Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara, Part Two: A Night at the Bivouac

(Part one available here)

The bivouac was like nothing I had ever seen before. In fact, I hadn’t even heard the word “bivouac” before.

Wikipedia defines it as an improvised campsite or temporary shelter, but that barely does it justice. This was more like a city of canvas bordered on all sides by 18-wheelers. There was a truck for everything: bathroom trucks, shower trucks, water trucks, food trucks (not the hipster kind), electric generator trucks, battery trucks, radio tower trucks, office trucks and a whole series of empty trucks just for transporting equipment, luggage, and other trucks from one campsite to the next. That doesn’t even include the several hundred vehicles competing in the rally parked nearby, or the chopper that lands each night just behind them.

All these trucks and canvas, when put together, make something of a functioning city in the desert, complete with Internet connectivity, bathroom and shower facilities, electricity, a cafeteria, a press tent, a body shop, a souvenir stand, a low-rise-worth of portable office space and even a fully stocked bar.

On half of the competition days the Gazelles depart from the bivouac and spend the evening camping near their day’s last checkpoint, while the entire thing is packed up and transported to the next location. The following evening they return to the bivouac in a new location, and enjoy a few of its comforts before another 36 hours in the open desert.

Joko dropped Jay, Phil and I off at the media tent in the bivouac around 5:00 pm, where Brooke was already waiting to deliver us our gear; a tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mat and an official Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc vest (which had to be worn at all times at the bivouac, lest someone mistakes us for a hungry nomad).

Jay and Phil seemed to be in no rush to do much of anything that evening, seeing as they weren’t interested in shooting footage of the bivouac, but I had no time to lose. I finally had everyone I needed to interview in one location, and I couldn’t be certain I’d see any of them again.

“Where’s Stéphanie?” I asked Brooke, interrupting the small talk with her fellow Americans.

“I haven’t seen her. She might not be in yet,” she said. “Go check in at the command center, they should be able to pick up her car’s locations on the GPS.

“Where’s the command center?” I asked.

“It’s the truck with the biggest antenna. You’ll find it.”

I walked around the assortment of trucks lining the bivouac’s perimeter until I spotted the one with a giant antenna, stretching about twice the trailer’s height.

Happy hour at the bivouac bar

I climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, and someone inside answered in French. When I responded in English I could hear a bit of a scramble behind the thin trailer wall as they called out for someone inside that spoke English. That’s when I met Serge Barbieux.

Serge is an air traffic controller in Lyon, France, but for two weeks a year he sits behind the radar screens at mission control as the rally’s assistant sport director.

I asked if he could help me find Stéphanie, and after a few keystrokes he was able to confirm her position, about 20-minutes away from the bivouac. Then I asked for a formal interview, and before I could ask any formal questions he dove right in. 

“From here we can know permanently the position of every Gazelles team on the terrain, and we receive their position on the radar screen, like the ones we use in air traffic control,” he said into my recorder. “A system installed in each one of the cars sends us the position of each car every five minutes.”

He went on to explain how the race looks from his perspective, tracking each of the 165 teams as well as all seven emergency mechanic teams, four emergency medical teams and the helicopter (which is carrying a medical staff member at all times). He told me that the Gazelles drive between 50 and 180 kilometers each day, and that they randomize which team is required to reach which checkpoint in what order. “Before the race we come with a team of 12 people and we check all of these legs in real life to make sure they are equal in difficulty and distance,” he said, adding that they can’t just have all the teams go to the same checkpoints in the same order; otherwise it would be too easy to cheat.

I asked whether he’s ever at liberty to help the competitors if they’re heading far off course. “If we see a car getting close to the Algerian border, we phone through the satellite box, and we tell them just to check their navigation again,” he said. “We have to stop them before they are intercepted by the authorities, because if they are intercepted it takes hours for them to be freed.”

“Has that happened before?” I asked.

“Not yet this year, but it’s happened before.”

“How do they know how to navigate without a GPS?” I asked.

“I am part of the team who trains the gazelles,” he said proudly. “We have a weekend training course, organized both in France and Utah. On Saturday morning we focus on measuring headings and distance on a map, then in the afternoon we bring them into town. They have a map on which there are several points, and they have to reach different points just measuring the heading of the streets and walking.”

