Temple of Dunes: Rally Aïcha des Gazelles
The Toughest Rally You've Never Heard of
It was the second day of the race, and Emily Miller was pissed. When she pulled her HUMMER H3 into Checkpoint 5, she was told that Stage 7, the day's last stage, had been canceled. In an ordinary rally, that would be great news; finishing the day early would mean dinner at a reasonable hour. But this wasn't an ordinary rally. This was the 21st running of the Rally Aïcha des Gazelles, an all-women's event that takes place every year in Morocco, and Miller wanted to win.
The winner of this rally isn't rewarded for going the fastest and clocking the shortest time. Instead, the goal is to achieve the shortest distance. Every day, the competitors have a list of checkpoints to hit, and they have to reach them in order. Each one is marked by a large red flag, and there's a person there to document when each team arrives. So even if a team sees a red flag flapping in the wind, it might not be the right one. Driving toward the wrong checkpoint adds kilometers. When arriving at the checkpoint, the rally worker there records the odometer reading. To determine the leader for each stage, the worker takes the distance traveled and subtracts the "as the crow flies" straight-line mileage. The difference in distance is the penalty for that checkpoint, and the driver with the fewest penalty kilometers is the winner. The prize? The pride of winning.
Participants here must find their way through brutal terrain. Mildly rutted washboard paths quickly give way to fields of huge, sharp volcanic rocks, the kind that like to slice up tire sidewalls. There are unforgiving rocky canyons with patches of sand at the bottom, silty dry riverbeds, and of course, the seemingly endless dunes of the Sahara. And the teams have to navigate the route with nothing but a map from the 1950s, coordinates, and a compass. No GPS. No nav. The rally tests the will, ability, and strategy of the drivers (more than 100 this year) to endure eight days of rallying over 2500 kilometers, entirely off-road. The pressure is on the driver to get the vehicle through and over this nasty terrain, but even more pressure is on the navigator, who has to figure out a route without the advantages of modern technology.
On paper, the ideal way to win would be to plow right over everything between you and the checkpoints, whether a huge mountain or a rock-filled valley. But the vehicle has to survive the eight days. The smart strategy is to aim for the straightest line that won't break your race truck, and makes the most sense for the day's events.
That strategy was why Miller (a veteran off-road racer, part of Rod Hall's race team) was frustrated when she and French co-driver Armelle Medard pulled into CP 5 and heard about Stage 7. They had spent the entire day going fast, covering more kilometers on flatter ground, all in anticipation of being among the few to reach CP 7. With the news that the stage was canceled, Miller knew she would be penalized for the added kilometers without the payoff of reaching CP 7. The entire day's strategy had been for nothing.
We had been following Miller (number 109) and the other American team -- driver Amy Lerner and her sister, navigator Tricia Reina (number 107), also in an H3 -- since the day before. Lerner and Reina were true rookies here; neither one had driven off-road before, let alone raced. But there is an extensive training program for participants, so even first-timers can give the rally a try.
For the first part of the rally, we rode along with Alberto Goncales, who has provided support for the Gazelles rally for nearly 10 years, raced in Dakar, and will help determine and prerun the route for Dakar this year, as he has in the past. Like everyone on the support crew, he owns the vehicle he drives -- a 1995 80 Series Land Cruiser, powered by a 4.2-liter turbodiesel inline-six with a five-speed manual transmission. It's certainly stout enough for an event like this. Goncales explained that this event is about management -- managing yourself, your vehicle, and the mood inside the vehicle. We saw few examples of vehicle damage, illness, and bad moods. The upside is that every night provides a chance to recover and reorganize for the next day.
Miller's disappointment with what happened on day two was a follow-up to problems on the first day, when she and Medard had to deal with a broken shock and shock mount (fixed that evening), and the map went missing. It happens every year to at least one team, believe it or not. To get around that problem, they stuck a piece of duct tape on the windshield, creating a shadow on the dash. They used that to determine what direction they needed to travel to reach the next coordinate set, and managed to finish the day in sixth, topping off that night by finding the map. In addition, a sandstorm picked up before the start of the rally, which brought visibility way down, kicked up swirling dirt devils, and continued to rage for two days.
Unlike the race vehicles, each media SUV has the advantages of nav, GPS, and a communications system. Correspondents keep in touch with each other and the race organizers, and can get updates on the current location of a particular team. Satellite tracking helps with safety issues and reduces the possibility of cheating. Even with these advantages, you can still get stuck, and when Goncales did, in some surprisingly deep silt, we asked if he was upset about it. He replied, "Nah. Everyone gets stuck in the desert. Anyone who says he's never gotten stuck is either in the desert for the first time or is lying." He's right.
We used the nav and the radio to learn where both American teams were, and saw plenty of awesome vehicles along the way. ATVs, crossovers, and a nebulous category called "4WD" were at the race. These included FJ40s and newer Land Cruisers, Patrols, Land Rover Defender 90s, and Volkswagen Amaroks. One of our favorites in the rally was a Sprinter 2500 with a center section removed, bringing the wheelbase down to 96 inches, about half an inch longer than that of a two-door Wrangler. We also saw lots of pickups not sold in the U.S., many of which were rentals. That can cost teams less than shipping a truck from North or South America.
On day four, the weather was near perfect, and team Miller/Medard was making incredible time in the dunes, reaching all the hard checkpoints at an amazing pace. The shortest distance isn't as important in the dunes. There are hard, moderate, and easy checkpoints, and reaching anything less than the hard checkpoints is penalized. We couldn't keep up with the team, so we watched some of the other vehicles make their way through the Erg Chebbi dunes, the largest in Morocco, which can reach up to 500 feet high and 14 miles long. The sand had more of an orange tint to it than in the California and Nevada dunes, and rain earlier in the year had packed the sand down, making the dunes somewhat more forgiving. But around noon, when the shadows disappeared and the temperatures increased, it became very easy to misjudge the right line. Again, no nav and no GPS.
Unfortunately, the dunes in the Sahara were too much for the short-wheelbase Sprinter. As you would imagine, the van became even more top-heavy with the change in length. That is likely what led to the accident in the sand, and the Sprinter wound up on its side for several hours. Both drivers were fine and the van eventually got out, but it meant the end of the rally for that team.
We couldn't stay for the entire event. Our time there was over in a flash. During the next several days, the teams had to complete marathon legs: They camped where they finished each night, instead of at a centralized bivouac. Despite all the challenges that faced Miller/Medard, they finished second overall, marking the first time ever for an American to be on the podium. First place went to a highly modified Nissan Patrol with a full Dakar-ready custom suspension and chassis, driven by Syndiely Wade, daughter of the president of Senegal. Team 107 finished as well, although much lower in the standings at 52nd place.
This is not an event to downplay as tough "for a women's event" -- it's just plain tough. A few men have participated, and none has won. Also, this rally manages to be ISO 14001 certified for environmental impact, and raises money for schools and medical facilities in the area. Miller is sure she'll be back next year, aiming for that top spot. She just may get it.