The Mystery of Nasca. The Madness of Dunes.

It’s a race to the finish. That is, who will finish.

With the partial results floating in, the German x-Raid team of Mini Coopers and BMW’s are still holding strong with Peterhansel’s nearly 4 minute jump on teammate Coma in Arequipa, the Frenchman sits 22 minutes ahead of his teammate and more than 2 hours ahead of Robby Gordon who has now slipped to 4th place due to problems with his suspension on the 10th stage.

But the motorcycle battle rages strong here at 2012 Dakar With Cyril Despres winning his 4th stage of this year’s rally and gaining even more time over Marc Coma. Despres now holds the magic number of 2 minutes and 22 seconds ahead of Coma.

With Robby Gordon, Darren Skilton and Ned Suesse the only American’s still competing in the Dakar 2012 Edition, our sights and vibes are set on these teams. Skilton’s team showed their raggedy and tired edge in the Bivouac in Nasca. They were out all night, had no sleep and had to jump right back into the race this morning. I’ve wandered the bivouac for days, and while I’ve seen Suesse on stage, I haven’t been able to find his camp in the bivouac. While I’m sure Gordon is upset about his current 5th place showing, and Darren and team are frustrated with the Revolution VI buggy and the problems that have plagued them, they are proving that the race isn’t always about winning, it’s about enduring—and finishing—ervery stage along the way.

But today it’s all about dunes. The motorcycles get a big of a break after their long stage yesterday, but the cars and trucks will have a total of 657km to run including 245km of special stage — most of this through dunes, some topping over a mile high. Our team and convoy of three vehicles continued our crusade up the coast toward Nasca, famous for the Nasca Lines (sometimes spelled Nazca) a series of ancient geoglyphs stretching for miles in the Desert that shares its name. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the lines are made up of undress of geometric shapes and dozens of zoomorphic designs of animals including a monkey, llamas, condor and more. Discovered in 1927 by a Peruvian archaeologist, they are best seen from air, though they were discovered when the archaeologist was hiking nearby hills.

The Dakar Rally won’t be raging across these mysterious ancient lines, rather they’ll cruise along the cost and then topping those massive dunes. Since Dakar moved to South America four years ago, there have been nothing like these dunes seen by the competitors. Talking with many of the drivers who’d competed in both Africa and South America, it was unanimous that these dunes were closest to what the teams face in Africa — if not even bigger.

The section of massive dunes is continuous for more than 20 kilometers. To negotiate the dunes drivers must carefully perform the “Mauritanian swerve” in order to ascend, crest and descent without incident. The “curve” requires ascending the dunes at an angle and then navigating into an ever so slight decreasing radius, giving driver and co-driver alike a chance to read the opposite side of the dunes. The whipping winds cause these dunes to change in just a moment, so reading the dunes is the most important aspect to successfully navigating without getting stuck, rolling down them or end-overing a vehicle after cresting the opposite side.

We almost had a four-alarm fire when Tara declared an emergency when she discovered her coveted bag of make-up was missing
The route for Dakar changes every year, but the terrain has been fairly consistent. Those who have raced before are well familiar with Argentina and Chile. But this is Peru’s debut, and nobody knows what to expect. While cruising along the cost we passed through the tiny town Tanaka where locals have thrown up an ad-hoc sign stating “Dakar Afraid of Tanaka Dunes.” I decided to stop to learn more about this strategically placed sign that shared a view of the rugged coast and and endless sea of dunes.

It’s possible that A.S.O. considered Tanaka for a dune stage of Dakar, but opted for dunes closer to Nasca. The locals believe that Dakar chose, perhaps, easier and a shorter distance of dues more north. Perhaps feeling stilted or not having the opportunity to host the Dakar competitors, the locals have decided to make a statement. As we gazed out on the dunes, the shapes and windblown geometry reminded me of the Sussevlei dunes in Namibia in southwest Africa.

A rambunctious group of locals, several who’d already had a bit too much to drink this afternoon, were happy to see that we stopped, communicated and inquired. The usually cadre of photographs and autographs followed with a constant reminder that “Dakar is afraid of the Tanaka Dunes.” Harmless and passionate, we bid our friends farewell and cruised up the coast, all along flaking dunes or one type or another. A few hours south of the Bivouac we regrouped with our entire convoy and shared yet another box lunch of questionable “cat” food, chips and more. Peering over the cliff of our lunch spot we noticed a sole shack, a dog and man wandering about. Prime ocean front real-estate we all agreed. But I wondered if raging winter storms wreak havoc on the feeble shack. We waved and cheered and tried to egg the dog to climb the 200 foot cliff to greet us. Didn’t happen.

In the bivouac we had a bit of business to take care. First, Tara determined to make the most of the bivouac and to show up all the women who send in photographs to the editor of Glamour Magazine to share just where some women go with their Galmour Magazine. According to Sara, most contributions are lame and hardly interesting. How many women bring Glamour to Dakar? I can say that last week we almost had a four-alarm fire when Tara declared an emergency when she discovered her coveted bag of make-up had gone temporarily missing. It was an emergency and all hands had to focus on recovering the coveted bag. Turns out the bag wasn’t far at all and this was just a fire drill. But the Glamour Magazine? Always secure and we took advantage of a sunset photo opportunity here in Nasca to capture the essence of Dakar and the contrasting beauty of Glamour.

While we were shooting, I pulled out a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that our Chilean Fixer had left me for just such an occasion. We pulled the team together and celebrated the countdown to Lima and a sweet taste of a grassy Sauv Blanc.

