Since 1990 the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles has been held in the vast Morocco desert. Unlike other rally raid events (Dakar, Baja, etc.), this isn’t a contest of speed but navigation. Teams are required to meet specific checkpoints over the shortest distances – not in the fastest time. Sometimes the long way around may be faster because of fewer obstacles but in this race, it may be better to drive over a towering dune because it’s a more direct path from one checkpoint to another. Sounds like a rather simple matter because of abundant satellite technology, right? Wrong, the use of GPS and cell phones is strictly forbidden. Co-drivers plot courses with nothing more than a brief road book, analog compass, ruler, old French map and brain power. There are no support trucks either but organizers use a sophisticated satellite system to track teams in case of mishap and provide mechanical assistance. However for ten to thirteen hours a day for nine days, the racers must look after themselves and sometimes each other. The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is very famous for one other aspect. The racers in cars, bikes and quads are all women.

Earlier this year we had the pleasure of interviewing Emme Hall, road racer, car reviewer and self-described “rabble rouser.” Among other things, she’s half of The Indiana Joans along with actress and singer/songwriter, Sabrina Howells. They competed in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles for the second time this year and finished 29th overall out of 162 teams. We chatted with them about the experience and what it’s really like to be a Gazelle.

MLAS:What lessons did you take from your first Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles into this one?  

Sabrina Howells: For me the big take away was that I am capable of almost anything.  I had never been a part of anything like this rally before.  It sounds crazy, but I knew nothing about cars.  I heard about this rally and saw the opportunity for an incredible adventure, a chance to push myself to do something I never thought possible.  And we finished, with a pretty good ranking, and we did it with a broken car!  I learned so much about myself – my strengths and my weaknesses – I knew if we went back everything I learned and Emme learned would make us a team to watch.

Emme Hall: The first one we were just trying to figure it all out. We learned all about the rhythm of the rally; the early mornings, the way we plotted the points, the amount of time we spent at each checkpoint. This year we knew what to expect so we weren’t surprised by anything. Well, the wind and rain storm that happened the first night maybe surprised us a bit! We had also learned so much about using the compass. We learned that sometimes you have to stop and take a new heading every 50 feet. Yes, it’s annoying but sometimes that’s the only way to be absolutely sure you were driving in a straight line.

MLAS: When did the rally’s magnitude really sink in, as in that first oh-my-gosh-we’re-racing-in-the-Sahara-Desert moment?

Sabrina: That’s hard to say, because just the drive from Casablanca to Erfoud, you feel the vastness and the magnitude of the landscape, and it’s exciting and overwhelming all at once. But this year, I think that moment really kicked in when our car almost ended up on its side on our second Dunes day.  We got out of the car and surveyed the situation.  Not a car for as far as you could see to flag down for help, hot sand, unforgiving sun, and a car I had little faith we could get out of the sand bowl we found ourselves in.  It’s those moments when you realize how small you are and how vast and dangerous this desert can be.  It took over an hour of digging, physics, and some clever uses of our handy MAXTRAX, but we made it out.  And I think we left those dunes with a little more respect for how powerful Nature can be.

Emme: When we saw our first camel. Once you see a camel you think, “Holy crap this is awesome!”

Indiana Joans
The Indiana Joans heading to the dunes in the 2014 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon)

MLAS: How do locals react to the rally and the all-female racers?  

Sabrina: It was overwhelming how welcome all the locals made you feel.  Every town you passed through adults, children, men and women would wave and call out “Gazelle! Gazelle!”  It was as if they were proud of us, and proud that their country was home to the rally.  There was a respect and excitement that followed the rally.  It was incredible.

Emme: It’s different in the cities vs the small villages. In the cities you’re kind of a rock star. Everyone knows about the Rallye and we all have to wear our Gazelle vests, so it’s really obvious who you are and why you are in Morocco. The city people love it and they are so happy that you are in their country. They want to make sure you have a good time and they have so much pride and are so happy you are there.

In the villages we mostly see women and kids. The women that we saw were way more concerned with day to day living than talking to us. They would always come out to the truck and ask for food or water. It’s really hard because we don’t have anything to give to them. I wonder what their lives must be like and it makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be born in the USA. Last year we were digging out the truck (because I was a little eager in a river wash) and this teenage girl approached us. She only spoke Arabic, no French or English so we couldn’t really communicate. She watched us for a while as we dug out the truck and used our MAXTRAX to get us unstuck, and then she asked for some food and water. We had an extra bottle that day so we gave it to her. She allowed us to take her picture and I think that might have been the first time she had seen a picture of herself. Of course, it was on the screen on the camera, so I couldn’t give it to her. I don’t know what she was thinking about us, who live such different lives from her. Was she thinking we were crazy? Lucky? Did she yearn for adventure too or was her life so overwhelmingly about survival that adventure doesn’t even occur to her?

