The World's Largest Trans-Saharan Rally Is To Start This Saturday From Budapest

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The grueling, two week endurance rally from Budapest to Bamako will take its 630 participants across two continents and eight countries. Participants will race across some of the world's most politically volatile countries amid tight security to bring humanitarian aid.

Budapest is the backdrop to the start of the rally

The region has always been politically very volatile. We try to do everything possible to ensure safety. However we continually ask all participants to carefully evaluate the risks of their participation

The 630 participants of the Budapest-Bamako, trans-Saharan rally will set out on their grueling two week journey from the Hungarian capital this Saturday morning at nine o'clock. After the withdrawal of the Dakar Rally from Africa, the Budapest-Bamako is now the largest off-road, endurance race in the region covering two continents, eight countries and nearly 10,000 kilometers.

Teams have to complete the route from the heart of Europe to West Africa, driving on harsh desert terrain in the Sahara and several difficult stages in the African bush. "This will be our most difficult rally to date," said Andrew G. Szabo the founder of the event.

Amid tight security a record number of 212 cars, 31 motorcycles, 6 trucks and 3 buses are to take place in the long distance race. Participants will go through Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before arriving in Bamako.

This year's event is off to a tense start due to security concerns in Mauritania and Mali. The 2008 Dakar was cancelled because of terror threats. The recent Mauritanian coup d'etat and the prolonged touareg uprising in Mali are both strong causes for concern. The renewed fighting between the rebels and government forces left three people dead this week north of Bamako.

The Budapest-Bamako will spend more than a week in the troubled West African countries. "The region has always been politically very volatile. We try to do everything possible to ensure safety. However we continually ask all participants to carefully evaluate the risks of their participation," added Mr. Szabo. The Mauritanian government ensured organizers of the Budapest-Bamako to provide several thousand armed men and tactical vehicles along the rally route. The rally is a strong source of revenue for the Saharan country. It accounts for more than 5% of the annual tourist traffic in Mauritania. The security forces will strengthen their presence in Mali as well in light of the recent events.

The Budapest-Bamako is a zero assistance, extreme endurance rally where teams have to rely on their own resources in case of emergencies. The event was created four years ago for those who have always dreamt of joining more prestigious desert races but never had the proper funding. In recent years it's been billed as a "low-budget Dakar" or the "poor man's Dakar".

There's a racing and touring category. In racing, teams have to finish daily stages on time and complete orienteering challenges along the way to earn points. The race is not held on closed roads and is not a timed rally. The emphasis is on endurance and navigation. In touring category drivers have to complete 16 stages to reach Bamako on some of the world's most inhospitable terrain.

The field of competitors features three-time winner and defending champion, Juraj and Daniela Ulrich, a husband-wife duo from the Slovak Republic. This year, veteran Dakar driver Mila Janacek from the Czech Republic will attempt to dethrone the Slovak couple as captain of the Hummer Racing Team. There are crews from 45 different countries, some from as far as Iran, New Zealand or South Africa.

In addition to the well prepared off-road cars, there will be some Eastern European automotive relics, a Norwegian Citroen-DS, a Mini Morris, the organizer's 40 year old Peugeot 504, a 1961 Hungarian fire engine, a vintage Polish ambulance, a rare Austin Montego and a Volkswagen Passat, which can be powered by bicycle pedals if the engine fails. In recent years an ice cream truck, a 3 wheeled Velorex, and an Ikarus articulated bus enrolled in the event too.

The Budapest-Bamako is also a unique exercise in direct charitable giving.Teams are bringing 700,000Euros worth of direct aid to the world's 4th and 5th poorest nation. Miss Hungary 2005 who is completing the course on a KTM motorcycle will deliver many of those gifts to impoverished villages, clinics and rural schools.

The Dutch all-woman team of Nynke Doorenbos és Amarja Niehof has already shipped 230 bicycles to Women On Bikes, an NGO that helps women in Mali learn to ride bicycles. The bikes and other donations will be given out in Bamako on February 1.

Quick facts at a glance:
Start: January 17, 2009 8:45AM. Heroes's Square, Budapest, Hungary
Finish: January 31, 2009: 11:00AM Mobido Keita Memorial, Bamako, Mali
Distance:5468 miles (8896kms)
Number of teams: 252
Cheapest vehicle: 272Euro ($380) Austin Montego
Avarage daily distance: 347miles (556km)
Youngest participant: 17 years old
Oldest participant: 74 years old
Stages of the rally in racing category:

Jan 18, Brescia, Italy-851km
Jan 20, Merzouga, Morocco via Montpellier, Barcelona, Alicante, Murcia, Almeria, Nador, 2740km
Jan 22, Foum Zgid, Morocco 410km
Jan 23, Assa, Morocco 450km
Jan 24, Smara, Western Sahara 437km
Jan 25, Bou Lanoar, Mauritania 370km
Jan 26, Atar, Mauritania 480km
Jan 27, Tidjikja, Mauritania 430km
Jan 28, Kiffa, Mauritania 420km
Jan 29, Korera Kore, Mali 320km
Jan 30, Banamba 375km
Jan 31, Bamako 250km

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Andrew Szabo
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