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or, "Manama to Market Road; How Aretha got from Bahrain to England"


Tuareg Rallye '06; Race report


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 Welcome Desert Racing Fans

This is the homepage for "Aretha",a 1992 Limited Edition H1. She's big, black, demands R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and gets it! TIpping the scales at 3 tons, this "baby got back" but don't think that makes her slow. With 6.2 liters of supercharged V8 GM diesel power for loco-motion you can hear her coming three counties away and just like her name sake, that's one sexy sound.

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2011Tuareg Rally Report:

 17 Days, 3 thousand miles, pavement, dust, rocks, sand, pain, relief, and joy. What else could you ask for?!?
I had Aretha loaded up when I picked up Andy at his house and we headed down to Portsmouth to start our big adventure on the 2011 Tuareg Rallye. We spent the night in a well beat up cheap hotel directly across from the ferry port and after breakfast we made our way across the street and joined the queue. After squeezing the big girl into the crowded car deck we lugged all our bags up to our state room. With no windows to shut, the truck is impossible to lock so we could leave nothing valuable that was not locked or bolted down. The beer was cold and crisp as we toasted the commencement of our journey and watched HMS Victory slide by.

Blessed with a smooth crossing of the Bay of Biscay, we disembarked in Santander, Spain, pointed the big bonnet south and motored towards Toledo. The weather was as cold and stark as the landscape but as the latitudes fell away, the sun came out and the temperature warmed. We were offered the fine hospitality of the Spanish Infantry Academy where we spent two nights and enjoyed the beauty of old Toledo, just across the river. Leaving Toledo behind, we continued our journey south to Mojacar on the Mediterranean coast.
Sunday morning found us joining the rest of the merry band of racers in the hour drive to the port of Almeria, where our journey to the North African coast would start. For two retired Navy sailors, the crossing was a good one. For many of the otherwise land lubbers, not so smooth! A beam sea in the middle watches of the night had disconcerted some of our fellows but we slept like logs. Sharp rapping on the doors of the cabins bolted us out of our racks early in the morning. Land ho! Africa beckoned, so we lugged our bags down the many ladderways, tossed them in the truck and headed out of the ship into the early morning light. A quick dash across the road brought us out of the port and to the initial rally point.