We continued to talk for a little while, occasionally interrupted by a crackling of the nearby radio or by a colleague asking Serge something in French, until I realized it had been well over 20 minutes since I sat down.

“Can you check on Stéphanie’s car again?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “It is car number 107, yes? Okay, let me look.” He typed away at the computer in front of him. “They are here,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Maybe five or ten minutes ago.”

I thanked Serge and returned to the media tent in hopes that someone could introduce me to Stéphanie. “I think she went to take a shower,” said Brooke. “They slept in the desert last night so she may need a little while. You’ll see her at dinner.”

“Sure,” I said, getting a little anxious.

“You didn’t see her out there today?” asked Brooke.

“Nope,” I responded.  

“Oh. Is there anybody else you want to interview in the mean time?”

“What about Dominique?” I said. “Or maybe the princess of Monaco? Or Charlie Chaplin’s grand daughter?”

“Dominique is probably in her trailer, I can see if she’s available,” said Brooke. “And I don’t know where Kiera and Pauline are, but they’ll be at dinner too. Try not to bombard them though, they’re getting a lot of requests from the journalists.”

“That’s fine, as long as I get to interview Stéphanie and Dominique tonight.”

“No problem,” said Brooke. “I’ll see if I can get Dominique for you.”

Serge Barbieux behind his desk at the command center

I awoke abruptly from my first proper sleep in days to Joko banging on the big wooden door of room in the Riad. “Is late,” he said. “You have no time to eat.”

I started to gather my things when I heard two native-English speaking men bickering back and forth between the thin clay walls.

“I almost forgot my hat,” said one.

“What a shame that would be,” said the other, sarcastically.

“What, you don’t like my hat?” said the first.

“Are you kidding? I’m embarrassed to be around you and that thing. Not that I’m not embarrassed enough to be around you anyway.”

“Fuck you.”

“Hey, just being honest.”

I continued to gather my things, still in a bit of a daze.  

“Les go,” shouted Joko. “Vee must hurry.”

I dragged my bags to Joko’s truck behind the riad.

“Can I grab a coffee before we leave?” I asked this time, having gotten just enough sleep to remember my manners.

“Okay,” said Joko, looking around. “Quickly, ah? Vee must go.”

I ran back inside the riad and found the French press on a table in the little kitchen at the back, poured myself a cup and returned to the car, where I found two guys loading their bags into the trunk.

“Is my gear back there? I don’t care if you crush my stuff but be careful with the gear,” said the taller one, wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

“What do you think I am? An idiot?” said the other, looking like a Hollywood director in his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, scruffy beard and pink button down shirt. “Your gear’s in the back seat.”

“Alright, just making sure.”

“Hey,” said the one in the wide hat as I approached. “Top of the morning. I’m Jay and this is Phil.”

“Morning. I’m Jared,” I responded, sipping my coffee. “If you need me to move any of my stuff let me know.”

“All good,” said Phil, as he slammed the trunk shut. “We made it work.”

“Ready?” shouted Joko from the driver’s seat.

“Ready,” responded Jay, before turning back to me. “You mind taking the front seat? All our gear is in the back.”

“No problem,” I responded, and climbed in.

“Dominique has 15 minutes,” Brooke told me just as the sun began to set over the bivouac. “Just a heads up, her English isn’t great so you may need a translator.”

“Where am I supposed to find a translator?” I asked.

“There’s a few women around who can do it, let me ask. In the mean time go say hi and do what you can, she doesn’t have much time.”

Brooke pointed me to Dominique’s trailer, situated about halfway between the media tent and the command center.

I approached the wide open door to find a flurry of activity around the most comfortable looking vehicle in the bivouac. It was the only one that had an actual bed in it, or at least the only one I saw, along with a wooden desk and a small private kitchen. There were a handful of people seated around the trailer clicking away at their laptops, and more streaming in and out, often slipping into the open doorway, shouting a few words in French and then scurrying off.

“Dominique?” I asked.

“Oui” said a middle-aged blonde woman with shoulder length hair at the far end of the room, without looking up from her laptop screen.

“I’m here for an interview. I’m a journalist with the Guardian.”

“Oui, ze Guardien.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Parlez-vous français?” she asked.

