By Carmen Madrid
Their day began as mine was ending. At 4:00 a.m. Morocco time, the ladies heard the smooth voice of Dominique Serra, creator and general director of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, as she wove her way between the tents in the bivouac's sleeping zone. The response from the slumbering Gazelles was cheerful and in good humor despite some teams having been up late making last-minute map preparations or reviewing navigation techniques.
The actual nine-day competition has started. No more training or preparing. No more cell phones or computers. It's time for the rubber to meet the road, or in this case, the sand. It's just the Gazelles, their vehicles, and the enchantment and challenges of the Sahara Desert.
Thursday's quest included searching for seven checkpoints along a 190-kilometer route (for us mileage-philes, that's 118 miles).
The terrain was fairly "uncomplicated" according to the organizers. Designed to build confidence, this first leg offered long open stretches that should have presented no major difficulties in terms of navigation or driving. Uh-huh. The end of the leg, however, was a bit more challenging.
By 3:30, some teams had not yet reached CP3. They decided to call it a day and return to the bivouac, believing they'll do better tomorrow.
To arrive at CP7, Thursday's final checkpoint, teams had to cross rugged ground identified by a series of rocky valleys. And looming in the background... a part of the region called Timzizouit, which means "impossible to cross." Not too worry, Timzizouit is not on the agenda--or is it? Not today, at least.
Calling Team 109. Where are you?
Driver Emily Miller and navigator Armelle Medard found themselves short one map as they tackled the first leg of Day One. No problem.
Some of the less-seasoned Gazelles chose to avoid trouble by following the trail back to the bivouac. It cost them a few extra kilometers, but it beat spending the night alone and isolated in the desert. It's just the first night, after all. There's still plenty of time for getting lost.
Oh, and did I mention the Gazelles were greeted this morning by the first sandstorm of the race? By noon, the wind was still pretty intense, but it did not seem to affect any team's performance--only their maps. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the elements...Team 146 (Caroline Moulene and Aurore Caron of France) had to call for technical assistance after losing their map in a sorcière, a sudden, violent whirlwind. Assistance was dispatched with a new map, but I wonder how many penalty points that little trick of nature cost them?
Team 123 (Elisabeth Thuillier and Caroline Thuillier of France) experienced an electrical problem with their vehicle. True to the Gazelle Spirit, Team 129 (Briton Jeanette James and Anne Marie Borg of France) stopped to lend a hand, and both teams continued on.
Team Miller Medard. Everything ok?
The Hummer H3 experienced its first injury Thursday. A broken shock made for a bumpy ride. I would have headed for the nearest watering hole, but then, I'm not a champion driver or winning Gazelle. Despite these inconveniences, the U.S.-French duo are in fifth place in the rankings. That makes for a good night's sleep.
How did the American siblings, Gazelle Team 107, fare on their first leg of the first official day of competition? "We got six out of seven checkpoints--and I know we could have gotten the last one," says Tricia Reina. "One misread feature cost us 3.5 hours and that held us."
Yet the American first-timers are sitting in 27th place out of 68 in the First Participation category and 44th place in the overall standings. "Stay focused. Believe the maps," Amy Lerner says. That was their big lesson for the day.
The schedule will quickly become routine for the U.S. Gazelles and the more than 200 other daring women competing in this year's one-of-a-kind event. Awake at 4:00, briefing at 5:00 to receive your route information for the day, departure at 6:00.
But for now, they sleep. Sweet dreams, Gazelles!
Unless otherwise noted, photographs by Dan Campbell-Lloyd.