Crushing Sand Dunes in a Rolls-Royce Cullinan on the 2019 Rebelle Rally
Why, yes, a Rolls can get its tires dirty—and then some.
Raphael sent me a text message to notify me that he'd just arrived at our El Segundo headquarters. He was the chauffeur who'd be transporting me to Palm Springs in a Rolls-Royce Phantom on the way to the 2019 Rebelle Rally, where I'd be driven around over massive sand dunes in a Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Yes, you read that correctly.
Getting into a Rolls-Royce requires a certain type of etiquette. After Raphael loaded my luggage, he opened its rear-hinged door and said: "Welcome, make yourself comfortable and get ready to enjoy the ride." As I soaked in the extravagance of the Phantom's rear seat, I shared with Raphael that I've never been in a Rolls-Royce before. He gave me a puzzled look through the rearview mirror and responded with: "Your seat has a massage function and you can adjust the climate with those controls on the door. If you push that other button, it will raise the floor mat to better accommodate your feet."
As a Rolls-Royce rookie, with a chauffeur at the wheel no less, I couldn't help but feel like I had been elevated from ordinary person to one of great influence. Up until now, the closest I'd ever been to a Rolls was when I took a tour of the spectacular Nethercutt Museum Collection.
Once we arrived in Palm Springs, I hopped into a Jeep Wrangler that transported me to the Algodones Dunes in Glamis, California, where the competitors of the 2019 Rebelle Rally would cross the finish line. In this majestic sea of sand dunes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the off-road capabilities of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan would be put to the test. Lucky for me, I had a reserved seat to watch it all go down.
The Rebelle Rally, celebrating its fourth anniversary, is an all-female off-road competition (the first such event in the U.S.) that covers 1,500 miles of desert terrain in the great American West. Starting in Nevada and ending in California, it's the longest off-road rally in the lower 48—an eight-plus-day marathon that runs from Lake Tahoe to San Diego. This year, 38 teams in pairs of two entered their vehicles in two classes: 4x4 and crossover. Most had some manner of off-road modifications, though nine teams set out in completely bone-stock vehicles. This was the first time a Cullinan participated in the event, and it was entered in the crossover class.
With ages ranging from 23 to 71, women traveled from six countries to participate in the 2019 Rebelle Rally, including Japan, South Africa, and Norway. Both less experienced and pro drivers alike are encouraged to enter, and teams must abide by the rulebook at all times. A scoring system determines your standing and there are first-, second-, and third-place trophies awarded in each vehicle class. (Other awards include Bone Stock, Rookie of the Year, International Cup, and Team Spirit.) With due respect paid to the environment, the course is traverses breathtaking landscapes and includes various hidden checkpoints that drivers must reach without the use of GPS technology. Unlike most other off-road competitions, navigational skills—not speed—are a key factor in determining the Rebelle Rally winner. The use of any technology such as GPS units or cell phones, or other outside assistance, is strictly prohibited during the competition.
Participants are tracked via a device attached to their vehicle and are given a handheld tracker to check in at every checkpoint. There are four basecamps and in case of any emergency or mechanical issues, there are safety, rescue, and mechanic teams on standby. The primary tools competitors use to navigate are a map, checkpoint guide, roadbook, compass, plotter, ruler, and calculator. One woman drives and the other navigates.
Founded by off-road maven Emily Miller, the Rebelle Rally was designed as an ultimate test of off-road driving skills. Teams earn points based on their ability to stay on route and on time by using a combination of precise navigation, roadbook reading, and timing (also known as Rebelle Enduro Challenge). Miller wanted to create an off-road rally for women only, where they could build confidence, test their driving skills, and increase navigation competence. It was also intended as a way to properly test the off-road capabilities of today's SUVs and crossovers. In fact, the Rebelle Rally's motto is: "The vehicle in your driveway is more capable than you know."
On the last day of Rebelle Rally, I took a seat in a white support Cullinan that would trail a blue Cullinan Rolls-Royce had confidently entered in the event, and which was dubbed "Eleanor." (I love the name if not the spelling.) Operated by Team 200, which consisted of Emme Hall (driver) and Rebecca Donaghe (navigator), I witnessed the blue Roller devour endless miles on the stunning Imperial Sand Dunes. You'd think a luxury vehicle of its provenance would keep to its high-society circles, but the Cullinan proved it wasn't afraid to wander off the neatly paved road.
The most astounding part of watching a Cullinan rip through the dunes is that the only modifications made to it were a custom skid plate and a tire rack fabricated by Mercenary Off Road. At one point, I watched as Hall and Donaghe dug their way out of trouble and came away impressed by their ability to work fast and remain focused. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, they disappeared into a massive cloud of dust and moved on to the next checkpoint. The duo spent more than 80 hours at the helm of the Cullinan and took first place in the crossover class.
I thought being picked up in a Phantom was a big deal, but riding in a Cullinan getting its feet dirty like a desert warrior blew that out of the sand. Riding over those massive dunes was unlike anything I've ever experienced, and it definitely provided a lot of food for thought about the true capabilities of SUVs—luxury or otherwise.
Additional Rebelle Rally photography by: Nicole Dreon, Paulo Baraldi, Richard Giordano, and Tim Calver