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Reliving Ashish Raorane's 2020 Africa Eco Race adventure

Vaishali Dinakaran  | Published: March 31, 2020, 10:21 AM IST

"I've been on the Chinese and South Korean coast for the past month and a half, never seen it so dead."

THE SEA
That's a text message that I received from Ashish Raorane around the time I was typing this story out in the middle of March. Right when the dreaded COVID-19 chaos started to ebb in the Far East, and just as it was beginning to explode in other parts of the world. Raorane is a marine engineer by profession (hence his nickname - The Mariner), and approximately 10 days after finishing his first really big cross-country rally raid - the 2020 Africa Eco Race - he was already back on the ship, setting sail for foreign shores. Even as I typed out my reply to him, various motorsport events around the world were being called off. Including the 2020 Merzouga Rally, which was meant to be his next international race. It didn't feel like it was just two months ago that Raorane was doing that seemingly impossible motorcycle ballet over desert dunes astride his KTM 450EXC. That seemed a lifetime ago.

THE BEGINNING
Raorane's rally-raid journey began, relatively speaking, recently. Back in 2015, a friend convinced him to take his Triumph Tiger to the Indian National Rally Championship round in Nashik. They needed five Tigers to form a class within the championship and compete in the event. "So I went and I liked the format - just the idea of having a closed course on which I could go fast," he says. From there, things progressed rather quickly. The Raid de Himalaya was the next event on his radar, and astride that same Triumph Tiger, Raorane managed to finish 12th overall. He followed this up with three consecutive outings at the Desert Storm starting in 2016, before making his international rally raid debut in 2018 at the Pan Africa Rally. A full season of the Bajas World Cup followed in 2019. And then came the big one - the Africa Eco Race. The event uses the same route as the original Dakar Rally, with a flag-off in Monaco, five stages in Morocco, six stages in Mauritania, and a final stage in Senegal. An event that's meant to be the ultimate sort of training for the current iteration of the Dakar Rally. And it's an event for which you need to be in the very best physical condition. Heading into the 2020 Africa Eco Race, Raorane was not.

THE SPANNER IN THE WORKS
"When I heard the doctors tell me I had dengue, it was a shock. I didn't believe that this was happening for two days. I was in denial about the news I'd just got," Raorane says. The dengue wasn't the worst of it. It had led to an inflamed liver, and he was advised by his doctors not to travel. But just nine days after he'd told the world, via Instagram, that his chances of competing in the Africa Eco Race were looking bleak, Raorane announced his intention to go ahead with the event. The decision had been made after consulting with his wife Tanya, whom he acknowledges as his biggest supporter. "We realised that everything was paid for, everything was in place. So we decided the least we could do is go and try. If I got to a point where I felt like I couldn't carry on, then I would need to be smart enough to make that decision before something bad happened," he says.

In Monaco for the ceremonial start of the 2020 Africa Eco Race

Adding to the physical struggles that he was likely to face on the bike - given that he was just recovering from a fairly bad viral infection - was the bike itself. The budget needed for a KTM 450 Rally Replica was €30,000 (approximately Rs 24 lakh). It was out of reach for a privateer like Raorane. So he had to make do with the KTM 450EXC - an enduro bike - fitted with an extra fuel tank. He would just have to accept the fact that both the top speed and fuel autonomy of the motorcycle would be compromised.

THE ODD GOOD SIGN
The opening few stages of the Africa Eco Race were encouraging. He finished 33rd in the short 24km first stage. And then he moved up 10 places on the long 333km Stage 2 that ran from Tarda to Mhamid. The third stage took riders over 516km from Mhamid to Assa, and Raorane ended 27th, which moved him up to 21st in the overall rankings. He was slowly beginning to get into the rhythm of the rally.

