Finishing the gruelling race is rewarding, but not as much as seeing the work done by the Coeur de Gazelles
Women participate in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelle – the Gazelle Rally – for many reasons. Some are looking for something that tests them at the highest levels of their mental and physical capacity; some are celebrating milestones, battling demons, seeking redemption from a previous year, or simply trying something new. But for whatever brings them here, the Rally itself has very important reasons for existing.
Unlike some sporting events that show up, put on a show and leave the tattered arenas behind them in their wake, the Gazelle Rally has formed long term partnerships in the most remote areas of Morocco to bring in medical care, education and job creation. The infrastructure is year round, meaning the work goes on long after the last 4X4s have packed up and headed home.
The Rallye des Gazelle is the brainchild of Dominique Serra, a force of nature, who, 28 years ago, sought to create a rally that would be world class, environmentally innovative and deliver a key message: women can compete at the most extreme levels of motorsport. There is nothing watered down about this event. Women are tested for eight days to the limits of their physical, emotional, mental and intellectual capabilities. Serra tossed aside the traditional rule book of most rallies: the Gazelle Rally is about the shortest distance between two points, not the fastest one. Without the aid of GPS and navigational systems, it is an old-school test of your abilities with maps and compasses, rulers and coordinates. It is insanely difficult, both to navigate and to drive.
I was initially going to cover the rally solely as a report, but some brainstorming eventually put me in the driver’s seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, with my sister in the navigator seat. We are both new to this, but how better to understand what goes on in the mind – and heart – of a Gazelle, than to become one? Competing and reporting simultaneously immediately presented problems I hadn’t foreseen: I underestimated the toll the rally would take on me while overestimating my ability to wear two hats. The cost was getting unranked in the early goings, but Serra has thought that through, too.
Unranked (a breakdown or call for help that falls outside the acceptable on-course fixes) may mean you’re out of the points contention, but you can still drive every day and continue. It’s a brilliant consolation prize, because once you start competing, a bad day simply makes you impatient for the next one to begin – at 4am.
Being unranked also allows you to delve a little deeper into the work the organization does in the area. Missing a checkpoint one day wasn’t a complete wash; I spent time at the day’s location of the medical caravan that is the hub of the Coeur de Gazelles. Serra’s daughter, Marina Vrillacq, is the president of the Coeur de Gazelles, created 17 years ago to bring teams of medical experts to those living in the most unreachable parts of this country. They use existing infrastructure in these communities – on-the-ground people who identify those who need assistance and help create conduits between the population and the medical help.
Backed by European Volkswagen Véhicules Utilitaires, Aicha (A Moroccan food company) and ATOL Opticians, the Coeur de Gazelle partners with the Moroccan Ministry for Health and 50 volunteers in a large and growing range of medical specialties, including pediatrics, gynecology, general practitioners, dentistry, ophthalmology pharmacology, dermatology and screening for diabetes, cataracts and trachoma. In 2017, the organization reported:
3,912 people received medical care
3,795 prescriptions were provided
9,610 medical services, including 4812 consultations and 16 surgeries
1,787 general medical consultations
690 pediatric consultations
283 gynecological consultations and 128 ultrasounds
417 diabetes tests
465 dental consultations
During the two weeks the Rally is in the area, the medical caravan moves daily, usually operating out of schools or public buildings. Doctors set up shop and see hundreds of people who often walk hours just to receive medical attention. Staff tell me some of the highlights: seeing someone have a pair of glasses put on for the first time, and truly seeing clearly. Kids receiving toothbrushes and toothpaste for the first time; parents learning how to spot and treat fever in children; how to cope with diarrhea, a constant threat in parts of the world without clean water; women receiving help with nursing their babies; all patients receiving instruction in preventative medicine. Organizers know who to expect – that fabulous local network again – and beyond medical care, clothing and things like wheelchairs are delivered, too.
When you actually see this happening, the crowds of people politely queuing as they wait to see a doctor, it’s hard to ever see the Gazelle Rally as just an off-road motorsports event. The tendrils of what the rally means to competitors – the tears, the exhilaration, the sweat, the anguish, the triumphs and the setbacks – reveal the heart of those who pay to play. Learning the Coeur de Gazelles provides ongoing medical support – transporting patients to city centres for more intense care, year round – reveals the heart of the organization.
The Gazelle Rally is fiercely proud of its ISO 14001 certification, acquired in 2010 and the only motorsport event in the world to have it. The bivouacs sort waste to recycle, compost and incinerate, water and waste is filtered, and nothing is left behind. Water bottles are collected – a new project here creates buildings by filling the bottles with sand to form walls. There are no scars left behind on the landscape, and those who participate sign up to respect that ethos.
I had my own reasons for wanting to participate in this exceptional rally. It’s touted as the adventure of a lifetime – and it is – but is also fundamentally alters your thinking about more than just yourself.
You may show up here uncertain of what to expect, but you cannot leave here unchanged.