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Ferrari Testarossa to the Sahara (Photography: Justin Leighton)
Ferrari Testarossa to the Sahara (Photography: Justin Leighton)
Ferrari Testarossa to the Sahara (Photography: Justin Leighton)
Two decades ago, Car magazine drove a brand-new Ferrari 512M to the Sahara Desert. Here’s the story of Harry Metcalfe’s homage to this epic adventure in his classic Testarossa – without the back-up crew
Finding the main route out of Tangier is proving to be a nightmare. The guidebook I’d bought weeks ago said to avoid Tangier City and enter Morocco via Tangier Med, but I only got round to reading it just before we disembarked from the ferry. The fact that I’m in a low-flying Ferrari without any form of GPS navigation isn’t helping. Decent tarmac seems to be a scarce commodity in Tangier and there are no roadsigns to guide visitors out of its confusing maze of bustling streets. We sweep blindly round a corner, locked in a scrum with battered cars as if in a banger race, and it’s about to get worse: ahead the road is blocked, forcing all traffic through an Oil-Libya fuel station that was never designed to have the main road running through it.
It’s a chaotic scene; the poor fuel attendants are doing their best to dodge the two-way traffic but the big issue is the drop of about a foot between the fuel station’s concrete forecourt and the temporary road surface beyond. Even the trucks are struggling to climb it and I’m refusing to commit the Testarossa to such a chassis-damaging drop. Making matters worse, a queue of irritable taxi drivers (in disturbingly distressed Mercedes dating mainly from the 1970s) is quickly forming behind me: they can’t understand what the problem is and think the Testarossa must be some sort of joke because it’s only got two seats and has nowhere to store a live goat. It’s fair to say that this is not the welcome I was hoping for.
The reason I’m here (and subjecting the Testarossa to this torture) is that it’s 20 years almost to the day since Octane contributor Richard Bremner famously wrote a story for Car magazine about driving a then-new Ferrari 512M all the way from Maranello to the Sahara Desert. I thought it was one of the best drive stories I’d ever read and, seeing that I now own a Testarossa and love doing long road trips, I thought it would be fun to have a crack at this crazy journey for myself. Until we reached Tangier it had all been going swimmingly.
We’d left two days ago for a highly enjoyable cruise on an overnight Brittany Ferry to Spain, leaving Portsmouth around noon and arriving in Santander at 3pm the following day. It was then the simple matter of a 640-mile dash across Spain down to Tarifa in the very south to catch the high-speed ferry to Morocco.
The A6 is the main route out of Santander and we left the outer suburbs to head for the hills, where the Testarossa settled into an easy canter as we climbed away from the rugged northern coastline. The February sun felt quite strong through the windscreen but, ominously, patches of snow started to appear in shaded hollows by the side of the road. Snow isn’t unusual in this part of Spain at this time of year but 2015 has proved to be a vintage year for the stuff. Had we set off only a week earlier, this road would have been barely passable, such was the covering the region received.
Inside the Testarossa all is good, though, with the stylised seats proving to be surprisingly accommodating for long journeys, even though adjustments are relatively few. I’d fitted a 50mm extension just behind the steering wheel a few months ago to bring it closer to the driver, and it makes a much bigger difference to comfort levels than you’d ever imagine. All I’m missing now is a decent rest for my left foot during long passages of motorway cruising.
Another early surprise is the distance the Testarossa can cover between fuel fill-ups. The tank capacity is vast at 118 litres (25.2 imperial gallons) and, when you’re pottering along a motorway at close(ish) to the national speed limit, the mpg can soon drift into the low 20s, meaning the reserve light only starts winking at you after 400 miles or so have passed. The icing on the cake at the time of our visit was that unleaded in Spain cost the equivalent of 90p per litre and, with Spanish policing noticeable only by its absence, we were soon barrelling across the country at a serious lick, our speed only tempered by our ability to withstand the volume of wind noise.
We’d booked a motel just north of Seville for our first stop and awoke the next day to find the Testarossa surrounded by serious off-roaders, all heading to Morocco as support vehicles for the annual ‘Renault 4L Trophy’. This involves some 1150 vehicles testing themselves to the limits over 1500km of trails in the desert and there was disbelief when I revealed we were heading there, too. They kindly promised to help out should we require assistance, which was reassuring to know after I discovered a few weeks ago that there’s no rescue service on offer from organisations such as the RAC or AA if you venture into Morocco. Another unwanted discovery was that UK insurance polices generally only cover driving in Europe, so cover for Morocco needs to be arranged separately and isn’t automatically available… especially if you’re taking a 28-year-old classic Ferrari into the Sahara.