It’s true. Just one more day and we’ll be making tracks to Lima. The crew, it seems, is ready. The race is winding down. Attrition continues to take its toll on more cars, bikes, trucks and quads. We share the road with trailers hauling broken, beaten and battered vehicles. Inside I wonder how many will be back to try again.


Nail biting Dakar tension marks long wait in Arequipa

While the liaison or transit route for support vehicles and media was a whopping 400km, the competitors had much longer runs. The motorcyclists had perhaps one of their longest days to date at over 700km, whereas the cars and trucks had 598km and 552km respectively. Due to the length of the stage, A.S.O. set up a special service bivouac enroute just for bikers and quads, not their assistance vehicles. Only the bikers and quad riders could help each other.

The liaisons for everyone were short: a quick jaunt to Tacna where we were whisked through immigration and customs like I’d never seen before. If only I had this kinda of speed when traveling around the world on my bike, I’d perhaps would have been able to log more countries. In Peru the roads are narrower and the cost begins to get more rugged. Steep inclines and twitting corners and switchbacks made for a very long cruise to Arequipa. Chugging trucks and lorries created long lines of assistance vehicles and T-5′s, each trying to nose into the oncoming lane hoping for a straightaway just long enough to whir by the diesel spewing slugs.

Relief from the winding and climbing roads was provided by long stretches of straightaways blasting through the desert or along the coast. Our first view of real South American poverty provided a peak at the sobering reality and contrast with million dollar vehicles tearing up the desert while the unfortunate live in brittle shacks of cane and brush, often without roofs and always without running water or electricity.

Back in the Desert Warrior, Robb soon discovered the winding roads, climbs and descents took its toll on its clutch, at one point losing all resistance and not working at all. The front transfer case has been leaking since we nearly started this journey, something surmised by techs that could be a legacy issue from the accident in Baja and perhaps a slightly tweaked axle. We had to pull over roadside to address strange sounds and the clutch.

A quick refueling stop in Boca del Oro gave us a hint of what we could expect from the Peruvian fans. The lined the streets, waved flags, whistled and cheered as the cars and trucks rounded the traffic circles. Police in crisp well starched uniforms waved their arms and directed the racers to the correct route and the assistance vehicles to theirs. The rugged coast is marked by scraggily cliffs and volcanic rocks littered along the coastline. The precipitous cliffs, often dropping 300 feet or more into the pounding surf and rocks below made the drive more exciting. There are very few guard rails. After climbing out of another coastal valley we climbed to the summit to be greeted by a warm and dramatic site: the glorious Andes and its snowcapped volcanoes. We hadn’t seen them since the ride from Fiambala to Copiapó many days ago.

With the wind whipping and blowing the magic mushroom around we started to descend toward the coast. That’s when we spotted the bivouac, tucked into a little canyon and in the shadows of two grand volcanoes. We set up camp and waited word on our fellow Canadian teammate ALDO Racing as well as Darren Skilton. Today’s stage was long and marked by a section of dunes and many kilometers of that nasty silt “fesh-fesh”.

In the Bivouac we were treated to perhaps the best food of the Dakar trail to date. And the Peru hospitality tent treated those fortunate enough o have returned from the tough stage or were in assistance vehicles still awaiting the return of their teammates to a dose of culture and a token gift of a traditional “chullo” hat, hand woven of alpaca.

David and Patrick pulled into the bivouac just after nightfall in the banana colored Desert Warrior—they had been stuck because silt and powdery fesh-fesh had clogged the air filter. But there was no word from Skilton, his co-driver Skyler Gambrell or the whereabouts of his Revolution VI buggy. In their camp set up in the Arequipa bivouac, shared by McMillin Racing Team, who’d been out of the race since the second stage, tension permeated the group. When they finally got word from Darren, it wasn’t good news. Roaring through the dunes, they crested a large dune only to find a French press car stuck —with no flag, warning triangle or anything. Skilton lost momentum and then got stuck.

After several hours and with help from another assistance vehicle, the finally got back on track. But not for long. Soon they were stuck and choked in the silty beds of “fesh-fesh”. In the bivouac Robb struggled to no success to get ahold of Paul and our T-4 assistance vehicle which also had not showed up at the bivouac. The moon raised high in the sky, surf pounded on the rocks and beach nearby and after midnight barely half of the vehicles had made it back to the bivouac. And Darren was stuck in the ‘crap’.

It’s not uncommon for racers to finally abandon hope and leave their vehicles buried in sand. Cars and motorcycles burn up on stage. And parts fall off vehicles making them impossible to drive back to the bivouac. With only Skilton and Robby Gordon the only hope for an American finish to the 2012 Edition of The Dakar, the mood was melancholy at Skilton’s camp. AS the hours clicked on, our teams tried to get to sleep. Seems Darren and Skyler would be trying to get their own sleep deep in the desert.

On stage and in the heat of the night Skyler and Darren replaced the clutch, blew out the air filter of fesh-fesh and finally got back on track. They arrived at the bivouac the next morning just minutes before the last car to leave. With no time to service the vehicle or even take a bathroom break, Skilton entered the bivouac and made a “U” turn, submitted his time card to control and headed back out on course.

The rules in Dakar are clear. You can stay in the race, at risk of time penalty, as long as you show up for the next stage prior to the last car heading out. This is exactly what Darren did. Though he didn’t begin racing. He made another “U” turn and returned to the bivouac where our joint teams worked together to address the mechanical issues that plagued the buggy late last night. Though he lost time and was at risk of penalty, Darren and Skyler hopped back in the buggy and headed out toward Nasca for the 12th stage—without any sleep—or rest.

That’s Dakar. More endurance than anything else, we watched them leave, packed up camp and headed out on the coast.


