France, Morocco and Algeria
Story and photos by Nathan Hindman
We’ve been awake for two days straight. Of course, its hard to sleep when you’re strapped into a racing seat hurling across the Sahara desert at speeds in excess of 120 kph. We’ve crossed the Atlas Mountains in the dead of night with a vehicle with no working headlights, arriving at the event starting point with only minutes to spare. A quick shower, a coffee (to go), and we’re back at the starting line of a 250 mile battle across the barren terrain of southern Morocco and Algeria – and this is only the first day. At the finish line, fourteen hours later, we’re greeted with a stunning desert sunset, and one last navigation point, our campsite and resting point for the night.
Now, it’s nearly midnight and the GPS shows that camp is only a kilometer away. As we round the corner of a dune, the road disappears in the sand and darkness and in its place, seemingly insurmountable dunes tower up out of the night, each one taller than the last.
The siren call of camp taunts us from across the dunes. On the other side, a hot meal, a shower, and bed, await us at the Berber camp. After spending the last fourteen hours driving an insane blitzkrieg through rocky ravines, dried up oueds and steep mountain passes, it seems as though we will never make it to camp.
Another team of competitors hasn’t fared any better, their Land Rover Defender 90 is stuck atop a dune at a precarious angle. One wrong turn and their vehicle will tumble into the darkness below. Rounding the corner of a dune shortly thereafter, the driver’s side of our Land Cruiser catches the sand like a ramp and launches the driver’s side of the vehicle into the air, like a Hollywood cliché. As the vehicle hangs precariously in the air, my exhausted brain slowly wonders if this will be the end of the race for us.
Mention the name Outback Challenge to 4×4 enthusiasts in the know, and it conjures up images of built 4×4 vehicles battling it out in extreme conditions in the Australian bush. Over the past ten years, this event has become one of the premier off-road competitions in the world. Despite its level of hyper-competition and prestige, the cost and inconvenience of traveling half way around the world has made the prospect of competing in the Outback Challenge impossible for all but the most well-heeled competitors outside of Australia- until now.
Patrice Ryder, owner of Outback Imports in Avingnon, France, came up with a solution to this problem–If you can’t send the participants to the event, bring the event to the participants. Rather than offer a watered down version of the event, Ryder decided to hold the event in the only place that could rival the vast remoteness of the Australian Outback, the Sahara desert. With the help of former Outback Challenge Australia participants, and Sahara overland veterans, he set about creating what is sure to be the highlight of many off-road competitors calendars, the Outback Challenge Morocco.
Outback Challenge Morocco is structured similarly to its elder cousin on the other side of the world. The event is a six-day competition, with results being calculated based on cumulative scores from each days competitions. Each day’s format consists of a series of timed navigation challenges. At some of these waypoints, competitors are greeted with nothing but empty desert, some waypoints have check-ins with officials, while at other waypoints, the competitors are met with special tasks. These tasks vary in scope from winch challenges to technical driving courses to physical challenges.
14 vehicles showed up in the port city of Seté, France for the first running of Outback Challenge Maroc. A diverse group of teams gathered to load up on a ferryboat for the journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Algiers, Morocco. Competitors hailed from around the world including representatives from France, the USA, Canary Islands, Luxembourg and Belgium in vehicles equally varied–Toyota Land Cruisers, various Land Rovers, Nissan Patrols and even a Ford Ranger were all in attendance. Because of the danger involved in traveling through vast desert alone, vehicles were paired up into teams, each team consisted of two vehicles, two competitors per vehicle, making a total of four participants per team.
The US team consisted of me, Nathan Hindman as navigator, and Scott Brady of Expeditions West as the driver. We had the good fortune of being paired with two cousins, the driver, Nikolas Min hailed from Luxembourg, and his navigator Sébastien Robert from nearby Belgium in their well-built 73-series Land Cruiser.
