There are few experiences as humbling as having your ass handed to you.
Let's put that in perspective. Right now I'm driving on the sand dunes of the North African Sahara, in a special version of a Navara 4x4 from Nissan. This truck is equipped with the special AT32 package from Arctic Trucks that includes locking front and rear differentials, off-road tires, a snorkel, and bash plates.
Yet somehow, I'm stuck. And not in a way that's easy to get out of, despite repeated tries.
Let's forget about this thing called a driver's pride, the fact that I had to avoid another vehicle in the convoy (a Terra with Philippine conduction plates) which was why I'm in this predicament, or that I had just made a bet with my co-driver Deakin that he who gets stuck first, pays to quench the other's thirst.
No, what got me was a camel just over the rise, glancing over with an almost judgmental nonchalance as he breezed by, unfazed by the terrain that he adapted on to survive, reminding me that we're just tourists here. He belongs.
Go anywhere, they said. It'll be fun, they said.
Welcome to Morocco
No, not before you go go. That was the sound of the rotund Moroccan immigration officer stamping my passport with the authority and force required to stamp steel body panels.
It was surprising to walk out of an airport and see no office buildings, tall condominiums, or even cell towers. You see, while most would think of places like Casablanca or Marrakech with the mention of Morocco, we had landed in neither of those places.
We're in Errachidia, a locale that -honestly- we'd have a hard time pinpointing on a map without the aid of Google.
Usually when we go on these drives, the car company has just launched a new vehicle and we'll drive them around, caravan-style. But it's almost always just one model. What Nissan had prepared, however, was something remarkably different.
Sitting outside the diminutive airport's parking lot were 4 distinct Nissans of different shapes and sizes. What they did have in common was the fact that these weren't crossovers or soft-roaders: they were all properly rugged SUVs and trucks.
A Global 4x4 Fleet
The gargantuan of the group has to be the Titan at 5.8 meters long. This pick-up came here all the way from the US of A, a place where this class of truck is extremely popular. It's so massive that even the name is officially capitalized: TITAN.
It's followed by the Patrol, a 4x4 that doesn't really need introduction. This legend of 4x4 performance is the Y62; the luxurious sixth generation of a 4x4 that started life as a Japanese military “jeep” in the fifties. The Patrols on the parking lot were from Dubai. That meant they had 5.6-liter V8 engines that drank fuel at will; not really a problem for the markets in the Middle East.
What caught our eye was the Navara. The examples Nissan had were made at their factory in Spain (Barcelona, to be exact) which was quite apt; the name of the truck is derived from the Navarre region. But what got us very interested in it was the fact that the Navaras were the AT32 versions; the ones kitted out by Arctic Trucks for off-roading.
Perhaps the most unusual of all was the presence of four units of the Nissan Terra... with Philippine conduction plates. These Terras were the ones we actually drove during the regional launch in Clark, Pampanga. They dealt with the lahar beds easily, but how will they do against the sand dunes of Morocco, and on highway tires?
Let's find out.
An Afternoon Escapade in the Desert
“Nothing dates a place quite like seeing a donkey,” said my intrepid co-driver.
He wasn't kidding. The moment we pulled out of Errachidia's airport, we started to realize just how preserved in time Morocco is just by the number of donkeys we saw serving their primary purpose as beasts of burden. And judging by the number of shops selling fossilized shells and other artifacts, we truly have have gone back in time.
Honestly I didn't know what to expect from driving on Morocco's roads. But they're smooth, and more importantly the views are just gorgeous. You can see for miles and miles, and then come up over a rise and see mountains in the distance, glinting in the sun. And when you drive through the mountains that were once islands (much of Morocco was under water a long, long time ago), it felt like we were driving in the Grand Canyon.
Just when we had settled into driving fairly quickly on the pavement, we made a left onto the dirt. If they hadn't shown us, we would never have thought this was a road. We were driving at a leisurely pace, but we figured it's better to have extra traction should we need it. But I needn't worry; this wasn't a problem for the Terra and its suspension. Or ground clearance.
To make the drive easier, we switched to 4WD high range. A few kilometers down the road, we were about to enter a small village in the midst of nowhere. And just then, in the distance, we could make out a group of kids running flat out to meet the convoy. Were we to stop and say hi? Were they expecting us?
At that very moment, a strong Spanish accent came over the radio. It was our convoy leader.
“The children here always run towards us,” he said. “Don't stop, but don't hit them.”
