Back in 1995, I bought and read a particular copy of Car magazine. On the front cover was a picture of a Ferrari 512 in the desert. The feature was written by a chap called Richard Bremner and told the story of this car, probably worth more than my house, thumping across the Atlas Mountains. Over 20 years later and with an unexpected (but most welcome) couple of hundred quid rebate from HMRC, I thought “I have to see that for myself”.

What I loved about the writing back then was that Car explained how the car developed a misfire and how, for example, they drove down a dry riverbed in this precious machine. Such honesty, as well as being entertaining, added credibility to their opinions on the car. Today, as print mags scrap to simply exist, advertising revenue and access to precious press-fleet keys is a matter of survival for many mainstream magazines. Remember Chris Harris apparently getting blacklisted after exposing the way the prancing horse performs best on tests only when their tyre technicians are sent along to “help”? We ‘Punks do it differently. We have neither the clout nor the funds to wangle a supercar for lengthy trips to the dark continent, so flew Gatwick to Marrakech and rented the cheapest car we could for a few days for £160 all in. One hundred and sixty pounds. To experience once of the most beautifully remote places on Earth and mountain roads you’ve only ever seen in pictures.

We always try to match the car to the location. For example, on a trip to the Col de Turini, we managed to get a MINI, Hopkirk-style. In Italy, we’ve always blagged Fiat 500s and in Morocco, we were fortunate to get a Dacia Logan. Now that may seem tenuous, but many Dacias are actually built in Morocco and outdated French technology, designed with Romanian help and assembled in Africa, means that the Logan was as local as we could get. Car magazine had a new Omega as a support car, but we had another Dacia. This one was a Duster driven by Barry and Darren, who shall be known collectively as Bazdaz from here on. We paid for extra drivers and all the insurances that the eager rental desk man would sell us, and walked out of Marrakech airport into the darkness and a wall of African heat to find two fairly dire cars awaiting us. From there, we drove a short distance to a hotel for an easy overnighter.

I ought to explain the route, although I doubt you’re interested. This is also the issue I had when unfolding a huge French map of Morocco onto the bonnet of the Logan. I wanted to share what I knew while we were all still sane, as I did not want to bear the responsibility of being the sole navigator when those tiddly dotted lines representing tracks dried up. Morocco has developed at such a rate that there were whole new districts of Marrakech that were simply not on the map, and, when we escaped the lunacy of the place, large conurbations on paper that were deserted when we passed through. The route, not that anyone cares, was Marrakech – N9 road – Tizi n’Tichka pass – Ouarzazate – Agdz – O… why do I bloody bother?! In a nutshell; over the Atlas Mountains, down onto the Saharan plains and see how far we can get.

Marrakech is a fairly horrible place to drive and, frankly, the people were rather a handful. Taking a picture of passing traffic in the UK might cause the driver, if he spots you, to dab his brakes thinking of speed traps. In Marrakech, you get spat at. Mopeds with two or three riders, overloaded mules and barging hatchbacks weave around potholes, pedestrians and the odd camel. And everywhere – Dacias. Ours, in black with black seats, was pulled along by a coarse 1.5-litre diesel engine and looked very much the local. The heat is indescribable. The one luxury in our Logan was air con and while much of the bodywork and trim was shagged out, I am most grateful that the air con worked enough to prevent us from boiling to death. We nosed our way out of town, inside the city walls where any delay in progress meant the car was swamped with hawkers, hagglers and crackpots. Finding the right ‘bab’ (gateway) meant that we left the city and headed south-east.

As the pinky-grey fug of the city shrunk in the mirrors, the Atlas Mountains slowly took shape in the heat haze. The roads were tarmacked, straight and flat for miles. The gaps between villages got longer and the villages themselves got smaller. Bored looking locals sat and stared as we rattled through, others welded ancient trucks, some frantically waved in an attempt to have us stop for who-knows-what. Palm trees. Dust. Dereliction. The places with ramshackle stalls selling delicious-smelling grilled meat seemed to have fewer stray dogs than those that didn’t.

