Kicking up a desert storm – crossing the Sahara in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Kicking up a desert storm – crossing the Sahara in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Kicking up a desert storm – crossing the Sahara in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Rubicon is the top-of-the-range Jeep Wrangler, and the all-new JL model had only been released for a matter of days when I collected one to drive from my home in Wales all the way down to Morocco. With fewer than 100 miles on the odometer – a figure that was to rise by more than 4,000 miles by the time I returned it to Unity Motors – it was going to be a stern test for a vehicle that wasn’t even close to being run in.

Driving down to the south of Spain is no hardship but I opted instead to carve seven-hundred miles off my journey by taking the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao. With two nights and a day on board, it was a relaxing way to bypass France, if a little dull. The route might be famous for its whale sightings, but all I saw was grey, foaming water and an awful lot of Brits escaping the UK for Christmas.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Price: £46,865 (as tested)
Engine: 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel
Power: 200bhp
Torque: 332lb/ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel-drive
Top speed: 111mph
0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: 32.4mpg
CO2 emissions: 206g/km

A long day blasting down through Spain blew the cobwebs away and demonstrated that the Jeep’s 2.2-litre MultiJet II turbocharged diesel engine and eight-speed automatic gearbox are a winning combination, powerful and refined enough to be able to maintain 80mph for hour-after-hour. It’s surprisingly quiet too, even with chunky (non-standard) BF Goodrich AT tyres fitted, the only modification I made to the Wrangler aside from strapping a pair of sand ladders to the spare wheel.

The ferry trip into Tangiers was uneventful, as was negotiating Moroccan customs; Morocco might just be the most accessible country in the world for overland travel, with the authorities having invested a lot of time and trouble to ensure that visitors feel welcome and safe. As an example, you’ll see an awful lot of police and military checkpoints but they’re there to thwart problems rather than to snare unwary visitors. I passed through dozens and was only stopped at sensitive military checkpoints – and even then I usually was given mint tea as they checked our paperwork.

 

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

It took three days to meander down through Morocco to Plage Blanche, a stunning beach drive with a challenging climb out at the end. The freedom to roam almost at will makes Morocco an off-roader’s paradise, and the locals are friendly and welcoming. Begging and pestering is only a problem in big cities and on established tourist hotspots, and I was rarely bothered by anyone outside of these areas. Sure, they often had stuff to sell but no-one seemed to take offence when I politely declined.

After a beautiful early morning drive along the beach, I made my way east towards Assa and then on to Tata, wild camping in the desert as I went. Again, providing you are sensible, finding a quiet spot to spend the night is easy and safe. I took an Australian-style bed-roll instead of a tent, all the better to lie on my back and enjoy the clear night sky. It gets cold in the desert after sunset and I sometimes woke to a thin frosting of ice on the outside of my bag but that was a small price to pay to be able to lie in the sand and enjoy the clearest view of the Milky Way I’ve ever had.

Meals were cooked over a gas stove or an open fire, depending on what we were eating that night. The flat, round loaves that form a staple part of the Moroccan diet can be bought everywhere; I generally had half of one for breakfast, the rest for lunch, and something more substantial for supper. The highlight of the trip for me was a leg of goat, slow-cooked in foil on the campfire’s embers. Served with Béarnaise sauce and baked potatoes, simple food never tasted better.

Tata gave way to the Erg Chebbi, a vast range of sand dunes that teemed with day trippers. Disappointingly busy, I yearned for the easygoing isolation of the previous few days during which I’d been free to roam at will, only running into other people when I had to visit a town to refuel.

The Jeep was proving to be as frugal as it was fun; I eked out just over 30mpg for the entire trip, a lot of which was spent heavily laden and at motorway speeds or trundling across the desert in four-wheel-drive. And, despite some serious rock-crawling along dry river beds and high-speed sand dune surfing, I only got stuck once, which says more about the Jeep’s ability than it does about my driving skill.

Deciding that the Erg Chebbi was too busy for any fast dune runs, I stripped the Jeep of its doors and roof for some al fresco fun instead. It comes with all the necessary tools, and even has dedicated storage spaces for the various bolts you remove. In total, it took two of us about twenty minutes to get it stripped down to the basics and all was all going swimmingly until I hit a spot of fesh fesh (ultra-fine sand, the consistency of talcum powder) at the bottom of a long, steep climb.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

No matter what I did, the Jeep just kept digging itself in deeper and deeper, the chunky tyres acting as very effective shovels. It was time to radio for help; luckily, I had a travelling companion. Nick, one of the guides employed by Unity Expo to keep me out of trouble, was only a radio call away and he soon winched me out.

I then struck out north towards Tamegroute and the Sahara Sky Hotel for a night in a proper bed, along with a roof-top talk on the night. Costing just £10, being able to watch stars being born through high-powered telescopes was as humbling as realising that a few of the stars I could see were by now extinct; time travel doesn’t come any more perplexing than that.

Another day’s run saw me driving through the Gorge du Todra, where I was to stay at Kasbah Les Amis, a local family-run hotel. Muhammad, the owner, was as friendly as he was charming, making tea with fresh mint from his garden. My stay, complete with a large breakfast and one of the best home-cooked evening meals I’ve ever had, cost around £25. If you stay away from the big cities and the large hotel chains, Morocco is a very cheap place.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Lunch, for example, costs about £5 providing you are happy to visit a roadside café. The ones we stopped at were invariably friendly and happy to negotiate lunch using a mixture of schoolboy French and sign language. I worried initially about contracting food poisoning, but I soon relaxed and accepted that any tagine on offer would be hot enough to kill almost any bugs or bacteria – and after a few days I relaxed even more and happily ate omelettes and salads and didn’t suffer a single problem.

Nor did the Jeep. While I hadn’t had a lot of experience in the outgoing model, the new one was proving to be worth its weight in gold. Which its showroom price almost is; ‘mine’ would set you back the thick end of £50,000, which is an awful lot of money but then it is an awful lot of car. Standard equipment is generous and the Rubicon includes a low-ratio gearbox, front and rear differential locks, and a front anti-roll bar that can be remotely disconnected to facilitate even better axle articulation.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

But it is way more than a one-trick pony; it’s refined enough to be used as a daily driver, fast enough to be an inter-continental cruiser, and stylish enough to take you straight from your local green lane all the way to that five-star hotel weekend break you’ve promised your other half.

As for Morocco, I’m sure I’ll be back. Getting into and out of the country was so much easier than I’d feared and the people were an absolute delight. But, the star of the show was the Sahara itself; huge, magnificent and still largely unspoiled, being able to roam free and camp wherever I liked was a joy. I spent two weeks there, but could easily have spent a month or more.

Oh, and the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon made a fine, if expensive, travelling companion. It’s fast, refined and way more competent than anyone really needs. I spent two weeks crawling over some of the harshest terrain the Sahara has to offer and I barely scratched the surface of the Jeep’s awesome ability.

In fact, it might be time to head out to Utah to have a play in one in its own backyard to see if I can get one really stuck…

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

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