Why is this £270,000 limo sitting in the middle of a desert in Chile? It must be Warren Pole on a dry run for the 2009 ‘Dakar’ – in a Rolls Royce Phantom

Photos: Anthony Cullen

(Live magazine, Mail on Sunday)

RECLINING WITHIN THE regal luxury of my leather-lined cabin, I punch a button and wait briefly as the stationary Phantom raises itself three inches on its haunches for maximum ground clearance. A gentle brush of the accelerator and the 6.8 litre V12 motor lurking beneath that vast bonnet responds, stirring the two and a half ton Rolls into life as it nudges over the dirt ridge ahead. All I can see as the front wheels drop over the edge is the silver lady on top of the front grille, arms aloft, proudly leading the charge into the dusty void below.

This is the middle of Chile’s Atacama desert, one of the driest places on earth, and the £270,000 Phantom and I are a long way from anything resembling tarmac. With the car caked in the filth of the last 3000 miles, many of those off-road, we are now dropping down a ragged escarpment to a vast salt-flat.

The only indication from within of the car’s struggle against the desert elements without is the frantic flashing from the traction control indicator as the wheels endlessly spin and grip, yet despite the brash conditions outside, life in the Phantom’s driving seat remains as dignified as the Queen at a polo match.

Reaching the salt it becomes apparent it is not flat but crazed with razor sharp, rock hard ridges. With a quick prayer – being 100 miles from the most basic civilisation and with mobile reception last seen two days ago, a puncture here would be very bad – I press on and the Rolls crunches across the blinding white flats as the Chilean sun beats down from a cloudless sky.

It was worth the risk for this shot alone, but a puncture here would have spelled disaster

The reason for this more than unusual drive is I’m here to check out the new route for the world’s toughest off-road race, the Dakar Rally, which for 2009 will leave its African homeland for the first time in its 30-year history and take on Argentina and Chile instead.

If past races are anything to go by, the pace, distance and gruelling terrain which are the rally’s hallmarks will see at least half the field wiped out over a fortnight of competition as engines, components and even their own bodies succumb to the hardships ahead. For some the decision to pull out may not even be voluntary – since its inception in 1979, 48 competitors have been killed racing the Dakar. This is not a race to be trifled with, but that’s the point. The Dakar is about enduring and overcoming, succeeding where odds suggest only failure is possible. Dakar organiser Etienne Lavigne believes next year’s rally will serve up the required ingredients.

“2009’s race is not a copy of the Dakar being moved abroad, it is a real Dakar race in South America, with all the challenges and spirit that involves.”

Wondering if Lavigne’s confidence is justified I spoke with the man who’s won the Argentinean round of the Rally world championship more than any other, reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb, about his thoughts on off-roading in the country.

“Argentineans love motorsport and the rally there is the most popular in the world championship with the biggest crowds. It’s a great atmosphere, a real party.”

The start point for this all-new Dakar will be the giant obelisk monument on Buenos Aires’ Avenida 9 Julio and this is where my own Dakar had begun. The Avenida is the only street in the world capable of making a rush hour lap of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look like a relaxing Sunday drive. For the race it will be closed but I had no such luxury. Every green light starts a drag race, every red light a braking contest and pedestrians foolish enough to try crossing the Avenida look terrified. Even the pensioners run.

The Avenida 9 Julio in the centre of Buenos Aires is the widest avenue in the world, and total chaos

Out of Buenos Aires and the real side of Argentinean driving appears. Motorways barely exist, and across the endless flatlands of the Pampas region the only thing bigger than the distance you can see is the vast acreage of sky stretching from one horizon to the other overhead. Traffic may be sparse after the capital but the chaos continues.

The roads, arrow straight for mile after mile shift without warning from freshly surfaced blacktop nirvana to scarred, charred crater-filled disaster areas which look like a war has recently taken place on them. At the same time railway crossings, hump-backed bridges, hairpins and speed bumps appear randomly and suddenly meaning the ability to go from 110mph to 20mph is a distinct help. Fortunately, the Phantom excels at this. 

Approaching Mendoza, heart of Argentina’s wine country, the Andes tower into view. One minute it’s all gentle undulating countryside, the next, there’s the world’s longest mountain range staring back at you through the windscreen. Breathtaking doesn’t even come close. Although Dakar competitors may not feel the same because mountains represent a new challenge for the race as veteran Argentinean off-road racer Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Roviralta explained that evening:

“The biggest challenge for Dakar drivers here will be in the Andes where the danger is rolling your vehicle. If you do and you go over an edge, you will roll a very long way to the bottom which could kill you”.

