2015 Maroc Challenge
2015 MAROC CHALLENGE
Desert winds don’t often blow consistently, or even in a single direction. Rather, they kick up suddenly and swirl, whipping sand wildly into the air in a frenzied, dusty torrent that rises 20 meters into the air like a column, just for a moment or two. Then something changes, and it subsides as quickly as it came, and all is calm for a few seconds before the process repeats somewhere else. It is a capricious wind, but oddly reliable in its own way. The unpredictability is the constant. The chaos of it is the only thing you can rely on. It is a microcosm of the Moroccan desert itself, where dirt trails are suddenly pocked with jagged shale, where mountains explode out of perfectly flat ground with such ferocity that their strata are pushed vertical, where ridges can inexplicably be full of perfectly smooth river stones, and where deep sand and “fesh-fesh” abound, like pools, ready to trap even the most prepared vehicles.
I heard my co-driver John shouting instructions over the roar of the engine, and I kept my attention forward on the surface, always scanning, trying to pick up the irregularities that signal the next hazard. We knew we were running behind, risking late penalties at the next checkpoint, still more than 100kms away, somewhere, in this godforsaken terrain, and the pressure was high to avoid them. A little voice in my head continually repeated the same phrase over and over again. “Keep pushing. Keep pushing. Keep pushing…”
Pushing hard is so vital in the Maroc Challenge that at times you think of little else. Although technically a rally and not a true off road race, it feels at most times far more like the latter than the former, and the challenges to stay on pace are withering. Like the wind, there is no consistency to the terrain, so developing a rhythm behind the wheel is virtually impossible. You are on the throttle and on the brakes often in the same instant, fighting the wheel and trying to maintain momentum, but also trying to read the surface and stay on course, conscious the whole time that breaking the car would be disastrous. And you must do this, day-in and day-out, for six, seven, eight… sometimes nine or even ten hours a day. Every day.
“We bear right through these dunes,” John said, “then it looks like a tight left around that crest and I think it straightens out after that.”
I gunned the big V8 and we surged forward through the dunes, with the steering suddenly light in the soft surface, and over the crest the road did indeed straighten out, but a series of deep washouts on the exit caused harsh bumps that pitched the back end of the vehicle up and brought sudden wheel spin before the Range Rover crashed back down onto the dirt again. On the second big bump, I saw out of the corner of my eye the battery light come on, and simultaneously felt the engine cut off and the vehicle slow quickly to a stop on the soft surface.
“The engine just quit,” I said, in the growing silence, trying to sound calm.
I went to restart, and the motor would fire heartily only to instantly die again. Crank, fire, die. Crank, fire, die. I tried a few more times with the exact same result, and sank back dejectedly in the seat, grabbing for a bottle of water.
We got out and looked around. Sahara sand doesn’t feel like a beach. It feels like brown talcum powder, and just sucks your foot down and inside. Everywhere we turned, the view was the same. Dead flat terrain with only some small dunes breaking up the surface for as far as the eye could see. Nothing in the distance. No trees or bushes. No planes overhead. No buildings or power lines. Not even any birds. Absolutely no signs of life anywhere. Not even a dust trail from another competitor. And perhaps strangest of all, no sound. Nothing. Just rocks and sand, extending off to the horizon in every direction. We were entirely alone, in the middle of the desert, with a broken car.
“Well… I suppose we’d better think of something,” John said, smiling. We crawled out and started unloading the tools.
NEVER HIT THE SPOT
This Maroc, our Maroc, was the eighth running of the event, and it is billed as something of an adventure rally. Not as serious as the far more famous Dakar rally (which was moved from Africa to South America some years ago, over increasing security concerns), but perhaps not that far removed from what the Dakar may have felt like in its very early years. 125 teams, comprised of all types of vehicles, but only those built in 1999 and earlier, charging across North Africa with only waypoints to guide them. There were old Toyota Land Cruisers entered this year, Nissan Patrols, series Land Rovers, and plenty of Jeeps. There were Mercedes-Benz G-wagens and Toyota pickups and Discoveries galore. But there were also small 4x4 passenger vehicles, like Fiat Pandas and Lada Rivas, and even a class for “turismos,” 2WD passengers cars, like Volkswagen Jettas and Peugeot 205’s, and there was even an old Renault 4, which proved to be almost everyone’s emotional favorite.
