Tuesday 14th January, 2020 – Chami to Aidzidine

Andrew Houlihan has continued his climb back up through the rankings in the 2020 Africa ECO Race and now sits just outside the top 20.

Andrew (Coca-Cola Energy KTM 450 Factory Rallye) finished today’s stage in 13th place and has moved up 9 places to 22nd overall.

Today’s 7th stage took the riders on a 480km ride through deep sand and dunes!

The first part of the stage crossed through dunes and camel grass, and after the refuelling point at waypoint 3 the riders had a small reprieve as the track opened up to some fast sections alongside the Mauritanian railway.

But heading into the final part of the stage, riders were faced with some very complicated dune crossings and difficult navigation.

Andrew described the situation so well:

“The sand was some of the most difficult I’ve ridden, very hot and soft and the dunes were not able to be judged.”

“It was also very difficult to navigate through the dunes as the wind was very strong and you had no tracks to follow. It was impossible to go anywhere close in a straight line.”

“The dunes were crazy difficult, not big but just steep up and down and much tougher than anything I’ve ridden in Australia like the Simpson Desert or Hattah Desert.”

Andrew’s progress through the difficult stage shows why he has become a strong contender in international off-road racing.

He started today alongside last year’s winner Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha WR 450F).

“Botturi took off very fast and I could just manage to keep with him for the first 5km.”

However Andrew’s pace and a mistake by Botturi put him in front of the Italian rider for much of the first part of the stage.

At the first checkpoint Andrew was in 16th, and by checkpoint 2 he was placed 4th, just 3m07s behind the stage leader.

At the refuelling point, waypoint 3, Andrew was 8th and Botturi was now making up ground quickly. He passed Andrew and eventually finished the stage second to retain the overall lead.

But at that point in the day Andrew also realised he was getting very tired and knew he had a long and bad dune section coming up.

“It was like they were never going to end. For the last 50km I had no other rider in sight and a few times thought I was lost but was happy to see the finish line and bivouac.”

And as well as the tough terrain there are the animals to deal with.

“I had one very close call with a crazy camel that jumped out in front of me at 140kph today!”

Andrew’s Coca-Cola Energy/Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen finished 21st today and held on to his 26th place overall.

Fellow Australians Matt Sutherland (KTM 450 Rally), who won stage 6, was 18th today and remains 8th outright and Peter Caldwell (KTM 450 Rally) is now 17th.

Tomorrow’s Stage 8 is going to be similar in difficulty, with a 3km transfer stage, 429km special followed by an 18km liaison.

The stage ends in Tidjikja, the capital of the Tagant region of central Mauritania. The city is on a stony plateau with an elevation of 400m.

To get to Tidjikja, riders will first have to negotiate sand tracks, stony sections, wadis (dry river beds) and of course some challenging dune crossings.

Of the original 75 entrants in the motorcycle category, 66 are expected to start tomorrow’s stage. You can follow the riders’ timings through checkpoints and waypoints, and follow their positions with live tracking.

  • #175 – Andrew Houlihan
  • #176 – Pablo Guillen
  • #102 – Matt Sutherland
  • #136 – Peter Caldwell
  • #101 – Alessandro Botturi
Monday 13th January, 2020 – Dakhla to Chami

After the rest day, it was back to business today for Stage 6. Andrew Houlihan finished 19th and ahead of rally leader Alessandro Botturi, and fellow Australian Matt Sutherland won the stage!

The rest day in the coastal city of Dakhla gave the competitors a well-deserved break, and the teams a chance to do some more in-depth maintenance on the vehicles before the rally heads into the tough dunes of Mauritania.

For the sixth year in a row now the organisers have set up the rest day bivouac in Dakhla, situated on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. With its pleasant temperatures, golden beach and reputation as a windsurfing mecca, it’s a far cry from the rocky and sandy terrain of the desert.

But the riders were shocked back into reality with a very early – 5.30am – start for the 6th stage of the 2020 Africa ECO Race.

