Scaling new heights.

Scaling new heights. The Marrakech Express achieves new highs.

Despite this being my sixth visit to Morocco nothing can prepare you for the onslaught to the senses that comes from a stroll through Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech. Vibrant colours, dancers, snake charmers and orange juice sellers ensure your visual attention is drawn to their sales pitch.  The smell of herbs, incense, donkeys and humans keep your nose occupied and a cacophony of shouting, drums and some kind of North African castanets ensure you can hear nothing else!  It is a wild, exciting and evocative city, once famous as a hippy destination and immortalised by the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, ‘Marrakech Express’, from which our project Land Rover gets its name.

I met John Horne, temporary custodian of the Marrakech Express, on a busy road close to the square and we drove a short distance to meet John Carroll and his pal, Ian Clegg who had flown in the night before.  With our baggage strapped to the roof and with much excitement John Horne drove us out of town to a supermarket to stock up with a few supplies before heading north to meet Classic Land Rover publisher, Adrian Cox and friend James Lloyd somewhere near Fez.  They had driven Adrian’s early 110, The Smurf, down from England over the previous few days and together we were off to explore the Rekkem Plateau near the Algerian border and some remote parts of the High Atlas Mountains.


 
It was late and dark when we finally met up at a very pleasant campsite near Azrou and over a drink we swapped tales from our various experiences getting there - all of which were remarkably trouble free!  The Marrakech Express was now beginning its fourth week of uninterrupted Moroccan expedition and was in fine fettle and The Smurf  had fulfilled the task of traversing a fair chunk of Europe at a steady 70 mph. Proof, if it were needed, that old Land Rovers are perfectly capable of covering vast distances efficiently.  

The following morning to speed up the dull bits we took the motorway east to Guercif, then south on the N17 to Tendrara where we treated ourselves to a cheap hotel and a decent shower, unsure of our what our next overnight stop may offer.  In the morning we slipped out of town early and headed for the hills and our first section of challenging driving - a track that wound its way up onto the Rekkem Plateau.  What started as a bouncy ride along a gravel track gradually changed to a second gear, low ratio, crawl up a boulder strewn series of hairpin bends thankfully free of all other traffic.  As the drop to the side of the track became ever more precipitous we felt we were heading into the unknown!



Once up on top of the plateau going was easier and thanks to the heavy rains back in November the land around us was carpeted with flowers and inhabited by the occasional shepherd and his flock feasting on the good grazing.  Remote farms dotted the landscape and it was a glorious reminder of the hidden sites that are within reach by Land Rover if one has the confidence to stray from the tourist trail.  We stopped in the middle of the track for a picnic lunch knowing we would not have to move for traffic, but were joined briefly by a young man escorting two camels to market where he hoped to get the equivalent of £500 each for them.

Desert lunches tend to comprise things that can be stored without a fridge - processed cheese and tins of tuna, enlivened by fresh bread, tomatoes, peppers and onions bought locally whenever one spots a suitable shop and fresh oranges for afters.  The Smurf  does have an excellent Waeco fridge, but this held the evenings chicken and cool drinks to enjoy at the end of a sweaty day behind the wheel.



We descended from the plateau heading roughly in the direction of Debdou and began the task of looking for a suitable place to camp. Once below the tree line we were spoilt for choice and parked up in a clearing about 100 metres from the track. Our mismatch of tents popped up, the barbecue was lit and the chicken extracted from the fridge.  Ian knocked up an excellent vegetable curry and a few beers washed the dust from our throats as we discussed the day and made vague plans for the following morning.

We knew we were within reach of two abandoned French Foreign Legion forts and a couple of railway stations and made them our next challenge.  John Horne knew roughly where they were and they were marked on the Michelin map, but neither of these shreds of evidence guaranteed finding them.  In the end it was a GPS mapping app (MotionXgps) on James Lloyd’s iPhone that pinpointed them!  We drove straight past the first one as there was only one building left, but it was intact and adjacent to a small school.  The teacher came out and confirmed we were in the right place and invited us in to introduce ourselves to the remarkably attentive group of about a dozen pupils who were in the middle of a French lesson having travelled up to 10kms to attend school.



Satisfied we had found one, we continued to find one of the stations.  We were aware that we were about as far east as you can drive in Morocco and close to the Algerian border, but we found the remarkably intact station easily and its surrounding outbuildings.  Poking around the buildings it was easy to image steam trains stopping here in the 1920’s whilst hauling minerals north from Algeria. The staff would fill water tanks whilst the engine driver sipped a stiff Pastis with the Station Master and discussed their other lives in Paris - a long way from this barren outpost of the French Empire.

The security issue in the area was soon brought home to us with the arrival of the local Policeman and a plain clothes chap who took all of our passport details.  We had been spotted entering the area and they just wanted to check who we were as the heavily patrolled border was barely a couple of kilometres away.  It was all very friendly, if time consuming and ended with us being invited to his house for mint tea - a request we declined as we had one fort left to visit.

Our final fort was not far from the station and presumably once guarded the north/south route between the station and nearby towns. About half of the main building remained and made a good backdrop for photos of the two heroic Land Rovers before we headed back west for our next adventure.  We had noticed on the map that a small range of sand dunes were within reach.  Erg Chebbi offers a chance to drive real dunes within easy access of Merzuga, but was out of our range that day so we wild-camped about half a kilometre from the road on flat gravel desert.  



