In Paul Bowles's harrowing short story A Distant Episode, a
French professor of linguistics comes to North Africa to study
desert dialects. Nomads cut out his tongue, dress him in tin
cans and make him dance like a clown. Le professeur is driven
This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2002 issue
Earlier this month Neville Murray nearly drove himself to the
lip of lunacy in the Sahara. The British feed merchant straddled
his Honda 650 motorcycle for the 5,863-mile Paris-to-Dakar
rally, a brutal off-road horror-fantasy that plays out every
January along the ancient paths of the salt caravans.
The 50-year-old rally rookie shelled out $50,000 to stew in the
crock of this legendary endurance race--14 stages of motorized
madness over 17 days in some of the least hospitable terrain of
l'Afrique du Nord. Short on talent but long on panache and
chutzpah, Murray had no illusions of winning. "If I finish this,
I'll be a better person," he said. "I'm terrible now, so that
might not seem an improvement."
Cranking it to speeds of more than 90 mph, Murray roared over
frame-shattering rocks, around camel-sized hollows and into
frozen tidal waves of brilliant yellow sand that sucked his cycle
down to its belly plates. He puttered and sputtered through
freezing cold, blistering heat and choking dust. He blew a tire,
broke a radiator, lost a front tooth and ran out of gas. "I
crashed 19 times," he recalled, "none of which were really
In the eerie blue twilight of a marathon night stage, he passed
the bleached bones of Peugeots and Citroens and Renaults that
French tourists had abandoned in the powder-soft dunes: a
potter's field of steel carcasses. "Hadn't slept for days," he
said. "Thought I'd gone nuts." For all his hardships, Murray was
booted out of the race after stage 9--and 3,715 miles--for a rules
violation. Even had he miraculously chugged to victory, his
$10,000 purse would only have equaled his entry fee. (The other
$40,000 he spent covered, among other things, the purchase of his
motorcycle and travel costs.) "You don't enter the Dakar for
money," says race organizer Hubert Auriol. "You enter for fame."
Though little more than a distant curiosity in the U.S., the
rally has a huge following in Europe, especially France, where
it has become the winter equivalent to the summer's Tour de
France and daily highlights are La Television a Ne Pas Manquer
(Must-See TV) on two networks. As any Parisian will tell you,
the French have a spiritual link to the desert, if not a
civilizing mission. Appropriately, the rally was born of a
Frenchman's desert delirium. In 1977, while lost in a
thornbush-speckled moonscape of Niger during another endurance
event, the Abidjan-Nice rally, publicist Thierry Sabine
envisioned the world's longest race across its biggest sandbox.
He kicked off the first Paris-to-Dakar in '79, hoping it would
become the most punishing rally ever.
Paris-to-Dakar is something of a misnomer. The route, in fact,
varies from year to year: The 2000 race began in Dakar and ended
in Cairo. This time around, the start was detoured to Arras, a
French town near the Belgian border. On the evening of Dec. 28
ralliers headed south to Chateauroux for the first bivouac. Two
days later they hit Madrid. On New Year's Eve they were ferried
across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.
The prospect of terrorist attacks confined this year's African
segment to three relatively Western-friendly nations--Morocco,
Mauritania and Senegal. Two years ago ralliers were airlifted
from Niger to Libya after threats from Islamic extremists in
Algeria. Last year a Portuguese support driver had a foot blown
off when his car ran over a land mine in the disputed territory
of Western Sahara.
Entries came from 34 countries, but nearly half were French. The
challenge attracted a total of 318 motorcycles, trucks and
four-wheel-drive cars. Within this three-division foreign legion,
the Beaux Gestes were the 167 motorcyclists, almost all of them
privateers. (The lone U.S. rider, James Fiorillo, a 40-year-old
banking analyst, quit after the second African stage, in Morocco,
muttering, "Too dangerous!")
The rally trucks (manned by a driver, a navigator and an
engineer) and cars (piloted by a driver and a navigator) left
Michael Palin unimpressed. "You can find them in traffic jams
anywhere on Earth," offered the Monty Python writer and actor,
who was in Mauritania to film a BBC documentary on the Sahara.
"The rally cars are mobile boxes that might as well have robots
inside, and rally trucks, thundering through the desert at 80
miles an hour for no apparent reason, well, the idea strikes me
To Palin and countless others, motorcyclists are the Dakar's
true authentics. "There's something quite heroic about them," he
said. "I suppose it's the human element, the struggle of a
solitary person on a machine. These riders have the spirit of
Palin was referring to Mr. Pither, the renowned, sublimely
oblivious bicyclist he created for one of the earliest Python
sketches. (Diddly-dum-dum-diddly went the theme music.
