Dangerous Dakar

The world's greatest rally is also fraught with danger, for both participants and spectators

South African rider Elmer Symons died when he crashed his bike during the 2009 Dakar Rally. He had entered as a privateer on a KTM bike. Picture: Supplied.

The Dakar Rally is not for sissies. It's a rugged, demanding and exacting course, that takes participants through some of the harshest conditions on earth.

It's little wonder then, that the rally has claimed the lives of more than two dozen participants and many more spectators.

In the 31 Dakar rallies since the inception of the race, 25 participants have been killed in crashes and accidents. Causes of death vary, but for the most part, crashes and accidents are the killers. However, on two occasions, riders and drivers have found themselves caught up in conflict between warring factions in the countries the rally crosses.

Misadventures are also common - navigation and mechanical troubles can land participants in grave danger. In 1982, Mark Thatcher (son of then UK Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher), who was competing in the rally, disappeared. Thatcher, his female French co-driver and their mechanic got separated from a convoy of vehicles when they stopped to fix a mechanical fault. A massive aerial search finally spotted their car - some 50km off course. All three were unharmed.

The numbers reveal it's most dangerous to compete on a motorbike or quad - with 14 deaths in those categories. One of those who died was South African Elmer Symons. He crashed his KTM bike, whilst leading the marathon class in 2009. Emergency response units made it to him within eight minutes, but there was nothing they could do. It was a particularly tragic death, as Symons had entered as a rookie privateer, having worked as a support mechanic in 2005 and 2006.

South African Dakar veteran, Alfie Cox, had a narrow escape when his car crashed in the desert and burst into flames during stage one of the 2012 Dakar Rally. A hydraulic pipe sprung a leak, causing a fire in the engine. The car's carbon fibre chassis went up like a torch. Cox and his co-driver Jurgen Schroder escaped unharmed.

If the participants put their lives on the line, so do the spectators - in fact, more spectators have been killed in the history of the Dakar than participants - 33 people in all. Many were on foot, killed when participants hit them, but there have also been several instances of rally drivers crashing into civilian cars.

The era of global terror has made the organisation and security of the race more challenging. In 2008, organisers were forced to call the rally off, amid security fears, following the death of four French tourists in Mauritania. The rally had been scheduled to traverse the African nation for four days.

All these concerns mean organisers have to be on their toes all the time. The race is perilous and hard. Organisers have five rescue helicopters at their disposal, more than a dozen land vehicles, a fully staffed field hospital equipped to deal with trauma, and 24-hour medevac capability for those cases that need immediate hospitalisation. This year, they estimate as many as 200,000 security personnel and marshals will be deployed along the route.