Decoding the Insanity of Driving in Morocco

Categories Adventures in Transportation, Morocco, Where Have I Been?

My dad loves cars. Building them, washing them, driving them – you name it, and he can tell you about it. Many childhood weekends were spent learning from him, about shiny chrome and bright paint, about looking far into the horizon when on the road (never right in front of you) and about sipes. Lots of comments about sipes. He first taught me to drive when I was barely in my teens, in the countryside where we had a weekend cottage. Straining to reach the pedals, I stalled the car almost immediately. At 12, driving was a struggle and an art it seemed I’d never master.

Driving in the Eastern Townships

My dad, driving in the Eastern Townships of Quebec this summer.

Of course, comfort came with time (and a few extra inches of height). What first seemed a complete impossibility became a necessity and then a deep abiding pleasure, something I looked forward to as a treat above many others. There is happiness, for me, in looping around hairpin curves and testing out the camber of a road, of downshifting at a perfect, precise moment and accelerating at the apex of a turn. It’s thus no surprise that I loved driving in Morocco, a country where customary road rules are vaguely optional and the entire country becomes a themepark for a loose game of chicken.

Trucks, cars and goats on the drive through the High Atlas mountains

Trucks, cars and winding turns on the drive through the High Atlas mountains

After my 2-weeks in the country with G Adventures, my friend Damien from Ireland met me to explore some of the places the trip did not. We decided to stay in Marrakesh for a few days and then head down to the desert. Based on the timetables of buses and our limited days left in the country, we thought renting a car would be the best option. Having watched the driving for a few weeks already, I was itching to get behind the wheel and Damien was kind enough to let me do all the driving. It was a five-hour drive from Marrakesh to Ourzazate over Morocco’s highest mountain pass, the Col du Tichka, and then descending toward the Sahara. From Ourzazate, it was another five hours past Zagora to M’hamid, most of it on a one-lane “highway” called N9, where I would watch the cars and trucks barrelling toward me, sticking it out to see who would flinch and move out of the way first. Throughout, grand taxis, shared cabs from city to city, would weave crazily between the lanes and over on the shoulders. 6 people crammed inside (plus driver!), they would turn to me when I passed them or they passed me, a look of total shock on their faces to see a tourist (female, too!) behind the wheel, driving like they do.

It was a glorious trip.

On the way to Ourzazate, the weather was horrible. Pelting rain, lots of 18-wheeler traffic and buses swinging their way around the tight mountain turns, me fighting to keep the car on the road against the push of the howling wind. Those of you who saw my Facebook photo know that I was rewarded at the top with a stunning double rainbow, bright colours contrasting against the wet sandy rock. The remnants of the rainbow are in the photo above but at its peak it was incredible. The drive onward from Ourzazate and subsequent return – nine hours straight from M’hamid back to Marrakesh – was in perfect weather. Bright sun and unnervingly blue skies, little wind and of course a big smile from me as I wound my way back up and through the High Atlas mountains.

Drive from Ourzazate to M'hamid

Perfect weather on the drive from Ourzazate to M'hamid

After my time on the road, here is my attempt at decoding the insanity of driving in Morocco.

Passing:

Passing can be signaled in a variety of ways.

1) If you want to pass a car, honk your horn as you begin to pass the car in front of you, and then honk again as you pass, and a third time as you hop back into your lane.

2) If you are being passed, there’s a good chance the person behind you is tailgating and/or cannot see in front of your car anyhow because there’s a blind curve up ahead. Once you notice another car coughing on your exhaust, use your signals to help them figure out when to pass. A left signal would indicate that they cannot pass and in fact if they did try and pass they would meet a car or truck head on fairly quickly. A right signal indicates that there is no one in the general vicinity (and by “general vicinity” I mean 5 seconds of passing time) and now’s your chance to make a move. Sticking your hand out the window and moving it front and back, as if to say holy crap, person tailgating me, why don’t you PASS ME ALREADY also works.

Honking:

Honking in the Morocco is as ubiquitous as seeing a donkey on the side of the road, laden with fresh mint. It can mean a wide range of things. Here’s my attempt to list some of them out.

1) I am going to pass you right now, I am in the course of passing you, I have passed you, thanks.

