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.