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Picture Show: Budapest to Bamako Picture Show: Budapest to Bamako

Picture Show: Budapest to Bamako

March 5, 2009

From start to finish of a truly amazing race

"What the hell was that," hollered Jim Roberts as his Toyota Land Cruiser jolted violently to the left at the crest of a massive sand dune. Sweat pours from Roberts in the 100 degree plus heat. Checking the rear view mirrors reveals two cars and another SUV in close pursuit, but no carnage. Roberts eases off the gas a bit. Nothing sounds out of place and Roberts hits the accelerator-hard.Just a week before Roberts and 104 other teams were freezing in Budapest Square, making last minute preparations for the Budapest to Bamako Rally, a two week, zig-zagging adventure through Europe and Africa. On the starting line with Roberts that frigid January afternoon ready to start the B2 (as it is known in the racing community) were competitors from 45 countries including Iran, Canada, India, Peru, and New Zealand. In the mix were well-equipped off-road race cars, vintage fire trucks, a 1971 Citroen DS, a 1982 Opel, and quixotic team from South Africa intent on using the B2 as the first half of a trek all the way back to the southern tip of the continent.The madness of the B2 started when Hungarian radio personality Géza Villám, a regular visitor to Mali, grew frustrated with the cost prohibitive nature of the Dakar, the world's most famous off-road endurance race. In seeking a low-budget alternative to the Dakar he also struck another idea: why not create a race that carries much needed aid to the African communities along the route? There would be two classes-one for racers and one for touring-but all would cram supplies into their vehicles: a massive aid caravan with timed trials.The idea struck a chord and in the last four years the B2 has undergone a dramatic transformation from crazy adventure to the largest charity rally in the world. "It is the perfect way to blend fun, adventure, and charity. … Everybody gets a real kick out of the race, seeing the Sahara and helping out in Mali" says Andrew Szabo, who now heads up the B2. This year the B2 also became the sole heir to the long tradition of trans-Saharan racing after threats by Al Qaeda forced the cancellation of the 2008 Dakar Rally (and a subsequent move to South America for the 2009 edition).For the 2009 installment, Szabo and organizers ratcheted up the giving by waiving the entry fee for teams making substantial contributions. Dubbed "Hungary for Africa," the initiative encourages teams to bring more than the standard clothes, medicines, toys, and tools to Mali. Not surprisingly, participants rose to the challenge. A group of people prepared to head through one of the most inhospitable climates in the world (just for the sake of doing it) should not be underestimated.Chris Drumney and Robert Bell from England brought solar cookers and solar panels to a village in Mali that previously had no electricity. Villagers were destroying trees every day to cook dinner, but now can boil a pot of water in six minutes without sacrificing any trees. The village also has enough electricity to run a fridge and small lights. A Hungarian-American team had a similar idea and hauled a solar powered water treatment device to another village.With racing in mind, B2 participants also looked to address transportation issues. Nynke Doorebnos of Holland sold her car in Bamako and bought 130 bicycles that she donated to an organization called Women on Bikes. The group teaches rural women to use bicycles to find and obtain better jobs. In addition to Doorebnos's car, four ambulances from Europe were left in Bamako after making their way to Mali in the touring class. To cover all bases, a few college students from Budapest rounded up wheelchairs for distribution.The B2 has turned their lack of support from motor sport companies and television advertising revenue into an advantage. Avoiding the neocolonialist criticisms that plagued the Dakar and the commercial support that attracted Al Qaeda's interest, the B2 has been able to grow and help African communities without encountering resistance from politicians, activist groups, or terrorists. The race helped deliver nearly $1 million worth of aid  to communities in Mauritania and Mali, make the B2."The Budapest-Bamako is an exercise in direct community to community giving," says Szabo, "a model that has worked very well for us." For next year's fifth anniversary organizers plan to promote green energy for participants and sustainable energy initiatives at all of the courses overnight points. The B2's unique appeal to amateur off-road racing enthusiasts combined with a commitment to the people of the region makes it a refreshing replacement to the grandiose, self-serving and often deadly Dakar. With resources aimed in the right direction, everybody benefits from this one of a kind adventure.

Photos courtesy of Marathon Rally.
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