By Felipe Trueba
The first Dakar Rally took place in 1978 starting in Paris and finishing in the Senegalese city of Dakar. With the passing of time, the Paris-Dakar Rally has become the most famous race of its type, only available to wealthy motor loving adventurers. In 2008 the competition was cancelled at the very last minute due to terrorist threats in the African stages. The French organization decided to change continent and from 2009 this rally has been racing through South America.
The Dakar is not exactly a rally, it is more of a raid, as for two weeks professionals and amateurs (80% of the pilots) battle through different terrains in four categories – motorbikes, quads, cars and trucks. During the first two weeks of January, around 430 participants try to complete more than 10.000 kilometers riding off-road in scorching heat.
This year the course did a loop – starting in Buenos Aires, across the Andes into Chile and then heading north along the Pacific coast to the city of Iquique. From there it takes a short dip into the saltflat in Uyuni, Bolivia, and into the Atacama Desert again, before heading back to the Argentinean capital.
This was my third full coverage of the race. I have worked on big events such as the Olympic Games or the Football World Cup but nothing compares to the Dakar, by far the most demanding assignment I have done as a press photographer. It wears you down physically and it´s a constant headache in terms of covering it for a news agency where the quick sending of images is a must.
I have the privilege to be part of a very small group of photographers that work embedded in the race. Colleagues of other agencies covered it by helicopter but I did it by car. I traveled in a 4×4 vehicle provided by the organization, equipped with competition seats and anti-roll bars – special safety measures for off-road driving that makes the car a very uncomfortable space where we (two photographers and two drivers) spent an average of ten to twelve hours a day.
A normal day “in the office”: Each night photojournalists and drivers get together to examine the next day’s stage and choose a spot on the track to wait for the competitors. The route that the pilots follow is secret and the organization only provides three or four press points. These points are GPS coordinates that competitors have to pass. We would calculate the distance to that press point and how long it would take us to get there, most of the time off-road. Once we get to the spot, we wait. At some point the competitors will whiz past us (not much margin for error), we will shoot the pictures and then move on to the next bivouac.
You get up at 4 am, drive for hours to a single GPS point (in stages that average 800 km), take pictures, move on, arrive at the camp at night, send your images, have something to eat and sometimes a shower, have a nap, wake up in the middle of the night and start all over again.
That´s the easy part.
But there are times when you wait for hours at the press point and nothing happens because the stage has been modified. Another day you drive for four, five, six hours to get there and you miss the leading pilots by just three minutes. Sometimes you are on top of a dune and competitors drive past the next one – surrounded by sandy hills, you hear their engines but you don’t see them. You try to catch up with them by running up a big dune with two cameras on your shoulders and other gear. Good luck with that. Two hundred meters is a very long distance in the desert.
Filing pictures is another nightmare. In those remote places forget about wi-fi or any normal internet connection. I usually file the most important pictures with a satellite phone and the rest back at the bivouac when we arrive at night, way past the deadlines in Europe.
A good night’s sleep is something you cherish after just two days into the competition. I think I sleep an average of four hours each night. After three days I don’t even bother to open my sleeping bag and I am able to have a nap on top of just about anything – hard sand, rocks, you name it. After the initial tiredness your body adapts to the challenge. You have micro sleeps, travelling in the car or sitting on a rock waiting for the race. Two weeks after the end of the rally I am still not able to sleep six hours straight.
You and your gear suffer. A lot. Everything is permanently covered in dust and it doesn´t take long before your lenses sound like sand grinders. The cameras overheat and start malfunctioning in temperatures reaching 40ºC. Two weeks in the desert and your laptop is ruined. Guaranteed.
But then again I enjoy the Dakar for the adventure it is. Every day is different, with plenty of anecdotes, beautiful sunsets, and some extraordinary scenery that lifts your spirit. This year I crossed the Andes four times in less than a week and felt privileged to experience a sunrise in the middle of Uyuni´s famous saltflat. You are alone out there – no internet, no phone, no way to be contacted. But best of all, no health and safety rules. Out in the wild, nobody tells you where to stand or what to do. It’s you against a 300 HP beast coming roaring towards you. You decide if you move aside or not.
I reckon I have traveled over 30.000 kilometers covering this race during the last three years. One more Dakar and I will have completed the equivalent of a full trip around the world, chasing cars and pilots through mountains and deserts.
I have suffered and enjoyed every meter of it.