What Happens After a Journey Across the Sahara
After nine days of navigating the desert in SUVs, battling sandstorms, and without a GPS, the women of the Gazelles Rally cross the finish line and finally get to celebrate.
By Whitney Joiner
For the women who compete in the Gazelles Rally—an annual off-road, all-female motor sporting navigational challenge through the dunes and rocky craters of the Moroccan Sahara—the nine-day rally doesn’t officially end when they find their last checkpoint, a 12-foot–tall pink flag, out in the desert. While searching for that final flag (no GPS or cell phones allowed!) is their last task as Gazelles, the competition officially closes in the tiny beach town of Essaouira, Morocco, where the participants triumphantly drive their 4x4s, trucks, and SUVs—the vehicles they’ve just spent days breaking, repairing, and getting to know intimately—onto the beach in front of a cheering crowd to the finish line.
Luckily, I was there to witness it. While Marie Claire writer Jaclyn Trop rode along for the entire rally for our June issue, I headed to Essaouira for the final leg of the competition: the finish line, and awards ceremony, at the invitation of California-based racecar driver Emily Miller, a three-time Rally competitor and subject of Jaclyn's June story. Not only would I get to meet some of the badass women who willingly wander around the Saharan dunes for days—oftentimes getting lost or stuck in the process—but I'd get to welcome them back in Essaouira and then tag along to the 1,200-person formal celebratory gala that closes the entire event. Amazing. I had to go.
So at 9 A.M. on a chilly Moroccan morning, I met Trop in front of a beachside seafood restaurant, right outside the walls of Essaouira’s medina (old city). Together we walked along the beach to the crowd of bystanders waiting for the women to drive in; after about 15 minutes, we could see the vehicles off in the distance. "There they are!" she said. Before we knew it, car after car after truck after SUV filled with flag-waving Gazelles drove past us, honking their horns and waving: a parade of proud participants, thrilled to have completed the ride of their lives.
Gazelles from France, Angola, and Nigeria drive along the beach to the finish line.
Gazelles from France and the Congo drive in.
Four of the six American Gazelles who competed this year: Sabrina Howells, Emme Hall, Rachelle Croft and Rhonda Cahill.
The final two American Gazelles, first-time competitors and sisters Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn. They still haven't showered yet in this photo, but after getting out of her car, Jo Hannah immediately put on Ferragamo flats that her parents brought from home, which she’s wearing in this picture. "I just couldn’t take my other shoes anymore," she said.
The Hoehn sisters' gorgeous Land Rover. Check out that windshield: this car got slammed in the dunes.
After chatting with the American Gazelles, everyone was ushered into the awards ceremony. It's a bit of a misnomer: while there are certainly winners—the teams that racked up the fewest miles while seeking out the 57 checkpoints—it's a ceremony in which everyone gets a trophy for competing. (And rightly so: after hearing what these women go through out in the Sahara—the triple-digit temperatures; the endless searching for seemingly impossible-to-find flags—I'd want a trophy, too.) In fact, the biggest prize of $20,000 is given to the most extravagantly-decorated vehicle, no matter how that particular team did in the competition, and it’s only allowed to be used as a fund to return to the Rally.
Just a few hours later, balloons and party decorations filled the same reception hall that held the awards ceremony. Gala time. Many of the Gazelles bring their formal wear with them alongside their camping gear, in their backpacks or duffel bags: "We just hang up our dresses in our hotel bathroom to steam!" one competitor told me. After spending two weeks in the wilds of the Sahara, living off French army rations in three-degree heat, having to deal with broken-down vehicles, spending hours mistakenly circling the same terrain—these women are more than ready to spend a fabulous evening dressed up in their glam best, eating real food with an open bar. It all finally erupted in a wild, everyone-on-the-floor dance party.
I got to hear the Hoehn sisters' harrowing tales of the Rally firsthand, along with what it’s like to run their family business: at 27, Jo Hannah runs her family's Land Rover dealership in southern California; her 26-year-old sister Susanah helms their nearby Honda dealership.
Jo Hannah in a knockout Pucci gown.
Some of the evening’s entertainment.
The captivated audience watching the amazing all-female band on stage.
At one point, a lot of the Gazelles and Rally staff jumped up on stage to sing and dance along.
The next morning, I met Emily for breakfast. At this point, she’d completely sold me on joining the Rally in the future—I wanted to be one of these incredibly fierce, capable and courageous women, too. Maybe a Marie Claire team in the 2016 Gazelles Rally isn't that much of a long shot.