Chasing the Dakar

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.

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Lorraine’s beach house in La Ballena

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RELEASE THE HOUNDS!
Luna and Widget getting ready for a walk

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Walks were the main attraction of the day…

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Luna keeps watch over the kingdom from the most luxurious dog bed on the planet

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Meg having some quiet time with the sunset from the deck

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Another sunset… just because we can…

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The bikes waited patiently for us to hit the desert

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.

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Having a motorcycle in the common room was quite an event

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I think I was her favorite – and she really digged the beard

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a 23 point turn in an old-age home

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.

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The Atacama Desert, Chile’s hyper-arid coastline

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Chasing the Dakar Rally through the desert

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Meeting Sheldon Thompson on the way to the Dakar

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.

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Playing in the sand near Bahia Inglesa – photo by Andres Perez

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The sand encroaching in on the roads, riding through dunes for miles on end

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“The Route of the Desert”

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.

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The scenery getting to our spot

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About to set up camp for race-day in the dunes

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Our spot

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Spectators heading up the dunes to see the racers

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The chopper: The first sign that the action is about to start

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First bike through the checkpoint

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Al-Attiyah – and so the cars start

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The trucks – their size alone is just insane

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The South African camp…

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Things getting tough and dusty in the evening

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.

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Meg pointing out something or other

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The hand of the desert in Antofagasta

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Chasing the race with spectators from around the world

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Photo courtesy of Andres Perez

Matthew Snyman, Chile, Dakar, Rally, Dakar rally, Desert, Atacama, Sand, BMW, Motorrad, F800GS

Photo courtesy of Andres Perez

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.

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Meeting up with Bernd and Viola on the way to Iquique

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.

Cyril Despres en-route

Cyril Despres en-route

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.

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Us with the RAD Moto crew and the KTM team – Darryl Curtis and rider Riaan van Niekerk

Dave Reeves, Riaan van Niekerk and me

Dave Reeves, Riaan van Niekerk and me

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.

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Our ‘braai’

Started with Doritos... as you do...

Started with Doritos… as you do…

Sheldon Thompson, Chile, Dakar, Rally, Dakar rally, Desert, Atacama, Sand, BMW, Motorrad, F800GS

The South African pew with R.A.D. Moto

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The infamous Iquique dune

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S.A. racers about the pass

Bobby Gordon catches some air on the way down the dune

Bobby Gordon catches some air on the way down the dune

Andres nibbles on a yummy Argentinian

Andres nibbles on a yummy Argentinian

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Andres showing off his circus skills with the GoPro and pole

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.

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My goggles – a good idea if you like your eyes

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Recovering after quite a bad ‘off’

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Assessing the damage

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.

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Doing some detective repair work on the bike, I assembled and disassembled the front end more times than I can count

This is what Megan was busy with whilst I was doing the repair work

This is what Megan was busy with whilst I was doing the repair work

Megan snyman, doughnut

Meg with a doughnut, so not all bad…

The sunsets in Iquique were not bad either

The sunsets in Iquique were not bad either

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

Cutbacks, mountains and desert wine

We began the hard slog up to Mendoza, with our haste fueled by the need to see the famous wine-making Argentinian town before we began our three-week house-sitting stint in Chile. This meant riding two massive days, first Pucon to Talca and then Talca to Mendoza over the border into Argentina. Days consisting of 700+km on tar road were very unusual, and massively tiring for us, its something I hope never to have to repeat.

The first long day on tar brought us to Talca, a tiny little town completely off the tourist trail that had been hollowed out by a sizeable earthquake a few years back. This is evidence by completely hollowed out buildings, the front façades still looking well kept, clean and painted, but beyond this they are held up by nothing more than wooden supports with no building to speak of, akin to an old timey western movie set.

The next day we made an early start (9am is early when you don’t have a job) and made our way out of the country. We were soon pleasantly surprised by what the road turned into, the scenery took on an arid desert vibe, and the temperature quickly soared to suit our new surroundings. The tar became a small, narrow winding desert road which took us up an insanely steep climb up to 3200m through a series of 30 hairpin cutbacks and tunnels, with the temperature rapidly dropping from 32 to 5°C. At the top we were faced with the most confusing border crossing we have ever had to deal with.

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Meg on one of the gazillion cutbacks

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Megan taking the lead up the mountain

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Curves…

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… and more curves

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“Curve 29″ have a cutback why don’t you…

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Me tending to my altitude induced fuel cell malfunction

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The light at the end of the tunnel – hello Argentina!

