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Saturday 12th October, 2019 – Casablanca, Morocco.

I slept for the 45 minute flight to Casablanca and my arrival was what I’d expected. I was held up going through passport control because they had not stamped my passport in Fes!

The security at Casablanca airport had increased since I arrived in Africa 7 weeks ago. Military and police carrying machine guns everywhere and constant security checks.

After 10 minutes of being questioned in both Arabic and French and not being able to answer, they gave up and let me through along with an English man who had the same problem. 

Despite me showing Security my scars and pictures of my titanium parts, they were not satisfied. I once again asked for someone who could speak English, but they just made me sit by myself for 30 minutes while they stared and kept asking me questions ….. in Arabic and French!

I’d had enough, so I showed them the X-rays of my knees one more time and became a little aggressive.

“No problem, you may go through” was the response in perfect English! 

I was finally through and sat down for the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted.

I was staying at a hotel about 20 minutes from the airport and the check-in time was 3pm, but I had contacted the hotel via email, my Expedia booking app and by phone to get an early check-in.

They didn’t respond to – not even to my Expedia messages which had been read – and when they answered the phone it was the same old “I don’t understand English” response. 

It was only 8.30am, but I was tired, agitated and needed a rest.

I climbed into a 1970 model Mercedes Benz taxi that was the most unroadworthy vehicle I’ve ever seen and went to the hotel. I was greeted by a reception full of staff that could speak perfect English!!!!!!

I only had to wait an hour or so and they got me into a room. The hotel was great, had English TV channels and a nice restaurant. A quick breakfast and then up to the room to get some sleep.

My search for decent food in Casablanca was a bit like it was in Fes. The service is never good and the food …… well …..

Photo credit: hans pohl on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

I went for a walk about 2pm and found a small local “Steak House” that looked quite nice.

The food described on the menu at the steakhouse was nothing like what they served up. I’m not sure what type of animal I ate, but it definitely wasn’t beef or lamb!

For dinner, I had found a Pizza Hut about 2km away on Google maps and decided to walk there and grab a pizza. It was an uncomfortable walk and was similar to the area I was dropped in near Old Medina – no Westerners and lots of very dodgy looking people.

My attempt to order even by pointing at items on the menu was useless. Another customer there spoke a bit of English and helped me, but when I asked for takeaway he told me it is best to eat in the restaurant.

I should have listened to the local guy and ate there.

The moment I walked outside the shop with a pizza box and a large bottle of Pepsi it was on – there was yelling and screaming, and mothers sending their children over to get some pizza from me.

By the time I made it back to the hotel I was exhausted mentally and physically, I could only imagine what would have happened to me had I hit one of the women or kids with the Pepsi bottle. Straight to my room to enjoy my cold pizza and hot Pepsi.

My alarm went off at 6am the next morning and I was on my way to Casablanca airport – I was finally going home. Seven weeks in Africa is enough.

It has definitely been one of my most exciting and demanding trips I’ve ever done. There were a lot of crazy experiences and I’m happy to have survived the Sahara Desert dunes.

I miss Katie and the kids so much. I need to get home to my own bed and some good food, go back to work and get ready to do this all again on a much harder scale in January when we tackle the Africa ECO Race.

Friday 11th October, 2019 – Fes, Morocco.

Last 2 days in Morocco – wow!!

I had an extra day at the Marriot in Fes to rest before I flew to Casablanca. My body is really run down and I have a few good injuries from my time in Africa to recover from.

I spent the first morning with Tess and Hernan before they started their 4 day drive back to Valencia and then on to Switzerland.

Pablo flew back to Madrid last night. We have lived together in hotel rooms and desert camps for the past 7 weeks. 

There were many times when one or both of us would be down and feeling lost, wondering what the f#*k are we putting ourselves through this for. It was great to talk at the end of the days racing and know that someone else feels the same.

Pablo has a wife and 3 young kids and like myself was feeling guilty everyday about being away from them, but we kept reminding ourselves about the opportunity we have been presented with and the sacrifices we have to make.

There’s a nice shopping centre in Fes that has a Burger King, Pizza Hut and McDonalds, and I decided I would catch a cab there to get something normal to eat.

But getting a cab in Morocco always has its problems, and I now had no one with me that could speak French or Spanish.

