Far from the pricey resorts and trendy spas of Marrakech and Casablanca lies a simpler, more traditional slice of Morocco-the region known traditionally as the Mogador, on the country's south Atlantic coast. It's a region of semi-arid Mediterranean valleys, windswept coastlines, and miles of unspoiled beaches. We had a chance last winter to 'wheel the backcountry of this largely untouristed landscape, and found plenty of unpaved byways worth exploring-especially if rocks are your thing.
The white-walled seaport town of Essaouira has been an important trading post since Phoeni
Base camp for our adventure was the seaport city of Essaouira (roughly, "Ess-ah-wee-rah"), a white-walled settlement on a rocky outcropping bordered on three sides by the Atlantic and home to some 60,000 souls. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC and occupied in later times by the Romans, French, and Portuguese (who ringed the town with battlements in the 16th century, all still intact), the city was an important trading post and bridgehead for successive waves of European colonizers. More recently, the town has served as a magnet for hippies and rock musicians (Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley both spent time here), and it's still a haven for artists, intellectuals, and freethinkers throughout the Arab world.
At the heart of Essaouira is its medina ("town," or city center), a labyrinth of narrow walkways and cobbled back alleys that plunge the traveler into a sea of sensory overload. Storefront windows filled with hand-thrown pottery, carpets, and woodwork tempt the bargain-hunter, and the air is filled with the sinewy sounds of Arab pop music played over loudspeakers, the barking of vendors hawking their wares in outdoor stalls, the muezzin's call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Take a deep breath, and one inhales the smells of fresh-caught fish on a grill, whole lamb turning on a rotisserie, the sweet spice of teas, and dried herbs piled high in wicker baskets at an open-air souk.
The old medina of Essaouira is a maze of shops and souks that plunge the outsider into a s
The medina is tiny, barely a quarter mile from one end to the other, and while its layout seems chaotic to the outsider, it's actually a tight-knit ordering of subdistricts arranged by ethnicity, profession, and the like. Even so, we'd have surely gotten lost in the maze of souks were it not for a helpful local guide (who shivered uncontrollably during our twilight walk. "It's freezing," she said of the 60-degree weather; "It never gets this cold here!" Our colleagues from Michigan, in shirtsleeves, chuckled). After a hearty tagine and a good night's sleep, we were awakened at dawn by a morning call to prayer, and after breakfast we headed out for the Mogador backcountry.
Cowabunga! The beaches south of Essaouira are renowned for their world-class surfing, and
Leaving pavement a few miles south of town off the N1 Highway, a well-manicured blacktop that parallels the shoreline from Essaouira to Agadir, one can find myriad unmarked roads that snake into the foothills of the lower High Atlas, the spiny mountain range that bisects the country diagonally. Venturing deeper into the mountains, the roadbed eventually turns into bumpy stretches of washed-out asphalt before giving way to loose dirt and shelves of exposed bedrock. Here, in the high country, you wend your way slowly down narrow tracks-in places, more like goat paths-bordered by rough-hewn stone walls, past tiny clusters of farmhouses and fields with shepherds tending their flocks. One also becomes aware that you are sharing the trail with dozens of camels, sheep, goats, and children-this is their main thoroughfare, after all-so it's important to keep your speeds down and stay alert. In the higher elevations, farms give way to pine and cedar forests, and snow is not uncommon in the winter months.
Further inland, the trails grow sandier as rocky hills give way to broad valleys and highland plateaus dotted with small farms and vineyards (a new crop, courtesy of the French, and one well suited to a Mediterranean climate and sandy soil), groves of almond and argan trees-and if you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of one of nature's best examples of local adaptation, the tree-climbing goats of Mogador. The region is also interspersed with oases, their locations marked by dense green marshes and stands of date palms, natural springs, and waterfalls-and depending on the season, the occasional stream crossing.
While rainfall is infrequent, stream crossings may be encountered near oases, which dot th
Gridlock, Moroccan-style. You never know who you'll run into when wheeling the hinterlands
If sand is your thing, the Mogador has plenty of it-and you don't need to drive deep into
Overall, the predominant topography in the Mogador is what the Moroccans call haroucha-a rock-littered soil that makes agriculture a challenge, trails rough and bumpy, and four-wheel drive a necessity in places. In our time in the backcountry, we encountered numerous small "rock gardens," drop-offs, and wash-outs that required a pliant suspension, slow and steady throttle, sturdy sidewalls, and a fair amount of ground clearance.
In Morocco, you don't need to drive deep into the Sahara to find sand dunes, and the beaches south of Essaouira are filled with steep slopes of blowsand and miles of empty coastline. This is a great place to enjoy a picnic, fly a kite, comb for driftwood, or simply air it out and enjoy a high-speed run down a wide-open shore. The beach here is a mecca for surfers too; depending on the trade winds and the time of year, 15-foot swells beckon the adventurous boardsman.
Despite its cosmopolitan reputation, Morocco is in many ways a poor country, and much of its population-nearly all of Berber ancestry, speaking dozens of local dialects-ekes out its living in traditional fields, as farmers, herdsmen, fishermen, and craftsmen in textiles, metals, and woodworking. Driving through Mogador's inland valleys, we saw farmers tilling their fields as they have for millennia, with camels or oxen yoked to wooden ploughs.
