Dakar Day 3: High Drama

Jan 5, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Activities, Motorcycle adventures

Dakar canyon quad

Fear is often a part of adventure.  But sometimes its just not that enjoyable.

A few hours after my police station experience I was woken by the roar of an engine, echoing between the walls of the mountain gorge and the hotel.  With bleary eyes I stumbled out of my room and the few feet to the edge of the road, to see the first motorcycles flying up the hill, on the way to the first high pass and the Chilean border.

Too soon, it was time to go.  The team had replaced the chain on my bike, and at 10am were we setting off for a refuel down the hill.  High clouds hung over the valley, and for the first time this trip the sun didn’t beat down, which was unfortunate given that we had 15,000 feet of climb ahead of us.  As we started our ascent I was tempted to pull back into the adobe, its calm grounds and swimming pool beckoning as a siren would to a weary sailor, but the next experience awaited. 

A few miles up the hill rain poured down on us, testing our gear, the waterproof-ness of the riding pants failing miserably.  For the next 1.5 hours we proceeded uphill, through innumerable switchbacks, fog and rain giving a visibility of no more than 50 feet, mud running across the road on corners, small landslides pushing rocks onto the road.  The skills we learnt at the Rawhyde camp were being put to the test, as was our nerve as we overtook trucks forced to go slow by the conditions and tight corners.  We were in a convoy with the Dakar racers!   We crested the top, and as we descended to a large, flat plain below us the clouds parted and the sun graced us.  Little traffic, no wind and a good road led to a new personal high speed moto record of 150km/hr, the faster riders in the group averaging around 180.

Lunch was in a spectacular location – salt flats, baked and cracked in the searing high altitude sun.  Lunch was an almost celebratory affair, with some hilarious photo poses, and a ready supply of cocoa leaves (which some of the team were VERY excited to try).  The leaves are placed in the cheek, like chewing tobacco, and held there for a long time, allowing saliva to draw out the natural chemicals.  The effect is meant to be a general sense of wellbeing, focus and natural high.  The excuse to use it is that “locals” have used it for centuries to combat altitude sickness.  To me it tasted like grass clippings, and I’d got through higher altitudes in India without anything, but gave it a try anyway (with little effect for me).

Off we went, climbing out of the salt flats and upwards.  Around 4 we hit the border between Argentina and Chile.  I had some knowledge of Argentina customs challenges previously in business, but had expected the Dakar Rally to create some more ease.  I couldn’t have been more wrong, as we experienced more than 4 hours of the most ridiculous beauracracy ever, involving multiple stages, stamps and false starts.  We were at a high altitude already, and people were experiencing mental and physical stress.  Our greatest issues now were: (a) it was 9pm and dark; (b) we had a 15000 foot pass and 250 miles of riding ahead of us; and (c) our oldest member, Vic, had somehow got across the border and had already mistakenly headed off up the road, thinking that one of our vehicles was in the lead.  There were no contingency plans in place, and I suggested that the luggage van should be sweep, as it at least had everyone’s clothes and sleeping bags if needed.  It turned out to be a comforting tool later that night.

The next 5 hours were some of the scariest, most dangerous, most stupid of my life.  In retrospect we should have set up camp on the other side of the border, but once we set off we were committed.  We climbed up over 15000 feet, and we stayed high for a long, long time.  The clear skies quickly sucked the heat from the earth.  Heated grips on the BMW helped my palms, but the top of my hands in summer gloves were frozen.  In pre tour briefing we were told to expect hot conditions the whole way, an incredibly incorrect statement.  Somewhere ahead of us Vic was alone, cold and in the dark.  The front wheels pointed up, the climate gauge on the bike plummeted down.  25 C to 15 to 5 to 0 to -5 to -10 to -15 degrees.  Each downhill section brought hope that the main descent was ahead, and warmer temperatures with it, but time after time a dip was followed by another climb.

The wind became dramatic, constantly batting from the side.  On one of the highest passes we stopped, and Juli, on her tall 800, was blown over towards an oncoming truck.  She was physically fine, but clearly freaked out by the incident.  Our lead, Kevan, made the clear point that we had to get off the mountain, so the bike was left beside the road (we thought hidden, but it was never seen again).  It was no longer an adventure ride, it was a true matter of survival of a large group of exposed people.

A little further on, at the bottom of a steep gulley with a sharp left hand turn, a blue 650 BMW lay, smashed blue panels beside large rocks.  Vic’s bike!  Pitch blackness, bitter cold, and no Vic in sight.  There was no note, no evidence of where he was, no tracks to indicate he had wandered off into the high desert.  At least there was no blood.  Nothing.  Nothing but to quickly leave to attempt to get everyone else off the frigid mountain in one piece.

The cold, and possibly the altitude, took its toll on me.  I lost all perception of gradient.  Following a bike light confused me, so where I could I’d pursue large trucks, their grids of rear lights helping me to focus and tell what was up and down.  But on the long uphills they were just too slow, and without the benefit of a heated cabin I had to pass, fearing they would run me down on the next descent.  I knew that hypothermia would get me before the altitude, so I slowed to around 80km/hr, as at that speed I figured I could at least react.  At one point, on a road with no markings (and of course no lights) I sensed an invisible corner.  Sure enough, had I not braked hard enough I would have plunged off into a dark abyss as the road curved away from me.

The cold, the wind, the risk, continued for what appeared an eternity.  In reality it was probably around 3 hours.   I truly feared for my life, and I was very conscious of the focus I had to give to managing my mental state and physical sensation.  My vision continued to add to the challenge, seeing double whenever there was any light, but stopping was not an option.  It was certainly beyond any adventure I’d willingly signed up for.

Eventually a long, long descent brought a slow rise in temperature, and the sense of survival.  By now it was nearly midnight.  I had no idea how far behind the group I was, but when I saw city lights felt elation with the hope of an end.  At the bottom of the mountain it was 90 degrees, and the crew waited.  We stopped for a scant few minutes, but I’d already missed the explanation that our destination was a further hour away.  Unfortunately it was uphill again, and as we climbed my cold and vision issues returned, this time with starbursts from oncoming lights and bright signs.  The most unpleasant riding experience of my short riding life.

At 1pm we arrived at the Calama hotel, via a nearby detour that involved tiny back streets, barred windows and vicious packs of dogs that chased us.  I thought how ironic it would be to have survived the epic high pass ride, and then die from the bite of a rabid dog.  Filthy, exhausted beyond comprehension, aged 20 years, I fell into a coma sleep.


Life threatening day look



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