Oued Rheris To Zagora

The most difficult part of the trip is always the drive back. The hours crawl by on the way to catch the ferry when you leave home at the start. Cruising along at the speed limit for trucks is an exercise in patience when spirits are high in anticipation of the coming adventure. In the opposite direction, when the daily routine awaits, the road requires even more discipline. The solitude of the highway in the wee hours is quickly dispelled in the dusky orange and turquoise hues of morning twilight. It almost doesn’t seem possible that the same sun also rises over the silent, empty sea of dunes that stretches from horizon to horizon. The news on the radio brings you sharply back into the world that is yours but which you only temporarily left behind.

A week ago when we stopped at dark to make camp in the Oued Rheris, we were in a different world. The labyrinth of scrub trees that effectively stymied us after nightfall proved much less difficult with a visual point of reference that came with the golden light of morning.

A short walk was all it took to find fresh tracks leading through and out of the dense shrubs. It almost didn’t seem possible that we had missed them in the dark. On further inspection, we realized that we had been only 20m away when we had turned around thinking we had reached a dead end. In any case, the tracks that were obvious by day may have been difficult to make out by night while navigating primarily by instrument and with little input concerning the actual state of the surrounding terrain. That method only works well when you don’t have any obstacles like trees, rocks or holes.



We used the handheld GPS again to save time finding our way out of the trees. When we were back on our way, it didn’t take long to reach Foum Mharech, where we stopped for tea on the terrace of the Riad Nomad with its elegant hedge of Oleander overlooking the immense valley below. 

Continuing our way to Zagora, we stopped in the plain to take a photo. Our hope was to get the same shot as in 2012, but we decided to avoid the middle part of the passage, which seemed to be soft from the recent rains. Getting stuck in the mud wasn’t in our plans for the day. 


Two years before, the Foum had been a dry, barren plain where the track had been fast as long as you kept a lookout out for the larger bumps and ruts. This year, we had to make our way more carefully.  We were amazed to see a few worked patches of soil that soon gave way to field after field, freshly tilled and ready for sowing wheat. The dry barren plain had been transformed by the rain into fertile farmland! We drove west toward Zagora, continuing on the narrow piste that at times closely hugged the base of the mountains to avoid ravaging the carefully prepared fields.

At Tafraoute du Sud, some locals came over to meet us. The crossing was not practicable they said, offering to lead us across over a “sure way.” A tractor about 50 meters away was heading over, we replied that if he could cross, we were sure we could too. Turning into the soft sand, we were hindered by all the children running beside and zig-zagging in front of us as we picked our way across. Some of them were very small and hard to see from inside the truck. We were afraid they might get hurt.

Once we were safely on the other side, we decided to stop for lunch at the auberge. Under a clear blue sky we shared the most delicious omelette Berbère in a setting as stunning as a tropical paradise in any tourist brochure. We talked a little with some locals and gave a man a lift to a nearby village in exchange for guiding us through the passable section of a muddy riverbed farther west. Several other tourists in 4×4’s took advantage of the opportunity to follow us through. The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. 

We arrived in Zagora by the wide well-leveled piste through the Tizi-n-Tafilalet. At the entrance to town, we checked into the Hotel Sirocco where we spent the night before heading over to Ali Racing the next morning for a check-over. We hadn’t had any mechanical problems, but we thought it was worth a look after three hard days off-road.

Christmas On The Piste

It’s easy to lose your sense of time on the piste, and difficult to find time to write. Check the ErgRacing Twitter feed in the right hand side-bar for the latest updates via Wifi or SMS. 

On Christmas morning, we were up to see the sun rising over the riverbed in a deep blue Moroccan sky. The warmth of the golden rays quickly dispelled the humidity that had settled during the night. Eager to head out, we took breakfast and broke camp quickly. 

The track we had chosen was varied. Within 30 minutes we had to navigate through a small swath of dunes. Later, we got a good taste of mud at a river crossing. We picked up part of the trail from the 2012 Rallye du Maroc along the cliffs, and through a narrow rocky pass. The steep winding piste had been thrilling but easy in the Jeep. The descent in the truck took significantly more skill, not to mention nerves of steel.

We managed to pick up and follow part of the rallye roadbook to the oasis where we had picnicked two years ago. The area had recently been flooded and the ground was still soft and muddy. The well where we had drawn water was filled with sand, and we could see they had since installed a pump. Later we learned from the locals that the drought had been severe for two years. The wells had dried up and they had dug deep in search of water. 


By this time the sun had set, but the ground was too soggy to make camp amongst the palms, so we decided to attempt the remaining 60 km to Merzouga. In addition to reduced visibility, unexpected obstacles make driving the piste risky at night, but we knew the route was relatively easy, and so we made our way cautiously, pulling into Merzouga around 7:30pm 

We took rooms with board at the Hotel Touareg, which has been renovated since our first visit in 2010. The rooms were comfortable, and it’s nice to wash away the sand under a warm shower and catch up on the news in the rest of the world via Wifi, but sometimes the simple comforts of the bivouac are just as enjoyable.