Stage 6 involved a border crossing into Mauritania and all the customs procedures that go with it. Rally organisers had negotiated a simplified process for the teams, which seemed to work well.

Today’s stage was 560km in total with a 176km special once the riders had crossed into Mauritania. The Mauritanian tracks were mostly sand and quite fast.

Italian rider Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha WR450F) lead the field out and Andrew Houlihan started 38 minutes later on the Coca-Cola Energy KTM 450. Andrew started down the field after losing so much time on Stage 5 due to the challenging navigation that caused 48 out of 70 riders to miss waypoint 3.

Andrew says starting so far down the field meant he had a lot of dust to deal with and he almost had a big crash in some rocks at high speed. At that point, he decided to back off a bit.

“I was a little conservative today, I just want to make that finish line in Dakar.“

Early start! Andrew Houlihan ready to leave the Dakhla bivouac at 5.30am

He still put in a very solid performance and finished the day in 19th place, which has moved him up 5 places overall to 31st.

Andrew’s Coca-Cola Energy/Nomadas Adventure KTM teammate, Pablo Guillen, had another steady day today coming in 22nd and now sits 26th in the overall standings.

Also starting way down the field today, and 1 minute behind Andrew, was fellow Australian Matt Sutherland. Andrew rode with Matt for about 5-6km and said he was riding exceptionally well.

Matt had been caught up in the disaster of Stage 5 and was on a mission today – a mission that eventually scored him the stage win!

He finished the stage 1m16s ahead of Giovanni Gritti (RSMoto Honda Racing Team ASD), with Paolo Lucci (Solarys Racing/Husqvarna) finishing third.

Previous winner Alessandro Botturi finished 20th today, 55 seconds behind Andrew but retains the overall lead in the rally.

The relatively early arrival today in Chami has given the teams time to prepare for the start of tomorrow’s massive special stage.

Stage 7 is all special stage from the Chami bivouac to Aidzidine, a distance of 478km. The first part is almost entirely off-track without any existing route, and the final part of the day involves some complicated dune crossings.

Saturday 11th January, 2020 – Smara to Dakhla

Tough navigation has taken its toll on a number of riders in the 5th stage of the 2020 Africa ECO Race, including Australians Andrew Houlihan and Matt Sutherland (Lyndon Poskitt Racing/KTM 450 Rally).

Waypoint 3 seemed particularly hard to find and a number of riders got very badly lost. Only 22 of the 70 riders who started the day managed to find the waypoint, and Andrew was in a group of riders lost for almost an hour.

Andrew explains: “There was a small group of us and we were all sure we were on the right cap heading. Over the 30-40km we ended up maybe 1-2 degrees off and 10km off track. Almost every rider got caught out but our group were the worst.”

Andrew says a helicopter had to drop fuel to one rider who had ran out of fuel in the confusion.

Up to Waypoint 3 Andrew had shown that he has good pace and has adapted well to the Coca-Cola Energy KTM 450 Factory Rallye bike. He was sitting 13th at Waypoint 2.

“The good thing is I was sitting in 11 or 12 place for most of the morning until the cap navigation error and riding at a nice steady pace.”

The navigation issue has dropped Andrew 4 places and he now sits 36th outright, but he remains postitive about the rest of the rally. He is loving the new KTM, and says his energy levels are good. It’s a long way to go and the race really picks up once the competitors cross into Mauritania in Stage 6.

Also hit hard by the tough navigation was Matt Sutherland. Matt is the leading Australian at this stage but he also missed Waypoint 3 and lost well over an hour today, finishing the day 1h49m49s behind stage winner Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha WR 450F) and 29 seconds behind Andrew.

Fellow Coca-Cola Energy KTM rider Pablo Guillen was also among the 48 riders who missed Waypoint 3 but finished the day 18th. He is now 29th overall.

The riders now have a well earned rest day in Dakhla, and the teams have a chance to do some more intense maintenance on the motorcycles.

Stage 6 will be a 600km day but has to be an early start as the competitors will need to stop at the border with Mauritania for customs formalites.

