A RALLY FOR WOMEN ONLY
This rally tests drivers’ skills and builds lasting friendships
THE WOMEN DANCE with abandon under a star-filled sky, the desert forgotten. After eight grueling days driving Morocco’s sun-scarred landscape, these 316 women have completed the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc— an all-terrain, all-female automobile competition in the Sahara Desert.
The women are from 15 different countries, but tonight they are as one, some dancing on colorful Moroccan carpets covering the golden sand, others gathered in clusters around candlelit lanterns.
Julie Dufour and Geneviève MacEachern, a pair of Canadians, are among the revelers. At home in Gatineau, Quebec, Julie is a 41-year-old lawyer and mom. Geneviève, a 49-year-old mother of two, is an insurance claims analyst in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Tonight, though, they are Team 187, Julie the driver and Geneviève the navigator.
In the mid-90s, Geneviève had read about the Rallye and fell in love with the idea of being at the mercy of the desert with nothing but her vehicle, her teammate, and her wits to guide her. In 2007, she asked her friend Julie to join her. The rally would cost them around 40,000 CAD, and while many teams are sponsored, Julie and Geneviève spent a decade raising money to participate.
Now, dancing among new friends, they agree that finding their way across the desert together is the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
“I feel like superwoman!” exclaims Geneviève, throwing her arms around a grinning Julie. “Like I can do anything!”
EVERY SPRING for the past 27 years, women from around the world have descended on the Moroccan Sahara Desert in trucks, four-by-fours, quads and buggies to compete in the world’s original women-only, off-road rally. French founder Dominique Serra was a travel agent before she created the Rallye in 1990. Frustrated by the
THE COURSE IS 2,500 KILOMETERS OF HIGH SAND DUNES, TIRE-PIERCING BLACK ROCKS, ENDLESS SAND FLATS AND SUN
lack of opportunities for women in the macho world of motor sports, she dreamed of a race for women based on navigational skill and all-terrain driving expertise instead of speed.
This year the rally would start on March 23, after a day of orientation. The competitors—called Gazelles—receive coordinates for checkpoints; two sets each morning and the rest at the second checkpoint of the day. Armed only with compasses, navigational plotters and race-issued topographi-
cal maps (no cell phones, binoculars or GPS allowed), each team—driver and navigator, sometimes alternating roles—must reach designated checkpoints taking the most direct route possible. The rally winner is the team that checks in at the most checkpoints driving the least number of kilometers to the rally’s finish.
Many of the Europeans brought their own vehicles. But Julie and Geneviève had rented their truck from a Moroccan car rental company, and would have to pay for any major damage that their insurance wouldn’t cover.
The patch of the Sahara where the competition occurs—about 400 kilometers south of Marrakech—is beautiful. But for the Gazelles, the 2,500-kilometer course heading westnorthwest can be unforgiving. There are dunes 100 meters high, rolling slopes covered in tire-piercing black rocks, and endless sand flats that will suck a vehicle to a stop in the 35 degree C midday sun.
AS TEAM DRIVER, Julie had completed off-road training in Canada. But a sand pit in Quebec is not the Sahara desert, and each day of the rally brought its own challenge. Now, as she waited at the starting line at 6 a.m. on Day Three of the race, Julie nervously adjusted her helmet. The day’s course would take them by the small southeastern village of Merzouga and a series of tall dunes, a challenge for all the drivers.
Within two hours they reached the foot of a peak near the town, and began their climb. It rose so precipitously it blocked the morning sun. As the truck climbed the steep slope, Julie found herself pumped up with adrenaline: other Gazelles had already got stuck near the peak, and Team 187 intended to blow right past them.
Just below the peak, Julie hit the gas to make the truck leap into the air and over the top. Too much power and the Toyota would crash on landing. For a moment, all she could see was clear blue sky, then the truck landed hard—too hard?—on the other side of the peak. Julie slammed on the brakes and the women turned to each other, wide-eyed: They had done it.
“Woooo!” yelled Geneviève. Julie flashed back a wordless grin.
As the thermometer climbed towards 40 degrees C, the hot sand became softer and more treacherous. Julie began to lose her nerve on the ascents. And, as the morning’s adrenaline died down and the heat started to set in, so did her fatigue.
While they took a short break, Geneviève spotted a vehicle stuck in a nearby valley. Although teams could call a mechanic for help, they would be penalized, and the women were encouraged to help each other. They drove over and helped out the two French women, Team 122. They began traveling with them and were soon joined by another team, also from France. The group spent the rest
of the day digging one another out when they got stuck and scouting the best possible routes.
After 12 long, hot hours, Team 187 reached their sixth checkpoint out of a total of seven, and decided to call it a day. Here a local Moroccan noted their arrival time and signed the daily race sheet that each team handed in at the night’s bivouac.
Hundreds of colored domes rose out of the desert. They were the oneperson sleeping tents, clustered at one side on the bivouac area, while on the other was a line of trailers that served as race staff headquarters. In between was the dining tent, a 500-square-meter vinyl structure lined with carpets and filled with enough tables and chairs to seat the entire camp.
A short distance away was the mechanics area. There, a tanker trunk fed fuel into a mobile pumping station that would distribute 80,000 liters over the eight-day race. The vast complex, covering 180,000 square meters, would be torn down and rebuilt four times during the race.
By 11 p.m. the sleeping area was a sea of glowing headlamps. Showered and fed, Julie and Geneviève crawled into their tents to catch a few hours of sleep before the 4 a.m. wake-up call.
