On our previous trip to Morocco in 2004 we travelled via Chefchouan-Fez-Ifrane-Todra Gorge-Merzouga-Zagora-Marrakesh-Casablanca-Rabat, which was a fantastic route. But rather than visit all the same places again, we've decided to head out across the Rif mountains and east into the desert. We'll be getting our Mauritania visa at the border - hopefully!
Day 1 - Monday 22/10/07 - Algeciras (Spain) to Chefchouan
Arrived at the port in Algeciras late morning and fought our way through the touts to find that there was a promotion on and the tickets cost E36 rather than a hefty E115. Very pleasing. Filled up with tax-free fuel in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and headed out to the Moroccan border. Amazingly we were through in under 20 minutes - Monday must be a good day to cross. Headed up into the mountains to Chefchouan and revisited the campsite at the top of the hill - lovely and shady, surrounded by pine trees. Lots of other 4X4s and campervans here already. A nice cup of Earl Grey and we were feeling very content.
Day 2 - Tuesday 23/10/07 - Chefchouan to Ras-el-Mar
Chefchouan is a very appealing place: tucked up in the hills, with its medina of tiny whitewashed passageways and doorways painted an almost luminous shade of blue. It has an Andalusian feel, but there are plenty of little places wtih alcoves and cushions for mint tea and tagines to remind you that you're in Morocco. After breakfast we headed off into the Rif mountains - once unsafe for tourists because of the vast amounts of 'kif' grown in the area, but these days you just have to ignore the people trying to flag you down - apparently they can't believe that you really are only there for the view. The road (possibly the bendiest in the world) is dramatic and follows the ridge of the mountains, rising up to a pass at about 2500 m before dropping back down towards the sea. The campsite we were aiming for turned out to be a real dive and overrun with dogs, so we continued round along the newly built Mediterranean Highway, to Ras-el-Mar, a nice enough place with the mountains of Algeria rising in the distance. It was a longer day than planned, but we found an empty campsite by the beach where they said we could camp for free. Total expenditure today: 1 dirham (about 7p) on some bread.
Day 3 - Wednesday 24/10/07 - Ras-el-Mar to bush camp near Bouafa
This stretch of coast is beautiful, but there's so much development going on, it will be quite different in a few years' time. Went for a walk along the beach - empty apart from a few fishermen - bought a bargain 2 kg of fruit and veg for under £1, and set off into the desert. The road runs alongside the Algerian border (which is closed) so there have been quite a few road checks, but once they see that we're foreigners they just wave us through. The thing about deserts is that the scenery changes constantly, if subtely - a few trees here, some mountains over there, the occasional village or nomadic berber camp. It makes you wonder what on earth people do out here. Some of the desert is so flat that you can just take a bearing and drive straight to where you want to go cross-country. We set up camp by an old nomadic camp out of the wind and made a Moroccan stew. Quite chilly tonight - the fleecy trousers have made an appearance. Glad we brought our three-season sleeping bags.
Day 4 - Thursday 25/10/07 - bush camp to Erg Chebbi
The wind picked up sharply for an hour or two overnight and there was even some light rain this morning, which keeps the temperature down. Using the map, GPS and Chris Scott's Saraha Overland book we followed some desert tracks that were vaguely in the direction that we were heading. Right in the middle of nowhere we came across a truck full of people that had broken down and after much gesticulation (they don't speak much French out in these parts) we realised they'd run out of fuel. We gave the driver a lift to the nearest settlement - some buildings a few kilometres away - and he filled up his gerry can from various plastic bottles out the back of a van. The people that lived there gathered round at the strange sight of foreigners and kept staring at us and pointing to their eyes - then it clicked, ah yes, we have blue eyes. By late afternoon we were approaching the dunes of Erg Chebbi and back on the beaten track - soon to be accosted by touts offering us camel rides and small boys selling necklaces. Made our camp in a suitably isolated spot next to the dunes.
Day 5- Friday 26/10/07 - Erg Chebbi
Dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am to walk to the top of the dunes for sunrise (actually no great hardship as we went to bed about 8pm!). Was surprised to find that no-one else had made the effort so we had them all to ourselves. The full moon was so bright that finding our way was easy, but the final dune was so steep and the sand so soft that it was really hard to climb (running back down was much easier). The moon was still hanging on the opposite horizon as the sun rose and the shapes of the dunes started to emerge, stretching out before us. Once the sun was up, the temperature increased quickly and we were far too hot in our all our clothes by the time we got back to the car. Decided to have a rest day today and have erected an awning out of some canvas and parachute cord - Ray Mears would be proud.
