Wouter Kingma Shoots the First Saudi Arabian Dakar Rally

Jun 2, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

The 2004 movie "Hidalgo", starring Viggo Mortensen, is about a horse race across the Arabian desert in 1891. Though not a true story, it helps us to imagine what it might be like to traverse such harsh climes while racing against dozens of competitors. Flash forward to 2020, and we get another version of this adventure with motor vehicles instead of horses.

Wouter Kingma Dakar Rally racers at the starting line

Netherlands-based photographer Wouter Kingma went to Saudi Arabia to shoot imagery of the first ever Dakar Rally to take place in Saudi. The annual race, which first happened in 1979, is an off-road endurance event where athletes trek hundreds of miles per day over a two-week period. Here’s a taste of what that’s like from the photographer’s perspective:

Just imagine spending three wild hours shooting on location, then drive a distance similar to Paris to Milan. Upon arrival, you edit your content, upload the best selects, eat, and then get a bit of sleep. The next morning, you wake up super early do it all again — including the drive back to Paris. And repeat this for 14 days straight. It’s nuts! I did about 9,000km of travelling, mainly by car with an occasional helicopter ride.

Wouter has spent years both living and work in Saudi Arabia and, thanks in part to the Dakar Rally, has now been to nearly every part of the country. Not only that, but he met many of the competitors and found them to be an intriguing mix of passionate and pleasant.

Dakar showed us all the good stuff by visiting all corners of this huge country. Stunning. Stunning. Stunning. From the Wadi Rum like mountains and ancient thumbs in the north to the breathtaking dunes in the south. It’s a gorgeous wilderness. Especially the mountains in the north are asking to be explored and climbed. Such a wild playground.

Wouter Kingma Dakar Rally Red Bull vehicle in action

Only the best of the best athletes and petrol-heads come to race, win, or play. Regardless of their goals, they are all striving for the finish medal near the capital of Riyadh. I found the Dakar community super nice. A unique group of individuals, all in it for the spirit of adventure and that bonds people immensely.

Wouter Kingma Dakar Rally brotherhood shot

But all the niceties in the world won’t hide a person from the rally’s grueling schedule, the desert’s arid climate, and the course’s vast expanse. Preparing for an adventure like this is, well, an adventure in itself. So much so that Wouter was featured on the race’s official Instagram page, explaining to viewers how on earth he manages to keep up with everything.

The first words of advice given to me during registration were ‘Dakar doesn’t wait. So be ready.’

Here’s the thing about a desert race: there’s no track. This isn’t NASCAR or the Tour de France — there’s no paved infrastructure to guide the way. As a photographer, that means being alert at all times because once those vehicles go whizzing by, you’ve lost your chance to get quality shots.

Location finding in the mountains is a little easier as competitors should be on gravel roads. In the sand dunes, however, it’s a different story. In the desert, there is only a mass of virgin sand, without any tire marks or indication where the rally route will be.

Wouter Kingma Dakar Rally BTS shot

The best tool is a good set of ears and fast legs. I had all my basic camera equipment in my backpack ready to unpack and start shooting. A nice feature about my pack is that I access my gear from the back panel, keeps the sand out and it quickly zips back up.

Everything related to the rally works against a photographer, from the unpredictable outdoor lighting to the fact that the racers are going to be miles apart from one another by the time they’re in the thick of things. As with anything else related to the Dakar Rally, planning is paramount.  

Admittedly, some days were better than others. Weather, landscape, sun angle, deadlines and access had a big impact on how visuals worked. With most elements out of my control, there is still no option of returning to base empty handed. I had some days where the morning location just didn’t work and it is a tough call to leave early in the hope to catch competitors later in the day with better conditions. During the early mornings you get to see all competitors just after the starting line when they are close together in racing order. Later in the day they spread out massively leaving big waiting times in between.

But still, even with all the obstacles in Wouter’s way, he has no regrets. This supremely cool rally is only for the true adrenaline junkies. But that’s just Wouter’s m.o.

Would I do it again? For sure, sign me up. I love this kind of expedition-style content creation, looking for real stories, and constantly being on the move. I seem to be at my best with very little sleep, limited showers and no comfort. Always up for an adventure.

Check out more of Wouter's work at wouterkingma.com.

Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!