Marrakech Express Rally

The view from a rally novice: Day One – Canterbury to Malaga

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton 2 Comments

By way of introduction; my name is Jo Skelton.  I have never been on a rally before so this blog will be a record of  experiences through the eyes of a novice but will also include the thoughts and comments of fellow (and on the whole, far more experienced)rally-goers.  My husband, Simon is bit of a ‘petrol-head’ who occasionally goes away for six weeks at a time as crew on classic car rallies in far-flung places like India, Nepal and Thailand.  When we married, it was pretty much a given that at some stage I would be asked to accompany said husband on one of these rallies.  I looked forward to the day.  So it was with great excitement that we accepted an invitation to join the 2CV Adventures Marrakesh Express rally around Morocco as Crew. From my husband’s stories I knew that a rally would be full of unforgettable sights, experiences, adventure and a lot of fun.

This rally in particular was also going to be unique; instead of driving their own classic cars, the competitors would be driving one of a fleet of classic 2CV’s that had been specifically modified for rallying. Most people go gooey-eyed when you mention the fabled 2CV with the iconic looks and odd gear stick. They have a unique Gallic charm, often compared to an upturned pram.  They are the French equivalent of the German Beetle or our Mini sometimes also associated with left-wing activists in the 70’s with their ‘Ban the Bomb and ‘Save the Whale’ stickers – it became a car often linked with hippies. So it also seemed entirely fitting that these little ‘tin snails’, so full of character, would be the perfect car for taking on the ‘Marrakech Express’.

We are going as Time Marshals, involving timing the competitors during various stages and reading not only a map, but a route-book, plus a sat-nav and a hand-held GPS almost simultaneously.  As sometimes my own time-keeping can be a bit erratic, this worried me a bit.  Then I found out that a rather well-known figure from the world of motor-racing would be joining the rally and that made me break out in a cold- sweat that I would do something very stupid like send him off in the wrong direction at the wrong time and be ‘outed’ as the complete Rally-Virgin that I am. So, it was not without a tiny bit of trepidation that we boarded the 10.05 Easyjet flight to Malaga to meet our fellow rally-goers prior to getting the ferry over to Morocco the next day.

After an incredibly easy journey we arrived at our four-star hotel just outside of Malaga and there we saw them; a gorgeous row of 2CV’s all lined up and waiting to take us on our adventure.  Much like the reindeers in ‘The Night before Christmas’, they all had names: Daisy, Dally, Delilah and Daphne.  Doris, Dolly, Dally and Dilly. Dominique, Dotty, Ducky and Dizzy. Daphne and Daffy, Ducky and Dinny.  With their little round headlamps glinting provocatively in the Spanish sun, they looked cute and the epitome of fun on wheels.

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Toby Kilner the owner and the creator of the event had sourced and bought the cars and along with mechanics Andy, Dave and Albi they had worked night and day for three months in order to get them rally-ready in time. The love and care that went into this feat really showed.  While the mechanics were busy making the last minute preparations for the days and roads that lay ahead, some of the contestants were already familiarising themselves with their allocated cars; stroking the bonnets, pulling on the gear stick, revelling in the comfort of the seats and soft suspension. You could almost hear the 2CVs purr with delight.

At 7.30 sharp we had our first briefing from our Clerk of the Course, John Trevethick and the opportunity to meet the rest of the crew and competitors over a nice glass of beer or wine or two before going on to a slap up dinner. A number of the drivers ( mostly husband and wife teams) are seasoned rally goers and many swapped stories about the various other adventures they had been on including the longer rallies such as The Peking to Paris, the Trans Am, the Tiger Rally. The competitors that I spoke to were really looking forward to getting the chance to drive such an iconic car around a fantastic country.  For those who usually took their own classic cars on events like this it was a novel way of going on a rally without all the usual bureaucracy involved with shipping cars etc … this was literally ‘arrive and drive! Everyone was very jolly and obviously passionate about rallies and cars. You could tell that going on these rallies could become quite addictive – and if you had the time and money to do so, could mean anything up to three months spent on the road across a variety of countries. Everyone saw that this event was unique and there was definitely a buzz of excitement in the air. I went to bed feeling much less concerned about silly little worries and really looking forward to getting on the road the next morning.

 

Day Two – Malaga to Tangier: practice day

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

After a good night’s sleep we headed off to set up our Time Control (TC) for our first regularity event just outside Malaga.  My first initiation to the wonderful world of rallying is to realise that a ‘tulip’ is no longer just a flower….It is in fact a little diagram that provides a snapshot of the road that helps with the navigation process.  Whilst we have a map, and like the competitors, we are also given a Road Book – this effectively describes the route via these ‘tulip’ diagrams and distances.

Getting out of Malaga was pretty easy – although hampered by torrential rain. Mike and Sean McInerney , a father and son team who can be found competing at Le Mans and other endurance racing – but had never been on a rally before – commented that they had had a very wet half hour resulting in damp clothes, mobiles and equipment but they just smiled broadly and got on with it.  So the 2CV has a few little leaks here and there and possibly not what the competitors were expecting in Spain, but everyone was extremely good natured and looked on it as part of the fun.

The rain in Spain ...

