driving in morocco
Few countries offer the prospect of more dangerous roads than those of Morocco. But don't let that put you off from exploring this increasingly popular North African destination. Jonathan Crouch and family set out to do just that.
Many say that the crossroads of North Africa can be found in the Djemaa el-Fna, the 'square of the dead' that lies in the centre of the old city of Marrakech. Here is Morocco as you might like to picture it, a scene from 'The Arabian Nights' with its snake charmers, storytellers, meat sellers, water pourers and friendly con men. A gateway to the labyrinth of cramped alleyways, carpet souks and tea shops that have defined this ancient city for generations of travellers.
Including us. Perhaps 'family Crouch' is something like yours? Three children - aged 7, 11 and 14 - who don't like really long flights but, like their parents, have tired of the usual European destinations and yearn for something a bit different. A country with its share of far-off magic. Yet one that can still be easily, quickly and affordably reached by budget airline. Somewhere like Morocco.
It's a place so rich with history, culture and colour that you can't help but want to explore it, even if, like me, you have a young family in tow. Mind you, with the 'young family' bit in mind, you might be forgiven for being put off a bit by statistics suggesting Morocco to have some of the world's most dangerous roads, with a fatality rate seventeen times higher than that of the UK.
That helps to explain why Morocco is also one of the most expensive places I know in which to hire a car, with even basic vehicles costing between 80-100 euros a day. Another good reason, you might think, to fly to Marrakech, hole up in a hotel, then head back with all the other holidaymakers decked out in their souk-supplied knock-off trainers and T-shirts. But you'd be missing out on such a lot.
Let's assume, for example, that, like us, you used Marrakech as a base. If you've a car, then an easy drive three hours east across the Atlas Mountains will bring you to the mud-brick city of A?»t Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The same kind of drive north will bring you to the famous coastal city of Casablanca. Or on another day, you could head west and in a couple of hours find yourself in the old port of Essaouira, famously a favourite of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, one of the most likeable towns in Morocco and a centre for artists and windsurfers with its whitewashed and blue-shuttered houses and long, sandy beach.
So much then, to explore then in this arid sub-tropical North African country, bordered on one side by both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other by the endless Sahara Desert. In between, you typically travel long, straight tree-lined Napoleonic roads through an ever-changing landscape that brings you through plateaus and plains, over rolling hills and maybe even through the famous Atlas Mountains. And, as the statistics promise, it's certainly an adventure.
For a start, most drivers in Morocco have little regard for road rules and no apparent regard for each other. Many merely want only to be ahead of the person in front and to overtake at all costs, even if they're just about to to turn off or park. Worse, most drivers appear to have very little tolerance of others and no patience whatsoever. All of which means that whenever you're behind the wheel, you need to pay three times more attention than normal. You can't count on people staying on the correct side of the road (they drive on the right). You can't count on people properly observing pedestrian crossings or traffic lights. And at a busy intersection, you can't count on much order: it's just every person for themselves, with hoards of cars and mopeds coming at you from all directions.
It's all a bit daunting to start with, but you soon learn to approach the whole thing with extra confidence. Opposing cars usually stop if you force them to, but you learn to let the mopeds and three-wheeled converted motorbikes go: they usually can't stop. Along with cyclists, these frequently become a menace on main roads between villages as oncoming vehicles swerve directly into your path to pass them. Sometimes, it's necessary to leave the road completely to avoid a head-on crash. But you adjust and after a while, it all becomes rather good fun.
What isn't much fun is being forced to drive Moroccan roads at night. Venturing out after dark isn't generally recommended for tourists, except within larger towns on main roads having good street lighting. After all, most motorcycles and bicycles have no lights or reflectors whatsoever and can be very difficult to see, especially if you become simultaneously dazzled by oncoming traffic. In towns and villages, things like handcarts, donkey carts and horse carriages are completely devoid of lights. There are even problems with more modern vehicles. Many trucks have all colours of lights on the front, including red, and some end up glowing like Christmas trees. It's not uncommon for a single HGV to have over 40 lights on it. I never really discovered why.
Still, it's all part of the experience. One that will stay in your mind long after your trip is over. There's just so much to remember. The dramatic peaks of the high Atlas mountains. The nomadic influences of Marrakech. Or maybe even just somewhere you find along the way. Like the collection of fortress-like casbahs just outside the ancient town of Ouarzazate that have made film cameos in both Gladiator and The Mummy and sit like a city outside time.
Morocco is rather like that, a place outside its time. A place with its own mystery and sense of adventure. Answer the call and it won't disappoint.