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)
In October I had a recce job in Morocco and unexpectedly 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.
The Prado TX is a commonly rented vehicle in Morocco – a 3-litre diesel automatic at around £150/day. Auto diesels were very rare in my day but make sense as rental vehicles. The cars had around 100,000km on the clocks but were in good shape. Part of the brief was to find some challenging tracks which I expected would get too much for the 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 was of course 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 too 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 button would also not lock the central diff the one or two times we thought we might need it; 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.
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).
High up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
I was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.
Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.
Not for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.
Even then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)
Built in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with it’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
“The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”
The Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.
Perhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.
Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.
Talat n Yacoub (Ijoukak) > Ouneine basin > Ouaougdimt valley > Aoulouz • 88km First run April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado Last run November 2022 – KTM890R
Description High Atlas crossing parallel to the nearby Tizi n Test which peaks 2200m, steeply climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak (right). You may find the looser parts of this climb a struggle in a 2WD or on a heavy, wide bike, but this was not the case on 2022 in a 4×4. It’s probable that local 2WD vans only do it downhill (northbound) to Ijoukak. In 2022 the track was rougher as it rolled down to the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose extension eastwards to Igli on (MH21) is now sealed. Keep right at the fork with an illegible sign. At the bottom just before the road joins the road you have to detour around the boundary fence of a new small mine,
Once in the basin carry on SW along the P1735, and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join the MH6 road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road. Or, if you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the ever-bendy P1735 to Sidi Ouaziz (fuel) on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.
Mapping Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google and the OSM/Garmin digitals.
Off-Road The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune passfrom KM11 starts a steeply but lately has been graded. From the pass the gradient eases off with great views doiwn to the basin while you’ll find the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by a rough freewheeling reward to the basin and no more huge grades thereafter. Bikes might have more fun following MH21 to the high P1735 road, turning left or right.
Route finding Easy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download the MH20kml file.
Suggested duration Half a day will do you.
Route Description 0km(88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak village.
11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins. (Ahead, MH21 continues).
19 (69)Tizi n Oulaoune2200-m high point with views of Toubkal (4167m) 20km to the northeast. The track now eases off as it descends.
23 (65) Fork with sign (photo above: ‘Map Junction’). East at this fork is a rough track (MH212) which in 9km joins MH21 to Igli (MH21). Keep right (south) to continue descending to the Ouneine basin visible to the west. At a new small mine work your way round the fence to the south. to rejoin the track. Eventually, at a junction around KM35 you join the P1735 road which goes E towards Igli over a 2500-m terrace. This is a spectacular road (MH21). Meanwhile, the P1735 crosses the Ouneine basin SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.
54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. The tarmac carries on 22km to Sidi Ouaziz (fuel) on the N10 but you turn sharp left here, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is initially a bit eroded and loose as it climbs to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.
78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir. Turn right (west).
83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.
88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.
Trans Atlas: MH21*
* Easily confused with route ‘MH21 Cirque de Jaffar’ in the book, which henceforth will be called MH2.2
Ijoukak > Igli > Askaoun > Taliouine • 170km Last run: November 2022; KTM 890R
At the ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine’ turn-off (MH20KM11.5) for the steep track up to Tizi n Oulaoune, carry on southeast on tarmac for a few km until it ends at a village (green mark on map abobe). Keep going along an easy piste rising up the valley and past a couple more villages. Just before one village keep right (downwards); sharp back left leads up to who knows where. Your route climbs to meet the end of the MH212 link track close to the Ouneine-Igli tarmac. Turn left then at the tarmac nearby it’s left up to over 2550m then a long wind down to Igli (hotel/cafe) on the Aquim-Aoulouz road MH6. From here carry on south then west down the valley and turn left at a sign to cross below the dam wall (roadworks in 2022) and wins your way up to up to Askaoun (KM120) then down to Taliouine. Total 170KM, fuel to fuel. I did versions of this route three times in November 2022 with a lunch in Igli. A great ride with a dizzying number of bends in one day.
Over the years there was talk of a High Atlas crossing in 100-km span between the MH12 Demnate backroad (above) and MH1 via Agoudal. The 4000-m ridge of the Mgoun massif separated them. There are trekking trails which probably could be threaded together on a light bike, but now Moroccan road builders have completed what I’ve dubbed ‘MH19‘, a route usable in any vehicle as long as conditions allow. I heard about it too late to describe fully in the 2017 edition, although it is mapped on page 110 (below left).
I got to ride the route on a 250 just as the book was published in October 2017, and again about a month later southbound in a 4×4. Like many Morocco routes it’s a straightforward drive once you find the start points, doable without much of a description or GPS. Northbound, all you need to know is: 1. Fork right, off the road at the top end of Alemdoun village for the old route through the gorge, or stay on the tarmac over the pass. Southbound, just east of Tabant turn right (south) over the ford for the easy 17-km climb to the Ait Imi pass. 2. Have a 200km fuel range.
