Tag Archives: morocco

Shakedown trip Morocco

The ultimate dress rehearsal. Nearly two months in Morocco. From Ceuta through the Rif Mountains to the far North-East, down along the Algerian border to the Figuig oasis and South to the Moroccan Sahara. Testing everything possible on rough, stony pistes and deep sand. And I’m glad to say that all the parts that I had bolted into and on the car were still in place – and working – after nearly 15.000 km.

Some impressions:

Wild camp, snow and a restless night in the Rif

The knock on the rear door of the car is somewhat hesitant. Clearly not a uniform.
‘Monsieur, Defender c’est avec -er ?

Since it’s the first wild camp of the trip, on the beach of Al Hoceima – Morocco’s northern coast, I sleep very lightly or not at all. There’s no moon and it’s completely dark. I hear footsteps going to the front of the car. I notice that my adrenaline is doing its work and  feel my heart beating in my throat.
‘Qu’est ce que vous voulez?’, I manage in my best French.
‘Defender, -ar?’, the voice questions.
I realize now that it must be the man I met when I arrived this afternoon, and who acted as a self-appointed baywatch cum campsite manager, meticulously writing down the car’s registration number and other details on a torn piece of paper. My full cooperation had clearly pleased him, as did the fact that I was Dutch.
I am calmer now, but the situation remains weird. I am half sitting – half lying in my sleeping bag in the back of the car, trying to catch a glimpse of the figure in the darkness outside, who insists on correctly spelling the word Defender. And I find myself actually spelling it several times, thinking that will satisfy him. When he keeps repeating his question I raise my voice and tell him to piss off, in English. That seems to work, and I can hear him walking back towards his small white caravan further down the beach.
I pack up and drive back towards the main road before the sun is up.

The drive through the Rif Mountains is slow going because of the heavy snowfall. Lots of stranded vehicles, accidents, cars unable to go up steep slippery parts of the road.

The pushy and intimidating kif hawkers are totally absent. Too cold, probably.

“Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises.” (Shakespeare)

Figuig prompted images of a lay-back frontier oasis, shaded by  numerous palm trees, relaxing on the terrace of the Figuig Hotel, sipping a cafe au lait and enjoying the view towards Algeria at sunset; ordering a tajine for the following day. I plan to stay at least four or five days here after driving the 350 km haul through the desert.

So I take the road that only few people take, and it is all that I have expected. Desolate, straight, right along the Algerian border. The sun in my eyes, Eric Clapton unplugged from the speakers. From Saidia on the northern Mediterranean coast  to Oujda and Bouarfa and the last leg to Figuig Very few fellow travelers, all Moroccan. When I stop for a pee and to make a coffee, a car stops: “Tous va bien?”. The desert code.

Entering Figuig is a disappointment:  a modern administrative centre. I park near a military building to ask directions from two soldiers sitting on white plastic garden chairs outside the gate. They are forthcoming, friendly, wish me a pleasant stay in Morocco.

The heavy rains are welcomed by the locals but aggressively disturb my postcard expectations. On the campsite the few French campeurs sit comfortably in their white campervans, watching the tellie. I put on my Wellies and my raincoat and look for shelter and something to drink in the hotel’s restaurant: closed. I try the terrace but someone has put all chairs and tables in a corner. No coffee, no view, no sunset. Time to hit the sack with a good book and the rattling sound of the rain on the rooftent’s canvas.

The early morning brings more rain and even thunder. I talk to Mohammed, who offers to guide me through the maze of the Ksar Zenaga, one of the seven Ksours of Figuig. When the sky clears in the afternoon I decide to take the walk on my own and don’t regret it. Practising the art of getting lost I wander the alleys and covered passages of this old village.

stairway to heaven

They’re not in my guidebooks (LP and the Rough Guide), not signposted, not visible from the road (the R702 from Erfoud to Tinerhir), and there are no distinct tracks leading to them.

The three desert structures on the Marha plain, some 30 km. east of Erfoud, were designed and built in the 1980-s by the German artist/architect Hannsjörg Voth (1940). According to Voth’s site the structures can only be visited with a paid guide, for the price of 200 Dirham (€ 20, which is a bit steep imho)

“Die Besichtigung der Himmelstreppe, Goldenen Spirale und Stadt des Orion kann nur über Cheikh Hassan, Provinz Errachidia, Erfoud, Oase Fezna und dem von mir autorisierten Bewacher Brahim Ben Moha durchgeführt werden. Bitte sich vorher telefonisch anmelden. Französisch erforderlich.
Cheikh Hassan mobil (++212)(0)661435350″


Whatever approach you choose you have to cross the Oued (river) Rheris at some point. And with the recent rainfall I am not completely confident. After some zigzagging and backtracking I reach the Oued and spot some workers with a truck and a shovel. I decide to cross there, calculating that if I get stuck I’ll have a recovery team at hand. I get out of the car and walk to test the surface of the first part: it looks and feels dry and hard. I wave to the workers as I pass them in the Land Rover, a smile on my face. After 20 meters the car breaks through the crusty surface and comes to a halt in the mud. The men act as if this is a daily routine and the shovel effortlessly pulls the Defender out of its muddy trap.

Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

Guardien - that’s what is says on his jacket – walks up to me when I stop at the the first monument, The Golden Spiral. He shows me a document with the prices for a guided tour, and I recognize the page from the internet. I don’t want a guide, I don’t want a tour, I just want to look around on my own. It’s a free desert, after all. But he insists that even taking a photograph will cost me 200 Dirham. I don’t want to make a fuss and decide to drive off to the other two structures a few kilometers away. There is a clear track now and after a few minutes I arrive at The City of Orion. It is surreal: a modern structure in the middle of the desert, desolate, complete silence. Except for the sound of an approaching  moped. The Guardien has followed me and the discussion over his fee continues, partly in French partly in English, with the odd Arabic thrown in at a pitch when he really gets annoyed at another tourist unwilling to pay. He shows me a key, hanging from a cord around his neck. I remain calm, keep smiling, explain that I don’t want to enter the monument, and give him 5 Dirham. He has no more English or French words for me now, starts his old moped and rides off.

The Stairway to Heaven is the most intriguing of the three and without the hassle of the Guardien on his moped, I take pictures, imagining what they will look like in black and white.

As I drive back to the R702 I am somewhat confused. Although I certainly appreciate the structures themselves, especially in these surroundings, and I understand that they have to be preserved in some manner and protected against the hordes of tourists who arrive here daily in their air-conditioned touring cars (ahum…), I am having a problem with the way in which Voth claims several square kilometers of Moroccan desert. These mud structures are not built for eternity; give them back to the desert, to the elements, and let me enjoy what’s left of them in peace and for free, without the hassle of Guardien  on a moped.

Casbah Caid: a photographer’s paradise

Manfred and Gaby are two experienced desert drivers from Germany who have been to Morocco numerous times. I park my car next to their fully equipped Landcruiser on the Agdz campsite, and we exchange experiences and plans. One of their more adventurous tales is about their crossing of Lake Iriki, years ago. It had been raining and the lake was not completely dry. They sank through the white, salty surface, and got stuck in the swampy mud. It took them  eight hours and a lot of help from others to free themselves. I’m crossing the same lake in a few days, and there has been some rain, so I plan to make sure that the lake is dry and passable.

They have arranged a tour of the old Kasbah Caid by Manfred Fahnert, who has been leading the restoration since 1998, and ask me to join them. A unique opportunity to learn about historic earth building and plastering techniques from the expert himself in a private tour, and we wander around the maze of rooms for more than an hour.

According to the LP the “play of light and shade in the ancient Kasbah (Caid) could obsess photographers for hours”.  And obsessive it is!

Manfred Fahnert (left), Manfred and Gaby

Manfred Fahnert (left), Manfred and Gaby





“Vous avez GPS?”

The main street in M’Hamid ends abruptly in the desert. No more shops, people, donkey carts, dogs, cars, just sand as far as the eye can see. There’s even a different smell, or rather the absence of any smell. I stop (don’t stop in M’Hamid!) to look at the sign for a campsite just outside the village. Within seconds a faux guide appears at my window to offer his services. They are specialized in scare tactics: stories about tourists getting lost in sandstorms because they didn’t have a guide, etc. My rejection irritates him, he tells me to “relax”, which really pisses me off and I drive on.

View from the campsite outside M'Hamid
View from the campsite outside M’Hamid

The campsite is just a fenced off piece of sand with a watertap and a toilet. No warm water, no shower, no electricity. But the view compensates for everything. The Sahara in three directions, with camel caravans setting off to bivouacs a few hours riding into the desert. I ask Ahmed, the campsite owner, about the winds. He expects that there will be a strong wind in the morning until about eleven. Winds blowing from the east last only a couple of hours, winds from the south a couple of days.

“Vous avez GPS?”, Ahmed asks the next morning. I tell him of course I have, a brand new Garmin Montana 600 with reliable tracks and all. He explains that GPS’s are the reason that many guides – like himself – are out of work. I guess he has a point there and perhaps it explains why the socalled guides are increasingly persistent. He is certainly right about the winds. Around noon the wind dies down and we start our 145 kilometer trip to Foum Zguid.

The piste starts right next to the campsite and skirts the Erg Chigaga sand dunes after a couple of hours. I deflate the tires to 60% with the ARB Deflator, which works like a treat! The only other car we meet that day is a Moroccan in a white Defender. He indicates with his hand that he has his doubts whether we will make it with our fully loaded Land Rover. And I must admit that my adrenaline rises as we drive through the soft sand and across small sand dunes. But with tons of motivation and the deflated tires we manage without getting stuck.
The last 30 km. are very stony and the Old Man Emu heavy duty suspension is put to the test. Tired but still in a singing mood we drive the last – sealed – leg to Foum.