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A Review of "To Dakar and Back - 21 Days Across North Africa By Motorcycle”

Written by: Dan M

A Bit of Background

I got a copy of Lawrence Hacking’s new book, “To Dakar and Back – 21 Days Across North Africa By Motorcycle” a little over a week ago and couldn’t put it down until it was done. If you have even a passing interest in the Dakar you should take a look at this book!

Now, you don’t need to know who Lawrence Hacking is to truly enjoy this book but once you’ve read it it’s hard not to talk about the man behind the book when talking about his Dakar story. He’s what you might call the “Wayne Gretzky” of the sport of off-road bikes in Canada. His resume is impressive to say the least.




A Short List of some of Lawrence’s Achievements:

- Competed for the Canadian National Team in the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) World Championship in 1985 (Spain), ’86 (Italy), ‘90 (Sweden), ’91 (Czechoslovakia), ‘92 (Australia) and 2002 (Czech Republic). He finished each time, earning Silver and Bronze medals from the FIM.
- Worked for Yamaha Motor Canada and Yamaha Motor Europe between 1980 and 1990 in their marketing and racing departments. Since then, he has worked as a consultant to other manufacturers including Honda, Kawasaki and Triumph, and to the Parts Canada Superbike Championship.
- In January 2001, became the first Canadian to complete the Paris to Dakar rally. He finished 58th overall and 13th place overall in the first-timer classification.
- In 2005 and 2007 he entered the Beijing to Ulan Bataar International Rally across the Chinese Gobi desert and won the 250-cc class.
Was one of the key organizers of the 2007 FIM World Enduro Championship, held in Canada for the first time.
- His motorcycle exploits have been featured in various media outlets such as CBC, CNN International, CityTV, Moto Verde (Spain), Moto Vert (France), The National Post, Speed Channel, TSN, TV5 (France) and The Toronto Star.
- Participated in the Targa Newfoundland.

On To Dakar!

Hacking competed in the Paris-Dakar Rally in 2001 and, on his first attempt, he finished it, thus securing his place in the history books as being the first Canadian to ever finish the event. I might add he did it at the age of 46 too and as a privateer without a support crew to help him out along the way. Sponsors supported him partly but they weren’t there in a truck following along with the rally like the professional teams. He didn’t have a mechanic waiting for him at each bivouac to fix his bike at the end of the day so he could relax and prepare for the next grueling day. He had to fix any damage to his bike each night after travelling distances of up to 900 km in a single day.

He spent a year preparing for Dakar, nine months of which was full time work dedicated to working out, travelling to Europe, researching the race, securing sponsorship, and bike preparation among a myriad of other things. His bike of choice was a custom prepared Honda XR650. He thought the bike was a great product, and it was. He could have chosen several other bikes but was impressed with the Honda. The bike was new at the time and had just won at Baja. It also had a kick start in addition to the electric start, a feature lacking on the KTM’s. He worried about an electrical problem in the desert and getting stuck, so having a kick start as a backup was a logical thing to have. He kept the swingarm, frame, and engine stock but changed most of the other pieces to meet his requirements and the Dakar specifications. The big main fuel tank and rear auxiliary tank were key requirements of the Rally. His XR was fitted with a 54 litre tank, which when full held about a hundred lbs of fuel. That much weight in those types of conditions would have to be a real handful to say the least but essential because of the huge distances covered.

In 2001 the Dakar covered nearly 10,000 km’s of mostly off-road riding. It travelled through six countries in some of the most challenging terrain in the world in its 21 days. Approximately 6,000 of the kilometers were special stages (otherwise known as competition stages). Given these facts it's no surprise that it is billed by some to be one of the world’s top five adventures; right up there with climbing Mt. Everest. It’s a race where as many as half the competitors don’t make it to the finish line. The race has even claimed the lives of 48 of its competitors and some spectators as well.

