Adventure-Touring: Taste of Dakar 2013

May 29, 2013
Ken Hutchison
Ken Hutchison
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The ulcers keep piling on for the warden of the MotoUSA asylum. With the inmates running rampant around the globe, Hutch has opted to get in on the madness more these days than in years past and is back in the saddle again.

How do you make a lasting memory? First, you combine 70 adventure touring riders with 300 miles of scenic desert roads, 3200 acres of sand dune, a pair of Baja 1000 champions, 900 pounds of motorcycles a few kegs of beer, some freezing cold wind and then toss a few ducks in your tent for good measure.

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Motorcycle USA gears up and heads out to Pahrump, Nevada to get a Taste of Dakar.

When it comes to adventure touring it’s all about the ride and the destination. Getting there is a half the fun but being there should be cool too. We’re going to drag you along with us on the 2013 Taste of Dakar by Alt Rider and when we are finished we hope you’re inspired to ride with us next year and find out for yourself what it takes to get the adventure-touring recipe just right. For readers who are new to the Taste of Dakar format we will give you the CliffsNotes version: You ride to the T.O.D. base, set up camp and let the fun begin. You ride on the first day, eat, booze then sleep. On day two you barely get up, eat, ride, booze, sleep. On day three you crawl out of bed, cry, eat, tear down camp, pop blisters, pack up and go home.

There’s no rest of the weary as the fun & games are scheduled for the first day and the majority of the attendees ride from all four corners of the US to the foothills of Death Valley. The sadistic magnates at AltRider kick things off by testing your big-bike handling skills through a series of competitions held on the nearby dry lake bed. Among the tests are slow-speed drag races, fastest start-circle-and-stop where riders blast from the start to a cone 50 yards away, make the turn and then back to the finish where they have to come to a complete stop within five feet of the finish line. Then there’s the frustrating Figure-Eight rut ride. T.O.D. instructor and former Baja/Dakar racer Jimmy Lewis and the AltRider crew cut in a huge figure eight rut into the dry lake bed and then challenge riders to navigate the obstacle without letting a wheel come out of the ever-deepening ditch. All in all it is a great way to get the participants thinking about bike control, getting their mindset out of super-slab-mode and making them fully aware that desert traction is a wee-bit different than pavement. When the dust settled on the dry lake events we headed back to base at the Lakeside Casino & RV Resort for some bonding and beverages.

Opening night dinner is always a festive affair as participants get to meet the AltRider staff that just kicked their asses in the skills competitions and the event’s guest riders over a hot meal and some cold drinks. This year the star of the show was legendary nine-time Baja 1000 champion Johnny Campbell and the actual Honda CRF450X rally bike he rode to 33rd-place overall in the Dakar rally just a few weeks earlier. T.O.D. mainstay and U.S. Dakar star in his own right, Jimmy Lewis continues to be the man responsible for setting up the GPS-based routes and leading the way on the most difficult course. Opening ceremonies included a debriefing about the trio of routes, riding group assignments a lot of bench racing and a hearty meal.

Riders get to choose between three rides of varying difficulty that Mr. Lewis maps out. As a former Baja and Dakar racer as well as a current resident of Pahrump, Jimmy maps out some scenic, challenging and sometimes gnarly rides aimed at giving the assembled group a true taste of what they would face if they rode in Dakar. Over the course of dinner, rally-goers team up with other like-minded motorcyclists, choose a route that suits their skill level and make preparations to tackle it the next day.

One of the coolest parts of an adventure ride is the unplanned obstacles that pop up. It gives a challenge and tests your riding preparedness. Our group of guys were experienced  level-headed and hell bent on having a good time.
One of the coolest parts of an adventure ride is the unplanned obstacles that pop up. It gives a challenge and tests your riding preparedness. Our group of guys were experienced, level-headed and hell bent on having a good time.
Between the KLR tool-kit  spare wire from other riders  duct tape  Brians jury-rigging skills and a combat knife  we could keep almost any bike running.
Between the KLR tool-kit, spare wire from other riders, duct tape, Brian’s jury-rigging skills and a combat knife, we could keep almost any bike running.

