As we start to plan the next phase of our adventure and sort through some unseen footage from our travels to date we’ve had plenty of time for reflection. Here are 3 of our favourite countries to overland in.
Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel. In 2012 when we visited it was impossible to drive across the country from border to border on anything that resembled a “normal” road. It is big and empty and so driving here can be very remote.
The beauty of Mongolia lies in the steppe. Hospitality is a keystone of the nomadic lifestyle, and if you travel in Mongolia, it won’t be long before you’re invited into a Ger (refusing would be unthinkably rude) to be offered steaming yak’s milk, goat’s cheese biscuits, marmot Boodog, salty tea and ‘Airag’ – fermented mare’s milk, which at 5% proof wasn’t quite strong enough to stop us thinking a little too much about how exactly you milk a horse.
The driving can be challenging, we encountered some real challenges in the Khan Khentii Protected Area in the north of the country. Trudging about in the pouring rain trying to find a route through a forested quagmire was about as much fun as it sounds. With 21 river crossings under our belt by the time we left Mongolia, we wouldn’t have been without Bee-bee’s snorkel, suspension lift and four-wheel drive.
Despite incidents like this, or perhaps because of them, we would argue that Mongolia is one of the ultimate destinations for overland travel.
The main reason Tajikistan is on this list is down to the infamous Pamir Highway. The M41 is the world’s second highest international highway. I’m using the term ‘highway’ loosely as the surface, when it exists, is mostly unpaved. The ‘road’ in its entirety traverses the Pamir Mountains and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres. The area is notorious for landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and frequent political unrest. Part of the highway requires a special permit as it passes through the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. All these factors rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list; for us, it was the Holy Grail of overlanding and sounded like a fun adventure!
With most great overland destinations come challenges and the Pamir Highway is no exception. Diesel is scarce, we had to carry an extra 80-litres due to the lack of availability en-route. The altitude and lack of oxygen can also be demanding on both you and your vehicle. We suffered from some pretty atrocious headaches and dizziness, luckily this passed fairly quickly as we acclimatised to the height. The lack of oxygen also affected our vehicle, as we climbed our diesel engine began to kick out an increasingly large amount of black smoke and at times lacked power.
Stunning switchbacks, lunar landscapes, high altitude lakes and challenging driving are one reason to visit this part of Central Asia. What really sets the Pamir’s apart from other popular overland destinations is the stark reality of how powerful nature can be and our relative insignificance in the larger scheme.
We went looking for an unforgettable adventure and we found it - AK-47 gun-toting friendly young soldiers, mudslides, earthquakes, flooding, barrier free gravel roads that cling to cliff edges, gravity defying overhangs, collapsed bridges, impassable rivers, rock falls and then there’s the notorious ‘Tunnel of Death’.
Morocco is the closest country to Europe that offers the biggest contrast in culture and geography. We visited Morocco in 2013 and were limited by a closed border to Algeria in the east and an increasingly dangerous border to Mauritania in the south we would be land-locked by civil unrest and political restrictions. However, with around 280,000 miles² we had plenty to explore with the Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains and wild Atlantic coastline.
The transition from the familiarity of Europe to the unfamiliar of Africa is only a 90-minute sail across the Straits of Gibraltar. As with the arrival to any foreign country for the first time, there is always slight trepidation of the unknown.
The driving can be as challenging as you make it, you can head to the High Atlas Mountains for challenging, scarcely driven routes, complete with hair-raising cliff drops and rock crawling or you can head out into the desert for some fun dune driving. We even encountered a few river crossings.
Morocco is the perfect destination for ‘Newbie’ overlanders, but be warned off-road driving in the Western Sahara should be avoided due to the area being heavily land-mined. A fact that became glaringly obvious when a local Saharawi took me for a disheartening 1-mile walk into the desert to a site where the previous year a Landrover was annihilated killing the driver.
After spending 3 months in Morocco it was obvious why we met so many other overlanders. Morocco is essentially an off-road playground for Europeans and it is often used as a testing ground before embarking on longer trips. It offers all kinds of challenging terrain for every kind of overlander from Motorcyclists to the largest of off-road trucks. The people are friendly, the visa is easy and the fuel is cheap; it is essentially overland heaven, especially if you can speak French.
The gateway Bab Boujeloud stands proudly as the entrance to the ancient city of Fes, beckoning you to enter through its asymmetrical opening into the frantic bustle beyond. From here the streets taper into narrow passageways of vibrant city dwellers.
