I Fought The Dunes And The Dunes Won

Now I know why the military wake-up cry, the sounding of a bugle to summon all in camp, originates in French, “The Reveille.”  “Bonjour, Les Filles!” in the dark was our 4 a.m. welcome to the day, every day, sung by the managing Director, founder and creator of the all-women Rallye des Gazelles in the Moroccan desert. She would sing it in repetition, beyond our bivouacs, as if extended to the hills in echo, 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. 

Waking was hard to do when sleep was already a necessity from a jet-lagged arrival.  After a few more days of this routine into which I had dared throw myself, sleep soon became an ever more elusive luxury. Frigid night air blanketing me on a bed of rocks, and strangers as one’s new bedfellows were not ingredients for a restful repose. I would painfully roll over in my small tent, trying hard not to disturb my navigator and newfound friend, France Guérer, who was snoozing right next to me. After our morning “alarm,” there was a mad scramble, blindly trying to find my headlamp, to better see my way to the outdoor bathrooms and sink. Then came the only real waker-upper- a cold splash of water on my face!

This was the start before the rally start. If lucky, there might be time enough, or water enough, to shower. More often than not, there would be no ample time for other than 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.  

Hey, what about that breakfast?  Croissants, breads, and freshly fried Moroccan doughnuts were savoured by all! Coffee poured from ornate urns was a godsend! Apart from the cigarette smoke, the restaurant tent was a large and comfortable atmosphere. All the added smoke would have been more suitable for rock stars on stage, which need to perform in a cloud, and less appropriate for such an energetic and fairly athletic sport as this. Welcome to another culture.

Each morning began with this gathering ritual, to ready and excite us the day’s challenge ahead of driving the Moroccan landscape, in search of that elusive checkpoint flag. What were the reasons or the method to this madness?

Many journalists were there to write about the rally, its history, its purpose and its daily adventure. They flew in to see for themselves life in the bivouac (tent camp).  I knew in my heart that to truly experience the Rallye des Gazelles, you had to do it. Those who did not, would never know whole-heartedly know its impact upon a life, the path (or lack of) on which it takes you, and the direction and redirection down entirely new roads which one comes to know only while under its spell.  The writing comes after the experience.

It was grueling.  Accurate navigation was essential and I relied heavily on France Guérer, my Quebec based experienced “Gazelle”.  Her meticulous nature made sure we found our checkpoint.  I listened intently to her direction.  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 

The start of the rally was emotional.  Just less than a week earlier I had arrived in Lyon France to pick up my rental Rally truck.  My 2004 Mitsubishi L200 looked tired and I was not satisfied with it.  Choosing a name for him was tough and finally we settled on the Moose, our petit Chameau (camel). 

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 in case of emergency. The GPS that we couldn’t use but let the organizers know where we were was installed. 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 accustom to that flavour. 

The French and their fashion flair

The two day ferry trip to Tanger, Morocco flew by as we prepared our maps in between the meetings scheduled.  There was excitement and trepidation in the air.  The second evening had stormy seas and the majority of passengers were ill.  At dinner there were more empty seats then filled and I was left to entertain myself.  I could only think of how perfectly fashionable the French are. 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 the wonderful country of Morocco. 

The next day and so were busy with sponsor events and parties. There were winery tours with traditional Moroccan fair to feast on.  Music, dance and happy faces greeted us every where. There was more driving but still on paved roadways. 

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.  My fears with the quality of this rally truck were proven as we coasted down to a local, rather primitive garage to replace the “embrayage” French for clutch, a word not normally spoken in day to day conversation. 

To give credit to Jugand, the 4 x 4 truck rental shop, we would not be charged for the part and would be reimbursed for the Moroccan Dirhams we had to give for the shop use, tool rental and the extra help two locals offered.  For three hours, Guérer and I enjoyed the local village which lucky for us was large enough to have a bank we could exchange some much needed money.

 This don’t look like Cannes, Toto   

After ten years of school French my vocabulary was still limited.   With Guérer being a Quebec native I was fortunate to have my own translator.  The Russian and Nigerian teams weren’t so lucky.  While the organizers provided a translator it still was hard to comprehend what we were in store for.  The other Gazelles that could speak some English were kind; the others that could not, were indifferent.  It added to the isolation and loneliness we Anglophones felt.  

The Rallye is French and that is not a fault. There is a beauty to it, camaraderie, and a sense of European flair.  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 and over the course of the competition we helped and were helped by our fellow “ Gazelles”.

Each morning as we were allocated the letter group – A,B, C, or D we would be handed our sheet of logistics: Longitude, 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 groups checkpoint not ours.  In this case we could recalculate our position from their information and turn towards our flag. 

I’m so Piste off

Sometimes there would be hours before we would see another team.   We would be some where in the vast Moroccan landscape hopefully close to the checkpoint.   If we were lucky we would find a “road”.  On the map it looked promising but in real life it was a rugged donkey trail marked by a mound of rocks.   Hopefully it would bring us closer to where we needed to be but more often then note it just bled into other “roads’, trails or rugged pathways.   The drive would jar our innards.  All aches and pains were forgotten when that glorious checkpoint was in sight. 

Please Sir, can you move your donkey? 

