IN a few sentences, Paul Smith can describe — but also totally understate — the challenge of the world’s most arduous motorsport event, the Dakar Rally.
“When you’re trying to read a map that’s written in French, using a GPS unit you’ve never seen in your life and finding 40 waypoints in a day, it’s quite difficult,” Smith said yesterday, reflecting on 15 of the most brutal, fun, thrilling, draining and satisfying days of his life.
“I lost a lot of time learning how to read everything. You’ve got dunes that aren’t just dunes, they’re mountains.
“We went over the top of one of these dunes and it dropped 2000 metres in 2.6 kilometres.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, it was absolutely mind blowing.
“I would never have thought of riding off the edge if the track didn’t go down there.”
Smith has returned to the humble life of dairy farming at Mepunga East, 25km south-east of Warrnambool, after making Australian motorsport history.
The 34-year-old last month became the first Australian to contest the Dakar Rally on a quad bike and the first Australian to win a stage at the off-road rally since 2006.
The contrasts between his career on the farm and his passion for braving dusty tracks are stark.
But even while milking cows, the memory of what he has achieved is never far from his mind.
“I thought it was going to be emotional, but in the end it was ‘thank Christ I got there’,” he said.
Smith had always been a Dakar Rally “tragic”, but the financial burden of competing meant going solo was impossible. It took the intervention of racing team GHR Honda owner Glenn Hoffmann to help make his dream a reality.
Hoffman offered Smith one of five spots on the team for the 2013 Dakar “and I grabbed it with both hands”.
The pair, with mechanic Peter Wilhelms, then set about developing a Honda TRX700XX which could handle thousands of kilometres of sand dunes and rocky outback.
Experience in competing in Australian off-road events had prepared Smith well. But South America was another scenario alltogether.
To start with, there’s the distance — 8424 kilometres of riding, half of which makes up competitive “special” stages.
There’s the terrain — sand dunes, mud, camel grass and rocky tracks which can bring a driver undone in quick time.
And there’s everything else — the scorching temperatures, the freezing temperatures, mechanical failings, crashes, fatigue and dehydration.
“You have hopes you’ll be right up there but this is a world-class field. They’re the best guys in the world,” Smith said.
“They treat it as a sprint race right from the start. They’re not worried about conserving bikes for the finish. These guys are here to win it.
“For me, with the money I spent — well over $100,000 — my ultimate goal was to get that finisher’s medal.
“If I didn’t get that finisher’s medal it would’ve been devastating. I would’ve been gutted.”
The adventure started poorly and Smith was as low as 30th on the quad bike standings.
Overheating problems and a flat tyre prevention system unsuitable for sand dunes meant he battled early.
A sudden rise to 5000 metres above sea level and 50-degree temperatures also tested him, although he surprised himself with how well his body handled the conditions.
“I had a digital thermometer on the bike and we were getting up to 130 degrees, which is melting point for a motor,” he said.
But his fortunes improved as riders swapped the dunes of Peru for the outback of Argentina and hit a high when he won stage 11.
The stage included a 221km special, from La Rioja to Fiambala, and is renowned as one of the toughest the Dakar Rally has to offer.
The conditions surprisingly worked in his favour.
There were few areas bikes could reach full speed and a freak storm dropped the temperature and caused flash flooding.
“I was riding down creek beds with water and all of a sudden you’d get in front of the water and it’d be chasing you, a foot-and-a-half (45 centimetres) of foam,” he said.
He took a right turn when a lot of riders made a wrong one and continued to pass rivals to the finish line.
“I didn’t believe it for a little bit,” he said.
“I thought, OK, the official timing says I’ve won the stage, but there are guys behind me that could pull a quick time.
“I sat on my hands for 10 minutes, rode around the pits to see what bikes were in the bivouac and noticed there were no quads and went ‘yes!’
“I got back to the team, the GHR boys, pulled the helmet off and said ‘stage win’. They were rapt.”
Having clinched an unlikely stage win, Smith was content to reach the finish unscathed.
He placed seventh in the quad bike class in 55 hours, 28 minutes and 51 seconds, almost six hours behind winner Marcos Patronelli.
Smith got a glimpse of the harsh realities of Dakar when he rode past a competitor dead on the side of the course. The whole time he was making history.
“A lot of industry media and all these guys have made a fairly big deal of it — the first Australian quad bike rider, first stage winner since 2006, third most successful Australian at Dakar,” he said.
“For me, I got there and I finished it. I’d love to go back and not just to complete it but have a real, competitive crack.
“But unfortunately I will never be able to afford it again. Unless I got a lot of support from sponsors, something like that, it’s never going to happen.”