When I scrolled down Facebook and noticed a number of posts about the Dakar for 2018, I remembered the first Dakar Rally Coen and I watched, which happened to be the very first Dakar Rally in South America. Not only did we watch the rally as the car sped by, but that night we shook hands with the Dutch and other participants as we ambled through the Bivouac Camp and admired how mechanics worked through the night to get the vehicles ready for the next stage.
Since we never shared that story on our website, I’ll do it now: a flashback of how it was in 2009. The Dakar Rally started in Buenos Aires, crossed Argentina, continued west into Chile to the Pacific, up the coast, made a loop and roared back into Argentina where we awaited them, along the road in the Sierras Chicas.
The Sierras Chicas, in the province of Córdoba, are famous for the World Championship Car Rally that is organized here on a regular basis. The roads remain without asphalt just for the WRC to be held here. But the first rally in 2009 was the Dakar. With Cordobeses – who, together with the Porteños (Buenos Aires), are Argentina’s biggest rally aficionados – we were surrounded by an excited crowd.
Our friend Máximo’s father-in-law knew the man responsible for the organization of the Dakar Rally stretch around La Cumbre so we had first-hand information on where to stake out a good spot to watch the rally.
“We’ll leave early on Thursday and set up camp there. On Friday everything will be cordoned off and we won’t be able to reach it anymore,” Máximo explained. “We’ll leave around three and it’s about a four-hour drive,” Máximo said.
I predicted we wouldn’t arrive anywhere before ten at night – we had been in Argentina for a number of months by then. The departure said enough: we left at four-thirty. We were with three cars and Máximo and Diego would follow on their motorcycles. The ripio (washboard road) snaked along the hillsides and one and a half hours later we sat down for a cup of coffee at an outdoor café in La Cumbre.
“We have to wait for Máximo,” Agustin – his father – explained. “He is the only one who knows where we are going.” And Máximo was conspicuously absent.The motorcyclists arrived an hour later and by the time we were all ready to go, Agustin decided he wanted to fill up on petrol.
Patience is not a virtue but a necessity in this country.
Máximo had arranged a beautiful location, at an estancia situated along a river. It was indeed dark by the time we arrived. As is the Argentinean way, somebody started an asado (BBQ) and so we ate around midnight.
The Dakar Rally
When Coen and I got up at nine, the Argentineans had started on their aperitifs and fires for lunch – more asado. These people live on meat and bread and there was plenty of time for that. The Dakar Rally left from La Rioja that morning and wouldn’t be passing here until in the afternoon.
By that time we’d all found our spot. We sat with small groups on patches of grass along what we speculated would be the best spots and we were far away from any crowds. The first shout at the first trail of dust in the distance. “There they are!”
And round the corner they came, the motorcyclists, the quads, the buggies, the cars, the trucks. The Argentineans know car rallies but not truck rallies and they were bowled over by the speed of these machines. To be honest, I found it much more interesting to watch cars struggling in the mud during the RainForest Challenge in Malaysia than the speeding cars here. It was just a flash of dust and off they were.
We were badly informed about the rally and were amazed how many Dutch participated. The Netherlands apparently had the second largest number of participants, after the French – and that for such a small country. The unpaved road caused thick clouds of dust, covering us all in a thick layer of fine gray powder. Especially the trucks followed each other pretty closely and therefore mainly drove in each other’s dust. Quite scary, to be honest. How did they see where they were going?
Our Own Little Rally
Our excellent spot meant we had to wait for all participants to pass before we could leave – there was no other way out than via the Dakar Route itself. Taking a bath in the river rid us of the dust and we said goodbye to our friends. The Land Cruiser’s hard suspension told us exactly how deeply the vehicles had rutted the unpaved track.
We even had our own rally moment. We were driving quite fast when we spotted a signboard belonging to a photographer along the side of the road.
“Watch out!” I yelled.
Coen jammed on the brakes. Just in time.
The wheels stayed in the tracks but it was a close call; we almost flew through the air over a tiny hill with a cattle guard on top to stop animals from walking onto the neighbor’s estancia. Behind that hill stood the bus of a photographer. How many spectacular pictures had he taken here?
“We learned the hard way,” Jean-Pierre told us later when we visited the Bison Team in their camp. “When we see such signboards or a photographer, we know to slow down and to watch out.”
The Dakar Rally Bison Team
The beautiful journey over now-empty unpaved roads that meandered through the hills came with a bonus of a sunset. Disaster hit once we were on asphalt and we ended up in a massive traffic jam. For the first time in two years we were in a traffic jam! Of course, the one time that we were in a hurry. There was nothing we could do but to grit our teeth and follow the stream of vehicles that were all on their way to Córdoba, where the bivouac of the Dakar was situated.
It was eleven by the time we arrived there. The camp was surrounded by fans who were all staring inside to catch a glimpse of the happenings. Some even brought binoculars. The organization actually built stands in several spots around the cordon so people could sit quietly and enjoy the scene from afar, a much-appreciated gesture.
We couldn’t enter the premises; Coen was unable to reach Jean-Pierre on his mobile phone that we had borrowed for the occasion from Máximo. Now what? Coen explained the situation to the woman in charge at the entrance and asked if a note could be taken to the team.
“If you haven’t taken care of this before, you are too late,” she unkindly (but understandably) replied.
A Dutch truck arrived and Coen handed them the note.
“Sure, we’ll ask Kees or Jean-Pierre to pick you up,” they said and within half an hour Jean-Pierre stood in front of us. He didn’t have the permits he’d arrange for us.
“Pretend you don’t know the procedures,” Jean-Pierre said. “Just keep walking and don’t look up.”
Suddenly we were inside. In the bivouac of the Dakar Rally! How awesome was that?
It was a city in itself and the distances were huge. We strolled around while Jean-Pierre shared his stories. He had only just received information on his starting time tomorrow morning – at midnight! The French may be organized compared to Argentineans, but the Dutch have other standards. After a chat with the Bison Team we said goodbye to them, wishing them good luck on the road and in the race. It was one o’clock and in six hours they would be on the road again.
“Walk around, you’re inside now, and there’s enough left to see,” Jean-Pierre suggested.
We wandered around until three as there was indeed a lot to see with activities taking place all over the place. Many mechanics were working through the night to get the vehicles ready for the following day. There were trucks entirely equipped as workshops with all possible spare parts. We talked to several Dutch teams as well as to the odd man out: the Hummer of the Americans.
The participants all agreed on one thing: the move from Africa to South America had been a great one. They felt super welcome on this continent and were amazed about how happy the Argentineans and Chileans were with this rally and to see them race. They also felt safe, no longer having to guard all their stuff while doing improvised repairs on the road as apparently had been the case in Africa. They also no longer had to fear for their lives; after all, securities issues with threats by terrorist organizations against the rally in Africa was what had decided to ship its event across the ocean.
We fell into bed exhausted, parked on a stretch of grass across from the bivouac. At seven we were back on the road to see if we could cheer the Bison Team once more. The start was 200 kilometers farther east but we wouldn’t go that far. Along the way they overtook us and we waved goodbye.
It was a funny ending to a great spectacle. Spectators alongside the road thought we were participants as well and we were cheered and photographed constantly. When we took a left turn towards Jesús María the spectators shouted en masse. “No, no! You have to go straight!” We roared with laughter, waved and continued on our turtle-pace travels through the country.