Luxury Pit Stops for Off-Road Adventurers

Getting stranded in the Sahara is not everyone's idea of a dream holiday. But I was not worried when I burst a tire off-roading through the Martian landscape of southern Morocco. Indeed, being stuck in the middle of nowhere was almost the point of this four-wheel-drive overland trip, which included joyriding through some epic sand dunes. My partner on this new Abercrombie & Kent expedition was Joel Aubertel, a 54-year-old rally instructor and former logistics officer for the famed Paris-Dakar Rally; suffice it to say, we didn't bring a map (although we did have a GPS unit on hand).

By day, I ate his dust and battled 50-degree-Celsius temperatures; by night I ate gourmet dinners, took hot showers, and fell blissfully asleep in an actual bed, all set up in the middle of the desert by a support crew of six just hours before our arrival. This sort of off-the-beaten-road trip is getting increasingly popular, as seasoned travelers become tired of the same predictable Grand Tours. And as my weekend through the Sahara shows, it's not necessary to reserve the pampering for standard-issue hotel resorts.

Companies like No Limit Expeditions are cropping up, combining dining and luxury accommodations with extreme off-road itineraries. The company's modified Land Rovers, for instance, come with solar panels, a satellite uplink, and an inflatable kayak. At this year's

Overland Expo in Arizona, more than 3,000 visitors showed up from 15 countries. The Overland Institute teaches university-style seminars on off-road driving and four-wheel-drive repair in Colorado, California, and Arizona.

These overland trips draw those who prefer the drive-it-yourself approach to being chauffeured. The challenge is to find a four-wheel-drive truck—think the original Hummer with self-inflating tires—that can handle such rugged terrain. Most need to be specially modified, like Aubertel's support vehicle, with extra ground clearance to get over big rocks, an exhaust snorkel for river crossings, -industrial-strength suspension, and an engine with enough torque to power through mud and sand.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I flew into remote Ouarzazate in the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. Aubertel was waiting with my vehicle, a Mitsubushi Pajero, a run-of-the-mill SUV that A&K got for the weekend from a local car-rental shop.

Only after an hour of driving on a paved highway did I began to taste the unexpected adventures off-roading in a Pajero would bring. We turned off onto a path indistinguishable from the rocky countryside except for some faded treadmarks, following it along a dry riverbed until we reached a desert oasis. Here, hidden inside a deep valley, a small creek fed a turquoise-color plunge pool, with palm trees nearby providing shade. This was the kind of rest stop that you would never find on the side of a road. For the rest of the day, we drove through desolate plains of sand and stone, passing villages with mud-brick casbahs, Berber nomads tending their camel herds, and the occasional dust tornado.

Then, as dusk approached, like a mirage, we saw three white tents in the distance. No roads led to it, and the only hint of habitation were the tracks of the support vehicle that had come earlier. There was a sleeping tent, a dining tent, and a restroom tent. But because it was a bit hot, and the night sky was so captivating, we all decided to eat and sleep outside. So much for the sumptuous accommodations, al-though I took full advantage of the unlimited hot mint tea and Moroccan sweets, and freshly squeezed orange juice the next morning.

When I woke up the next day, I got into the driver's seat, but didn't know where to go. After all, there were no roads here. I looked at Stefan Morgan, Aubertel's assistant instructor, with a quizzical look. "You can go where you like," he said with a laugh. It felt strange at first not being told where to go, driving with no particular destination in mind. But off we went, and soon, I received my first of many lessons on driving through sand dunes.

Most important: do not stop. Sand dunes are not meant to be driven on by 2,000-kilogram trucks, and so the terrain feels like quicksand, sucking you in until you're stuck. Of course, drive too fast, and you'll launch your car off the ridges. Then there's turning, a maneuver that in sand amounts to towing an elephant on a skateboard—that is, one small mistake, and you'll be upside down (especially if you turn while going down a slope).

At one point, while going over a ridge, the front fender came off. I got stuck in the sand no fewer than six times, and had to shovel my way out. Then there was the water crossing, when the car got stuck in mud and had to be towed out by Aubertel's super-truck. To the uninitiated, this may all sound like an anti-holiday, but that night, we lounged blissfully in our luxury tented camp, complete with showers, three sinks, and a waiter who served lamb tagine for dinner. The royal treatment almost made me forget about the metric ton of sand I shoveled on this vacation, and the bill for damages to the rental car.