So far this year, the world’s most extreme motor race has only killed one participant. South African motorcyclist Elmer Symons, 29, was killed during the fourth stage of the Dakar Rally last week. I say only, because every year in the event’s history, drivers and local people have paid a heavy price for this long-distance endurance test since it began in 1979. This year’s rally began in Lisbon on January 6 and so far has run through Spain and Morocco to reach Mauritania and Mali. It is due to end in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, this Sunday. The route runs over 5,000 miles of rocks, sand, riverbeds and potholed roads. The real challenge to drivers are the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.
Over 500 teams from over 40 countries are taking part as the race passes over six countries. Masses of vehicles have descended on the poorest nations and peoples in the world, including 88 large trucks, 187 cars and 250 motorcycles. Over 200 supporting vehicles make up the rest of what can only be described as an obscene waste of resources and grossly polluting event.
“It isn't called an extreme race for nothing,” says photographer Alberto Arzoz, who has spent time with the native Tuareg nomadic people of the Sahara. “As you can imagine, the dark side goes under-reported.” In addition to the 41 racers killed since 1979, the rally has killed at least 17 bystanders, including eight children, as well as many livestock. It creates huge clouds of dust that affect local villages and their herds. Vehicle wrecks and dump sites along the way cause damage to the fragile ecosystem of the desert. In one incident the rally created a wildfire that derailed a train between Dakar and Bamako, killing three passengers.
Despite humanitarian claims by the organisers, the race brings little to the locals, whether the nomads or settled communities who live around its course. Arzoz believes that “the rally is an arrogant and humilliating event which regards the peoples of Africa and their environment nothing more than a playground for the motoring multinationals such as BMW or Mitsubishi to showcase their latest products.” The race has been mocked by French singer Renaud in his song, 500 connards sur la ligne de départ (500 assholes on the start line). A Green Party of France statement has described the race as “colonialism that needs to be eradicated”. Campaigners against the rally run an online petition at www.stop-rallyedakar.com.
This year’s sponsors and suppliers include, amongst others, oil corporations Total and Elf, French television channels, BF Goodrich, Columbia sportswear, Red Bull, and, somewhat strangely, Unique, a new brand of “natural spring water” from Croatia.
Even more bizarrely, Volkswagen’s latest four-wheel drive is named the Touareg, after a people whose traditional transport has always been the camel. VW is taking part in the race, albeit only with a 2500cc version. The 275 horsepower 5-litre 10-cylinder version is reserved for the Chelsea set.
By AWTW Transport Editor