We reached Tarifa in good time, found the right queue for the ferry, clambered out and stretched our legs. Mrs Metcalfe was very grateful to find not a breath of wind, so there was every chance the crossing to Morocco should be smooth. I was more chuffed by the way the Testarossa had demolished the previous 640 miles without any issues. My only slight concern was what came next because, in typical bloke fashion, I chose which crossing to take purely on how cool the ferry looked in pictures. So we were queuing for FRS’s ‘Tarifa Jet’, an amazing catamaran craft packed with a monstrous 38,500hp giving it a crazy cruising speed of 42 knots (48mph), which gets you to Morocco in a mere 35 minutes. However, the guidebook I read on board warned its readers not to book this particular crossing because Tarifa Jet docks in Tangier City, which is not tourist-friendly at all. As we were to discover when we drove out of customs and got caught up in the petrol station mayhem…
I’m still refusing to drive over the huge concrete step blocking our route ahead. There’s nothing for it but to get the cars behind to back up, allowing us to turn around and then look for another route out of Tangier’s inner-city mayhem. With only the compass on my iPhone to guide us in the right direction, we finally discover a motorway sign. A sense of calm at last filters through the Testarossa’s cabin as we spot the sliproad we’ve been hunting for: time to head towards Marrakesh.
I had been warned by regular visitors to Morocco that speed traps are rife on motorways and it’s not long before we spot our first only a few kilometres out of Tangier. We flash past a lonely policeman hiding in the undergrowth pointing a laser gun in our direction and, a kilometre or so later, it comes as no surprise when we’re waved on to the hard shoulder by a group of armed and uniformed police officers for a ‘chat’.
I knew we hadn’t been speeding because I’d religiously stuck to the GPS-checked speed of 120km/h but, even so, documents are demanded and, after a cursory glance, we are grudgingly waved on our way, only in time for us to spot another speed trap further down the road. Then another, and another. By the time we reach Marrakesh that evening, we reckon we have passed through 20 of them. A bit of a shock after 640 miles of freedom in Spain.
The next morning, with the sun again beaming down on us out of a cloudless sky, photographer Justin Leighton arrives with Octane’s Matthew Hayward to join us on our adventure, having flown into Marrakesh overnight. Our plan is to head over the Atlas Mountains via the infamous Tiki Pass, after which we will turn slightly north-east to Ouarzazate and then on to Errachidia before turning south again, towards our destination of Erg Chebbi. Total distance for today’s leg is predicted at 338 miles with a travel time of eight hours.
The hotel doorman had directed me to park in pride of place right outside the main entrance last night (apparently it’s not often a Ferrari Testarossa visits Marrakesh) and, as it’s a bit chilly this morning, I go to start the engine and warm its vital fluids before setting off. I twist the key, the starter spins but the 12-cylinder eruption that should follow within a few seconds is absent. Oh dear, this wasn’t in the script. Justin suggests it might be a good idea to order some tea.
It works because, while I down a delicious glass of Moroccan peppermint, I remember the car did this once before and it turned out that the left-hand distributor cap was a bit damp inside – and last night was the first time the ’Rossa had spent a night al fresco in ages. I whip the cap off, give it a wipe inside, bolt it back into position, and the car starts straight away. The relief is palpable. Now we can begin our big adventure!
It’s cost us an hour so we need to get a move on, and in the rush to get out of Marrakesh I forget to set up my digital speedo, which I instantly regret after getting pulled at the very first speed trap we stumble across for doing 69km/h in a 60 limit. The police can’t quite believe I’m in a Ferrari and warn that the road ahead is in poor condition after the harsh winter, but at least it’s open. One police officer takes me aside and asks if I have another car available. I thank him for his helpful advice and, 300 dirham (£20) lighter, we press on towards the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance. I’ve been itching for this section of road.
As it turns out, the climb towards the summit quickly becomes an anti-climax, as the route is choked by overloaded lorries grinding their way almost at walking speed, so we stop at a fossil store and buy some crazy-coloured rocks to cheer ourselves up. The road surface as we near the top is terrible, a mix of mud, gravel and tarmac with hidden potholes, making overtaking next to impossible. This trip is going to be a whole lot tougher than I had expected.
But when we finally reach the 2260m (7414ft) summit, the sun breaks through the low cloud, the threatening snowflakes fade and the trucks dissipate as the road starts to twist its way down the other side of the mountain. Finally, I can begin to enjoy the Testarossa as Enzo intended and soon the wail of 12 cylinders is bouncing off the rocky walls lining the side of the road. The further we drop, the better the road surface gets and it’s not long before the painful experience of the tedious trip out of Marrakesh becomes a distant memory.