Friday 10th January, 2020 – Assa to Smara

Andrew Houlihan continues to climb back up the standings in the 2020 Africa ECO Race. Another 20th place in Stage 4 today has moved him to 30th overall.

Coca-Cola Energy KTM/Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen also continued his strong run today and has moved up to 34th overall.

Without the delays caused by the fuel pump issue on stage 2 both Andrew and Pablo would probably be sitting in the top 15.

Today’s 380km special stage threw plenty of challenges to the riders – many sandy and rocky tracks, lots of dust, and some bad fesh fesh.

Fesh fesh is the name Arabians give to a very fine powdery substance – the by-product of many years of erosion. It is basically sand grains that have been worn down into a dust like particle.

Once thrown up it can linger in the air for a long time, creating many problems for the riders. And it sticks to everything!!

But it is what creates some of the most spectacular images to come out of African rallies.

“I had a good day. I backed off the pace a bit today to save some energy for tomorrow’s 686km day.”

There was only one very small dune crossing today, but some very high speed sections across the chotts (salt lake) that gave riders the opportunity to open the throttle! Andrew says he reached 170km/h!

True to what the organisers predicted, navigation was challenging today.

Andrew’s ERTF, part of the GPS navigation system the competitors carry, reported that he missed a checkpoint where he actually had his time card stamped. Missing a checkpoint or waypoint would normally result in a penalty, but rally organisers have agreed there should be no penalty in this case.

Andrew says he’s glad he made the decision to step up to the KTM 450 Factory Rallye bike. “It soaks up the big hits so well.”

Stage 5 is a longer day – 686km in total with a 473km special and 211km liaison – ending in the city of Dakhla where competitors will take a well-earned rest day.

Dakhla is on the coastline of Western Sahara, a disputed territory currently administered by Morocco, and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. It is a popular kite surfing destination. Riders can expect to be able to travel at high speed on good tracks through somewhat monotonous desert landscapes on stage 5, but will have to deal with some tricky navigation and confusing parallel tracks.

Thursday 9th January, 2020 – Mhamid to Assa

A very strong result in Stage 3 has moved Andrew Houlihan back up the standings in the 2020 Africa ECO Race.

Andrew finished the stage in 20th position (17th in his group), which has moved him up 21 places. He now sits 37th overall.

Fellow Coca-Cola Energy/Nomadas Adventure team rider Pablo Guillen also had a good day. Pablo, whose bike places him in a different group to Andrew but still within the same category, put in the fastest time in his group to finish 14th in the stage and now sits 36th overall.

After losing time because of mechanical issues with Andrew’s bike in Stage 2, both riders started the day from well back in the field. Andrew said that starting that far back meant the road had a lot of dust and was quite dangerous.

Andrew lost a bit of time early on in the stage:

“We had a 30km dune section in the morning which was quite difficult. I got stuck in on the face of some big dunes 3 times and had to dig the bike out with my hands. I lost a fair bit of time in the dunes and was quite exhausted by the time I got out.”

“The rest of the day was fast and very rocky with some sand sections. Navigation was good today with only a couple of minor mistakes.”

Andrew also says he’s now getting the hang of the new Coca-Cola Energy KTM 450 Factory Rallye bike. He had not ridden the bike before Stage 1 of the rally, but says he is finding the suspension much better and that the bike has so much more power in the dunes.

Stage 4 takes the riders to Smara, a city in the Moroccan part of Western Sahara. It is an entirely new 404km stage with a 385km special. The rally organisers say the stage will have some interesting gravel tracks with a few rocky parts but they expect it to be fairly fast. There is a very fast chott – dry salt lake – and a very technical wadi – river crossing – that will test the riders skill and navigational abilities.

Wednesday 8th January, 2020 – Tarda to Mhamid

Despite being sidelined for an hour and a half with a fuel pump issue, Andrew and the Coca-Cola Energy KTM have put in a strong performance on the second day of the 2020 Africa ECO Race.

