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Monday 30th September, 2019 – Merzouga, Morocco

A lazy morning today.

Ah you have to love Morocco! The hotel WiFi is down and we can’t pay our bills with credit cards, so we sit and wait … and wait … and wait. After 2 hours the WiFi came good, but then we realised the laundry Pablo put in 2 days ago has not been returned! So we waited another hour for that.

The build up to Rallye du Maroc is in full swing. The Monster Energy Dakar service truck and many others are in the car park today, and one of the race team’s private helicopter is here as well.

I had a night dreaming about sand dunes and navigation. Waking up thinking why am I doing this???? The past 3 weeks have been equivalent to a Dakar Rally and I’m mentally and physically exhausted.

At breakfast this morning it was a relief to hear that Pablo is feeling exactly the same. We are now feeling out of our league, and competing at a world class level is very intimidating for 2 very “amateur” riders.

But we started something 8 months ago and made a commitment. I may have underestimated a few things but we will see this through to the end. There are people in this world that won’t support you – even want to see you fail. And that’s one of the things that motivates me even more to follow my dreams.

We have one more day of rest and then we’re off to Fes for the Rallye du Maroc.

75km special stage

The last day!

All sand dunes today and they saved the biggest ones for last!

My bike is all good to be raced today and as I missed day 5, I was in the last pack to start. So it was always going to be a difficult day.

The first 20km of dunes were good and today we had the biggest dune yet – over 200 metres high.

When I got to the base of this one there were already 3-4 bikes stuck on the face. I followed another rider around the back of the dune and we found a better way up that wasn’t as steep.

Going down the other side was just hang on and hope for the best, there were also a few riders who had fallen on the down side.

After another 10km I had another small mechanical problem, a bolt had come loose and was preventing me from turning the bike right.

I could not see what the problem was, I only knew that I could go in a straight line or turn left.

I was also in very soft high dunes and there was no where to stop.

I rode in a straight line for about 1-2 km until I could find a safe place to stop. It took me a while to work out what the problem was and then I was back riding. But by this stage I was way off track and it was almost impossible to get back on the right route as in the dunes it is navigation by compass bearings only.

I eventually located the finish line and was elated to finish the Pan Africa Rally.

After the events of the past few days I was not concerned at all with my position, I just wanted to get through with no more bike problems and no injuries.

The body is very sore and worn, knee is a little swollen but good.

We now have 5 days rest before Rallye Du Maroc in Fes.

280km special stage
DNS – 33rd in category / 42nd overall

Day 5 of the 2019 Pan Africa Rally was a forced rest day for Andrew Houlihan.

Yesterday’s incident in the sand dunes did plenty of damage to the Sherco 500 SEF, particularly to the subframe. The good news is that Andrew did not suffer any injuries in the incident.

The team mechanics were able to repair the damage to the throttle body and housing, but the subframe needs to be replaced and with limited time and parts availabilty in Africa, the bike could not be repaired in time for the start of today’s stage.

It looks likely though that the bike could be ready in time to complete the final day which Andrew says is all big sand dunes. That will give him the chance to check the repairs done to the bike in a competition environment before moving on to the 2019 Rallye du Maroc which starts in Fes, Morocco on the 5th October.

Despite the incident and asssociated dissappointment, Andrew remains upbeat.

“Had a really positive day yesterday and was going really well until the throttle problem and then subframe. There has been quite a few accidents and the conditions and weather are brutal. Having a great time and learning a lot every day.”

The day away from competition obviously has an effect on his overall time for the event, but appears to not have affected his placing in his category. Today’s provisional results show that he has been given a default time of 12:32:46 (hh:mm:ss) and despite that he has held on to 33rd in category and 42nd overall.

Last years rally winner Michael Metge also had a DNF yesterday and did not race today, which has dropped him to 38th overall.

445km special stage, 5 km liason
DNF

An early start for a 400km day!

The first special stage was fast with a lot of rolling dunes and salt pans full of fesh fesh. I had a really good stage passing many bikes and I was feeling really good.

We had a 30 minute service and refuel before the start of our second special stage, and again I felt really good.

At the 20km mark my Stella device lost power. The Stella is a GPS tracking device fitted by the organisers that also validates waypoints and lets you know when you are within a certain distance of the waypoint. If there is a mechanical or medical issue, it also assists with communication.

I lost a bit of confidence when this failed and slowed right down.

When I arrived at the refuel point for the next 30 minute break the officials confirmed it was dead, and that a few other riders had issues with theirs as well. They needed to go back to the Bivouac for a new one and refit it, so this gave me an extra 15 minutes over the allowed time.

The last special stage started off very rocky, but then we came to some 50-100 metre high dunes.

I was riding with Pablo, and as we were about 10 metres from the peak of the biggest dune I went to back off the throttle but it had jammed! This had happened a few times over the past few days and we thought it was just getting caught under the tank somewhere.

The other side of the dune was very steep and I landed about 20 metres down. The landing for me was soft, but for the bike it wasn’t so good.

The throttle assembly was all twisted and my aluminium rear subframe was broken. I rode down to the bottom of the dune with the throttle still jammed on and the bike revving as hard as it could.

I was able to find a small path about 1km long that took me out of the dunes and then came across a desert camp. I tried to fix the throttle so I could at least ride back but the rear of the bike was too badly damaged. I waited for assurance, and they transported me and the bike back to the bivouac.

The mechanics have repaired the throttle and re-routed the cables, but the rear subframe is badly bent and broken in a couple of places. The main bolt that holds the subframe to the frame is also snapped.

I’ll wait and see what magic the guys can do overnight, but the bike will need a new subframe and some other parts before the next race starts in Fes (Morocco) in 10 days.

290km special stage, 10 km liason
38th position overall

My start time this morning was 8.50am. I had been given an 8 minute penalty for some reason, so I was now 8 minutes behind Pablo.

Thankfully, our direction this morning was opposite to the dunes, and everyone was relieved to be on flat ground for the start! The last rider from yesterday’s final dune section was not back until 1am this morning. It was a huge effort to get him out of the dunes as they are not accessible by 4WD vehicles.

After 5 or 6km this morning we were into deep “fesh fesh” on big clay pans. It’s fine dust or sand that looks like solid ground, but behaves like soft mud. The moment you back of on the throttle in the stuff you sink. It’s very dangerous, and we had a good 8-9km of it.

I managed to make up a bit of time and a few places through the fesh fesh and caught up to Pablo.

We then had open plains full of rocks and erosion ruts that you could not see. Some small dunes briefly, and then fast open sections with no tracks and very difficult navigation.

When we had finished the 1st stage all riders were directed back to the Bivouac as the second stage for the day had been cancelled. But the ride back was extremely hot again.

Pablo and I missed 2 waypoints today and received a 30 minute time penalty each, but we had a great day with me finishing in 33rd position overall and Pablo in 37th.

275km special stage
41st position overall

Based on yesterday’s result I had an 8.59am start, 1 minute behind teammate Pablo Guillen.

Today it was straight into the big dunes again for 10km! At least it was only 35 degrees when we left.

After yesterday’s bad day with penalties and getting lost, we wanted an error free day.

The dunes were quite big and tricky, but when I came out the other side I had caught up with Pablo again. A short sand river section followed, and then another 60km in sand and small dunes.

Navigation was tricky but we made very few mistakes and arrived at the end of the first stage in Erfoud. A quick refuel and then we started the second stage back towards Merzouga.

I didn’t think it could get any more difficult than yesterday, but it was sand and more sand in smaller dunes and then we had 3 hours of weaving in and out, up and down through massive dunes.

Quite a few riders were getting caught with the steepness of the dunes, and there were some big accidents requiring medical assistance.

The reflection coming down the other side of the dunes, and not being able to see the vertical drops, was bad. Many times I had that weightless feeling for 3 or 4 seconds before the bike hit the sand again and I’d have to sit on the rear of the bike for another 80 or so metres of near vertical descent.

The last hour in the dunes was very bad. Both Pablo and I had run out of water and so had many others. It was 50 plus degrees and the sand was soft.

Having no water meant I had to be very smart with big dunes and pick the right lines. The amount of energy used trying to get the bike turned around on a near vertical dune while buried up to your knees is crazy!

I rode back into the finish line and was on the verge of passing out from dehydration. I collapsed in a chair while Katie and Abdul poured water over me to reduce my body temperature. Pablo rode in a few minutes later in the same condition as me.

Today was a very hard day, and the organisers seem to find bigger and longer dune sections each day for us.

All up, it was a good day moving up to 33rd position and Pablo to 34th. It’s time to collect tomorrow’s roadbook!

90km special stage
45th position overall

Race day! It’s only 8.30am and it’s already 36 degrees!

And there’s a few nerves this morning, but maybe that’s a good thing……

I started at 10.36 today, 1 minute behind teammate Juan Pablo Guillen Rivera (KTM-450), and straight up we were into steep sand dunes for 12km. It was quite a difficult section and I went down a couple of times in the soft sand.

I caught up to Pablo as we exited the dunes, and we then found ourselves in a river bed for 10km. It was maybe 1km wide and there were tracks going everywhere. Navigation was very difficult and Pablo and I lost at least 25 minutes in this section.

Then at the 35km mark the power to my roadbook failed, and for the remainder of the section I had to manually scroll through whilst riding. The navigation was still quite tricky and we missed some waypoints but somehow we managed to get back on route.

It was then time for the big dunes! Give me the Simpson desert any day of the week!

We were in the dunes at a very hot part of the day and just as you thought you reached the peak of the highest one, you could see another 20 ahead that were bigger.

After about 15km on top of a very high dune I could see the finish in the distance.

Pablo was only a minute or so behind me and we were both happy to get through the first day without too many problems. I’m hoping it was only a cable that vibrated loose on my roadbook switch.

On top of losing 25 minutes whilst lost I also received a 38 minute penalty for missing 2 waypoints, so I expect to be a fair way back in the field.

Not a great first day, but there’s still 4 days to go and plenty of time to get things right.