Day 6 - Saturday 27/10/07 - Erg Chebbi to Ait Benhaddou
We couldn't resist a quick play in the dunes (which naturally resulted in us getting stuck and a fair bit of digging - declining offers of help from the desert men who seem to appear out of nowhere the moment a tourist gets stuck to sell them fossils) before we were on our way. There was an ominous feel in the air and it started to rain quite hard. Water running off the mountains soon turned the dry river beds back into rivers, flowing quite fast across the road in places and resulting in long queues of traffic on either side. Not us though, we ploughed on through and were invariably greeted with a cheer on the other side. I guess for the kids here it's a bit like when it snows and you can't get to school - although it always seems to happen on a Saturday. The rain cleared and we climbed up into the mountains towards the mud-built kasbah of Ait Benhaddou - film location for Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and many more. Bit touristy but still impressive, with its adobe buildings set amongst the date palms. Checked into a hostel and had a hot shower - ah, to be clean!
Day 7 - Sunday 28/10/07 - Ait Benhaddou to Marrakesh
Followed a dotted line on the map north from Ait Benhadou that looked as though it might be an interesting track - turned out to be a popular route for the 4x4 tour companies, but for good reason as the scenery was stunning and the driving quite challenging, up steep little dirt tracks, hairpin bends and rocky overhangs. Two hours into the route we saw some cars coming back the other way - the road ahead had been completely blocked by a digger that had tipped over. Sounded as though it was going to be a long wait so reluctantly we backtracked to the paved road. The road climbs up and up through the High Atlas, with amazing views back over the valley, and then plunges you down into the chaos and smog of Marrakesh. Thousands of people, cars, mopeds, bicycles, donkeys all meandering casually in front of each other. Got a bit stuck near the medina with cars going in all directions and everybody refusing to budge but eventually found our way back to the car park we used before (near the Koutoubia mosque - a useful landmark). Our hostel had a rooftop bar looking out over the Djemma el Fna, the main square, with its crowds of food stalls, snake charmers, horses and carts, and monkey handlers, fantastic spot for a sundowner of mint tea. Most places don't have hot water but the locals use hammams to wash and to socialise - thought we'd give it a try. After being scrubbed down vigorously with a mitten, I can honestly say there is not a grain of dust or sand left anywhere now.
Day 8 - Monday 29/10/07 - Marrakesh to Essouaira
Short drive today to the windy coastal town of Essouaira. It's a popular place for kitesurfing/ windsurfing and apparently a former hangout of Jimi Hendrix. It's also famous for the production of Argan oil - a type of olive oil made from goat droppings... the goats eat the nuts from the Argan trees (apparently the tastiest ones are at the very top of the tree) and then the kernels are hand-picked our of goat dung - a fun job for someone. The campsite is about 2 km south of the town and there are quite a few other overlanders here. Walked along the long, sandy and very windy beach into town and ate at one of the fish stalls by the port area (the first one is very expensive, so keep walking!). Very fresh and tasty, and a small kitten fell asleep on my foot.
Day 9 - Tuesday 30/10/07 - Essouaira
Another rest day today - we've decided it's a good idea to try and have one day off a week, otherwise you just end up getting really tired and that's when things start to go wrong. Good opportunity to do some washing and update the website as there's speedy internet here. Trouble is there always seems to be something to do with the car - Robin found that the fuel lift pump had broken so spent much of the day trying to fix that, not much of a rest day for him. Found a great little place with cushions and tagine for dinner and wandered through the medina with its little streets packed with artists workshops, traditional shoe shops, food stalls and various tourist paraphernalia.
Day 10 - Wednesday 31/10/07 - Essouaira to bush camp near Sidi Ifni
Lots more goats in trees today, and some stunning coastline. Stopped by at the large Marjane supermarket just south of Agadir, not that we really needed to get much, but it stocks everything you could possibly imagine (mostly imported and not cheap). Agadir is really built up with high rise apartment blocks but the coast here is lined with miles and miles of sandy beaches and some good surf spots. Again, this stretch of coast is seeing lots of development; the campervan brigade are being forced further and further down the coast to seek out a quiet spot. The scenery has started to get more barren as we head towards Western Sahara and we were wondering where on earth we'd be able to camp. A track leading off the main road looked promising, so we followed it down to the sea and ended up at a fishing jetty with a few fishermen and their huts. They said it was no problem to camp and even offered us a fish for dinner; we offered them some cake - it was a nice exchange. Went to sleep with the waves crashing just outside our tent - perfect, apart from the occasional waft of fish.
