Africa Eco Race 2014: Saint Cyprien


Some big changes (a new job in a new location) kept us from spending our holidays on the pistes of Northern Africa this year. It was just as well. It wouldn’t have been any fun shivering in the tent with pneumonia. Despite everything, we made it to Saint Cyprien on Sunday, where we spent the day at the scrutineering for the Africa Eco Race.

We were glad to have the chance to see so many friends and familiar faces, but we forgot the camera so all the photos were taken with the iPhone, and we decided just to concentrate on the trucks.

This year’s competitors are mostly returning veterans, such as two-time champions in the truck category, Tomáš Tomeček and Vojtech Moravek, in their Tatra 815. Consistently one of the top Tatra teams on the rally-raid circuit, their truck has the distinction of being “fully powered by Tatra.” They’re also the only two-man team in truck category.


Also back for this year’s race is Hungarian Miklos Kovacs, with his Scania.


It looks like he’s made a few modifications to the truck since last year, but it’s hard to know exactly what since we didn’t get a good look at the interior until now. It seems he may have modified the airflow for the two intercoolers.


Rounding out the field, Looman’s Racing’s Noël Essers with his MAN,


is joined by Gregoor Bouwens this year. His Iveco Trakker generated quite a bit of interest when it arrived on the bed of the service truck.


Missing from the scrutineering was Elisabete Jacinto, who joined the rally in Spain. We hear that she has made some modifications to her MAN since last year’s race, in particular so that she can drive with very low tire pressure in the dunes. We didn’t see her truck, so we don’t want to speculate what that might be.

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El Chott 2013: Kebili – Hammamet

ElChott 2013 Stage 11 Start

Stage 11 included the last Special of the rally, after which we’d head northeast to Sfax and then north to Hammamet for the prize ceremony at the Sultan Hotel.

Just after breakfast, we checked the lobby where the organization was posting rally information. The Chott was dry, so the special stage would take us through the Chott to the finish line in the foothills of the small mountain range to the north. At the driver’s briefing, Jörg had reminded us that it was dangerous to leave the pist in the Chott, we could get seriously stuck, and the roadbook was clearly marked for about 20 kilometers, “Do not leave the pist.” We were a little worried. Sometimes it isn’t obvious where the “piste” is; the tracks sometimes diverge or become confusing. If we had a problem, it could be difficult to recover the truck.

El Chott2013 Stage 11 Lineup

Chott El Fejej

The piste was fast at the start of the stage, and we quickly came to the wide plain of the salt flat of Chott El Fejej. We were reassured to find that there was no ambiguity, the track was straight and clear. At first the sand was firm, but as we got further into the Chott, there were some areas where it became very soft and we could feel the wheels slipping and the engine working harder to drive us through. At several points, we could see the tracks of the cars that had already passed were becoming quite deep and we hoped we’d be able to make it through with only 2-wheel drive.

With just a few kilometers to go, we reached a very soft area a few hundred meters long. We got just over halfway through when the front right wheel on the broken axle shaft started sinking down. Very quickly, almost before we could react, the Tatra slowed to a stop, leaning sharply to the right. We slowly backed out of our tracks to try another trajetory to the left. During this time we were passed by several rally cars. The Unimog passed, but didn’t dare stop in this location to help us. There wouldn’t have been much they could have done anyway. We weren’t stuck, and didn’t need to shovel, but we had to move slowly to back out of our tracks enough to take another direction. We tried two or three times, but each time the sand was just too soft and we were starting think we might not get through at all.

After a while, the MAN KAT trucks from the organization arrived and stopped just behind us. They weren’t sure they could cross either even without a broken axle shaft. One truck slowly passed through on the far left and made it, stopping just past the soft area at the foot of a small dune. We discussed with them, deflated our right front tire manually to the minimum pressure we could use and then tried the same spot. We got through, but we’d lost a lot of time and if we inflated our tire again manually, we’d have lost even more. We weren’t sure we could make the Stage finish in the maximum allowed driving time, but we were determine to do our best.

