overlanding, Rallye Aicha des Gazeles, Rachelle Croft, Rhonda Cahill

Moroccan Dead Reckoning

If you were asked to join someone on the longest, hardest all-female overlanding race in the world what would you say? Rhonda Cahill was hesitant at first, but her best friend Rachelle Croft’s excitement was catching. This wouldn’t be their first (or last) experience traversing complex landscapes.

Expedition Overland
You may have seen Rachelle and Rhonda on the show Expedition Overland, an exciting documentary series about a group of friends who go overlanding. Never heard of this exciting term? It’s basically off roading on rough terrain in mid- to full-sized vehicles. The first official season of the show follows the group’s journey to Prudhoe Bay, along the most remote highway in Alaska.

Rachelle and Rhonda shared they’d sometimes kick the men, including their husbands, out of one vehicle for “girl time” when they’d listen to audiobooks, blast pop music or just hangout. There’s even a shot of the duo setting up a makeshift vanity on the back of one of the overlanding rigs.

“At first when we saw the shot we were embarrassed and didn’t think it needed to make it to the final cut,” Rhonda shared. But the ladies eventually decided to keep the footage, showing the world as they put on minimal makeup for the day.

When asked why, they said the simple ritual helped make them feel like girls. If you’ve ever been in the backcountry on a multiple-week trip with guys you can probably relate to not feeling particularly feminine. Rachelle and Rhonda both grew up tomboys but came to realize you can be both pretty and adventurous. Before leaving for the Alaska trip they consulted a local makeup artist about what three products she’d recommend.  Moisturizing sunscreen, lip gloss and eyeliner all made the cut.

“We wanted to feel good on camera so that’s what we did,” they shared. Their female audience loved that the duo allowed this moment to make it to the show – there’s nothing wrong with doing what makes you comfortable and feel more human in the bush.

During season two of Expedition Overland, the boys venture on their own from Montana down the Pan-American Highway to the Southernmost point of North America. At the same time, Rachelle and Rhonda were embarking on an incredible journey themselves, one to the Northern tip of Africa for the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles.

Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft clad in their Team USA Rallye gear. overlanding
Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft clad in their Team USA Rallye gear. Photo by Nicole Dreon.

X Elle’s Racing
Rachelle and her first race partner Julie Meddows created X Elles as a small business in 2011. Rhonda and Rachelle later partnered with Voice Today, a nonprofit that brings awareness to sexual abuse, for the 2014 race. Both women are survivors of childhood abuse and felt that overlanding would be an interesting platform to speak up about the importance of preventing this unfathomable tragedy. They chose the name X Elles because “elle” means “light” in Hebrew. Rachelle and Rhonda wanted to bring light to women living in the darkness of untold sexual abuse. “Elle” also happens to mean “girl” in French, the home language of the Rallye that the team would soon return to.

Upon the organization’s creation, the two were immediately embraced by the Rallye community and people around the world. Their inboxes flooded with thank-yous. Women shared their personal stories of abuse, and men told the team they felt Rachelle and Rhonda were doing the race for their once-abused loved ones.

“We were overwhelmed by the response,” Rachelle shared.

“We almost had to get counseling to learn how to talk with people when they’d share these horrible stories of abuse,” Rhonda added.

“Hearing someone say, ‘I’ve been abused.’ took away the darkness and fear,” Rachelle said of her own experience. “I felt like I could speak up.” The women’s goal of providing light and hope to other survivors was clearly a success before they even set foot on Moroccan soil for the Rallye.

“We are actually racing for everyone else,” Rhonda admitted. They created the hashtag #youareloved for women to show one another they care by posting photos of ladies who inspire them.

Remember #youareloved. X Elles ladies by their 2015 Rallye rig. overlanding
Remember #youareloved. X Elles ladies by their 2015 Rallye rig. Photo by Nicole Dreon.

Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
“You don’t have to be a professional. I wanted a challenge!” Rachelle shared when asked why she wanted to join the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. To race, you must be certified in dead reckoning navigation and off road driving. Training and certification for Team USA took place in California. There, the ladies practiced maneuvering in sand and finding their bearings in a nearly landmark-less area similar to what they’d be traveling through in the Sahara Desert.

The Rallye is known as the hardest, longest all-female race in the world for a reason. It is nine days of grueling 12, sometimes 14-hour drives with no time for audiobooks or even chit chat (at least not in the X Elles rig).

Upon their 2015 arrival to Rabat, Morocco, temperatures were freezing and the official race start, a parade through the streets, included snow and slippery roads. It was almost like Rachelle and Rhonda were at home in Montana. Over the next nine days the ladies would face extreme heat, dust storms, mechanical malfunctions and even serious illness that threatened to take the duo out of the race entirely.