Heading out 38th in the morning, Andrew very quickly showed he could set a good pace and passed more than 15 riders in the first 200km. But then a fuel pump issued brought the bike to a standstill.

“Today started out well, I passed about 15 riders in the first 200km and then when my rear tanks were empty I switched to the front tank and had a fuel pump failure in the middle of no where.”

Andrew Houlihan (Coca-Cola Energy KTM 450 Factory Rallye)

In the true spirit of the race, teammate Pablo Guillen stopped to assist and also sacrificed time.

So how do you fix a fuel pump issue in the middle of the Moroccan desert? You think outside the box!

The guys transferred the fuel from the front tank to the operational rear tanks using Andrew’s camelbak.

Unfortunately that meant Andrew had no water for the last 150km and arrived at the bivouac in Mhamid dehydrated.

Despite the setback Andrew says the bike feels great and he’s feeling good apart from a little disappointed after the mechanical problem today.

“I had made up so many places and time in the 200km before the pump failure.”

If it were not for the mechanical issue, Andrew’s pace would have him in the top 20 after yesterday’s stage.

There are still 10 days to go in the rally, and Andrew’s attitude is to take 1 day at a time and make sure he keeps the bike and himself in a good condition.

The terrain the competitors are racing through is very rough and demanding. And early morning temperatures are very cold with minimums down as low as 2-5°C. Daytime temperatures are hovering around 15-18°C. At least there is no rain forecast.

Stage 3 is a big day for the riders with a 516km trip to the Moroccan town of Assa. The day is broken up into a 4.6km transfer leg, 497km special and a 14km liaison.

They will cross through Erg Chigaga, the largest and still untouched of the major ergs in Morocco. An erg, sometimes referred to as a sand sea, is a large area of wind blown sand with little or no vegetation and the riders will travel 28km through Erg Chigaga.

Norwegian rider Pal Ullevalseter (KTM) currently leads the rally 1m29s ahead of Italian Alessandro Botturi (Yamaha) with Englishman Lyndon Poskitt (KTM) a further 32s behind in 3rd. They are expected to lead the field out on stage 3.

Andrew and Pablo will start the stage further back in the field after yesterday’s delays.

Erg Chigaga in the Moroccan desert (Photo credit: Pranav Bhatt on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA)
Tuesday 7th January, 2020 – Tangier to Tarda

The first stage of the 2020 Africa ECO Race is done!

A 241km liaison, short 23km special stage mainly to determine the starting order for stage 2, and then another 489km liaison to the bivouac in Tarda.

Andrew’s time in the special places him 38th in the field of 73 bikes. Teammate Pablo Guillen was just 54 seconds behind and will start from position 41, and Indian rider Ashish Raorane who is also racing with the Nomadas Adventure team will start stage 2 from 33rd position.

While the short special stage didn’t really give us a good insight into who the competitive teams might be, the 750km travelled today was a good opportunity for the riders to settle themselves into their competion routine. And like many of the riders, this was Andrew’s first chance to get familiar with the new bike in the Moroccan terrain and make any last minute adjustments.

After a night in Tarda, the 73 riders will start from the bivouac on their 333km journey to Mhamid. The special makes up 329km of the distance. Andrew will start at 8:52am local time (6:52pm AEDT / 5:52pm AEST).

The terrain is expected to have many wadis (dry river beds), and is sometimes very stony and gravelly. Towards the end of the stage the riders will encounter a few small dune crossings.

The Africa ECO Race is an annual rally raid that starts in Europe and takes competitors on a journey through north-west Africa, tracking along much of the path of the original Paris-Dakar rally.

The event came about after the 2008 Paris-Dakar was abruptly cancelled one day before it was due to start amid fears of a terrorist attack in Mauritania. It was a big blow to rally teams and fans worldwide.

Organisers of the Paris-Dakar then moved the rally to South America in 2009 where it has been run for the last 11 years. For 2020 the Dakar Rally is being held in Saudi Arabia.

