Morocco: On The Trail Of The Rally — Part 6 Around Zagora

The temperature at the bivouac near Tagounite was a little warmer than the previous nights, and we slept comfortably despite the faint noise of the generators powering the lights and power tools at the Africa Eco Race just over a kilometer away. At one point, the noise seemed to get a little louder and then sometime in the dark hours of the night we noticed that it had become much more quiet.

With the anticipation of seeing the departure at the starting line, we didn’t have trouble waking up early. It was still twilight, but we saw right away that the bivouac was gone. Only a few lights remained where before there had been a small city clustered around the grid laid out by the cars and their service teams as they had arrived and set up camp after the previous day’s stage.

The starting vehicles and some of the service teams were still in place, but the big tents had been torn down and the bivouac site was empty. The Orga had packed up moved during the night to set up the camp in Oued Draa at the end of Stage 3. We rolled up our sleeping material and folded the tent as quickly as possible (a 2-second Quechua always takes much longer to fold up than you think it will). As we were finishing breakfast, we heard the first of the motorcycles at the starting line. It was 7:30am, and they had started right on time.

We packed everything away, strapped down and locked the tool cases before hurrying over to the remains of the bivouac. The first cars and trucks were just getting ready to head over to the starting line. After talking with some of our friends, we followed Tomáš as he took his Tatra to the waiting area, and we set up to watch a little of the action (see photos here and here).

We stayed for an hour or so until most of the cars and trucks had started the Stage before heading into town to visit Ali’s garage. Once again, our minds and hearts were with the drivers on their way to Oued Draa, and we were somewhat wistful that our brief encounter with the Africa Eco Race was over.

The feeling didn’t last long. As we pulled up to Ali’s garage in Zagora, the first thing we noticed was a Renault Kerax assistance truck parked across the street. They had a broken turbo and had come to Ali to for help fixing it before continuing to Oued Draa. We didn’t know it yet but this would not be the last of the race we’d see during the day.




A few of the cars in our group needed repairs before starting back to Nador, and we decided it would be a good idea to have Ali’s mechanics check over all the cars to make sure there weren’t any hidden problems or damage after two days of driving on the dirt track in the traces of the rally. Our steering stabilizer was worn and had come loose so we asked them to remove it (we didn’t have any vibrations in the steering) and then to check over the suspension and chassis and give the joints a good dose of grease. They finished by giving the Jeep a good cleaning to remove most of the sand that had already infiltrated all the cracks and accumulated wherever it could.


We saw lots of interesting cars while we were waiting.


Not long after we arrived, a tow truck pulled in with a VW service car from the Africa Eco Race. The service team had been in an accident on the way to the next bivouac and one of the wheels had been torn off. We didn’t hear if anyone had been hurt.





After a shower, we headed into town for lunch and a little shopping. Later in the evening when we came back to get the car, we were surprised to see the Tatra Balai 2 sweeper truck. We had not seen it at the bivouac near Tagounite because it had gone into the dunes at the start of the second stage to pick up Luc and Marlene Vidal, who had a damaged suspension and were not able to continue the stage.





Unfortunately, the sweeper truck had not been able to find them until morning and they had slept in their Toyota HDJ 100 with an emergency blanket to keep warm when the temperatures fell below freezing overnight. The sweeper had located them soon after daylight and loaded their car for the day’s drive to Zagora where Ali would repair the suspension so they could continue to Dakar.





We left them at the garage around nightfall and wished them well as we headed out to a Berber camp in the dunes for our New Year’s dinner. That would be last we saw of the Africa Eco Race.

We had planned to spend New Year’s Eve in the dunes of Erg Chegaga, but since some of the cars weren’t up to the drive, we were lucky that we were able to share a camp just outside Zagora with another group. We spent a wonderful evening after dinner around the warmth of the bonfire talking, singing, and listening to the Berber musicians.


After the celebration, most of the group wanted to take it easy on New Year’s Day. We headed into town late in the morning and checked into the Hotel Sirocco around lunchtime. In the afternoon we decided to do some more training on the track of the Special Stage around Jbel Rhart. We got a late start, so we didn’t want to drive the entire stage, and we thought it would be fun to try to pick up the stage around the halfway point to practice finding the track as if we had been lost. Most of the others decided to stay in town, but one of the Hummers wanted to come with us.

