The Moroccan landscape changes frequently.  The small rocks only provided a bumpy ride. In this picture, we were hustling along since it was late in the day and we had one more checkpoint to get to. While it looked smooth enough ( if you can call rocks smooth), we were always on the look out for a ditch or outcrop that could pose a danger.
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Story and photos by Nika Rolczewski

Now I know why the military wake-up cry, the sounding of a bugle to summon all in camp, originates in French. “Bonjour, Les Filles!” was our 4 a.m. welcome to the day, every day, sung by Dominique Serra, the managing director, founder and creator of the all-women Rallye des Gazelles in the Moroccan desert. The rally is eight days of intense driving to find checkpoints in the least amount of kilometres.

She would sing it in repetition, beyond our bivouacs, while walking amongst our tents to make certain we would soon be up and out to greet the desert as bright-eyed as she. She is a woman who looks more at home on the pages of a French fashion magazine.

If we were lucky, there might be time or water enough to shower. More often than not, there would be no time for anything but disassembling and packing up one’s tent, collecting the truck from the mechanical impound, and stealing a bite of breakfast, all in time for congregation and the daily briefing.

Many journalists were there to write about the rally, its history, its purpose and its daily adventure, and they just flew in to see life in the bivouac for themselves. I knew in my heart that to truly experience the Rallye des Gazelles, you had to do it.

It was gruelling. Accurate navigation was essential, and I relied heavily on France Guerer, my Quebec-based experienced “Gazelle”. Her meticulous nature made sure we found our checkpoint. Compass in hand, I watched her calculate angles and distance. When I felt lost she would gaze at the landmarks, a large mountain or lakebed, and figure out perfectly where we were.

Mon Petit Chameau Canadienne

Many times, hours went by before we saw another team, a nomad, or any wildlife.  I snapped this when we stopped to check our navigation and I needed to stretch my legs. The navigator would jump out and check the heading while most times the driver just relaxed for the moment.
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Just less than a week earlier I had arrived in Lyon, France to pick up my rental Rallye truck, a tired 2004 Mitsubishi L200 (an SUV that you’ll soon see in Canada under the name Triton).

It did make the trip to the port city of Sete where we would have our grand send-off, after a full day of mandatory administrative and safety matters. Our decals were stuck on, our medical interview held. We picked up our safety equipment, from sand rails to a Sarsat device, the GPS that we couldn’t use but let the organizers know where we were. A weeks’ worth of French army rations, NATO-approved, was tucked away in our tool chest, along with a full medical kit, water canister, and obviously, a tool kit.

As the wind kicked up, I had my first taste of sand. For the next two weeks, I would grow accustomed to that flavour.

The French and their fashion flair

The two-day ferry trip to Tanger, Morocco flew by as we prepared our maps and attended meetings. There was excitement and trepidation in the air. The second evening had stormy seas and the majority of passengers were ill; the rally vests we were given at the start were the same shade of lime green as many of the Gazelles’ faces. Lucky for all, the seas calmed for our early morning disembark to Morocco.

As we left out hotel in Meknes the unthinkable happened: as we crested a hill, the putrid smell of clutch and the loss of power meant we would not be making it to the bivouac for our Prologue. We coasted down to a rather primitive garage to replace the “embrayage”; to give credit to the 4×4 truck rental shop, we would not be charged for the part.

This don’t look like Cannes, Toto

Over the course of the competition I watched teams help each other to a great extent – something I’ve never witnessed before in a motorsport competition. It was an unwritten rule to stop, no matter what, to help any other team.

Each morning as we were allocated the letter group of A, B, C, or D, and we would be handed our sheet of logistics: longitude and latitudes of the first checkpoints. Each had to be found in order, and with the corresponding letter to your group. At times our excitement of seeing the red flag was short-lived, as it was a different letter group’s checkpoint and not ours. In this case, we could recalculate our position from their information and turn towards our flag.

I’m so Piste off

No words can describe how happy you feel when you finally find this flag.  Many times your eyes will play tricks on you making you think you can see a flash of red in the midst of gray and brown landscape. Even the wind can help or hinder your view of the checkpoint.
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Sometimes there would be hours before we would see another team. We would be somewhere in the vast Moroccan landscape, hopefully close to the checkpoint; if we were lucky, we would find a “road”. It looked promising on the map, but in real life it was a rugged donkey trail marked by a mound of rocks, and more often then not, it just bled into other trails or rugged pathways. The drive would jar our innards, but all aches and pains were forgotten when that glorious checkpoint was in sight.

Please Sir, can you move your donkey?

The terrain was constantly changing and challenging to drive through; more times than we want to admit we were delayed by a herd of goats, sheep or the passing of dromedaries. The donkeys would gaze, unimpressed with us Gazelles as we drove by, while nomads living in makeshifts tents would wave and smile.

Driving up close to a checkpoint only to realize there is a 1,000-metre mountain in your way, or sand dunes that are larger than your house, the frustration builds: there are better ways to spend a day. As I nibbled on my French army rations, I daydreamed of being home: the isolation was getting to me and I was trying hard to focus on driving. One day it’s sand, another it’s a bed of purple volcanic rocks. Any twist or bump in the way can throw us off our path and send us quite a way off from where we need to be.

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque

In the middle of nowhere, with nothing else in sight, we would come across a nomad. Within minutes a child’s face would be pressed up against our window, asking for things: pens, shirts, anything we had. At one checkpoint an old woman was offering a dead lizard in exchange for clothing or food. The look on my face must have shown her that I neither was hungry enough to eat it or desperate enough for a souvenir of that kind, although I gave her food and clothing before we left.

