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Morocco: The Tizi n’Test

Pumping the brake pedal of our Peugeot 206, I wonder whether I’ve been reckless in electing to drive the Tizi n’Test myself. Several of the websites we’d pored over earlier – including one dedicated to dangerous roads that had graded the mountain pass as ‘scary’ — had suggested the Tizi n’Test is best navigated as a passenger, with an experienced local driver at the helm.

Morocco: The Tizi n’Test

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But adrenalin had prevailed over advice; a desire to be behind the wheel on the hairpin-strewn pass that slices through Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains had seemed all-important. Up until a moment ago, at least.

Now, the realisation that the brakes in our car feel spongy underfoot casts a question mark over my testosterone-fuelled decision — almost as large as the Atlas that loom ahead. But there’s no way we can turn back now; there are 90 miles between us and the hire car bureau back at Agadir Airport. Instead, we opt to proceed with caution. Safety before speed, we agree, before beginning our ascent.

It proves a sensible mantra. Although the volume of traffic over the Tizi n’Test has been curbed by an expressway that opened in 2010, linking Agadir, Marrakech and Casablanca, precariously laden lorries still hurtle along the pass at breakneck speed, seemingly oblivious to the width of the road — barely enough for two vehicles — its potholes, or the fact its near-vertical drops are frequently devoid of barriers.

Negotiating one tapering stretch, we encounter a particularly kamikaze dairy truck driver intent on speeding up his journey to the plains and desert of the Souss-Massa-Drâa region below. The relief we feel having successfully swerved to avoid him as he veers onto our side of the road is compounded when we make a sharp right 100 yards on. Better to have met him on the straight, we conclude, than here on this blind bend.

What the Tizi n’Test delivers in fear it more than compensates for in beauty and charm. The panorama — a patchwork of ochre, olive and plum dotted with juniper trees and, higher up, Atlas cedar and prickly pear – is sprinkled with mud-hut villages within which Berber women in jewel-coloured clothes gather to talk — babies strapped to their backs in makeshift papooses — while their menfolk toil in fields or stroll alongside donkeys carrying half their weight in logs.

A commercially-minded few have built roadside shacks from which they sell fossils and slabs of rock; their grubby exteriors belying cores thick with amethyst or milky quartz. And close to the pass’s 6,864ft-high zenith, a van crudely painted a deep red terracotta and white juts over the precipice, its engine removed to prevent it toppling and its back doors flung open to reveal a cornucopia of earthenware tajines and clay stoves for passing trade to barter over.

There are other spectacles, of course: the majesty of the Tinmel Mosque — one of only two open to non-Muslims here in Morocco; a glimpse of the snowy peaks of Toubkal and its sister mountains.

But it’s the road itself that I’m contemplating now – specifically the return journey. The ascent was tough; how will the descent be? Settling behind the wheel, I’m about to find out.