This rally tests driv­ers’ skills and builds last­ing friend­ships

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY LIA GRAINGER

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


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.

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