Y2K was looming on the horizon, so what better time to see the world than just before civilization as we knew it ended? Don’t worry, it didn’t (this isn’t that kind of a story). So we cleared the calendar for two months, shipped an old $3,000 used 1980s Jeep Wrangler to Europe, and started what would become a 2-decade adventure in Morocco. Now, depending on who you talk to, starting a business involves lots and lots of planning. The first step is market studies, business plans, marketing plans, corporate structure, etc. For us, it was a British doctor on vacation and a water well on the edge of the Sahara (more on that later).
Let’s start where all good stories start, at the beginning in Gibraltar (not that some fine stories don’t begin in Gibraltar, but only the really good ones do). While standing at Europa Point in Gibraltar, my wife looked south and said, “look at those clouds, how low they are, how big they are.” So I looked and said, “Those aren’t clouds. Those are the Pillars of Hercules. That’s Africa!” “No, it isn’t!” she said. “Yes, it is,” I said, “and I’ll prove it.” So a short drive later, we’re standing at the ferry docks in Algeciras, Spain, about to embark across the straits of Gibraltar.
After resorting to broken Spanglish and the international language of dance, we secured passage on the next ferry to Ceuta. The seas were rough for such a short ride, and the catamaran ferry pitched and rolled violently. Sure enough, we were singing the Song of the Seasick Marriner, otherwise known as “Ahoy Captian, Can I Heave Too?” Although adventurous, we managed to arrive in Ceuta undamaged but desperately needed some mouthwash. Ceuta was like we never left Spain. Politically, we hadn’t. Remember, this was before GPS, cellular WiFI, and funny cat videos. All we had was a Lonely Planet guide, a AAA map, and more adventure than brains. So we managed to drive to the frontier, where it was surprisingly easy to get out of Spain and almost as easy to get into Morocco. As a side note, in Florida, you’re only given one license plate for the back of the vehicle. In Europe and Morocco, vehicles have two (one on the front, one on the back). So we managed to explain that to the Customs and Border Protection using our Pepé Le Pew French and dance, but somehow they still let us in any way. The moment we crossed the border, it was clear we were in another world. No long, smooth, fast roads. No fast food, no attractive and well-manicured medians. Instead, it was a road (if you could call it that) about a lane and a half wide. A little dirty, a lot dusty, and very exciting. Our Jeep seemed to be home there, us, not so much. But with the map and Lonely Planet, we set course to Fez, through the Rif Mountains. Did you know that most of Morocco’s pot production is in the Rif? Did you also know that drug dealers will force foreign cars to stop to buy weed? Yeah, neither did we. It wasn’t long before we had two brand new black Mercedes trying to box us in and force us to stop. Big mistake on their part. When confronted with a beat-up old Jeep against their nice new cars, they decided their paint jobs were more important and went on their way.
Lonely Planet had a warning about driving in Morocco. Expect hitchhikers outside of major cities. Once you pick them up, you have to bribe them to get out. The book was right. It was like running the gauntlet as we got closer to Fez. So we stopped and picked one up. After all, what does a guidebook know? With him navigating, we got to Fez in good time, stopped in the New City, and pretty much tossed him out after it was determined that we didn’t speak French or Arabic and he couldn’t dance. That’s when a guy on a scooter with government guide credentials flapping in the wind came zipping up on us. This was our first guide in Morocco. We called him “Comical Ali.” Sure enough, after a brief talk and showing him the guidebook recommendations for hotels in Fez, he led us to one, helped us get checked in, and scheduled himself as our tour guide for the next day. Comical Ali was an “old school guide.” Always agree, always promise, if you don’t have the answer make something up, and ABS (Always Be Shopping). Seeing Fez was amazing, a good thing because the guide left much to be desired. After 4 hours of walking and not buying anything, we paid our guide the official rate and put Fez in our rearview as we got on the road to Marrakech.
Getting to Marrakech was a repeat of getting into Fez, bad roads with herds of hitchhikers, scooter guides laying in wait for rental cars or cars with foreign plates, and donkeys on the road, but then we encountered a new road hazard, the police. Checkpoints were constant. Some you stopped for, others you just slowed for. So it’s important to note that you don’t slow for a stop checkpoint and you don’t stop for a slow checkpoint. How do you know the difference? You don’t. However, driving our one license plate Jeep made it easier because we got stopped at each and every single freakn’ checkpoint in all of Morocco! Although without humor (they didn’t appreciate my Maurice Chevalier cheesy French accent), they weren’t without some simple graft. With radar guns that only worked on rental and foreign license plates, they’d have enough tourist cars lined up on the road to make it look like a UN meeting. The penalty for whatever the possible or impossible infraction was about $5/per policeman present.
