Driving in Morocco: a Search for Solitude and Connection

A funny thing happened on the way to Chefchaouen. We went driving in Morocco for three months. From Tangier to Tiglit and Marrakech to Merzouga, we steered our VW camper van toward adventure. Crossing desert landscapes and fording rivers cut through breathtaking gorges, we wound through the maze-like streets of medinas in imperial cities and explored tiny villages boasting one tea shop, a mosque and a handful of houses.

Driving in Morocco

Roman ruins of Volubilis ©Matteo Martinello

Travelers to this North African kingdom will find rugged mountains sculpted with corkscrew roads and blind curves. Passing an unhurried donkey cart on the bend of an Atlas mountain road, with the sun in your eyes and a steep cliff daring you to come closer, focuses your attention like few things in life do. Driving in Morocco will test your nerve.

We searched for authentic connection with Moroccans and travelers. We found it with 4 teenaged girls in Tafraoute. Tafraoute is down a piste track so switch-backed that you head north as often as south. Boulders loom large on both sides. One moment after you’ve begun to think the path ahead of you is leading to nowhere special, Tafraoute pops into view. Oh, but this small town (~5000 pop.) in the Berber heartland is special and worth the effort.

An oasis village off the de rigueur tourist trail, Tafraoute sits in the midst of mountains and sunset-red rocks that are a hiker’s dream. Natural beauty combined with a low-key vibe and locals who are genuinely kind are reasons enough to rent a car and head out.  I recently exchanged letters with one of those teenagers, now in her 40s. Driving in Morocco will challenge your assumptions.

The never-ending press of hustlers in the medina’s labyrinthian alleys frustrated us. Also, we were irritated by our own occasional contempt for other travelers. “How long have you been in Morocco,” we heard again and again. One month? “Come back when you’ve been here longer.” Three months? “Been here for 12 years, mates.” This from an Englishman who’d walked away from his wife and three kids a dozen years before to “find” himself, only to find himself having a child with a woman he barely knew, who then left him to find herself. Confused? Not as much as that 11-year-old boy who’d not yet managed to be educated or even taught to read because his father hadn’t yet managed to find the time. Driving in Morocco will occasionally drive you to despair.

Driving in Morocco

Merzouga: desert plains give way to sand dunes

Intermittent authentic connections notwithstanding, in seeking to understand this culture of (mostly) Arabs and Berbers, we also sought solitude. Finding time to step outside travel mode is important, even on shorter trips. If you’re in the company of a travel partner you also need mental and physical separation from each other on occasion. We discovered solitude can be an elusive beast while driving in Morocco. We expected to spend the days wandering through busy medinas like Marrakech’s, then escape to an uninhabited patch of ground outside town for a quiet evening of reflection.

It turns out that every patch of uninhabited ground in Morocco isn’t exactly unoccupied; there are usually goats or sheep around, and where there are goats, there are goatherds. Often young girls or boys, they pop out of nowhere after you’ve pulled over for a rest. They aren’t shy, whether or not they speak your language. Curiosity has a language of its own and these kids were as intensely curious about us as we were about them. We shared meals with goatherds in otherwise deserted landscapes all over the country, introducing a couple of boys to popcorn while pulled over on local road P7006 near the Roman ruins of Volubilis. They studied photos of our families. They corrected our pronunciation of Arabic words. It was a great way to get to know real Moroccans, even if our cross section was all 12-year-olds.

Driving in Morocco

Moroccan shepherd and her pals

Craving a few moments of daily solitude, we’d examine our worn map each morning and imagine a spot on it where we could be alone with our thoughts and not a goat in sight.  Seldom did we manage it but having a vehicle gave us better odds than if our only other options had been trains or buses.

Morocco is a small nation (just 274,460 square miles) but it’s chock-full of contrasts. In a single day you can see the Atlas Mountains, a river valley oasis and sparse swaths of desert. It also has the luxury of two sea coasts (the Mediterranean and Atlantic). Chances are, you will miss out on much of it if you don’t (at least one day) spend time driving in Morocco.

Driving in Morocco

Erg Chebbi ©Damien Labat

Some highlights of our journey on the roads (and off-road) of Morocco.

  • Watching the sun set at Erg Chebbi outside Merzouga, Morocco’s gateway to the Sahara. The Sahara’s first sand dunes rise like a wave surge from the flat sea plain. Lit in spectacular pink and orange tones that warm you even as night’s cold air settles upon the desert, they (and a glass of mint tea from a tiny café with a few camels tied to the railing) are a world away from urban medinas (and pretty much anywhere else.)
  • The spectacular canyon of Todra Gorge. Carved out by the Todra and Dades rivers, this stretch of canyon is narrow (less than 50 feet) with cliffs towering 500 feet overhead.

