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.


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