New X3 faces its toughest test yet: the Tizi n'Test mountain road
They say that Marrakesh is the nearest faraway place to the British Isles. Three hours from Heathrow and before you know it you’re in a lantern-lit world of snake charmers, dancing monkeys and medina market traders whose wares include several swords and a selection of used dentures.
Honestly, you could lose yourself for days in there without even venturing beyond the pink city walls, from which the salted, severed heads of criminals once hung.
But to stay in the souks would be a shame, because as otherworldly as it seems, Marrakesh is really just the front door to an even more distant land. To explore that, you’ll need to commandeer a vehicle and drive south, across the High Atlas: the final frontier to the Sahara and savannahs beyond. First though you must find a way out of town through a rush hour swarm of tuk-tuks, bicycles, mopeds and donkey carts.
Words: Dan Read
Pictures: Stuart Collins
To blend in, we’ve borrowed a new, blue BMW X3 for the journey. The satnav shortcuts us through dusty southern suburbs, past shacks and fruit sellers until the earthen houses thin out and we arrive, it would seem, in the Old Testament.
I don’t know the name of the village, it might not have one, but I do know there are chickens and children running around everywhere. An antique-looking goat herder blocks the way with his flock, one of which, for reasons neither I nor google can fathom, has a spare pair of testicles under its chin.
There are two ways over the mountains by car. One is the Tizi n’Tichka, a knotty pass two hours south-east of the city, which delivers you to the edge of the dunes. Its name comes from the local word for ‘difficult path’, and they’re not wrong, although it’s nothing compared to the other route, the Tizi n’Test, which is where we’re heading.
Why this one? Because right at the top, two kilometres up, we’re promised one of the finest views in north Africa, a vista so endless you can almost see the giraffes in the distance. There’s also a Berber inn, which we’re told does a decent tagine, and, well, seeing as we’ll be there around lunchtime…
We could have found some more local transport – the Dacia factory is up the road in Tangier, and Morocco’s old Merc taxis are legendary – but frankly anything with four-wheel-drive and a five-star crash rating will do just fine. Have you seen the state of the roads around here? Actually the one we eventually join from Marrakesh is laser-straight and smoothly surfaced, but after the town of Tahnaout it begins to narrow and crumble at the edges as the foothills rise up.
The road is preposterous, as if they poured the tarmac and let it run down the slopes whichever way it wanted
From here on the carriageway, if you can call it that, is precisely one-and-a-half cars wide. Seems like a good time to remind ourselves that the X3 is now marginally larger than the original X5. Having said that it’s quite easy to aim and somehow shrinks around you – handy when the first lorry comes hurtling around a blind bend, its unsteady load of propane gas cylinders swaying alarmingly. I drop half the car onto the gritty verge, dispersing a great nebula of dirt, which drifts out over the steep gorge to our right.
There aren’t many towns up here, but there are many people. I’ve no idea where they come from, but whoever they are, they sure have a casual approach to self-preservation. The road – and I mean the actual middle of the road – as well as being something to drive on, is also a playground, football pitch, marketplace, meeting place, and, amazingly, somewhere for a little lie down. If he wasn’t already dead, and I can’t be completely sure, it probably won’t be long.
Despite the madness outside, all is calm in the car. Apparently there’s a 2.0-litre diesel engine up front, though it’s so quiet I can neither confirm nor deny its existence. Something is pulling us along briskly enough, though this is hardly the place to explore the limits of grip and handling. Nobody has been sick yet, which is about the best assessment I can give of the M Sport suspension and active dampers in their firmest setting. And the 19-inch wheels are as big as you’d want on roads like this, or anywhere come to think of it.
We’re well into the mountains now, ears popping, the road little more than a ledge. The Tizi n’Test was blasted through the ochre rocks by the French between 1926 and 1932. Previously a journey over the Atlas would require a reliable mule, a good pair of sandals and a nod from the local Sultan who controlled these parts from a hilltop Kasbah.
To our left is Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in north Africa at just under half the height of Everest. To our right, the fortress-like Tinmel mosque, built 900 years ago as the seat of power for the Almohad Caliphate and its rulers, who – by all accounts – you really didn’t want to muck with.
The scruffy village of Ijoukak is the last stop before the top. The road runs straight through it, and – as we make way for a Transit with five boys clinging to the roof – we draw alongside a decapitated goat’s head, strung outside the butcher’s and crawling with wasps. Either it’s a delicacy, or a warning to other goats. Don’t muck with the Almohads.
The road keeps going, taking an ever more preposterous route. It’s as if they poured the tarmac and let it run down the slopes whichever way it wanted, like a lava flow. We wiggle onwards, trying not to scrape the car on the rock walls, creeping around corners, braced for an oncoming something or other. The next section is lined with prickly pears and their spiky cactus paddles. Lord help the paintwork.
Crash barriers? Nope. A foot-high wall is all you get, or nothing at all in places. That, plus airbags and prayers
And as if there isn’t enough to worry about, the hills are disintegrating; a fresh rock fall has left a pile of rubble in the road. A snow plough is sent to clear it – and us – away, judging by the speed it comes around the bend.
Crash barriers? Nope. A foot-high wall is all you get, or nothing at all in places. That, plus airbags and prayers. Far below, a distant green strip runs along a dry riverbed, as plants suck up whatever moisture is left, and jackals scavenge for dinner. One wrong move from us and it’ll be their lucky day (thankfully, or should I say tragically, the last barbary lion seen around here was shot in 1942).
Despite the fist-in-mouth terror of it all, this is actually a very popular road. On the other side, down in the Sous Valley, is the market town of Taroudant. In the not-so-distant past it’s where camel caravans would depart for Mauritania, Mali and beyond. Today it’s a place for the mountain people to buy everything from saddles to spices, hence the stream of taxis ferrying them over the pass. Most are battle-scarred, late-70s Merc W123 saloons, though thanks to the government’s cash-for-clunkers scheme some have been swapped for white Dacia Lodgys with an adventure roof rack.
Amongst all this, our X3 might as well be a Rolls Royce. It even has gesture control, in case you can’t be bothered to turn the iDrive knob. Does it feel good driving a £40,000 hunk of luxury SUV through a part of the world where people sleep five-to-a-room and are lucky to own a goat? Not really. Though I must say, the supple Vernasca leather with contrasting blue stitching certainly helps to lift the mood.
After what seems like an entire morning, because that’s what it was, we finally approach the summit. Here’s a tip: if you’re ever up here, don’t just stop at the sign that marks the top. It would be easy to pose for a selfie and a roadside pee before heading back to civilisation. Don’t. Keep going, because just a few corners later, through one last corridor of rocks, the horizon opens up and right there, for as far as the eye can see, is the whole of Africa laid out below you. A warm Saharan wind blows up the mile-high hillside, bringing with it the promise of faraway places, of Lion Kings, Masai Warriors and Gorillas in the Mist. I can also smell omelettes.
We park outside the Bellevue, the aptly-named inn we were told about, and sit on the terrace where we’re brought spicy, molten eggs in terracotta tagines. In the distance the road falls rapidly to the plains and disappears into infinity. It’s tempting to carry on, to see where it takes us, but stupidly we promised to return the car by sunset. Besides, we’ve some shopping to do – a man can’t function without a decent sword and a full set of teeth. For now, Africa will have to wait.
So close, yet so far.