BOLIVIA: Following the Dakar Rally Part 1...Ain't no tourists where we're going

Bolivia's flag
South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Uyuni
April 17th 2016
Published: April 17th 2016
Edit Blog Post

BOLIVIA: Following the Dakar Rally Part 1...Into the Unknown.

We get dropped in this dust blown town called Uyuni...the hotel didn't even expect us. What's gone wrong? Our private tour of Bolivia has been beyond expectations so far.

But the following morning we get the shock of our lives. Now it's my turn to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you." 'Cause we're following the Dakar Rally...the World's premier endurance motor race. The race that had to evacuate Africa because of terrorists.

Our guide the quirky Janet with her wicked sense of humour. Our driver is Valerio...the guy who surveyed the Bolivian Section of the Dakar Rally route by motorbike...far out...the guy who set the course...karoomba! How lucky are we?

Buckle up, strap down, satnav right, hang on tight.

Ain't no tourists where we're going.


In 1977 some car nut dreamed up the car rally to beat all car rallies...Paris, France then across the Sahara to end on the west coast of Africa in Dakar, Senegal. The route for the first two years headed south through France and Algeria into Niger before turning west through Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), back
into Mali, and then finally Senegal. Only 74 of the 180 vehicles (80 cars, 90 motorcycles, and 12 trucks) survived the first treacherous 10,000 km journey through deserts, sahel, and swamps in 1978.

The route evolved over the years to take in Cote d'Ivoire in 1981, cutting out Niger and Burkina Faso in 1982, increasing to 12,000 kms and including Guinea and Sierra Leone in 1984, and including Mauritania in 1986. In 1989 the route changed to France, Spain, Tunisia, excluded Algeria, and for the next 15 included Libya such that it became known as the Paris, Tripoli, Dakar. In 1991 they included Chad for a bit of variety.

And each year its fame grew and the challenge and competition fiercer.

In 1992 they excluded West Africa completely and made it a mad dash from France then Libya to Cape Town in South Africa...12,417 kms through the guts of Africa. This year it began not in Paris but in Rouen before crossing into Africa and travelling toward Cape Town via Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Namibia.

Over the years not only competitors died but viewers cheering by
the roadways. And each year competitors got lost, broke down, experienced exhileration or despair. So in 1992 they changed the rules to allow GPS navigation...what? I thought it was not supposed to be easy!

It then returned to West Africa with Morocco added in 1993, Western Sahara in 1994, Spain instead of France in 1995, cutting out Europe in 1997, Paris back again in 1998.

The only constant was the name. "Dakar" became its ever present symbol whether it went there or not.

In 2000 it began in Dakar, Senegal and was to head east through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and then north into Libya before crossing into Egypt and ending in Cairo. But terrorist threats against competitors and organisers kept the race stranded in Niamey, the capital of Niger for five days causing fears the race would have to be abandoned. Eventually, a mass airlift was organised to transport all of the racers, vehicles, equipment, and organisational support to Sabha in Libya in order to continue the rally.

For the next 8 years the Dakar was dogged by threats of terrorism in Northern Africa until just before the 2008 race 4 French tourists were killed
in Mauritania and together with Al-Qaeda threats the Dakar was cancelled and a consolation race through Hungary and Romania took place.

Dakar Dead??? Time for phoenix rising. Let's move to South America...and still call it "Dakar"!!!

2009, 2010, and 2011 saw the race scream through pampas, mountains, altiplano and desert in giant loops from Buenos Aires in Argentina to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and back. In 2012 the race visited Peru for the first time, with the Dakar over 8,377 km (5,205 miles) through pampas, forests, high mountains, and deserts stretching from Argentina across Patagonia and the Andes into Chile and then north up the Pacific coast ending in Lima, Peru.

In 2014 to add more variety to the bash that included more sections of desert, sand dunes, crossing rivers, climbing mountains and every tricky bit of track they could find, adding a bit of lot of salt. So they included crossing the salt flats of Bolivia for quads and motorbikes...little realising that this would lead to dicky GPS systems and salt corrosion to motor systems and racers becoming lost, lost, lost. No sign posts on the salt flats out there.