Once we made it through the Chott, the piste at the foot of the mountains became rather technical and we had to cross several oueds where the track was quite dangerous because erosion on the shoulder had created deep crevices. The tracks were often stony and we weren’t comfortable driving too fast with our deflated tire. If we stopped to inflate it or had a flat, we certainly wouldn’t make the finish in time.

Fortunately, the technical section wasn’t too long, and the piste was flat and fast on the last kilometers of the Special. We reached the finish late, but we made it! We stopped to inflate our tire before beginning the 200 km liaison to Hammamet.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We arrived at the hotel after dark and quickly took care of the necessary maintenance for the Tatra, inspecting everything and cleaning out the water separator, which seemed cleaner than it had been on the previous days. We showered before going to the buffet dinner and settling in the meeting room where the prize ceremony would be held.

The rally had been difficult, and we had done at least three-quarters of it with only 2-wheel drive. We had encountered a number of set-backs: the broken axle shaft, the fuel problem, and the departure of our mechanic. There were many occasions when we could have decided it was just too hard and given up, but we didn’t. We went to the starting line everyday. We had come to live up to the challenge and to learn so we were determined to do our best to finish, and we did! Along the way, we learned a lot, met some wonderful people and had a fabulous experience that we hope will allow us to improve our driving, navigation and overall performance for next year. Receiving the 2nd place trophy in the truck category was an unexpected reward for all our tribulations.

On the ferry home while our experience was fresh, we made our wish list of modifications to the Tatra for the next rally. Last Friday we drove it to Kopřivnice where it will spend the winter during the upgrades and the repair of the broken axle shaft.

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El Chott 2013: Ksar Ghilane – Kebili

El Chott 2013 Stage 10 Start

We said goodbye to Ksar Ghilane in Stage 10, which lead us back through the dunes by the Park Jebil along extremely fast tracks and through a complicated series of narrow paths to Kebili. We had a little trouble at the start. The day before had been quite windy, and the sand was much softer than when we arrived. The rally cars that had driven the dunes in Stage 9 had a hard time because of the soft sand and limited visibility. Although the wind had died down and the visibility was good, the sand was still soft and we had to shovel for a few minutes just after the start, having been caught off-guard by this change in the terrain.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

That was the last of our problems. Once we got back underway, the stage went smoothly, even though we had to do it with only two-wheel drive. We were quite efficient, and didn’t lose any time, even when we had to cross some bigger dunes in the last dune section of the rally and on some technical passages with several difficult riverbed crossings.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We drove very fast on the last section of the Stage, probably faster than we should have given our broken front axle shaft. When we arrived at the finish, the Explona guys, who had been tracking our progress, laughed and told us to drive a little more slowly on the short liaison to Kebili.

We arrived at the lovely hotel Yadis Oasis in mid-afternoon and checked in before starting the evening’s routine maintenance and road book study. We had not experienced any engine problems during the day, but we cleaned the water separator, which was dirty again and for the last time this rally prepared the cockpit for the next morning’s departure. We had just enough time for a quick warm shower before the dinner buffet and driver’s briefing.

Tomorrow’s stage would be short but interesting. If all went according to schedule, we’d cross the Chott El Fejej before heading into the foothills of the mountains to the north, along some winding tracks leading to the finish. In the morning, the organization would send an alpha car to make sure the Chott was dry enough to cross.

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El Chott 2013: Ksar Ghilane Stages 8-9

Stage 8 of the El Chott Rallye had promised to be fast, and we had hoped that with careful navigation and the absence of dunes, we’d move up in the rankings. It was another bright sunny morning and our spirits were up. We were happy to still be at the starting line of the rally.

ElChott2013 Stage8

Just after the start, as we accelerated to full power on the rocky piste, the engine stalled. We pulled over to the side to let the competitors behind us pass in case they came along before we got started again, but we had a hard time restarting the engine. We engaged the auxilliary fuel pump, but each time the engine cranked again, it stalled as soon as we asked it for power. Decidedly something was very wrong, and we suspected a problem with the fuel line. We had already changed the fuel filter, which didn’t seem especially dirty, so it seemed unlikely that the problem would be something we could fix quickly on the side of the road. We weren’t far from the start, so we headed back to camp to undertake a complete flush of the fuel system.

