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Sahara

Day 24: Azougui to Atâr

Michael Palin - SaharaBut the plane that really matters is the Hercules. Without the Hercules, Atâr would not have got its gleaming new airport and freshly laid tarmac, for inside its ample flanks are the 22 tonnes of editing equipment, which provide the television coverage on whose revenue the Rally's survival depends.

Wires and cables spill like entrails from its belly, connecting up satellite dishes and generators and even a makeshift studio, complete with potted plants, set up on the tarmac for live interviews with the drivers, which will be pumped out to the four corners of the world.

Way beyond the bustling, hi-tech centre of this instant city, a suburban sprawl of less privileged competitors stretches to the far corners of the airstrip. At its shadeless limits, where the tarmac runs out and the rubble begins, a tent, a Union Jack and an old Range Rover, with a row of white socks drying on its bonnet, mark the headquarters of the only British interest left in the Rally. The tent is shared by Dave Hammond, a short and amiable motorbike rider, and his two mechanics. Dave is what's known as a privateer, someone who has entered the race 'for the romance of the event', without the backing of any of the big teams. Not for him the Mitsubishi millions. His fuel tank bears the name of Webb's Garages of Cirencester.

And bears it proudly. Fifty-two bikes have already dropped out and Dave is lying twenty-first of the 115 still left. He's optimistic. At this stage of the rally the pressure is on the big boys and they begin to make mistakes. Dave reckons that if he doesn't do anything silly he'll pick up places at the expense of those being forced to take risks.

I ask him if he has any sense of where he is. He shakes his head and laughs.

'I just know we're going south, because it's getting hotter and hotter.'

The Dakar Rally, it seems, is really nothing to do with seeing the world. It's about machines and drivers. Where you are is less important than how fast you got there and whether you still have a vehicle that can get you out. Someone tells me of a first-time American competitor, thrown off his bike five days ago in Morocco, who'd asked plaintively, 'Is there much more sand out there?'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 24
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Atâr
  • Book page no: 87

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