Merzouga Rally – Can I actually do this?

By Joey Evans

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Merzouga Rally, Morocco, it sounded really cool and exotic. What an opportunity to be there and race it I thought. The reality hit home a few days before the start when suddenly all the excitement and hype turned into nerves and a general feeling of “what have I got myself in for?”, “what have I forgotten?” and “can I actually do this?”

Up to that point it had been all about flights, medical tests, international licences, transfers, booking iritracks, hotels, service packages and bike rentals. Now all that was about to turn into dunes, mountains, roadbooks, cap headings and triple cautions. It’s go time now! With my goal of racing in the Dakar Rally in January 2017, I needed to finish the Pro class to qualify and ensure my entry would be accepted. A lot was riding on this race and I could feel the pressure.

 

Vincent Crosbie from Botswana and I took a racing package with bike hire from Nomade Racing from France. We met up at OR Tambo and headed out to Frankfurt and on to Marrakesh. We arrived in Marrakesh to find our transfer wasn’t there. Vince and I sorted out our phones and managed to get hold of them after a while, and a couple hours later were on the road … on the scariest drive I’ve done in a long time.

We were picked up by Yusef and Mohammed in an old beat up Toyota Prado.  Yusef was driving and clearly had aspirations of being a WRC driver one day. The small issue of other drivers being on the road was not going to stand in the way of his glorious destiny. Mohammed for all I know was just there to fill the empty seat and jabbered away in Arabic on his cell phone most of the time. The road was really tight and narrow winding its way through the Atlas Mountains. Yusef was flat out passing on solid line blind corners, missing trucks and busses by millimetres and driving so close to the back of guys I could read the washing instructions on their shirts. The poor guys on scooters were scurrying to get out of his way. It was insane!

I was feeling seriously car sick no doubt the altitude and lack of sleep didn’t help. I went a nice light shade of green and we pulled over twice, but I somehow managed to keep the cookies in the jar. And so 30 hours of expected travel ended up closer to 35 and I only got about an hour and a half of sleep in 45 hours. And the rally hadn’t even started yet!

By no small miracle we arrived alive at the hotel in the pitch black at 1am, hit the sack and were gone in no time.

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The next morning we woke up to an incredibly beautiful Moroccan hotel right on the edge of the mighty Sahara Desert. The dunes are right outside the door and are massive. Some of the riders were testing bikes but we just took it easy as our team was only arriving later that night. We did meet up with Walter Terblanche another South African rider from Cape Town and his team, really cool guy and his team are awesome too. Their team has a great rig complete with aircon bedroom for the riders, fridge, freezer, washing machine, toilet, shower and all sorts of extras. I think I want one!

 

The teams all slowly started arriving as the day closed, setting up their trucks and pit awnings. Things were getting exciting! The Nomade team arrived just before dusk and I got my first glimpse of my race bike. The KTM 450 Rally Replica, a little intimidating to say the least.

 

The next day was filled with registration and scrutineering, and this was a big undertaking and very strict. You would move from one table to another getting all the clearance stamps and training classes on the ERTF GPS system as well as the safety tracking system. It took several hours to complete and was a lot to take in. Once the race started though I really realized how important all that safety stuff was!

 

The next day was the first day of six race days. They started out giving us a compulsory practice loop of about 45km to get the hang of the roadbook and equipment, then in the evening we had the first racing special to determine the starting order for the next day. It was a short loop through the desert dunes. I ended up about mid pack which suited my plans perfectly. Then it was riders briefing, collecting and marking our roadbooks, filling our camelbacks and trying to get some sleep.

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Following is my daily diary –

First stage

Today was the first real stage and it was super tough! There were lots of dunes and the navigation was on a whole new level to what I’ve done. They seldom send you on paths or tracks, it’s mostly just a compass heading and a distance. Naturally you can’t ride as the crow flies so you end up zigzagging through obstacles (dunes, dongas, washouts, etc) and so your distance is out as well. Really challenging.

 

I chose to ride it slower and navigate 100%. It worked well as I hit every waypoint today but tons of guys past me. A good strategy I think as 11 riders (of about 120 total) are out of the race already today. 5 of them with injuries. One guy on our team broke his shoulder and was airlifted. No one too serious but mostly broken bones.

