To Dakar and Back
21 Days Across North Africa by Motorcycle
By Lawrence Hacking, Wil De Clercq
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Lawrence Hacking and Wil De Clercq
All rights reserved.
The rally to end all rallies
On January 14, 1977, Jean-Michel Sine, the organizer of the Abidjan to Nice Rally, found a solitary Thierry Sabine perched on a rock in the vast Libyan Sahara Desert, one of the most remote places on earth. Sabine, who was taking part in the rally, had become disoriented near the border that separates Niger from Libya, spending three days and two nights alone in the formidable Sahara. The young Frenchman had been unable to find his bearings; his only hope was that somebody would come across him in this desolate place. He also had had plenty of time to think about the things he would do once rescued. Whether Sabine knew then where this intimate meeting with the sands of the desert was to lead, and what influence he was about to have on the world, especially the world of motorsport, is pure speculation. Here, in the shadow of the massive Emi Fazzan Mountain, Sabine conceived a dream that would make history, an idea that would become the Paris-Dakar Rally. In his mind, Paris-Dakar would be the rally to end all rallies. He would turn the topography of Northern Africa into the adventure of a lifetime for anyone brave or crazy enough to attempt it. The brave and the crazy answered Sabine's call as if the rally he had envisioned was something they had been waiting for all their lives. A total of 170 entrants signed up for what was billed as the ultimate adventure; 90 of them were motorcyclists. The competitors who tackled the inaugural Paris-Dakar in 1979 faced adversity like nothing they had ever encountered. They spoke of civilizations so removed from modernity it was like stepping back hundreds of years in time. They recounted tales that ran the gamut of extremes and dangerous predicaments only a rally like the Dakar could produce. Less than half finished the rally. The Frenchman Cyril Neveu won the event aboard a Yamaha. Neveu, who would go on to victory four more times, received strong competition from a Honda-mounted Philippe Vassard. Vassard would try the rally again but never succeeded at winning it.
In France, the larger-than-life profile projected by the Paris-Dakar Rally became a sensation and a matter of national pride overnight. Although it would take time to capture the imagination of people worldwide, Paris-Dakar gradually became one of the most anticipated motorsport events of the year. Since 1979, it has attracted more than 3,000 adventurers from all walks of life. The men and women who have taken up the Dakar challenge have at least one thing in common: a desire to measure themselves against like-minded individuals and the desolate sands of the Sahara. The rally has attracted participants from the international community of motorsport luminaries, the lofty ranks of European nobility and celebrity, captains of industry and commerce and common everyday people. French rock crooner Johnny Hallyday, Princess Caroline of Monaco — daughter of the late Grace Kelly — and French World Cup Champion skier Luc Alphand, to name a few, have all participated. One celebrity who caused quite a stir in the Dakar was former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son, Mark. The would-be rallyist got lost in the desert for several days while competing in the 1982 edition. He was eventually spotted by a search plane and rescued.
Over the years, Paris-Dakar created a new breed of hero, men and women who rank with the bravest of the brave. Figures like Hubert Auriol, Cyril Neveu, Rene Metge, JoJo Groine, Jan De Groot, Jacky Ickx, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Fabrizio Meoni, Giovanni Sala, Cyril Déspres, Bruno Saby, Pierre Lartigue, Hiroshi Masuoka, Edi Orioli and Stephane Peterhansel have become household names after their participation in the Dakar.
The adventure and the human drama that unfolds during the first two to three weeks each January is both unimaginable and unparalleled. Although essentially a race, Paris-Dakar is much more than a competition to see who finishes first. While the thrill of victory is clear, the agony of defeat is much less defined — just finishing is itself a victory. For the lion's share of participants simply reaching Dakar is the goal. The non-finishers — often as many as half the entrants — add to the reputation Paris-Dakar holds as the world's toughest motorsport competition. Every participant leaves Africa with the story of a lifetime. In the final analysis even completing the challenge matters little. Each time a participant returns home from the desert the notoriety of the rally is further enhanced. The immensity of the Sahara grows larger; the distances become greater; the heat seems more unbearable; and the ruggedness of the terrain that much more difficult. Tales of danger, blinding sandstorms, endless vistas of dunes, incredible hardship, perseverance, tenacity, ingenuity, triumph and tragedy have greatly contributed to the aura and mystique of the rally.