Unlike its cosmopolitan counterpart, Marrakech, with its throng of tourist groups, Fes maintains a genial mixture of sightseers and everyday existence. Randomly selecting the left of two parallel narrow thoroughfares, I passed a make-shift Butchers with a young, blood-splattered boy determinedly cutting the tongue from the severed head of a cow. Wandering down the lane I passed plastic containers piled high with sticky black dates, strings of leather sandals hanging, sizzling doughnut vendors and narrowly avoid a lumbering donkey laden with rusted gas canisters. Carts of oranges, hand-hammered copper cauldrons, intricate brass lanterns, silver tea sets and deep-fried sardine stalls all line the pulsating veins of the souk.
A side-step through the inconspicuous doorway of the Medersa Bou Inania reveals a jaw-dropping vision of Moroccan Islamic architecture at its finest. A central marble courtyard is surrounded by domed arches and fringed along the roof by elegantly carved wooden beams. Ceramic mosaic tile-work, ‘Zellij’, adorns exterior and interior walls, flowing calligraphy fusing seamlessly with the exact precision of the flanking geometric patterns.
Dinner begins with a jostle and squeeze into tightly packed, street side tables where hot, syrupy mint tea is efficiently produced. A waiter weaves expertly down the street from an unknown kitchen carrying a plate of steaming Couscous, vegetables balanced on top and dribbled with rich, aromatic cinnamon and sultana T’fia.
Against the backdrop of a dark, vivid indigo sky, the elaborate wooden and carved stucco archway to a mosque frames the hive-like coming and going of scurrying worshippers. In the eaves of the archway a feverish mass of alpine swifts explode from their roost and jostle vigorously with a frenzied twittering for position in the crammed rafters. Serenading all the activity are the hypnotic, wavering tones of the Imam peacefully calling to prayer, the echo of the Azan “Allaaaaaaaaahuu Akbar” exuding from the buzzing epicentre.
Our trip to the Adventure Travel Film Festival was seemingly rather inspiring. Over the last year we've shot hours and hours of (shakey) footage and despite making the odd VLOG we've never really got to grips with the 'ins and outs' of the editing software. All that is about to change. We're going to take more footage and make more films! This is a little edit of 3 months in Morocco squeezed into 2½ minutes.
When travelling it’s often the spontaneous events, the unplanned, the chance meetings and getting lost which result in the most memorable experiences.
When venturing disorientated through the heights of the High Atlas we found ourselves having to make a hasty stop to let Bee-bee’s overworked brakes cool down. We unavoidably blocked the street in a tiny Berber village; “Mafi Mushkele” (“no problem!”) came the jovial response from a group of men carrying out maintenance work on a clay and stone house.
The reek of burning brakes emanating from the car must have signalled that we weren’t moving anywhere for a while. As the workmen downed tools, accompanied by a chatter of Arabic and some gestures, we understood them to be inviting us into their home and to join them for breakfast.
Berber mountain houses are unassuming, clay and stone dwellings with several small rooms surrounding a central courtyard. We stooped through a low doorway into a sparse room with only a low table, a TV and a hazardous gas burner balancing a kettle. The seven of us made ourselves comfortable on plastic woven matting while a shy woman ushered into the room timidly carrying a tray of food. Warm, soft, homemade bread was torn, shared and dipped into clear, rich, nutty Argan oil harvested from the surrounding hills. A small plate of salty goats butter with a distinct pungent blue-cheese taste was also generously applied to chunks of bread amidst chatter, gesticulations and excited pointing and animated discussion over our photo album from home. Breakfast was washed down with copious glasses of mint tea from a seemingly bottomless pot; the hot gunpowder tea and green-flecked infusion so sweet it made your gums twinge.
As we left, youngsters scampered down the road with makeshift toys consisting of plastic bottles on wheels attached to a long stick. They weave and steer down the bumpy track with the skill and pride comparative to a child with the latest super-powered luxury radio controlled toy car hundreds of miles away.
The people expected nothing in return, a sharp contrast to the streets of Marrakech and Fes where just asking for directions comes with a price. Children here were not the cocky, street-savvy, dirham-hankering kids of the cities but shy and wary, peeping over walls in their ‘fun-size’ traditional dress. We departed leaving small gifts of notebooks and pencils for the children which the family reluctantly but appreciatively accepted; a small token incomparable to the memorable hospitality and welcome we had received. It put smiles back on our previously stressed faces as we fired-up Bee-bee and lurched ahead on our uncharted way.
Separated by only 62 kilometres in distance but several thousand years in time, we visited two contrasting sites of ‘rock art’ in the Anti Atlas region of Morocco.