It took the better part of the day to do something that the professional teams can probably do in a few hours at most, but it was just the two us since our mechanic blew a fuse and left the rally after we broke the front right axle shaft and had to spend two nights in the dunes during Stage 3. This was the first time we had to do this kind of maintenance and since taking apart the fuel line is critical, we took our time to avoid making mistakes. If we have to undertake this procedure again in the future, we’ll be much faster next time now that we know exactly what to do.

During all this time, just beside us, one of the teams was changing the transmission on one of the Porsches.

ElChottStage8 Porche

This provided a lot of cinema for the other rally participants and locals alike.

ElChott2013 Stage8 Better than TV

After we ahd flushed all the lines with compressed air to clean out any blockages, we took the Tatra for a short test drive after dinner, but the problem persisted.

ElChott2013 Fuel Line Flush

There was no point in working all night since Stage 9 was almost entirely in the dunes, and we wouldn’t be able to drive it with our broken axle shaft anyway. We’d have the whole next day to continue our search to find and fix the problem. In the morning, we went to the starting line to take the minimum penalty and then went back to camp to continue working. We weren’t alone. Several other cars had left the starting line only to make a u-turn back to camp to make needed repairs.

We had few choices left: an air issue, a problem with the water separator or something more sinister in the engine that we probably wouldn’t be able to fix. We were starting to worry that the issue might be serious enough not just to prevent us from finishing the rally, but to cause problems on the drive home.

We started by opening the water separator.

ElChott2013 Water Separator

It was completely clogged with what looked like dirt. We had found the problem! We didn’t have a spare water separator so we rinsed it out several times with gas until it ran clear and then we flushed it with compressed air.

ElChott2013 Diesel Gunk

As soon as we put it back together, we went for a test drive. We had full power again! The problem was solved: either we had gotten bad diesel when we had refuelled in Kebili before reaching Douz and the problem had taken a few days to show up, or somehow something had gotten into our fuel since the rest day at Douz.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the means to empty over 500 litres of diesel and clean the fuel tanks, so we’d have to clean out the filter every night and hope that would be sufficient. Relieved that we’d found the problem, we set about preparing for the next day’s stage, excited once more to be ready not only to start, but to complete the Stage.

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El Chott 2013: Douz – Ksar Ghilane

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Stage 7 started in the Camel Stadium at Douz and took us back to Ksar Ghilane along stony tracks some of which were fast, but which were often covered by sandy dunes from the encroaching desert.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We had to leave the roadbook for a few kilometers to avoid a dune crossing that was too technical for us with our damaged axle shaft, but the piste was covered with sand in many places, and we had to find our way through some small dune fields around the Park Jebil.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We arrived at the finish in Ksar Ghilane in the second part of the afternoon in the late autumn sunshine. Despite the detour around the dunes, it had been a good day. We had driven as fast as we dared on the piste, but a few times the engine had lost power. When we got to camp, we made another general inspection and took a close look at the fuel filter. It didn’t seem too dirty, but we decided to change it anyway just in case, hoping that would fix the problem.

In hindsight, we should have done more tests, but we were tired, so we spent the rest of the afternoon getting settled in at the camp, where we’d stay for the next three nights and preparing for the next day’s stage, which was perfect for us since there were no dunes. We hoped to drive well to move up in the rankings.

At the driver’s briefing after dinner, the organization announced a number of changes to the roadbook because of road construction along the track, and we dutifully took note of the new directions. We went to sleep early to be well-rested for the coming day, but we didn’t suspect what lay ahead.