When you are in the dunes, you would think you would be all alone, but they are actually full of people. The villagers know when you are coming, and they know the dunes so well that they are waiting for you! Groups of 4 or 5 young men, some on mopeds, just wait…and they always wait where they know you will get stuck! The young men then rush to help you. I don’t know if it’s because they think you can’t do it or if they want to be able to say they helped a Gazelle or if they are just looking for something to do, but no matter how many times you tell them not to help they won’t listen. They usually think they know better, and since they live there that’s kind of true. They will look at our MAXTRAX and decide that they are useless and then they’ll start digging. Meanwhile we know that having MAXTRAX means way less digging and a much easier recovery.

But I think we are seen as a different kind of woman. Almost like it’s okay for us to do this because we are western women, but their sisters and mothers could never do the Gazelle Rally. I don’t know if this is true, just a feeling I get. There was one Moroccan team in 2014. Just one. The damn rally is IN Morocco and they only had one team!

Overall the cities are very cosmopolitan and you may see some women in burqas, but most are in jeans, t-shirts, dresses, just like in the USA. It’s a Muslim country but the government is secular. However, once you get into the villages, the division of the sexes is much more prevalent.

The King is very pro-women and has a lot of programs to help employ them and give them independence. For example, the argan oil industry is all controlled by female-owned and operated co-operatives. As Gazelles we get to wear the royal crest on our rally vests, which is a great honor.

Indiana Joans
Emme Hall checks the tires as Sabrina Howells takes a drink during the 2014 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon)

MLAS:Did you feel better prepared this time around?

Emme: Oh good Lord yes. I knew more about what to expect from the truck. It is “prepped,” but nothing like I would call prepped in my racing world. It’s basically stock. We had a roll cage this year and bigger tires but that is about it. I was able to make a better decision as to what tools to bring. I have to haul everything with me so I have to choose wisely what I bring. We had our morning and evening routines set, which saved us time. Sabrina set up camp at night while I visited the mechanics and got gas. In the morning I would break down camp and pack the truck while Sabrina got all our paperwork ready to go and plot our first point of the day. I learned that it’s best to wake up at 4am and immediately get the truck out of the secured parking area. I wouldn’t go to the bathroom or change out of my pjs or anything. If I did I’d end up waiting for 20 minutes to get the truck. 20 minutes that could be spent looking at the maps with Sabrina, enjoying some tea and just getting your mind prepared for the day.

I also brought a Polaroid camera, which was a big hit with the kids. I could take their picture and give it to them right there.

Sabrina: Yes, definitely.  We only had one real weekend of navigation and sand dune training together this year, and that definitely was a concern for me.  But, the second we were back in the DMAX and had those maps in hand, it all flooded back like riding a bike.  It felt great knowing that was still there, that knowledge.  Also, knowing what to expect, what to pack, how to navigate the bivouac – all of the small sort of technicalities and daily routines that I was trying to learn the first year we already knew and could focus on the real test of the competition.  We also had our own team routine down from the year before. We knew who had what tasks, we knew how to give each other the assistance or the space the other needed. We knew how to really work as a team this year, and that was invaluable.

MLAS: What’s the bivouac like in a rally where telecom tech isn’t allowed?

Emme: The bivouac has 4 computers for 300 Gazelles. The keyboard is in French, which I didn’t know would be different but it’s laid out differently and is really a pain in the ass to use! People back home can send us messages, which is great. Sabrina’s boyfriend wrote us a story and we would get a new chapter every night. As soon as we got our chores done at night we rushed to the post tent to get our story. People back home can follow us too, so we would get messages that told us how straight we were driving, which was cool.

The biv has a bar, because France. This year we actually got back to the biv during the day light and we were able to have a beer and talk to some of the other Gazelles and learn about them, which was amazing. Everyone is so strong and has such an amazing spirit. I mean, they would have to, right? It was cool to get to know them a bit. Last year they only time we really got to talk with other Gazelles was when we were all lost in the dunes, playing rock/paper/scissors to decide which direction to go.

There is also a mess tent, showers with mostly hot water, flush toilets, sinks, and the mechanics and the gas truck. It’s pretty remarkable. Then the whole thing gets packed up and moves the next day!

Sabrina: For me, it was an incredible escape.  I’m not really much for social media, I think I’ve posted three tweets in my life, so it wasn’t as bad as it was for some people.  But I loved the excuse to not have to constantly be checking my email or my phone for texts.  It’s such a free, light feeling.  You have nothing else but to bond with the other gazelles, and prepare for the next day.  I loved it.  It also makes the letters from your family and friends back home – the daily posts of encouragement the rally prints and puts in your team’s cubby hole at the end of each day – mean that much more.  It’s incredible to come home to the bivouac after an exceptionally challenging day to get letters telling you your mom was following your progress all morning with her 4th grade class.


MLAS:What was one of the more memorable moments for you from this year’s race? 

