Who needs the Dakar Rally?

An off-road adventure in fragile ecosystems.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The Dakar Rally, the biggest and most demanding international cross-country race for all sorts of off-road vehicles, captures the imagination of millions of people around the world who follow it on TV, and the thousands who watch the action at given points along its course. During the first fortnight of January, the second edition of this major sporting event in its South American version will be taking place in the deserts and Andes of northwestern Argentina and northern Chile. Its name refers to the fact that it was run from Paris in Europe to Dakar in Africa’s Sahara region for nearly 30 years before terrorist threats forced its repositioning to a friendlier venue, and this makes it all the more exotic and attractive to local motor racing fans.
The Dakar Rally’s romantic mission statement speaks of the desire of pilots to discover new territories and explore deserts, without mentioning the fact that the treads of off-road vehicles are what erode deserts and mar landscapes that real tourists travel thousands of kilometers to see in Argentina and Chile.
People who point out these facts are ignored by national and local sports and tourism officials who have a poor opinion of “environmentalists,” and they are given little if any coverage by members of the local press, who consider them party poopers. The only way to get some idea of what happened to landscapes during the 2009 Dakar is to personally check the route of that race, or at least surf the Web. It is the Internet that yields items published by the pro environment community that never make the press in Buenos Aires. So it is not hard to imagine why the 2010 Dakar is now underway.

Lots of people need “the Dakar. “ Among them are the manufacturers of the different brands of off-road vehicles competing in the rally and the sponsors whose ads appear on cars and pilot jumpsuits, all of whom hope to sell more as a result of the race coverage; local government officials who think that two more weeks of the international rally culture will jazz up the country’s image abroad or at least divert the public’s attention from other things that are going on during that time; the city hotels along the route that lodge the thousands of caravan members, and rally fans too if any rooms are left unoccupied; city-based caterers, service suppliers and others who find temporary employment thanks to the race; and the media who like an ongoing action story that might include a few spectacular accidents.

The battle against nature
But the strongest motive of all is the human passion produced by motor racing: the Dakar is a party that centers on a dangerous game in which pilots are gladiators who do battle against nature and the clock, and their fans are spectators in a Roman circus who thrill to speed, noise, exhaust fumes, and the possibility of seeing some blood.

And who does not need the Dakar Rally? In addition to people who are not interested in car races, mention must be made of the farmers out in the countryside across whose property the four-wheel-drive horde will pass. With luck, they will be reimbursed for all the damages that will take place, but it will be impossible to replace the fragile desert ecosystems and yet-to-be-discovered archaeological sites in Argentina and Chile that will be ruined by hundreds of vehicles that will leave the road on many occasions. The northern deserts of Argentina and Chile are literally one big archaeological site where humans have lived for 10,000 years. But archaeologists are few, they don’t advertise, and few city folk know or care about what they do for a living. And Indians who derive an extra income from showing tourists pristine sand dunes and lovely desert flowers live out in the bush and are not as attractive to the urban media as the roar of the motors of cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads.
This year the Dakar Rally will not enter San Pedro de Atacama, at the request of local residents, and as a result of complaints by Chilean archaeologists about damage done to six archaeological sites by the 2009 edition of the race. Four of the damaged sites were near San Pedro, the others in the vicinity of Copiapó. Residents also felt that the passage of so many vehicles across the desert was a threat to the topsoil, which contains seeds and bulbs that produce flowers in the spring.
More than 70 percent of Argentina’s area is arid or semi-arid land with a thin topsoil that is very susceptible to erosion. The desert looks useless to city people, but it is full of flora and fauna that have miraculously adapted to the scarcity of water.
To the delight of concessionaires of big-brand off-road vehicles, car and motorcycle rallies are an ingrained popular passion fomented by tourism officials in several parts of Argentina. As a result, during the past ten years many well-off people have decided to affirm their social status by acquiring their own quad, motorcycle or 4x4, and those who are not in such a good situation want to at least be able to rent one of these machines in vacation spots.

And the sand dunes and shorebird nests destroyed by kids on quads in coastal resorts, and hill landscapes marred by ruts carved by motorcycle wheels during the rainy season have become facts of life accepted by the majority. So Argentina is fertile ground for the Dakar Rally.

