A Moroccan Road Trip
13.05.2015 - 17.05.2015 40 °C
Normally we spare you, our readers, the minutia of our day to day life on the road. Partly because its more interesting to write about life here but largely we don't have time to write all the little things that happen in our day today life. Sometimes, a tale of excitement and misadventure simple needs to be told in all the little details. So go grab yourself a glass of wine, curl up on the couch and marvel at the fun and foolishness of the McNouyes, for this is such a tale...
Our original plan for Morocco was to start in Fes and work our way over ten days up to Tangier then take the ferry to Spain. After a little bit of soul searching we decided the kids would get a lot out of a trip to the Sahara. Now to be fair, we knew it was going to be a lot of driving for one day in the desert, but for a little taste of the worlds largest and most famous one we reckoned it was worth it.
Day one of our road trip is covered in the previous blog post but the short version is that we did a lot of driving, saw some cool ruins and wound up in a town with no guide book, no internet service, no Arabic and pigeon French. After a little driving around we stumbled across "Le Panorama" a little hotel that could have been dropped from the 1950 Alps directly into rural Morocco which was even adorned with photos of the hotel in the snow. As if to complete the time and cultural warp, the receptionist laid into Audrey numerous times for not writing legibly enough when completing the extensive paperwork required to sign in. If it wasn't for the Arabic accent, you would have sworn that we were being scolded by an uptight abrupt German.
In the morning we had a leisurely French breakfast and got on the road at about ten; after all we only had about 500km to drive that day and we had made reasonable time the day before. Shortly after departing we had a nice long stop to see some Berber Apes and drink some fresh orange juice on the side of the road. The kids loved watching the apes and we snapped a gazillion pictures with babies that couldn't even walk, teenagers that were fighting with their brothers and adults grooming each other. On the road again for a bit and we needed to stop for lunch.
Apes on the side of the road
A nice place for lunch
It turns out that to get to the Sahara you first need to drive through a few mountains; there is actually a reason that the rain doesn't get there from the coast. The road between Fes and Merzouga starts off fairly straight but the last half of the distance has stunning scenery and very slow driving. When we were pulled over at 7pm and had to pay a 50 euro fine on the spot to the police for having Taro in the front seat (some might call it a bribe) we were starting to realize that we were not going to be pulling into our hotel in central Merzouga until well after dark. Couple that with the fact that the kids had not yet had dinner and we were really trying to make up some time for our previous lolly gaging.
At 9.30, we finally pulled into Merzouga. Determined not to be caught with our pants down again, we were armed with google maps, a GPS phone app and the booking.com map to find the hotel we had booked. At the main square we pulled over and were consulting our map when a helpful stranger came up to ask if he could help us find our hotel. He informed us that our hotel was not in town but in fact 20km away. And yes, he could also take us to another hotel right in town.
This isn't exactly our first rodeo, and the hotel closed/moved/not here misdirection is pretty much the oldest one there is; this one was textbook. Tourists arrive in town and are greeted by someone telling them their hotel burned to the ground last week or some other tale and steer them to another one that pays a fat commission. Besides, we had three maps telling us that our hotel was in the middle of town. We picked up our cell phone, called the hotel and were told that yes, we needed to drive 14km back the way we came and someone in a jeep would be waiting for us by the side of the road to escort us to the hotel. I guess the helpful stranger in the middle of Morocco was actually just a helpful stranger.
At ten o'clock met the jeep and he offered to drive for us. Given that I am the only one insured on the rental car, we declined and were told it was 20min to the hotel from here. Great, twenty more minutes on top of our already long day...
Now I didn't read all of the fine print, but off roading in a tiny Hyundai on the edge of the Sahara probably isn't covered for our rental agreement. Getting stuck in a sand dune almost certainly voids the warranty but that's what we did. Three kids in the car, eleven at night and we bottom out in a sand dune in what seemed like the middle of the Sahara. Some light pushing and grunting later and our car is moving again and we pulled into our hotel moments later. Finally after nearly an hour of off roading on the desert (20 minutes was apparatly for jeeps), we fed our kids some bread and cheese for dinner and collapsed into bed.
I wonder why we are the only car in the parking lot?
Picture for a moment the Sahara desert. If you are thinking of some combination of sand dunes, camels and hot you are right on the money. At night you can't see the camels or dunes, but you can still feel the heat and A/C is sure a nice touch. Or at least it would be a nice touch I think. I don't know because our lovely little hotel in the middle of the desert had none and it was probably the hottest night I have ever experienced. The kids were up numerous times, Taro took a shower in the middle of the night and Audrey invented a new form of "human AC" where you blow on your own sweaty body to cool yourself. No fan, no AC and a crazy hot night in the desert.
We woke up only slightly rested to another meal of bread and cheese. Feeling exhausted and getting slightly constipated (how much cheese can one really eat in two days?) and we decided that our best bet was to spend another night in the baking hot desert hotel. The logistics of us driving back to town, getting internet (there was none where we were) and finding another place to stay would have burned up most of the day and we were only planning to spend two days in the desert. So we resigned ourselves to another sleepless night, but vowed to enjoy our day in the Sahara.
A swimming pool on the edge of the Sahara. Go figure.
And enjoy we did. Our little place was in a group of hotels beside a fresh water oasis on the edge of the Sahara. Our hotel had a little pool that was uncomfortably cold to swim in (go figure), camels all around and was surrounded mountains of sand. We spend the day cooling ourselves in the pool, eating and walking around. As you might expect, our car was the only one in the parking lot as most people are here as part of a tour group to do trips out on the Sahara. Several groups were coming and going in the morning and evening either for their night under the stars or to and form connecting transport. No one else actually drove on their own out to the middle of the desert.
Been there, dune that.
At sunset we set off on our camel ride through the dunes with a snowboard in hand. That's right a snowboard. After a picturesque ride up the mountains of sand, we hopped onto the snowboard and surfed out way down. The boys each scaled the mountain numerous times and rode their board down the drifts. In case you're wondering why no one has built sandboarding lifts in the Sahara, you do not get very much speed surfing down a dune; there is far too much friction. It is a lot of fun none the less and climbing those hills makes for tired kids.
Hey, nice legs baby!
Fun on the dunes.
We hit the hay again for another restless night, taking turns in the shower to cool off. In the morning we got on the road at 9.30am, determined to get an earlier start than our previous two days of driving. Ahead of us lay 500km to Marrakesh, our final stop in Morocco. We got an escort from the hotel almost to the road (it is much less frightening during the day) but the desert driving was again slow going. After just over an hour we got to the first town, and then we were going.
Well, "going" is all relative. The roads were slow in Morocco, and we were averaging around 70km/hr. The flat stretches of road we could get going pretty quick but the number of small towns in between really slowed us down. When we pulled into Ouazazate at 4pm we had 200km to go. There were very few towns between Ouazazate and Marrakesh so we should make better time on the final 200km. Maybe it would only take two hours. Three at worst.
After a nice leisurely Moroccan meal Audrey and I thought the kids could use a little time to blow off some steam and Ouazazate is billed as Moroccos Hollywood (Mollywood) and one of the studios has tours you can go on to see all of the wonderful sets and desert scenes of things that have been shot there. Game of Thrones, Cleopatra, Gladiator, James Bond films and countless other movies have been shot there. We had a nice tour,walked around the sets and explained to the kids the difference between real buildings and movie fronts. After a nice hour of strolling around we decided that 6 o'clock was a good time to hit the road for our last couple hours and maybe arrive into Marrakech for a late dinner. Just before we jumped into the car we casually asked someone how far the remainder of the trip was.
Maybe we thought there was a language barrier. Maybe we thought he didn't actually know where Marrakech was. Maybe we were just too happy to delude ourselves into thinking that we only had 2 hours left that we just completely weren't ready for another 4 hours on the road. The "4 hour" answer went in one ear and out the other. And as it turned out this was not only 4 hours, but probably the most challenging 4 hour drive I have ever done.
For most of the last 200km we were averaging 20km/hr, snaking our way up and down the side of mountains. The road was filled with trucks making their way painstakingly over the pass into Marrakech and aggressive cars were trying to pass them whenever a few car lengths were free in front of the trucks. The trucks would often sit in the middle of the lane and not give the less sane drivers squeeze past but the trucks were not what was slowing us down, the road was crazy.
I can't even tell you how insane the road was. A narrow two lane road that worked its way through the mountains that was built with some serious budget restrictions. While the road had a great surface and there were guard rails for much of the way (except for the places where they had been knocked out) there were no tunnels and no where that the natural valleys had been filled. This meant that the road would wind its way with switch backs up the side of a mountain, follow a narrow valley to the next mountain then wind all the way back down. Often Audrey and I would have a glance around a corner and down the mountain in awe of where the road was taking us. There were no hotels for us to stop in though we were not in the middle of nowhere; small towns still dotted the mountainside on our journey.
When we finally pulled into Marrakech well after 10pm (the kids again had not eaten) and we were relying on google maps and the booking.com info to find our place. The Riad (hotel) had told us to call when we got downstairs and they would meet us on the road. Google maps took down a road that gradually got more narrow and less travelled until it just stopped at a doorway that had enough room for pedestrians and a few motor bikes driving throught. Our other map brought us to another impasse that was geographically close but ended in a pedestrian walkway along the narrow streets. A phone call to the Riad and we had a motor bike escort to find parking. He drove us back the way we came to the our original dead end. Only it wasn't a dead end.
It turns out that with a small enough car you can actually drive though something that looks like it is only for pedestrains. Our motor bike escort drove through the doorway, and beckoned us to follow. Very apprehensively we tucked in our mirrors and inched ourselves through the door as the locals glared at us for taking up the road for so long. A few moments later we were parked and with luggage in hand, walking toward our hotel.
At 11pm, tired and frazzled I sat down and had my first beer since arriving in Morocco. I was very happy to be returning the car first thing in the morning and put an end to my first African driving experience