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Soaking up the Dakar – the South American way!

The Dakar Rally covers more than 9 300 km as it winds up Argentina, across the Andes mountains, and back south through Chile. More than 5 500 km is across vast swathes of inhospitable plains, through stunning desert dunes and over rocky mountains, but it’s in the towns and villages where this legendary event truly comes to life.


The competitive special stages are so remote that competitors can drive many kilometres without seeing a single person. However, in the pockets of habitation on the liaison sections that lead to and from the stages, it’s fiesta time as the locals turn out in thousands to greet and cheer on the Dakar heroes.


Official estimates put the number of fans at Saturday’s start ceremony in Rosario at more than a million and the highway leading out of the city was lined for almost 30 km as competitors left for the first day’s competition. And that was at 07:00!


It’s holiday time and high summer in Argentina, and whole families gather on the roadside outside their homes or drive to the nearest stretch of public road to catch a glimpse of the cars, motor cycles, quad bikes and trucks that make up this cavalcade.


It’s easy to imagine that life in these remote outposts can be rather quiet for much of the year, so this is an occasion to party. Children jump up and down with wide smiles on their faces, waving and cheering any vehicle that passes by with a Dakar race number emblazoned on its side.


The more cheeky ones tap on the windows of cars at junctions, eager to lay their hands on a free baseball cap, driver photographs or anything else they can keep as a souvenir. And you know what? The cheeky ones are usually successful in their quest!


Some wave flags or banners, encouraged by their no less enthusiastic mums and dads, who had the foresight to pack a few deck chairs and a picnic (along with the obligatory cool box in this 37 deg C heat) to keep everyone fed and watered.


For those hardy souls who venture into the stages, it’s a test of endurance. Life in the open in the heat of the fierce midday sun isn’t easy and a vast of array of headwear, from caps to shirts and even simple pieces of cloth, is used to stave off the rays.


For some a chair carefully positioned on the back of a pick-up offers the optimum view, while others peek out from makeshift tents, from under beach umbrellas or canvases stretched between vehicles and even through branches used as for temporary respite from the sun.


Others are content to stand out in the open, a rapidly warming can of beer in one hand, an empanada in the other and a youngster bouncing around on their shoulders.


Despite the punishing heat and ever-present dust that follows the passing of every car, motorcycle, quad and truck, the locals seem to have an unbreakable spirit. The fun, enthusiasm and cheerful Spanish banter continues unabated long after the competitors have disappeared into the vast wilderness.


A special day to them – just another day in the life of the Dakar caravan.