Bumping along on a Guinean dirt road in the summer of 2004 Andrew G. Szabo realized that driving in the backroads of West Africa is an incredible experience and he must enter the Dakar Rally. After doing some research about the Dakar, he concluded that it wasn't made for laid back adventurers as it was a high speed race, which he wanted no part of. “When I told my friends that I had an idea for an kinder, gentler rally along the route of the Dakar, people were super skeptical. They thought I'd leave a trail of dead bodies in the Sahara behind me”, said Andrew G. Szabo, founder of the Budapest-Bamako.
Just ten years later the Budapest-Bamako is now a standard fixture on the marathon rally calendar. The small event grew up to be the largest amateur rally in the world and the most important charity rally in Africa. On the 10th anniversary of the race 130 vehicles from 42 countries lined up in the Hungarian capital to join the coveted trans-Sahara rally.
There were 480 participants in 101cars, 5 trucks and on 24 motorcyles on this year's rally. “Driving in Africa will always hold a certain allure and attraction for people”, said Wera Hegedus, race referee in Budapest.
A total of 41 teams entered the competitive category while others joined the standard touring and the newly launched 4x4 adventure category, which had the same off-road stages as racing, but without the competition. “Completing the 9000 kilometer race is a challenge by itself. We're here to test our own limits. ”, said Jeff Cook, a British rally fan, who joined the 4x4 adventure section.
The race started with a light hearted start ceremony complete with fireworks, confetti cannons and the usual costume party that's been the signature of this wacky race. Miss Hungary 2015 bid farewell to the teams as they set out on the longest stage of the rally, a 3117 kilometer long, three day super marathon.
The Budapest-Bamako is not a timed race. Teams have to collect points for navigating to GPS checkpoints and completing various sections of the rally on time. There were checkpoints between Budapest and Genova, Italy. From here teams could take a two-day ferry to Tangier or drive down the French and Spanish coasts.
The first accident took place just 4 hours from Budapest. Mark Jeunette's motorcycle was rear-ended by a Slovenian car in a tunnel outside of Ljubjana. Mark fell off his bike and suffered minor injuries, but continued the race. Several other mishaps cast a shadow on the European stage. A great number of cars broke down along the European highways. The 118 car's English crew had to spend three days in Southern Spain to wait for spare parts for their Mitsubishi Pajero. Three cars got burglarized. One team's entire cash reserves and passports were taken violently by Spanish criminals near Barcelona. They had to turn back to Budapest to get their documents replaced.
The real African racing of the Budapest-Bamako kicked off in Tangier, Morocco, where bizarre weather sent shockwaves among the teams. The usually dry and dusty dirt roads were wet and muddy. The 572 kilometer stage from Tangier to Marrakesh was demanding and difficult. “We've never seen this much water in Morocco”, said Peter Hamza of the Gumisember Team.
The Slovakian Felvidek Team was the first serious casualty of the Moroccan rains. Some 150 kilometers south of Tangier they miscalculated the depth of a seasonal river crossing and flooded their car. “The water came all the way up the dashboard inside the 08 car”, said an eyewitness. The experienced team of the 08 Toyota Landcruiser was expected to finish in the top 3. Unfortunately they had to drop out on the second stage and tow their car home.
The rains and bad weather continued in Northern Morocco. The entire rally got stuck at one point in the Atlas mountains because of a snowstorm. “That's not what we came to Africa for!”, said Pako Fekete a Nigerian participant of the rally.
From 10AM to 3:30PM the principal road across the Atlas mountain was shut down by the local authorities for cleaning. The entire rally spent the day in a small Berber village waiting for the snow conditions to ease. Many cars turned back and opted for the safer road around Agadir, choosing to skip the end stage of the day. Organizers didn't cancel the stage, because the road opened up in the afternoon and race teams had nearly 16 hours to complete the stage on time at night.
After the Atlas crossing the weather improved drastically and 15-18 Celsius weather and sunny conditions greeted the drivers on the northern edge of the Sahara. At 9PM only 4 cars and 3 motorcycles made it to the finish line at the sand dunes along the Irici salt lake. “I've been a referee on the Budapest-Bamako for 10 years, but I have never experienced anything like this”, said Wera Hegedus, whose organization car was one of the first ones to arrive at the finish. “It's never a dull experience, there are new suprises every year”, added the referee.
At night 30 more cars arrived at the bivouac but others in the race category lost points for not completing the stage. One of the teams that did finish was a favorite of local rally fans. Rolf Sjöstrand and Rutger Andersson from Sweden drove a 1960 Ford Falcon. It was the rally's oldest vehicle this year.
Team Israel suffered a severe blow literally and figuratively on the next day. The 51 Nissan Patrol had a frontal collision with a local driver who has been declared partially blind by a local village council. There were no injuries, but Team 51 had to spend several days in Agadir repairing their car before they could catch up with the rest of the rally. Teams turned further south as they sped along dusty old Dakar tracks along the Draa river valley in Morocco.
The flood area of the Draa had an uncomfortable surprise for Janos Turjanyi who got stuck in the mud some 3 kilometers from camp. His Triumph motorcycle sank in the mud and he could neither pull it out nor walk back to camp which was on the other side of the river. Several rescue teams set out to locate him in the mud, but all failed. He was saved by members of the Gumisember Team and rally organizers a 3AM. “We had to walk 2.5 kilometers. Driving to him would have had disastrous consequences as the terrain was soft and muddy”, said Lukacs Toth Kalman who led the third rescue group to pull him out. “I spent nearly 12 hours in the swamp. The mosquitos were eating me alive. It was a horrifying ordeal”, said Mr. Turjanyi who was completing his sixth Budapest-Bamako on his Triumph motorcycle.
