Women-only rally takes on the Moroccan Sahara with just a compass

Watch: Africa's only all-female rally
Watch: Africa's only all-female rally

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(CNN)Try as you might to stop it, the Sahara will still find a way to assault your senses. If the heat doesn't get you, the sunlight might. The psychology of the task at hand is enough to break most people.

For Kiera Chaplin, the Sahara struck deep within her inner ear. After crossing rolling dunes in a customized 4x4, the car's soft suspension and the constant up and down had her disorientated and off-balance. It was sea-sickness, by way of sand.
"You're surfing on the waves," she recalls, "you just glide." But a serene experience took on added venom when the car rolled to a halt. Climbing gingerly up a dune, she surveyed the landscape, consulting her map and compass and made a judgment. "That way."c
    Chaplin was in the middle of the toughest stage of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles du Maroc -- Africa's only all-female off-road rally.
    When the event began in 1990 it was the first of its kind in the world. Touting both its eco-credentials and empowering ethos, the rally's petrol-head sorority has careened around Morocco's eastern reaches for nearly three decades, always racing on its own terms.
    Unlike other rallies, there are no prizes for speed. And while most competitions use a host of technologies, the so-called "Gazelles" must negotiate the terrain without GPS. Instead, contestants win for completing each stage while driving the shortest distance, meaning accuracy and bravery are key.
    Expert teams travel kilometer to kilometer, says Chaplin, constantly readjusting their route. Drivers need to hit flag points along each stage; getting lost or looping back is fatal to one's chance of winning.
    In 2017, 158 teams came from over 30 countries to compete, with ages of competitors ranging from 18 to 71 years old. Driving 4x4s, trucks, quadbikes and motorbikes, this year also introduced a category for electric cars -- fitting, given the rally is the only motor sport event in the world with ISO 14001 environmental management certification, and presented at COP22 in 2016.
    It's all part of being a "responsible rally," say the organizers. Along the route, Coeur de Gazelles, the rally's charitable arm, supports women and children in neighboring villages. Started in 2001, the non-profit provides medical services, and educational and development programs for these isolated communities -- an effort which saw the rally's founder Dominique Serra honored by Morocco's King Mohammed VI as an Office Wissam Al Alaoui (the equivalent of the Legion de'honneur) in 2013.
    In late March, CNN followed the progress of Team 185, a new partnership in the 4x4 category.
    Chaplin, actress, entrepreneur and granddaughter of screen king Charlie, was the rookie navigator alongside Cindy Fabre, an experienced Gazelle and former Miss France. Racing across eight stages in 19 hour days, the Rallye is not for the faint of heart, says the first-timer.
    "It's long days, stressful days," she tells CNN, "you're exhausted ... Apparently there's people who go that are best friends, and after the rally they never speak to each other again." For Chaplin and Fabre however, the experience was all laughs, even during sandstorms and exhaustion.
    Setting off in a procession from Tangier to Rabat, then Meknes, the rally proper began in Mdouara, southeast of the Atlas Mountains on March 23.
    "It was hard to sleep (before the race)," Chaplin admits. "You're excited, you're a little nervous, you're getting into the swing on things." But 24 hours on "you're ready to pass out."
    The team decided on a slow and methodical approach, avoiding penalty points for missed flags. But unlike other drivers with extreme lighting rigs, Team 185 was limited by the daylight available. A "nightmare" was how the rookie described navigating uneven scrubland in the dark.
    "Thank God we had helmets because you go flying left, right and center. It's like a rodeo in the car."
    After the opening salvos, in which Team 185 hit their stride, they headed into even more remote territory for the multi-day stages, where teams are required to camp in the desert overnight. It was here they encountered colossal Saharan dunes in the signature section of the rally.
    "We had two separate dune days, and the first day was very hard," says Chaplin. "We kept on starting off and we kept on getting stuck." But the race's unique spirit meant that they weren't alone. In the dunes teams are allowed to winch each other to safety, ensuring no Gazelle is left behind.
    Team 185 didn't leave the most spectacular stage unscathed, however.
    "One of the cars (in front) stopped halfway down a dune -- which you're never supposed to do," she says. "We went smashing into the car, and we smashed the front bumper off our car." Their response? "We put it in the back and continued on to the finish."
    As Chaplin and Fabre opted to take the hardest route through the dunes, they saw themselves jump up the leader board -- to 6th, out of a possible 137 places. It was to be a position they defended until they crossed the finishing line in Foumz Guid on March 30.
    From there competitors headed off together to Essaouira, a popular coastal resort known for its port and fortresses made famous by "Game of Thrones." It's a huge display of sisterhood, with teams riding in convoy on rooftops as they rolled in for the rally's awards ceremony.
    Chaplin and Fabre rolling in to Essaouira after completing the rally.
    "I left feeling very positive," says Chaplin. "It's intense, it's rough, but it's so much fun."
    "It's a huge confidence booster," she says of the event as a whole, taking many of its competitors out of their comfort zone.
    "I remember the first time we were stuck, I thought 'We're done now, we're going to have to call the mechanics.' Cindy said 'No, we're digging out and doing this.' When you're done, you're exhausted, but you're thinking 'Ok, here we go,' and you continue.
    "It's a philosophy for life -- just keep going and keep fighting."
    So will Team 185 be back next year?
    "I'd definitely do it again," Chaplin says. "I understand now why they say 'Gazelle for one day, Gazelle forever.'"