The rain in Spain …

The sun and warmth came out on the second regularity event (where you have to travel from A to B maintaining a predetermined average speed).  This was held in a section of the Dos Bahias nature reserve woodland that runs between the Med and Atlantic.  The road; a narrow track with potholes big enough to swallow up whole cars also was sometimes busy with oncoming traffic and ramblers-a-plenty.  Surely these pot holes would break the 2CVs? “not at all” I was reliably informed. Citroen designed the cars predominantly with farmers in mind with suspension that enables the car to comfortably cross ploughed fields. The wheels can move up and down with greater flexibility than our more rigid modern cars. So this means that actually the 2CV is an absolutely fantastic car to deal with these potholes.  They just bounce straight in and out – at speed – and carry on completely unaffected.

 

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Regularity event over, Simon and I joined the film crew and left as an advance party to catch the afternoon ferry to Tangier. The competitors headed for a hotel in Tarifa and their first chance to compare notes about their cars’ handling and comfort, the route they had driven and their expectations of the start of the rally-proper in Morocco.

 

Day Three – Tangier to Mekness

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

After a buffet-style breakfast in one of Tangier more established hotels where we spent our first night in Morocco, Rod Kirkpatrick and Alex Broadway, the rally’s official film crew jumped in their hire car and made their way back to the port to await some good photo opportunities of the 2CVs disembarking from the early morning ferry from Tarifa.

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Meanwhile we got into our car (Skoda hatch-back, excellent as it happens) and navigated ourselves out of Tangiers to get to our first regularity event.  Five ‘tulips’ in and Simon was congratulating me on my adept navigations skills – when of course I took my eye off the ball (and the map/sat nav/GPS etc) and sent us off onto a coast road, past a Kasbah and well away from our intended route. After a rather heated exchange between husband and wife, and a few unsuccessful attempts on my part to try and establish where we were on the map with a few taxi drivers, policeman and eventually a group of soldiers guarding the Kasbah, we eventually got back on track. While the husband was tearing his hair out that we were going to be extremely late for the first Time Control we got a call to say that there had been quite a delay back at the port and so we had the opportunity to calmly set up our control in a fairly convenient layby and waited for the cars to arrive.

As it turns out, Moroccan bureaucracy can be very time-consuming and four hours later we saw our first tin-snail come flying into the Time Control.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was No 8 – ‘Dally’ driven by Alastair Caldwel and his navigator Hayden Burville from San Francisco. Mindful of my initial fear I tried to write down the hour and minutes quickly on the time sheets and allow them to get on their way quickly – although when counting down, I actually forgot to say ‘Go’…. It could have been worse.

 

All but one of the cars checked in to the TC – unfortunately one husband and wife team Reg and Michelle Toohey from Australia had whizzed on to the A1 instead of the N1 and were happily travelling down the motorway – which was no bad thing for them given that we were running about four hours behind time; it gave them an opportunity to get to the next destination in good time.  Most decided to press on without lunch in order to get to Meknes before nightfall.  However, because of this we were a good hour behind the first car and had to try and ‘leapfrog’ the competitors to ensure that we could get to the next TC before they did. This resulted in a faintly hilarious but embarrassing game of cat and mouse with Lesley Stockwell and Nicholas Pryor in Dominique No 5.

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Each time we managed to overtake them and a few more lorries, buses etc but then got caught in a speedtrap (there are many!)…we did this no less than three times.  Luckily the Moroccan police were very friendly, giving us a caution each time and warning us that the purpose of the 60 KPH limit was indeed for our benefit as it was quite a dangerous road.  Feeling more than chastised and just a little sheepish we decided to hang back behind Dominique. Luckily John Brigden, the Rally Director was on hand to end the regularity event down a little dust track buzzing with locals going for an early evening walk who looked inquisitive and not a little amused at the sight of these cars in their neck of the woods.

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About two hours later we had all arrived safely at the excellent Hotel Transatlantique with stunning views across the city of Meknes.  After competitors spoke to the mechanics about any concerns and had a quick shower a debrief and a G&T we were seated for our supper and began to talk about our impressions of the day. The general consensus:  a challenging drive mainly caused by the knock-on effect of the delay in Tangiers putting everyone under pressure. Most of us were focussed on getting to the Hotel before dark and so perhaps had not had a chance to properly adjust to our new surroundings and the fact that we were in Morocco as much of the terrain was still fairly similar to Spain at this point.  Although Sean and Mike in No 1, Daisy had stopped for a spot of lunch and to take it all in, most had pressed on.  However, rather than dwell on any negatives, this seems to be where the bonding starts – talking about the trials and tribulations at the start of a rally when some rough edges have to be smoothed out and nervous energy abounds.  Certainly, at the end of the day much laughter could be heard amid the satisfied scraping of plates and clinking of glasses – soothing away any stresses of the day. It would seem that the mantra ; ‘tomorrow is another day’ definitely rings true on a rally.

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Day Four: Meknes to Beni Mallal

Posted on: April 16th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

Leaving the hotel in full sunshine our route-book navigates us on to the open road but via the old city’s narrow streets, past the ceremonial and decorative Bab Mansour gates where traffic is being directed by the very smartly uniformed policeman and the roads are being swept by men with large palm fronds wearing high-viz jackets.