Eureka We’ve Made It To Arica — Knocking On Peru’s Door.

After two grueling and extremely long stages the racers looked a little road weary as we weaved around the usual line up of vehicles awaiting their launch time. Today Robb opted out of driving the Desert Warrior to Arica in favor of his first true ride in the Magic Mushroom. The Iquique to Arica Stage (10) runs 377km beginning with a scenic sandy beach section and onward to more dunes and the inevitable silty “fesh-fesh”. For us on the liaison assistance route, we travel about 350km and this morning we’ll we’ve through the beach resort town of Iquique in search of Chile Express so we may retrieve the brake pads shipped from Santiago by our legendary fixer, Cristian.

After some weaving around the high-rise hotels, condos and wide meandering boardwalk including fitness equipment, sculptures and manicured foliage, for a second perhaps this could’ve been Hawaii or California, but just a few blocks off the ocean front we’re reminded once again that this is South America and we’re still in Chile.

After a week of eating canned foot, soggy and sweat cereal bars, greasy chips and more sweet cookies, we began to resent the meals.
We found the Chile Express after some negotiating and luckily found parking in front of its offices. Things couldn’t go smoother and with a flash of a passport and a signature we had brake pads in hands. Before I could get the key into the ignition, however, I was created by a good looking woman with a tender smiling face and a strange hand held electronic device. Her uniform wasn’t that of a cop but I soon realized she was parking enforcement. Asking for a handful of pesos, her portable printer spit out my receipt and we were on the way to Arica.

We climbed out of Iquique and headed east while watching paragliders with amazing precision and finesse float from thousands of feet above to the beaches below. The winding route took us through the Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal, an arid park known for its rock paintings and petroglyphs from civilizations lost long ago. Amazingly and like an oasis amidst this dry desert, we rolled through the remains of what was once a massive forest of tamarugo, a scrubby but tall plant that once blanked these lands.

After some time we cross the coastal range and cruise along the beach where the team regrouped for lunch grabbing shade under a bridge and lived our bivouac lifestyle here on the road. That is, each day before heading out on the liaison or on stage, each Dakar bivouac resident is given a bag lunch. For the first few days our team endured, if not enjoyed these lunches, but after a week of eating canned foot, soggy and sweat cereal bars, greasy chips and more sweet cookies, we began to resent the meals. Ben would growl and then howl like a cat, a pointing reference to the notion that we are eating cat food, a practical joke we feel played upon us by the French organization running Dakar. But arguably, it is food and we must sustain.

It was nearly twilight when we rolled into Arica and as customary during our Dakar cruise, we pulled into a local gas station for refilling. That’s when the madness and reality of our near rock stardom reared its head again. Hundreds of people crowded the pumps as race cars and support vehicles vied for its daily gulp of diesel. Thrusting papers, flags, photos and more into the cab of the Mushroom, I must have signed two dozen autographs before putting in the clutch and downshifting. One young girl asked me to sign her arm. While the woman gravitated around Robb and I in the front seat, Tara was greeted by a contingent of male fans, some needing the attention of a dentist. She was a bit nervous and hesitant to roll down her window, but other than bad breath and just a huge dose of curiosity, these fans are harmless. “Foto, foto, please mister, foot.” I wonder what are they going to do with all these photos. Will we be immortalized on some Chilean’s Facebook page, never to be tagged? It’s all good. It’s the spirit. And we’re living Dakar.

Before passing through town and setting up our nightly camp at the bivouac, we decided to try to secure some real food at a local supermarket, Hiper Leader, here in Arica. More like a massive Wal-Mart, Robb spotted a bicycle that only cost about 37,000. “We need this for the bivouac!” he declared. He sat on the bike and drove it from the toy section to the panderia—the bakery where we stocked up on bread. I thought Tara was going to blow her cool as her eyes cast disapproval on Robb’s in-store antics. She whisked away to find more “cosas” (things in spanish) to keep things clean, fresh — including a handful of squishy chewing gum.

I took the wheel of the bicycle and cruised over to the vegetables and cured meats. Wow! Just a a bit of cheese and wine and I’m sure the France will be jealous—touché to your cat food!

The bicycle certainly provided entertainment and made for cruising around the bivouac faster and easier. Why didn’t we think of this earlier? Oh? Wondering about that 37,000? That’s pesos. The bike was barely $70 and our plan is to give this to a young child who may have always dreamed of a bike, but could never afford on. The exchange would be made after we arrive in Lima later this week.

The race action saw Spanish Joan Barreda Bort win his first special stage of the 2012 Dakar by beating Coma and Despres by 1’32″ and 3’39″ respectively. But Coma was the star taking 2’07″ back from Despres and moving within just 21 seconds of the French leader.

Gordon was doing so well and leading the stage until just before the end he came off the course and damaged his vehicle and losing enough time that Peterhansel flew by, but not fast enough as Nani Roma showed the French just how fast the Spanish can be and whisked to a win over both Gordon and Peterhansel. But for Gordon his unfortunate circumstance cost him lots of time and now after 10 stages here in Arica he dropped the third place with some 20 minutes behind Peterhansel and just 46 seconds behind Roma.

It’s here in Arica that everybody in the bivouac must go through a special tent set up for customs, immigration and agricultural inspection for tomorrow’s crossing into Peru. Based on our experience in coming from Argentina into Chile, I’ve got to hand it to the Dakar A.S.O. organization for the swift and simple procedure for cleaning customs and taking care of the passport stamping and immigration minutuae — so much easier than I’ve ever experience in more than 50 overland border crossings. Good job!