As the road started to have a few curves and inclines, the temperature dropped from the thirties to the twenties and we realised we were already significantly behind schedule. With little idea of the availability of fuel ahead, nor the accuracy of the Dacia’s gauges, we stopped to refuel at an OiLibya petrol station. Libya. One of those horribly uncomfortable words that makes you feel a long way from home. We filled up, bought a colossal amount of water and went to drive off. An attendant ran after me, shouting something and performing a hand gesture that seemed to indicate he’d like me to perform an indecent act upon him. Something went thud on the roof. I’d left a bottle on it! I got out and retrieved it as he laughed at my stupidity. Not everyone here is out to get you.

The transport of choice seemed to be a Renault 4. A car, like the Dacia, once made in Morocco. Here, where the roads were dry and it seldom rains, they chug on. A simple design with simple componentry, and when they stumble, they’re fixed at the roadside. The only things overtaking us were Toyota Land Cruisers, stickered up with ‘Desert Experience’ livery and packed with tourists heading the same way as us. A crude moped-cum-pickup truck called a Docker served well, all smoking along, overloaded, one with a set of kitchen units in the back and no ropes, just a pair of skinny boys holding it all together.

My map showed that we had covered barely 20% of the distance required for the day. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion on the map they all ignored when we set off. Data roaming was £MuchoMucho and road signs were either vandalised, in Arabic or plain wrong. The answer was to aim at the peaks, which we could now see had crisp white caps, and drive like the clappers. The climbs began to grow. Not hairpins and switchbacks, but gentle, soaring curves that did not require brakes (little discs up front and drums on the back, I believe). If you were brave enough to lean the Logan over a bit and use the full width of the road, then you could fool yourself into thinking that the handling wasn’t that bad. Since 2001, they’ve made 10 million of the K9K 1.5 DCi engines used in this Logan, so it can’t be that bad, can it?

The last village before we reached the mountains hid something properly nasty. A Police roadblock. “Drivers licence, car papers and follow me”, said a very young copper in a polyester uniform. I knew what was coming. An aggressive lecture about my driving, one hand on his gun, the other hand held out. “Bad offence! 400 Dirhams”. That’s about £40. I offered to pay in Euros. “40 Euros”, he said, shooting a conspiratorial glance at his younger colleague who was trying to take the top off of a bottle of mango juice. I noticed he was doing the cap up tighter, instead of undoing it. He stripped the plastic thread and took a swig. “That’s expensive!”, I said, knowing that, by accepting Euros, we had already probably abandoned any pretence of fines and were just talking straightforward bribery now. I continued; “OK. Je veux un reçu”, knowing that there was no way he’d give me a receipt for half the amount in the wrong currency for my “bad offence”. He took my cash, gave me my licence and told me to take care. There’s no way a Ferrari driver would have gotten away with €20. It’s sad that this happens but I’m not complaining; it’s part of the experience here.

Onto the Tizi n’Tichka pass; the vegetation was thin, the skies seemed closer and the madness of the people was replaced by the joy of the terrain. Darryl, now driving, is an ex geography teacher and was gushing about sedimentary rocks and escarpments and stuff. I was more concerned about the Mercedes that had just had a head-on around one of the sharp corners as the road ran up a gorge, woman driver sat with her head in her hands, no doubt awaiting the Police who would probably attempt to fine her for bleeding on her own airbag.

A quick stop for coffee. The few houses here are slab-sided concrete pens, no glass in the windows, mangy livestock tottering about in the dust and the pushy nature of the city locals replaced with suspicious looks of subsistence farmers. Who would want to come up here? The road was being replaced. The original is shale in places and the new road had an army of ancient earthmovers cutting into the mountains to straighten out the kinks and level the steepest of climbs. The view, back down the mountain to the plains below, looked like that from a flight simulator. In Moroccan fashion, many guardrails were gone, heavy yellow concrete blocks had fallen down the mountainside and what little traffic we met never gave an inch. Even the radio was hostile – noisy tracks of wailing music with lots of angry shouting in between that left you wanting anything else on the airwaves, even Nick Grimshaw. That bad.

At the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass is a restaurant and a dozen little stands with men desperately pushing fossils and lumps of rock. The place had not changed since Bremner and Car were here 23 years before. I took a pic from the same spot. From here, the N9 road crawled downhill, zig-zagging down the sides of steep gorges, occasional Dockers belching along with bony cows stood in the back. The people here are Berbers, with their own language and history, so different to the city dwellers a hundred kilometres behind and below us. Attempts at pictures led to the most pathetic chase since the wheel was invented. We cautiously overtook a group of Berbers riding mules along the road and one saw our camera. “YOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAY”, they all shouted in chorus, kicking their mules on to catch us. The 71 bhp of the Logan made sure we shook them off after only a kilometre or so, “YOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAYYOUPAY” fading behind us.