The cab driver seemed to understand where I wanted to go and I showed him the address on Google maps.

But as happens in Morocco, he picked up a couple of other passengers on the way and I was crammed in the back seat listening to them all yell and scream in Arabic.

And as we passed the shopping centre my requests to stop were ignored!!

A couple of times I attempted to get out of the cab as it was slowing down but it was too dangerous and I had no success. I now felt like I was in a dream as we were in some very run down crowded streets and there was not another Westerner in sight.

If you’ve watched any of the American war movies set in Afghanistan where they drive through war-torn streets in armoured vehicles – then this is what it was like for me right now.

I was now completely lost. The driver and the others in the car, and in fact the whole situation, was starting to worry me.   

I normally remain reasonably calm in these situations but this time I started to yell at the driver to stop the car.  

He was ignoring me until I started to get very agitated and opened the rear door whilst we were driving at speed.

In the middle of a crowded street he slammed on the brakes and screamed at me in Arabic.

The whole situation was about to get gravely out of hand and I realised I needed to get out of it as quickly and safely as possible. I got out of taxi and he sped off with his other passengers.

As soon as I got my phone out to check where I was, the people came. Small kids grabbing my shorts, holding their hands out wanting money, fully Burqa clad women asking for money and hundreds of unstable looking men pointing and staring at me.

I was now very nervous and right out of my comfort zone. As quick as I could I walked about 1km to the end of the street and found a main road. I now had time to work out where I was.

I was in a remote part of Old Medina, a place I didn’t want to be in and there wasn’t a taxi in sight. There were plenty of donkeys, beggars, ancient buildings that looked like they had been bombed and hundreds of burka clad women blocking the street, but no taxis. 

I walked about another 2km very quickly before I found a major road and after 20 mins finally got another taxi.

“Marriot Hotel, very fast, urgent”, I yelled at the driver and he was off breaking as many road rules as he could. 

I missed out on my Burger King and went straight to the bar, had a beer and tried to digest what had just happened. This was the first time in Africa that I’ve felt really uncomfortable and in a bit of danger.

I ate at the hotel restaurant that night and went to bed early, I had to be up at 3am to fly to Casablanca in the morning.

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.

Monday 7th October, 2019 – Aoufous, Morocco.

Andrew Houlihan started Stage 3 of the 2019 Rally of Morocco today in 12th place overall in the Enduro Cup category.

A consistent 14th place today has moved him (by our calculations and based on provisional results) to 10th place in the category.

Andrew says he “had a reasonable day with navigation, only losing maybe 30-40 minutes. Bike problems were minimal as well which was good.”

“I spent a lot of time today making sure I verified waypoints.”

There were no liaison stages today for the Enduro Category, just 2 special stages.

“Straight away we were into small dunes full of camel grass. It was only 10km or so of dunes at the start but they were very chopped up.”

The rest of the day was stony river beds and rock littered plains, with deep sandy small dune sections everywhere.

Andrew is still feeling the effects of his previous rally and the endless dune sections of yesterday’s stage.

“There was nowhere to take a rest today and although it was only 360km it was tough going.”

Sherco factory rider Xavier Flick continues to lead the Enduro class, and Andrew’s Nomadas Adventure teammate Juan Pablo Guillen Rivera is powering on in the FIM category. Pablo finished 45th today just 01h49m30s behind stage winner and new rally leader Toby Price (Red Bull KTM).

Andrew is listed 13th in the starting order for Stage 4, beginning at 7.23am local time ( 4.23am AEST/5.23am AEDT). Stage 4 consists of 2 liaison stages totalling 157km and a special stage of 311km.

Sunday 6th October, 2019 – Aoufous, Morocco.

Andrew Houlihan is 11th overall in the 2019 Rallye du Maroc Enduro Cup after a tough second stage.

Stage 2 was the first part of a marathon stage for the bikes, which means minimal service at the end of the day. Preserving the bike and especially the tyres is therefore very important.

“Stage 2 was extremely hard. Dunes, dunes and then big dunes with lots of sandy tracks thrown in as well. My day wasn’t so good, I had some mechanical problems that took up a bit of time, so it was a slow day for me. I think it was about 400km and I was just happy to finish the day.”

