Zagora to Foum Zguid
I got it wrong. The town of Tazenakht was not on the way to M'hamid, the last town before the Algerian border. It was, in fact, in another part of Morocco entirely. This put a serious cramp in our plans as the road we we'd planning on taking to Foum Z'guid was supposed to be "goudron" or asphalt. I studied the map quickly and discovered an alternative route. It ran west from Zagora, the market town we'd just left, and was "piste" (a dirt road) for the first twenty kilometers or so.Then there'd be a fork in the road where we'd go right and immediately join goudron. The left fork promised only piste that, according to a French Internet forum I'd been perusing the previous evening, was only suitable for four wheel drives. We'd rejected the latter out of hand the previous evening but as the former now seemed like a viable alternative, we doubled back to hunt down the initial turning off the main road.
To be certain we were going the right way, we stopped at a nearby tour guide office. There was a large hand drawn map of the region on the wall and using it as a reference, Mustapha, the capable manager, outlined the best route to take. He assured us that the direct piste we'd dismissed the day before, was the best option as the road to the right, that looked so good on the map, was in fact much worse.
"Will our car be able to make it?" I enquired tentatively, pointing through doorway at our Volvo.
"No problem. Go at only ten kilometers per hour. You will be fine," he assured us. "Just be sure you stay between the mountains and always go straight. Don't go left or right, just go straight and always stay between the mountains," he emphasized.
We thanked him profusely and set off.
We got lost almost immediately when the piste broke itself into several rutted tracks within a kilometer of our starting point. As we sat trying to figure out which route to take, a crammed white van passed us, its roof liberally carpeted with passengers. They appeared to be taking a path that would go "between the mountains" so we decided it best to follow them. Just to be on the safe side we also stopped a passing motorcyclist to ask if it was indeed the right route. It was.
The road was at best a collection of earthen, ruts and tire tracks. We bounced along it like two sailors in a storm. It was amazing that the passengers on top of the van weren't continuously tumbling off. We tailed their dusty wake for several kilometers until the track branched into three distinct directions. The van took the right fork toward some distant adobe buildings; after some deliberation we decided that going straight was best. All on our own now, we sallied forth continuously adjusting to the terrain's shallow rises and falls. The going wasn't bad but it was confusing when the route would periodically double itself in an amoeba-like fashion. More often than not these diverging paths would come together again. Obviously drivers before us had been testing out different routes.
It was late afternoon by this time and the drooping sun was etching the landscape with shadow. Although this was our first time we were actually entering into the Sahara with our car it wasn't as forbidding as I dared think. On both sides rose the blackened mountains of the Anti-Atlas; completely devoid of vegetation and as abrupt and harsh as a Martian landscape. They gave way to the very gently undulating valley we were now driving across. In all directs sturdy acacia trees had put deep roots in the rock strewn soil, each at an appreciative distance from its neighbor. And as always, whenever I thought about these hardy trees, I was reminded of a salient piece of advice I'd picked up from a book about driving in the Sahara - "Don't park under an acacia tree. They drop large, menacing thorns on the ground that will almost certainly give you a puncture."
The sun dropped further and beamed in through the window shield with the force of an invading army. We were almost ready to call it quits and find a camping spot when we suddenly came upon a village in the midst of that desolated landscape. Half the houses had been abandoned, their adobe walls slowly dissolving back into the earth, the other half, evidently, were home to the tilling farmers we now found ourselves waving to. Channels had been cut in their fields to aid irrigation but try as I might I couldn't see where they found their water. On the other side of the village we entered another stretch of desert and stopped for the night.
As we started setting up, a farmer and his wife went zipping by on their moped. Seeing us they doubled back. Trygve raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "Don't invite them to stay, whatever you do," she warned. While his wife stood at a distance, her husband came over to exchange greetings. He was excited to meet us and smiled deeply, displaying a full set of tea and tobacco stained teeth. Although he spoke no French beyond "ca va" he made us understand that he lived nearby and asked if we'd like to spend the night at his place instead. I was looking forward to spending the night under the stars, so I declined by thanking him profusely in Arabic, then said "Bghrit nshuf hada" - "I want to see this" and with a grandiose gesture raised my arms to heavens. He understood immediately, smiled his stained smile and bid me farewell, much to the obvious relief of his wife.
The stars were immaculate.
Mustapha had given us the idea that the piste was better after passing the village. Instead it got worse. I, of course, had been airily throwing around my opinion over supper; "Those people with their 4 x 4's," I'd sneered, "if a road's a little rough they always think it's only possible for them." They may well have been right this time. Trygve, who had been reluctant to take any piste in the first place, sat fuming in the passenger seat as our slow and unwieldy progress occasionally brought great thuds to the bottom of the chassis from rocks I'd unintentionally disturbed. Each bang brought to mind a vision of our horribly exposed gas tank. Eventually the way became so bad I had to periodically ask Trgve to walk ahead and clear the path of snags. I sneaked a short video of her doing it; she's dressed in bright red and orange clothing that would be better suited to an Indian wedding but still works well in a desolate Saharan landscape; each time she bends down to pick up a rock and toss it aside is like watching a New Yorker flip off a errant cab driver. I exchanged places with her shortly after that.
We came across occasional habitations of mean tents whose denizens came running out toward us to beg for gifts. One girl ran along beside our slow, bouncing vehicle screaming for chocolate. When she gave up the chase she let out a piercing scream that raised the hair on the backs of our necks.
To speed up our painfully slow progress, I adopted a new method for dealing with the snags by seating myself on the hood of the car with my feet firmly planted on the bumper. In this way i had a much better view of the road ahead and didn't have to get out of the car every time a rock needed to be move or the precipitous path through a wadi evened out.
A white van suddenly appeared on the road behind us. We let it catch up and introduced ourselves to the French couple in the cab. They said they'd come from Foum Z'guid and had tried to drive to Zagora along the same piste we'd just taken but had decided it prudent to turn back. I wondered why we hadn't seen them earlier in the day. We let them go ahead of us and stood watching as they slowly and unevenly disappeared into the distance. Shortly afterwards I started discovering rocks with spots of fresh black, liquid on them. The van must have taken a hard hit at some point.
Like a mirage a herd of heavily laden camels appeared over a rise. I motioned for Trygve to stop and reached inside to grab my camera. I tried taking a short video as we lumbered along. The results are like the ships of the desert during a particularly bad storm at sea. The leader of the camel train deliberately ambled toward the edge of the piste. He wore a white burnoose that framed a face as deeply wrinkled as the surrounding mountains. Instead of greeting us he thrust his hand toward his mouth and growled "khoobs", the Arabic word for bread. I said we didn't have any - which was a lie. He put his finger and thumb together and again made a motion like eating but this time he said "floos" - now he wanted money.
"Well you did take pictures of his camels", I heard Trygve insinuating.
He was obviously a very tough man who led a life so different from mine that we had nothing in common. He fixed me with eyes that were as foreign and forbidding as those of a shark. I showed him my camera and took his picture. I don't know if he even understood what I was doing. He couldn't have cared less anyway. He wanted something from us and would be damned if wasn't going to get it . I grabbed four dirhams from inside the car and gave them to him. He spat out a harsh, guttural cascade of words.
"What d'ye think he's saying?" I shot at Trygve.
"That you're a cheap bastard and that he should be given more," she said leaning toward him and putting another coin in his claw of a hand.
After several more arduous kilometers, we finally closed in on the far end of the mountains and like a miracle the stones and sand suddenly leveled out to become smooth, two lane dirt road.