Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara Part Three: Catching Up

Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 1
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 2

“Do you want a drink?” I asked, standing by the bivouac bar. “You certainly earned one.”

“Only if you have one with me,” responded Stéphanie, looking much more relaxed than she did in our previous interview.

“To be entirely honest I’ve already had three today,” I responded. “And it’s not even 2 p.m.”

“You’re not driving,” she joked. “And neither am I.”

“All right, I’ll take a beer. But we have to get started, I’m getting picked up in an hour.”

“You’re not staying for the party tonight?” she asked.

“Unfortunately not. My flight to Casablanca is early tomorrow morning, so they’re putting me in a hotel in Ouarzazate tonight.”

“That’s too bad,” she said. “The party was so fun last year.”

“It’s alright. Once we finish our interview I should have everything I need. This is more important to me.”

“Ah, yes, okay then, let’s begin,” she said, getting as comfortable as she could in the small wooden folding chair of the bivouac bar.

“So,” I said, as I turned on my recorder. “What in the hell happened to you yesterday?”

It was the perfect evening right up until the moment a drunken French redneck stumbled in and ruined it.

I was sitting somewhere in the sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara in a small circle with the rest of the native English speakers, including Brooke, Phil, Jay, Marco, Alex, Kiera and Claudia. The sun had long since set, the cold was just starting to settle in, and many of the small groups of friendly competitors who set up camp around us has had built small bonfires to keep themselves warm.

As soon as we arrived there, a little before sunset, the 80 or so competitors who happened to finish their day at the same checkpoint formed a large oval with their cars, and soon tents began popping up between them. The real action, however, was wherever the staff and media vehicles were parked. Without any heavy rally equipment to worry about, and with no concern for the weight or storage capacity of their massive off-road SUVs, the dynamic suddenly took a drastic turn. We had spent the day chasing after the Gazelles, but now the Gazelles were coming over to check out the amenities these seasoned desert drivers had built into their custom vehicle, each a window into the personality of its owner.

It was like a scene out of the Fast and the Furious, only the drivers were much older, had thick European accents, and instead of flat screens and subwoofers they instead showed off much more domestic automobile upgrades. The Portuguese driver, for example, had some cook-wear in the trunk, including a small propane grill that he used to make a large batch of paella for the group. Another Morrocan driver had used his trunk space for a water tank that connected to a hose that dangled from the side of the trunk, providing both a personal shower and more importantly a way to wash the sand off our feet before climbing into our tents.

Our driver was a bit more selfish; a motorized compartment on his roof popped open to create something of a small bedroom cabin atop the car, while the trunk was almost completely occupied by a fridge packed with beer.

“I’m just a redneck,” he said, when I asked him where his shower and grill were, though it sounded almost sarcastic in his French accent. Unlike the rest of the group Thiery (whose name I couldn’t pronounce properly, so I just called him “Terry”) wanted some privacy, so he parked his one bedroom suite a few dunes over, and after sharing what he felt was too much of his alcohol stash he retreated back to his cabin for some personal time with the depleted collection.

I barely noticed his disappearance, but when he returned sometime later the rest of the native English speakers and I were lying on our backs, feet in the sand, starring up at the undisturbed night sky, enjoying a rare moment of peace at the end of a day filled with chaos.

“I’m going to turn in,” said Jay, just as Thiery appeared over the dune behind us, holding a nearly empty bottle of wine.

“I thought the women were over there,” he shouted in a slur, pointing at the campfires burning nearby and ignoring the three women sitting with us. He continued stumbling over in our direction and took a seat in the sand directly across from me. “Hey Jared, I just heard on the radio, they found car number 107!” he said. “Yeah, I’ll take you to them right now. But first you have to kiss my ass!” he then laughed so hard he fell over on his side, spilling the remains of his bottle into the sand.

“Maybe I won’t go to bed,” joked Jay. “This just got interesting.”

“I knew Canadians were weak,” continued Thiery, after he finished laughing to himself, “but I didn’t think they’d be so annoying.”

“You’re French,” I responded, trying to stand some ground. “I don’t think you get to call out any other country for being weak.”

“I’m not French,” he said, trying to supress his French accent. “I’m American.”

