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Moroccan Desert Outback Challenge

Posted in Events on October 1, 2008
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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.

The Outback Challenge Moroc, cousin to the well-known Australian Outback Challenge, drew from an international field of competitors: Spain, France, Italy, England, and Sweden, and one driver, Lawrie Sternbeck, flew in from Australia. To endure the next six days of competition, participants would need to tap every resource available: Navigation and orienteering, winching and mechanical ability, and basic desert survival skills. And because the premise is to have vehicles that are streetable but also able to function in a competition setting, the majority of the field was driving modified full-bodied factory 4x4s. Exceptions were two Tomcat buggies from England, one of which would take home top honors, and a tube-framed rock buggy that dropped out due to cooling-system issues.

Scrutineering rules and requirements were fairly straightforward and simple. Teams were required to have sand tracks, a winch and d-shackles, a rollcage, full harnesses and anti-ejection nets, a winching anchor, a tow strap, and so on. They were allowed to have a support crew for assistance, but the catch was that they could only receive help in certain sections or at the bivouac. Otherwise, they needed to be fully self-contained with food, water, fuel, and spare parts.

The daily routine went like this: At the drivers' meeting each morning, teams were given a map book containing GPS points and crucial navigation information. Some GPS checkpoints were attended by marshals, while other points were simply rocks painted in three colors coordinated to which teams were required to document the order of the colors. Teams would also receive information about overall team placement but not scores. In other words, no one knew the gap between first and last place. So the start of each day was a scramble to the finish, to win. And no one would know until the final night in Marrakech who would take home the gold.

When the dust settled at the end of each day (which was always well past dark), we'd traveled several hundred kilometers and our bivouac would be in a different place. The center of camp each night was the Outback Imports big Mercedes support truck. Equipped with a generator, welder, shop tools, and 360-degree floodlights, it was the hub of activity, and teams worked through the night repairing everything from broken differentials and axles to electrical and cooling issues. The truck even had a water tank for teams to get a cold shower if needed.

From the deserts of the Western Sahara near the Algerian border, our route book directed us south towards the palm-lined village of Mhamid. Mhamid is the end of the road, and it sees the last of the Draa River as it seeps into a vast expanse of sand dunes. Heading west on a narrow dirt track, we ascended from the valley floor into the Atlas Mountains. The rocky piste became an endless switchback to the heavens as we passed through the Berber villages of Agmour and Asarrakh, ancient encampments of mud and stone clinging to the mountainside. Young Berber women worked the terraced fields and collected spring water while the men sipped tea under shade trees or were called to pray beneath the minarets of century-old mosques. Setting our swags out each night reminded me that we were truly in the middle of nowhere. And because most villages in these regions receive electricity, if they have any at all, from a generator, when it shuts down at night, the only light for a several hundred kilometers is that from a billion stars.

Because the Outback Challenge Morocco is only three years old, it is still its infancy and is going through logistical growing pains. This is one of the reasons chasing the race became such an adventure. We media types were given the racers' map book and a military ration in the morning. We couldn't run the race route, and finding the special event stages before the racers arrived was a constant challenge. We were often late or in the completely wrong place. But as I like to say, "You're never lost, just exploring a bit." The race organizers are dedicated to clearing up these issues, setting the event up from a central bivouac, and making the Outback Challenge Morocco a world-class event. Major sponsors included ARB, BFGoodrich, and Warn Industries, and the race is organized by Outback Imports in France and Euro4x4parts 4x4. And with the Dakar rally cancelled this year and moving to South America next year, if the organizers can streamline the event, the Moroccan Outback Challenge may fill the void for North African 4x4 competitions.

Day One: 415 km, Nador to Djebel Klakh, Orienteering
Day Two: 340 km, Djebel Klakh to Boudenib: navigation, winch wall, rockcrawling course.
Day Three: 330 km, Boudenib to desert bivouac: navigation/orienteering
Day Four: 140 km, to Mhamid: Obstacles: Creek run, winch wall, navigation
Day Five: 210 km, Mhamid to Fourn-Zgata: 4-meter winch wall, navigation.
Day Six: 240 km, Fourn-Zgata to Taliouine: Two rockcrawling courses.
Day Seven: Two special sections and 200 km to Marakech

Due to the harsh conditions of North Africa and the knowledge that there would be a dozen special tasks set up by the officials, teams had a full array of additional equipment: Onboard GPS systems, long-range fuel cells, Hi-lift jacks, onboard air, and full racks of driving lights. As we might expect, all were running solid axles, most with modified factory configured aftermarket suspensions, a few with custom four-like setups. Tech information provided some interesting details of what the pros are using:

Lockers and axles: All teams were running front and rear lockers, of which 30 percent were factory units and an impressive 70 percent choosing ARB Air Lockers. Most axles were OEM units upgraded with Aschroft internals, with several teams running SpiderTrax 9-inch Ford and high-pinion Tera 60s.

Winch selection: All teams also utilized front and rear winches. It was no surprise that 85 percent selected the Warn 8274 for its speed, pulling power, and durability. Some were modified with twin motors and many were upgraded with Gigglepin internal gearing and shafts.

Tires and Wheels: Tire selection leaned towards the BFGoodrich Krawler and M/T (60 percent) with Interco, Maxxis, Simex, and Dunlop picking up the rest. Bead locks are a must for an event like this, and selections varied between Champion, Allied, Mach 5, and OEM units, with a large number of teams running Staun internal bead locks.

Under the Bonnet: With the exception of the buggies, teams were running slightly modified OEM mills, diesel outweighing gas by 10 to one. Gearboxes were mostly OEM, and all but one were manual transmissions and transfer cases.

Vehicle choices, as we might expect, was weighted towards Land Rovers, with a good showing for Nissan Patrols. The rest was a mix of Jeeps, Mercedes, and buggies.

Lights: Light Force claimed half the field with IPF, Warn, and PIAA picking up the rest.

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