    Driving in Morocco

    Passing through Todra gorge

  • The kasbahs of the DrâaValley. Built along the Drâa river, surrounded by farms and lush palm groves, the kasbahs and surrounding buildings are built from the red mud of the valley. They stand for decades, sometimes centuries, before melting back into the earth.
  • A Berber wedding party celebrating in the bed of a truck negotiating a serpentine Anti Atlas mountain road in front of our van. Men swayed to music, women sang songs while clapping hennaed hands. A white-gowned bride clutched a plastic-wrapped bouquet. Her mother held aloft a Moroccan flag. We beeped our van’s timid horn, waved madly and received big smiles in return.
  • The Roman ruins of Volubilis. We spent the night in a village nearby and drove to the ruins at dawn. That gave us 3 hours to poke around on our own before any tourists showed up.
  • Oasis Abaynou. Just outside the town of Goulimeme (Guelmim) and its famous camel market, we found this magical place of date palms and friendly people. A young girl rushed up to kiss my hand, two boys displayed some excellent swordsmanship with sticks and the local baker invited us to watch him pull fresh bread from his stone oven. A hot-spring pool was available for mixed-gender use (primarily for travelers)  from 7 to 10pm. We soaked in the luxury of the pool on the edge of the desert, watching Orion above while swirls of steam rose into the cold night air, then walked back to camp in a light rain. Like I said: magic.

    Driving in Morocco

    Berber girl in Oasis Abaynou, Morocco

Tourist groups will get you to some of these spots (or hitchhiking, if you are the intrepid sort) but it’s difficult to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of a setting when you’re being herded like a goat alongside a dozen or more people for a quick peek at a site before being whisked away in a big fat hurry to the next place.

Tips for Driving in Morocco

  • Have your paperwork in order (registration, insurance, passport, license). You must have a valid license from your place of residence, and I’d recommend getting an International Driving Permit as well, since some rental agencies require it and it’s translated into other languages, which helps if you are stopped by provincial police. You can get the IDP at AAA in the US.
  • Drive on the right.
  • Seatbelt use is mandated.
  • Road signs are in Arabic and French, except STOP signs, which are in Arabic only but are the typical red octagon. Directional signs are fairly easy to figure out.
  • Speed limits are well-marked in towns and cities. Outside cities on the main highways the maximum speed is 100 km/hour(62 mph). You’ll usually see an ‘End of Limit’ sign to mark those areas. In recent years, police are combatting chronic speeding by using radar to create ‘speed traps’. Fines are usually collected on the spot.

    Driving in Morocco

    Cycle near Abaynou, ©jbdodane

  • Roundabouts are in common use and so simple that I don’t understand why they aren’t universal (I’m looking at you, USA.) A vehicle in the roundabout has right-of-way. If you’re entering the roundabout, give way to circulating traffic coming from the left. Easy peasy.
  • Toll roads link the major cities and are relatively inexpensive compared to Europe. I prefer more scenic roads but if you’re in a hurry or just want a straight shot to the next city, hop on the tollway.
  • Watch out for animals, pedestrians, donkey carts, and many, many small motorcycles on the roads. Night driving can be even trickier because all of those things are out there, plus street lights may not always be available (or working).
  • We found that Moroccan drivers have the barest regard for rules of the road. Prepare to have other vehicles overtake yours; some drivers just really want to be at the front of the pack.
  • Staying in traffic lanes is not a strong suit of Moroccan drivers (or Turkish or Italian drivers, and most anyone on I-684 north of New York City, for that matter.) Be aware and prepared for drivers making sudden lane changes, especially in major cities.
  • Emergency and accidents: always take photos immediately at the scene.
  • Mountain driving takes an extra measure of caution anywhere, but in Morocco’s Atlas mountains you’re likely to round a curve to find a horse cart with a bus right behind it, followed by a truck loaded with Berbers and their goods heading to market before dawn. The higher in the mountains you go, the snakier the roads and sometimes they are not quite wide enough for two vehicles to pass. To solve that problem, pull-off areas are frequent. Take it slowly and be prepared to pull over to allow a truck to get by you, even if that means you need to back up to the last pull-off you passed. In short order we got very good at noting the location of each pull-off and mentally noting how far back it was. Major mountain roads are often well-marked with reflective studs embedded or reflective paint marking centerlines and edges.
  • Relax and enjoy the experience.

