Blogs: Africa – driving adventure’s on your doorstep
The only way to travel around Marrakech.
Oh dear. Once again it seems that plans to enjoy some relaxing driving in an exotic location have become unravelled rather too quickly. Okay, I’d subsequently arrive at my African destination (largely) on time, and in budget, I was far less relaxed as it might have been, and had seen much less of Morocco than I had hoped. Sitting at customs in Tangier for more than eight hours waiting for the right fax from England to chunter through and persuade our particularly earthy chef des douanes to stamp my passport, and let me into his country, is not my idea of fun. But boy, was I itching to further drive south.
Rewind a few weeks, and the trip had started with a simple question, wrapped in an email, from journalist and friend Mike Duff: ‘know anyone who could deliver a car to Marrakech for a feature I’m doing?’ I only needed asking once, and before you could say ‘Rock the Kasbah’, I’d volunteered myself for the task.
It seemed like a simple plan, and one that although hadn’t been particularly well thought out, shouldn’t pose too many problems for a seasoned driver like me. Basically, I needed to deliver a brand new Audi A3 e-tron to Mike, based temporarily in Marrakech, who was going to use it for a photo shoot in the Sahara desert. For once, I was nothing more than a plain delivery driver – no story, no deadline, no word count, and no pressure. Lovely. In short, it was going to be a three-day driving holiday that I so needed after months of being desk-bound in my new job as Classic Car Weekly‘s editor.
Although I’ve been to north Africa before, thanks to my mate, Nasier Frederik Faidhi, and being allowed to tag along on Philip Young’s amazing Nile Trial, I’ve never been to Morocco before, and this was most definitely one of my bucket list driving destinations. Exciting! Despite accepting the invitation to drive the car down about a month before I needed to be there, it wasn’t until a few days before the event that planning started to happen.
And by that, I meant the return flight ticket, and Marrakech hotel reservation had arrived. The rest was down to me.
I gave myself what I thought was a generous amount of time to get down to Marrakech, given the distances involved, started looking at the maps, and wistfully imagining what it would be like to have three days to myself, watching the world changing around me in beautiful widescreen. I imagined the greens of France giving way to the dustiness of Spain before being replaced by the sand, chaos and colour of Morocco.
Monday 17 November
The plan was to pick up the Audi from base at 9am, head for Folkstone for lunchtime, jump on the Eurotunnel, and be motoring through France as afternoon transformed into a evening, via a beautiful golden-skied dusk. I’ve done it so many times before, I could write the story without leaving my desk…
The Audi A3 e-tron that would be taking me swiftly to Marrakech.
Problem is, Audi has other ideas. I roll into the company’s base on a frosty Monday morning, expecting my A3 to be waiting for me, warmed-up, and brimmed with fuel, as that’s how it always is with press trips. Except that this time, the very nice lady on the desk looks surprised as I walk in, asking for my car. ‘Er, isn’t it tomorrow,’ she asks me rhetorically, before explaining that it had only arrived in the UK the previous Friday, and isn’t actually registered yet.
I explained that I need to be in Marrakech 0n Thursday, and obviously, having a registered, road-legal car would be conducive to that plan being a success. She said she’d make some calls, while I sit down, make a coffee, and check my emails. As always, I’m just itching to be on my way. A little while later, she comes back and gives me the news. It’s good and bad. The car is being registered, and assigned its taxation class, but it in’t ready to be let out yet, and won’t be for a few hours.
She isn’t kidding. Lunchtime comes and goes, and in the end, it’s mid-afternoon before I find myself learning the infotainment system and energy functions of this curious plug-in hybrid on the M40. First impressions of the car are largely positive – although I’m not there to test the car, it is interesting to form opinions anyway. Performance and refinement are both predictably impressive, backing up my opinion that the European renaissance of the petrol engine is now well underway – enjoying smooth power and linear torque throughout the range makes it easier to believe that the sun is beginning to set on diesel.
But hold on, what’s this? Glancing down at the fuel display, I’m wondering if I’m reading it incorrectly. A third gone, and I’ve not even passed Beaconsfield services? Cycling through the computer to find out my range, reveals it to be true. I have 130 miles left on this tank. Ah well, they can’t have filled it up before it was was handed over.
Thanks to traffic delays on the M40 and M25, as well as roadworks on the M20, and the need to fill up in Kent (£40 at motorway pump prices) it’s already going dark as I drive onto the Eurotunnel. My plan of getting to Bordeaux, 540 miles from Calais before hitting the sack is beginning to look a little ropey.
An Escort 1.4LX kept me company underneath the Channel.
