Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara, Part One: Journey into the Desert

It was 2 a.m. when I placed the call over the spotty hotel Wi-Fi. The odds that it would go through were slim; the odds someone would pick were slimmer. It was already 9 p.m. in New York City, and even if someone did pick-up, they were in no position to help me out, especially not at that hour.

None of that mattered to me though; it had been the longest day of my life, and by god I needed someone to yell at, someone to take responsibility for all the disorganization and poor planning that landed me in the small Moroccan city of Ouarzazate (pronounced were-za-zat) more than 36 hours after leaving my home in Toronto.

Worse yet, I was looking at the only bed I had seen for two days, and the only one I’d see for three more, and it wasn’t much to look at; Two thin single mattresses crammed together with a paper-thin sheet holding them together, and another identical sheet on top. The rest of the room was empty aside from a small square tube T.V., a rotary phone and the power outlet in the corner where I plugged in every device I brought along for the ride. In my delirium I remember being jealous of my devices, knowing they’d be fully charged when the alarm went off four hours later, and I wouldn’t.

I can’t entirely recall the exact words I left on the voicemail, I just know they were angry, visceral, filled with pain and exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I know I refused to set my alarm for 6 a.m., having just completed the longest journey of my life, and I know I said something about being treated like a piece of cargo rather than a human being.

Whatever I said I know it wasn’t in my typical, overly polite Canadian tone, but it evidentially worked, maybe even too well. I had assumed the voicemail wouldn’t even reach the other line, completely unaware that I had just set off a chain reaction that would echo from New York to the Sahara.

I awoke the next morning at 7:30am, half an hour after I was expected to be waiting outside the hotel with my bags already packed, wondering if my message was received. There was a pretty decent chance that the driver would have already given up by this point and gone home, leaving me completely stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course I didn’t consider that when I turned off my alarm the night before, in some small act of rebellion, but as I waited for the elevator doors to open I realized there was a chance nobody was waiting for me on the other side.   

It’s no coincidence that the town of Ouarzazate looks like a scene out of The Mummy, Gladiator or Game of Thrones; all three were filmed in what has been dubbed “Morocco’s Little Hollywood,” along with countless classic westerns and desert-themed productions. The town of about 70,000 is perched on a mountain that sits on the border between coastal cities like Marrakesh and Casablanca and the Sahara dessert, often acting as the final glimpse of civilization for tourists before venturing out into the vast openness. I guess I fell into that category as well.

Fortunately I found the panicked local scampering around the lobby when I arrived with my bags just before 8pm. He recognized me right away from the blurry photo they had sent him via fax. He barely spoke English but kept tapping on his watch and pointing to the car. I handed him my bag, pointed to the hotel cafeteria and held up my index finger to let him know there was no way I was leaving that hotel without a coffee and a piece of bread. Lord knows how long it would be before I saw my next meal, and he surely didn’t want to spend the next five hours with me in the back seat suffering from caffeine withdrawal.

I got comfortable in the white van as I watched all signs of civilization slowly fade into the rear view mirror. As we drove the roads got thinner and bumpier, and the division between the highway and the sand became less clear. The power lines got thinner and thinner until they eventually stopped dangling above our heads entirely. Pretty soon I found myself further away from home, native English-speakers and Internet connectivity than I had been in my entire adult life, wondering how in the hell I got to that point, and what in the world would come next.

Though I can’t say for sure it’s pretty safe to assume that this all started with one of the many public relations databases I am involuntarily listed on. Someone in France had hired someone in New York with access to a list of journalists, and was likely sending out invitations indiscriminately to all of them. Why else would they contact a business and careers journalist in Toronto for a sports and travel story?

I first got the invite in 2017, but having just returned from the Dubai desert I was all adventured-out. The second time they contacted me—barely three weeks prior to landing in Ouarzazate—I couldn’t resist the call to adventure. I spent the next week pitching just about every editor I’ve ever worked with on the story, and ended up receiving not one, but two positive responses. I confirmed my attendance with the PR firm in New York, and they began putting together the itinerary.

In hindsight I can sympathize with the small team of about four staff coordinating travel and logistics for about a dozen journalists from every corner of the planet and another dozen from Morocco and France, but when I got my itinerary I was less than pleased. To get to the Sahara I’d have to take a flight from Toronto to Montreal, then an overnight flight to Casablanca, where I arrived the following morning at 10am local time, 5am back home. Then I’d have to kill 14 hours in Casablanca with no hotel or accommodations before a midnight flight out to the edge of civilization.

