The Trans-Saharan Budapest-Bamako Rally -

The Trans-Saharan Budapest-Bamako Rally


It was the summer of 2004 when Andrew G. Szabo, founder of the Budapest-Bamako Rally found himself stuck in the capital of Guinea. The country’s only commercial jetliner crashed in a swamp and he had no other option than to hire a small Suzuki Samurai with a local driver and make the harrowing journey across the bush to the capital of Mali, Bamako.  Little did he know, that the 26 hour drive across West Africa would change his life. “I was completely awestruck and started making plans to enter the 2005 Dakar Rally. I wanted more driving. I wanted more Africa,” said Andrew.

After carefully examining his options to enter the Dakar he realized that famed trans-Sahara rally wasn’t about the spirit of adventure, discovery or the magic of Africa. At that point it became the marketing vehicle of well financed factory teams and professional race car drivers. “I wanted a kinder, gentler, spiritually more fulfilling adventure across the Sahara and into West Africa,” added Szabo. In December 2004 he and two friends grabbed a map of Africa and began to chart the course of the first Budapest to Bamako Rally. Against all odds, a year later an epic adventure was born that has since become a legend among amateur rally drivers and professional adventurers: The Budapest-Bamako, Great African Run.

On December 26th 2005 forty two vehicles lined up at Budapest’s Heroes Square to begin their uncertain drive across 8 countries and 2 continents. The 102 participants at the time did not have a clue what they signed up for. They also didn’t know at the time that they’d be paving the way for one of the most unique motor sport events in the world.

Cars, motorcycles and trucks can enter in the competitive racing category or the less demanding adventure category. Szabo’s main goal was to promote the use of less expensive disposable cars. “If we could do in a rickety old Suzuki Samurai from Conakry to Bamako then other people can do it too,” was his thought. His first car was a beat up Russian made Lada Niva, which costs him less than $1500. To this day, low cost cars and clunkers can enter the rally without paying entry fees in the Spirit Category preserving the rally’s founding spirit.

Out of the 42 vehicles 38 crossed the finish line at Bamako’s Kempinski Hotel two weeks later. Ironically Szabo’s Niva was one of the cars that fell victim to the challenge. He completed the course in a rental Landcruiser. Since that incident the replacement of vehicles is permitted on the rally.

The Budapest-Bamako is a cross between orienteering, geo-caching and off-road driving. There are no timed stages and no one is ever sent home.

“I wanted to make clear from day one, that unlike on the Dakar no one is eliminated from the race, just because they can’t complete a daily stage on time. I also wanted to create a set of rules where it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you’ll win the race if you can navigate well and you and your car have the stamina to drive 500-600 kilometers a day on rough terrain,” said Andrew. The rally is not timed, but it is a point race where teams collect points for finding navigational checkpoints in the desert and completing daily stages on time.

A typical stage is 400-500 kilometers long on harsh off-road terrain. Teams have to navigate using a set of GPS coordinates. Since 2012 there are some so called “analog days” where no GPS is needed. Here teams get a start, an end point and the name of 10-12 obscure, tiny villages. Most often these villages are not listed on paper maps either. Teams have to overcome language and communication barriers to get local intel from villagers on which way to go. “These moments give teams a chance to stop, get out of the car and interact with locals and experience the real, untouched Africa,” says Andrew.

Reaching some of the navigational points is completely impossible by car. There are points that can only be reached by climbing, descending into caves, swimming into waterfalls or in one case teams had to canoe across the crocodile infested waters of the Gambia River to reach a checkpoint.

After a long European super marathon the difficult off-road driving begins in Morocco. The race travels through some neck breaking desert tracks and stunning casbah towns in Morocco before entering the politically sensitive and sometimes heavily mined area of Western Sahara. This is the least densely populated country on Earth. Teams are greeted by military checkpoints and land mine warning signs wherever they go.

In Mauritania the participants have to tackle sand dunes, heat and the occasional sand storm. The long drive, the difficult roads and the shifting sands begin to take their toll on the drivers. The culture shock that most experience in the world’s 6th poorest country can be emotionally overwhelming as well. At the halfway point of the rally participants usually lose valuable time and points by getting their cars fixed here. Some of the more experienced participants have local mechanics on their phones’ speed dial. “I couldn’t believe when I heard of someone calling a mechanic 3 days prior to reaching the capital of Mauritania requesting spare parts and an appointment,” told the founder of the race.

The rally originally ended in the Malian capital of Bamako. With political uncertainty and increased security risks in Mali, organizers switched the finish line to Guinea-Bissau in 2012 and 2013. The 2014 rally is expected to finish in the capital of Gambia, Banjul.

The Budapest-Bamako is also a charity event. Each team is encouraged to bring school supplies, medicines, clothing and tools that’ll improve the lives of the locals. Each year close to one million dollars worth of aid is delivered to Africa. Teams have built schools, dug wells, funded anti-malaria and anti female genital mutilation programs. Every year an 18 wheeler truck accompanies that rally full of gifts and donations to West Africa.

In 2011 the Price Of Monaco nominated the Budapest-Bamako for an International Peace and Sports Award for their outstanding community work in Africa.

The 9th edition of the Budapest-Bamako will start from Budapest once again. After three days in Europe teams will drive across the Moroccan Sahara, Western Sahara. Racing and adventure teams will split up in Northern Mauritania. The competitive teams will travel on more demanding desert tracks. All cars will unite on the Senegalese border as they continue their journey by across the savannas of Senegal before entering Gambia. The rally will visit 3 African national parks where drivers can experience local wildlife up close and personal. After 15 demanding days the teams will arrive in the capital of Gambia.

For more information on the Budapest-Bamako Rally, click here.

Photography from Budapest-Bamako Rally

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