    Driving in Morocco

    An isolated village along the Dades River

Back to Chefchaouen: A word about roadblocks while driving in Morocco

We came upon police roadblocks frequently and most were puzzling rather than a problem. They often seemed random, but that may have been an issue with our language skills rather than reality. We’d heard stories (true or perhaps not) of travelers who bought hashish along a stretch of road only to be stopped a kilometer further along by a policeman who knew of the buy. Scams and shakedowns do happen to travelers driving in Morocco. Don’t be paranoid, just aware. Have your paperwork ready, smile, be polite and you’ll get through in no time.

Roadblocks routinely appeared to be the result of a bored policeman with time on his hands and a desire for baksheesh. That seemed to be the case when we drove into Chefchaouen.

Looking for a place to stay before sunset one evening, we came over a rise outside of this town in the Rif Mountains. Chefchaouen is famous for the Dr. Suess-like blue buildings and narrow lanes which make it one of the prettiest towns in Morocco, and for being a rich source of hashish.  We spotted an official-looking guy standing a hundred yards in front of us in the road. Lickety-split he tossed a spike strip onto the tarmac, forcing us to pull over to avoid shredded tires. His manual typewriter sat upon a small, portable metal desk under the only tree  in sight. Half a dozen kids gathered around to enjoy the excitement. He offered us chairs in his improvised open-air office. He checked our paperwork: vehicle ownership, insurance, visa, passports. All were in order, of course. Not that all of it mattered, of course.

Driving in Morocco

Chefchaouen blues, ©Admanchester

Mr. Policeman selected a form from a short pile on his desk, inserting it into the typewriter with great diligence. His fingers poised above the keys. He looked at Brian.

“Name?” The kids’ heads swiveled toward Brian, who supplied his name, spelling it out slowly despite both of our names already being on the paperwork we’d given the guy.

“Parent’s names?” Brian answered politely. The kids’ heads all pivoted back to the official, who tapped the typewriter keys.

“Occupation?” More polite behavior from Brian. Tap, tap, tap went the keys.

“Nationality?”

And so forth. After a dozen more questions asked and answered (none of which were necessary to our travel in Morocco) it was my turn.

“Name?” I pointed to my passport. He ignored me.

“Name?” I begrudged him an answer. I am not a good actress; appearing polite and deferential in the face of officious officials is seldom within my limited abilities.

“Parent’s names?”

“Fred and Ethel Mertz,” I lied. Brian groaned. The policeman raised a pair of caterpillar eyebrows. The kids poked each other with skinny elbows.

“Mertz?” he asked, curling his lip, pronouncing it mairtz. “Is that a Jewish name?”

“It’s an American name,” I answered. He obviously didn’t grow up watching “I Love Lucy”. He stared at me awhile, then shrugged and tapped the keys. M-E-R-T-Z

“Occupation?”

“Circus clown.” Brian put his face in his hands and groaned again.

Tap tap tap. Driving in Morocco allows you to practice your standup routine.

Meanwhile, the sun went down and the valley got dark. We waited the official out, never offering money or ‘gifts’. When he finally let us leave we fled the scene, heading into the Moroccan darkness still searching for a place to spend the night.

Driving in Morocco

Nomad tent near the Draa Valley

Our journey was a blast, despite roadblocks and sharing the road (sometimes the same lane) with demented drivers, despite the hustlers and the goatherds. Driving in Morocco isn’t for everyone. But if you’re game to try and have a pocketful of pluck, you’ll come away with memories of a Moroccan journey far off the tourist track but closer to reality. Oh, the places you’ll go! Driving in Morocco will take you there.

From the US Embassy and Consulate information site:

If you find yourself in an emergency situation, you can contact someone at the Embassy or Consulate 24 hours a day.

The American Citizen Services office can be reached at (212) 522-64-20-99. This office is open from Monday through Friday 8 am until 5 pm.  Our fax number is (212) 522-29-77-01. If you have an after-hours emergency, please call (212) 661-13-19-39.

The U.S. Embassy is located at Km 5.7, Avenue Mohamed VI – Souissi, Rabat, telephone (212) 0537 637 200. The U.S. Consulate General in Casablanca is located at 8 Boulevard Moulay Youssef, telephone (212) 522-64-20-00. Please note that all consular matters are handled at the U.S. Consulate General in Casablanca.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.

7 Comments:

  1. From circus clown to travel writer…via many twists in the road.

  2. Magical, just simply magical. The writing, storytelling and photos all lend itself to a visually and culturally connected colorful voyage into another realm. Thank you for a fabulous bedtime story. I hope I dream a lot tonight! Maybe of Fred and Ethel. Heehee. Yes, I know I am up WAY too late again.

  3. This is enchanting — I was there! All the more reason to look forward to the book. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Driving in Baja California: Mango Margaritas and Ninja Cows | Steal Just One Day

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