2014 was
declared the toughest Dakar of all time...Argentina, Bolivia, Chile. And our driver Valerio was partly responsible for that. Don't blame him. He made it through on a motorbike while surveying the Bolivian part of the course so why couldn't others? In 2014 there was a lot of rain that affected the whole race and one has to wonder what effect the race has on sensitive ecosystems in wet or dry. And when it rains the salt flats flood...and what happens to vehicles driving through foot deep salt water? In 2014, 216 vehicles gave up before finishing, 50% of the starting list and more than any other Dakar in South America, but far from the rate when they raced in Africa. Don't forget 60% in the first race in 1978 did not finish of 180 starters.

In 2015 the Dakar returned to Bolivia...and seven were casualties of the flooded salt flats...casualties 'cause motorsport has breakdown as its second name...and potential death as its third.

And three weeks later two dancers from Oz followed a mixture of the 2014 and 2015 Dakar routes...entering a landscape that blew us away spiritually and conceptually.

Janet told the tales of Dakar Bolivia
as we travelled...following tracks that only Valerio could find...grateful we were with him and not another...tales that only now we can tell.

Cause we did NOT see another tourist until the fifth day.

No...not one!!!

Setting Out

The military band welcomed the day with brass and drums...two soldiers with rifles snarling as I snapped a pic...this is a military base "No Photos"...where's the General when you need him? The Dakar symbols in the town looking decidedly shabby...the festivities of only three weeks ago forgotten as the daily grind of life in this wind-swept town stumbles along...tourists from far corners of the world thinning as if water was trickling out. Then we are off...the satnav maybe our only contact from now on.

Into the tan dirt plain that was flatter than flat...through miles of litter as if rubbish had no home to rust ahead...the railway graveyard. Bolivia lost its seaport in a war when the Chileans invaded while the Bolivians were the railway line carrying minerals from Bolivia heads to the Chilean border...then to Chilean ports. And out here is where Bolivian trains finally come to rest...only coming to life with the
odd paint from a graffiti spray can...or the smiles from a bride and groom finding this backdrop for their wedding shots.

A swing has been set up between two carriages and with Denise swinging away we feel like kids again...excitement for the unknown...the road we'll soon be following.

Then our Dakar begins...the grinning head of a zorro wild dog on a stick...pointing the way.

It's quiet. We are all alone. A flat expanse of muddy brown...puddles stretching into the distance...this is our road. So through the puddles we go...the swish and splash of our tyres slicing the silence...then the grinding of tyres on more dusty road.

A flash of metallic light blue with two black mops bobbing over an open bonnet...reminding us of our party by the roadside with the Judge and lawyers in Patagonia...sipping mate while a truck repair is going on. Valerio offering to help but the black mops not lifting to say hola, gracias or good bye.

Field after field of quinoa framing mountains in splashes of green, red, black, orange or brown...the earth shimmering with muddy pools or lakes...aqueous tan leaping with life...reflections of mountains mirroring about.

We reach a
river cutting the dirt road in half...tyre tracks plunging in...Bolivians in two 4WDs hesitating on the bank...a small boy and a girl on the other side wading in. The boy returns to his pushbike...waving us to emerge further up. I didn't know if Valerio knew anyway...or was relying on the small boy...but Valerio took the lead and drove into the middle of the river and drove about 50 metres up and then climbed the bank up the other side...we clapping him...beckoning the others to take the plunge...all then clapping the little boy...who then hops on his bike with his sister and disappears into a quinoa field.

Further up the road is a lake...Valerio through a field to round it...some Bolivians on the other side thanking him for showing the way...indicating they had nearly turned back to try to get home another day.

We stop for lunch on a green plain ringed by mountains with stone walled llama pens climbing the slopes...the odd giant cactus looking over...a giant red and black beetle the only life passing by.

A meteorite crater lake...ringed by massive hunks of coral...yeh...masses of coral reefs uplifted by the ever growing Andes...deposited now on the
tops of mountains...unmistakenly...coral...still blows my mind!

Then we leave the dirt road and just drive into nothingness...tyre tracks here and there...real Dakar Rally.

Valerio hesitates then turns right following a tyre track for about 100 metres then stops and chats to Janet. Doubles back and follows another set of tyre tracks...smiling...then nodding...we amazed...his memory flooding back.

We stop at a gap between a break in some cliffs...that's the salt pans hexagon crusts but a mirror of grey blue...clouds like kaleidoscopes confusing us whether the horison is here or there...reminding us there was a death in the rally recently...a racer who entered the flooded salt pans and lost his way.

We see a vehicle in that flooded expanse...a tiny line of people walking away from doubt cursing 'cause it'll be days before someone can pull them out.

