We'd only been in rough stuff for a mile or so when the crashes started. "Can't carry on mate," my friend coughed as I unearthed him from a sand pit. "Welp hop in the truck, big guy," I offered with a smile and a backslap "And hangonta that roll bar like your life depends on it 'cause it's about to!"
Eight hours prior...
Our local interpreter Sasha told us he knew a killer spot to watch the race the next day. He'd be happy to show us if we were willing to "go a bit more hardcore than we'd done so far." That, and give his buddy a few bucks to bring steaks and wine out there for us.
Obviously team leader Magnus Eriksson couldn't nod his head fast enough and with a clang of beer glasses we agreed it was a Great Fucking Plan.
So the next day we were up before the first fart of a sparrow, gassed up shortly after, and rolling in earnest while the sun was still snoozing somewhere behind a mountainscape.
The all-star cast of vehicles ahead of the SsangYong Actyon Sports A200S I was riding in included a 2WD Ford Ranger on bald tires, nine ragged Kawasaki KLR motorcycles on road-touring rubber that effectively became skis in the sand, and a damn Jeep Compass full of local jabronis who saw us and figured, surely, "those guys in DAKAR 2015 polo shirts and cool sunglasses must know what they're doing."
Bringing up the rear would be a four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux full of five hard-core Argentinian adventurers, about fifty pounds of beef, a cask of home-made red wine, and a frayed tow rope that was effectively our insurance policy.
Paved road soon gave way to dirt, which eroded into soft sand and crusty ruts within a kilometer or so.
When we came up on a few listless Argentinian soldiers and some yellow plastic tape I figured we'd gone as far as we were going to get. But some words and excited hand gestures from our fast-talking interpreter seemed to improve their disposition.
With a shrug and some grunting the policia lifted the barrier between our ramshackle entourage and what I (correctly) assumed was the Dakar Rally course.
"Racers don't come through here for hours," said Magnus, sensing my concern as he nodded to an AK-47-wielding gatemaster and hit the gas. "We'll be out of the way and three bottles deep by the time we really need to be off this track."
I didn't much feel like arguing anyway; the trail we were running was ripped straight out of your off-road dream journal. Endless bumps, sweeping curves... and as the morning fog lifted, the mighty Sierra de Famatina and Sierra de Maíz mountain rages exploded on every horizon around us.
Sasha charged ahead on point in the Ranger, the KLRs wobbled and plopped their way behind him. Magnus kept our two-liter diesel on a roaring boil to keep from getting bogged, until we came careening around a corner damn near on top of downed motorcyclist.
In the middle of the track lay Chris, a lovely English gentleman with a great attitude that unfortunately was not matched by his sand-riding skills. His body and his bike were twisted into some kind of modern art sculpture as I kicked out the SsangYong's starboard door and slogged through the sand to his aid.
"I'm afraid I may be riding beyond my skill level," he said politely as I dusted him like a pile of dinosaur bones. He was knackered, but wasn't wounded much deeper than his pride.
By this point the Argentinean support crew supporting our support crew had rolled up on us in the Hilux. Sussing the situation pretty quickly, one of them used a combination of slow Spanish and miming actions to ask if Chris would rather one of them ride his bike the rest of the way in.
The offer was accepted immediately, and before I could finish checking the KLR for damage some scrawny dude with Brillo-pad hair was blatting the exhaust and blazing into the distance with no helmet and a maniacal laugh.
Then I had to break the bad news; "Unfortunately there are no seats left in the truck and you're wearing twice your weight in dirt. So, uh, hop in the bed and hang on to that roll bar like you mean it, chief."
Hey, he was wearing a full set of body armor and I had to live in that truck cab for another two-and-a-half weeks. I wasn't trying to to ruin the fabric just yet.
Getting the rest of the way to our "secret spectating spot" was easy. Just a few near-vertical V-gullies, slick rock scrambles, and what felt like an eternal downhill through a dry riverbed of coarse granular rock.
Everybody made it in. Yes, even the godamn Jeep Compass. Eventually. With heavy body damage from bushwacking bypasses around the really ragged sections.
At our effectively private spectator corner, the effort had been well worth it. We watched Dakar competitors on bikes and quads come close enough to slap hands with, and cheered them on with enthusiasm fueled by bountiful servings of whatever wines the Argentineans had lugged out with us.
