After taking on the threat of cancer full throttle, two sisters switch gears and test-drive a different kind of bond.
Who: Lorraine Sommerfeld (me) and my sister, Gillian Lemos
What: Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, a one-of-a-kind women-only off-road rally
Where: The Sahara Desert, Morocco
When: 7 days in March
Why: Ah. That is where things get interesting …
The Gazelles Rally, hosted in a beautiful, barren, bewildering—and remote—part of the Sahara desert in Morocco, is a magnet for women looking to test their driving and navigational skills, physical fitness, mental mettle and, in many cases, their sanity. Driver, navigator, truck; paper maps, compasses, rulers; spare tires, water, first-aid kits. No GPS, navigational systems, phones, laptops, binoculars or zoom lenses.
I write about cars for a national newspaper and about my kids for the local one. The Gazelles Rally is a dream assignment. The cost can hit 40K euros per team; when the offer came, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I also knew who to take.
Growing up, I described my sister, Gillian, as being two and a half years younger, as if stressing the half year could put more space between us. She jokes I now pretend there’s no gap at all. After the death of our parents, Gilly and I and Roz, our older sister, pulled together tighter, knowing love and shared history could help us weather whatever would next be flung at us.
Our mom died of breast cancer in 2000. I’ll never forget the angry scars that tore up her chest, from a time when surgeons did little to mitigate the impact of such a disease on a woman’s body or emotions. I started getting mammograms when I’d barely finished nursing my youngest son.
When news of another diagnosis of an estranged sister finally reached us, everything accelerated. A high-risk program added annual MRIs, but the recalculated odds were not good: I started researching prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstruction, the same surgery Angelina Jolie would famously write about a few months later. I was my usual headstrong self going in, having the first surgery just after my 50th birthday. The pathology report after surgery came back indicating carcinoma in situ in my left breast and mutating cells in the right. I was stunned. Sometimes referred to as Stage 0 (I wouldn’t require further treatment), my surgeon just said, “Great timing.” Given our family history, we had no doubt cancer was setting up shop. Gilly followed suit six months later, telling my surgeons, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Gilly is married with two kids and works for a bank; I have two grown sons and write about cars. We’d always looked alike, but the similarities ended there. Now, we talked about things nobody else understood, like drains and pain, and do these implants look lopsided to you? We debated sizes as we shopped for new boobs; if there could be an upside to any of this, we were going to find it. We celebrated never having to wear a bra again (the implants took care of that) and got 3-D nipple tattoos. We pretended we were warriors, but fear drove us.
A friend who has done the rally was succinct: take someone you won’t kill. I have decent off-roading experience, but this rally is about navigation. You’re given longitude and latitude co-ordinates for your first checkpoint each morning. Find it and get your remaining co-ordinates.
It’s a distance rally; those teams that manage the shortest distance between two points and maintain that over seven days, win. You can navigate through terrifying mountain ranges or around them. Every step from that straight vector on paper increases the likelihood you will get lost.
Participants take navigational training, plotting on paper maps of the region with symbols of what the terrain will comprise but that do little to prepare you for the reality: overwhelming openness and treachery. Giant jagged fields of volcanic rocks; towering sand dunes gleam in the desert sun as if lit from within; rock-strewn dried-out river beds; innocuous looking fields covered in prickle bushes that will flatten a tire: this is the Moroccan desert.
Rules for the rally are stringent. The organization knows everyone’s location through GPS monitoring. Participants – Gazelles – are easy to spot in their identical vests, which must be worn at all times, as must helmets. You can only receive help from other Gazelles. During the day (4 a.m. start), we would go hours without seeing another team.
The rally is famous for bringing out the best and worst in competitors. Energy is high going in, teams made up of lifelong friends, co-workers, sisters, cousins, even a mother and daughter. Some are complete strangers, put together in the expert class – the hard-core ralliers. We were not hard-core. For two months before the event, we tasked my trainer, Mike Castellano, with pushing us into better shape (you change your own 90-kilogram tires), while my mechanic, Chris Muir, made sure I could handle mechanical issues, practising in my driveway. We were still way more excited about getting matching pink shoes.
Two huge gear bags and 36 hours—and four flights—got us to Ouarzazate, Morocco. I only wanted to flop into bed before heading to meet the other 164 teams in Erfoud, but Gilly said she would tell me when I could sleep. Pushing off jet lag would be critical. She would spend the next two weeks making decisions like this, her workload extending far beyond the compasses and maps she was in charge of. The warning to take someone I wouldn’t kill? This is why. One driving error could send us crashing, but the navigator bears the brunt of keeping us on course, as well as the care and feeding of a temperamental driver.
The rally bases from a bivouac, a portable town that reminded me of a MASH set. Dining tent, medical tent, bar tent, press tent, showers – relocated as the rally pushed through the desert. The goal is to find your checkpoints (usually six to eight) and make it to the bivouac before dark. The sun fades around 5:30, then plunges the desert into blackness an hour later. Driving through the desert is threatening in the day, but we discovered a whole new desperation when facing it in the dark. Teams camp out alone when stranded.
Neither of us likes to cop to aging, but when my navigator announced her optometrist said without her glasses she was legally blind, I gave her a little side eye. When we were stuck camping in the desert one night, I offered to heat up our meal rations with a menopausal hot flash, which seemed more reliable than the little camp stove we had.