Considering its influence on global weather patterns, very little data exists about the climate of the Sahara.
Dust plumes from summertime sand storms can reach right across the Atlantic to the Americas, having a bearing on the formation of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico as well as a beneficial effect on the ecology of the Caribbean and Amazon basin. In western Europe we’re familiar with occasional reports of ‘Sahara dust rain’ settling on smooth surfaces like car bodies. In March 2014 the Daily Mail reported on the outrage of Saharan dust settling on then Prime Minister Cameron’s car in Downing Street (right).
In 2011 and 2012 Project Fennec set out to expand the knowledge of this area by gathering climatic and aerosol data across the arid ‘Empty Quarter’ of the western Sahara. Covering northern Mauritania, northern Mali and western Algeria, it’s known to meteorologists as the ‘Saharan Heat Low’ (SHL) and is the world’s largest source of airborne dust. Manned weather stations were established in Zouerat, Mauritania and Bordj Moktar (‘BBM’) on the Algeria-Mali border (see map above left), while automated weather stations (AWS, above right) were planted across the 1000 miles between the two bases, in the remote Erg Chech region.
In 2006 we traversed the southern edge of this ‘Empty Quarter‘ between Ouadane and BBM, crossing only the infrequently travelled Timbuktu-Taoudenni piste in some 2000 km of off-piste driving. On the way we collected dust samples for what became Fennec.
Following its 2005 Bodele dust-research expedition to Chad (BodeX), in 2012 the Fennec ground observations were backed up by a series of flights at high and low altitude across the region using aircraft crammed with recording instruments (above right).
Below is a short film about the Fennec project. It’s not click and play; it has to download itself.
Reviews below only relate to the ‘Morocco Overland zone’ (left) and only the most useful maps are mentioned. The north of Morocco is not considered, although you assume any map will be OK up there too. Med ferries and Morocco port access maps here. For Sahara maps click this. Morocco Overland updates here.
A paper map of Morocco is inexpensive, light, compact, doesn’t need recharging and gives you the big picture which is great for planning at home, or deciding where to go next once out there. You can’t do that on your smartphone or GPS, handy though they are.
There are up to a dozen Morocco country maps in print and taking into account scale, price, clarity, date of publication, presence of a long/lat grid and so on, the maps below are recommended for on and off-highway travel in the south of Morocco. One thing quickly becomes clear: while you won’t get lost and die of thirst relying these maps, they’re all surprisingly inaccurate and tend to copy each other’s errors. Some minor routes shown as sealed are in fact little-used pistes, and more commonly pistes depicted identically on several maps do not match the orientation shown, or don’t exist at all. Elsewhere roads sealed for years are not shown at all. What also becomes evident is how many interesting and easily navigable pistes there are in Morocco which don’t appear on these paper maps. The same can be said for villages; many established settlements on a par with other locally depicted places are missing, while some towns are given excessive prominence for what you’ll find there. This inconsistency with road and place ‘hierarchy’ is probably as old a complaint as mapping itself. For navigating along the main ‘N’ highways in a motorhome the recommended maps are fine. But using them for reliable navigation and accurate position-finding on more obscure southern Moroccan back roads or tracks may be a hit and miss affair. For that a GPS or phone with a map is better (see below). Once you accept these limitations paper maps not so bad.
The 11th edition published in 2019 may have the same ‘old man in the mountains’ cover but appears to be a genuine update while retaining the usual errors.
The main changes: • New Moroccan road numbers given alongside old ones. Nice touch • Many more red RN roads added, finally • Provincial names and boundaries shown (not so useful)
• Fuel station info inconsistent (unless they mean ‘village fuel‘)
• Many tracks (grey) are easy-to-drive gravel roads/pistes (white)
• Many well-established pistes are missing; others are sealed roads (yellow or red)
• Some sealed roads are tracks (eg: RN14; off-limits, anyway)
• Some villages missing or misaligned
In the end, recognising all these paper maps are flawed in some way, the German RKH was the one I use most. Why? Because unlike the Michelin, it won’t fall apart after less than an hour’s accumulated use, the accuracy and clarity are good enough once you know the pitfalls, and the double-sided printing makes it compact and easy to use in a crowded lift, shove in a bike’s tank net (right) or open out in a gale. I also find the intuitive 1:1m scale good for quick distance estimates (1mm = 1km) and the grid lines work well for estimating a position on the map off a GPS. They even squeeze an index round the edges and now, some pretty, touristic pictures. Cartographically, the RKH isn’t the best design for me, but the 2019 is a bit lighter and if necessary you can eat your lunch off it, use it as an umbrella, origami it into a bowl and generally rough it up without it ending up like Michelin confetti. Plastic paper maps are the way to go.
The biggest drawback with the RKH was the vague alignment of roads and tracks and not keeping with pistes which were sealed years ago. For regular tourists heading out in rental cars or campervans towards a sealed road on the map which turns out to be a piste is irritating. But they’re also missing out on many great backroad drives. This map is hard to find as adigital download. RK-H don’t sell it anymore but this place does the 2013 edition for $8.
Michelin 742 1:1m 2019 Only £5.99 and best for planning, but fragile Michelin, the best map for Morocco, right? It’s OK but the thin paper doesn’t lend itself to regular use, not helped by the fact that at over 1.5m wide, the 742 is a big map.