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Image courtesy of www.allmoroccotravel.com

With the hub-bub of the City behind us, we head out fairly quickly into the countryside driving on what seems like a roman road and onto plains of crops including vineyards – possibly producing some of the very agreeable Meknes dry white that we had sipped the night before. The roads here are roman-road straight, eventually passing fields and fields of onions left waiting for collection, raised up on dry stone walls then packed on hay and left under plastic sheeting; waiting to be collected by farmers on donkeys or by one of the many open sided trucks containing an assortment of livestock or produce that you see trundling along the roads here.

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Image copyright: Alex Broadway

Then we start to gently climb through wide-open spaces, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands with evidence of snow in the tree-line.  It’s here that we start to see more nomadic shepherds tending to their flocks and evidence of their homes against the rugged terrain.

 

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Image: Alex Broadway

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After this, the landscape becomes more densely wooded and you can see why guide books talk about this area being the Morocco equivalent of Switzerland.  We head into Ifrane which has a very up-market cosmopolitan feel to it thanks mainly to the fact the King has a Summer Palace here. Everything is clean and manicured.  The square has a fountain and plenty of hanging baskets.  The buildings all look like chalets.  The Von Trapp family could come singing around a corner at any time. A lovely pit-stop with many of the competitors commenting that it felt slightly surreal to be in a scene you would not necessarily associate with Morocco.

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Image: Alex Broadway

There were plenty of smiles as both drivers and navigators started to relax into the journey and were able to take in their surroundings a bit more. Experienced and non-experienced rally-ists alike were becoming more acquainted with the joy and ‘idiosyncracies’ of the 2CV and they chatted away about this and the differences in calibration of their rally computers, and getting to grips with maintaining the average speeds required in the regularity events.

Twenty kilometres (also known as ‘clicks’) down the snow-littered road and to great excitement we started to get our first glimpses of the Barbary Apes.

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Image: Alex Broadway

Very quickly the competitors (and soft-hearted mechanics) were proffering nuts and other goodies to outstretched hands.  Horses in brightly coloured saddles stand idly by the road grazing while some locals offered little tagines and baskets to passers-by.

The afternoon regularity event near Ain Leuh started on a T-Junction with a hairpin bend on a hill that led the competitors higher into the cedar forest.  Half the cars had arrived before the Time Challenge officially opened, so a couple of the competitors took the opportunity to get out their chamois leathers to clean windscreens and buff up the headlights.

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Then they were off, immediately on to a good climb on narrow roads through the forest and then out again onto a higher plateau.   Even in this fairly remote area policeman could still be found – either talking it easy against a tree or officially standing in pairs at a designated speed trap.

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Image: Alex Broadway

Further on we drove down into a valley with a little river running through it.  On the bridge one shepherd seemed to be watching over not only his sheep but also the bridge and had set himself up as an unofficial ‘toll keeper’.  With a spade in one hand, he could have come across as being quite threatening – but actually when we drew level he had a broad smile on his face and you could see that there was no malice intended.

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Image: Alex Broadway

The traditional nomadic Berber’s huts here seem to be a wooden frame construction covered in heavy duty plastic or brown material.  Managing to get a glimpse quickly into one as we drove past you could see it had been lined with rugs secured to both the walls and the floors, with a little wood burner in the middle of the hut. Simple but cosy and effective.  Shepherds seem to spend a huge amount of time alone.  Without much in the way of external influences and certainly not an iphone or ipad in sight for them – one wonders what they must think about to while away the many, many miles of walking, moving their livestock from one area to the next.

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Image: Alex Broadway

Moving southwards, the trees and the snow and general alpine feel gives way to lush green crops and fertile earth. We now pass olive and orange trees.  It is whilst driving out of the cedar forest, down into the valley that we also start to notice a lot of very young children walking the roads, mainly in groups, possibly on the way to and from school.  They seem to see the cars well in advance from their vantage points on the side of the road and start running en-masse towards them.  We had to stop for four boys, not much older than ten or so who ran at speed into the middle of the road pleading with us to give them something. As it happened we only had a couple of chocolate biscuits which couldn’t go around so we slowly nudged on through with heavy hearts.  But just around a corner was another boy on his own.  We wound down the window and offered the biscuits.  However he had seen my pen and insistently called out ‘Stilo!, Stilo!’  And again, louder ‘Stilo! Stilo!’ He was far more interested in this and thanked us for politely when we gave it to him.  Once we had driven around a bend, we saw the other gang catch up with him and you could see there was much excitement over his new treasure.  We spoke to a couple of the seasoned rally-ists about this later in the evening and the general advice is, although often heart-wrenching – it is often best not to stop.

