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Chasing Ghosts in Sahara desert by Frank Anderson

By: Frank Anderson
SPECTRE Ghosts in Morocco
Each year you would typically visit the local travel agent or scroll the numerous travel websites looking for the perfect holiday destination to recharge the batteries and hunt down the elusive sun that always appears to be missing from the British climate. The travel industry begins it’s campaign over the festive period with beach scenes, palm trees and families relaxing by the pool before the festive turkey has digested in the system, personally I’ve found the bombarding of adverts irrelevant at that time of year and if anything made the feeling of cold and dampness in December even more prevailing.

Since the mid noughties I had taken an alternative approach to finding the perfect holidays during a typical year and with my kids now grown up and not being tied down to the school holiday calendar it opened the opportunities for me to explore the world and try some destinations off the beaten track.

“Never say no to adventures. Always say yes, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life” – Ian Fleming

I remember going to see The Man with the Golden Gun at my local cinema at the tender age of nine years, one of my vivid memories was falling in love with the Scaramanga Island portrayed in the movies as his personal Island in the South China Seas and wishing I lived in such an isolated home, with sand, sea and tranquillity. At age nine, a trip to the moon was as realistic aspiration as finding myself on that island, but fast forward forty years and I found myself standing on that very island having researched the making of the movie and having travelled across Thailand to achieve my dream.

James Bond Island Thailand
The James Bond Island in Thailand. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

Thailand is another story, planes, elephants, Thai Boxing, Tuk-Tuks, long-tail motor boats retracing the film locations from The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies, but is just an example of my left of centre choices for my choice of holidays. Through the past fifteen years or so I’ve used the Bond film locations as my basis for travelling the world with my annual air travel peaking at 120,000 km a couple of years ago visiting the Caribbean, USA, China, Thailand, Japan and Europe. During the 60s and 70s, the Bond movies helped open the world to locations and sights that were a million miles away from our day to day lives, but with faster and expanded travel services the world has become smaller when it comes to travelling and the costs dramatically reduced with international travel no longer restricted to the rich and famous, everywhere today is accessible, it’s the traveller’s choice how much effort he or she wishes to make to visit a particular destination.

As we approach the 25th Bond movie release of No Time To Die next month with excitement and anticipation, Jamaica, Italy, Norway, Scotland, New Zealand are amongst the countries listed as locations for the latest movie. It doesn’t seem like five years since the last outing in SPECTRE which was still mid production at this point in time in 2015. I had managed a busy year in 2014, travel in the year had been relatively sensible with my daughter’s wedding in the summer being the main focus, but I had still managed to duck out of the preparations with a trip to Turkey in the first half and Morocco in the second half of the year once the celebrations and credit card bills had settled down. I had visited Morocco (Agadir) in 2009 as a family holiday and it was somewhere that remained on my bucket list for exploring further, so I took the opportunity in October 2014 to visit the desert town of Ouarzazate in south-central Morocco which was the focal point for the filming of the Timothy Dalton’s debut Bond film, The Living Daylights. Armed with my pack of movie screen-caps, I spent a week travelling the desert and oasis scenery and the Atlas Mountains tracking down the original film locations. The town and area are the go to place by film producers for filming any desert movies, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to name a few gave been filmed there and travelling in any compass direction from the town hotel I stayed in you would come across different competing film production units filming, the whole area was one large natural filming stage and it even has it’s own studio, which has old scenery and props open to travellers to visit. No motorways or McDonalds drive-thrus here, this place is everything you would imagine and probably hasn’t changed in a hundred years, dust roads, small modern hotels, goats and camels.

When I returned from Ouarzazate at the end of October 2014, the build up to Bond 24 was starting to grow, as usual, Eon Productions, the Bond production company were keeping their cards close to their chest and very little was known about what to expect. During November 2014 rumours that Mexico and Morocco had been scouted as part of pre-production were circulating, the latter catching my interest as I had just returned and in my mind Ouarzazate was the obvious film production location choice due to the existing film logistics and transport , local production units, accommodation etc and the fact that EON had used the area during making of The Living Daylights.