"I think the first couple of Moroccan stages kind of boosted my confidence," he says. "This was my second navigation rally, and the last one I had done was almost a year ago. And physically I wasn't 100 per cent, but the navigation was falling into place, and I was kind of getting into the flow. That boosted my confidence, and mentally it helped me get up and go out again." What also helped him, he said, was the fact that he went into the rally with low expectations. Managing to get to the end of each day successfully was a bonus. Of course, he needed medication to help him a little, owing to the fact that he got tired more easily due to the illness that had preceded his desert adventure, and he also had to battle some allergic reactions - a side effect of the dengue. But the on-site doctors helped him, and he was able to continue riding. "It was definitely hard on the body, but overall I think it was quite okay," he says.

Raorane's strong performances continued. He finished the fourth stage 26th, moving to 23rd in the overall rankings. Then came Stage 5, where the Special Stage distance between Smara and Wad Assag, was 473km: Raorane finished 14th in the stage, and moved into 17th position overall. It was an impressive way to round off the Moroccan stages. But even at this point, he was well aware that the real test was yet to come - those dreaded Mauritanian dunes that would be really hard to tackle on the EXC.

"The first day in Mauritania was actually soft sand, but a short 190km stage. The sand was so soft that in 190km, I used up close to 16 litres of fuel," he says. Back in Morocco, Raorane had been able to make it to the refuelling points, usually between the 250 and 260km mark, on the strength of the 15 litres of fuel in the front tank. Only once did he need to switch to the rear tank. But during the very first stage in Mauritania, he had needed a little of those five extra litres in the spare tank. During the latter half of the stage, comprising flatout open piste, a lot of bikes passed him. But the gap to the rider in 18th place was significant. At the end of the day Raorane retained 17th overall, but the signs were ominous. "I knew the fuel range was going to be an issue," he recalls. He finished the next stage, the 477km special between Chami and Aidzidine, with just 100ml of fuel left. That 23rd overall ranking that he had, was about to start slipping away.

THE NIGHT IN THE DESERT
Raorane was sitting, wrapped up in a blanket from the emergency kit, in a little hole in the desert sand that he'd dug just behind his motorcycle. He was at the 175km mark of Stage 8. One half of his mind was occupied with thoughts of his wife, whom he had no way of getting in touch with, and who he knew would be worried sick about him. If she'd been able to come to the rally with him, as part of the crew, it would have been different. But with registration for each crew member costing €9000 (approximately Rs 7 lakh), it hadn't been possible. Then there was a tiny amount of fear that crept into his mind when he saw desert beetles crawling around the place. It reminded him of the incident at the 2018 India Baja where a rider had gotten lost in the desert and passed away due to dehydration. But he forced these thoughts out of his mind. Instead, he began to regret the fact that while his phone was fully charged, he no longer had the Kindle App on it. He'd deleted it before the rally because he needed space on the device. A book or two to read, while he waited for the sweep truck to come collect him, would have helped pass the time.

When he'd begun the eighth stage of the rally, Raorane knew that fuel range was likely to be an issue. Given that he'd just about finished the previous stage of the rally, after having ridden in a higher gear than he needed to, to save on fuel, he was concerned. When he got going, he discovered that the stage was very tough. Around the 30km mark, he made a navigation error. "I rode 10km before realising the roadbook didn't match anymore, and then I came back, which added another 10km to my odo before I found the correct track." With 45 minutes lost, all the other riders had passed him, as had the cars and trucks, leaving the sand rutted. With the extra kilometres run, and the fact that he had to stay on the throttle to get through the ruts, the realisation that he simply didn't have enough fuel began to sink in.

"The next 100km was just dunes and sand and more sand. Because I was riding slow, I was also crashing a lot. I just didn't feel one with the bike. I was fighting the bike continuously, and I was generally just very uncomfortable on the motorcycle that day. Just mentally not there, physically not there... Just wrestling the motorcycle," he recalls. At the 175km mark, he was out of water, out of food, and had buried the motorcycle in soft sand at a strange angle. "The next fuel stop was at 316km. I had 140 or 150km to go, and I did not have fuel for it," he says. Given that he also had issues with his clutch, he needed to make a decision. Push through and risk damaging the motorcycle to the point that he would have to withdraw from the rally? Or not complete the stage, accept the penalties, and take the restart the next day? The answer became clear.

