We’d left the bikes as far away from the 2019 Dakar track as possible, after seeing many of the locals almost getting wiped out. It only took one of them to be in the wrong place on a corner, before on of the trucks had to take an entirely new line, and there was now a Kamaz screaming towards our bikes. With a gigantic cliff on the other side, they only just missed taking out 4 bikes, 2 hiluxes and a group of stunned onlookers.
Just another day of the travelling circus that is the Dakar.
It was a hell of an effort just for us to get to the Dakar and to hire bikes. That was the tip of the iceberg. It was even harder just to stay there and get home, but boy was it worth it.
Many, Many Airports en Route to Dakar 2019
Only 4 hours into the new year, with almost no sleep, it was time to hit the road. The arduous task of hauling 80kg of luggage through Brisbane airport, made us question question how much we’d brought. With 3 more connecting flights and who knows how many taxi rides, it felt like we had way too much stuff. As it turns out, nearly every item we brought was essential as we would encounter every variation in climate and setting.
2 Hours in Brisbane Airport and then 2 hours flying to Sydney. 6 Hours in Sydney Airport before a 13 hour flight to Santiago. 4 Hours in Santiago and another 4 hours flying to Lima. A night in Lima with almost no sleep due to being in the opposite time zone and then a morning flight to Arequipa in Peru’s South. By the time we’d made it through security in Arequipa and to the hotel where the bikes were, it was almost 4 days in transit.
Despite notifying the bank that I’d be in Peru, they chose to flag our attempted payment from Peru. We lost the first day of riding, because we were unable to pay for the bikes, but the start of the Dakar was getting close.
After sorting the issues with the bank and paying for the bikes, we took off on the KLR 650s with a few hours to go before sunset. We had no idea what we’d be encountering as we rode back towards Lima and had wanted more time to figure the place out, before finding the first campsite.
On the Bikes Heading to the Dakar
We hit the Pan Americana to head North towards Lima. It was two and a half days until the start of the Dakar and we had at the very least, two and a half days worth of riding to do.
The usual shit fight of trying to get through the outskirts of any 3rd world city ensued. Traffic was intense and we were riding on the other side of the road, but it becomes normal after 5 or 10 minutes. I swear my breath still smells like carcinogenic diesel smoke almost a month later.
Once past the outskirts of Arequipa, we got the first hint of just how incredible the riding was to become.
Huge cliffs and mountain sides with twisty, winding roads, working their way up and over. The raw, red dirt was vaguely reminiscent of the Pilbara and was the first of what would seem like 100 different landscapes.
After riding for a few hours with very little light left, we gave up looking for a road that might take us to a decent campsite. Pointing the bikes off the highway onto a random patch of desert, we had our first encounter with the Fesh Fesh. A millimetre thick crust of sand revealed what seems like bottomless talcum powder.
The only option is to hold the throttle open and to go wherever the bike instructs you to, whether you like it or not. Whatever you do, don’t stop because that’ll be where you’re staying.
It just so happened that our first campsite would be under an incredible desert sunset. The sun seems to bounce off the endless sea of dunes in Peru, exposing every shade of orange imaginable.
Totally worn out, it seemed inevitable to have a good nights sleep. Sound carries very well acorss the Desert, and we were only a few kilometres from the highway. I’d also read that morning, that Peru is just below the Congo in chances of dying a violent death, but above Iraq. Needless to say, the good night’s sleep did not come.
Over the next day, we were getting further and further behind schedule. The Pan Americana follows the coastline and has to navigate through all sorts of dunes and even parts of the Andes. Riding through dense mist around cliffside hairpins, slowed us down significantly. Trucks overtaking other trucks around these blind corners with 100 metre drops, slowed us down even more. The further we went, the more impossible it seemed to get to the start line.
The pressure of having to get to Lima was starting to take a lot of the fun away. With day 1 being a ceremonial start, with the competitors only doing a liaison stage, we decided we would intercept the rally in Pisco. This is where the first bivouac and the start of the first special would be.
Stopping in Nasca to find internet, we booked a hotel in Pisco and did a 10 hour riding day along the highway to get there. Passing one of the Dakar organisation cars was a huge relief, as we finally felt like we were going in the right direction. We got to Pisco, but still could find very little information on where to go.
We had a lay day in Pisco, though it was proving very difficult to find any information on the route or the bivouac. We eventually conceded that we would just ride along the main highway the next day and look for activity, and then hit the beach to sample the local beers. 5 hours later, we still seemed to be at the beach bar, but the details get blurry.
Finding the 2019 Dakar Rally
It took only 5 minutes the next day before we were right in the thick of it. Blasting past us on the Pan Americana were competitor trucks, cars, side by sides and bikes. The entrance to the Bivouac was unmistakable and half of Pisco had shown up for the spectacle. We pushed through the bull dust, past hundreds of parked cars and up through some dunes until we found a spectator point that was full of action.
It was from here, perched on top of a gargantuan dune, that the well organised appearance of the Dakar, slowly disintegrated. Trucks and cars were screaming down the dunes in all directions as some of them would turn around and go backwards along the track, to make sure they hit their GPS waypoint.
