“If it is our goal to seek adventure and experience that which very few do, we are certainly successful. Our confidence in our own capabilities only grows with each challenge we face and submit ourselves to”.
Words by Graeme Bell
Images by Luisa and Keelan Bell
There is something unique about Morocco. Something magical and ancient. Turkey is similar but not the same yet both countries offer an experience so enchanting and at times intoxicating, a traveller is drawn back, long after they have left. My dreams are still Moroccan.
Following an extended and unplanned stay in Chefchaouen (see a link to that story here), we said goodbye to the people who had become true friends and pointed the Defender towards Meknes, Casablanca, the Atlas Mountains and Western Sahara. But, we are not conventional tourists, we seek a unique experience and we found exactly that. It was Morocco’s furthest solitary reaches which impressed us the most, not the markets of Marakesh or colours and scents of Fez – the desert and the Atlas Mountains absorbed us in with an authentic charm and beauty.
Merzouga lies on the edge of the Sahara where the creamy soil of the Atlas meets red dune. The town is weathered by the sun and beaten by the wind, the streets narrow and scarred, the homes ancient with walls of thick soil.
We drove past the vendors and the tourist office, the curio stalls and the eager children. We bought a bag of coal and filled our tanks with water, before driving out into the desert. Desert driving is difficult and fraught with danger. A vehicle must be equipped with sufficient provision but cannot be too heavy as the deep, soft sand waits patiently to trap. Experienced 4×4 drivers know that momentum is everything and grip provides momentum. Using a valve key I deflated the Defenders large mud terrain tyres until the side walls bulged, a deflated tyre has a larger “footprint” thus more grip.
We did not have to venture too far into the desert to find a quiet, beautiful hollow to call our own for the night. While our teenage children explored the dunes, Luisa and I prepared the camp – a simple affair really, a few chairs sat in the shade of our camper, the BBQ ready to be lit and grill our lamb dinner.
A caravan of camels meandered past us, silhouetted against a pure blue sky, led by a Bedouin, followed by a lone calf. The sun set, the temperature dropped and we lit the fire while the universe did what it could to impress us with constellations and shooting stars. The desert is a place of solitude and a silence so still that you can hear only the sand move and your thoughts swirl.
We awoke early to watch the sun rise over the Sahara before packing the Land Rover and preparing for an off-road adventure from Merzouga to Sidi Ali, a journey which would have us trace the Algerian border over rocky mountains, through dry riverbeds, ancient flood plains and fields of bull dust, aka Fesh Fesh.
The trail began with a dusty sand road rumbled upon by large articulated trucks hauling sand and stone, a sign of progress. Our navigator App showed various tracks, most heading in the same direction and we had to choose which track to follow, some worse than others and many deteriorated while the other tracks seemed in better condition. Criss-crossing the plateau we arrived at the base of hill where the road forked. We took a break and enjoyed a lunch of fresh bread, Edam cheese and sweet tomato while planning the route ahead. There were two routes to Sidi Ali – the easier “mountain” route and the river bed route which was suitable for only the toughest 4×4 vehicles. We chose the riverbed route and descended from the rocky hill pass.
The fesh fesh was deep and thick, I engaged low range second gear and would let the track steer the vehicle, holding the steering wheel lightly and focusing on maintaining momentum. Clouds of white dusts billowed from the tyres, covering the vehicle almost completely, seeping into the Land Rover and covering our home with a white layer. Luisa growled. The greatest risk when driving a river bed is the unforeseen flash flood caused by heavy rain upstream, the sky was grey that day but we had checked the weather forecast before leaving Merzouga – no rain was forecast. We continued along the valley, low mountains to the east, the Algerian border and low mountains to the west.
I hear Algeria is magnificent, we shall have to return once we have looped around Africa. Emerging from the challenging riverbed the terrain changed to alluvial plain, criss-crossed with trails. My son Keelan took over the driving and we were surprised to find auberge (small hotels) dotted along the trail. The area is a treasure trove of fossils and the hardy Moroccans understand the value of comfort in the desert. Had we the resources we would have gladly enjoyed a night in a cool room after a tajine dinner and a relaxed conversation, sprawled on colourful cushions, drinking sweet mint tea. But a life lived on the road requires fiscal discipline and our home on wheels is designed and built to provide our family with the comforts we need.
