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01: UK-Scandinavia
02: France
03: Spain-Portugal
04: Andalucia off-road
05: Morocco: Fes/Marrakech
06: Morocco: Atlas/Sahara Safari
07: Gibraltar, Switzerland, Italy
08: Turkey
09: Syria
10: Jordan
11: Iran
12: Pakistan
13: India
14: Philippines

Special Features:
Kirsten writes about exploring the Middle East

Kirsten's dispatch about her Indian adventure

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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

Check out the Sahara Desert video

London Bombay Cebu

High Atlas and Sahara Desert Safari
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #6, Morocco: Atlas/Sahara Safari
13 December 2000
Todra Gorge, Morocco
Imagine yourself in an expedition-prepared Land Rover as it claws its way to the top of the sand dune amid the shriek of its turbodiesel at redline. Now a quick shift into 3rd gear, low range, making sure to do it quickly enough to keep the momentum going and stay in the engine’s optimal torque band. Your sit in your seat like an astronaut during launch, looking up through the windscreen into a sky of pure azure. The Garmin GPS, having shattered it’s mount on day 2 from the extreme vibration, and now sitting loose on the dashboard atop a Tuareg headwrap, flies backward into the cabin, arrested only by its power cable. Then, suddenly, you crest the dune, the front wheels extend to their maximum with a gentle clunk, the vehicle pitches downward, and the view changes to golden sand.

This scene played out again and again as we drove through the edge of the Sahara desert, surely the highlight of our trip so far. Though I have done a fair amount of off-road driving, nothing could have prepared me for the rugged conditions we encountered in Morocco’s back of beyond.

After two weeks enjoying the exotic delights of Fes and Marrakech, it was time at last to turn north once more, and rendezvous with a bunch of fellow Land Rover nuts with whom we would spend the next 2 weeks journeying through the High Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert. We pitched camp at the assigned coordinates, and in a few hours a group of 13 tough-looking Defenders, Discoverys and Range Rovers came rumbling up the dirt track, fresh off the boat from Algecieras.

Much to our delight, there were 2 other ex-Camel Trophy Vehicles – a 110 that served as a support vehicle on the 1996 expedition to Borneo, driven by Martin and Vivien Field, and another that carried the film crew on the 1998 event in Tierra Del Fuego, driven by Nick Taylor and his friend, Lee Bradfield.

Our route started in Voulibilis, around 75km northwest of Fes. From there, we traveled back toward Marrakech, past the Middle Atlas Mountains, finally turning off road and into the High Atlas near Ijoukak. As we drove south, we all formed, rather naturally, into sub-groups based on our speed, driving style and so on. Because of our similar levels of experience, and the capabilities of the vehicles, we found that the 3 Camel Trophy vehicles seemed well matched. After the first day of off-road driving we teamed up with the other "Camels" as well as a well-prepared tangerine Discovery driven by Toby and Russ.

* Note to Toby and Russ: I didn’t get your last names, guys! Please send me some email with your last names and let me know so I can update this dispatch!

I have always had a healthy respect for Land Rovers, but up until this trip, I never knew what they were really capable of. Back home in the Pacific Northwest of the US, we do a lot of driving in mud, and on narrow, steep rocky, slimy muddy tracks, usually with dense foliage. Our Discoveries and Defenders handle this pretty well, but they are a little disadvantaged compared to the lightweight jeeps that most people drive on trails there.

But when you put a Land Rover in an expedition setting, you begin to understand why they are designed the way they are. These are vehicles that can take an obscene pounding while carrying the heavy loads to the most remote areas. During my daily vehicle inspections, I would marvel that the Disco could still run at all after the day’s driving, much less run as well as it did. Many times, I felt the it would just shake itself to bits. But these vehicles just take it and take it. They are incredibly tough. It is a crime that most of them are bought as status symbols and never used for their intended purpose, to which they are so well suited.

Our guide, Neil Hopkinson, had prepared rally-style route books, complete with tulip diagrams and waypoints marked with earth coordinates. I did most of the driving, leaving Karin to navigate, which she did admirably well. We found that the Garmin Street Pilot GPS, loaded with the Worldmap data series provided an excellent resource and, when combined our collection of paper maps, we always knew where we were. Each morning, while the coffee was brewing, I entered the coordinates, then assembled them into a "route". You then simply tell the GPS to navigate the route and it gives instructions as you go. Our GPS also displays a moving map, which is a great help in getting oriented. Nick Taylor had an interesting setup which involved scanned Russian topographical military maps, stored digitally and registered to earth plus a connection between his GPS and a laptop computer that displayed his position on top of the map display.

