Against the backdrop of the vast and intimidating Sahara desert, more than 200 ralliers will set off today across 2,500 kilometres of unforgiving terrain and seeming endless desert and wilderness in a competition based more on navigation than speed. But they'll all do it without a GPS to guide them, relying solely on landmarks and their navigation training to help them reach their destinations and survive in this harsh environment.
But what really makes this rally different is that all the competitors are women. This is the Aïcha Gazelles Rallye, an annual, women-only motoring event that forces competitors to endure strenuous tests of skill and endurance. Teams of two - amateurs and professionals alike - are allowed only maps, compasses and one another for company. Oh, and a shovel to dig their car out of the sand. The rally, organised by Dominique Serra, founder and general director of the event and the manager of Maïenga, an international events management company, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This is surely a telling reminder to scrap the cliché - as old as the car itself - that women can't drive, navigate or change a tyre. In a spirit of camaraderie, women prove themselves in a field traditionally dominated by men.
Speed is not of the essence in this entirely off-road rally. The winners are those who complete the course within the minimum mileage. Rankings are determined by subtracting the number of kilometres as the crow flies from the number of kilometres driven. However, because GPS is outlawed and there is no given route, Gazelles, as the competitors are called, must carve their own unique track. Daily checkpoints, for which geographical co-ordinates are supplied, provide markers, but ultimately fine navigation skills are vital.
Teams can travel in anything from a quad or motorbike, to a 4x4, truck, crossover or prototype. For safety's sake, each vehicle is tracked via satellite, so should a complication occur - to this day unheard of - medics can be dispatched. Penalties are given for use of mechanics or extra fuel. The rally begins in the western region of Nejjakh and culminates beside the remote town of Foum Zguid, near the oasis city of Ouarzazate. It's an ochre route, dominated by sand. There are also expansive rocky areas, vast dunes, plateaux, desert cliffs and mountains. Dry and running rivers, occasional palm oases, desert vegetation zones and scatterings of Berber villages also punctuate the course. It's an arresting and mesmerising landscape, but unyielding in the way of sure landmarks. This year's rally witnesses the involvement of 120 teams, counting 33 nationalities. Securing a place often involves months of onerous preparation and sponsorship search since participation costs 30,000 (Dh150,000) per team. A four-day navigation course is also compulsory for first-timers. On a drab day in Casablanca, Morocco, Gazelles bend over maps, learning to distinguish between mirror, sighting, marine and vehicle compasses while manipulating adapted navigation rulers, calculators and compass roses. The French painter Annick Denoncin will be competing in her 14th rally, this time with Moroccan Soraya El Alaoui, businesswoman and wife of a royal family member. They arrive looking a rather unlikely pair; Denoncin, the veteran at the age of 66, is the epitome of French elegance. El Alaoui, in her thirties, brims with striking magnetism. Joined by a passion for painting, the duo will be driving an Isuzu D-Max pick-up. While Denoncin has taken home second, third and fourth prize in the past, the years have not removed the element of trepidation. "You really do worry sometimes," Denoncin reflects, "when you've been driving for two hours and don't really know if you're going in the right direction!"
Bettina Singhartinger, 29, assistant head of communications, and Andrea Spielvogel, 39, IT manager, both at Daimler, endured a gruelling competition to secure their participation. The pair from Stuttgart, Germany, were selected from some 200 ladies who entered their company's punishing contest to become Gazelles. "We went through a tough trial including a military-style obstacle track in the car, physical training course, navigation and mechanics test, and interview in French," explains Singhartinger. "We did it because we want to prove what women are capable of." "I won't forget a good pillow, though," says Spielvogel, following an exhausting preliminary trip to the desert. "We got up between 4am and 6am," recounts Singhartinger, "and there were days when we drove out of the dunes in pitch black." The pair will be competing in a modified Mercedes-Benz Viano 4Matic van. Tennis star Fatima-Zahrae el Allami is Africa's and Morocco's reigning female champion. At the tender age of 20, she is already accustomed to a competitive milieu, having carried home many trophies from the court. El Allami will be driving an Isuzu D-Max with teammate Sonia el Bahraoui, 34, who works in distribution at Moroccan communications firm Meditel. "I wanted to show the world that I can do more than play tennis," says el Allami. "This challenge has pushed me into learning a new skill. "My sports career has taught me patience, perseverance and determination," she observes. "These characteristics will certainly help us during the rally." Following the initiation trip in the desert, El Allami notes that the rally is not going to be easy. "Sometimes you just have to admit you've made a mistake, that you can't get over the dune, and that you need another solution." The rally is a labour of love for Nathalie Lussac, 40, company manager, and Sandrine Pret, 42, postwoman, both from Bordeaux, France. "I'm passionate about motor sports, especially rallies," enthuses Lussac. "I've been in several 2CV races and a formula race where I was the only woman." Becoming a Gazelle has been Lussac's long-term aspiration. "I'm a fighter, and that pushed me to find the means to take part this year," she says. "I like to beat my own records. Sandrine is more measured and thinks things through. So our characters are complementary." These Gazelles, who will also be driving an Isuzu D-Max, bubble into the navigation session sporting their own line of Gazelle Rally T-shirts, sales of which contributed to their funding for the rally. They tackle the web of geographical calculations with ease, although the subsequent desert test run leads them to doubt their skills. The accuracy needed to perform such a navigational feat is key, "and our lack of experience means it's not going to be easy," Nathalie chuckles. Cartographical issues potentially menace the Gazelles' track. Desert maps may not be current, and trails could be ephemeral. "Tracks recently left by camels will not be included on the map," warns Serge Barbieux, air controller, pilot, and part of the navigation training team, "while other trails marked on maps may have disappeared, and what was once a minor path may now be tarmac." While vegetation is naturally sparse, Gazelles may meet expanses of desert foliage. It is often durable and thorny, a sure threat to tyres. Some plant life is best avoided altogether. Respect for the desert, though, is the rally's tenet - a nod from Greenpeace this year acknowledges the event's environmental consideration. Rallies are not renowned for ecological kindliness, but Gazelles are instructed to keep fuel usage to a minimum and leave the desert as they found it - no litter, no destruction of natural phenomena, no disturbance of local populations. Failure to adhere results in penalisation. And while it's not a humanitarian venture, charitable contributions to children's education and orphanages in the region are made through the rally's Heart of Gazelles organisation. But for the competitors, the real draw of the event is the personal achievement and satisfaction in pushing their boundaries and completing such an arduous race. "I wanted to do the rally to prove that I am strong," says the Frenchwoman Pret, "since people do not always see me that way. I want to prove them wrong." Follow the Aïcha Gazelles Rallye in real time at www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com. This year's rally runs from 13th to 27th March.