Pedal-pedal-pedal went Mr. Pither, blithely on his way until
Crash! Thud! Boom! Then onward and upward, diddly-dum-dum-diddly.)
Of all the riders Pithering through the Sahara's vast, hypnotic
emptiness, none were more heroic than Murray and his fellow
privateers. These off-road warriors were dismissed by the team
pros as poireaux--or leeks--because they often wound up planted
in the sand. Among those bringing up the back of the pack were
Swedish hairdresser Maria Sandell, Tongan messenger Michel Nanga
and Italian musician Luca Aretini, first violinist in the
Orchestra del Conservatorio Rossini di Pesaro. In Morocco the
42-year-old Aretini winged a camel and ricocheted into a tent.
Asked what the tent's occupant said, Aretini replied, "Many
The Maddest Max, however, was sockless quad-cycle rider Vicus
Van Deventer. Sun-withered and encrusted in several layers of
Sahara, he resembled a breaded veal cutlet. Before flying to
France for the start of the race, the South African farmer
disassembled his Bombardier 650 and jammed the bits into
suitcases. Alas, the pressurized shocks were marked EXPLOSIVE,
and the plane's pilot would only allow them aboard if Van
Deventer sat on them. He did.
Van Deventer, 38, brought no sleeping bag and stayed up most
nights fixing his bike, finding fuel, scavenging for parts. When
his quad's crankshaft key sheared off in a Moroccan dune, he
whipped out a Swiss Army knife and spent three hours whittling a
new one out of a No. 10 wrench. By contrast, the factory pros
from KTM, the only company to sponsor a motorcycle team, were
positively coddled. At day's end the 12 KTM riders could doze
off, sometimes in hotels. Repairs were left to team mechanics,
whose cache of spare parts included 350 sets of foam-filled
tires. Having won its first Dakar in 2001, the Austrian cycle
maker doled out $2 million for salaries, product testing and
support crews. Not surprisingly, the first seven finishers in
the motorcycle division were KTM riders. (It would have been
eight if not for Joan Roma's breakdown--he had a panic
attack--in a Mauritanian canyon.)
Unapologetically commercial, the Dakar has been long condemned
as a flaunting of money and power that insults an impoverished
continent. True as this is, many villagers stood slack-jawed at
the sheer scale of the desert spectacle. Even Moses might have
been envious. "It's staggering to watch this traveling circus
hit these isolated countries," said Palin, whose years with
Python made him something of an authority on flying circuses.
Leapfrogging from airport bivouac to airport bivouac were eight
helicopters, 17 planes and 42 support vehicles, which lugged
everything from medical supplies to 150 tons of food. Among the
nearly 1,300 people involved were 200 event staffers, 45
caterers and 40 physicians. After each stage, lame ralliers
multiplied inside the M.A.S.H. tent like a fast-growing culture
in a petri dish.
Dozens of people have died during the rally's 24-year history.
The 1988 race was the most horrific: Three participants died,
two were paralyzed, and three bystanders--two of them
children--were struck and killed. Safety measures such as strict
speed limits in villages have lowered the body count.
Nonetheless, in the 2002 edition a mechanic died when his car
flipped over in Mauritania, and injuries were as common as camel
grass. Among the motorcyclists alone, the bivouac bulletin board
was a catalogue of misery:
--Youma Tall, the first female black African competitor, from
Togo, crashed and suffered a broken knee.
--Kari Tianen of Finland broke his left forearm and collarbone.
--Pascal Vincent of France fractured a tibia.
Upon being waylaid by injury or some other misfortune, racers
would release the distress beacon. For Murray, the British feed
merchant, releasing the distress beacon, which he called the
Give Up Button, was not an option. "I've welded the beacon box
shut," he growled. "For me not to finish, I must break my bike
or a bone."
Or the rules. After delaying his start from Zouirat, Mauritania,
by two hours to mend another rider's bike, he took a shortcut
and missed three checkpoints, prompting automatic expulsion.
"Maybe helping out was stupid," he said, "but that's my nature."
Mechanic Martyn Maisey had little sympathy. "Neville is mad, but
he lacks the ability to be mad and intelligent," he said. "This
race is ruthless: You should never come to the aid of other
riders. Their problems and your problems will drag you down."
On Sunday, as the rally churned to a close at Dakar's Pink Lake,
faint clanging sounds were heard from 52 cycles. Defending champ
Fabrizio Meoni of Italy coasted cozily home in first place.
Crossing the finish first in the car and the truck divisions
were Hiroshi Masuoka of Japan and Vladimir Tchaguine of Russia,
Meanwhile, Van Deventer was nowhere in sight: A busted wheel
bearing in the third-to-last stage had bounced him from the race.
"Headed home," he had said before Pithering south.
resembled a breaded veal cutlet.