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Off Road & On Piste

Words and Pictures by Sheelah Turner

In our September ‘13 issue, we met Sheelah Turner and Oyvind Helgerud, who wrote us an account of their visit to Senegal. This installment of their travels deals with their adventure in Morocco.

One of Morocco’s attractions is the vast number of pistes (unpaved trails or paths) which link up various towns and villages. The majority aren’t marked on trusty Michelin or MapSource maps, which adds significantly to their appeal. It’s a chance to feel – for a moment – like a true explorer. A few of these pistes have been detailed in Chris Scott’s book, Morocco Overland, and (although somewhat out of date) its route-details gave us enough of an outline so that we could make our way. Of course, when we left M’hamid and Erg Chigaga and said we were travelling to Merzouga, there was much drawing in of breath by the guide who had returned us safely from our excursion to the dunes. “You’ll get lost,” he proclaimed, assertively. “It is very close to the Algerian border, and you don’t want to stray across,” he added. We told him we’d turn around if we felt lost. He wasn’t convinced. But, despite his best efforts, he wasn’t coming with us. This was our challenge alone.

What did we face? 240 kilometres of dirt piste from Tagounite to Merzouga. That’s what the book says. Actually, the first 15 kilometres and the last 25 are tarred, leaving a mere 200 kilometres of dirt. This is a trend becoming very evident in Morocco – more and more of the pistes disappearing under a layer of tar.
Morocco Night Sky
Although the book suggested that it was possible, this was not a one-dayrally race for us. We planned a leisurely trip, to savour the scenery and drink in the experience of being in the wilderness, and on the first day, we headed from Tagounite and joined up with the road from Zagora. Sadly, this was all tar; if we’d known this beforehand, we’d have started our jaunt from Zagora.

As we headed towards a large basin, we met our first military checkpoint. We assumed that, as the piste runs within about 40 km of the border, this had to be the reason for its presence. The chap was very friendly and, like many other Moroccans, asked if this was our first time in Morocco and whether we were enjoying it. Yes and yes. Of course. He asked whether we had a fiche (a homemade document containing all your personal details) – which we did – and aside from checking nationalities verbally, seemed happy and waved us on our way. Then we headed up the steep western rim and down into the basin below. It was spectacular. The basin was a flat stretch, about 10 kilometres across, encircled by mountains. There was a village or two in the middle, and, aside from a group of three motorbikes, a quad bike and a support car, not that much other activity. We emerged on the eastern side, and climbed back out of the basin.

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