The Rebelle Rally is peculiar among off-road motorsports.
For starters, as America’s longest off-road rally, travelling nearly 1930km from Northern Nevada to within a stone’s throw of the Mexican border, it is open exclusively to female competitors.
It’s also a multi-stage, multi-day navigation rally, putting it more in line with the infamous Dakar Rally than the Baja 1000. Did we mention there’s no GPS? These women, called Rebelles, navigate old-school, with a map and compass.
Running between Lake Tahoe and Southern California, USA, the Rebelle Rally is advertised as “the ultimate road trip for adventurous and competitive women”. However, crossing almost 2000km of sand dunes and deserts, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill highway adventure.
It isn’t enough to simply finish this course; competitors are tasked with locating a series of checkpoints with nothing but a map and compass. Phones and anything else with a GPS are sealed at the start, ensuring this remains a challenge of old-school navi skills.
Actually locating checkpoints, however, becomes harder as the course progresses. Green checkpoints are marked and staffed, blue checkpoints have minor markings, and black checkpoints, which have no markings at all, are the most difficult to find.
Given teams have to be within 50-100 metres of a checkpoint for it to count towards their points, it’s an incredible feat to take pure latitudinal and longitudinal data and turn it into a physical location in the middle of nowhere. Competitors carry a handheld tracker that contains two important functions, an SOS ability and a button to press when the team thinks they’re at a checkpoint, which makes accurate navigation even more important.
The drivers have the easy part – relatively speaking – as the race is won or lost on the ability of the navigator. The 2016 winner, Charlene Bower, said: “It’s pretty typical for the navigator to be taking care of the driver, but we planned the entire time that it was the driver who needed to take care of the navigator. The less Kaleigh had to deal with, the better we could perform as a team”.
Some checkpoints are located in pretty desolate areas, so some off-road-driving experience certainly doesn’t go astray. Vehicles are outfitted with a satellite phone for emergencies and trackers which allow the audience to follow the progress of the event online.
NO WALK IN THE PARK
I was lucky enough to be able to chase the rally, driving the course alongside 33 teams from all over the world. I’ve done my fair share of off-road adventuring and thought I knew a thing or two about navigation. That being said I missed a few turns, despite being equipped with a GPS – it really made me appreciate the skill of the competitors given I had modern tech.
The Rebelle Rally really pushes the definition of ‘official roads and trails’ to the limit, with the routes frequently overgrown and rained out. Simply navigating the course was hard enough, but finding checkpoints – particularly the ‘black’ unmarked points – would be enough to make me pull my hair out.
My respect for these women grew day by day. With a GPS to guide my route, I had it easy. Nevertheless, I was exhausted. I can only imagine how the ladies managed it; up before sunrise, returning after sunset, dragging gear from the vehicle impound to the designated camping areas, planning and mapping out the routes for the next day’s race, and attempting to get some sleep. Only to repeat the whole process day after day!
The difficulty of the course increased each day. Routes became more challenging with numerous checkpoints that were increasingly difficult to locate. The brainchild of Jimmy Lewis, who has won his class in the Dakar, the Baja 1000, and the Dubai Rally – all on a motorcycle – presented competitors with a complex but fair route which was as psychologically demanding as it was physically. As each layer of the route was peeled back, new challenges kept competitors on their toes.
During the rare moments where you can take the time to enjoy the view, the route reveals its stunning beauty. It allows competitors to explore seldom-seen regions of Nevada, a beautiful state that is regularly outshone by the gaudy tourist city of Las Vegas. As we made our way through the remote tracks, I was often taken aback by the frequently changing scenery – an eclectic mix of deserts, dunes and mesas.
I particularly remember a trail that ran through a dry river wash, a typical thing on the west coast. Washes are usually quite easy to navigate and, while they may branch off, the general rule is to follow the most-travelled path. Except when they’ve recently run, leaving competitors to learn the hard way as to which is the correct path. We spent an hour trying to travel that section of the course – although with a GPS, mind you – and once again it gave us an immense appreciation and respect for what the Rebelles were doing with only a map and compass.
Whilst the days might have been filled with exhausting challenges, the nights offered some respite with a wonderful community base camp equipped with showers, bathrooms and food prepared each night by Michelin-star recipient, Chef Drew Deckman. The healthy gourmet meals were a welcome change after the day’s trials and put a smile on the faces of the competitors, especially those who may not have had the best day out on the tracks.
Just in case the thought of showers each night lulled you into a false sense of security, emergencies can and do happen. We were in the Dumont Dunes, just about ready to leave base camp to start the fifth day of the rally, when a call came over the radio that a vehicle had gone off a dune and there was the potential for head and spinal injuries. As we had a vehicle ready, one of Team 5 Foundation’s medics, Jon Wayne Taylor, commandeered our vehicle to respond as quickly as possible.
As we got closer to the accident, details started coming in. Andrea Shaffer and Michelle Davis of Team Sugar High had crested a seemingly innocuous dune only to find it was a dangerous razorback and had dropped at least 10 feet to the sand below. As we approached the scene, we counted eight feet from the start of the dune to where their tyres first made contact with the sand. The heavy impact had bent the front axle of their modified Jeep Rubicon, smashed their rear window and, most concerning, slammed Michelle’s head straight into the steering wheel.
Immediately following the accident, Andrea checked Michelle wasn’t in any serious danger and then ran the last mile to the green checkpoint to ensure that help would be on the way for her teammate. Jon acted brilliantly and efficiently, assessing both team members before deciding that Michelle was okay. She was shaken up with a possible concussion – nothing a good rest wouldn’t fix.
As we transported the two women back to the checkpoint, a group of Rebelles gathered to check on their fellow competitors. Moments later, another damaged vehicle – Nena Barlow and Kande Jacobsen of Team Squirrel Girls launched their Ram Rebel off a dune – arrived. Luckily for them, there were no injuries and they were able to repair the vehicle and finish the day’s competition.
Nena Barlow is one of the finest off-road drivers in the country, which really reinforces the unpredictable nature of the Rebelle Rally. Both amateurs and professionals can make the same mistakes due to the terrain, which really levels the playing field for all the women who bravely entered the competition.
Off-road racing doesn’t conjure images of environmental stewardship. However, founder of the Rebelle Rally, Emily Miller, wants to change that. She worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to ensure the rally had a minimal impact on the environment. Base camps were left spotless and cleaner than they were before the competitors arrived.
Biologists were even hired by the event to ensure that the threatened Desert Tortoise wasn’t placed in harm’s way. At one stage the competition was delayed by almost an hour as one of the large testudines made its way, slowly but surely, across the course.
Regulations set by the BLM stated that the animal couldn’t be moved unless it was in grave danger, and that it had to progress on its own accord – competitors couldn’t pass until it was 100 feet from the road.
“I didn’t even know the Desert Tortoise was threatened,” said Rhonda Cahill, navigator for the X-Elles, a team of two Montana mums that have done similar events in Morocco.
“But it really opened our eyes to how sensitive these environments are, and how
unique of a species it is; though we were lucky to pass through just before the tortoise blocked the trail.”
The first Rebelle Rally came down to a nail-biting finish as the final contestants jockeyed for pole position until the very last moment. In the end, Charlene Bower and Kaleigh Hotchkiss of Team Ladies Co-Driver Challenge won the event by a small margin, picking up much-needed points in the last day of competition at the Glamis sand dunes.
“The Rebelle Rally felt like it was too big to win, so we went in with the mindset of just doing the best we could and, without having owned a compass until six months ago, we ended up at the finish line with the win. Now I believe that every woman has the opportunity to learn and be successful at this event, thanks to the way it’s organised” said Bower, who works with several well-known off-road brands as a marketing specialist and had the connections to make this happen.
Kaleigh Hotchkiss also hardly picked up a compass before the win. “We weren’t perfect, we missed some of the hard black checkpoints every day. We knew the event would be this tough. We won the event based on commitment and our strategy, which was to watch our time, use mind over muscle, get no penalties, and listen intently to the morning briefing for key information”.
The Rebelle Rally is open to all women across the globe, and you don’t even have to be a professional rally car driver to take part. As long as you have some basic four-wheel driving skills and know how to use a map and a compass (the most important part, really), competing in the rally is a fun, challenging and often exciting adventure.
There are two vehicle classes available: 4x4 (low range) and Crossover (no low range). Registration is currently open and competitors are able to bring their own vehicles. For those without suitable vehicles, Barlow Adventures offers well-prepared rental Jeep Rubicons for the event.
Also included in the entry are a series of online training sessions and recommendations designed to bring your off-road and navigational skills up a notch – finding those pesky, hard-to-find black checkpoints will quickly become a breeze.
The next Rebelle Rally runs from October 12 until October 21, 2017, and includes approximately 2000km of amazing desert driving across dirt roads, double tracks, trails and sand dunes, with a final awards gala on the water overlooking the sparkling San Diego skyline.
Let’s see an Australian team in the 2017 rally! Grab your map, your compass and your mates and come to the Rebelle Rally; you might surprise yourself!
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