Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
People ask: where is the front cover of your Morocco Overland book? Gara Medoaur, I say, though I’ve never actually been there. A distinctive outcrop just north of the N12 to Rissani, the epic cover was shot by desert trucker Marc Heinzelmann with a drone, something that’s tricky to smuggle in these days. Despite appearances, Gara is not an ancient volcano – the near-horizontal sedimentary strata give that away. Time and again I hear or read of people attributing the desert’s dramatic formations to igneous processes, though you get those too. But Gara sure looks good and like so many isolated hills in Morocco, large and small, it was used as a strategic natural fortress and observation post from a time a millennium ago when nearby Sijilmassa, was a northern terminus of the medieval caravan trade from Timbuktu.
Inside Gara’s ‘crater’, shallow ravines were dammed to collect water and there are long eroded remains of dwellings (above). In later years it’s said it was a Portuguese prison, a similar enclosure for slaves, or just a storehouse. The site rose to fame with the release of the 1999 film, The Mummy for which a ramp was built up through the ancient breached wall on the southern side. Thereafter, it grew to become a destination for tourists as well as other films and commercials – as the current Wiki page laments. ‘Been there 15 days ago, we couldn’t stop, just turn back and go. A tourist trap unfortunately…’ says a recent comment. Looks like I’ve missed my chance again.
But unlike nearby Todra Gorge, you can see why it’s uniquely compelling. Not only does it resemble an impressive natural ‘volcanic’ fortress – a Bond producer’s dream – but from the rim you get a great view across an arid desert plain as well as a killer viewpoint spot perched on the exposed crag.
Besides The Mummy (1999), off the top of my head Gara has featured in several films and product promo videos seeking to evoke the arid Saharan wastes. Here’s my list with vid clips below. Did I miss some? Probably.
Spectre (Bond movie, 2015)
Zero Zero Zero (Sky, 2018; Better than average drug cartel drama)
The Forgiven (2022; dire yuppie nightmare set in the desert)
Just back from the first run of Morocco Fly & Ride tours in three years and it looks like we weren’t the only ones. Although my route dodges most tourist enclaves, there were loads more visitors than normal for November. I even saw three other bike tours over a few days. Normally we see none. It was a lot hotter than normal too; right up to my last day it was 30°C in Marrakech in late November.
Fuel and other costs are up by around 10% but other than that, nothing much appears to have changed apart from the usual spread of tarmac. As a result I’ve changed the penultimate day to a long, 100-km track across the hills. It adds a new level of subtle diversity to our one -week ride across the mountains and deserts of southern Morocco.
In October I had a recce job in Morocco and ended up driving a Toyota Prado TX. It’s been some time since I’ve driven a 4×4 – 2008 in fact: my Mazda in Algeria. Luckily I had an off-road instructor alongside to remind me what to do. I drove a similar route again twice in February 2023.
The Prado TX is a commonly rented vehicle in Morocco – a 3-litre diesel €130/day for a manual or €165 for an auto as here. Auto diesels were very rare in my day but make sense as rental vehicles. The cars had around 100,000km on the clocks but looked in good shape. Part of the brief was to find some challenging tracks which I expected would get too much for the heavy, well-used and softly sprung TXs.
An auto fourbie is a new thing for me, but a great idea in that there’s no clutch to fry or gearbox to hammer. The Prado feels heavy and on the road is a bit of a sluggish overtaker, but off-road that ability to concentrate on wheel placement and braking is a better way of doing things.
One thing I did find was that Low Range 1st was still too high while coming down Route MA6 on Jebel Timouka. It was over patches of rocky terrain more than the steepness which needed easing over, but I constantly had to dab the brakes. I think I should have tried Hill Descent Control (or some such) to slow the car down, though that may have been excruciatingly slow. The gearbox could also be slotted across into manual – ‘S’ – which also helped with control.
I’ve never scraped or thumped a 4×4’s underside so much as I did coming down MA6 in the TX at 5kph for two hours. They were all non-damaging hits but it’s not a good sound. The dash dial would also not lock the central diff the one or two times we thought we might need it. It was probably a faulty ABS sensor but traction-wise, the car managed fine thanks to the fat tyres on soft springs and dry conditions.
I heard later that a couple of months back an HZJ78 Troopy fell over at the bottom end of this route where a wash-out requires driving steeply up/down the river bank. On a few occasions I had to be marshalled over rocks; following the guide’s hand signals to inch left or right. Not done that for years but it’s a system that works very well. Taking it easy, front and rear bumper clearance were not issues.
At one point I had a ‘Specsavers’ moment when a rock jumped out of nowhere and caught the nearside front wheel while driving out along MS9’s riverbeds towards Anezal. We stumbled across that route from another direction and which I’ve also not done since 2008 on an XT660. I’m pretty sure that thump tweaked the steering wheel 5° to the left, though there seemed no damage to the linkages or subsequent vibration in the steering. We also had the age-old problem of dust playing up with the tailgate release locks.
All up, while it was fun to off-road in the Prado and the auto box make light work of the trails, it’s still a big fat, lumbering 4×4 which I’d have no use for elsewhere. I’d sooner do Morocco in a jacked up Audi estate or maybe a rented Duster.
In February 2023 I was back in a Prado, re-recceing the new version of the route above and then driving one the following week on the actual event. Again, one with over 150K on the clock did not light up the diff lock when selected an on this occasion we needed it. The newer Prado on the recce and the one I drove the following week (<20k on the clock) worked fine. Notably these two cars appeared to have been lifted a couple of inches which made a huge difference to the scraping experienced in October. If you rent one of these for off roading, consider asking whether it has been lifted and hope that the delivered vehicle matches what was requested.
In Chapter 10 of Desert Travels the cantankerous 101 leading my first desert bike tour was stranded at the Tin Taradjeli pass (above). As so often happens in the Sahara, the next person to turn up happened to be a diesel mechanic. Steve soon got the 101 running and, long story short, the following year we decided to team up and do a big Sahara trip together: him in his Land Cruiser, me in an old Land Rover 109.
For both of us this was the desert trip we’d each been planning in our heads for years. When travelling together briefly with my bike tour the previous year, we’d quickly established a shared passion for exploring the Sahara and set about doing a big trip together, each with his own 4×4. Though I’d been keen to head for the Ténéré Desert in Niger, we’d settled on keeping off the tarmac where possible and decided to head down to the Guinea’s highland jungles and the Mauritanian Sahara.
Nineteen ninety was not such a good year for me: post bike-tour debt, a bad crash leading to hospitalisation, followed by homelessness, a smaller bike crash which at least put an end to my dozen years of despatching. And finally my Land Rover, all set for a desert adventure with Steve, blew up in darkest Sussex at 2am, while I was doing some late deliveries.
As a way of keeping the tip on the rails Steve invited me to ride his XT600Z instead. I wasn’t that keen on bikes by that time, plus it would leave me dependent on him. But I accepted his offer and we met up in France, the bike towed on its back wheel with a similar arrangement I’d used on the 101.
Unfortunately, as so often happened in those days, all my films were lost on a flight in Mauritania. Since then I’ve learned: do not put things you cannot afford to lose in the hold baggage. What few photos I have were shot by Steve.
As agreed near Timbuktu, in Tidjika Steve went his way towing the XT, and I went mine. I met some American Peace Corps Volunteers and my travels in Mauritania took on a whole new direction.
Once in Tidjikja, I flogged my crash helmet to a delighted policeman. This time Steve didn’t even try to persuade me and drove off towards Nouakchott.
MZ1 (formerly MH23) Nekob > Skoura • 104km Last ridden: November 2022 – KTM 890 Adventure R; BMW 310GS
Description Now that the once classic MH4 from Nekob to Tinerhir (or Dades) is fully sealed, the southern sections of MH14 and MH15 still offer challenging off road crossings of the western Saghro mountains. A little too challenging for some on MH14. This ‘new’ route offers an easy way to access the range, initially following a well-maintained haul route west into the hills and down the other side on a regular but still good mountain track. You get all the distinctive drama which make the volcanic ranges of Jebel Saghro so unique, but can manage MH15.2 in any vehicle, including a pushbike over two days. As with the other two routes, the drama subsides once west of the ranges around KM70 and heading towards Skoura, but in that time, above 1600m you’ll have passed several epic vistas that make it all worthwhile. Thanks to local geologist Saad B for pointing out this route. In 2017 I came up MH15 to the new haul road at KM34 and wondered where it went to the east. I assumed to some mine; now I know it’s all the way down to Nekob.
Away from either end, the only ‘village’ of substance is Tagmout (KM43), a few smallholdings strung out in the basin and overshadowed by the gold/copper excavation just to the north. This mine must be why the eastbound part of the track got carved out of the hills; it’s not like there are a string of others lonesome hamlets up here needing a link to the outside world. West of Tagmout – geologically quite different in character – a few Berber shepherds live out in the wilds.
Mapping There’s nothing on paper of course, unless you print it yourself, but you can track it clearly on Google satellite and Apple Maps, as well as free digital maps like the particularly good GarminOpenTopo. There were only a few scraps of trail showing on my v3 Garmin Topo (v4 is current).