The next village was on a plain, no greenery, few insects, dry roasting heat and mud walls. This felt like the desert; dumping the car for a walk (this area was on the Paris-Dakar route in the ‘70s), we could not go far. Mad dogs and Englishmen, as they say. A T-shirt felt like a puffer jacket, the weight of the heat on your shoulders meant lethargy after just a few minutes. Stray cats ate litter, a few shy kids said hello in French before scurrying off when the call to prayer sounded. Berber men just sat in baking doorways. Bazdaz speaks good French but couldn’t get a bonjour from anyone. I think they were just bemused. Imagine Berbers riding a Velocette three-up down your high street. Maybe we had the same effect on them.

We now had zero chance of getting to our original destination of M’Hamid that day. Or the next. Average speeds were slowed by the road surfaces, the lack of oomph from the Logan and the amount of times we stopped to admire the bit of scenery we had just scythed through. The next pass, as we climbed again, was the Tizi-n-Tinififft. It may seem that my keyboard has spazzed out, but it’s actually a place. Tizi-n-Tinififft. Here, the road surface was newer, corners faster and the only traffic was the occasional Volvo truck dragging itself up the incline.

It’s worth saying that, on every single road trip we have ever done, we have inevitably formed a bond with whatever we have driven, no matter how bad. I still own a rotten MX-5 I bought for a banger rally in 2006, for example, because when you’ve clocked up so many miles under harsh conditions, a car becomes a tool you’re comfortable with. This squeak means this. That groan means that. You work with it. The Dacia, however, remained hated and we took it in turns to pretend to navigate in order to not have to drive it. I can’t explain why, but it’s something to do with managing expectations. You know that it’s going to be a bit crap and, normally, when it manages to do something slightly better than crap, whatever that thing might be, you start to form a bond. But everything was 100% crap. Even the corner-cutting engineering was crap. No innovation, just cheap old components, square edges and nastiness. We looked at the Duster with envy, then learned that the air con did not work and noticed it was 37 degrees Celsius outside.

A long straight allowed us a Vmax. I think it’s the same road that Car did 130 mph on, which, frankly, must have been a doddle, as we did 100mph in the Logan and only slowed because the brakes were kippered after descending Tizi-n-Tinififft. Our destination was Ouarzazate, a regular stopover on the Paris-Dakar, and somewhere hopefully friendlier than the previous night’s stay. As the desert rolled out before us, we spotted a castle on the far horizon. We had to explore. Off the highway, onto the desert, which isn’t lovely soft sand dunes, but hard, dusty rock, like 2 grit sandpaper.

The cars were getting very bad now. Initial panic at smacking over rocks the size of grapefruit dissipated and we only screamed when hitting the bottom of the deepest ruts at high-ish speeds. The bang of cheap scrunched up steel juddering through your ribs. Other than ground clearance, there seemed little mechanical advantage in the Duster. It jumped higher when hitting things at speed and the plastic bodywork didn’t take much to dislodge. To be fair to it, the Evoque and others of that ilk are probably no more robust and at least this one has been 4x4ing, even if it was only 2WD. The castle loomed into sight, as well as a pack of really nasty looking dogs, bigger than the usual ones. Darryl got out to take a pic. Tom locked the doors and blew the horn. The dogs, some distance away, looked up and started to walk over. Then run. You knew these were nasty bastards; they ran towards us, bodies bounding over the rough scenery but not once taking their eyes off Darryl’s delicious sunburned legs. Sadly, he broke into the car and found safety before being savaged.