Through a village past a church then stop at our digs for the night...the up market Tayka Tahua...the House made of blocks of Salt...enjoying a beer on a bench and even the table cut out of slabs of salt...the sun setting in pinks over the salt lake...clouds lifting behind us...revealing the orange volcano we will climb tomorrow.

We are the only guests...we have the House of Salt all to ourselves...reckon with the salt flats flooded Valerio is the only one who knows the back way to get here.

And then the clouds are gone...the twin peaks of the volcano reaching into the sky...palettes of orange topped with rock and splashes of white paint or snow...beckoning...exciting us...the air getting decidedly cooler...the silence giving no hint of what was to come.

Relax & Enjoy Part 1,

Dancing Dave

Let the pictures tell their own story.

Additional photos below
Photos: 93, Displayed: 29


17th April 2016

Sounds like an adventure!
Interesting that they moved the race to a S. America and still called it Dakar! This seems like quite an experience venturing out to places where you don't see any tourists for days! And the landscape is inviting to boot.
17th April 2016

Sounds like an adventure!
When Valerio followed one set of tyre tracks then turned back to follow another with no road in cooee we knew this was no usual meander, Hem. And the landscapes were out of this World. Kinda understood why the Dakar included Bolivia in their annual ultra endurance sojourn.
17th April 2016

A vivid salty story of Dakar
Panoramic pics: I loved them...touch of class! Story: Certainly makes me want to visit. Bolivia is in my bucket list anyway. I like the descriptions "tan dirt plain that was flatter than flat", "the silence giving no hint of what was to come." As always, well researched piece with enough stats...really reflects your ability to bring history of a place so vividly that blows my mind. Another jewel in the crown, Dave. Enjoyed reading!
17th April 2016

A vivid salty story of Dakar
Thanks Tab. Bolivia was supposed to be an after dinner drink to close a sensational trip through the Americas. Knew it would be good...but 'twas a highlight that will live with us forever. Got some pics coming up that will raise the dead!!!
17th April 2016

A beautiful contrast
I loved the contrast of a white wedding dress against a rusty landscape.
17th April 2016

A beautiful contrast
Most TBers seem to do Bolivia when the salt flats are dry...stunning vista that drew us to go there. But when it's flooded it is out of this World...the contrasts of mud and water in arid landscapes...mirror lakes...coral reefs in the sky...and no tourists. Magic! (I suggest the white wedding dress against a rusty landscape pic is not this one!)
18th April 2016

A beuatiful contrast
You are right, Dave, I meant the lovely contrast of this photograph, because I rated this one. Don't know what happened earlier.
18th April 2016

Dont you love places without tourists?
My favourite type of place. Learn something new every day thanks for the great run down on the history and now of the Dakar :)
18th April 2016

Dont you love places without tourists?
There's something about a beach to yourself Cindy, walking or riding a trail alone through spectacular country, a view to die for or an iconic site that at any other time would be crawling or speckled with people...the silence and ambience of being just you or sharing just with friends or loved ones.'s the serenity!
19th April 2016

What a fabulous place Bolivia is. Your photos are very beautiful.
19th April 2016

I see you have also been to Bolivia Emma...different time and space. Hope therefore that my photos can transport you back to the ethereal landscapes of that beautiful place.
23rd April 2016

So cool
I have heard of this place. I would love to see this train cemetery myself. And of course I'd love to see Salar de Uyuni. /Ake
24th April 2016

So cool
The train cemetery is probably your sort of place Ake. So many picture opportunities and there are heaps for everyone! The Salar is out of this World...truly.
24th April 2016 season!
Thanks for the history of the race. Always good having the back story. Spectacular country and you are great at those back roads. Just your kind of trip. Perfection. As always outstanding photography.
24th April 2016 season!
Off season the beaten better better better memories. Thanks for joining the ride. Just for you a gets better and better!
8th May 2016

Love the photos
The landscapes are beautiful, like art on a canvas, but so perfect you can't believe somewhere so beautiful exists.
8th May 2016

Love the photos
Thanks for commenting Anita. The landscapes, colours and textures of Bolivia are spectacular and being high altitude the light is often ethereal. Glad the pics appeal to your artistic bent. Bolivia to me is an artist's palette!

Tot: 2.892s; Tpl: 0.036s; cc: 15; qc: 47; dbt: 0.0261s; 2; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb