Dakar Day 10: Dirty High – Copiapo to Chilecito

Jan 13, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Activities, Motorcycle adventures, travel essays


Mentally I’d prepared for the Paso de San Francisco.  Physically, the day before beside the pool had left me rested.  But no amount of yoga focus or sleep could have prepared me for the reality.

A 5am start in the dark, and we flew towards the mountains, moto and quad racers alongside us.  Gathering at the base of the first climb, at the start of the dirt road, the first light of day started to show.  The plan was to get over the pass early, so as not to be completely mixed up with the Dakar convoy.  That plan, (what a surprise), failed.

The scenery was spectacular, the light rising slowly at the tip of the mountains ahead of us.  On the first sharp corner, a mix of hard packed dirt and light sand, I came around to find Juli frantically waving her arms, her bike in the middle of the road facing 180 degrees.  It was the first of a number of falls Juli had during the day, and my admiration for her spirit and toughness grew throughout the day as time after time she got up, dusted herself off, and kept going.

Soon the road got more twisty, softer and sand traps on corners.  Unfortunately, at the same time the larger vehicles appeared.  This stage of the journey was meant to be a “Liaison”, a section of movement to the real race start across the border.  There are supposed to be “rules of engagement” on such sections as it is not closed to public movement, but any such rules appeared to be completely disregarded.  My first exposure to this occurred as I carefully came into a very sandy corner, only to have the lead Red Bull VW fly in behind me, totally sideways doing about 100, and accelerated out and into the next corner, sending a jet like a fire hose of sand, dirt and little rocks flying into my helmet, eyes and mouth.  I wasn’t sure to think that it was cool to get this close to the leader, or be pissed off at the disregard to my safety, but ended up simply being relieved to have stayed upright.

Soon after the trucks started. I was fairly pleased with handling the deep sand corners, especially when I managed to get through a section where a racer had fallen and was being helped out by our crew (which included waving down the trucks to slow down so as not to run him over).

For hours, it became sand, gravel, brief solid dirt respite, and then deeper sand.  The race traffic became heavier, and the sand and silt so light that it would stay in the air endlessly, creating white-outs where eyes burned and throats dried up.  It took constant effort to remember the skills advice: “look where you want to go, keep your eyes and chest up”.  It works, as long as you can see where you want to go.  It was a different kind of fear to the long torture of our night pass ride earlier in the week – this was one of instantaneous battling of a current situation.  And there was a real sense of ongoing achievement, even though there was an incredibly strong desire for it to end.

At the Chilean border crossing I felt a sense of elation, and light-headedness (16,000 feet will do that to you).  I thought that the challenge was over, and that the tar road of the descent into Argentina awaited.  Wrong!  We were in no-man’s land.  It was many more miles to the Argentinian border, and the road got worse, especially as the car and truck traffic increased.  Silt would hide deep, hard ruts.  There was no way to know exactly how deep something was, or what lay below the surface.  In one giant sandpit many of our best riders went down – Will somehow managing to swerve to avoid collision, as did a race truck that somehow managed a 90 degree turn over an embankment as if it was nothing.  I got through that part by sheer ass, likely not knowing what I was going through due to the truck strewn dust.  But later on it finally came apart – 3 race trucks went by me, each one getting closer.  The last only a foot or so from my shoulder.  The dust was like a complete white out.  I couldn’t see a thing for about 20 seconds, and then all I could see was down.  I found myself flying – projected off my bike as the front wheel grabbed and headed to the ground – to be stopped by a dirt embankment about 6 feet away.  Head first, then the rest of me.  I heard a crack of impact.  It rung my bell, and I sat roadside for a moment to assess my situation.  Covered in sand from head to toe, but I was OK, thanks to my helmet and body armor.  Once the dust from the trucks settled the scene seemed disappointing.  While there was sand, and the bike lay in the road, without the presence of 30 tons of speeding vehicle it seemed almost innocuous, as if it should never have happened.  The point of my shoulder hurt a bit, but other than that nothing a good washing machine couldn’t fix.

