“More than 230 kilometres in complete autonomy, with no mechanical assistance during the night, an improvised camp out in the middle of the desert and 14 CPs to reach over two days.” This is how Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles official website describes the two day marathon across the Erg Chebbi Dunes of Merzouga.  Three routes were laid out to suit the racers’ experience levels. Only the Expert class had no choice.  This is considered the rally’s make-or-break part.

Team 403 with strong competitors Jeanette James and Anne-Marie Borg, was taken out of contention by a broken axle on Day 1. However the women have opted to continue the race but not as official participants.  They started on Day 3 like everybody else in their Jeep Wrangler and their performance calculated as if they were in the race. However they will be last on the Expert class ranking as “HC” (unranked) regardless of how good their times are.

By day’s end, six teams in the 4×4 / Camions class are also HC. French Team 156’s Nissan Patrol GR Y60 suffered irreparable damage, ending this year’s race for Stephanie Cayo and Christelle Vidal.  It’s possible that Team 222’s Toyota Land Cruiser 95 can readied for competition but it’s been reported that Caroline Baise and Sophie Normand’s will also be unranked like Team 403.  I’d be glad to hear of teams from other events that have continued under such circumstances as well as organisers who would allow such a thing.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 2
After driving from dawn to dusk through the Sahara Desert for two days, teams in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles returned to the bivouac Friday to rest. Saturday starts a marathon leg through the ocean of sand that is the Erg Chebbi dunes. For two days, teams will cover more than 230 km alone, with no mechanical assistance, and make an improvised camp in the desert. They will next return to the organized bivouac Sunday. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Expert class Team 405, Karima Laaroussi-Mouhyi and Florence Deramond had a rough go due to a engine support bracket in their #405 Toyota FJ Cruiser and were tenth to finish.  The marathon’s winners were Team 407 (Sylvie Freches and Carole Montillet) who reclaimed the overall lead in their Toyota HDJ 80. Syndiely Wade and Claudine Amat in their Team 410 Isuzu DMax were second. Third place was held by Team 477 (Camille Berchon and Anne-Perrine Balestier) in their Toyota FJ Cruiser.

All hail the Queen as Betty (Elisabeth) Kraft maintains her reign in Quads / Motorbikes on the Team 27 Polaris Scrambler 1000. Coninne Peron and Valérie Dot were second, meeting every checkpoint in their Team 21 Polaris RZT XP 1000. Dot was thrilled with their success saying, “We didn’t take the most difficult options; we wanted to get back early. We had so much fun! This was my best marathon!” Third place went to Moroccan-native, Nezha Larhrissi, on the Team 24 Can Am 800 CC Quad.

Viola Hermann and Vanessa Wagner took the Crossover class’ top spot again in their Mercedes Benz Vito. This Team 318 is one of the four German teams in this class. The other two teams are French and one of those, Team 323 (Céline Véga-Roïatti and Sophie Fabri) drove their Dacia Duster to second place again. The German rookie Team 320 (Bianca Manz and Alexandra Jansen) were third in a Mercedes Sprinter.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 3/4
Teams typically tackle the challenges of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles alone but they are permitted to co-operate in the hostile Erg Chebbi dunes where there is safety in numbers. Here, a group of American competitors shelter from the blazing sun to compare notes under the lift-gate of the #107 Land Rover LR4 campaigned by sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

The hot competition in 4×4 / Camions class was only surpassed by the desert’s heat. Swiss Team 179 Régine Zbinden and Ela Steiner topped the rank sheet with their Jeep Wrangler Sport 2.8 CRD. While Americans rounded out the top three with Teams 180 (Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis) in their Toyota Tacoma taking second on the day. Sisters, Jo Hannah Hoehn and Susanah Hoehn, were third in their Team 107 Land Rover LR4.  Here’s more on the American teams and their marathon experiences:

American teams complete challenging, two-day marathon leg
Competitors battle weekend of exhaustion and sand dunes

TAFRAOUT, Morocco (March 27, 2016) – Three American teams were in the Top 5 heading into the first marathon leg of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, with the #180 duo of Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis clinging to a slim overall lead. But the challenge of surfing dunes for two straight days in the desert could bring a shift in the rankings when they are officially released Monday.

At the start of Leg 3, Pitell-Vaughan and Beavis narrowly led the Swiss duo of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner. The #178 Land Rover Defender team of Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells were third, while sisters Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn were fourth in their #107 Hoehn Motors Land Rover.

All three leading American teams reported that they achieved their 14 required checkpoints Saturday and Sunday, but after two days in the desert none returned to the bivouac confident in their overall position. “I would say it was like running a marathon — times three,” a tired Susanah Hoehn said on Sunday.

The first of the rally’s two marathon legs, which see teams make improvised camps to overnight in the desert between checkpoints, was a test of endurance and willpower. Competitors faced down a range of conditions that included the shifting sands of the Erg Chebbi Dunes, dry lakebeds, rutty terrain, and miles of jagged rocks.

After leaving the line at 6 a.m. Saturday, none of the lead teams returned to the bivouac until after dark on Sunday evening. Competitors including Howells and Hall were still up at midnight, working on their maps for the following day, while Beavis and Pitell-Vaughan — who made it to the final checkpoint just before sunset, crawled directly into their tents.