Andrew Houlihan’s comments after Stage 2 of the 2019 Rallye du Maroc

Andrew’s Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo, who has been bumped up to the FIM category for this rally, came in with a very respectable 43rd position in his category today.

In other news from the FIM category, new world titleholder Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM) has had a big fall injuring his elbow and is out of the rally.

Last year’s winner Toby Price (Red Bull KTM), teammate Matthias Walkner (Red Bull KTM) and Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda) all had difficulty with navigation in the dunes and lost plenty of time.

Joan Barreda Bort (Monster Energy Honda) took the stage win and the overall lead in the rally, while Toby Price finished the 9th in the stage.

Tomorrow’s stage 3 is the second part of the marathon stage with a 112km liaison and 290km special stage for the Enduro Cup runners.

Highlights Rallye du Maroc / Stage 2

📽 Watch the 2019 #RallyeduMaroc stage 2 highlights 💪#RallyeduMaroc #MarocTelecom #Afriquia

Posted by Rallye du Maroc on Sunday, 6 October 2019
Saturday 5th October, 2019 – Fes to Aoufous, Morocco.

Today’s stage took the riders from Fes to the bivouac in the heart of the desert at Aoufous, and for Andrew and the other Enduro Cup entrants that was a total distance of 347km. The FIM competitors covered close to 500km.

Andrew has finished 9th today in the Enduro Cup category after what he has described as “one of the biggest days” he’s ever had on a bike.

“Today was a Dakar type day, mountain range after mountain range, the tracks were extremely rocky and there was no chance to get a break anywhere. There were also a number of sandy and rocky river beds with plenty of dangers.”

“It was one of the biggest days physically I’ve had on a bike and I took it very easy.”

“Navigation was good but it was a day full of dangerous cliffs and rocks everywhere.”

The winding, rock-filled mountain paths forced many riders to take a cautious approach to avoid punctures or running off the track. They got some sort of relief towards the end of the stage as the terrain opened up into stretches of sand and camel grass.

Sherco factory rider Xavier Flick leads the Enduro Cup category, and after a reshuffle of timings by the FIM officials Sam Sunderland (Red Bull KTM) has been declared the stage winner in the FIM category. Original stage winner Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) has been bumped back to 5th place which moves Australia’s Toby Price (Red Bull KTM) up to 4th, 2min 6sec behind Sunderland.

Tomorrow’s stage consists of a 200km liaison and 295km special stage for the Enduro Cup riders and a 370km special stage for the FIM category.

Friday 4th October, 2019 – Fes, Morocco.

After the challenges of the last few days, all I wanted to do this morning was get on the bike. Our 2.10pm start time couldn’t come around quick enough.

The prologue stage was a short 70km route, and I had more bike problems right from the start.

The throttle that has been giving us grief for days and caused the crash in the Pan Africa Rally last week was still not working properly, and the engine was over-revving.

So I rode the stage very slowly and carefully today.

The special stage in the mountains at the back of Fes was like riding on a bed of marbles, with loose gravely stones, tight corners and some big ledges. 

And then the liaison stage took us back through that crazy Fes traffic and swarms of school children that I’ve had to deal with a few times now.

After all was done, I am happy to get through today in 16th place of the Enduro Cup Class. It’s a reasonable start to the rally for us.

Once I was back in the bivouac Hernan again went to the Factory TVS Sherco team for help. They gave us a new throttle cable to try – and it worked! We’ve taken the bikes back to the hotel now and the throttle is perfect, and that’s a big relief.

Tomorrow’s first stage is going to be a big day as we travel from Fes to Erfoud – almost 500km.

The roadbook is large, and there are a few changes to do in it this evening before heading to bed.

Friday 4th October, 2019 – Fes, Morocco.

I was up at 6.30 am this morning to bring the bike back from the bivouac for the final technical inspection. Pablo’s bike was also knocked back yesterday so we were both pretty nervous riding back to the Marriot.

A near miss with a crazy pedestrian early in the morning was not what I needed. Even the early morning traffic here in Fes is crazy!

Back at the Marriot Pablo’s bike made it through, but mine was a no go.

I had no idea what they were telling me in French, but I understood the bike was not going through. Tess and Hernan arrived and we realised we had missed another tracking system.

Out with the credit card and then Hernan was madly drilling holes in the front fender to mount it.

