Marrakech Express: Towing an Airstream to Morocco with a Range Rover
Northern England to Morocco and back in an 11-day, 3676-mile journey towing a 5289-pound Airstream.
I don't think any of us had ever felt more conspicuous in our lives. Far above us, Spanish Foreign Legion soldiers lined the top of the cliff, looking down at the shuffling tide of humanity separated from them by high fences topped with wicked-looking razor wire. Around us was a traffic jam consisting almost exclusively of bashed and battered cars from the early 1980s. In front of us were dozens of CCTV cameras, guarded by yet more supremely tough, immaculately turned out, heavily armed Spanish soldiers, all wearing mirrored Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses as if some quartermaster had issued them to go with the rest of their uniforms. And then there were the three of us: Matt the snapper, my brother-in-law and colleague Martin, and me, in 42 feet of the shiniest, most expensive British registered aluminum imaginable. If we'd been dressed as Beefeaters and been driving the Queen's Bentley, we could hardly have stood out more.
We crawled forward, the silence of the SUV's engine and the efficacy of its double-glazing making the scene outside even more surreal. With a curt nod and a wave of the hand, we were ushered a few yards forward -- and into a world as foreign as any of us had ever seen. Like leaving a post-apocalyptic city in a science fiction movie, we moved out of the last quiet, dark but intimidating outpost of the European Union and straight into the pure chaos of Africa. Hundreds of people milled around, seemingly aimlessly, some dressed in the pointy-hooded Moroccan robes that obviously inspired the costume designers of Star Wars, some dressed in grandiose uniforms that made them look like doormen at a slightly rundown hotel in 1950s Rome. It was suddenly bright, dusty, dirty, and, if anything, even more intimidating.
One of the gentlemen in djellaba robes sauntered up to us and knocked confidently on the window. He had a photo ID hanging from his neck, but, as far I could tell, it could have been his proof of membership of the Tangiers branch of Blockbuster. I'd much rather have opened the window to one of the Italian doormen chaps. But he was insistent, and, rather than create a scene, I opened the window. Mohammed introduced himself in heavily accented English, to which I replied in my even more heavily accented schoolboy French. Immediately, the smile left Mohammed's face. "Morocco, sir, is an Arab country, and here we speak Arabic, not French." For a chap keen not to put his foot in it, I'd done pretty well so far.
We came to understand that he was here to help us through customs, and I must say that it was one of my better decisions to let him help. Martin, who's battled Russian and Ukrainian customs posts on past trips, produced a folder of such color-coordinated, alphabetically ordered OCD magnificence that Mohammed found only one form that had the wrong number on it and that it was going to take him only an hour or so to sort it out, a comment accompanied by dozens of knowing winks on his part. Just as he said this, there was a lot of shouting, and a full-blown fight broke out in front of us as an elderly Renault screeched to a halt, wheelspinning madly towards us, eventually coming to a rest in a heap of rubbish. Mohammed dashed off to see whether there was a better profit opportunity there, but, fortunately for us, as he explained on his return, it was only a Frenchman bringing in a handgun without the correct permits for it.
While Martin and I were off, queuing, and waiting nervously at window after window, Matt was in the car texting his wife that he had "locked himself in the car while the other two are off bribing the officials." They do say never to leave your photographer unattended, and the wisdom of this was reinforced as we came back to the car to find a very cross-looking Moroccan soldier, in a uniform rather more serious than any we'd already seen, waving his gun around in an alarmed Matt's direction. Matt had thought he ought to get some photographs of the scene we found ourselves in, guessing that I might want to write about it. Just as he started, he was stopped by said soldier, who felt rather strongly that people shouldn't just barge into his country and start taking photographs of confidential military installations. Rather than have his camera confiscated, get arrested or possibly even shot, Matt started frantically pressing buttons on his camera and the images disappeared off the screen on its back as our friend Mohammed murmured beseechingly in Arabic at the soldier.
Pretty soon, we were on our way, threading out into the traffic on the next and most exciting stage of our adventure to the Atlas Mountains, pulling the world's smartest trailer with the world's smartest tow vehicle.
The whole thing began a few months earlier when we'd learned from Land Rover that it would be launching its new flagship in Morocco. We know the old Range Rover was pretty good at towing, but wouldn't it be amazing to find out what the new one was like by pulling an Airstream? And we'd probably get some stunning pictures once we were there. Over time, this morphed into an arrangement that, providing we let them use the trailer for a couple days of the launch, the chaps at Land Rover would be delighted to help.