John came along and helped me get the bike up, and off we went again, although now definitely with nerves high.  Soon after came across Cliff, Randy and Charlie.  Cliff was experiencing the impact of the altitude, and had fainted.  Charlie, a trauma surgeon, was a comforting person to have on the tour, and he assisted Cliff to regain his breath and composure.

Further on another fall, this one a slow one and really just rolled onto the side of a bank as trucks edged me into it.  Thanks to 3 cool Brazilian riders, we got the bike up, one of them asking questions that clearly indicated he wanted to check that I was mentally ok after the crash, although all the dirt on me had come from the earlier one.

So enamored with the trucks earlier in the week, I now loathed them – it was as if whenever I hit sand a magnet drew a truck in with me.  Dune buggies and cars also flew past.  A niggling headache remained at all times, the product of either the altitude, crash, or both.  A visual relief occurred at a brilliant blue lake, higher than seems possible, with white salt edges and a backdrop of gold  hills.  Rumoured to be a lake of arsenic, some people were alarmed when Will looked like he was going to touch it.

16000 foot arenic lake

Keen to get down, unfortunately there was a further 30km of dirt, dust, silt and gravel left.  It was exhausting, and the traffic high.  John, Juli and I rode together, finding a side track with less trucks on it.  There was salt in the dust, and it covered my face.  My skin felt like that of a lizard.  We got word that the Rawhyde showtruck was broken, something about a broken axle.  Other vehicles were seen stranded in the sand, bikes were dropped on a regular basis.

Finally, we reached the Argentine border, and with it the usual pointless hassle, although this time just for an hour.  Danielle and Juli had to be put on oxygen, and we were all glad to get through.  A few mile on the beloved asphalt – John stopped to kiss it.  The tarred road brought a change of scenery (although not of focus as many of the corners had gravel due to the trucks dragging it from the roadside).  Bright gold tufts of grass, salt flats at the base of rugged, black mountains.  For the next few hours it constantly changed.  I was riding by myself, the steering on my bike really problematic, so doing any more than 30 in a corner proved scary.  Switchback roads, the first green seen in over a week, a small river, stone block shacks, wild donkeys and horses casually blocking the road.  The final descent was into one of the most spectacular narrow canyon rides anywhere in the world, with bright red rock pressing in and over the road, sharp-ridged rock formations like the backs of dragons, narrow tar with sharp corners and cliffs down to water below.  Doing it by myself, and at my own speed, even with the exhaustion of the day and bike problems was mostly enjoyable.

Then out of the canyon, and a large plain and the town of Fiambala was laid out below.  The temperature rose quickly, becoming a blast furnace.  The wind rose with the temp, become superheated.  I could see dust devils of all sizes whipping across the plains.  Unfortunately one came my way – a whirling body of spinning air around 60 feet high and 20 feet across hit me, bashing me with pebbles and carrying me from one side of the road to the other.  Truly a terrifying momentary battle with nature, but I managed to stay on the road, on the bike and by now just wanted off.  I rolled into the gas station, physically and mentally exhausted, a sense of pride at surviving, but completely unable to ride any further.  More bikes had blown up, and so mine was needed.  Relieved, I handed it over to Raffael.

There was actually 240km more to go, including more dirt, and not enough light left in the day.  A group made a run for it, finding the road deep with sand.  Focus was put on repairing the truck, food and shelter a secondary priority, and tempers flared as disorganization reigned.  Rest brought pain to my shoulder.  Darkness brought a solution – the night would be spent in 2 local houses.  Dinner at the nearest café was a form of meat that looked as if it had been peeled from the road after the race trucks tenderized it, but sleep was everyone’s desire.  On a lumpy, saggy bed, loaded up with pain killers, I had my best night’s sleep of the tour.

For Quinn’s video take on the day:


Did you like this? Share it:

Got anything to say? Go ahead and leave a comment!

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>