The traffic in Fez’s new town bustled roughly around us as we headed south out of the city, but wasn’t so dense that it slowed our departure by much. Soon, the last cluttered remnants of the city shrank in our rear view mirrors as we took the two-lane tarmac south towards the Atlas Mountains. A few other road users raced along with us; Mercedes grand taxis, tinny Peugeots and hustling minivans all joining in the aggressive overtaking manoeuvres which marked each encounter with a slow moving lorry, tractor or bus.
The rolling arable land allowed good visibility and we made good progress for the first hour or so, until, enjoying the meandering road, I flew around a corner at a rate of knots, the wallowing Rover attempting to touch the ground with its wingmirror while pitching comically on the bumpy tarmac. The big V8 roared as I powered out of the corner, but soon quietened down when I spotted the Policeman, with his radar.
Flagged down, I pulled over and attempted to talk my way out of the predicament; however it’s pretty hard to argue with a photo showing you doing 81kph in a 60 zone, and so I soon had little option but to accept my guilt and paid up the 500 dirham fine. Following this intermission in our rapid progress, we hit the road again, reeling in the High Atlas Mountains which raised the horizon ahead of us.
The High Atlas is the highest mountain range in North Africa, its grandest summits thrusting up over 4,000m above sea level. We planned to complete a 140 mile north-south crossing of the range, starting at the delightfully named ‘El Kebab’ before climbing to an overnight stop at Imchil, then dropping down to the Todra Gorge the following morning. Even before we reached the start of our planned route at El Kebab, the road climbed enthusiastically upwards, and the tarmac lost its smoothness and became potholed and crumbling. Within 10km of the start of our crossing, the engine temperature rose towards the red before the engine started to splutter, losing power. We coaxed the Rover to a spot of shade beneath a tree and began to investigate. The air temperature was well into the ‘30s, and the temperature below the bonnet was something else. Clearly, the car’s cooling system wasn’t up to the job of keeping it cool in a situation so far removed from what it was designed for, and so we decided to give it all the help we could. Off came the grille, numberplate, bonnet insulation and sealing strips to increase the airflow. We worked out that the breakdown was caused by the carbs overheating, and vaporising the fuel before it reached the engine. Using the heat shield from my camping stove, we tried to insulate the fuel lines as best we could, and re-sealed the crack in the radiator, which had re-opened in the heat. After half an hour, we were ready for Rover vs Atlas, take 2.
The road climbed higher and higher, and soon we were rolling over sweeping plains nearly 2km above sea level. The road surface remained tarmac, but also remained potholed and broken, so quickly started to shake the exhaust off once again. The engine ran cooler than before however, and so on we went, as the plains merged into the mountains proper, the gentle giving way to the jagged as the conglomerate mountains of the High Atlas proper rose around us.
With the mountains came more steep ascents, and more areas of rough gravel where the road had been swept away by flash floods. The Exhaust broke once again as we climbed, the silencer rattling uselessly beneath the back of the car. As evening came on we climbed to over 2,000m above the sea, crossing our fingers that the car would survive and get us to Imchil before nightfall. It nearly managed it, but the last, steep ascent before the high plateau on which we planned to spend the night was just too much for the long suffering Rover, and we overheated to a standstill for a second time.
Half an hour later, we chugged onwards and upwards, on a road which clung to the side of the mountains over a mile-deep chasm which drew our attention as the sun dropped down into the mountains behind us. Dusk was all around us as we pulled into Imchil and found a room for the night, whiling away the time discussing Islamic marriages and mule prices until sleep took priority.
The morning dawned bright and clear as we climbed aboard our steed – which we now knew had cost us the same amount as a decent mule is worth – and carried on south. A livestock market had taken place in the village that morning and we shared the mountain tracks with a variety of vans, all with a bemused selection of goats or sheep balanced in cages on their roofs. The road climbed up to 2,700m above sea level before the mountains gave up trying to stop the Rover, allowing it to coast down through its precipitous northern reaches into the other-worldly Todra gorge, a snaking alley of soaring rock which terminates at a selection of cafes, nestling beneath beautiful sweeping walls of granite; one of Africa’s greatest rock climbing destinations.
The Rover had survived the Atlas – and one of Africa’s highest roads – but now it was out of the mountains on the fringes of the Sahara, another obstacle loomed. The outside temperature hit 40 degrees as we cruised through the desert, sweating away within the cramped cabin. With temps rumoured to be hitting 50 degrees to the South, we decided to abandon our original plan of heading to Western Sahara, instead choosing to explore some of the oasis towns which mark the periphery of the world’s greatest desert. We spent the night at Skoura, an oasis town which once hosted epic camel trains as they emerged from the Sahara. During our visit, the place was deserted, and as the Mosque’s call to prayer rang out into the twilight seemed to be hosting only 4 friends, exploring ruined Kasbahs amid the sea of palm trees.
Sunday morning brought cloud, which instead of bringing low temperatures provided us with Humidity. We headed to Ouarzazte, where we toured the Atlas Film Studios, taking in sets from films as diverse as Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Black Hawk Down and Seven Years in Tibet. A quick tip led to the car gaining access to the set, its backdrop phasing from Egypt to Tibet to Jerusalem in about 20 minutes.
We then headed to Ait-Ben Haddou, a hillside of ruined kazbahs and palm trees which has provided a valuable resource to the Moroccan film industry. Exploring the twisting alleys and mud-coated buildings was going back in time, but the heat was unrelenting, striking down one member of our group with heat exhaustion. Because of this, we stayed put for the rest of the day, before heading north over the Atlas to Marrakesh the following day.