22 Jan 2015 10:30am
SAAIJMAN DEFEATS THE ODDS IN MAIDEN DAKAR
(EDS: PICS AVAILABLE ON WWW.SAPA.CO.ZA)
Despite riding with a broken hand and having to tow his teammate for much of the first stage, Dakar Rally quad bike rookie Hannes Saaijman overcame immense odds to finish the gruelling rally in the top 10 in his category.
Speaking on his arrival in the country Saaijman finished with a creditable ninth place overall after winning the final stage, while he also won the First Timers' class.
"On the first stage my teammate's (Brian Baragwanath) engine broke and I had to tow him for 620km and while towing him I was still overtaking other guys," Saaijman said at his home in Centurion.
"About a 100km of that was racing and luckily it was a long liaison of 520km to the next start because it was a nice long tarred road.
"Then you can ride at 100km/h towing someone without doing damage to the bike."
Saaijman said although this was a serious setback in his pursuit of claiming a podium position in this maiden Dakar, he was not a believer in what-ifs.
"But, if everything worked out as planned looking at my times in the rest of the race I could have finished in about third or fourth place overall," he said with a grin.
"The next two days I was over-eager, then your head is playing games with you and you think you have to make up time.
"The type of terrain in South America is similar to South Africa and you can also relate to the people."
Sometimes the Dakar kicks up other frustrations and Saaijman, who is Willem Johannes Saaijman on his passport, went by the name of Willem instead of Hannes throughout the rally.
Saaijman said the Dakar was particularly unkind to the riders as they were exposed to the elements, while the cars and trucks had the luxury of air-conditioning and protection from the cold.
"The biggest thing that got to me on the Dakar was the natural elements, I started getting frost bite on my nose, it was minus five then it started to rain where we had to travel 600km for a race stage to Bolivia," said the 32-year-old.
"I nearly died, it was extremely cold and about 30 guys had pulled out of the race due to hypothermia."
Most competitors were severely affected by the altitude sickness in the Andes Mountains at approximately 5000m above sea level.
However, Saaijman did not quite have the same reaction to the thin air compared to some of the other participants that suffered severe nausea.
"We started at 4000m and when you reach 5300m you can feel that there isn't oxygen but I didn't have a headache or anything like that," he recalls.
"But you have to regulate your body like going mountain climbing where you try to keep your movement at a minimum to ensure your body uses as little oxygen as possible.
"You can breath as deeply as you can but there simply isn't enough air unlike when you are running and your chest is burning."
As if the 14-day rally stretching over 9000km through some of the harshest conditions was not enough, Saaijman also completed the race with a broken right-hand.
Ten days before the start of the Dakar a mountain bike accident sent him to the operation theatre to mend his accident-weary hand.
"On Christmas Day I went for a mountain bike ride and not concentrating on where I was going I fell into a sinkhole and with my luck I hit my knuckle on a rock," he said.
"I had 10 days from that day until the start of the race and I know my body -- I've already had so many pins in my body -- I told the doctor there was no need for X-rays and that I needed a surgeon."
Saaijman said the broken hand held him back slightly throughout the race as he had to deal with the constant vibrations of the handle bars.
"It was really rough and it was only on the liaisons that I could give it a bit of a break but you still had to keep up with the pace," he said.
"I owe the doctor a good bottle of whisky, he did a fantastic job and on the fourth day I fell hard and thought I had injured it again."
Realising a lifelong dream of participating in the famous rally and finishing the Dakar with a stage win behind his name would surely rate as a highlight.
However, Saaijman cherished the moments where scores of locals lined the route in support of the riders and drivers.
"There are many happy moments, but what really stands out are all the spectators, you won't believe how many people come to watch the rally," he said.
"There were parts of Argentina where you didn't even need your road book with people lining the route for hundreds of kilometres."