Our Calamitous Road to Morocco Adventure | A Story by Bea Heise and friends
Posted by Guest Blogger
in Of Interest
This story was written by the “village” of Anne, Bea and Phyllis.
The events and people depicted herein are 100% accurate—“honestly, you can’t make this up!”
Our Calamitous “Road to Morocco” Adventure
Morocco, Marrakech, Casablanca…names stirring the imagination with exotic images of drama, romance, and adventure. Maybe you think of the Bogart film. Or Crosby and Hope in “Road to Morocco”. I’d call Day One of my two-day land extension from Agadir to Marrakech and Casablanca (a side trip of a cruise from Senegal to Portugal) a combo Max Sennett comedy and “Road” movie! An adventure? Read on and decide!
We arrived in Agadir, a beautiful Atlantic port, bright and early one morning. The plan: passengers divided into 3 groups—those wanting a half day tour that would return to the ship for lunch and then stay onboard for an overnight cruise to Casablanca; those wanting a morning cultural tour near Agadir and then a 4–5 hour drive to Marrakech for a Moroccan dinner in a desert tent and overnight in a hotel and heading to Casablanca the next day to board the ship; and the group I joined…10 birders with Peter H. Need I say more?
I’m sure you know birders notoriously leave first and are the last back. We would drive a short way south of Agadir, then reverse and head back to Agadir for lunch, then drive 4–5 hours northeast to Marrakech in time to join the cultural group, whence we would all partake in the Moroccan dinner in the desert tent. Birders all together in one comfy minibus on paved roads. No worries at all!
Our little birding group disembarked about an hour ahead of everyone else because we had to get to our first birding spot early in order to spot the hard-to-find glossy ibis that show up at this spot the first few hours of every morning. We were ready and waiting…but no minibus in sight. Not a good omen!
After a while, two tiny minivans showed up. We thought they were for someone else…but no, they were for us. Peter wanted to trade the two small vans for one larger one, because it was important for us to all be in one vehicle…but no luck there. We then discovered each van had a driver who didn’t understand English, and there was no local English-speaking guide as originally booked. Not one of us spoke their language. One person in our group spoke French, and while some Moroccans do speak French, our two drivers, unfortunately, did not!
Using maps and pointing, Peter tried to ascertain if these guys knew where to go, because we had supplied the tour operator ahead of time with directions on the places we wanted to visit (which of course were NOT on the regular tourist routes). He also tried contacting the tour operator to get a local English-speaking guide at the last minute, no luck there; however, he was assured that the drivers knew exactly where to go. Getting a sinking feeling?? I know I was at the time, and we hadn’t even left the dock!
If we had a single van, Peter would be our staff leader, but now with two vans instead of one, he convinced Kevin C. to come along so there would be a leader in each van. Both Peter and Kevin had two-way radios so they could communicate with each other. Kevin, not a birding person, was truly overjoyed(!) being stuck with the “our-reputation-precedes-us” birding group, but because he is such a nice, easygoing guy, he took it in stride! He was assigned to the van I was in. (At the end of the cruise, our group presented Kevin with an honorary “birder” medal, because he was so good-natured about being stuck with us. He even admitted that the birder group was more active and exciting than he imagined!)
We watched all the other groups depart (so much for first to leave!)…and headed to our ibis spot…the mouth of a river outside of the walls of the old Royal Palace in Agadir (only 5-10 minutes away from the dock). We weren’t on the road for more than 5 minutes when the two drivers had passing “duels” with each other. Our driver would get annoyed when the other driver tried to pass him. At one point, my driver was in the lead, navigating Agadir’s busy streets, when over the radio we heard Peter asking from the other van, “Uh, does your driver know something we don’t?” Kevin replied, “Why?” Peter responded, “Because your guy is going straight and our guy just made a turn to the right!” We all turned in our seats and realized the other van wasn’t behind us anymore.
After much arm waving and pointing, our driver realized we wanted him to turn around. He VERY unhappily headed back to find the other van. Once back together, we set off again and pretty soon we end up at the gates of the current Moroccan Royal Palace, with armed guards at the closed gate none too pleased to see our little “Turismo” vans, especially when we showed up a second time 5 minutes later! We wanted an OLD palace on a river! The guards pointed. Off we go.
By now we have driven around in circles multiple times because I’m recognizing road signs and the billboard of a beautiful lady beaming at a bottle of argen oil. We make a hard right turn down a narrow road and end up at a small dump next to a river! Close…we could see the walls of the old palace…on the other side of the river! Back in the vans, yet another circle past the smiling argen oil lady, and we finally reach the mouth of the river. A park guard found us and said the ibis had just flown off—and to come back at sunset. Right. No ibis sighting today!
Another group huddle with much map-pointing for our second destination, a wildlife sanctuary located on another river about 45 minutes south of Agadir. Things went rather smoothly, until the drivers sped right past the turn to the sanctuary! About face! Eventually we reached the sanctuary, very lush and beautiful, with lots of birds. We spent several happy hours there—even Kevin was happy because there were many varieties of plants to identify. Leaving right on schedule at noon, we headed back north to our lunch on the northern outskirts of Agadir and then the start of the long drive to Marrakech—under orders to be at the hotel no later than 7:30 p.m., because that’s when transport would arrive to take us all to the traditional Moroccan dinner in a tent somewhere in the “desert.”
As we reached southern Agadir, we noticed policemen standing on street corners, and the closer we got to the center of town, the more policemen we saw! Not a good sign. And streets were barricaded with yellow caution tape. Very worrisome. To get to our lunch spot north of the city, we needed to get through these roadblocks.
We got as far as a parking area next to a very large beach—we could see the restaurant on the bluff up ahead. But here a policeman stopped us and wouldn’t let us go any further (mind you, this is also the highway we needed to take to Marrakech). He gestured to our driver to park in the parking lot. More arm waving and talking between the driver and the policeman, we could guess what was said! But every once in a while, the policeman would look at us and smile and wave, so we thought, gee, what the heck is going on? Our other van caught up with us, carrying our French-speaking friend. The policeman also spoke French (Hurray!), but not a French she could easily understand; however, she understood enough to tell us the streets were blocked because a bicycle race was coming (think Tour de France type race)! With a lot of smiles and waves, we promised we were just going to a restaurant a couple of blocks away and we would stay there until the race went by. We made it through!
We reached the restaurant, but the restaurant staff wanted to see the race, so no lunch until after the cyclists went by. After waiting for some time, we were treated to the sight of a police escort and a huge group of bicyclists whizzing by (the South African team was in the front), followed by an impressive entourage of press cars, helicopter TV coverage, and bringing up the rear, a ton of support vehicles. While waiting for the road ahead to be cleared of cyclists, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch outdoors under a thatched awning, overlooking the sea, watching our ship sail north. We even radioed the expedition leader to let him know of our delay…but he didn’t believe a word of it, knowing how Peter can be “delayed”! In the end, we ended up leaving about 2:30 p.m., just over an hour behind schedule. But we had faith we would still get to dinner on time.
Feeling quite well fed, we headed north, the road twisting along a spectacular coastline! After about an hour, the road started to angle inland to the northeast, twisting and turning over beautiful tree covered hills and valleys. Our drivers, now worried they would be in big trouble if we didn’t get to Marrakech by 7:30 p.m., were traveling at a fairly fast speed, passing the few other cars on the road, but also passing each other time and again.
About 4:30 p.m., we took a 15-minute pit stop in a small community, then we were “back on the road again” (cue Wille Nelson, please!). Everything finally was going smoothly. But suddenly the other van passed us and started to pick up speed and we quickly lost sight of them. Kevin radioed Peter and deduced they were only a couple of miles away (the radios have a short range), but after a few moments of silence Kevin’s radio started to crackle with static, and Peter’s voice came on but was breaking up very badly. Kevin tried “Peter, Peter, do you copy?” No response.
We suddenly saw a road sign indicating that up ahead, there was a split in the road, and we needed the right fork to Marrakech. Our driver took the correct turn. We had hoped to see the other van waiting for us…but not a vehicle to be seen. Now we were worried the other driver might have taken the other road by mistake. We stopped and waited. Kevin tried “Peter, Peter, do you copy?” yet again. No response. We hoped and prayed they were just really far ahead of us and out of range. We couldn’t wait any longer. By now, its about 5:15 p.m. and we still have a long way to go to Marrakech.