An event with Spanish organizers, the Maroc Challenge draws mostly Spanish teams, but perhaps 15% of the entries were from Portugal and another 15% from Italy, as well as a smattering of entries from the rest of Europe. A Finnish man driving a BMW powered Bertone Freeclimber, for example, and yours truly, the sole USA entrants. After a ceremonial start in La Nucia, a town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, all the teams made a long transit down to the port of Motril, for an overnight ferry to Melilla (a Spanish colony inside Morocco) and then to Nador.
Once into Morocco proper, the timed stages started in earnest, with the route taking us first from Nador to Ifrane, then the following day to Midelt, then stages to and around Erfoud, before finally making our way all the way down to Merzouga and Erg Chebbi, the “Gateway To The Sahara,” tucked just a few kilometers from the Algerian border. It was a route that would see us crossing passes more than 7200 feet high, navigating dense cedar forests full of monkeys, picking our way along rock-strewn trails hanging precariously off the sides of mountains, as well as many, many hours of hard running through desert sand, fesh-fesh, and hard pack.
Morocco is another world. A country of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable, populated by the most hospitable people imaginable. A combination that was perhaps necessary, particularly in the past, if people were to survive. Gas stations are rare, often many hundreds of kilometers apart, and hotels are virtually nonexistent off the beaten path. So it makes sense that, particularly in the south, where the traditions of the Berber and Touareg run deep, even the most passing of strangers invariably offer you a place to sleep and a meal. It’s a social dance, like any other, but it feels deeply sincere and I am convinced it is. It is not a place you want to break down, but there is a feeling that any Moroccan you meet would bend over backward to help you if you did.
Each vehicle is equipped with two devices - a buttonless, nondescript GPS tracking unit that continually records and transmits your speed and location (accurate to less than a tenth of a kph in speed and three meters in distance), and a second device called a “Spot,” with which you can call for help, no matter where you are, if things get truly dire. There is a button on the Spot to request mechanical assistance, another for medical help, and a third for “Extreme Emergency,” which, if your life were in jeopardy, would summon a Moroccan military helicopter to your aid. The Spot was certainly reassuring, blinking steadily away on the windshield throughout the event, but we came to view it as something of a “nuclear option,” and avoided it like the plague. There were a couple reasons for this. The first was that pushing any of the buttons on the spot came with substantial scoring penalties, and with the closeness of the competition, using it would have dropped us instantly out of whatever running we thought we were in. The second reason, however, was perhaps even more important, and evolved over the course of the week. Difficulties, often extreme difficulties, with the machinery and the terrain, are a big part of what makes the Maroc special. The Maroc Challenge is not a tour of Morocco. It is not a gentle stroll from one hotel to another. It is not a couple hours of driving on dirt roads followed by half a day spent shopping in the medinas. The Maroc is an adventure, writ large across North Africa at high speed, with long days pushing fast on truly savage terrain, and overcoming the difficulties you inevitably encounter is a part of the experience that no one should miss. A Fiat Panda was stuck in the sand for more than two hours once, and didn’t hit the Spot. A BMW cut three tires, and (carrying only two spares) limped more than 60 kilometers on a tortured rim, but didn’t hit the Spot. A Range Rover rolled over on one of the mountain stages. The drivers, unhurt, kicked out the broken windshield, a passing competitor pulled the vehicle upright with a tow strap, and they finished the stage, in the dark, faces brutalized from near freezing temperatures, but they never hit the Spot.
It’s in your brain somewhere. You never want to hit the Spot.
