Driving in Morocco

Driving in Morocco

Behind the Wheel

It’s an inauspicious start. No map. No SatNav. No cash – my very last dihram cleared out by the unexpected fuel charge.

No internet access to check the route. No signal on my iPhone. Just a pen, a scrap of paper and a hastily scribbled map, uneven streaks of biro connecting Moroccan towns that appeared on a picture in the hotel lobby.

I climb into the car. Already a crowd has gathered. Women, I am to discover, seldom drive solo beyond the limits of Marrakech. And women around here seldom are blonde.

I reverse. I stall. The crowd grows larger.

By now two or three men are beckoning in different directions, coaxing me towards them and blocking the only free tarmac I see. I kangaroo hop to avoid them, awkwardly testing the limit of the brakes.

The crowd grows again. More men fill the gateway.

I go inside my head, pretend I’m invisible and that this isn’t at all embarrassing and roll down the window.

“Which way to Marrakech?” I ask in far from seamless French.

“A droite,” comes the reply. To the right.

I turn left and hit the road.

The tyres squeal against the tarmac – or perhaps that’s just my imagination – and I’m away.

Driving in Morocco

The tyres squeal against the tarmac and I’m away

A regiment of palm trees stand shoulder to shoulder as I zip by, leaving the comfort of the soothingly beautiful Les Deux Tours behind. Palm after palm after palm. This area’s called La Palmeraie and you don’t need in-depth local knowledge to work out why. Stripes of rust earth, ribbed trunks and swaying fronds flit past the window as I shift through the gears and take the road in my stride.

It’s not all palms, of course. There are camels, too, decked out in scarlet waistcoats and waiting by the edge of the road. Impatient, bored, scheming and magnificent, they look every bit as untrustworthy yet charming as when I first met them oh so many years ago.

In fact, it’s strange to realise that up until now I’ve spent more time on a camel in Morocco than I have behind the wheel, a surely distorted viewpoint.

I glance back at my scrap of paper. My backup plan of buying a map at the side of the road hasn’t amounted to much. Garages here sell oil, diesel and various car parts but have not, it would seem, fallen in love with cartography.

Ah well. I have all day to reach the coast. One way or another.

That one way lies somewhere between the towns of Safi and El Jadida. I follow the signs to either one, hoping that at some point Oualidia will rise up on the road names like the proverbial oasis in the desert.

The roads are drier now, and dusty, the palms long since left behind. Scratchy, feisty clumps of grass snarl through every now and then, a scrappy kind of plant that’s born to survive. A lone stone house whizzes by, flanked by deep green trees but otherwise steeped in solitude.

For the most part, there’s no-one else around. Just me and the car swooping and swerving across this great terrain, building up the miles, earning my passage to the sea.

Every now and then, I see a donkey. Or some goats. A chicken or a line of schoolchildren, a radar that tells me I’m approaching a town and that I need to slow down. Cars don’t command much respect in these villages, I’m learning, where the road doubles as the marketplace, the park, the youth club and grandma’s gossip corner. A town of no more than 100 yards may take more than ten minutes to crawl through.

The other reason to slow down is for the police, who pop up like peppered pilgrims gliding towards my car. It’s my only conversation but after a while the rhythm and routine dissolve the human contact into a softly edged trance.

Where are you going, where are you from, where are your papers. Drive on.

I first glimpse Oualidia at one of these stops. A sliver of silver on the horizon, the fabled 10 kilometre saltwater lagoon.

I’ve arrived.

Driving in Morocco

Lagoon at Oualidia

Back on the road

Barely two days later I’m off again, tearing through the ringroads of Marrakech en route to the foothills of the Atlas mountains.

The city of Marrakech is different behind the wheel. Instead of pyramids of spices, snake charmers and incense, there’s housing estates, McDonalds, H&M and C&A. The roads cram with perpetual motion, cars crissing and crossing yet never ceasing in their voyage around and around this fascinating city.

Novice that I am, I miss my turn and am trapped. Driving and driving, around and around. The new buildings look so familiar, the traffic lights the same, the police stops monotonous. At what point, I wonder, will the police mark my behaviour as suspicious when every patrol on duty realises they know where I’m from.

Eventually, I break free.

I’m not sure where I’m going but at least I’m going somewhere.

Driving in Morocco

Driving Into the Mountains

Stones and dust bounce under the wheels as I crawl through the villages, past blocked earthen mosques, the stares of wide-eyed children, and the utter hilarity of men behind the wheel.

I drive past cacti and olive groves, copper mines and cattle, the landscape of Andalucia daubed in Islam instead of Catholicism.

As the mountains approach, the road tightens and turns, twisting towards the peaks and, by now, the promise of rest and fresh water.

The roads are wider than in Spain and the French Pyrenees, the turns thrilling not thunderous.

By the time I arrive, though, I am much like  the land I have driven through. Dry, dusty and in need of a good drink.

My final stop is La Roseraie. It’s awash with lanterns as dusk accompanies me and the paths are strewn with rose petals.

Their scent swims around me as someone pours me tea.

I’ve arrived in the Garden of Eden. And as it turns out, I didn’t need a map.

Driving in Morocco - the Roseraie in the Atlas mountains

Disclosure: this trip was partly funded by Lawrence of Morocco, a tour operator that offers bespoke itineraries through Morocco.

For more on driving in Morocco, don’t miss this great article by Jodi of Legal Nomads

For more on Morocco, come back to Inside the Travel Lab soon.

Would you drive in Morocco? Have you already?

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27 Responses to Driving in Morocco

  1. Ayngelina June 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm #

    This is why I need to learn how to drive standard, I would love to do something like this.

