Desert racers are a hardy bunch and those that take on the challenge of the Africa Eco Race from the south of France to Dakar are some of the toughest riders and drivers there are. The glaring African sun, extreme hot and cold temperatures, hours in the saddle or behind the wheel, for day after day on the most difficult routes… but in the heart of the desert there is one thing that brings everything to a stop; the wind. I don’t mean a stiff breeze that takes away the burn of the sun or a few gusts that flap the walls of the tents… but a full on gale that started up yesterday evening that was blasting the sand against our skin as we waited in vain for the race to come past. Out in the stages the wind blows the sand up the dunes and gives the impression that they are about 6 inches higher than they really are… which makes drivers think that they have to go faster up them… Of course this is dangerous situation and so Rene Metge cancelled the route on safety grounds.
And so it was a leisurely breakfast covered in dust at Sergei Savenko’s table this morning . With a snap of his fingers coffee was ordered from his mechanics and beer was offered for breakfast. He was in a good mood even though he had a full systems failure yesterday and retired on the stage. “It was all going OK, we were well up but then the buggy died with a hydraulic failure and there was nothing we could do. But we are here, that’s the most important thing, enjoying life with good friends… apart from the mechanic who made the mistake… we executed him last night!”
At the table was Andrei Rusov who is sometimes a co-driver for Savenko, sometimes a mechanic for the TranSpecNaz team, and he had a good explanation about why the drivers can only say ‘fine’ and ‘all was OK’ to me about a stage that was over 400km long. “When you are a top driver all of your focus is on the road 10 or 20 metres ahead looking out for rocks, holes and other things that might hurt the car or pitch it out of the centre of the road,” he said. “When you are driving somewhere near the maximum you are in what we call the ‘zone’ and there is no other moment apart from ‘now’ so time and distance mean nothing and every moment or near miss is instantly forgotten because all of your concentration is forever on what is just about to come. So even a 414km stage fades into a blur of speed and dust, marked only by a few instances of getting lost, having a puncture, getting stuck or worrying that something is wrong with the car. If you get to the end of the stage with a perfectly respectable time with no really problems then the answer to the question the journalist asks you is ‘everything was fine’ because you actually didn’t register anything else.”
I wish all drivers were so eloquent!
When all the whisky and vodka bottles from last night’s party were cleaned up we set off again on the tarmac road through the featureless desert until we got to the capital city of Nouakchott. The Mauritanian government seem to be performing some kind of large scale social experiment to see how people can live in a post-apocolyptic wasteland where there is no water or discernible infrastructure. Battered carsthat look like they are from the set of Mad Max 3 clog the streets, food vendors sell fruit and meat in clouds of flies and shepherds throw rocks at their goats as they forage at the sides of the city centre roads…
A few hundred metres further south and our bivouac awaits with the semi circle of nomad tents already set up. For the first time people have enough time to sit around and just chat and the atmosphere is much more relaxed than normal… we’ll be in Senegal tomorrow… Dakar is close!
Tomorrow’s stage is a 280km blast through the dunes, and there are teams out practising around the camp and after that it is just the final 23km run along the beach and the fabled Pink Lake