With the winey booziness of Mendoza behind us, were on the way North through Chile to La Ballena, where a beautiful little beach cabin belonging to author, motorcycle traveller, photographer and animal lover Lorraine Chittock awaited us along with two amazing hounds, Luna and Widget.
It was a beautifully blissful three weeks, filled with Christmas, New Years, amazing sunsets, beer, and even a visit from our friend Dan from Cycle Earth. We cherished the three weeks of stability, walking and playing with the dogs, cooking breakfast, and even having an oven to bake in. I managed to pull off some bike servicing, as well as a tyre change with help from Jonny Motos and Metzeler Santiago.
We also had the privilege of joining Andres and some new friends for a ride and a visit to an old age home as well as a children’s home in Santiago. Seeing some smiles and excitement at something different made the world of difference, and some great new memories were made. Who knew grannies loved revving adventure bikes indoors so much, turns out we had more in common than I realised.
After our mini holiday we got our stuff together and hit the road again, this time to chase the dragon, the dusty, loud, adrenaline-fuelled Dakar Rally: the greatest race out there, and the toughest rally on Earth. To see this race in the flesh was well and truly a bucket list item for me. In La Serena we met up with Andres again, and together we hit the road into the Atacama, the driest place on Earth. The Atacama is the oldest hyper-arid environment in the world, in some areas it has NEVER rained and is so dry that there is no life at all… not even bacteria. The views through this area are absolutely overwhelming, and often we found ourselves overcome with awe at the overpowering landscapes that surrounded us.
Andres is always involved in the Dakar in one way or another, and knows all the inside info, routes, as well as many legendary riders, who we had the pleasure of meeting. This is also where we met Sheldon Thompson, who had been traveling around the world for 4 years on his F800GS by the time we met him. So we joined forces and headed out to catch the monster that is the Dakar Rally.
As we rode at high speed, on lonely highways through the arid landscape, we felt the atmosphere changing. Before we knew it every car was covered in sponsor logos, team numbers and Dakar stickers. Massive trucks filled with monstrous tyres and parts, fully equipped workshops on wheels dominated the road. Local faces soon gave way to those of European teams, earnest, and determined. We started seeing the familiar colours and logos of the famous teams, riders, and drivers on their respective support vehicles. We passed the teams of Carlos Sainz, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Cyril Despres, De Rooi, Bobby Gordon and of course our very own Giniel de Villiers and the South African Team Rhide and Broadlink KTM team with Riaan Van Niekerk on the bike. The excitement was palpable as we felt the world descend on the desert in the name of speed.
That night we stayed in the beautiful Bahia Inglesa, a beach town in the Atacama so named after the English Pirates that frequented its shores. The next day would be our first witnessing the actual race take place, and what a day it was.
We headed out early in an effort to try and catch the race. The route and places to watch are shared between spectators as rumours and inside information, and we did a good deal of riding through the desert, talking to others before we settled on a spot. The excitement was building fast as we propped our bikes up in the soft sand, got our desert clothes and SPF50 sunscreen on and set up a makeshift shelter next to the track. We had set up shop in soft sand next to a road that the racers were going to cross after a checkpoint on their way down from a sizeable dune. And so we waited, with the tension building amongst all on the side-lines.
An hour or two later, with no prior warning, we heard the noise of a helicopter, accompanied a split second later by the chopper skimming over the surface of the dune and down its surface, followed by the first motorcycle of the race – our first race-day experience had begun.
The motorcycles became a steady stream, all ramping over the desert road to speed off into the dunes, soon giving way to include the cars, buggies, and eventually the gigantic, imposing, trucks. The atmosphere was hugely energetic, and dangerously contagious, and we went berserk with our little South African flag when we saw our fellow countrymen blasting through the desert in prime positions. The thing that no ones tells you about watching the Dakar live, is that the most overpowering sensation is not the sights, the smells or the vibe, but the sound… oh the sound…
Everything is gloriously loud, with the biggest surprise for me being the cars, the pitch of their race-engineered, supercharged engines screaming far higher than even that of the motorcycles. It is a sound that still brings up a lot of excitement, even in memory.
It was a day I will never forget, a day in the desert well spent, spectator 4x4s got stuck, riders pushed their bikes through the deep sand and we left in the setting sun to head further into the desolation and heat of the Atacama to attempt to catch the Dakar for a second day.