Two former winners of the Paris-Dakar Rally – Jean-Louis Schlesser and René Metge – felt that the teams, fans and indeed the communities of North Africa deserved a race true to the original spirit of the Paris-Dakar Rally.

And so the Africa ECO Race was born.

The 2020 rally is the 12th running of the event, and for the last 5 years it has started in Monaco – a legendary motorsports venue in its own right.

This year competitors will leave under lights on the evening of the 4th January and travel to the port of Savona in Italy. Here they will board a ferry and be transported over 2 days and nights to Tangier in Morocco.

Once in Morocco they begin their journey of nearly 6,500km through the amazing landscapes of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal. And for those who make it, they have the absolute honour of standing proudly on the podium at “Lac Rose” (Pink Lake) just outside Dakar, the spiritual end of the original Paris-Dakar.

Whilst the Dakar Rally is undoubtedly the best known and most prestigious rally in the world, many people feel that it has moved away from its original “roots”. But the Africa ECO Race aims to keep that original Dakar spirit alive for those who want to experience it.

Like all rally raid events, the Africa ECO Race is a long-distance off-road race that takes place over several days – 12 days in fact!

Competitors are supplied with a paper roadbook containing navigation instructions, normally the night before each stage, and never know the route until they receive that roadbook. It isn’t as accurate as the pace notes used in rallying, and there is never a chance for competitors to do an advance reconnaissance run.

Each stage is broken into one or more liaison stages and a timed special stage. The competitor who completes the special stage in the shortest time wins that stage, and times are accumulated to decide the overall winner of the rally.

Along the way competitors are required to pass through checkpoints and navigate to waypoints to ensure they are following the designated route. Missing a checkpoint or waypoint results in a time penalty that is added to their time for the special stage.

And while car drivers have a co-driver to navigate, bike and quad riders have to navigate on their own while riding. Concentration and multi-tasking skills are key factors in succeeding in the event!

But there are two significant things that set the Africa ECO Race apart from any other rally raid in the world – the spirit and comradery among the competitors and support crews, and the humanitarian benefits the organisers bring to the countries the event travels through.

There are no flashy hotels at night! The bivouacs are chosen far away from cities and the competitors find themselves all grouped together in the middle of the desert. So regardless of experience, skill level or team stature everyone shares the same experience during the rally. It works, and a feeling of solidarity, friendliness and mutual support encompasses the whole event just like the original Paris-Dakar.

From the outset, the event organisers also wanted to give back to the communities the rally travels through and to not leave harmful traces of the rally’s journey through the land.

The rally organisation has also created a number of projects to benefit the communities. A power project has seen solar panels installed in Mauritania to power a school in Nouakchott and a library in Chinguetti.

Some of the organisation’s vehicles are equipped with solar panels as well so they don’t draw from the local power grid or use a petrol generator, and waste motor oil is collected to be recycled in France after the race.

And the organisers have created a tree planting project in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, where thousands of native trees have already been planted.

The Africa ECO Race has grown from humble beginnings, fuelled by the dream of two men to run an event that captures the original Dakar spirit and values, and operates in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible. The 2020 event is now the largest on record – 34 nationalities are represented, overall participant numbers are up by 22% and motorbike competitors have increased by 81% – making the Africa ECO Race one of the biggest and most prestigious rally raid events in the world.

2020 Route

  • Stage 1 – 7 January 2020: Tangier to Tarda (754km/24km special)
  • Stage 2 – 8 January 2020: Tarda to Mahmid (333kms/330km special)
  • Stage 3 – 9 January 2020: Mahmid to Oued Draa (516kms/498km special)
  • Stage 4 – 10 January 2020: Oued Draa to Smara (404kms/385km special)
  • Stage 5 – 11 January 2020: Smara to Dakhla (686kms/473km special)
  • Stage 6 – 13 January 2020: Dakhla to Chami (559kms/177km special)
  • Stage 7 – 14 January 2020: Chami to Aidzidine (478kms/478km special)
  • Stage 8 – 15 January 2020: Aidzidine to Tidjikja (450kms/429km special)
  • Stage 9 – 16 January 2020: Tidjikja to Tidjikja (469kms/415km special)
  • Stage 10 – 17 January 2020: Tidjikja to Idini (600kms/500km special)
  • Stage 11 – 18 January 2020: Idni to Saint Louis (473kms/187km special)
  • Stage 12 – 19 January 2020: Saint Louis to Dakar (291kms/22km special)
Wednesday 9th October, 2019 – Aoufous to Fes, Morocco