Late Night In Iquique. The Bizzare in the Bivouac.

Desert Warrior Needs Springs.
Robby Gordon Finishes First But Is Disqualified
Nassar Al-Attiya Bows Out.

Some purists might argue that the South American Dakar is nothing like the original African Dakar. I would argue that the African fans could never be as passionate and excited as the fans here in South America. And certainly I don’t think any of the residents here in South America would kill anyone as they did in Africa in 2007 and therefore forcing the A.S.O., the Dakar organization, to move the race to Argentina and Chile and for 2012, the first time in Peru.

In Argentina they were everywhere. Fans lined the streets of cities, small towns and in the middle of the pampas, all of them honking horns, waving flags, thumbs up in the air, waving their arms in accelerated windmill moves as cars zoom by. If we had to stop, even for a short relief from the massive intake of water we’ve been drinking, it wouldn’t be long before someone would appear, usually thrusting a flag, photo, or a piece of paper and a pen hoping for an autograph.

“Foto, foto, foto, mister,” they’d plead, “please mister, foto, foto, foto.” For many South American residents, getting close to the Dakar convoy is like getting close to rock stars. It’s hard to imagine this passion in the United States. It just wouldn’t happen.

I wonder what the fans will do with all the photographs and video they take of cars just whisking by there homes or downtown areas. We saw many fans who perhaps didn’t own cameras, but that didn’t prevent them from capturing the action as they sat on the roadside with small tablet and laptop computers aimed at the road, obviously using built-in cameras to record the Dakar frenzy.

But off-road rally racing has been embedded in South American culture much in the way that baseball and football are in the United States. Now in Chile, we travel longer distances over barren desert, so the fans aren’t lining the streets as they did in Argentina, but as we roll through small fishing villages and larger towns they hover around intersections, stand on the medians and practically hang from the traffic lights.

Most just want to see and watch. Others are hoping for hats, t-shirts and stickers. We’ve been running low on stickers and didn’t bring many t-shirts, so sometimes one of us simply pulls the shirt off our back and hands it to a passionate follower. But it’s the hats that we weren’t prepared for—most of the fans point to their heads, or yell “gorra, gorra”.

“Foto, foto, foto, mister,” they’d plead, “please mister, foto, foto, foto.” For many South American residents, getting close to the Dakar convoy is like getting close to rock stars. It’s hard to imagine this passion in the United States. It just wouldn’t happen.
The Antofagasta to Iquique stage runs 565 km, of which only 9km is liaison. The course winds through several desetrt canyons, rocky river beds and miles of deep powdery silt, fondly referred to by competitors as “fesh-fesh”. This nasty baby powder like silt gets into air filters, turbochargers, wheel bearings and brakes and into the cabs of the driver and co-driver making for a messy and uncomfortable drive in temperatures pushing 110 degrees Fahrenheit. But the end of the stage brings them down a steep hill and onto the shores of the Pacific Ocean where a gentle breeze provided relief for the heat and an amazing sunset for the spirit.

Our Canadian teammate made it through the long stage and arrived into Iquique past dark, having struggled with some of the sand and dunes. The gnarly river beds and massive rocks had taken its toll on the suspension of our friend’s banana colored Desert Warrior. Many of the springs broke. So rather than enjoy the bivouac and explore and watch the other cars and techs do their work, Raff and Bill removed the shock and spring assemblies from all four wheels and helped Aldo racing, Yvan and Pavel secure them on the Aldo steed so tomorrow Dave and Patrick could make their start time in the morning.

The replacement suspension components for the Desert Warrior included a set of “not as good” Fox shocks and springs. But when the crew fitted them to Darkcyd’s Desert Warrior, they discovered the fit wasn’t right. The bushings or spacers needed to secure a proper fit were too small. While we are slated to pick up new brake pads in the morning, finding correctly sized bushings here in the middle of nowhere would be impossible.

It wouldn’t be impossible to make new bushings, however. We would need a machine shop. While the Darkcyd T-5 support vehicle and the T-4 and T-5 trucks from Rally Raid UK were well equipped, there was no lathe or other fabrication machines necessary. So in the spirit of Dakar, Bill and Robb confronted the techs at Robby Gordon Racing who allowed Bill to use their machine shop an in a few hours Bill had newly fabricated bushings custom fit to the new Fox shocks.

So even now, well into the race, part of the Darkcyd Desert Warrior is still in the race. In fact, a few days prior one of the other teams, McRae Racing, who are running specially built buggies that utilized the same engine as these Desert Warriors, a BMW 3.5L turbocharged diesel, were having problems with their ECM (electronic control module), again and in the spirit of Dakar, our team loaned our ECM so they could stay in the race.

While the scenery in Iquique is calming and the nearly full moon providing more light as the days are getting shorter the more we move north, life in the bivouac continues to test all those who continue to endure questionable conditions in the portable toilets, so much that Ben still can’t figure out how a human being can miss the toilet by so much, especially when sitting on it, having to witness excrement and feces on the toilet seat, splattered on the floor and the questionable diet seeing it sprayed on the walls. Certianly not a pretty picture but evidence begs the question is how can someone be so crude or disrespectful—not what I’d call in “the spirit of Dakar.”

As for racing, the name of the game here as we click off more and more kilometers, is attrition. We often see flatbed trucks with several wounded motorcycles riding north, large trucks with body parts missing and cars, buggies and SUV trucks damaged, wheels broken and more. By this point I’m sure more than 30% of those who started this race are no longer competing, perhaps more.

