Morocco at the millennium – travels 22 years ago

As an ‘exotic’ destination, Morocco is perhaps the most reachable by 4×4 from the UK. Three or four day’s drive across Europe brings you to the southern Spanish ports, a quick hop across the Med and you are in Africa, and the Sahara looms.

            I’ve been lucky enough to have the time to explore the Sahara quite a bit and on this particular occasion, in July of 2000, I was headed to Morocco with the idea of checking out a few new places and at the same time getting away from the concrete jungle. Two mates fancied hopping on for the ride and so off we trundled, in my travelworn Defender 110, heading southbound for North Africa.

            I collected Mick and Sarah from their homes, we caught the late ferry to Calais and headed south across Europe, making southern Spain in good time, then we caught the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers.

            Barging and shouting ensued after landfall, at Customs. There is always a certain amount of playacting in Arab lands; in some ways it feels like walking in as a bit-part in the Muppet Show. At any rate we cleared Customs and Mick and Sarah were somewhat taken aback when a Kalashnikov-toting Moroccan guard thrust his head through the open Landy window and demanded “You have automatic weapons!?”. On our answer being in the negative, he grinned broadly and exclaimed “Do you want some?!”. Ah, Morocco……

             Tangiers was a change to get some local currency and then we headed on, into central Morocco. The idea was to stop in at a friendly market town in central Morocco, then crack on through the majestic Atlas ranges, through the Martian landscape of the Todra Gorge and then out into the desert. Mick and Sarah had never seen the Sahara before so I wanted to hook north to the Merzouga Sand Sea and the great dunes of Erg Chebbi before turning fully south and seeing where we ended up.

            The campsite in the market town of Meknes was a way station for overlanders of all kinds (sadly closed now) and we exchanged waves and grins with several VW-loads of Aussies. We rolled to the back of the campsite and saw a UK-registered Nissan Navara 4×4 crewcab camper, whose occupants waved enthusiastically and beckoned us over.

            We hopped out and as tea inevitably brewed up, we chatted about what we were doing in Morocco. The subject turned to the Land Rover, and our intention to head into the desert. Geoff and Ingrid, in the Nissan, asked if they could come along.

I eyed the newish Nissan. Geoff had never driven it offroad, but equally the route I had in mind wasn’t taxing. It had a tanking great turbodiesel engine, decent Goodrich tyres and had just had a service, so mechanically it should be ok. The run from Zagora to Merzouga is about 200 miles offroad, over good terrain, so that seemed a good way for Geoff to get his offroad wings. At Merzouga we could spend a few nights out in the dunes, and then our ways could part, or they could come south with us, depending on how they felt.

The Nissan had less axle travel than the Land Rover, but had more horsepower and was carrying less of a load; set against this was the heavy camper-body Geoff had attached to the back. It would be interesting to watch it out in the desert, and should the worst come to the worst, the Landy had enough recovery kit to deal with the Titanic, so no worries there.

So off we went. The first waypoint would be the Todra Gorge, one of the few passes through the Atlas mountains passable by vehicles. A dry river bed, Todra had been used for many years as a passage between the fertile north of the country and the desert south.

The problem was the roads in the area had been washed away during the recent winter, and so our map was useless. All we could do was tell the GPS the coordinates of where we wanted to be and then wing it. As we moved south we used riverbeds as roadways, though we took it slowly as the Nissan was finding the going hard. After two hours of driving over rocks and negotiating washouts, Mick noticed tarmac appearing on the riverbank. We nosed the two wagons back onto the road and paused to check them over. The Nissan had coped remarkably well and, despite a few dings, was up for the next round.

The entrance to the Todra region is marked by a series of small Berber villages and it was one of these that greeted us as night started to fall. We passed through one, with friendly waves, and followed a thin track beyond into the hills.

After a while night fell and we plodded on. The track had vanished and we followed the rocky river bed as it snaked into the mountains. After a while, all that was visible outside the cone of headlights was two towering valley walls that stood over us, and they vanished after in time as darkness fell completely. An hour or so after the village we pulled into a wide clearing and we pulled the trucks in onto a ledge of high ground and made camp.

The night sky was stunning, diamonds scattered carelessly across black velvet, and at times we all left the circle of firelight and wandered up the valley walls to just stare…..

Morning came, and with it an invasion of giant black beetles, seemingly from the Dr Who props store. These great articulated monsters, easily four inches long, marched into camp at first light and set about tearing open our rubbish bags and eating the contents. The Darkling Beetles of the High Atlas are formidable creatures and we watched them in amazement as they trundled round, ripping open plastic food bags with their huge mandibles.

With regret we left the peace of Camp Beetle and drove on, up the valley, following a faint donkey track.