2) I suspect the light is about to go green and you haven’t already been revving your engine in preparation, ergo you are going to waste my time with 2 seconds of slow driving and ought to move your ass into gear.

3) We are driving straight at each other in a tense game of chicken and I am honking to let you know that you, rental car with a tiny girl inside, will be moving first. Not me.

4) I don’t like the look of your face.

5) HOLY CRAP THERE IS A WOMAN DRIVING AND A MAN IN THE PASSANGER SEAT! I’m going to honk uncontrollably and point and laugh and then almost drive off the road in a fit of mirth.

6) The non-honk: whatever you do, do not honk as you are approaching a blind curve because that will in some way help the person coming the other way, as that’s not the point of driving in Morocco.

Atlas mountains in the sun, Morocco

Driving through the Atlas Mountains in perfect weather.

Lines in the middle of the road:

Do not pay attention to them. They are just for fancy and do not exist to actually indicate when you ought to pass or stay in your own lane. This is because “staying in your own lane” is a concept not remotely entertained in Morocco and you can do whatever you want, so long as there’s no police nearby.

Warning others about police nearby:

Despite the adversarial feel of driving overall, people are quick to let you know if there’s a cop up ahead with a radar gun. Usually on the outskirts of town where the speeds drop from 100 to 80 to 60km/hour in just a few metres, everyone coming toward you will flash their lights to let you know you ought to slow down. Avoiding speed traps: bringing drivers together worldwide.

Beware of people selling things at the side of the road:

I’m referring here to the men standing with shining agate on the mountain passes, whistling for you to stop to check out their wares. In theory this is fine, but in practice they actually step onto the road itself, almost chasing you as you go by. Their aggressiveness means that in order to avoid hitting them, you need to weave into oncoming traffic, causing a serious amount of honking. Rinse, repeat, until you’re off the High Atlas.

Build in an extra hour for donkey rush hour:

Coming in and out of towns is an exercise in restraint because the main streets are often the souq streets, with produce and animals and people clustered at the side of the narrow road, pushing traffic to the center. In addition, many Moroccan families have a donkey and they are used to carry purchases from the souq to their homes. Driving slowly will ensure you don’t hit a donkey on your trip but it definitely adds some time to your overall endeavour.

Additional road hazards:

Over and above donkeys, some additional road hazards exist while driving in Morocco. Namely,

Camel crossing, Morocco

Camel crossing

And…

Goat crossing, Morocco

Goat crossing

And…

Propane tanks are not in short supply in Morocco

Propane tanks are not in short supply in Morocco - every 3rd truck was full of them.

Fighting the urge to stop for brochettes and tagines:

This is a serious problem if you like food in Morocco as I do, because every town smells terrific and you can practically reach out of the car window and get a few brochettes for the road. Build in lots of extra time if you cannot resist the noms.

Aggressive tailgaiting:

Do it at all times.

* * * 

Morocco is all about the details and driving is no exception. If you get nervous about the chaos and the complicated dance of cars weaving around you, in front and in back, to the side and around insanely tight curves, you’re bound to freeze up and stop enjoying the ride. Instead, it’s best to be aware of the unspoken rules for driving in the country, accept them, abide by them and then turn your time behind the wheel into a festival of fun. With great music on the stereo and an ability to pass any and all cars at whatever speeds I liked, I don’t think anything I did in the country was as fun as my days of driving.

Currently in Istanbul, but plenty more to come from my month in Morocco.

-Jodi

54 comments to Decoding the Insanity of Driving in Morocco

  1. What a great post! Looove these shots!!!

  2. HA! This is awesome! Very funny account of driving in Morocco. It’s great that tense driving situations can be handled with a little humor and wit. Hopefully, you handle this as well when you actually drive as you do when writing about it. :)

    • Ha, I think my joy came through in the post, no? I definitely loved my time behind the wheel but I must say, the swearing and honking while there is part and parcel of the experience and just made it that much more fun :)

        • I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. Your accurate description of the mountain drive that I had the pleasure of undertaking with my wife last year was spot on.
          We got to the mountain top on fumes, since the 2 gas stations on the main highway to Marrakech just outside of Ait Ben Haddou had no gas.
          We actually coasted down the mountain in neutral to the nearest village and found 5 litres of gas but no gas station. It was just enough to get us to the city and fill up again. And we also got shaken down for 300 dirhams by police for speeding, well slowing down in one of those quick 80 km per hr to 60 just over a slight rise so you could not see them.
          So fill up in Ourzazate and have the time of your life on a hair raising drive. I loved it. My wife did not. Thanks for making me relive this once in a lifetime event. I am still chuckling.