Paris-Dakar takes no prisoners. Many participants have been severely injured and no less than thirty-four people have lost their lives. Only a few days into the Dakar's inaugural running the first death was recorded. Patrick Dodin succumbed to a fractured skull, after crashing near Agadez. Included on the list of fatalities are a number of unfortunate locals — it is a great sadness these individuals didn't make the bargain associated with the danger the fast-moving rally vehicles represent. Even Sabine would see his life cut short by the rally he created. Perhaps it was inevitable that the father of Paris-Dakar would come to a dramatic end. It is hard to imagine the passionate adventurer ending his days with his feet up in front of a television. In 1986, nine years to the day after he had been found in the desert by Jean-Michel Sine, Sabine perished in a helicopter crash during a blinding nighttime sandstorm in the Sahelian Desert near Gourma-Rharous. With Sabine was popular French singer Daniel Balavoine, who was on a humanitarian mission to oversee the installation of water pumps in Malien villages. The three other victims included French journalist Nathaly Odent, radio technician Jean-Paul Le Fur and the Swiss pilot, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud. The tragedy made international headlines and shocked everyone in the rally. Without its creator, the continuity of Paris-Dakar was in jeopardy. But the remaining organizers and participants grouped together and decided the event needed to continue. Everyone agreed it would have been what Thierry wanted. From that day forward the rally has persevered to overcome every hardship and obstacle.
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In its infancy, the Dakar evolved rapidly. Africa's strange customs and people drew the curiosity of many, and soon a burgeoning entry list and accompanying entourage saw more than a thousand people make the trek from Paris. One year to the next the rally grew more professional in organization, higher in profile and of greater importance to sponsors and publicity seekers. The media frenzy that has enveloped the Dakar from its early days has played a key role in the success it has enjoyed and the direction it has taken. Without the intensity of the media attention the rally would be entirely different, and perhaps not even exist at all. Journalists and photographers are an integral part of Paris-Dakar. The intrigue and human drama generated would be lost if the immediate and extensive media coverage was taken out of the equation. Conversely, the window the media coverage has opened on Africa has brought wondrous landscapes and unusual cultures into living rooms worldwide. Millions of people who normally wouldn't be aware of such things have been introduced to African traditions, tribal customs and village life courtesy of Paris-Dakar. Even with amenities improving each year, conditions in Africa are a stark contrast to life in the West. They offer the rally's participants and followers an experience far removed from anything they are accustomed to in Western society.
When Thierry Sabine decided to organize the ultimate off-road adventure, the reason or reasons why were never questioned. There was no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda. It seemed like the thing to do during the era in which it was conceived. Madness, and Paris-Dakar can certainly be viewed as a form of madness, invites no explanations. Sabine's motive was simple and upfront: to take as many people as possible into the desert to experience the immensity of the sand. If a reason for a Paris to Dakar Rally has to be given, basic human nature needs to be brought into the discussion. Humans have an innate desire to compete, to test themselves and to push the limits of what it is to be human. We tend to gravitate to challenges that allow one's true character to reveal itself. In this modern era of carefully orchestrated endeavours, even those considered extreme, an opportunity like Paris-Dakar has become so infrequently available that the rally remains one of the few genuine adventures left to be experienced. It is also human nature to want to observe others in action, especially under extremely arduous conditions. The challenge of the Dakar Rally is like no other. The sheer scale of the desert makes a single human feel like a tiny part of an immense picture. Yet this same single human can also face the desert, overcome the odds and emerge a victor. As the history of the rally has proven, the rewards are there for those who accept the challenge. Lives are changed forever, even for those who don't finish. For the few who do, the rewards are as sweet as they get, and have nothing to do with money. For those who have conquered the Dakar, the deep-seated sense of contentment wanes ever so slowly ... perhaps never. Wilfried Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands, summed it all up like this: "No man can live in the desert and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad."
The Sahara covers nearly one third of the African continent. In Arabic, sahara simply means desert. The Sahara is equal in size to the continental United States — or about twice the size of Europe. Surprising to some is the fact that only about one quarter of the desert is covered by dunes. The majority of this vast dry ocean is composed of rock, gravel or a combination of both. Sedimentary rock makes up a great deal of the desert surface. Sandstone, granite and limestone are most common. Soaring mountain ranges composed of crystalline rock jut from gravel valley floors. In prehistoric times, the Sahara was a lush, vibrant landscape, home to many species of mammals and reptiles. Early man hunted giraffe, leopard and other wild beasts here to eke out a meagre existence. Evidence of this is marked by ancient cave drawings found throughout the desert's expanse. Studying the geology of the region, one can recognize how the earth was formed through volcanic activity and water and wind erosion. The surface of the desert is key to the Dakar Rally. This surface and its ever-changing conditions can pummel machinery into submission and bring even the staunchest competitor to tears. The Sahara presents one of the most formidable climates on earth. Temperatures can exceed 49° C (120° F) and drop well below freezing at night. Rainfall is rare. When it does rain, it can cause flooding of catastrophic proportions. Yet the Sahara, despite its harshness, is anything but an uninhabited wasteland. It is literally teeming with flora and fauna. Millions of people are dispersed over its expanse. Nomadic tribes, existing as they have for centuries, sustaining life on camel or goat's milk or by hunting, call the Sahara home. Tribes such as the Tuareg, Targui, Moors, Nemadi, the "Meat Eaters" of Mauritania and the Teda of Chad occupy this corner of the world.