Before even leaving French soil, the group was treated to its first African experience: our ferry boat, the ironically titled Marrakech Express, was running almost ten hours behind schedule. While this would merely be a minor setback for most tourists, for the Outback Challenge group, it was a serious problem. Once on Moroccan soil, the group’s first challenge was a non-timed non-escorted 12 hour drive across the length of the country, including crossing the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the largest desert in the world, and the starting gate for the first off-road stage. The ferry delay cut the time available to make the trip from 24 hours to 14… a narrow margin of error for vehicles built for off-road use, not high-speed tarmac racing. The hectic pace claimed one casualty immediately; the Canary Island team suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure on the transmission of their Nissan Terrano just miles outside the arrival city of Tangiers and they were forced to bow out of the event completely.
Our team suffered similar mechanical bad luck with Nicholas’ Land Cruiser sputtering to a halt en route. A quick diagnosis indicated battery failure. A replacement battery was installed and the Land Cruiser was back on the road in short order. Disaster struck later that night when the new battery failed high in the Atlas Mountains, indicating a more serious electrical problem. With no place nor parts with which to repair the vehicle, we were forced to keep driving, with Nicholas’ truck operating with out any electrical systems at all. Fortunately, the diesel engine required virtually no electrical power to keep running. They limped along behind us, with no working headlamps and only a tiny sliver of moon to help illuminate the winding mountain roads.
We found early morning help in a small village in the last mountains. As the local mosque’s morning call to prayer echoed across the still dark valley, we found a gas station attendant who took us to the house of a local mechanic. After being rousted from his slumber he sold us a pair of replacement batteries for the ailing Cruiser. The Land Cruiser now temporarily fixed, we raced the rising sun out of the mountains and to our rendezvous point on the edge of the Sahara. While most groups arrived at the hotel in time to get a couple of hours of quick sleep, our group hobbled in just minutes before the group was supposed to depart for the starting line. We had just enough time for a quick shower and gulp down a café au lait and inhale a croissant, before it was back on the road to the starting line in the nearby sand dunes.
At the starting line, each team was given a set of 20 coordinates that they had to navigate to throughout the course of the day. Teams were given ten minutes to enter the waypoints into their GPSs before the being sent off into the desert. As the green flag waved, the teams raced across the barren desert, engines howling and sand flying behind them, with nothing to guide them but a blip on their GPS screen, indicating a waypoint miles away in the expansive desert.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep from the night before, or perhaps it was being thrust into a marathon of driving after two leisurely days aboard a cruise ship crossing the Mediterranean, but this day’s race proved to be extremely grueling, as though set up by some disciple of the Marquis de Sadé. The first waypoint was right along a cliffs edge, come in from the wrong direction, and you’ve wasted a huge amount of time to fall 30 feet short of your goal.
For our team, we noticed that one waypoint lay just 30 meters away from one of the few paved roads in the area. According to the map, our next waypoint was 10 km away over rough terrain. But by driving up the road to a nearby village then down along an intersecting road, and we could end up only a few hundred meters away from the waypoint. Thinking that we were clever, we hurled down the highway, until we came upon a surprisingly large bustling town in the middle of the desert. Although our basemaps said there was a southbound highway out of town, we were not able to find it, and searching the town only got us into smaller and less traveled roads. 20 minutes later we were desperately seeking a way out of a maze of narrow alleys and ditches, barely wide enough for a single vehicle to pass. Never underestimate the value of a well-dispensed Euro– hopelessly lost, we gave an enthusiastic local youth on a bicycle a handful of coins and asked him to show us the way back to the highway. Just a few short minutes later, we were back on the main road, abandoning our original plan of making it through the city. Navigating around the town, we later discovered that the road we were seeking didn’t exist. Either they never got around to building it, or the desert had reclaimed it long ago, but in its place there was only sand and scrub just like any other patch of desert.
As the sun rose high into the sky, it caused temperatures to soar into triple digits eroding the energy of all competitors. Although the remainder of the route stayed far away from the lure of roads and infrastructure, they were no less challenging to find. The route took competitors over passes and into valleys through dried riverbeds, into steep scenic canyons, across unforgiving boulder strewn trails and atop tall monolithic sand dunes rising up out of the landscape. In all, the route covered nearly 400 km of unforgiving desert and crisscrossing the border of Morocco and Algeria. At the end of the route, the first teams to arrive crossed the finish line just as the sun was setting below the horizon. What started off as a challenging route-finding exercise in daylight became an exponentially more difficult in the approaching darkness.
At the finish line, competitors were simply given a congratulations and a tulip chart to the basecamp for the week, a Berber camp set up on the edge of a dune sea near the town of M’hamid, almost 75 miles away. Utterly exhausted, the teams trudged on, encouraged only by the fact that each mile brought them just a little bit closer to a well-earned rest.
Unfortunately, the directions to camp didn’t take into account the constantly shifting dunes of the Sahara. What had been a clear path through the dunes for the pre-scout team two weeks ago, had become an obscure, easily overlooked route in the dark of night. So there we were just a kilometer away from camp, in the middle of the night, with insurmountable dunes between us and a hot meal, shower and bed.
Utterly exhausted, we got on the radio and called the event marshals with our GPS waypoints and asked for a little help. Twenty minutes later, a welcome sight of headlights shone straight up into the sky as a support vehicle crested the top of a nearby dune towards us. On the way back to camp we crossed paths with other teams who had fared no better, including the aforementioned Defender who was not only lost, but was also listing dangerously on the side of a dune.
The next morning, those groups who were lucky enough to make it to camp awoke slightly rested and ready for the second day’s events. Some groups however, were not as lucky. One group was stuck out in the mountains all night fixing a bent axle housing on a Jeep Cherokee, another French team spent the majority of the night trying to repair a bent control arm on the IFS of their Ford Ranger. The delays in arriving the previous night meant that the starting time was delayed until mid-morning.
Once all of the teams were present and accounted for, another set of navigation waypoints were handed out to all teams. The challenge for the day straightforward, all teams were to be stagger started, the task was to visit all of navigation points given in the least amount of time possible, but an assurance that there would be no special tasks for the day. Team Sydney, a French team consisting of a Ford Ranger and Nissan Patrol was the first off the starting line. Their progress was immediately halted as the Patrol got high centered atop a sand dune less than 20 meters from the starting line. Our team, Team Alice Springs, was next up, we wisely decided to drive parallel to the dune and find a way around it. Since the first way point was 10 km away, we decided a 100m detour was well worth the effort. Approaching the first waypoint, a glance to the rear view mirror revealed a line of competitors following behind us turn for turn, including the ill-fated Team Sydney. By the second waypoint it became obvious that they intended to simply let our team do the route-finding.
By the third waypoint, it was unofficially decided that we would all travel together at a reasonable pace, and enjoy the fantastic scenery of the Sahara. What started off as another day of racing across the desert, became a fun trail ride where everyone collectively helped each other through obstacles, get unstuck, and even lent a helping hand in the changing of a flat tire. At the end of the day, all of the vehicles came back in to the finish line at the Berber camp at the same time, making it effectively a tie for the second stage.
Whatever good feelings and familiarity the second day’s events created amongst competitors, it did nothing to diminish the spirit of competition the next morning. As the blistering sun rose over the dunes, the cool of night was replaced by sweltering desert heat. The first task of the day was a special stage consisting of a timed run through a closed-course track in some nearby dunes. Just before the end of the course, there was an optional hill climb up a steep soft sand dune. If the vehicle could make it up the hill, and through the top exit gate in the time allowed, they would receive a time bonus of 1 hour off their cumulative time for the event. However, if they failed to make it out either gate before the maximum time allowed they would receive a DNF and a 2-hour time penalty. Every vehicle attempted the optional hill climb, all coming deceivingly close to finishing. With each successive attempt, the hill became more rutted and more difficult, until it seemed no one would succeed. However, Team Luxembourg, screamed up the hill in their BZJ 73 Land Cruiser, easily exiting through the gate on their first attempt. Next up was Team USA, in our PZJ73. Although we were stopped short on the first two attempts, driver Scott Brady wound up the engine on the third attempt with tires spinning and engine howling. We blasted through the gate, netting a second one hour time bonus for our team.