Our driver was approaching warp speed to catch up with the other van…big mistake! Because as we approached the next small town, lo and behold, a policeman waves us over and he gave our driver a speeding ticket! Oh, joy! Amongst ourselves, we speculated on how far ahead of us the other van might be by this time, since it took 15 minutes to settle the ticket! And since we didn’t have any radio contact, we were getting nervous. When all of a sudden we look out the window and our other van zipped past us! Somehow, they had gotten behind us! They were so happy our driver got a ticket, because it allowed them to catch up to us. We had a group huddle and found out their driver did take a turn to the right, but not the right right! He had turned down some small road that went to an old airport! That’s what Peter’s garbled message was about. He had wanted us to wait.
Back in the vans—Marrakech awaits! Because Peter’s radio was almost out of battery power, we decided to stop radio contact but Peter’s van should remain ahead of us, so that if something happened to them, at least we would find them. The terrain had flattened out now, the road was straight as an arrow, and traffic was getting heavier, so we knew we were getting closer to Marrakech.
Now the van ahead of us is approaching warp speed, and our driver is having trouble keeping up! We lost sight of them for a few minutes, but then spied them ahead, parked on the shoulder, and we thought, isn’t that nice, they are waiting for us! Wrong…they had a flat tire. The group in my van burst out laughing, because this was about par for the course for our day! We understand the passengers in the other van were not so cheery!
By now, dusk is falling. Even though the tire was changed in record time, we started to speculate we might not make it to the hotel by 7:30 p.m. to catch the transport to the tented dinner. Since Kevin’s radio was now also slowly dying, the only way Peter could get a message to the group at the hotel was by phone. He borrowed the driver’s cell phone and called the tour agent in Marrakech and told them we were going to be a bit late to the hotel! The agent says, no problem, just have the drivers take us directly to the dinner. Yeh, right, like we can speak their language! So Peter handed the phone to the drivers, who were given their instructions over the phone by the agent. We hoped they knew what to do!
Thank you Willie, we’re “on the road again,” but it’s dark now. And suddenly we noticed the traffic was very heavy, in both directions, and it was 90% trucks, large and small! In Morocco, trucks were not allowed on the roads until after dark and we realized, this was why the drivers had been speeding all afternoon, so they could be off the roads by dark. But here we are, on a two-lane highway, with trucks all over the place, most of which are moving very slowly, much to our driver’s annoyance! The driver’s cell phone would ring every few minutes, each engendering a heated conversation. We figured the two drivers were calling each other and their agent and getting directions. At one point, our driver started to get antsy about not being in the lead, so he zoomed past the other van, and a big truck, for good measure. Being in the back seat, I was asked to look out the back window to make sure the other van was still with us, which proved a challenge because so much passing was going on.
Actually, I was quite glad to be in the back seat because Moroccans have a very scary passing technique (à la the Indy 500): they tailgate only a foot or two away from the car in front, and quickly swerve out to the left to see if a car is coming the other direction. If they see a vehicle coming, they pop back to the right; but if it’s clear they floor the accelerator and zoom past the vehicle in front.
Our two drivers had a system (not DMV approved, I suspect), they passed in tandem—when the first van pulled out to pass, the second van did too, so two vehicles are passing as one. There we were, tailgating a giant semi-truck. Our driver pulls out, as does the van behind us, and we both start to pass. Only then does our driver realize he’s not passing one truck, but a three-truck convoy! The theme music from “Smokey and the Bandit” is starting to play in my mind; and Kevin made the remark that he didn’t realize when he joined the birders he was going for a ride on the Marrakech Express!
Our driver, going for broke, floors the accelerator; the van behind us does the same. But all of a sudden we notice headlights coming right at us and getting bigger by the second. I’m thinking, we aren’t going to make this…but somehow or other we did make it past all three trucks, with mere inches to spare. But when we popped back to the right, it left our following van right in the middle of the other lane looking into the headlights of a very fast approaching truck! And there wasn’t any room for the van to pull over. Doing my duty, I was keeping an eye on the other van, and I see Peter, illuminated by light getting brighter by the second, sitting in the front seat of the van looking rather terrified at the truck that just popped into view right in front of them! Thankfully, he lived to bird another day when the two trucks behind us made a space allowing the other van to slip in between them with only a second to spare, as the approaching truck sped by, horn honking in annoyance.