There are many intersecting dirt tracks around Jbel Rhart and the afternoon practice was very instructive. We learned two very important lessons:

1. It can be almost impossible to pick up the route if you don’t know where you are. We weren’t lost, but trying to find the right track without having a known landmark or point can be almost impossible. We finally picked up the track in the roadbook near the end of the Stage, but had we been in the race, we would have probably missed some hidden checkpoints.

2. When an extremely dangerous situation is mentioned in the roadbook, if you haven’t seen it after a few hundred meters, don’t immediately assume you avoided it.

After about 20 km of navigation off track over land according to a heading, we were on the lookout for a deep ditch perpendicular to our direction of travel. After several hundred meters we didn’t see it, but ran across a smaller one. Assuming we had taken a different trajectory than mentioned in the road book, we thought we had simply missed it. We had not. At the last minute, we had to brake hard several hundred meters farther long the course to avoid hurtling straight into it. Afterwards, we realized that we had a problem with the sensor for the Terratrip and had been expecting the ditch at the wrong place.

We reached the end if the road book in the late afternoon around some small dunes southeast of Zagora and headed back to the hotel. Our group had been invited for dinner, and we had just enough time to clean up before heading back into town. The next day we’d begin the two-day drive back to Nador.

Read the next installment or go back to Part 1 and the post index.

Morocco: On The Trail Of The Rally — Part 5 Africa Eco Race Tagounite Photo Highlights

This is the fifth part of the series about our trip to Morocco and the second post with photos we took at the start of Stage 3 of the Africa Eco Race just outside the bivouac near Tagounite. The other photo post is devoted to trucks.

The buggy of Jean Louis Schlesser who won the race with co-pilot Cyril Esquirol.



This Porsche looks a lot like the Rothmans Porsche that Africa Eco Race organizer René Metge drove when he won the 1984 Paris-Dakar.





We said hello to Fabrice Della Barbera, who was racing his Polaris RZR. We first met him last March at the Tuareg Rallye.





The Wildcat of Yuriy Sazonov and Arslan Sakhimov from Kazakhstan.



Rumor has it that the Africe Eco Race organizers may be thinking about organizing a race in Kazakhstan.







For those of you interested in 4×4 truck campers, this one is from the Republic Czech. They were in Morocco and came by to support their compatriots in the race.






It wasn’t easy to get good photos or video of the start because it meant shooting into the glare of the rising sun. The press team had one thing we didn’t: a bag to protect the camera from the clouds of dust raised by the vehicles as they sped out into the desert.


Read the next installment or go back to Part 1 and the post index.

Morocco: On The Trail Of The Rally — Part 4 Africa Eco Race Tagounite, Trucks

We took a lot of pictures at the start of stage 3 of the Africa Eco Race. To reduce loading times, we decided to create a separate post for the truck photos.

We arrived as the trucks and cars were preparing to head over to the starting line just outside the bivouac at Tagounite. Tomas and Anton, the Tatra and Kamaz drivers, were comparing notes…



The teams had different ways of preparing their minds and bodies for the coming day.





We spotted the Kerax of Belgian Roland Hoebeke parked alone near the main tents. We didn’t learn until later that he had entered the race as a solo driver in the classic (raid) category.




Noel Essers getting ready to head out.



One of the sweeper trucks was parked at the bivouac.



As the trucks headed to the starting line, the service teams didn’t hang around to watch the action. They packed up and immediately set off for the long drive to the next bivouac.


The competitors waited in line to start according to the previous day’s ranking.








The Kamaz was the first to start,









As the last of the competitors started the course, the Tatra sweeper truck pulled out, ready to follow the racers through the desert to the next bivouac at Oued Draa.



Read the next installment or go back to Part 1 and the post index.

Morocco: On The Trail Of The Rally — Part 3 Merzouga To Tagounite

We had a relaxing morning at the Hotel Touareg. Some of the group needed to go into Merzouga for car repairs, so we took advantage of the sunny patio to enjoy breakfast and coffee before heading out to take a few spins in the dunes just a few kilometers away at the Erg Chebbi.






Afterwards, we were invited for tea at the home of one of the local residents in Merzouga. We stopped at the bakery for bread on the way out of town before starting the second leg of practice over land to Tagounite in the afternoon. We didn’t want to drive all the way to the start of the next stage near Erfoud, so we tried to locate a point on the map where we could pick up the route as it passed to the west of Merzouga on the way south. The tricky part was to find a known landmark in the road book so we could set the kilometrage on the rally computer without having GPS coordinates for the track.

