“Nous faisons l’autostop au Maroc pour un organisation benevole” I ineloquently announced to a burly trucker with my GCSE French spluttering back into life. All the truck drivers on board fitted the stereotype neatly yet, despite their tattoo-ridden, bearded, meaty, brink-of-violence appearance, they were all incredibly friendly and sympathetic. Interrupting myself part way through the next line of my inarticulate appeal, I realised my first victim was blatantly British. He laughed and said he was going to Germany . This was not good. Along with my gap year buddy Dave we were meant to be hitch-hiking to Morocco for ‘Link’, an African development charity, but found that most people on our 5-hour ferry to Le Havre were headed East or twenty minutes down the road. We pondered the progress of the 400 other sponsored hitchers (including dozens from Leeds University) and began to plan a night on the streets to await the next influx of passengers from Portsmouth .
Cue Jimmy, our saviour, who approached a flustered Dave and I proposing a lift straight to Morocco . We couldn’t believe our ears, or luck – cheerful Jimmy, in his 50s from Surrey , was working on the set of the latest 20 th Century Fox blockbuster in the Sahara . The following two minutes would be crucial, as this was the only opportunity for each party to judge the sanity of the other. No-one fancied sharing a confined space with a fanatical moron for four days. We also had to consider sacrificing the challenge, romance and adventure (and potential for pillage, rape and murder) associated with hitching down through France and Spain . It seemed like fate and too irresistible to refuse, so we abandoned our specially constructed multi-coloured ‘give-us-a-lift’ banners and hopped into Jim’s van.
Jimmy explained how truckers are slaves to their tacographs which, connected to the speedometer, dictate the frequency and length of stopovers and breaks. Having reached his ‘miles-per-day’ limit and with no funky, cheap hotels in sight, we pulled into a quaint, dark village and asked if we can sleep with the scaffolding in the back. The only thing worse than our ensuing uncomfortably sleepless sub-zero experience was discovering, next morning, an ample menagerie of hotels right behind the van. Kicking ourselves, we pressed on with a few hours of driving and pulled into a service station for brunch. Although my sausages appeared to contain all manner of arteries, veins and other vague animal giblets, we all felt ready to hit the toll roads again and hoped to arrive in Spain by the end of the evening.
Since picking us up, our driver had been keen on passionately expressing his opinion on every political issue under the sun – ten minutes after meeting him, he shared his somewhat skewed thoughts on immigration. At first, we felt obliged to nod, laugh nervously and agree with Jimmy – the last thing we wanted was to be thrown out for questioning the wisdom of our host. However, as the trip unfolded and we got to know each other, we were eventually telling him to “stop talking bloody crap” as we debated such hot topics as royalty, terrorism, NHS, God, poverty, homosexuality, disability, racism and Celine Dion.
The intensity of the journey also gave David and I the opportunity to perfect our skills at annoying one another. Dave’s ‘old-man’ style snoring, overly loud apple consumption and his habit of placing all his rubbish in random pockets of my rucksack soon began to grate. Then again, I’m sure he wasn’t too impressed with pigeon impressions and my new craze of ‘extreme blinking’.
After a trouble-free border crossing, we pulled into a clinically average roadside hotel. Over drinks, we concluded that family-man Jimmy was actually quite liberal for his age. He also generously insisted on using his float from Fox to pay for our meals. Knowing that a major Hollywood studio was paying for my tortilla made it taste all the better.
Aside from the awesome views of olive groves and mountains, the main feature of our penultimate day on the road was being forced to have a drink in one of the many Spanish roadside brothels. Happily married with kids, Jimmy seemed to have an unhealthy curiosity with such establishments yet insisted he’d never been inside. I spent most of our ‘quick drink’ panicking whilst several ladies accosted and groped us. Somewhat traumatised, I eventually went back to the van to selflessly ensure the tires were inflated to an acceptable level.
Back on the road, we skirted past Madrid and stayed in another bargain trucker hotel. By lunchtime the following day we had navigated the siesta rush hour traffic of Malaga and were ready to bid our emotional farewells to our chauffeur. During the roughest ferry journey of my life, Dave began fraternising with the first of many hitchers on board whilst I grabbed some random Arabs for a crash course in Moroccan Arabic pronunciation. No master of language, there are still some tricky phrases I find impossible to utter without covering my unfortunate comrade in a gallon of phlegm.
