We left the motorway at Meknes and heading south passing through the fairly unremarkable towns of Azrou, Midelt and Ar Rachida, all the time keeping an eye on the mad antics of local drivers. Moroccans it has to be said are crap drivers, they are very fatalistic with their approach to driving, tail gating, overtaking on blind corners , driving at night without lights and general other crap behaviour is excused as Allah is looking after them, “Inshallah” (god willing) they will complete their journey intact. Of course any notion of monotheistic based welfare is abandoned the moment there is an accident in which case the other person is
to blame, always. We witnessed the aftermath of a number of accidents and they all seemed to follow a similar pattern where a mob of chest beating morons develop out of nowhere, all pushing and screaming abuse at who they perceive to be the party at fault despite having not actually witnessed the accident themselves. It reminded me all of the school playground whenever an argument broke out and a circle of kids would form chanting ‘fight, fight, fight’ at the would be belligerents. The police often take hours to arrive on
the scene and more often than not blame is resolved (rightly or wrongly) way before they take control of things.
It was a long day and the green agricultural lands of north slowly morphed into the dusty brown arid lands of the south. The temperatures slowly started to rise as well which was in stark contrast to the snow peaked mountains of Atlas that filled the horizon on the right. We only really stopped for fuel and to see some forest monkeys in the highlands outside of Azrou as we were determined to make as much headway as possible. Passing through the mighty Gorge du Ziz we knew we had entered the desert properly, the only vegetation was the palm groves clinging onto the banks of the Ziz River, everything else was baked earth. We finished the day at the small town of Goulmima that had a well run campsite. We popped out for a coffee and Gill was again met with the gaze of a thousand sets of eyes as she was quite literally the women visible in the street. Up early the next day we pushed on south to the town of Tazzarine, our last
stop for fuel before we would enter the desert properly. Another few kilometres we reached the oasis village of Tarhbalt, children ran up to the car looking for treats and adults stopped working in the padi fields to stare. We left the tarmac road and plunged onto a single file dirt track that hugged the river bank, this snaked along for several kilometres as it threaded its way between palms, small padi fields and crumbling crimson coloured Kasbah forts. Eventually we had to cross the oued and we carefully negotiated the track that descended further into the dry river bed. The oued was about 200m across and you feel a bit vulnerable crossing it as you hear stories of storm floods tearing down from the mountains and turning dry lifeless rivers into raging torrents in minutes. We were lucky though as Tyrone threw up a cloud of dust in his wake as we powered up the steep incline to get us out of the oued on the opposite bank and back onto the track that would lead us out to the desert. Leaving the village behind us the vast expanse of the Kheb Azouggouarh opened up in front
Trying to find a way through the dunes
, a sense of nervous excitement enveloped us as we realised we were starting on a 170 km drive across essentially empty land. Thankfully we had the GPS that allowed us to plug in co-ordinates from previous expeditions thus providing some reliable way to path finding. Occasionally the rough potholed gravel track would be replaced by the billiard table smooth mud flats of a dried lake bed. This would be a joy to drive on and even allowed us to get out of second gear for a few kilometres before invariably we would be brought to a grindingly slow speed as we were forced back onto a rough track. The temperatures soared to over 45 degrees and despite constantly taking on water the heat really started to sap the energy from us. We pushed on through a landscape that at times looked like Monument Valley and at other times the Australian outback. Our first obstacle though was when we had to bulldoze our way through a mini dune field, they were not big, 10ft or so, but big enough and soft enough to get stuck in, we had been warned about this but still felt completely unprepared for it.
The loose track we were following had been completely swallowed by the sand and it was a case of navigating a route on an easterly bearing and hoping that we would emerge on the other side. We got out the truck and trekked ahead on foot to see if we could find a suitable course but there was nothing obvious so we decided to take a ‘route one’ approach. There is a definite knack to driving in soft sand, you have to keep the momentum going, even changing gear and that split second loss of power would be enough to stop you dead in your tracks and you might struggle to get going again, so you had to keep the gears low and the revs high. We turned Tyrone around and took a bit of a ‘run up’ and hit the first ramp of sand and with a whine of the engine forced ourselves over the top before trying to build up lost momentum on the lee side of the dune. We continued this pattern for next few kilometres, taking a few seconds to look ahead at the summit of each dune to try and find the least problematic route
ahead while constantly in fear of getting bogged down in the sand or rolling the vehicle. After being thrown about and lurching at very uncomfortable angles we were finally spat out of the back of the dune field and back onto hard ground. We had to tread carefully as the GPS told us we had skirted very close to the border of Algeria so we meandered our way safely back into Moroccan territory. It was late in the day and we decided to find somewhere to camp, our first bit of ‘wild camping’ on our trip. We found a nice perch on a small hill off the track that afforded a grand view to watch the sunset. We thrashed out a nice meal, poured a few glasses of cold rose and set ourselves down for the grand finale sunset that we had ringside seats for. Even better than the sunset was the night sky that followed, the canopy of stars and the Milky Way on show was amazing.