A good firebreak
Perhaps homesick for the Sahara Desert that was long home to the race, Dakar Rally planners have a particular liking for dunes and other sandy and arid areas. Last year they found lots of dunes under native grasses in La Pampa, the first lap of the race. So it was that 512 cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads roared through the Estancia Santo Domingo and other ranches whose owners had been talked into permitting access by local tourism authorities. The passage of so many such vehicles ruined dirt roads that had to be rebuilt later, and when the organization’s GPS equipment did not work the horde broke fences in order to advance. Then one pilot marked the way and the others followed. However, the ranchers are not complaining: the sector of the dunes that the 512 Dakar Rally pilots churned up with their wheels later served as a firebreak against a wildfire that broke out the area at the end of the January. And the organizers later paid for repair of all damages. But the ranchers are happy that this year the rally will be passing through a different part of the province.
However, the organization will be unable to recompense the damage to the environment and archaeological sites that were caused in Chile’s Atacama Desert by the 2009 rally. How can one replace 9,000-year-old stone objects, pottery and textiles that were in spots that were still unregistered because the country’s archaeologists were informed of the rally course with too little time to check it out?
The damage to the unique “flowery desert” of the Atacama region – which has long been an attraction for tourists – may turn out to be even worse. Every three years, between September and November, the seeds and bulbs of 200 species of flowering plants in the topsoil of certain areas of the desert germinate when rainfall is sufficient, covering the desert with a polychrome rug that changes colors as different species bloom. The rally takes place in January, but in the next few years there may be no more flowers in the areas where the treads of the cross-county horde destroy the topsoil along with its precious contents.

Neither of the two countries did environmental or social impact studies before the 2009 or 2010 races. Rally organizers were told to keep it out of national parks and reserves, but the rest of the area in and around the course was left open to the whim of the pilots. Farmers were not consulted; they were asked, and in some cases threatened (according to Mapuches in Neuquén last year), by local authorities who wanted the rally to take place. And neither government did a study of the damages done by the 2009 rally before approving the 2010 version.
So on January 1, 2010, the 32nd edition of the Dakar Rally roared out of Buenos Aires headed for Colón (Entre Ríos) after five days of traffic snarls in the Argentine capital occasioned by street closures to let the public view the vehicles in Palermo on the one hand, and prepare the symbolic start area near the Obelisk on the other. The real race began in Colón on Jan. 2.

Nearly 3,000 km off-road
During a good part of the next two weeks, 372 vehicles – 138 cars, 50 trucks, and 184 motorcycles and quads during this edition – will race on a 8,600-km route through pampas, mountains and deserts, of which 5,200 km will be timed. Most of the driving will be done on roads and tracks, but at least one third will be done off-road. It will officially end in Buenos Aires on Jan. 17 when the winners in the four vehicle categories receive their awards. The governments of Argentina and Chile have shelled out US$ 6 million each to foot the bill of logistics and security during the race.

During every day of the rally, a caravan of more than 2,000 people – pilots, team members, organizers and the specialized press – will be sleeping in hotels in cities where accommodations exist, and campsites in places where they don’t.
Are people who go to a place to watch a motor rally, tourists? In reality they are sport fans who displace tourists who are not interested in car races from areas along the race route, obliging them to reshuffle their visits, or go elsewhere if their time is short. This rally is run during the January vacation high season in Argentina. Chile’s high season is February.
So during the first fortnight of January, tourists who want to enjoy the countryside in the areas where the rally will pass, have no problem finding lodging, and drive roads that will not be closed to allow passage of the competitors, had best check the following route list or postpone their visit until the second fortnight of the month.
Overnight stops have been programmed for Córdoba on Jan. 2, La Rioja Jan. 3, and Fiambalá (Catamarca) Jan. 4 in Argentina. After the caravan passes the San Francisco pass (4,800 m) to Chile, it will be the turn of Copiapó Jan. 5, Antofagasta Jan. 6 and Iquique Jan. 7. On Jan. 8 the rally crowd will be back in Antofagasta, where they will spend all Jan. 9 resting. They will be back in Copiapó on the night of Jan. 10, in La Serena Jan. 11, and in Santiago Jan. 12. On Jan. 13 they will return to Argentina through the Los Libertadores / Cristo Redentor trans-Andean tunnel (3,209 m) and spend the night in San Juan. After that will come San Rafael in southern Mendoza Jan. 14, Santa Rosa in La Pampa Jan. 15 and Buenos Aires on Jan. 16.

Both governments have reportedly expressed their desire to host the Dakar Rally again in 2011. But this year there were 140 fewer vehicles than in 2009, perhaps because of the altitude sickness and heat strokes suffered during the first South American edition. And there is always the possibility that the Gobi Desert in Mongolia will be more attractive to the rally organizers next year.
Additional information: http://www.portaldelmedioambiente.com/; articles published 27/12, 29/12, 30/12 Y 1/01 in Dakar coverage of http://www.lavoz.com.ar/.

PHOTO CREDITS: A race car jumps a dune during last year’s Dakar Rally. A truck has heavy going on the sand, www.espaciocoches.com. A buggy kicks up desert topsoil. Motorcycle pilots do willies, www.pinamaraldia.com.ar. Quad drivers practice maneuvers on an Argentine beach. A helicopter controls progress of the race in La Pampa last year, courtesy Estancia Santo Domingo. The flowery desert: until now, an Atacama classic, Jacobita magazine. A buggy takes the top of a dune. Map of the 2010 race route.