I remember the feeling well – I was in trouble and there was no escape. I was 12 years old and standing in the living room of a small house in Cyprus as my mother read my school report. The Reverend D.C. Argyle, who lectured me in Divinity, had landed me right in it. His assessment of my year?s work consisted of just three words: ?Should try harder.? The rest of my report card might as well have been blank, these three words would come to haunt me and would be used as evidence against me in the long list of crimes and misdemeanours that my Mother was compiling for herself. Which brings us to the Paris – Dakkar rally.
A few nights ago I was sitting in my chair at home watching on TV the highlights of the rally that is known for its extraordinarily harsh conditions and its lengthy and grueling stages which incidentally this year started not in Paris, but Arras. Just to complete this rally is a remarkable achievement. Not for these guys the chi-chi world of the Formula 1 Johnnies with their air-conditioned motorhomes – rally drivers and riders need to be down-to-earth and tough. The previous day?s stage involved over 900 km of bumping, crashing, digging and driving and had terminated at a rest area where the riders and drivers, too tired to erect tents, slept on the tarmac in their clothes before being woken up at 12am to dice with death all over again.
Curiously most of the drivers and riders on the Paris-Dakkar seem to be French, German or Japanese. There?s an occasional Italian, Fin, Brit, South African and not a single Sherman in sight. The rally is also known for its lack of sexual bias – last years winner was a woman, Jutta Kleinschmidt, who is held in such high esteem in her home country Germany that in 2001 she was voted their most popular sports-person beating Michael Schumacher, 3 time F1 world-champion and highest paid sportsman in the world, into second place!
However it was not the neat, blonde, determined, well-spoken Jutta who caught my eye, and it wasn?t the petite, dark and very attractive Vanina Ickx, daughter of Formula One great Jackie Ickx, who sparked my interest. Nor was it the winner of the days motorcycle stage who reached 180 kph on his machine as he raced over the desert (just think about that for a second 112 mph on ROCKS on a motorcycle! Oh yeah did I mention that you have to navigate for yourself too? The Dakkar rally motorcycles have impressive GPS powered heads-up displays and other gizmos constantly scrolling in a cluster above the handlebars – er, how do you read that when you?re doing the ton across the desert?) And it wasn?t the impressive rally-leader, Hiroshi Masuoka, who fascinated me either, but another Japanese, a rider called Tasatoshi Tamura.
Tamura is tall for a Japanese man and good-looking in a lead guitarist sort of way and he is what is known on the Paris-Dakkar as a privateer. Your Kleinschmidts and your Masuokas are drivers for large teams with massive funding and impressive technical support. Before the rest day this week Masuoka drove his truck as hard and as fast as he possibly could, mindless of the damage he was causing it. ?It doesn?t matter if I wreck it,? he said, ?Tomorrow?s a rest day so the mechanics will have 24 hours to rebuild it!? His gamble paid off and he won the stage by 5 minutes, pushing him yet further into the lead. But Tamura, as a privateer, has no such support and when his bike got stuck in the sand he had no-one to help him out.
The stage I was watching was 383 km long and stretched across some of the loneliest and most grueling territory planet earth has to offer: rocky slopes, precipitous tracks, mountainous sand dunes and wandering camels! We were traveling between Zouerat and Atar in Mauritania and the temperatures had risen to 40 degrees centigrade. Basically we were in the Sahara – a place where the BBC World weather forecast programme has one word permanently fixed to the map: HOT!
Now, when I used to work as a motorcycle messenger in London I occasionally dropped my bike. For those of you not conversant with biking talk that means I fell off! As you?re lying on the street you establish that nothing important, like an arm or a leg, is broken then you salvage your pride and try and lift your bike up off the street – and anything larger than a 250 is a bastard to lift – then you kick-start the thing and attempt to drive away. Even on a chilly day in London in the rain this routine will leave you breathless and sweaty.
Well Tamura was in trouble, he was wearing leathers, he was in 40 degree heat and he was getting stuck in the dunes and falling off his bike time and time again. He smiled at the camera, looked at the sun and saddled up and tried again. The team riders were being helped by their team-mates, Tamura was a privateer, he was on his own and he wouldn?t give up. The team riders, when in difficulty, yelled and cursed and they shouted at their buddies for help – Tamura said nothing.
And here?s the kicker, Tamura never says anything – HE?S DEAF AND DUMB!
I wondered: what is this Japanese man, helmeted and be-leathered, a kind of Oriental two-thirds version of Tommy, doing in the friggin? Sahara desert up to his knees in sand trying to race his motorbike in a competition he has no hope of winning? This, I thought, is a windmill-tilting endeavour of such optimism that even Sisyphus would be speechless.
And again and again Tamura just kept on fighting and at last he made it to the bivouac. The leading riders had finished in daylight, Tamura arrived in the dark and he was smiling! They asked him how his day had been and in reply he pulled out a small device the size of a calculator.
Tamura grinned as he pressed the keys on his little device and then pointed its LCD at the camera. There was an indecipherable Japanese character and underneath its English translation: WONDERFUL.
Tamura is a bloody genius, he?s got it all figured out. He?s already got a mountain to climb every day as he moves through his soundless and speechless world and, as if this wasn?t enough, he then finds the energy and the cash to ship a motorcycle to Africa so he can drag it through the desert in a race he has no hope of winning but in a competition in which he is always the champion. And at the end of this incredible day of toil and sweat his inscrutability is condensed into one perfect word: WONDERFUL.
That night I found myself looking at my old school photo and there, sitting behind a 12 year-old, innocent version of myself was the Reverend Argyle in his dog collar. And from beyond the grave his 3 word mantra came back to me not to haunt me but as an inspiration: SHOULD TRY HARDER.