en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 41, Number 3May/June 1990

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Desert Game

Written and photographed by Dick Doughty

For 11 hellish days each year, the Pharaohs Rally winds across trackless miles of Egypt's wild and multicolored deserts in the most prestigious – and punishing – motor rally in the Arab world.

In a ritual driven by prestige, profit and plenty of sheer personal challenge, several hundred cars and motorcycles mass noisily each October outside Cairo, on the dusty plain at the foot of the Giza pyramids. They are there for the Pharaohs Rally, now in its eighth year. They are off-road drivers and motorcyclists, professionals and amateurs, mostly from Europe, but also from Japan, Australia and Egypt. In 1985, top racer Said El-Hajry of Qatar was one of the few non-Egyptian Arab drivers ever to enter, but he made a very good showing: He won.

On October 1,1989,140 cars, 86 motorcycles and a four-wheeled, balloon-tired motorcycle called a quadratrike set out from the starting line, bound for the pyramids of Sakkara, the end of the first stage. In the 10 days that followed, they raced, leaped, wallowed, rolled and occasionally limped through nearly every spectacular obstacle the desert could throw at them: the streams and waterfall of Wadi Rayan south of Cairo; the famous "white desert" of high, treacherously soft dunes between the oases of Bahariya and Farafra; the flat, baked expanses of dusty sand between Farafra and Dakhla; the thrilling - or terrifying - 450-meter (1500-foot) descent of the cliffs of Egypt's New Valley; the burning, nearly featureless sands north of Egypt's border with Sudan; the rock-strewn shores of Lake Nasser; and the sharp blue, red and brown mountains of the Eastern Desert. After logging more than 4960 kilometers (3082 miles) altogether - more than 3050 of them (1900 miles) off-road - only 82 cars and 46 motorcycles crossed the finish line. The desert defeated nearly half the entrants.

Among off-road rallies, the Pharaohs Rally ranks second in guts and glory only to the devastating 21-day, 12,000-kilometer (7500-mile) Paris-Dakar. Veteran rally motorcyclist Herbert Schek of West Germany describes Paris-Dakar as "much crazier," but in the Pharaohs Rally, he says, the terrain is "really just as hard, maybe harder."

According to organizers and participants alike, however, the Pharaohs Rally is the most fun of any rally going. Elaborate buffet dinners await weary participants at the end of every day, earning the race the affectionate title, "le rallye chic." "This is a rally people can really enjoy," said Rami Siag, Egyptian representative of Pharaoh SARL, the Lebanese-registered, French-based company that organizes the rally.

The logistics for such land-roving luxury are impressive: Two teams of 60 workers and 10 chefs leapfrog each other from one desert encampment to the next, setting up a colorful 1000-square-meter (10,764-square-foot) tent of traditional Egyptian tenting fabric and preparing meals for more than 800 people a night - sometimes including scores of curious local spectators. The meals consist of roast turkey, lamb, beef, chicken, pastas, stews, fresh-baked bread, more than a dozen salads and a wide array of gourmet desserts. Lots of desert-defying liquids, including case after case of mineral water, wash it all down.

Six of the 11 rally nights are spent in the desert camps, two of which, at Bahariya and Farafra, feature natural hot springs. Another, at Abu Simbel, lets early-rising ralliers watch the sun rise over Lake Nasser and illuminate the ancient temple. The other five nights are spent at top hotels in Aswan and Hurghada where pools, showers, air conditioning and - in Hurghada - the waters of the Red Sea soothe and refresh the weary.

Computer printouts giving the results of each day's racing are posted before dinner, and drivers receive a nightly briefing on the finer points of the next day's course. Some dinners are followed by video "rushes" of the day's stage, courtesy of "La Cinq" - France's Channel 5. Always tempering the festive atmosphere, however, is exhaustion - and, for many, the prospect of sleepless hours of repair work under generator-powered lights to prepare for the next day's dawn start.

"No, really, I am sometimes seeing double," said Egyptian driver Aladin Shannon as he stepped out of the hotel & dining room in his now-sullied white driving suit. The breakfast buffet had failed to take the edge off a night spent waking up a succession of local mechanics in a search for a new clutch to fit his ailing CJ6 Jeep. His enthusiasm, however, remained undimmed. "Of course I will do the stage today," he said with a grin and a slightly fanatical glint in his eye. "If I don't make it, the sweeper truck will pull me out." Meanwhile, an assistant flew to Cairo for his new clutch and brought it back the next day. In the end, the sweeper truck didn't need to tow him in, although a crowd of local spectators nearly had to push him across the day's finish line.

