Why you should care
Because a map and compass get you only so far.
For competitors taking part in the annual Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — an eight-day off-road course through the desert — the rules are simple: no GPS, no cellphones and no men. Dispensing with electronic navigation of any kind, the Gazelles, as the female rally drivers are known, compete to win by traveling the shortest distance between hidden checkpoints. While traversing some of the most unforgiving terrain the Sahara has to offer, the Gazelles are ranked based not on the speed of their driving, but the directness of their manually plotted path.
On March 27, Day Six of this year’s rally, roughly 200 vehicles carefully snaked their way down a particularly steep path to reach a checkpoint on the other side. Breaking from the pack, one team abandoned the winding road, choosing to clear a path by hand between rocks and boulders and dash headlong down a more direct, and treacherous, route.
“Every meter counts,” Stéphanie Pérusse, one of the drivers, said afterward.
This was only Pérusse’s second attempt at the Rallye but she’s got the steely nerves of a veteran competitor. The daughter of a Canadian former rally champion, Pérusse, who flips houses in Montreal in her other life, broke into the sport last year when she heard about the all-female, compass-and-map-based event. The 46-year-old marathon and biathlon runner is a natural-born competitor but had never felt welcome in her father’s sport. This event, however, was different, she told her father, Jean-Paul Pérusse — and after some criticism (he felt the competition was trendy and appealed to older ladies with nothing better to do), he eventually came around. “I said if you want to do it properly, I’ll help you, and you’ll do it my way,” he says.
Pérusse followed her father’s instructions, including traveling to Morocco twice the year before her first rally to spend time familiarizing herself with the terrain and navigating with her partner. In last year’s event, Pérusse finished an impressive third out of 137.
This past February, the mother of two returned to the desert for pre-rally training, alongside her teammate, Florence Deramond, an 11-time Gazelles veteran who reached the top of the podium in 2015. Unfortunately the rigorous training took its toll on the 62-year-old Deramond, who ruptured ligaments in her shoulder and was told she needed an operation, forcing her to withdraw from the race.
Left without a partner weeks before the competition, Pérusse recruited Anne-Marie Borg, a ski instructor from the French Alps and rally veteran, to race alongside her in Deramond’s modified Toyota FJ Cruiser.
On March 22, Day Two of the competition, Pérusse and Borg were told the event organizers needed to speak to them. “I said, ‘Did we do something wrong?’” Pérusse recalls. That’s when she learned that Deramond had suffered a fatal heart attack during surgery. “I cried so much I can’t cry anymore,” she says.
Devastated and unsure what to do, the pair ultimately decided to go on. “They said if Florence was here, she’d tell us, ‘Don’t give up, take my car and try to win,’” says Maud Garnier, one of the event organizers who had delivered the news.
We had water up to our knees, and the car got stuck in the mud.
Pérusse and Borg set out to tackle the remainder of the competition with renewed conviction. At the next morning’s 5 a.m. roll call, after receiving the GPS coordinates for that day’s checkpoints, they grabbed a pencil, ruler and map to plot out the straightest lines between points, with only a compass to guide them during the competition.
In the days that followed, the pair pushed through obstacles their fellow competitors chose to bypass, including the uncharted route down the steep slope and a river so muddy few dared to traverse it. “We had water up to our knees, and the car got stuck in the mud,” Pérusse says, “so [Borg] backed up and we cut down some branches, put them in the water and went through the river.” The team had finished Day One in third place out of 147; they climbed to first by Day Two and held the top spot through Day Five. In a prescient moment, on the eve of the final leg of the competition, Perusse remembers thinking, “We’re first, but I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow; maybe the car will break down.”
Arriving at the first checkpoint the next morning, as if on cue, Pérusse and Borg heard a clunking sound coming from their rear axle. Deramond had had work done on her truck, and Pérusse and her partner would soon discover that many of the replacement parts were well past their prime. “When we opened [the rear axle], it was all rusted,” Pérusse says. She and Borg were forced to call in a mechanic — earning them a stiff penalty — who managed to salvage the car but not its four-wheel-drive function, making the remaining checkpoints impossible to reach. In the end, the team finished 58th, a stinging disappointment that Pérusse quickly put in perspective: “We were doing it for our friend that passed away, and we saw ourselves in first position for her.”
It had been a grueling experience that failed to deliver the ending she’d hoped for. Still, as Pérusse said goodbye to the other Gazelles before flying home with her husband, who’d come to Morocco to meet her at the finish line, her thoughts returned to Deramond, the friend who’d inspired her to give it her all, no matter the outcome. “Every event that I participate in shows me what matters in life,” she says. “It always bring me back to that.”