Off-Road Because the east section is used by mining dump trucks (I saw three just as I left Nekob in 2021; one in 2022), east of Tagmout this track is wide and in great shape and so remains doable with any car or bike. On an Africa Twin in 2021 I did find the countless western switchbacks – ground down to powder by the trucks’ scrubbing tyres – needed to be inched around. A more stable KTM 890 (with a group) made easier work of these in 2022, and a week later 310GSs were easier still to manage. A 4×4 will barely break into a sweat or low range.
Route finding After studying Google satellite I traced a putative kml along what looked like the clearest route, and it all panned out fine with no wrong turns. Westbound, you can’t go wrong up to the blue sign in the Tagmout basin (KM42; Berber women selling trinkets) and beyond here most forks of substance are to the right on the downward section, passing north of Bou Skour village and mine site (which you don’t see) to the big village of Sidi Flah. I saw no other traffic bar the three dump trucks rolling into Nekob in 2021 and in 2022 we saw a couple of Berber shepherd 125s and a lorry.
Suggested duration Allow half a day in a car or 4 hours on a bike with scenic stops.
Route Description 0km(104) Nekob west Afriquia fuel. On the other side of the main road, 200m to the west, a tarmac side road leads north to villages.
5.5 (98) A track splits left off the tarmac. There was some roadworks here in late 2022; work your wat round towards the pass to the northwest. Soon you cross a oued and enter a small palm gorge at which point the climb begins.
19 (85) Col at 1420m.
25 (79) Approach the impressive buttes of Jebel Agoulzi to the southwest (below). More noteworthy vistas follow.
33 (71) Reach a junction with tyres on cairns which is a 3-km link SW to MH14. MH15 comes in about 3km later (KM36) up from the south. You now head north for 9km, on the way passing the 2004-m high point with great views of the snowy High Atlas (below), if the season and conditions are right. You then work your way down sweeping bends into the Tagmout basin with a mine on its northern flank and where tracks diverge.
42 (62)Blue sign junction just east of Tagmout ‘village’, such as it is. Turn left for both Kelaa (as signed; MH14/15) and almost immediately left again (no sign) up to the Tachbouft Pass (KM45; 1805m) visible to the southwest for the run west to Bou Skour. Over the next 20km the track rises and drops over the ranges with several impressive viewpoints (below).
65 (39) Fork right. (Left leads down to Bou Skour village south of the mine). The most dramatic part of the crossing is over as the terrain loses elevation.
69 (35) Fork right again north of Bou Skour mine. In a kilometre keep right again just before some trackside machinery, and soon (around KM70) the main track from the mine (P1514 on Google) joins up from the left (south). You now follow the P1514 heading north then west.
79 (25) Fork. Keep left on the main track.
86 (18) Converge with a minor track coming from your left and where a red sign says ‘Bouskour 18,4km’ (pointing the way you’ve come from).
88 (16) Track joins from your right. All these three side tracks over the last 10km are minor: the main track is clear.
91 (13) Just after a passage alongside a farm wall, you cross a tributary of the nearby Oued Dades and swing north. Soon you pass through the small town of Sidi Flah. In 3km cross a bridge over the Oued Dades.
103(1) Near a power station, at a lone, unconnected orange pylon keep right to reach the N10 visible up ahead. Once there, turn right for the Inov roadhouse on the eastern outskirts of Skoura. Left is for Skoura and the N10 to Ouarzazate. Straight across leads up to the actual town centre and Amzeria (Amerzi; see update Update 3.0.14 – May 2019)
104 Inov roadhouse. (100km from Nekob on a 310GS odo).
The final instalment of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4 with VW T2 Kombis. From Aswan the foursome visit the temple of Abu Simbel, passing Sudanese camel meat caravans on the way. Then, after six months and some 12,000km from the Atlantic, they cross the Nile and take a well-earned dip in the Red Sea. For earlier parts, click the Index Page.
Part Seven of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. After having to divert around Libya via the Mediterranean, the flat-four foursome are back in the desert to tackle on of the hardest stages so far. But not before they conduct a desert survival experiment to see how far one of the team can walk with what they can carry (above left). For other parts, click the Index Page.
Part Six of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Nile crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. Despite their best efforts to acquire Libyan visas in Djanet, Algiers and Tunis, an escalation in the Libyan war with Chad means they can’t cross overland to Egypt and so have to ferry around across the Mediterranean. For other parts, click the Index Page.
Part Five of Peter Reif’s report and maps recalling ÖSEWO: an Atlantic-to-Red Sea crossing of the Sahara in 1983-4. The team have arrived in Tamanrasset where they meet many other desert overlanders, as well as the Dakar Rally and three VW friends from Austria who’ve brought spare passports for Libya. The four vans tick off the Hoggar Loop, then headed east for Djanet, close to the Libyan border. For other parts, click the Index Page.