Antofagasta to Iquique — Twisting & Winding Up The Chilean Coast

As we continue our journey north toward Lima, the remaining racers continue to face rough desert terrain, sand and more dunes. While the temperatures are more moderate than we experienced in Argentina and Copiapó, the wind continues to wreak havoc and carrying with it biting sand. I thought it would be nearly impossible to beat the whipping winds we experienced in Fiambala, but I’ve been challenged here in Antofagasta by that notion.

Driving the “Magic Mushroom”, a four-wheel drive turbo-charged 3.0L diesel with a precarious camper shell fitted into its bed, is quite interesting. The whipping winds find the camper shell and toss the vehicle around the road, often blowing it into the oncoming lane. A slight tug on the wheel in one direction and then the other transforms the top-heavy eyesore into a swinging pendelum. And the driver’s side door window often slips out of alignment causing a loud whirring sound of wind the is so loud it nearly drowns out conversation in the cab. But it serves as our pack mule. There is no room for sleeping, though co-driver Ben has made it his mission to wedge between the luggage that contributes to its overloaded stage. “I like the Magic Mushroom,” Ben is fond of saying, “I’m perfectly comfortable sleeping there.”

The Panamerican Highway is a decent two lane paved road that at times hugs and winds and climbs around the barren but rocky coast of Northern Chile, passing dry salt lakes, river beds and massive boulders spewed from volcanoes eons ago.

The Dakar Rally is composed of four general classifications:

1) Motorcycles
2) Quads
3) Cars — this includes small pick-up trucks and SUVs, as we’ll as buggies and UTVs
4) Trucks — These are large massive diesel powered MANs, Ivecos, Mercedes, Volvo and more

Each “stage” of the rally is composed of a “special stage”, which is an actual timed section of the race and is always off-road, and a “liaison stage”, usually on pavement and not times and allows racers to get to or from the special stage.

Assistance vehicles, such as the “Magic Mushroom”, the Darkcyd Racing T-5 Chevy 2500 and now the Desert Warrior simply travel from Bivouac to Bivouac via full length liaison stages. Our Ford Ranger pseudo RV is fitted with a special GPS called a Trippy which includes the road book for the liaison stages. We set the Trippy each day and make our way to the Bivouac, often going off route to follow some of the racing that passes within a few kilometers of the main liaison route.

On many of the “Special Stages” the motorcycles, quads and trucks will race different sections of “special stages.” Perhaps because some of the terrain is more suited to a car or vice-versa. At some point during the special stage, all of the vehicles will return to a primary track to the final control check point at the stage finish.

It appears Tara has tired of the Ford Ranger Magic Mushroom and has opted for the more cushy and lofty ride in Raff’s Chevy T-5 with its iPod connection and sooped up air conditioning.
Though the Darkcyd Racing Desert Warrior is out of the race, another team, Aldo Racing from Canada is still in the race. Our team is sharing the Rally Raid UK T-5 and T-4 support vehicles so at each Bivouac we share a common campsite and often are helping each other with the seemingly endless issues that plague Dakar competitors and assistance teams alike. Piloted by David Bensadoun and supported by co-driver Patrick Beaule, the Aldo Racing Desert Warrior is a custom version that is slightly longer, wider and taller than the Darkcyd Desert Warrior, yet both share the same power plant, suspension and other design components.

The Dakar 2012 route has been tough on the Aldo Racing Desert Warrior. Since the start of the race the team has broken a wheel or had a flat tire during nearly each stage of the race. We’ve put our spare wheels on reserve in the event that Aldo Racing may need them. Plus, the dust, powder and grueling terrain has taxed the brakes of the Aldo Desert Warrior requiring them to be replaced in Antofagasta.

What if the new brakes don’t last as long? The capable technicians working with Rally Raid UK, Yvan and Pavel as well as David and Patrick wanted to be sure they had a back up plan. So Robb contacted our legendary Chilean Dakar “Fixer”, Cristian and put him to work. Within hours we had confirmation that Cristian had a package with new brake pads in transit via Chile Express. We would pick them up the next morning before leaving the next stage at Iquique. Though we all wondered if the next morning truly meant “next morning,” and not some optimistic answer also known as “South American time.”

It appears Tara has tired of the Ford Ranger Magic Mushroom and has opted for the more cushy and lofty ride in Raff’s Chevy T-5 with its iPod connection and sooped up air conditioning. Though I shouldn’t take it personally, my new passenger is certainly not as pretty nor as phobic as Tara, but it was a tell tale sign as I nosed the front of the ranger into oncoming traffic, started to downshift to make my go at an uphill grade to pass painfully slow big trucks when David asks, “Are you sure you want to do that?” The smug and matter of face delivery made me laugh as I nosed back behind the big truck in front of me to let the massive 18-wheeler whiz by me. To be sure, this wouldn’t be the last of David’s questions. Even better, he figured out how to unlock the security code on the Magic Mushroom’s stereo and what has been a music-less ride for the last week now is a rockin’ and rolling cruise up the Chilean coast twisting and winding around tight corners without guard rails and precipitous drops often more than 200 feet.

We pulled over to watch the end of the special stage where cars, bikes and trucks alike must fly down a massive dune more than 500 feet high and dropping at a 70 or 80 degree slope down. The wind is so strong nothing is safe: our eyes, my camera gear or the endless ambitious fans who try to get just a little closer only to find their cars and trucks stuck knee deep or more in the sand. The sun blinds and burns. But none of this seems to phase the passionate Chileans and Bolivians who lined up to watch the action, many enjoying the sport not unlike football tailgaters in the USA.

After we couldn’t take the sun or sand any further we headed to Iquique. With the music and continuing to live in the spirit of Dakar, I find that the Magic Mushroom and I are getting along better and I’m more in touch with its capabilities — and it’s limits.

The next grade wasn’t any longer than the last. But this is Dakar. “Yes. I’m sure I want to pass this one, David.”

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