“In the cockpit, I am in charge”

“In the cockpit, I am in charge”

You may have noticed that Noël Essers regularly goes on rally adventures. We’ve reported on this in previous newsletters. And even in retirement, his love for trucks has not grown cold. A true passion, that yielded Noël and his team members a fantastic second place in the Africa Eco Race.

The Africa Eco Race is considered a replacement for the former Paris-Dakar rally, which was relocated to South America. “We participated in Paris-Dakar about 15 times, including in South America, where we crossed Argentina, Chile and Uruguay,” said Noël Essers. “But when the Africa Eco Race was launched, we decided to shift our focus back to the African continent.”

How does such a race work?

“Together with all the participants, we departed from the port of Monaco on 30 December last year to set sail for Morocco. A boat trip of about 36 hours, and for me a special one: I turned 75. No heavy partying though, as we had to be alert for the first part of the race when we arrived in Nador: the prologue. A warm-up of some 90 kilometres through, among others, the Atlas Mountains. By ‘we’ I mean my regular team members and loyal fellow travellers: Marc Lauwers is co-pilot and handles the navigation, Johan Cooninx is our mechanic.”

“After the prologue, we start the real race to the finish line at Lac Rose, on the beach at Dakar in Senegal. It winds through the desert and still covers a total of 6000 kilometres. Our only concern is then: keep driving. This requires properly assessing the terrain and the type of sand and adjusting your tyre pressure accordingly. Navigation is also crucial. Misjudging a surface or a bend can cost you hours. We were once stuck in the desert for several days with a defective compressor. And when the team that brought us a new compressor had just left, they had a collision with a camel. You never know what you’re going to encounter in such a race …”

How do you prepare for a race like this? Physically it’s no joke …

“That’s right, you have to be able to take a beating. There is the constant shaking and bumping in the cabin, because you’re driving on sand or unpaved routes, and of course preferably as fast as possible. No, it’s not really possible to enjoy the surroundings during such a race. There’s no time to stop and admire the elephant herd strolling by, I’m afraid.”

“And then of course there’s the inescapable, scorching heat in the desert – one time, the mercury registered a whopping 53°C! And obviously we don’t have air conditioning … And at night it sometimes cools down so much that ice forms on your tent. There’s no comfort during such a race, but most of the time you’re happy to be able to crawl into your tent for a few hours. If you have a breakdown along the way, you sometimes arrive at your stop late at night. There’s no question of sleeping then. And in the morning, you have to be on your way again with full focus. Luckily, I’ve always been active and am able to handle these inconveniences. When I’m home, I go for a walk with the dog each morning, and you can also regularly find me in the gym.”

Everyone has their own task in the cabin. Good communication seems crucial.

“That’s right, you’re in constant dialogue. If I’m informed too late which turn to take, or if we notice too late that the surface is changing, this can have major consequences. But after all these years, we’ve learned to work together extremely well. Sometimes things are said in the heat of the moment, but that is soon forgotten. Everything went so well this year that we managed to win second place on the podium. A wonderful reward for all those efforts. And, you must admit, a nice birthday present (laughs).”

Last year you went on an adventure with CEO Gert Bervoets.

“Yes, and in the cockpit, I am in charge (laughs). We participated in the Morocco Desert Challenge. He came along as navigator. Of course, Gert and I know each other through and through, but being dependent on each other in a cabin like that is something else. Especially when you’re doing something like this for the first time. I don’t know if he’d do it again, I know I certainly would. Although I have to say that I promised my family that I’d stay home for a while …. So maybe later?”

Watch the interview with Noël Essers on Eurosport here: