Skip to main content

The Dakar Rally: Fear and loathing in South America

By Tom McGowan, for CNN
  • Dakar Rally will be raced for the third time in South America in January
  • Endurance event starts and ends in Argentina, also heading into northern Chile
  • The race moved from Africa in 2009 due to security concerns after tourist murders
  • Its creator died in a helicopter crash in Mali during the 1986 staging

(CNN) -- Born in the scorching sands of Africa, motorsport's ultimate endurance event will once again test the mettle of some of the world's bravest drivers this month.

Its late creator described it as "a challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind" -- and the Dakar Rally has lost none of its daring appeal since moving to South America three years ago.

On Saturday, 407 vehicles -- cars, motorcycles, trucks and quad bikes -- lined up on Buenos Aires' Avenue of July 9 to begin a 15-day trek through the Andes mountains and Atacama desert into northern Chile, then back down into Argentina.

The race has been contested since 1978, after Frenchman Thierry Sabine lost his way during the previous year's Abidjan-Nice rally.

Sabine was so captivated by his experience in the Libyan Desert that he sought to create an event where competitors could enjoy such a stunning setting, and the Paris-Dakar rally was born -- a grueling 6,000-mile route from France to Senegal.

This race breaks people, it makes grown men cry. It takes the lives of top riders ... It is a brutal test of endurance
--2010 entrant Tamsin Jones

It has enjoyed a rich and varied history, with moments of triumph and tragedy punctuating its 32-year story.

In 1986, its founding father Sabine died along with four others in a helicopter crash in Mali during the eighth edition of the race.

Then 22 years later, four French tourists were murdered in the north-African country of Mauritania, and following terrorist threats the 29th staging was duly canceled as competitors gathered in the Portuguese city of Lisbon for pre-race scrutineering.

In the wake of those events, race organizers decided to relocate the rally for the following year, so the Dakar moved to a new continent in 2009.

Sainz claims Dakar title from Al-Attiyah

One competitor who knows all about the event's challenges is Tamsin Jones, who finished 87th out of 88 riders in the motorbike category in 2010 to become only the second British woman to complete the race.

"There were times when I loved it, times I hated it and times when I was terrified. Actually by the end of the rally I was terrified nearly every day," she told CNN.

"The guys I used to ride with always talked about the Dakar, and I remember how awesome it looked when I first watched it on the television. It was the adventure and endurance challenge that really got me.

"To me and the people I ride with, it is the biggest motorbike challenge in the world."

Jones admits that the only thing that kept her going was "the fear" that she would have to return in 2011 if she did not finish the race.

Spectator in Argentina dies after being struck by vehicle

"I was so happy to finish," the 38-year-old said. "I don't think anyone realizes what goes into preparing for the rally. I started with no funds and no mechanical knowledge.

"I ended up with over $60,000 of sponsorship, and I was able to strip the back-end of my Yamaha and clean the carburetor in the desert, in the dark."

Despite its route through hard-to-reach locations, Jones said crowds flocked to watch the race.

"Thousands of people get whipped up into frenzy. Most of the first couple of days' spectators is lining the whole course," she said.

"Day one in 2010 was over 300 kilometers and literally the whole route was lined with crowds, they were swarming onto the motorways."

And what can any potential competitors expect if they front up to the start line?

"It's an unbelievable experience. This race breaks people, it makes grown men cry. It takes the lives of top riders. You put your life and everyone's around you on hold for a year so you can do a two-week race," Jones said.

"It is a brutal test of endurance where you have to dig deeper than you ever have before to get to the end. I've got to say I'm actually still traumatized by it. It's the hardest thing I've ever done."