The terrain was challenging enough to drive through – constantly changing.  More times than we want to admit we were delayed by a herd of goats, sheep or the passing of a herd of dromedaries, the “one humped” camel.  The donkeys would gaze, unimpressed with us Gazelles as we drove by.  Nomads living in makeshifts tents would wave and smile. 

Making a mountain out of a molehill 

I did not see any mole hills. The landscape I viewed was breathtaking.  Jean Pierre Berthet, sporting director of the rally, constructs the course in October.  He admits it must be challenging – and don’t I know it.  But he also wants each Gazelle to experience the beauty of the Moroccan landscape.   He is keenly familiar with it – having an extensive background in driving through it.   

Driving up close to a checkpoint only to realize there is a 1000 metre mountain in your way, or sand dunes that are larger than your house – there are better ways to spend a day. 

As I nibbled on my French army rations – NATO approved. I daydreamed of being home.  The isolation is getting to me and I’m trying hard to focus on driving.  The sand is one thing and today we navigate a bed of purple volcanic rocks.   The camel grassed covered sand mounds are hard to snake through and give us a bumpy ride. In a perfect world the 15 kilometre drive would be straight at the needed degree.  Any twist or bump in the way could throw us off our path and make the final destination a ways off where we needed to be.  

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque

In the middle of now where – with nothing in sight some how we would come across a nomad.  Within minutes a child’s face would be pressed up against our window.  “monsieur, une stylo”?  (SP?) They would ask.  A pen, shirt, anything would be appreciated.  At one checkpoint an old woman was offering a dead lizard in exchange for clothing or food.  The look on my face must of shown her that I neither was hungry enough to eat it or desperate enough for a souvenir of that kind.  

Rock and Roll. 

I wish our truck had a CD player.  After not crossing paths with another team or any form of wildlife – human or otherwise, the solitude was getting to me.  The landscape changes drastically.    The smooth drive on a dried up lake bed to the slow crawl over the large purple volcanic rocks. It takes all my concentration.  Guérer whispers to herself as she calculates our route.   I watch her take out her compass yet again some how losing her third ruler in the process. This would become a joke between us. Precision and correctly interpreting the maps would make today’s checkpoints almost seem easy. That confidence was short lived. 

I fought the dunes and the dunes won 

Sand has its own dynamic.  In the morning it’s hard and easily driven 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.  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.  Driving on sand was like skating – beautifully smooth.   

By noon the sand heats up and becomes soft and menacing. It doesn’t just grab your tires it attacks them leaving you stuck.  We shovel enough sand to build a beach.  We inflated a special balloon that lifted our truck out of its predicament. Sand rails gave us the much needed traction.  While gone was the bumpy ride the sand would still shove the vehicle, trying desperately to capture the wheels. 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. 

The day of the dunes and we found ourselves lost and stuck with just the similar look of gigantic sand hills for kilometers.  Our thoughts of finding the X checkpoints – those that are harder but offer more points, fizzled.  It was hot and frustrating. Paranoid about deflating our tires too much we both thought this was the end to our day.   

The GPS unit in our vehicle has three buttons.  Red for a medical emergency, our hearts were broken but we were still fine. Blue, for a phone, whose purpose was for the organizers to contact us for such safety issues as driving too close to the Algerian border and lastly the Green, mechanical button for assistance.  Guérer’s hand shook when she pressed it. Our eyes welled up with tears.  Our strong showing on the score board would be history.  

Life’s a stage 

We hit the first checkpoint easily on stage four. The next one would prove to be difficult.  We were not alone in our efforts as more and more Gazelles in out letter C group were having difficulty finding our target.  Those few that did we heard after did so after watching a press vehicle leave the pass. 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 the danger of ruts and holes in the ever changing landscape. Smooth rocks of any size were easy to inch over.  The sharp edged ones I avoided not wanting to use our two spare Kuhmo tires. The dried up lake beds gave us a smooth drive but we were cautious as an outcrop could surprise us any time.  

Winning was never what we had in mind.   Starting eighth overall the third day in proved we had what it took.  The dunes took that confidence. We ended up 29th, out of 67 [from website] disappointing, but respectable. We tried our best.  The dedication the Gazelles had was inspiring.  Teams lost their luggage and supplies as the drove.  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 2004 Mitsubishi L200 (the Triton as it will be called in Canada when it becomes available later this month) survived with no more bumps or bruises then before. The alignment was off thanks to some good rock crawling.  It meant the steering wheel had to be pointed to 2 o’clock to go straight but I got used to it easily. There was not anyone could do until the truck was safely returned to the 4 x 4 rental company in France. 

During the rough times we always we blessed by the kindness of others.  Our fellow Gazelles, the local people and the organization, worked so tirelessly to make things run smoothly. Thee lack of direction and from the Canadian organizers would of made this rally unbearable if it were not for my navigator Guérer. 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 Gazelles was all about.   

The reason for being 

As the Gazelles drove, the rally sponsored medical caravan would make its way to the remote southern villages.  Seeing about 250 patients a day, the doctors, pharmacist and nutritionist would treat the poverty stricken locals.  During our morning briefing we would hear tidbits about the previous day’s accomplishments we help 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.  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 grueling 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 pushing me to all limits of my being. The next sand I would see would be on that Carribean beach, I vowed.  Then why am I already planning for next year?   It is simple: Je suis une Gazelle



Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.