Ruta 7 across the Andes. Driving heaven

Leaving Mendoza on Ruta 7 and climbing into the Andes for the crossing to Chile his words ring in my ears. Soon though they’re forgotten as this turns out to be the best road in the world, winding its sinuous beautifully-surfaced way high into the mountains and revealing an endless selection of natural beauty as it goes, from shimmering cobalt blue lakes to circling eagles and snow-capped peaks which shock you into insignificance with their monstrous jagged majesty.

Arriving at a freezing border in a brand new Rolls Royce wearing UK plates, I may as well have turned up in a space ship. The place grinds to a halt and even the normally stern looking border guards stop looking intimidating long enough to have their pictures taken with it. Not that this made getting into Chile any easier. The Dakar racers will need some serious preparation to avoid ruining their races here amid the bureaucracy.

Four hours and more stamps than a philatelists convention later I’m on my exhausted way. In the dark. And wet. Down the side of a mountain. On a road where a small error of judgement on any one of its several hundred blind hairpins offers the opportunity to plunge several hundred feet to certain death.

From this border, the Dakar will head West to Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast for a rest day but deciding I’d not quite endured the hardships the racers will (apparently they will sleep in tents, not five star hotels…) I cut across to their next stop further up the same coast, Bahia Inglesa.

Rammed in the summer, this is Chile’s Blackpool by all accounts, although with the summer in its dying embers the place is all but deserted and on learning the Dakar organisers are planning a special stage of the race on Bahia’s beach, this seemed like the perfect time for the Phantom’s inaugural off-road mission.

I was concerned the huge car would simply bog to its axles immediately and embarrassingly but despite no four-wheel drive, it didn’t, preferring to dig in and let the subtle strong surge of torque from its mammoth motor waft it along indecently well. Attention was needed as sand all looks the same, and there were potholes, ditches, and deep soft patches everywhere. Fortunately, by luck rather than judgement, I missed these and left Bahia to trace the rally’s route into the Atacama desert.

As the miles slid by the landscape dried up until there was no doubt we were in the driest desert on the planet. Stopping for a dusty lunch in an old bus on bricks doubling as a truck stop, the heat is odd. It’s plainly very hot, but with the desert greedily sapping every drop of sweat from you before it settles on your skin, you stay dry. This fools you into thinking you’re not sweating and you’re not hot. But unless you pour water down your neck like a river rapid, the next stages will be dehydration, heatstroke and death.

Even 1000 miles of these desert 'roads' couldn't stop the Phantom

You can’t rely on the rare oases out here either as I later learned from Atacama off-road guide Williams Horstmeier who told me, “some of them will give you diarrhoea”. If that and the dry heat weren’t enough, driving out here the dangers are huge.

“Hidden gorges are the biggest problem,” explained Horstmeier. “The desert looks flat, but it’s not. If you’re driving fast the first you normally know of the gorges is when you crash into one. Also although the sand looks solid, some areas have large holes underneath. The only way of spotting these is by knowing where they are”.

My solution to this was to stick to trails left by other vehicles in the desert’s wilder areas. Here speed was the key and at 60mph the car magically began floating over the worst ruts, while treating the wheel like a tiller and gently coaxing it in the required direction had the giant Phantom serenely skating where asked as a huge plume of dust and stones was churned up by its spinning wheels. And this plan worked well. Until one particular track took me into the middle of an unexploded minefield.

After a nervous and thankfully explosion-free retreat, the final desert tester was the altitude because not only is the Atacama the world’s driest desert, it’s the world’s highest too and crossing back into Argentina at the remote Paso Jama takes you to 4500 metres above sea level. Here the thin air makes even brisk walking breathless. Acclimatisation is obviously possible though as evidenced by a burly soldier dragging hard on a roll up outside while I wheezed past into the customs shack.

Two days later cruising the now filthy Phantom back into Buenos Aires, my Dakar excursion was over.  There’s no doubt that between them Argentina and Chile can provide more than enough natural challenge for the world’s toughest race, but these challenges will be quite different to anything that has gone before. As organiser Etienne Lavigne explains, “the main differences will be the increased heat as we will be racing in South America’s summer rather than Africa’s winter, and the higher altitude as well.” But he’s also convinced there is one thing that won’t change:

“The key thing is the spirit of this race. Dakar is a way of racing, a human life experience. It is more than just a place, so for 2009 of course it will still be called the Dakar. What else could we call it?”


Home       Writing    TV & showreel    Gallery    Contact    Clients