With not a cloud in the sky, the scenery unfolding outside is ratcheting itself up from amazing to utterly stunning. Craggy cliffs way above us mix with patches of cultivation in the valley below, the glorious colours vary from a reddish-pink on the rocky mountain tops to a grey-green in the valleys below. Every now and then we come across gents wearing hooded cloaks (djellabas) gathering firewood or scrub and often riding donkeys. The further we blast along this road, the greater the contrast with the familiarity of Spain only a day or so earlier.
Some 125 miles after Marrakesh we stop for fuel (60p per litre!) in Ouarzazate, a town made famous as a film-making location. Movies made shot include Lawrence of Arabia, The Living Daylights and more recently the TV series Game of Thrones. And you can see why, as we sweep through the Vallée du Dades towards Errachidia. The overwhelming impression is of endless space, with nothing man-made or remotely modern to interfere with the extraordinary landscape rolling out in every direction.
We’re starting to push on, yet the chances of reaching our planned overnight stop in the dunes of Errachidia are fading. Distances between landmarks on a map seem at least twice as far in reality and our eight-hour estimate is proving hopelessly optimistic. At least the speed traps have finally disappeared and we only meet the local constabulary during random document checks into and out of towns along our route. As it happens I’ve discovered that, whenever we spot a police roadblock, tucking the Ferrari up behind Justin’s Dacia hire car lessens the chance of us being stopped.
The sun is sinking slowly into the horizon, signalling that we will soon be plunged into darkness – not good news, even though the Testarossa’s quad-headlights are surprisingly good at piercing the inky night sky. No, the problem is that driving trucks, cars and bicycles without lights seems to be a national sport in Morocco, as is running across the road whenever foreign cars are approaching. By ten o’clock we’ve had enough of dodging endless errant cyclists and pedestrians in the middle of nowhere, so wearily we pull into Kasbah Chergui, the first hotel we spot as we drive into Erfoud, 40 miles short of our intended destination.
Fortunately we discover we’ve struck gold because the staff couldn’t be more accommodating and open up the kitchen to serve us a welcome supper, along with a glass or two of Domaine de Sahara Reserve red wine (which turns out to be surprisingly good). We retire happy, albeit with the prospect of an early start in the morning.
The same cheerful staff who served us supper treat us to a breakfast of traditional Moroccan pancakes with honey, followed by juicy chunks of melon, topped off with coffee thick enough to stand a spoon in. Fantastic. Outside, the sun is getting to work and the temperature is already heading towards today’s promised 26ºC peak – not bad for mid-February. Refreshed, we pack our bags, clamber in and prepare to set off. But there’s a problem. The Ferrari won’t start again. And cleaning the distributor cap doesn’t do the trick, and nor does the Moroccan tea that Justin orders. This really is not good news but there’s no way I’m giving up now.
I whip out a spark plug and determine that no sparks are showing on either bank of cylinders, so I guess it’s an immobiliser problem and start delving into the wiring to see if I can spot a fault somewhere. An hour or so later, with removed interior panels scattered around the place, we find a loose wire hidden behind the glovebox and, once it’s re-connected again, the car fires up. Oh, the relief! We say our goodbyes to the hotel staff and get under way.
After 20 miles, an enormous arch marks the entrance to Rissani, the last outpost of civilisation before the tarmac road we’re on runs out ten miles before our final destination. Despite that, the road leading away from town is one of the best we’ve been on, arrow-straight for miles, its surface shimmering in the desert heat. It looks mighty tempting and, well, it would be rude not to. The Ferrari’s throttle gets flattened, the engine note hardens and third gear is rapidly consumed. That oh-so-distinctive Ferrari flat-12 warble is demanding our full attention now, as is the way the horizon is rushing towards us. Click, clack, into fourth gear. Repeat. Yikes, this car can get a move on; it might feel slightly ponderous at lower speeds but it’s higher up the speed range that the Testarossa really comes alive, almost untroubled by the volume of air it’s having to push through.
As we round a bend, the pinkish-orange Sahara dunes finally loom on the horizon. The euphoria we feel at that moment is the same as you get when you’ve been at sea for days and then land suddenly appears. Just that brief glimpse of what lies ahead makes it seem worth travelling all this way for. I sense this is going to be very special. The dunes look huge, even at this distance, and a few miles later we spot a rickety sign for the Hotel Yasmina pointing into the desert proper. The hotel is so remote it doesn’t even have a street address, only a grid reference.
