Motor racing in the Atacama Desert!
13.01.2010 30 °C
After the craziness of New Year, I have been road tripping through Chile for almost two weeks now this is basically what I have been up to:
2nd Jan – set off for the Chilean coast, Vina del Mar (3 nights). Ate lots of seafood empanadas and visited Valpariso the twin city to Vina, a quaint little run down city with lots of coloured houses.
5th – Said goodbye to Ricardo and Jen, Sophia and I set off for the North for 3 nights in La Serena. Visited the Punta Chorus National Park saw Dolphins, Sea lions, Seals and Penguins!
Bahia is a small tourist town on the Northern Chilean coast popular for surfers and my absolute favourite place in Chile so far. Sophia had kindly arranged for us to camp in front of her friend’s house, on a beautiful sandy beach less than 10 meters from the sea. It was quite simply spectacular! I love camping anyway but there is something quite special about camping on a white sandy beach and waking up to the sound of waves lapping the shore in the morning. Another thing quite special about this place that I have never observed before it is a place where the desert and the sea meet. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world and starts from La Serena (N.Chilean coast ~5 hours north of Santiago) and stretches all the way north into Peru. It is quite strange for me that one minute you can be sunbathing on a beautiful beach and a five minute drive inland and you reach rolling desert hills – amazing. One of my favourite things about travelling is the surprises you get from being in the right place at the right time. After arriving in Bahia we learnt that the Dakar was taking place in the desert 20 km from Bahia and we were invited to go along with a group of Sophia’s friends. I am not familiar with Motor racing but in the racing world apparently it is a big deal. It is named the Dakar because it previously took place in Dakar in Africa but they are unable to host it in the Sahara anymore and so last year it was moved to Chile and is set to stay here. It is basically a motor race through the desert for motorcycles, cars and small trucks. However the interesting thing about the race is that there is no set route, they are given certain marker points and they have to use their GPS systems to find the best way through the desert. Now here is the fun part, the spectators are not given any precise information about the location of the race so if you want to observe it it’s a bit of a guessing game. Not being a fan of motor racing I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but was more than happy to go along for the ride and boy was it a ride to remember. We set off early on the morning of the 10th in Sophia’s truck. Unfortunately however there was some confusion and we realised that the truck was not actually four wheel drive and so we wouldn’t actually be able to drive it into the desert. There was a bit of a panic but we got lucky and managed to hitch a ride with a fearless Chilean who had a four wheel drive and two spare seats in the back. It seems no GPS system for a Chilean is required. I’m not quite sure how but it seems that they have some internal radar they all know exactly where to go to get to the best spot to observe the passing vehicles. It was all rather tense, dramatic and exciting. To try to paint a picture you have scorching desert, blue sky, hundreds of trucks doted all over the desert, people on motorbikes and quad bikes, people camped out with tents, BBQ’s going, music blasting out from cars – oh and as you can imagine the odd rescue mission or two. People tend to get a little overexcited and it’s not uncommon for some trucks to roll. We saw one of these rescue missions taking place – I don’t need to describe it the picture says it all but everyone got out safely and they managed to get the truck upright eventually!
As we were racing over sand dunes at what felt like more than 100km/hr it really was quite terrifying, thrilling and comical all at the same time. The drama was further intensified by a running commentary of the race being blasted from the car stereo, accompanied by music that sounded like it would be appropriate in a Star Wars film or a Sony Playstation game. While all this was taking place I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a real life version of Mario Karts hence the comical part.
Even stranger was the fact in the middle of the desert we managed to run into the people that had invited us along. There were about 5 cars or so full of people we had met the previous night that had all gone separately to the race and turned up at the same spot at the same time within about 15 mins or so of each other, strange. After about 5 mins of being there the promotional team for the race arrived so we realised we had picked the correct spot to observe the race and the wait began. It was only about half an hour until the first motorbike sped past and then the party began. Out came the beers, the picnic and the factor 50 sunblock. The thing about being in the desert is that everything is so huge and you feel so small. It was really quite comical to see vehicles going past in the distance that looked like toy cars. As I have previously written the Chileans are really so very welcoming but also have a great sense of adventure. It was altogether a fantastic day and I can’t quite believe how lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time and to know the correct people – what an experience!