After enough of these, you learned something about tourism to Morocco. There was no such thing as DIY Morocco. To illustrate the point, during one trip over to Morocco, two buddies on the plane were sitting behind me, starting out on a grand adventure in Morocco. They had maps, pockets full of tourist guides, brand new, unwrinkled khakis, and spotless hiking boots (we always call them “Banana Republicans”). I was sitting beside them on the same flight back, and you’ve never seen such a sorry sight. They were absolutely defeated and looked like a camel rode THEM out of the Sahara. So if you wanted to avoid their fate, you either went with a French tour operator that was rarely pleased to see an American client or did it on your own, leaving a trail of $5 bills for every hour of driving and cursing that you even came.
But I digress. Marrakech was everything Fez wasn’t. Fez is the cultural soul of Morocco, but Marrakech is the beating heart and loves to party. After a couple of days in Marrakech, our sense of adventure was restored. However, our faith in the distances shown on the map remained shockingly displaced. We tanked up in Marrakech and set off south for what looked like an easy drive to Zagora and the Sahara. We spent four hours alone driving through the High Atlas mountains dodging dump trucks painted like parade floats, donkeys, goats, and locals that would run into the road to sell you geodes. Getting to Zagora and the “Sahara” was the first time I questioned a guidebook to the point that I wondered if the author had ever even been there. The “Sahara” was one dune, just one. It looked like one of those parade float bump truck things had just dumped a load of sand there. So rather than accepting disappointment, the guidebook (liers) mentioned a small village at the end of the road and on the edge of the Sahara, M’hamid. So with almost no gas in the tank, off we went.
An hour later, after a constant barrage of faux guides (unlicensed guides that just take you shopping at their cousins’ shop), hitchhikers, and hawkers running into the road, we arrived in M’hamid and began our search for the Hotel Sahara. In the dirt village square, the annoyance that is Morocco reached its crescendo. Covering nearly every foot of the square was a faux guide dressed in a turban with a camel in tow because apparently a foreign tourist had arrived in the village, and news traveled fast. As they swarmed us, we dared to ask one of them where the Hotel Sahara was. The response became very typical whenever you asked any Moroccan a question. Hotel Sahara? Oh no, you don’t want to stay there. It has roaches. Oh no, it burned down. Oh no, the cockroaches burned down the hotel. “You wanna stay at my cousin’s hotel instead.”
At that point, my National Geographic explorer persona gave way to my inner Yosemite Sam as it hit the gas and raced around the dirt square, yelling, “Yeehaa! Run boy! Run!” Moroccans are very calm and relaxed, but man, can they move! With my Jeep as a sheepdog, we rounded them up, cut out the weakest one, pressed him between our bumper and a wall, and very politely asked where the Hotel Sahara was. A nervous point to the building right behind us on the square with the sign “Hotel Sahara” on it. We thanked him, put the Jeep in reverse, and backed into the parking for the hotel.
Before the dust had settled, the Hotel Sahara owner (Habib) was standing in the entryway with his staff, laughing uncontrollably at the impromptu exhibition of American Cowboyism and Moroccan track and field skills. What started as an overnight ended up being a week. Every day was a new adventure. Two days on camel and camping. Visiting a Kasbah that had just gotten electricity a week earlier. A visit to a school (I was a school teacher). Driving on the salt flats. Hiking to abandoned fortresses. Admittedly, we were a bit of a captive audience because we ran out of gas, and the nearest unleaded was back in Zagora. Eventually, a can of gas got to us, and we could continue on our way, but not before inspiration struck.
Tourism in that area was pretty sparse then, so only the adventurous would make it that far a field. A British doctor arrived at the hotel, and we invited him on our adventures. Habib took us to a remote village surrounded by palm groves, dropped us off on one end, and would pick us up on the other side. We strolled through the Kasbah as curious locals looked on, but we moved a bit faster than Habib expected, so we were well past the pickup point when he got there. Strolling on the edge of the Kasbah, our one bottle of water gone and 110-degree heat pounding down, we came upon a local well from which the villagers were getting their water. To this day, I remember what the doctor said. “Apparently, we have a choice. We can die of dehydration or cholera.” We didn’t die from either (I told you, it’s not that kind of story), and Habib appeared only a moment later to bring us back to the hotel.
To stick with the cowboy theme, by the time we got back to the hotel and cracked open a bottle of water, I felt lower than a snake’s belly. We had dragged this poor unsuspecting doctor on what became a death march on the world’s edge. While we were gone, a young Irish couple had checked into the hotel, and that evening they sought us out, asking if they could accompany us on our next little adventure. Instead of being shell-shocked at the prospects of a grizzly death, the doctor was raving about how magnificent it was! It was simple, unique, and authentic, and we were the only ones doing it. These are some Morocco’s adventure highlights.
And with that, SaharaTrek was born. I won’t bore you with the details of setting it all up, the dozens of flights to Morocco to select accommodations, the endless driving all over Morocco looking for the unique and authentic, and interviewing hundreds of guides and drivers. But the result was a reliable, trustworthy tour company in Morocco that catered to English-speaking clients looking for an adventure of a lifetime. Saharatrek is the best Morocco vacation travel guide where you can find Moroccan global adventures. And you’ll never forget our Morocco adventure tour.