Heat and helicopters: Photographer recounts his 1st Dakar Rally
In 2011, my year began in North London at the World Darts Championships; 2012 saw me in Argentina with the Dakar Rally. A starker contrast between assignments sporting events is perhaps possible – but hard to imagine.
The Dakar, a motor rally of epic proportions, had amateurs and professionals compete this year for two weeks racing trucks, cars, motorbikes and quads from Argentina’s Mar del Plata, through Chile, to finish in Lima, Peru.
It is one of the most photogenic motorsport events on the calendar, and 2012 was no exception.
In honesty, I had no real understanding what I had let myself in for.
It’s easy to forget how cocooned and used to formulaic events you can become when you cover a specific sport or events year after year, so breaking out of my comfort zone for this race was truly a challenge.
The hardest thing was second guessing what equipment to take and how I should pack it — Not only cameras and lenses, but, as a camping virgin, a tent and outdoor equipment, too. Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) provided good advice, but photographers all have different ways of working and need to come up with a system that suits each one. For me, I was about to spend two weeks in a 2,500 person strong bivouac. I was convinced I’d packed too much luggage, and, despite covering many Tour de France’s which involve moving every day, this one was in a completely different league. At least we would start and finish in a hotel!
Stage 5, January 5, from Chilecito to Fiambala, was one of the most intense, as it was split – cars and trucks one route, motorbikes another. Race Director Etienne Lavigne offered would drop two of us in the sand dunes by helicopter and then pick us up later after he had done his work. He was on the bikes route, as there was concern about a river plate section near the start that might have been rendered impossible to pass for the bikes.
For us, the helicopter was a bit of a chance, knowing that Lavigne’s priority naturally was to the competitors – meaning, depending on what happened, we could be facing anything up to a four-hour wait in 40C sand dunes after the stage had run. It was worth taking though, because otherwise it would be a day without action pictures.
Factor 30 sun cream, hat and food bag and four litres of water later, myself and the other photographer (a veteran of about 32 Dakars!) were dropped about 26 km into the sand dunes, and we waved goodbye to the helicopter.
We found where we thought the riders would pass and stood and waited – it was still only 8am. About half past nine we saw a cloud of sand produced by lead rider Marc Coma on the horizon and tried to second guess the route he would take. We were a couple of sand dunes too far, so made a run for it, ultimately missing him. You have very little idea which route the first rider is going to take and unfortunately the first few riders are the most important ones. Fortunately, rally leader and teammate Cyril Despres was close behind on a similar line and I was able to get a scenic picture of him. After that I managed to move to an interesting point to capture the rest of the riders.
At about 12:30, with all the riders through, we made our way back to what we thought was the sand dune where we’d been dropped off and prepared for a long wait. An hour and a half later, the gamble paid off, and we heard the welcome sound of a helicopter heading our way. Getting into a helicopter that doesn’t turn off its engines in sand dunes is not particularly easy: a) to see exactly where it is within the sand storm it’s created is nearly impossible, and b) it is also very painful as you get properly sand blasted. Up and away… but it turned out that four motorbike riders got into difficulty in the dunes and the helicopter would have to go and look for them – so we were dropped at the start again. Thankfully, Lavigne radioed for a car to come and pick us up.
By now, the start is a completely deserted dust road with only three barrels of aviation fuel to mark its existence. While the helicopter refueled, two medics with us readied their kit to treat the inevitable de-hydration of the riders, and they took off again — leaving us with another wait of indeterminable length.
There was – in all honesty – a big bird of prey circling us.
Luckily, another half hour later, a car arrived, and despite the fact that he was unsure we were to be his passengers, we assured him we were, and he took us the 140 km to the bivouac. Later that evening, due to bad weather at 4,700m (unsurprisingly) Stage 6 was cancelled. Our transfer then began with a five- to six-hour overnight bus ride (reclining leather seat beats tent every time), and then a 1.5 hour flight into Chile. Awaiting immigration, a text arrives to say my sister has just given birth.
Key takeaway here? The learning curve on this one isn’t so much a curve, but more of a vertical line. Somewhere around Stage 9, I thought I would be amazed if I made it to the end of the rally with all my gear not only still in my possession, but working. The hardest part of it was the camping and transporting my gear in what’s basically a 24-hour mobile pit lane, complete with noise and activity all night – through 5 a.m. starts, too.
Not to say the Tour de France isn’t a tough event to cover…but this is a completely different league!
Editor’s note: Bryn Lennon is a Getty Images photographer and a frequent contributor to the Getty Images Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @brynlennon
Images, Slideshow 1:
AREQUIPA, PERU – JANUARY 12: David Barrot of France and Powerbike Yamaha Ipone falls off into a river during stage eleven of the 2012 Dakar Rally from Arica to Arequipa on January 12, 2012 in Arequipa, Peru. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
FIAMBALA, ARGENTINA – JANUARY 05: Franco Picco of Italy and Franco Picco Racing rides through the sand dunes during stage five of the 2012 Dakar Rally from Chilechito to Fiambala on January 5, 2012 in Fiambala, Argentina. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
ANTOFAGASTA, CHILE – JANUARY 09: Jos Smink of The Netherlands in action in his truck during stage eight of the 2012 Dakar Rally from Copiapo to Antofagasta on January 9, 2012 in Antofagasta, Chile. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
ANTOFAGASTA, CHILE – JANUARY 09: Christophe Blondeau of France and Team Franroc rides his Yamaha on stage eight of the 2012 Dakar Rally from Copiapo to Antofagasta on January 9, 2012 in Antofagasta, Chile. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images,)