Wind, sand and stars

"I succumbed to the desert as soon as I saw it," wrote Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupery, the poet of the Sahara. He used to fly the mails from Paris to Dakar and he knew the beauty and the dangers of the desert. Once he had tried to break the flying record from Paris to Saigon and crashed in the Sahara, almost dying of thirst.

Later, flying as a reconnaissance pilot with the American forces in WWII, he disappeared somewhere out in the Mediterranean.

Thierry Sabine was a man in the same mould. Though not perhaps a poet, he left his own legacy - the Paris-Dakar Rally. I suppose I expected the Paris-Dakar to be a cross between St. Exupery's descriptions of the desert, Beau Geste and that cartoon called "The Wacky Races".

I have followed the Paris-Dakar Rally closely for a couple of years, daily reading of the exploits in the Sahara in the French journal L'Equipe. The British press has never taken the event seriously - occasionally jumping on the "Stop the Killer Rally" bandwagon, but usually ignoring what is a huge event. Their argument is that it has no British interest.

Well, I was interested.

God Bless Peugeot. Would I like to go on the Paris-Dakar Rally, they said. Is the Pope a Catholic?

And thus, injected until I felt like a pin cushion and armed with strange visas, malaria tablets and a sleeping bag I set out to discover all about the "golden sand and copper sky; copper sky and golden sand; and nothing else. Nothing to relieve the aching human eye, in all that dreadful boundless waste of blistering earth and burning heaven."

Well, that sort of thing...

They say that people go to the desert and find their true nature - men alone between the sand and the stars. I rather fancied the role of desert mystic, the romantic image which Thierry Sabine created before the desert finally claimed him.

If the truth be told the main reason for going on the Dakar was so I could visit Timbuktu. You cannot call yourself a globetrotter until you have been there.

I was duly given the horror stories: scorpions in beds, aerial near-misses, snakes, whirling Dervishes and all that, but I was determined. It was Timbuktu or bust!

The Paris-Dakar is very much a French event. It runs through the old French colonies and the French influence remains, often in the most bizarre forms: in Bamako you can find a Vietnamese restaurant, a memory of France's empire in Indochina.

Our welcome to the desert was more down-to-earth than Beau Geste. At Tamanrasset, in deepest Algeria, the realization came that Beau, Digby and the boys were long gone - as I suppose I knew, but didn't want to admit.

We had stopped to refuel on the way from Paris. It was 5am and no-one was much in the mood for customs men. We had to fill in departure forms despite the fact that we had never officially arrived and had no intention of getting off the plane. The formalities took so long that the only logical conclusion was that not enough palms had been greased. And so we officially left Algeria without ever arriving... something I shall no bother to do again.

Dawn over the Sahara came in spectacular fashion and a hot cup of coffee improved the mood for the arrival in Agadez.

It is a very small dot on a map - a one-camel town, or so it looked. We laughed when the plane - a Boeing 737 had to be pushed by us, the passengers, because it was not on the right place of the apron. As the days went by pushing planes lost its novelty. It quickly became clear that to follow the Dakar without a Land Rover, you needed an aeroplane.

Daily flying from place to place meant plenty of waiting around, but it made reporting the event possible. The only problem was that there are lot of journalists, mechanics and so on who need to be flown about and so an aerial armada is created and the average airport in Niger is not used to dealing with many planes in a year.

Once on the ground, the first thing you realize is that it is not always hot in the desert. If you have ever wondered why people in photographs from the Paris-Dakar are always wrapped up in thick jackets, the answer is that it is cold when the wind blows - and it blows a lot. Learning to tie a Tuareg head-dress is not Paris-Dakar posing. It is very useful because otherwise you are forever crunching on particles of sand which get between your teeth. Sunglasses help to keep sand out of eyes.

The other battle you have is with your conscience. Have you ever tried to eat when you are surrounded by scrawny, underfed children? One of the overriding aspects of the Dakar is that there are so many children out there in the desert and wherever you go they ask you for two things: a "bic" or a "cadeau". On the Dakar you learn the value of little things like biros. If a kid has a biro they can write. Ari Vatanen speaks of being humbled by the event, and unless you have no heart at all, you understand.

For me the best thing about the event was the faces of the kids when they had been given half a tin of rabbit stew or a plasticized piece of cake. They were amazed and joyful.

The organizers of the rally take a lot of flak for taking a bunch of rich playthings into some of the poorest countries in the world and so each year they donate things - like a new water pump - to help out the locals. Not that private enterprise is dead. Far from it. The day the rally comes to town is the biggest day of the year and prices are hiked to amazing levels. It is amazing what people will pay for things. A bottle of beer at $5 seemed like a bargain.

There is not much out there to sell, except the uranium deposits in the Air Mountains, but in the market at Agadez you can find the most extraordinary things. Who buys a pair of skis in the middle of the Tenere desert? A Tuareg sword maybe, but skis!

The most difficult thing is to put the Tenere into perspective - the figure 1,000,000 square miles doesn't mean much does it? It is just a figure. Mali is twice the size of France, so is Niger. For the first day we stayed in Agadez and watched the rescue planes coming and going from the airport, going out to look for the stragglers.

There is nothing magnificent about the desolation in most of the places we spent our time. Close to the towns the desert is filled with tin cans and rubbish. Further out it was better and with only the wind for company, you strained to see the runners coming in after a day running at high speed through the desert. The first thing you see is a dust cloud and then above the wind you hear an engine - usually a motorcycle arrives first. Often you will see teams coming in together. This is an event on which people help one another. If you see someone in trouble you stop to help. Next time it could be you.

One aspect you notice is that this event involves people who smoke. These are not the green bean-eating racing drivers. Constant exposure to danger means that few worry of them about the damage a cigarette will do. You take your pleasures, lest they be your last.

After a few days you begin to appreciate things more. The bread in Gao was I swear the best I have tasted anywhere in the world. Smells seem more pungent, and tastes are finer. When you get back you find that life is suddenly much more enjoyable - but gradually the feeling fades away and your sense become dulled once again.

You see the racing stars like Patrick Tambay and Jacques Laffite and you see that they too are experiencing the same feelings. They know that the real stars of the desert are the men on the motorcycles, to men like Gaston Rahier and Cyril Neveu heroism is second nature. Clay Regazzoni was out there too in a Mercedes with hand controls.

"It's OK," he says of the event. "They won't give me a licence for anything else."

As every tabloid reporter knows, the thin line between heroism and tragedy makes for a hell of a good headline. There are always casualties on the Dakar. Adventure has a face which is unacceptable to some, who like to live wrapped up in cotton wool in cities.

Did I succumb to the desert? No, actually, I cannot say I did, but as a brief romantic encounter it was a fabulous experience but I do not feel I have actually done the Dakar. I followed it. I waited for it to fleetingly pass. I had a glimpse of what it is all about. And I cannot help but think that I would like to go back again.

"Let those that dream, stay at home," Thierry Sabine said years ago.

The Paris-Dakar is only for the brave. I don't suppose you know if you have the necessary until you actually try. I thought as I sat in a very nice hotel that perhaps one day I might try doing it. That is easy to write but if you had asked me if I was interested on a cold sand-blasted morning in Tahoua, when I was tired and hungry, I think I would have felt otherwise.

Like many things in life, the memories are better than the actual events...

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