All became clear in December 2014 when Bond 24 was officially announced at a press conference from Pinewood Studios, home of the Bond movies since Dr No in 1962. SPECTRE would indeed be filming in Morocco, but Tangier and Erfoud were named specifically as the Moroccan locations. A quick Google map of Erfoud on my phone found it over 300km from Ouarzazate, some four hours drive into the Sahara desert, so not practical from a film logistics point of view. Also, there appeared to be no airport! so clearly there had to be a specific reason why Erfoud had been chosen over Ouarzazate. Tangier as a choice was also a surprise as there had been a rumour the Bond 24 scouts had been in Casablanca looking for locations, later it appears that Sam Mendes the SPECTRE director had requested Casablanca to be the location for the fictional hotel L’Americain in SPECTRE which was a personal nod to the 1942 Casablanca Bogart movie where the same name was used in “Rick’s Café l’americain”. For whatever reason the decision was to move the filming to Tangier instead but retaining the name L’americain none the less.

Usually, we follow the making of the movie from a distance, once it’s been released the treasure hunt of tracking down the original locations begins using screen caps or articles providing clues as to where to search. In the case of SPECTRE, at the end of 2014, something unusual occurred that provided an almost real time and future insight into what and where the filming was taking and going to take place. This was going to send me off on a different adventure from any of my trips...

The real world of international espionage was about to cross paths with the ultimate fictional spy.

On November 24, 2014, a hacker group which identified itself by the name "Guardians of Peace" leaked a release of confidential data from the film studio Sony Pictures. The data included personal information about Sony Pictures employees and their families, e-mails between employees, information about executive salaries at the company, copies of then-unreleased Sony films, plans for future Sony films, scripts for certain films and other information. During the hack, the group demanded that Sony withdraw its then-upcoming film The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and threatened terrorist attacks at cinemas screening the film. After many major U.S. cinema chains opted not to screen The Interview in response to these threats, Sony elected to cancel the film's formal premiere and mainstream release, opting to skip directly to a downloadable digital release followed by a limited theatrical release the next day.[3][4][5]
United States intelligence officials, after evaluating the software, techniques, and network sources used in the hack, alleged that the attack was sponsored by the government of North Korea, who has since denied all responsibility. [Source: Wikipedia]

In amongst the documents that the hackers released onto the internet were various communications between the Bond producers and the studio relating to earlier drafts and development of the SPECTRE script and intended shooting schedule. The shooting schedule typically summarises in a one sentence what will be filmed and where in diary form to help with the planning and time management of filming. I found myself in a dilemma, I really wish to know why Erfoud, but at the same time I don’t want to deprive myself by seeing too many spoilers ahead of the movie, so I decided not to access anything at all.

By the beginning of 2015, there was a dripping of spoilers relating to aspects of the plot that could only have come from the hacked documents starting to circulate the Bond forums online and it was proving to be difficult to avoid seeing them. Filming of SPECTRE was in full swing in Austria and could be viewed online, with it moving to Mexico City in the March of 2015, such was the size of the production there, the filming was difficult to hide and worldwide the press were showing the progress of the filming as it happened. I picked up on a rumour that a Bond construction team had been in Erfoud since early 2015 preparing location sets ahead of a summer shoot - I couldn’t resist anymore! So I had a look online at the hacked shooting script, specifically the Morocco Erfoud dates.

“June 2015” - “Location: Erfoud - Ext. Africa Station of middle of nowhere” - “Location: Erfoud – Ext. Africa – Crater”

A clue! “Crater”... Volcano? – “Middle of nowhere”... Desert?

No much extra to go on, but it was more than I had 5 minutes before I read it, so that’s all I had to go on. Before any of my previous trips there is usually a treasure trove of data and articles, the odd book that helps with the planning of a trip, in this case, I was looking at travelling to the middle of the Sahara Desert to try and find a movie location for a movie not yet made...

Erfoud, clearly the crater is the key and something that Ouarzazate doesn’t have that would bring the filming to Erfoud in eastern Morocco which was logistically a nightmare in comparison. Some simple research identified that the area has also been popular with film production companies previously, with March or Die (1977) and The Mummy (1999) using the desert scenery as a backdrop. Allan Cameron (previously on Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies), production designer on The Mummy found a dormant volcano about 20km from Erfoud and it was used for the opening sequence of the movie, “Gara Medouar” as it is known is a horseshoe shaped lime massif that rises 160 feet above the desert, could this be the “crater” referred to in the SPECTRE shooting script? Only way to find out is to visit!