As of 9pm in Iquique after the 9th stage, only 106 motorcycles of the 185 that started had finished, 16 of the 33 quads and 65 of the 171 cars. On bikes, Despres finished the stage first by nearly 4 minutes ahead of Coma and thereby taking the lead from him.

Our fellow American team and who helped us with their machine shop, Robby Gordon finished first squeaking a minute and a half ahead of France’s Stepahne Peterhansel. Peterhansel still leads Robby overall by just under 6 minutes.

Perhaps the saddest news of the day for Dakar and the Robby Gordon Racing team is that Nassar al-Attiyah, last years Dakar winner, has withdrawn from the race. Yesterday’s technical problems with wheels and alternator belts, combined with more technical problems today put the Qatar-based Dakar legend too far behind and as such has opted out.

While sad to see Nassar go, the disturbing news running around the bivouac this evening is that the race officials have disqualified Robby Gordon from the race due to “observation of technical non-compliance on vehicle No., 303. The details are fuzzy at this point but word on the street is that Robby Gordon’s special built Hummer uses an automated system for deflation and inflation of its tires. Though I’m sure this system was fitted in the car at scrutineering and inspection, it’s unclear what doesn’t comply. Some have theorized that air from the tires is rerouted to the engine compartment when in deflation and therefore someone might believe this could contribute to increased performance. But that’s a far fetched theory and even more far fetched if the France officials are thinking on these lines.

It is odd that no sitting in 2nd place that the French officials have suddenly found compliance issues with Gordon’s car.

Gordon has filed an appeal and will still be allowed to continue to race. The final decision on winning order and Gordon’s issue will be decided after the appellate process is complete this Spring in Paris.


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.”

The Atacama Desert – On The Dakar Trail

The T-5 Chevy 2500 T-5 support vehicle isn’t doing so well. Raff is taking it well, but the frustration is evident in his demeanor and facial expressions, especially when the transmission won’t go into reverse, or when a simple downshift turns into a shutter and clunk. New parking strategies must be considered as the fickle and finicky transmission just isn’t reliable.

The rally in Copiapó is the longest stage yet, running a total of 598km (about 360 miles) including 444km of actual racing on the special stage. For the drivers, this means about 15 or 16 hours of racing. The only relieve the teams will have is a rest day here in Copiapó, before another long stage on Monday to Antofagasta.

Perhaps the most exciting contest in the Dakar 2012 Rally is the neck and neck competition between Marc Coma from Spain and Cyril Despres from Spain. Both riding KTM motorcycles and both racking of 3 Dakar titles each, Coma squeaked by a stage victory and is slowly making nearly 3 minutes on the current leader Despres and tightening the gap to just 7’48″.

But the exciting news here today is Nassar Al-Attiyah, who made a surprise announcement just a week or two prior to Dakar by joining the Robby Gordon Speeed Team. Al-Attiyah is the reigning king of Dakar having won the 2011 edition in a Volkswagon Toureg. Now driving a two wheel drive Hummer (really nothing like the Hummer you might know), the lighter car is quite different than anything Nassar has raced previously. Today’s performance, including passing 5 cars in the last 200km of the special and gaining nearly 8 minutes on the French leader, Stephane Peterhansel. Gordon also piloted his neon orange Hummer to stellar finnish and now sits in 3rd place behind Peterhansel and Krzysztof Holowczyc from Poland.

Fellow American and once co-driver for Robby Gordon, Darren Skilton continues to have problcial built buggy, but refuses to let go and is still in the race. For Copiapó we set up camp in the Bivouac just across form the Gordon/Al-Attiyah team and it was a treat to watch the techs, drivers and co-drivers work together to solve problems, share in the excitement and plan for further Dakar domination down the road. No American team or driver has ever won The Dakar, Gordon is hoping this will be the year.

Now traveling with us is a former WRC scrutineer, David, who we connected with last March while racing the WRC Mexico event. Now riding his motorcycle to Patagonia, he offered to help the team by returning our lovely RV, which has been nicknamed the Magic Mushroom, due to its loose resemblance of a hippy bus and the rag tag nomads piloting it all around South America. Perhaps not so rag tag, but it makes for good fodder and chatter over our VHF radios as our three vehicle convoy makes its way to Lima, Peru. There David will drive the RV back to Argentina and return it to the rental company.

The extra person certainly adds more complexity to our travels, because simply organizing the team and getting everybody up, packed and fed at a decent hour before traveling hundreds of hot and hard miles north is like herding cats.

Taking advantage of the rest day and the somewhat decent resources in Copiapó, the team was treated to its first meal outside the Bivouac since we left Mar del Plata over a week ago.

We made our way to the next stop on the Dakar 2012 trail to Antofagasta, a modest town on the coast with good access to fuel, food and more. Along the way we were able to catch some of the action of the racers. Tara is still impressed and smitten by the big trucks, but not enough to shadow the reality of her new life of sleeping in tents, using port-potties and eating in a dining hall that she not so fondly refers to something like a “mens prison.” But she’s a trooper and nearly at the half-way point, I think she’s starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Copiapó: Fixing The T-5 And Then Some…

What had started as a great day had quickly sobered into a dramatic and tepid situation. The team arrived at the Bivouac late Monday night. Too tired and feeling beaten, everyone quickly retired to their tents.

Before leaving for Dakar I had arranged to meet my good Chilean friend, Cristian, to meet us in Argentina and travel with us for a few days in the event we needed local support on the ground in Chile. We never expected we’d need his support to help us solve problems for the Darkcyd Racing Team’s T5 support vehicle. But early the next morning it was evident that Raff would need a new transmission oil filter and potentially a new transmission oil pan.