    • Abi June 8, 2012 at 8:37 am #

      It’s much easier than it looks. Really, it only takes about an hour (so I’m told!) Learning to drive in Britain, I had no choice ;)

  2. Darlene Foster June 7, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    How very brave and adventurous of you Abi. I love this article, felt like I was in the car with you.

    • Abi June 8, 2012 at 8:49 am #

      Thank you. Although every time I hear someone say brave, I can’t help but think of the word foolhardy…

  3. Christy @ Technosyncratic June 7, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    We spent a year driving in the U.S. w/ a huge motorhome and a week trying not to hit other cars on the narrow roads of Ireland, but even still I don’t think I could tackle driving in Morocco, at least not yet. I’m sure Kali could, though, so I’ll just get him to drive. ;)

    • Abi June 8, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      That US project sounds like something I’d love to try out. I think driving in southern Spain definitely toughened me up. That really is hair-raising!

  4. Camels & Chocolate June 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    You are so brave driving around Morocco alone! The only country I’ve arrived in solo and rented a car was in Spain when I was doing my first guidebook for Frommer’s in 2006. Only problem was all they had were manuals, and I had never driven a stick shift before! Needless to say it was a disaster, and I stalled time after time in the Pyrenees–SCARY.

    • Abi June 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Having now done both, I’d say that driving in the Spanish Pyrenees is a much tougher experience than driving in Morocco!

  5. Cherina June 11, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    And I thought I was being adventurous driving around Iceland on my own recently! Hmm, driving is l like riding a bike and maps are completely overrated…as you have proven. Glad you had a safe journey!
    It was great to meet you at TBU, Abi.

    • Abi June 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Great to meet you, too. What was driving in Iceland like?

      • Cherina June 15, 2012 at 4:35 am #

        It was pretty easy actually. The weather can make it a little challenging at time. I drove through a couple of crazy snow storms…but apart from that, it was a breeze.

  6. Yvonne June 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    great post! And it reminds me of me entering a 4×4 in the Omani desert and the men starting shouting: THAT’S NOT AN AUTOMATIC CAR! And I was all like: Ah yes, I grew up in Germany… :D (That was the day I fell off a camel twice. In a row.)

    • Abi June 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Camels, eh? Nothing but trouble…(But they’re very, well, tall! Were you OK or did you come home covered in plaster?!)

  7. Emily June 14, 2012 at 3:18 am #

    You’re brave! My car is automatic, but my husband recently got a manual/stick shift…I’m still trying to learn it, but it’s not coming easy. Kudos to you for going solo even though it’s not the norm there, and making it without a real map or navigation. I suppose that’s how people did it in the old days :)

    • Abi June 24, 2012 at 1:59 am #

      Yes, I suppose so! Or else they learned how to read the stars…I’m really beginning to appreciate being forced to learn how to drive on a manual car. Obviously makes things much easier now!

  8. b July 15, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    I did not dream that being raised in the backwoods of Eastern Oregon USA in the fifties would train me to drive through Morocco. The big difference would be the culture although it was not uncommon to encounter armed cowboys on horseback. Does that count. This sounds so familiar yet very exotic. Oh to be young again.

    I love reading about your adventures. Thank you.

    b

    • Abi July 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

      Armed cowboys on horseback count to me…They’re not something you find around the corner when you’re learning to drive in England, that’s for sure!

  9. Armands Balodis July 24, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Sounds like you had quite an experience :) Sometimes it is quite hard to navigate yourself in new place without any gadgets available – map only.

    • Abi July 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

      Not even a map, alas, just a few scribbles copied down from the hotel lobby wall. I’m amazed I got anywhere at all, looking back!

  10. My Travel Affairs October 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    I personally love road trips, sound like you had an amazing time! Morocco is very high on my list :)

    • Abi November 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

      It’s great for adventurous driving. Patches of calm interspersed with moments of terror…

  11. Neda Freund March 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    The lagoon looks nice and Garden of Eden? Cool name, i bet it also looks good. Thanks for sharing this!

  12. emanuella August 13, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    were you alone the whole time? did you drive at night?
    we are three girls that will rent a car in Marrocos and drive around. I was a bit scared.

    • Abi King August 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

      Yes, I was alone the whole time and had no problem (I dressed conservatively – long, flowing cotton trousers and tops. A scarf on hand just in case.) I wouldn’t advise driving in the dark though – too many animals on the road. Have fun!

  13. cristian martinus December 5, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    I think you meant Mango and Zara. H & M or C & A are not yet open in Marrakech.

  14. Eric Ratner January 31, 2014 at 2:19 am #

    I’m 63 years old; I rented a car in Morocco in the winter of 2013 and drove around the country with my family for a week, and we had a great time. It’s a lot of fun for the right person, but it’s not something everyone should do. I have these suggestions:
    1. Don’t do it unless you have a lot of experience in overtaking, and being overtaken by, other vehicles on narrow 2-lane roads.
    2. Because the road signs are terrible, sooner or later you’re going to have to ask for directions. Moroccans are very helpful and friendly, but in many places they don’t speak English. You probably shouldn’t drive unless you can speak French or Arabic well enough to ask for directions and understand the answer.
    3. It’s not for the faint of heart — in towns you must make your way through roads clogged with cars, bicycles, motorcycles, donkey carts, farmers on mules, sheep, buses, and pedestrians, none of whom are paying the slightest attention to any traffic laws. Navigating in such places can be done, but it requires your full attention.
    4. If at all possible, avoid driving in the bigger cities, particularly Marrakesh.
    5. Don’t exceed the posted speed limit, and don’t drive at night.
    6. Don’t assume that your average speed on most highways will be more than about 40 miles an hour. Stuff will happen that slows you down, and if you overestimate the distance you can travel in a day you may find yourself in the middle of nowhere with darkness approaching.

    • Abi King January 31, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

      You know what – I would have to agree with most of these. If not all. Thank you!

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