Elevation profiles show the road climbing steeply from the south up to the Aït Hamad pass, but the gradient on the entire route is never extreme, and as long as the surface remains smooth, the route is doable in a regular car or a fully loaded big adv bike. It took us 3 hours to ride the 80-km of piste from Alemdoun to Tabant, and about the same southbound in a 4×4.
At Amelgag we chose the gorge route (right) instead of the new climb over the pass, a great diversion (and the original route) which is still used by local Merc taxivans. Coming north, turn off right at the bend as you enter Amejgag village and wind your way north through the village to the gorge.
‘MH19’ links the book’s two Jebel Sarhro west routes, MH14 and 15 which end near Kelaa, with routes MH16, 17 and 18 in the Aït Bouguemaze valley on the north slopes of the High Atlas.
The route passes Alemdoun (cafes, fuel at the shop if you ask). On the way you’ll pass many Rose Valley auberges in the villages. At the start of Alemdoun keep on the bypass west of the village for Amejgag. Here on as bend, the original piste splits right (north) for the Amejgag Gorge and the river to join up in the Ameskar valleyin about 10km. Most local traffic uses this narrow route.
Otherwise, the new route takes you up over a 2350-m ‘AmejgagPass‘ (KM50) before dropping down to Ameskar and joining the gorge route (KM56). Now the steep climb begins to the 3042-metreTizi n’Ait Hamad (~KM65). From the top of this pass (left; telecom tower; bloke in a hut) Jebel Mgoun summit (4071m; second only to Toubkal) is a 16km walk to the west. This was the rougher part of the crossing, but still smooth enough to be doable in a 2WD or a heavy bike.
You descend from the Ait Hamad (above), climb an intermediate pass then descend into the valley of the Mgoun river, bypassing some remote villages of El Mrabitine. This descent is on a broader, metalled road, which should be sealed by now. You cross the Mgoun stream (KM83) and climb less steeply to the Tizi n’Aït Imi (2898m; ~KM98). At the top Aït Bouguemaze valley lies 20km below. Busy Tabant village(KM117) has shops and basic bap cafes before you join MH18(if heading west). As the whole area is popular with trekkers, there are several auberges hereabouts.
Fuel There is a small Total just west of the Rose roundabout in Kella; the point where you turn north off the N10. At the Aït Bouguemaze end, the nearest fuel is either Azilal, 79km to the north via MH17 – a fabulous drop from the pine forests. Or stay on MH18 west to Demnate; 83km – about 90 mins of near-constant bends. Total fuel-to-fuel distance from Kelaa to either is around 200km, but there is drum fuel at the shop at the top end of Alemdoun.
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.
I go for a walk, passing unusual dwellings designed to slide downhill in the event of an earthquake.
Not a place to stagger back to late one night, fumbling for your keys.
We go for a ride back up the cliff
Rob tries out his new Touratech Arai-iPhone adapter mount, called a Digital Utility Camera Transom. You’d think they could come up with a snappier name.
Down below, a carefully tended mosaic of gardens lap up the autumn sun.
We take a walk over to the kasbah (fortified dwelling) at Assaragh
Then ride back down…
… to the auberge for lunch. It was built by a local who did well abroad, and chose to return something to his community. A common practise in Morocco.
After a siesta we head out to a curious ruined tsar (similar to a kasbah but more castle-like) which I passed last year.
We wind out way up into a maze of crumbling walls and collapsed palm-trunk beams.
But at the doorway it looks a bit dodgy to go further without a hardhat and full body armour.
Next day we’re back on the piste.
Heading up over Jebel Timouka, Route MA6 in my book.
Into the ranges.
Some oueds (creeks) are hard work on the heavy 650s. So we stop to cool off and let Elisa and Mustapha catch up.
The climb begins.
Deeper Steeper Higher I don’t know about the others, but the occasional landslide repairs with football-sized rocks are barely rideable on the Terra. The suspension shoves the weight back at you in all directions nd you can tell that point is coming where it’s easier to fall than fight it. When I came this way in 2008 I broke a spring on my pickup. I’m up ahead and eventually pull over weak-kneed, strip off and empty my 3-pint bottle. The others catch up and Elisa hands out power bars. Andy’s Sertao is even more of a dog than the Husky and Patrick got pinned negotiating a gnarly hairpin, but is nevertheless amazed at the beating the XR can take. Rob finds his XR a breeze up here.
We carry on to an amazing view back south towards Jebel Bani, now only 80 miles away
Thankfully the track eases up and we reach the equally amazing Timouka Pass overlooking the Issil plain. In the many tiny Berber villages below (the green clumps) women dye wool and work ancient looms to produce the fine carpets you’ll find in the souks of Marrakech and Tangier
We drop off the pass, race across the plain to the highway and ride into Tazenacht for a late lunch, babbling about our awesome morning’s ride. Freshly-chopped Moroccan salad (a bit like Mexican salsa), omelette, chips and bread + tea. That’ll be $3 Down the road, plenty of room at the Hotel Sahara.
Night falls over Tazenacht.
