Wednesday 9th October 2013, 11:45AM BST.
Andy Smith and Emma Smart – and their 18-year-old Toyota Hilux Surf Bee-bee – are driving around the world and stopping occasionally to help out at chosen charities for a month or so. We have so far followed their adventures in Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia and the pair have now ventured into Africa. Last time we heard how the adventurers and Bee-bee braved the high, narrow passes of the Atlas Mountains. They are now headed south for a campsite at Fort Beau Jerif. But between them and a hot shower as they head towards the sandier terrain of the Sahara, they encounter the unexpected sight of a flooded wadi. Andy takes up the story…
IN MONGOLIA river crossings were part of the daily routine, but in Morocco we were not really expecting any, let alone one over one metre deep with flowing muddy brown water. While wading in, thigh deep, to check the riverbed, a French 2009 Toyota Landcruiser arrived behind us and its occupants watched on amused at our underwear paddling antics.
After evaluating the situation we decided the crossing was do-able, despite the French surrendering to overland defeat. With a little gas and a carefully planned route, Bee-bee took the crossing in her stride as the water washed over her bonnet.
We watched on, smugly, from the far riverbank as the French turned around and drove the 35-mile detour to the nearest bridge.
From here we continued further south.
Glance at a map of Morocco and your eyes are drawn from the mountains, deserts and cities of the north to a stretch of land in the south-west; the few roads and habitations are tentatively separated from the rest of Morocco with a faint dotted line. This is Western Sahara.
Few tourists venture this far south. Whispers amongst the campervan masses were that it’s ‘all the same’ and ‘there’s nothing there’. But there is beauty in the bleak and barren landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see for 360°. Standing surrounded by such a huge expanse of ‘nothingness’ creates a humbling feeling of being such a small dot on a huge planet. In a place where camels outnumber cars, you feel as if you have the whole vastness to yourself.
Historically the area has seen much conflict, but since 1991 the ‘country’ has been regarded as occupied territory controlled by Morocco. We visited the capital, Laayoune, and the coastal towns of Boujdour and Tarfaya, venturing as far south as Dahkla and the Tropic of Cancer and then inland to the dusty desert town of Smara.
Morocco has encouraged migration of people from the north to these areas through tax-free incentives and a lowering of the cost of fuel by around 30% – great for our gas-guzzling beast.
Information from the Western Sahara region is fiercely controlled by Morocco.
We were frequently stopped at police checkpoints and questioned about our occupations (journalists are not allowed in the region), where we had come from and were going. They closely monitor the whereabouts of all tourists. The UN and the military had a strong presence wherever we travelled.
Off-road driving in the area is also limited due to Western Sahara being listed in the UN’s top 10 most landmined countries – a fact that became glaringly obvious when a local Saharawi took me for a walk 1km into the desert to a site where the previous year a Land-Rover was annihilated, killing the driver.
A trip to Morocco would not be complete without driving some stereotypical Saharan sand dunes. From Western Sahara, we headed north-east towards the Algerian border.
A real highlight for me was driving out to the 300m high dunes at Chegaga. Other than a few sandy tracks (where we got stuck) and getting bogged down in soft sand on the shores of Lake Baikal in Russia, we’d never really driven Bee-bee in the soft yellow stuff. Apprehensively we headed west out of the town of M’hamid and after about two miles, the stony route gave way to undefined tracks in the sand.
This time we wisely aired down the tyres to 14psi and cracked on. Given our previous track record for driving in soft sand, we were amazed at the difference airing down made. Bee-bee, despite her hefty load, handled impeccably and we smoothly drove the 74 miles (with a camp in the middle) without a hitch.
It was out in the dunes near the desert town of Merzouga that we first encountered one of the desert’s hidden hazards. Fesh-fesh, as the Arabians call it, is the by-product of thousands of years of erosion, sand that has been worn down from its granular size into a fine dust, not too dissimilar to talcum powder.
What makes fesh-fesh so dangerous is that you don’t see it coming until you are in the thick of it. We stumbled into a large field of it while driving a 90-mile off-road route from Tafraout to Taouz along the Moroccan/Algeria border in the south-east.
When encountered it can spell instant disaster as its smoke-like plumes can quickly obscure vision and its quicksand-like qualities can leave you with a sinking feeling.
Tread too deeply or too slowly and expect the fesh-fesh to envelope your vehicle. Luckily for us we had aired the tyres down on the friendlier, slightly forgiving, soft yellow sand prior to hitting the fesh-fesh.
In a slight panic and with Emma crying ‘whatever you do, don’t stop’ in my ear, I nailed the accelerator and was thankful Bee-bee’s thirsty three-litre turbo engine had the horsepower to get us through it. A quick glance in the wing mirror revealed the volcano-esque clouds slowly engulfing Bee-bee as the power and traction got sucked from the vehicle. Wrestling with the steering wheel, I attempted to aim the car at the surest tracks ahead and by some miracle after about 500m managed to find some firmer ground.
After spending three months in Morocco, it was obvious why we met so many other overlanders. Morocco is essentially an off-road playground for Europeans and it is often used as a testing ground before embarking on longer trips.
It offers all kinds of challenging terrain for every kind of overlander, from motorcyclists to the largest off-road trucks. The people are friendly, the fuel is cheap and weather excellent. It is essentially overland heaven and it’s closer than you think.
If you’re looking for adventure and want to test your school run 4×4 to the extreme, hot foot it to Morocco – you won’t regret it.