By 2018 participant, Karen Ali
“I am thinking of organising a rally in the Moroccan desert to raise money for a children’s charity, what do you think?” asked Benedicte Clarkson as we were training for the breast cancer charity Moonwalk. “Sounds like an exciting way to support a charity” I said and then promptly forgot about it for a year or two. While I was busy doing other things Benedicte had successfully set up and run two successful rallies and then she persuaded my husband and I that it was time we manned up and took part.
It was late April and we’d be heading off to Marrakech in early May, did we have everything we needed? Compass, sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts, plenty of protein bars in case we got lost in the desert and sweets and pens for the children we would encounter in the desert. Yes we had the lot it was time to go.
Our first night was spent in a very comfortable hotel in Marrakech where we met our fellow rallyers, an assorted and very friendly bunch from all over the world including France, USA, Japan and the UK. Next morning we went out to survey our 4x4 vehicles that were awaiting us in an adjacent road. Our Mitsubishi looked as if it could handle itself in any terrain and we happily adorned it with our team number and the Rally Marrakech Sahara logo. Then it was time to drive up through the Atlas Mountains to the start of the rally in Erfoud, stopping for lunch on the way.
Rally day 1
Today the rally started but first we spent the morning being briefed on the rally and learning how to use the road book followed by practical training – we headed for the dunes to learn how to drive in the sand and tackle obstacles. My husband Firas and I took it in turns to rev up the engine and roar over the dunes, it was exhilarating and great fun.
Ready, Set, Go!
We all lined up in our 4x4s at the start of the rally and Benedicte raised her starter flag to wave us off car by car. We were off, Firas driving and me following our instructions in the road book, I could see the car that had set off before us and was sure they weren’t going the right way. We drove around slightly confused for a while at one point catching up with Bob and Mike who were equally confused.
We headed off again towards the mountain in the distance and then we spotted the finishing line and amazingly we were first!
It wasn’t all tough rallying, in the evenings we stayed at some fabulous hotels at the edge of the desert where we could swim, relax, eat glorious food and get to know all our fellow rallyers.
Rally day 2
Today I decided to drive which was interesting as not only have I been driving an automatic for the last 10 or so years but have never driven a 4x4 – a quick recap was needed. We set off with the rally photographer Steve sitting in the back and his GoPro attached to the dashboard to capture our every move. Well the first mistake was taking the road book instructions too literally and heading off the main track down steep inclines. “Slow down, you’re going too fast” shouted Firas as we clattered over bumps and dips, luckily Steve cut out the marital swearing from the final video.
We managed to get back on track and located the beautiful oasis where we were to have lunch – a fabulous meal cooked by the chef Yann and accompanied by a cool beer under the palm trees.
After lunch we set off again and then disaster struck, about 300 yards out from the oasis the car came to an abrupt halt. Puzzled we got out to see what the problem was, the sand was soft and fairly deep we must just be stuck. The two lovely French ladies Nathalie and Valerian came to our rescue with shovels to dig us out but despite our efforts no joy. The organiser’s mechanics truck pulled up with a tow rope which got us out of the sand but the car just wouldn’t start – what now? Well the poor mechanic and his mate worked on the car in the blazing hot sun for 2 hours but the 4x4 gears had gone, all we could do was stand around watching the passing camels. That night we had our first sand storm.
Hurray for Moroccan mechanics, they managed to get our car fixed overnight so that we could continue the rally today. Despite some good natured teasing from the American team – Lori and Kerry we set off with high hopes of regaining the ground we lost yesterday. Today was definitely tougher, at one point we needed to drive up a near vertical sandy hill and despite revving up we only got half way before we were stuck firmly in the sand. Once more the organisers came to the rescue with a towrope and got us unstuck and this time Firas put his foot right down and we roared to the top.
Getting stuck in the sand is definitely an occupational hazard on the rally and I think just about every team got stuck at least once somewhere along the line. We however did get a reputation for being accident prone when heading down a rocky hill we got firmly stuck on a bolder.