While inside the infidels, some in fancy dress, gathered for the feast and then retire to their chilly suites.
This is us: Rob UK, Patrick NYC, Andy (ex Desert Rider), Elisa NYC and me, having some sort of ministroke. Rob and Patrick were part of a group that trekked with me in Algeria last year. With another planned moto tour having fallen through, off-road newb Patrick asked me to put together a run through Morocco. OK I said if you can find some people to cover my costs. This he did and here we were.
I strap a satnav over the dash, a water bottle holder to the crash bar and tuck my book under the tanknet.
Other than Andy, I wasn’t sure of the others’ ability so recommend XR250 Tornados.
This is a great little machine: an air-cooled, four-valve, big oil cooler, 5 speed, electric start, carb-fed, drum rear dirt bike. It stacks up very well alongside the CRF250L I ran around the Southwest USA earlier this year; as economical, as good suspension, as pokey and it felt lighter, though there’s only some 6kg in it according to online stats.
Trouble is, it’s made in Brazil (and sold in Argentina) and AFAIK is only available in countries with I presume have slack emissions regs. None have ridden off road but Rob once ran a 996 so he’ll catch up and Patrick learned fast. Only Elisa found the learning curve of Morocco + piste a bit steep so switched to a jeep which actually served us all well as a baggage carrier.
Before we even leave the agency, Mustapha the driver dashes off with Elisa. His silver SUV soon disappears in a sea of silver SUVs. Rob gets the guy at the servo to bring him back.
The first day was scheduled as easy as we expected faffing around at the rental place. Just 100 clicks down the road to a lodge up in the High Atlas.
Notice the sagging front tyre on the Husky; a slow puncture which led to overheating and a faster puncture on the rough road into the Atlas. Next morning it’s flat as, and no tools under the seat. The Sertao’s wheel wrench fits but one Torx fitting is mashed and none of mine fit.
I nip down the road to chisel it off while the village vulcaniser irons on bits of rubber with blue goo, literally with an old electric clothes iron and a screw press. It looked impressive but also kind of crap. May work OK on a local moped but on the 650 the repair lasted 20 mins on the first piste a couple of days later.
Anyway, on the crest of the High Atlas at Tizi n Test pass (6860’) we stop for lunch then enjoy a great ride down into the sunny southlands. Notice the ridge on the far horizon: that’s Jebel Bani about 130 miles away; the last of the Atlas mountain ranges. Beyond that, unbroken Sahara for a 1000 miles all the way to Timbuktu.
With half a day lost chiselling nuts and ironing rubber, we make an unplanned stop over in Taliouine, famous for its saffron which we’re assured is the best in the world and cures all maladies. I sprinkle some on my front tyre, also my front brake and efi which are playing up.
As expected, the Husky is the thirstiest bike by 20%, but also the most powerful and with the best soundtrack which = a whole lot of fun in the twisty blacktop canyons of the Anti Atlas. Let me tell you, all this ‘ad-venture motorcycling’ is a lost cause, carting your junk around like a mule and camping out bush like some vagrant. Hire a jeep, check into roadside lodges at half board and enjoy Bourgeois Motorcycling!
Patrick tries the Sertao and declares it’s the best motorcycle ever made. It’s certainly more comfy than the others, has a mellower engine than the TR and some days even used less fuel than the XRs. But when the dirt gets gnarly it’s a dog.
That’s several thousand dirhams worth of saffron right there.
Carefully picked from these crocuses, or is it crocii?
Patrick and Elisa pose with some $10 jars.
Two hundred clicks out of Marrakech we take to the piste into the Anti Atlas, the arid range south of the High Atlas which for me adds up to the best riding in Morocco. Soon the Husky front tube pops its corks so I slot our only new 21” in and hope for the best.
Dirtnewb Patrick is getting into the swing but next time I’m going to levy a surcharge for all black outfits.
Desert Rider Andy runs an 1190 + his old trans-Africa 640 back home so for him it’s all in a day’s work. That’s his 11-year old Darien Light that Aero made for us, still as good as new.
Into the valley.
Past hilltop Berber villages.
Up ahead a dramatic descent down a tufa waterfall. Andy sets off on the Husky and we follow.
We ride through the palmerie and arrive at our lodge where we’ll spend two nights.
Night falls across the tranquil oasis. ‘Allaaaaahu Ak-bar’ rings from the minarets.
While inside the three infidels sit transfixed as the guy pours a shot of whisky.
Here’s Ian Chappel’s short video as he reaches the impressive overlook at KM78 on Route MA7. You look down from the top of Jebel Timouka over the Issil Plain following a couple of hours rough riding. Good work on a hefty GS12! MA6 proved even tougher on the BMW but can also surprise you with a similarly impressive vista at KM48 if you’re heading north.
Ian’s other vids include pistes from the book and thankfully cut to the action.
We’re back in this area over the next few days with a few small XRs plus a couple of 650 singles. They’ll be a report here or on the AMWebsite. And maybe some vids too.