We'd set off only five days earlier, picking up the Airstream from the European factory in a typically rain-lashed Lake District. Anyone interested in trailers, or even in the wider history of transportation design, knows what an Airstream is but not many know that, not only are they still built, but for the last few years a European-specification range of silver bullet travel trailers has been being designed and built just behind the M6's Tebay Services.
The Airstream 684 International that we were lucky enough to be taking on our adventure is nearly the top of the range. On the outside, it's all classic Airstream, yards of sleek aluminum only really given away by modern alloy wheels. Icon is an overused word, but there's an Airstream in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; JFK used one as a campaign office; and NASA used one as the quarantine facility for returning moon astronauts in case they'd caught some sort of lunar flu on their travels. And the list of stars who own them is as long as an Oscar acceptance speech, with the photo shoot of an impossibly cool rock star or actor living in his or her trailer on Malibu Beach being a staple of the gossip mags.
On the inside, the Airstream is like a boutique hotel on wheels. It's very modern, all red leather, Corian worktops and flat screen TVs, and despite the fact that you can now get an even bigger one, 98.4 inches wide to our 90.6, it's very spacious in there. There's a proper double bed at the back with plenty of storage space, a decently sized wet room with cool stainless steel sink, a galley with more than enough kit to keep a much bigger group than ours fed, and then a dining table and sofas that convert to another double bed at the front. You can even get a range of awnings that go on the side, although our mad dash was never to give us the time to try anything like that out.
But if you're going to have a mad dash across one continent and into another, I can't think of anything better to do it in than the all-new Range Rover. It's unmistakably a Range Rover, although no one would confuse it for the old one, as it's both more modern and more luxurious. With an Airstream hitched to its electrically deployable towbar, it looks incredible.
The first leg of our journey took us down the M6 to Solihull, and to the factory where yet another 800 people have just been hired to build this new car and the new Range Rover Sport, due to follow soon. Now owned by the enormous Tata Steel conglomerate, Jaguar Land Rover has been one of the great British success stories over the last few years. Its Solihull factory, at which we paused briefly for pictures, has a busy, confident air, and is three-dimensional proof that Britain can and should be a nation proud of its ability to engineer and manufacture things and doesn't have to rely on the service sector to keep our heads above water.
From Solihull, it's a dark wet slog down the M40 to Portsmouth and by now it was entirely apparent that the Range Rover is not just a pretty face. At a cruising speed, the mighty V-8 engine was virtually ticking over at just over 1000 rpm, and, despite the fact that the gross combined weight of car and trailer was more than 5 tons, we hadn't yet experienced a hill that caused the SUV to have to downshift to maintain speed. Thus far, the only criticism was that it tows so effortlessly, it is all too easy to forget that there's anything back there.
We'd chosen to take the Britanny Ferry to Santander as it cuts 750 miles each way off the drive and it was the parts of the voyage farther south that excited us. However, that's not to say the ferry isn't a rather civilized way to start the journey. Some of the restaurants on board are really quite good and the cabins are perfectly acceptable, but the ability to work the whole way down using the ship's onboard wireless and mobile phone coverage was incredibly useful.
After two nights and 33 hours on board, we were more than ready to set off from Santander to pick our photographer Matt up from Bilbao Airport. What we weren't ready for was the beauty of that stretch of coast, nor for the most astonishing meal just around the corner from the airport. Having walked the airport's one-way system before attempting it with car and trailer, we found Matt and headed up into the mountains for our first photo stop, the Marques de Riscal winery and hotel. We parked the aluminum Range Rover and Airstream outside the stunning Frank Gehry-designed building, whose own use of aluminum is famous the world over. As the sun set, the PR girl broke open a bottle of their Rioja to share with the non-drivers, and we started to discuss our trip. She couldn't believe that we'd be in Morocco in just 36 hours' time, and passing back through northern Spain just three days later.
Our first night in the trailer was at Camping Fuentes Blancas in Burgos, where we arrived in the pitch black and freezing cold. While Matt worked his magic with camera, flash bulbs, and car headlights, we took a few minutes to set up the trailer. I'd already unpacked, so it was just an issue of making sure it was level, hooking up to the mains, plugging in clean and waste water, and getting the heating going while we took off for another bottle of Rioja and some food in the onsite restaurant.
Before dawn, we were on the road again, a mere 566 miles to cover to reach our next overnight halt. The fabulous Spanish motorways are a lesson in EU politics -- funded by European money while the few cars you see on them are almost exclusively German. Whether this was a good thing or not was irrelevant as mile after mile passed effortlessly under the wheels of our Trans-Atlantic Alliance, as we drove past signposts redolent of the Peninsular War -- Vitoria, Salamanca, Coruna, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz.