“You’re as American as I am Moroccan,” I responded. His smile faded into a more serious expression, and I began to consider whether I was about to get into a fistfight with the man who was responsible for my safety.

“One more word and I’m leaving you here,” he said, looking deadly serious.

“I’ll hitch a ride with someone else,” I responded.

“Nobody wants an annoying Canadian in their car,” he laughed to himself again, this time embellishing a little more.

“I think that’s enough for one night,”Jay interrupted.

“You’re on his side?” asked the drunk Frenchman who fancied himself an American hick.

“I’m on the side of everyone going home in one piece. Thiery, where’s your car?” Thiery picked up the empty bottle and used it to point over the dune behind us. “We better get you back over there.”

“I don’t need your help,” he said with contempt, and began stumbling back in the direction from which he came.

I awoke abruptly to what sounded like engines rumbling right next to my head, followed by loud honking and cheering. I unzipped my tent to find that it was one of the last still standing at the bivouac, and the rest of the surrounding canvas was starting to come down. It was exactly 6 a.m. and the competitors had already been awake for over an hour; already eaten breakfast, received their checkpoints for the day and mapped out their individual routes. Now was the ceremonial procession from the bivouac, where competitors lined up five in a row and departed in a group while a small crowd of staff and fellow drivers cheered them on. Since there was no real rush to depart—and to ensure teams didn’t follow each other from checkpoint to checkpoint—starting times were scattered, with five cars assigned to five different checkpoints departing in this manner every few minutes until the last group started their journey an hour later.

“What’s going on?” I asked Phil, as I emerged from my tent.

“You overslept,” he shouted over the noise. I guess he was right, but in my defence I really hadn’t done much sleeping that night. After my conversation with Stéphanie I crawled into my tent around 11 p.m., but thanks to some combination of jet lag and discomfort I didn’t fall asleep until well after 2 a.m. The echoing sound of roaring engines, power drills and generators echoing from the nearby mechanics area certainly didn’t help.

I only slept for about an hour before I got a taste of the desert deep freeze. I knew it would get cold, and I had brought what I was told would be an appropriate amount of layers to manage, but the chill I experienced when I awoke sometime around 3a.m. was well beyond what I had prepared for. I quickly went from sound asleep to a state of panic as I peeled open my backpack and fished around for another layer of pants, gloves, socks and even a second had to put over the one I was already wearing. The shivering stopped sometime after 4 a.m., and I remember hearing a few watch alarms going off and some wrestling from nearby tents around the time I finally fell back asleep at 4:30.

“Where’s Joko?” I asked Phil.

“No idea,” he responded. “But we’re probably leaving soon.”

Over Jay’s shoulder I could see the cafeteria tent starting to come down, so I abandoned our conversation and my belongings and made a run for some coffee. I had to duck below the tarps as they were being lowered by staff perched on ladders, until I found the last remaining pot near where the buffet had been set up the night before. There was no milk or sugar, and the coffee was stale and cold, but I didn’t really care. I needed something to wake me up for this all-important final opportunity to see Stéphanie in action.

I downed a full paper cup-worth on the spot and poured myself another before making my way over to what remained of the media tent, which too was being gradually disassembled.

“Do you know where you’re going?” asked Brooke after noticing me scurrying around in a panicked daze. “I need to find Joko,” I said.

“You’re not in Joko’s car today,” she responded. “They’re going to be following Kiera and Pauline, so we’re putting you with two other journalists who are a bit more flexible. They can come with you to find Stéphanie this morning, as long as you don’t mind chasing one of the racers they’re following this afternoon. Go grab your things and come back here and I’ll find Thiery, your driver for today and tomorrow.”

“Yesterday we were still first in the rankings when we left in the morning, and just before we got to checkpoint one we heard a cracking noise coming from the back of the car,” Stéphanie said. “As we got closer to checkpoint one it was just getting louder and louder. When we arrived we found a good friend of ours, another Gazelle who is also a mechanic from Japan, and I asked her if she could help us find what’s wrong with the car. She crawled under the car to take a look, and you know the part that connects the front and back parts? What’s that called?”

“You mean the axel?” I said, naming the only car part I knew other than battery and engine.

“Maybe, but the part that connects the front wheels and the back wheels. We couldn’t open it up and look because we didn’t have the tools, and she said ‘you have to call the mechanics.’ So we called the mechanics and they took that middle piece out so that we could still drive in two-wheel drive, but they said we couldn’t go faster than 40 kilometers an hour, and we couldn’t go through any sand or rocks. At that point we decided not to take any chances; it was finished for us in that moment.”

I awoke for the second time in two consecutive days to the sound of honking in an emptying campsite. The Gazelles had again risen with the sun, and though it had been another uncomfortable rest I was appropriately dressed to avoid the early morning chill, and actually felt somewhat refreshed. At first I was thankful for the rest, but then I recalled the events of the previous evening and quickly opened my tent to make sure Thiery hadn’t made good on his threat. Sure enough his truck was still perched on the neighbouring dune, its visibly hung-over driver slowly disassembling his rooftop cabin above.

I began packing my tent, wondering what Theiry’s reaction would be to seeing me that morning, but when I tossed my gear into the truck he appeared to have none. I, for one, was still angered from the previous night, and so I didn’t say a word as I joined him in the car; I wouldn’t even look him directly the bloodshot eye.

“What’s with you?” he asked after a few minutes of awkward silence, seeming genuinely curious.

“You don’t remember what you said to me last night?”

“No,” he said, looking embarrassed and somehow even paler.  “What did I do?”

I shot him a sarcastic look, assuming he was just messing with me again.

“No, really,” he said. “I don’t remember.”

“You told me you’d take me to find Stéphanie if I kissed your ass,” he looked horrified, though a little amused at his insult. “You also called me annoying and threatened to leave me here.”

He took a moment to process, and then went straight into denial. “No I didn’t,” he responded. “There’s no way.”

“It was in front of everybody, so if you don’t believe me just ask anyone here that speaks English.”

“Damn,” he whispered to himself. “I’m so sorry. I was very drunk, I didn’t know what I was saying.”

“It’s fine,” I responded. “It’s over, and I really don’t care. Let’s just go.”  

I nearly dropped my sunglasses when the car hopped off its back tires as we sped over a bump on our way out of the bivouac. I wiped them off for a second time, put them back on my face, blinked a few times and then finally came to terms with the fact that the blurriness of my vision had nothing to do with eyewear. I had a lot of delirious moments throughout the course of that week, but that first morning in Thiery’s car I was most certainly at my worst.

I barely acknowledged Alex and Marco in the back seat, and probably failed to thank them for agreeing to head directly to Stéphanie’s second checkpoint in hopes that we’d catch up to her there. Marco, a mild mannered and heavily bearded Californian about my age, was documenting the story behind the story, and was most interested in covering the rest of the journalists’ coverage of the race than chasing specific Gazelles. Alex, meanwhile, was sent to Morocco to take pictures of Keanna Ericson-Chang, a 19 year-old American rally protégé with more professional racing experience than the middle aged women with whom she was competing. Keeana, along with Claudia Barbera-Pullen, together made up the cleverly named “team over-hyphenated” in car 149. Alex was a bit of a wunderkind himself, having photographed pretty much every motorsports competition on the planet at a similarly young age.

I didn’t find this out until later, however, because I couldn’t really get my brain to focus on a single thought for more than a few seconds at a time that morning.

We arrived at Stéphanie’s second checkpoint to find it completely empty, aside from a few flags and a sole staff member waiting to check in competitors when they finally did arrive. It was just after 9 a.m. and the sun was beginning its daily assault. As soon as we pulled over we each shed a few layers and got as comfortable as we could. At Marco’s suggestion I requested a two-litre bottle of water and my lunch box from Thiery, and dumbed the contents of the instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk packets inside. It was drinkable enough, though from afar it looked like I was chugging something far less sanitary. Gradually I transitioned from utterly hopeless to moderately functional, though I suppose I was—as one critic would later remark—being a little “annoying” that day.

I asked Thiery numerous times to try radioing in to the command center to confirm the position of car 107, but after a few static-y attempts he concluded the radio was broken. “Try asking one of the other staff members, they have an emergency satellite radio,” he told me.

“I don’t speak French,” I said. “Can you ask them for me?”

“I thought you were Canadian,” said Thiery, looking disappointed.

