Road trip to Morocco
by : David Atkinson
The instructions were simple. I was to meet a man called Mustapha in a café in the Marrakesh medina. There, the deal was struck over glasses of mint tea poured with theatrical flourishes by the ebullient waiter. From my pavement vantage point, I sat and watched the sun set over the Koutoubia mosque while Mustapha disappeared into the souqs behind the main square, Djemaa el-Fna. One hour later, he was back. “We’ve got a jeep, a tent and food,” he beamed. “Everything, Inshallah [God willing], is arranged.”
The plan? An adventurous Moroccan road trip, heading from the mountains to the desert and onto the coast in two days flat. The operative word is anadventure’. No frills, no room service, just the open road and the untamed desert. “Yeah, Mustapha,” I gulped down my mint tea and made to start packing. “Inshallah.”
my idea of a wake-up call is not being dragged from my bed by two swarthy Moroccan men in heavy jellabas at 5am. But so it was that my Moroccan odyssey started bleary-eyed at a riad in Marrakesh. By the time I was fully conscious, a lazy 7am dawn was already breaking over route N9 and we were crossing the High Atlas, the 750km range that divides the deserts of the south from the lush greenery of the north.
Snaking through the snow-capped peaks along the Tizi n’ Tichka pass, we cut through the early morning mists at an elevation of 2250m. The views were spectacular and none more so than at Irhren, a rugged mountain village with a frontier town feel, where we stopped for a breakfast of strong coffee, dates, almonds and dried apricots. The local policemen eyed us briefly then went back to sucking their teeth and spilling their coffee.
By 9.30am, we were basking in the sunshine and sipping a French-style café au lait at a pavement café in busy little town of Ouarzazate, the launching pad for excursions into the Draa and Dades valleys. The mountains lay behind like slumbering giants while, about 30km down the road, touts in pointy slippers were gathering at the entrance to the restored kasbah at Ait Benhaddou for movie fans making the pilgrimage to Gladiator set.
We’d completed the 200km leg from snow-buried peaks to a barren desert sandscape within five hours but the road trip was only just starting. Ahead lay the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, spanning 9m square kilometres and 15 countries, and covering 29 per cent of the African subcontinent.
With the morning sun high in the sky, we took the 60km stretch south to Agdz at full pelt. Dusty settlements and ancient kasbahs gave way to lush fertile plains groaning under the weight of citrus tress and olive groves. But, it wasn’t until we stopped for a tagine lunch and a last chance to stock up on water supplies at Zagora that we could finally smell the Sahara calling us. A battered old sign marked the spot exactly. It read, “Timbuktu 52 days by camel train”.
Mid-afternoon and the road disintegrates as the desert takes hold of the landscape. M’Hamid, a dusty one-strip town with a frozen-in-time quality, marks the point that is, quite literally, the end of the road now only the Sahara stretches ahead of us.
“If we were to drive straight from M’Hamid to Namibia, it would take us two months, Inshallah,” grins Mustapha. “That is, if we got past the mines along the Algerian border and the bandits”.
With that, he dropped down a gear, stamped on the gas and floored the accelerator. We needed to make camp before sun down.
After a night sleeping amongst the dunes under a blanket of stars, we’re up with dawn and dune bashing our way out of the desert in the early morning sunshine. Foum Zigid was the first taste of civilisation. A dusty strip of a town, the locals sit at cafes drinking mint tea while only a ramshackle barber’s shop pierces the languor of the morning by blasting out killer cuts from the owner’s new Chris de Burgh CD.
“Chris de Burgh,” smile old men in pointy hoods. “C’est bien la musique.”
Pushing on, the scenery moves from desert to a lush carpet of vegetation as we pass through the Sirwa range of the Anti Atlas Mountains. This is the heartland of Berber country and the air is heavy with the scent of fledgling blossoms on the almond trees. The road movie outside my window is like a magic carpet ride: saffron and cumin stalls at village markets and sun-kissed locals sucking absent-mindedly on implausibly strong tobacco.
We stop on the road above one such village and break open the supplies. Bread, fruits and a chicken cooked in the desert the night before. “Right hand for food, left hand for ablutions,” says Mustapha with a knowing grin. Then we dig in, eating hungrily with our hands and tearing the flesh from the carcass
Agadir on the Atlantic coast is beckoning with a 80km stretch through the Souss valley ahead of us. First, though, we make the last stop of the day for coffee and a quick whisk round the souqs at Taroudannt, a charming ochre-walled settlement with a traditional Berber market town feel and a lively central square. Taroudannt is known for its Berber tribal jewellery and superb silver necklaces cost a fraction of the tourist prices bandied about by Marrakesh shopkeepers if you can bargain in a combination of French, Arabic and Berber, that is.
That night, the surf breaks and sea air of Taghazout awaits us. By the time we will make it back to Marrkesh, we will have covered 1500km in three days an odyssey filled with the sights, sounds and flavours of a Morocco still undiscovered by the coach parties of Agadir, uncharted the diplomats of Fes and unsullied by the hustlers of Marrakesh.
Sure, this trip, arranged through soft adventure specialists Moroccan Skies, is no five-star itinerary and, if you can’t leave home without your disinfectant wipes, then consider a less adventure-based option. But if you’re time-poor and adventure hungry, and fancy the idea of sleeping in the Sahara within 48 hours of leaving a rainy Gatwick airport, then seek out a man called Mustapha in the medina and hit the road Moroccan style.
He’ll be waiting for you. Inshallah