Driving the Sahara Desert

Stinking hot, it’s midday in the Sahara Desert and I’ve just finished digging our Amarok four-wheel-drive truck out of the sand for the second time.

Craving moisture, I grope in the door pocket for our water atomiser and, instead, spray deodorant point-blank into my face. I’ve risen at 4am, raced across stony desert, sandy riverbeds and flint-clad mountains from 6am to 10pm, and slept those precious six hours in a dusty tent. For four days straight. Now my face is bone-dry and I’m laughing madly at myself, at the endless sand and at the extreme craziness that is the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles.

Hot Pursuit

The Rallye has traversed the multifarious landscapes of Morocco for 22 years. Our course, with its stony expanses, surprisingly steep mountains and date-palm oases, runs the length of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, before depositing us at the coast at Essaouira. Skirting around the cities, we get little sense of the country’s 33 million mostly Arab-Berber population. And, even though we wear loose-fitting clothes in deference to Muslim custom, our interaction with the few Berber nomads and village children we pass by is largely through the rally car’s window.

The Rallye is mainstream sports news in Europe. Despite ‘international’ aspirations and a handful of English-speaking teams, the entire event is in French — who knew? We are the first Australians to compete in it. So on top of the physical stress of draining hours, little sleep and lots of towing and digging, and the mental stress of navigating untracked, gnarly terrain with nothing but an outdated map, a compass and a Volkswagen ute, I have long periods of utter incomprehension.

I am driving with my friend and fellow journalist, Samantha Stevens, and when we meet in Paris we are naively laid-back about what this unique race entails. Our demeanour rapidly changes when we learn the particular skills required of the Gazelle ‘navigatress’ — no GPS here, just a 1:100,000 scale, black and white 1950s map (French legend, naturellement), a compass and ruler. At the daily 5am briefings we receive only the coordinates for the first checkpoint, plus the end bivouac (camp) for that leg. You need to get to Checkpoint One in order to receive the rest of that day’s coordinates — and stories of competitors driving the entire day and never finding their first red flag are common.

The Rallye philosophy surmises that Gazelles never get lost, they just “stray”, so although cars are tracked for safety reasons (and for the entertainment of organisers and anyone with a computer), teams will not be rescued unless there is a medical emergency or mechanical impasse. I am completely new to orienteering and, during the five hours of navigation tutorial we receive in our Paris hotel room, I start to realise the magnitude of this challenge. And that’s before I get a first look at the towering, flint-jagged Atlas peaks.

The Heat is On

The Rallye officially launches at the Trocadéro Gardens in Paris, with crowds of media, bags of swag and our donning of the sponsor-encrusted rally vests we have to wear continuously for the next 12 days. This year the organisers are in a rakish khaki version while the girls stand out in hot pink with lingerie-inspired khaki lace-up gussets. By Day Nine my vest has endured dust, mud, rain, loads of sweat, sand, blood, coffee and whisky. It can now stand on its own and no amount of post-Rallye washing will ever restore its colour.

Late afternoon the cars file out of Paris, and competitors and organisers alike drive across 1850 kilometres in a blisteringly paced mega-convoy through France to the southern Spanish port of Almeria, and onto the car ferry headed to Nador, Morocco. The ferry is my undoing, a discombobulated blur of fast-speaking French Gazelles waving Arabic-scripted border forms, thick cigarette smoke, lots of surging motion and too many people in a tight, airless hold. Stuffed into the guts of the boat, our tiny room triggers an immediate panic attack, which is exacerbated when I discover a lack of life jackets and a lonely sign on the main stairs that suggests “in case of emergency go to the bar”. It’s midnight, we have been driving all day, and when Moroccan officials confiscate my passport in a babble of Arabic and disappear with it, I drop to the floor before our hapless mechanic Philippe, howling: “Je ne comprends pas! Aidez-moi s’il vous plait! (I don’t understand. Help me please.)” And burst into tears.

Pas de problème. Passport restored, I off-load into the Mediterranean port of Nador. It’s 4am so we get no sense of the usual trading-hub bustle: in addition to its fishing and food trades, Nador has a thriving manufacturing sector and we are warned to expect large trucks on its winding access roads. Through half-awake streets our convoy hares off into seven hours of vertiginous driving through the Middle Atlas Mountains. The narrow pass hugs its cliff face with a sheer drop to terraced fields, date palms and the occasional fort ruins. In more commodious sections, donkeys graze to the side (the camels come later). Oncoming kamikaze trucks teetering with produce come hurtling around blind corners regularly, enough to keep Sammy and me on high alert the entire journey. We discover pristine beaches, foraging goats and tiny cafes hunkered into the tumbles of square, colour-washed buildings. Around Erfoud we pass a number of fossil sites, which I wish I had some time to stop and admire.

We head southward towards Algeria and the kasbah-styled hotel outside Erfoud that will provide our last comfortable sleep for nine days. The centre of Erfoud is in full market mode and we crawl and weave through stalls planted mid-road, past donkey carts laden with vegetables, women in burqas and crowds of children who rush to touch the cars. Low mud-brick walls, shady palms and huge dunes on the horizon attest to Erfoud’s reputation as the “go to” desert oasis town for tourists and movie-makers alike.