The valley drew us in and deposited us at the town of Sidi Ali where a weathered and dignified Tuareg man offered a place to park and camp within the perimeter walls of his auberge. A river runs through the town and there is no shortage of firewood, after a refreshing cold shower I made a fire atop a small dune which had been thwarted in its attempt to smother the high, red clay walls. The Tuareg, dressed in blue robes, was attentive but careful to allow us the privacy we sought, he provided fresh water and a friendly conversation, a watchful eye – we were in his care.
The night was cool and invigorating but the morning gusty, the deep blue sky replaced by a the fog of fine sand swept up by wind which blew from the south and forced a change of plans. Initially we planned to continue to follow the trail (or piste as it is called in Morocco) from Sidi Ali to Zagora, a diversion which seemed less desirable as the sand storm grew in intensity and Luisa reminded me that our visas were due to expire – we had less than a week to complete our tour of Morocco and cross the Western Sahara to Mauritania.
The decision was made to head west to the Dades Gorge and attempt a piste through the mountains where we were to encounter nomadic families who ran to the trail when they heard the rumble of the Land Rovers engine and offered us fossils and gems, their hands caked with grey dust and their faces streaked in a mountainous terrain without water. The nomads live in tents of black plastic tarp and live on a diet dominated by goat meat and milk, our gifts of fruit were devoured as we struggled to communicate with no common language. A small girl offered a fossil in return, we could not accept as we cannot accept gifts, our Land Rover has space only for the practical and useful.
In late 2018 severe storms ravaged the Atlas Mountains delivering feet of snow and devastating flash floods along our route from Sidi Ali past Tinghir to Ait Hani where we took the off-road route to Msemrir and encountered the nomads. The trail we had followed up to 2700m disappeared after a series of tight and perilous switchbacks led to the path down the mountain, we were forced to drive the Defender in a riverbed twice as wide as it had been before the November storms. With Keelan and Luisa walking the worst sections of the trail and Jessica, our fifteen year old daughter, guiding from the passenger seat the great Land Rover rumbled down, ever down.
The pace was painstakingly slow and the sun soon touched our horizon of mountain peaks and cliffs. And still we found no track to drive only occasional catching glimpses of what remained of a trail recently swept away. Rocking side to side we continued our downward journey until dark and cold began to engulf us, until the minutes felt like hours, until we grew hungry and fatigued and longing for even the worst road to replace the sea of grey boulders over which we climbed and slipped and pushed and disturbed.
If it is our goal to seek adventure and experience that which very few do, we are certainly successful. Our confidence in our own capabilities only grows with each challenge we face and submit ourselves to.
At dusk, after almost a full day of tough yet rewarding 4×4 driving, Luisa spotted movement ahead, fuzzy mounds moving slowly and their number growing as we approached. The headlights illuminated a shepherd as we rounded a bend, the mounds his sheep skittish with the approach of a vehicle, few of which they had ever seen. The shepherd greeted us with a broad grin and we offered him respectful greetings and the last of our fruit. “How far is the village”? We used hand gestures bemoaning our lack of Arabic. “How far is the road?” There he gestured, pointed to the blackness ahead. We thanked him and continued carefully past his herd and again over the endless grey rock.
Hours later a light appeared in the distance, then another and another. A track appeared and we celebrated. Too soon. The track led only to another tortuous kilometre of rock riverbed but, eventually, we emerged onto a trail which led to a village which led to a camp where a large, friendly man welcomed us with a hot fire and sweet mint tea.
In 24 hours we experienced high temperatures and bitter cold, it is our clothing which draws the line between comfort and misery. Our Craghoppers gear has to endure constant use and exposure to many elements and we can rely on that gear to be as tough as the conditions dictate – protecting us from from the sun, wind, heat and cool. At night cloaked in a warm jacket and sitting beside a fire, the trials of the day melt into fond memories and the planning for the next day begins.
We awoke late the next morning and found ourselves overlooking a field and an ancient village built into the side of a rocky hill. Birds sang and a crook bubbled beneath us, an old man and his young grandson working together to clear irrigation trenches, a woman preparing her field for spring. The mountains we had scaled behind us, reminding us that we are mere mortals and they are eternal.