We managed to locate a point near Rissani which seemed likely to correspond to a road crossing designated in the roadbook. After we found the track, we did a quick check of the Terratrip calibration to make sure it corresponded to the indications in the roadbook. It did, and we set out to cross the plain off road to the end of the stage near Nesrate several kilometers before Tagounite. We wanted to reach Tagounite by late afternoon on Sunday since the Africa Eco Race would set up a bivouac there. Since the Hummers hadn’t been prepared to drive very fast over the rough tracks, they took to the highway, and we agreed on a rendezvous to meet them in Tagounite on Sunday.

As we set off over land the track was fast with some sections requiring navigation according to the heading. There were many parallel and intersecting tracks so it was important to stay alert. After a passage between two mountains about an hour before sunset the track turned toward the west. We had the dust of the cars in front and the setting sun in our eyes so it was almost impossible to see the track. We had to slow down and move slightly off the track to leave some distance between our position and that of the cars in front. The car behind us did the same and after a while we lost sight of it. At that point, we slowed down even more to avoid losing anyone in the vast plain.

Around sunset, the track crossed a heavily travelled north-south route emerging from a passage between two mountain ridges. We were a little too close to the mountains compared to the indications from the roadbook, and we ran right into a field of deep hardened ruts in the sandy terrain near Foum Mharech perpendicular to our direction of travel. At the same time, we saw the lead cars had turned back and were coming towards us. Together we decided to follow the perpendicular track leading to the narrow passage between the two mountains, where we intended to make camp.

As we approached the pass, we noticed a small hotel, the Auberge Riad Nomad, perched on the western face of a small hill beside the passage. This address is worth noting if you are planning to be the in area: N30 44′ 42.4” W004 33′ 11.2.

The hotel was full; it had been completely rented by another group. We set up our tents behind the courtyard, and took advantage of the clean showers and other facilities. The owners were friendly and welcoming and the food was good (we had dinner and breakfast). We didn’t have any trouble getting to sleep despite the low roar of the seemingly endless line of trucks crossing thorough the passage below us overnight.






The following day was undoubtedly the best of the trip and was easily everyone’s favorite. Fast tracks and tricky navigation, dirt, rocks and the dreaded fech fech, we had it all. We saw some beautiful scenery and learned some important lessons for the rally too.

Foum Mharech

  1. Not every landmark is mentioned in the roadbook. Just because you see something that you think should be noted, but isn’t, it doesn’t mean you are off-track.
  2. The tracks change and the indications may not correspond exactly to the state of the route, especially when the roadbook has not been recently updated.
  3. Many landmarks look alike. The positions of trees, houses or even mountains can look very similar to the indications in the roadbook even when you are well and truly off-track.

As one of our friends told us, when you aren’t sure you’re on the right track, don’t always trust the car in front and don’t keep going in the hopes you will figure out where you are. You may get lucky, but there is every chance you will lose time if you don’t go back to the last place where you were sure you were on the right track to pick up the route from there.

Rally Piste


We also got an excellent introduction to the various conditions we can expect to see along a rally track. Just before lunch, several of us were caught by surprise in an area of fech fech despite the indications in the roadbook, and we had to get out the shovels. This was a lesson better learned during practice than during the rally.


Around mid-afternoon on a fast track near Nesrate we realized that we were on the same track as Stage 2 of the Africa Eco Race. Soon after we stopped by the side of the road Anton Shibalov passed by in his Kamaz, followed closely by the MAN of Elisabeth Jacinto. We didn’t know it yet, but they were among the leaders of the stage.





We waited while a few more vehicles passed and then for a long time, no one came so we headed out again, driving very fast in the direction of the finish line near Nesrate. We had to stop at a military checkpoint and while the police were filling out the paperwork, several more racers passed, including Miklos Kovacs driving his Scania and Tomáš Tomeček and Vojtěch Morávek in their Tatra 815-2.



A few minutes after Tomáš had passed, the officials told us we could get back on our way. After the military post, the route through the mountains was windy and narrow and we had to drive very slowly. After the pass the track was fast again, and we were roaring toward the finish line to get to the bivouac. We could see the line of dust stretching out in front of us as Tomáš was blazing the trail toward the finish line.


We accelerated and soon passed the buggy of Hubert Auriol, which was being towed by a car after having lost a wheel during the stage.

It wasn’t far to the finish line, but we had to get gas in town before heading out to the bivouac.