As we climbed the mountains to altitudes more than 3200 feet above sea level, the big Rangie finally seemed to show a sign of weakness, as it failed to maintain the speed set on the cruise control up a particularly long, steep bit. While mentally writing a slightly patronizing sentence about the incident, I thought I'd see what happened if I overrode the cruise control and pushed the throttle to the floor. Wow -- 5 tons shot forward like a sports car, with no letup of acceleration until I backed off before we hit a most inappropriate speed.
Side winds became apparent as we sailed down the other side. We could see where trucks had actually been blown over, and occasionally we'd feel a bit of buffeting, but the Range Rover's Trailer Stability Assist actually brakes individual wheels to eliminate any snaking before it even begins.
We arrived in our second campsite, Camping Rio Jara, after dark again, and left it before dawn to catch the ferry from Algeciras. The crossing was brief, but it had turned into a beautiful morning, and as we arrived on the African continent, the sun was shining. Ceuta is actually a Spanish territory about the same size as Gibraltar, the British territory on the other side of the narrow straits. It is a fascinating little place, summed up for me as we picked our way through its narrow streets with the sound of a Spanish Foreign Legion military band competing with the evocative call of the muezzin.
The most memorable experience in Ceuta, however, was definitely the border crossing, on the other side of which lay Morocco. As we climbed up through the hills, the elation of surviving our adventure in the customs post mingled with the excitement of reaching Morocco. We picked our way through beautiful mountain roads for an hour or so, laughing at how incredibly exotic every signpost was to Tangiers, starting to enjoy the double takes our amazing rig caused at every turn. These first Moroccan roads weren't in great shape, but probably weren't much worse than many British ones are this winter. As we dropped down past the huge new container port just outside Tangiers, we joined the motorway, following the signs toward Rabat and Casablanca. At the first motorway services, we stopped, mindful of the fact that you can't bring any dirhams (the local currency) into the country and that we were on a toll road. The first surprise was that the services were smart, clean, and that even the gents' restrooms (although we did use the European type ones in the main building rather than the local ones out back) were much tidier and cleaner than we would ever have expected. The second surprise was that fuel was cheap -- really cheap. The third, least pleasant one was that the ATM was out of order. Fortunately, we discovered that, not only did the man at the fuel pumps speak French (like virtually everyone else we met in Morocco and that Mohammed at the customs post was just giving me a post-colonial fright), but that he was perfectly happy to change some Euros for dirhams. The fact that he and his chums had probably quietly unplugged the ATM was just an example of the way moneymaking schemes work in Africa.
Before we left, I went over to talk with the driver of a Geneva-registered Puch Pinzgauer, which looked (and had sounded as we passed it on the motorway) about as uncomfortable a means of transport as could be imagined. The driver was only too happy to explain, in a splendid cut glass accent, that he was a doctor on his way down to Malawi. We felt a little wimpish, with our heated, cooled, massaging seats, possessors of the most comfortable headrests in automotive history, not to mention the comforts of the Airstream, but initially kept our misgivings to ourselves.
However, as we drove down through northern Morocco, through terrain that looked more like northern Italy than my image of Africa, we started to look out for the subtle changes instead of the massive ones we were expecting. We saw a half dozen camels, grazing like cattle. The low white domestic buildings were definitely built in the Moroccan style, if not to a terribly spectacular degree. The motorway remained in extremely good repair and pretty deserted, wit the biggest difference being the odd pedestrian dashing across it, as bridges are few and far between.
We decided to skirt Rabat since we were, as always, on a tight schedule, and exploring narrow streets towing a big trailer doesn't come all that highly recommended. So we kept going to Camping Ocean Bleu, beside the ocean in Mohammedia, just outside Casablanca. Down broken roads and through one of many half-finished developments, we parked up right by the beach to set up for a photograph before the sun disappeared below the horizon. Huge container ships and tankers came past, surprisingly close to the shore as the low white walls and palm trees of the campsite beckoned. As soon as the photographs were done, we parked up, the only trailer among about 10 mainly French registered motorhomes. In fact, the whole time we were in Morocco, we saw very few trailers of any kind. It appears that people just don't tow.
