Off road party time -

469 days, 36177km

Morocco is great! It was a good decision to spend a few months in the south of the country to escape the European winter. The nights are cold and the days pleasantly warm. Warm enough at least to maintain our African tan for a few more months. We indulge ourselves in the delicacies that Morocco offers and enjoy the often beautiful landscapes and friendly people.

When we updated last time we were in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. Officially this is already Morocco, there is no obvious border between the two countries, but the two don’t really compare. The long stretch of land that we drove from the Mauritanian border to Tan Tan, 300km north of Laayoune, was mostly boring; the road was straight, the land flat and the only thing to see was an occasional fisherman’s village. Once we passed Tan Tan things changed. Mountains appeared on the horizon and not much later we drove through the hills. Our first destination was Plage Blanche, a forty kilometer stretch of beach south of Sidi Ifni, this was the location for the New Year’s party we were going to attend. We had the option of getting there via a smooth tar road or off-road somewhat following the coast. Since we had seen so much tar already the last weeks the decision was easy and we left the tar some 100km south of Sidi Ifni. The track took us through a few oueds, the Moroccan name for a river, most of them were dry like a months old cookie which made it a piece of cake to cross them. The last oued was the biggest and this one had water in it. The descend into Oued Boussafine was steep on a rocky slope. In the gorge we saw green agricultural fields and streams with water. A path snaked its way through the gorge, subsiding all the puddles and most of the streams. We made it safe and sound across and when we peeped over the edge we saw something that Morocco in the winter is famous for; the plastic fantastic.

Since many years Europeans find their way to Morocco in the winter to escape the cold in the north. More and more pensioners who used to hibernate in Southern Spain now take a ferry across and they all come in a plastic fantastic. For those who don’t know; a plastic fantastic is a (fairly) new camper complete with everything you find in a house. They are easily recognized when parked by the satellite dish on the roof. The color is usually white though sometimes a silver grey one appears too. Here in Morocco many of them have a painting on the side of an oasis with some camels and palm trees, hand painted by a local artist. Some places are known to be overwhelmed with them and obviously it was our intention to avoid those places as much as possible, at least for the next 30 years. However, the first sight of them made us realize that we were getting back into civilization, and somehow this felt quite pleasant. We continued a bit further and found the place where the party was going to take place. We parked and watched more and more people arrive. Most of them in vans (the 508 was well represented) and trucks, all homemade campers. It was quite a cool collection of vehicles altogether. On the last day of the year some hundred vehicles had arrived and amongst them was one(!) that we knew. A girl from Utrecht arrived in her truck with her boyfriend and their two dogs. So nice to see a familiar face. Nathalie and Hilke were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We spent the party together and later in the night a few more people we knew showed up. After the New Year’s celebration we went to the Tigmert Oasis, east of Guelmim, together with a few other trucks and stayed there for a day. This oasis had water flowing in it, and the small gorge was a wild forest of palm trees. A beautiful sight. We heard about a hot spring ten kilometer further down the track and the next day we headed in the direction of it together with Hilke and Nathalie. The landscape was dry and sandy with bushes and argane trees dotted around, mountains edged the horizon. We found a nice bush camp at the foot of a hill where we stayed for two nights. The second day we drove our truck with the four of us in it to the hot spring. It turned out to be a vertical pipe serving as a fountain in a small shallow pool in an open landscape. Not a tropical oasis with palm trees and chirping birds, but nevertheless we enjoyed the hot bath. After another quiet night we drove twenty kilometers north to Fask. This small village is nothing special, but just north of it is a gorge and in the gorge are a few cataract. The four of us plus two dogs went on a hike up the gorge, through and up the falls, under the palm trees following the small flow of water. We unwillingly picked up a young boy as guide; he pretty much gave himself the task of guiding us up and down the gorge. He couldn’t speak French so communicating was difficult. We couldn’t send him off nor could we ask him things about the surroundings. Despite this we enjoyed the walk a lot. It is quite cool how a gorge just appears in sight. Walking or driving on flat dry tiresome brown and grey surface and all of a sudden there is a cliff and when you look down the cliff you discover a whole new world. Palm trees with dates growing in them, small rivers and falls, but the color is what stands out the most; green in all shades imaginable. Such a difference from the rest above it. The next day we took another hike, this time across the gorge to an abandoned village. Many houses were in decay, but one of them looked as if it was still in use sometimes and we peeked inside. Surrounding an open courtyard lay many rooms of which the kitchen was easily recognized; all the walls were black with soot.

