Since I decided to actually put a little effort into writing this, it's geared towards a more broad audience. So forgive a few descriptions/details that you lot obviously could have done without!
My introduction to off-road trails, or pistes as they're called in Morocco got off to, shall we say a rocky start. I chose the High Atlas Mountain piste MH1 as it fit nicely into my proposed route through the country and Morocco Overland promised that it was a "meaty crossing", which sounded both challenging and appealing. I had a stubborn determination that always sees me through problems, coupled with a remarkable (in that I don't know where it came from and it's not completely founded) confidence and I was ready to tackle whatever MH1 might throw at me. Also I had my Land Rover, Attenborough; he plays a large part in this tale.
I got my start out of Midelt after having a dry roast chicken for lunch, and in retrospect somehow getting overcharged for it. I missed the first road three times before finally finding it and heading towards the mountains and my chosen piste. Tar turned to rock, rock turned to rubble and rubble turned to dirt, at which point I was well away from the town. Most land in Morocco is used for grazing or farming, so no matter how far you think you are from people, you are almost inevitably bound to come upon somebody or other beside the road. I happened upon what seemed to be a small family and two of the younger members, upon spotting me, ran towards the road signaling for me to stop. After having been in Morocco for only a couple of days, you realize that Moroccan children have a very vague and wonderfully misguided sense of who Santa Claus is. To Moroccan children, anybody foreign, white (I haven't been in the sun for a while), and in a car with different number plates is Santa Claus, and they all expect for you to stop and give them something; be it money, food, clothes or anything really. Who exactly is responsible for the misinformation passed on to these children about Kris Kringle's identity is a mystery to me, but what's even more mysterious is how persistent and determined the children are despite the fact that nobody ever stops to give them anything at all. I guess none of us really want to believe that Santa is sham, but I digress. After having passed these particular children without slowing down, offering only a smile and a wave, as you do, the youngest one picked up a rock and hurled it towards my car. Fortunately she threw like a girl and no damage was done, except perhaps to her image of Santa the beneficent.
Only 13km into the journey, where my guide says "fork left", I came upon three roads, one veering right, one veering slightly left and one clearly left, I turned left. About 30 minutes into the track I came upon a T-junction that wasn't mentioned in the route notes, and where, in retrospect I should have realized I'd gone wrong and backtracked; instead, I took the right towards the mountains and kept going on my merry, if utterly uninformed way. Soon after I crossed a large dried out river bed (oued), despite their being no obvious route across the substrate, which ranged from mere pebbles to solid rocks half the size of my 4x4, I managed to make it to the other side without a problem. Once across I started to think that maybe, just maybe I wasn't where I was meant to be, so I reluctantly consulted my GPS units and my guide. I'd been using my GPS very sparingly to this point, because if I'm honest, it felt like cheating but GPS is a nice safety net to have in a situation like this. What I found was that I was 5km east of where I was meant to be, fortunately I was on a path that ran east to west and I decided that instead of wasting my time backtracking, I could just follow this track west and pick up the correct piste in a short while. About an hour into my scenic detour just south of the Atlas mountains I got within about 2km of the track I really wanted to be on. Unfortunately, for the last twenty or so minutes the conditions had been steadily degrading and now I was looking at a path blocked largely by snow and minor landslides that maybe I could have progressed down a little further, but places where I could turn around safely were few and far between and I happened to be at one of them now. Just in the nick of time that little voice in my head, that all too often needs to chime in said "stop being stupid", so I headed back for the long frustrating journey to kilometer 13, where I'd gone wrong in the first place.
Once I was back to my original mistake, or "misinterpretation" as I'm going with thanks to vague wording in the route guide; I headed onto the right (middle) path and towards the mountains again. The track got rough in parts, whether it be surprise cracks in the path due to water and erosion or having to scramble over large rocks that blocked the narrow track; but that's what I signed up for and I truly felt like I was off-roading and using Attenborough (the Defender) for it's intended purpose. My progress was slow, but I was soaking up the beauty of the rocky and barren landscape, stopping often for photo opportunities of my Land Rover in what I considered it's natural habitat and genuinely enjoying the experience. After what had already been a long day, I got to the top of Cirque de Jaffa, a loosely bowl shaped impression rimmed by mountains to the north and no less impressive rocky outcrops and cedar forests in every other direction. As the sun was just starting to dip below Djebel Ayachi, the snowy peak just beyond the cirque, I decided to park, relax and settle in for the night. I would tackle the descent and the next stage in the morning, after a good sleep. I'd made slow progress, but I knew I was on the right path and I was finally done for the day. Or not..
As I took the car out of gear, a little elderly shepherd who had only just begun to encourage his sheep to make the descent back to their pen at the cirque floor came towards me and introduced himself and asked if this was where I meant to sleep for the night? I should clarify that "introduced" and "asked" are terms I'm using loosely considering the fact that he spoke Arabic and French, neither of which are part of my cadre of world languages, which consists of English, English and English. In our pseudo conversation I got the message that I should make the descent to where he lived, a modest dwelling on the cirque floor and I would eat and spend the night there, as his guest. If I'm honest, my first inclination and reaction was "No thank you, merci beaucoup", but in the interest of self immersion and not passing up an opportunity that I might never have again, I reluctantly accepted his gracious offer and was back behind the wheel only moments after happily switching off the engine. As I started back on the path, he "asked" if he could ride down with me; whether it was to save himself the trouble of descending on foot, to help me find his dwelling or to make sure that I didn't just stay where I was, I couldn't really say; probably all three. The descent was almost too narrow in places and I kept waiting to hear my tyres or tree sliders grating up against some massive outcrop or fallen boulder in the path. Fortunately Land Rover Defenders are relatively narrow vehicles, so I was afforded a little room for error on the increasingly difficult path that was literally just carved into the side of the rock face; seemingly by somebody that didn't have a level handy or maybe the labourers just got lazy towards the end and figured that any vehicle taking this path wouldn't mind doing it diagonally. What made the descent even more enjoyable was sitting on the right side of my British car and looking down the precipitous, unquestionably fatal drop that awaited me should I **** things up. After much hard going and a few photo breaks to remember the experience, we made it to the bottom safely and headed towards his home. We pulled towards the handful of rough dwellings and his daughter (I think) came running towards us in complete shock to see the shepherd being chauffeured home in such a way. She was a traditionally dressed girl, maybe in her late teens and as she ran towards us jumped onto the side of the car, gaining a foothold on the tree sliders and holding onto the roll cage without missing a beat. I parked and entered what I'll call a hut and was lead to the main room which was as spartan and modest as you could possibly imagine. A central stove for cooking was fueled by burning sticks, surrounded by three colourful Moroccan rugs on the compact dirt floor that doubled as beds once nighttime came. At first I thought that I would be sharing this room with the two of them, a fear that fortunately didn't come to fruition, as I knew that my night's sleep would be sporadic at best. As the tajine was being prepared, what else? I lay on one of the rugs and rested, confirming with my host "Oui, je suis tres fatigue". I may have been slightly more social if we could actually converse, but alas, my hope that somebody in the area spoke English was a lost one. For desert I contributed a bar of Swiss chocolate from the car and then took out my iPhone to try to translate "how many people come through the area like me?" Unfortunately my french phrase app didn't seem to feature the proper words, but after much fumbling around and improvising the question through a drawing and much pantomiming, I got the answer of a few per month. I'm not completely confident that he understood exactly what I was asking, but the answer seemed reasonable, so maybe he did. Once the iPhone was out I showed them some photos as a substitute for talking and then let the daughter play some games for a bit. At the end of the night I was led out and shown my own private room with a candle burning for light and traditional wool carpet on the floor with a couple of pillows and some wool blankets for warmth. After getting under the blankets and feeling the hard, cold ground beneath me, I knew that I was in for a long night. Fortunately I was exhausted from the day behind me, so I managed to sleep for four hours before waking up at midnight. Between being uncomfortable, cold and wanting to go to the bathroom, at least I didn't have the misfortune of hyper-focusing on any one problem. I busied myself with some angry birds until my phone died and then put my jacket over my face in a feeble attempt to keep warm and drifted in and out of sleep until morning mercifully came and I could politely be on my way. Upon bidding my host adieu it was time for "un cadeau", seeing as I really don't have anything extra with me I gave him a shirt that I didn't really wear as a token of my appreciation and headed on my way.
What I wanted to do, and in retrospect wish I had done, was to head back to where I left the path the previous night and resume from there. Instead, I was shown that I could pick up from near where I was just by crossing the dried river bed and ascending the nearby hillside. What I quickly realized was that this particular section of oued was considerably more challenging than those that I had crossed previously. The rocks were larger and the crevices less accommodating, I couldn't solely rely on the so far admirable capability of Attenborough. I would need to slowly and intelligently pick out the right path or I would end up very stuck indeed. Slow progress was made and eventually I got across and to the nearer of two entrances to the path. The problem being that I was facing a 45 degree climb on loose dirt and slippery rubble, but was the quickest way up, so I had a go. At first the tyres slipped on some smooth rocks and I started to go backwards, fortunately I had some space and regained control before anything bad happened. I decided to try using the low range gears, which also weren't enough to summit what may as well have been Everest at that moment. After letting the car cool down and enjoying the aroma of burnt clutch for a few minutes, I was left with the lose/lose scenario of trying to get a speeding start up the hill or heading back into the oued and going to the alternative entrance, which had a more manageable incline. That little voice in my head spoke up once again and I realized that the potential for ending up badly broken and damaged this far from civilisation was too high of a risk to try anything at speed, especially considering the fact that I was alone and there might not even be another vehicle this way to give me any assistance for days, if not weeks. I was much better off slowly going through the intimidating riverbed again, where the greatest risk wouldn't be rolling over, but getting stuck; which is exactly what happened. Only about 10 meters into the oued, maybe half to where I wanted to be, I was stuck. I was on a small but steep incline and one of my tyres had kicked out all of the slippery rocks beneath it and was just spinning dirt. The other three wheels had little traction either, so I wasn't going anywhere. The best I could do was to rock back and forth and try to gain a little momentum to overcome this particular hurdle, but I didn't have enough space or traction for that to work. After ten frustrating minutes of rocking around, using different gears and trying to reposition rocks, I was tired, frustrated and still stuck. I decided to get out my maxtrax (sand ladders) and positioned them under the two wheels I thought needed the most help. Unfortunately I missed the notice to "avoid wheel spin", but in the end they got me out of my predicament, themselves a bit worse for wear. I lazily tied the maxtrax back onto the top of the roll cage, a misstep that would later cause me a world of stress and headed back onto the path, very happy to finally be on route again.
My bliss was to be short lived, however. The track was rough in spots, although not any worse than what I had dealt with previously. Fertile soil and snow protected from the sun by towering cedar trees replaced the predominantly dry and rocky path of the previous day. The problems didn't start again until about 30 minutes into my progress when the steering wheel starting to wobble. To further paint a picture, every ten or twenty meters of the path I've been on since approaching the cirque the previous day is basically one hairpin turn after another, constantly bordered by steep hill or mountainside. So being able to steer accurately and reliably is something of a necessity . If my steering had cut out on any of the turns, that'd be the end of my story. I stupidly decided however that I would go a little farther down the path before addressing the problem, seeing as the route guide said that there were some scenic clearings in a few kilometers. I felt that once I was literally out of the woods, I would have an easier time getting myself out of them figuratively as well. Luck was on my side as I made it to a boulder strewn clearing broken only by the enormous fallen trunk of a long dead cedar tree, surrounded by the beauty of the snowy mountains I saw what would undoubtably make a great photograph and place to sort out my mechanical woe. In my fervor to position the car for a photo, I powered up the slope to the clearing and hit a couple of large rocks the wrong way, but all seemed well and after taking a few photos and having some cereal I prepared to do my first surgery on Attenborough. I'm good with tools and I'd like to think I have a knack for solving problems, but I don't have any experience working on cars, so I was a bit apprehensive at not only having this problem, but having to deal with it alone in the middle of nowhere. My toolbox has a set of Allen keys, which I knew I needed to take off the steering wheel. The problem being that my Allen keys are imperial, so none of them fit properly, and I wasn't going to risk another 10km of rough track before getting anywhere near a regular road with a steering wheel that felt like it was almost ready to rattle off. Luck was on my side once again though, as I vaguely remembered there being a set of Allen keys in the socket wrench kit I bought in England, fortunately I was right and I had the metric set I desperately needed. Once the steering wheel was off, it was just a matter of tightening the steering nut and once again I felt that I was in the clear and on the home stretch. That lasted for a few minutes..