Day 11 - Thursday 01/11/07 - Sidi Ifni to bush camp near Tan Tan Plage
Passed through Sidi Ifni, a curious little place with a surprising art deco lighthouse, then took a detour inland, into what felt like the middle of nowhere, until we turned a corner and there was Fort Bou Jerif - a former French Foreign Legion fort - and just round the corner was the 'Fort Bou Jerif hotel' - it could almost have been a mirage. Back on the coast you can drive along the beach for miles at Plage Blanche, but we were warned not to go beyond the wreck, because of soft sand, and with the tide coming back in we didn't want to risk getting stuck. So we followed some tracks up a oued (river bed) and eventually found our way back to the main road. Found a good spot to camp by a beach (below) near Tan Tan Plage.
Day 12 - Friday 01/11/07 - Tan Tan Plage to bush camp near Boujdour
The landscape is getting really bleak now and it was a pretty dull day of driving today. Straight roads and few natural features. It's also getting more sandy with sand creeping across the road in places and herds of camels. Went through a couple of checkpoints where we had to show our passports for the first time and they ask for your fiche (basically a sheet listing your personal details - a good idea to have a stash of these printed out, see Notes & tips). I'm pretending to be a teacher because writers/journalists are not welcome in these parts and I don't think a travel guide editor would be either. Western Sahara is still a disputed territory. After Franco's death in 1975, the Spanish agreed to withdraw and the UN declared the right to self-determination. Polisario, the independence movement, are still campaigning for a referendum. In the meantime, Morocco has been encouraging settlement in the area so that by the time a referendum ever happens (if it happens), the number of Moroccans in the area will be enough to swing the vote the right way. The point is somewhat overstated by the ridiculous amount of Moroccan flags flying at every opportunity. Again it was hard to know where to camp, but we found a canyon that we hoped would shelter us from the wind, but was actually a wind tunnel - at least we're away from the road.
Day 13 - Saturday 03/11/07 - Boujdour to Nouadhibou (Mauritania)
Still very windy, which makes it quite hard to relax because as soon as you step outside the car everything gets blown over and dusty. Apparently it's something to do with thermal cooling of the desert, combined with the fact there are no natural features or windblocks. We've also seen signs saying 'beware of mines' so no straying away from the road here. Passed through Layounne, which is full of military and UN personnel. Some kids were asking for 'bon bons' and 'cadeaux' and when we didn't give them anything, one of them spat through the window - charming! How to react to that? The last fuel station is about 80 km from the border - having seen virtually no-one on the roads all day we were surprised to find a queue of cars here, lots of overlanders including a Swedish group in a bright pink landie, who were heading to the border that day. We were planning to camp next to the border and get up early to cross, but it was only 3.30pm and we could see the Swedes just a few cars ahead in the queue. We figured that rather than sitting around battling with the wind we might as be waiting to get our passports stamped. So, not really knowing what we were doing, we joined the queue.
The border procedure was really quite straightforward and took about two hours - this may have had something to do with the fact the border closes at 6pm and they were rushing us through so they could go home.
Just as we were congratulating ourselves on getting into Mauritania so smoothly two things happened: firstly, on closer inspection of the visas we realised that the bargain E10 had only bought us a three-day visa, meaning we'd have to head to the capital, Nuoakchott, more or less straight away to extend them (no real drama, but a slight change of plan), and a few moments later the car started overheating and we pulled to a stop by the side of the road (not too far off the road for fear of mines!). Robin identified a hole in the radiator hose and realised that we'd lost our coolant. Ironic that you never quite seem to have the right spares at the right time. However, the hole was patched up by an old inner tube and a couple of jubilee clips and after several kettles-worth of hot water were boiled to replace the coolant we limped into Noaudhibou. When we arrived there was a power cut so the whole town was in complete darkness - causing a fair bit of chaos on the roads and making it virtually impossible to navigate or have any idea of where you are. It was purely by luck that we stumbled upon Camping Baie du Levrier, our auberge of choice. Couldn't be bothered to put the tent up, so took a room, which at £10 seemed rather expensive for a bare room with mattreses on the floor and peeling paint, but we were just glad to have arrived.