2017 Africa Eco Race - The Real Rally to Dakar
Back in 2009, the Paris-Dakar Rally left Africa and set sail for South America. With the move, the legendary rally to the Senegalese capital became history. But that same year, in order to keep the tradition-laden route alive, the Africa ECO Race (AER) began, and every year since has lead its participants to Dakar...
The official 2017 start took place in Monaco, where 6,500 kilometers separated us from Dakar. Included were more than 30 nationalities, 37 motorcycles, 50 cars and trucks, and a quad. Joining me were Alessio Corradini and Sandra Biegun—together we call ourselves the “Rally Cool Photographers.”
During the 32-hour ferry crossing to Africa, racer Jörg Majoli told me how in 2014 his dream of the Dakar Rally in South America came true, and after that the Africa Eco Race in 2015. With eyes aglow, he was starting out for a second time toward Dakar. Why was he here and not in South America? “The level of difficulty is similar, but in the Dakar many riders simply fall victim to difficulty and are out of the race early on,” he explains. “Here it’s still all about the adventure, and riders can continue on even if they don’t complete a stage.”
Everyone departed the ferry at Nador and set off toward the cold Rif and Atlas Mountain ranges. The first stage of 610 kilometers was an easy ride.
At the first bivouac—a nomadic camp that’s very much a part of the rally’s character—it was like an ant colony. Mechanics changed motor parts and made repairs, getting vehicles ready for the next day; drivers dedicated themselves to their road books; event organizers called for the evening’s meal; and the media crew edited their day’s work.
On the way to Zagora I was forced to make a stop, as my motorcycle was giving me problems. I made it another 100 kilometers before it happened again. So, I dragged the bike to a mechanic in Zagora for replacement hoses and a filter cleaning, then rode on toward Mhamid. By dark the bike started acting up again. The last 20 kilometers that night became a drawn-out game of nerves before a friendly Moroccan ended up towing me back to camp with his moped. By 2 a.m. the filter and fuel pump were changed and a pile of sand removed from the tank. I wasn’t alone—other riders experienced similar problems.
After just 60 hours in Morocco we arrived at the arid land around Assa. The distances for all participants were a challenge: Shorter stages were about 400 kilometers, longer ones 700 kilometers. However, the distances between stages weren’t reliable race-time measurements, and racers struggled not only against each other but with the conditions. Only one thing was certain—the desert always had the upper hand!
Our beach arrival got pushed back to 3 a.m. Three rear flats ruined any hopes of an earlier arrival, but after a beer in Team Ullevålseter’s glowing igloo, the day’s strains were quickly forgotten. We took advantage of the moment to raise our glasses in celebration of my close call with death, as during the day’s run the leading Kamaz truck barely missed me on a jump. Despite keeping a safe distance, it was damn close, and I had rolled to the side just in the nick of time. Those trucks are real monsters!
At Mauritania’s border the day’s stage called for a lazy 744 kilometers, including a border crossing. With the cocktail of fatigue, heat, and desert conditions, we were so exhausted we had to take small nap stops throughout the day, catching some shut-eye while photographing. It’s that lack of downtime that took the biggest toll. When not on our bikes or waiting in the stage, we sorted photos and video clips. Any remaining time was spent working on our motorcycles.
While the landscape in Morocco was quite varied and colorful, Mauritania was nothing but desert—scarce vegetation, sand and dust in the air, heat, and dryness. The motorcycle-sport legend, Jean-Louis Schlesser, had invited me to fly with him, and from the airplane cockpit I was able to experience everything from an entirely different point of view. To my question about the differences between the Dakar in South America and the Africa Eco Race, he answered, “You can change the place and the name of the event, but you can’t change Africa.” I looked out the window, seeing only a sea of dunes toward the horizon, and realized what he meant. The great adventure, the desolation within the infinite expanse of the Sahara, the campsites in the middle of nowhere, and the small villages, each with their own survival artists, are what makes this region of Africa unique and what attracted the people to Dakar 30 years ago.
We landed near a checkpoint just a few minutes before the first riders reached us. Already 150 kilometers of dunes and sand lay behind Ullevålseter, Sella, and Gabari. They arrived almost simultaneously, their faces tight with concentration. After a quick time-check and a gulp of water, they roared off to take on the next 200 kilometers of sand. A full hour went by before the fourth rider arrived. I was happy to see it was Jan Zatko, the 61-year old veteran from Slovakia who impressively proved that it’s not age but the mind that clears the hurdles necessary to excel here.
In the heart of Mauritania sand is everywhere, and it found its way into every nook and cranny of our gear. Filters and other parts had to be swapped or cleaned daily, and our media equipment was pushed to the limits. My main camera quit working, and several lenses literally ate dust. A rally of this kind always turns into an equipment massacre. But then, there are the moments that no one expects to see, like Sella running out of gas in the dunes, and to everyone’s surprise his Norwegian arch rival, Ullevålseter, stopping to share fuel with him. What sportsmanship!
Although the previous year’s winner from Norway was able to struggle out of the dunes and back to the front of the race, at the end of the ninth stage it was Gev Sella with a 44-minute lead over Ullevålseter, in second place. Organizer Rene Metge said it well during a helicopter flight, “While flying over No. 128 (Sella) it’s nice to see how he cuts his own path, independent from the rest of the riders who opened the day.”
The terrain started changing as we rode farther south. The border region with Senegal is green and a land of plenty, full of rivers. Where water is, there are also people, and there the streets and villages were once again lively.
The last bivouac was in St. Louis on what used to be an old airport. Only 300 kilometers separated us from the fabled finish line at Dakar. The atmosphere near the end was visibly more relaxed, although the work was far from over.
The last day broke with a unique stage: a beach race over 22 kilometers of fine sand toward legendary Lac Rose. After almost 6,500 kilometers, this was one of the easier tasks.
The ride over the finish line was an emotional one for all. The tension now gone, it left only cheerful faces in its wake. It’s not all about the rankings; rather, it’s the love of the sport and the achievement of making it all the way. With a 50-minute lead over Pål Anders Ullevålseter, 18-year old Gev Sella won and would go down as the youngest stage winner in the history of the AER. Had Ullevålseter simply driven past the newcomer while he was stuck out in the dunes the results might have looked different. Ullevålseter said during the race that although he might be dubbed King of the Dunes, Gev Sella is the king of everything else, as skills in navigation, coordination, fast curves, and jumps are all required to be a winner. This year, Sella brought the best package to the table and earned his win.
After the rally, I gave a marking pen to the guys with the request that they write on my motorcycle: “Friendship among people.” And it now stands in Hebrew alongside Norwegian and Slovakian versions.
Guillaume Martens was winner of the famous Malle Moto class (“Malle Moto” loosely translates as “One rider, his motorcycle, and a box with spare parts and tools—nothing else!”) and sixth place finisher in the overall. Proof enough that aside from a box of tools and spare parts, sometimes a strong will is all that’s needed to keep up with the winners.
Over the previous weeks, I’d realized one thing above all: Each person must face their own challenges in this event. It’s clear that everyone wants to get to Dakar, but the path there is unique for every entrant. The top riders struggle for victory while many others want only to experience the desert and the spirit of the rally. We, as part of the media, strive to capture moments and inspire others with them.
Still, a few are there simply to live out childhood dreams. Jean Louis Schlesser explained to me that after 40 years in motorcycle sports it’s the happy riders at the end of the events who are his driving force. Congratulations to all participants who completed!
Rally Cool Photographers are adventure travelers, photographers and storytellers. Their office is the deserts, high mountains and bivouacs in the middle of nowhere. They live their dreams and aim to capture moments that inspire others. At the Africa Eco Race they were together for the first time as a free media team: Alessio Corradini from Italy, Sandra Biegun from Poland, and the author of this story, Bastian Benjamin Brüsecke from Germany. Bastian, who grew up around motorcycling, believes in choosing the right tool for the job—whether it’s written articles, photography, or film. His goal is to bring emotionally charged stories to others in a way that will motivate them to get out and experience the adventurous life for themselves. MotoVenture.de