In the High Atlas, we climbed up rocky tracks, eventually experiencing the low-grade headaches associated with high altitudes. We passed through Talouine, which reminded us "Tattoine", the town where Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan trade their land speeder for a ride on the Millennium Falcon. I half expected to walk into a café at some point and see the aliens sitting at the bar! During one break stop, Karin initiated one of her trading sessions and got a bracelet for Kirsten in exchange for 2 pens, 3 bananas, and 20 Dirhams! She would later make some great deals in the desert, trading fruits, pens, notepads, and cookies for fossils and minerals.

We were glad to eventually get out of the High Atlas, away from the altitude and the bitterly cold nights. We had brought good sleeping bags, but we were using them at the end of their operational temperature range, so we bundled up with extra layers of polypropylene at night. But once we got down to the edge of the Sahara, the days were perfect (around 75-85 degrees), and the nights very pleasant, with the kind of clear bright, star-filled skies that you only get to see in the desert

Unfortunately, as we were heading out of the High Atlas, two members of our party – a couple of Irish lads – rolled their Defender 90 on a stony track and totaled it. The Defender’s rear axle lay several meters from the main part of the car, and their gear was strewn all over the place. They and the members of their sub-group re-attached the axle with spit and bailing wire, removed the rear prop shaft and the half shafts, locked the center differential and the lads proceeded back to Tangier in front wheel drive. It is the Land Rover’s basic design, the result of years of expedition experience, which allowed them to make such a field repair after a major accident and limp out of the mountains under their own power – amazing.

A few km outside Foum Zguid, we turned off the pavement into the desert. There were no tracks to follow at all, so we simply followed our GPS units to the coordinates for camp. We’d get out on these wide, stony plains, called "Hamada", and blast along at 90kph, then come to a washout that would require following an old riverbank for a while before diving down into the sand riverbed, driving along for a while until another reasonably low bank appeared that we could use to climb back out. The riverbeds were a little scary at first, because it was easy to get stuck, if you lost momentum. The key thing when driving on sand is momentum. When you go in, you have to work the gears to stay in your engine’s power range, so quick downshifts to keep things going were routine. It was quite a thrill, running inside those sand rivers in 4th or 5th gear, low range, flat out.

The camp after Foum Zguid was a little tricky to find, because it was actually around 2km from the stated coordinates. If you were driving the route during the day, and followed the path of least resistance toward the coordinates, you would stumble on the little oasis where we decided to camp. Unfortunately, the last group of 3 vehicles never made it to the oasis. They turned off the tarmac late in the day, and found themselves driving in the desert at night, which is hardly optimal. Our guide made a decision to continue onward with the main group and hope the others would turn back rather than trying to follow us into the desert. They did this, and headed back to Foum Zguid, where they had a peculiar little adventure. It seems some of the kids blocked their way through the town with large rocks, then began aggressively demanding "bon bons" (candy), "stylos" (pens), and whatever else that caught their fancy. Well, these folks were on no mood for it, as they were now separated from the main group and focused on getting to the next supply point. Apparently, this enraged the kids, and some of them literally attacked the Land Rovers with knives – quite an unusual thing to happen in a country with people as gentle as the Moroccans

Meanwhile, we were breaking camp at the oasis, concerned that we were leaving behind some of our group, but without a better plan. We assumed that they would meet us at Zagora, where we were scheduled to resupply in 3 days.

The next few days, we drove over more Hamada, dry river beds and stony tracks, as we made our way to the first real sand dunes we would encounter at M’hamid, near the Algerian border. We took advantage of Neil’s expert driving advice, learning techniques for driving in the sand, and how to tackle the dunes in relative safety. Basically, this involves keeping as square to the dune as possible, so you go straight up, and straight down. One of the most dangerous things that can happen is to get sideways on a dune and face a possible roll over situation. Tyre pressure is also critical. We kept our fronts at around .7 bar and the rears at 1.1 bar in the sand, which just about doubles the area of contact between your tyre and the surface, improving traction tremendously.

In our first few sand camps we had the opportunity to interact with quite a few desert nomads, who would seem to pop up out of nowhere, even in places where sand was all you could see for miles in any direction. Several times, children from the Tuareg tribes would visit our camps, with assortments of fossils they had found and prepared. They were eager to trade, as were our little nomads. Once Kirsten and Connor got a taste of this, they jumped at every chance to trade. They each had a stash of lotions, shampoos, soaps, crayons, pens, notepads and other things they had collected along the way or pilfered from hotel rooms. In a few days, they got to be pretty good at trading, making some classic deals, such as Connor’s 4 crayons for an ammonite fossil. Watching their interactions with the Tuareg children in the desert, I was sure that we had done the right thing to pull them out of school and make this journey. What a learning experience!

Finally, we arrived in Zagora, where we met our wayward friends, who had been there for two days and were none too pleased about having been left behind. You can’t blame them, really, but our guide had a difficult decision – hold up the whole group, or assume that the "lost patrol" would make the intelligent choice and head to the next town.

We got the Land Rover greased and blew sand out the air filter at a local repair shop, then I tore around the souk, hunting down all the supplies we’d need for the Sahara section of our trip coming up next. In addition to food and water, we stocked up on fuel – 60 additional liters on the roof in addition to a full tank. This would give us a usable range of just over 1000km.

Then, it was off to the Sahara. As we worked our way toward Merzouga, the stony plains and sand rivers to which we were now accustomed became punctuated with patches of small dunes, which we attacked with gusto. Finally, after a fun drive through a fairly loose and deep sand river (5th low, flat out…yeah!), we arrived at our Sahara camp, with towering dunes all around us.

As we pitched camp, the sky was clear. Karin and I were having a discussion about whether to put on the tent fly, which I was against, since the weather had been so beautiful. Karin had her way, and sure enough, as we were clipping the fly onto the poles, the wind picked up and the sand started flying. By the time we were done, we were scrambling to pull heavy stuff out of the Disco to plop down on our tent stakes. By the time we were done, the place looked like a garage sale, with equipment boxes, 20 liter water bottles, large tools and spare tyres laying on the corners of our tent.

The next day broke clear and sunny (again), and we started off toward the large dunes. We were thankful for the techniques we learned in M’Hamid’s smaller dunes a few days before. These were bigger, scarier, and potentially much more dangerous, so we were careful to scout ahead on foot beforehand. It would be awful to crest a dune only to be presented with a near vertical drop, and roll down the other side! Pretty soon, we got into the rhythm of it, and eventually made it all the way to the other side, to the desert town of Merzouga, where nick Taylor and I promptly began looking for beer.

Finding beer in the Sahara desert during Ramadan is not the easiest proposition. A Tuareg man appeared as we approached the town and I was able to communicate with him in Spanish. Apparently, a lot of Spanish rallies travel through there, so a lot of people speak the language. He hopped on his motorbike and beckoned us to follow him, which we did. We arrived at a small hotel where he said a few words to the proprietor. This was starting to look like a hush-hush operation. Finally, we were led down some dark hallways, then finally to a room tucked away in the back, filled with all sorts of beer. It was for sale, but at quite a high price. Little 8oz cans of the local brew were selling for the equivalent of $2 per can, and these guys weren’t backing down. Hey, in the Sahara, when you’re the guy with the beer, you call the shots, right?

No sooner had we purchased the beer than we learned that this same fellow happened to be in charge of one of the local dromedary stables. We arranged to meet him the next morning for a quick ride in the dunes on these one-humped camels. I can’t imagine what it must be like to travel any distance on these "ships of the desert". After just a one hour ride, I was sore for the next week! We all had a great time, though, and Connor demonstrated his skills by riding his camel backwards, standing up, and laying down.

Finally, it was time to start making our way north again, and on the way, we stopped overnight at Todra Gorge, an impressive place, with steep rocky overhangs that has become increasingly popular with climbers. Our hotel had a rooftop terrace, which gives a fantastic view of the night sky through the sheer rocks walls on either side.

The next morning brought an end to our adventure, and the start of the tedious transit back up to tangier on tarmac roads. We stayed more or less in our small group, driving hard for over 600km, which put us within striking distance of the ferry back to Spain. Our friends Nick and Lee, in their 1998 Camel 110 turned south toward Mauritania and Mali for Christmas and came back with stories of more adventures as they chased the Paris-Dakar race back up through Morocco on their return!

We won’t soon forget the experience of our desert expedition, not just because of the experience itself, but also because that fine golden sand and desert dust has gotten into everything we own! It is in every nook and cranny of our car, our clothes, our food – everywhere. Several people had their CD players pack up in the first week of desert driving. We’ll get it all washed out, eventually, but for now it serves as a reminder of the wonderful time we had in Morocco.

Next up, we are transiting to Zermatt, Switzerland for a Christmas break from our travels and a week of skiing. Have a great holiday season!

On to Gibraltar, Switzerland and Italy!

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