Novices In Morocco by Bernie and Martyn Allport

Bernie and Martyn’s excellent article about their adventure with us to Morocco epitomises exactly the sort of experience that our clients get when travelling with Impala. One progression that I always enjoy hearing about is when our clients have the confidence to travel on an adventure of their own after being on one with us.

It was with a need to pinch ourselves to make sure that we were not still dreaming, that we embarked loudly and excitedly on our second sand dune “ride” that morning; was it really us? Could this really be true? Despite 4 days travelling through ever changing terrain and culture to get to the Sahara, Nuneaton and our normal lives seemed very far away.

It would be difficult to know where to begin with answering the question “which were the most poignant moments?” because naturally these would vary depending upon which member of the family you asked.

On a 4×4 trip such as this, most emphasis might be placed on the vehicle and related issues, but as a young family (well the kids are young!) with very little travel experience there were many other issues for us, for example, who to travel with, what sights to see, the culture, food and navigation and, possibly most importantly, how to cope when “the going gets tough!”- All of these provided many moments of reflection.

For the statisticians amongst you, we covered nearly 4500 Miles in 18 days, travelling via Plymouth, St Malo, Lourdes, Almadrona, Estapona, Tarifa, Tangier, (where we were greeted with Moroccan officialdom and mint tea, no choice about either item!).

Armed with our “Tulip diagrams” which our daughter called “daffodils!” we relied on a blend of G.P.S, road maps (Michelin and TPC’s) and compass…… to enable us to meet up each evening at the same place as our comrades! Needless to say this was the cause of many tales- from those of us who were mislaid by locals, or messed up on navigation basics, or relied on signs which were out of date, or took detours to pick up that all important souvenir from the “bargain basement” of Moroccan “souks”.

Oh! And there were also those who broke down having the experience of bush mechanics. We partook in a variety of Moroccan ways of life during our exploration of this fascinating country. We had 2 designated campsites (not appearing in Camping & Caravanning!”), 4 “wild camps”, 4 hotels and one unscheduled Auberge.

To explain further:-

One campsite was close to the famous Roman ruins of Voulibilis near Moulay Idris, our first overnight stop off the ferry. We were glad to be relatively self-sufficient when we surveyed the facilities, but after all, what more do you need than a shelter off the main thoroughfare? Our daughter and her new travelling friend embarked upon a video diary for camping acquaintances back home, exclaiming at the washrooms “you would say it’s a little different to home” & “you can tell this is a poor country”- good sociological discovery for 7 & 8 year olds!

The next campsite was at the top of the beautiful “Cascades d’Ouzoud”. My lack of literary skills prevents me from describing this in exact detail! Suffice to say it was an experience not to be missed, with a double lullaby of “frog chorus” and “hippy” style travellers serenading us to sleep with songs of peace.

Domestic services had deteriorated from the last site! Suffice to say that the toilets are not British and instead of taking a newspaper, one has to take nose clips and a strong stomach.

Very little imagination was needed to believe that we could be anywhere in the world at this point – rather than just a few hours away from the southern tip of tourist “Costa Spain”; this is what we believe is the real essence of travel.

The cascades were a wonderful sight, still retaining a “local” feel as gentle steps hewn into the side gave you an entrance, whilst one exited through olive groves. Here we sampled our first taste of Moroccan “bartering” as the men paid the locals a complicated fee (which amounted to 50p) for our traverse across the base of the falls in home-made wooden rafts- one named “Titanic!”

Our visit to Marrakesh was based at a hotel in the rural outskirts, complete with running water, swimming pool and good food – we thought we had arrived in paradise. The hotel must have quickly run out of water at the rate we all competed to get clothes and bodies washed! Marrakesh was much more than we’d believed it could be, and we wished we could have spent more time there. Sensible precautions prevailed but we were allowed to enjoy our visit without incident, which was a nice bonus compared with some stories we’d heard. It was a very pleasant assault on all of one’s senses and quite magical at nightfall.

The next day saw us in the high Atlas Mountains and our first wild camp in a Larch forest- the vastly changing terrain and scenery starting to appeal to the special qualities of a Land Rover. You could sense the men all grooming their memories of previous off-road training!

The wild camp held untold worries for us, like where to flush the toilet paper! However after the “luxury” of campsites we soon realised the bonus of a dugout! Each wild camp became a venue for a communal campfire complete with beer, wine and the “craic” (if you’re Irish).

From here, we followed muddy tracks and after many changes in height we arrived in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, passing many typical villages and their inhabitants along the way. Our approach was always greeted with the children’s cries of “stylo, Monsieur!” as they ran up or down the terraces as sure-footed as goats, demanding their “cadeaux” that previous visitors had bestowed upon them. We always felt uneasy about this, encouraging dependence not independence. Should we have given the pens etc to a local school instead?

There was a cultural fascination around almost every corner and travelling in this manner allows a view of typical life, often missed by other itineraries-women carrying babies on their backs, transporting wood by donkey, washing day by the rivers, field work etc, etc oh! and being offered Kif (hashish) by a nonagenarian on a donkey in the middle of nowhere!

Our last refuelling and water stop before the desert found us in the town of Foum Zguid, where despite it’s obvious importance as the gateway to the desert, there was no sign of touristy commercialisation– a welcome revelation to us now that we had “gone native”. Leaving the town through the arched gateway, eyes scanning for the point at which we enter the real Sahara, a sense of anticipation fell over our usually noisy interior as we anticipated 4 days away from civilisation. Unlike our forest wild camp, our next camps held slightly more worrying notes for ladies going about their ablutions as we were generally on a flat plain! However, survival being the name of the game, we always found a slight depression in the sand!

The Sahara is an amazing mixture of sand, rock, boulder, oases and a surprising array of majestic hills, which appeared all around like marble sculpts, and provided the unique setting for the kids’ first driving lessons!

It was playtime for the boys! Land Rovers patted, inspected, packed securely, sand ladders at the ready. Warned to behave well, we came nearer to the dune areas where new adventures could begin. Initial training was given on how to approach the dune and what to expect on the other side (a drop). Eventually we all coursed through “dune city” and by the excitement heard you would think we were at Alton Towers! Our children, ever adapting to their new environments, quickly started grading the dunes out of 10. So when the cry went up “yippee it looks like a 9” you knew to hold on to everything you’d got (including your stomach and/or bladder), whereas on the shout of “4” we all carried on reading Harry Potter! It was everyone’s sublime duty to get stuck on the dunes at least once – otherwise how could the boys justify investing in all those ropes, sand ladders, winches and umbrellas, by now it was raining and as a mechanical imbecile Martyn (no I’m not!, well, yes I am but you don’t have to tell everyone!) offered this at every incident until eventually it WAS the tool needed! (and everyone laughed at me when I said that we may need an umbrella in the Sahara). As we crossed Lac Iriki, which had reverted to its former glory, we experienced some scary “fish-tailing” across it’s saturated surface as well as some very glutinous mud.

Due to the adverse wet weather conditions we took an impromptu “bed” for the night at the only auberge for 3 hours. Not realising there was a different sort of auberge to the French type, we were not prepared for what lay ahead. Our bivouacs were made up in front of us by Tuaregs, the semi-nomadic desert people- no women were ever seen. Despite their isolation, we were provided with enough wine and beer to keep the damp and the masses of flying, mating termites at bay. The children made friends with the camels in the back “garden” along with their owners who gave them their E-mail address (out here!) on our departure. That night they were treated to Tuareg hospitality around a furious campfire. This came complete with authentic Tuareg music where the children were encouraged to play the instruments. Whether it was the wine, sand dunes, rain or sheer tiredness, the heady atmosphere saw all the men asleep on their mattresses (shows who does all the work!), whilst the echo of drum beats, bells and tribal dancing around the fire entertained the children and women. Something special must have occurred for them to get our son engaged in tribal “river dancing!” We completed our time in the desert with drier, sunnier times, everyone being more competent in the sand than they’d thought possible. We were sad to leave but our next stop included a hotel in Zagora, which was extremely welcome. This was another frontier town, very commercial and it’s high pressure selling techniques were intimidating until one learnt to walk down the middle of the main road and to shout “Inshallah” to the shopkeepers. These professionals would follow you down the street and then on the way back, they would question you as to why you didn’t buy from them ? (Inshallah). Local garage facilities and vehicle washing was much needed and offered here, but at the cost of much negotiation/bartering time with rival families, each vying for our custom.

Traversing terrain as varied as any we’d seen so far, we reached Todra Gorge. Having accidentally detoured (i.e. got lost!)( no we didn’t, we were Shopping ((yes, even in the desert!)) but my wife would rather say that we got lost!, pathetic isn’t it?), we brought up the rear and arrived after dark, not really aware until the morning what a phenomenal place we were situated in. Our room was literally nestled among the rocks of the gorge, giving a strange, oppressive feel. As morning broke the dancing sunlight piercing through gaps in the rock face made a magical moment. Our departure from Hotel Les Roches was rather dramatic as HE managed to avoid a herd of goats but plunged the Landrover into a nearby river (it did need washing!), swiftly flooding the vehicle so much so that after being winched out we opened the back door to be greeted by a deluge of water, along with floating monopoly pieces and Harry Potter CD’s! Some of our comrades obviously came to our aid while others supported their sides (too much laughter!) or just took photos! The war wound to our vehicle will remain without repair- call it a souvenir!

We eventually left the group in a race against time for our ferry and our workplaces, travelling rather nervously through unusually full riverbeds due to the recent rains. Determined not to repeat our earlier trick (wash), silence once again reigned within our vehicle! Unable to find a place to stay we belted on towards Rabat and the motorway to Tangier, where at a very nice service station, we snoozed in the Land Rover and partook of very palatable and friendly fare.

To conclude, although we were on an organised expedition, we felt privileged that it enabled us to see a non-European country with a culture that we knew very little about. As our first visit to a Muslim country it opened up a new understanding that could make travel elsewhere in the world more manageable. In just one visit it has provided our children with invaluable education about their fellow men, the way other people live and that they actually have a very privileged and rich existence compared to most and that even essentials like water cannot just be taken for granted.

Grateful thanks must go to Neil Hopkinson at Impala Adventures (for being a superb leader and the consummate professional), and to Chris and his company Liveridge 4×4 (for the advice and vehicle preparation). If this is what the land rover fraternity and adventure travel companies are like, then the world is indeed a good place.