 

I drank my full 3L camelback by the 60km mark with the next chance of a refill at the 120km checkpoint. I was super worried as it was 45C today and dehydration was a real concern. At about kilometre 70 there was another rider that had crashed and there were 2 choppers on the scene. Marc Coma was at the scene and I asked him for some water. They gave me another 3L and that really saved me. I carried even more the days after that.

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Later there were some really big dunes and I struggled in the midday sun. Man, it’s so difficult to see when it’s up or down or off camber. Everything is the same colour and it just blends in. I couldn’t even judge my speed!  I went over the top of one of the dunes and it was super soft, the front wheel just vanished and I went over the bars. Hit my head and rang my bell good and proper. After a few minutes I composed myself and managed to get the bike up and carried on. I had to pick the bike up a number of times in the dunes, it really drains you. I need to work on that big time. I dropped it once just as I got over the top of a dune. A rider behind me came over the blind rise and went right over my bike. It’s easy to see how quick you can get injured in these conditions. Just glad it wasn’t some crazy Russian in a truck!

 

I also stopped and helped riders twice that had run out of fuel. I had plenty and no one else was stopping so that cost me a bit of time and positions but I wasn’t fussed about. It helped me stay out of the red mist and focus on the finish.

The provisional results came out and I was 84th but then they posted the penalties for missing waypoints and I’d moved up to 70th. I was happy with that but I had taken big strain in the dunes and felt out of my depth. I could hear the voice of doubt creeping in and it took a lot to shut it up, stay positive and focus on the goal.

A finish today makes it a good day all in all but lots of lessons learnt and lots to still learn. Need to raise my game big time if Dakar is to be a reality.

 

Second stage

The second stage started with a 30km dune section. I was starting to get the hang of dunes a bit better now and thankfully was dropping the bike a lot less. The challenge was that you had to stand up get on the gas and ride them with purpose, hitting them at an angle and getting the speed at the top just perfect. This was worse than racing a sand motocross track and just sapped your energy. So I would ride hard for a couple km’s, stop on top of a dune for a few seconds, get my breath back and shake my arms out a couple times and go again. This worked well with less mistakes and so used much less energy. I came across another rider in the middle of the dunes that was struggling, he was vomiting and hadn’t even been able to get his helmet off in time, not pretty. I stayed with him for a minute ‘til he gave me the thumbs up and I was off. As a matter of interest he went on to finish the whole rally, these guys are tough! (They say strawberry yoghurt is good if you’re vomiting, it doesn’t stop it, just makes it taste better:)

 

The day was long and there were plenty dry riverbeds and smaller dunes, some were hard and others soft as powder. I hit one expecting to ride right over but my entire front wheel just disappeared and I did a perfect scorpion. I think I even had boot marks on the back of my helmet. I was in the sand and my bike perfectly upright with sand up to the top of the wheels. A fight to the death later and I had the bike out and on my way. While getting the bike out though I noticed my race number was coming off the side. It turned out my rear tank had a crack and was leaking petrol. I ran the back tank from then on to get the level low. I managed to nurse it through the day to the finish and cross off one more day.

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Third stage

Today was the start of the marathon stage. Two days sleeping in a remote location with no back up service. To top things off they didn’t have a spare rear tank so my mechanic had tried to fix it with putty and then duct tape. I could carry about 8 litres before it reached the hole and I had another 14 in the front so should be good. I think we both knew the patch wouldn’t last but it was the best of a bad situation.

That morning was very difficult to eat breakfast.  It was just before 5am and I knew I had to get it down as I needed the energy but I really fought each mouthful down. Then at first light I was racing again. There were a lot of broken dunes today the type where one side is very soft and near vertical, it made riding them very difficult and physically taxing. The day was a challenge and Walter had a big crash and was in survival mode so we hooked up together for a lot of the day. At one point my gps lit up with the arrow to the next waypoint and I followed it down a canyon until I was about 200m away only to realize it was just over the canyon wall in the next one over. I was tired and the thought of heading back out through the broken dunes again for a couple km’s to get to the next canyon over, was the last thing I wanted to do. I looked at the steep rocky wall and with a decent run up I knew I could get up. I started a run up but at the last minute pulled out. What am I thinking!! It was a massive risk I was taking and if I was just a meter short my bike would fall all the way down and be destroyed ending my race. So I put on my big girl pants and rode back through the dunes and to the next canyon over. Once I got there I realized even if I had made it up the other side that this side was a sheer cliff and I would have ended up there with no way down! Lesson learnt, don’t take unnecessary risks!