“I am, but I never paid attention in French class. I guess as I kid I never considered that I might find myself in the sahara surrounded by French people.” I meant it as a joke, but based on his reaction I don’t think Thiery took it as one.

Instead he went to ask the woman manning the checkpoint if she had a radio on her, and then returned to report that while her radio was not working he was in fact a big fan of the staffer’s backside.   

I really didn’t know what to make of Thiery at the time, and I frankly didn’t really put much thought into the strange duality of the man driving me around the desert for 48 hours. With a French-style scarf and American-style aviators, scruffy beard and beer belly, he maintained all the style of his native culture, and none of the sophistication.

Like most of the professional drivers escorting journalists around the desert that week he was old enough to have more grey hairs than not, and a good amount of professional off-road driving experience under his designer belt, which was held together by an oversized state of Georgia buckle.

At some point in our endless hours of waiting for Stéphanie to arrive he explained that he grew up in France but didn’t really feel at home until he moved to rural Georgia, where he lived for almost two decades. If you want to see Thiery get excited, just bring up beer, barbecue, motorsports, women and hunting. If you want to piss Thiery off, ask him politely to try the radio again, or give him a disapproving look when he points out the shape of a staff member’s ass.

“I’m sorry for putting it like this,” I said, “but why do you seem so cheerful today?”

“Because we made a good effort!” said Stéphanie, before taking another sip of her beer. “I’m so proud of how we did. The car is part of the game, and we’ll just have to come back to get first place with a car that works. It’s a little sad, but in the end it wasn’t us that failed, it was the car. We’re still champions in my mind.” She smiled.

“You’re happy now,” I said, trying to get enough details to tell the story of a competitor I never actually saw competing,” but what about in that moment, when you realized you couldn’t finish?”

“Of course I was sad,” she said, getting a bit more serious. “We were doing it for our friend who passed away, and we kept seeing ourselves winning it for her. That was the sadder part. Her husband and her friends were cheering for us, and we wanted to win it for her. But now we know we can come back and win, all we need is the right car.”

“Do you think the car broke down because of how far you pushed it this week?” I asked.

“Honestly, I think it was the mechanic that looked at the car before we left for the rally. We brought it to a Moroccan mechanic before we came to the desert, and he replaced a part near the rear axel, and I think that’s the part that broke. We pushed the car but I don’t think that’s why it broke.”

“So what did you do after you found out you couldn’t finish the race yesterday?” I asked.

“We decided to enjoy ourselves,” she said as the smile returned to her face. “We arrived at the bivouac this morning at 8 a.m. and they said we could not enter until 10, so we went into the village for breakfast. It was lovely. I’ve really had a great week.”

“Really?” I said. “Your friend died and you lost the competition after being in first place because of a mechanical problem, and you had a great week?”

“Yes!” She said, excitedly. “We’re in this beautiful place with beautiful people, and sure it was tough, but I’m happy to have had this week, and I think we’re all lucky to be here. What happened with Florence just reminds me how lucky we are to be alive, and to be healthy enough to enjoy these things.”

With no sign of Stéphanie and no working communication channel that could point us in the right direction I finally agreed to abandon her second check point around 11 am, but only because Theiry convinced me the radio might work from a different location. In hindsight I’m pretty sure he knew that it wouldn’t, but couldn’t stand sitting there any longer, waiting for someone who likely wasn’t coming.

It wasn’t until we caught up to team over-hyphenated at their fourth checkpoint around noon that one of the other competitors confirmed car 107 had in fact called in a mechanic, and likely wasn’t going to be able to finish the race.

The news was equally devastating as it was relieving. By that point I knew something had likely happened, but still maintained hope of finding her eventually. After all, she wasn’t the type to give up easily, nor stay on course, and I had travelled halfway across the planet to see Stéphanie drive. In my sleep deprived state I was stubbornly still holding onto hope that I would get that opportunity.

It was also a relief not to have to feel rushed as we followed team over-hyphenated through the most difficult part of the course that I personally witnessed (though anyone who was around for the first few days of the competition would say it only barely cracks the top three in terms of difficulty). We spent much of the afternoon on all fours, digging the tires out of the sand dunes with our bare hands. After 20 minutes of digging and revving we’d typically only make it a few feet before getting ourselves stuck again, but we weren’t alone. That stretch of desert was littered with SUVs whose tires were spitting sand out behind them without moving an inch. It was almost sun down when we finally reached the checkpoint on the other side, and followed the rest of the competitors in the area to a relatively flat patch to set up camp for the night.