On we go, and the temperature changes slightly and the earth becomes redder.  We pass through a number of towns between the end of the Cedar forest and Beni Mallal ( Khenifra and the smaller Tighassaline, Ouaoumana and El-Ksiba ) that look like they had just risen up from the earth, with the buildings (many under construction) exactly the same colour as the roads; each one a hive of activity.  Men mainly, mill about the road – scooters and little tuk-tuks weave in and around pedestrians and larger trucks on the side.  My husband thinks it has a similar feel to India but perhaps not quite as chaotic.  Butchers displaying freshly hung lamb and goat trade next to the man that probably supplies most of the local farmers with their irrigation systems; selling metres of tightly wound yellow and blue hosepipes and metal baths. His neighbour is outside selling mobile phones and other electrical equipment. Many are dressed in the traditional Jalabiya, smiling and waving at the 2 CVs.  Levelling out, we drive down on to a fairly fast dual carriage way with the majestic High Atlas Mountains ahead of us, eventually turning off left and into our home for the night – the Hotel Ouzoud at Beni Mallal.

 

 

 

Day Five: Beni Mallal to Marrakech

Posted on: April 16th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

Beni Mallal is one of Morocco’s fastest growing towns located between Fez and Marrakech and en-route to the Middle Atlas mountains so the Hotel Ouzoude proved to be a convenient stop-over outside of the city.  The food the previous evening had been a substantial and tasty chicken tagine… but the hotel had been described as “a very average hotel with good food and so expectations had been well-managed.

The competitors first challenge for the day was a testing regularity section climbing 470m – 1320 m in just 50 kms.

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The time control crew needed to press on in order to get to our designated area to start the morning’s event.  After hitting the road we started to notice that there seemed to be a lot of police presence on the outskirts of Beni Mallal; every 300-500 yds or so there seemed to be a very smartly dressed policemen standing to attention by the side of the road – probably from the Royal Gendarmerie – and enough to suggest that something or someone important (other than a rally of 2 CV’s of course) was passing by. These policemen were stationed consistently as we made our way up the steep mountain road which brought us some great views of symmetrical crops and huge wide skies.  Leaving Simon and John T to set up the start, John B and I found a suitable spot to end the regularity event – slightly around a corner and hidden by some bushes – and started to get out the ‘End of Regularity’ board and set our clocks etc when a policemen literally popped out of nowhere to ask what we were doing.  Apart from anything else, it transpired that our crafty hideaway was also the entrance to a military installation that we needed to get away from and on asking, yes there was a VIP passing through – although he was reticent to say exactly who.  It was suggested we should move up a couple of kilometres or so up the road and all would be well.  Naturally about five minutes of finding our new spot an official-looking car drew up and this time a couple of plain clothed policemen also got out and questioned us kindly.  Thankfully they had already chatted to John T and Simon down the road, so they knew what was going on but I think were just checking that the rally Land Cruiser (bedecked with very military-looking boxes on the roof rack) held nothing more suspicious than tools and crew gear.  When they were satisfied all was well, they waved to us cheerily as they went on their way.  Very shortly after that we were rewarded with a speedy drive-past of a full (and possibly royal) motorcade. I like to think I may have had the privilege to see the very popular ‘King of the people’, King Mohammed VI, and I really hope that he too may have had the opportunity to smile as he passed some perfect red and white 2Cv’s nimbly winding along his Kingdom’s wonderful roads.

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Image: Alex Broadway

269 ‘clicks’ into our day and our lunch break was at the stunning Falls of Ouzoud.  Turning off the main road we headed slap bang into a market in full swing that was taking place mainly over a narrow bridge.  Perhaps it was just lunch-time rush hour here, but the cars had to creep forward, surrounded by market stalls and colourfully dressed people everywhere.  Even in a car, you really get ‘up close and personal’ to a lot of the stalls resplendent with hanging meat, tables groaning under the weight of offal, tagines being prepared, lunch cooking over herby charcoal alongside stall-holders showing brightly coloured carpets and traditional leather slippers. As a first-time visitor I just want to soak up all the sights and sounds.  Morocco just feels very ‘real’.

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Images:  Alex Broadway

Walking through an area that was a bit more touristy, we briefly stopped to admire the handiwork of a young woman putting the final touches to a henna tattoo on a slightly sunburned American girl. As we rounded the corner we found this very welcoming spot for lunch. The smell of lemon, herbs and spices were heavenly and the food seemed prepared and served with such care and welcome. Toby and his lovely wife Fenella – the orchestrators behind the event – quickly sat us down and organised delicious mint tea, Moroccan salad, olives and bread followed by a steaming vegetable tagine thick with squash and onions.

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Having driven behind some of the competitors , I wanted to know how the 2CV’s didn’t just tip up when going round some of the hair-pin bends.  Toby is extremely knowledgeable about all of his much-loved 2 CV’s  having worked on them for over three months, so he explained,  ” the reason they lean so much is because of the suspension – the travel does produce sometimes alarming angles of lean around corners – but there is a low centre of gravity which ensures the car does not tip over!”  Michelle and Reg from Australia agreed the suspension was fantastic and although a little slow up the hills, they had got used to  that speed and then compensated by going pretty fast down the hills. Reg, a self confessed ‘large man’ reiterated how comfortable the 2CV was, although he did say (to much hilarity) that he noticed a ‘bit of problem with visibility’ as his head kept bumping on the roof quite often!

