Rally racers blaze fresh B.C. trail across Moroccan desert’s ‘treacherous’ terrain

A Nanaimo woman and her best friend from Penticton are the first BC team to drive the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — a nine-day, 2,500-kilometer rally through the Moroccan desert.

Vancouver Islander Myra Van Otterloo and Okanagan Schools Deputy Principal Jessa Arcuri, who piloted the fire helicopter, had to wait three years to meet the challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 event. In 2021 and 2022, the Moroccan government’s ongoing pandemic restrictions prevented North Americans from competing.

But the delay is a blessing, Van Otterloo said, because in 2022 her navigator, Arcuri, will need time to recover from that year’s crash.

“This year they finally opened it up to North Americans, and I said yes, we’re doing it, let’s get it done,” Van Otterloo said.

The delay also landed them in the preferred race category.

“We were 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 are very happy about that,” she said.

The pair leased a 2015 Toyota Hilux, which they named the Olli, with the True North Rally Cats team, and the car proved reliable on the rally’s grueling course without breaking down, not even a flat tire . Women did have to buy a new front bumper for it at the end of the race, though.

“Honestly, it became the No. 3 team,” Van Otterloo said.

To schedule around Ramadan, this year’s event kicked off on March 8, International Women’s Day, Van Otterloo said, with entries in the off-road 4×4, SUV, EV, 4WD and ATV categories.

The off-road 4×4 category attracted 192 teams, with True North Rally Cats finishing 11th and seventh in the Novice category.

A few years ago, the Van Otterloo Rally took place on ice in Sweden, but Morocco proved to be an entirely different challenge.

“We started from a small town called Ersoud and walked 2,500 kilometers in nine days, never knowing where the next stop was,” she said. “It’s always given to us the next morning … We have about 11 checkpoints a day and we have to get through by a certain time and also within the shortest kilometer distance.”

The team spent most of the night at prepared campsites along the way, but also camped without support for two nights, fending for themselves on courses through sand dunes, mountains, grasslands and oceans of rocky terrain. Top speeds barely exceed 20km/h on some sections, but there is an 8km section where speeds must be kept above 80km/h to keep trucks afloat in the deep dust.

“Vehicles on the dunes flipped or rolled over,” she said. “On our first dune day, four cars were overturned and immediately disqualified…It was completely new to me. I had a crash course in the dunes two days before the race.”

The training taught the women how to maintain momentum in the sand and how to dig themselves out when stuck in the mud, and it took place three times.

Van Otterloo said it was difficult to pinpoint the hardest part of the course.

“Everything was tough. It was a very tough and dangerous course,” she said. “You could get a flat tire, roll over, or get stuck in a river bed. We set out at five in the morning and were lucky to get to the campsite by eight or nine at night. Then you eat, you go to sleep, and you Start again.”

The team was mentally and emotionally broken by the speed and conditions, but the Rally Cats had a 26-year friendship.

“We never had any problems other than we had a good laugh. Like everyone else, we had our highs and lows, but we never fell apart. Together, we’re a very strong team…” Van Otterloo said. “I think Jessa and I were a little naive and maybe that was an advantage for us because everything was new to us and we learned as we went…but it was a lot more than I expected.”

They are also one of two teams that do not speak French. There was a translator, other teams stepped in and helped, but when they figured things out on their own, they “just improvised” whatever they didn’t understand. At one point, a language barrier nearly got them caught up in a Moroccan military exercise, which they later discovered they had avoided for only 20 minutes.

Other teams ended up calling True North Rally Cats, a Parksville-based company that refurbishes helicopter engines, by the name of its sponsor Rotormax, as it displays on the hoods of their trucks.

“It seemed to resonate with everyone because they kept calling us Rotormax,” Van Otterloo said.

Asked if she would rally again, Van Otterloo said: “Gee, yes,” but added that she and Arcuri were already looking for more sponsors for the Dakar Rally cross-country enduro race through Saudi Arabia .

[email protected]
like us Facebook and follow us Twitter

Racing Cars Outdoor and Recreation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *