A trip to Morocco

Travellers are resuming trips to Morocco from mainland Europe and the UK. It might be worth sharing a tale of a similar trip I made a few years ago. This is NOT representative of Morocco trips generally!

            The Sahara is at the back of the mind of many 4×4 owners – the biggest, hottest desert in the world, populated by Tuareg, Bedouin and Berber, haunt of camel caravans, Pharoahs, sandstorms and quicksand; myths and legends about this massive wilderness are numerous. Of course, it’s in Africa, which makes access awkward, especially in these days of worries about Islamic states and safe travel. Rover owners in Britain have it easy – for us it’s “just down the road” – three days on the freeways of France and Spain will see you passing across the Mediterranean on a ferry and into North Africa – and thence into the dunes of the Sahara Desert.

Elsa on the Algeria/Morocco border

            It was a trip like this that I planned recently with Baz and Abbie, two friends who had always wanted to see the desert but couldn’t afford a commercial desert trip. I had a hankering to see some bits of the Sahara that I hadn’t seen for a while, we all had a four-week window in August, so we threw kit into the back of Elsa, my long-suffering 1991 Tdi 110, and off we went.

            Europe passed swiftly (if you can call it swift, rumbling along like a tectonic event in a fully-laden diesel Defender) and about four days later we pulled into the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar at the south end of Spain to take on tax-free fuel, before crossing into Africa. The local superstore on “Gib” is a branch of British grocery store Morrisons, and there is generally a handful of overland Land Rovers parked up there – if they are heading south to Africa, it’s the last chance to stock up on proper beer, decent cheese and food from home before blasting off into Africa, if, on the other hand, they’ve just come back from a trip south then the crews will be in the store salivating over anything that makes a worthwhile change from goat. Sure enough, we stocked up. Then – on.

            The ferry from neighbouring Spain to Morocco is fast and efficient, and we made landfall in Tangiers quickly. On clearing Customs at Tangiers docks we were confronted by a line of militiamen with thick moustaches and AK-74s. One of them beckoned us so I drove over to him and opened the window. His moustache, followed by the head, erupted into the cab. “Welcome in Tangiers!” he bellowed. “You have hashish, or automatic weapons??” Er…. no… nooo….. we shook our heads. “Would you like some?!” roared the head. Cue glassy, blank goggle stares and fixed grins – polite British apologies. I’m sorry, we do not want any drugs/firearms/carpets/your sister. We drove on.

            Morocco benefits these days from a network of fast freeways built by European Union money, and so we made good time driving south to the medieval town of Meknes, whose centre is coddled in huge mudbrick walls like something out of Star Wars. Staying overnight there, the road then took us south to Marrakesh, then through the rugged Atlas mountains.

Moroccan landscapes are always beautiful

            As you travel through the winding narrow mountain passes that slice through the Atlas range like knifecuts, you go by all sorts of oddities. Kasbahs, fortified old towns, perch like Game of Thrones film sets (actually one of them is a Game of Thrones film set) over narrow, dusty canyons. In one I paused and Abbie started snapping away pics of the lush green crop growing in the valley around us. Very quickly however local Berber tribesmen appeared and made threatening gestures at us and our cameras. Abbie looked solemn when I suggested we’d better move on – “Do they think the cameras will steal their souls?” asked Abbie. I paused, looking hard at the crops. “No. It’s marijuana. They think we’re cops”. Exit, stage left, in a cloud of dust.

            Ouazarzate was the next port of call, and on the way, in the nearby desert, a huge film studios with a life-size Egyptian temple built out of fiberglass, relic of some recent French blockbuster filmed out here. No ruin, this, but fully-painted and intact, as if the Pharoah had just nipped out for a beer. Predictable and rather surreal photos followed.

            Ouazarzate is the start of the desert, as the mountains and their greenery drop away and open up onto blasted, sun-beaten plains of gravel and rock. I was heading the Rover for Zagora, an oasis town in the Draa Valley where there was a good campsite that we could use to give the 25-year-old truck a quick once-over before heading out into the Sahara.

            Sure enough as evening fell I pulled into Camping Sindibad and we set up a roof tent and two ground tents, and got a fire going. Scotch made an appearance, as after a while did a British-registered Nissan Navara 4×4 pickup with a demountable camper body in the rear bed. We exchanged waves, and the couple inside piloted their Japanese steed to the other side of the (empty) site – such is the reserve of the Brits. Shortly afterwards I wandered over with half a mug of Scotch to say hello. Mike and Carole were on a trip to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary – they had met on an overland truck trip out this way a quarter of a century ago. They eyed the kitted-up Defender apprehensively, as she squatted purposefully under the palm trees opposite in a cloud of tents, jerrycans, campfire smoke and exciting big metal boxes. Were we, by any chance, going out into the desert? I answered in the affirmative. Yes, that’s the plan. Could they come along? I peered at the Navara. Reasonable clearance, decent engine and transmission, all-terrain tires – yeah why not?

