An early morning flight from Cape Town followed by an hour’s drive from a small airport took me to a semi desert area in the Northern Cape, where the temperature was already beginning to rise.
As an indication of the expected heat, a sable antelope was already ensconced in the shade of a tree and it was not yet 10am.
On route to our final destination I become aware of a dust cloud moving very rapidly in the distance.
Then the sound wave arrived – an incredible guttural bellow rising to a higher more urgent pitch.
This was not a soundtrack of local fauna but of a different species, the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux of the South African team undergoing shakedown trials prior to the 2018 Dakar Rally. On arrival at the small Toyota encampment we were met by the man who leads the local contingent, Glyn Hall.
Hall has been involved in many facets of motorsport, but in recent times, apart from the SA Off Road Championship, the Dakar Rally has absorbed his engineering and team management skills.
Working from a large transporter, which serves as both workshop and Hilux home, his dedicated team will spend many hours in this inhospitable climate to ensure the Toyota entry will meet and conquer the rigours of South American terrain.
This year’s Dakar, the 40th, will start in Lima, Peru on January 6, 2018 and will cover 9 000km of sand dunes and rough rocky roads of the Andes as it traverses Bolivia and ends on January 20 in Cordoba, Argentina.
The purpose of my visit was explained by Glen Crompton, Vice President of Marketing Toyota SA.
The idea was to give journalists an understanding of just what a Dakar vehicle is like.
So, I found myself helmeted and slotted into the right hand seat of the 2018 contender.
Next to me, the highly experienced, incredibly talented Giniel de Villiers, former winner of the Dakar and a man with many years of active involvement in this demanding event.
The crew ensured I was very firmly ensconced with a final tug on the seat belt shoulder straps that drove me down into the seat, considerably tighter than I had ever experienced in my rally navigation days.
I was about to understand why.
The four-litre V8 burst into life and we left the shade of the mechanics’ gazebo, heading for the sand. Accelerating very rapidly, the Hilux showed no loss of traction – all that power was being transmitted to the sand.
Then the first of a long series of jumps which launched us into the air at high speed like a rough roller coaster ride, before a long, relatively smooth flat section where the Dakar entry showed its pace.
Then it was onto the dunes with the car airborne on the crests before dipping into the steep downward gradient.
I was amazed at the ease with which de Villiers tackled every challenge we met, but more so with his ability to impart his requirements, along with the downloaded onboard data, to the engineers afterwards. Minute variations to damping resulted in an incredible improvement in the Hilux chassis dynamics.
Having spent many years as a navigator in the SA Rally world, I was at a loss to understand how anyone could actually keep the team on the right track and operate the myriad dashboard mounted switchgear as I experienced the feeling of being inside a violent tumble drier.
I spent just a few minutes in motion, and it started to hurt.
I marvelled at how the driver and navigator could endure the incredible physical pounding for five or six hours a day for 14 days – their fitness level must be truly amazing.
It is just a short time before the dedicated crew will begin packing the enormous amount of equipment, as well as the vehicles for the trip to Peru, in itself another mammoth task.
But there is no doubt that the South African Toyota Gazoo Racing entries under Hall and his team will have left no stone unturned to ensure that at the start in just 79 days from today, the crews will have the best possible challengers to tackle the world’s toughest rally.