The first thing we noticed was that the flags suddenly became Argentinian, which was strange, because we hadn’t yet crossed a border out of Chile. Before long we arrived at our first border post, I quickly had to remove my spare fuel cell after the heat and altitude had caused it to rupture, covering me, my bike and all of my luggage in petrol. We readied ourselves for the border crossing only to be completely waved through, every official we spoke to merely shook their head in an uninterested fashion and told us we had to ride on, so no stamps and no paperwork were done at all. After this the flags were suddenly Chilean again and I felt like I had just entered the twilight zone without a visa. We rode on like this for a good 14km, becoming increasingly confused as to the absence of a border. Luckily we weren’t the only ones, we came across two Chilean riders who were in a flat-spin panic about this whole border debacle, one had dropped his bike whilst trying to do a U-turn to double back to see if they had missed the border, and as a result of this riding back and forth, both were out of petrol. I assured them that Argentina was not going to accidentally let them into the country, and that a border would appear sooner or later, these are not things that people just forget to enforce.

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Bullet holes through all the signs, a comforting observation…

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Contemplating our border situation in Argentina… or Chile

True as bob, we hit another border control point, with Argentinian flags again, to say this was becoming confusing is a euphemism of epic proportions. We were surprised to learn, once again, that this wasn’t the actual border, only a vehicle checkpoint for temporary import, after which we were waved through again, our passports left wanting. Another 8km or so brought us to yet another border control station, this one completely unflagged, to say I wasn’t optimistic would be an understatement. Luckily, and finally, this was the right border. We met up with the two Chileans as well as two cheerful Brazilians we had also met on the way up the pass. The border pass was an indoor set-up for both personal paperwork, and vehicle clearance, we negotiated this together before riding on with a smiles all around.

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Making some new friends at the Mendoza border(s) – the international biker family prevails!

The road to Mendoza is filled with amazing scenery; we rode past Mt. Aconcagua and desert scenes which had been carved out by long-dead glaciers. In true Argentinian fashion we shared a hefty steak lunch to celebrate our success after which Meg and I decided to head into town.

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The road to Mendoza

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The dry ‘river bed’ in the background is actually the landscape that was carved out by an ancient glacier

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The peace and tranquility of the wide-open road

The size and traffic of Mendoza came as a shock. By the time we had entered town and had started our hostel-hunt it was 21:00, dark, and once again, in true Argentinian fashion rush hour traffic was at its peak. While sitting amongst the shining lights of a traffic jam and sidewalks full of cosmopolitan packed-out café’s and restaurants, we met Andres. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the standstill traffic, there was a happy, helmeted face on a KTM 990 beside me asking me where I was from.

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A typical street in Mendoza

This is quite a pivotal moment to think back on, because Andres was to become a great friend and mentor, and a very important part of our trip in the months to come. Its amazing how pure chance had us meet in the middle of a night-time traffic jam in a foreign country.

To give you some background, Andres is a Chilean, living in Santiago who has been a motorcycle tour guide for over 30 years. He has now started his own tour company with great promise, and knows every road from Ushuaia to Colombia in fantastic detail. He can also ride like a demon and has even been a route advisor to the Dakar rally when it started on the continent. We also soon discovered that Andres is both a talented, professional saxophone player as well as an acrobat and clown in the circus, where he works with underprivileged children to get them off the streets. He also runs various other charity programs for the old and frail as well as for hospitals and homes for abused children. He sounds like a wizard because he is, an amazing human being who I am honored to call a friend and a brother.

That night, we camped in a swelteringly hot, mosquito ridden campsite, where Andres trusted us with guarding his motorcycle within an hour of meeting us. We would move to a hostel the next day and spend two blissful days in high heat enjoying a swimming pool and great wine before heading back over the snaking tar mountain pass and back into Chile. And that was the last we saw of the Argentina.

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Wine: This is what Mendoza is all about

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We found a Megan-sized wine barrel

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Some wine farms were just too fancy for 2 dirty, badly behaved bikers

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Its a beautiful place

Or next stop was the beautiful beach-house of Lorraine Chittock, a fellow motorcycle traveller, author and animal lover whose house overlooks the marvellous pacific ocean, occupied by her two rescue dogs Luna and Widget. A paradise that we had the pleasure to call home over both Christmas and New year.

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Over here Santa rides a llama

The Rumble in the Jungle

Our newest video is out!

Check out our stint through the Amazon with friends – 2 weeks of madness on dirt roads through the jungle – let us know what you think

NB! Please remember— this is just a little video we compiled on the road, and not one made by our producers. The videos by our very talented producers at rundontwalk productions will come later after we manage to get a hard drive back to sunny South Africa

Enjoy!

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