Despite the valiant efforts of a number of other teams, no one else was able to successfully finish the optional climb. The closest to do so was Team Darwin in their Land Rover Defender 110. The vehicle’s front axle crested the hill, but it became high centered. Despite a desperate attempt to finish in time, they valiantly dug through the hill in hopes of winching through the finish line. Sadly, the rear of the truck was just inches short of clearing the gate when time expired.
After the closed course challenge, all of the competitors got in line behind a one of the event marshals and convoyed to the next special task of the day, the winch challenge. For this task, both vehicles were placed at the edge of a steep loose slope. One vehicle from each team was used as an anchor point to winch the other vehicle down the slope. Once at the bottom of the hill the descending vehicle had to cross a line, then turn around and be winched back up the slope. The steep incline and loose soil increased the load on the winches exponentially, testing them to their limits. At the end of the event, our team, Team Alice Springs finished in first place, helped out by a hybrid Warn 8274-50, a winch reknown as a legendary workhorse. All of the other teams finished within the time allowed except for Team Canberra who’s winch overheated while bringing their Land Rover Discovery II up the steep slope.
Once all of the vehicles were back on flat ground, the group carvaned across the barren landscape to another special task. The next event was a timed run on a closed course through sand dunes. While the morning course was a relatively slow and technical course, the afternoon course was just the opposite. Its open design lent itself to high-speed romps around and over the dunes, with competitors rarely having all four wheels on the ground. While there was a slim difference between first and last place times, Team Darwin put on an impressive display flying through the finish line with the fastest time.
However, before any of the vehicles entered the starting gate, a surprise task was given. Event Marshalls went around marking two tires on each of the vehicles. The teams were told to switch the positions of the two marked tires, with completion coming when the tires were swapped and all of the gear was back in the vehicles. With no time to prepare, all of the teams were a flurry of activity. Doors were flung open, wrenches dug out from under piles of gear, Hi-Lifts un-strapped from roof racks. It was tire-changing chaos. In the end, I couldn’t honestly say who came in first place. I only know that Team Alice Springs came in last place after an unfortunate jack failure.
After these two special tasks the group convoyed to yet another challenge. The task of this challenge was to drive 4×4 as far up the hill as possible, with a minimal running start. Final placement was to be determined by distance traveled up the hill. This idea was thwarted however, when the third vehicle, Team Canberra’s Land Rover Defender 90, chose a brilliant zig zag path up the hill scrambling to the top like a metallic mountain goat. Capitalizing on their routefinding, all of the successive competitors followed Canberra’s path to the top, effectively making the task an across the board tie.
After the hill climb, teams were given another set of navigation points, a starting time, and sent off into the desert. This stage went off without incident, with all of the teams blazing across the desert, through oueds and around dunes as they saw fit. Just a few kilometers before the finish line, three teams that had been running parallel to each other but via different routes suddenly emerged simultaneously from the dunes driving side by side. Recognizing the three-way race to the finish, all of the teams mashed down the accellerators and took off across the desert. Driving around and over dunes, jumping ledges at top speed, all three groups reached the finish line within seconds of each other. Although Team Darwin arrived just ahead of the others, due to a navigational mistake they missed the finish line, and Team Alice Springs was the first team through the gate. Back at camp, teams tried to rest up after a long day of challenges, and celebrated completion of the halfway point of the grueling Outback Challenge.