The first day's stages are mostly navigation exercises to get the competitors used to the tracks and their vehicles, and more importantly, out of the cities safely and into the desert. For some, the red mist rose early on. A motorbiker, a little too keen on getting on with some faster tracks, tried to pass the big Hummer a little too rashly and ended up dumping his bike directly in front of me. Some deft footwork kept me squashing him and his bike like a bug. It was a good reminder that in order to finish first, you first have to finish! Andy's mastery of the arcane science of fast navigation kept us right on track and on time. Our communication and team work was spot on.
As you know, Hummers are not rocket ships. The first two days of racing consisted mostly of fast, stony tracks. The many, many hours working on the suspension had done wonders. The infamous "Hummer Hop", where the back end flies up when hitting a bump at speed, was gone. The beast just flew over the ruts. Still, for all that, it is still a big old truck on truck springs! Our molars were starting to loosen after two days of rattling along. As we would get passed by the faster Range Rover based cars I had to chant to myself, "This is not your strong suit, wait until the sand..." The greyhound fast Bowlers, Tomcats and Nemisis cars, all based on Range Rover technology, were much faster than us. Our days in the sun would come in the huge ergs, 200 meters of orange sand. The big 37" Dick Cepeck Fun Country II tires would be let down to 12 psi and with the stability of the big, wide Hummer, we would be able to power on past the the little Rangies that had buried themselves in the soft sand.
And so it was. Day Three of racing commenced in some vicious, short, sharp dunes of deceptively soft sand. We started the day in 23rd place. When we reached the first secret checkpoint, we had passed two thirds of the field. Twenty minutes later we had risen to about 4th place and we could see the second secret checkpoint. One short, almost vertical dune, stood between us and the check point. I powered up and over it. The gods must have forgotten to create the other side of the dune because it simply did not exist! The front end of the Hummer fell and the hard bottom of the small pan between us and the checkpoint came crashing upwards to meet us. With an almighty slam, we crashed down. "Back!!" Andy screamed. I looked left and right...did I miss something?, what did he mean: "back?"  "BAACCCKKKKKK!!!!!", he screamed again. Confused, I stopped the truck. Feverishly looking around, I tried to see what I might have missed. Why would we need to go back?? The checkpoint was only 30 meters in front of us. This time Andy just  screamed, "MY BACK!! I've stuffed my (insert long string of very colourful sailor speak here) back!!" Oh dear...
I shut the the truck down and came around to Andy's side and helped him out of the truck. He laid down on the sand trying to get his breath and the pain in his back under control. We were in a bad spot as other vehicles were starting to come and we were right in the way of the checkpoint. Thankfully, our tall whip with the Morocco flag few high into the air so the other vehicles could spot us before they ran into us. While Andy rested, I got our time card stamped. Twenty minutes passed and we decided that prudence, being the better part of valour, required us to move gently out of the dunes to a safer place to assess Andy's condition and our options.
A short and as gentle as I could make it drive later, we exited the dune field and found a spot on waypoint under some power lines. Andy took some ibuprofin (candy of the gods!) to see if that would help. Thirty minutes later, there was no improvement so I got on the horn and called for medical help. The paramedic came out and found us easily as we had given our exact GPS point, which coincided with the the waypoint we were on, and our tall whip to spot us. A quick exam by the paramedic confirmed that all was not going to be well. The paramedic called out the rally emergancy doctor who arrived a very short time later. The doctor's Land Cruiser Ambulance was loaded with all the best Class A drugs and before you even say it, Andy was in no pain at all. He was loaded into the Land Cruiser and I took the paramedic with me back to the mud walled kasbah hotel where we were bivouaced.
Later in the evening, Andy was loaded up into the ambulance, along with a couple of other casualties, and taken to a hospital an hour and a half north of us for x-rays. My phone rang at midnight and it was Andy, "Bad news pal, I've got two cracked vertebrae. They are stable fractures and no spinal injury so they are bringing me back to the hotel. Sorry, but the race is done for me."  Sheesh, that was the last thing I was worried about! The good news though, is we had purchased special travel insurance for dangerous sports, specifically citing timed event motorsports. The German doctors, paramedics and medical staff that had accompanied the race were top notch professionals and got the ball rolling immediately with the insurance company, making sure that Andy was as comfortable as possible. It took three days but the insurance company did send a medical ambulance Lear jet all the from England down to Morocco to a military airfield just to pick him up and bring him back home. Good thing, too. One of the German doctors showed me videos he had made on his I-phone of the Moroccan hospital just in case the insurance company got funny about why he did not leave Andy in the hospital. There was a cat in the emergency ward and kittens in one of the desk drawers!!
I missed three days of racing as I nursed Andy. There were a few moments when he was well and truly asleep that I popped out to service the Hummer and check it out. When Andy was hurt, it really had been one massive whack. The right front tie rod was slightly bent where it had hit the sway bar. I easily adjusted the tracking back with a bit of string and two tool boxes. The hood had been mashed around the edges where it had hit the bulkhead and the airlift hooks. And, almost unbelievably, the right front tire had dented the air cleaner. For those who know Hummers, that is not unusual but Aretha had been lifted 3.5 inches just avoid this!