"When I made that call, I thought I would be at the bivouac late that night," Raorane says. "But it turned out I spent 13 to 14 hours in the desert, and then 18 hours on the truck before I could actually catch up with the rally again."

Despite having to spend a significant amount of time alone in the desert, Raorane says he didn't panic. A part of the reason he was calm is because of his training as a marine engineer. "We train for rescue situations, and we're certified for personal survival," he says. He remembers times on the ship that have been far more stressful - fighting two fires, and having to rescue someone from the water. Keeping calm in the desert was relatively easy. He disconnected everything on the bike that made use of battery power, so that the tracking devices - ERTF and Iritrack - would have power. He made sure to call the race control every three hours, to let them know he was okay, and so they'd have records of when he'd communicated with them last. The medical truck that had stopped by to check on him, had given him food and two bottles of water to get through the night while he waited for the truck which was meant to collect him. When the truck finally got to him, he'd been waiting in the desert for 14 long hours. It was only when he actually got on the truck that he realised why it had taken so long to reach him. "Moving a six-by-six in that soft sand - it just moves at 10km an hour at best. It gets stuck a lot. And the driver on the sweep truck hadn't slept for two days, but he was one tough guy though and drove another 20 hours," he says of the other side of the rally that he got to witness.

THE LAC ROSE DREAM
By the time Raorane was back in the bivouac, he'd already picked up massive amounts of penalties, and he'd missed two full stages of the rally. His bike was on another truck, and hadn't reached the bivouac yet. As things would turn out, the bike would only reach half an hour before he needed to take the start for Stage 11. Given that time was limited, the Nomadas Adventure crew that Raorane was competing with, managed to just about get his motorcycle repaired. They fixed the navigation equipment, but weren't able to change the clutch pack. So he took the start of the stage, and then stopped soon after, picking up even more penalties.

"I decided to go to the end of the stage, and take the penalties for the missed waypoints. Basically that way, I would make it to Stage 12," he says. And making it to the Lac Rose stage was important to him. "That was the beach stage, and that was something that I really wanted to be a part of, because you see so many videos of it and it's special," he says. But he admits that getting to Lac Rose the way he did, was underwhelming. "I felt good just to be there. It's a very special feeling once you're there, and it's just 22km to the pink lake and the Dakar finish podium. But I obviously didn't have the same sense of accomplishment, as if I had run all the stages properly. So yeah, I guess I have to go back," he says.

THE LONG GAME
Even though Raorane wants to go back to the Africa Eco Race, to try and remedy his 57th place finish, he does have his sights set on that other Dakar Rally. If all things go according to plan, come January 2021, he hopes to be lining up at the start line of the Dakar in Saudi Arabia. It's an idea that's been taking shape for a while. "The plan to do the Dakar came to me in the second year of rallying. That's when I started thinking, 'Is it really possible for a total novice with no connection to motorsport to get to Dakar in five years?' That's what the aim has always been," he says.

As a privateer, though, there are significant hurdles. Taking part in the Africa Eco Race has helped him realise the complete costs of an event - there's an added 20 per cent of hidden costs that he hadn't anticipated before he competed in the rally, which he knows of now. This, he says, will help him come up with a realistic budget for the Dakar. The time in the saddle is a challenge that's just as hard to overcome. When he's on land, he rides the trails near his home in Pune, bicycles, and also works out in the gym. The aim he says is to keep his body engaged for eight to ten hours, which helps simulate the physical strain he's likely to go through if he's riding a bike in a rally. But actually training on a proper rally bike, in the sort of terrain he'd face in a rally, is much harder. The cost of training in Spain comes up to around €3000, without the cost of flights and visas. "I will definitely have to figure out some training in September or October. I'm considering training in Saudi as well, because KTM has a presence there. You could get a motorcycle there, and that's where the Dakar happens. So that's probably better terrain to train in now, and it's probably cheaper to fly there as well," he says.