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Some drivers wanted to crack on in order to get to Marrakech in good time, but with no further regularity events to do that day Simon and I were free to do a bit of sightseeing and felt that it would be rude not to go and see the falls with Rod Kirkpatrick and Alex Broadway, the camera team. There are a lot of steps down – and therefore back, but there are plenty of strategically-placed seats should you need to stop for a breather and of course lots of opportunities to make some purchases at various stalls set out along the path, should you so wish.

Waterfalls are always stunning, but being able to get so close to the deafening, rainbow spray of this one was frankly awesome.  Both Alex and Rod took safety in to their own hands and shimmied down some fairly slippery surfaces (not recommended!) to be rewarded with an even closer view. To see a 360 degree shot of this taken by Rod click here: http://fstoppress.com/vr/waterfall_002/

Apart from Sean and Mike having to repair a puncture, the rest of the competitors seemed to have a straightforward drive through some stunning scenery via Tanant, Demnate, El-Sahrij, El-Attaouia, Tamalelt and eventually into cosmopolitan Marrakech and the fabulous Sofitel Palais Imperial Hotel. As we signed in at the reception we were greeted with orange blossom scented flannels to freshen ourselves up with and a nice glass of mint tea. It is the little details after a days hard driving that can make all the difference!

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As we had a free day the next day, most of the drivers took the opportunity to relax with a drink or two, breaking off to get competitive again over the large table football in one of the lounge areas, before we were all whisked off to the evening’s entertainment.  To set the scene: imagine a ‘Ye Olde English’ themed banquet set in the grounds of a stately home, complete with long trestle tables, flagons of ale and jousting knights. ‘Fantasia at Chez Ali’ is the Moroccan equivalent – not exactly cultural and a bit unexpected, but quite authentic and fun nonetheless. Here we ate a traditional menu of harira soup, whole lamb, couscous and an assortment of Moroccan pastries under a huge richly patterned tent, whilst being entertained by belly dancers and tribesmen/women singing, shrilling and playing an assortment of instruments.  Afterwards we all went outside to see some fearsome looking horsemen charging up and down the  sandy arena brandishing and firing some very long guns. The evening ended with a few more pyrotechnics and a lovely mellow moment showing a magic carpet ride accompanied by some beautiful singing. Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

 

 

 

 

Day Six: Marrakech rest day

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

Unfortunately the heavens really did open during our brief stay in Marrakech but a number of the competitors braved the weather and took a stroll into the Jemaa el Fna and to try their hand at bartering in the souks. A couple of others took the opportunity to go to the Majorelle Gardens (http://www.jardinmajorelle.com)  that apparently were delightful, even in the wet.  Many of the crew took the opportunity to catch up on some admin and other work thanks to having good internet connection and of course the mechanics were hard at work on a couple of the cars that required some attention.  The camera crew started to edit their images and the video.

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Image:  Alex Broadway

In the afternoon the rain eased off and we took an early promenade past the impressive Koutoubia Minaret and gardens and into Jemaa el Fna.

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Around 4pm seems to be a pretty good time to go, particularly to sit out on one of the terraces with a coffee or mint tea and watch the square come to life below you. It soon becomes a kaleidoscope of activity with musicians, story tellers, snake charmers and monkey handlers gathering crowds around them whilst the food stalls busy themselves setting up for the evening.  Not having a huge amount of time before getting back to the hotel for the 7.30 briefing, we still managed a quick pit-stop around a tiny part of the souk and did our fair share of bargaining in that time … returning with a few pairs of brightly coloured slippers, intricate brass ware and some fabled argon oil.

 

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In the evening we descended on the square again, which was now teeming with both locals and tourists coming to soak up the vibe, listen to the various stories being told and of course, eat. To get the most from the experience you need to be prepared to submerse yourself totally into the atmosphere and take some time to walk around and hear the patter from each competing stall before deciding where to eat.

Apart from one or two men who seemed put out that we and others were not going to be eating at their stall, the rest provided good-humoured banter and added to the sense of theatre. Often when the stall holders realise you are English you will hear calls of ‘ Better price than Asda!’ ‘Cor Blimey my son’ ‘ Ducking and Diving’ and my favourite ‘ Alright my old China!’  Not brave enough to try the stalls offering brains and other offally-delights, and bypassing the snail broth stall, we plumped for one that; had the friendliest patter, had a good number of locals, looked busy and smelt delicious.  As it happens it was stall No 1 and we found out it was owned and run by the warm and welcoming Aisha and her niece and nephews.  We had excellent bread and dips (tomato and chilli and another garlic and herb) followed by vegetable tagine and delicious grilled meats and merguez sausages.

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At about 11pm we decided to go back have a quick birthday drink with John B in the Laurence Bar at the hotel, sipping delicious cocktails in this sumptuous bar was a lovely way to end our stay in Marrakech. One word of warning – the beige ‘petit taxis’ should all have meters and they should all be on and working – if not just walk away or risk being stung for nearer 200 Dhirams  for the fare on getting back to the hotel…. Other than that a brief experience of Marrakech was lovely.  Whilst many might suggest staying in a more traditional riad, for the purpose of the rally the Palais Imperial was absolutely perfect due to the amount of secure parking that we needed.

