With only a couple of days to go before the world premiere of “Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar”, we had a good chat with one of the stars of the show – Christophe Barriere-Varju.
The documentary follows Christophe and fellow Australian, TV presenter Laura Csortan, as they ride from Marrakech in Morocco through mountains, gorges, rivers and deserts to reach the Moroccan Sahara.
Motorcycle Life: Christophe, this isn’t the first time you’ve taken on a journey like this, is it? You’ve actually competed in the Dakar Rally a number of times?
Christophe Barriere-Varju: Yes, that’s right. I’ve competed four times now, twice in Africa and another two times in South America.
When I went back at it in 2007 I saw just how beautiful that gateway to Africa was, and for many competitors Morocco has been the gateway to their first experiences in the African Continent, massive landscapes that make you feel you just landed on the moon, it’s absolutely breathtaking.
I then went on to race the Dakar two more times in South America, another beautiful continent that offer different challenges.
ML: And of course your film “Dream Racer” follows you through one of those events.
CB-V: Yes, I wanted to show people what it took to prepare and race the toughest event in the world as a privateer. I was the rider, the mechanic and did everything before, during and post race.
It was a marathon day everyday for 16 days with very little sleep each night. I had been wanting to make a film about this to share not just the race itself, but what “goes in” to be in a position to take up such a big challenge, whether it is to race the Dakar, start a business or live life every day.
People are quick to point fingers at the surroundings, at the reasons “other than themselves” why they cannot do this or that. What “Dream Racer” shows is that “your only competitor, your only opponent, is yourself”.
We won 7 International Awards for “Dream Racer”, it is a timeless story and is the only film in the entire history of the Dakar Rally to have won awards, we are very proud of this.
ML: You did everything by yourself in the film “Dream Racer”, it must have been nice to have a support crew on this film then?
CB-V: Yes being part of a production for National Geographic was definitely the other end of the spectrum for me.
In “Dream Racer” it was Simon Lee and myself – that was it. In “Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar” it took a little while to remember everyone’s name (laughs) and it was great to be part of such an International team with people from Morocco, Japan, England, Italy, Swiss, France, and the good ol’ two Ozzies, although I am a bit of a mix myself – which helps with the languages.
We had fancy cameras, tiny cameras, big cameras, cameras that auto-stabilise, fancy tripods, boxes of mounting brackets to capture every possible angle, mechanics, helpers, medic, security, production manager.
Logistically it was a bit more challenging to move across thousands of kilometres making sure we had the best light at this time on this spot but we made a lot of friends in the process, and that’s what’s important.
Compare this to Simon and I in “Dream Racer” where the 3:30am conversation would go like this: Me: “did you charge the batteries?”, Simon “Yes, good luck”, Me “Thank you, see you tonight” LOL.
ML: The original Paris-Dakar ran through the area you covered in this film didn’t it?
CB-V: Yes it did, and the show traces part of the route from the early Paris-Dakar event.
As I mentioned before Morocco has been the gateway to Africa for many years in the original Paris-Dakar. Just imagine how hundreds of competitors that had never left Europe must have felt when they landed in Morocco?
First a massive cultural contrast, then the open desert and landscape with absolutely nothing in sight. The transition is almost non-existent. You go from populated area to being literally alone in the immensity of the desert almost instantly.
This gives you a shock to the system, no roads, nothing in sight apart from a distant mountain and cloud formations, the sun, a little map and your gut instinct. To be able to feel this for the first time is amazing, and addictive. Africa offers that possibility for competitors, when you are alone, you ARE alone.
ML: And you grew up in Africa too?
CB-V: Yes, I was lucky! I was born in France but my family moved to the Ivory Coast in West Africa in 1979, I grew up there, was introduced to motorcycles there, raced motocross there, and as a kid I could have not imagined having a better childhood.
I wish I could do it again and again. There is something magic about Africa, something unique, it’s a beautiful continent with very friendly people. My sister still lives there and I miss it a lot.
After high-school I moved to California to study and spent 9 years in the United States before moving to Australia in 1999.
ML: How did it feel going back into the area, did it bring back some good memories?