Warnings about the port town of Tangier being infested with jostling con-men, swindlers, crooks and general scum were found to be exaggerated. In fact, most warnings from back home about Morocco seemed to rather inaccurate. The explicit poverty, filth and hassle weren’t half as ‘bad’ as expected, the people were friendly, the springtime weather was annoyingly rather British and I actually felt quite safe walking the streets. In fact, the only thing which probably annoyed me were disrespectful fellow tourists with no sense of cultural sensitivity, even when in the most liberal town of the most liberal Muslim country – Marrakech.
Having linked up with a (very) American guy named Brian and about a dozen other hitchers, we assessed our transport options. ‘Petit taxis’ (small Fiats), ‘maxi-taxis’ (saloons) or ‘scabby horse and cart’ were the main choices for short journeys, whilst the surprisingly civilised train and coach services were great for travelling between cities.
With us all checked into ‘Hotel Ali’ in Marrakech’s main medina, we each went out to get lost in the winding alleyways of the ‘red city’. Everything was centred around the central square which came to life at night with food vendors, entertainers, musicians, storytellers and dancers. Small streets led off from the central medina to endless rows of shops selling the best selection of bangles and jangles I’ve ever seen. Calls to prayer, music, snake charmers and drumming could be heard from every direction, and even without the necessary haggling, everything was pretty affordable.
Feeling peckish we arranged to meet at stall 114, run – apparently – by some cheerful locals called Abdul, Abdul, Abdul and Abdulla. Over cow udder, salad and chips, we discussed taking a three day tour through the Atlas Mountains to see some of the sights and have a couple of days camel trekking in the Sahara. We recruited an eccentrically indecipherable Irishman called Darragh, therapist Brian from Arkansas and from Leeds , fellow ginger northerner Liz, fluent-in-French Emily and action-man Tony to join us.
We left at 6am next morning and only the splendid mountainous views compensated for the uncomfortably long journey. Now suffering from the runs, Dave was unable to appreciate our first stop – the awe-inspiring magnificence of Todra Gorge. With my camcorder conveniently out of battery, I was only able to photograph about a tenth of the huge formation at a time.
Settling down for the night at a very Agatha Christie-esque spooky hotel, we watched Dave play the drums with some natives in front of a log fire and wondered who would be first to be murdered.
Feeling moderately crusty after a cold shower, I joined the others for the usual traditionally bland breakfast of sweet coffee, bread and marmalade. Talk was of the Sahara , as we were to spend an evening crossing the perimeter on camels before camping down. The first thing that hits you heading towards the desert is that fact that it just seems to start – very suddenly. From a distance, the perfect red sand dunes looked just like a postcard – it was as if there was a long billboard sitting on the horizon. After clumsily boarding our camels, we christened our beasts (Humphrey, Sally etc…) and spent most of the journey in reasonable discomfort cracking one bad joke after another. (Insert your own camel/desert pun).
As the scorching heat of the day rapidly gave way to the awesomely peaceful and clear night sky, we settled into our campsite and collectively felt the need to scale one of the local dunes. Harder and more knackering than anticipated, the thin, golden sand became very fine as one went higher up. As for getting back down to the bottom, there was only one real option, and that was roly-poly – something I later regretted, as I’m still finding bits of Sahara in places you wouldn’t believe. Sharing a traditional dish of vegetable tagine (a kind of stew), we watched the shimmering sky as satellites whizzed past in the eerily calm silence.
Awaking relatively sleepless at 5am , we all gathered to watch the sunrise – my camera falling victim to the sand during the best bit of the show. By lunchtime, we were driving through a snowstorm back to Marrakech.
From here the group split up – Dave, Darragh and I proceeded to the tacky, cultureless, package tourist hangout of Agadir before moving on to the mystical medieval city of Fez . I joined them via Casablanca , whose only worthwhile attraction was the Hassan II Mosque, a modern multi-million dollar temple on par with the Taj Mahal in its majesty.
I spent an additional week backpacking solo before calling in on Gibraltar then flying home from Malaga on the not-so-prestigious Jet2.com Airways.
Knee-jerk foreign office warnings and the mere fact that it is a Muslim country appear to deter backpackers and tourists from this welcoming country, which offers an exceptional combination of European, African, Arab and Berber influences as well as great weather. Morocco is accessible, affordable, undeniably beautiful and certainly undeserving of its seemingly poor reputation.