Another 30 minutes later the system verified with the GPS and I was allowed through to the next check.

The officials asked me a lot of questions in French to which I would just nod my head. We were finally done, but I had missed out on the chance to pre-ride the prologue stage that we start this afternoon.

This morning was again very stressful as we were quickly running out of time, but we made it through the necessary steps to compete.

The other rallies I’ve done – Hellas, Hispania, Pan Africa – are completely different. To be honest, there’s no comparison at all!

My start time this afternoon is 2.10 pm and although the bike passed technical inspection there is still a problem with the throttle sticking. Riding back to the bivouac this morning it stuck on as we arrived.

I will have to do today’s prologue as it is and let Hernan attend to it tonight. (UPDATE: We managed to source a throttle cable, replaced it and it should fix the problem.)

Africa constantly throws up challenges. I bought a local SIM card for my iPhone this morning and there is no way anyone can get it to work, even Maroc Telecom who sold it to me couldn’t.

Thursday 3rd October, 2019 – Fes, Morocco.

This morning started nice and relaxing – we had coffee and sat around for an hour or so.

And then the mayhem started!

Getting through the administration for the Rallye du Maroc took an hour and a half, going from desk to desk. They do not leave any stone unturned, and it was like being grilled in a courtroom by 12 separate judges – in French! Luckily Tess was with us and helped us through.

The room was packed with the best in the world but the moment Toby Price arrived all the attention turned to him. He is one of the nicest people you could meet and makes time to talk to everybody.

Once we were through our administration process, they told us we had 45 minutes to have our bikes back at the hotel for the technical inspection!

Well, it’s about a 20-minute cab ride to where our bikes are stored and Pablo and I madly tried to find a cab.

Eventually, we got one but the driver took us in the opposite direction as he had no understanding of English. He was also stopping to take other passengers in the front with him and then would drop them off. We finally showed him on Google maps where we needed to be and convinced him to change direction. 

I grabbed my helmet and chest protector and jumped on my bike for the ride back to the Marriot. It was absolute chaos in the Fes traffic and I was sure I was going to get hit by a car.

Tess was waiting for me at the Marriot with my bike numbers and the technical inspection started. There were 4 different stations to pass through and all was good until the last one.

My Sherco 450 is an enduro bike with limited fuel range and is entered in the Enduro Cup Class. It has a custom rally fairing that also holds my navigation equipment, and we had emailed the organiser in August to make sure this was ok. The response was “Yes ok”.

But the FIM technical scrutineer did not pass my bike with the rally fairing despite the email from the organisers.

They have given me an extension until 9 am tomorrow to have the bike returned to its original factory specifications.

This is a huge problem as all the original parts are in Switzerland, and we are hoping to find another team with parts we can use or borrow.

After 4 hours of searching, we found an original Sherco headlight so the work could begin to re-configure my bike in time for tomorrow’s deadline.

But before taking the bike back to work on it we decided to have a quick lunch at the Marriot.

Fernando Alonso was at the table next to us. He is giving rally racing a go and is considering racing in the Dakar next year, but says he will decide after competing in Rallye du Maroc. He will be driving for Toyota. It’s great to have such high calibre people around us, and like Toby he also seemed like a pretty nice guy.

After lunch, it was time to get the bike back. That made it the second time today I had to ride through Fes. I’ve ridden through a lot of crazy cities – Bangkok, Bali, Athens, Ulan Bataar, Valencia – but Fes is the one that has challenged me the most.

Just 7km on a motorbike took me 30 minutes and the trip is almost in a straight line! I even tried the footpath at one stage but almost had a head-on with another bike.

We have a riders briefing tonight at 9 pm and then another briefing straight after that on how to operate the ERTF tracking system fitted to the bikes and vehicles.

Today has been a pretty stressful day with the bike not passing technical over something we had been told was OK. Hernan was feeling quite bad about the whole situation too, as we did discuss converting the bike back to factory specifications before coming to Africa. 

If I had the extra fuel range required I could have jumped up into the Rally FIM class, but it would have cost me an extra 3500 Euro. 

But everyone we approached for help, from the top teams and riders down to Africans on the street, all wanted to help us in some way to get the bike sorted for tomorrow. 

And it should now be all good for tomorrow morning, then the Prologue tomorrow afternoon.