Leslie’s List Traveler: Rallye Aïcha Des Gazelles Du Maroc

Last November in Paris a screening of the documentary film “The Gazelles,” directed by Paul Belmondo, took place at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters, at 7 Place de Fontenoy.

Singing at the event was local New Orleanian, and John McDonogh High School graduate, vocalist Nicole Slack Jones. “It was an honor to share this magical moment with all the powerful women of Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles singing my original song ‘I Am Free,’” she said.

One of my best friends, Elena Sorre, is training and fundraising to become a Gazelle, and will soon take part in the 28th annual Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc, from March 16 – 31. Sorre, and one of her best friends, Martine Capalbo, will embark on a nine day, women-only, philanthropic, off-road rally race through the rolling dunes and captivating landscapes of the Moroccan desert, that’s not judged on speed but on navigational acumen and accuracy.

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Armed with only a manual compass, a navigational plotter, a 40-year-old topographic map and coordinates (no phones or GPS allowed), Sorre and Capalbo will battle the arid elements to navigate the erratic off-road conditions from Merzouga to Essaouira. The goal is to drive the shortest possible distance to reach a series of predefined checkpoints. Free to choose their own route, Sorre and Capalbo will receive a “road book” each morning, study their map and the day’s geographical coordinates and analyze the risks and difficulties of the challenging terrain in pursuit of the shortest path.

The winning team is the one that finds the greatest number of checkpoints while driving the least number of kilometers.

“Technology has taken over so many aspects of our lives, but this rally strips all that away and forces you to rely on your power of observation,” said Sorre.

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“I think it’s necessary in life, when things can be redundant or easy and days go by, that one needs to take moments where you find a worthy challenge, dedicate yourself to it and find the discipline to carry it out,” said Capalbo.

The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc, the first off-road rally in the world exclusively for women, was created by Dominique Serra. Since 1990, it has brought together women of all ages (from 18 – 71), social backgrounds and nationalities from more than 30 countries. Their skill sets and off-road experience vary, yet they are fueled by kindred convictions of courage, solidarity and social commitment.

Sorre and Capalbo will represent one of the estimated 180 teams participating, and one of only four teams from America this year.

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“We do everything in our power to promote their exploits to the world through the deployment of technical resources unequalled in the world of women’s sport,” said Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles founder and director Serra. “It puts all of us back in touch with our basic humanity. It is the adventure of a lifetime. An adventure that inspires those it touches to change their lives and the lives of those around them.”

Through the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles’ nonprofit Coeur de Gazelles and the contributions of participating sponsors, doctors, nurses and medical professionals follow the Gazelles across the desert from village to village to provide medical check-ups for and sustainable aid to remote villagers.

“The heart of the Gazelles, the Coeur de Gazelles, is really something that inspired both of us,” said Sorre. “It’s one thing to have an event such as the rally, but it’s another to construct a philanthropic and humanitarian effort at its core.”

“The medical caravans that travel through the Sahara following the race course treat more than 5,000 villagers that would otherwise never get treatment, preventative or not,” said Capalbo. “Optical, dental, gynecological services we take for granted are all but impossible to come by in these remote regions. It’s truly amazing what they do.”

Organizers said Coeur de Gazelles work on projects all year long that meet the needs of Morocco’s remote populations including medical care, education, environmentally safe and sustainable development, job training for women, living condition improvements and a desire to spread joy by distributing donations.

The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc is the only rally worldwide to boast an ISO 14001:2004 Environment Management System (EMS) certification, an internationally recognized environmental management standard taking into consideration the immediate and long-term environmental impacts of an organization’s products, services and processes.

The event also takes place under the High Patronage of His Majesty The King Mohammed VI, who has authorized the use of the Royal Coat of Arms on the Gazelles’ vests, due to the event’s dedication to the communities of the Sahara.

Sorre and Capalbo immersed themselves in learning about navigation, compass, coordinate and map reading and recently trained in Moab, Utah at an off-road school climbing over rocks and traversing through sand dunes.