After a few days we moved on and took a small road north to Tafraoute. Tafraoute lies on an altitude of 1100m and the climb into the Anti Atlas mountain chain was scenic. Luckily the road was freshly surfaced and widened at the most winding part; many tar roads here a too narrow for two vehicles to cross each other. One, but even better both, must give way to the other by hugging the ditch. We arrived at dusk and got just a little glimpse of the strange big boulders in the landscape. We bush camped a few kilometers before the town and when we woke up the next morning we felt as if we woke up on a movie set. (Few films have actually been shot here) Big loose boulders and mountains of boulders, sometimes with a gigantic boulder, slightly threatening, balanced on the summit, made up the landscape and of course palm trees were everywhere giving the whole scene a tropical hint. The whole scenery had a cartoonish feel to it and a Belgium artist must have seen the same thing back in the eighties because he got permission from the town council to paint some of the giant rocks blue. Nowadays the rocks are still colored though the paint has worn off on many of them. Many people find it a pity that the rocks are painted, the magical landscape doesn’t need it they rightfully say. However, it is a funny sight. The town itself is quite small. Every winter a large group of alternative people arrive here and stay around for a few months. It was funny to notice that close to town in the palmary the plastic fantastic campsite sprung and on the other side of the mountain, close to the painted rocks, the gypsy campsite arose. We stayed at the latter for two weeks; time flies in a place like Tafraoute. At the campsite were a few other travelers that we liked quite well; it was nice to be in the company of similar minded people again. The super friendly people of Tafraoute village are very used to the invasion in the winter and are therefore not treating you like a tourist. No pushy demands or endless begging. We visited the hammam a few times, it’s the Moroccan spa. The hammam exists of three rooms, the first one lukewarm and the last one hot. This is the place where people come to clean themselves. With two buckets of water, one hot one cold, one sits down on a small plastic carpet and by scooping water over yourself you wash and scrub yourself clean. Quite a nice experience although the hammam in Tafraoute can’t be called pretty; plain tiles and low ceilings, none of the pretty Moroccan decor in here. We also treated ourselves a few times by going out for a nice meal. Usually a tajine; a traditional Moroccan dish. The food is served in the same earthenware plate that it’s cooked in and is covered by a conical lid. Once the dish is served they remove the “hat” and you can enjoy the lovely taste of steamed vegetables and meat. The food here is so good! Besides the tajine we eat a lot of couscous, olives, dates, nuts and bread. Also, the many bakeries sell the most delicious pastries and cookies. It is very hard to resist the urge of trying yet another one of them every time we visit a shop to buy some bread. After two weeks we decided it was time to continue our trip and see what else Morocco has to offer, first destination Ait Mansour.

The oasis of Ait Mansour is very pretty, like any other gorge. We didn’t stay for the night, but instead drove through the gorge and exited on the other side. The road through the oasis was narrow and many palms were hanging low over the road. The roof of the truck had a good brush so we didn’t need to get up there to clean the solar panels that day. The twisting path continued for half an hour and we enjoyed the ride; the shady palms, the tall straight walls of the canyon on either side with special kind of cubical rocks we hadn’t seen before and the houses with their people. The style of the Moroccan houses is quite beautiful; square shaped, bricks covered with plaster, often pinkish, and often a battlement around a roof terrace. The woodworks are decorated with carvings and colored glass is used as a finishing touch. There are still many old houses standing, and luckily the newer ones are build in similar style, making sure it all fits together well. After the gorge the landscape flattened out and we drove on a gravel road towards Tata. We didn’t stay in Tata either, but headed further east and just after Tissint we drove off the tar road onto a track going south towards the Algerian border. Obviously we weren’t going to Algeria. No, we were on the way to M’Hamid partly following a track often used in the Dakar rally. Some people drive the 200km stretch in a day, but we were in no rush at all and did it in four days. Sometimes the track was easy to find and easy to drive, but with our urge for adventure we challenged ourselves a bit. A big part of the route went through Lake Iriki. This is mostly a dry saltpan and rarely a real lake. Many tracks go right through the middle of the various parts of giant flat stretch. Navigating on a flat white surface is a funny thing to do; it’s easy to pick up quite some speed and all you do is drive into the big nothing, following yourself and your direction on the gps. Once we got to the main area of the lake, southeast of Foum Zguid we had to choose were to pass the lake and neighboring Erg Chegaga. Erg Chegaga is a huge sea of sand dunes which we wanted to enjoy and drive in, but not straight through the middle. Passing on the north side is most common, but south was more directly towards M’Hamid. We choose the south route and got some adventure. After following a track for a while it started to bend more south than we wished to go, so we turned east. We still saw some other vehicle tracks and felt ok to follow. The scary thing on a saltpan is that the ground is unstable; it could drop underneath you any moment because it is impossible to say how long it has been dry. We have seen many scary photos of trucks and cars stuck in a saltpan. After our muddy episode in Tanzania we know what it’s like to be stuck and this is not something we fancy again. So, we kept on following the tracks as good as we possibly could, but after a while sand dunes started to block the way. And when there weren’t dunes in the way the surface of the pan was anything but flat. For two hours we drove an average of five km/h until we were surrounded by dunes. We looked at each other and realized that this was not good. We stopped for a small bite and a cup of tea, and after that explored the direct surroundings by foot and by climbing on the roof of the truck. To our surprise and relieve we were not too far from a dry riverbed which seemed to be headed in the right direction, somewhat at least. In one hour the riverbed took us back to track that was on our map and in use; fresh tracks were clearly visible. Exhausted we parked the truck and bush camped close to it. The next day we made it near to M’Hamid when all of a sudden we saw a lot of cars everywhere. We stopped and talked with some of the people and found out that we were on the tracks of a rally, the Mhamid express. It didn’t took long until the first motorbikes showed up, racing through the sand leaving big dust clouds behind, followed by numerous cars, buggy’s and quads. Quite a cool sight and we decided to stay where we were for the day.

The next day we picked up a few breads in M’Hamid and bush camped in the dunes on the other side of the town. The day after we made a short stop in Tagounite before heading onto the tracks again in the direction of Merzouga this time. This stretch can be done in a day if you really want it, but once again time was on our hands and we took three days for it. The track was easy to find this time though the driving was quite hard at times. If anything it should be marked as bumpy and therefore fairly uncomfortable. By the time Merzouga came into sight we were quite fed up with the skippy ball tracks. East of Merzouga lays Erg Chebbi, Morocco’s most famous sea of sand. Here the dunes are quite high and they make an impressive sight. Instead of going to the town we looped eastwards into the sandy dunes. The driving in the sand was great and we found a beautiful camp spot at the foot of a dune. The next day we drove further around the Erg and managed to get bogged in deep sand. Luckily when stuck in sand one can just dig a bit, put sand plates under the wheels and drive one free again. Whole operation was done in half an hour. Afterwards a short visit to the town was planned. Not much was happening there and after a mint tea on a terrace and a small food stock up we left the village again. In the short period of time we spent there we have been asked to go on a camel tour five times. Funny detail; so far we haven’t seen a single camel in Morocco or any other African country whilst camel tours and camel meat and various dishes are served everywhere. Dromedary, however, are found everywhere. Whether we are too lazy to pronounce the two extra syllables or a big mix up has taken place we don’t know.

The next few days we drove once again off road back towards M’Hamid, but on different tracks. We looped around a little more north then when we headed out this way. The track was in general more smooth which made it more pleasant to drive. Perhaps you wonder why we drive so much off road when it seems that it is not very enjoyable. The reason is quite simple; the bush camping along the quiet tracks is amazing. If we have to point out one highlight of our trip it must be the many nights camping in the middle of nowhere. Sorry if we repeat ourselves, but nothing beats sleeping away from everyone and everything. Just you and nature. After sunset when all life retreats, a silence follows, and the silence in combination with darkness is quite something. On nights when the moon is absent you can see stars like a dome over you. Is the moon there you all of a sudden have a shadow in the dark. Things like these we will miss greatly once we are back in Europe. Many times during the last two weeks we noticed great similarity between Morocco and Namibia. It brought back some very good memories. The tracks here in southern Morocco are much like the riverbeds in the north of Namibia, except of course for the wildlife. Though here we’ve seen many dromedary, who are, after all, family of giraffe. In total we drove just over 700km off road in ten days time.

This weekend we will be back in M’Hamid for the very last fun in the sand and here we will meet up again with Nathalie and Hilke, as well as some others we met in Tafraoute. And after that the trip is going to the inevitable north; a drive through the stunning Draa Valley up to Ouarzazate and from there we’re not quite sure, but we will have to cross the Atlas Mountains somewhere. The weather will get colder and wetter as we get closer to home, and it is not going to be easy to say goodbye to the never ending sunshine that has been our companion for so long now, but it’s what will happen soon, unfortunately. Only a few weeks in Morocco, and Africa, are left. We will make the best of them!

Besides the usual photos we’ve also uploaded two new videos and a few panoramas, enjoy.

Till the next one!

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