The wheel chock that Robb ran over punctured the oil pan and pushed it up into the oil filter causing it to crack and break the inlet. The bad news is that Chevy 2500 trucks are rare in Chile and only sold by special order—if that. Typically parts are only carried for cars and trucks regularly sold. If there was a filter or pan available in Chile, it still could take 2-5 days to get one to our remote post in the Atacama Desert: Copiapó. The good news is that Chevy uses a third-party transmission by Allison—which are used in many other vehicles and therefore increasing our odds slightly that we might find the necessary parts.

The wheel chock that Robb ran over punctured the oil pan and pushed it up into the oil filter causing it to crack and break the inlet. The bad news is that Chevy 2500 trucks are rare in Chile and only sold by special order—if that.
Cristian was less positive but more than willing to take on the challenge to find the parts. However, Cristian faced his own challenge and frustration. Besides losing us on the long liaison across the border from Argentina into Chile, upon arriving in Copiapó, his bike wouldn’t start after filling up with gas. He convinced a local restaurant to store his bike for the evening. So the next morning he had more on his mind than just finding an oil pan and filter—would he be able to get his bike started? If not, how would he get back to Santiago—a long 1,000km south?

The first two filters that the SALFA Chevy dealer pulled from inventory looked right, but the inlet pipe was just not the right size. After further discussion and punching some keys on the computer keyboard, the parts manager returned with a unmarked brown cardboard box. Amazingly it was the right filter. Our jaws dropped with excitement, and though it didn’t come with a gasket, nor were they able to find an oil pan, they directed us to a local welder who could fix the puncture and save us hours in the process.

Our morning chores and errands didn’t end with the oil pan and filter. The MAN T-4 support vehicle, which follows the team on the actual Dakar race course had broke a leaf spring the day before. Could we find Paul and the support team new springs? A tall order especially for a vehicle that is manufactured somewhere in Europe.

The SALFA dealer assured us that there was no MAN dealer anywhere in Chile, however they referred us to a guy who repairs and manufacturers leaf springs for locals. As a huge mining community and with the surrounding companies loaded with massive heavy machinery, perhaps the leaf spring legend of Copiapó could help us. His company had no name and the personnel at SALFA didn’t know his address. No problem, they sent one of their employees to ride with us to both the welder and the leaf spring legend of Copiapó. Things were looking up. By 9pm that night we had our oil filter, newly welded oil pan and a pair of leaf springs for the Rally Raid UK MAN T-4. We celebrated at the local restaurant where Cristian had stored his motorcycle.

The next morning Cristian’s motorcycle fired up as nothing had happened. But before we let him get on the road back to Santiago, he helped the team secure local Chilean cell phones, further supplies and a wireless USB internet card for my computer — though since I’ve found it challenging to make

Joining Us in Chile.

The morning was a bit hectic as we needed to be at Santiago Airport before noon to pick up Angie who’s flying in from California to meet Tim and I and take on the next segment of this outrageious yet thoroughly enjoyable influx of visitors while I’m in South America. I’ve got to admit I’m rather lucky to have such friends. As I planned this journey many friends and family eagerly and with true intent said they’d meet me somewhere on the road. But the complexities of schedule, commitments, costs and logistics make such an endeavor a challenge. But within the space of a couple weeks I’m graced with the pleasure of friends willing to explore and journey together on this fantastic continent.

We rushed back to Concon to take Melissa and Ralph back to the Tom Bowling. They have quite the workload to get the boat and the paperwork in order for a departure later this week. As for Tim and I and ultimately Angie, we’ve got a couple days more in Chile and then we journey to Argentina to the Mendoza wine region to take in the flavors and spirit of Argentina’s greatest wine region.

But at the airport in Santiago something went amiss. We lost Angie. Actually, we never saw her. But waiting outside the international arrivals door, we kept a careful eye on the latest South American arrivals. But no sign of our new guest. Nearly and hour passed by. This was a bit alarming. No one wants to be lost in South America, or even worse, somewhere between the US and here. Finally, a porter walks up to me and taps on my shoulder, “Are you Allan?” He guides me to the front curb where Ms. Angie had been waiting while we had been waiting inside. With tears in her eyes she thought the worse. We weren’t going to make it. But soon the tears dried up and the smiles grew as we headed to yet another of Chile’s wine region. This time to visit the largest producer in Chile – Concho y Toro.

Concho y Toro was founded in 1883 by Don Melchor de Concha y Toro and Don Ramón Subercaseaux Mercado. Don Melchor was the grandson of Don Mateo de Toro y Zambrano, who presided over the first government following Chile’s independence rom Spain in 1810.

Angie Waiting 4Tour

Angie patiently waits for our tour guide to take us through this historic estate winery.

Examinging Concho Grapes

Concho y Toro tour guide Juan Carlos lets us taste nearly rip cabernet grapes.

Angie Conchoytoro Casa

19th Century Original House on the estate of Concho y Toro in Maipo Valley, Chile.

Concho Diablo

Down in the century old caves we find the iconic Casillero del Diablo, the wine that can be found virtually anywhere in the world.

Tim Angie Concho Pour

After the first segment of our tour Angie & Tim wait for their pour of the “common” Concho y Toro wines, to be tasted outside under the veranda.

Tim Concho

Mr. Amos contemplates the wines from Puente Alto and Maipo Valley.

Geoshapes Concho Amos

The terrace outside tasting room and vinoteca at Concho y Toro in Chile. — photo by Tim Amos

Almariva Concho

Inside the wine bar we have the opportunity to taste premium wines such as the Almariva, which is (sort of) the Opus One of Chile, a partnership between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux and Concho y Toro of Chile. — photo by Tim Amos

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Colchagua Valley, Chile – Pleasantly Suprised.

