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.