 

The weather was incredibly hot hitting 45C and the wind was blowing a massive sandstorm like a hair dryer in your face. There were already a couple of riders that had been airlifted and by the time I got to checkpoint 3 of 4 the race section had been neutralized. The riders before checkpoint 2 were sent on the road to the marathon bivouac but from 3 onwards we had to ride out the whole stage and the liaison. It worked out well though as I got plenty more navigation training in and it pushed me physically. I had a terrible nosebleed at the start of the liaison that just wouldn’t stop. I think I was just so hot. Eventually I rode on with a face plugged up with tissue.

 

I arrived back at the marathon bivouac at just before 8:30pm just in time for riders briefing. The final climb up to the bivouac was insane. A small track zigzagging its way up the sheer rock face up the Atlas Mountains, it was like something from those “world’s most dangerous roads” programs. The bivouac was spectacular with a massive tented camp set out with carpets all over. What a location, it felt incredible to be there, the kind of place that just feeds your soul. But I had a lot to do so I got about preparing my bike, eating supper, marking my roadbook and making all the changes, took a shower and off to bed by about 11pm.

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Stage Four

I woke up to find an extra rider in the tent who had arrived at nearly midnight. He was practically still in his kit. He had obviously just stumbled in and slept. Well it was 4:30 am and time to get up so up I got, forced down breakfast again, kitted up and was ready to go with 15 min before my start time. I just had to load my roadbook. I searched everywhere but it was nowhere to be found. “You’ve got to be kidding” I thought, I spent well over an hour on it the previous night! Eventually I accepted the fact it was gone and rushed to the organizers to beg for a new one. They issued me another but there were more than 20 changes that had to be made. I did as many as I could in the last 5 minutes I had. Shoved it in my bag and made my departure time. Once I had started I pulled over and loaded it all in and made the important changes from the photos I had taken on my phone from the competitors notice board. No time for highlighters today, I was off.

 

The day was a good one for me as I think I focused a lot more on the navigation knowing that my roadbook wasn’t marked up properly. I hit every waypoint in a section where guys were crisscrossing all over trying to get on the right track. Camel grass and I became better friends but fesh fesh and I still have some issues to sort out. At one of the check points where we got fuel I asked the guy to only add 2 litres in the back tank but before I realized he had filled it right to the top. The patch wasn’t leaking so I just rode on. However just a couple km’s later I could smell petrol and my leg kept spasming like it does when there is pain on the skin and then my leg started hurting something terrible. I stopped and my leg and boot were completely soaked in petrol as well as my whole seat, it was just trickling out the side of the tank now. I let it run out a bit on the side and then carried on making sure to stand the whole time. I got through the day despite a couple of hectic rocky climbs towards the end but my leg was pretty raw and all black from the colour of my pants. But the day was in the bag and the box ticked off so I didn’t mind.

 

Something that really struck me today was how the people live so simply, working their small patches of land and transporting their crops on small donkeys, living in small houses but somehow content with what they have. It certainly seems the better way to live.

 

Final day

Today was about 90km of liaison and a special that was basically a crazy mass start with 75km through the dunes. If you want to feel adrenalin then line up with 70 guys and stare at a 30 second board. It was awesome! The flare went off and the mayhem began. Just before the start an older rider from Austria said to me “you can die out there today, not much to gain and everything to lose”. He was right. I kept to the right of the main pack but saw some nasty spills and there were a number of guys that threw away a finish on the last day. One SSV had a big crash basically writing the vehicle off.

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I had a much better day in the dunes riding with more confidence. I would like to say I never dropped the bike but it happened about 5 or 6 times. There was one section where I was behind an SSV for a while and that was some of the best riding I’ve done in my life. Well up until one dune that had a nasty kink on the face up it. I was behind the SSV and we both ran out of momentum. We both stopped and he started coming down backwards right for me. I dived off to the side shouting for him to stop, he rode right over my wheels and got a bit tangled in my bike. Unable to communicate with the language barrier there was a lot of sign language to move back a little at a time while I dragged the bike out from under the car.  All good though no damage in the soft sand and after a big heave-ho the bike was up and I was off again.

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Words can’t describe how it felt coming down the final stretch and on to the podium with Marc Coma at the finish. This had been a crazy adventure and now I had secured my place at the 2017 Dakar Rally. I had goosebumps the size of sand dunes.

 

But only now the real hard work starts.

 

LET’S DO THIS!!!