Driving to the castle revealed that it was a fake. A colossal film set built for the Game of Thrones. I haven’t seen it, but if the set is anything to go by, it must be spectacular. Someone hassled us for money and we tried to run him over. A huge wooden trebuchet stood redundant. Laps of the two-dimensional castle commenced. Gentle accidental nudges at speed became airbag-threatening smacks, trying to push each other into a shallow ravine or into one of the bigger rocks. Steering becomes the greatest challenge, getting up to third gear gives the right speed to traction ratio, and leaves you to focus on the greatest challenge, which is steering. With the wheels mostly spinning in the sand, or in the air, it’s hard to get the car facing the right way. Waiting for it to bottom out and violently jerking the steering this way and that when the suspension was briefly loaded got it vaguely the right way. I have been fortunate enough to drive at Spa, Donington and even Monaco, and can promise that high-speed banger racing in fake 4x4s around a fake castle being chased by rabid dogs in the desert with only a pith helmet for safety is the most fun on wheels that I have ever had. After the race, we had a push o’war, putting the cars nose to nose and trying to shove the other over. Plumes of dust, sand and stone flew high above us, bodywork creaking, warning lights blinking and engines screaming. Tom, photographer, could hear our maniacal laugher over it all. Bedford Aerodrome, around the cones, in the rain, with marshals nagging about your overtakes and trying to avoid the inevitable silly Impreza, or this – for the same money?

After this, a diplomatic incident. It was Ramadan and, for all our colonial bluster, we do try to be culturally sensitive. Bazdaz, for example, had been sober for many hours when we overnighted in Ouarzazate. He decided that we needed walkie-talkies as we had all had our phones hit their credit limits when the map was jettisoned. The French for walkie-talkie is, apparently, talkie-walkie. God help ’em. Anyway, he found an electronics shop in this little town and went to buy us some comms. The door was open. Fax machines, fans, neon lights… this small shop had it all. Bazdaz spots a little chap down behind the counter and asks, in French, for some assistance. The shop owner hears him but doesn’t move. Maybe he’s counting stock or something, so he waits. Nothing. In a louder voice, he asks again, more directly, for a walkie-talkie. What is he doing, kneeling down there? “Oi!”, he shouts, frazzled from a day in the sun. Nothing. “OIIII!!!”. The man is mumbling. The man is facing east. On a prayer mat. Bazdaz runs from the shop and we jump into a taxi (Dacia Logan, of course, 600,000 km on the clock) and escape to the hotel. The next day, we made it as far as Agdz, with views of the Jbel Kissane mountain and the best four-course meal I have ever had for a fiver. Delicious black olives, much-fried fries, roasted chicken with a perfect herb dressing (I am salivating while typing this at the memory of it), salad, tomatoes, flatbread, fresh orange juice and amazing coffee. The owner spoke good English and was rightfully proud of her kitchen. It seemed that the further we ventured into the desert, the more Morocco rewarded us. It’s not too far to the Algerian border from here and places that Car found; M’Hamid, Erg Chebbi and others that will surely bring us back here some day. Even in a Dacia.

The return journey was a high-speed “we’re going to miss the flight” dash, punctuated only to pretend to stop for muggers, before speeding off when they tried to get in. From 37 degrees Celsius in the desert to sleet in the mountains, in the same day! This is Africa. Another night in Marrakech was capped by a man assaulting me with a snake, enjoying a tagine over the panorama you see here and Tom getting attacked by a moped rider outside the Argana cafe, which I now know was the site of the terrorist attack here in 2011. There was a nightclub with a man frantically playing bongos and a celebratory round of G&Ts. At the airport, we handed back the cars, pointing out that we’d paid to cover all damage. There was a white XJ40 on flat tyres and British plates in the short-stay car park and other abandoned cars, seemingly left behind after a banger rally. We’d love to know more about them. Then, BA, Gatwick, traffic and home. That issue of Car magazine inspired me to go and explore. And I would not have wanted to do the trip in anything other than the nastiest car we’ve ever driven.

Gallery below;

Words and worst pics; Rich “factor 50” Duisberg. Better pics; Tom “f*ck off with that monkey” Harrison and Darryl “Diocalm” Sleath, with special thanks to Barry and Darren for the great support.

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About The Author

Rich Duisberg

Rich's drivel regularly appears in Practical Performance Car and GT Porsche magazines. He has also written for Classic & Sportscar, MogMag, Classic Performance and Retro, Banzai, Evo, and Modern Mini. He also did a book no-one bought. His hungover fizzog also often appears on CBS’s Carfection channel enthusing about historic motoring. Le Mans winner Derek Bell once refused to get in Rich's Morgan Three Wheeler with him at the wheel. Currently amongst the detritus in his garage is a Porsche 968 Sport, MK1 MX-5, Sinclair C5 and a vintage Royal Enfield pushbike which he loves.

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