a communal farm and worked with agricultural machinery since childhood. In the Kibbutz, the dirtier you were coming back from a day’s work to the communal dining hall, covered with tractors’ grease and dust, the higher your social status was :). We both served in the military where we did a lot of orienteering and navigation, on foot and mounted, mostly in deserts. He is now a medical student in Milan, and I am a venture capitalist in Boston (www.crv.com). Although we both like driving and have some experience with the different skills needed in the Dakar, we are complete amateurs when it comes to rally racing. If you think it is a complete lunacy to try and do the Dakar as your first ever rally race, you’re probably right.
Nadav (left) and me (right) in Morocco, testing our new Desert Warrior that was made for us by our friends at RallyRaid UK(www.rallyraid.co.uk). More on RallyRaid and the Desert Warrior next time.