The Dakar Rally has always fascinated me.
Tireless drivers navigating their way across treacherous terrain for weeks on end defying the odds of nature.
But it doesn’t matter how many times you see the long dust trails or sand being kicked up on the sides of the vehicles in photos or on television, you can only grasp the magnitude of the race itself once you have seen it with your very own eyes in earshot of the passing participants, as I did as guest of Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa for the first two stages of the 2019 edition.
Only then do you really see what the leading vehicle has to deal with every day, with no tracks to guide him.
Only then do you see the massive choice every vehicle has to make approaching the ridge of a dune, not at all knowing what’s lying in wait on the other side.
And only when you get to inhale and almost choke in the nastiness of the fine powdery sand, know as fesh-fesh, that you realise not even our most technologically advanced equipment simply can’t capture and reproduce the essence of the Dakar.
And as good as the contenders are vying for top honours in the cars and on the bikes, you simply can’t help but doff your hat to the race’s true warriors, the struggling privateers at the back of the field.
Whereas the likes of Nasser Al-Attiyah and Stephane Peterhansel usually get an early start, are back in the bivouac by early afternoon, have the option of either spending the night in luxury at a nearby hotel or in an airconditioned camper bus, have a team of mechanics working on their cars to have them race-ready for the next stage, have their meals and laundry taken care of and have people waking them up the next morning, life is significantly harder in the opposite side of town.
As you work your way past the factory teams and well-off privateers, you eventually discover a bunch of okes who’s Dakar experience is from another planet compared to that of the top dogs.
South Africa’s Stuart Gregory says entering the Original by Motul class this year was the only way he could afford to take part. This unique category doesn’t allow a biker any service during the race.
All he has is a box to stash his tools in every day which gets transported to the next bivouac.
That’s it. He has to ride stages often finishing after dark all by himself, service his own bike at the end of the day, buy spares he needs in the bivouac, wait in line for cafeteria-style food, use portable loos that don’t even have the usual spring flaps, wash his own clothing, sleep in a tent if he gets a chance and get up all by himself. Now that is true grit.