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Off-roading it on the Marrakech express

Diesel Toyota Landcruiser carves across the Sahara on a wild Moroccan tour

Published May 15, 2014

The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca
MARRAKECH, MOROCCO—If we were heading into the Sahara by camel, it would take three days to get where Yahya Boulfrifi is taking us.

Trust me, a couple of hours on a camel crossing the desert is more than enough.

Fortunately, Boulfrifi drives a diesel Toyota Landcruiser with beefed-up suspension, elevated air-intake, oil-pan shield and Hankook Dynapro tires.

It’s only a few hours’ drive from his home village of M’Hamid El Ghizlane to the remote encampment where we’re overnighting; the high point (leaving aside the towering Atlas Mountains we cross to reach M’Hamid) of a three-day trek, starting and ending in Marrakech, run by Wild Morocco Tours.

Wild in more ways than one.

In almost half a century of driving, I’ve done some pretty extreme things — from jockeying an eight-metre U-Haul truck through the Manhattan rush hour to piling up a Holden station wagon in the Australian Outback, on the same S-bend that caught Simo “Flying Finn” Lampinen’s Ford Taunus in the 1968 London-to-Sydney Marathon rally. Happens to the best of us.

This time, I’m content to ride shotgun and let Boulfrifi take the strain. Morocco’s over-all driving standard is not great. Collision and casualty rates are far higher than Canada’s.

He picks my wife and me up in the old section of Marrakech, its narrow streets filled with kamikaze Mercedes taxis, motorcycles and donkey carts ruthlessly cutting each other off. (As an aside, in the hilly city of Fes, donkeys wear shoes made from old tires for traction on the cobbles.)

For the next three days and several hundred kilometres, Boulfrifi will be the soul of patience, calm and control. Even as two trucks bear down upon us, side by side on a dirt road, I remain confident that he’ll keep us in one piece.

The Atlas Mountains are hazily visible as we leave Marrakech past King Mohammed VI’s hunting grounds (rabbits, wild pigs, gazelles) and climb on serpentine roads that echo the best/worst of the Alps toward North Africa’s highest pass, the Col du Tichka, 2,260 metres above sea level.

We’re listening to Tuareg rock on the sound system, with the sudden incongruous interruption of Sarah McLachlan singing “Arms of the Angel,” as we pass ancient towns with ruined kasbahs (a fortified section for defensive purposes), palm groves, women doing their laundry in rivers, and flocks of sheep and goats threatening at any second to block the road.

Then there’s the traffic. No weigh-scales here, so trucks are loaded until their suspension buckles. Rear-view mirrors are widely regarded as decorative and the accepted method for overtaking someone is to creep up on their back bumper and then, when they fail to notice you, tap the horn. Drivers need to be, if not aggressive, then strongly pro-active or stay home.

We leave M’Hamid, where Boulfrifi was born into a nomadic Berber family, and are immediately in the Sahara, heading to where the desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.

In the distance, there’s a tantalizing shimmer of water. A lake? Nope. We’ve read about mirages, now we’ve seen one.

Boulfrifi drives confidently across the shifting sands, sometimes following the most basic track imaginable and sometimes veering off and making his own. He lets the truck’s momentum carry it over sand hills, never spinning the wheels or starting to slide.

The camp is well-appointed, with proper beds and carpets in the tents. It’s surrounded by high dunes — a region where surely only the scorpions and snakes can live a life of ease. We take a ride by camel into the burning, trackless wastes, feeling lost and vulnerable. Until Ali the guide’s cellphone rings.

Coming out the next day, we take a different route, across a teeth-rattling washboard expanse of stones with countless fossils, and then Lac Iriki, a perfectly flat dry lakebed, the sort of place that saw the birth of hot-rodding in California.

Just before we hit the highway back across the mountains and into the snarling hurly-burly of the big city, under a flawless azure sky and brassy sun, there’s the tantalizing shimmer of drops of water.

Another mirage? Nope. It’s the windshield washer. It gets dusty out here.

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