Before heading out to Santa Cruz the next morning, Tim, Melissa and I hovered upon one of the culinary treasures of the Valparaiso region north of Santiago. Sitting high above the coastal road, Delicias del Mar Reñaca is one of two restaurants serving Basque-style seafood. We chose to dine at the Reñaca restaurant which offers on the second floor a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and a wine cellar complete with a mini-wine museum. Not that it’s important, but this restaurant is very proud to have served a number of top Latin celebrities and even most recently Leonardo DiCaprio.

The evening ended with a number of empty bottles on our table and the Maitre’de showering Melissa with gifts to remember her evening there. Tim chose the Congria, a sea eel that is a specialty in Chile, while I opted for the Sea Bass – though for some reason they didn’t offer the Chilean Sea Bass — go figure. Melissa took the suggestion of the chef and so the evening was a seafood and wine fest.

Delicias Del Mar Tim Melissa Contemplating Delcias Del Mar Eve

In Reñaca just minutes south of Concon and the Tom Bowling ship, we enjoyed a civilized meal at Delicias del Mar.

Our plans to get an early start the following morning were slightly hampered by our late restaurant closing evening, but by the time we showed up at the Tom Dowling, Ralph, who know has earned an incredibly well-apt nickname, Curly, and Melissa were packed and ready for the adventure south to perhaps Chile’s top wine region, the Colchagua Valley sits about 150km south of Santiago, following the course of the Tinguiririca River down from the mighty Andes. From the foothills east of the Pan-American Highway, the valley runs westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. The river provides a ready source of irrigation water, essential in this dry area. The regular, warm climate combined with extremely fertile soil, the valley floor, the valley was long considered as an ideal location for massive production of bulk wines. But fortunately the past decade has seen Chile’s wine industry “grow up” with a stronger emphasis on quality rather than quantity.

From a wine growing perspective what makes Chile interesting and perhaps controversial is that the Pacific Ocean is rarely more than 80km away from any of the top wine appellations. This allows the coastal winds to funnel up the valleys cooling the vineyards, especially at night. providing dramatic daily temperature differences, — read: cold summer nights essential to help grapes maintain acidity and to improve color and flavor red varietals. Recent plantings by several wineries including Montes and Canepa has extended the valley ever closer to the ocean where temperature differences are even more extreme.

What’s this all mean? Quite simply, a perfect reason to go see how Chile is progressing in the quality of wines. To be sure, I’ve always been a bit jaded by the Chilean wines. In many years of tasting wines from Chile I almost always found them to be a tad green. While the microclimates allow for intense daytime temperatures the confluence of the cold evenings with varying levels of humidity seemed to me to hinder the fully ripening of the grapes. Hence, the wines would tend to have a vegetal, green bell pepper/olive characteristic in the nose — a characteristic I find unappealing.

So our clan spent 3 days exploring the Colchagua Valley. Holed up at the Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel we took advantage of the strategic location to take in tours and tastings at Casa Lapostolle, Viu Manent, Montes, Emiliana and Viña Nuevo Mundo (Las Niñas). We also sampled wines from some of the wineries tucked further away from the town center during our dinners. And without getting into a lengthy discourse on the wines, I’m happy to report that Chile surprised me. They have grown up. And select wines from all of these producers could easily find their way into my cellar or onto my dinner table. I was most impressed with the cabernet sauvignon from Casa Lapostolle, the Cuvee Alexandria Chardonnay from Casa Lopostelle, “G” from Emiliana and the Montes Syrah from Alpalta Vineyard — all of these from the 2005 vintage.

Now you may remember that we hustled the 2-3 hour drive south of Santiago to get to Santa Cruz, the tiny settlement tucked into the Colchagua Valley for the annual event extraordinaire – Vendimia – the annual harvest festival. Yes. This is the festival where the local beautieds complete for Miss Vendimia crown and the winner has her weight measured on a huge scale of grapes. Yes. Vendimia. Originally Tim and I hoped to participate in the event in Mendoza, Argentina whihc has a heritage and history the extends beyond the event here in Chile. Unfortrunately, all hotels were booked and the town was looking to be a bit crazy. So we opted for the Chilean version.

When we rolled into town we discovered we were a week early. The Vendimia event was due to take place NEXT weekend. Not to worry. We created our own event and the following photographs will attest to our taking the twon and the local flavors by storm. Hope you don’t mind the endless barrage of having fun with cameras while drinking tasty vino. But it certainly keeps the creative as well as the wine juices flowing.

At the end of the first night Curly (Captain Ralph) turned to Tim and me and asked, “Now I feel real bad for pouring you that wine from the box the other day.” But Ralph was a converter. Sadly, on the Tom Dowling there’s not really enough room to include bottles of wine in the ship’s stores, but I’m sure there’s at least room for a bottle to celebrate the ship’s launch.

Casa Lapostolle

The modern architecture of Viña Casa Lapostolle is shaped like a wine barrel.

Captain Curly Contemplates

Outside Lapostolle Captain Ralph begins to think about his 9 month journey across oceans. He’s miles from his boat now, but the water still draws him in.

Hanging Onthe Vine

So close to harvest. So ripe and ready.

Colchagua Valley Vines

Colchagua Valley from the Casa Lapostolle vineyards.

Amos Vinamontes Gang

The gang at Viña Montes – photo by Tim Amos

Laposolle Barrel Room

Viña Casa Lapostolle barrel room.

Colchagua Amos Portrait

Fun with cameras, Tim Amos takes a daredevil shot while traversing the hillside vineyards high above Colchagua Valley at Viña Montes.

