The crumbling road from Essaouira to Marrakesh
One of the rules of off-roading is, the trail's never the same twice. Pass through and you've changed it for good for the next driver. How true it'd be, as an Atlantic storm buffeted our gravy train from the coastal resort of Essaouira and its dunescape, to a waterlogged Marrakesh.
The Range Rover's essentially two vehicles bundled in one--both useful as we sloshed over dunes packed down by already substantial rain. At once a V-8-powered, air-sprung luxury car, the aluminum-bodied Range Rover's still a deeply capable off-road vehicle with a locking center differential, a five-mode traction and stability system that adapts its systems (steering, suspension, throttle) as conditions require, and the ability to push itself out of trouble with those height-adjustable air springs--or pull along up to 7700 pounds of trailer weight.
The dunes give us a great lesson in the Rover's "Sand" mode and its low gear range. Switched into low and manually into Sand (it can also detect the need for the mode and dial itself in), the Range Rover lets in plenty of throttle with just a toe on the pedal--enough to kick loose the surface and to "paddle" across it. It digs through almost every angle and slides down light grades with hill-descent control doing everything but fetching us tea. But we do get stuck, once. We're routed around a growing stream into a deep hole, and the longer Rover's just a bit too long to extract itself without going into its extended-height mode. That's simple: press the ride-height button and it lifts the air springs to a maximum height for 10 seconds, long enough for us to burrow to a movable path.
The rain's pounding by the time we arrive at a private villa for lunch. We're driving sheets of water sky-high as we convoy in--and during a quick meal the wind goes sideways, pushing drops through the windows of what should be a sunny Moorish atrium. But it's nothing compared to the next stretch of off-roading--a loop up and along the Atlas Mountains on a red-dirt trail that's losing chunks of itself in landslides as we drive.
Our guides get the credit for nimbly refactoring the trail ahead into something navigable, but the Rover gets its own kudos for handling the slick trail. It barely takes a flick into Mud mode and we clamber up to a few thousand feet of elevation on a mountainside that looks for all the world like Taos Ski Valley. The road's so completely gone in one stretch, we go back to low range and into rock-crawling mode, and ease the Range Rover down a sharp-edged patch of granite that connects the broad curves of the trail that leads back down the mountain--back down to pavement, into Marrakesh.