Manchester isn’t the most obvious location to practice for arguably what is the most gruelling off-road rally in the world. But as daft as it sounds, it is true.
High up in the foothills of the Peak District on Ludworth Moor where Greater Manchester shares a boundary with Derbyshire two intrepid enthusiasts are honing their driving skills for next year’s Dakar Rally.
The Dakar Rally, or as it used to be called The Paris-Dakar Rally has been an annual race since 1978 in which dedicated enthusiast and professional drivers pit their skills in the hardest of hard off-road endurance events. It’s not for the feint-hearted, and it’s not for modified Land Rover’s or cobbled together 4×4 machines but only for true off-road endurance machines. Each entrant needs a huge support and backup team. There are categories for motorbikes, quads, cars, and trucks.
Years ago, when I worked in Bamako, Mali I saw the various Paris-Dakar teams coming through – it was so exciting to see, there was always a huge and colourful crowd to cheer them on. I had liked off-roading before then, I developed a passion for it in West Africa, and I still do it today in my battered old Land Rover Defender 90. Virgin off-roaders are always amazed and scared in equal measure at the unbelievable abilities of my Land Rover, even though I only ever do really tame driving…….
In 2009 conflict in West Africa prevented the continuation of the route from Paris to Dakar on the west coast of Senegal. Since then the rally has been held in South America. Next year’s predominantly desert event will be held in Peru.
I was delighted, proud, and envious a few years ago when my good friend and fellow off-roader David Watson told me he was going to enter the Dakar on a motorbike. His training was rigorous, competing in events across Europe and in Morocco. I followed each day on the internet as competed in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge qualifying event. It was amazing to see his progress in a field full of professional riders, each day gradually creeping up the leader board. On the penultimate day his name didn’t appear, I assumed he’d either finished or withdrawn.
Painfully, it was for neither reason. In the blazing sunlight and deceiving shadows he had underestimated the drop on the rear slope of a sand dune and crashed down heavily onto his motorbike. Broken back, fractured ribs, shattered ankles and wrists, cracked ribs and broken teeth. David was airlifted away and evacuated back to England despite arguing to get back on his bike and continue the race.
Convalescence over, most of us would have given up, but not David, he was undeterred, and the next Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was duly completed.
So, the 39th Dakar Rally was hosted in Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The gruelling 2-week event started on 2nd January 2017, with David on his KTM 440RR backed up by the experienced support team of Graham Knight, Paul Hudson, and Peter Rowbottom.
In incredibly hard conditions in which some stages were cancelled and others shortened David not only completed the event but finished in a respectable 84th position.
A once-in-a-lifetime event over – not so for David. He enjoyed the experience so much he wanted more. Graham Knight, himself an experienced offroader and mechanic had also got the bug, and this time not as part of the backup team, and not on 2 wheels.
With Graham as driver, and David as navigator they will be competing in next years Dakar Rally which takes place in Peru in January, driving a purpose-built Polaris offroad buggy. As I said earlier these are not souped up quad bikes, but purpose designed and built offroad monsters.
Their training schedule is fearsome, and the intrepid pair have been regularly participating in rally events across Europe, North Africa and in the middle East culminating in 1st place and a podium position in the buggy category of this year’s Dubai International Baja Rally.
But the training doesn’t stop when they are back at home. So, in a disused quarry up on Ludworth Moor with fantastic views over to Manchester and further to the Cheshire Plane and beyond to North Wales the pair can be regularly seen racing around in their ‘sanitised’ training machine.
I spent a few exciting hours ‘flying’ around the circuit with them. Graham took me for a spin. It was like no other offroading I’d ever done before. We hurtled round the course at breakneck speed, no obstacles stood in his way, it was unbelievable. Despite the rough terrain littered with boulders, divots and channels it was remarkably smooth (well what I mean is not as rough as you might expect) and this was only in the training vehicle.
I had a go, it was amazing: incomparable to offroading in my very capable Landrover but where you seemingly have to carefully negotiate every little obstacle as you crawl along. Gone were the careful driving techniques I’d used for years – you just put your foot down hard and steer around the course. It was brilliant.
Anyway, good look next year Graham and David, it’s going to be tough but enjoy the Dakar and Peru.