Here's how close we were parked to the action:
Here's one of my favorite photos from the spot... stay tuned for this album later:
And here's how we cooked up a few slabs of cow trackside:
When the official Dakar sweep truck came blazing through and enough of us sobered up to drive our caravan home, we packed up the coolers and headed back out the riverbed.
You'd think getting out would be just as easy as getting in. You'd think that if a truck made it down a road without incident, it should be able to get up just as easily.
Well, you'd only think that because I've glossed over how steep and loose the last few miles of this "road" really were.
The track we were going to have to exit through was so steep it necessitated three blind hairpin turns, was lined with jagged rocks the size Easter Island statues, and had the ground consistency of rocky road ice cream that'd been sitting in the sun for a day. Plus deep ruts.
Another Ford Ranger that had met us in the bush took the first pass, making it all of ten yards before getting hopelessly hung up on the first rise.
It was pushed out of the way and our Ranger went for it– digging a nice little moat with its rear tires before parking its differential in the sand.
Magnus surveyed the hill like a practiced hunter. "Load up," he barked to our passengers, adding "hang on" to Chris (once again in the cargo bed) before slamming the door.
The SsangYong was reversed a hundred meters or more off the first lip of the ascent. Before my camera had time to focus for a shot of the approach, the clutch was dumped and we were blazing toward the climb with every ounce of enthusiasm the little Korean four-banger could muster.
all the throttle,
every passenger silent as if unwilling to break the concentration of the diesel engine... or the driver.
A strained snap into third gear followed by an ungodly BANG as the SsangYong's front end porpoised through the trough dug out by the failed trucks still stalled in the riverbed. Followed immediately by another baBANG as the rest of the rig was dragged in and upward.
The tiny truck charged ahead like a racehorse with a branding iron on its ass; Magnus nudged the steering wheel optimistically as our cheap road tires bounced from one rock to the next. The rear end flailed, the engine cried murder, and our passenger in the cargo bay was taking his worst flogging since Catholic school.
By the time we got to the top of the hill and onto relatively easy flatland, our pickup was hissing and pissing from all over the place and the entire exterior was covered in prairie pinstripes.
We came to a halt to assess the damage, and I could finally hear Chris ravaging the rear window with his fist. "Oi, I'd forgotten all about Chrisy boy back there!" Magnus exclaimed as we cracked up and sighed with relief.
I turned around and realized Chris was mouthing something through an expression of unbridled panic. Behind him was an ominous cloud of dust... was some desert god about to smite us for beating its challenge?
Climbing halfway out of my now-open window, I peered over the rollbar asked Chris what had him so worked up.
"THERE ARE DAKAR RACERS BEHIND US! WE'RE ON THE BLOODY COURSE!"
That dust cloud did sound a lot like an air force of angry bees... bees which were in fact quads and motorcycles, dotting the horizon and heading toward us at race pace. For fuck's sake.
I dove back into the truck and tapped Magnus on the shoulder from the back seat.
"Mate, we're on the race course, it's still live, get us the hell outta here!"
"For fuck's sake."
We charged into the scrub and away from where we imaged the racers were heading. But of course, we had no idea where the racers where heading. Some of them didn't either... all the top-tier guys had gone through long ago and frankly, there are about a million goat paths and dry riverbeds and dirt patches that looked like viable tracks.
In less than a minute we were in the middle of a stamping motorstorm. Quads, motorcycles, and hapless idiots in pickup trucks were kicking up dust like gas-powered protons in some kind of clusterfucky atomic structure and there we were, just trying to find the track we'd come in on so we could hit the bar.
With Sasha still stalled somewhere in the river bed we had to rely on the "recorded path" breadcrumbs laid down by the Garmin GPS on the way in. Fine for getting the general direction sorted, not so helpful around obstacles.
By the time we hit the soft sand we'd started on, Magnus was driving hard enough to keep pace with some of the slower, more exhausted Dakar riders at the very back of the pack. With no traction and no power, momentum was the only thing keeping our rear-wheel drive SsangYong from drowning in the soft powder.
That meant pressing forward through every bramble and bump reshaping the truck's underbody until finally emerging on the other side of the police barricade.
Our motorcyclists had come out a few turn signals lighter but still rideable, though we wouldn't see our Ford Ranger again until it limped in to our hotel parking lot about six hours later, on the back end of a tow strap hooked up to the Toyota Hilux that helped us earlier.
As for Chris, having ridden home in the cargo bed with the spare parts and empty beer cans, the poor bastard came home wearing just as much desert as the rest of the truck. Good sport about it, though. And what a postcard to send home:
Images by the author