The trail became interesting, with a real absence of any car tracks and some challenging ground to cope with, especially for the Nissan, which fought on gamely. Several times the Land Rover had to recce ahead and find the path of least resistance for the Japanese truck, luckily after a while the course of the riverbed turned down and alongside the appearance of a cultivated area in the valley floor, a definite vehicle track appeared. On closer scrutiny it turned out that the crop in the valley was marijuana, but none of the figures out in the fields seemed to mind our presence as the day wore on, so we pressed on into what became the spectacular, canyon-walled Todra Gorge.

Todra is stunning, like a Star Wars set; vast, perpendicular red rock walls looming over the tiny riverbed below, which doubles as a roadway. At times small settlements dot its length, sometimes fortified kasbahs, sometimes cave dwellings in the hillside from the time when the area was rife with bandits. Once or twice we met another vehicle; battered, seemingly-immortal Bedford 4×4 trucks, used by the Berber to haul everything from their dope crop to chickens and entire families, hanging on the top of swaying loads like monkeys.

We passed on through Todra and on the other side of the High Atlas we found tarmac again, a road which led us to the oasis of Zagora, where we took on fresh food and water in a sandstorm, and then headed for our overnight halt in the village of Tagounite.

And so, to the desert. Early the next day, having sorted a route out, set the GPS up and marked the maps, we set out south and east, at times popping over the border into Algeria, though mainly staying on the Moroccan side. Geoff’s Nissan had air-conditioning and I noticed at one of our halts that he had it turned full up to keep the cab cool. Fair enough, but aircon dehydrates the air it cools, dumping the excess moisture outside the wagon as a water drip. Not a wise idea in the desert. I counselled him to turn the aircon off and for Ingrid and himself to keep drinking water, little and often, and ride with the windows down, as we did in the low-tech Landy. The air was leaden, with temperatures in the high forties, and the moisture is sucked from your body like a sponge being squeezed in these conditions. It is vital to keep fluid intake up or death can ensue.

The wagons trundled on, making an average of 30mph across mixed terrain. Much of the desert in that area is firm going; gravelly plains striped by belts of low sand dunes which can be negotiated easily. Travel in remote areas has to be characterised by gentle progress, treating your wagon as if it was made of glass; wild, hell-for-leather progress breaks cars, and walking out of the desert in summertime afterwards breaks the people who drive them.

At times the Nissan would bog in the dune country and we’d break out the spades and sand ladders, or on one occasion the winch, to get Geoff out. On tarmac the new Nissan easily had the legs over the Land Rover, but out in the wilds the older machine came into its own, scudding lightly over the sand where the Nissan wallowed and fought. Nonetheless the Japanese pickup coped well and always got back on track without much effort. Geoff was learning fast about handling his steed, but grew a little more erratic as the day drew on. We paused for a break in the heat of noon and had a brew-up in the shade of the wagons, and I noticed he seemed tired. Ingrid didn’t get out of the car but she was perky enough. I passed them another big water container (we were all getting through it quickly) and we carried on.

Sometime in the early afternoon the Nissan bogged again, but this time Geoff didn’t get out. When I went over to natter to him his words were slurred and unclear. Heatstroke. Pretty bad too. As it turned out, he couldn’t stand either. The aircon was blasting away in the cab and that was the culprit. We had no option to make camp and get some fluids down his neck – and Ingrid’s too, though she didn’t seem as bad.

What was worse was the rehydration solution we gave Geoff came straight back up. When someone vomits fluid that badly, their internal thermostat is badly off-scale. We had a real medical situation; if the fluid loss continued, Geoff would die, before the night came.

Sarah and Mick rigged a shade between the wagons and got two water jerrycans from the Land Rover. Geoff needed to be cooled down externally so that we could start getting fluids into him internally. We got all the ice packs and chilled food from the vehicle fridges and covered his torso and head with them, as well as laying a towel over him and pouring water over it and letting it evaporate. I had a dripset in the medical stores in the Land Rover but wasn’t keen on administering it at the moment; however it might yet come to that.

We kept up the cooling operations for over three hours, at the same time feeding Geoff tiny amounts of rehydrate, most of which came straight back up. Slowly however, mercifully, his core temperature started to lower and the vomiting lessened. He started to retain more and more of the rehydrant solution. As evening came and the temperature fell, Geoff was able to talk again, and to sip from a mug without help. We knew we’d cracked it, but needed to carry on the treatment overnight and then get back to civilisation the next day. Ingrid was by now back to normal, evidently she’d heeded warnings and been drinking water during the morning drive, so she was fine with the idea of keeping rehydrant solution on hand to feed Geoff throughout the night. We made up a huge batch and then made some tea for the rest of us to eat. Tired out, I cracked a hipflask of Islay whisky and went for a wander into the desert. Since then I have hated air conditioning in cars!