“No” I responded, and she shot me a frustrated look.

“Okay,” she said. “We will try.”

I sat down at the only empty chair in the room, opened up my laptop and turned on my recorder.

“What was the original goal behind the rally?” I asked, but she clearly didn’t understand the question. She looked around the room, eventually grabbing someone by the arm and saying a few words in French. The woman then turned to me and said, “Okay, I will try to translate. What are you asking?”

“I just want to know why she started the rally,” I responded. The woman relayed the question in French, and waited for Dominique to finish speaking.

“She says women were not represented in automotive industry. I have been asked to find an idea to valorize—How do you say valorize? To help women inside the company. I don’t know the right word.”

She looked over at Dominique and then back to me. “We need someone else to translate,” she said.

Not long after Brooke appeared in the open doorway with a fellow Canadian, and evidently one who had actually paid attention in French class, unlike myself.

“Before the rally was started she was asked to find a way to promote women within the company,” said the new translator.  

“What company?” I asked, prompting the translator to repeat the question in French.

“It’s an organization of business leaders, like an automotive industry association. They were looking for a tool to promote women within their companies—this was in the late 90s—so they approached her, and that’s when she came up with the idea of the rally.”

“Why the unique structure of the rally?” I asked. “Why the rules and the navigation and the complexity, rather than just a regular speed rally?”

“Women hate speed,” Dominique answered herself, before continuing in French.

“We wanted to make an intelligent rally,” the translator continued for her. “Something that went just beyond putting your foot on the accelerator and advancing in a straight line. She had to come up with a concept that would in fact prevent people from driving fast. She found the idea of navigation an interesting way of doing that. In general women don’t like the risk involved in driving fast, it’s less natural to them.”

“The website also claims this is the world’s most responsible rally. What does that mean?”

“First of all, all waste that is produced by the bivouac is sorted,” continued the translator, as Dominique spoke quickly in French beside her. “Food waste is fed to animals in the nearby villages, anything that can be incinerated is incinerated and empty water bottles are used to build buildings in the nearby villages. They actually take the empty water bottles, fill them with sand and use them as building materials. All of the C02 emissions for the rally are offset. Even the mechanics area, every measure is taken so not a drop of oil hits the ground. If there’s any spillage they collect it and take it to be treated.”

“So tomorrow, if I retuned to this exact spot,” I began.

“There would be no sign we were ever here,” continued the translator, ad libbing on her own. “The medics that come to support the rally also provide free medical services to some of the villages we pass through, and for many it’s the only access they have to medical assistance.”

“The Moroccan government must appreciate all of those efforts,” I said. “What kind of support do they provide?”

Dominique continued speaking in French, pointing to the crest on the shoulder of her vest.

“There are a huge number of motor sports that go on in Morocco—this is the world’s playground for off-road races—but this is the only one that bares the royal coat of arms,” said the translator, pointing to the identical crest on the vest I was wearing. “Dominique says she met with the King about five or six years ago, they discussed the rally, and he now follows it every year. She told him how we bring aid to people, and Dominique said we would like your support, so he granted the event the honor of baring the coat of arms.”

“Very interesting. Last question; why call them ‘Gazelles’?” I asked.

“Gazelle means beautiful woman in Moroccan,” said Dominique.

Scaring the locals

Riding shotgun in Joko’s car was a bit like driving in Canada in the winter. We ploughed through the sand dunes as fast we could to avoid getting stuck (or perhaps because we were behind schedule), each turn causing the back of the truck to fishtail in the sand behind us.

As soon as we departed Jay confessed that he and Phil were childhood friends from Connecticut who grew up together obsessing over film. While Jay took his talents to the big apple, however, Phil built his career in LA.

“I haven’t seen this asshole in years,” said Phil.

“Phil’s just here because I invited him,” interrupted Jay. “I just started my own production company and I got the call to come out here and make a video for Refinery29, but I couldn’t do it alone, so I called up this bastard to join me.”

Phil eventually revealed that he was the executive producer of the hit show CSI (the original one, he assured me; not any of the spinoffs) and Jay had done pretty much every job in the industry before starting his own production company a few years ago. I told them a bit about myself and my career, but they soon got lost in reminiscing about their hometown and the people they once knew there.