On the other hand, the sight of a Berber shepherd in peasant garb, riding his burro with reins in one hand and a cellphone in the other, reminded us that the gap between the past and the future may not be as vast as you might imagine-we saw numerous cell towers dotting the mountains in the region (an IMF project, we were told), and our own phones worked almost everywhere we went. And in the middle of Essaouira's centuries-old medina, we had no trouble finding a working ATM machine that dispensed crisp new dirham notes.
If we hadn't seen it ourselves, we'd have never believed it, but in Morocco, it's not an unusual sight. The Mogador's inland valleys are awash with sandy, rocky soils; arable land is minimal, rainfall unpredictable, and grazing lands in short supply. When the grass runs out, the goats take to the branches of the argan tree-a relative of the olive tree, and unique to southern Morocco-to browse on its succulent berries. This led Senior Editor Brubaker to give thanks from his home in rural Illinois: "Good thing the cows around here haven't learned this trick."
Try as we might, our gracious hosts wouldn't let us leave Morocco without driving the local ORV of choice, so we hopped aboard and took a spin around the beach. We appreciated the nice high (7-foot) ride height and excellent sightlines our tester offered, though a leather package would've been a welcome upgrade, and this model's chassis tuning was a bit stiff for our backsides. Acceleration can be sluggish and road feel prone to wander, and while traction is sure-footed; the vehicle seems to have a mind of its own. On the other hand, mileage per gallon (of water) is outstanding, though emissions, sadly, are far in excess of EPA regs.
Make/model: 1990 Dromedary DesertShip XLT
Engine: Ruminantia two-cylinder with sequential digestion
Transmission: Four-hoof automatic with HD cooling pkg.
Suspension: Four-link, leading and trailing legs
Height (in.): 84 (at hump)
Max stable weight (lb): 1,500
Max payload (lb): 990
Max water capacity (gal): 30
Max cruising range between fuel-ups (days): 15
Top speed (est.): 40 mph
In case the photos didn't give it away, our reason for being in Morocco was to testdrive the 2008 Land Rover LR2, the replacement to the much-maligned Freelander in the LR stable. Based off Ford's new C1 chassis architecture, the LR2 shares much of its underpinnings with the new Volvo XC60 crossover, but it also has a few high-tech tricks of its own to give it a measure of 'wheelability unique to the Land Rover brand.
The LR2 is powered by a transverse-mounted 3.2L inline six that produces 230 peak horsepower and 234 lb-ft of torque, and is backed by a six-speed Aisin manumatic gearbox and Haldex electronic center coupling that uses a multiplate hydraulic clutch to provide continuously variable torque splits front to rear. As with the Freelander, there's no low-range gear, so the LR2 is, yep, a full-time all-wheel drive. It does, however, have some features that make it more trailable than your run-of-the mill crossover, including LR's multimode, suspension-adjusting Terrain Response system sourced from the LR3, and an ABS-actuated Hill Descent control with Gradient Response, which automatically tunes brake-line pressure to throttle input on steep hills. Suspension is independent coil/strut at both ends; 60-series tires on 18x8-inch alloy rims comprise rolling stock; and interior amenities include 14-speaker Dolby Pro Logic, Sirius satellite, heated seats-the works.
We drove the LR2 over a variety of surfaces in Morocco, and found its on- and off-pavement manners superior in every way to the old Freelander's. Pavement handling was a pleasure, with peppy acceleration and nimble front-drive handling characteristics, and the Rover's grippy Continental 4x4 Contact tires provided excellent adhesion to the tarmac. On the trail, the LR2 was surprisingly supple for a unibody, even in eroded sluices and on rocky trails, where Terrain Response and Hill Descent proved their mettle. (And as we found, there are lots of rocks in Mo'Rocko.) Our only real grousing occurred at the beach, where a relative lack of low-end torque-and tires that are better diggers than flingers-helped us bury the LR in the dunes when we failed to keep our revs up.
In sum, the LR2's on-road performance is as refined and sophisticated as you'd expect from this upscale marque, its off-pavement prowess is the best of any crossover we've driven to date-and frankly, we can think of a few "real" 4x4s we've driven in recent years that aren't noticeably more trailworthy than the new AWD Landy. Whether that speaks ill of current OE offerings in four-wheel drive, we're loath to say, but if any manufacturer should be expected to build a crossover that's genuinely capable on all types of trails, it would be Land Rover-and based on our experience with the LR2, we'd have to say they've accomplished the feat. FW
Vehicle model: 2008 Land Rover LR2
Base price: $34,700
Engine: 3.2L transverse I-6
Valvetrain: DOHC; VVT, four valves/cyl.
Aspiration: Sequential EFI
Mfg.'s hp @ rpm: 230 @ 6,300
Mfg.'s torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 234 @ 3,200
Transmission: Aisin-Warner six-speed manumatic
Max low gear (:1): 15.56
Suspension (f/r): Independent coil/strut, stabilizer bar / independent coil/strut, stabilizer bar
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes (f/r): 12.5-inch vented disc/12-inch vented disc
Wheels/Tires (tested): 18x8 alloy/P235/60R18 Continental 4x4 Contacts
Wheelbase (in): 104.7
Length (in): 177.1
Width (in): 85.7
Height (in): 68.5
Curb weight (lb): 4,255
Min ground clearance (in): 8.3 (front diff)
Approach angle (deg): 29
Departure angle (deg): 32
Fuel capacity (gal): 18.5
Max towing capacity (lb): 3,500 (braked)
Max EPA mileage estimates (city/hwy mpg): 18/24
Seating capacity: 5