Over a few beers by the Airstream, we got chatting with some of our neighbors in the campsite, including a young British couple with a baby, who were just following the sun south in their 4x4 motorhome, and seeing where the road took them. Another Brit, Mark, pitched his tent nearby after riding in on his battered old MZ motorbike, which we learned he'd bought for #100 before setting off on this trip to the Sahara and back. The following morning, we made him a cup of proper tea and fed him Marmite on toast to give him a little advance taste of home. I have to say that, as he packed his tent away the following morning, while I read The Times on my iPad, I felt like a little bit of a fraud. By contrast, when I checked out the campsite's restrooms, I was extremely pleased that I'd brought my own with me. However, that was the only negative. We felt safe in the campsite; it was quiet, and the lovely chap who ran it spoke very good English and was even kind enough to cook us a simple evening meal.
Not long after setting off for Marrakech the following day, the landscape got a lot more spectacular. Although we were still making very good time on the toll motorway, which is too expensive for most of the locals to use and very quiet as a result, we climbed through some hills; and all of a sudden the terrain and the architecture changed. Houses were built of mud bricks, and small flocks of sheep were tended by lonely shepherds. As we dropped down toward Marrakech, it became sandy and rocky. This was it. This was what we had come to see.
Our destination was Land Rover's temporary HQ at the racetrack just south of the center of Marrakech. As there is no ring road, we had to navigate our way through the center of the city, which was every bit as alarming as you would think. Taxis tried to get into the gap between car and trailer, mopeds piled high with a full family and a week's shopping immediately dove down your inside the moment you tried to make a little space to swing round a corner, often from in front and behind at the same time. We were using our little TomTom navigation system, as even the high-tech system in the Range Rover couldn't be programmed with both Africa and Europe at the same time; it let us down and we managed to get lost in the rough end of town. We knew that stopping was probably a bad idea, but also realized that we could end up heading into the incredibly tight roads of the souk if we weren't careful. The stress level rose a little. Then there was a road name we recognized. We sailed through the red traffic lights in exactly the same way as the locals do, and 10 minutes later we were pulling into the racetrack -- and into the Land Rover bubble. Instead of tooting horns, traffic coming at us from all directions, dust, stray dogs, and piles of litter, the SUV and trailer were whisked away from us by calm, immensely competent men from Birmingham and Coventry to be prepped overnight for the following days' photo shoots.
Keeping with tradition, we got up incredibly early the following day to set out for our first location, the ancient city walls by the royal palace. As the sun was coming up, we even got into the middle of the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the famous square that forms the historical heart of the city, which might be a first for a sport/utility and trailer. Before it got too crowded, we headed out of town and up into the Atlas Mountains, which rise vertiginously some 20 miles south of Marrakech. We picked our way up ever tighter roads, and the character of the people and the terrain changed. The mountains and their people make a welcome change from the touristy development of Marrakech. The piles of litter disappear, and, while no means as wealthy as the plains dwellers, the people of the mountains give you a grave nod of great dignity as you drive past, something we were doing ever more slowly as the road got narrower and narrower, the hairpins tighter and tighter, and the drops at the side more precipitous.
And then we were at the top -- in Okamaiden, which is at an altitude of over 8800 feet. Apart from its small military base, this is best known for its skiing. While hardly resembling a well-groomed piste in Courcheval, where you definitely can't get a donkey to carry you and your skis to the top, we sat down to a magnificent breakfast of warm baguettes, butter, and jam, with the best coffee I've ever tasted in a pine chalet of astonishing Alpine authenticity. And then we drove back down the mountain. By the middle of the afternoon, we were in the middle of the desert.
We wanted to get a shot of the trailer next to a traditional farmstead - what I had taken to calling our Millennium Falcon in Tatooine shot -- and so we took to a trail and headed out toward a place set right on its own in the middle of the desert. As we came to a respectful halt about 100 yards away, a young man in a djebella walked over. After a couple of salaams, my Arabic was pretty much used up, and he was the first Moroccan we'd met who spoke absolutely no French. Happily, with lots of smiles, hand gestures, and pointing at Matt's camera, we got across what we wanted to do and he agreed and sat down to watch us set up. With absolute fascination, he watched us all dashing about like idiots to get the best of the light. I have no doubt that, had we had a few more words in common and in exchange for a few dirhams, we would have been allowed to park there overnight, but it's not something I would've attempted lightly.
As it was, we headed back into Marrakech in the dark, which is not something that even Land Rover's ex-military security advisers do if they can possibly avoid it. You can be barreling along a two-way road to find a totally unlit donkey cart or overloaded moped coming toward you. And, if you're not on the main roads, you can come around a corner and find a pothole the size of a Volkswagen waiting for you.
As we pointed the Range Rover north the following morning for an even more intense return leg, we realized how very doable this trip would be if you had a couple weeks on your hands and a spirit of adventure. Just one thing, though, if you want to do it in real style, make sure you do it in the new Range Rover with an Airstream behind it.