Morocco is beautiful. It’s split between four distinct landscapes – the Mediterranean north – undulating growing land punctuated by crops of various types, ancient towns and small farming villages, the mountainous centre – predominantly Berber rather than Arab with a sprawling mass of mountain ranges, the eastern coast – scattered with fortified Portuguese settlements, and the Tuareg, desert south, whose border merges with that of Algeria in a semi-lawless wilderness. The people are a varied mixture of ethnicities from the passages and tides of history, and this means a huge range of art, architecture, food and cultures. I visited it this summer for the sixth time, the first time in Tusker, my Discovery.
I travelled with Stu Pickering, a good mate from home who’s always wanted to go to Morocco but hasn’t had the opportunity. We drove down through France and Spain, using aires to camp in both countries, paused at Gibraltar and then took the ferry across to Tangiers.
The new port (well, it was new in 2010 last time I was there), Port Tanger Med, is very straightforward to access and reasonably slick and I passed through without incident. Then we headed for Chefchaoen, the famous Blue Town high in the hills over towards the Rif Mountains. It has a great campsite for overlanders and several really cool restaurants around a central square. The medina is predominantly blue, a historical tradition, and the whole town has a genial and easygoing ambience which is very appealing. Its one of those places I could live in quite happily!
From ‘Chaoen we headed south to Meknes, a town I have loved for a long time. It has majestic mudbrick walls that are straight out of Star Wars – but the main point was a meal at Le Collier de la Colombe, a great restaurant in the old town, with a cool rooftop terrace and really tasty local harira soup. I parked the Disco inside the famous Bab Mansour city gate and we trundled to the restaurant via the bazaars. The trouble was, in the intervening eight years, they’d branched out. What used to be the rooftop terrace was now accommodation, and the new terrace had a pretty poor view lower down. The beer wasn’t local Casablanca any more, but San Miguel euro-fizz that you can get anywhere. The final blow was the harira soup was now only a winter menu option, so they weren’t serving it. Arse 😦
However the meal was pleasant enough and we then headed up to Moulay Idriss and to a campsite I’d first used in 2000 – Camping Zerhoune. Morocco used to be a lot more liberal than it is now, and they too had a roof terrace from which you could watch the sunset with a beer. Those days are sadly gone – the place is plonk-free now, and the terrace is pretty derelict. However it remains hugely friendly and welcoming, and it was good to see the guys again. The following morning we visited the Roman ruins at Volubilis – apparently the most westerly town of the Roman Empire.
Then the road took us south, to Azrou, fuelling up before heading up in to the Middle Atlas mountains, draped with forests which were full of Barbary apes. There’s a lake there which I love, and that was our intended overnight camp.
We befriended several feral dogs, who semi-lived with the shepherd community who inhabit the huts nearby. They were friendly although a little wary, but good company. However in the night a squabble between them over who was our official watchdog became noisy!
From the Middle Atlas we swung west, for ancient, storied Marrakech. After a few hours on the road we pulled in at Le Relais De Marrakech, a travellers’ campsite and restaurant which I have used several times. It was under new management and gave its usual friendly welcome.
Marrakech soukh drew us in, for food and also for ambling round the craziness for souvenirs!
After Marrakech we headed south to cross the High Atlas at the Tizi N Tichka Pass, at around 7000 feet. Along the way we stopped off at various Berber roadside traders who found fossils in the hills – I have a thing for fossils 🙂
Then it was south to the desert, via a stop off at Ait Benhaddou, recently seen in Game of Thrones and Gladiator
We stayed at Defat Kasbah, a place I use regularly when I’m in the area. It’s friendly and welcoming (do you sense a theme about Moroccan hospitality?) but, like so many places, is suffering from a simple lack of trade – it seems travellers are staying away because of a worry about militant Islam – probably more of a risk in Lancashire than Morocco, and even then not worth worrying about (before anyone gets stroppy, I love Lancashire!). It was good to be back at Defat Kasbah and I hugely recommend them.
From here it was south to the desert…..
Taking on fuel in the oasis of Ouazarzate, a local Afriquiya brand, we rolled south. It was then that trouble started. After an hour or so Tusker the Discovery started to cough when under power. Whether overtaking, accelerating hard or pushing uphill, she objected. Something wasn’t right. It takes a lot to make a 300 Tdi object to bad fuel – they’ll run on pretty much anything, so I pulled in to look. Air filter was clear. So was the intake. Fuel pump seemed ok, fuel came jetting out of the injectors when I checked, but draining the fuel filter into a clear plastic bottle I could see the problem – particulates. Clumps of them, like tealeaves. So I cleaned the filter out. This helped for a while but soon it clogged again. So, new filter. Again, this helped, but after a while it clogged again, and the problem seemed to be getting worse.
So a dilemma. We were a single vehicle. The plan ahead was a 150 mile desert traverse through open landscape between oasis villages – a route I know well and have driven before, again as a single Land Rover. However this time we had a judgement call to make – if the fuel problem cleared up, it would be fine. However if the problem grew worse and the engine in fact stopped, we could potentially be stranded, a hundred miles out into the open desert. The solution was annoying, but obvious. Miss out the desert phase of the trip and stay in reasonably populated areas. Play safe. Bugger.
So we reluctantly turned back north, and headed back over the Atlas range.
Tusker ran reasonably well, coughing periodically, but over time this cleared up. So we’d have been ok with the desert after all…… but it had been a tough call to make. Supposing it had gone the other way?!
At any rate after calling into Marrakech to try and find spare fuel filters we then headed for the western coast, and the seaport of Essaouria. Recently seen on TV in Game of Thrones as the location for Astapor, this was originally built as a fortified town by the Portuguese. Again, a favourite haunt of mine, and again, chilled, laid back and welcoming.
Sadly after a day or so we needed to keep moving – Stu only had a few more days off work before he flew home, so there was an imperative of time hanging over us all the trip. Stopping off at Safi on the way back we made our way back to Marrakech and the airport…. and then he hit the airways, and I turned the Discovery north.
Back through Spain and France……. and back to Blighty