A2A Expedition Part 1: Stuck on the Rif Mountain Trail

By Graeme Bell

Our Land Rover Defender crested the summit of the Rif mountains trail and we drew a gasp of surprise and relief. The clouds parted and below us lay a valley as beautiful as any we had seen during our six year travelling the globe.

For four hours we had driven hard up the side of the mountain, negotiating endless switchbacks, relying on the power and grip of the Defender to ascend tracks which are more suited to goats and donkeys than man made machines. We had taken a wrong turn and the trail which was supposed to be a moderate 80 km ramble had become a test of will and ability – reaching the summit was half the battle fought, now we needed only to return to civilization.

On a sparkling morning we left the campsite above Chefchaouen, the enchanting blue city which had captivated us entirely, and made our way towards the trail after filling the gas tank and buying supplies. Rain began to fall as we climbed, the trail deteriorating rapidly and offering no opportunity for return. But, together with our children Keelan and Jessica we had circumnavigated South America and driven to Alaska and lived in the remote San Pedro de Martir mountains in Mexico, we have experience.

Photo credit : Luisa Bell

The Rif mountain range in Morocco is home to splendid peaks, pine forest, sparkling clear spring water. It is also the origin of the vast majority of Moroccan hashish, known locally as Kif. Four days after beginning the trail we were still deep within the bowels of the mountain. Sometimes not all goes to plan, even the most experienced travelers can make terrible mistakes. It had all gone wrong suddenly. With the worst of the trail behind us we began to relax, here and there we spotted small settlements, usually a cluster of homes and barns. We were now traversing the valley, the clouds began to drift away, the track improved and occasionally we would encounter other 4×4’s and trucks, dark men in dark jackets behind the wheel.

Luisa suggested that we look for a level place to camp, the Rif is notorious but we still had many kilometers to travel before we would return to Camping Azilar above Chefchaouen. I steered the Defender around a switchback, down into a drift and gently accelerated to climb yet another hill. A loud BANG erupted from the front of the engine and vehicle lost all drive. “Damn, the clutch has gone”! With no other option available I rolled the Land Rover back down the hill and steered her onto a track beside the road. I engaged the gears and accelerated. Nothing. Tried to reverse further. No drive.

Photo credit: Luisa Bell

It is at times like this that a man has to remain calm for his composure prevents panic. A deep dark force tightened my chest, I turned to Luisa, “Relax, we will be fine, lets just sort this out”. By some miracle the vehicle had traversed intense terrain but had chosen to break down near a loggers camp (a ramshackle collection of plastic tents), a level section of track and a clear spring. With our initial diagnosis providing no solution we had no option but to set up camp for the evening, the sun was setting, we needed to feed the kids and prepare for a bush repair. A truck pulled up next to the Land Rover, the driver opening his window to allow a billow of sweet scented smoke to escape. He smiled at me crookedly. “OK”? “Yes, no problem, shukran”. We are self reliant, we try to take care of our own problems and we were not comfortable with engaging in an interaction which had no clear outcome. The sun set and a pick up pulled up, a young, weathered man stepped out. He spoke English and offered assistance, perhaps he could have a mechanic come to us from the village of Bab Taza. He was surprised when we declined the offer but reassured us that we were safe, “No problem here, but there”, he pointed back to the mountain we had earlier crossed, “There, there are problems”. We were unsure if he was referring to the landscape, the drug trade, or both.

‘We called the breakdown area clutch corner’ Photo credit : Luisa Bell

Over the following days we worked tirelessly to diagnose and repair our four wheeled home. We found that if we trekked four kilometers we could find an internet connection and reached out to our international friends for advice. We then returned to the truck, removed propshafts and inspection plates, gear selectors, switches, relays – we no longer carry a spare clutch and it was likely that there may be another, simpler fault which we could bush repair.

Photo credit : Luisa Bell

Something incredible happened while we were stranded – we fell in love with the mountains and her people. Every day a small group of women would climb up the mountain to collect wood. We were an endless source of amusement and fascination for them. They politely refused to be photographed but produced old smart phones to take selfies with Luisa who handed them snacks, women’s hygiene products, body cream, toothpaste and fruit until I begged her to stop handing out our supplies. The women (who dressed in traditional clothing and, other than the smartphones, lived like their people had for centuries), were humble and discreet when a male appeared but became cheerful and chatty when alone with us. My tall blonde son reduced the group to giggles and my daughter, with her modern clothing and long blonde hair, inspired awe. The women ranged in age from teenage to ancient and seemed completely at ease with each other and their environment which itself was awesome.

Photo credit : Luisa Bell

Above us stood a tall pine covered peak which shimmered in the morning sun, below us the spring gushed from deep below the earth, providing us with an endless supply of delicious water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. The nights were cool, a billion stars sparkling in the crisp sky as we sat around the fire ring, warming our bodies, cooking our food and discussing our plans and options to get the Landy moving again. During the day we kept Jessica inside the vehicle, unwilling to attract attention to her, the small group of loggers camped nearby paid little attention to us and we wanted to keep it that way. By the third evening we were known throughout the region, every pick up and truck which passed (one every few hours) would hoot a greeting.

Photo credit : Luisa Bell

As we slept our dreams were filled with mythical creatures and vivid encounters, as if visited by ancient spirits. The morning sun warmed us, we were equipped with the gear needed to survive – water filters, warm rugged clothing, a Land Rover built and stocked for adventure and a can do spirit! Eventually, I admitted defeat. We had always been able to recover ourselves and the vehicle but, without the necessary parts the vehicle was crippled. It was a miracle that the vehicle had been able raverse such difficult terrain before eventually coming to a stop where it did – not only was the location sublime but the loggers had a tractor, the only tractor we had seen in the mountains. I asked Mohamed, the head logger, if he could tow us the thirty kilometers down the mountain to Bab Taza and offered him all the money in my wallet. He accepted 1000 Dirham (approximately $130.00) and we strapped the stricken Land Rover to the tractor. It took four hours to descend to the town where we were able to arrange a truck to carry the Defender back to Chefchaouen, to the camp above the city, a nerve wracking drive with the Land Rover swaying dangerously on the back of a truck not much larger than itself.

Back in the camp we celebrated a minor victory with hot showers and a cold beer. A Swiss traveler told us that we were very lucky, that he had been told by a Moroccan friend that the Rif takes lives and the drug trade has been known to murder. I shuddered, but we had treated the people of the mountains with great respect and I believe that they had learned to respect us and they protected us!

We’ve had an incredible adventure so far and have proved that we can work together as a family despite the challenges faced!

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