Mountains, big mountains, even bigger mountains; sparse open plains extending to the horizon; lush green palmerai; ochre desert sands; crashing waves. We had spent so much time investigating the glorious cities of Morocco, we had given little thought to what we we would experience on the road.
Tangier to Chefchaouen
After the 3rd stall exhibiting 100’s of tagines and other earthenware items, we realise that they are not catering to tour buses but to locals. Who needs all all these tagines? Similarly, the frequent stalls selling onions – clearly also not high on your average tourist shopping list.
The drive has been quite delightful so far. Relaxing, easy. The undulating hills and frequent stops keep us sharp and aware. Our little Dacia is great for zipping along and provides more than enough overtaking power
Just as we are thinking of a coffee break, we spy a little panel van with its back doors open with a full commercial coffee machine mounted in the back. Two delicious espressos, MAD 10. There is a steady stream of customers – truck drivers providing their own glasses to be filled.
Nikki had to feed a stray dog, of course.
Driving in Morocco
Blogs abound: 21 things to know; 15 essential tips; 8 things to beware; lists of scams, insane local drivers, police check points, all manner of man and beast wandering aimlessly across the roads, average to poor quality of said roads, avoid driving in the cities, avoid driving at night. There were some blogs about incredible experiences, but overall the sense was that driving in Moocco was not for the faint hearted and it would be far better to use public transport or hire a driver. I dallied until the last minute before deciding to take a chance and hire a car. This was the best decision of our entire trip.
Of all the warnings, the one to follow is adherence to the speed limits. There are frustrating, long stretches of good open road limited to 80 km/h, 60 km/h at any hint of a village, of which there are many. Finally there were stretches of 100 km/h. If you lose concentration you can miss a speed sign, so we erred on the side of caution. Radar guns are well hidden and a photograph is sent to the checkpoint a km further along. Oncoming motorists flash their lights, but it is often too late and we saw many cars pulled over and fined. We went through 17 check points between Fes and Merzouga alone. Overall we did 2100 km, were only stopped 3 times, and treated respectfully and with smiles.
Drivers are excellent at keeping right and passing left and also very courteous. Yes the taxi drivers in Casablanca were aggressive and used their hooters extensively.
Europcar agency is conveniently placed next to the main road leading out of Tangier to the north coast road. A simple U-turn across peak hour traffic and off we went. Nikki provides turn-by-turn navigating, helps gauge the size of the car and makes sure I go anti clockwise around circles. That might sound obvious, but some inattention at a rural circle in France some years ago, I found myself going around clockwise. Luckily only one vehicle was approaching and I managed to shoot off onto the verge. Since then I have a special focus when I approach a circle in RH countries.
I enjoyed myself thoroughly driving. We had complete control of our lives – at times we stopped every 100m or did U-turns if we felt we missed something. Something we could not do on a tour bus. Even with a personal driver we would feel embarrassed. It was the highlight of our Morocco adventure. I would recommend this highly.
The perfect road continues winding through foothills of the Rif Mountains, passing dams and lakes (barrages) . We stop to take a picture of a shepherdess and her small flock walking alongside the road, causing them to veer into the road and oncoming traffic. A stern finger is waved at us. Oops.
The weather is perfect – semi-overcast and threatening to rain and as the mountains come into view, decidedly alpine.
The turnoff to Chefchaouen is a brand new double carriage road, lined with street lamps and winds up into the town centre. We stop for a photograph and and when Nikki gets back into the car, she forgets to put her seat belt back on. 10 metres down the road we get pulled over for an “infraction”. Luckily the officer decides to let us go, after giving us detailed directions to get to our Riad.
The 4 mountain ranges we will cross on our trip.
Chefchaouen to Fes
The road leaving Chefchaouen sweeps through the hills, the trees and cliffs, clear in the crisp mountain air. Major roadworks are underway to widen it at points, cutting through spines to make more gradual bends and eventually allow for increased speed. The changes are made in such a way that they do not affect the current road and traffic. No Stop-and-go here.
We eventually go through about 10 checkpoints. We keep to the speed limit religiously. Speed signs are very clear. 60, 80, 60, 80 continuously. No wonder it takes such a long time to travel through Morocco. 4 hours to cover 220km for this leg.
A welcome stop for freshly squeezed pomegranate juice with a backdrop of the sunlit mountain around Barrage Sidi Chahed (see header pic at top of this blog)
The crenelated walls stretch for miles all around as we approach Fez. Despite the detailed directions from the Dar, we still managed to get misplaced. A very helpful fellow on a scooter pulls up and says he knows the way and I should follow him. I’m not sure how, as he hasn’t asked where we were going. I ignore him. He suggests that I be happy and smile and then roars off, looking for some unsuspecting tourist. That’s when I do smile. We eventually work out where we are and find our parking for the next 2 nights.
Fes to Merzouga
“But why do you want to leave at 6:30?” Why indeed? The stretch from Fez to Merzouga is 470km and yes, due to the speed limits, it is recommended that you plan for 7 1/2 hours. Our Riad could not understand why we thought it necessary to rise at such an ungodly hour. Our explanation of photography was met with further incredulity. “But there is nothing to take pictures of!” Sticking to our guns, we are helped off the next morning, with a packed breakfast and a sleepy headed porter trundling our luggage barrow, echoing through through the sleeping Medina. The quiet streets of Fez stretch for miles, but it is easy driving. This is in fact a large city, and the Medina had limited our perspective of Fez. It takes an hour to clear the city limits.
The plains around Fez give way to alpine hills. At a lookout point a pack of stray dogs appear, beseeching. We share our breakfast bread, wishing we had something more substantial. Promising that in future we would always have something in the car for dogs and cats.
