April 24, 10:45 p.m., the middle of the eastern Moroccan desert: The sound of crumpling sheetmetal thundered through the cab as our roof-mounted IPF lights hit the tarmac, everything went black. My body slammed against the door when the driver side of our four-door Nissan Patrol 4x4 hit the ground and a swirling tornado of glass, dirt, and gravel came through the cab, peppering my face. I gripped the overhead handle like my life depended on it (and because there were no seatbelts for my seat, my life literally did depend on it). My head hit the roof as the vehicle flipped over again, coming to rest on the passenger side. Blood dripped from my forehead and leg on to a pile of bags and gear, under which lay French photographer Stephan. It took a few seconds to figure out which direction was up, and how to escape.
I had been looking over the driver's shoulder as we drove through the night chasing the Moroccan Outback Challenge, a multi-day off-road endurance contest in the deserts of eastern Morocco. On a straight road with an embankment on each side, I saw us drifting off the road. I knew we were in trouble, that this was going to be ugly. We were doing about 90 kph when we hit the embankment. My immediate thoughts, "I am not going to die in the middle of the Moroccan Desert-hang on, stay in the car."
As a journalist, covering an off-road race is always exciting. But covering an event like the Outback Challenge through 2,000 kilometers of Morocco's wildest backroads is an adventure in itself. We were three days into the six-day event and heading towards the night's bivouac, 200 kilometers south near a town called Zagora. Though my shoulder felt like it was broken, I managed to crawl out through the broken window and scramble onto the pavement. I could hear the vehicle behind us-another media team, braking hard as their headlights illuminated the cloud of dust still swirling through the night air. Three of us were out, but Stephan was still trapped in the car-unconscious and unresponsive. It took what seemed like forever to get to him, but when we did, he was coming to. A minute more and the four of us were out. Though banged up, bruised, and bleeding, we were alive, conscious, and had all our limbs intact.
Flash back five days, and we were in Sete, France, loading 40-plus vehicles below the decks of a ferry for the trip across the Mediterranean to Nador, Morocco, an international port busy and confusing with trucks, cars, mopeds, and hundreds of people jockeying for position to get though customs. Clearing passports and paperwork for our 86 people and vehicles took the better part of the morning. But by 1 p.m., we were staged in a dirt parking lot for the beginning of the race.
The first 250 kilometers were on public roads from Nador to the first checkpoint at Ain-Benimathar. For this reason, competitors were scored on a precise arrival time based on posted speed limits. From Ain-Benimathar, all bets were off with regard to speed, as teams disappeared into a cloud of dust in the desert. With the exception of one team that had mechanical issues within two kilometers, we would not see them until well after dark at the bivouac, 200 kilometers south at Djebel Klakh.
Morocco is the perfect setting for an event like the Outback Challenge. The region has been invaded and occupied by a dozen different countries and empires over the past 2,500 years, and has a reputation for tough and venerable people: The nomadic herdsman of the western Sahara, the Bedouin, and the resilient Berber of the Atlas Mountains. With its northern port of Tangier sitting strategically just a few kilometers from Europe, Morocco has sat at the crossroads of commerce and conflict since before Roman times. During our week in the Moroccan outback, we would meet the descendants of these hardy souls, sit cross-legged on wool mats sipping sweet mint tea, and dine on traditional Moroccan tajine, a fire-cooked stew of goat, potatoes, onion, and spices.