After that kind of gritty, never-say-die enthusiasm, the second most important fuel of the Pharaohs Rally is money - more precisely, money from corporate sponsors. While there are several dozen companies sponsoring rally competitors, one team holds a seemingly unshakable lead. Peugeot and Pioneer field a nearly unbeatable three-car team with some of the best -and most highly paid - drivers in the world: two-time Formula-One world champion Ari Vatanen of Finland, seven-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx of Belgium, and champion rally driver Michelle Mouton of France. Their Peugeot 205 and 405 Turbo-16's outpower everything else on the sand - and, at $250,000 each, they ought to. Each evening, a crack mechanical team tears into the cars, replacing parts and cleaning,"greasing and adjusting to perfection. Not unexpectedly, Vatanen took first place in 1989 (as he also did in 1987 and 1988), Ickx took second and Mouton placed third.

For drivers, sponsorship is almost as crucial as a good compass and a sand shovel, for the Pharaohs Rally is not a bargain desert vacation. Costs begin with the $4000 entry fee - half of which covers insurance - and go on to include the price of the rally vehicle itself, whether stock, modified or custom-built, the cost of any support vehicles bearing tools and spare parts, vehicle shipping costs, and possibly the fees and support costs for a paid team of one to 12 mechanics. Sponsors, in turn, are fueled by audiences - people to see and remember the names and logos plastered on the rally vehicles and the drivers' suits. And there's a rub: With 95 per cent of Pharaohs Rally media coverage directed to Europe, Egyptian and Arab participation is sharply limited by a scarcity of interested backers.

Corporate sponsors eagerly pay their money and paint their names on cars in the smaller rally circuit of the Middle East Marlboro Championship, because the regional races, such as the popular three-day Jordan Rally, are well-covered by Arab media - unlike the Pharaohs Rally Much as Siag and other organizers have tried to promote the Pharaohs Rally in Egypt and the Middle East, lopsided media interest continues to favor European sponsorship. In October of 1988, four top Gulf-area drivers visited the Pharaohs Rally, yet none found sponsorship for 1989.

Among Egyptians, the story is little different. Four of 11 Egyptian entrants used private funds. While some received partial sponsorships, others found only conditional sponsorships that required a partial refund if the driver failed to complete the rally. Support teams were either non-existent or skeletal.

Of course I know I'm not going to win. That's not the point. Just finishing this race makes you feel you have really accomplished something," said Egyptian veteran driver Azzam El-Farouqi, who carried all of his own tools and spare parts in his tough old Pinzgauer truck, a veteran of the Austrian army.

Each rally day begins early. Motorcyclists usually start at 6:00 a.m., roaring off in pairs at one-minute intervals. Cars, each with a driver and co-driver, begin departing singly at 7:00, also a minute apart. All stages are timed, with engine size determining separate competition categories for motorcycles. Cars are grouped according to whether they are fully customized, slightly modified or off-the-shelf designs.

Only part of the total distance from one camp to the next is actually raced against the clock. The rest is driven on paved roads before and after the racing stage. Rally rules are strict: Arrival more than five minutes late at the starting point disqualifies the racer on the spot; missing one of the three to five assigned checkpoints along the course brings a three-hour penalty; taking longer than the predetermined maximum time over the day's course costs nine hours; and accumulation of more than three nine-hour penalties results in disqualification.

En route, competitors navigate using a neatly handwritten rally road book that details landmarks from mountains to lone acacia trees and camel skeletons. The book notes distances between them in tenths of a kilometer, and gives advice - in French -along the way, from gentle hints like "ignore all tracks to the right" to vital warnings such as "extreme danger -quicksand."

Since 1986, only superficial changes have been made in the rally's all-around-Egypt course. While this has smoothed logistics and provided an impressive and popular variety of terrain, it has also given repeat ralliers an advantage over rookies. "You wouldn't believe that someone could remember several thousand kilometers of desert, but for those of us who race every year, it's like going home," said Raed Bad-dar, who has raced every Pharaohs Rally since the first in 1982. Laying out such a course is a daunting task, he pointed out, requiring weeks in the field and further weeks seeking local government and military approvals.

