Road to Morocco: Americans Tackle the Dunes in 2015 Gazelle Rally


2015 Gazelle Rally
A Gazelle gets through the dunes. Photo by Nicole Dreon

American teams had their first taste of the Moroccan dunes today in Leg 3 of the 2015 Gazelle Rally. While the veteran Gazelles looked forward to the dunes with excitement, many of the new teams anxiously took the green flag, not knowing what was ahead of them.

Going into Leg 3, the USA had the following general rankings:

4×4 rankings-

  • Team 107 Hoehn/Hoehn: 13th
  • Team 182 Klishevich/De Sybourg Siffert: 15th
  • Team 180 Pitell-Vaughan/Combs: 19th
  • Team 218 Croft/Cahill: 22nd
  • Team 175 Saxten/Saxten: 23rd
  • Team 183 Donaghe/Fiorentino: 40th

Crossover rankings-

  • Team 317 Beavis/Roenigk: 1st
  • Team 316 Mead/Marschner: 5th

Side x Side rankings-

  • Team 23 Sacks/Price: 9th

Expert rankings-

  • Team 400 Howells/Lerner: 8th

Today’s leg took them through the legendary Erg Chebbi dunes, just outside of Merzouga. With dunes up to 400m high, they are an intimidating sight. Ideal time for Leg 3 was 8 hours, ideal distance 70-110km.

2015 Gazelle Rally
Media helicopters follow the Gazelles through the dunes. Photo by Nicole Dreon

For the dunes leg, Gazelles must choose between 3 routes, of varying difficulty.

The X-CPs (black) are the most difficult route through the dunes. Teams are not penalized for picking this route, but they are penalized for navigational errors or missing any CPs within the route. This is where teams must feel very confident in their abilities and in each other. They encountered walls of sand and they had to decide if they should go around, or attempt to climb. Navigators more than likely did a lot of scouting today, running to the top of dunes to attempt to visually locate those red flags.

Teams could also pick the Y-CPs (red), which is of intermediate difficulty. While this route goes through the middle of the dunes, veterans know there is a wash just to the east of the as-the-crow-flies route Although taking this wash adds more kilometers, it is an easy run from just after the second CP to halfway to the third. After this point, teams have no choice but to enter the dunes. Teams are penalized 90 km just for taking this route, plus the penalty for navigational errors or missing any CPs within the route.

The easiest option was the Z-CPs (blue), which skirts around the edge of the dunes. Although the elevation changes are not as drastic as in the X or Y-CPs, they still must make good driving decisions in the sand. The penalty of picking this route is 200 km, plus any additional penalties for navigational errors or missing CPs within the route.

2015 Gazelle Rally
Gazelles have their choice of X, Y, or Z routes.

Once a team achieves the first CP of their chosen route, they may not deviate from it.

The Expert class had only one option, one that took them over the highest dunes in Erg Chebbi.

Crossovers did not enter the dunes today, but that didn’t mean they had an easy day. They still encountered sand and rocky terrain, and were forced to make some difficult choices on their route.

Team 180, Pitell-Vaughan/Combs, successfully tackled the X-CPs, and were back in the bivouac by 2:30pm local time.

2015 Gazelle Rally
Team 180 getting it done in the dunes. Photo by Nicole Dreon

“Jessi really found her groove today in the dunes and we were spot on with all navigation,” says Pitell-Vaughan. “We want to thank all of our amazing sponsors. The Total Chaos Toyota Tacoma worked flawlessly today in the Merzogua dunes and we never got stuck. This has been so challenging but we are getting the hang of it and it makes for a lot of celebrations!”

Also excelling in  the X-CPs were Team 182 Klishevich/De Sybourg-Siffert in a 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser, and Team 218 Cahill/Croft in a Toyota Hilux, although they got a little wiggly in their line back to the bivouac. Team 107 Hoehn/Hoehn in a Land Rover LR4 had some trouble getting to X-CP1, but then made easy work of the remaining difficult CPs.


