Cristina Gutierrez (ESP) from Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA is seen at the start line of stage 03 of Rally Dakar 2024 from Al Duwadimi to Al Salamiya, Saudi Arabia on January 08, 2024 // Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202401080395 // Usage for editorial use only //

WATCH: In the Dust Episode 5 Surviving 48 Hours in the Desert

Published: Monday January 15 2024
In the dusty expanse of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, the largest continuous desert on earth, Dakar Rally enthusiasts encountered a new frontier – the 48-hour Chrono Stage. Episode Five of 'In The Dust' unfolds the gripping narrative of survival in the desert as Spanish Challenger category driver Cristina Gutiérrez Herrero and Austrian rookie biker Tobias Ebster recount their journey through this unprecedented Dakar challenge.

The 48-hour Chrono Stage marked a radical departure from the norm, spanning 626 kilometres for bikes and 549 kilometres for cars. To put this in perspective, it’s equivalent to the distance between New York and Montreal. The dare wasn’t just about covering the distance though; it was a test of resilience in the heart of the formidable Empty Quarter.

WATCH EPISODE 5 – SURVIVING 48 HOURS IN THE DESERT

Tobias Ebster (AUT) for Kini Rally Racing Team races during stage 7 of Rally Dakar 2024 from RIYADH to AL DUWADIMI, Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2024. // Flavien Duhamel

Besides tending to themselves and their vehicles, Dakar racers were required to bring their supplies and set up camp in the desert. Tobias, currently grappling with a cracked rib, describes the overnight struggle, revealing the unexpected conditions they encountered upon reaching the designated camping area. “When we arrived at sunset, we got a sleeping bag, but no mattress, so we had to sleep on the ground.”

Cristina paints a harrowing picture of the relentless race over the soft-sanded dunes, narrating: “It was dune after dune after dune. It took us 7 hours-and-a-half to cover the first 400 kilometers. Some drivers experienced travel sickness, so they took some pills against it. But even then, they felt sick – it’s like when you’re on a boat at sea.”

Navigating all that sand, riders faced challenges that extended beyond the physical. Tobias emphasises the constant struggle to maintain control: “When you’re on a bike, you’re just trying to press the legs together, and the back of the bike is [wobbling] all the time. There are short stretches of chotts [a flat surface], but most of the time we were just going up and down the dunes.”

The harsh realities of the desert emerge as Cristina explains the plight of those stuck in dune holes and her strategies to avoid them; while Tobias reveals the sheer scale of the dunes, forcing riders, especially, to slow down due to their steepness.

The narrative is punctuated by tales of survival, including Cesare Zacchetti’s night in the dark, covered in sand after his bike got stuck. Host Nicola Hume recounts the ordeal: “It ended up being dark, and the helicopter couldn’t find him. They searched for him extensively, having a rough idea of his location. A survival package was dropped, but he never found it. He had to cover himself with sand to keep warm overnight.”

The duo faced not only the natural obstacles but also the inadequacies in the preparations. From the unexpected softness of the dunes affecting fuel consumption to the challenges of navigating without established traces, every moment was a trial.

“One eye looks at the road map, the other looks ahead,” says Cristina.

Tobias Ebster (AUT) from Kini Rally Racing Team is seen at the start line of stage 03 of Rally Dakar 2024 from Al Duwadimi to Al Salamiya, Saudi Arabia on January 08, 2024 // Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202401080361 // Usage for editorial use only //

“For me, for now, it’s good,” adds Tobias. “I’m around the top 20. So I have a few traces in front of me. But for the top guys, it’s difficult. You have to imagine, there is no trace and you have to set your own line in the sand, and everybody’s going to follow you. So when you’re wrong, everybody’s wrong,” he continues.

Amid these challenges, the camaraderie around the fire in the camps became a beacon of warmth. Cristina and Tobias share the funny and memorable moments they spent with racing legends Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al-Attiyah, revealing how the former struggled with his tent while setting it up, and the latter offered tea while sitting around the fire.

“We were sharing stories with each other under the light of the stars. It was warm, we enjoyed it. Not many people can experience this adventure during their lives, and we can do it here. I’m feeling very blessed. Sitting by the fire was something special, and I’m never going to forget that,” says Tobias.

Cristina Gutierrez (ESP) and Pablo Moreno Huete (ESP) race during stage 06 of Rally Dakar 2024 in Shubaytah, Saudi Arabia on January 11, 2024. // Marcelo Maragni

Cristina resonates with the Austrian’s words, saying that those moments “made the race so much more interesting.” The Spaniard then acknowledges the rarity of such experiences in modern times: “It’s difficult to find these moments in your normal life, also because you always have mobile coverage and a cellphone at hand. We were there in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with no lights. We could only see how many stars were in the sky – that sky was massive.”

As the 48-hour endurance test concluded, emotions kept running the gamut – from frustration over missing mattresses to the relief of finishing the stage. The fifth episode of ‘In The Dust’ shows us that physical resistance is the driving force when tackling the desert, and that in the Empty Quarter the stars outnumber the challenges.