We woke early the next day keen to complete our journey, we only had about 50 kilometres before we reached civilisation again and we were keen to see
the Erg Chebbi dune field that would be our finishing line. We set off and before long we saw a Berber desert Auberge and decided to treat ourselves to a traditional Berber breakfast. It was at this point that our genial host noticed that the rear of Tyrone’s exhaust was about to disconnect itself from the chassis, the previous days efforts had taken their toll. We had no choice but to keep going and after another few hours crossing the rocky Oued de Ziz we finally made our way back onto a sealed road in the sleepy village of Taouz, up ahead you could see the golden sands of the Erg Chebbi, its dunes soaring up to 400m high and utterly dwarfing anything we had tackled the previous day. The chances are you have probably seen these dunes at the cinema as they have been used as a backdrop to films like the English Patient and…erm….The Mummy. It was bliss to be back on sealed road and using 4th
gear seemed like a novelty. We found a great campsite in the sandy town of Merzouga where we were able to wash the dust from the previous few days away. We
also found ourselves parked next to a lovely English couple who had travelled all the way to Southeast Morocco in their motorhome. Steve made a friend for life when he strolled over to over me and offered an ice can cold of beer, in the 40 plus degree temperatures it was nectar. We repaid the hospitality by offering his wife Mary some of our never ending stash of rose.
We made our way from Merzouga, through Rissani and Erfoud before heading west to the Todra Gorge which was essentially a canyon with impossibly high cliffs that had been carved out by the crystal clear river below. It was a majestic sight, and busy too, it was the weekend so all the locals had made the trip to the Gorge to bathe in the river and take in the surroundings. We stayed the night then passed through the gorge and followed the river up the valley to the small village of Agoudal where we planned to cut across the Atlas Mountains and descend into the neighbouring Dades Valley. We had been advised the children in the Agoudal can be a bit ‘cheeky’ insofar as asking for sweets and
the like and sure enough the kids on seeing us approaching swarmed around the vehicle demanding pens and cigarettes or a ‘cadeaux’ (literally ‘gift’). One enterprising young lad decided to lie in the road in a bid to prevent us from moving forward but he soon changed his mind when we refused to stop. Waving and a few smiles clearly did not placate them and insults and abuse soon followed when we refused to give in to their demands. It’s one of the ethical problems we knew we would have to deal with sooner or later in Africa, do you give them ‘stuff’ which only reinforces expectations from subsequent visitors or push on through. By this stage despite only been kids they were far from being cheeky and by now were just being abusive little shits, especially towards Gill. Throughout the rest of Morocco kids were happy to have their waves returned or to high five you as we slowly drove past but this particular remote village had a different approach that did not really invite generosity.
We ploughed on up the valley, as we got higher the temperatures cooled and it was quite pleasant as passed
Night kitchens in the central square
green lush meadows and small orchards. Even up here you could see the young shepherds tearing across the valley upon seeing us screaming and signalling at us for cigarettes. We ignored them. We successfully traversed over the mountain crest leaving the Todra Gorge behind us and started our decent into the Dades Valley which resembled a mini Grand Canyon with its imposing cliffs. The trail snaked its way down the valley until eventually a few hours later we hit the valley floor and forded the Dades River. It was then a bit of a race against the clock as we tried to get to a campsite before sunset. It was actually the best time to see the valley, the rich red colours of the rocks that almost glowed in the late afternoon sun and the myriad of ancient Kasbah forts nestled amongst the palms created an atmosphere of tranquillity. We succeeded in finding somewhere to doss and we even treated ourselves to a lovely tagine meal before settling down for the night.
The next day we started eagerly making our way towards Marrakesh via the provisional town of Ouarzazate where we indulged ourselves at a bolongerie with
cakes and pastries then on to our second stop of Ait Benhaddou which was a former 'fortified city', or ksar
, along the former caravan
route between the Sahara
. This was another off the shelf film set location that has featured in dozens of local and Hollywood blockbusters such as Lawrence of Arabia, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the seminal classic Legionnaire with Jean Claude Vann Damme. Although visually impressive with its ancient red mud brick houses and towering defensive walls the town has pretty much handed itself over wholesale to tourism with every shop now selling various hand crafts, rugs and postcards and even DVDs of the films that had been made there. It was a popular place evidenced by coach loads of tourists unloading and cramming themselves into the narrow streets. If you did indeed live here having hair braided, bead sporting, Afghan trouser wearing henna tattoo adorned travel clichés sauntering past your front door on a daily basis would drive you mad. We only hung around for about 40 mins before making our way across the hair raising hairpin roads of the Atlas Mountains and into the hot dusty plains of Marrakesh. We stayed in one of
the more plush campsites that had a pool and nice clean facilities but the temperatures began to soar and the shade free campsite became unbearable in the 44 degree heat. We cut and run without even seeing the centre of Marrakesh and made a beeline to the cool coastal town of Essaouira, a former Portuguese trading post and now a town with a vibrant fishing industry and arts scene. The pace of life here is a world away from the bustle of Marrakesh and Fes and travellers flock here for the hassle free charming streets of the small medina and as an escape from the stifling temperatures of the interior. The locals claim it was in their town that Jimmy Hendrix was inspired to write his 1967 song ‘Castles made of Sand’ but given that he composed the song three years prior to his visit I fear the locals are being a bit cheeky with the facts there. What is not in doubt is that Orson Wells filmed his Othello there and a strong arts movement has existed since with shops selling crafts and paintings that surpassed much of the mass produced tat that was on display in the larger
cities. The labyrinth of alleyways are home to art studios and folksy pottery shops which all added to the bohemian feel of the place. Essaouira was also the place where I got to christen my new fishing rod. Determined to catch dinner I set off to the main pier where all the other fisherman were based to try my luck. They scoffed at my bag of fishing gear and my nifty telescopic sea rod and were fascinated as I assembled all the kit. Of course they were using a ball of string with some bent nails on the end so I did have the look of an ‘all the gear no idea’ show off. After two hours of ‘fishing’ I came up with nothing, not even a nibble, in fairness neither did my neighbours so they were in no position to mock. So, like any failed fisherman I made my way to the bustling fish market and bought a fat sea bass to take back for dinner. It all got a bit embarrassing upon my return to the campsite when I started to gut and clean the fish various people started to congratulate my angling skills as they assumed that I had caught the monster fish. I tried to protest that I had bought the thing but that message failed in translation so I thought sod it and basked in the totally undeserved hero status.
Annoyingly we had to head back to Rabat to get new Mauritanian visas as the ones we were issued before were not for the duration we had requested and would soon expire.
As we closed in on Casablanca and Rabat you could notice the subtle changes in everything from landscape to social attitudes. Modern towns and street lighting replaced dusty tumbledown settlements, women for a change could be seen driving cars rather than sitting with the goats in the back of them and shops seemed to stock more than cans of tuna and laughing Cow cheese. We were annoyed we had to drag ourselves back to Rabat but this time we knew it would just be for one night. We had to explain why we had not used our original visas to the grumpy man before setting off again into Rabat centre to witness where we witnessed some kind of student demonstration. We found a nice coffee shop to watch the riot police and student spar with each other. Each group taking it in turns charging past our table before retreating and regrouping for another ‘go’. It all seemed a bit ‘handbags at dawn’ to me with neither party it seems really wanting to engage in pitched battle. Bit anticlimactic really. The riot police I thought missed a trick when they could have split their superior numbers and outflanked the students in a neat pincer movement before crushing them with one telling blow but I got the impression they were happy to just let to let the students vent their anger rather than going in to crack some skulls. The police commander had clearly never played ‘Risk’.
Armed with our new Mauritanian visas we headed south once more and mentally prepared ourselves for the 1500km drive through the disputed Western Sahara. We stopped once more in Marrakesh and actually made an effort to go into the Djemaa El Fna, the city’s famed central square. By day it is an arena for hawkers, juice sellers, snake charmers and pick pockets yet in the evening they melt away and make room for the dozens of street food kitchens all selling delicious freshly cooked meals. As you walk between the kitchens various touts try and tempt you into their establishment with various ‘cheeky chappy’ banter “eeloo, ow are you, come sit, cheaper then Ryanair”. In fairness it is great entertainment and the food was top notch and cost nothing. We had a little explore of the Marrakech’s famed souks but were not really in the mood for engaging in any haggling.
From Marrakesh we drove south to Agadir, pretty much the last tourist resort we would pass through. From there on it was the wilderness of the Atlantic Coast with any settlements far and few between. From Agadir we made it as far as Tan Tan, a stinking town that seemed to consist mainly of anchovies processing plants. It was here that we unfortunately came across our first corrupt policemen, a sign of things to come. It’s a shame really as so far every policeman we had met at the dozens of roadblocks thus far were a picture of professionalism and kindness. This prick pulled us over for some obscure made up offence and wanted 700dh for our alleged offence while muttering about the seriousness of our crime After producing our driving licenses and passports he then tried to confiscate them demanding that we hand over the money, an amount that we did not have on us anyway. I was really beginning to loathe this man with every fibre of my being, alas the golden rule when dealing with vermin like this is to keep you cool and to keep smiling even if you do want to beat the shit out of them. At this stage he started to tell us to drive back into town to a cashpoint, he had us over a barrel, he had our travel documents so we trudged back into town and made a cash withdrawl. We returned half an hour later hoping the bent copper would have died some painful death in our absence but he was still there. However, he made the mistake of handing our documents back with one hand while expecting a wad of cash in the other. We asked for a receipt and the policemen looked incensed, “erm…yes….I shall write you a receipt”……”can we have it then” we tentatively asked. He reached for his satchel and pulled out an official ‘fines’ book and hesitated knowing that if he filled out the form he would have to actually submit the money back at the station. “You go” he gruffly told us. “Great.............you fecker”.
We made a point of buying a few packs of cigarettes and leaving them on the dashboard so any future bribes would be of the small nicotine variety rather than the cash version. It seemed to work at each future checkpoint. We passed nervously through the garrison town of Laayoune which seemed to be populated entirely by soldiers and finally set up camp in the unspectacular town of Boujdour which again had its own unique rotting fish smell that seemed to cling onto your clothes. The landscape was getting increasingly depressing the further south we travelled, a beige featureless desert expanse to the left, the rolling waves of the Atlantic on the right. It got to the point where we were listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks to help pass the time. Our last stop in Western Sahara was Dakhla, another windswept military town that was once a former Spanish colony situated on a spit of land. As we discovered it also happened to be one of the world’s foremost kite surfing locations and as we made our way into town you could witness dozens of surfers cutting across the bay achieving incredibly speeds. Despite the C130 Hercules transporter planes constantly rumbling overhead, a constant reminder of the military presence Laayoune was quite a modern town and clearly it has been earmarked for development into some kind of future tourist destination. There were golf courses, hotels and smart apartment blocks all in various states of development. Rolling into town I noticed a small kitten nervously try and cross the road in front of us, I slowed down to let the small creature complete its crossing where then it decided to just sit down in the middle of the road bringing us to a complete standstill, much to the amusement of the locals. Hopping out the truck to investigate this fluffy ball not much bigger than a grapefruit cut a tragic figure as it sat there inches away from the huge tyres of Tyrone. As if almost scripted it looked up at me with big sad eyes and let out a pathetic meow before curling up snugly next to the warm tyres of the truck. Tempting though it was we knew we could not keep it or take it with us and also knew it would probably end up in a tagine by the end of the day if we did not do anything. So, we did the noble thing and picked up, deposited it by the side of the road and drove on with a slight pang of guilt. We hooked up with another English couple who had driven down from Manchester to spend 4 months kite surfing in Laayoune. They showed us to a great a little fish restaurant that specialised in deep fried curry fish. This was a good appetiser before the Heineken Cup Final between Leinster and Ulster. We surprisingly found an internet café that had a fast enough connection to stream the game live to the computer. Gill was delighted with the win, if I thought the drive south could not be any longer it would be now. Several hours later, dusty and tired as arrived at the border town of Gueruarat, the Moroccan exit procedures were efficient and courteous and with that we slowly pulled out of the wind swept border post and into the no man’s land that separates Morocco from Mauritania.
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