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Morocco: A Journey by Motorhome PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

MOROCCO: A JOURNEY BY MOTORHOME

Barry and Margaret Williamson

The following article was first published as 'Morocco Bound' in the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly) in the UK. It describes a 3,000 mile motorhome journey almost the full length of the country.

Our plan was to drive from the Tropic of Cancer to the Arctic Circle in our 27 ft, Four Winds American motorhome Rosie. This is the story of the most challenging part of that 17,000 mile journey: the drive through Morocco and out into the Western Sahara Desert.

We spent the 2 months of March and April in Morocco, driving 3,000 miles and staying in 27 different centres. For £145 return, the Ferry Normal took about 2 hours for the 20 mile crossing from Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar, to Ceuta, a small Spanish enclave on the north coast of Morocco. Hydrofoils make this crossing from Europe to Africa in 30 minutes at about the same price but with a vehicle deck just too low for us.

We had heard that Ceuta gave an easier entry to Morocco than Tangier, and so it proved. It took only about 90 minutes of waiting, confusion and cursory searching at the border - our first experience of Moroccan Customs. We then followed the Atlantic coast road south, passing through Tangier, Larache, Kenitra, Rabat, Casablanca, El Jadida, Oualidia, Safi and Essaouira, reaching Agadir after 685 miles. Our speed varied from 20 mph and less on broken and pot-holed roads to 50 mph on the unique and near-empty motorway which bypasses (as we did) both Rabat and Casablanca.

Agadir is Morocco's only coastal package-holiday centre and a base for exploring the nearby Atlas mountains and the Sahara Desert beyond the Anti-Atlas. It's also a place where motorhomers, predominantly French, spend the winter on the cliffs or in one of only two campsites. We stayed at Agadir's Camping International, had exhaust-pipe and dental repairs, watched Hassan Chakir paint an oasis scene on Rosie's side, visited the nearby towns of Tafraoute, Tiznit and Sidi Ifni and then moved south, through Guelmim, into the still-disputed Province of Western Sahara, an area not recommended for travel by the British Embassy in Rabat. We remember Guelmim for the three camel's feet for sale on a pavement butcher's stall at 8 am: perhaps a nomad was already enjoying breakfast on the hoof!

For 515 miles we continued south through the desert, past friendly Tan-Tan (a night at the plage) and hostile Tarfaya (mobbed by clamouring children), delayed by sand-drifts and police check-points, until we reached La‚youne, capital of the Western Sahara and centre for the UN Peace-Keeping Force. We spent several days on the beach just beyond La‚youne, 1,200 miles south of Ceuta and only 250 miles (as the camel walks) from the Tropic of Cancer. It was hot, dusty, sandy, devoid of vegetation and completely fascinating. Berber neighbours fed us freshly made bread and freshly caught fish.

Intimidated by the distances, the emptiness and the closed border to Mauritania and the rest of Africa beyond us, we returned north through Tarfaya and Tan-Tan along the haunted wreck-laden coast where the Sahara runs out over cliffs into the Atlantic. At Bouizakarne we turned inland to follow a newly-made single-track road through Tata and other oasis villages, with the Anti-Atlas mountains to the north and the Sahara to the south, just above the undefined border with Algeria. Unsurfaced pistes forced a 250 mile detour north to the kasbah city of Ouarzazate (location for 20 films including Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth), crossing and re-crossing the Anti-Atlas mountains on passes at 5,500 ft. The oasis village of M'hamid gave us a few nights among sand-dunes, surrounded by Tuareg tents and ruminating camels. The distance on a sign pointing south to Timbuctoo was 52 days!

Another new, hard-topped single-track road took us 150 miles from Tansikht, north of M'hamid, to Rissani and the dunes of Erfoud in the south-east corner of Morocco. The road back to Europe lay north, through Er Rachidia and the Gorges du Ziz, over the country's second highest pass, Col du Zad at 7,200 ft in the snow-capped High Atlas mountains and through the increasingly prosperous towns of Midelt (a wonderful centre for crystals), Azrou and El Hajeb, before dropping into the ancient tourist-bound and tout-infested Imperial Cities of Meknes and Fez. Near the holy town of Moulay-Idriss, storks nested on the columns of the Capitol among the extensive ruins of Roman Volubilis.

