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Day 25: Atâr

Tougadh, Mauritania 
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Bikes prepare for the start of a new leg on a difficult stony surface. Fifty-two have dropped out since they left northern France ten days ago.
Michael Palin - SaharaYou have to be up at sparrow-fart to catch the Rally. The first riders on this time-trial stage, a loop starting and ending in Atâr, have left the airport by eight o'clock, and it's been a long and tricky drive to find a position along the course ahead of them. Once again, the first sign of activity is aerial. A muttering and thudding fills the valley and seconds later a silver helicopter streaks in over sand and stone tracks it has taken us an hour to negotiate. It circles gracefully, picks a spot and swoops to earth, disgorging a camera crew at the point where the piste is marked by a low but nasty run of bumps. A few locals have gathered to watch. They crouch on their haunches, arms resting on knees, looking more bemused than expectant. A donkey watches impassively from a nearby clump of tamarisk trees. A few yards further on, a group of village women are standing up against a flimsy fence, holding a sign on which is written 'Go, Johnny Go!', believed to be a reference to the presence of the veteran Gallic rocker Johnny Hallyday in one of the cars.

More helicopters appear. Some land in a scatter of sand, others hover briefly before sweeping away in search of the next good vantage point. Then the first of the bikes comes into sight around the base of a sand dune, swaying and skidding past at speeds of around 60 miles per hour, sending up a fine plume of red sand as its rider, standing, arms and legs braced, works furiously at throttle and brake to get a grip on this treacherous surface.

One of the bikes hits a submerged stone and careers off course, flinging its rider to the ground. He remounts and roars by. We check the number. Somehow it had to be. 126. Dave Hammond, Great Britain.

Before the cars come through we move on to a better vantage point overlooking the village of Tougadh. Because it's up in the hills, the buildings of Tougadh are sturdier than most I've seen in the Mauritanian Sahara, a mix of rectangular houses and circular huts, most of them resting on a skilfully cut dry-stone base and topped with mud and thatch. The village lies across a rising slope, with the head of the valley at one end and a thick grove of date palms at the other. There is no movement amongst the huts. A figure lies asleep outside one of the houses, head resting in the crook of an arm.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 25
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Atâr
  • Book page no: 88

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