Day Seven: Marrakech to Ouarzazate

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

After a most amazing breakfast everyone was fully refreshed and fortified and raring to get back on the road for our journey on the old caravan route, up through the High Atlas mountains via the jaw-dropping Tizi-n-Tichka pass and eventually winding down into Ouarzazate, the film-making capital of Morocco, otherwise known as the ‘door to the desert’.

 

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Image: Alex Broadway

 

Today was another long day of beautiful, breath-taking scenery and a little bit of drama thrown in.  Climbing out of Marrakech and 47 clicks into our journey we started our climb on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. This road, being the only main route between Marrakech and Ouarzazate delights and petrifies drivers in equal measures depending on your stomach for heights, roads with few barriers and lumbering five tonne lorries. It was nothing short of spectacular and is definitely not a road for the faint-hearted!   2CV_Marrakech_44

Image:  Alex Broadway

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Image: Alex Broadway
 
 

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There were many opportunities for some great panoramic views, although unfortunately places are limited to actually stop and catch your breath.  At the official ‘viewpoints’ you have to jostle for views amongst a couple of coach loads of tourists and souvenir shops but somehow we managed to one-by-one overtake some of the slower moving vehicles eventually turning left off the main pass onto the road to Telouet and the Ounila Valley and our High Atlas regularity start.

Immediately we regained a sense of remoteness and freedom.  Certainly the competitors had relished the road so far with its never-ending switchbacks in a car that seems totally at one with the mountains and environment here.

Nearing the Kasbah Telouet the colours of the rocks slowly merge from granite grey topped with slowly melting snow through to the rich red earth of more warmer climes.  At times the scenery was almost Martian, with deep red imposing rock face and earth all around you, but then, on turning a corner you are confronted with a lush valley of palm, eucalyptus, poplar and mimosa trees. IMG_1122

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lush valley photo

It was somewhere along this road, after the regularity event, that Reg and Michelle in ‘Daphne’ “came a cropper” with a local coming the other way.  It was indeed a head-on but luckily, apart from being a bit shaken and stirred, no one was hurt.  Apart from Daphne that is, who had more than her pride dented with a seriously crumpled zone on the front of her bonnet.  The spectacle proved irresistible for a number of children on their way to or from school and by the time we rounded the same corner quite a crowd had gathered.  The ‘insurance man’ was summoned at great speed, an interpreter and somehow the deal was done on a dusty road on the way to Ouarzazate with the minimum amount of fuss.

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Image: Alex Broadway
 
 

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Reg insisted that despite the “big bang” it didn’t hit that hard – and although he did concede to be a little over the centre of the road (track) there was enough room on the inside to “get a truck through”!   After a little negotiating and hand-shaking the local left with a slightly damaged old merc and 650 Euros in his back pocket which everyone seemed very happy with on both sides. ” This is what’s known as a result” Toby declared, and we all went on our way in search of Laurence of Arabia via our lunch stop at a little place near Tournat with some competitors pressing on to Ben Haddou some 70 odd kilometres down the road or only stopping once they had reached our destination of Ouarzazate.

It was this last section of road through many little Berber villages that I really began to feel that I might bump into Laurence of Arabia or Jesus of Nazareth, both filmed in this area and also got my first glimpse of a camel. Very happy days!

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We arrived at the Ouarzazate Berberer Palace in good time, although sadly just a little too late for the tour around the Studios – and met up with the competitors who were ecstatic about the days driving.  Although there had been a few frustrations about the section of road that was chosen for the regularity section everyone had by now fully fallen in love with their cars. At the 7.30 John T explained that as there had been a bit of a prang and one car was now off the road, they had decided to cancel that days stage.  Some were probably a bit more relieved than others, but notes were pleasantly swapped about the respective handling of the different cars and all the competitors seemed to be completely blown away by how nimble and flexible they are around mountain roads.  As we sat down to an excellent buffet meal including the most delicious beef tagine that was sweet and succulent, we talked about the marvellous views they had seen out of their windows (when not trying to maintain their 50.5 kph average speed during the regularity event) and what a joy Morocco is generally.  John and Judith Rowe, an experienced team (recently back from the Trans Am rally) seemed to be seriously considering buying a 2CV when they returned to the UK, with John saying the car was ” bloody good! … the car has surpassed all expectations” explaining how it “flowed” and was an excellent choice of car for this particular route. Nicholas Pryor and Lesley Stockwell, also regulars on the rally circuit were poetical about the “absolutely amazing drive that day” loving the views from the “top of the Atlas mountains, the scenery, the lovely, lovely climbs and the people”.

Over a few well deserved drinks, Reg and Michelle reassured everyone they were absolutely fine  whilst the mechanics got to grips with the task of rebuilding damaged Daphne which included completely replacing the engine and the gearbox, making good and hammering out the bonnet.  By the end of the long night the lovely Daphne had most of her beauty restored and the only real evidence of the little skirmish on the mountains, was a green bungee cord in place over the bonnet, and even that she managed to wear with pride, almost as a badge of honour.