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El Chott 2013: Ksar Ghilane – Douz

ElChott2013 Stage 6 Starting Line

We were back in the rally at the start of Stage 6, but we couldn’t drive very fast to avoid further damage to our broken axle shaft. Without the front right wheel drive, we also had to avoid the high dune sections, taking the associated penalities. The piste was very fast, but it was covered with sand in many places, and the small hard dunes were quite effective “speed bumps.” We crossed a rather sparse dune field as the route led us farther south to Bir Aouine. From there, the road book indicated a short but difficult dune crossing, which we couldn’t attempt with our broken axle shaft, so we went around it, navigating by cap to pick up the road book on the other side.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Despite all the handicaps, we drove well, but we had to take the CP Exit at Ksar Ghilane because the road book led to Douz by way of the dunes. We took the road instead. All of this was too much for our mechanic, who couldn’t take any more and decided to leave the rally when we arrived in Douz, so from there on, it was just the two of us.

The following day, the rally had scheduled a “rest day” in Douz. We had a break in driving, but it would be a mistake to think we actually got much rest. In fact, we spent the better part of the day doing maintenance and making some minor repairs after 5 days of hard driving in the sands of Tunisia. It wasn’t difficult, but since our mechanic had left and there were just two of us to do everything, it took somewhat longer than it would have for a trained professional.

We made an overall inspection, paying careful attention to the broken axle shaft to make sure it wasn’t leaking anywhere. We checked the oil in the gearbox, transfer case and axles, cleaned out the air filters and cleaned and greased all the working parts. We also repaired the front grill, which had been broken in the dunes, to protect the radiator from damage by a flying stone for example.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We were lucky we didn’t have anything more serious to deal with, and at the end of the day, we made all the usual preparations for the next day’s stage: preparing the roadbook, filling up the Camelbaks with drinking water, checking all the navigation instruments and packing our “fast food” lunch boxes.

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El Chott 2013: Ksar Ghilane Stages 3-5

ElChott2013 Tatras

Stage 3 of the El Chott Rallye was a mix of piste and dunes. We were looking forward to getting our first experience driving the dunes with the Tatra. The stage started out well. We pulled over to let Kolomý pass and then headed behind him into the dunes.

The Tatra is a formidable vehicle in the dunes with the powerful V12 engine, the low gear and the CTIS, but it takes skill to operate everything and experience reading the dunes to find a good way through.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

At first it was almost easy, but as the dunes got progressively harder, it became more of a challenge.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We had to shovel a few times, along with many of the other participants. We were within a kilometer of the next way point when we had a serious problem; we broke the right front axle shaft. We were lucky that the break was inside the shaft, which meant that while the wheel was no longer being driven by the motor, we could still drive. The air for the CTIS passes through the shaft, so when it broke the air went out of the tire and it went flat and we weren’t able to inflate it normally. It came off the rim several times and we had to stop to put it back on and inflate it manually.

We didn’t expect to have this problem in our first rally, so we didn’t have a spare axle shaft. The dunes in Tunisia are difficult enough but when you have 10 tons and only 3-wheel drive it’s hard to avoid getting stuck. The wheel that was broken acted like an anchor, sinking into the sand and pulling us to the side. It was almost impossible to turn left when the sand was soft.

El Chott The Big One

With some expert advice from Wolfgang Adam and Karlheinz Muller, a few pulls from the MAN KAT service truck and a fair bit of shoveling, we managed to drive back to camp, arriving two days later, having missed stages 4 and 5. We were surprised to learn we hadn’t been the only ones to miss those days; several other participants had spent at least one night in the dunes, so we were still in the race!

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El Chott 2013: Tunis – Gafsa – Ksar Ghilane

The El Chott Sahara Rallye of Tunisia is known to European racing teams as one of the best training grounds for preparing the Dakar. The dunes of Tunisia are generally smaller than those of other off-road desert rallies, but they make up for their size with a level of difficulty that commands respect from even the most experienced teams.

We didn’t have the experience to make the comparison, but everyone we spoke with in the rally told us that these dunes were far more difficult that those of Morocco, or even the biggest dunes of Egypt or Libya. As one veteran told us, if you can drive the dunes here, the you’ll find the ones in the Dakar easier by comparison. It’s not surprising then that of the 30 vehicles in the rally, five were there in training for the Dakar.

