They call the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc‘s off-road race the toughest all-women’s sporting event in the world. I know off-road, I know tough. Having just completed the 25th annual run across southern Morocco’s varied and challenging landscape—using only a compass, plotter and ruler, and black and white maps that date from the 1940s to1960s to find a series of checkpoints each day for nine days that ranged from 14 to 21 hours of non-stop driving and navigating—I agree!
Honored to be asked by Mercedes-Benz to drive their new 4×4 Sprinter van, my co-driver and navigator Shennen Marschner (a Sprinter sales rep for MB) and I took on the challenge as a two-person team along with 158 teams representing 33 countries. The goal: to achieve the shortest distance between checkpoints which are designated as either latitude/longitude or distance and heading—rather than speed. The contest measures precise navigation and driving skills, as well as vehicle competence, with no outside assistance or support teams during the competition.
I have driven the world’s longest and hardest off-road races, motored sections of numerous round-the-world slogs for automakers showing their vehicle’s prowess, and have been on a number of driving teams that have completed record-setting events. But, I have never encountered a rally the likes of the Gazelles—nor participated in an event of this sort that is “women-only.” My race rides have included a Hummer; Porsche-powered, open-wheel buggies; a diesel-powered Ford Expedition; and a motley collection of off-road prepared rigs. A stock 4WD high-roof Sprinter van was never a model in my wheel house. However, its charms and talents wowed the four teams (two from the US and two from Germany) that competed in the Crossover Class and placed first, second, third and fifth in this class after approximately 1,500 miles of rugged motoring.
This year’s event marked the first time that the rally included an Expert division in the 4WD class. The US fielded 10 teams—their greatest number ever—and the female competitors representing the States achieved a class win, two first-time participation prizes, four rankings in the top 25 of the 4×4 class, and the first team to participate in the Quad/Moto/SSV class. Chrissie Beavis (San Diego) and Alyssa Roenigk (LA) took top honors in the Crossover category—one of the four classes. Teams included women with backgrounds that ranged from a Hollywood stuntwoman to Dakar class winner, a former Wall Street trader and stay-at-home moms.
Founded by Dominique Serra, the Gazelle Ralleye espouses women’s empowerment, environmental commitment and support of the people of Morocco, with visits by medical teams and other specialists during the rally, and funding and assistance for building schools and other program initiatives. The rally is only sporting event with ISO 14001 certification for its strict environmental practices. Serra was decorated as an Officer Wissam Al Alaoui in Morocco by King Mohammed VI for the positive impact the rally has on the country.
Summing up her first rally experience, winner Alyssa Roenigk tells CH, “It’s funny to be in a rally and all of the sudden you get up to speed and then there will be a camel in your way. We got going pretty fast yesterday and then we were like, ‘Are those rocks moving?’ and four camels stood up. I think it will be a long time before someone tells me to turn left at the camel.”
Final image courtesy of Maienga, all other images courtesy of Nicole Dreon