Dakar 2023, another way of exploring Saudi Arabia

After visiting the little town of Al Muhammediyah, we drove towards Dawadimi, where the Dakar Rally caravan was going to arrive and stay over for two nights at a bivouac. Shortly before we would reach town, we saw sand dunes and on those sand dunes a lot of cars and quad bikes were racing over it. It was quite a scenery so we stopped to have a look. The moment we stopped, many people came over to us with their cars, jeeps, pick-ups, quads or on foot. Everybody with their cell phones in hand, making pictures and videos of us (often while talking or asking questions, which we tried to answer). People (of course all guys), were going crazy with their cars, driving fast on the dunes (of which the sand was now more solid due to the rain). People came asking if we wanted to ride with them, but seeing the near collisions in front of me I said politely “thank you!”. However, one guy with a tuned Toyota Land Cruise Pick-Up (a Bedouin guy), was very persistent, so I convinced myself to step in and hoped I would come back in one piece.

Saudi’s love their 4×4’s and race with them through the sand dunes

The Land Cruiser took off like a jet plane and we were flying straight up the high sand dunes, wheels spinning, engine roaring like an F1 race car. I had to hold myself (there where no seatbelts), to whatever I could hold myself on to. Flying over the edge of the sand dune, we went nose down, and almost crashed on an SUV parked on the other side of the dune. Then you see how experienced these guys are with their 4×4 vehicles. With some handy manouvres he managed to get his Land Cruiser around the SUV and we were sliding sidewards, but with frontward speed, down the dune.

When we reached back at the truck, I saw Marja entertaining a group of girls/ladies who where completely covered up in black. I joined the group and we were pampered with lots of tea, coffee and sweets (and in exchange we were being filmed). There was a lot of action around us and it was surprising to see no accidents happened. Even small children on racing on quads, it was amazing! Racing in the sand dunes with 4×4 vehicles, is something people in Saudi Arabia (like in Oman) really love to do. For us it was like a first taste of what a Dakar Rally is about.

Actually we had no idea where to find the Dakar bivouac or where the finish of the stage near Dawadimi would be. We just drove towards town and drove around to see if there were any signs. It rained again, so after a while we decided to give up and go to a palace near the town instead. The palace seemed to be not open for public and renovation works were going on. While we opened the gate to get in, a bunch of Pakistani men came running from the other side of the road, through the rain with pieces of plastic and carton above their heads (like improvised umbrellas). They tried to explain us (no English), that the place was not open (I did understand, but pretended not to). We let them talk and while we kept smiling, we gave ourselves a tour through the palace (which was almost completed). You could now see, that these buildings need constant maintenance, especially after heavy rainshowers. The walls became soggy and some pieces of wall fell down like melting candles. When we returned to the truck, we were informed by our contact, that the bivouac at Dawadimi was cancelled, since the terrain of the bivouac was completely flooded. So we gave up on the Dakar Rally and drove away in pouring rain, to pick up our original plan, to go to the south west of Saudi Arabia.

The interior of the King Abdulaziz Palace, still under renovation
Bus wreck from the 60/70th’s still within the palace. Wonder how they will get it out
When it rains, parts of the renovated palace (built from mud and grass) falls apart.

While leaving town, we saw two classic rally cars (there is also the Classic Dakar Rally, with older cars). So at least we saw something and knew we were still on the right way. One of these cars had a technical issue and stopped at one of the many Pakistani vehicle repair shops. We stopped as well to see if we could be of any help. The Pakistani owner, was just in shock to see all the action in his little garage. While we were all busy with the car (an old Suzuki Samurai from a race team out of the Check Republic), he just stood there looking with some kind of pride, that this was all happening is his garage. The only thing he said “do you want some tea”?

The Czech team of the Dakar Classic Rally with their Suzuki Samurai

The team needed a small piece of hose and I had that in my parts storage! So I was happy I could help them out. Within minutes, they were back on the road, right in time to race behind the famous old double cabin DAF truck of Jan De Rooy. All teams were going now to the bivouac near Riyadh instead (another 2,5 hour drive, still raining and getting dark). We said goodbye and turned into a side road, to find a spot to camp.