THE FASTEST CAR IN THE WORLD
Our vehicle was a 1989 Land Rover Range Rover, in 2-door form, with a 3.5L fuel injected petrol V8 and a 5-speed transmission. My co-driver, John Creevy, had broken away from his busy New Orleans law practice to come all the way to Spain to drive it with me, but as he would be arriving the day before the event and leaving the day after it ended, the preparation would be up to me. I had chosen the Range Rover somewhat by chance. Intending to use a Mercedes-Benz 300GD, I was looking for a good car last summer when I happened on the Range Rover up in Barcelona. I knew it was a good vehicle, but I bought it for export, to resell in the United States, and never intended to take it on the Maroc Challenge. On the drive home, though, halfway between Barcelona and Javea, I called my business partner Bill in the USA.
“Hey man,” I said nervously. “I have a problem. I don’t think I can sell this truck.”
It was just too wonderful, just too mechanically perfect. Everything just felt solid and new. I drive a lot of different vehicles, and it’s easy to see the good in most of them, but some of them just instantly become, well… a part of you, somehow. Right from minute one, this Range Rover didn’t feel like just another vehicle. It felt like my vehicle. Like we already had history together, somehow. It’s rare, but it happens. The Citroën 2CV I bought in Zaragoza was like that, and this Range Rover felt that way, too. I just couldn’t sell it.
Fortunately, Bill is good about such things. “It’s your money. If you like it, keep it.”
I called John in the USA, and told him the G-wagen was out and the Range Rover was in. “Hmmm. What tires does it have on it?” he asked.
“That’s the thing,” I replied. “It’s like fate. They’re brand new Pirelli Scorpion ATR’s.”
“Well, I guess an old British truck with Italian tires is better than the reverse. Let’s do it.”
Although vehicles for entry into the Maroc Challenge must have been first registered in 1999 or before, preparations beyond the base vehicle are fairly open. Some arrive very seriously prepared indeed, looking like full-blown raid trucks, ready for the Dakar. Others appear virtually stock. The Maroc Challenge is not an expensive event to enter, and one of the beauties is that it is within reach of pretty much anyone who wants to come. You don’t have to be rich or well connected to take a crack at it. All you have to do is pay a nominal entry fee and be able to book the ferries. Hotels are available, but many people camp throughout, sleeping in tents on the ground. Beyond those bare essentials, all you really need is an old vehicle. That said, the poorly prepared entries suffer, often rather famously, and I wanted to make sure the Range Rover would be in a condition as likely as possible to finish. “My primary goal,” I told John, “is to be able to drive back to Spain under our own power. Beyond that, we can talk about being competitive.”
The engine was solid as a rock, with good compression and power. The transmission and clutch were equally solid, so I contracted an English mechanic living in Javea, a man named Gavin, to look it over and help me prepare it. We fitted new “police spec” springs (with standard ride height) and Terra Firma dampers. All new suspension bushings, ball joints, tie rod ends, and steering arms. New brake pads and rotors, front and rear made sure the underside of the truck was pretty well brand new.
Next we fitted a light bar with high powered driving lamps, dual batteries, with a cutoff switch for a second one, and three additional power ports, giving us three in the front and two in the back of the truck. A full service, with new fluids, plugs, ignition wires and filters, meant the Range Rover was about as mechanically solid as it ever could be. I removed the rear seat and fitted an extra spare wheel and tire (giving us a total of two spares), a 20 liter jerry can for additional fuel, an onboard refrigerator, a pair of sand recovery tracks, a couple shovels, some tools, some basic camping gear, a spartan selection of spares, and a boatload of zip ties and duct tape. The goal was to travel light.
When it was ready, I called John. He figured we needed a name for the vehicle, and he thought maybe my youngest son should choose it. I called Mateo over, who had just turned four, and told him his charge. “It’s totally up to you,” I told him. “You can name the race car anything you want. What’s it going to be?”
He thought for a moment, and said: “The fastest car in the world.”
And with that, we were off.
THE TRACK GOES… WHERE?
