Above: Off road between the towns of Tahnaout and Asni

    Free Range

    30 March 2013

    Our trip began at Farnborough, an almost eerily zen airport. A small girl of about five was being ushered through by her parents. I couldn’t help imagining the distress she’d experience if in the future she ever had to get a commercial flight.

    On touchdown in Marrakech, under the palm trees, was a fleet of Range Rovers. Why send four cars when you can deploy 16? At the new Delano hotel, we were handed an enormous glass of champagne and told that our luggage was in our rooms. In the morning our view was of the city’s famous pink minaret and I couldn’t quite remember where I was, or why. Welcome to the full-scale production that is the launch of a major new car. No expense spared.

    For the launch of the ‘All New’ Jaguar Land Rover (owned by Indian money but still producing cars in Northamptonshire) decided to return to Morocco, where in 1969 the first Range Rover was road-tested. Like a designer handbag, this is a product sold on pre-orders. There are streets in Chelsea where all of the cars are gradually being replaced by this one. China provides the second biggest market after the UK.

    After breakfast, there was to be a ‘safety briefing’, which I thought might go on a bit. A cheery team leader stood up: ‘We’d like them back… Have a great day!’ was the extent of it. Outside in the sunshine were well over a million pounds worth of the gleaming cars ready for hung-over guests to drive over rough terrain with next to no instruction. Nobody in the street paid much attention.

    Over six weeks, a rolling stream of 7,000 guests from 53 countries had made their way to the city to to do a test drive, broom-brooming off up into the Atlas mountains. What better way to advertise your product than to invite journalists with dubious driving skills to do their worst? And not turn a hair while you do it?

    Less than an hour later, water was sloshing over the bonnet as we rocked and rolled our way up a vast ravine. While the drivers gasped and swore, the cars took it in their stride, like a herd of mechanical elephants heading majestically for a bath.

    While my boyfriend marvelled at the technological ingenuity of his new toy, I concentrated wholesale on Moroccan daydreams. Much of The English Patient, for example, though set in Cairo in 1939, was filmed near here. ‘Let me tell you about the winds…’ Remember the scene with a sandstorm, Count Almasy and Katherine Clifton marooned in their Land Rover
    in the dunes?

    ‘This is going to be amazing. We’re going to get stuck in the desert in a Range Rover!’ I enthused. As Jimmy pointed out, the whole point is that this is the vehicle in which you will not get stuck in the desert. It didn’t stop us from naming our shiny khaki-green car ‘Ralph’, which seemed to suit it very well — emphatically English, dependable, elegant.

    Every moment of our road trip had been designed for pure spectacle: that staggering ravine; lunch
    at a Berber encampment (complete with an elegant bathroom tent) at the highest point for miles; and finally the newly opened Palais Namasker, where we washed off the desert dust in our private swimming pool before having dinner. The only problem was that we had to give Ralph back. A DJ had been flown in from Paris to help us get over it.

    It was like being part of a vast film production. In fact, the latest Bond film, Skyfall, was loaned 40-odd Range Rovers for the shoot. All of them were returned save for the one used in the opening chase scene: Naomie Harris was such a terrible driver that they had to cut the car in half and sit Stig on top, to do the steering. Perhaps the definition of a liberated modern Bond girl is the ability to say ‘Thanks but no’ to doing your own dangerous stunts.

    Just as on a film, technicians were dotted along the route, popping up to check our tyres. In our car, we had everything we needed, right down to packets of Werther’s Originals — we sucked them for the altitude and gave them to local kids who knew Range Rovers meant bonbons. The only thing that could possibly go wrong with a million-pound Range Rover convoy through mountain villages is a crowd of exuberant nine-year-olds throwing things.

    In providing Jaguar Land Rover with this exotic backdrop, liberal King Mohammed VI negotiated for the area to receive a massive cash injection. Plainly the vertiginous mountain roads had been resurfaced. You can make an educated guess about who paid for that.