We stopped by briefly to say hello and found out that the first stage of the rally had been cancelled for the cars and trucks because of a late ferry arrival. More worrisome, Tomáš was having engine problems; a tank of badly filtered diesel was causing a loss of power. He had lost a lot of time on the day’s stage and his team would have to empty and clean the engine and all the tanks as best as they could overnight to get the Tatra up to full power for the next day’s Stage.









We left them to work and went to set up our bivouac a kilometer or so from the race, close enough to quickly get back and forth, but far enough away from the noise of the generators that were running until 3 or 4 in the morning.

After dinner we went back to the bivouac, where all the teams were busy doing maintenance and repairs following the first complete stage of the race.

The buggy of Jean Louis Schlesser:




We talked a little more with Tomáš.


Vojtěch was absorbed in preparing the navigation as we left the bivouac.


After all the excitement, it was hard to fall asleep, but we wanted to get up early in the morning to see the start of the race. As we waited for sleep to come, we could hear the sound of the generators in the distance reminding us that the rally never truly sleeps.

Read the next installment or go back to Part 1 and the post index.

Morocco: On The Trail Of The Rally — Part 1

The ferry from Nador arrived in Sète over 12 hours later than scheduled because of a delay refueling in Tangier. After five hours of driving, we arrived home safely with just enough time to unpack and unwind before heading back to work.

We spent nine days in Morocco and drove over 2,000 km, about 600-700 of which were off road on dirt tracks, dunes or over land. We had initially planned to take the Scania TGB 30, but to keep the group more homogenous and to economize for the upcoming rally we ended up taking our Jeep JK Wrangler, which turned out to be quite well-prepared for the rugged pistes of Morocco. In total we were 7 vehicles: 2 Jeeps, 2 Toyotas, 2 Hummers and a Landrover.

Our main objective was to experience driving on the dirt tracks. Since most of our desert driving has been in the dunes of Tunisia we wanted to get a better idea of what to expect on the tracks. We also wanted to practice navigation using some old road books one of our friends provided.

Map Xmax Morocco 2012

From Nador, we went south to Missour and Er-Rachidia on the highway before turning onto a dirt track that led us to the dunes of Erg Chebbi and Merzouga. After having a little fun driving in the dunes, from there we set off over land to Tagounite, following the rally roadbook closely for two days of good practicing. At Tagounite, we caught up with the Africa Eco Race, stopped to say hello to some of our friends and acquaintances taking part in the race and watched the start of the 3rd Stage.

Once the rally was on its way, we spent two days in Zagora, doing some maintenance on the cars (a few needed repairs) and passing the new year in the dunes in a Berber camp. We also got an interesting look behind-the-scenes of the rally. From Zagora it was a two-day drive back to Nador, with two short sections of dirt tracks (one with the Roadbook). We spent the night in Nador before boarding the ferry to Sète on Friday evening.

We took lots of photos and a few videos, although we forgot to mount the Contour until after we arrived in Zagora, so we don’t have much interesting on-board video. Except for the photos of the Africa Eco Race, there isn’t much about trucks, but since most of our trip was related to rallies and many of our readers may also be interested in reading about it, we’ll post a complete account here. To make it easier to digest, and more mobile-friendly, we’ll divide the posts into seven installments, which we’ll list below as each post goes up. The first installment should be up in the next day or two as soon as we get the photos transferred and processed.

Part 2: Dec. 27-28: Nador To Merzouga
Part 3: Dec. 29-30: Merzouga To Tagounite
Part 4: Africa Eco Race Tagounite, Trucks
Part 5: Africa Eco Race Tagounite, Photo Highlights
Part 6: Dec. 31 – Jan. 1: Around Zagora
Part 7: Jan. 2-3: Zagora to Nador

Africa Eco Race Tagounite

We caught the Africa Eco Race on Sunday afternoon as the competitors arrived at the bivouac near Tagounite.

We got lots of good photos at the bivouac and from the starting line of Stage 3, but since the disk on the ToughBook died the day before we left, we can’t transfer them off the memory card. We’ll get them up as soon as possible when we get home next week.

Africa Eco Race 2012: Saint Cyprien

We had a chance to spend a beautiful afternoon in Saint Cyprien-Plage on Tuesday at the departure assembly point and technical inspection for the Africa Eco Race. According to the announcer on the loudspeaker, 160 vehicles are registered in the race, counting heavy trucks, cars, side-by-side and motorcycles.

A selection of the best photos from the day follows.

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