“I’d kill for a coffee right now,” I said as a way of breaking the awkward silence in the car.

“I have an espresso maker in the back,” said Thiery.

“Shut up,” I responded. “You’re not funny.”

“You think I’m lying but I’m not,” he responded, maintaining an even expression that I found difficult to read.

“As soon as we’re out of the dunes I’ll pull over and show you.”

A short while later Thiery pulled the car over and began rummaging through the trunk. Eventually he pulled out what looked almost like a camera lens; poured some of his water bottle out into the top, deposited a little pod into the side, and pushed a button.

“Hold this,” he said, handing me a little plastic espresso cup. The little device made a few noises, and then sure enough spat out a fresh cup of espresso. Thiery just smiled. After it finished I asked if he wanted me to grab another cup for him. “That’s alright,” he said, putting the device back into the car and reaching for a beer. “This is my coffee.”

He then turned to Alex and Marco and asked if they wanted to join him for a drink, and the both agreed.

“How about you, Canadian?” he asked. “Nothing left to do today but enjoy the desert. Have a beer with us.”

“Alright,” I responded.

Marco set up his tripod and took a picture of the three of us holding out our beer cans in an otherwise empty valley surrounded by mountains and large rock formations.

“So what now?” I asked.

“We have a few hours until we have to be at the bivouac,” said Theiry.

“I’m up for anything,” said Marco. “I guess I am too,” said Alex. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“There’s a town not too far away,” said Thiery. “Lunch is on me.”

After a few more pictures we finished our drinks and hopped back into the car. Theiry let me pick the music as we drove for an hour towards a little town that sat at the base of a mountain off in the distance, where he treated us to some tagine and another round of beer, before taking us back to the bivouac.

“I still can’t believe how positive you are being in the face of all of this,” I said.

“What can I tell you?” responded Stéphanie. “We were really disappointed at first, but then I think of the Olympic athletes who train every single day, it’s their whole lives, and then something like this happens to them. This isn’t something I trained my whole life for, I have a whole other life, so yes it’s disappointing but I still consider myself very lucky to even be here.”

“I admire your optimism,” I said. “So what now?”

“Well, there’s the party tonight, which will be fun, but then we have to bring Florence’s car back to her husband in France. That’s going to be the hardest part. Her clothes and tent and everything is still in the truck, even though it’s broken, so we need to bring everything back to Paris. It’s going to be really tough, but again, that’s life.

“Every race brings me to a point of clarity; it shows me what’s really important in life,” she continued. “I think we often miss that these days, with how fast everything moves now, but being here away from it all really brings you back to reality. It just gives you perspective, and helps you understand what life is really about. You have to keep moving. You have to grab life and enjoy every moment of it, and you have to learn to keep going, no matter what happens. That’s what I’m doing now, and that’s what I’ll continue to do for however much time I have left.”

Just then Brooke approached the bar and interrupted our conversation.

“Your car’s here,” she said. “The driver’s waiting.”

I stuck out my hand to shake Stéphanie’s, but she shoved it aside and gave me a hug instead. “Thanks for coming here and tell Florence’s story,” she said. “and mine.”

I thanked her for her time again, and made my way towards the car.

We rode down the highway for a few hours, through the desert and up into the mountains that separate the Sahara from the first signs of civilization, reaching the first peak just before sunset. The journey home was nearly as treacherous as the journey over, only this time everything was in reverse, each leg getting a little more comfortable, and a little less interesting.

As we continued the roads got more smooth and sturdy, and the division between the highway and the sand became clearer. Eventually the power lines returned over our heads, and got thicker and thicker as we continued on.

Over these picturesque mountains was the scenic little town of Ourzazate—where a hot shower and a bed waiting for me—then the return trip to the less beautiful but still exotic Casablanca, until finally returning to all the comforts and predictability of home.

Links:
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 1
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 2
My story about Stéphanie for Ozy
My story about the race for the Guardian
Macro’s behind the scenes video about the journalists covering the race
Jay and Phil’s Video for Refinery29

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