The next morning, as we said we gave up on finding the Dakar Rally, we took our time. We stopped at a beautiful, well organized looking camel farm, to make some pictures. Two well dressed Saudi’s came out of a large office/meeting building, waving to us to come further. “Welcome, welcome, welcome”, the words we constantly hear when Saudi’s stop us. It is almost like the population is told by the King, to be nice to tourists and say “welcome”. But it is really pleasant, for sure! We were given a little tour around the farm and shown some top breeder camels (one was valued at US$ 300,000.—). Invited into the big, fancy gathering room (with super large TV screen, a sophisticated gas fire place annex tea and coffee maker), we were served coffee and dates (what else could it be), and……..hot fresh camel milk. The men were surprised that we liked this so much and drank it like water. By now we also understood that (based on our vehicle), these gentlemen understood we were part of the Dakar Rally, hence their interest in us. And like we have done now multiple times, we had to do a photo shoot, talk for a video clip (they use a lot of SnapChat here). The men then wasted no time to start sending out their new footage into the world as if they wanted to claim being the first one to report an important event to Reuters.

The $ 300,000.—.camel. Top breeder for race camels
With our new friend the camel owner
Making pictures with our truck seems to be the new hype

Driving along the many farms with crop circles, we went further south, until we reached another highway. Getting on the highway we saw a Dakar support vehicle and then another one. We got very excited! So they were in the area again (about 300km from Riyadh, so they must have left the bivouac from last night). Since they were going the same direction as us, we tried to follow them, but with our maximum speed we could not keep up. There were three roads off the highway we could take to go south towards the Yemeni border and we opted for the last one. Just after the fly-over we took a coffee break and while having the coffee the race cars were passing by! We actually found them! And they were going into the direction of Dawadimi (the town we came from). We packed up and followed them, and after only 2 kms we saw a big camp along the secondary road.

Part of the pop up service camp of the Dakar Rally

It turned out to be an improvised – temporary – service camp for the vehicles. All schedules had changed because of the heavy rainfall in the Dawadimi area. In this service camp, the drivers had a maximum of 2 hours to get their vehicles serviced. Really like a PitStop. This was a great opportunity for us to see vehicles and drivers close, but also the support trucks and mechanic teams. Along the pit road on both sides multiple big trucks were parked and temporary workshops were set up. Each team had his/her (also female rally riders), own support team with vehicles, tools and spare parts. One by one the drivers (rally cars, buggies, motorbikes and trucks), came in. And like in a F1 pit-stop, the mechanics went straight to work to fix the vehicles (the drivers had informed the crew in advance about vehicle issues, so the teams had the right tools and parts ready on arrival, all to save time). There was a great dynamic in this camp, where also a lot of press was walking around. We had some nice talks with mechanics (many from Holland) and some Dutch spectators. Since we now had the change to talk to people, we were able to get coordinates of bivouacs and start/finish locations. Dakar Rally works with coordinates, not addresses, since they go places which don’t have an address. Only the drivers get these coordinates at the last moment (also way-points of the rally course), to maintain a high level of competition. Nobody knows a few hours before the exact route of the rally, or the location of bivouacs or service stops.

Temporary workshop along the road in the service camp. The rally vehicles have to be fixed and serviced within 2 hours

We camped at the service camp and during the evening, one by one the service teams were packing up, going back to the main bivouac in Riyadh. The rally riders camped that night in Dawadimi. In the morning when we woke up, everybody was gone and it looked liked the whole service camp never happened. Only two police cars was still standing near us. The authorities wanted to make sure that everybody within the Dakar Rally is safe at all times, so when we left, they left as well. We had checked the approximate route map for today’s stage and made a guess about where there would be either a highway crossing (from desert to desert) or where the finish location could be. It was a two hour drive away from our initial route south, but we thought it was definitely worth a try. Again we were overtaken by some service vehicles on the highway, which gave us the impression we were on the right track again. At a fly-over near where we thought would be the highway crossing, there we noticed some police cars with flashing lights, so that could very well be the spot! We asked a police officer and he confirmed we were very close to the finish. Indeed we had found it and there was a small set up of a popup-finish, with flags, banners and the finish gate. We saw the touring cars for the organizing crew and the press vehicles. We were the only spectators at that time and for sure the only overland expedition truck. We had some nice chats with the journalists and even did an interview with a Lithuanian TV channel. When the first motorbikes came in, we drove the truck towards the dunes to see some real action. Now we could follow the tracks made by the motor bikes. And action we saw, what a spectacle to see these cars and trucks “flying” over the dunes. Also here many people, spectators and press people came over to us to ask and talk about our truck and journey. Photos and videos were made and also an interview with an American Youtube channel. On our way back to the finish, we tried a little bit to be a Dakar race truck, but soon we learned that it is no fun with high speed in a truck like ours, with a house on the back.