Any relief that could have come from finally gaining access to a bed went out the window the moment the front desk of my little hotel in Ouarzazate relayed a message that was waiting for me, courtesy of the team in New York. The note informed me that my stay would only be about five hours long; a car was going to be picking me up from the hotel first thing the next morning to drive me five hours into the desert, at which point I’d be spending four nights sleeping in a tent before returning home.

It didn’t help that the tour guide I had hired to show me around Casablanca for $200 USD didn’t speak a single word of English. Two weeks later, after leaving a less-than-positive review on the agency’s Trip Advisor page, the owner called me from Morocco to explain that the English speaking tour guide he arranged got sick and, unbeknownst to him, sent his friend in his stead, assuming that as a Canadian I’d speak some French (I do not). He refunded me the full fee and apologized profusely, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. There I was in Casablanca, deliriously tired from an overnight flight; eating fried fish across from a stranger I couldn’t communicate with. After taking me to the Casablanca cathedral and a few spots around town whose significance I couldn’t grasp thanks to the language barrier, he drove me to the local mall, where he spent the remainder of the afternoon shopping for shoes. Then he dropped me back off at the airport, and I was on my way to Ouarzazate, already sleep deprived and fuming when I landed, made my way to the hotel and received a note containing more bad news at the front desk.

Getting a tour of the Casablanca mall, thanks to the “tour guide” on the left.

I woke up in the back seat of the stranger’s car as he pulled over to the side of a dirt road near a gas station in the middle of the Sahara. We waited there for a few minutes until out of the blue a truck approached—not from the road, but from the middle of the desert. The truck itself was covered in stickers and markings from brands I’d never heard of, propped up on enormous shocks that required it’s two passengers to jump down some ways to exit.

The male passenger, an older-looking Frenchman with greying hair, a green vest and aviator sunglasses, approached the driver who had brought me this far, while the female passenger—a young, blonde American woman—came over and introduced herself as Brooke.

“How has your journey been so far?” she asked, and I almost laughed at the question.

“Less than smooth, but it’s fine. I made it,” I responded.

“You’re the Canadian guy, right? You’re here to write about Stéphanie?”

“I’m doing two stories,” I responded. “One’s a profile on Stéphanie for a magazine called Ozy, the other is a broader story about the race itself for the Guardian.”

“Well, crazy what happened to her,” said Brooke. “I mean, I guess it’s good for you, right? I know you never want to be happy about a thing like this, but you’re going to get a great story out of it.”

I gave her a puzzled look and she realized I had no idea what she was talking to.

“Oh right, you’ve been travelling the last couple of days, of course you haven’t heard! Oh my god, you don’t even know!”

“Know what?” I asked.

“Her partner died. Florence, the woman she was originally going to be driving with. She got injured a few weeks ago while they were training and we just found out a couple days ago that she died in surgery.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “How’s Stéphanie doing?”

“It’s been an emotional few days,” said Brooke. “But she’s doing surprisingly well. She’s actually in third place, I think. I know she was yesterday. They haven’t posted today’s scores yet.”

I first spoke to Stéphanie Pérusse three weeks prior, as I was preparing the pitch I was going to send along to my editors. Ozy wanted a specific competitor to hone in on, someone who had a good shot of placing well, and so I asked the PR team in New York for some recommendations. They gave me a list of likely contenders, and upon some further research the choice became obvious. Not only was Stéphanie a fellow Canadian but she’s also the daughter of Jean-Paul Pérusse, a celebrated rally car champion from back when the sport was popular on my side of the world. When I called Stéphanie for a pre-interview she told me that she had never even considered following in her father’s footsteps, until she heard about the annual event in the Sahara dessert.

The 46-year-old marathon and biathlon runner was plenty competitive, but didn’t inherit a love for the raw speed and adrenaline of motorsports from her father. She lived a relatively quiet life as a mother of two flipping houses in Montreal; that is until she discovered the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — an eight-day all-female off-road event through the Moroccan Sahara. But this wasn’t your average race; competitors had to make their way to checkpoints hidden throughout the desert, and were judged not by how fast they drove, but on the directness of their route.

In other words, if your next checkpoint is on the other side of a mountain, or a river, or a series of sand dunes, you have the choice to drive around them, but the winner is ultimately the one that reaches their destination by driving the fewest total miles. The catch? There were no GPSs or cellphones allowed; competitors had to navigate by map and compass alone. To make it even more challenging, they only received the coordinates of their unique checkpoints at 5 a.m. each day, and had one-hour to plot their course on a paper map before approaching the starting line at 6.

In 2017 Stéphanie competed in her first rally, and came in third. If there was anyone among the field of nearly 200 teams who was most determined and most likely to reach the podium, it was she. The fact that she was Canadian and spoke pretty decent English sealed the deal, and my editor agreed.

When I spoke to Stéphanie over the phone from Toronto she informed me that she was struggling to find a new partner for the rally. Her father had agreed to help her win the competition but only if she played by some of his rules. One of those conditions was that she would have to fly out to the desert and practice navigating the terrain with her partner at least twice before the actual race.

So in February Stéphanie and her driving partner Florence Deramond put Florence’s decked out FJ Cruiser in a shipping container and headed for Africa. During that practice run, however, 62-year old Florence—an 11-time Gazelle veteran and former champion—ruptured ligaments in her shoulder, and needed corrective surgery the week of the race.

Stéphanie told me she nearly backed out but ended up partnering up with a French woman she had met at the rally a year before, Anne-Marie Borg, a ski instructor from the French Alps. Florence was also kind enough to let the pair use her FJ Cruiser, since it was too late to get Stephanie’s truck to the starting line on time.

“The team in New York got your message last night,” Brooke told me, as we waited for the next driver to arrive. “You caused quite a panic.”

“Really? I didn’t even think the message would get through.”

“It definitely did. The whole team has been scrambling to figure out your accommodations for tonight. I can’t blame you for wanting another night in a hotel before you head out to the desert. We’re working on figuring something out for you.”

Maybe it was manners or maybe it was guilt, but I suddenly went from feeling righteously infuriated to feeling like a prima donna. Somewhere nearby 400 middle aged women were setting up tents for their 5th of 8 nights in the desert, and here I was demanding a hotel room and a full night’s rest before joining them for the final two. It was too late though; the wheels were in motion. Calls were being made across the ocean and over walkie-talkies across the desert. There was no stopping the scramble now.

“We’re not exactly sure where we’re going to put you, but we know wherever it is will have to be close to tomorrow’s starting line,” explained Brooke. “The next driver will take you out in that direction and we’ll let him know where to drop you off as soon as we figure out where you’re spending the night.”

When the next driver arrived, about 20 minutes later, Brooke and her driver got back in their truck and peeled off into the desert, and I continued down the main road through a series of small villages and towns. After a couple of hours we turned onto a dirt road and another half hour or so last we stopped at a lone building in the middle of nothingness. The driver went inside and returned with a young man, the only hotel employee who spoke English. He explained to me that the hotel was completely booked with other reporters and sponsors following the race, as well as the families of some competitors. As we spoke the driver got back into the car, and continued on his way, and I felt stranded once again.

The young man escorted me past the front desk and into an open atrium with a rock garden in the middle, two stories of hotel rooms wrapped around all sides with only the open sky above. “Wait here,” he told me, “the Americans are going to call soon.”

I sat there for about 20 minutes until the phone at the front desk rang. The young man picked it up and after a moment motioned for me to grab the receiver from him.

When I picked up a panicked staffer on the other end told me they had received my message and were doing whatever they could to find me a bed somewhere close to the rally for the night. Not wanting to cause any more trouble than I already had I volunteered to forgo the accommodations and begin my journey in the desert that evening. The exacerbated voice on the other end explained it was too late for that; there weren’t any drivers left to take me to the race. They asked to speak with the young hotel staff member for a moment and when he returned the phone to me the voice on the other end explained that the hotel would provide me with lunch while they figured out where to put me.

The young hotel employee in the blue sweater speaking with one of my many drivers that day

The young man escorted me again through the atrium, this time telling me to make myself comfortable on the patio out back while they prepared my lunch. Shortly after sitting down, however, he pulled up a chair across from me, and formally introduced himself.

