Three of the eight biggest US teams tackled the toughest, biggest women-only off-road rally in a Land Rover - Louise Woodhams discovers how they got on
“The event is an off-road test of dead reckoning navigation across 1500 miles of desert"
Founded in 1990 by Dominique Serra, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is reputed as being the world’s toughest all-female navigational rally. In addition to offering an empowering contest to women, it provides funding for the charity, Coeur des Gazelles (Heart of Gazelles), which supports a number of projects including educational facilities, wells for clean water and job training.
The prestigious motorsport event is an off-road test of dead reckoning navigation across 1500 miles of rugged and hostile desert terrain. Teams of two – a driver and navigator, must pilot their vehicles to a series of hidden checkpoints using only maps printed in the 1950s and compasses. To that end, the rally is strictly analog, yet another factor – together with the crushing heat and unpredictable terrain – which makes things that little bit more challenging.
While the rally makes use of a satellite tracking system so that friends, family members and Gazelle fans can follow the teams 24 hours a day, GPS and other electronic aids are banned; as far as the participants are concerned they're off the grid for the entire duration. The team that achieves the most direct route, navigating the fewest possible miles between checkpoints, is the winner.
A total of 162 teams took the line in 2016, which began with a prologue day on March 23 in Erfoud, Morocco, and concluded 10 days later in Essaouira. Entries from Europe, Asia, South and North America and Canada, battled it out over six legs, two of which were marathon legs lasting two days and covering 230 kilometres (143 miles). With no mechanical assistance and the challenge of making an improvised camp alone in the desert, it’s the ultimate test of endurance and willpower.
While the Jeep Wrangler was the more common weapon of choice in this year's 26th running of the event, out of the eight U.S. teams contending in the 4x4 category, three went with the trusty green oval badge. Team 107, the Hoehn sisters, and their mother, Karen, who together with friend Maureen Gibbons formed team 181, both opted for LR4 vehicles, while Team 178, Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, chose to showcase the off-road abilities of the Defender.
Karen decided to compete this year in honour of her 60th birthday, but unlike her daughters, who were returning to the competition for the third time, she was a complete rooky: “I supported my daughters as a spectator last year and when I got out onto the course and saw the whole spectrum of women competing, young and old, fit and not-so-fit, I knew there was a place for me," said Karen.
The opening leg, 105 kilometres of rugged terrain with steep rocky pitches, long stretches of sand and notoriously difficult camel grass, took some teams more than nine hours to cross, but impressively the #178 Defender came in third, and the #107 LR4 fourth. That’s not to say it wasn’t challenging for the teams, however. "It was absolutely miserable to drive in, miserable to get unstuck from, and miserable to navigate through," said Susanah, who finished in 12th place last year with her sister, Jo Hannah.
"Although I watched my daughters do this, you really have no idea how gnarly it is until you go out and do it," added Karen. That experience must have paid off, as come Monday, the halfway point, the sisters had swapped places with Hall and Howells, now running third and fourth respectively. Sadly the next day saw a change in fortunes.
"Our wheels were literally hitting the ground"
The Hoehns lost their air suspension, while team #178 had a difficult morning after being slowed by camel grass, but despite making slow progress both returned to camp having made all required checkpoints. "We couldn't even drive over a pebble," said Susanah.
"The car made the most horrible sound the whole way back. Our wheels were literally hitting our car."
The final marathon leg of the rally took teams 140 miles across shifting sand dunes and an enormous dry lake. With four U.S. teams in the top ten, it was a record performance for the Americans in an event typically dominated by French entries. The sisters even managed to overcome their suspension trouble to earn their first podium, while Emme and Sabrina finished fifth.
They nearly didn't make it to the finish at all, but thanks to their mother who gave up parts from her vehicle, they finished third. "Our mom has given us so much our entire life," said Jo. "I thought that this event would finally be about her, and the event ended up being about us."
In an event ruled by Jeep it was great to see an LR4 and Defender traverse wide-open plains, dry riverbeds, sand dunes, mountains, rocky lakebeds, ruts and washes to finish in the top five. It would be even better if Land Rover ruled the event overall.
If you're reading this JLR and looking for ways to spur brand advocacy, why don't you enter next year and let LRM take the wheel...