The police were guarding us during the night, until we left as well
At the pop up finish
Watching the big rally trucks racing towards the finish
Interviewed by the American Youtube channel

It was getting dark and most people and press were gone, but the finish was still there, since not all participants finished yet. One (press) helicopter was grounded due to no fuel and the fuel truck was delayed. Another (medivac) helicopter had to stay until the last participant had arrived. Since they also don’t fly in the dark, they had to stay overnight near the finish (which disappeared completely during the night). And to my surprise, the crews (pilotes, filmer, journalists and doctor) slept near the helicopters in small foldable tents. We moved our truck closer to the helicopters to make a little camp. Two police cars also stayed nearby watching over us all. We had a nice chat with one of the crews (a Belgium very professional filmer/photographer, Sebastian, and Nico, the pilot, a Frenchman). It’s amazing what these crews can do flying and filming the Dakar Rally. The footage is so amazing and it gives the best impression of the areas the rally goes through. This footage is one of the best promotions for Saudi Arabia. It is showed in 180 countries! We got so inspired by these footage, that we started thinking of riding the same route now and later (we missed the first stages anyway), but then on our speed. But that for later.

Coffee in the morning with the two helicopter crews

During the night the fuel truck had come, so the helicopters were ready to fly to Riyadh. The next morning we made coffee for the crew, had some chatting and made some pictures together. Then they flew away and we felt a little bit abandoned, though one police car was still there waiting for us to leave. We drove back to the main road, when we got a message that we were getting permission to enter the main bivouac in Riyadh. Well, that is an opportunity we didn’t want to miss for sure! So we drove another three hours to get to Riyadh, again through the traffic we like so much. We reached in the afternoon and were able to enter the bivouac indeed. We were already impressed when we visited the service camp the day before, but this was 10 times bigger. Hundreds of trucks, cars, and campers were parked in blocks, in between hundreds of little foldable tents (most of the service team staff, sleep in tents, either on the ground or on the roofs of the service trucks). There was a huge catering tent, VIP tents, a special tent for the Arabic visitors, press tent etc. It was, in fact, a little town, with a lot of action. Although it was a rest day for rally riders, all the mechanics made top hours to overhaule the cars, trucks and bikes. The number of parts and tires this rally is consuming (besides the over 800.000 liter of fuel) is very impressive. We had some nice talks with mechanics and other spectators and also found out the start coordinates for the next days stage, which was about and 1,5 hour from our location. We even had a meeting with the winner of the car rally (Nasser Al-Attiyah)

The main bivouac, with most of the crew members sleeping in the small foldable tents.

Support truck with rooftents for the mechanics
During the restday, all vehicles are being serviced an repaired. Work continues during the night
Large amounts of parts and tires are used during the rally

Knowing that the first motorbikes start at 7.00 in the morning, we left the Riyadh bivak after we had diner. We punched in the coordinates and drove into the night. Around midnight we found it in an area of desert land, there were five helicopters with small tents next to it. They were there already. We stayed a little away from them, not to wake them up and called it day as well.

Helicopter crew come out of their foldable tents, preparing for the next stage in the rally

Next morning we woke up early. During the night the start area was set up, trucks and touring cars had arrived (and we didn’t hear a thing) and there was life around the helicopters. From far we heard the first motorbikes coming and the first helicopters started the engines. Another long day was about to begin for the rally riders. We moved the truck close to the start and from our rooftop on the truck cabin, we had a good view on the action. Later on we moved up the track again to see the vehicles getting into the “wild”. Again many people passed by to talk with us and to make pictures of the truck, and videos of us……

During the night the pop up start location was set up
Good position to see the rally passing by