Eventually we bedded down, in the two wagons and a tent, and got some well-earned rest. Though remote, we were smack up against the Algerian border, and at the time the civil war over there was getting awkward again, so it wasn’t the best place to camp. I was just nodding off at about 11pm when a noise woke me. Its nothing, said my subconscious. Just traffic. I came awake very fast. Traffic noise in the middle of the desert? I got up and dug out some binoculars. The night was moonless and quite dark but I was just able, after some searching, to make out the shape of a large truck heading straight for us, quite fast. It had no lights on, which struck me as odd.

Close behind it came two small 4x4s, either Shoguns or Discoveries from their outline. Again. No lights, again, moving fast.

I called to Mick in a low voice. He had heard it too and was awake. He joined me outside and looked at the oncoming vehicles. They were moving directly towards us. What should we do? Ideally put our lights on to avoid a collision. OK but what if they were connected with the civil war? I knew this area was the haunt of gunrunners and smugglers, and Algerians have a nasty habit of abducting tourists. If they were undesirables, would they avoid us, or come on with the hope of getting us out of the way? Either way, putting the wagon lights on whilst they were still half a mile distant would provoke a reaction. There would still be time to get everyone into the Landy and go like hell. Hoping my logic was watertight, on went the lights.

Instant consternation. The truck slammed the brakes on, and across the still night air came sounds of yelling. The two 4x4s had stopped too, but then came the sound of an engine, as one of the cars started moving quietly and slowly. The binoculars showed men running around, carrying the distinctive silhouette of Kalashnikov assault rifles. Shit shit. Time to go. I turned the Landy lights out again, and woke Sarah. The two stowed their tent, quickly, and moved to wake Geoff. Not yet, I cautioned, not until we know more. The more rest he gets, the better.

At that moment the truck engine started again, and as we watched, the wagon turned ninety degrees and headed sharply south, followed by the two attendant 4x4s. We watched, passing the binoculars between us, by now all three standing on the roof of the Land Rover. The vehicles went out of sight, moving round a low ridge. We watched, still, tense, wondering what was going on. The boom of the vehicle exhausts grew quieter and the sounds faded. What had we just avoided? Had we avoided it? Was anyone heading for us on foot?

An hour passed. A band of rifle-waving fundamentalists resolutely failed to materialise from the dark desert air. After a while, Mick and Sarah went to bed, in the Landy this time, and I stayed awake, keeping an eye open. Nothing. Nothing at all…. but we hadn’t dreamed about the rifles.

At daybreak we found Geoff much more his usual self. He had improved still more in the night (during which time neither he nor Ingrid had heard anything) and was able to drive, albeit slowly. A relief, this, as neither Mick nor Sarah nor Ingrid could drive the Nissan. We had a session with a map and decided to head north out of the desert and get Geoff some rest and food away from the relentless heat.

A morning’s drive brought us to a tiny Berber village, mud huts in the middle of a baking plain, and we dined in the village store-cum-inn on mint tea and omelette as, in pidgin Arabic and French, we discussed what had happened the night before with the locals. A knowing look passed round the room. They are bad men with bad Islam, they said. Men with big beards and bad Islam. Not like our Islam. They sell guns, and use them too. The lads pointed at our wagons. Your cars are white, and blue – look! They would have seen you and thought you were border police – so they ran away!

A wave of realisation flooded through us. Jesus – fundamentalists and gun-runners. And it had to be the night when Geoff was down with heatstroke. By a mixture of luck and judgement we’d got through without mishap. This reinforced the notion that Geoff’s recovery would be speeded by an hotel with a large bar. We had a conflab with the local guys again, and determined that a tarmac road lay about a sixty miles north, and after a while that would bring us to the border town of Erfoud, a great place I knew well, and one that has a good watering-hole with decent beer.

So north we turned, treading gently and letting Geoff continue his recovery. As the day wore on, acacia trees appeared, signs that we were drawing clear of the desert proper. Acacias are lovely trees but some types have lethal two-inch thorns that can slice deep into 4×4 tyres, so we gave them a wide berth. As night fell we hit a narrow, single track of tarmac, and I paused just short. Tarmac? Is that what we want? Wouldn’t it be better to swing the Landy round and get back to the Sahara? Rationality bit me hard then and I remembered Geoff and the need of the group to come to terms with the previous 36 hours. We drove onto the tarmac and stopped, after a bit, at a roadside shack selling something luridly coloured, sugar-rich and fizzy, and guzzled it down like pigs. We were fifty miles from Erfoud and beer, and a pause to take stock and refuel the trucks. I think it hit us then, and on a sugar high we all started talking at once, laughing, hugging and retelling the story. Life seemed to be rich and full of potential and we felt like real adventurers, somehow blooded by our crazy two days.

Tolkien said, in his ‘Lord of the Rings’, that all roads are really one Road, all connected, and that once you step out onto that Road, anything could happen, you could be swept out and away to all kinds of improbable events and adventures. I suppose that’s why we drive 4x4s, to hope that one day we find our feet on the Road. I can highly recommend it.

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