TWO DAYS LATER, on Day Five, Geneviève surveyed the distant horizon through her sighting compass that allowed her to see the terrain and simultaneously take a reading of its coordinates. She looked down at the 1950s military map that all racers received. There was a dark, rocky mountain that was easy to pick out, and Geneviève used it to find north. Then, using a ruler and compass she decided that the shortest route to the next checkpoint was a mountain pass directly ahead. Julie agreed, and they began the rocky ascent.
At the summit they halted at several very large boulders blocking the way. The women got out. Julie examined the height of the boulders and the clearance of the truck’s undercarriage. “I think we can do it,” she said.
Julie gently accelerated and the tires gripped the rock until the cab seemed to point almost straight up in the air. Geneviève held her breath. The truck began to level out as they reached the top, but then, on the way down, a large rock lodged in the undercarriage of the vehicle. Unable to move, they sat perched on top of the rock, on top of a mountain, with nothing but desert rolling out in every direction. The wheels were touching the ground, but weren’t able to gain enough traction to push the vehicle forward.
To Geneviève it seemed like calling for help might be the only option. “Let’s wait just a little bit,” said Julie.
Just then, Team 410’s Land Rover Dakar buggy rumbled up the slope and came to a stop behind them.
“We’re too light to pull you,” said the French driver. “Try piling some stones under your all your wheels.”
Geneviève and Julie began hauling flat stones into place, sweating in the midday sun. Suddenly they heard another motor and Team 166, another French duo, pulled into view. Within minutes the French team dragged the Canadians’ vehicle slowly backward onto solid ground.
Free at last, Julie and Geneviève headed in search of their next checkpoint. They found it on the pebble-covered plain called Hassi Bou Haiara, the checkpoint’s red flag and attendee nearly hidden in the desert brush.
When they finally arrived at the bivouac it was late, and other racers were already eating dinner. Geneviève headed to rally control to report their day’s mileage and checkpoints. Leaving the office, she noticed some papers pinned to a wall. The rankings!
Geneviève and Julie’s goal was to simply finish the race, but when Geneviève saw their names in 14th place among the 112 rookie teams, she was floored. At dinner, she couldn’t hold it in.
“We’re in fourteenth place,” she whispered.
“No way!” said Julie, trying to hide a smile.
DAY SIX: The wind started blowing early. All morning, Geneviève couldn’t see ten feet in front of the vehicle. She strained her eyes in search of any topographical feature through the blowing sand—a riverbed, a mountain—anything. They crept forward until, suddenly, just as the wind dropped and the swirling sand abated, Julie stopped. They were at the edge of a wide, dry riverbed that stretched out a kilometer in front of them.
“The oued!” exclaimed Julie, using the Moroccan word for river.
The great Oued Draa marked the end of Morocco, and the distant shore, Algeria. Geneviève exhaled with relief and looked back at the map. With the Algerian border as a reference, she found north.
“I know where we are!” she exclaimed, and plotted their way to the remaining two checkpoints of the day.
It was one of two nights competitors were required to sleep in the desert, away from the bivouac. Setting up their tents, Geneviève was struck by the silence. The wind had disappeared. In the desert there were no chirping birds, no trees, no rustling leaves.
DAY SEVEN flew by, and then it was the final day of the race, Day Eight, March 30. Geneviève plotted their route over low grassy dunes and rocky plains. Before they knew it, it was noon.
“We should be approaching another oued soon,” said Geneviève.
Suddenly there it was, right in front of them—a 20-meter-deep riverbed 100 meters wide, the rocky edge dropping about ten meters in a steep plunge and then another ten meters in a more gradual slope.
Julie got out to check how steep the drop was and the rocks they would face on their path downward. “You think we
can take that?” asked Geneviève.
“It looks okay from here,” said Julie. But as Julie crept forward, the truck’s front right wheel suddenly dropped into a crevice running diagonally to the slope; a crevice they hadn’t been able to see. When the vehicle tilted to the right, the front right wheel and the back left wheel were in the air, spinning uselessly. Geneviève’s heartbeat quickened. It felt like the Toyota was about to roll onto its right side.
“I need to think for a second,” said Julie. She closed her eyes and visualized the mechanics of the truck. Their front right wheel had nothing to grip onto within the crevice, and therefore it couldn’t pull the vehicle forward.
Julie pressed the button that locked the differential, essentially “locking” the rear wheels on an axle together, as if on a common shaft. This would mean both rear wheels would turn in unison, despite the left one dangling in the air with nothing to push against; Julie slowly applied gas. The right rear wheel gripped and slowly the truck inched forward, out of the crevice and back onto flat ground.
They had overcome their last major obstacle, and as they drove on, the bivouac—the final finish line—came into view. Yet as Geneviève looked at Julie, there was only one thing she could think to say: “I wish we could keep on going.”
The tears running down Julie’s dusty cheeks told Geneviève she felt the same way. They were working in perfect sync, a true team.
When they crossed the finish-line the two women whooped with joy as their race mates cheered alongside. For Julie and Geneviève, a decadelong journey had reached its emotional conclusion.
TEAM 187 ENDED UP finishing 35th overall, and were ranked 17th amongst first-time participants. The final prizes would be handed out at a gala in the seaside town of Essaouira two days later, but the real celebration came that last night in the desert.
Surrounded by women with hearts as full as theirs, Geneviève and Julie danced late into the night. It didn’t matter if a woman was 65 or 22; if she spoke English, French or Japanese. Tonight, before they returned home to continue their lives as lawyers, mothers, teachers or doctors, they were all gazelles. They were women who raced in the desert.