On Friday morning, we took the Scania for a short spin in the big dunes. After so much rain, the sand was hard and carried well. We didn’t have any trouble crossing some of the steep dunes near the edge of the Erg Chebi. Afterwards, we went to a nearby lake where we had been told we could see some pink flamingos. We observed a solitary representative of the flock we had been expecting, although we took some nice photos of the lake with the dunes as a backdrop. Look for them when we publish our photo gallery at the end of the trip.


By early afternoon, we headed south to Taouz, where we planned to pick up the piste to Zagora. We were anxious to return to Foun Mharech and stay the night at the Auberge Riad Nomad, if possible. 

On the outskirts of town, some local teenagers had gathered at the turn-off to the piste. They told us that the flooding had modified the tracks and that we wouldn’t be able to cross the river in the south, trying to convince us to go another way or take a guide since we “might get lost.” We thanked them for the information about the condition of the route, but explained that this was not our first time overlanding in this part of Morocco. 

We were not alone as we started on our way. Three Belgian MAN camper trucks had also set off along the same route. We stopped to picnic when we thought we were far enough from town to avoid been solicited, but a peddler passing on his mobilette arrived while we were eating and set up all his wares. He didn’t get any reward for his effort.

By early afternoon we were underway again but making slower progress than expected. We decided to take a shortcut and ended up on a dead-end piste in the mountains. Fortunately, we had a good vantage point to study the tracks in the valley below. With a little ingenuity, we managed to go down into a small ravine and follow the riverbed for about a kilometer to pick up the track again. We lost time, but we had come for the challenge. If we hadn’t found our way and had been forced to double-back, we probably wouldn’t have been as proud of ourselves. 

Having taken the northern pass where we had been told we would be able to cross the river, we thought the worst was behind us. Then about 25 km from Foum Mharech we came to an intersection. One piste continued straight while the other turned south. Arrows indicated Foum Mharech in several directions. We didn’t want to tempt fate by going too far south, so we took the piste toward the west. The track crossed two oueds, one after the other. Daylight was fading, and the traces disappeared as we came to the first Oued and realized the extent of the flood.

We picked up tracks again in the broad riverbed, one set seemed to lead south in the direction the water had flowed and the other west. The southern track looked better and we followed it for a little way hoping it would lead us to a good place to cross. After a while, with no obvious signs of crossing, we decided to double-back, worried that the fresh tracks would lead us too far south.

We turned west, but after a few hundred meters the traces of the track disappeared again. We decided to find our own way across as quickly as possible. The sun was setting and we wanted to be on safer ground to drive the last kilometers to Foum Mharech at night.

We didn’t have much trouble finding a good crossing point, but as we headed west in the fading light, we realized the second crossing would be harder. It was quite dark when we came to a line of trees growing along the river bank, which rose abruptly from the riverbed several meters below. 

It was too dark to find a crossing point in the truck. We thought of making camp for the night, but the Auberge was not much farther than 14 km away. After crossing, the route would be straightforward. We took the handheld GPS and went to scout by foot. After a while we found a good place to cross where the bank wasn’t as steep. Following the recorded track in the truck, we easily made our way down into the riverbed. 


The ground proved too soft to make it out the other side, however, so we drove upstream through the scrub in search of a passage. We soon found ourselves in a thicket and it was almost impossible to find our way out of the labyrinth in the dark. 

We made camp in a small clearing, where the ground was relatively flat. A few lights flickered in the valley not too far away, and we wondered if the Belgian group had also stopped nearby for the night. Although we were in the riverbed, the air seemed less damp than at our first bivouac on the plain to the north of Merzouga. We found enough dead branches to keep warm around the campfire. Finding our way out of the thicket would be easier by daylight.

Taking The Scania To Destination Extrême 4×4 Expo

Yesterday we went to Machilly, France for a fundraising dinner for Team Destination Extrême. In the afternoon they had a 4×4 Expo, so we decided to take the TGB 30. The temperatures were below freezing, and it snowed on and off for most of the day. Of course, -5°C is rather warm compared to the winter temperatures for which the Scania was designed.


Unfortunately, traffic was heavy because winter vacation started this weekend, and there was a traffic jam on the highway as cars full of families headed for the ski slopes. By the time we arrived, it was just before dark, and the expo was winding down. We had a cup of coffee and warm red wine before joining the small crowd inside for dinner.

For a few hours, we forgot the winter cold outside as we chatted with our friends and acquaintances about 4x4s and watched a short video from the Breslau Rally in Poland last July. We didn’t get home until 1:00am, but it we had a very nice evening and were happy we could go out to support our friends.

Exhibition Of Vehicles On Sunday July 1st In Bois D’Amont

On Sunday July 1st we’re bringing the Scania TGB 30 to the Concentration de véhicules (Exhibition of Vehicles) organized by Les Tracassins Haut Jurassiens in Bois d’Amont.

The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate, but if you’re in the area, stop by and say hello!

