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Budapest-Bamako: Largest Sahara-Rally - Interview with Andrew Szabo.

In 2005 an odd group of 40 cars and motorcycles left Budapest for West Africa to experience the adventure that was the exclusive realm of professional rally teams. By 2009 the marathonrally attracted over 600 people more then 250 vehicles. Four years after the original event, the Budapest-Bamako Rally is by far the largest off-road race from Europe to Africa. We caught up with the founder of the event, Andrew G. Szabo who just returned from a three week recon mission from West Africa.

MR: "How was the trip and what can race teams expect this year?"

Szabo: "After two weeks in the bush, I’m very happy to be back home. The race is going to be a very demanding and it will be our hardest race ever. There are going to be several long stages. There are going to be stages with only 10-20 kilometer paved liason sections. It means that drivers have to complete 350-400 kilometers on uncertain dirt roads. The Atar-Tidjikja section which was one of the most dreaded stages of previous Dakars will be part of the 2009 Budapest-Bamako. What makes our race even more complicated is the navigation. Unlike in regular off-road rallies, we do not give detailed roadbooks. Navigators will not know every turn, every watersplash and every incline. They will have to navigate using a GPS, a map and the help of local people. In some cases the navigation will be harder than the driving."

MR: "Where can they expect such hardship?"

Szabo: "The Merzouga-Foum Zgid stage in Morocco will be incredibly difficult for one reason. The main dirt road and some bridges have been destroyed by floods in October. When we were there, Northern Morocco was under water. People haven’t seen rains like that in 27 years. So the map was completely redesigned by mother nature. Teams can’t follow the main dirt tracks. They will have to look for alternative roads. During the recon mission we had to stop in every village and oasis to ask for updates on road conditions. In Mali teams will have to complete a 300 km special stage on the savannah just by finding 3 villages. To make matters worse we still haven’t found a map where those 3 villages are marked."

MR: "How do the local governments view the Budapest-Bamako?"

Szabo: "Since the Dakar moved out of Africa, they have left a big void. The governments of Mauritania and Mali view us as the torchbearers of African rallying. When I was in Nouakchott two weeks ago, I arrived on a Saturday morning. The minister of tourism Mr. Bamba Darmane insisted that I go see him on Sunday, first thing in the morning in his office. Normally it would take weeks to get an appointment from a member of the government. I was told that the Budapest-Bamako is very important for the country. Mauritania’s tourism is expected to be 11,000 visitors this year. The Budapest-Bamako brings over 600 people. It means that the rally is responsible for more than 5% of Mauritania’s annual tourism."

MR: "There was a military coup in Marutiania this August and it was the political situation in that country that led to the cancellation of the Dakar? How is this effecting the rally?"

Szabo: "The military coup is part of the political process in Mauritania. It’s business as usual. Someone told me in Mauritania, that in poor country’s people don’t want democracy, they want food and only a strong leader can provide that. One thing is for sure, we have maintained very friendly relations with all governments of the country and our aim is to help the country and the various communities that we visit. The military rule means that security will be much tighter this year than last year. Over 3000 soldiers and policemen will guard the route of the Budapest-Bamako. Mauritanians are also very grateful to us for giving their country a vote of confidence in times of trouble."

MR: "The rally is going on a completely new route in Mali. What will this be like?"

Szabo: "Mali is a magical country. I’ve never seen a country with friendlier, more hospitable people. Every year we try to highlight a different region of the country. It’s always fascinating to see how the Sahara ends and gives way to the more lush savannahs of the Sahel. Teams will experience some very traditional African farming villages. They will drive on some punishing dirt roads among ancient mud huts. They will drive through some towns made entirely of mud, sticks and cow dung. The bivouacs will be set up near these villages so participants can meet locals and experience local culture. One of my favorite camps will be in a village called, Karadje. The town is 100 kms from the main paved road and has no electricity or running water. The bivouac will be in the school yard, where the village school children are already excited about seeing the race cars and meeting the teams. They are also preparing a show for us. So I think these cultural exchanges are one of the greatest experiences that rally can give to its participants."

MR: "This of course is very different from the more professional rallies."

Szabo: "Absolutely. This is a very conscious decision on our part. The Dakar for example is a closed system where teams go from one closed and closely guarded bivouac to another. They have no interaction with the local population. We try to challenge this old fashioned, colonial mentality. Our aim is to destroy stereotypes and build bridges between peoples. The people of the Sahara can teach us so much about warmth, hospitality and compassion. Three years ago a Hungarian Dakar team asked me if we carried any weapons. I was shocked by this question. I told them no and I also told them that sometimes we sleep in their villages and eat in their huts. That shocked him beyond belief."

MR: "Which one is your most memorable Saharan encounter?"

Szabo: "There are just too many to list. Two weeks ago when we were writing the roadbook in Morocco we had an interesting visit with a Saharawi family. The Saharawis are the native tribe of Western Sahara. We were competing the Assa-Smara leg of the roadbook when we got lost a little bit. We were about 800 meters off the official dirt road. The sun was about to set. We stopped a nomad and asked him for directions. In broken Spanish, which was the colonial era language of Western Sahara, he told us that we must not go forward at night, because the area is littered with landmines. He pointed at his one legged nephew meaning that the same thing could happen to us if we drive here at night. They then invited us to their camp for dinner. They baked fresh bread for us in the sand and cooked a goat with rice."

MR: "What else will be different this year?"

Szabo: "Last year we had only 40 cars in the racing category. Today we have 105 teams from all over Europe. We will also be offering an assistance truck to the racers and teams can place their charity donations which they are recommended to bring to Bamako in a huge humanitarian truck. For the first time in the history of the Budapest-Bamako we will also have air support in the form of a Gazelle, French military helicopter. The helicopter will carry out filming, rescue and transport assignments. We will also have a sophisticated GPS tracker installed in each vehicle for score keeping purposes."

MR: "What nationalities are expected at the start line?"

Szabo: "About 60% of the teams are Hungarians. There are teams from Romania, Croatia, Poland, Norway, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, England, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, Iran and the United States. It’s a very international crowd. The official languages of the race are English and Hungarian."

MR: "The Budapest-Bamako is also famous for its humanitarian work. What are the charity plans this year?"

Szabo: "With over 500,000Euros worth of aid delivered, the Budapest-Bamako is now the largest charity rally in the world, but we know that we could do a lot more. Last year teams dug a well for a Saharan village and delivered medical supplies to various hospitals. We donated an incubator to a clinic that delivers a 1000 babies every year, but they had never seen an incubator. This year each team is encouraged to plant a tree in Mauritania to help stop the spread of the Sahara. We’re bringing wheelchairs, canes and medical supplies to handicapped children who were abandoned by their families. We are also bringing solar panels to villages that have no electricity. We’re seeking solar ovens that we could deliver to communities where meals are prepared by chopping down trees. This year the theme is to assist locally by acting globally. With green devices such as solar panel, and solar water purifiers we’re helping local communities saving the planet."

For more informations visit the official website at [ ] will cover the Rally with two own reporters and will report daily to the Internet with News, Pictures and Videos.

2008/11/27 | 17:33 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Andrew Szabo

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