Those words were comforting. Over the next few days, we'll find out that kids suddenly pop out of villages and homes when they see vehicles coming by. I've been told hitchhiking is quite popular in Morocco, though I don't think that's going to be on our agenda today.
Monuments in the Middle of Nowhere
We made our switch to the Navara, and kept on our way.
The Navara AT32 simply looks cool. The Safari snorkel is the most obvious modification made by Arctic Trucks, but much of the enhancements were under the vehicle itself. The AT32 rides higher with an extra 20mm of ground clearance. This extra height was achieved by modifying some components of the coil-sprung suspension system, as well as the taller Nokian off-road tires (made by the same company as Nokia) and dual-valved (for easier pressure adjustments) Arctic Trucks wheels. If you do get it wrong, beneath the engine is a reinforced bash plate (with the Arctic Trucks logo) for extra protection.
The most major upgrade, however, cannot be seen; apart from a switch on the dashboard. This Navara AT32 comes with a locking front differential; an Arctic Trucks original. That's serious off-roading equipment right there. The product expert from the UK says that the entire package costs 7000 Euros, or about PhP 417,000 on top of the price of the truck. If you opt without the locking front differential and the snorkel, the AT32 kit comes out to about 4500 Euros, or about PhP 268,000.
At this point we were no longer in Errachidia. We were now in a place called Erfoud, not that we can notice; there weren't any structures or visible buildings you'd find in a town here.
But as we kept driving, we saw a series of structures that looked very odd in the distance. There was no mirage, but it almost looks like we're approaching a kind of Stone Henge, but in the desert. As we got closer, we were given an explanation: this wasn't some historical structure built by the indigenous Berber tribes of Morocco. What we're seeing is a life-sized piece of modern art.
Called the City of Orion, this was made by a modern German artist named Hannesjorg Voth. The inspiration is the constellation Orion, and the height of each tower corresponding to the brightness of each star. Voth apparently made more, including something straight out of a Led Zeppelin album: a Stairway to Heaven. Perhaps only Voth can tell you why he made these structures, but they sure look neat -if not odd- in the desert. Interesting stops on the way to our home for the next three days in Erfoud.
The next morning, we all got up bright, early, and cold. Yes, it was very cold in Morocco; which is why most of us were shivering during the night as we enjoyed a few drinks and conversation. To make the morning go a little more smoothly, I made a bee line for what was clearly the pride of this 4x4 fleet: the Nissan Patrol.
Driving the Patrol on the dirt is the off-road equivalent of sitting in a La-Z-Boy, sipping on a cup of coffee and binging on Netflix: you just couldn't be bothered by the world around you, no matter how hard it tries. All we did was set the intelligent 4x4 drive system to sand, and kept on.
We were easily doing 80 km/h on a wide expanse of dirt, through ruts and steps and rocks. No problem. We push the speed up, hit a few bumps. No problem. We pick an unused driving line that doesn't seem to have ever been driven on. Still, no problem. The Patrol soaks up the abuse laying all around you; a veritable couch with four-wheel drive.
Perhaps the only thing that bothered me in the slightest was Patrol's modified off-road brother: the Armada Mountain Patrol. Even when we were driving around 100 km/h, that SUV carrying the brave (albeit already nauseous) camera crew just soared past with its higher suspension, off-road tires, steel bumpers, and more.
We take a quick break to stretch our legs and, to be frank, pee. Driving on rough terrain, regardless of how good the Patrol is, can be very annoying for bladders. Us guys have the ease of just finding a tree for some, uh, relief, but the ladies will need proper facilities.
Just when I was about to make for the only Acacia tree nearby, our Spanish instructor-slash-drive leader motioned for all of us to go there. Great. He then proceeded to tell us an interesting story about the tree, and its significance in something called Dakar.
For the unfamiliar, we're actually driving on the original route of the Paris-Dakar Rally; a rally raid using trucks, SUVs, cars, ATVs, bikes, and basically anything motorized with wheels. As the name says, it ran from Paris, France, all the way to Dakar, Senegal on the Atlantic coast of Africa, a test of endurance between the drivers, co-drivers, and machines.
Back to the tree: Dakar drivers and riders used to stop under these Acacia trees for some rest and respite from a long day's journey at high speed, but then they stopped doing so. The reason: these Acacia trees had thorns that were thicker and harder than most barbecue sticks. Run over one the wrong way and you could end up replacing a tire. Or two.