“We were outfitted with these Jeep Rubicons that were unstoppable, that was until we got stuck in the sand,” said Sorre. “But all that was part of the lesson and learning vehicle recovery. There is quite a bit of sand in the Sahara so it’s not a matter of if, but when we’ll get stuck. We were trained in looking at the situation, how to dig out, lay down maxtracks and let gravity be your friend.”

“I plan to get lost in the canyons a couple of times with an expert by my side to see if I can make my way with the compass and the map,” said Capalbo. “I think I have a long way to go to get a handle on this, but I am looking forward to getting better at it.”

Sorre is a film cinematographer (“Backstage: A Hard Knock Life Tour”) and a reality TV writer, videographer, producer and director for A&E, Discovery, HBO, National Geographic and TLC. She has documented the lives of child beauty queens, homicide detectives, pawnbrokers, polygamists, prostitutes, storm chasers, SWAT team officers and transplant surgeons. Capalbo has produced music videos for Brandi, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jay Z, Lauryn Hill, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. She is also the mompreneur founder of Original Good Goods bath care products. Together, Sorre and Capalbo are raising $34,000 via their indiegogo.com (www.indiegogo.com/projects/martine-capalbo-elena-sorre-join-the-gazelles/x/18023198#) campaign to cover travel expenses, navigation training, safety and camping gear, rally registration fees, of which a large portion go towards the Coeur de Gazelles, and a vehicle for the race. Modes of rally transportation include 4x4s, crossovers, motorbikes, quads, SSVs, trucks and hybrid and electric vehicles.

Sorre and Capalbo’s indiegogo support levels offer unique perks including glass vials of red Saharan sand, vehicle and hood logo decals that will appear on the race vehicle (the event is covered by global media and decals will be seen all over the world) and their gratitude.

“We will provide the determination, the dedication and the commitment to the communities our participation helps to support,” adds Capalbo.

Dynamic duo Sorre and Capalbo will soon leave their husbands and children behind to experience what’s billed as a “unique adventure for the modern and courageous woman,” and to be seduced by the desert dunes, rocky mountains, green valleys, fertile plains, parched plateaus, lush oases and starry skies of Morocco. They will wear multiple hats as co-drivers, navigators and mechanics, expected to change their own tires, control tire pressures and check fluid levels. But they are chasing the same dream – to be able to finish the race in one piece.

“All kidding aside, I don’t have any grand notions of winning this race,” said Sorre. “To be able to look into my daughter’s eyes and tell her, ‘Don’t let fear stop you from succeeding, let it motivate you,’ I’d like that to be the example I set for her.”

“Overcoming fear, putting our training to work, giving 150 percent and feeding off the energy of so many empowering women in this journey, that’s what we’re hoping to achieve,” said Capalbo.

“As women we constantly question ourselves,” said Sorre. “When you have to drive up and over a huge sand dune, you have to keep your speed fast and consistent. As you start to peak at the top, you won’t be able to see where you are going. Your instinct is to slow down, but if you do that you’ll sink into the sand and get stuck. Have faith and trust yourself. Not too fast though, you don’t want to pull a ‘Thelma and Louise.’”

“The hope is, in the future, when presented with any of life's challenges, I can honestly say to myself with utter and complete sincerity, ‘I got this,’” she said.

While Sorre and Capalbo will be unplugged during their adventure, each vehicle will be equipped with a satellite tracking system for optimal safety. It will be powerful enough to provide minute-by-minute tracking, so even though they may not see another vehicle for hours, they will be tracked and watched by the organizers who will respond to calls for assistance.

“To be honest I am looking forward to unplugging,” said Sorre. “But for our potential sponsors we will have the ability to upload photos at the end of the day that they can then share, showing their belief in us and in the goals of the Coeur de Gazelles. Logos on our vehicle will be seen globally. It’s a real nice opportunity.”

“Disconnecting from the constant disruptions and clutter that bombard us every moment in our daily lives with our iPhones?” asked Capalbo. “I am very much looking forward to forcefully unplugging.”



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