We drove all morning without seeing any signs of the rally, through strikingly diverse terrain that quickly switched from slippery sand to bumpy boulders to palm tree filled oases. Along the way we passed through packs of wild camel, donkey and goats, Joko occasionally stopping to check his GPS or call in to the command center from his radio for directions.

We finally reached a rally checkpoint just before noon, which comprised of a few flags and a staff truck where volunteers checked the names of competitors off the list as they arrived. There were a couple of rally cars already parked around it, and more joining by the minute.

As soon as the car stopped Jay and Phil immediately sprung into action, grabbing some of their gear out of the back seat and asking around for competitors that spoke English and had a moment to spare for an interview. Unsure of what to do with myself I followed closely behind with my little handheld voice recorder, hoping to avoid the awkwardness of the exercise myself.

After Jay and Phil were satisfied that they had spoken with every English-speaking Gazelle nearby (of which there were only a handful) we returned Joko’s truck for lunch.

Joko handed each of us a small shoebox worth of food that looked like it was purchased at a military surplus store. The lunch rations included tuna salad and crackers, apple sauce, two small pieces of chocolate, two packages of instant coffee (with cream and sugar packets) a small bag of dried apricots and a metal tin labeled “Poulet Au Curry Et Ses Legumes,” along with a small metal stand, white coal and box of matches. I was the only one of the group who attempted to make a hot meal using the supplies that were provided, but no amount of fire could make that chicken curry appetizing.

After lunch Jay and Phil set up their tripod along a route we were told every car would have to pass through that afternoon. As they measured their shots and set up their tripods I kept my eye out for car number 107.

After about an hour without any sign of Stéphanie, Jay and Phil were again satisfied with their shots, so we hopped back in Joko’s car and followed the racers towards the next major obstacle; a giant rocky mountain.

The road that lead up to the peak was one of the most treacherous driving experiences of my life, but Joko seemed unfazed as he made his way along the narrow path that separated the mountain to our left from the cliff’s edge on our right.

The reward for making it through that passageway, however, made it well worth the climb. As we reached the peak of the mountain the narrow pathway opened up to reveal a wide open view overlooking the valley below.

From our vantage point it looked as if a meteor had burrowed a massive hole through the mountain range, perfectly encircling the wide-open terrain with steep cliffs on all sides. The only way down into the valley was another narrow snake path that criss-crossed along the hillside, or at least that’s what they told me. Before heading down the snake path most competitors stopped at the lookout point above to pose for a picture. I even had Jay take a couple shots of me. The guys were sympathetic to the fact that I hadn’t yet seen what I had come all this way to see; namely Stéphanie in action. In his broken english Joko assured us that she had to pass through there eventually, but after more than an hour of waiting we eventually had to give up. As it turns out, hers may have been the only one of the 165 vehicles in the competition that didn’t pass us that afternoon.

“Stéphanie?” I sheepishly said in the general direction of the woman Brooke had pointed out to me inside the bivouac cafeteria tent.

“Oui,” responded the tough looking blonde woman whose dinner I was interrupting.

“Stéphanie! Hello! It’s me, Jared, we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago!”

“Of course,” she said in a polite but far less enthusiastic tone.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt your dinner but I’ve been looking for you all day. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“No problem,” she said, picking at the rice and beef dish in front of her.

“How has the race been so far?” I asked as I took an empty seat at the round table and opened up my laptop.

“Good,” she said, very matter-of-factly. “We are in first place.”

“I was very sorry to hear about Florence,” I continued, “Can you start by telling me what happened?”

Stéphanie finished the last few bites of her dinner, pushed her plate aside and settled in for the interview.

“Okay,” she said. “ We came here to train in the dunes for seven days in February. She hurt her shoulder, and I hurt my neck and my back, but she went to the doctor and the doctor told her ‘you have to get operated on on the 19th of March, you can’t do the Gazelle race.’ She talked to the organization and they said we can’t postpone to next year, because we had already passed the cancellation date. So Florence said ‘look, it’s my problem, do the race and I’ll lend you the car.’

“The first day of the race, at night we arrived to the Bivouac, the organizers came and said ‘both of you come and see us,'” she looked over at the smaller woman sitting to her right, her driving partner Anne Marie, as if confirming her recollection with her, even though Anne Marie doesn’t speak english.