Once on the other side of the Channel, it’s time to get my toe down. I have a schedule, and am now bloody hours behind. With France being a land of speed cameras and police checkpoints, there’s no way I’m going to do what I would have done in the past, dial in <censored>mph, and run out each tank of fuel as the miles pass quickly. No, because, once again the fuel seems to be going down alarmingly quickly, and according to the trip computer, we’re struggling to maintain an mpg figure in the mid-3os. And on that reckoning, I’ll need to stop at least every 200 miles or so – barely allowing me to get into my stride.
Still, it’s far from bad news, because stopping every two hours or so is probably the healthier way of attacking a major road trip. And it gives me the opportunity to try some lovely French roadside cuisine, albeit at night, I’m limited to the food that’s left in the service area petrol stations. Still, the coffee machines are excellent.
Midnight snack somewhere between Rouen and Le Mans.
Tuesday 18 November
The second day’s driving doesn’t – as I’d hoped – start from a nice hotel in Bordeaux. But instead I’m just south of Rouen on the A28, with the road signs telling me that Bordeaux is still 500km away. The autoroute is deserted, and it feels like the world belongs to me. And despite being dispiritingly far from my planned stopover, I’m still happy and fresh, and enjoying the Audi. It might not have a great range, but the sports seats are fantastic, and the active LED lights are just wonderful to sit behind. On a long night drive, things like this matter a great deal.
The hours roll by, which is odd, as I’m reliant on French radio for company (yes, I forgot to pack my iPod), and familiar place names pass by: Le Mans, Tours, Poitiers, Cognac… But fatigue inevitably starts to kick in as Bordeaux finally hoves into view at about 4am. Still, it shouldn’t be hard finding a hotel, I reason to myself, as I head towards the airport. The satnav tells me there are loads in the area, and I’ll soon be fast asleep.
Wrong. For whatever reason, Bordeaux cruelly denies me a room of any description, as all hotels with overnight facilities display the Complet sign. Frustration rising and morale sagging, I walk into one anyway, hoping I can blag a bed, anything. But no dice. After about 45 minutes of searching, I give up and head back towards the Autoroute, now resigned to curling up on the back seat at a roadside truck stop.
With dawn surely not far away, and with Bordeaux behind me, I see a motel by the motorway, and give it one last shot. The automated ticket machine outsides relays a miracle – there are free rooms, and they’re €40 per night. I’m in! Within 10 minutes, I’m asleep in a surprisingly luxurious room, having set my alarm for a 8.30am start.
The joys of the Spanish interior: run down service areas.
The following morning, and following a very good breakfast, I’m packing up, and readying myself for the next leg of the trip. The news in France is pretty depressing at the moment, with increased social unrest, and it’s heartbreaking to see the country I love so much going through such pain – I hope it doesn’t last. No time to ponder that, though, as it’s time to dial-in the port of Algeciras in Spain. It’s from there I’ll be leaving Europe and crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to the recently-built Tangier Med port, which I’m advised is the best way of getting into Morocco. The satnav reports it’s a mere 923-mile hop, and I’ll be there in time for supper.
I leave the hotel and drive straight into the Bordeaux hinterland rush-hour, but thankfully, much of the traffic is heading in the opposite direction. Signs for Spain are getting more frequent, but it’s still a 130-mile run from Bordeaux to the Spanish border. Still, as I cruise through through the sunny and incredibly verdant plains south, it’s hard not to be uplifted – we’re back on track.
The last few miles of France are annoying, though. It feels like I’m stopping every five miles for yet another 80 cent toll, and being in a RHD car, alone, this becomes tiresome. Stop, unbelt, climb out, walk round, feed the machine, walk back round, climb in, belt up, go… And since when did all autoroute booths become unmanned? Crossing into Spain is almost a relief, a smiling toll Señorita is nice human contact.
Almost immediately after the crossing, the scenery changes, and we start climbing, despite initially running along the northern coast towards and beyond San Sebastián. The skies are blue, and whenever I stop, the sun gently warms my skin. As we turn south towards Spain’s interior, the scenery gets more rugged, the motorway flows differently, being shaped by the mountains it passes through. Many times as we run along the bottom of valleys, mountains either side, I’m reminded of the Alps, rather than the Pyrénées.
Rather cruelly, I see a bilingual sign (in Spanish and Arabic), telling me I’m heading in the correct direction for Algeceras. In these mountains, with some 700 miles to go. And just as mysteriously, I don’t see any more until I’m almost there, many hours later…
Once the mountains clear, and we level out, I’m in a region I’ve never travelled through and experienced before, having only seen it from the window of a 737 at 38,000 feet. But I find the vast open spaces, golden dustiness with contrasting big skies, and sheer emptiness of the interior of Spain absolutely fascinating. The towns and cities are few and far between, and seldom do I even see another car. Sticking to the speed limits is proving very difficult indeed.
Even more than yesterday’s night drive in France, today is an exercise in managing routines. And trying hard not to be tempted to follow the signs for Madrid. Checking mileages, refilling regularly, keeping on top of the radio programming, and clicking off the names of towns and cities I didn’t know existed. Burgos, Valladolid, Cáceres, and La Algaba.