            As you can imagine, the tempo of the conversation changed. I brought over two jerrycans of diesel and two of water as well as a spare set of sand ladders (desert recovery aids like Maxtrax) to lend to our new friends (and reassure the Nissan, which had started to gibber quietly to itself) and, the next morning, vehicle checks performed, off we went. Destination One was the Tuareg village of Tagounite, a little further south, where we would leave tarmac and head northeast along the ill-defined Moroccan-Algerian border and through a pretty and atmospheric two-to-three day drive through the open Sahara. On reaching Tagounite I gave the Nissan crew a quick briefing. It was August, the hottest time to travel through the Sahara, and temperatures were easily over 40 degrees for most of the day. I cautioned Mike and Carole – “Don’t use your air conditioning, it will dehydrate you. If you do use it, drink at least a pint every hour.” Sober agreement. The land was the anvil of the sun that day – it was brutally hot and dry, even now, early in the morning.

In the open desert (I love this pic)

            We rolled out. The going was initially very rocky. On the tarmac the Nissan had been the fastest vehicle, cruising along happily a good 10mph faster than the older, heavier Defender could manage, but once into the rough stuff the Defender reversed the roles, and set the pace and the course. Towing the Nissan out became a regular occurrence, although it was the first time in the sands for Mike and Carole, to be fair. Rocks fell away as the miles went on, and we skirted the edge of the Merzouga Sand Sea, a huge area of giant dunes. True to form, and even though we’d aired their tires down to 15psi, the Nissan kept sticking.

            After about four hours of this, I drew in. It was early afternoon, and the sun was at its highest; I trundled over to the Nissan to ask how they were doing. Alarm gripped me as Mike couldn’t speak clearly. Nor could Carole. Confused, Mike tried to get out of the truck, stumbled, and fell into my amazed grip. Dehydration. Bad, too. They had been running their aircon and not drinking, and this was the result. Bad heatstroke. I propped Mike in his seat and retrived a water bottle from Elsa; Mike swigged it down – promptly vomiting it back up. I added rehydrant salts, with the same result – back it came, only now pink and smelling of blackcurrant. Dehydration can kill. We had to get Mike’s core temperature down fast. Rigging a poncho as shelter between the Defender and the Nissan we got him into the shade and covered him with towels, pouring cold water from the Land Rover’s plumbed-in tanks over his head and chest to bring his temperature down, whilst urging him to sip small amounts of rehydrant. I had a drip set in the 110 but wasn’t ready to go to that stage yet….. three or four hours went by like this. Mercifully, after a while Mike started to retain fluids and his core temperature started to drop. 

            Thanking providence, we made preparation for bed. Though Carole had some symptoms of heatstroke she was able to keep dosing Mike with rehydrant throughout the night, so I shut down for the day. Sleep came easy that night.

            Except… in the small hours I woke. What’s that? Traffic noise, go to sleep, said my subconscious. Traffic noise? A hundred miles out into the Sahara? I woke with a jerk and slid out of the roof tent. Two SUVs; Pajeros or Discoveries my binoculars told me, and a large truck. All with no lights. All heading our way. At 2am? What was this? Night vision gear? They would likely drive straight into us. I called out in a low voice – Baz had heard it too and came out to join me. Fast thinking – we were hard up against the porous Algerian border – haunt of fundamentalists and gunrunners. If they were bad guys, and we put lights on, they would stop and maybe move away. If they were good guys, and we put lights on, they would stop and figure out what to do. Answer – put lights on.

            I snapped the lights of the Defender on. Consternation. The 2 SUVs and the truck slammed brakes on. Watching through binoculars I could see upwards of half a dozen guys spill out, and with them the unmistakeable shape of Kalashnikov-family rifles. Great. What was this we had stumbled into? I made hasty plans with Baz. If they come on, wake Mike and Carole, get everyone in the Defender and we go like hell.

            Lots of shouting by the other vehicles. Running about. I continued to watch. After a while the rushing about and yelling died down. The trucks started up again, made a ninety-degree turn right and carried on, heading straight for the Algerian border about 2 miles away. Long outlet of held breath. Who were they? Were they really going? They were heading for the supposedly-closed Algerian border so obviously ……

            Time passed. After about 20 minutes I carefully headed for where the truck and SUVs had been, for a sniff about. Nothing. Lots of footprints, but nothing. What had we avoided? Had we avoided it?

            It seemed so. The mystery vehicles had boxed round our position and headed into the unknown and off-limits of Algeria. Sighs of relief. I eventually bedded down again in the roof tent and oblivion came.

            Next morning a change of plan – I re-routed us to the small Tuareg village of Tafraoute, a little off-route, where we got breakfast and welcome rehydration at the Auberge Sidi Ali. In faltering Arabic I explained our situation of the night before – they are men with beards, explained our hosts. Men with bad Islam. Not like our Islam! They take guns to Algeria – and use them too! But your cars are blue and white – they think you are police! We exchanged looks. Fundamentalists and gun-runners. Thank god for a white Land Rover and a blue Nissan…….

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