Sabrina: On the third day of the race, everything started to click.  Landscapes made sense, I could see how the world around me was transposed on the topo map, we were hitting our checkpoints with increasing accuracy, and we among the first 3-4 teams to be hitting them!  We were on target to where we believed our next checkpoint would be and saw a few teams circling the same area.  These were some of the front runners, and we were in their pack!  We spoke to one of the ladies, telling her that according to our calculations, the flag should be just a kilometer of the hill in front of us.  She scoffed saying it had to be at least a few kilometers east of that.  I can’t deny I second-guessed myself for a moment, thinking there was no way I was right and this woman who had been so ahead of us could be wrong, but Emme and I decided to stick to our own calculations, and drove to the top of the hill and there below us was the flag. To the meter where we had expected it to be.  We were the first to check in to it.  And only the 4th team back to the bivouac that afternoon.  It was our first time seeing the bivouac in the daylight.  I discovered that day the Biv had a bar.  And that beer was the sweetest I’d ever tasted.

Emme: It was the last checkpoint of the last day, and even though it doesn’t matter if you are first through a check point (remember it’s about shortest distance, not fastest time), we had been the first through most of the checkpoints that day. As a racer, I was stoked. So there was only one pass through this incredible canyon to the last checkpoint. It was by far the most amazing place I have ever seen. An incredibly high canyon wall, just sheer cliffs in this amazing red color. We were on like a rock covered mesa in the middle of this canyon. When I say covered I mean there was no dirt, just rocks. Smallish rocks, maybe the size of basketballs. And I was all hell bent for getting the last checkpoint and getting there first and Sabrina said, “Wait, let’s get out and enjoy this moment.” So we got out and we didn’t take any pictures (because really, like my little digital camera was going to do this justice?) or any video, we just got out and let the scenery and the silence come over us

And then because we are musical theatre nerds, we started singing The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music.

Then we got back in the truck and got the damn checkpoint!

Indiana Joans
Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells confer with veteran Gazelles of Team 188 of Syndiely Wade from Senegal and Florence Pham from Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon)

MLAS: Has participation in this rally changed you and in what way?  

Sabrina: I have so much more confidence in myself.  I know now I can solve any problem I’m faced with.  And that in life there are only solutions.

Emme: Well, it’s kind of a double edged sword. For a while I wasn’t having any adventures. The Rallye has reminded me that I never truly feel free unless I’m on an adventure. The problem is that I can’t be on an adventure 24/7! So now I am searching for ways to bring more adventure into my life. Coming back after the Rallye is difficult. You’ve spent all this time and energy raising the money to get there. Then you get there and you have this amazing experience and then you come home and you go back to….work. And I love my day job. But it’s very…regular. Fortunately my fun job with TFL Car is not regular! The Rally has inspired me to find more adventure in my life and given me the confidence to know that I CAN do it.

MLAS:Do you want to do it again and why?  

Sabrina: Yes! Our first year was such a huge learning experience.  Just figuring it out.  This year we went to place, and our experience this time around really showed us what we need to do to make that happen.  We want that chance.  To take everything we know now and use it.

Emme: If I could do this rally every year for the rest of my life I would. I want to win it.

MLAS: What would you do differently next time?

Emme: I want to take a different vehicle. I know what it is and I’m working on it, but I don’t want to say too much until it’s a deal.

Sabrina: Really trust myself.  There were a few moments this year when I really second-guessed my calculations – saw cars going a different direction.  And each time I did that, it turned out I was right from the start.  I know now that I really have the skills to navigate.  I want to go back with 100% confidence in that.

MLAS: What advice do you have for anyone who would like to do the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles?

Emme: You just have to decide to do it and then do it. The idea of raising the $30,000 for a team to go (that includes truck rental) can be really overwhelming, but you can’t think of it that way. Just break it down into little goals. Find your partner, design your media, research possible partners, pitch those partners, etc. The first year it took me two years to get there. The only way to go is to just…go. It’s quite simple.

Sabrina: Just make happen.  It may be a challenge to get there – financially, mentally, emotionally – but you will not return the same woman you left.  You will have challenged yourself in ways you have never been challenged before.  You will be surrounded by the strongest most inspiring women you’ll ever meet.  And you will be changed for the better.

CLIP – Annonce 25ème édition du Rallye Aïcha… by Rallye-Aicha-des-Gazelles

A Final Word

The Indiana Joans were the highest finishing US team in the 2014 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, and know in their bones that they can do better if they had the chance. We can all help them do that by going to their website and “grabbing some swag” in the form of t-shirts, stickers and koozies for our favorite beverages. Heck I clicked there and bought a t-shirt while writing this paragraph. You can connect with Sabrina Howells on Instagram and Emme Hall via the following links:

YouTube: The Fast Lane Car, Roadfly and Mega Monkey Motorsport

The 25th Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles will take place from March 20th to April, 2015. For more information on the event including how you can participate, please go their official website and connect with them via social media: