The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc is the only women-only off-road rally in the world. Created in 1990, this unique event brings women between the ages of 18 and 65 from more than 30 different countries together in the Moroccan desert.
Since its inception, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles has been creating a new vision of automobile competition: no speed and no GPS, just old fashioned navigation, completely off-road: a return to the roots of Adventure. The only requirement is determination. The women who take part in this rally—known as Gazelles—are of all ages, social backgrounds, nationalities and levels of off-road experience. Whether in a 4×4, Crossover, Quad, truck, motorbike, or for the first time this year in a Kawasaki Teryx, they all come to take part in a unique competition.
The Gazelles have to reach the predefined check points along their course in the least number of kilometers, rather than in the least amount of time. They have the choice of driving around a mountain or crossing over it, driving through the dunes or avoiding them. Every day they receive a “Road Book” for the day’s course. This document contains only the geographic coordinates, headings and distances of the day’s checkpoints and finish line. Using a compass, a navigational plotter and maps, they plot their route and plan their itinerary.
This unique rally spans 8 days of competition across 1,300 km of the Moroccan desert. The competition begins at 6 a.m. each morning, with successive starts every two minutes, and the girls can expect to be on the course each day for 10 to 13 hours.
The Teryx Girls (Sara Price and Erica Sacks) were selected as one of only 10 teams from the United States, and the first ever to compete in a side-by-side vehicle. After the race, we sat down with Sara and Erica to hear about their adventure. Here is their story.
UTV OFF-ROAD: Let’s start it off in the past- how did you two meet, and what led to your partnership?
SARA: We were always those girls hanging out with the boys because we liked machines and were always working on stuff and racing. So sooner or later, we were bound to run into each other and that’s pretty much how it all started. Instead of asking the boys for help, we kinda just would do everything ourselves together and were up to adventure since- haha- that had to be about 7 years ago I’d say!
ERICA: We met through mutual friends in our community. We were both professional athletes at that time, and we both shared the love for racing, so we quickly became friends. The past few years I’ve helped Sara prepare her race car and spot for her at the short course races.
UTV OFF-ROAD: The Rallye Aicha Des Gazelles isn’t your typical off-road race. What led to your decision to compete?
SARA: Well, I came across it a few times, and then started following the US Gazelles on Instagram and thought it was just the coolest thing that has happened in all of women’s motorsports. The rally isn’t just about the results, it’s about the journey, and embracing a gazelle by helping all the women around you be the best they can be. I’d wanted to do it for a few years, I just had no clue where to start- and I didn’t know if it was for me, since it’s something I’ve never done. This last year, I was figuring out my next step in some sort of racing, and this was at the top of my bucket list. I asked Erica and she was 100% on board, and so from that moment on, the work started so we could be a part of this incredible Rally!
ERICA: Sara asked me to do some all-girl race with her in Morocco, Africa with no GPS. I’ve never turned down an opportunity like this, and the rally was no exception. I have a lot driving and navigating experience in many long and short distance off-road races, but with GPS. Without really knowing much about the rally, I said yes and never looked back!
UTV OFF-ROAD: Going into the race, what did you practice?
SARA: Well, Navigation most definitely! We both never had any navigation training, and that’s what this whole rally was based on, so that was our main focus. Also, as a driver I had to practice changing my mindset of not choosing the smoothest lines, but the shortest, and also making sure to stay on our heading so the navigator can keep us on track.
ERICA: Going into the rally, we both had never used a compass or a map (especially an outdated map) for navigation, so that was something we had to learn quickly and practice a lot. Plotting on a map is just one step, the rest is how to drive the straightest line, plot around things, match up features on the map to the surrounding areas, and how to work on the Kawasaki Teryx in case it needed to be fixed. Each area was so different, and we both needed to know how to do everything in order to work as a team.
UTV OFF-ROAD: When your route turned off-course and you had to spend the night in the desert, how was your attitude and outlook affected?
SARA: Haha! Well, the first night we stayed in the desert, we had to just laugh because it was the first day of the race. We ran out of gas, we didn’t have a tent, and we thought, ‘well, go figure- the worst has happened, and it’s on the first day of the rally, so it can only get better from here on!’ Honestly, we made the best of it the first night. Thanks to our Teryx for making us at home- we got some sleep in the seats, but help didn’t arrive for about 6 hours, so we were out in the middle of nowhere alone. We were totally asleep at one point, and then all of a sudden, we were getting poked by locals in our car waking us up! It was super scary at first, but they meant well and ended up staying and trying to talk to us in our car for 3 hours. We didn’t get to sleep, and we didn’t speak the same language, so that was definitely an unexpected experience for us.
ERICA: The first night when we were stuck in the desert, we laughed it off. We had so many things go wrong leading up to the rally it was just another story to add to the adventure. The second night was a bummer. We were frustrated and ready to throw in the towel, but that didn’t last long. Our mentor Emily Miller talked the organization into letting her talk to us on the tracker, she reminded us that other than the cliffs that surrounded us, we were safe and tomorrow was a new day. Later, the rally officials showed up with a sleeping bag and a tent. We were able to get enough sleep to start over and prove that we were there for a reason and we really did know what we were doing.
UTV OFF-ROAD: What did you do to prepare your Kawasaki Teryx for the journey?
SARA: Honestly, the Kawasaki Teryx off the showroom floor was Really Ready. It’s a strong machine, and that’s what you need for this rally! Only things we added were ITP Wheels and Tires, A Cage by IMG Motorsports, radios to talk to each other in the car by PCI Race Radios, and our KC HiLites light bars that saved us from the darkness of the desert!
ERICA: There wasn’t much we wanted to change on the Kawasaki Teryx. We knew it was a reliable platform and that’s what we needed for this rally. IMG Motorsports did most of the add-ons to it in the short amount of time we had. They built a custom cage with a roof, added inserts for our PRP 4-point seat belts to go through the stock seats to fit us comfortably, ITP gave us two sets of dual bead-lock wheels and Blackwater tires, and we upgraded the Fox shocks. Other features added were two KC HiLites Flex Array light bars, PCI Bluetooth Radios Mic’d to work with our Bell Racing helmets, graphics, spare parts, Maxtrax, and lots of tools.
UTV OFF-ROAD: Can you give us some examples of conversation topics between you two during the long Rallye?
SARA: Well, boy, that’s hard- we pretty much were always just comparing thoughts of where we think we might be. We always were excited to see the camels and donkeys, so you can imagine some conversations about them.
ERICA: My nickname from my brother has always been Random, and that couldn’t be more accurate. Most of the time Sara and I talk about food, but during the rally we kept pretty close to topic. When we weren’t naming the different features or calling them what they resembled, we were working our way to the next checkpoint trying to figure out where we were.
UTV OFF-ROAD: The Rallye Des Gazelles pays homage to the past, eliminating outside communication, satellite navigation, and computerized aids from the competition. What was the most valuable skill the event taught you?
SARA: Always knowing where you are. Navigation is such an amazing skill to have learned, and without the Rallye, I don’t think we would have had a reason or want to have to learn it. On top of that, patience, because when you’re lost, the worst thing you can do is just drive around, because you will only get more lost.
ERICA: The most valuable skill from the event was Teamwork! You could have the best equipment, be the best navigator, and get stuck the least, but if you don’t work well as a team and help other teams, you don’t have the Gazelle spirit- and you will miss out on the entire experience.
UTV OFF-ROAD: After the first mishap, you two rebounded back quickly. How did that change your outlook on the Rallye?
SARA: From the beginning, before our car even shipped from California, I felt we had been tested! Nothing went too smoothly for us, and I think we are very proud of all the trials we worked through. After the first night of competition sleeping in the desert, we actually once again slept stranded on a cliff the next night, with no way down. It was dark, and navigating that terrain in the dark is nearly impossible. That was for sure our lowest point- we were running on no sleep, and my sleeping bag had fallen out, so I had to use two emergency blankets to try to get some rest. The next morning, the organizers of the rally took us to a road that was at least 50 miles away, and in order for us to stay in the rally, we had to make it back to the bivouac by noon. We got back at 10am, and all the other teams leave the line at 6am. We didn’t even skip a beat after our worst night in the desert- we weren’t giving up, and Erica started plotting. An organizer briefed us, I got gas, and we ate while getting ready to leave for our first dune day! We completed the dune day and absolutely killed it. In one of the shortest leg times, we caught up to all the teams and made it back to the bivouac early for a much needed shower and some rest after two nights in the desert.
ERICA: The only word for the rally is RESPECT! After our comeback, we got so much support from the other US teams, the other teams competing in the rally, and the organization. We received tons of emails from friends and family at home all cheering us on, telling us how proud they were of us for not giving up and staying strong. We learned to respect what the rally is about. We kind of felt like we failed everyone following us the first two nights, then to accomplish the hardest checkpoints on dune day and make it back to the bivouac without any issues goes to show how quickly everything can change.
UTV OFF-ROAD: Would you like to see a similar event like the Rallye Aicha Des Gazelles here in the US? Where would you like to see it held if so?
SARA: It would be really cool, but I think for us, having it in such an amazing country and having the cultural experience was what made it so much more special for us. This type of competition is a true test of what you are made of, and I think it would be awesome to welcome everyone out the desert one day to give it a try and learn some navigation.
ERICA: This was our conversation on the plane home. Yes! Although being in a foreign country adds a little extra edge, it would be awesome to have a similar event in the US. We talked about Glamis and Ocotillo Wells (Imperial Valley), because it has a few variations of terrain, but even better would be somewhere where there are big features and we could go through different cities similar to the rally. It would be super fun.
UTV OFF-ROAD: What was your comfort food out in the desert?
SARA: Lots of bread, haha! Our Army Raisins had these like almond puff things that were really good, but the only thing we would’ve done anything for was some cold beverages, because we didn’t have the luxury of cold drinks or ice.
ERICA: In the bivouac or in the dark desert? Haha! My comfort food is always pasta! The bivouac always had pasta to eat at night, along with many other options. I always went for a few plates of pasta with a side of chicken or beef. In the desert we had Army rations, so the food choice was dependent on how hungry we were.
UTV OFF-ROAD: We’ve changed many UTV belts on the trail, but we can’t imagine any of them being as difficult as the one you two had to change. How long did it take you, and how did that experience go?
SARA: We were on our last day of competition, and after almost 1000 miles, we should have changed the belt at least half way to be safe. It’s a part of maintenance, and there was a lot of rock climbing we had been doing. The last day, we were so excited that we had not had one problem with the Kawasaki Teryx, and were going to end on that note. Then, as we were on a straight, it went. We both knew what it was, and got straight to work. We took everything apart that we needed to, and the belt had shredded to the point where we knew we wouldn’t be able to get the clutch completely clean of the debris in order to put the spare on correctly. In the Kawasaki, it takes a bolt to expand the secondary clutch to make it easier to slip the belts on and off, and the bolt we had in there expanding it had broken off in the clutch. We really thought we weren’t going to finish, because we only had the tools we had brought on the car, and not the right tool to get that bolt out. We both traded off, trying to get the broken bolt out- and somehow we ended up getting it out after an hour or so. The next problem was that we didn’t have any more spare bolts to expand the secondary to make the room needed to get the new belt on. We had both the primary and secondary off, and we placed the belt on them while off the engine, hoping to maybe stretch it or somehow get it aligned. It was nearly impossible at that time, so out of frustration, I kicked it- and once again, a miracle happened and it went on!!! We both freaked out. We got the nuts on to secure it, and started getting the car ready for the end of its journey to the finish line! We Finished!
ERICA: We were prepared to change a belt, it was something we should’ve changed half way as maintenance. It took us two hours to change the belt, and we couldn’t duplicate the experience. Before our Kawasaki Teryx left for the Rally, we changed the belt at IMG Motorsports, but nothing is as easy in the desert. The bolt we used to separate the secondary clutch sheared off inside of it, the backup bolt we had had a shoulder on it and it started to crack around the hole. We got 2 screw drivers stuck inside trying to get the sheared off end out. We traded off working on it so we didn’t give up so easily. We got really close to giving up a few times, and the final touch was a big frustrated kick from Sara that thankfully aligned the splines up and the clutch slid on, we were ready to go again.
UTV OFF-ROAD: 3,000 KM in the desert is a long trip, but the organizers make a point to ensure that there isn’t much terrain damage happening during the race. How did this philosophy work out once you were out in the open?
SARA: Really nothing is off boundaries, besides just watching out for villages and crops and go around them, and respect all the locals and their homes. Having all of the Sahara in front of you and no guidelines or course only makes it harder, haha!
ERICA: In the first few meetings the officials kept saying we were all a team of 3, 2 teammates and our vehicle. When plotting to each checkpoint, my job was to plot around anything that looked like it could hurt us or the car. There were many times I would get out of the car to find a better route to take, move rocks and knock down steep spots so we could make it without the risk of breaking, but Sara did a great job making sure the Kawasaki Teryx lasted for the finish.
UTV OFF-ROAD: How did your IMG Motorsports-built Kawasaki Teryx handle the desert regions of Northern Africa?
SARA: Like a Champ! If there is a UTV that will shine in this extreme competition, this is it. Its foundation is a strong machine from the inside out, and the Kawasaki Teryx is nearly indestructible, and that’s what we need. A machine failure in this race can cost you everything you put into it. The Teryx is also roomy inside, and that came in handy for us those long nights in the desert and being in the car nearly 24 hours a day at times. We were really proud of our Teryx and couldn’t have asked for more from our machine.
ERICA: It handled great on the passenger’s side. As a navigator you don’t pay much attention to the terrain, it’s all about the features and the odometer. When we hit a bump or something it was always a surprise for me, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
UTV OFF-ROAD: You two set a great example for the younger generation of female off-road enthusiasts worldwide. What are your words of advice to them?
SARA: Get out there and go for it! Off-roading is one of the most amazing things this life has to offer, and it can bring you to the most incredible places around the world. Life is an adventure, so don’t hesitate because it’s where you belong!
ERICA: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Experiences can either be fun or scary, or both, and take you on some crazy adventure like we did. It’s about your attitude and what you make of it. Get out there and do something out of your comfort zone.
UTV OFF-ROAD: Any final thoughts or funny stories?
SARA: Oh we have many, but we might need to write a book for you all to read haha. All we can say is we can’t wait to hopefully go back in 2016 and attack this Rally and see our Gazelle Family Again!
ERICA: There were a lot of stories throughout the rally, it would take an entire book to write them all. Final thoughts of the rally however, is that I hope the adventure didn’t end when we left Morocco! We would like to go back for the 2016 rally and conquer all the mistakes we made during the rally.
Thank you both for sitting down with us and sharing your adventure. We will see you again soon to take an in-depth look at your Teryx once it is back stateside! –UTVOR