The Sahara Challenge 2015

Madrid to Marrakesh - October 5-14, 2015

Day 5 - Ifrane to Erfoud

On top of the world.

“We're loving it. We just came for the experience. We're total rookies. You could come here in a Range Rover and drive the same roads but it just wouldn't be the same. Being in a classic car…..  there's more of a connection with the country and the people.”  Jo Robillard. Chevy Coupe.

So as today dawned we began the difficult process of dragging ourselves out of the five star bosom of the Michlifen Suites & Spa to begin the journey to the desert. Breakfast was every bit as good as last night’s dinner although there was no cabaret which gave us a chance to chat and, Luc Maruenda – Jaguar XK150 – spoke to us briefly over a mint tea and a muffin and reported that whilst he’d had a fantastic day yesterday he was waiting for his mechanic to phone and ask what the ‘hell was he doing with that beautiful car.’

Despite the fact that we were heading for the heat, the Rally enjoyed a chilly start to the day as it passed through orchards filled with cherry trees and camp sites! This is of course a very European part of Africa, which was further reinforced by the a rocky and broken Cevennes like landscape. Overhanging branches slapped the windscreens as the cars crunched their way through a tunnel of trees; the last ones we'd see for quite a while. Lichen and moss evidenced the altitude and the dampness which must hang here.

Ramshackle farmsteads with tiny strips of rocky earth under cultivation sat behind ancient roadside aqueducts which were full of clean clear running water. On the way through this Shangri-La, Mansoor Khan and Matt Wordsworth were lucky enough to see a troop of Barbary apes going about their (monkey) business and, at his lonely time control, Rally Director Fred Gallagher broke out the primate repellent spray.

The first section, an Atlas one no less was rocky and demanding in places. Speed had to be judged against car preservation to arrive at the next control within the required minute.

Our overnight leaders, Mike Velasco and Peter St George however were trailing the field early on because of a simple navigational error which sent them spiralling down the field. They looked a bit sheepish as they pulled into the timing point, but they're both tough old ex P2P warriors and they'll take it on the chin and dust themselves off.

Dana Hradecky also made an error or two during the following regularity and coming into lunch she exclaimed “Today I'm all over the place. Call me Peter Pan". Rachael Vestey and Owen Turner had more Mini problems in the morning and were last seen parked up and looking for spares. David and Jo Roberts were also late through Atlas section because of a dodgy gearbox but made it into lunch in plenty of time for the delicious couscous, tagine and roast chicken with olives.

We were well above 2000 m for most of the morning and after the Atlas section we enjoyed a wide and fast flowing gravel track which was a real taste of things to come. It was a real shame then that we had to rejoin the boring old blacktop for the run to the regularity at the Pays d’Itzer.

The Patagonian coffee and fishing party comprising Charles and Nellie Bishop, Barbara and Nicholas Philips along with Hugo Upton and Nigel Gambier had assembled just before lunch down by a muddy oued but hadn’t even bothered to get their rods out.

Lunch for the Rally was taken in the Hotel Taddart in Midelt. The last time the ERA was here was in 2009 during the London - Casablanca Rally and was good to be back even if it was only for an hour.

The excellent main road out of the lunch halt saw us continue our heading south and east over the 1907m. Col du Zad and then through the Tunnel du Legionnaire, before arriving at the Gorges de Ziz both forming part of an old French military road network used to ferry troops to and from the frontier. We passed many roadside fossil sellers alongside stalls piled high with dates and glazed clay tagines.

There was a Time Control at Errachidia, a neat and well ordered large town with public gardens, traffic lights and snooker club but as far as fun and games are concerned the highlight of the afternoon was the Ziz test. A short one at less than 3km this desert piste, at the gateway to the Sahara was a real blast and one of the ERA team, a Paris-Dakar veteran no less was heard to mutter, "Now this is what it's all about".

Gian Maria Aghem, in his hard charging Lancia was seen galloping up behind the Austin 1800 of Adrian Hodgson and Richard Mills before the latter spun off and shredded a tyre. Gavin Henderson locked up temporarily and sent plumes of fine red dust skywards although his wife Diana remarked that most of it ended flying up her nose.

The drive from the test was also a delight. A narrow road clung to a rocky cliff face, threaded its way alongside an oasis and pushed through a bustling village full of exquisitely dressed locals with smiling and waving children. A hairdresser and cycle repair shop marked this out as a village of some significance.

As we approached Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara, we also saw our first sand dunes with the sun setting above them. There’ll be plenty more to come in the next few days, but these ones looked pretty good to us.

The hotel carpark was a hive of activity this evening. Richard Martin, happy with his Jag’ nevertheless feels it’s a bit too low for what we’re doing here. “The old girls taken quite a beating but she’s still going strong” he remarked whilst carrying out the daily spanner checks.

David Hartley and Stephen Hardwick discovered that their Datsun 240z had lost a bolt for the sump guard. As reported earlier, David Roberts has suspected gearbox issues and Keith Ashworth is rushing to finish the daily checks on his Bentley to lend a hand.

This is a tough Rally and after a day like this the Classics leader board has changed once again. Nigel Farmer and Stephen Lovell in the throaty Ford Escort Mexico lead from Ludovic Bois and Julia Colman in their Volvo Amazon whilst Richard Martin and Travis Cole are third in their Jaguar XK150.

Bill Cleyndert and Jacqui Norman still lead the Vintageants in their Ford Model A whilst Jean and Anne Steinhauser hold onto second place. Joe Robillard and Matt Peckham are still enjoying the ride in third.

Our hotel this evening is the fabulous Kasbah Xaluca which is a real life Arabian Nights style compound. It’s stuffed full of overland travellers, motorcyclists and quad bikers. There’s a pool, an excellent restaurant and a bar ……..

Finally. A big thanks to our Rally doctors Mansoor Khan and Matt Wordsworth for stepping in and helping with a local traffic accident before the Moroccan emergency services arrived. One of our local agents was on hand also helping with the barrier. Well done to all.

Syd Stelvio



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