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Day Eight – Ouarzazate to Merzouga

Posted on: April 23rd, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

Toby greeted us in the morning with a cheery “hello” telling us that ” the boys did an amazing job last night putting in a new engine and gearbox ….bashed everything straight and made her look a bit more respectable!”  It was good to hear. With 377 kilometres to drive today, it would have been a great shame for Michelle and Reg if they had to travel in the crew cars. So we had a good early start out of Ouarzazate and after some fairly flat desert road into the Draa Valley following the river and lush date and henna plantations passing the occasional imposing Kasbah along the way.

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Image: Alex Broadway

Our first time control was just outside the village of Agdl where again we attracted a lot of interest from a group of boys wanting to play football on the road. In my broken French I explained that some ‘petit voitures’ would be coming along the road shortly ‘vitesse!’.  They decided to hang around and see for themselves and found a good vantage point on a bank parallel with the line we had drawn on the road.  There was much anticipation.  Daphne, resplendent with her new green bungy pulled up and after a quick exchange of paper work and times being jotted down pulled away from the line to cheers from the small crowd.  Alastair and Hayden, arriving a couple of minutes later also did not disappoint, not only did they straddle the line neatly and expertly (of course) but they also did it to the sound of The Rolling Stones pumping through the open sunroof.  Everyone passed through the regularity event to increasing excitement of the watching boys, who eventually went back to their business kicking a football down the road chanting “Chelsea” “Chelsea” in boisterous tones.

Turning off the main valley road that would have taken us down to Zagora we continued eastwards, stopping for lunch at the delightful Restaurant Auberge Enakhie where we ate Moroccan salad and soup overlooking regimented palm groves. Some drivers took the opportunity to do a spot of sunbathing next to the very inviting swimming pool.

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After lunch the scenery became more arid.  With some fairly long (and fairly boring) roads.  However as each mile passed through villages and towns hewn from the red rock looking like something straight out of Star Wars, so our excitement increased about getting to our desert camp at Merzouga. We had heard a couple of days ago that the UK was suffering with bad air quality as a result of Saharan dust swirling above the South of England, making air pollution a real problem; as we climbed across the desert on windy roads we were starting to get a sense of those winds.  The 2CV’s were being buffeted around a bit, but they were doing well.  Because it is so rocky, with sparse vegetation, until you try to open the car door it is impossible to get a sense of how windy it actually is.  Yet still we passed lone nomadic Berbers going from A to B – often sitting on donkeys loaded with crops, wrapped up against the elements.  You start to see that the traditional dress is also completely practical – keeping the extremes of both wind and heat out in order to go about daily life.

 

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The road fifty clicks away from Rissani  is a long stretch of road that was blighted both by huge pot holes and something else quite shocking – rubbish.  Thousands of plastic bags littered the area giving a new meaning to scrubland. Disappointing, shocking and a stark reminder to all of us about how ‘modern living’ impacts us all, everywhere.

Eventually the Erg Chebbi dunes stretch to the right and in front of us so we turn off the main road and start to follow a track (and our GPS particularly) out into the desert. We passed through a deserted mining outpost and into what can only be described as ‘moonscape’.  Looking ahead the horizon seems large and infinite and yet somehow two-dimensional at the same time.  Sometimes we seemed to be heading towards a great cliff of rock in the far distance (the border with Algeria) and other times large dunes loomed up in the middle-distance.  Time and space are a bit distorted here but we seemed to be driving for longer than we had anticipated before getting to our camp. According to our GPS we should have been reaching our destination point – but actually we had arrived at well, nothing – no camp, no 2 Cv’s … nothing.  Now was an unfortunate time for our GPS to have gone on the blink and we started to feel quite alone in a vast expanse of rock and sand.  Without any immediate points of reference  it would have been quite easy to have got completely and utterly lost. Luckily the GPS was still showing our route out, so it was quite easy after a slight feeling of mild panic on my part as the navigator, to retrace our route and get back to the little deserted ‘village’.

 

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Images: Alex Broadway

Whilst trying to get our bearings without the use of any technology, it was with absolute joy that we saw John and Judith come to our rescue with their trustworthy sat nav and GPS and off we went again leaving plumes of dust in our wake until we reached the fantastic Camp La Belle Etoile.

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I can honestly say it was the best glass of sweet ‘Berber Whiskey’ (mint tea) that we were presented with and that I have ever tasted.   The Camp is grouped around a central fire pit with an avenue of traditional tents making up your ‘room’ for the night.  Inside there is a double bed covered in a mosquito net and behind two curtains a loo and a shower.  The bed is soft, the tent colourful; out of the ordinary indeed – and far more luxurious than I was anticipating!

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We just had enough time to drop our bags before walking up and out into the Sahara to watch sunset.  Fifteen minutes or so up dunes and along ochre coloured sandy ridges, before we settling down in small groups on different vantage points to watch a golden sun set over a land that only a few of the group had seen before.  We were awe-struck by the sheer chameleon-like beauty of it all. Many of us had been a bit parched and tired on arriving, but as soon as the sky and sand started to change colour and depth, that all soon dissipated as we let the beautiful aura and silence of the desert gently wrap itself around us.

