by Matthew Scott

Picture it. The Sahara Desert. What comes to mind? Camels? Endless sand dunes? Maybe the occasional oasis or fleeting mirage? Welcome to the reality that is the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, an all-female rally raid through Southern Morocco’s most beautiful and challenging terrain. A rally raid by definition is a form of long distance off-road racing taking place over several days, with this particular event lasting nine. From the breathtaking Erg Chebbi Dunes in southern Morocco along the Algerian border to the finish in the unique coastal town of Essaouira, Morocco, the environment of the entire event changes rapidly and limitless scenarios are wrapped around every cavernous corner. If you’re looking to completely immerse yourself into the unknown, you’ve found the right spot.

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There are a few factors shaping the originality of this adventure— the first being the concept itself. One hundred and fifty teams consisting of a primary driver and co-pilot navigator drive completely off-road to anywhere from five to seven checkpoints each day, using only a few outdated maps, a compass and a ruler. GPS units and cell phones are strictly prohibited making for an obvious challenge—how does one navigate in this day and age with the absence of a trusty GPS? For most of us, our traditional navigation skills and sheer directional instincts have been traded for complete and total reliance on GPS.

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We all know of Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue, and he did so by way of dead-reckoning navigation. This is also how the “Gazelles” navigate through the Sahara—using time, speed and distance to calculate their position based on their original known position. Teams are given a compass heading or waypoint to each checkpoint and it is up to the navigator to figure out where the checkpoints are located on the map and work with the driver to determine a drivable route. Tools include a handheld compass, plotter and various rulers that measure distance and time. Teams ideally go for the straightest line as the winner here has the least amount of kilometers at the end of competition, and to keep it interesting, each checkpoint must be completed in order. Given the nature of the region, mountains, cliffs and other various terrain must be taken into account  as they’ll occasionally stray teams off their optimal straight line. Of course, common yet unpredictable sand storms are game changers—everything adds up to create the ultimate moving chess match.

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For overland enthusiasts, nothing is better than nine days of crossing the desert with minimal interruptions and complete focus on the task at hand—off-road driving and precise navigation. There’s three simple competition classes: 4WD, Crossover, UTV/Moto. Vehicles range from having literally zero modifications to proven Dakar tube chassis racers. However, pricey vehicles and extensive modifications don’t mean much without a good driver. In a “race” not based on speed, a smooth, smart driver will rule over a fast truck. In 2011, off-road racer, Emily Miller placed second overall in a completely stock Hummer H3. In 2012, Team Lerner Reina drove a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon built by American Expedition Vehicles with the JK231R package and a few strategic bells and whistles. They placed in the top ten against rally raid buggies and a fleet of modified Amarok pickups supported by a full Volkswagen factory effort.

A durable vehicle is also critical as Gazelles are not allowed outside mechanical assistance during the competition legs. A mechanic may only help after the vehicle crosses the daily finish line. Many competitors choose to rent a “rally-prepped” vehicle in Morocco. Luckily, rally competition is part of the culture across North Africa and there are several companies to choose from that know exactly how to prepare the vehicles for the rigors of the Gazelles Rally. The Toyota Hilux, Isuzu D-Max and Nissan Navara are usually the rentals of choice with their reliable turbo diesel engines having just enough torque to handle any terrain challenges they may face.

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Although many may not have heard of this international competition before today, the “Gazelle Rally” (as it’s known in the U.S.) is highly respected globally, bringing women together from a variety of countries ranging from England, Cambodia, Australia, France, United States, Gabon, Martinique, Egypt and Nigeria. The event was started in 1990 by an elegant and determined French woman named Dominique Serra, born for women in response to the male-dominated world of motorsports. With small beginnings consisting of a few adventure-loving females, the rally has now evolved into one of the toughest all-female sporting events with substantial international appeal and support.

An important aspect of the Rally Aicha des Gazelles is the non-profit association Heart of Gazelles and the events environmental initiatives. Moving in tandem with the rally is a traveling medical caravan providing major medical assistance to the people in the remote villages of Morocco. A team of doctors and nurses provide over 5,000 medical screenings and treatments during the course of each event. Other initiatives commonly include clean water programs, construction of schools and job training for women. As a result, the rally is warmly welcomed by the people of Morroco.

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The beauty of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles is that competitors do not have to professional drivers or navigators to take part. It’s only required for you to have pure determination, a love for adventure and off-roading, and the willingness to embrace the unknown. Did we mention there are no medals or a hefty prize purse for first? Finishing here is the prize, and for participants, their journey is the destination. Here’s to girl-power, folks.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

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What is the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles?

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About the Author: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott is a dedicated photographer, vintage car enthusiast, and regular contributor to Overland Journal. Growing up in Chicago in a family that valued “all things automotive” as much as exploring the region’s back roads, provided a solid platform for a career as an automotive journalist. He departed the Windy City in lieu of Prescott, Arizona, and the great open spaces and adventure opportunities of America’s Southwest. @matthewexplore