Over the last 7 years most of my overlanding has been travelling around the southeastern parts of the Arabian peninsula, where I’m based for most of the time – in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Many of these areas are mountainous and therefore many of my overnight halts have been in steep-sided rocky valleys, or “wadis” in Arabic. There are similar to the narrow valleys found in Morocco and the Atlas mountains, and this landscape is often the overlander’s first taste of wild camping in Africa – so I thought it worth sharing ideas about how to make a safe and comfortable camp in the mountain gorges of the Middle East and North Africa – a landscape which isn’t found in most of Europe.
Night falls fast in such places, and this takes some getting used to for us “northerners”. Because of Britain’s northern latitude we have a longer sunset period than Africa and Arabia – the further south you go, the faster it takes! Especially in these landscapes however, the jagged mountain skylines in wadis also cause a much earlier sunset (and later sunrise) than in flatter areas. Depth perception whilst driving is tough at dusk in an environment of grey-browns and so it’s a good idea to stop well before the early dusk and make camp, because it’s far too easy to damage suspension, undercarriage or running gear by clipping a rock or misjudging a river crossing. Watch tyres on sharp rock edges too. A recce on foot is never unwise. Talking of sharp rocks – the wind can really put an edge on some types of stone in these areas. I remember investigating a potential rock climb in the Atlas, and being discouraged by a big slash along my forearm.
Be careful where you stop. Many such valleys are affected by flash floods and seasonal heavy rains, and collect areas of thick silt which has been carried there by floodwater then dumped in one long stretch. If you stop your vehicle and camp on that silt, you’ll sink in overnight, and have a job getting out in the morning. Check your potential campsite on foot first. This silt can also collect on roads and make them treacherous to drive – the passes through the Atlas mountains are notorious for this.
Be aware too of local climate conditions. The snows that fall on the Moroccan Atlas each winter will thaw in the spring, and the resultant floodwaters will gush down valleys and cause dangerous flash floods. The same happens with rainstorms. Here in Arabia I’ve seen heavy 4x4s picked up by floodwaters and carried away like autumn leaves – with drivers still in them. Whilst talking weather, a little wind in camp is not a bad thing – it keeps the flies off. They can be infuriating.
Vegetation near camp can be handy – there is often a lot of deadfall wood that can be used for a campfire. Don’t cut wood from living trees – the poor things have a hard enough life without us hacking bits off them. Big piles of deadfall often have creatures living in them as well – so go easy. Scorpions and snakes can be quite aggressive if you come and poke at their homes. Be wary of parking under trees – acacia trees can be common in these areas, and their monster thorns can slice right through tyres, boots or (wince) bare feet. Snakes also like to roost under trees – they like the shade, and their camouflage can be uncannily good. For all these reasons, going barefoot in these landscapes, or even in sandals, is unwise.
If you camp near a canyon wall, make sure there’s no overhang nearby. Falling rocks can kill! Cracks in rock walls can house ants, as I found last month when a large and inquisitive column of soldier ants came trundling out, about half an hour after I’d set camp up.
Have an awareness of where the sun will rise – it will suddenly shine through your tent walls and could wake you. An airline eyemask can help prevent this. It’s also handy to think about where the sunrise and sunset will be if you fancy bagging some memorable photos!
Wildlife can be present in such places – I was woken last year at 3am by slow dragging footsteps and heavy breathing outside my roof tent, and opening the zip door I found myself staring into the eyes of three curious and amazed camels. Foxes and other small predators hunt amongst the valley walls and rockscapes – don’t be alarmed by scuffling noises and tip-tapping footsteps in the dark – and perhaps the odd small rockfall as predator and prey charge about in search of prolonged life. Scorpions do come out at night – if you have such a thing with you, an ultraviolet torch will make them fluoresce a vivid yellow-green! One memorable night in the Atlas mountains saw my camp invaded by enormous Darkling Beetles, about three inches long – who proceeded to excavate into my rubbish bags and make off with organic waste to eat. For this reason it’s a good idea not to spread kit out on the ground or rocks – you never know what small lodgers may crawl into it.
Rocky mountain wadis are a peaceful and beautiful place to make camp – don’t neglect them when you are next in Morocco!