Halfway the day we left to go to the finish, driving over the tar road. After a while I went off the road to make a shortcut through a large section of flat gravel plains (this is how I estimated the surroundings). The gravel area was a big rough and I was afraid for my tires. Sometimes there were parts with just sand and some muddy flooded areas. We drove for a good hour when we noticed a fast moving truck with a large long dust cloud behind it. When we got closer we saw it was one of the rally trucks! Unexpectedly we bumped on the rally track! Can you imagine! So, now it would be easy to get to the finish, just follow the tracks of the rally cars. Well, that was a bit of an overestimation. As it turned out, the truck was not going straight to the finish, obviously, but had (like all the other vehicles) some big loops still to do. Not only that, the track was not just a flat plain, but some very steep in- and declines on hard rocky surface. Sometimes the track was wide, sometimes it was narrow and only one car could pass. And that was tricky, since there were still cars and trucks coming and we didn’t want to block them.

Driving on this track with our truck was already punishing for the truck, (and on us), but can you imagine the wear and tear on the race cars and trucks? Witnessing the many car parts left along the track, we realized the toll it takes on these vehicles. The teams have fast racing support trucks with parts and mechanics driving behind them on the same track. They start when the last race competitor has started. These teams are there to fix the damaged race vehicles in such a way that they can continue to the finish. We don’t have that luxury, so we drove a little slower, to keep the truck in one piece.

Finding lost parts of the rally vehicles

We reached a very steep decline into a wadi canyon, very rocky and uneven. We slid a bit, but we kept the truck straight and came to the bottom of the canyon. It was very uneven and muddy and narrow. Kept looking in my mirror of the upcoming “traffic” I looked for spots to get aside in case I would have to be overtaken. After about 15 kilometers, the wadi was no longer drivable for cars and trucks and we had to climb out of the canyon. The path up was very, very steep and lots of loose rocks. I tried twice, but my wheels started to spin and the truck was sliding down. Afraid of getting stuck on this “ramp” or even falling of the ramp, I gave up. Didn’t want to upset rally riders by blocking the ramp and it was getting dark, evening was falling. We decided to stay where we were, in this beautiful spot, put the chairs outside and watched the remaining trucks and buggies passing by (and to see how they navigated the steep ramp). The last one we saw passing by was at 10 in the evening and than it became dead quite. It was magical to be stuck in the canyon, not sure if we would get out without help (and we were far from the civilized world, and we noticed already that on our location in this canyon, there was no signal for phone of internet). Not to worry, we have the sat phone for such situations, just in case.

Watching the rally truck taking the steep ramp we couldn’t take. Far away from everybody.
The steep ramp we couldn’t take

Next morning I scouted the area, to see if there was another way out. Going back was not an option, since the ramp down we took earlier in the afternoon yesterday, was even worse. A little further towards the end of the passable wadi, there was an area going up, less steep, but with big rocks. I figured it could be possible, but we had to roll away a number of big rocks to make it not to hard on the tires (my biggest fear for this option, was to burst my tires). I deflated the tires to avoid punctures and in low gear and 4×4, I drove slowly up the hill rolling carefully over the remaining rocks. The truck was shaking like a washing machine, but we managed to get on top. Again, very pleased with the sub-frame system of our Bliss truck! In front of us, endless gravel fields, so we thought we would be at the finish position (where everybody had left since last night, off-course). The ride was amazing, the scenery changed many times and there was nothing but pure nature. Sand dunes, amazing rock formations, big plains, small wadis. The Dakar Rally really crosses the most amazing landscapes of Saudi Arabia, no doubt about that!

Where the Dakar Rally riders take about a day to cross this stage of the rally, it took us almost three days. We slept a second night on the track, now in the middle of a huge gravel field. Reaching the coordinates of the finish, it was a strange feeling that a day before the whole Dakar circus passed here and that now only tracks were the proof of that. At least we finished this stage as well and have – as a spectator – a much better idea of what the rally participants experience. We do have even more respect for these people now! For us also a reason to drive the other stages (as long as there are no high steep sand dunes involved), as well. But that will follow later. Now we finally get back to our original (pre-Dakar) plan and go south.

Second night at the stage 9 track of the Dakar Rally


  1. Spannend verhaal Henk, leuk dat jullie ook een deel van de route konden pakken.

    1. Hallo Harry, dank je voor je reactie ons blog. Ja, het was inderdaad een leuke en mooie ervaring om een stuk van de Dakar route te rijden. Niet altijd even makelijk, maar wel prachtig mooi

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