Most cars carry a compass and a multiple odometer that can track several distances simultaneously, but many times the easiest navigation method is simply to follow the dust clouds. Yet as all lemmings know, this technique can be dangerous: On the second day, after a half-dozen vehicles rolled and burrowed into the sand on the steep side of a dune, competitors took turns waving oncoming traffic aside as they worked to right each other.

Nine medical vehicles and a helicopter staffed by paramedics and doctors of Transworld Medical Services patrol the tracks each day. Two powerful sweeper trucks traverse the course behind the final car, pulling out the stuck and towing the disabled, sometimes working long into the night. Every car carries a pocket-sized emergency transmitter. Organizers take pride in the rally's safety record: There has been only one fatal accident in eight years - in 1988 - and, in 1989, only a handful of minor injuries.

Despite this record, the Pharaohs remains a gruelling desert game and holds its share of dangers. After having lost his four-wheel-drive, most of his clutch, his muffler, his generator belt, his starter, lots of radiator water, all of second gear and nearly all of his sleep on the first eight stages, Aladin Shannon, no longer seeing double, turned his wheezing Jeep up the wrong valley in the mountains of the Eastern Desert on stage nine. Realizing his mistake, he tried to retrace his path, only to stumble on blue markers that looked similar to those used in the rally - but were not.

After following these for several hours, his Jeep broke down for good, 43 kilometers (27 miles) from the track. His leaky radiator had consumed all his drinking water. Despite the emergency transmitter, no help arrived as one day passed, and then another. "By the third day I was sure 1 was not going to be picked up," he said, and he made a will. Haifa day later, an Egyptian border patrol picked him up, hours before the desert claimed him.

Officially, the Pharaohs Rally is not connected to any racing circuit. It is a "raid" rally, like Paris-Dakar and the smaller Tunis and Moroccan Atlas rallies. Many drivers of "raid" rallies also compete in the better-known rally circuit that includes the famous Monte Carlo, as well as others like the Rally of the Acropolis in Athens and the Kenyan Rally out of Nairobi. "Raid" events are distinguished by long racing stages covering cross-country distances in epic style; circuit events have more numerous stages of only a few kilometers each, and are confined within a limited area.

With a top prize of $6125, the Pharaohs is not a cash bonanza. It is, rather, a contest for prestige among drivers and their corporate sponsors. Professional drivers receive confidential sums of prize money from sponsors that vastly exceed the official prizes - often including generous bonuses merely for finishing.

The Egyptian government, at first cautious, has embraced the rally as a boon to tourism. Officials in tourism promotion have helped organizers coordinate among 14 Egyptian governmental authorities, paving the way for everything from course layout approval to speedy customs clearance and temporary license plates for rally vehicles.

Media coverage, though aimed mainly at Europe, is growing and becoming more sophisticated. In 1989, a twin-rotor Egyptian army helicopter carried video editing and remote-broadcast facilities for Channel 5 - as well as a $350,000 satellite linkup to power fax machines and phone calls from the desert for more than two dozen journalists. Cairo's Channel 2 broadcast 15 minutes of race coverage daily, a first for Egyptian television. Tokyo sent a crew from Asahi Television, China's Xinhua Agency sent a photographer, and the Beirut-based Sport Auto magazine provided extensive coverage to racing enthusiasts in the Arab world.

At the finish line on October 11, it was time for ritual. Playing to an Argus-eyed crowd of cameras, winner Vatanen and co-driver Bruno Berglund climbed atop their car, tossed their dusty white driving scarves to the throng and, with Egypt's timeless pyramids in the background, prepared a victory toast of.. .glasses of milk, as befits clean-cut heroes. "They do this every year," commented a news -photographer dryly.

Four hours later, with the sun beginning to drop in the sky, Michel Fikry rode alone across the same finish line, welcomed by a thinner crowd and photographed only by the cameras of friends. Exhausted, covered with dust and sweat, he embraced his brother Maged, who on the 10th day had fallen ill with a stomach virus. "I told Michel to go on," said Maged, "and I ended up spending 13 hours in the back of the sweeper truck. It was the worst ride of my life."

And next year? "On the first two days we were saying that, if we survived this, no way would we do it again," said Michel. "After that, we didn't have time to think about it. Now,...of course we'll do it again!"

Dick Doughty, formerly with Cairo Today, is working on his master's degree in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This article appeared on pages 26-33 of the May/June 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1990 images.