It’s hard to describe the stages of the Maroc Challenge in a few words, except to say we were largely unprepared for the difficulty of the terrain. In our first day, with John driving and me navigating, we were flying along an indistinct dirt trail when I gave John the next instruction.
“It looks like in about 100 meters the track goes hard left. Like a 90 degree left turn.”
“Wait…” John said, confused. “This trail goes straight. Where am I supposed to turn left?”
“Right here,” I replied, now unsure of myself. “The track says we turn left right here.”
“That can’t be correct. There is nothing here. We’re not supposed to drive into that old dry creek bed, are we?”
Suffice to say we learned quickly, and the answer is yes, we were supposed to drive into that old dry creek bed. Over the next six days we would drive through and over things that I honestly didn’t think a Range Rover could drive through or over, and we did it at astonishing speeds. Huge rocks, logging roads with tree limbs across them, razor-sharp granite slices, washboard corrugations so brutal I think even walking on them would be difficult, deep sand, and more. We crossed meter-deep gullies, forded “sand seas,” and even did what amounted to some small scale rock crawling one time. The massive suspension travel of the Range Rover Classic, and the almost impossible strength of its frame, makes the truck so capable it’s truly jaw-dropping. John and I just kept shaking our heads over and over again, wondering out loud if there was anything it couldn’t do, and marveling at how, when the day ended and we got a chance to run on some tarmac, it felt as smooth and comfortable as when the day had started. No drama, no rattles, no vibration.
On the road, the Range Rover Classic feels like what you would expect. Tall, comfy, a little soft. Off road it takes on an altogether different personality, and really comes alive. I would have never guessed it, but the car feels fast off road, and nimble. You can rotate the car in soft surfaces using either the throttle or the brakes, and it’s astonishingly controllable, with excellent steering and intuitive dynamics.
Pushing hard through the rough stuff, John summed it up nicely, saying: “I never would have believed it, but this thing feels… fleet footed and agile out here. It doesn’t feel like a 4x4. It feels like a race car.”
We had our problems, to be sure. We got stuck in deep sand once. We suffered two punctures on stage which cost us some time, and the stock air filters get dirty quickly in the powdery sand, which we were forced to learn the hard way. We ran out of fuel once, in the middle of nowhere, at night, and although an impossibly kind and helpful Moroccan (I never saw any evidence that there are any other kind) helped us find gasoline, the gasoline he helped us find was contaminated with diesel, which fouled our spark plugs. All these foibles cost us precious time, and meant that when all was said and done, we finished the Maroc Challenge 18th in class out of 45 vehicles. Not miserable for a first attempt, but we had hoped for better, and felt our speed off road warranted a top ten finish, at least. We felt with no problems, we would have come sixth or seventh.
Such thoughts are foolish, though, because problems are part and parcel of the Maroc, and plenty of other competitors had them as well. The evenings, in the bivouac, are full of scenes of frantic and half-baked repairs. Flashlights and brazing rods light up the night, and tense diagnoses are offered in many different languages. These are desert repairs. Emergency repairs. Cobbling things together to keep running, and although the stress is high, the camaraderie is higher. Everyone pitches in to help everyone else, knowing it is the nature of esprit de corps, but also knowing they might be the ones needing help tomorrow, and no one wanting to kick karma in the teeth. Not here. Not in the desert.
Oh, and then we had the time the car quit running, and wouldn’t restart. We lost 45 minutes out there alone in the sand, checking relays, cleaning connections, changing parts. Maybe more like an hour. It turned out to be a faulty ignition switch, likely due to the dust or the vibration or both. A bodge repair of rubber bands allowed the car to restart and make it to the finish, but we were more than 30 minutes late to the final checkpoint, which cost us some places.
But we never hit the Spot.
17 vehicles beat us, but the Maroc Challenge didn’t, and sometimes, that’s all that matters.
(CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)
If you're interested in entering the 2016 Maroc Challenge, visit marocchallenge.es. The organizers offer rental vehicles - properly prepared Nissan Patrols - for a very reasonable cost, allowing you to fly in, drive, and fly home again.