Getting to the Nitty-Gritty

I may be a little biased as I’ve admittedly been fascinated by the Paris Dakar Rally since I learned about its existence in the early 80’s when the ferociously fast Group B rally cars had their short lived heyday. They were just too fast and dangerous and were only around for four years. Sadly I do not have the skills or abilities that Lawrence Hacking has. But I jumped at the chance to pick up the book and read about a Canadian’s experience with the Dakar.

If you look at the list of competitors and their placement in rally's gone by on ASO’s website (TSO was the organizing body at the time of Hacking's 2001 race) you’ll see where everybody finished but that by itself is a little dull. The list of who won and their times doesn’t tell all the stories about the preparation, trials and tribulations, near disasters, sleepless nights, sand and grit, the desert, dunes, rocks, and all the amazing sights you pass though in the 21 days of the Dakar and the days leading up to it. To Dakar and Back tells that story from one man’s perspective. For 274 pages you’re with him on the bike throughout it all; experiencing in some small way, all the highs and the lows.

The first thing I noticed when I got the book and thumbed through it was the little symbols that appear alongside the page numbers. While not explained in the book these are very important symbols in the Dakar; they are a piece of information that appears on the road-book that participants get and remain secret until given to the riders. If you don’t follow the road book and stop at the checkpoints you’ll be given penalties up to an including exclusion from the race. The symbol is one piece of the information that appears and indicates the trail, terrain, and landmarks for a particular section. These little hieroglyphics are called tulips and they’re something that every rally participant needs to become very familiar with. Why are they called tulips you may ask? It dates back to the Tulip Rally (Tulpen rally) of the 1950’s.

I won’t wreck it for those who decide to get the book, but Hacking’s 21 days weren’t without drama. The book is full of unexpected events and challenges that need to be faced - all under the pressure of sticking to the rules and keeping within the allowable time. There were several incidents that threatened to end his rally before the finish line. His perseverance, preparation, and perhaps a little bit of luck all combined to get him to the finish line.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve already said that I enjoyed the book. I really did, it’s a great read in my opinion and very reasonably priced at $17.95. The writing is clear and easy to follow, no doubt aided by the efforts of Wil De Clercq whom Hacking credits with turning his pile of notes into a story that "accurately conveys the message." The writing includes a fairly detailed account of each days race events; who won in each category, what their times were, and some of the major events of the day. Some readers may not find that element quite as interesting as Hacking's personal story in the race. He has an eye for detail and recalls the types of vehicles, names of riders he has conversations with, dates, and places. Something I really appreciated.

Even the typesetting of the book adds to its personality and enjoyment. If you have an interest in the Dakar rally this book gives a real perspective of what it’s like to be there. In terms of things I didn’t like about the book there are really only a couple of minor things that would have increased my personal enjoyment of the book. would have liked to have seen a more detailed account of what Hacking brought along with him. Chapter 3 reviews some of his preparations including what he did to prepare the bike. This was really interesting material that I would have liked expanded to include details on all the items he took. Maybe it could have been included in an appendix? And, though noted in some cases, I would have appreciated knowing each day’s start time throughout the 21 days. Those are minor points though and you may not even miss them.

On a side note – Hacking, who’s 53 years old, is planning on doing the Dakar again and was going to follow the 2008 race from Lisbon in a rented car as part of his preparation. Hmm, I wonder if the rental company knew about that plan? But as you may know, the 2008 running of the Dakar - which was its 30th anniversary, was cancelled for the first time in its history because of terrorist threats. I’ll certainly be watching closely to see how that story unfolds. With the Dakar being held in South America in 2009 and the 2010 running through Mauritania still questionable it'll be interesting to see what Hacking does. He was hoping to use the 2008 race as part of his methodical pre-planning. The event in South America will be a whole new challenge and with a relatively shortened time to prepare and plan.



Where Can I Get a Copy and How Much is It?

To Dakar and Back is published by ECW Press and can be purchased at major booksellers everywhere. Price as indicated on the back cover is $17.95

You can get it via Amazon Canada here:

Some other interesting links:

Official Dakar website.
Robby Gordon - Dakar Dictionary site.