Once a year, the Maïenga organization, an international event management agency brings together women from all over the globe to race across the desert in the Morocco womens off road rally known as
Jump-started in Morocco by Dominique Serra, this women-only off-road motor rally held in middle of the Moroccan desert has become one of the most authentic sporting events for women between the ages of 18-65 from all over the globe and earlier this year celebrated it’s 25th anniversary. It offers a significant challenge to it’s participants by adding a touch of authenticity; allowing them to dive into the true and most authentic ways of travel and reintroducing adventures’ true roots.
The introduction of this event was designed to uplift women and to put aside any form of prejudice and clichés that may be associated with the gender and 25 years after that first event, the Rallye is thriving and very much maintains it’s original aim; a race for and with women. Speaking with three-time participant Benedicte Clarkson, she says that “women should participate because you learn that nothing is impossible, being a woman in a supposedly man’s sport (autosport) can be done, it’s actually empowering, that female solidarity is a powerful feeling.”
“ you will leave this adventure forever changed after pushing yourself to unknown limits.”
Over the years, the automobile competition has been flourishing, with increasing numbers of women getting together to take part in the event every year between the months of March and April. The competition allows the Gazelles (women) to participate the old fashion way; compasses and black and white maps are the only materials given as guide and GPS is not allowed resulting in a cross-section of cultures, backgrounds, languages and life experiences coming together to share share something in common. Preparation is a valuable asset. As Benedicte points out, many of these women “have thought about the race for a long time, at least a year, we have prepared for it by taking the compulsory navigation course and by learning to drive a 4 wheel drive, we have raised money from sponsors, and we have talked to our families.”
Strength, determination, and perseverance are some of the listed qualities required for participants. Amateurs and professionals alike are geared towards having a well-rounded experience, “ you will leave this adventure forever changed after pushing yourself to unknown limits. Forced to face yourself in an environment that is unknown to you challenges your ever being thus a sense of solidarity develops amongst teammates and other Gazelles.”
The non- profit organization also provides a platform where the gazelles are given an open window into the Moroccan community. The rally has over years earned its respect in the country and is welcomed with open arms.
The course of the day is derived out of the “Road Book”. A traveler’s guide for the Gazelles pin-pointing their geographic coordinate, checkpoints and finish line. Kicking off in France for administrative and technical verifications and ending in Morocco; host of the actual event.
With a feel of originality and authenticity, the event however encourages no speed or use of GPS; “a return to the roots of adventure” is the event’s tagline. As Benedicte informs me, ‘it is actually wonderful to spend 8 days without technology, it is liberating as you are totally immersed in this strange and challenging world consisting of finding red flags in the desert and mountains. I found that I am a lot more resourceful than previously thought.
Within the 8-day journey, the Gazelle’s adventurous lifestyle revolves around finding check points in the shortest distant possible throughout their Bivouac (camp site). A typical marathon day, starts at dawn with breakfast and briefing and then an average of 10-13 hour day of rally through the dessert where the Gazelles are given a certain amount of checkpoints to find; red flags placed in the desert. Modern tracking systems have been introduced to locate members in case of any emergency during the track. A full team of medical and security personnel are also constantly on site.
Routes are constantly redesigned and plays on the mantra ‘the roads less-travelled’. The need for speed is not the forerunner of the race, teamwork and the emotional challenge involved is the focus. Participants are encouraged and in many cases forced to dig deep and push themselves to complete the course. Clarkson shared with us that it was a challenging task participating with her teammate Jamila. “We were hopelessly lost half the time, we had great laughs but we were utterly exhausted at the end (and elated to finish it). We thought “never again” until 3 months later Jamila called me and said “how about having another go, but this time, we train properly”? So we did, we trained in the desert and a year later we were back in the rally. We had a great week until it stopped abruptly on the 7th day after a driving error and we could not finish it. As I was the driver, I felt awful but Jamila was terrific. We were in this together”.
At the conclusion of the 8 day event, a winner is selected based on the shortest distance between checkpoints through the teams technique, strategy and willpower. Additionally, the rankings are obtained from calculating the actual kms driven and awarded in each of their 4 classes of vehicles ;Expert Class, 4×4/Truck Class, Crossover, Quad/Motorbike/SSV. Carole Montillet and Valérie Dot, Karima Larroussi and Florence Deramond, Alyssa Roenigk and Chrissie Beavies Johnson and Elisabeth Kraft and Sarah Maire were the 2015 winners respectively.
“The Rallye’s strengthened our friendship. You live through massively strong emotions throughout the rally”
With a total of now 15 employees the Maïenga organization supports other innovative and unusual projects with a trail-based solidarity for women only. Other projects includes the Student Challenge, the Cap Femina Adventure, the Lol and Run. Each group also very unique and innovative; following a pattern that encourages a change for the better.
Ralllye Aïcha des Gazelles has in many ways been a very successful pioneer in the world of outdoor sports and in the empowerment for women introducing a new dynamic way of lives for it’s participants. They seek to update and mould the event each year as it continues to grow and really outdo itself.
“The Rallye’s strengthened our friendship. You live through massively strong emotions throughout the rally, from deep fear (in my case, I had to conquer my fear of driving in the dunes) to great joy ( for example the first time Jamila got us to all the check points in the day)”. When asked to describe her experience in one word, Benedicte simply said ‘Exceptional’
300 participants make their way to Morocco each year to discover and maintain the strength many didn’t know they had. It sure has made its marking in stones to many adventurous women and have been proven to be worth adding to bucket lists as challenge to attend and complete at some point, “The only deciding factor is your determination”.
Nicole Dreon is a freelance writer and photographer from Truckee, CA. For over a decade, she has worked in the research department for ESPN and the X Games where she interviews athletes who throw Stripper flips on motorcycles and Kangaroo flips on skis. In the off-season, she trots the globe with her camera. Recently, she travelled solo to east and central Africa to record the stories of inspiring female athletes. She is currently working on a slideshow series called, Players On a Wild Continent.