Day 4 began with another set of navigation points, and another race across the desert. However, the fourth nav point yielded an unexpected surprise- the long rumored and highly anticipated Cliffhanger special task. This signature trial of the Outback Challenge consists of driving the vehicles up and then back down a 4-meter high sheer cliff in the shortest time possible. In order to accomplish this, teams need to build a route up the cliff by digging away at the top of the cliff and building up a ramp at the base of the vertical incline. While a challenging exercise under ideal conditions, the task was grueling for competitors in the oppressive heat of the mid-day Saharan sun. By end of the time allowed, only half of the competitors had successfully completed the task, Our team, Alice Springs finished in first place, largely due to a Herculean digging effort on the part of Sébastien Robert and an incredible driving maneuver by Scott Brady, who recovered the vehicle from an almost certain rollover on the way back down the slope.
At the end of the Cliffhanger, teams were given new starting times and told to continue on the navigation course laid out earlier in the day. The second stage proved to be one of the most grueling sections of the entire event. The waypoints took the competitors through arduous terrain filled with paint scratching dead trees and rough pockmarked earth that resembled a bombed out moon. Progress was slow and difficult, with one stretch of the route proving to be extremely punishing on vehicle tires, causing numerous punctures in a short distance. Team Canberra suffered the worst- one of their vehicles had three punctures within a mile. In fact, the only vehicle to get by without a puncture was our PZJ73, due in no small part to its kevlar-lined BFGoodrich Baja T/A race tires.
At the last waypoint on the navigation route, teams were greeted with another special task. This closed course snaked back and forth through a dry riverbed. The marshals staked out a sadistic route back and forth through the steep slopes of the riverbed, making it some of the most technical driving of the entire event. Through random selection, Team Alice Springs was the first to attempt the course. By this point, we had a commanding lead over the other teams. We figured out that as long as we just completed all of the remaining events of the Challenge we would have clinched a first place finish. As a result, we decided to take a slow safe pace through the course, ensuring that we would finish without damaging or breaking the vehicle and hinder our chances for the remaining two days. As such, we finished in just over 20 minutes. Other teams, fiercely competing for 2nd, and 3rd place took a much more aggressive approach to the course. The most impressive by far was the Land Rovers of Team Canberra. Their large Discovery II finished the course in about 8 minutes, but crossed the finish line a number of new scrapes and large dents to show for it. Their smaller and more nimble Td5 powered Defender 90 drove the course like a bat out of hell; incredibly they finished the course in under 4 minutes, by far the first place performance. Once finished with this route, competitors were given an all too familiar set of navigation points and yet another timed race across the desert began. With the sun rapidly setting behind us, the teams raced to make it back to the finish line and the Berber camp before darkness set in. Our team tried to approach the finish line through a set of tall dunes to the north of the camp. However, just under 2 km away from camp, the sun sank below the horizon, making the navigation through the dunes neigh impossible, as well as very dangerous. We retreated back out of the dunes and were forced to find an alternate route around them, delaying our arrival at the finish line by over an hour, but still giving us a somewhat respectable finishing time.
During the night, a storm blew in and brought with it a rare desert experience–rain. Although the arid terrain had soaked up any remnants of moisture by morning, it was nonetheless an invigorating experience. The roof of the Berber tents was made of a fabric resembling a loose burlap knit. The open fabric allowed the rain to pass straight through, misting us in our beds and making a welcome respite from the past few days of oppressive heat.
Teams awoke the next morning excited for what was supposed to be the last day of competition. After a event briefing, a set of navigation points were handed out to all of the competitors and the race began again. Teams raced through the nearby town of M’hamid, and into the dunes to the south. Team Alice Springs rocketed ahead of the pack, but suffered a mechanical issue shortly before reaching waypoint #6. Team Luxembourg’s truck began to overheat and a quick glance under the hood showed that it was leaking a significant amount of coolant. Rather than doing a field fix, we topped the coolant tank off with water, hooked a tow strap up to the truck and towed it to the next waypoint, which was listed as a special task. At the waypoint, Sébastien and Scott performed the task, a half-mile run on foot to retrieve the next set of waypoints. Meanwhile, Nikolas and I stayed back and tried to repair his Land Cruiser. The source of the leak was obvious upon inspection – the engine fan belt had rubbed a hole in one of the hoses, near the end of the hose. Luckily, after cutting out the broken section of hose, there was just enough left over to connect the radiator, meaning the vehicle could continue to compete. Although the team was hindered by the breakdown, the special task absorbed some of the delay, and we were able to start the next section of the race less than half an hour behind the other of the competitors.