Beyond Fez we spent a fascinating day traversing the Rif Mountains, through Ain Aicha and Ketama to Chefchaouen. The Rif supplies one-third of Europe's need for Kif, one of many names for cannabis, and it's openly on sale along the roadside for over 100 miles. Young men with holdalls made strange gestures whilst Renault 12's and black Mercedes prowled the narrow mountain roads. Just as the Rough Guide warned, they sometimes boxed us in before deciding that 6 tons of American motorhome would take a lot of stopping!

Only 100 miles remained after Chefchaouen before we reached the Spanish enclave of Ceuta again, via the busy Mediterranean coastal town of Tetouan. Moroccan customs spent an hour poking and tapping our motorhome with long blunt screwdrivers, lifting carpets, removing grilles, looking for hidden compartments! The police in Ketama, capital of the Rif-Kif, had taken down all our particulars: had they also informed on us?

Throughout our time in Morocco, we struggled to come to terms with its many contrasts and contradictions. There is extreme poverty and generosity; harassment and kindness; alienation and personal contact; squalor and beauty; the obscurities of Arabic and the free use of French; narrow difficult roads and a sense of distance and adventure; ancient kasbahs and modern concrete slums; restaurants with French cuisine and roadside children begging bonbons; peasants with donkeys and tourists with Toyota Landcruisers; crowded mud-walled houses and empty luxury holiday villas; women covered by the dictates of Islam and bikini-clad Europeans on Agadir's hot Atlantic beaches.

We became fully immersed (over our heads) in this deeply disturbing, challenging and sometimes frightening country. It is Arabia, Africa and the Third World, a huge culture-shock for many visitors after the short crossing from Europe - from Gibraltar's Safeway to Tangier's Souk! We have travelled in Morocco before, briefly, on our bikes one Christmas. We have cycled in Tunisia and motorhomed in Turkey. Barry is an old hand in India, Iraq, Malawi and Hong Kong. But it was still a shock for us. Many Europeans we met remained shocked, some vowing never to return. We read that 94% of the visitors to Marrakesh promise never to go near the place again. But some do return, some do get hooked, we met French motorhomers on their 7th visit.

Too many people go to Morocco only for a cheaply packaged holiday, exploiting the poverty which they exaggerate and define by their very presence. Holiday-makers are inevitably and invariably selfish; judging a country by what it can give them, based on their expectations as Europeans. Do holiday-makers ever ask what they can give to the country they use for their own benefit? But motorhomers can give: they travel more slowly, widely and intimately; they have the capacity to carry useful items from Europe; they can provide water and return hospitality; they live, shop and eat alongside the people. The challenge is to make that giving useful and effective.

With a few exceptions, the contact we had with ordinary Moroccans was based on giving them something, anything, and then something else. Their interest, their concern, their involvement with life didn't and couldn't go beyond their basic needs. Of course there are also the slick 'professionals' who make their meagre and precarious living off the droppings of tourists, collecting the crumbs we cannot help leaving in our wake. Touting, hassling, selling, annoying, gathering round, following you everywhere, meeting you wherever you stop, every time you stop, listening in to your conversations, picking up at an instant your language, nationality, profession, income, profile of probable expenditure. In their unwanted hearing you mention 'bananas' and they offer to lead you, guide you, to the appropriate stall in the souk, for a fee. You are rarely alone!

Do we recommend a visit to Morocco? Certainly, but not as a holiday-maker or a tourist. Go as a traveller, as an explorer of the differences between Europe and Africa, between Europe and Arabia. Go with an open mind, an open heart and an open wallet!

What about the rest of our journey? We didn't quite make it to the Tropic of Cancer, although another 350 miles of desert road would have brought us from La‚youne to Dakhla, just above the Tropic. Beyond Dakhla and towards Mauritania, traffic only moves in convoys with police escort. The 700-mile round trip with no safe overnight parking except on the beach at Dakhla did not attract us.