“I said ‘did we do something wrong?’” she continued, “and they had a serious look. Anne Marie and I were ready to fight. Then they told us about the news. It was very sad. I cried so much, I don’t think I can cry anymore.

“I know it sometimes happens when you get surgery. It’s part of the risk. It’s sad, but it’s life. But I think she’s up there with us. Every time we’re in a difficult situation, we never stop because we say look, we’re alive, and we have to do what we can to continue for her.

“What do you want people to know about Florence? What should I say about her in my story?”

“Her joie de vivre, I don’t know the English.”

“Joy of life, I believe.” 

“Yes!” said Stéphanie. “She was 62, I believe, and she just learned how to do kite surfing this summer in Bali. I’m 46 and I’m looking at her like ‘seriously?’ I want to be like her when I get old. She was my idol.” At that point it became hard to tell whether Stéphanie was smiling or holding back tears. Perhaps a bit of both. “It’s very sad what happened, but if you have to die it’s a better death than being sick and old. She wouldn’t be the type of person who could get old and not be able to do things. That would have been hard. Sometimes things happen for a reason. It’s very sad, but it’s life.”

“So after they tell you about what happened to Florence on that first night of the competition, how were you able to keep going?”

“The second day was really hard,” she said. “Everyday is hard, but especially the day after they told us. We have her tent, we have her car, we have all of her things in the truck, so we think about her all the time. It’s like she’s with us all the time. She is—I mean she was—always very motivating, like ‘go, go, go, you can do it.’ Very motivational. After they told us we had to decide if we wanted to do the rally, but I know Florence would want us to keep going. She reminds us that we have one life to live and we have to fully take part in it. Anne Marie and I are very tough, and we won’t let up.”

“Why did you choose Anne Marie as your partner?” Anne Marie perked up at the sound of her name.

Dinner at the bivouac

“Because she’s just like me; she’s very competitive. She pushes me. I think that’s why we’re in first place,” said Stephanie, smiling at the woman seated next to her.

“Just today, you know the big mountain? The very rocky parts?”

“Yes,” I said.

“We cut a path that no one cuts, ever.”

“You went off the path?” I asked.

“Yes!” said Stephanie, excitedly. “The hill was like that,” she continued, holding her hand up nearly straight to demonstrate the angle of the cliffs. “We pushed some rocks away, we made a little path, and we went down the mountainside. I think we gained one kilometer, and now we’re ahead by one kilometer. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be winning.”

“That’s incredible!” I said.

“We also went in a river that nobody went in. I don’t know why we went there. We had water up to our knees, and the car was stuck in the water with mud everywhere. So Anne Marie backed up, we took an axe out of the car to cut some trees, we put the trees in the river and we went through. Everyday has been like that with her.”

“Well, I definitely want to follow you tomorrow so I can see some of that myself,” I said. “What do you think will be the key to winning?

“I think being steady is important, and not breaking the car. There was one team that was in first, they broke something and I’m not sure they’re going to be able to compete. Another car that was ahead with us had to call in the mechanic, which is a 200 km penalty.”

“Just for calling a mechanic?” I asked. “That’s more than a full day of driving.”

“Yes, and then you’re out of the race. You’re out of the top for sure. So we don’t want to call them. We have to push the car when it’s not doing well.”  

“Is there anything wrong with your car?” I asked.

“It’s not my car,” she reminded me. “My car was a tank. I would be a lot more relaxed with my car, but because of the circumstances I’m in Florence’s car. The motor, the gas pump and the filter, it wasn’t working very well. They checked everything, and it’s working better now, but who knows? Every time I press on the gas I’m scared, like ‘is it going to hold?”

“Well, I’m going to let you get back to your dinner, but thanks again for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing you two in action tomorrow,” I said, before turning off my recorder and closing my laptop. “Keep an eye out for me.”

I walked away from their table, convinced I’d be seeing them again the next day to continue our conversation. I should have known that nothing that week would be so easy.

Eight Days, One Map, No GPS: Her Race Through the Desert
Car 107 – Stéphanie Pérusse, right, checks her map alongside teammate Anne Marie Borg, left, at the 2018 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc. Source: PHOTOS BY MAIENGA

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