          • Your comment made me smile. It’s a hard process to explain – it’s just so intensely crazy – but I’m glad my attempts did resonate! I think fondly about those hours of insane driving and itch to get back. Agreed about filling up in Ourzazate – I did so but had I not I’d have been in quite a bit of trouble too! Safe travels to you both.

      • im glad you got to experience the organized chaos
        I’m from morocco but I’ve been here for too long
        i must admit that when i go there i feel exactly like you
        btw very nice article

  3. On November 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm gene in montreal said:

    This is a great post! P’d my pants. I can’t wait until you drive in China. I saw a fine Documentary on PBS from a reporter attempting his first drive in Beijing. Surprisingly, while “absolutely no rules” anywhere he said it works. And then there’s Mumbai .. Thanks Jodi

    • Glad you enjoyed, Gene! Yes, driving in China is also harrowing, the fluid dance of people and animals and motos and bicycles, all blending into a maelstrom of sound and movement. Never driven in Mumbai however!

      • On November 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm gene in montreal said:

        oops. we found that you have all ready been there-done that. my you do get around! But “travelling your blog” is just as fun and delish!! :D

      • I think the same holds quite true for driving in most parts of India as well (the honking, the passing, the concept of the white lines as just a suggestion). Great post.

        PS: Have been following your blog recently and it has been a fabulous reading and seeing so far. Hoping to see more from Morocco as well as from Turkey.

        • Hi Satish, appreciate the follow. Please do check out the “best of” page for prior posts I’ve sectioned into categories from the last few years. Yes, driving in India is likely to be a big challenge, one on another level entirely from the time in Morocco. It seems incredibly hectic and very overwhelming but as with anything, I’m sure time spent in country goes a long way to demystifying the whole experience. I’ll be posting plenty more from Morocco as well as from my time in Istanbul. Thanks for reading.

          • Since you could handle and love driving in Morocco, I believe that driving in India will be quite similar to driving in Morocco. The culture shock of driving part I believe you have already conquered. The only additional challenge would be that the Indian Driving System follows the British system similar to London, Singapore etc. As you have rightly said the more hands on wheel time you would get the more you could confidently drive. The only problem I perceive is that most of the Auto Rental companies will prefer to give the car with driver rather than without especially since the additional cost of a driver will only be in the range of 10$ per day.

            PS: Even though I came across you blog recently, I have gone through the entire archives following from the links on the right side.

  4. LOVE this post. The delights of driving in Morocco are yet to come, but I can see similarities with driving here, though as times goes by it gets more “normal”! Years ago it was very much the same, and even now on country roads in the mountains you meet some “unusual” sights. This http://www.twitpic.com/6d64r5 was a favorite from this summer!

  5. We actually took off on a drive into the Atlas mountains after hearing you did it :)

    Only thing I’d add to this is:

    Take everything your GPS tells you with a grain of salt.

    Ours:

    - Tried to lead us out of the city THROUGH the Medina. Which was interesting to say the least (read: We escaped after a hit and run with a parked 4WD that had a guy in it. He didn’t seem to care.)

    - Led us to what it thought was our destination but was in fact another one of 1000 curves in the mountain road on the way to it. Note: Coming to your “destination” in a Morrocan mountain side only to hear your GPS say “Recalculating… Drive 60km further to your destination” is a fun experience.

    - And other such crazy antics.

    There were a couple of times on the drive when the words inside our car were uttered “How the f*ck did Jodi do this?!”

    Haha, great article!

    Andrew

    • Wait, you were there at the same time? That’s amazing! I’m glad you did the drive too. Yes, we did not use GPS, just random maps and road signs and general “let’s stop here and see if we can get some more tagine?” and then ask if we were on the right route. Quite the adventure, no? I enjoyed it all, really and truly, but that’s because I’m a bit of a maniac behind the wheel. Looking forward to seeing you two in London soon!

