Dreaming of the Dakar Rally

January 27, 2011

Giniel de Villiers of South Africa (bottom L) drives his Volkswagen Touareg during the twelfth stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011, from San Juan to Cordoba January 14, 2011.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Since the creation of The Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979, I’d always dreamed of one day covering this extraordinary adventure.

Each year, I would follow the televised summaries of this rally race that traversed exceptional landscapes. So when I was asked to cover this event I didn’t have to think on it for long! It was with a feeling of excitement and trepidation that I embarked on this adventure.

A competitor rides in the dunes during the sixth stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011 from Iquique to Arica January 7, 2011.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

I was warned that physically it would be difficult.

Life on the Dakar Rally is nomadic as every day we change camp. Using only basic comforts (sanitary and portable toilets), each night we pitched our tents in a noisy campsite, as all night the motorcycle, car and truck teams would repair and prepare the machines for the next day’s stage.

Motorcycle competitors arrive at the checkpoint of the start of the 11th stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally, from Chilecito to San Juan January 13, 2011.   REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

After transmitting our pictures for the day and after a brief shower (close to 2,000 people were in the camp), we would make our way to the mess hall for dinner. Under tents open to the four winds, competitors, journalists and mechanics came together in a relaxed atmosphere. The stars of the big teams are in the same boat, so it was not uncommon to eat next to the winners of 2011, Marc Comas et Nasser Al-Attiya.

That’s the spirit of Dakar.

A mechanic sleeps in the bivouac before the third stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011 from Tucuman to Jujuy, January 4, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The nights are short with a wakeup call at five in the morning. We must prepare ourselves in order to take off with our photo helicopters belonging to the Argentine and Chilean armies right at sunup. It’s a Bell helicopter like the ones used in the Vietnam war, in which five photographers are taken to cover the race. The media represented are Reuters, AP, AFP, the newspaper l’Équipe and the sports agency DPPI.

Attached in harnesses during the open-doored flights, we’re placed side-by-side on the right side of the vehicle. There’s not a lot of room to move as this is a military helicopter. Two pilots and two mechanics make up the flight team, whose job it is to look out for places to land in terrain that isn’t always welcoming. Each morning, using the course road book, we discuss points where we’ll either land or fly over. We have to consider flight times and fuel reserves. Often we would drop and, to save time, would ask the pilot to go and refuel in order to be ready to continue our day.

Cyril Despres of France rides his KTM during the third stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011 from Tucuman to Jujuy, January 4, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Landing in soft sand dunes is a big deal. The pilots can circle for around 10 minutes before finding a place to land. Often we would be put down two kilometers from the race course and would have to walk with our equipment towards the GPS point. Walking in the sand and scaling the dunes equates to doubling the distance in heat that often reached almost 52 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit).

Reuters photographer Eric Gaillard (front) walks across the sand dunes during the seventh stage of the 2011 Argentina-Chile Dakar Rally between Arica and Antofagasta, Chile, January 9, 2011. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

But the reward is there: the fabulous scenery, white sand dunes, black mountains, red canyons and fantastic aerial views. It’s not always easy to photograph, given the small size of our space in the helicopter.

Spectators attend the ninth stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011 from Copiapo to Copiapo January 11, 2011.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Back to the newsroom – a white tent where the temperature is around 45 degrees (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade – the computer would no longer boot up and my camera batteries were no longer charging because of the heat. Then a sandstorm began, and my equipment was no longer working. Dust was getting into everything. We’ll have to improvise — that’s the Dakar adventure!

A spectator greets KTM pilot Emanuel Sulem of France during the first stage of the third South American edition of the Dakar Rally 2011 from Victoria to Cordoba January 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Eric Gaillard


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Man, you deserve the golden medal… I’m a semi pro photographer shooting mostly cars (marintomas.com) and that’s how I stumbled upon you images from Dakar on Boston Global web site. I wrote down your name because every single photo that amazed me there was yours. And now I goggled you and read what was going on behind those magnificent images. I must tell you – I admire you for son many reason I don’t know where to begin. Shooting this at 52 degrees! With four other guys in a cramped helicopter. Bi ref shower and even briefer sleep. Plus, your equipment falling apart. And yet, you shot all those breath taking images in just perfectly timed moment with fantastic compositions and impressive sights. Man, you are the king… :-)

Posted by MarinTomas | Report as abusive

Beautiful photography!

I am still new to adventure motorcycling, having only ridden for three years as I post this, but the breathtaking images you have captured make me want to jump on my bike (nevermind the snow outside!) and ride to Dakar *right now*!

Posted by AK-Vstrom | Report as abusive