I forget the young man’s name, but I remember much of our conversation. It was one of those interactions where you begin assuming you’re from completely different worlds, and leave with the thought that humanity is pretty much consistent every place you find it. He told me that the hotel was family-run, and that he was destined to take over the business one day, but wasn’t thrilled about being tethered to his hometown the rest of his life. He told me that he had dreams of seeing Europe and America, but had never ventured beyond the Moroccan border. I asked him what he likes to do for fun, and he said very simply “drink wine and dance with girls.” He was 24, and if you had asked me the same question at that age, I probably would have given you the same answer.

We sat there and chatted for over an hour, the young man occasionally running into the kitchen to bring out more food; first the bread basket, then some fresh olives and olive oil, and then a beef tagine—a Moroccan egg dish served bubbling hot in the ceramic saucer it’s cooked in, under a cone-shaped lid that wafts with an incredible aroma when lifted.

After lunch another driver arrived, this time in an off-road SUV, and the young man explained that I was going to be taken to another hotel nearby. I loaded my things into the truck and we continued along the dirt road until it turned into two tire tracks, before disappearing entirely. Half an hour later I started to think about how I had voluntarily let a stranger drive me deep into the middle of the desert, with nobody around for miles, no phone reception, no way of reaching the outside world, and nobody (other than maybe one or two people in New York) aware of where I was, myself included.

The driver kept his foot on the gas as we sped through the sand, and I kept wondering how in the world there could possibly be a hotel in the direction we were driving. Even more puzzling: if there were one hiding amongst all this nothingness, how in the world would the driver know how to find it? Of course he didn’t speak any English, so I couldn’t ask.

My nerves calmed as he slowed down the vehicle in order to pass through a pack of wild camel. He grinned as I pulled out my phone to take pictures and videos of the animals grazing in the desert shrubbery, looking at me the same way I might look at a tourist in Canada taking pictures of the snow.

A while later I noticed that one of the mountains in the distance had a word spelled out in white rocks on the side facing us. As we got closer I was able to make out the word “riad,” which I later learned is the name for a type of traditional Moroccan hotel. As we neared the mountain I noticed a small, one-story building at the base. “No way,” I though to myself as the driver pulled up.

As we pulled the car around a man came out of the little building and greeted the driver. The two exchanged a few words in a language I didn’t recognize (likely either Arabic or Berber), pulled my bag out of the truck and then the driver took off back the way he came.

The man at the hotel walked me over to a big open room inside the structure with about five beds in it, a single working light bulb, a bathroom in the corner and not much else. There were a few solar panels on the roof for electricity, and a wood burning stove out back that heated the water.

I put my bags down on the bed and walked around the building, not really sure what to do with myself. The building, like the previous, was a big square with an open roof in the middle and rooms on all sides. A single open door at the far end revealed the wide-open desert outside, and so I pulled up a chair and stared out into the wilderness.

Two competing thoughts that had been simmering all day started to boil over the moment there was nothing else to distract me. The first; that this might be the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. The second; “is anyone coming for me?”

I was awestruck and nervous watching the sun slowly fade behind the mountains when I heard the sound of an engine roaring in the distance. Shortly thereafter a rally car went driving by, then another, then another. They all had similar markings, though they were going in different directions. I sat there for a while until eventually one stopped right outside the building, and a slender, wrinkled man with grey hair and a big grin walked out wearing a vest with the official logo of the Gazelle rally.

“Are you Jared?” he said in a French accent, stressing the “ja.” “I am Joko, your driver for tomorrow.” He shook my hand.

“I will stay here for ze night with you, and vee vill vake up erly to-mo-row to join ze rally,” he said. “Where are ze others?” he asked.

“What others?” I responded.

“Ze other Am-er-icans. Are zey not with you?”

“No,” I responded, “Just me.”

“Ah, okay,” he said. “Zey will maybe come tonight. I don know. I hope.”

He smiled at me and went over to speak with the man who worked at the hotel.

I shared a few words with Joko through the evening but he seemed keener to speak with the only individual there that could converse with him in French. Every once in a while he would turn to me and translate what they were saying to the best of his ability, but I felt more like a part of the scenery than a part of the conversation. It didn’t matter though; I was just happy to know things were going to work out. The New York team had pulled through; I had a bed for the night, and a driver to take me to the race the next morning. It seemed like the most difficult part of the journey was finally behind me. Little did I know it hadn’t even begun.

One thought on “Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara, Part One: Journey into the Desert

  1. Pingback: Jared Lindzon

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