This tree could be a painful, uh, urinal.
Hamunaptra to Dune Bashing
Further down the path, we made a quick stop at what appeared to be a fort that was built into a mountain.
We were told that this was a Portuguese prison for slaves back in the day. That makes sense, as there's absolutely nothing else around as far as the eye can see. Despite the infamy, this outpost also had its fair share of fame: this was the location that stood in for “Hamunaptra”, the fictional city where the 1999 film, The Mummy, was shot.
Later in the day, we found ourselves in the bigger of the two pick-ups: the Titan.
The Titan drives like I expected: big, soft, and American. Case in point: when you turn the wheel, you have to factor in a little delay before the truck actually responds. It almost feels as if the Titan asks you whenever you give the steering some lock: “Are you sure? Okay then. Let's go.”
Still, there's a certain growl about the engine with every little prod to get going. That massive V8 is no slouch, and the size, height, and heft certainly make you feel like the commander of your own destiny in the desert.
After lunch, we finally made it to the cherry on top of this epic drive: Erg Chebbi, otherwise known as the sand dunes at Merzouga, close to the Morocco-Algeria border. If you've been to the sand dunes in Ilocos, it's like that, but in a scale that's hard to describe in words. The pictures don't do it justice either.
We dropped tire pressures to just 1 bar. To put that in perspective, normal road tires typically run on about 30-32 psi of air pressure. For this drive on extremely tricky soft sand, the tires will just have 14.5 psi in them to allow the rubber to deform a bit more, increasing the surface area for better traction.
We switched back to the Navara AT32 and made our way onto the dunes. Despite the photogenic beauty of this landscape, I can't really relax as a driver, as I'll have to stick to the instructions during the briefing and make use of my limited experience in off-roading on this kind of surface.
We we're traversing one dune to another, keeping 1 dune gap (more or less) between us. I really can feel the truck slipping on the very soft ground, and it's important to keep momentum as much as you can with 4x4 low range activated. It's exhilarating, to say the least, and refreshing whenever you get to the top of the next dune. And the next. And the next.
You can't be rough with the pedals and you can never hesitate. Unfortunately, the driver in front (in the Terra, no less) hesitated at the top of the next dune, just as I was making my way down the previous one. He got stuck, and by having to avoid him, so did I.
And, almost as if on cue, a line of camels go past who couldn't care less for these tourist drivers getting themselves stuck in the sand.
A Global Force in 4x4
Eventually (after several tries) we did get going. The rest of the day went on without a hitch (pun intended), and I made sure to never get stuck again. On the drive back, with my co-driver taking over, it's finally time to take the experience all in.
Truth be told, we had just made a little pinprick into the Sahara; the real desert was further south, but that would have been an extremely challenging drive best left for pros dedicated to the off-roading craft. We did, however, get a taste of what it was like, even if just for a day at a time, returning to a comfortable bed and good food every night.
As far as drives go, the Nissan Go Anywhere experience is an eye opener. Nissan has a long and innovative history in off-roading and 4x4s, as evidenced by the presence of a restored Dakar Patrol rally car from the 80s. They're also looking towards the future and to the stars with the presence of the Navara Dark Sky concept vehicle that was built with the input of the European Space Agency to be a mobile and functional observatory, as shown by the really clear photos of the moon and even a photo of a distant supernova.
More importantly, the drive showed us that Nissan is truly a force in building great 4x4s for any market around the world. Each of these four 4x4s demonstrate that there are different flavors for off-roading on offer by Nissan, depending on where you are.
Beyond the vehicles, what we saw was perhaps even more important: Nissan is no longer just a Japanese company. Judging by the people we spoke with, drove with, and shared meals with, Nissan is a truly global auto company that draws strength from a great diversity within their team.
We met team members from the USA and talked about how Detroit is now. We had a good talk about the potential effects of Brexit with the British members of the team. We got a thorough explanation of the capabilities of the Patrol and talked Netflix with their Pakistani marketing head. We had good conversations over breakfast with a French-Japanese designer who did some work on the Navara Dark Sky. We even spoke about philosophy, religion, politics, and Elon Musk with their Asia Pacific communications head from India.
We can see, feel, and drive how diverse Nissan has become in these four very different 4x4s they brought to the North African Sahara but, more importantly, we can see it in their people. And they all wear their Nissan jackets with a unique kind of pride.