Experiencing the excitement of Dakar is like no other sport I’ve seen live. Though we’re traveling through the remaining 8 stages as assistance vehicles and spectators, we are immersed in life in the bivouac and the seemingly endless parade of constant movement with hundreds of other vehicles.
Just because we’re not racing, doesn’t mean we’re not subject to the trials and tribulations of what we now know so intimately as, “well, that’s Dakar!” We’re still moving at a very rapid pace from bivouac to bivouac. Each day we must travel about 300-400 miles, often over tough or as in the early stages, very monotonous terrain. We must arrive to the bivouac quickly so we can claim our ‘real estate’ where we’ll set up a temporary outdoor garage and race car repair facility, camping area and parking for our three vehicles. Thankfully Yvan and Pavel, the technicians driving a T-5 truck for Paul and the Rally Raid crew usually arrive earlier than the Darkcyd Team, so we have a spot that we can wedge into.
Next we must unpack our things, set up tents and camp and find our way to the dining hall. I must find the media/press relations tent and try to catch up on the race and rally action. With a population of 2,500 or so, the vastness of the bivouac can make it hard to find other teams, such as Darren Skilton, Mark McMillan, and others.
The drive from Fiambala Argentina to Copiapó in Chile carves through high desert, Andean High Plains, verdant valleys, dry salt lakes and through the Paso de San Francisco (San Francisco Pass). Though due to storms and the temporary border closing at the pass by the Chilean Government, today’s special (actual racing) stage was cancelled. The assistance route for all vehicles moving to the next bivouac at Copiapó was changed. This meant GPS Road Book coordinates for racers, assistance vehicles and media was changed.
If teams or representatives didn’t attend the previous evenings meeting/announcement nor picked up the updated GPS coordinates and Road Book at the competitor desk the following morning, they may not be aware that the route had changed.
So after an amazingly beautiful ride through the high plains including pristine views of multicolored mountains, dramatic peaks and volcanoes, pink flamingos and wandering alpaca the entire Darkcyd Team and its 3 vehicles whisked through immigration and customs at both Argentina and Chile–thanks to the great management of this normally multi-hour painful border crossing, we carefully followed the new Road Book. The new route would be some 100km longer than the original, and have us winding down another pass the through mountains rich in minerals and massive mines — including the nearby San Jose copper mine famous for the Los 33 — thirty-three trapped miners in 2010.
The key change in the road book indicated a right turn that would circumvent the primary route to Copiapo and take Dakar teams in a slightly longer loop that would have them arriving into Copiapó from the north. If drivers missed the right turn, they would then follow a road damaged and ripped part and muddy. The new route would be over 600km—most of it on dirt, gravel and sandy roads.
The long day had many of the team changing vehicles. Robb, who had changed driving positions with Master Tech Raff McDougall, cruised down the road behind the wheel or the team’s Chevy 2500 T5 assistance vehicle. Raff sat behind the wheel of the Desert Warrior. I say behind the wheel of the wacky but solid Ford Ranger with the “Magic Mushroom” RV cap.
Within 10 minutes of making the turn onto the new route, Robb came upon some debris in the middle of the dirt road. At speed with little time to react, he centered the Chevy and drove over the debris. Then he hears a loud clank and at that moment Raff, who had pulled over on the side of the road noticed fluid leaking from his truck. He quickly radioed Robb and instructed him to pull over on the side of the road.
After a quick inspection of the undercarriage of the Chevy, Raff’s mood turned from pleasant and happy to distant and frustrated. And for good reason. The transmission oil pan had been smashed and punctured by the debris Robb ran over. Now in the middle of nowhere and sitting at 15,000 feet high in the Andes, there was no way the Darkcyd T5 assistance vehicle would make it to Copiapó on its own—it would have to be towed.
Acting swift and with purpose, Tara grabbed the SAT phone and contacted the Rally Raid UK team of Yvan and Pavel. Amazingly, she caught them on the phone in the first try. They were at the intersection just after the Chilean border. They had no idea the route had changed and were prepared to follow the original route toward Copiapó. At only about 20 miles away, the Rally Raid T5 showed up and worked with Raff and Bill to diagnose the problem and ultimately towed the Chevy the remaining 300km to the bivouac in Copiapó. Raff had to sit behind the wheel and provide steering and occasional breaking for the entire journey in what he described as the hardest 4 hours of driving in his entire life.
This is Dakar. Nothing seems to go as planned. No with a busted transmission, smashed transmission oil pan and broken oil filter, as we stared out over the high plains and toward the Atacama Desert, everyone wondered if we’d ever get out of Chile.
Raff didn’t look happy. And even with her decisive and amazingly lucky move of catching the Rally Raid vehicle before it headed miles away, Tara showed signs of fear and frustration. There aren’t a lot of Chevy 2500 trucks in Chile. So where and when would we find the appropriate parts.
We’d have to wait until Saturday morning.