Dakar Day 7: Hilly thrills: Iquique – Antofagasta

Jan 9, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Activities, Motorcycle adventures

A fresh day, a fresh body after our rest day and ocean cleansing, 530km ahead of us.

It was an early start riding out of Iquique, with the sun yet to rise and a light mist along the Oceanside road south.  A left turn inland took us onto a narrower, winding uphill, with sand on the corners to keep us alert.  We got to the race checkpoint well ahead of the first race vehicle, so Will, Q and others went and played large dirt bikes in the sand.

This checkpoint was remote, and so we got to see the process and the action close without any crowd.  The bikes were first to arrive, and they had a mandatory 15 minute rest, refuel and then off.  The Red Bull bikes were the first 2 in, and as the day progressed and we got to see each head back into the desert and towards the nearby sand hill climb, we really got a sense of how much faster the leaders were.  Around an hour later the Red Bull VWs came roaring into the checkpoint.  For them it was a power slide into a corner, a violent stop, a tap by the official on the window, and they were off again, dust flying in all directions.  Then our favorites, the trucks!  You could see them coming from miles away, the dirt thrown high into the air, and a speck in the distance quickly became an enormous vehicle.  Some nervous bike riders had these giant flying lumps of metal roaring up behind them, and there were some close calls at the checkpoint as bikes rolled into the rest stop while the larger vehicles merely did a dirty Californian stop.

After a couple of hours we changed vantage points, so headed into the desert towards the top of the sand hill.  I was nervous about the sandy hill climb, but got a real sense of achievement when made it to the top.  The vantage point from there was highlight of the race watching for the entire trip.  While photos and video don’t do justice to the steepness of the hill, it was a multi stage climb, with knee deep silty sand, which got more and more cut up and difficult as the larger vehicles came through.  Racers would fly along the flat from the checkpoint, building speed towards the hill.  The crowd up there would roar with anticipation as a bike or quad was chased by a large SUV or truck, the wiser riders pulling over to allow the metal madness to move ahead, or wiser still looking for the side of the hill through untracked sand.  Some came close to us, an SUV driving on the side of the hill on a wild angle, its navigator likely looking at the ground only inches away.  At one point two trucks raced towards the hill, one suddenly veering away, and pointing directly at us.  Unlike the others, this one didn’t change direction, and flew up at full speed, engine powering, and as many of us ran towards the “safety” of our bikes on top of the hill, we came face to face with the grill of the truck.  Somehow it came right through the middle of all the bikes, an official truck, and many spectators, without taking out anything on the way, and flew back off the other side.  Laughter and adrenalin all around.  It was a couple of hours of really getting to see what crazy terrain the racers have to deal with, and experiencing what the vehicles and the drivers are capable of.

I was on an 800 GS today, which gave me more confidence on the sand back down the hill and to the road.  For others there were problems: Roger tore a big hole in the bottom of his 650 engine, and Kevan ripped his engine off its mounts, likely from a sand lump jump.  Back on the road to the coast a high speed back wheel lock up coming into a corner put me on edge, and the next 2 hours nerves were high as howling winds along the coast beat us and Condors flew overhead.  It was only when Q fell back to ride with me that I was able to gain a sense of calm over urgent mileage consumption, his kung fu aura and upright riding position nice to follow.  I was the first to run out of gas, and my camelbak was sacrificed to become a siphon, taking gas from Q’s tanker 1200 GSA.  Of course as soon as Q had washed his mouth out with gas to refill me the tail truck appeared with gas cans on board!

When we all pulled into Tocopilla for gas, many having needed a top up along the final few miles, it was pure mayhem.  We were in there with racers of all vehicles, and this was probably the biggest thing this little, poor Chilean coastal town had ever seen.  Photos and autographs were requested, mothers pushing their young children into the arms of racers and our group alike.

It was then another 230km to Antofagasta.  This part of the ride was more enjoyable.  Coastline with fingers of dark rock, like trees sprouting from the desert earth, contrasted against the azure sea.  Huge sand cliffs rose like giants on the other side, with occasional crazy roads zig zagging up the face, access for trucks to get to mining sites.  Huge condors swooped and circled, casting shadows as big as our bikes.  It was sad to leave the coast as we headed inland to Antofagasta.  It was another 12 hour plus day, and we all arrived hot, dust encrusted, and exhausted.  I’d like to get off please!

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