It’s around here that I see the frontier police, I guess patroling the now-open border between Spain and Portugal. I hope some interest is going to be added to my day by being stopped. Guess what, they ignore me. The other wonder is the run-down service station near Cáceres, which as you can see from the gallery above, would not look out of place in the American mid-West – I think, also, this is the first motorway service station I’ve been to in a long time, where you can buy flick knives or b-b guns, as well as homemade paella. Wonderful.
But the hours are passing, the miles are clicking off, and as day turns to night, with 300 miles left to go, it’s time to focus, and get to the port in time for the chance for at least half a night’s decent sleep. Again, those amazing headlights help make light of the last few hours of this journey, as does surprising ease of which I find palatable music on the radio. So, by the time I arrive in Algeceras, I’m tired, but not desperately so, although finding the large hotel is surprisingly troublesome thanks to a satnav convinced that it’s located in a run down housing estate. Luckily my ‘phone showed me the way.
Having covered 1550 miles in 30 hours of driving, punctuated by a Channel crossing and three hours’ sleep in Bordeaux. Not bad for a car optimised for urban driving, and a driver who seems to live behind a desk these days. As I settle down into my amazingly soft bed, and wallow in another luxurious hotel room, excitement hits again – in a few hours, I’ll be in Morocco!
You can’t beat a pair of active LED headlights.
Wednesday 19 November
Today is an exciting day. Today I’m driving in Morocco, and experiencing a country that’s fascinated me for many, many years. According to my plans, it’s a simple 400-mile drive to Marrakech, which after the long ones I’ve had so far, should be a doddle. I’ve not booked ahead, so there’s the small matter of getting a ticket, and making sure it’s a return, so Mike can get back in a few days’ time. Negotiating the port is easy enough, but jumping out of the car to buy tickets opens the first minefield – there are at least 10 booths, all representing different companies, selling tickets, and it’s chaos. It’s more like a bazaar than a ferry office.
So, being not great in these circumstances, I stride up to the first seller, and buy my return ticket without negotiating, and within a few minutes, I’m in the queue for the ferry, and are loading up within a few minutes. The most interesting aspect of all this, is that in terms of procedure and difficulty it’s no more arduous than taking a cross-Channel ferry, which really deflates the notion that this is a motoring adventure that only the brave should undertake.
Of course, I already knew this would be the case, something which is reinforced by the fact that sharing our crossing are three Dutch-registered campers, with their retiree occupants. Suddenly it feels a whole lot less intimidating. The crossing itself was very pleasant indeed – the ship is modern and well equipped, and the sea surprisingly placid. A perfect start to what was shaping into a perfect day. The only unusualness is the need to get my passport stamped on the ferry, and a visa attached into it.
Passing Gibraltar on the way to Tangier. And what colours…
After that, it’s a case of watching the dark mountains of Oued el Marsa loom towards us as we draw up to Africa – and get back in to the Audi, and hope that our passage in is going to be nice and simple. I must admit I’m pretty nervous about this bit, and mainly because as the car’s so new, it does not have a logbook. In fact, there’s no paperwork with it at all, aside from permission from Audi UK to use the car in Morocco, and this alone makes gives me huge doubts that I’m going to get in at all.
As I drive off the ferry, there’s just a cursory check of my passport, and I’m ushered towards the vehicle exit. Smiling, I drive around the port, heading for what I believe is the way out, wondering it this indeed is it. Surely not. Just as I begin to believe it is, I round a corner, and there it is – the vehicle checkpoint. And it’s split into two lanes, one for nationals, and one for foreigners.
Ah well. I drive in, grab what little paperwork I have, and wait to see what happens. When it’s my turn, the border guard smiles, asks me about the car – yes, it’s really electric, and yes, it really costs around €40,000 – and walks off with my documents. This is looking okay, he seems friendly, like a good go-to man. But then he hands this over to one of his colleagues with a larger hat, who looks a whole lot less friendly. He walks away with the paperwork, and disappears for about an hour.
When he returns after what I can only assume is a very nice lunch, he tells me to go into the office he’s just left. As he’s not carrying my paperwork, I’m assuming there are more questions. And indeed there are from a very grumpy chef des douanes. Yes, it’s not my car. No, I’m delivering it for a journalist in Marrakech. Yes, it’s from Britain. No, it’s too new for documentation. And so it goes on. He keeps looking at the paperwork, looking at my passport, looking at me, his hand hovering over his entry stamp.
