Mercedes 190 Project ~ Morocco

April 2004

[in brackets] refers to Morocco Overland routes

I had to cook up some new Moroccan routes for Sahara Overland II and the test run with the Merc was a chance to kill two birds with one radiator fan. Heading out across France in late February with an unknown car, I fought off the ingrained paranoia born from years of running cheap cars and bikes: when will it break.

In the end the worst thing was a dodgy indicator; fuel consumption at 70mph was in the low 40s (15kpl), it wasn't devouring oil and ran smoothly and quietly. Very much like a 'car', in fact.

I picked up Lucy at Malaga airport and after a night in a posh Malaga hotel and a walk through the fabulous Atarazanas covered market, we drove to the port and bought a single to Melillia.

I hadn't been here since staggering back from my very first Sahara trip in 1982, and with a tank full of duty-free fuel we rolled through Nador border crossing and south into the hills.

Our first piste was across the Rekkam plateau, an easy-looking track to see how the car would cope. After a few kilometres we tried out a thinner piste heading south but once over an escarpment came across a oued crossing that looked a bit of a gamble at this early stage. So we backtracked up the hill, inched over shallow creeks and continued on the eastbound plateau track.

We spent a freezing night in an abandoned building, the gale whistling through the empty windows, and next morning fuelled up over breakfast at Ain Benimathar. The 190 had managed its first piste without complaint.

Encouraged, we headed south down the highway to Bouarfa, a spacious desert town in the clear Spring sunshine, and stocked up with some fruit and veg for the night's camp. South of town, near the Algerian border we headed out on a very stony piste to Beni Tajite [Route ME4]. This one was a bit more challenging with the odd CLANG!! from the bashplate or floor. There were many more wash-outs and oueds to cross too, but the raised angles got the car through with barely a scrap. Berbers were camped alongside the track; the young girls dressed in colourful tasselled outfits like gypsies.

A couple of big oueds had washed-out concrete fords which we had to drive around, then halfway along the track petered out in a very stony oued. Reluctant to carry on and probably get stuck, we took another track south [ME5], hoping to get to the N10 Desert Highway we'd left that morning. Soon that petered out too - the usual Saharan scenario - and we were driving cross country over gnarly washed-out mud banks and steep-sided oueds which needed to be approached at an angle to get over. Just a couple of kms from the road we were trying to work round a mini canyon, probing here and there when my early over-confidence got the car well and truly bellied out.

With a wheel or two sticking in the air and unable to go forward or back, I airjacked the car to get some rocks under the wheels. A few tries of this proved useless; they just got spun out (an LSD might have helped here). We weren't getting far so I jacked up again, dug away at the side of the ditch on which the car rested and tried reversing out on the sand plates. Hey presto! the car was freed. By now though, I was covered in dust, soaked in sweat and worn out so we decided to camp right there and work out tomorrow, back-tracking all the way to Bouarfa if need be.

As dusk settled, I climbed up a hill and has a good look a round. There was no way anything was going to cross the sandy 20-foot high banks of the oued which lay between us and the road, but maybe we could get round it a few kms upstream where it wasn't so deep.

It's never comforting to spend the night stuck or lost, but with the road so near we knew we'd make it somehow, even if we had to leave the car there.

Sure enough next morning we came across a nearby mine from where a track led back to the Desert Highway. The car still steered straight and ran smoothly after yesterday's beating so at rhw Guir Bridge we headed onto a lovely piste up the Oued Guir to Gourrama [now sealed] passing the lovely old ruins of Tazouguerte and the old Legionnaires fort at Atchana along side the river. This was more like it.

Backtracking east to Boudenib via the amazing Ziz Gorges and Rissani, we were ready next day for a run across the desert to Erfoud [ME2]. However, the wind had come up overnight and with no one at the fuel station and an unfixed puncture, it looked like our short cut to Erfoud would have to wait. In Boudenib we got the tyre plugged and followed the regular route down to Zagora along the Oases du Ziz. Erfoud looked dreary in the haze so we set off for Erg Chebbi along the rubble road and then got on the sands.

Like many before us we got mixed up on the way to the Erg and in the poor visibility ended up running cross-country to correct our mistake. At one point I descended a small dune too timidly and got stuck pointing up a v-slope: time to learn 2WD sand recovery. In the end it took the whole deal with lowered pressures amd jacking onto the sandplates to get the car out, 2 metres at a time. After that I drove with a bit more panache and we recovered the Merzouga track. By now the car and our clothes were full of sand and visibility was getting much worse with the car getting hot in the stiff tail wind.

I wasn't looking for new routes down here, just a chance to film a 2WD supplement to my Desert Driving dvd against the backdrop of the Erg (the only decent deserty location I knew of in Mk). Clearly this was not filming weather or even much fun, so we turned round to head for Erfoud. The guidebook spoke of Chez Michel, a plush auberge up the track, and within two hours of kicking sand in each other's faces we were spreading out in a lovely big room in the auberge. Never mind the expense, you'd never get this sort of place in the central Sahara so we lapped it up. The food that evening added to the experience and the patron introduced himself and told us about his early days exploring the area in an old Renault 12.

190s have the steering lock of a London taxi, but the last day or two the left wheel had been scraping and bottoming against something and the steering wheel was off true. Time to bend down and take a look. Turned out the rusty old wishbone had curled up under the beating of recent days. A rock had kneed the box section in the guts and it had lost its rigidity. Oh well, I was in the right country to find used Merc spares; in some towns more that half the cars are old Mercs and it's not unusual to be driving along with Merc in front, Merc behind and two Mercs passing the other way.