A little while later, we slow as “monkeys” scamper across the road. Barbary macaques. I’m not in favour of tourists stopping and feeding the baboons and monkeys in SA, so was determined not to do so. However, they are extraordinarily good looking with their golden hair, and intelligent eyes. We decided to donate the fruit from our less than exciting breakfast to them. They take it ever so gently from our hands. Within minutes of pulling over someone appears to offer us some nuts for them. (at a price, of course.)
Ifrane is fascinating with its Swiss chalets – seemingly so out of place in Morocco. The mountain resort built by the French colonists – nicknamed the ‘Chamonix of Morocco’ – has ski slopes and lush forests. The next town, Azrou, has a fairy tale castle
The landscape changes again to sparse rocky plains. The overwhelming barrenness is broken by Berber huts, their traditional construction marred by the extensive use of plastic on the roofs for water proofing; shepherds with their flocks; and wild donkeys. We stop often for photographs and take in the stillness. We wonder, if we were dropped, unknowing into this spot, would we think we were in the Karoo?
There are regular police speed points. We are only stopped at one . They are amused that we are from the South of Africa visiting the North of Africa and waved on.
Morocco is a dry country. few rivers. The country is crisscrossed with these channels taking water to where it is need. Some newish, many are old?
Countless villages with a prominent mosque perfectly maintained amid crumbling adobe homes. Fruit sellers dotted regularly along the road. Major feats of engineering cutting through mountains and moving 100’s of tons of rocks to reduce the tight bends.
If you wait long enough, someone will come along who will let you take their picture…..
This young lady was on her way to the local watering hole to fill all her plastic bottles with water.
Our stomachs are growling. We have kept an eye open for a decent place to have breakfast ever since we left Fez. Initially places were closed as we had left so early, but now finding a place that looks appealing – most look dark with at most one customer – is proving difficult. Eventually we see one that looks quite cheery, we sit down and and try to order some form of egg and coffee. We get the coffee right, but are unsuccessful with breakfast. We decide to cut our losses, change the coffee to take-away and set off again. I don’t begrudge the macaques our breakfast, but an apple and a banana sound so appealing now.
By the time we arrive in Midelt at midday, we resolve not to leave without sitting and eating. However, Nikki spies a market down a side street and opts for a picnic. I’m amazed at my confidence as we nudge through the narrow streets between donkeys, people, dogs, cars, barrows, bicycles and produce, and park. What a lot of fun! Shopping like locals. Tasting before choosing: a bag of mixed olives, two handfuls of baby tomatoes, a perfectly ripe avocado, crispy lettuce, a baguette from a little shop pointed out to us by a lady in a djellaba, and after much negotiation, a half kilo of dates. Of course someone latches onto us, to help us with our purchasing. Superfluously, as our smattering of French, pointing and smiling works perfectly. He is disappointed that we do not want to buy a fossil from him.
Nikki makes us a picnic on the go as time is ticking on. What a feast.
Selecting the ingredients for a picnic lunch in Midelt – the apple capital
Its Saturday and Imazighen have come from miles around to buy and sell produce, donkeys and mules. The mix of modern and traditional is marked. Mules, donkeys, camels, beat up panel vans and sedans. Traditional tents and two man camping tents. Jeans and djellabas. There is not a woman in sight. This is strictly a man’s affair
While the woman are collecting forage and water…
We are now well into the Middle Atlas and the road (N13), which connects Midelt and Erfoud, winds and climbs and falls as we criss-cross the Ziz river countless times. The dramatic crags of the Ziz Gorge, cut over eons by the river, rise around us after Er Rich.
We stop often to appreciate the view, with our trusty barista vans conveniently in attendance.
The Ziz River leaves its craggy gorges behind after the city of Er Rachidia and continues its southward journey for another 100km (62 miles) along the Ziz Valley to the Moroccan pre-Sahara (hammada). The river flow is desultory, the rainy season not yet started. Yet, the river flowing through this dry expanse feeds the flourishing belt of brilliant green palmerie, that stretches into the distance for as far as the eye can see. The most spectacular scenery of the Ziz Gorges begins at the Legionnaire’s Tunnel. It was built by French colonial troops in 1928 in order to create a passageway to the Ziz Valley. The valley widens at this point, a dense canopy of palms wedged between ancient striated cliffs., with dusty ancient kashbah’s and ksour dotting the palm groves.
Dates for sale everywhere. Couldn’t be fresher
The car GPS still can’t find Merzouga, so Nikki enters the town thereafter – Taous. The ETA on the GPS moves from 3pm to 4, to 5 and then 6. The landscape changes constantly and we are enjoying every minute of the journey. I feel no tiredness or soreness. No sense of wishing we were just there.
After Rissani, we see the first desert sand. There are reed fences all across the dunes in multiple layers. Initially I thought they were for livestock, then realised they were to retain the desert sand and prevent it blowing into the road. And what a good job they are doing. There is no sand on the road. Perhaps Glencairn would benefit from this idea?
A military presence is becoming noticeable. The Algerian border with whom relations are strained, is 50 km away.
The big red dunes of Erg Chabbi appear on the horizon across a black stony plain. There is sign of human habitation at all. No cars. It feels surreal. I keep thinking ‘Mountains of the Moon’ even though it is completely flat.
This little Dacia is amazing. The fuel gauge has not moved much at all. The average consumption is 4.4l/100km.
A line of villages appear along the desert edge (of which Merzouga is only one). There are 4×4’s, quad bikes, camels and tourists.
Riad Chebbi is a bit further on and quiet. It is 18:00. It has taken 11 hours to get here. Just as well we followed our instincts about leaving early.