Then, after two hours. ‘I can’t let let you in without the car’s paperwork,’ he says. I beg, I plead, tell him the circumstances, and now he’s firm. I can go in, but the car can’t. And it won’t without paperwork. ‘Can I fax over some further paperwork,’ I ask? He says I can, but I’ll need to use one of the ticket office’s fax machines. So, off I trudge, moving the Audi into a holding area (while unsuccessfully trying to bribe a border guard into letting the car in anyway), and make a call back to the UK. And in the UK further calls are made to Audi and to the DVLA. Can a copy V5 be issued by email? No? Anything else? Not by the DVLA.
Initially I get faxed copies of the car’s homologation papers, and those proving the car’s registration and tax status. And that’s a no-go. All the time, the hours are grindingly slipping by. From hitting Moroccan shores at 10am, here we are, each step taking another hour or so, at 4pm, with no real chance of getting in – and me now considering taking a taxi into Tangier, leaving the car at the port, and trying again tomorrow. Except the chaps in Marrakech are hoping to start their photoshoot first thing in the morning, and that’s 400 miles away.
Then, as 5pm approaches, a breakthrough. The DVLA issues a temporary ‘permission to export’ licence for the car, which means it can cross the border and into Morocco, and remain there for six months. Mind you, it feels like I’ve already been in the port for six months. Still, we get the document faxed through, and it’s then a case of once again, trying with the chef des douanes. Once again, he takes his merry time, and I must admit that as it passes 6pm, I’m losing patience rapidly. But after another lengthy discussion, he finally grants us permission to enter the country.
Just as another boatload arrives, and we go to the back of the queue to get the car searched. Sigh. And as a result it’s 7pm when we finally leave the port, and we’ve lost the light. It’s now night time, and there’s seven hours of driving left to go.
Tangier Med port. Way too much time spent here.
So, my stunning trip through Morocco has been downgraded into another exercise in counting off the miles, ticking down the time, and reading the motorway signs between refuelling stops. After the port is cleared, the motorway has a reassuringly familiar feel to it, with French levels of surface quality, and that country’s road signs. In fact, they’re identical down to colours and fonts, and if it weren’t for the Arabic on them, I’d swear I’d been transported back to my night drive to Bordeaux.
Of course, the scenery around me could be stunning, but I have absolutely no clue whatsoever, and the feeling of displacement is absolutely disconcerting. This is heightened by the fact that once we’re clear of the Tangier area, most of the cars on the motorway are either British or French registered. Since leaving Spain, the Audi’s satnav has become useless, but thanks to the joys of modern ‘phone technology, I’m packing a free application that uses Google maps to direct me on my way – it’s pretty good, too, thankfully. It’s the only thing my ‘phone is good for, though, as it burned through my monthly credit allowance (I capped it voluntarily) before I’d even left the port. Heck, I couldn’t even make a call on it – which is something I choose not to think about in the event of any problems with me, or the car.
The route south roughly follows the coast, not that I’d know it, before taking a dog-leg inland at Casablanca on the last leg towards Marrakech. I can’t help myself here, though, and take a quick detour into the city. It’s gone midnight and the place is still buzzing, and I’m soon engaged in traffic light Grands Prix with the locals. I lose.
On the last leg, to Marrakech, I think fatigue finally claims me, and by the time I arrive at the airport hotel following a hallucinogenic drive through the city, all I want to do is sleep. For a week. Once again, the hotel is fantastic, with a beautiful suite and balcony, but all that passes me by completely.
Sightseeing on the drive down was limited to service areas. Cheap petrol is good.
Thursday, 20 November
Relaxing at the hotel before heading on to a whistle-stop tour of Marrakech.
By the time I wake up, the car has been taken away and my friends are already heading for the Sahara in it. It’s 9am, and my flight leaves in three hours, and I’ve yet to see any of Marrakech. At all. So, I get dressed, pack my bag, take a quick breakfast by the pool – nice for November – and head off. I’ve now literally about an hour to see the sights before grabbing an Easyjet home, and I’m determined to see something. So, I hang around outside and wait for the first appealing looking taxi to take me one a whistlestop tour of the city, offering what Moroccan money I have left in my wallet.
The driver of the 790,000km Mercedes-Benz 240D seems very happy to receive the money, and duly obliges showing me around. In total, I manage to squeeze in about an hour before relenting and heading to the airport. outwardly it hardly seems worth it – three hard days’ driving for what amounts to a little over 60 minutes spent touring Marrakech. But then, I wanted to do it, loved every moment of the drive down – really – and would do it again in a heartbeat. Because as anyone who knows me will confirm, the journey is often more fun than the destination.
As for Morocco, I do want to go back. And do it soon. Opportunities don’t present themselves very often, and when they do, I grab them with both hands. Should you go? If you have the time, the money, the car, and all of your papers are in order, then a whole new world of driving adventure is available to you. All it takes is two or three long days’ driving to get there, and maybe a little negotiation with the chef des douanes. But where would the adventure be if it were too easy?
The route down. I took the blue line – all 1950 miles of it.