As competitors would crest the dune, spectators would run in all directions, as if they had forgotten that they were standing in the middle of the track for the world’s biggest desert race.
I have always found it impossible to justify how the Dakar can come to foreign countries, when competitor vehicles kill spectators almost every year. That was until I saw the event. While it’s tragic that it happens, it’s very easy to see how people bring it upon themselves with their total disregard to safety and to the officials trying to keep the track clear.
Only 5 minutes after first having this thought, a guy in a beat up Navara started driving right down the middle of the track. He didn’t even stop after the bull bar he was carrying in the tray fell out. This was right at the bottom of a steep dune where all the vehicles were going flat out across a very off-camber corner to hit their waypoint. 4 spectators had to run out and drag it back off the track while making sure not to get mowed down.
Finding Our Groove, Riding Across Peru by Motorcycle
We were only half way through our first day of following the Dakar, and we were already bogged to the point of needing assistance. I love difficult terrain, but not so much on a 230kg bike with road/trail tyres.
Our timing was fortunate. As the crowd was dissipating a DR650 went flying past at full noise, stopping only at the top of the dune. Ian, a typically ginger Irish bloke gave us a push, soon helped by his American mate Taylor, also on a DR. A quick chat with the guys revealed that they were also going to camp nearby.
Half an hour later and we were all enjoying a meal and a beer at a random pop-up food shanty. 4 other guys from Ecuador, who had ridden down to follow the first few days completed the group. Ian and Taylor had met the Ecuadorians when competing in a rally there. This was our first glimpse into how hospitable adventure riders are, when on the road. A night of camping with the guys, soon turned into a week.
We got to know the group quite well from the get go, as we would converse over the 5 flat tyres of one day. Four were nails and one seemed to be a tube that had doubled over and rubbed a hole through. Always choose a reputable brand of rubber when travelling through 3rd world countries…
After assuring the guys from Ecuador that we’d go riding with them if we’re ever there, they left on a 6 day ride to get back home. Absolute top blokes and the epitome of hospitable. It never ceases to amaze me, the quality of friendships that happen on the road.
Ian taught us how to appropriately disregard all traffic laws in Peru, as we seemed to be the only ones obeying them. Taylor wasn’t too far behind in his keen chase of speed over safety. Quite a few times I’d find myself going to overtake a line of trucks with a gap that could only be described as borderline.
Often, I’d forget I was at altitude and would wind open the throttle, only to find the bike sucking in its usual amount of petrol with half as much air. Overtaking a truck with another approaching head on, only to find yourself going nowhere is one of those moments that reminds you you’re alive. After you detach the part of the seat cover that your ass cheeks have claimed…
Dodging Traffic With No Power in the Altitude of the Andes in Peru
Peru still sells 84 octane unleaded to go with the lack of air at altitude. Even the non-existent compression ratio of the KLRs protest the use of this muck.
All this combined leads to a bike that couldn’t pull the skin off a custard, but still weighs 230kg. Add this to my own 115kg and a rear tyre that resembles a moto GP tyre for the rain. It’s no wonder we would find ourselves underneath the bike every time we hit the Fesh Fesh.
And boy, is it a tough time trying to lift the bike off your own legs which seem to be stuck every time. It’s a two man job if it’s not in the deep sand, and a 3 man job if it is. Fortunately, most of the deep sand sections were around the Dakar spectator zones, so there often would be help available from friendly spectators.
Riding would often change between navigating the dunes to get to the spectator points and wrestling with traffic on the Pan Americana. Assertive riding is absolutely essential on this road.
The idea of the trip had always been about our own journey and less about the Dakar itself. Good thing it was, as the event is very hard to follow everyday. With the distances between bivouacs and the huge liaison stages for the competitors, we found ourselves doing almost the same mileage.
Everyday would be a game of catchup and we were lucky if we were ever there in time to see the bikes. It’s very hard to find out where the route is going and the Dakar app only publishes one or two spectator points per day which are usually near the bivouac.
I would have like to have found more places we could watch the race, away from the spectator zones. With that said, it was quite often a lot of fun to be caught up in the atmosphere at the busy locations as well.
Near decapitations from random drones, ridiculously cool dune buggies all over the place and random blokes popping up from the middle of the desert with an esky full of cold beer to sell. These were but a few of the things that gave the event its vibe.
Australian Victory at the Dakar 2019
Camping at the top of a killer hill with the Andes behind us and with the Pacific ocean in sight as the sun set over the water, was a regular occurrence. The total solitude and peace of the desert was almost as humbling as the coastal sunsets, and it would have been easy to forget deadlines and trying to chase the race.
There were two things driving us:
- The desire to see the most gruelling of all races and to witness the sheer spectacle of the Dakar was the first.
- The second was to be there for a Toby Price victory and we were hoping against hope that it would happen.
Toby’s steady approach to getting through the event coupled with his broken wrist, seeded just enough doubt to leave us wondering. Making his way through the ranks in the final days and being in 1st place with a lead of only one minute, was gripping to say the least. I’ve waited less anxiously for biopsy results.