It’s now 8:30 pm, and that big lunch we enjoyed in Agadir was totally digested and we were getting hungry! But thankfully, we were now navigating the twisted streets of Marrakech, headed for the tented dinner. We understood the tent was about 20 minutes outside of Marrakech. We thought we could still reach the tent in time for leftovers from dinner. Our drivers, now navigating confidently, head out into the darkness looking for the tent.
Even though it was pitch dark, we could tell the van had left the paved road and we were now bouncing around on a rutted dirt road. The instructions to find the tent: look for a light in the desert! We drive and drive, and when we look at our watches we realize we’ve been gone about 40 minutes not 20…oh dear, lost again??? Suddenly, there are lights ahead and the drivers, looking for the light in the desert, think, there’s the place! Until we got closer and realized it’s the main gate leading to a rather large cement plant! So the vans stop at the gate, the drivers, Peter and Kevin get out for another arm-waving, raised-voice huddle. Kevin tried his radio to reach the dinner group, hoping the radio might come back to life, but couldn’t reach anybody. Peter called the tour agent on the driver’s cell phone, and the agent talked to the drivers. We were supposedly just a few minutes away from the tent…the driver assuredly says “10 minutes.” Sure.
On the road again and we are driving 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Several of us in our vehicle had noticed that Venus, the evening star, which had been on our right and then on the left was now on the right again. We had gone in a circle! Just when we thought, we’re lost, we pull up in front of an old walled compound with a single tiny light hanging from a cord. We see several of the women in the other van hustling out and we think, we’ve arrived! But no, seems they were desperate for a pit stop! The drivers, Peter and Kevin “talk” once again—Peter looking none too pleased, to put it mildly—and another phone call ensues. And again we are assured the place is just 10 minutes more. Uh huh. Several of us said, why don’t we forget this dinner in a tent and go back to the hotel? No, it seems we are expected to appear at the dinner.
Off we go and after about 15 minutes we end up…at the cement plant! The old guard at the gate, who probably has a pretty dull night job, is beginning to wonder why he is being blessed with these crazy people in the two vans that say Turismo! The drivers and Peter and Kevin have another “discussion”—once more we try, unsuccessfully, to raise the other tour leaders at the dinner. The drivers swear we’re only 10 minutes away. We give them one final chance. We drive and drive and drive in the pitch dark in the middle of nowhere and suddenly we end up…at the cement plant! Again! That did it—in our van we were all laughing so hard we were crying!
Peter calls Kevin over his barely functioning radio and says, “That’s it, I’m throwing in the towel. We’re going back to the hotel.” And you know Peter never admits defeat on anything! Through our hysterical laughter we asked, “Do you think the drivers can find the hotel??” But eventually we did reach the hotel about 10:30 p.m., at the same time the dinner group returned. They were all asking, rather accusingly, what the heck had happened to us??? We started babbling on about a bicycle race, a flat tire, a ticket, and a cement plant, and they all looked at us and shook their heads—after all, we were those notorious, last-to-arrive birders! They didn’t believe a word we said!
We were all very, very hungry, but considering the hour, figured we would be stuck with day old sandwiches. But the hotel’s restaurant staff agreed to fix us dinner—anything on the menu! We had a delightful meal, with lots of wine, and swapped war stories from the two vans. We found out later our meal was better than the meal in the tent! We toddled off to bed about 12:30 a.m., only to have to get up and leave by 6 a.m. for our birding drive up into the Atlas Mountains.
Seems to me I’ve heard it said if you run into problems, sleep on it and everything becomes clearer in the light of day. As we cautiously approached our two little vans next morning, we noticed we had the same drivers (oh, dear…), but now there was also an English-speaking guide along as well (oh, yea!). The first 15 or 20 miles of the highway to the Atlas Mountains from the hotel was the exact same highway the drivers took the night before to reach the turn to drive to the tent. Now at least we could see the area we had been circling around in the night before. I thought I’d look for a tent! But all I saw was a very large, fairly flat, dry scrubby plain with nothing in site for miles.
Except off in the distance, maybe less than 5 miles from the highway, and sticking out like a sore thumb, stood a rather tall, whitish structure. The guide was in our van and I asked him, “What is that big building over there?” He looked, and said, “That? Oh, that’s the cement plant!” Oh the irony of it all—we’d come full circle!