Each Rallye team has two members, a driver and a navigator. Rachelle is the X Elles driver. She has now competed in three Rallyes, having been a part of a different group for the 2013 race. On an episode of Expedition Overland season two, you’ll see a bit of her driving skills as she crests sand dunes at full speed.

“You learn the rhythm of the dunes and your car,” Rachelle noted, admitting she was scared when practicing how to approach the massive features.

“This year she was more confident, it was a blast,” Rhonda added. “When Rachelle drives it’s like butter, so smooth,” she brags about her friend.

Along with the sand of the Sahara Desert, Rachelle commands the rig on river beds and over and around camel grass clumps that can get as big as their vehicle. She attributes her ability to stay in the truck for so many hours a day to core strength.

“You’re so focused on hitting your next flag that there’s not enough time in the day. It’s a lot of hours but it doesn’t feel like it,” Rachelle explained.

The racers must hit between six an eight checkpoints each day by navigating their way to a specific flag. These waving markers can’t be easily seen, and are often hidden in valleys or behind trees. Rachelle once spotted one 2.2 k.m. away according to an amazed and impressed Rhonda.

In their first bout together, the driving/riding situation wasn’t always comfortable. At one point in the 2014 race, Rachelle was concerned as she sped toward a dune and asked, “How am I doing?” Rhonda replied, “Great! You’re doing great!” As Rachelle looked over to the passenger seat, she realized her trusty friend had her eyes clenched tight. “How do you know when you’re not even looking?!” Rachelle exclaimed.

Today, the women laugh at the story, and Rhonda admits she no longer closes her eyes. In fact, the top of high peaks of sand is the perfect place for her to see the surrounding area which is imperative to her role as navigator.

Rachelle Croft, Team X Elles driver, mother of three boys and all-around cool gal. overlanding
Rachelle Croft, Team X Elles driver at the 2015 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Photo by Nicole Dreon.

Dead reckoning
Racers in the Rallye cannot use GPS, the Internet or any form of technology. They turn in any tech devices at the race start. Instead, Rhonda and the other navigators use dead reckoning, a form of finding your way using latitude and longitude points and a map. Rhonda had no prior training in this old-school method before getting involved in the Rallye. During the pre-race training in California, Emily Miller, the US liaison for the Gazelle Rallye, taught Rhonda and other team USA navigators how to find their way.

Racers turn to several non-technical devices along with their maps when traveling from one checkpoint to the next.

“I use a Breton plotter when I know the heading and degrees,” Rhonda explained. This tool has a rotating compass dial in the middle (with no magnets) which she lines up to the compass rose on the map. The plotter helps her translate paper centimeters to real-life kilometers. Rhonda also uses a minute ruler to calculate the exact location of where the next checkpoint is on the Earth. These resources allow the X Elles and other Rallye competitors to go from flag to flag during the day and then make their way to the final checkpoint each night.

While racing, Rhonda gets out of the car about every 15 minutes.

“You’re on all the time. I’m holding a heading I can’t lose and saying, ‘A little to the left, to the right,’ and then I hop out to check the line,” she shared.

The driver waits in the car while the navigator runs a few yards ahead to make measurements. Rhonda then gives Rachelle directions with “giant, cheerleader-like” hand signals so she knows what to do next.

The two have become so proficient in this method and dead reckoning that they teach classes on what they call “survival navigation.” The ladies recommend that everyone should know how to read a map and translate the points on a compass in real life. This means being able to get dropped in the wilderness somewhere and use the sun or moon to establish which direction is North.

The women are also knowledgeable in mechanics.

“We found that on Expedition Overland trips we let the guys figure out the problem when something is wrong with a vehicle.” Rachelle shared. During the Rallye, however, the two are left to their own devices. To call for assistance during any point of the race means forfeiting.

“I love that when Rachelle and I are literally in the middle of the Sahara Desert and nobody is around but goats and our truck is broken, we have to figure it out,” Rhonda professed.

During the 2015 Rallye, the duo had to travel almost 40 miles with a broken shock mount that was ripping through the floor in their truck. They made it back to the night’s checkpoint where their mechanic was able to address the issue.

Rhonda Cahill, Team X Elles navigator, mother of three and total (badass) nerd. overlanding
Rhonda Cahill, Team X Elles navigator at the 2014 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Photo by Nicole Dreon.

With such intense driving and vehicle-related knowledge we wondered what they’d teach their kids when they come of driving age. Both said the basics: How to change the oil and a tire, what different fluids look like so they can spot an issue and also the importance of left-foot braking. (That’s right. Everything you learned in driver’s ed was a lie.)