Because of its easy access Erg Chebbi attracts tourists who rent quad bikes and use the area as a playground, but fortunately there is just about room for everyone to enjoy the dunes.  We stopped where tarmac becomes sand and were soon joined by Mubarak on his Mobylette moped who offered to show us a piste through the dunes.  Reluctantly admitting that this was probably a good idea we watched in amazement as he lowered the tyre pressures on the 50 cc desert machine and set off up the dunes with a comical mix of revving and pushing!  John Carroll and I have considerable dune driving experience gained during a crossing of The Great Sand Sea in Egypt back in 2012, but from where I was sitting, behind the wheel, it seemed to have slipped from my skills as I nervously selected third low and tried to keep up with the moped!  What was immediately apparent was that a slightly top heavy Marrakech Express sitting on soft parabolic rear springs and tyres at 1 Bar, felt a little unstable whereas The Smurf on Old Man Emu coils looked more sure footed, despite a greater roof load.  However, after a brief stop to ensure everyone was happy we did successfully complete a lengthy soft sand experience without issue.

Having the freedom to go anywhere we pleased we stuck a pin in the map and decided on the Todra Gorge.  I’d seen some stunning photographs of this natural masterpiece, John Horne knew it well and the others were keen.  It is more usual to enter the gorge at the western end and build up to the climatic end, but we did it in reverse as it would take us in roughly the right direction for the return to Marrakech.  With no clear options for camping, as the gorge was so narrow, we checked into an hotel and took The Marrakech Express to the local tyre fitter to have a puncture mended - probably caused by slight friction between the tube and tyre when running at 1 Bar in the sand dunes earlier.   Ahmed Benhassou could not have been more helpful, working hard until 9.00 pm to get us sorted for the following day and even spotted and repaired a potential problem with another tyre.



The following morning we entered the gorge, marvelling at the vertical rock, waves of rock strata clearly illustrating how this part of North Africa had been formed millions of years ago.  As we continued the gorge widened and the depth was reduced.  Soon we were out of it and high in the Anti Atlas Mountains, splashing through river crossings and waving at the now familiar shepherds.

We were on a track that took us past two natural lakes but appeared on the map to come to a dead end just afterwards.  By now feeling confident in our driving skills and the ability of both Land Rovers, we decided to carry on as far as the track would take us.  Ignoring waves from locals implying the road ended we pressed on through streams and rock strewn paths often resorting to 2nd gear, low ratio.  After about half an hour we entered a small village to be greeted by children in a reception usually reserved for famous explorers!

As we inched forwards about 20 children with big smiles ran alongside the Land Rovers hands outstretched for ‘Cadeau’ or ‘Stillo’.  They ran with us for about a mile until the track did actually end at a farm.  The farmer, a pleasant man of a certain age implied that to continue we would have to go on foot, so we broke out some bars of chocolate and asked him to distribute them amongst the children - a task he did magnificently.


Finding a relatively flat piece of land on which to camp proved quite a challenge that night and it was the sharp eyes of Ian Clegg who eventually spotted a clearing just big enough to accommodate two Land Rovers and four tents.  A fire was lit and beers opened as we reflected on a great trip before the haul back to Marrakech the next day.  We had achieved our various goals and explored some of the less accessible parts of Morocco in a pair of old Land Rovers.  The Marrakech Express, devoid of all the bolt on goodies deemed essential on such an expedition had exceeded all expectation, conquering mountain tracks, rivers and soft sand without so much as a hiccup!  Once safely back in Marrakech John Horne returned to his ‘usual’ camp site and waited for the next relay of drivers to add their interpretation to this fascinating adventure.

Box out.

 

The Marrakech Express found it's way over to Northern Spain on Brittany Ferries. A very comfortable alternative to driving through France - especially in an old Land Rover!

These kinds of expeditions should come with a relationship damage warning as a text message from James Lloyd’s wife Jan illustrates:

‘Been up since 5am. Only just got rid of plasterers, painters still not finished, builder and sparky still have work to do, list of things to order for work. Exam for Jenna tomorrow, got to pick Tara up from school matches, ready for hockey on Sunday then get her back to school. Abbey in bits with exams. No food in the house, and I'm in a grump cos I've not had any alcohol all week and I've been dieting - not that you can tell!   Plus, just been looking at the link for your forthcoming hotel. (Referring to one they had booked in Marrakech) Don't bother coming home, I hate you!!!

You have been warned!

 

Captions

A classic pair of 30+ year old Land Rovers in the most eastern part of Morocco framed in the rusted screen of an even older truck

The route up on to the Rekkem Plateau started easily as a gravel track

The climb soon had the drivers reaching for the low ratio lever as the track deteriorated

Once on the plateau the views were stunning and the landscape deserted

Heavy rain back in November had ensured there was a rich carpet of flowers and plenty of grazing for sheep

A random route from A to B often required some spirited driving. James kicking up the dust in Adrian’s 110

The only other people sharing the route were this shepherd and a lad taking two camels to market

A long abandoned French Railway Station. Once a bustling stop for steam trains hauling minerals north to the ports

The distant hills are the Algerian border and this proximity caused a brief questioning from concerned local police

The remains of a French Foreign Legion Fort made a good backdrop for the two classic Land Rovers

The crew.  Left to Right; John Carroll, John Horne, Ian Clegg, James Lloyd, Adrian Cox and Toby Savage

Evidence suggested that all you really need to negotiate sand dunes is an old Mobylette and some hard-earned skills

The Marrakech Express conquered all in its path including a lengthy passage through the Erg Chebbi dunes

Back on track for the drive west towards Todra Gorge under a clear blue sky

Ahmed Benhassou put in some overtime to ensure two problematic tyres were in good order for the rest of the trip

Todra Gorge lived up to all expectations, offering stunning scenery

As the pair continued, so the track became less used and more fun!

There were times when there was no track, just a wide expanse of washed out river-bed following last Novembers’ rains

The end of the road and an opportunity to share some chocolate with the local children

What it’s all about. Swapping tales around a camp fire with a cool beer in hand