I’m old enough to remember the 5th Dakar Rally, when Mark Thatcher ended up lost for six days; it was headline news in the UK and the first time I had ever heard of the race. At the time I thought he was insane to even go there!
Forty years on, here am I, well acquainted with the desert, with the knowledge of how to survive in such hostile terrain should I break down on one of my frequent solo offroad drives, and teaching others how to drive through the desert safely. If I could time travel back to 1982 maybe I could give Mr Thatcher some tips!
I’ve never forgotten the Dakar though, and through my 11 years as a volunteer marshal with the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge I’ve had the chance to meet many big names in cross-country rallying who have participated in the Dakar.
I’ve even been gifted some Dakar memoribilia over the years, including an event t-shirt from John and a sticker for Xazu, my first 4×4, from Roger and Maira.
Fast forward to late December 2022 when my friend Tom Bell of South Racing Middle East contacted me to ask if I would like to be an offroad instructor for the Dakar Corporate VIP events they were running alongside the main rally. I didn’t even need a nanosecond to say yes, and after a few days of keeping our fingers crossed that all would go ahead, the job was confirmed and a Saudi Government Visa was in my inbox!
We flew Flynas (Saudi Arabian budget airline) from Dubai to Riyadh, although I must confess I would have preferred to drive, as it’s only 8 hours from Beda Zayed to Saudi’s capital city (and 7 hours counting travel to airport, sitting in airport, then the flight). Nevertheless this project, as well as realising a long-time dream, also gave me a very useful supported introduction to the Kingdom.
Here’s me and fellow instructor Dawn having a quick Costa before our flight.
On landing in Riyadh, we met up with another friend Fahad (who happens to be my guide for my Omani trips) and we took a taxi to our hotel near the city centre. Riyadh is absolutely huge, with a population a little over 7.5 million and many building projects to allow it to grow even bigger.
Next day we headed out to the desert for our reconnaissance trip; we were about one hour outside Riyadh, where the Dakar would have its Bivouac (base) for 3 days. Our team was a multinational group of offroad/driving professionals from France, Saudi, Jordan, Oman, England and Scotland.
After our project/safety briefing, I heard myself offering to lead; I couldn’t help myself…. you know how I don’t like to follow anyone! I must have done a good job as team leader Bruno made me #1 in the convoy for the next 3 days!
Our job was to sit in the passenger seat of these Jeeps whilst drivers with varying abilities piloted them over a relatively smooth and easy course I had planned. We were very restricted with the size of the area we could drive in which was a rectangle of 2km x 3km – I told many of “my drivers” that my most popular tour in the UAE was 220kms of offroading, in an area 100km x 100km!
We met a lot of lovely people over the course of the next few days, including many young locals -men and women – and this was the first time I had met anyone Saudi under 45!
Once we were finished in the desert we had to drop our cars off at the bivouac, which gave us time for a look around, and afterwards our lovely friend Ali picked us up and took us for a lovely modern-style Saudi dinner.
We were still left with about 7 daytime hours to fill, and luckily, Dawn is very much of the same mind as me so shopping was not on the agenda. Instead we took a taxi into town and had a tour of the lovely Masmak Fort followed by a tasty traditional Saudi lunch in Najd Village Restaurant.
I consider myself so lucky to have done this; only 4 years ago, tourists were not admitted to Saudi Arabia, nor were women allowed to drive! We were given a very generous kit issue from the rally organisers and it turns out the jacket and bodywarmer, which are great for winter in Saudi, are also worthwhile additions to your outdoor wardrobe in Scotland for the summertime!
Huge thanks to Tom Bell and his team for putting their trust in me, and well done to the many guest drivers I met over the week; it was an awesome experience!
I was back in the Kingdom just three weeks later with Dawn and some other friends, on the first reconnaissance trip for my Saudi Pioneers Landscape Adventure, but that’s another story!