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