The broken shock mount wasn’t the only issue in the 2015 race. With just a few days left, Rhonda became violently ill. She was hallucinating and delusional in the truck and headed straight to the med tent when they arrived at tent city for the night. Once there, the Moroccan doctors and French-English translators had a hard time discussing and diagnosing the issue. Rhonda lay on a makeshift bed barely moving as Rachelle looked on.

At six the next morning, the final day of the Rallye, all the other racers headed out. Rachelle had mentally given in to their clear need to resign from the competition. Rhonda, however, had other plans. After several hydrating IVs she told Rachelle to get in the truck.

“I didn’t feel any of the stress of the situation because I had tunnel vision. I could only think about how we’d told everyone we would make every checkpoint,” Rhonda said.

“I trusted that Rachelle would pull me from the race if she really believed I needed to stop.”

“I just wanted her safe. I was the driver so really I could have not let her go,” Rachelle agreed. “Instead I just said, ‘We’ll see how you’re feeling when we make it to the first checkpoint.'”

They made it to the first flag and decided to continue. As the day went on, Rhonda lost the spark she’d gained from the electrolyte-laden IV fluids and slowly became glued to her seat. With her partner and best friend unable to get out of the vehicle, Rachelle took on the role of navigator as well as driver.

With just one checkpoint left in the entire race, Rhonda was so intent on finishing she was nearly in hysterics. The women stared through their sunglasses, frantically searching the Moroccan landscape for any sign of the last flag before heading to the finish line. Suddenly, they spotted their prey and sped towards it with the sun dropping lower in the sky, threatening to disqualify them for not making it to the checkpoint before nightfall.

As team X Elles pulled into the camp on the final night the entire USA Gazelles group was there, pounding on the hood and waving American flags. Rhonda and Rachelle cried tears of relief and happiness. They made all their goals and tackled every obstacle they encountered with no outside help or opinions, a feat they are quite proud of.

Team X Elles traversing the Sahara Desert during the 2014 Rallye Aicha de Gazelles. overlanding
Team X Elles traversing the Sahara Desert during the 2014 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Photo by Nicole Dreon.

When team X Elles isn’t competing or teaching navigational techniques the ladies are at their respective homes in Montana. Rhonda is the Expedition Overland project manager and Rachelle does bookwork for the show. They attend overlanding expos and represent some of their awesome sponsors (Maxtrax, Toyota USA, General Tire, Triple Aught Design). Because their overlanding trips are so intense, both women look forward to the reprieve of spending time at home. Quiet moments are few and far between, so they each enjoy good books, great conversation and family time whenever possible. Rhonda just adopted a pug (Spicy) and a mastiff (Kaos) while Rachelle has a black lab (Piper).

The duo also love real meals. When competing in the Rallye they subsist on mostly sour cream and onion Pringles and Snickers in between the army rations all racers eat for breakfast and dinner. Don’t expect these two to chat after eating – they head to their tent to stretch their tired bodies and plot out the next day’s route.

Their must-have items while overlanding? Maxtrax, a good bumper and an air compressor. As for personal belongings, Rhonda admits she’s a person who spends a lot of money on wool underwear. She claims they just hold up better and don’t smell when they’ve been worn for multiple days in a row. Rachelle swears by Starbucks Via. She needs something that tastes good to keep her going.

When we last spoke, the ladies were 99 percent sure they wouldn’t be competing in the 2016 Rallye. Rachelle’s happy she won’t be suffering through the 4 a.m. wake-ups, the worst part of the race in her opinion. For Rhonda, it’s the post-Rallye traveling that’s a bummer.

“Yeah, the race is over but now you have a full day or two of travel before you get to see your family. It’s hard,” she admitted. The duo spent nearly 42 hours exhausted and in transit after the finish of the 2015 Rallye.

R & R will miss their favorite parts of the race this year.

“You discover a part that you didn’t know was inside of you. You have to quickly solve problems with no help or opinions. It’s the best feeling,” Rachelle exclaimed.

Rhonda added, “It may sound silly, but learning to rely on your teammate to get out of survival situations that most women never face is unforgettable. It’s truly incredible.” 

The ladies are clearly best friends both in and out of their racing rig.

Instead of traveling to the Sahara Desert this upcoming year, they’re planning on heading back on the road with the boys for XO season three. Keep an eye on the YouTube and website for updates.

You can find the ladies at:
X Elles

And remember, #youareloved.

Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft of Team X Elles. overlanding
Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft of Team X Elles. Photo by Megan Mohr Stoltzfus.

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