The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles Morocco is the biggest women-only off road motor competition in the world, taking place every year at the end of March in the Moroccan desert. For the last 25 years, women of about 23 different nationalities, all walks of life, all ages (the oldest competitor is 71 and
has participated 16 times) compete in 4x4s, quads, buggies and moto cross. GPS or phones are not allowed, the Gazelles (as the competitors are known)
navigate the old fashioned way, with black and white maps from the 60s, a compass, a ruler and a plotter. The winning team is the team which has done
the least amount of kilometers.
This is not a ballad in the desert. The Gazelles’ endurance, determination and solidarity is tested every day. The terrain is usually difficult, made of
rocky desert, dunes, ravines, tough vegetation, dried out river beds and mountains. To keep their heading as closely as possible, the gazelles must
constantly make decisions. It’s a team effort: the navigator looks both at her compass and in the distance to keep the heading, the driver looks straight
ahead of the car to avoid or take slowly big rocks, ditches, soft sand where it is so easy to sink the car.
A typical day :
The rallye follows the same pattern every year with small variations but basically, while at the bivouac or camp, the competitors are woken up by “the Boss” Dominique Serra (a French entrepreneur who created the concept 25 years ago in response to the traditionally male-dominated world of motorsports) at 4am, we stumble up, briefly wash our faces and apply heavy suncream, the driver walks to the car park to pick up her car while the navigator either packs up the tent or simply tidy it and prepares her navigation bag.
At 4.15am, you’ll find the driver breathing a sigh of relief that the car is starting, that the tyres are not flat and that the oil level is fine. She
will then drive the car either towards the tents if they have to pack up because it’s marathon time or they’re simply changing bivouac or towards the
departure line that they are given.
At 5am, it’s briefing time and it’s also the time all the navigators are given the latitude and longitude of the first point of the day and have to plot
it on the map as well as having breakfast. Between 6 and 6.45am, they’re off.
Every day they are given a certain amount of checkpoints (about 7) to find over a distance averaging 190kms per day if the team goes straight from point
to point.. A checkpoint is a red flag more or less hidden in the desert. If everything goes well, the gazelles can be back at camp by 6.30 pm, in time
for a shower, a drink at the bar and an excellent dinner from 8pm. From time to time, things do not go so well and they might have to find the camp
in the dark. Some might end up sleeping outside the camp.
To ensure the safety of all the competitors, all the vehicles are fitted with a tracking device linked to satellite. The organisers know at all times where
the gazelles are (even if sometimes the gazelles themselves do not know where they are!).
The competition :
In 2015, there were several categories: the expert category (all in 4x4s), the general 4x4/truck category, the quads/bike/buggies category and the SUV
category. They are given different parcours and checkpoints.
With a typical 10- to 14-hour day starting at 6 a.m., and with a last checkpoint closing at 7:30 p.m., the two most dangerous factors are fatigue and poor
communication. Teammates have to learn how to communicate in a way that’s constructive. The only way they can do well is to support and respect each
other. They want to be a strong teammate, to have a great attitude, and look for solutions. The “rockstar” is the navigator. If a mistake is going
to be made, it is usually the navigator making it. The driver can of course break a car but that is unusual. So the teammates must have resilience
and must be able to have a good laugh.
The charity Coeur de Gazelles:
The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is acknowledged for its non-profit organization, Heart of Gazelles. The charity offers medical aid, support to orphanages
and schools, sustainable development for villages, and job development for women in the region. The rally is the only global motorsport event with
ISO 14001 Certification, with strict environmental and citizen-friendly directives. During the rallye, a caravan of voluntary doctors, dentists, nurses
visit the villages around the Rallye.
Winner of the general category in 2014, British Jeanette James came 2nd in the expert category in 2015. A Moroccan team was the winner of the general category
in 2015: team 221 Karima Laaroussi-Mouhyi and Florence Deramond. Anglo-Moroccan team 219 (the Smiley gazelles) came 23rd out of 120.
Article by Benedicte Clarkson