The next set of nav points took the racers almost 25 km to the east through some imposing looking sand dunes. Our team took a logistical risk and drove north to find a way around the dunes. This risk paid off when we stumbled across a high-speed piste that allowed us to drive much of the route at speeds in excess of 90 kph. The route took us up to a paved road and then another high speed piste directly to the next nav point. In all we made up a huge amount of time, arriving at the finish line just minutes after the other teams.
The finish line was located at a desert oasis. A technical course was set up around the watering hole. One set of gate flags was located in the middle of the water, making it obvious what the purpose of the special task would be. The closed course consisted of driving through the deepest part of the watering hole, through a marsh section at the far end, and up and through a rocky outcropping, and across the finish line. The first team entered the watering hole with considerable apprehension, a feeling amplified when the water came up over the headlights of their Nissan Patrol. Team Darwin broke a track rod on their Patrol, rendering it unable to complete the task. However, in an impressive display of trail preparedness, they pulled out an on-board welder and were able to fabricate a makeshift part by the time the rest of the competitors had completed the task.
Before half of the competitors had completed the task, a massive dust storm blew in reducing visibility to less than 100 meters. After the task was over, the event marshals decided to cancel the rest of the days events due to safety concerns. Instead, the entire group drove back in convoy fashion to the Berber camp. All of the competitiors and marshalls spent the rest of the day in a large communal tent passing the time by drinking a copious amount of alcohol. The celebration began with the presentation of 6 bottles of Moroccan red wine, which somehow multiplied into 12, then 15 then 18 bottles. Team Darwin brought out a jerry can full of Pastis, the unofficial “liquor of the South of France” as we were told. By the end of the night, its fair to say that most of the competitors were well lubricated, turning the attempt at passing of time into a pre-emptive celebration of completing the Outback Challenge.
The next morning, all of the competitors trudged out of bed, some much worse for wear from the last night’s celebration. Although the dust storm was still blowing hard, and visibility continued to be poor, officials decided to attempt to hold the last special task of the Challenge. Once the group got away from the heart of the sand dunes, the blowing wind stopped and visibility returned to normal. The final special stage of the event turned out to be a rock-crawling challenge. While rock crawling proved to be an exotic challenge for many of the competitors, it proved to be a straightforward task for Team USA. The rock-strewn gulley that they chose was very similar in terrain to the type of trails that driver Scott Brady and I drive on year in and year out back home in Arizona and Colorado respectively. We drove safely and conservatively through the course, not wanting to break anything in the last event. As a result, we finished with a competitive time, placing Team Alice Springs in the middle of the pack for the task. Like a repeat of the gulley challenge of two days ago, Team Canberra barreled through the stage, helped by a heavy right foot by the driver of their Defender 90, finishing at the top of the pack for that task.
Once the special task was finished, the group convoyed back to the Berber camp where the final results of the event were to be tallied and announced. Perhaps it was the excitement of having completed the event, or the palpable testosterone in the air, but on the return trip, the group fanned out across the desert, driving the dunes and pistes Baja race style. Many drivers took the chance to show off for their fellow racers, launching their trucks over dunes, and whipping around corners at high-speed.
Back at the camp, groups packed up their gear and prepared for the long drive back to the Tangiers. Before leaving though, the final results were announced- the First place trophy was given to our team, Team Alice Springs. Second place overall was awarded to Team Brisbane in their Nissan Patrols. The third place trophy was given out to Team Canberra in their Land Rover Discovery and Defender 90. Hearty congratulations were given all around, followed by the obligatory champagne by the champions. Celebrations were short lived however, as the group packed up their gear to begin the long trek back home.