The desert is voiceless. There‘s a little breeze seeping through a gap in the dunes, the softest whisper of the wind so light the sand barely moves. It‘s overcast; the sun is hiding behind a thick blanket of pale clouds. The heat is already rising. It‘s not the scorching inferno of midday yet, but it‘s building up, engulfing the desolate golden dunes, slowly gliding across the hard packed sand, breaking out in tiny beads of sweat on my forehead, coating my neck and back. A lonely tuft of grass lost in the bright golden sand shivers ever so slightly in the weightless breeze. The earth is warm. Sitting down, I dig my hand into the sand. The tiniest grains are pale yellow, red, pink and white. The sand feels rough and gritty in my fingers. The heat sticks to my eyelids.
There are small figures scattered across the dunes behind me. Some are moving, inching closer and closer to the track between the mountains of sand. Some look grotesque, dark balaclavas wrapped tightly around their faces, large goggles with menacing red and golden lenses covering their eyes, large, telescope-like cameras at the ready – the Mad Max army of rally photographers, already thirsty, already tired, squinting, dragging their feet. Spectators sit on the hoods of their beat up trucks, opening cans of beers, yelling something in languages I barely recognize, others are unwrapping flags – there‘s Argentina and France, Peru and Lithuania, the lone star of Chile, the green, white and red of Italy. People sit on the sand, staring into the dunes.
I‘m a mile or so away from them. I started walking and couldn’t stop walking until I reached the gap between the dunes, with the breeze and the tuft of grass, and the silence.
The desert is still. A minute dust devil scuttles shyly across the track, pauses, and disappears into the sand. The tuft of grass is perfectly still, too, not a leaf moving. The heat keeps rising. Time itself is staring back at me from the dunes. Nothing has changed here in thousands of years. Nothing will in thousands more.
Suddenly, an alien sound breaks the silence.
Ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka – a flame orange steel bird emerges from behind the tallest dune, rising, approaching, its rotor blades slicing the hot air mercilessly, and the desert sighs in its wake, shuddering.
Another sound pierces the stillness, a scream of a motorcycle engine charging across the sand. There he is, the first rider, flat out on a level desert track, flying across the sand like a demon of the badlands, a trail of sand and dust kicking up behind him. His tires are digging in, sending him forward at breakneck speed, the cameras are ready and the spectators are cheering, corre, corre! But he sees nothing, his focus is set on the finish line ahead, he doesn’t feel the heat or the grit or the pain in his arm, and within seconds, he’s gone, accompanied by the helicopter hovering over him like a loyal bird of prey. A cloud of dust is settling, but before the air clears, another rider appears, and another, and now they race by, one by one or in pairs, looking straight ahead – if only they had wings – and the desert shudders again, the tiniest grains of sand dance in the air, and the lonely tuft of grass is smeared with dust. I watch the dust cover my shirt sleeves and my own apocalyptic goggles, settle on my shoes and jeans, coat my camera, and stick to my face. The heat is rising still, the sun is now poking out from behind the clouds, the skies are clearing, there are no more shadows now, the desert glistens and ripples in the hot air like a mirage, and I feel my face burning. The water in my bottle is warm now. I sit still, squinting into the sun and dust, as the riders fly by me.
Ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka, the rotor blades of another helicopter, the bird of bad news this time, there is a motorcycle dangling on the line – a bike is being lifted out – my heart skips a beat, is the rider OK, is he, is she OK, but there’s no time to mourn the fallen, quads start coming in now, the sound of their engines is different, deeper, muffled a little, and then the first car crests the dune, the engine roaring, the RedBull yellow, red and blue on its flanks – a flash of color, a screech of the engine, and the car is gone. A few more four-wheelers race by, and then suddenly, a black car comes charging on, a black car with a white knight painted on its side, I wave, I hope they can see me although I know they can’t – I know you, I root for you, I jump on my feet, I cough in the clouds of dust.
Out of those clouds, an infernal roar emerges. A Kamaz truck, a beast from hell, a heavy, bellowing monster drunk on its own unbridled power tears across the track, a beautiful diesel mammoth of steel moving at incredible speed, sending shivers down my spine. A wall of dust rises, and the riders who come after are flying blind now. The desert trembles.
The sun is now a white-hot circle in the clear blue sky, but from below, from the mayhem of sand whirling in the air it looks like a pale white disc floating awkwardly across space filled with particles of dust.
I sit on the hot ground, hiding my face under a scarf, my breath is hot and the water in my bottle is hot, and there’s not much of it now, anyway, and the motorcycles, quads and cars keep coming in, hellbent on the finish line, eyes on the horizon, sweat and dust coating their faces, and this is heaven and hell all at once.
Just as suddenly as it began, it ends. The last vehicles race by and disappear, and the dust begins to settle under the punishing sun. It settles slowly, cautiously, as if unsure, the wall of dust collapsing onto itself in slow motion, and I can’t look away from this surreal spectacle, I can’t look away, the particles of sand dancing in the shivering air still.
The desert is voiceless again. The bright yellow and golden dunes are silent. The track is now destroyed, deep ruts cutting into it at all angles, but the light breeze is already at work sifting the sand and blurring the lines.
I pour the few remaining drops of my water onto the little tuft of grass. The thirsty earth soaks the water dry within minutes.
I get up and walk back towards the small figures in the distance. The Dakar caravan is already packing up and moving to the next bivouac, the next start line, the next waypoint in the dunes.
My footprints disappear behind me.