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Top left hand corner image: Alex Broadway

We all had the most wonderful night.  After feasting on traditional Berber food including delicious sweet/savoury ‘pasties’ (or Berber Pizza’s as they were introduced) we were entertained around the fire pit.  Unlike the previous experience in Marrakesh which felt a bit Disney-esque, this was completely authentic and soon the rhythmic sound of singing and the beating of drums and percussion instruments (large castanet-type cymbols) had got most of us off our feet and dancing around, clapping and grinning from ear to ear.  When this all calmed down a number of us strolled up the dunes to lay on our backs and just look at the stars above (or below?) us.  The previous days temperature and fallen away and the sand was cool to touch, like water.   We managed to get back into the tent just as the lights most definitely went out at 11.30 as the generator stopped and we were plunged into a total and instant silence and darkness.

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Image: Alex Broadway

 
 
 

New video of the 2014 Marrakech Express Rally

Posted on: May 2nd, 2014 by marrakech

 
Below is a video comilation of footage from this year’s rally. See the 2CVs amidst the glory and majesty of the Moroccan landscape.
 
 

Day Nine: Desert day off

Posted on: May 5th, 2014 by Jo-Anne Skelton

At about 5.45 am we were woken up by our hosts, rapping on the little blackboards hanging outside each tent, reminding us that it was time to get up and out for our camel ride.   I had been slightly hesitant about this trek the previous evening, having been warned that being up close and personal to a camel was not exactly the nicest thing to subject oneself to on waking. Apparently they smelt and ‘were inclined to spit or sneeze’. Toby also gleefully informed me that they had ‘really terrible halitosis’, but despite this description reminding me somewhat of an ex, I actually found myself genuinely excited to be confronted by our kneeling group of slightly bored-looking, cud-chewing animals.  At the start of this journal, I compared the 2CV’s to the reindeer in ‘The night before Christmas’ and now I find myself comparing the camels to the seven dwarfs in Snow White …. grumpy, sleepy, sneezy, dopey …you get the gist. They made me smile just looking at them.

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I was extremely glad to get into the saddle; whereas the sand had been cool yesterday evening, it was now freezing and given that I had despatched with my flip-flops in order to get on the camel more easily, the ground felt more like snow than sand. Top-tip: wear something a bit more robust at this time of day! My camel seemed docile enough and sure enough after a bit of grunting (on the camels part) and clinging on for dear life (on my part) were were up,up and away, slowly plodding along through the half light.

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Image: Alex Broadway

Dear reader – please, please put this experience on your ‘bucket list’.  Having had the privilege of also witnessing sunset over the Grand Canyon some years ago, I personally feel that this was a more serene, gentle experience but I fear my writing does not do justice to the wonderful feeling of sheer joy as we gently ambled into the sunrise surrounded only by softly changing pink and blue sky and miles and miles of undulating burnished sand ebbing and flowing into the distance.  The silence is unique; it’s not exactly total silence, as you can hear the sound of the soft-shoe shuffle of the camels as they carefully navigate their human cargo up the dunes. This is punctuated occasionally by a light peal of nervous laughter from a fellow rider as they get to grips with either the camel under them or behind them – but it is pretty near pin-drop perfect. Everything is soft, muted and mesmeric. After about fifteen minutes we dismount and clamber up the dunes by foot, once again taking slightly different routes to our different posts, eagerly waiting for nature to do her thing.

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Well, if I thought that the sunset was beautiful yesterday, then sunrise was even more breathtakingly so today. I am sure most of us took the opportunity in this magical place to have some time of quiet contemplation, putting our busy lives into perspective and possibly have a feeling of ‘being at one’ with something bigger than us.  Scanning the horizon you could see little clumps of people dotted around the peaks of dunes – and despite the occasional whir and click of a camera or smart phone, we were all very respectful of our immediate neighbour’s silence and thoughts.

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There is also something almost sensual about the curves, dips and hollows of the dunes that continuously change subtly in front of you.  A dune that looked as though it could be cupped in your hand was probably a couple of miles or more away.  The texture of the sand is like nothing you can experience on a beach – it is fluid, velvety.

Once dawn had risen in all her glory, we were back on the camels and returning to our camp, delighting the camera crew as we provided plenty of images of camel-train shadows and silhouettes.

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Images: Alex Broadway

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After saying a fond farewell to our four-legged friends we literally decamped to the hotel about 20 km up the road. Arriving at the Kasbah Tombouctou, and ignoring the rather garish large fake camels that adorn the entrance to the hotel – we found another typically warm Moroccan welcome and a fantastic little place mixing traditional mud render, architecture and ambience with quirky fixtures and fittings.

As a free day – a couple of the group went out and had fun zipping backwards and forwards on sandy planes and dunes.  Whilst others relaxed by the pool and soaked up some more of the Moroccan sun, others studied the Grand National form and tried to find out more about the horse they had just drawn in the sweepstake.  We heard that a couple of kilometres away runners were on day two of the Marathon des Sables prompting many of us to comment that whilst it was one thing to go across the desert in a 2 CV it was another thing entirely to run 147 kms; “totally bonkers” laughed one driver – adding that most of the runners were probably French.  Joking aside, there was much respect for the feat of these driven men and women wanting to conquer this part of the Sahara.

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Images: Alex Broadway

After a great day and as night fell on us and the 2CV’s once again I think we were all a little bit sad that the next day we would effectively be starting our return journey home.

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Images: Alex Broadway

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