My research found that the nearest airport was a town called Errachidia, some 75km from Erfoud, so having booked a flight to Errachidia connecting via Casablanca, I set off on my adventure the beginning of June 2015 from London, allowing myself three days to get there, find the location, explore and return. The Errachidia to Erfoud leg was going to have to be a “winging” exercise because despite my research I couldn’t find any public transport links in advance. The SPECTRE filming in the meantime was carrying on in London at this point with daily photos and videos appearing online of the cast and crew filming boat scenes on the Thames night after night, so this was the perfect time for my visit because security in Morocco should be lighter when there is no crew or cast on location.

Moulay-Ali-Cherif-Airport Errachidia
Moulay-Ali-Cherif-Airport, Errachidia. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

I arrived Errichidia after a 20 minute changeover at Casablanca airport and travelled the final leg on a propeller plane with a handful of other travellelers on board, cruising a few hundred feet above the desert floor in the dark was an interesting experience! I wouldn’t exactly call Moulay-Ali-Cherif-Airport an airport, it was basically an airfield in the desert. My first challenge was to find transport into town to my hotel, but I discovered that there were no taxis and no one spoke English. This was my second challenge. Not conversant in Arabic and my French is only slightly better, I could see I was going to have fun communicating over the next few days to get around. A mixture of broken French and sign language eventually enabled me to hitch a lift with a local driver who had just dropped relatives at the airfield and he dually took me into town and deposited me at my hotel. I good night’s sleep and be raring to go the next morning.

Early rise and breakfast and I was ready for my trek south to my ultimate destination of Erfoud, but how to bridge the 75km. A chat with the hotel manager in French and sign eventually registered that I needed to get to Erfoud. No train or bus was the reply, I suggested taxi and he agreed to drop me in town. Once in town, he took me to a parked Mercedes, he gave the driver some instructions and in I jumped expecting the car to move off. It appears car share is the default in Errachidia, so I was going nowhere until he had the car full of passengers. Half an hour later, myself and five strangers crammed in the taxi and we were off.

Erfoud town centre taxi rank
Erfoud town centre taxi rank. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

An hour’s drive through the desert, no aircon, painful local music blaring and the windows open and a car full of strangers we eventually arrived in Erfoud. I waited till the last passenger disembarked and then rehired the driver to take me straight to my hotel.

Once checked in and showered I made my way down to reception to decide my next move, hunt the crater was on!

Hotel was dry as far as alcohol was concerned, so my first coffee in the hotel bar did make me smile, no idea why this was there, but I’m sure there is a history behind it.

00 surprise
00 surprise! Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

The hotel was quiet but there were maybe a dozen or so Western guests hanging around reception and the bar area in conversation, I guessed probably film crew and this was confirmed when I spotted some call sheets on the reception table - “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk” by Ang Lee. I had a chat with a couple of the crew but no one knew where the Bond set was, so I was drawing a blank. I had a broken French/English conversation with the hotel manager who also confirmed he didn’t have a clue where to start looking, but he said he knew a man who might! A quick call on his mobile and he confirmed that he had someone coming over in an hour who could take me there...

The local guide come taxi driver arrived and was introduced, no English spoken, so this could be an interesting day out! The hotel manager explained to me that the guide would drive me there, it was about 20km into the Sahara from the hotel, he suggested I hire the guy for the day and he’d throw in a trip to the sand dunes of Merzouga Erg Chebbi for a daily rate which was about 28km by 7km of rolling desert dunes as far as the horizon and he’d throw in a camel as well as use of the 4 x 4 to get about.

We set off late morning and the sun was high in the sky, it was a scorcher but this time my wheels had leather seats and aircon! After half an hour through the dry, bleak, flat landscape we eventually reached a sign next to the road and the driver indicated we had arrived! Zak Productions was the Moroccan production company who handled the local logistics, from transport, security to catering for the crew.

SPECTRE Location signs
SPECTRE Location signs. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

The guide gestured to me to simply choose, turn right or left... on either side was just bleak desert and no sign of life or buildings, so I chose right, simply because of the number of locations indicated.

Gara Medouar crater
View as we turned off road, “Gara Medouar” crater can be seen on the left. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

Having left the road, we moved along the desert track, just following the general direction of the road, expecting at some point to come across some man made barrier, no entry sign or security barring any further entry which was fine, but we moved further along the road for another ten minutes before we could see the silhouettes of white tents and construction as we moved closer. The driver just kept going and before we knew it we were slap bang in the middle of the production base camp! The sun was high and with the heat everyone appeared to be indoors apart from a small group of arabs.