Andrew Houlihan has finished the 2019 Rallye du Maroc in 9th place overall in the Enduro Cup category, after completing today’s final stage in 12th place.

The last day of the race. 490km from Erfoud to Fes. 

Our liaison to the first special stage was 230km. We left in darkness this morning which was hard going with limited lighting on the Enduro bike.

It was also freezing cold for the first 150km.

At the 160km mark we came across a horrific head-on car accident that had just happened minutes before. It didn’t look good. I’m surprised that we didn’t see more bad accidents considering the lack of road rules and the crazy driving that goes on.

On the way to the special stage we rode through some spectacular gorges with 200 metre high cliffs and small villages in the middle. It felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie.

My day today was really bad – just dangerous rocky tight roads!

I was going well for the first 50km until I came up on another rider Olaf Harmsen (Team Bas Dakar / KTM) from the Netherlands, and we both missed a turn.

His bike got caught in a deep hole and I couldn’t leave him there, so I went back and helped him get the bike out. I lost a fair bit of time.

Olaf and I then rode together until about 30km before the end of the stage in a rocky river bed he had a big crash in front of me and went down very hard. I stayed and helped him up, it looked like he had broken his thumb but was able to ride to the finish.

Today’s stage was just dangers everywhere and bad rocks! Up and down through the mountains and again no spots where you could rest or not pay attention.

One thing that made Pablo and I feel a little better was that when talking with the professional riders that race Dakar, every one of them said that Rally Du Maroc days were way more difficult than what to expect at Dakar.

The days might be longer but the navigation and terrain is way easier than what we just raced, plus we did a little bit of riding and racing beforehand.

We have had endless days of 200 metre high sand dunes in 50 degree heat, rocky terrain that is indescribable, camels and donkey’s to dodge. 

Not an ideal end to race but I’ve finished!

The past month in Africa has been hard on my body, I was 96kg when we arrived, I’m now 85kg.

I’ve been sleeping in a desert camp for 5 nights and only having 4-5 sleep every night, and then 8-10 hrs on the bike every day.

I have a few good injuries from Pan Africa that I have had to nurse through the past week and keep quiet. My flight home is going to be very uncomfortable.

My Sherco was damaged quite badly in Pan Africa and the guys did a great job to make it just rideable in Rallye du Maroc.

It’s time to celebrate tonight and then start preparing for our next race – The Africa Eco Race (The Real Paris to Dakar) from Monaca to Dakar January 3 -19, 2021.

Tuesday 8th October, 2019 – Aoufous, Morocco

A 10th place in today’s 4th Stage of the 2019 Rallye du Maroc has consolidated Andrew Houlihan’s overall position in the rally.

Andrew now sits 9th in the Enduro Cup going into the final day tomorrow.

Andrew tells today’s story …

“450km today.

Every day seems to get harder, maybe it’s fatigue setting in.

I’ve been in Morocco now for 25 or 26 days and have been on the bike either racing or training for 18 of those days. And not one was an easy day of riding either.

Today we had small dunes again full of camel grass and then a mountain section that was the rockiest I’ve ever ridden. It was very technical and hard going, more suited to a trials bike.

From there it was back into sandy river beds and then fast open off-piste tracks.

I had one navigational error and lost time as did many others.

Towards the end of the day it was just a matter of staying on the bike and not making any mistakes as I was very tired.”

The final day takes the riders back to Fes with 288km of liaison and a 168km special stage. Andrew’s start time is 6:46am local time / 4:46pm AEDT / 3:46pm AEST.