Inhospitable landscapes globally have revealed carvings and paintings left by primal societies; Morocco has over 300 prehistoric rock art sites, some dating back over 5000 years. Unlike the cave art of France and Spain, Moroccan sites are mainly in the open air and clearly visible. Nestled amongst the boulders and fractured strata of the Anti-Atlas are carvings of species such as Gazelle, Ostrich and Giraffe.
The rock art near the partly deserted village of Eghir are so rarely visited that locating them can be challenging; even some of the locals are unaware they exist. We were lucky enough to bump into a (slightly intoxicated) local worker who knew roughly where they were and pointed out the outlines of the closest prehistoric picture. Requiring a climb and then a shuffle along a narrow ledge we were lead to a smooth rock face revealing some magnificent examples of ancient illustration. The carvings here fall into the ‘pecked cattle group’; a logical description for the chipped oxen figures. Running your fingers across the ancient chiseled drawings there’s a flash of connection to an individual who stood on the exact same spot yet infinitely worlds apart.
The images are open to interpretation, but rock art is widely considered to be a form of communication; possibly to share the whereabouts of food, water and predators or even mark territorial rights. Some markings may even commemorate events; depictions of life-sized human carrying weapons can be found in the High Atlas, possibly honoring battles.
In the rugged Mountains just 4km southwest of Tafraoute, in Aoumerkt, is a slightly more contemporary type of rock art; the infamous (and now slightly faded) blue rocks. In 1984, Belgian artist Jean Verame, assisted by a team of Moroccan firemen armed with 18 tonnes of paint, hosed an array of blue, violet and red paint over boulders and small hills of the Anti-Atlas. Fortunately, King Hassan II liked the resulting surreal addition to the landscape and so they sit oddly in the valley while the elements slowly weather them back to nature. Although they have lost their sharpness of colour, they have kept their mesmerising visual magnetism and remain a curious addition to the already stunning panorama. Two fusions of art and nature separated by the vastness of time yet each as relevant, aesthetically alluring and thought provoking as the other.
Morocco’s notorious Rif region, a mainly mountainous area in the north, stretching over 300km from Tangier in the west to the Melwiyya River in the east is a natural boarder between Europe and Africa. It is also an area synonymous with Marijuana production.
According to some sources, the country is home to approximately 220,000 acres of Marijuana fields and it is believed that Morocco produces nearly half the world’s hashish supplies.
Called “kif” by the locals, hashish takes on a new culture and power in the Rif Mountains; unfortunately this isn’t a positive thing. Despite the production, sale and use of Marijuana being illegal it is still a massive income for the country and one of its biggest exports. The areas reputation also attracts tourists only interested in getting stoned.
Unfortunately if you are travelling in this area the locals assume you are only interested in buying drugs. For us these vast limestone mountains with forests of towering oak and cedar should have offered up what the guidebook described as “One of Morocco’s most memorable journeys”.
With previous knowledge of the areas notoriety is was with no surprise that on arrival our vision was impaired by a thick dense cloud and seemingly the Rif was living up to its reputation. Upon opening Bee-bee’s windows and not being hit by a recognisable stench it become blatantly apparent that the dense cloud obscuring the road wasn’t a thick weed haze but a naturally occurring fog.
As with most criminal activity the drug business here is far from friendly, Ketama in particular is by all accounts a rough and dangerous place with plenty of scams involving tourists, drug dealers and the police. Driving through this busy town we didn’t see one woman.
The fog only exaggerated the seediness of the area as ghostly men desperate to make sales appeared through the haze at the side of the road and attempted to stop our car.
For most of our journey between Al Hoceima and the beautiful town of Chefchaouen visibility was at times down to about 15m. Driving on these narrow roads in such conditions, often with sheer cliff edges (we think) and impeding doom around every corner was not a pleasant experience.
Occasionally we’d make a futile attempt to wait for the fog to lift in small laybys. These were always hampered when our car was surrounded by groups of men who’d appear from the forest edge aggressively trying to make a sale. At times our car was tail-gated by gangs of menacing men in Mercedes and vans who overtook and attempted to stop our vehicle.
Sadly what should have been a spectacular drive through some of the countries most impressive scenery became quite a stressful 6-hour chore until we descended the 1500m high ridge and the fog cleared. Fortunately our final destination at the end of our perilous journey was the beautifully friendly town of Chefchaouen; restoring our faith in what is a wonderful country.
On the fringes of the Sahara in Southern Morocco a seasonal phenomenon occurs in wetter years. Rain collects in a shallow, temporary salt lake, offering a feeding and resting site for thousands of migratory birds on their arduous journeys from Africa to Northern lands. This ephemeral lagoon was our camp for the night.
By first light the Ornithological Orchestra is tuning up for its performance. As a lone audience member I took my seat at the waters edge, a crunchy white layer of salt giving way underfoot to a spongy, sticky brown mud underneath. First to sound are the numerous pairs of Ruddy Shelducks, a brash repertoire of high-pitched barking and donkey-like honking as they glide across the surface. Rusty, auburn plumage reveals a shiny green flash of feathers; a flapping fanfare as they fly past, trumpeting out of tune. A Black-Winged Stilt squeaks shrilly as it wades elegantly past. Its bright red legs, glistening wet in the sun, seem to bend backwards as it strides like the most precise, poised ballerina through the shallows. Its perfect reflection in the still, mirror-like water reaches up to merge with its probing, narrow, jet-black beak as it delves for food in the muddy margins. Floppy red feet are revealed during its exaggerated steps and a white-feathered rear flashes as it dives its head.
The rising sun turns the distant arid mountains a rusty red in the dawn light, while behind the towering, undulating dunes of Erg Chebbi loom surreally out of the horizon. Shrieking, squealing calls of approaching flocks of Terns, swooping acrobatically across the waters surface. Graceful, speckled Sandpipers bob across sandbanks, whistling rhythmically while Coots cruise past, heads nodding to the beat. Tiny Kentish Plovers tiptoe unassumingly through the grassy fringes, whistling hurried, nervous ‘pip-pips’ in a hushed percussion.
The highlight of the symphony comes from the harmonious assemblage of Flamingos, their startling white and rose-coloured plumage a vivid contrast to the black, basalt hamada hills beyond. Their pink, u-bend necks plunge beaks methodically into the brackish water, a melodic murmuring as they extend their wide crimson wingspans in full.
As the sun rises high, glaring dazzlingly on the lake surface, the intensifying heat transforms the distant bank to a distorted, watery heat haze. The avian concerto settles into a calmer harmony. This has been a truly unique spectacle; migratory musicians en-mass. Bird song in stereo surround sound.
In 1956 the French left Morocco after 44-years of occupation but recent times have seen a new invasion; from the Southern Spanish Ports they come in their thousands, a campervan cavalcade marching to a victory of sunshine and low-cost campsites.
Throughout natural history, species with the means (ie-wings) have wisely selected to spend their winter months in the sunshine of North Africa, returning to the lush landscapes of Europe during the warmer summer months. This mass-migration of sleek, shiny-white motorhomes starts around December; armies of retired French couples cross the straits of Gibraltar and spread strategically across Moroccan camping grounds.
Rigorous behavioural routines can be observed; departure to the next site is at 8.30am sharp, with arrival around midday for lunch. Males typically drive, with females directing the fibreglass monsters into position through a series of bizarre hand signals. Yellow plastic wheel wedges level the automobile to perfection, the satellite dish rotates into position, astroturf is rolled outside the doorway, a miniature dog appears on its lead (or even cats) and a pot plant completes the picnic table and two chairs.
Territorial behaviour is intense, parking is unidirectional with an unwritten rule of personal space encroachment; an awning overstretching into a neighbours pitch will be met with fierce aggression. On one occasion we witnessed a ferocious altercation culminating in a couple spraying a hose over a man and his wife that refused to move their car from slightly blocking the communal tap. Morning sees a parade of males carrying ‘Vide cassettes’ from their on-board toilettes, followed by a mass-grooming of vehicles; vertical mopping maintains the pristine gleam while females polish the windows and hoover the 3.1m2 of interior carpet.
But surely this kind of mass tourism is great for the struggling Moroccan economy? Not so much when these vehicles represent Carrefour-on-wheels; stocked to the roof with Cotes-du-Rhone and Camembert they remove the need to shop or eat at restaurants locally and hotels, buses and taxis are unnecessary when you travel in your accommodation. Behind high campsite fences on the fringes of towns, there is little integration with local communities or absorption of culture; essentially these mobile home ‘cocoons’ are miniature replicas of their French apartment equivalent (only with winter sunshine). French is Morocco’s widely-spoken second language so communication is effortless and at around 5 Euros per night, pitch fees are a fraction of European sites. Some campervans will move around the country but many take root in a single location for the entire duration of their 3 month visa. On the outskirts of Taghazout a miniature city has grown on a stretch of coastal wasteland; hundreds of campervans congregate in groups, encircling areas where Petanque is played and Christmas trees and lights dot the rough ground in December.