This level of difficulty was a big challenge for our first rally, and we’d have to keep up the pace over the course of 12 days.

We didn’t have the means to bring our service truck and an assistance team, so that meant we had to drive carefully to avoid any accidents that we couldn’t repair on our own. It also meant that we’d have to do all the regular maintenance ourselves every evening in camp after the day’s stage.

It’s one thing to drive full throttle when you have experience and you know that you have the spare parts and a trained team to rebuild your vehicle every evening while you sleep, but it’s a completely different situation when you know you have only your own means to finish the rally and get home again. Our approach was thus much more like the early days of the Paris-Dakar than the current scene dominated by factory teams with unlimited budgets.

The ferry arrived in Tunis on Sunday Oct. 27th, and we started the 300 km liaison to Gafsa. Driving in Tunisia at night can be hazardous because you never know what you’ll find on the road. A Dakar driver told us this liaison would be more dangerous than any stage of the rally. The organization told us that we should not leave the route for any reason. It was under surveillance by the authorities due to recent unrest in the area.

We arrived at the Hotel Jugurtha Palace in Gafsa around midnight and took a few minutes to eat a very late dinner before going to bed. Our start time for the Prolog was around 10:30, but it was around 60 kilometers away and the show start from the hotel was at 8:00 so we had to leave early.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

El Chott 2013 Waiting To Start

El Chott 2013 Prolog

We started the Prolog just behind the Buggyra Tatra 815 of Martin Kolomý.

El Chott 2013 Kolomy Prolog

There were two special stages after the Prolog, the first one was mostly piste with a short section through a small rocky pass and the second one led through the dunes to Ksar Ghilane. We drove well in the Prolog and first stages, moving up several places in the ranking. A navigation error cost us time, but we learned that most of the others had gotten lost at the same point, so we were still doing well.

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

We started the second stage by mid-afternoon, and we reached the CP Exit in time to continue, but we were told it would be wise to take the stage exit because we’d surely finish the Special in the dunes at night. With ten days of rally ahead, we decided to follow the advice of the organization and continue by road. Our first experience in the dunes with the Tatra would be better during the daylight, and we’d have plenty of time for dunes in the days ahead.

We arrived a camp several hours after dark and took the time to inspect the truck and get something to eat before settling in. When the results were posted, we learned that we would be the 2nd truck to start Stage 3 the following morning. Kolomý had encountered a technical problem in the 1st special stage and hadn’t been able to start the 2nd stage in time.

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Home From El Chott 2013

IMG_3957 arrivee

Photo by Andreas Wulf and Anja Bork

The ferry from Tunis arrived yesterday afternoon in Genova, and we got in around 2 am after driving the 800 km home. We were pleased to receive an unexpected 2nd place in the truck category, after encountering and overcoming a number of problems in our first-ever rally, without any assistance except from the rally organization.

During the 2nd stage, our iPhone was broken when it few out of the pocket behind the navigator’s seat when we went over a hard bump. The screen was cracked and some windshield cleaner spilled on it causing a short-circuit. It’s been dead ever since, so there was no way to post news here or on Twitter during the event.

The El Chott Rallye was difficult, but it was a fantastic experience, so although we’re tired, we’re also happy and already starting to think about 2014. We’ve spent the day unpacking and doing some cleaning and maintenance on the Tatra, but we’re going through our photos and video and should have more information up soon.

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El Chott 2013: Waiting For The Ferry


The rally vehicles are waiting at the port. The Tombouctou Classic Rallye is leaving on the same ferry with us. There are a number of beautiful cars parked near us in line, like the Rothman Porsche 911 RS and a rare 1981 Jeep J10 pickup.

Apparently the boat will arrive an hour later than scheduled. We’ve completed most of the formalities and loaded our boxes onto the assistance truck for local transport in Tunisia. Now we just have a long wait for boarding to begin.

After we arrive in Tunis tomorrow, we’ll drive almost 400 km of liaison to Gafsa. We’ll check in from Tunisia as soon as we can.

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