Insects, reptiles and mammals make their home amongst the rocks, sand, thorny shrubs and trees. Vegetation is largely made up of tufts of long-bladed "camel grass," either Aristida or Jerboa. Low acacia trees, with their tiny green leaves, offer food for camels from above, goats from below, and a bit of shade for herdsmen. Strange-looking, vine-like plants that flourish in sand, Saharan Colocynth, act as ground cover and produce wild melons. These melons can break off from the vine and are then pushed and cajoled by the wind for great distances. Birds occupy the airspace immediately above the desert floor; many species migrate from Europe's northern climate and back each year. Palm groves spring up in oases where villages are located, near the essential source of water. Wells as deep as 300 feet provide the lifeblood for its inhabitants. Date palms produce a rich fruit that is widely traded among the nomadic tribes as a form of currency as well as food. The baobab — the tree of a thousand years — symbolizes the African Sahelian plain. The baobab is leafless for nine months of the year and can grow up to 25 metres (82 ft) tall. The villagers use the tree's bark to fashion rope and its leaves for food or as the basis of a soothing tea. Farther south, well below the Tropic of Cancer, towering deciduous trees provide a ceiling for a sparse savannah. Beneath the canopy, crude irrigation systems allow the earth to be cultivated, although the soil itself is far from rich in nutrients.
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Michelin map No. 953 is the bible of the Paris-Dakar Rally. Detailed in many ways, this map shows much of northwest Africa, where the rally has, for the most part, taken place over the past twenty-six years. The map isn't like the travel maps that represent North America, Europe or other highly travelled areas. Map No. 953 is laced with small symbols, including ones that indicate "good water" locations at prescribed depths, usually between 10 and 30 metres (32-98 ft). Seasonal camel routes across the Tenere Desert are also shown, as are areas where the road may be covered in sand or where the numbered cairns from previous expeditions may no longer be visible. In the lower part of the quadrant, from 8° to 12° east longitude and 20° to 24° north latitude, just below the Tropic of Cancer, a small black triangle indicates the final resting place of Thierry Sabine, the man who gave the world Paris-Dakar. This corner of the Tenere du Tafassasset is hallowed ground for followers of the Dakar. The epitaph engraved on the plaque is simple: For those who go a challenge — for those who stay (home) a dream.
Becoming an off-road racer
From an early age I was attracted to racing and speed. I spent a lot of time riding my bike pretending it was a motorcycle. My fantasy world involved riding a powerful Triumph 500 around town, twisting the throttle, leaning hard into corners and powering out. Playing cards, held in place by a clothespin on the forks so they would rattle against the spokes, provided a roaring exhaust noise.
I was born Lawrence Robert Hacking in Peterborough, Ontario on September 25, 1954, to a father who was a mechanical engineer and mother who was a devoted homemaker. I believe it was my destiny to end up living the life of an adventurer who relies on his own wits as he moves from one challenge to another. My formal education is rather limited. I learned much of what I know in the school of hard knocks. Given that my father Robert was a professional engineer, it's no surprise that my adventures would involve machines. Dad was employed by Atomic Energy of Canada and worked on the country's nuclear energy programs. During the early 1960s we lived in Deep River, Ontario. Dad was part of a team that developed the candu reactor, a successful, safe, nuclear power producer that was sold around the world. The initial development of this reactor was done at Chalk River in the 1950s, at a research facility that drew scientists from far and wide to test theories and break new ground in nuclear energy. Dad instilled in me many fundamental values very early on. One thing he taught me was to always do things the right way.
My mother, Alexandra, descends from hardy pioneer stock. Her parents immigrated from Romania in the early 1900s and settled in the formidable landscape of northwestern Manitoba. At the age of fifteen, in 1905, my grandfather George Burla came across the Atlantic by ship with his father. Sadly, Canadian Immigration turned my great grandfather back for having a sty in his eye. Although Grandpa was prepared to return to Romania, too, he was encouraged by his selfless father to stay behind and make his future in the New World. Grandpa took up the challenge and made his way to the Assissippi Valley near Russell, Manitoba. Here, he hewed a log cabin out of trees and built it on the 160 acres the government had granted him. He sired nine children and built a farming/cattle ranch empire that spread across most of the land in his immediate area. The majority of his children married and settled on one of his farms nearby. Some of these grandchildren still live and work that land to this day. I spent many happy summers in the Asessippi Valley, helping with the haying during the scorching months of July and August, and playing with my many cousins when time allowed. From Mom I got my grandparents' drive and determination, and a firm belief in myself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from To Dakar and Back by Lawrence Hacking, Wil De Clercq. Copyright © 2008 Lawrence Hacking and Wil De Clercq. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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