Rather than city insets you get five useful sub-regions at 600k scale (notably Jebel Sirwa south of Marrakech), and even some useful climate stats. What I like most about this map is the intuitive 1:1m scale (a millimetre = a kilometre), the clear, functional Michelin design and the fact that it goes right down to Laayoune which means you can view all the book’s routes on one sheet (apart from the lower halves of Routes MO2 and MW6). And at £5.99 in the UK, it’s the cheapest of the recommended Morocco maps. Roads and pistes wind around with believable intricacy (unlike the lazier RKH) and we get Michelin’s well-known scenic ‘green road’ feature which is pretty reliable. In places the forest and dune coverage isn’t to be relied on and it’s this sort of detail that you feel never gets updated. As for the accuracy of secondary roads and pistes – a common failing on all these maps – look carefully at the Key (in five languages including Arabic). Unconventionally, uncoloured (white) roads with solid borders on both sides signify ‘road surfaced’, but one dashed edge means an all-out piste liable to the weather, though they’ve added a new designation: one dotted edge which means unsealed but usable in all-weather by all vehicles. Being vague about the type of surface is a conveniently ambiguous way of saying they could be surfaced with asphalt, gravel, egg mayonnaise or rocks. And of course some of these solid-edged ‘white roads’ are major two-lane highways where the regular yellow colouring would be more appropriate. And as on other maps, plenty of tracks mentioned in the book or on the digital maps below are missing and some white roads don’t exist. In places this data is years out of date but overall they don’t get it as badly or as conspicuously wrong as the RKH, below. Note that so-called ‘new editions’ often add up to no more than a new cover design but in my experience the 742 is still one of the lest bad maps for overlanding in Morocco.
Free digital maps for your GPS
Garmin Open Topo This is my new favourite Morocco map, stumbled across online while looking for OSM. It uses the same user-updated OSM data, but not only is it a simple, single 500mb download of the whole country, which you then unzip and put on the SD card of your GPS, but the design or cartography are the best I’ve seen: proper shading for relief and so much clearer to read than anything else I’ve tried. The only problem is I haven’t found a way of making this map show up in BaseCamp, even with the Montana connected. I am sure someone will come up with a way of doing this.
Open Source Mapping (OSM) It’s hard to think why you’d get this compared to the map above, even if they both use the same data. On the link select ‘Morocco’ in the ‘Africa’ menu and choose to add or remove tiles as needed (less tiles may mean quicker map). You will need Garmin’s free MapInstall and Basecamp software. Of the three digital map options for Morocco, this is the one I refer to last – and you can see why on the four-screen comparison below. The absence of topographic detail makes it harder to visualise the landscape, compared to the Garmin or Garmin Topo.
Garmin North Africa Topo £20 You will need Garmin’s free MapInstall and Basecamp software. This map is locked in your GPS unit so only shows and becomes editable with Basecamp on a computer screen when your GPS is attached to the computer. Click the link for a full review. Below the same region shown on six digital maps.
Google, Bing and Apple Maps online maps
How lucky we are today today to have brilliant WYSIWYG satellite imagery for free. Used as a pre-planning map, Googles’ map page can be misleading on southern Morocco compared to the more detailed paper maps reviewed above. Click between ‘map’ and ‘satellite’ and you’ll often see how inaccurate the highway overlay is compared to the true satellite image, although the Terrain page is much improved. Pistes and roads are as out-of-date, incomplete, not labeled with the standard Moroccan N- or R- road/track designations, inaccurate in hierarchy (closed piste and two-lane blacktop shown as the same) or are non-existent, just like the worst paper maps above. Furthermore, many town and village names are unrecognisable, presumably taken from non-standard US sources. Zoomed in, you can look at the Google map of Morocco a long time before you find a name you recognise and work out where you are. However, Google Map’s satellite page (or Google Earth) is particularly effective in vividly dramatising and navigating the arid topography of a place like southern Morocco, even if resolution/clarity on some of the segments appear shot through the bottom of a Coke bottle. In that case, check out Bing Maps’ Aerial view; zoom in close enough and suddenly it jumps to eye-popping clarity. Apple Maps is another mapping resource that must have been on my Mac for years before I bothered looking. Clarity and accuracy is surprisingly good, but there is very little detail (which includes what you might all ‘commercial clutter’ on Google). It’s also slow to load. Goof as a last alternative if the above two are not delivering.
All three platforms at best look as crisp as peering down from a hot air balloon. On Erg Chebbi you can even spot the tourist bivouacs in the dunes. Google Earth needs many of the layers unchecked which often contain wildly inaccurate ‘user-added’ junk, but with Bing Aerial or Google Sat you have a ‘map’ that cannot lie. With a Google account, in ‘Your Places’ you can build a network of routes to easily export as a .gpx for your GPOS device, as well as discover new areas and generally be thrilled at the bird’s eye view of Morocco.
… and your smartphone or phablet
I don’t use a mobile phone for mapping so am not an expert on this, but apart from OSM / Garmin Open Topo, you can now download Google Maps for offline use your phone’s GPS. You may not be able to download all of Morocco before the mb limit is reached, but it’s free and familiar. Other than that, search the internet for map apps which cover Morocco.
Getting routed: As the track was clearly visible, I traced the route I’m logging above (MW7) off Google Earth the previous evening (internet required), saved and exported the kml then imported it (as a gpx) into my Montana via BaseCamp. This was pushing the outer limits of my tech ability with this sort of stuff. GPS digital maps not really needed as I had the largely accurate self-drawn tracklog on the screen to follow, while recording my own live tracklog. Years later I used this same system (pre-trace route off Google Earth) again while logging MH23. The great thing with satellite is WYS is usually WYG, whereas with maps (paper or digi) WYS can be nothing at all.