MotoUSA’s two-man crew came equipped with our 2012 Kawasaki KLR650 Project Bike and a 2013 KTM Baja Edition 990 Adventure. We teamed up with navigational expert Eric Hall of Beyond Starbucks adventure riding forum fame and from there the rest is history. Since the majority of our crew rode some iteration of the BMW R1200GS we were out-voted 5-2 in favor of the intermediate ride. As journalists assigned to a group there’s always a little concern on our part that we don’t come across as ungrateful or spoiled brats decked out in new gear, riding borrowed bikes, forcing our riding-mates to stop at every turn for photo shoots and whatnot.

Once we made our way into the rougher portion of our morning ride I was waved into the lead and preceded to pound my Kawasaki across the rocky whoop road. I was feeling pretty happy with the performance of the big KLR until about 10-minutes into it when I hit a G-out which made the bike lose power immediately. I coasted off to the side and started our road-side diagnosis. We determined that something happened to the side-stand kill-switch so we went into McGyver-mode and made it work. It took about 15-minutes to tear it apart, splice a wire that jumps the connection and got it wrapped up as fast as we could. I felt like a bone head, but sometimes stuff like this happens when you’re riding off road. Between the KLR tool-kit, spare wire from one of our riders, duct tape from another, Brian’s jury-rigging skills and my combat knife, we made short work of it.

More rocky trails ensued. The scenery matched the treacherous Death Valley terrain and after a pleasant jaunt across the rugged intermediate roads we all made it to lunch relatively unscathed. A tip-over in loose rock because we wanted to get some video didn’t win us any friends but a few close calls and a lot of dust led us to our lunch stop at Short Branch Saloon. This former brothel and current bar/café is a stop for the rich and famous who explore Pahrump by motorcycle. Kathy served us up a healthy dose of chili, soups and sandwiches before we made our way to the crown jewel of the ride: Big Dune.

AltRider: Venture on. Thats the motto of our hosts and that is exactly what we did. Following the 2013 Taste of Dakar weekend we loaded up and hit the road in search of even more adventure.
AltRider: Venture on. That’s the motto of our hosts and that is exactly what we did. Following the 2013 Taste of Dakar weekend we loaded up and hit the road in search of even more adventure.

Also known as Amargosa Dunes, this towering mountain of sand beckoned us to climb aboard. Both Brian and I are old-school dune goons so we headed straight for the bowls. Those that have ridden a bike at the dunes know it is important to keep momentum and steer with the rear. DOT off-road semi-knobby tires aren’t prime for sand traction but the fact is, this was one of the most memorable dune-rides I have had in a long time. We blasted the big bowl over and over, climbed up enormous dune faces and definitely made a few ATV riders wonder WTF we were doing out there on those big-ass bikes. Our group of guys eased into the dune experience on their GS’s but before long they were all mobbing across the dune faces, climbing massive hills and taking big diggers in the soft, silty sand. Truly a Taste of Dakar none of us will forget anytime soon.

Watching Johnny Campbell blast his CRF450X Dakar bike was very cool, but even Johnny would have to admit that getting the big KTM 990 Adventures to the very top of the tallest dune was impressive. Only former Dakar podium finisher Jimmy Lewis and our own Brian Steeves managed to get those true heavyweights to the top. Once we were done showing off our dune skills, my KLR clutch was half-baked and we needed to make our way back to home base. It would be another couple hours of riding ahead of us, making for an extremely long day in the saddle. We back-tracked on some of the wide-open dirt roads and after a half hour of high-speed fun we realized half our group was M.I.A., so we turned around quick to retrieve ‘em. It turned out our other 990 Adventure experienced a little issue.

Back at the dunes a tip-over resulted in a crack on the left side of the fuel tank. They had laid the big KTM on its side and were making a road-side repair with JB-Weld. We took the opportunity to get out of our gear and explore the area a bit. By chance we happened to grind to a halt next to a cool natural spring. Right smack-dab in the middle of the most arid desert in the US is this semi-hidden freshwater spring. It was undergoing reforestation management so we couldn’t dive in and cool off but there were a few cool facts to entertain us. This was once the center for the regions railway transportation. Nearly 100-years later it still flows-water to the area and is currently home to a few hundred little freshwater Cichlid-like fish. About the time we returned from the spring, our roadside repair was ready for re-launch. We voted unanimously to stick together and take the quick-route home by hitting a nearby highway and not pushing our luck or risk our roadside repair failing and being stuck in BFE. Sure, it would’ve been more adventurous to hew to the dirt, but we knew food and drink were awaiting us and we didn’t want to be “those guys”. At Taste of Dakar 2012 we were the last riders back because of a few major navigational faux-pas and subsequently running out of fuel 30-miles from the nearest gas station. Not this year, man.

