By Carmen Madrid
Their last trek across the desert of Morocco ended at an oasis. After spending the past nine days sleeping in tents, eating French army rations (while away from the bivouac) and removing sand from their food, engines, and pores on a regular basis, the 220 women of the 2011 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles finally arrived at the coastal town of Essaouira. And most are sad the journey is over.
The official finish of the 21st edition of this one-of-a-kind event included mounted horsemen in traditional Moroccan costume. Carrying colorful flags and forming an equestrian honor guard, they welcomed the courageous ladies as they made the ceremonial finish to their desert adventure.
By nightfall, the dust-covered gals cleaned up nicely for a fancy celebration with delectable dining and dancing under the stars.
For some, the occasion marked a joyous reunion. The husband of American Tricia Reina of Team 107 had flown to the northern African country to greet her at the rally's end.
For others, including members of the four teams that finished unranked due to mechanical failures, it was a bittersweet finale.
No matter the final standings, feelings of pride at having taken the risk and stepping outside their respective comfort zones appear to be universal among the women.
For U.S. off-road champion driver Emily Miller and her co-pilot French-woman Armelle Medard, the 2011 Gazelle Rally was an international coupling of grand proportions. Though you earn no prize money for a win, place, or show--to use a horseracing term--the thrill of beating the rigors of the Sahara is reward enough.
These two women took their fledgling pilot/co-pilot relationship--begun during Skype conversations a mere 10 months ago--and turned it into a second-place ranking overall driving a stock Hummer H3.
"It was truly a test of vehicle management as a driver," says Miller. "And Armelle was spot on with the traditional dead-reckoning navigation."
As those of you who've been following the 2011 Rally since the beginning know, participants in this unique event may use no modern methods of navigation--no GPS systems, no computers, no phones allowed.
What's next for this resolute duo? Besides a new friendship, I'd say the expanse of the desert is the limit.
And what about the American sisters who reached out to embrace this all-women rally and its many challenges? They came out of the gate (again with the horseracing--these are Gazelles, not mares!) confident they'd find the finish line. They stayed focused on enjoying the journey, achieving a final ranking of 55 out of 110 teams.
These two novice participants--Amy Lerner from New Jersey and Tricia Reina from California--left behind family, work, and the comfort of home to pursue an adventure in their own Hummer H3. Did the drifting dunes and rocky terrain of the mighty Sahara disappoint?
"It was more challenging than we anticipated in so many ways," says Lerner. "It was an incredible adventure from start to finish."
I concur. I had a ball covering this unique escapade. Perhaps next year I can live it for myself while once again writing for your vicarious reading enjoyment. We shall see....
A full-length feature on the 2011 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles--with more behind-the-scenes details, new photographs, and added perspective from the American competitors--is coming in the next issue of Automotive Traveler magazine.