But we did reach the Arctic Circle 3Ĺ months and 4,350 miles later and continued to Norway's Nordkapp, the world's most northerly point achievable in an ordinary vehicle. We returned to the UK via the Baltic Republics and Poland with no greater contrast to the heat, dryness and colour of Morocco.

SOME HELPFUL HINTS

Visas: A UK citizen does not need a visa for a stay of up to 3 months. lthough the Caravan Club Continental Sites Guide states that a vehicle may be temporarily imported for a maximum of only 2 months, our Declaration of Temporary Importation (D-16), completed at the frontier, gave Rosie 6 months, in common with other motorhomers we met.

Vehicle Insurance: 'Papers' are inspected regularly and to remove any doubt, your green card should be really green. Comfort Insurance, agents for Norwich Union, give free green card cover for 12 months for 23 countries, including the 15 of the EU. For Morocco, Turkey and a few other countries, they provide a green card between given dates (maximum 120 days) for a £10 fee. When we were delayed by the fascinations of Morocco, they faxed us an extension to Ouarzazate!

Currency: The currency is the Dirham (DH); about 15 of them equalled £1. TM's are increasingly available in larger towns.

Language: French is spoken throughout Morocco, with a little Spanish in some arts.

Campsite Lists: Write to the Moroccan National Tourist Office (205 Regent treet, London W1R 5FE, 0171 434 2800) for a typewritten list of campsites and other nformation. The Caravan Club Guide 1999 (Vol. 1) lists 33 sites, but omits a few others including the most popular one - Camping International in Agadir. The campsite at Essaouira has closed but overnighting on the guarded port car park is available for 10 DH (66p).

Camping: With one or two exceptions, all the campsites we used were cheap typically 50 DH or £3.30 including hook-up), poorly equipped and safe havens from the clamour outside. The mains electricity voltage could fall as low as 170 volts when the street lights came on.

Water: Water was OK after treatment with Aqua Tabs, filtering and boiling (we ad bought 30 litres of bottled water back in Algeciras but didn't use it). For the more cautious, good bottled water is available in Morocco, although alcohol isn't. Whatever else you pack, take your own toilet and shower!

Food: Basic groceries (eggs, milk, margarine, bread, tea, sugar, fruit and egetables) are available in the souks, although cheese is very scarce. Check that the eggs aren't hard-boiled, that the pea-pods don't contain grubs as well as small peas and choose meat very carefully unless you want to try camel or donkey! Along the coast, fish is good and fresh, perhaps brought to your door to be killed and gutted. Before sailing, we stocked up on non-perishable food at the Continente/Dia/Lidl complex on the N340/E15, a few miles north-east of Algeciras towards Malaga.

Diesel: Diesel was 30p per litre throughout Morocco, 20p in Ceuta and 18p in the Western Sahara.

Guides and Maps: We used the Rough Guide to Morocco which was excellent; the Lonely Planet Guide is equally good. The Michelin map of Morocco (No 959) is very accurate, with an enlarged scale for the most visited areas. Buy all these things in the UK.

Useful Gifts: Take some good second-hand clothes with you as gifts (check out your local charity shops), particularly babies' and children's clothing. Biro pens (stylos) are very welcome by Moroccan children, as are wrapped sweets (bonbons) which you can buy in the souk. Remote village schools welcome writing and drawing paper and any kind of pens and pencils.

Checkpoints: The further south you travel, the more police checkpoints (operated by the national Gendarmerie Royale) you will meet. Take your time and be courteous; don't even wonder why they want to know your mother's maiden name - they just do and it's all taken down in writing. Gendarmerie Posts make safe overnight stops, in the absence of campsites. Although not smokers ourselves, we always carry packets of Marlboro cigarettes, bought duty free on the ferry. Just about every male in Morocco smokes, and good western cigarettes have eased our way through many difficult situations.