The unlucky streak continued for Team 118, that had to spend three extra days in Spain. After driving non-stop, they finally caught up with the rally in the Bojdour bivouac. However, exhaustion and sleep depravation took a toll on them as they skidded off the road and overturned their vehicle just south of the Tropic Of Cancer. They got away with minor injuries, but their car had to give up this year's rally.
A few hundred meters south of the Tropic Of Cancer sign an American biker lost control of his vehicle and flew off the bike. John Orosz had to be taken to a military hospital in Dakhla with a dislocated shoulder.
By the second week of the Budapest-Bamako teams were deep in the heart of the Sahara. Arriving in Mauritania participants had a true rest day in the desert. They had a chance to fix their vehicle, rearrange their gear, kick back and enjoy the beauty of the Sahara. “This has been a very difficult first week, but the rest day in the middle of the race is a well deserved break for everyone”, said Andrew G. Szabo in Boulanoar.
While Morocco had long stages, Mauritania required skillful desert driving from racers. The race category turned east from Boulanoar towards the Terjit oasis along the iron ore railroad tracks. “There were times when you had to drive on the tracks themselves” , said Laszlo Tempfli, whose team did the scouting for this year's rally. Conditions were made difficult by a sandstorm that was slowly getting stronger by the minute. As race teams were traveling along the tracks in the sand, the touring category teams were heading towards Mauritania's Banc D'Arguin National Park along the Atlantic Coast.
The second and third Mauritanian days took a heavy toll on hardware. All the garages in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott filled up with rally cars as the dust conitnued to blow relentlessly. The Budapest-Bamako is a low budget race that doesn't have support trucks. Teams have to do their own repairs and rely on local mechanics. Experienced Bamako participants have Nouakchott repair shops on their speed dial. The Spanish Unimog Team, Truckventure and the German Team Leipzig with a VW Touareg both dropped out in Nouakchott after their sophisticated vehicles couldn't be fixed. “This is the place where a lot of teams give up. If you have irreparable technical issues it's clearly suicidal to continue from here”, said Mr. Szabo.
As the rally reached the Sahara's southern border the dunes gave way to grasslands and villages. There were more and more children and farm animals. Drivers were requested at the Nouakchott morning briefing to pay attention to camels, cows and donkeys that roam freely in this part of Mauritania. Despite of the warning a cow and a donkey were killed that day. A Slovenian Mercedes truck became the deathbed of a cow and Hungarian biker, Mark Molnar hit a donkey at 110 kilometers per hour on the Nouakchott-Kaedi stage of the rally. He suffered only a broken hand, but the donkey moved on to greener pastures. Liability insurance compensated the owners of the dead animals.
The bush lands and dry riverbeds caused severe navigational problems on the old Dakar rallies in southern Mauritania in the past. This year Budapest-Bamako participants had to deal with the same complexities of the dirt road system of the Kaedi-Kiffa stage. Many teams got lost or ended up in remote dead end villages and nomad encampments for the night.
The Dakar moved out of Africa because of security concerns in Mauritania in 2008. Seven years later the Budapest-Bamako enjoyed the full protection of a greatly enhanced Mauritanian army. “We receive daily briefings and are in constant communications with the local armed forces who are carefully watching and guarding the rally”, added the race organizer.
At the request of both the Mauritanian and Malian army, the rally office was forced to cancel the race stage from Kiffa to Diema. Earlier during the month there had been a joint military operation against terrorists along the rally's route. As a result participants had to travel on a “mostly” paved road.
The terrorist presence changed the plans for the day and the threat of Ebola in the region slowed the rally further. Upon crossing the Malian border each participant of the rally had to pass through a mandatory Ebola checkpoint and hand washing station. Just one month before to the rally, Mali suffered a minor Ebola outbreak. The virus entered the country at a land border crossing from Guinea. Since then authorities had been very strict at border posts.
In Diema the rally's charity trucks unloaded boxes and boxes of school supplies, medicines, clothes, sawing machines, computers. Participants also donated equipment for a small community radio station that will operate from Diema. Villagers thanked the arriving teams by throwing an amazing party featuring tam tam drummers and dancers.
The last full day of the rally took place on dusty savannah roads in sweltering heat. The finish line was set up outside the remote village of Bambaran inside Mali's famous chimpanzee reserve, De la Boucle Du Baoule Natinal Park. The trials and tribulations of the rally continued after sunset as a rapidly spreading brush fire reached the rally's bivouac. . “We drove towards the fire and saw that it was only 1.5 kilometers from our camp spreading rapidly.”, said Andras Kalmar of the Desert Patrol Team. “I know that we have to evacuate the camp or we could be fried meat by morning”, Andrew Szabo told participants at an emergency briefing around 9:15PM.
The organizers elected to move the camp several kilometers out of harms way and quickly decided to make the last stage of the rally start at 10PM making it a night stage. This was the last section of the rally and the first teams reached the finish line in Bamako just before dawn.
The rally was won for the first time by the Hungarian Gumisember Team with 311 points. They were leading the race from Morocco onward. Second place went to the Austrian Desert Patrol team with 286 and team Sandergok finished in Bamako with 199.3 points.
After 16 difficult days of rain, flooding, snow storms, sand storms, terror threats, Ebola checkpoints, brush fires, mechanical difficulties and accidents the 10th Budapest-Bamako came to a roaring finish in the Malian capital on February 1st After three years of hiatus the rally returned to Bamako where the foreign minister and the minister of tourism welcomed participants of the rally. Out of the 124 starting teams 98 finished in Bamako. Many of them are already planning the 2016th edition of the “Great African Run”.