“I watched my daughters do this for the last two years, but you really have no idea how gnarly it is until you go out and do it,” said Karen Hoehn, who is competing this year for the first time in the #181 Land Rover LR4 alongside friend and rookie navigator Maureen Gibbons.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 3/4
The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is a curiosity for locals. On Saturday, these four boys stopped by Checkpoint 4 to greet competitors and take a closer look at their off-road vehicles. In addition to drawing teams from around the world, the rally travels with a medical caravan as part of its Coeur de Gazelles charitable operation delivering services to this region of Morocco. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Rally Aïcha des Gazelles
USA Teams Notes and Quotes
March 26 & 27, 2016 – Leg 3

Location: El Beida / Izougguerhn
Ideal distance: 230 km
Estimated time: 18 hours
14 Checkpoints

RANKED 1st at Day 3 start: Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Corona, California) / Chrissie Beavis (San Diego, California): Toyota Tacoma
While three other leading American teams elected to work together through the Erg Chebbi dunes, off-road racers Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis forged ahead alone in their Toyota Tacoma. The event is not timed, but teams must arrive at checkpoints within a specified window or risk being cut off, and daylight is an enormous asset to navigation. The team achieved all 14 required checkpoints, but it remains to be seen whether their faster pace came with a cost in accuracy.

RANKED 3rd at Day 3 start: Team #178 Emme Hall (Oakland, California) / Sabrina Howells (Los Angeles, California): Land Rover Defender
Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells achieved all 14 of their checkpoints during the two-day marathon leg and reported no major missteps. After emerging from the Erg Chebbi Dunes on Saturday, Howells joked: “Kilometers in the dunes are kind of like calories on vacation: they don’t really count, do they?”

RANKED 4th at Day 3 start: Team #107 Susanah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California) / Jo Hannah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California): Land Rover LR4
As is permitted under the rules for the Erg Chebbi dunes, Southern California sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn co-operated with rival teams to navigate the hostile terrain. Working together with fellow Americans Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, in the #178 Land Rover Defender, as well as Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass, in the #184 Jeep Wrangler, the team kept a steady pace and achieved all 14 checkpoints.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 3/4
Teams may be competing against each other at the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles but the sea of sand is the most formidable opponent during the marathon leg near Merzouga, Morocco. American driver Emme Hall lends a hand with a shovel after coming across a stranded rival. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

RANKED 11th at Day 3 start: Team #184 Susie Saxten (Encinitas, California) / Ivy Cass (Encinitas, California): Jeep Wrangler
Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass successfully navigated all 14 checkpoints in the marathon leg. Saxton said she was surprised to find unexpected company in the desert. “People just materialize out of nowhere,” she said. “A little face will pop up in your window and then you look out and there will be all these little kids. And you wonder where they came from, because there is nothing around at all.”

RANKED 18th at Day 3 start: Team #182 Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler
The rookie team of Theresa Stewart and Sara Jehn showed confidence in the dunes and, working by themselves for the entire marathon leg, they reached all of their checkpoints and were back to the bivouac by dark on Sunday. Stewart credited her daughter’s driving for their strong performance. “Sara really excelled in the dunes,” she said. “She is an out-of-the-box thinker and I think you really have to be an out-of-the-box thinker to drive the dunes.”

RANKED 29th at Day 3 start: Team #188 Elaine Newkirk (Rancho Santa Fe, California) / Keely Sellers (Kihei, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler
First-time competitors Elaine Newkirk and Keely Sellers made all of their checkpoints on the opening day of the marathon leg, but missed the cut-off time for Checkpoint 7 on Sunday, ending their day early. It still took them almost six hours to drive back to the bivouac. The team spent much of the weekend with the #181 team of Karen Hoehn and Maureen Gibbons. Said Sellers: “Following Karen is like following a catering truck. She had such nice wine and food when we spent the night in desert.” They are permitted to continue and will be assigned penalties for the missed checkpoints.

RANKED 70th at Day 3 start: Team #181 Karen Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Maureen Gibbons (Del Mar, California): Land Rover LR4
Karen Hoehn and Maureen Gibbons achieved all of their checkpoints on the first day of the marathon but were out of the running after they missed the cut-off time for Checkpoint 7 on Sunday and had to return to the bivouac. They are permitted to continue and will be assigned penalties for the missed checkpoints.

RANKED 98th at Day 3 start:Team #127 Catherine Chiadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) / Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France): Jeep Wrangler
Catherine Chiadmi and Cecile Vinson returned to the bivouac but were not immediately available for comment.

RANKED HC: The #234 team of Tricia Reina/Laurel Allen elected not to start the rally. They are classified as HC (“Not Ranked”).

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 3/4
Experienced competitors Emme Hall, of Oakland, California, and Sabrina Howells, of Los Angeles, pick a line through the Erg Chebbi dunes in Morocco in the #178 Land Rover Defender. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

A Final Word

The Gazelles are more than just lady racers. They are tough, determined, brave and smart. We’ve can’t wait to see what else is in store for them!  We’ll bring you confirmed information as soon as it becomes available but encourage you to follow the race’s official social media channels for photos, updates and more.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rallyeaichadesgazelles/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Rallye_Gazelles
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Live Map: http://www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com/en/Rally/2016/live/