On the morning of the sixth race day I followed the ambulance up to the military airfield where we deposited Andy into the good hands of the medevac crew. I continued on alone northbound to one of the race checkpoints for later in the day. One of the race support trucks and I pre-ran the route the other racers would later come barreling across. It was an incredible gorge carved through the Atlas mountains with a stony riverbed bottom. Hundreds of feet of verticle cliff hemmed us in on both sides as the gorge narrowed and became more twisted. As much as I was enjoying the run, I was wishing Andy had been there with me.
Race day seven found me again motoring north ahead of my fellow competitors alone. I had many offers from other racers to navigate for me but somehow it just did not feel right to have somebody else sitting in Andy's seat. I did take some good advice and pre-ran one of the stages, a long wide valley with many, many tracks in it. I only had my hand-held GPS to navigate with so I put in the cooridinates, 20km away across the valley, and headed due east. Following the arrow of my GPS, I wriggled across the valley until I made it to the exact point on the other side. Very enjoyable! And I was proud of myself for getting there with the wheel in one hand and the GPS in the other (the main nav station is 7 feet across the truck so I can't see it from the driver side!). The day ended by loading back onto the ferry in Nador to return to Spain. Before you know it, I was back in the cabin, lulled asleep by the gentle roll of the ocean.
Day 8, the last day. I was convinced by my friends that I had to compete this final day. That way, Andy and I would be official finishers. A small point, perhaps, but it was important. After all the hard work we had put into the truck and planning the race, I wanted us to be official finishers of the rally. One of the crew of our support truck volunteered to be my navigator for the day. We collected our time card and started the navigation stage. It was a narrow and twisty track over the high mountains of the Spanish coast. This is the country where Sergio Leone made all those famous "spaghetti westerns" and you could almost see Clint Eastwood ride by with a cigar and poncho as a haunting whistle played in the background. We finally topped the last ridge and the ocean lay before us, thousands of feet below down another tiny, twisted track. Squeezing between two white-washed adobe houses with cactus planters on either side, we popped out onto a paved road where a Spanish policeman waved us across the road and down a narrow side road. This road dumped into a narrow and deep river canyon with a sandy bottom. We handed our time card to the race official and staged into the starting position for the last speed section of the rally, 2km of blasting down the river bed to the ocean.The starter's left hand kept us stopped while his right hand showed five fingers. As he closed his thumb into his hand counting the seconds down, I stood hard on the brakes and throttled the engine. Pinky finger disappears, three seconds to go. Boost builds as the engine roars. Two fingers and the supercharger is screaming, black smoke building like a freight train from the stack. One finger and Aretha  trembles with power. A lifetime passes, Rome is built, empires are won and lost and finally, the last second passes, the flag falls releasing us from our momentary prison. Aretha leaps forward, scrabbling for traction, sand and gravel flying. The canyon walls narrow and close as the track twists left and right. Dust flying from the car ahead of us that we are rapidly reeling in, she broadslides left and right in a dance of power and grace. Before you can blink, the finish is dead ahead of us. A sign stretched between the cabs of two MAN KAT1 trucks beckons the big girl on. We fly through the gap, announcer calling our time and congratulations. As the real-time world suddenly springs into focus, we are barreling towards the beach and the other bikes and cars. A few hard downshifts and nimble steering veers us off to the side and like a race horse blowing from a hard race, we canter to the side, rumble to an idle, catch our breath and, with slow and gentle pushes on the switches, shut down. The peaceful sound of the waves is penetrated every minute or two by the screaming engines and downshifting of the next finisher but as the silence  of the big truck builds space, the sounds of laughter, slaps on backs, and hearty hugs penetrate the air. We are done. The rally is over. My ersatz navigator reaches across and shakes my hand, thanking me for the opportunity. I take a deep breath and a slow release. Well Andy, we did it. We finished.
Once the last competitor has made it down the riverbed, the rally forms a large parade to head back to the race hotel in Mojacar. The ambulances lead the way with lights flashing followed by a couple of dozen motorbikes. Then come all the race cars. First in the parade, yep, you guessed it, one big black Hummer! Police siren wailing, horns honking, we parade through town to rally HQ. Beers are had, prizes given, congratualations passed to all. A fine finish.
I still have to get home though. Victoria, my darling bride, flies down the next morning to Almeria where I pick her up from airport (an hour late, but that's another story!). Together we make the long road trip up to Madrid. A hotel suite gives us a great view of the city and in the morning we motor up to Bilbao. A small family hotel awaits us on the hills atop Bilbao for a lovely view. Then a short trip to Santander where we load the ferry and overnight back to Portsmouth. I had worried that with so much sun and beautiful weather so far, we were destined to have a cold rain upon arrival in the UK, but it was not to to be. We drove off the ship into a bright and glorious English spring day. Many, many hours later, after a slow trip around London on Friday afternoon M25 traffic, we arrived back home just as the sun was setting.
So, the butcher's bill; one bumpstop lost, one broken circlip on the throttle cable (fixed with safety wire and pliers), one slightly bent track rod, and one navigator with two slightly cracked vertebrae. The truck damage is minor. Very pleased with the way she held together. Need lighter springs though, my kidneys and molars would be appreciative. And Andy, you ask?? Oh, he is fine. No long-term damage, but six weeks of staring at the ceiling as his back heals. I know he is okay because he is already saying things like, "Okay, so when we go back in 2013, we need to...!!" All is good and 2013 is just around the corner. Guess I had better stop writing about the past and get busy working on the future!


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