2014 Gazelle Rally
Now in its 24th year, the French-inspired Rallye Acha des Gazelles is considered the most prestigious all-women's off-road rally event in the world. In 2014, 318 women from 25 countries took the starting line of the race across the Sahara Desert, including four American teams. Pictured team members: Jo Hannah Hoehn and Susanah Hoehn, Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft.
Tools of the Trade
At the beginning of the rally, all competitors turn in their cellphones and are handed old maps and a compass. For the eight days of competition, they navigate Morocco's most remote terrain without the help of a GPS.
Americans Rhonda Cahill and Sabrina Howells plot a heading.
The goal of the Gazelle is to reach a series of checkpoints each day while covering the least amount of distance. Each checkpoint has a red flag, which is a welcome sight in the middle of the desert.
A few young locals freely offer their advice as to the best way to traverse the dunes.
She's a hot one
They call her the Sahara -- she is the hottest desert in the world and stretches the entire length of North Africa (approximately the size of the United States).
Up and Over
For most competitors, the best part of the rally is getting the chance to tackle some of the Sahara's most famous dunes like Erg Chebbi and Chegaga.
Spreading the love
American competitors Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells spread good cheer in the town of Erfoud at the start of the rally. This year marked the second time the two competed together, so they went through some familiar territory.
Competitors return to the bivouac (the makeshift city of base operations) each night to set up camp.
Howells, who is playing the guitar, is a singer/songwriter from Silver Lake, Calif., who performs in a band called Henry Henrietta. Hall is a custom designer and off-road car racer.
Howells sets up her tent inside the bivouac, happy that a full night's rest is getting closer.
Every morning, competitors get up at 4 a.m. and are off the line just two hours later around dawn.
French drivers Carole Montillet and Chris Mayne competed in their 11th Gazelle Rally in 2014. Montillet, who has won the 4x4 class twice, but with different partners, is the 2002 Olympic gold medalist in downhill skiing. According to Mayne, she drives like she skis -- "straight, straight, straight and fast." As to why she returns to the Gazelle every year, Mayne said, "It's the two weeks for us that is only for us. No kids, no job, no taking care of the house. Just the race and your teammate." The team finished in fourth place.
The Berbers, a cultural group native to southern Morocco, are big fans of the Gazelle Rally. Most Moroccans, some say as many as 80 percent, claim some Berber heritage.
Canada's Myriam Cote, an actress and comedian from Quebec, Canada, takes a break from driving to show off her athletic ability.
Competing in their first rally Gazelle, Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn, both graduates of Dartmouth College, plot their next checkpoint. To make it easier to remember geographical features, Susanah said, "We started naming the features we were taking bearings from with names like Beyonc, Slim Shady and Rihanna. In a navigation event where you look at so many terrain features, it made it so much easier and eased a little stress. We didn't have to call it the, shady, pointy part on the map."
These women travel to the middle of the desert for a little isolation, but the groupies show up no matter what.
One more to go
Each day the final checkpoint usually closes at 7 p.m. Team #188, Syndiely Wade from Senegal and Florence Pham from Vietnam, who won the event together in 2013, have one checkpoint to go on Day 2 as the sun sets quickly in the distance.
Once the sun goes down, it can be nearly impossible to navigate, as competitors can't see any landmarks.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Cell phones are still useful in the middle of the desert. You might not get cell service, but you can collect some stunning photos to share later. Tag #gazellerally and then go tell your friends.
Camels vs. Cars
Sometimes late in the day, one wonders who travels faster: camels or pickups. In the long run, it's probably close to even.
Hannah and Hoehn put air back in their tires after they get out of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
The rally travels through Morocco's deep south right near the Algerian border. Water is scarce and freshwater wells are hard to find. Competitors frequently drive through small villages in between checkpoints looking for any useful supplies that may be available.
Help on the Way
Team #182: Cahill and Croft, from Bozeman, Montana, get some help from fellow Gazelles. Teams must be completely self-sufficient and can only ask for help from other competitors. Cahill and Croft liked to joke that they are the "coolest soccer moms ever" after their cross-desert journey. You won't find many mountain-sized dunes on suburban soccer fields.
Even though the rally isn't about speed, there is always some action on the course.
Through The Dust
Competitors were subjected to some serious sandstorms in 2014, which made navigating even harder.
Repairs on the road
Racers have to fix their cars themselves while they are competing. Luckily, there is never a shortage of spectators to lend a hand or offer support.
The Heart of Gazelles is a medical caravan that follows the rally. Each day of the 2014 rally, it treated hundreds of people in the local villages for various ailments including heat exhaustion, bruises and scrapes. They are trained to help people not accustomed to the desert climate under competitive pressure.
Marina Gad and Yousra Elkoussy represented Egypt in their first Gazelle. While the Sahara sand dunes also exist in Egypt, according to Gad, only men are allowed to drive in the sand dunes in Egypt.
Winners Jeannette James (GBR) and Anne Marie Borg (FRA) led the rally from Day 1. Competing in her sixth Gazelle, James noted, "I've always had a relaxed attitude at the Gazelle, but this year, I'm sponsored by Volkswagen, so I knew I needed to take it more seriously. I was a lot more concentrated."