THE MARINER
At this point, it's hard to predict what will happen when in the world of motorsport. Race calendars are all in chaos, events are being cancelled and rescheduled, and some might not take place at all. Which is also why it's hard to predict whether or not Raorane really will make it to Dakar 2021. The decision he makes will come after much number crunching, and after careful consultation with his wife, whose opinion he relies on. "You know, I've spoken to a couple of retired racers over the last two years, and everyone has the same advice for me: 'Listen to your wife!' She's involved in the whole thing, and she looks at it from the outside, and if she thinks that I shouldn't probably go for a certain race, I just take her word for it," he says.
In the meanwhile, though, Raorane is still on that ship, heading into Seattle. The last message I have from him reads: "While the world shuts itself down, essential cargo needs to keep moving."

***

Ashish's Desert Diary:
Ashish Raorane was kind enough to send us the notes he made about being stuck in the desert for 31 hours. Here, largely unedited, is what he wrote.

Stage 8 unraveled the rally for me. Made a nav error at KM30 and lost a bit of time coming back on course. Cars and trucks had already passed me by then which made the dune crossings slow and extremely tiring. Issues crept up with the bike as I progressed slowly, at KM175 I was out of water and didn't have enough fuel to make the CP3 refuelling point. The bike was stuck in a dune and I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of calling the PC truck (a rally HQ on wheels) that the sweep truck would have to get me. Little did I know that the adventure had just begun. I made the call to the PC at 14:30 on the 15th and was told that the sweep was on its way, picking up 2 bikes and an SSV. At 17:30 a medical car reached me, checked I was ok and left me a pack of food and 2 bottles of water. They told (me) it would be a few hours before the sweep gets to me. The sun went down soon and it began to cold. At 19:30 it was dark and no sign of the sweep yet. Not knowing how long it would be in the desert I decided to disconnect all electrical consumers (roadbooks, odo's etc) to the bike's battery so I could maintain power to the emergency tracking devices (Iritrack and ERTF) for the longest possible time. These devices have inbuilt batteries but I wasn't sure how long they would last.

I noted down my GPS coordinates. I made another call to the PC truck and confirmed that the sweep had a lock on my GPS coordinates. The safest place was to stay with the bike now as the sweep would be able to home in on me. As a back up I scrolled through the road book to note the nearest village and the general compass direction I would have to walk if push came to shove. Then the wait began. It was 22:30. Little did I know I was still 24 hours away from the bivouac..

At 22:30 a stand storm began to pick up. I called the PC truck, the calls went unanswered for an hour. I decided to eat and hydrate knowing the sandstorm would only get worse (from what we saw the last 2 nights in Mauritania). After a sandy 'dinner', I called PC again and got lucky. They told me the sweep was still 35 km away and was having trouble crossing the dunes. The sweep is a huge 6x6 monster of a truck which had already picked up a broken SSV and had that added weight on the back so it was obviously having difficulty negotiating the soft sand dunes. I knew this was gonna be a long wait. I opened my rescue pack and took stock of things. I verified my direction with the manual compass from the rescue kit, my nav instruments on the bike and the iPhone compass and made sure they matched, all ok.

Next I had to manage the cold and wind. I decided to shelter on the Lee side of the bike which luckily for me was also the Lee side of the dune I was stuck on. My next worry was insect, crawlies and snakes, I had seen a few big crawlies in the evening. I knew there was very less vegetation around so chances of snakes were low, or so I hoped. By this time the sandstorm was in full blow and I could barely see. I was cold and shivering, I got the rescue blanket out of the rescue pack, dug a small hole behind the bike, covered myself and rested and against the bike in a huddled position to retain body heat. It was 00:30 January 16. I have no recollection of when I fell asleep or passed out. I was jolted back into reality by the loud air horn blinding lights of the sweep truck at 03:30. A sense of relief took over, however it would take 19 more hours for the sweep truck to negotiate the 145 km of sand and dunes to CP3 where the rally course crossed the tarmac road to the bivouac, which was another 100km away.

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