2015 Gazelle Rally
Team 107 and 218 take a quick break in the dunes. Photo by Nicole Dreon

Team 175 Saxten/Saxten continue to impress in their Isuzu D-Max. Although they took the Y-CPs, they made few navigation errors and easily made it back to the bivouac.

Team 183 Donaghe/Fiorentino, also in an Isuzu D-Max, made 5 of the 6 Y-CPs, but then turned west towards the road around 6:30pm local time. They opted to take the highway up to Erfoud before turning southeast on a smaller paved road to the bivouac. This choice got them back safely, but they will surely drop in the rankings with so many added kilometers.

In Crossover class Team 317 Beavis/Roenigk remained steadfast in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, putting down excellent lines and good times. Look for them to finish high in the crossover class.

Team 316 Mead/Marschner, also in a Mercedez-Benz Sprinter van, continued to struggle, although they ultimately made 5 out of 6 CPs.

Our American Experts, Team 400 Howells/Lerner found themselves stuck for an hour and fifteen minutes after both CP 4 and 5, but eventually got moving again. The tracker shows them slightly off of CP5, but they continued to CP6, which they would not have done had they not achieved CP5. We are calling it a tracking error.

2015 Gazelle Rally
Team 400 checking their heading. Photo by Nicole Dreon

After not returning to the bivouac until 3:30am after Leg 1, and spending the night in the desert on Leg 2 with neither tent nor sleeping bags, Team 23 Price/Sacks had a confidence boosting day to be sure. Driving their Kawasaki Teryx UTV, they returned to the bivouac at 10am local time, quickly plotted their points and took off for Erg Chebbi. They easily achieved all the X-CPs and made it back to the bivouac for a well deserved rest.

“We were struggling in the dunes,” said fellow competitor Sarah Saxten, “when out of nowhere came Sarah and Erica. It was like a gift from heaven. Right when I wanted someone to drag us out of the dunes, they came and nudged us in the right direction.”

2015 Gazelle Rally
They Teryx Girls in #23 are demonstrating American grit. Photo by Nicole Dreon

Tomorrow the team embarks on the first of two marathon legs. The teams must sleep out in the field and refueling is not allowed, nor are bivouac mechanics available.

In preparation for the first marathon leg, the organizers prepared an Italian feast for the Gazelles. Famous French chef Luana Belmondo worked all day to be ready for the weary Gazelles as they came in from the dunes. The evening was finished with a champagne toast and fireworks.

You can follow the Gazelle Rally live and send messages to the teams by going to

  • 23 Sara PRICE/Erica SACKS (Side x Side)
  • 316 Susan MEAD/Shennen MARSCHNER (Crossover)
  • 317 Alyssa ROENIGK/Chrissie BEAVIS (Crossover)
  • 107 Jo Hannah HOEHN/Susanah HOEHN (4×4)
  • 175 Susie SAXTEN/Sarah SAXTEN (4×4)
  • 180 Nicole PITELL-VAUGHAN/Jessi COMBS (4×4)
  • 182 Pat KLISHEVICH/Veronique DE SYBOURG-SIFFERT (Swiss) (4×4)
  • 183 Rebecca DONAGHE/Barabara FIORENTINO (4×4)
  • 218 Rachelle CROFT/Rhonda CAHILL (4×4)
  • 400 Amy LERNER/Sabrina HOWELLS (4×4, Expert)

About:  The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is a grueling test of driving skill and navigation across southern Morocco’s most beautiful and challenging terrain. The rally is unique whereby teams are not allowed technological assistance. In the absence of GPS, communications and service crews, teams must find the shortest distance between the checkpoints over nine days of competition with only the aid of traditional navigation – compass, outdated maps, and plotters. The event is an incredible test of endurance, patience, and teamwork, pushing competitors to their limits.

We may not get much dune driving here at TFL Car, but we sure do like to play in the snow.

emme hall tflcar


Emme is a driver, reviewer, rabble rouser, and Gazelle who can be found online on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and either one of her blogs.