Rock and Roll

I wished our truck had a CD player. Guerer whispered to herself as she calculated our route. I watched her take out her compass, losing her third ruler in the process. This would become a joke between us. Precision and correctly interpreting the maps would make the day’s checkpoints almost seem easy, but that confidence was short-lived.

I fought the dunes and the dunes won

Getting unstuck can be frustrating. Sand rails help get traction in the sand but as the day heats up, so does the sand - making it menacing. Our sand rails, shovels and even a large balloon (hooked onto the tailpipe, the balloon would inflate and lift up the truck from the sand) helped us and other teams many times.
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Sand has its own dynamic. In the morning it’s hard and easy to drive on. To “surf the dunes” meant driving along those with flat tops. From each angle we could see other dunes of similar shapes and sizes, and like a mouse in a maze, we would slowly make our way through our labyrinth. The trick was to have adequate power to get to the top. There we would be teetering perfectly to let gravity take us down gently.

By noon, though, the sand heats up and becomes soft and menacing. It doesn’t just grab your tires; it attacks them, leaving you stuck. We shovelled enough sand to build a beach, inflated a special balloon that lifted our truck out of its predicament, and used sand rails for much-needed traction. On level surfaces a constant speed and a sawing (gentle move back and forth) of the steering wheel would help us make it through – most of the time.

On this day we found ourselves lost and stuck, with just gigantic sand hills for kilometres. Our thoughts of finding the X checkpoints – those that are harder to locate but offer more points — fizzled. It was hot and frustrating, and we were paranoid about deflating our tires too much.

The GPS unit in our vehicle had three buttons: red for a medical emergency, blue for a phone that the organizers could use to contact us for safety issues (such as driving too close to the Algerian border), and finally, the green button for assistance. Guerer’s hand shook when she pressed it, and our eyes welled up with tears. Our strong showing on the score board would be history.

Life’s a stage

The organization’s mechanical assistance team came to help us out of our self-made sand trap. While they could assist us this way, we knew they could not tell us where we were, and we were lost. Driving out of the dunes, we were able to meet up with another team to see where we were on the map. With half the day gone and only one checkpoint found, we knew it will be difficult to find all of them, even the “easier” ones we had the option to choose. We called it a day at 4:30 pm and headed to the bivouac, knowing we would arrive late to a champagne reception for those that conquered the dunes. We would be penalized severely for giving up on them.

While the SUV teams had an easier route, they still had to tackle sand at times.
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The following day, we hit the first checkpoint easily on stage four and our confidence built after the previous day’s defeat. It was short-lived, as the next one would prove to be difficult. We were not alone in our efforts, as more and more Gazelles in our letter C group were having difficulty finding our target. Those few that did manage to find this checkpoint did so after noticing a photographers’ press vehicle leave the pass, and followed their trail back. We had to be careful – you were penalized for following and being followed. Instinct brought those teams to the checkpoint and their kindness showed us the way. By that time, we had little time to find the rest. Those that did not find the checkpoints had the option to sleep out in the desert and try again in the morning, or return to the bivouac and attain more penalties. The choice had to be made.

I hated driving in the dark, because of the danger of ruts and holes in the ever-changing landscape. Smooth rocks of any size were easy to inch over, but I avoided the sharp-edged ones, not wanting to use our two spare Kumho tires. The dried-up lake beds gave us a smooth drive, but an outcrop could surprise us any time.

Winning was never the goal. Starting eighth overall the third day in proved we had what it took, even if the dunes ultimately won. We ended up 29th, out of 67 teams – disappointing, yes, but respectable. We tried our best. The dedication the Gazelles had was inspiring: teams lost their luggage and supplies as they drove, and one team rolled their vehicle after driving too fast for the conditions. In each incident they continued, thanks to the help of fellow competitors, French organizers and the talented mechanics.

Our Mitsubishi survived with no more bumps or bruises than before, although the alignment was off thanks to some good rock crawling, and I had to get used to pointing the wheel at two o’clock for the truck to go straight.

During the rough times we always were blessed by the kindness of others. Our fellow Gazelles, the local people and the organization worked tirelessly to make things run smoothly, along with my navigator Guerer. Her checklist made sure I brought the necessities. She advised me on what to expect in beautiful Morocco and she navigated towards it. She taught me what being a Gazelle was all about.

The reason for being

During the second marathon leg, Nika decides roughing it?? can't be so bad with soft sand to sleep on and some wine to enjoy in the dunes.
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As the Gazelles drove, the rally-sponsored medical caravan would make its way to the remote southern villages, where the doctors, pharmacist and nutritionist would treat some 250 impoverished locals each day. It is all part of the Heart of Gazelles Foundation that the competitors, sponsors and organization support.

At the end we dusted off as best we could and danced under the explosion of stars in the desert sky. In the morning we would drive to the city of Essaouira for the awards presentation and gala dinner, and our final sand run would be a short drive on the beach to the cheers of the locals and organizers. It was emotional to know we did not quit and went to finish this gruelling rally. The journey now would be going home.

Over the course of the three weeks away I cursed, cried, and swore I would never do this rally again. It drained me physically and mentally, and it pushed me to all limits of my being. The next sand I would see would be on that Caribbean beach, I vowed. Then why am I already planning for next year? It is simple: Je suis une Gazelle.

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