The Little Big Ones

Last month we spent a weekend in Salives near Dijon in Burgundy at Les P’tits Gros, an annual meeting of serious fans of offroad traveling. The meeting is organized by the founder of the Bernard Debucquoi Forum, an online forum for French-speakers interested in offroad travel in four-wheel drive vehicles and light trucks.

Around 100 vehicles participated in the weekend, of which about 30 were trucks.

It was a great opportunity to meet and exchange experiences, as well as spend some time driving on the offroad site.

For those without much experience or those who wanted to test the limits of their vehicles, it was an ideal situation, with so many experienced drivers and vehicles close by to lend a hand in case of trouble.

The TGB 30 is well-adapted for this kind of driving. Ours was the only vehicle to pass the optional part of the trial on Saturday, so we were declared the winner of the friendly competition.

We took a few pictures during the weekend,

Unfortunately, we didn’t get many pictures or videos of the trials, but thanks to Totof59, here’s a bonus YouTube video of the Scania during a part of it.

How to stop the TGB30 engine with a broom

When we arrived back at the workshop after making the video of the Gearbox ECU Override Unit, we had the misfortune of breaking the engine stop cable. Those of you who don’t have an TGB30 may not know that you don’t turn off the engine with the key, as you normally do with a car. Instead, you pull a lever that is connected to a cable to shut off the fuel supply to the engine.

So how do you stop the engine when the cable breaks? As you can see in the video, even though it’s less convenient than the cable, a broom handle does the job quite well!

Gearbox ECU Override Unit

Judging by the search terms leading to the blog, as well as the popularity of the post Diagnosing the Transmission Anomaly, many of you are interested in our experiences trouble-shooting the problems we had with the transmission before leaving for Tunisia.

This weekend, we had a chance to take the Scania (EM-1) out for a drive, and we filmed a short sequence demonstrating the switches we installed on the gearbox monitoring unit that enable us to manually force a gear change if the ECU fails to send a command to the gearbox. The switches are mounted in parallel to the ECU, so that we can engage a gear if the ECU fails to do so. However, if the ECU has engaged the gear, then the switch will have no effect.

Since we first encountered the transmission problems only a few weeks before our departure to Tunisia, we did not have time to find a more comprehensive solution before the trip. This unit was designed to be an emergency override to make sure that we would not remain stuck in the desert in case of an ECU failure. Driving for an extended period of time while manually changing gears using the switches would not be easy, but in an emergency, it would be feasible.

We are still working on a more permanent solution and are investigating both repairing the ECU and designing a new micro-controller to replace it.  We’ll post an update once we’ve made more progress.

Tunisia 2010: Day 1 — Departure for Marseille

During the last few days leading up to our trip to Tunisia we spent our evenings making final checks and preparations. A few days before departure we learned that due to unforeseen circumstances the assistance truck would not be making the trip, so we had to make some last minute rearrangements to carry all the necessary equipment and supplies securely in the truck bed.

Fully loaded truck bed

The bed is 2.5m long and 2.3m wide, but the auxiliary fuel tank, spare tire and refrigerator take up a significant amount of space. We had originally intended to place the refrigerator in the shelter, but it was too bulky to install there without significantly reducing the comfort of the sleeping arrangements. This limitation was not a problem according to our original plan. Even with three 25 liter cans for extra fluids (transmission fluid, engine coolant and oil for the axles), we had room for a quad that we had agreed to transport from France to the edge of the desert for one of the members of our group. There was just enough place in the bed to hold the quad and still have space to move around.

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Tunisia: September 2010

As the 2011 Dakar Rally winds down after the closing ceremony on Sunday, this seems like a good time to share some of our experiences from our trip to The Grand Erg Oriental in Tunisia last September. It was our first voyage with the Erg Machine, and our first experience in the desert.

We were thoroughly delighted at having chosen Tunisia to make our first trip and are looking forward to returning as soon as it is possible to do so. We found the country’s arid beauty absolutely breathtaking, and with a few exceptions, the people we met were friendly and helpful. We did not spend much time in any of the populated areas, but we noted a stark contrast between the atmosphere in the few towns and villages we visited and the camps and oases of the southern desert regions.

The caravan on the road between Matamata and Ksar Ghilane

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Holiday update

It’s busy here for the holidays, and things always seem to take more time than you think they will. We’ll be taking some time off before getting back to work in January to prepare the Erg Machine for another trip to the Sahara! If all goes well, we’re planning to go back in April, but we have a little maintenance to perform in addition to finishing the new microcontroller for the transmission.

We got some good news from the Tatra Factory just in time for Christmas: they’ve completed maintenance on the EM-2, and everything has been put back together! We’ll be going to the Czech Republic in a few weeks to pick it up once they’ve finished repainting it. We’re also putting together a series of posts describing the trip to Tunisia last September.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of the EM-1 and the EM-2 side-by-side in our workshop hangar not long before we took the EM-2 to Kopřivnice. The perspective is a little misleading, the dimensions of both trucks are almost identical.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday!