OFFROAD PART 1
We sit with our new Zurich friends over tagine and a glass of Moroccan red wine in a camp on the edge of the Erg Chebbi. The restaurant is much too cold for our taste, even the gas mushroom we dragged in doesn't manage to bring the big empty room up to temperature. So today at noon we left our dune idyll to drive together with Christian and Monika and their MAN Turtle Truck the much described Moroccan southern route. We briefly discuss the day's schedule for tomorrow's starting leg. We reserve the morning to bring our supplies in Merzouga up to scratch. There is not much to discuss about the route, because there is only one possible track from the busy Erg Chebbi to the lonely Erg Chigaga. Incredibly many overlanders and off-roaders mantra-like adhere to the route description of the so-called Pistenkuh, an expedition professional and Morocco expert, who has already driven this area several times with his purple expedition vehicle. If you enter the route from Erg Chebbi to Erg Chigaga in any off-road navigation app, you get exactly the same route that goes via Ramlia, Sidi Ali, Tagounite to Mhamid and from there it goes off into the large dune landscapes to the south. At certain passages, the track has of course already changed again since the records of the Pistenkuh. We observe this especially at the key passages in the dried up riverbeds, which are likely to change again after each rain. Here, it's best to use your common sense and ride where the surface is most rideable that day. Whether the myth of Morocco's southernmost route and its difficulties is true, we want to experience for ourselves. But now everything nicely in sequence.
The open market of Merzouga offers surprisingly much for the local circumstances at the edge of the Sahara. The fresh produce is limited, and of course organic is out of the question here. Nevertheless, after an extensive up and down in the market street of this small desert town, my chef and purchaser climbs contentedly into the vehicle. We are ready for at least two weeks, in the worst case probably three or four.
The first approximately 50 kilometers are still asphalted and lead from Merzouga first in southern direction to Taouz, then in southwestern direction always neatly parallel and in 20 to 30 kilometers distance to the Algerian border. A not unimportant part of the myth says that one should avoid the proximity to the Algerian border at all costs. Of course, the "bad guys" all come from over there. This is the Moroccan version of the tensions at the border, which is the only relevant one for us. The planned track - if we do not lose it - will never bring us closer than fifteen kilometers to this supposed danger zone, that will do, inshallah!
In the middle of the small village of Taouz, we reach for our walki-talki for the first time and inform the MAN crew that the Pistenkuh route no longer continues here. In former times there was probably still no bypass, today we should have remained there times confidently on the asphalt road. If you have a choice between asphalt road and offroad in the Unimog, you inevitably choose offroad. It's just like when you have to choose between a levelled slope and a deep snow slope as a skier. As an adventurer, you don't have to think twice...
Shortly set back, we soon drive on the last kilometers of asphalt, when finally the fun begins. The next 200 kilometers are now dirt road, sand and stone. Keeping our eyes on the horizon, we drive our way. The track splits into different lanes every now and then. Everyone chooses what he likes. But most of the time they all rattle in the same way. Every now and then we check the GPS to make sure that the deviation is not too great. If the distance from the recorded track is more than a hundred meters, corrections may be made. With every minute we travel on these nature trails, we realize that there is no turning back. We have to go through it now and we are looking forward to it!
We are already in the Ouzina region when we spot on our right a small dune landscape glowing red-yellow in the late afternoon sun, which invites us to our first overnight stay. After a first sand board deployment of our friends we finally reach the desired overnight platform. At the back the dunes, at the front the valley with a view all the way to Algeria. Whenever possible, we are set up at the campsite by sunset and ready for an apero. Also today this is the case, the prelude to the off-road adventure is accomplished.
above: Evening gymnastics in the sand. The event is used for body fitness
below: Morning gymnastics in the dunes when the light is best for the photographer
The second stage leads us over almost endless plains of stone and hard-pressed sand, sometimes also corrugated tracks. Again and again we cross small shifting sand dunes. In the well-suspended Unimog it feels like surfing and is a lot of fun. Soon we reach a small salt lake and finally the infamous village of Ramlia. We remember the warning words of Ahmed, our worried host in the camp at Erg Chebbi. He too had warned us about the difficult riverbed crossings just after Ramlia. The entrances and exits in the dried out riverbeds, as well as the fine dusty sand a.k.a Fech-Fech in it, had already been the fate of many offroaders. Our truck weight is also a big disadvantage according to him. In contrast, however, I hold our unbeatable ramp angle (front) and slope angle (rear) of 45°, as well as, our ground clearance of almost half a meter thanks to our portal axles. Our friends at the MAN also have an extremely compact vehicle that is hardly inferior to ours in this respect. In general, Ramlia and its Fech-Fech are the core of the myth of Morocco's southern route. So let's see if we can bust this myth?
above: At Ramlia Salt Lake with our Zurich companion Monika & Christian on MAN Turtle.
Already two kilometers before the village the first young people are waiting for us, who are offering themselves as guides through the, as they say, extremely dangerous Fech-Fech. Only they would know which way to go. Without them we are lost! Fear as a sales argument, that seems somehow familiar to us... We already see ourselves at the mercy of the vultures, but we don't want to believe it and step on the gas pedal without further ado. A short radio message to the rear that it is not worth stopping with the guys. Again we ignore the advice of the local people, although we really didn't want to do that. But we slowly develop a good sense to distinguish between goodwill and a Moroccan business idea. Let's be honest, what can the young men in this godforsaken area do to earn a living, if not with smart concepts, like that of a guide from one dry river bank to the other? Not many possibilities come to mind, so at least they deserve our sympathy, if not our dirhams. Only a few hundred meters away, two young girls stop us to sell us their colorful homemade decorations. We find this on the other hand a great thing and we take a chance here. The colorful wall decoration fits perfectly into our predominantly gray driver's cabin and will always remind us of Ramlia, whether we come through the Fech-Fech or not.
In the village we see two foreign motorcyclists sitting in a Berber cafe. Somehow this sight calms us and gives us the feeling of not being completely alone here. Exit village we are then suddenly surrounded by a good dozen children aged between eight and thirteen years, so we estimate. They all shout at us to show us "the right way". But first we let the air out of our tires and send up a prayer to the heavens that we might get out of here alive. The kids have fun hanging on to the moving vehicle. Truck surfing is what they call their dangerous game. It may look more dangerous than it is, as long as they stay behind the rear axle. But the feeling is extremely unpleasant to have some kids hanging on the tail or underride guard. There are of course different ways to get rid of it. One of them is our police siren, which we like to use in such a moment. The kids are then so gobsmacked by the noise that they drop everything. Often the rear vehicle simply informs the front one via radio. The devils take the hindmost.
So now on to the main challenge of the southern route. Any routing in the riverbed is pretty much useless. We simply follow the most frequented lane and that at a good speed and a torque that offers room for speed adjustments both up and down. Now don't shift gears, that leads to unnecessary loss of thrust and can quickly end in a standstill. And standstill in fech-fech means... vultures! ;-)
This key section is then already overcome after a good two kilometers. Without any difficulties, even with a lot of fun in the dusty sand. This part of the myth is also considered completely busted for us. As the sympathetic Overlander forum member said: "With a Unimog your biggest difficulty on this route will be to recognize the key spots. He seems - until now - to be completely right.
Top/bottom images: Soft shapes with and without contrast, a constantly changing panorama
We have agreed in the team to look for an overnight place from 4:00 pm. In this area, of course, that is not difficult. You can theoretically stand right next to the slope and spend the night there super quiet and undisturbed. More than one or two vehicles per day do not pass through here at the moment, if at all. The area is so deserted that sometimes you really wonder if you are still on this earth or maybe you have already arrived on another planet. Again, we have only made about 50 kilometers today and it is time to make camp for the night. About an hour before we reach the oasis of Sidi Ali, we leave the road and drive towards a huge dune, which has elegantly pushed itself in an "S" shape like a curved dam between two small ridges. We decide to take a rocky path up the left ridge instead of going directly to the dune. After about a kilometer, we stop to inspect the site we found for suitability. The view of the S-dune is impressive, but the area around it is mostly rough scree and impassable terrain. As so often in such a situation, my better half speaks up and says that we should definitely go further up, because it will certainly be much better. After a strenuous day, as today and with the prospect to be able to sit down in a few minutes in the camping chair to rest, it is not always easy to be motivated to go further. In the meantime, however, I have learned to listen to the intuition of my co-driver, because she has really developed a great sense for this. No sooner said than done. Once again we violate a basic offroad rule and drive an extremely narrow and steep path up the mountain, not knowing if we will ever be able to turn around again up there. But the map and the elevation profile give me a certain certainty that there will be enough space up there for a turning maneuver. The Unimog puffs at walking speed over the really big stones and the living box wobbles for all it's worth. Will it really hold? Apart from two FRAME cups, we have not lost anything in this respect since the beginning of our journeys. Either the co-pilot has now simply always perfectly secured its load or the driver drives with great feeling through the wobbly area. We argue our luck again and again ;-)
Our extra effort actually pays off in full again this time. We hit a flat ridge with breathtaking views in all directions, including the S-Dune, which is now far below us. This is probably one of the most beautiful overnight places we had in Morocco so far and we had already found many, dreamlike places in this fascinating country.
Day three becomes an endurance test for man and machine. The plains become more and more endless and the washboards start to get on our nerves. Again and again we pass abandoned small oases that appear like a mirage out of nowhere. Sometimes we see a guard, but often the gate and door are simply closed. No tourists and that apparently already for three years. Today a stiff wind blows over the prairie, which makes the sand and dust pile up to high columns. We admire this untouched nature, where now the dunes actually become more and more rare and bizarre stone formations more and more frequent. We know about a military checkpoint after which the overnight stay over a distance of several kilometers should not be allowed. Accordingly, we start looking for a suitable place beforehand. Already from far away supposedly at the end of the still to be crossed flat stone desert we spy a hill with dune character. It could offer us some protection from the roaring winds. To reach it we have to leave our route a little bit in the direction of the Algerian border. As it turns out, the dune hill is not the perfect windbreak, but as an apero place for sunset it is suitable for this evening.
The fourth and last day of the offroad route to Mhamid shows us the southern route of Morocco again in a completely new guise. It is marked by two passes that lie before and after a plain lined by mountains in a horseshoe shape. Seen from space, this geometrically almost perfect U-shape must look very unnatural. Whether its formation has to do with a meteorite? We haven't found out yet. At walking pace, we climb up the stony path twice and descend again. The panorama that offers itself to us is once again unforgettable. What do you do when you are rolling for hours on dead straight tracks towards the horizon? You shorten the time while parallel driving to immortalize a few cool video shots with the GoPro. Or you chase one whirlwind after the other to increase the drama of the harsh element for the shot scenes. Last but not least, we enjoy the nature and the sheer boundless freedom that we are allowed to enjoy here in Morocco.
It is already late afternoon when we get asphalt under our thick tires again shortly before Tagounite. Mhamid, the starting point for all expeditions to Erg Zaher or Chigaga, is only 60 kilometers away. There are numerous beautiful camps and some of them also offer warm cuisine. In the pampas 60 kilometers was about a day's distance, on asphalt we will make it in a good hour. After four days offroad, often at walking pace over washboards and rough rocks, we finally step on the pedal again and make it to our oasis a few kilometers before Mhamid by sunset.
Offroad route mastered. Myth busted. Another adventure that we will be able to tell our grandchildren about with enthusiasm. We let the many impressions sink in the coming days and enjoy a few days without driving in a small fine Auberge with Hassan. He responds to all our wishes in a very uncomplicated way, cooks for us and tells us many exciting stories during dinner. On the one hand, it is always a bit difficult to tear ourselves away from these comforts. On the other hand, after a few days we can hear the snorting and whinnying of our Unimog. He wants to get out again, go further, experience more. Or maybe it's just us who want that after all?
The final destination is not Mhamid, but the lonely Erg Chigaga. So after two days of rest, we are back on the road to cover the remaining 30 kilometers to our ultimate destination. Leaving Mhamid, the track soon becomes sandier and softer again. We wind our way through small mini dunes and once again it reminds us of skiing. Here, too, there are numerous options for where to drive through. Just keep going in the right direction. I often ask my driving partner: The left or right track? If she then answers with "The middle one!", I know that I have missed something. An old wisdom also comes to light with this track choice. The track you didn't choose always looks better, i.e. less rough, than the one you are on. Neighbor's meadow is always greener, even out here in the sandy desert!
The landscape and thus the driving surface now changes constantly. Somehow we wouldn't be surprised if after the next hilltop an Apollo rocket would be standing, so much we feel here on the moon and no longer on Mother Earth. During a short pit stop for the small hunger, thirst or its disposal we discover suddenly two Overlander trucks in the distance. They seem to drive in the same direction. Of course we wait for them, because these are indeed the first Overlander colleagues we see on the southern route for more than a week. And - hurray - there is a Unimog with them! In the middle of the Moroccan desert we have a spontaneous Overlander get-together, which could not have been better planned. The opportunity is used to exchange numbers and social media channels. We stay in contact!
A short time later we finally drive at the edge of the Erg Chigaga in western direction and look for a suitable entry into the dunes. Somewhat frustrated we are at this point, because also here there are much more desert camps than we had imagined. They bridle the erg almost like a protective wall, which we have to break through. We climb a first hill and are just waiting for our friends, as we notice that the MAN Turtle is once again living up to his name. He is digging himself into the soft sand. Camp guards rush to help us with shovels and earn a nice pocket money from the Turtle crew. Again and again I admonish Christian about the danger of ramming the sandboards into the vehicle's "abdomen" or even the diesel tanks during the rescue maneuver. But he masters this very well, both when driving forward and backward. Pulling out with the rescue straps remains on our off-road learning-by-doing list. Barely half an hour later, we hear a liberating "All Clear!
The sun is now already close to the horizon and we have to postpone another attempt to drive into Erg Chigaga until the next day. We stay exactly where we are, so to speak in the closed but well guarded desert camp.
New day, new luck. We try it one kilometer further west on the advice of our new friends from yesterday's relief operation. But even there we don't find a suitable spot, the dunes rise too steeply in front of us. We decide to try again about ten kilometers further on at the supposed end of the desert camp chain. It would be ridiculous if we didn't find a suitable entry point somewhere with our all-rounder vehicles.
The dunes become gentler and the entry points wider, here it can work. Although it is already noon and the sand is much softer than in the early morning, we climb one hill after the other and fight our way deeper and deeper into the erg. As soon as the very last camp disappears in the rearview mirror, we are satisfied and settle down comfortably in a south-facing valley. Surrounded by gigantic dunes we now find time and leisure for early morning photo safaris or evening dune walks. We guys don't miss the chance to ride our fatbikes over the dunes and to chase the wild dromedary ladies ;-). Latest at the chance meeting with Rachid's simple caravan we realize how wonderful we have it here, with homely comfort in the midst of breathtaking wild nature.
Next Blog 2.8 Disaster at Iriki Salt Lake or Offroad Part 2