By the last day of the Dakar, we were no longer following the race. We had followed it down the length of Peru and had already been to all the bivouac towns twice by the time the rest day arrived. Taylor and myself got quite sick on the rest day, so Dad and Ian travelled out from Arequipa, to see the Marathon stage bivouac where only the bikes were present.
By the time that Dad returned and Ian had travelled on towards Bolivia, Dad was also sick.
Riding Across Peru After the Dakar Finished
The Dakar route would leave Arequipa after the rest day to travel back North. This would take it through all the same towns and bivouacs, it had already gone through, until reaching Lima. If we followed it, we would be going through the same towns on the same stretches of highway for the 4th time. We would then need to go back through there heading South, to return the bikes. I wasn’t interested in doing 6,000km across 1,000km of busy, poorly constructed highway, plus we were sick.
We departed ways with the Dakar and were staying in Cusco, by the time the last day of the race had come about. We were set to leave, but couldn’t bring ourselves to get on the bikes and waited for the final results instead. It was far too early for a beer and we still had 600km to ride when the results came in, but it still became a bit of a party.
It had been an incredible trip the whole way through, but something changed when Toby won the 2019 Dakar. It somehow felt more worthwhile. I was also a bit sad that it was over. We had spent so long planning, and spent every dollar we could muster up, all to be in Peru for the Dakar. Now it was over, and we had no plans for the first time in over 6 months.
We had planned to go to Macchu Pichu after the event, which is why we were in Cusco. As total chance would have it, we wound up at the same hostel as Ian and Taylor, that we had found on the iOverlander app. We formed a plan over a few beers.
The next morning, we would all take a forest track for 5 hours of flat out riding to Hydro Electrica. From there we would haul our sorry asses by foot, up the mountain for 3 hours to Aguas Caliente. The following morning would be another two hours of hiking, until reaching the one place I have always wanted to see most: Macchu Pichu.
A great plan, only to be ruined by soup.
After a soup and pizza dinner (more common than you’d think in Peru), I woke up feeling not too flash, and Dad was a write off. We had to give up on our plans, for what could have been the most incredible ride of the trip, and Ian and Taylor went on their way as a duo once again.
Riding Back to Arequipa
The last few days of riding were nice and scenic, but rather boring by comparison to what we had already been doing.
We rode through more hail storms along snow capped mountains at 4,600 metres, and then back into the warmth. This cycle would repeat itself at least once a day.
We used one of our last remaining days on the bikes to get to Puno to see Lake Titicaca. It was pissing down by the time we got there, so heavily that we didn’t even bother seeing the worlds highest navigable lake. Puno was one of the nicer towns in Peru (not a great standard to go by), though it was impossible to find a hostel or cheap accommodation with secure parking.
Navigating Around Peru
Roadside Accommodation in Peru
Almost everywhere else we’d been, the iOverlander app, which we had used at Taylor’s recommendation, had found us somewhere cheap and bike friendly. Puno was the exception, and the few listings of hostels with parking were out of date.
The most frustration we had trying to find a place to stay, was in a town/small city called Espinar. We were travelling from Arequipa to Cusco, and the persistent occurrence of bucketloads of ice landing on us, dissuaded us from our camping attempts.
When we got there, all the iOverlander listings were out of business or just not open. Even the waypoints for hotels on the GPS we had hired from Peru Motors, would take us somewhere no longer there.
The town had a really depressed vibe to it and we wound up overpaying for the coldest room I have ever stayed in. We parked the bikes in a sort of garage that smelled of blood and bleach. The bikes were surrounded by open crates of raw chicken thighs that were left overnight and well into the next day. I still can’t imagine how we got sick…
Maps & GPS
When we were riding on our own, we were using a Garmin GPS that we had hired from Peru Motors. It got the job done but was very inflexible in being able to choose route options.
The GPS had settings where you could choose to not have tolls or to only use sealed roads etc. but they were too slow to use to be of any use. It either seemed to take us on the main highway, or on very small back roads, but no in between. I much preferred all the smaller trails and tracks without traffic. The scenery was usually better too, but we weren’t able to choose when this would happen.
We would often stop to use Dad’s phone, which we had bought a local simcard for. We would compare options to Google Maps, which would always be far more accurate than the Garmin which pulls its information from Open Street Explorer. I don’t know how recently it had been updated either.
When riding with Ian and Taylor, one of them would lead as they had handlebar mounts for their phones and would use Google Maps. This is certainly something I’ll be doing next time I’m riding overseas, and can’t preload my own GPS with relevant maps.
Most the riding I do in Australia, is not charted by Google Maps. I think there’s a lot to be said for simply having a heading indicator/compass mode and winging it.
The Complete Adventure Riding Packing List for Following the Dakar Rally
This article is already too long, so I have written a comprehensive adventure riding packing list discussing all the camping gear, cooking supplies and general stuff we took with us.
We needed very specific riding gear that could handle the change from dry, 45 degree desert heat, to below freezing in the rain, snow and hail, so I have covered that in a separate breakdown of the best riding gear for the conditions.
And last and probably also least, is the ridiculous amount of filming gear we took with us, completely overloading ourselves.
If you have any questions about the experience, I’ll answer any and all comments below.