A Nanaimo woman and her best friend are the first B.C. team to drive the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc – a nine-day, 2,500-kilometre rally across the Moroccan desert.
Myra Van Otterloo, who pilots firefighting helicopters, and Jessa Arcuri, a school vice-principal from Penticton, had to wait three years to tackle the challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the event in 2020. In 2021 and 2022, the Moroccan government’s continued pandemic restrictions prevented North Americans from entering the race.
But the delay was a blessing, Van Otterloo said, because in 2022, her navigator Arcuri needed the time to recover from a car accident that year.
“This year they finally ended up opening it to North Americans and I said yes, we’re doing it, let’s get it done,” Van Otterloo said.
The delay also shifted them into a preferred race category.
“We were originally supposed to be in an SUV, but because of this situation, we were able to move up to the 4×4 truck category, so we were extremely happy about that,” she said.
The duo, under the team name True North Rally Cats, leased a 2015 Toyota Hilux that they named Olli, which proved extremely reliable over the rally’s gruelling route with no breakdowns or even a flat tire. The women did have to buy a new front bumper for it at the end of the race, though.
“It became team member No. 3, honestly,” Van Otterloo said.
To schedule around Ramadan, this year’s event started on International Women’s Day, March 8, which worked out well, Van Otterloo said, for the 294 all-women teams competing in off-road 4×4, SUV, electric vehicle, quad, and dune buggy categories.
The off-road 4×4 category drew 192 teams and the True North Rally Cats finished 11th overall and seventh in the novice subcategory.
Van Otterloo rally raced in Sweden on ice several years ago, but Morocco proved an entirely different challenge.
“We started in a little town called Ersoud and travelled for 2,500km over nine days, never knowing where our next stop is,” she said. “It’s always given to us the next morning … and we have about 11 checkpoints in a day that we have to make by a certain time and also in the shortest distance of kilometres.”
Teams mostly camped overnight at bivouacs prepared along the course, but also camped two nights unsupported where they fended for themselves on the course that passed through seas of sand dunes, mountains, grasslands and sections of rocky terrain. Maximum speeds barely exceeded 20km/h in some sections, but there was an eight-kilometre section where speeds had to be kept above 80km/h to keep the truck afloat over deep powder-fine dust.
“Vehicles in the sand dunes got rolled over or flipped,” she said. “On our first sand dune day, four vehicles got rolled over and were disqualified right away … This was completely new to me. I got a crash course in the sand dunes two days before the race.”
The training taught the women how to maintain momentum in sand and how to dig themselves out when they bogged down, which happened three times.
Van Otterloo said it’s difficult to pick out a single hardest part of the course.
“Everything was hard. It’s a very hard and treacherous course,” she said. “You could blow a tire, roll a vehicle or get stuck in a riverbed. We’d start at five in the morning and we were lucky if we got to the bivouacs by eight or nine o’clock at night. Then you eat, you go to sleep and you start at five again in the morning.”
Teams broke down mentally and emotionally under the pace and conditions, but the Rally Cats had their 26-year-long friendship going for them.
“We never had any problems other than we laughed so much. We had our highs and lows, like everybody else, but we never broke down. Together, we were a really strong team…” Van Otterloo said. “I think Jessa and I went into it a little naive and maybe for us that was an advantage because everything was new to us and we were learning as we were going … but it was so much more than I expected.”
They were also one of two teams who didn’t speak French. There was an interpreter and the other teams stepped in and helped, but when left on their own to figure things out, whatever they didn’t understand they “just winged it.” At one point, the language barrier nearly landed them amidst a Moroccan military exercise they later discovered they’d avoided by just 20 minutes.
Other teams ended up calling the True North Rally Cats by their sponsor’s name, Rotormax – a Parksville-based company that refurbishes helicopter engines – because it was displayed across their truck’s hood.
“It seemed to resonate with everybody because they just kept calling us Rotormax,” Van Otterloo said.
When asked if she would attempt the rally again, Van Otterloo said, “Heck, yeah,” but added that she and Arcuri are already looking for more sponsors to take on the Dakar Rally off-road endurance event that crosses Saudi Arabia.
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