SPECTRE Base camp Erfoud

SPECTRE Base camp Erfoud

SPECTRE Base camp Erfoud
SPECTRE Base camp, Erfoud. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

My driver kept going, I could I didn’t need the aircon by this time as a cold sweat had taken over. I was amazed we had travelled this far without barrier or challenge, I guess it being in the middle of the desert the assumption that had been made that the secludeness of the landscape was barrier enough.

On we continued at 15mph past the camp, construction of the set was clearly still underway and filming wasn’t due for another couple of weeks, but the exterior outline of what later became the Blofeld meteor room and the oil tanks that would explode later could clearly be seen. The set on the desert floor was later CGI into the crater after filming had been completed with the set destroyed by the explosion which completed the movie sequence.

SPECTRE set Erfoud

SPECTRE set Erfoud

SPECTRE set Erfoud
SPECTRE set, Erfoud, Morocco. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

We completed a half circle and were beginning our exit, I was happy, mission accomplished but would be happier once we were back on the road back to Erfoud. As we finished our loop, we were passing one final set on the right, which I later realised was the stairs to the helipad set used in the film, but before I could take one more final photo for my record, a couple of black 4 x 4 appeared from behind and trapped our car between them blocking our exit. A Moroccan approached my driver’s window from one of the cars and they had a brief discussion in arabic before indicating we had to follow them back to the unit camp.

Now what!? I sat quietly as the three cars made their way back and we parked adjacent to a main white tent. The driver left the car and followed them inside. I waited nervously outside. After a few minutes a Moroccan approached my window and asked why I was there? I replied that we were on our way to Merzouga Erg Chebbi to see the dunes and had stopped off to see what was going on. True, but not quite the complete reason. He disappeared again inside and after a few minutes a young European left the tent approached my window for a chat. The guy was British and again he asked the same question and I gave the same response as I had a few minutes ago to the Moroccan, but this time he added that my driver has told them I’d specifically asked to visit the crater! Dropped me in it in other words! Some quick thinking and I repeated my dune reason but this time I mentioned I’d asked the driver to take me to the crater to see where The Mummy had been filmed……. That seemed to take the steam out of what was starting to sound like an interrogation and the British guy passed me a bottle of water told me to enjoy my day on the dunes and gave the driver instructions on what route to follow out of camp avoiding the set. No doubt he didn’t believe a word of what I’d told them but why else would some crazy guy from Britain be wandering around the Sahara Desert in the middle of the peak daylight sun. Was I relieved when we moved off...

The driver was clearly unimpressed as we left and to this day I’ve no idea what he said to me in Arabic but I can imagine the English equivalent.

We left behind my Bond misadventure in the rear mirror and headed further into the Sahara eventually reached Merzouga, which felt like we’d reached the end of the world, as far as I could see was just sand dunes, to complete my day trip cover I swapped the aircon of the 4 x4 and my swearing guide for the open air comfort of a camel and wandered over the desert horizon to reconsider my wisdom on the flying thousands of kilometres into the middle of nowhere on my own to a strange land where no one spoke my native tongue and I couldn’t even have a beer to dust the sand out of my throat at the end of the day. Barbara Brocolli the Bond producer was quoted as describing a typical Bond fan as someone with a nine year old inside them trying to get out, in my case I think the nine year old had taken over!

Once I was back at the hotel on reflection I packed the photos away and decided that whilst I’d enjoyed my journey, it was a personal one and some six months ahead of the movie release, the photos were for my eyes only and not to be shared before the movie release. I had seen part of the movie making magic being built on the Erfoud set, but it wasn’t my place to spoil seeing it for the first time on the big screen by sharing the photos more widely. Would I undertake such a trip again? It was a unique set of circumstances that probably will never be repeated. The shooting script providing the crater clue and the remoteness of the location were by exception available only as a one off. As we approach the release of No Time to Die and location filming wrapped some weeks ago I avoided the temptation to wander off on another adventure this time around, who knows where Bond 26 may take me. As for Morocco, I’ve returned a couple of times since my 2015 adventure and retain a soft spot for the country and look forward to future trips.

Merzouga Erg Chebbi Sahara Desert

Merzouga Erg Chebbi Sahara Desert
Merzouga Erg Chebbi, Sahara Desert, June 2015. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.

SPECTRE Royal Premiere London
SPECTRE Royal Premiere, London, October 2015. Photo from Frank Anderson. All rights reserved.



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