Fed and fixed I got back on the path and headed on my way. The route was as it had been for most of the morning, dirty, rocky, snowy and occasionally marred and degraded by running water or landslides. But I'd overcome it all before and I would again, until I started hearing a distinctly metallic clunking sound coming from somewhere in the lower rear of the car. Every time I turned a corner or went over a bumpy section, there it was again. In the beginning I thought that something had snapped on the undercarriage and that I was, for lack of a better word, ****ed. Go figure, I broke my car for a photo opportunity. I got out and had a look at the underbody, but couldn't spot anything wrong, so kept going, albeit very slowly and cautiously. Performance didn't seem to be impacted though and despite the fact that every clunk made my heart skip a beat, I kept making slow progress and kept asking Attenborough to just make it to the road and we'll find a shop to get you fixed. I even told myself that maybe some rocks had gotten caught somewhere and I was hearing them rattle around, but all I wanted was to get to the road before anything seriously broke and stranded me. Ten kilometers later, 48km into my ordeal I finally saw a paved road and could have shed a tear, I didn't obviously, because real men don't cry. But you get what I'm saying.
Finally on the pavement, I threw in the towel on route MH1(I was only a third of the way through my planned stint), and I started driving back towards Midelt. Ironically enough the sign said that it was 48 kilometers of paved road away, thankfully this 48km would be worlds easier than the last. Every turn I took though, I heard the clunk of death that made me think that I had done some serious damage and would need to get to a mechanic. Miraculously just before my entrance to Midelt the clunking stopped. Not one to ask too many questions when things go my way I decided to keep going and hope that whatever the problem was, it had fixed itself or could be dealt with later, ideally after having a few hours of proper sleep. So I went through Midelt and kept south, figuring that if I had any problems at least I wouldn't be stranded on the piste anymore. It wasn't until I was well clear of Midelt that I started to notice oncoming cars flashing their lights at me, which is usually a warning of an upcoming police checkpoint. No checkpoint came though and cars kept flashing. I kept on my way and at one point I had a look in my side view mirror, only to see that my maxtrax were hanging off the side of my roll cage! One of my half-assed knots must have come undone, but I still didn't think there was much chance that they were the cause of my consternation, seeing as they're made of plastic and they were mounted on the roof. The clunk sounded like it was coming from between the two rear wheels and was distinctly metallic. It was however too much to be a coincidence, so I decided to let them hang off and did some cornering at speed to see if I heard any more clunking, but alas, it was gone. Eventually I stopped being lazy and properly retied them to the roof with nylon webbing before hitting the road again to test for my good friend the clunking noise, which fortunately never came..
It wasn't until a little while later that my sleep deprived and off-road rattled brain finally realized what had been happening. The very solid plastic maxtrax were banging into the hollow metallic roll cage, which doesn't come into contact with anything until the chassis below the car, so the noise was reverberating down through the bars to the underbody, where I finally heard it. The moral of the story of course being that bad things happen after having spent a night sleeping on the floor!
Pictures (Some from my iPhone, some from my Nikon)
Heading the wrong way
Back on track
The top of Cirque de Jaffa and my soon to be host's sheep
Descending into Cirque de Jaffa
Finally at the bottom
The main room
My private room
Sunrise the following morning
A bit farther along
At the clearing
Finally, paved road!!