The owner of the Yasmina had promised me it would be possible to reach it with a two-wheel-drive car and, as it’s where Richard Bremner and the 512M stayed 20 years ago, I know at least one other Ferrari has made it there before.
The track surface turns out to be hard and big obstacles such as the odd dried-up raven or rocky outcrop are few, so four-wheel drive isn’t really needed. The biggest problem is the vicious washboard surface the track has degraded to: it shakes everything on the car to pieces, and my heart sinks at the realisation that the are ten miles of this to endure. Several Toyota Land Cruisers make a detour to check us out, their occupants smiling in disbelief at what they’re witnessing. I’m down to a crawl, shuffling along in second gear, with the engine barely above tickover, and it takes 40 minutes to complete this final leg of the journey, and even then we’re not quite there because, from nowhere, a huge oasis appears in front of us, and there seems to be no way around it. Frustratingly, I can see the Yasmina in the distance.
By now, locals have got wind that there’s a daft Englishman in a Ferrari lost in the Sahara and a couple of kids on beaten-up mopeds are zinging towards us. I climb out to explain in my best pidgin French that I’m trying to reach the Hotel Yasmina but don’t know a good way to get there in the Testarossa. One agrees to lead me there for a few dirham, to which I happily agree. It must look like a bizarre convoy as a single battered moped with its rider dressed in traditional costume escorts the Ferrari over the uneven terrain. He takes us on a huge loop up on to the stony banks surrounding this oasis. I’m so glad the Testarossa wears relatively tall tyres because there’s no way today’s ultra-low-profiles would survive what we’re doing right now.
In fact, the Ferrari has proved to be a great companion on this trip, comfortable beyond expectation, unbelievably capacious for a mid-engined car and only consuming a single litre of oil and absolutely no coolant throughout the whole trip. Even the air-conditioning worked, miraculous for an 1980s supercar in my experience. The roads in Morocco were way tougher than I had ever expected them to be but, then, the Moroccans we met along the way were always extremely friendly and courteous, which helped lift our spirits. My guide on the moped ahead finally pulls over and cheerfully points towards the single-track bridge across to the hotel in front of us.
Wow. The scale, the beauty, the remoteness: it’s almost all too much. The Ferrari has made it, and I can’t quite take it all in. We left our frosty gravel driveway at home in the genteel Cotswolds only four days ago and now, some 2000 miles later, the stunning dunes of the Sahara are stretching out in front of me for thousands of miles and it looks utterly wonderful. There’s the quiet satisfaction of finally achieving my personal goal of driving a Ferrari to the Sahara. The difference is that, 20 years ago, Richard Bremner drove a brand-new Ferrari here with a degree of factory support hiding in the wings should it ever have gone pear-shaped, while I drove a 28-year-old Ferrari here with just a minimal toolkit, a can of Radweld, a tow-rope and a credit card as back-up.
Quite how sensible that will prove to be I’m not too sure, especially when, in a few days’ time, we’ll be turning around to drive all the way home again. All I want to do now, though, is to park up and enjoy our wonderful new desert base to the full. After what we’ve been through to get here, I think we’ve earned it.
Driving in Morocco
Stating the obvious, Morocco is a very long way away from the UK. We shortened the distance travelled by taking the Brittany Ferries overnight service from Portsmouth to Santander.
Choosing your crossing between Spain and Morocco needs care. We made the ‘mistake’ of booking a crossing that delivers you at Tangier City, which proved a nightmare to navigate out of. The best ferry is Algeciras to ‘Port Tangier Mediterranee’ further up the coast, which links directly on to the A4 motorway.
On the ferry across, you need to get your passport stamped before entering Morocco and then you have to clear customs, who will search your car and inspect the registration papers and insurance documents in minute detail. Allow at least an hour to clear.
Next, make sure you have plenty of dirhams on you because you have to pay with cash almost everywhere. Motorway tolls, fuel, even hotels in the sticks only accept cash and finding an ATM isn’t easy, nor is getting dirhams in the UK.
As for driving in Morocco, I’ve never visited anywhere with more speed traps, so stick to the speed limit. If you get stopped (and you will), the police will want paying in cash, or your car will be confiscated.
Finally, driving at night is best avoided as it’s so dangerous; ‘sports cars’ are rare in Morocco, which makes finding replacement tyres next to impossible; and any breakdown is serious because there’s no national rescue service either. Good luck!
Harry's Garage video
Harry also documented this great journey on video. Watch it below:
Words: Harry Metcalfe // Photography: Justin Leighton