On the flip side of the dirham is the possibility that maybe a season in North Africa is an avoidance of ridiculously high French winter fuel bills. Retired couples removed from the social circles that employment brings are possibly seeking new communal interactions. For overlanders, this influx of motorhome tourism has provided an infrastructure of convenient campsites throughout the country, yet the immaculate, meandering, camping car convoy can be escaped in minutes via any road with a slightly rough surface.
In a country that once saw transportation and movement over its deserts and mountains via a Camel Train, there now comes the Campervan Train.
Way back in 1962, British director David Lean choose the dusty town of Ouarzazate and its surrounding area to film his epic movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lean recognised the potential of the area as a unique and versatile film location and inadvertently started the small dusty towns long love affair with Hollywood.
Ouarzazate and the smaller UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Bennadau, just 30km up the road, are the ‘go to’ locations for directors who need an authentic looking Roman or Biblical town, a set for a Gulf War epic or even a barren sci-fi landscape.
It wasn’t until 1983, when Moroccan entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi recognised the need for a permanent studio to be built. The Atlas Studio opened its doors on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, it is the largest studio in the world in terms of acreage.
Alexander the Great, Babel, The Way Back, The Passion, The Mummy, The Living Daylights, Kundun, Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra, The Jewel in the Nile, The Hills Have Eyes II, Sex and the City II, Time Bandits, Prince of Persia, Jesus of Nazareth, and a host of Ridley Scott films including Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies have all been filmed in the area.
Unfortunately the onslaught of CGI has left the movie industry in Ouarzazate reeling a little. The studios, despite being neglected by Hollywood, are still a popular tourist destination, in part because the 322,000 square feet of desert they occupy are littered with decaying movie sets. On the day we visited we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
The last major movie to be filmed at the Atlas Film Studio was 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, now the gargantuan scaffold, plywood, fibreglass and plaster set is weathering slowly in the middle of a great expanse of desert. The epic Egyption set from Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra isn't holding out much better either!
For now the studio waits patiently for the next location scout to arrive whilst hoards of tourists bumble around a health and safety inspectors nightmare.
Sadly celebrity spotting in Ouarzazate is likely to be a thing of the past, like a VHS tape or ice cream intervals at the cinema!
Driving in Morocco is hazardous in many ways and off-road driving on the ‘piste’ even more so as we discovered when we hit a large field of Fesh-Fesh!
“Fesh-Fesh, what is Fesh-Fesh?” I hear you cry.
Fesh-Fesh, as the Arabians call it, is the by-product of thousands of years of erosion; sand that has been worn down from it’s granular size into a fine dust, not too dissimilar to talcum powder.
What makes Fesh-Fesh so dangerous is that you don’t see it coming until you are in the thick of it as we discovered whilst driving a 90 mile off-road route from Tafraout to Taouz along the Moroccan/Algeria border in the South-East.
When encountered it can spell instant disaster, as its smoke-like plumes can quickly obscure vision and it’s quicksand like qualities can leave you with a sinking feeling. Tread too deeply or too slowly and expect the Fesh-Fesh to envelope your vehicle. Luckily for us we had aired the tyres down on the friendlier, slightly forgiving, soft yellow sand prior to hitting the Fesh-Fesh field.
In a slight panic and with Emma crying “whatever you do, don’t stop” in my ear I nailed the accelerator and was thankful Bee-bee’s gas guzzling 3L turbo engine had the horsepower to get us through it. A quick glance in the wing mirror revealed the volcano-esq clouds slowly engulfing Bee-bee as the power and traction got sucked from the vehicle. Wrestling with the steering wheel I attempted to aim the car at the surest tracks ahead and by some miracle after about 500m managed to find some firmer ground.
Once airborne, this billowing dust can linger, creating havoc for anyone following in your tyre tracks. Due to its powdery qualities the Fesh-Fesh adheres to anything it can settle on, and it wasn’t until the following day at our campsite that the Fesh-Fesh really started to cause me some real problems.
Whilst doing my daily undercar crawl I inhaled a face full of Fesh-Fesh that had gathered in the chassis rails, my nose started streaming instantly and a bout of sneezing begun that has lasted 8 days and counting. A full-on dry cough developed and a quick email to Doctor Lois, our resident expedition doctor, revealed the rather over-priced cough sweets I had purchased weren’t going to do much.
Inflammation of the airways or ‘Sahara Lung’ as we called it was the diagnosis and not much can help except a Ventoline inhaler and time. After a week of sleepless coughy nights I still have a croaky voice and the slightest of dust sets of a sneezing fit that has slowly been depleting our supplies of Anti-Histamines!
Despite feeling rather poorly and sorry for myself I would still rather drive that track on a daily basis than commute to work everyday!