We weren’t the only ones having adventures that day; the other ladies team of Masuyo and Jennifer strayed off route and ended up being escorted back from the Algerian border by the Moroccan army! Tonight we would be camping out and to get there we followed the organiser’s car in convey up through the mountain on some tricky roads, I couldn’t bear to look out of my window at the sheer drop. We finally reached a point where one by one we would be driving down from the mountain via a steep sand dune, from here we could see our desert camp site, it was breathtaking. ‘Glamping’ is how I would describe it, the tents were luxurious with our beds set out on mattresses for comfort and a long dining table was laid out for our meal. That evening we sat round the campfire singing traditional Berber songs and looking up at the star filled sky. It was a night that I’ll never forget.
Day 4 – the final day of the rally
It was the last and probably the most challenging day of the rally, the roads got rocky and took us round some tricky mountain roads but by now we had learned to stick to the main route and drive slowly in the more difficult areas. All went well and we managed to get to the lunch location with no problems and after we set off on the final leg. We had only gone a short distance when we noticed all the other teams parked up near a checkpoint, once again we were too near a military zone and they weren’t letting us pass through. Eventually permission was granted and we continued on our route. As we neared the finish it became a bit like an episode of Wacky Races with Jennifer and Masuyo suddenly appearing from nowhere and overtaking us and other teams converging and racing towards the finishing line.
Benedicte waved us in with the flag as one by one we crossed the line and finished the rally. What a sense of achievement we felt, we had come a long way, overcome the many challenges and seen the beautiful sights of the Sahara. Everyone hugged and congratulated each other we had made it to the end! That night in the elegant hotel in Zagora we had a farewell meal and prize giving and danced the night away while the local band played.
We ended our trip with a couple of days in Marrakech visiting the Souk and the beautiful Yves St. Laurent gardens. It was sad to say goodbye to the good friends we had made on the rally but we’ll never forget this great adventure.
Nowadays, a lot of cars call themselves 4x4s. It is important before you go rallying in the desert to distinguish what is a “real” 4×4 from a SUV which can also function in 4 wheel drive, meaning that the power of the engine is distributed to all 4 wheels at the same time.
This is what Alain from Baroud Terre du Sud in Marrakech has to say : First of all, a proper all terrain vehicle must be extremely solid as it will be driven on difficult terrain. A 4×4 must be high enough in order to go relatively easily over rough terrain , which means that beyond having a high car body, it must have good attack angles to go up slopes and good outgoing angles in order not to drag the car bottom on the ground.
It must also have the compulsory differential locking in order to allow wheels on the same axle to work independently, something that is necessary when your wheels are bogged down (in sand or mud); also to overcome forces generated by the weight of the vehicle (rolling resistance), steep grades (gravity) and resistances created by material pushed by the tires (sand, mud, etc)– best combined under “Load”, the vehicle needs to generate sufficient torque by combining engine torque and adequate gear sets.
In order to generate torque, a counter force is needed: Traction. A proper 4×4 will provide a lot of traction to make the vehicle move in difficult terrain.
And last but not least, a powerful engine will be of great use enabling the driver to move forward softly in low rpm without having to press the accelerator to its max, something rather dangerous when you suddenly find yourself past the difficult zone.
As a competitor in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles Morocco and sleeping in a tent, I got to see one of the clearest skies ever, along with over 300 women and 400 journalists/mechanics/organisers, every night and every morning for 8 days. You’d think I’d get bored with it but I don’t. This is why, this time as an organiser, I was keen that participants in the Rally Marrakech Sahara spend 2 nights in a (comfortable) tent under this magnificent sky.
Most of us live in areas with high population density and light pollution which obstruct the natural starry sky.
The Arabs have been observing the stars above the desert for thousands of years. Many stars were named by Arabs who navigated in the “sea of sand” with the help of the stars. Almost every night in the desert the sky is so clear that you believe you were in space.
The first night is at Riad Zaid: we will sleep in Berber tents in Erg Ouzina and well be able to admire the sunset over the dunes. The second night is on a sandy peak looking out into a valley. It’s wild and magnificent.