We arrived without much fan-fare and slipped into camp with the staccato purr of nearly a dozen pistons just off idle. The hum of our dual-sport tires might have raised a higher decibel count. Our bikes were no worse for wear, no major damage and all in our group arrived uninjured as well. All that was left now was to share tales of our ride, laugh about the dune experience and swill enough whiskey so that the 32-degree air didn’t keep me awake all night. If memory serves correct the wind was blasting about 20 mph and the wind chill factor was high. It was a good thing we had enough warm bodies crammed into our tent to keep the frost off. We officially apologize to our fellow camp mates for the incessant chatter until the wee-hours of the morning, but we were there for the party too.

Sunday morning arrived too soon and our second annual Taste of Dakar adventure ride was nearing its end. We wanted more but the wind was insane and we thought it would be best to pack up and head back to LA before we ran out of luck. A little research with breakfast revealed that we didn’t necessarily need to call it a wrap though. We had two more days open, so in the interest of adventure we set our GPS to the Rasor OHV area outside of Baker, CA.

Our group dwindled down to two  so we headed south of Baker on I-15 looking for the Rasor OHV area.
Our group dwindled down to two, so we headed south of Baker on I-15 looking for the Rasor OHV area.

Our group dwindled down to two, as just Brian and I chose to press on. Heading south of Baker on I-15 you can see a series of spectacular dunes on the horizon. We were sure that was Rasor OHV so we hit Zzyzx Road in an effort to find the shortcut across another dry lake bed. What we found instead was the CSU Desert Studies Center, formerly the Zzyzx Mineral Springs & Health Spa which was operated illegally in the area until the BLM took it over around 1975. It looks like a post-apocalyptic refugee camp since the old resort is overgrown with vines and trees and is all but abandoned. It’s used for college studies these days, so a series of solar panels and a portion of the rooms are inhabited by students & researchers diligently plugging away in search for a solution to the desert-related issues of the region. We tried to slip past them unnoticed so as not to create a raucous.

Eventually we came to a gate and had to back-track to the interstate. A few miles further down the road we came across the aptly-named Rasor Rd exit. Easily missed, this turn-off is home to a single Shell station and a tiny 1-foot by 6-inch sign indicating the access point to Rasor OHV area. A long, flat dirt road stretched on for miles. Eventually you see the lumpy hills on the horizon, then sand dunes with grassy patches and the jagged Providence Mountains Recreation Area to the far south. After years of passing by this place hung-over from a weekend in Vegas, we’d finally found a diamond in the rough.

Rasor OHV Area has a little bit of everything. Rocky, rugged trails, long, winding dirt roads, perfectly flat dry lake beds and, you guessed it: more dunes. By the time we arrived it was getting late but we took the opportunity to explore the small dune area and log some more miles off-road. We navigated a rocky hill climb that would be difficult on a 450 and found our camp about an hour after it got dark. We had the benefit of a full moon to help us find our way too. We couldn’t stand the thought of leaving so we spent the next day taking the KLR and 990 KTM to every corner of the Rasor riding area. Only the low-fuel lights forced us to pack up and officially call our Taste of Dakar weekend a wrap.

Looking back on the trip we can’t help but be thankful how lucky we all are. To be in a position in our lives to take the time to ride, drive, fly or crawl out to the desert and turn one of the deadliest places on earth into a warm-fuzzy memory is really bad-ass. How many people have ridden their GS, KLR or 990 Adventure at Big Dune? How many people have seen the sun set beyond the mountains from atop the Rasor OHV dunes from the seat of one of those big bikes? How many people crossed that desert under a full moon and thought it was the most beautiful place they’ve ever seen? I don’t really know the answers to any of those questions but I do know this. There are two dudes that did it and those memories will live on in the pages, pictures and videos we have here. But more importantly it will live on in our heart and our mind. That, my friend, truly is the core of the Taste of Dakar.