CB-V: You can’t compare Africa. I still remember the first time I stepped out of the plane as a little kid in 1979, that first step and first breath out of the plane stamped me forever.
A lot of people think of Africa based on what is being shown to them on television, it is easy to paint a picture with a fraction of images if that same fraction is only shown to people – but it is not like that.
First is the friendliness, everyone wants to help, then it is the smell, the food, the respect people show the elderly, it is how chaos can actually be self-solved without micro-management of the populations.
There are only a few places in the world where you can be on a motorcycle and get caught into a traffic jam that consists of people, bicycles, cars, mopeds, donkeys, goats and whatever else – and you know what, everything works.
And when you are in that environment, you have a colourful story to tell every day, and you feel life.
ML: Obviously this journey was different without the heat of competition, but what can we expect to see in the show?
CB-V: Yes it is much more relaxing and for once I had the time to fully absorb the experience. I am not sure how the editing was done but the viewers will be transported to Africa starting with scenes in Marrakech that may appear chaotic to some viewers and should be funny as well.
We will then take the viewers out of the city and start exploring the Atlas Mountains before entering into the thick of it that created the history of the Paris-Dakar, the massive wide open landscapes, being greeted by people in small villages, before ending in some majestic dunes.
Some of the footage you will see will make you want to travel, that’s for sure.
ML: And I bet we get to see some amazing off road riding skills as well! It must have been an interesting project to do, how did you get involved?
CB-V: I got an out-of-the-blue email which I nearly deleted as I thought it was a spam. I really didn’t think it was serious when I first saw it, but I went along with it.
One discussion led to another and before I knew it I was helping select the gear, gave feedback on the route, made sure we had enough spares so on and so forth.
I was meant to be teamed up with a female presenter and ride a motorbike across Morocco. That’s how much I knew to start with.
ML: Now you had Laura Csortan on the trip with you, had she ever ridden on a trip like this before?
CB-V: No, she’d never even ridden on dirt before and had not been on the road for quite a while as well.
So right there Laura and I had our challenges. For Laura to make sure she could pull this through un-hurt, and for me I had to make sure Laura had to have enough skills to (a) ride the bike on dirt, and not just dirt roads, and (b) to not hurt herself which was a big responsibility.
ML: So what sort of preparation did you do with her?
CB-V: Everything happened very fast for Laura, she came up to where I live and she went through “The Dream Racer Experience” training course. A very intensive training where I cover all the basics to teach novices or experienced racers a different way to ride a motorbike.
To make things more challenging, the weather was extremely hot those days with temperature upward of 45 degrees. When you gear up for the first time with massive boots, protective gear it becomes a daunting task.
I started Laura with getting the basics right on the little 125cc bike, then moved her up to the 250cc and onto the soon to be open Island Action Sports Complex motocross track the next day.
Finally on the third day she had to get a taste of riding a bigger bike, I was so impressed by her progress that I entrusted her to ride my factory Dakar bike from “Dream Racer”. But my next challenge was to get her off it – Laura didn’t want to stop riding it, and I don’t blame her.
ML: What bikes did you take?
CB-V: We both rode new Honda CRF1000L Africa Twins. I took a manual model and Laura rode the automatic transmission.
ML: And how did they go?
CB-V: The bikes are typical Honda, once you sit on them you feel at home instantly. I was surprised by the very low centre of gravity and although they are heavier than my Dakar machine, they actually feel lighter.
Vibrations are almost non-existent, the power is very smooth, and the bike is extremely well balanced as well. And as you will see in the show, you can take this bike in more places you can imagine.
ML: Well Christophe, we’re looking forward to seeing this latest adventure of yours.
CB-V: Thank you. I haven’t even seen it myself yet so I’m looking forward to it as well.
ML: And we might have to get you back for a chat again soon so you can tell us more about your Dakar experiences.
CB-V: Absolutely, I’d love to.
Christophe’s new adventure, “Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar”, will air in Australia and New Zealand on June 17th at 10:30 PM.
More information and the screening schedule for the rest of the world is available on the National Geographic channel website.