Ensconced in our hotel, poolside in a shady carpet-clad courtyard, we plot the coordinates of our first checkpoint for tomorrow’s Prologue drive. Prologue is a classic racing stage that allows organisers to establish a results-based starting grid, plus offers a three-hour introduction for newbies like us on navigating the terrain. We will pitch our tents on the hard dirt of our first bivouac outside Erfoud, take the bearing we have calculated and drive into the desert. The black and white maps we carry are spidered with black mountains and cliffs, but otherwise give no hint of the landscapes that are in store. Massive sand dunes or ergs are shown as light smattered dots. Parallel wavy black lines give no hint of the sharp, impossibly steep sand ridges they represent. Pale dotted lines could be a narrow but uncrossable crevasse, or a wide, driveable riverbed.

Uncharted Territory

A distinguishing feature of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is that our entry payment funds a medical caravan that travels behind the rally dispensing medical aid to remote areas. In conjunction with the Moroccan government, the rally’s French founder Dominique Serra established Heart of Gazelles Association and, instead of prize money, the race delivers assistance to about 5000 locals every year. Therefore, most communities know of and support the Gazelles, and kids and adults flock to the cars seeking candy, water and provisions from the military packs we all carry.

The aim of the competition is to reach all the checkpoints on a given day by the shortest distance possible, so it’s over the mountain rather than around it. Australian photographer Dan Campbell-Lloyd, covering his fourth Rallye, tells us that one of the previous years’ teams, which had Miss France in the driver’s seat, constantly followed roads and was still placed respectably, so the organisers have been particularly zealous in removing infrastructure from our maps.

To our barely trained eyes these maps tell nothing and our ‘introduction’ Prologue becomes a nine-hour obstacle-littered marathon as we hacksaw our car out of mounded camel grass, lose our landmarks in a dust storm and circle checkpoint coordinates fruitlessly. Still lost at nightfall, I run through the low ‘trial’ dunes guiding Sammy with a torch until we finally see the lights of the bivouac on the horizon.

Rallye leaders are expected to be driving for between 10 and 11 hours a day, so we nouvelles Gazelles can expect way longer. Every night at least three teams don’t make it back to camp. We carry our tents plus extra water, eight days worth of military rations, a bunch of tools and emergency paraphernalia in the space where the back seat was. There is no cargo net and, over a particularly steep drop where I stand our car on its nose, all our supplies come crashing into the cockpit as Sammy and I hang off the grab handles.

Although the military crème caramel, crackers and canard pâté are more than bearable, in our preoccupation with finding the flag and avoiding the local pitfalls, including fossilised “cauliflower rocks” that will tear up a tyre, slick riverbed mud that sends us spinning and treacherous sand, we often forget to eat. Or drink. On Day Four, nursing a dodgy tummy and baffled by my bizarre idiot savant ability to get us directly to a checkpoint half the time and hopelessly lost the other, I suddenly collapse from dehydration. We are in a valley of sand and grass, hemmed in by white-rocked hills. Sammy drives us through a cleft to a plain of low grass where, miraculously, the medic car passes us. Near catatonic, I receive a stern ‘Frenchlish’ lecture about drinking impossible amounts of water and we somehow limp back to camp.

Queens of the Desert

On the last Marathon leg of the Rallye, everything comes together for us. I navigate us first into three checkpoints, then we spend that night in the dunes with a host of organisers, a full moon, foie gras and champagne. Next day Sammy navigates as I drive the “X” route over the intimidating Chegaga Dunes. We tow two teammates, dig five other cars out of the dunes and conduct an impromptu disco at Checkpoint X5 with our newfound French friends. Only three of us get to the hard-to-find Checkpoint 7, hidden on a plateau ringed by black stone hillocks, at the end of a long, rocky valley. Then, as the sun sets, we tap a dirt track and beeline for the bivouac where we are placed 22nd for that leg.

Our crescendo is a rooftop party in Essaouira where we join our competitors from Morocco, France, Belgium, Germany and Portugal; our mechanics and media guys; organisers; and doctors for an epic dance into the early hours of tomorrow. We’ve driven a final eight hours to this coastal town and in the morning we will parade along the beach with our Aussie flag to a huge crowd of supporters and media. We are placed 47th out of 121, which is apparently excellent for newbie Gazelles. We are exhausted and elated: I’ve never had to work so hard and I’ve rarely felt so fulfilled. J’adore Morocco! Vive les dunes!

 

Get off track

If you want to take the road less travelled, without the competition, here are three you shouldn’t miss.

Red Dust

Relive Tim Winton’s classic Dirt Music and traverse the Dampier Peninsula from Broome to Cape Leveque along the red dirt of the Cape Leveque Road before it is fully sealed. Expect treacherous dirt, endless beaches — and crocs. Hook on to the sandy Bedunburra Road at Beagle Bay if you wanta to go the 1000 extra kilometres to the Kimberley on the famous Gibb River Road.

Rock crawl on the Rubicon Trail

Running between Lake Tahoe and Georgetown, 2000 metres above sea level in California, the Rubicon Trail is a no-holds-barred, three-day drive for die-hard off-roaders. Good ol’ boys in monster trucks and tourists can pick their fear factor with various routes including Tin Can Alley and Thousand Dollar Hill.

Slip-slidin’ Away

If you just want a taste of dirt, slip-slide a kart through the mud and jungle of a New Zealand rainforest. Several adventure companies run one- to three-hour tours out of Greymouth on the South Island. No licence required.

Words by Sally Dominguez - Published in Voyeur March 2013
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