I am very happy to see this post as I do have Dakar aspirations. I have been targeting 2015 ... but more realistic I am thinking one of the smaller rallies (Morocco, Pharons, Abu Dabio....) makes more sense for 2015 and then I can make a more informed decision about Dakar. In the meantime I am doing as much as I can with trail riding, enduros and RallyMoto, also focusing on getting in shape (sitting behind a desk for years has not helped).
Being from the east coast obviously desert racing is something I have no experience with. With enduros and trail rides I have some experience with navigation from paper but obviously nothing like real rally navigation. I would be interested in doing something like what you described at the "fun" level this year and get more serious the year after. Bike rental would be a requirement for me as it really is to far for me to haul my own bike.