Allan Melissa Montes

What a long day.

Worldrider-Interview Curly

I shoot and interview Captain “Curly” about his upcoming oean adventure from Chile to Australia while discussing the viticultural techniques of these crazy Chileans. photo by Tim Amos

Making Local Friends

It’s not all wine in Chile. Taking in some cold beer with the local flavor. Captain “Curly” in full form!

Tim Montes Barrelroom

Surrounded by all that wine, Tim Amos contemplates yet another photo.

Viumament Secreto

At Viu Mament we sample the “Secreto” a secret blend of grapes from the oldest winery in Colchagua Valley.

Tasting Room Lapostolle

Lapostolle tasting room. photo by Tim Amos

Glasses Distort

These glasses for us? photo by Tim Amos

WorldSailors. World Wines. World Travel.

Grape Cluster

In less than a couple hours we landed in Santiago. I thought about the miracle of flight given that I’d last been in Santiago in January and it took my almost two months to ride from here to Buenos Aires going the “long way around” the tip of South America and then up the Atlantic Coast. I never made it to Valparaiso or Vina del Mar in January. So this was my chances, sans moto, to see a few of the other Chilean sites I’d missed – notwithstanding the wine regions both north and south of the capital city.

Through a couple mishaps with the car rental agency we were upgraded to a Toyota 4Runner, or at least the South American equivalent. Tim and I wasted no time as within an hour outside of Santiago we climbed a small mountain range and descended into Valle de Casablanca not only does this valley take us to the Pacific Coast, but it’s also home to Chile’s best white wines. Tim and I wasted no time and committed to stopping at 2 or 3 wineries before making our way to Vina del Mar where we hoped to connect with Tim’s coworker Melissa who had flown to Chile a few days earlier to meet up with the captain of the sloop “Tom Bowling” and begin preparations for the 6-9 month journey across the Pacific Ocean.

Casablanca Valley Chile2

Vines across the valley floor and crawling up the hillsides.

Veramonte Tim Chile

Tasting Casablanca Valley’s fruity whites.

Casablanca Valley Aerial

Ruta del Vinos in Casablanca Valley, Chile.

By the time we navigated through the busy streets of the coast towns north of Valparaiso and armed with more definitive directions to the yacht club from the tourist information office in Vina del Mar we soon found ourselves in passing the guard gates at the new marina – Club de Yates Higuerillas – in the sleepy community of Concon. Walking through this small marina Tim spotted a young woman who seemingly was practicing yoga on the docks. “I’ll bet you that’s her,” quipped Tim. “That’d be just like Melissa.” Sure enough that was Melissa. She eagerly but with a sense of doubt in her voice showed us the way to the 37′ sloop, “Tom Bowling” that’d be her home for most of the year remaining. Ralph, the soft spoken curly haired skipper and owner of “Tom Bowling” granted us permission to board. The quarters were modest and the boat seemed to be in various states of maintenance and preparation. But the casual host he was he grabbed a cardboard box of red wine and poured us all a little wine in paper cups. Tim and I looked at each other and then toasted the skipper and his crew – which at this point numbered two – Melissa and Jeff. The third crew member had decided to return home after many month traveling in South America. This left Ralph and the others in a scramble. They needed to find the fourth crew member. Melissa had no real sailing experience. She’d be there to support as an extra hand, help in the kitchen and provide moral, mental and whimsical support.

Concon Yacht Club2

The Club de Yates Higuerillas in Concon, Chile just north of Valparaiso.

Melissa Ralph Tombowling

Melissa with skipper Ralph and his Tom Bowling in the background while sunsets on Concon.

Captain Ralph

Captain Ralph aboard the Tom Bowlling.

Bowling Crew Jeff

Bowling crew first mate, Jeff.

Melissa Bowling2

New crew member Melissa ready for adventure and the open sea.

Tim Bowling Board

Tim scoping out the Tom Bowling and inspecting its seaworthiness. “Yes. It floats!”

The first two weeks of their journey to Australia would likely be the toughest as they’d be tackling the largest and longest open water crossing of the entire journey. From Concon to Robinson Crusoe Island and then from Robinson Crusoe to Easter Island (Rapa Nui). The first leg to Robinson Crusoe Island should take them a few days. Then they’ll make the nearly 2,000 mile open water crossing to Easter Island. The journey has got to be harrowing. And much more mentally challenging than riding Ruta 40 or the Cross Siberian Highway. It’s the middle of the ocean. This journey takes weeks. There’s no stopping for gas. You won’t see land or another ship for weeks. And the ocean, in its whimsical madness, could turn on you. At least on the Tom Bowling they’ll be comfort in numbers. Four insane adventurers cooped up in a tiny cabin under sail through 2,000 miles of open Ocean. From Easter Island the sailing gets easier. At least pockets of land (islands) are more frequent. Their route will be Easter Island – Pitcairn – Gambiers – Marquesas – French Polynesia – Fiji – New Caledonia – and finally Australia.

Sounds like a challenge. They asked Tim and I if we’d like to join them. But the thought of missing Mendoza the second time around wasn’t appealing. And Tim has a project for which he needs to be back in New York later this month. Though the concept fills me with ideas and dreams. One day.

So instead, we ask Melissa and Ralph if they’d like to join us on our journey to Santa Cruz for the Vendimia Festival. We casually suggest to Ralph we’ll find some wine with different characteristics, more body and complexity than his boxed friend. He agrees. Melissa agrees. They’ve still got provisioning to do, customs paperwork and recruit another crew member, but they reason it’s the weekend.

We leave first thing tomorrow morning.