The day after we tried our best to catch the rally on the way to Antofagasta, but we were outdone by the mind-boggling pace of the race. Whilst wide open in 6th gear on a four lane highway we watched in the distance, whilst the massive race trucks overtook all the highway traffic on a parallel sand road in the distance, the speed of these vehicles is unbelievable. In Antofagasta we stopped at the famous ‘Mano Del Desierto’ or hand of the desert with some other riders also following the race, one a Dutch 10 year Dakar veteran now spectating for his first time. Throughout the race there was a great sense of camaraderie between spectators, who all shared a rare sense of excitement at the greatest race on Earth.
The next day after Antofagasta we made an early start, cleaned and lubricated our chains and hit the highway to Iquique, home to the infamous Dakar dune, a massive sand mountain leading down to the ocean where the bivouac, home to all the support and race teams, resides. On the desolate, beautiful highway to Iquique we were struck by awe-inspiring views of the arid coast, with no life in sight. The pleasure of the open road was interrupted by manic fuel stops, shared by every support team on the road, it was at these stops where we were swamped by locals and ‘supporters’ alike, all the locals under the illusion that WE, with all our massive bikes, tons of kit, panniers, tank bags and tents were actually riding the Dakar. The mind boggles. Eventually the explanations just became too difficult and we just gave up and posed for photos, spoke to journalists and held babies, it was absolutely exhausting and made the tranquillity of the open road even more enticing.
It was on the open road, on a transit stage, where we got the opportunity to ride alongside the actual race vehicles and riders, including following Cyril Despres in his new Peugot between the stages, we constantly had stupid grins plastered all over our faces.
We managed to find accommodation in Iquique, despite the craziness of the race. The spot we managed to find however, was a paragliding lodge where we, to say the least, were not very popular. The reason for this was that all air traffic had been shut down for two weeks during the Dakar, leaving the entire paragliding lodge completely grounded during the race, so arriving on motorcycles for the sole purpose of watching the source of everyone’s misery caused quite a bit of sulking.
The following day we had the honour of being invited into the Bivouac by Darryl Curtis and the KTM team. It was a magical experience that we will never forget. We got to meet a good deal of brilliant racers, spending the day with Darryl, Riaan van Niekerk, Dave Reeve and team Rhide as well as getting to meet Toby Price in the evening. We owe a HUGE thanks to Darryl and the Broadlink team for providing us with such a special experience.
The next day was an eventful one. We spent the day with our South African comrades from RAD Moto KTM, drinking in the sun, watching lunatics descend the dunes, and making a braai in the sand using wooden pallets and Doritos as firelighters. You will never be able to keep a South African from his braai.
This also became the site of a major setback for us and our budget. To get to the area to view the race, I had ridden my bike over some very soft, and very deep sand. To get out again I had to ride the bike over a large distance of deep sand that eventually degenerated into the airy, nightmarish fesh-fesh. It started out well, with my Mommy-Frightener F800GS war-machine flying over the soft mess with ease, sailing towards the hard-pack whilst wide-open in 3rd gear. Just when I thought I had made it safe, only meters before the sand hardened, I hit an evil rock at full tilt. It had been sneakily lying in wait, only inches below the surface of the sand.
The result of this was an abrupt and nasty surprise, the windscreen shot into my face, cracking my goggles, with me breaking the entire cockpit with my face. The bike proceeded to flip over completely, landing right on top of me after I had face-planted into the sand. Luckily I was completely fine, apart from being shaken up I had sustained no injuries, with all thanks again going to my Leatt neck brace, which had saved my neck and life for the second time. This was evidenced by the fact that the force had caused my brace to become lodged in the rubber binding of my helmet, stopping an over-extension injury and possibly a broken neck. I will say it time and time again, as both a medical doctor and a rider, you NEED to ride with a neck brace. It is just as important as a helmet, and worth every single penny 10 times over.
The repairs to the bike were extensive. With no reputable mechanic in town I spent the better part of a week doing repairs, bending out panniers, and trying to solve a riddle of why my right-hand brake calliper wouldn’t fit between its mount and the brake disc. As it turns out, it was because I had bent the left fork, small enough to go undetected with the naked eye. I had a lot of help with this from good friends and fellow overlanders, including Andres, Bernd Fuhler and Joop Bernard, I owe you guys a huge thanks for all the help.
Luckily we managed to get the fork bent straight for an astronomical price in Iquique and we were good to go again. This time to San Pedro de Atacama, where were about to experience a crisis of indecisiveness and courage and say goodbye to Chile and Andres for the foreseeable future. What lay ahead was a highlight of the trip and one of the most unbelievable rides of my life – The notorious ‘Ruta de Lagunas’ in Bolivia