An Australian in the Dakar


This year’s Dakar rally has been run and won. It used to be run from Paris to Dakar but for the last seven years or so, and for the foreseeable future, it has been or will be run in South America, from and to Buenos Aires, now taking in Bolivia as well as Chile. They cross the Andes, twice, and have to negotiate the Atacama Desert, and some salt lakes. The landscapes, the action, and the divergent peoples looking on – think of the gauchos or those hats in Bolivia – make it a paradise for photographers and television. There are alps, deserts, rivers and lakes, salt pans, prairie lands, ocean coasts, and canyons – the scenery is non-stop mesmerising. I have seen contestants stop to check the view.

The event is open to bikes, quads, cars, and trucks, and it is far more of an endurance test off road than the traditional World Rally Car events that have been dominated by Peugeot and Citroen. It is run over two weeks. The podiums tend to be reserved for the main manufacturers, but you get some gutsy individuals down the line for whom it is an honour to finish. One Japanese truck driver is over 70, and the current car champion is an Arab aged 44.

The bikes have been the preserve of KTM and Honda. In the cars, it has recently been Volkswagen and now Mini. Peugeot is trying to come back this year and had three previous champions driving for them. What counts for drivers counts for cars – experience. Cyril Despres won five titles on a bike but was well back in the field in his first outing in a car. Peterhansel has won many titles on both bikes and cars. He is in class of his own, but he was well back this year in a Peugeot. Peterhansel thought that Despres had been pushing his car too hard now that he had the luxury of a protective cage. The Spanish rider Mark Coma, who is 36, won his fifth title. An Arab, Nasser Al-Altiyah, won his second title at the age of 44. He is seriously quick, and a sportsman – he won bronze in Olympic shooting in London. The Russians rule the trucks. And I do mean ‘rule’.

At the top, all sport is a test of character, but there is no other test like this. They may have to drive 800 k’s in a day, including about 250k’s off-road in the ‘special’. Cars have a co-driver and navigator, and the protection of the car body. The bikes have neither and if you hit a rock at speed, it might be fatal. They have to be ready to do their own repairs or dig themselves out, even if it takes until three in the morning and they get next to no sleep before the next stage. Under the most trying circumstances, they have to be civil to the TV. Their demeanour might put all other sports except golf to shame.

I worry that the event is getting too tough. This year, they faced heat of 42 degrees, and a couple of days later, it was two degrees as they drove across a salt flat into rain and a wind for hours on end combatting fatigue while the weather, the wet, and the salt caused many bikes to drop out. No one was at fault – they just did not make it.

The competitors take a level of skill for granted. The rest is character – and experience. As in most professions or sports, there is no substitute for experience. That is why it is almost unbelievable that an Australian on a bike called Toby Price finished third at his first attempt. This must be at the level of getting to the podium in the Tour de France or in F1 first up. It just does not happen. The official TV cover said that the achievement was beyond words.

Mr Price is obviously gifted and a man of character. According to the press, he was badly injured about twenty months ago in the US. There were three fractures in his back. He was a bump a way from being a paraplegic. He was insured but he could not handle the quote for $500,000. He therefore took the risk of flying back to Australia where he was able to get off the plane, and have immediate surgery that was successful. After a crash course in the difficult Dakar navigation from Mark Coma, he was off on his first Dakar, hoping just to finish, at best in the top twenty. He was strong throughout, and finished well, although the last stage was like the battle of the Somme. He stood on the podium with his instructor, and another of his heroes.   He told the press:

I’m at a loss for words. When I decided to sign up three or four months ago, I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what I was getting into. And now I’m on the finish line … happy.

This is a remarkable story for this brave young man from the Hunter.