By Carmen Madrid
A four-day journey south that started in Sète, France last Saturday finally reached its end in the form of a beginning. Tuesday night, the 220 women competing in the 2011 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles spent their last night in a hotel in Erfoud, Morocco. Early Wednesday morning, drivers and navigators gathered up their gear and departed for the bivouac in Mech Irdane.
Along the way, each vehicle had its odometer calibrated--a critically important part of this nine-day, all-female competition. The Gazelles strive each day not to reach the finish in the shortest amount of time, but by going the straightest line between each checkpoint. Drive smarter, not faster.
I'll go into the calibration process in a later post when we take a close look at the vehicles being driven by the three American women in the 21st annual Gazelle Rally.
Early afternoon Wednesday brought a hazy but warm start to the official launch of the rally. Known as the Prologue Day, this ceremonial start is a milder version of what these adventurous ladies will encounter over the next nine days during their adrenaline-pumping, nail-biting ride across northern Africa. It was a chance for the Gazelles to introduce themselves and their vehicles to the wonder that is the Sahara Desert.
Amid an air of excitement and perhaps a few jitters, the competitors ventured off after lunch to travel 45 kilometers (about 28 miles) from the bivouac at Mech Irdane and back again.
The event organizers divided the 110 vehicles into groups, with each group assigned a different route. It was a relatively easy day: only three checkpoints and no accumulation of penalty points.
They reported that the navigating on this Prologue Day went exceptionally well. "The headings are precisely calculated and the drivers aren't deviating by a single degree," according to the report from the route.
Most of the drivers, that is....
Team 142 was observed driving south around an obstacle that many of the other teams took from the north. They ended up wasting time in a sandy zone, but the error wasn't too serious. With a slight adjustment, they reached the CP, or checkpoint, by driving northeast.
Then there were Teams 163 and 191, seen meandering farther and farther off course... Oh my!
At the pre-Prologue briefing, the Sport Director had announced that today's "half-leg" would not be very difficult. Most teams should make it back to the bivouac before nightfall.
Fortunately for the likes of the deviating wanderers, the organization made an exception to the rules for this shortened day: Rally support staff would go fetch any stragglers.
No fetching necessary for Team 109. American Emily Miller and her French navigator Armelle Medard finished in sixth place after their first leg as a new team.
"It was a great day," Miller says. "We encountered one error after the first checkpoint, but if we do what we did today for the rest of the competition, there is no reason why we should not be a contender."
And how did the rookie U.S. team do? Sisters Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina of Team 107 were glad to have a "warm-up day." Lerner, the team's driver, says, "There is definitely a learning curve, and you can only learn by trying."
Her navigator did admit they got stuck once: "We went to an extra checkpoint but now we know where we need to make corrections and move forward." That's the spirit, girls!
Thursday is Day One of the real deal. Ladies, start your... Oh, wait...First, turn off your mobile phones, pack up your iPad and laptops, disconnect the GPS, and check those compasses one more time.
Photographs by Dan Campbell-Lloyd.