We took a road west which ended up in Rissani which seemed much livelier than dreary Erfoud. Asking at the first garage we got on the usual African run around town with a guy on a moped; to one shop, then another and finally some dude's lock up where a few 190-looking arms lay on the floor. Negotiations commenced. In the meantime I'd called Matt on the bat phone to see what a 190 wishbone costs in the UK to give me a clue what I was bargaining for. I was happy to drive to a dealer up country and get a new one, but in the end, with all parties playing the usual games, we settled for a price with fitting.

We headed east for Tazzarine where we hoped to cut a track down to Zagora [MS2]. Recent rain had some huge bugs on the wing, swarms of locust-sized things were splattering against the screen. Tazzarine had a huge auberge-hotel (the Bougafer resort) clearly set up for overnighting tours with karaoke and other tawdry allurements. Not our sort of place but after Michel's we weren't counting. The food was the usual tajine or cous cous; identical stew with chips or grain.

South along the track to Zagora grading and sealing was in progress [to Tarhbalt on MS3], but beyond that we got mixed up around some village with a maze of half-finished tracks and the same intimidating kids you get north of the Todra Gorge. Bollocks to that and bollocks to them; if a road was on the way there would be no piste for the book so we headed back and took the long way round to Zagora. We spent the night in the Hotel de Palmerie, same as five years ago; one of the original hotels in town with great food and much cheaper than the flashier places over the oued.

We weren't having much luck logging new pistes, but from Zagora we were determined to take a route north of Jebel Bani to Foum Zguid [MS5]. How hard could that be to find? In the end it turned out the turn off was right behind our hotel and so we fumbled out around the back of town on our way west. Passing plenty of agriculture and palmeries, the piste started off busily and route finding was pretty easy as all we had to do was drive west with the jebel to our south.

By half way the gardens were behind us with only the odd Berber tent in he distance. Around mid-afternoon we made it to Foum Zguid, having given the bash plate and suspension a full work out.

Foum is a lovely quiet town, at the very foot of the ranges with the Sahara unrolling before it: next stop Timbuktu. We parked up in the town square under a big tree for fresh orange juices and decided to head for Tata that night along the Desert Highway. On the way the bugs were now out in full flight, splattering continuously against the front of the car; by the time we got to Tata the rad was plastered in mashed yellow insectiods. After a night in the Rendezvous in a room just a bit bigger than the bed, but with a good meal in the expensive hotel down the road, we were heading for the big one: [MW6] 400kms across the desert to Smara in the Western Sahara.

But before any big piste one weigh things up and I thought the gearbox was making some noises. It's hard to tell as a 190 gear change feels like stirring chopped-up tennis balls in porridge at the best of times. I'd never got round to changing the fluid before I left - now was the time to do so before we headed on what might be a tough two-day piste. I pulled off the road and lifted the car onto a jerry, unscrewed the bash plate but found I couldn't not undo the filler plug without a big hex drive (the sort of thing that should be chacked at home. Have I not read Sahara Overland?).

No worries, we tied the bashplate onto the roof through the doors and headed for the next town - someone would know how to fix it. In the back street of Akka we came across Aboullah and his hole-in-the-wall repair shop. He drained out the black ATF and showed me the result, swimming with bronze grit.

"Le zinc roue", was the problem, he said.

"Cinq roue?", I said (zinc wheel, fifth gear?).


It was only a couple of months later I realised he was saying synchro ('san-kro') with an Afro-French accent. He showed me one off another gearbox; looked like a gear wheel to me - is that a synchro, who knows? I knew gearboxes pack up gradually and a year later it was still running fine - but I thought pushing on to Smara alone was a risk, so we decided to head for Marrakech. But on the way we could not resist one more piste. And it turned out to be a beauty, [MA2] a lovely drive not on any map up a long gorge from Aït Herbil through the western Anti Atlas to Tafraoute.

The bash plate was clanking away merrily and at times the 190 was a handful, spitting up rounded stones along some river beds, but it was a perfect finale. Out of Igmir gorge the engine was well and truly cooking. Running with heaters and fan on max, we stopped halfway to cool off and them again on top. I've since realised that the rad cap has a habit of somehow undoing itself or blowing off, which can't help matters.

So, after a fun couple of days exploring the tourist souks of Marrakech, we bombed back up to Ceuta, Spain and home. Mission accomplished.

Test run summary

The Allisport bashplate clearly was a winner; without it we would have got sumped in the first few days.

Departure angles were amazingly good too; the rear tow arm spares the bumper and incredibly the exhaust survived. But from the state of the bashplate I think the front could be a bit higher; full thickness spring pads would give another 20mm in height.

The airbag was great, but does underline the need for an exhaust pipe. A couple of brackets cracked but overall I'm amazed it made it unscathed when you see the state of the floor pan either side.

Tyres. Well, one puncture right on the tread edge was par for the course. I never really got to experiment with them much at sand pressures. On rocks anything black and round works as along as it lasts.

Other problems, minor electrics like interior lights not coming on/going off, and since then, other sand/dust related gremlins.

The overheating on steep hills is a pain. The second fan was not wired in but will clearly be useful.

And the gearbox? Well, I've got used to it now; I was probably just panicking; it could be 236,236 miles old like the rest of the car. For road driving it'll last a few more years.

Some sort of drive axle brakes or LSD may be worth investigating...

Other than that, engine still rattles along as fast, quietly and efficiently as you like, so more Sahara, bring it on I say.

Summer 2005 - The Epilogue