  6. What a hoot! I think I’m adventurous but you’ve got serious guts, girl.

  7. Loved this post!!! It’s fantastic how you took the time to decode the customs for your readers, AND make us laugh.

    • Thanks Eliza! I do enjoy the longer form narrative writing but you also need to give a real picture of where you’re at and honestly driving in Morocco merited something more fun. Glad you enjoyed :)

  8. This such a terrific post. You have most definitely captured the true essence of what counts as driving in the glorious country of Morocco. I’ve had the pleasure of being driven around by a local gentleman during my visits and have to admit that as terrifying as the drive thru the Atlas Mountain was I still fondly remember the beauty of the surroundings and the sheer terror that we’ll drive off the cliff at any moment.
    I am looking forward to reading more of your experiences during your visit in Morocco and the highlight from Turkey. Your blog is truly amazing and I am so glad I was introduced to it my my coworker.

    • Hi Dorothy, welcome to the site. Very happy to hear that my writeup has captured sentiments you remember from your time in the country, and that you felt the same contrast of surroundings with the craziness of the road rules. Thank you for passing on my site and looking forward to further comments from you!

  9. This sounds incredibly similar to the rules of driving in Cairo. I’d add one more: “When you can make a pedestrian cry for her life because she is determined that you are speeding up instead of slowing down, do.” These photos are incredible, Jodi. There seems to be so much texture to Morocco, its landscapes and its people and you capture it all so poignantly.

  10. Funny post! I especially loved this line: “Honking in Morocco is as ubiquitous as seeing a donkey on the side of the road, laden with fresh mint.”

    • Glad you enjoyed, Bret! Had to share some of the fun driving stories from my time there; it was such a contrast to the other parts of the trip and (as you can see) I really had a terrific time on the road.

  11. Great post! I loved this too much.

    The picture of the Atlas Mountains is spectacular.

  12. Love this post! Driving in Morocco sounds scarily awesome and I really want to do it, or perhaps get Simon to drive for me, as I’m not sure I have the nerve for those mountain roads. For the moment we’ll stick to mopeding around Chiang Mai and hopefully further afield in northern Thailand too.

    • Thanks Erin! Roaming around Chiang Mai on the moto is a close second and if you do take a longer trip, start with the Mae Sae / Mae Taeng valley loop and then perhaps up to Mae Hong Son (much longer but gorgeous). Alternatively, go West from CM to Doi Inthanon and thereabouts – Thailand’s highest peak is incredible to drive by on a motorbike. Safe travels!

  13. Nerves of steel my friend! Wow. Being here now, I can’t believe you drove here! I was just thinking the other day ‘ holy crap, i’m so glad I don’t have to drive here!’ The other thing i noticed on the bus is cops just pulling over everyone in a car – what’s that all about?

    • Thanks Beth! I’m glad you’re enjoying your time in Morocco. Truly, I did love it throughout the driving process but I think it’s definitely not for everyone. As for the checkpoints, they pulled over the buses and cars to check for IDs when I bused it from Chef to Meknes. We never got pulled over, however.

  14. Hi Jodi!
    Lovely humourous post this is and it reminded me of the comforts of driving in Toronto compared to Mumbai where I grew up and learnt to drive. However, I find north american drivers less skilled at the art of driving due to the very things that are designed to make driving safer. For example, luxuries such as traffic signs, lights and abundance of infrastructure only makes drivers less reliant on their own senses and their reaction times are much lower because there is no training to deal with, say, a cow appearing from nowhere, lol. There are studies to support this. No wonder cyclists in Toronto get hit so often.
    Priyank

    • You know Priyank, some might disagree but I think you are right. The way we (my brother and I) were taught to drive by my dad was to think about all the obstacles and potential issues – that is, not just to be able to react to them, but to preemptively anticipate them and thus be able to handle things that come up with frequencies. I definitely notice a difference between this style and the one I learned when I took driving lessons with everyone else later in life, and perhaps that is what makes driving in crazy places like Morocco so much of a pleasure. It’s that interplay between anticipation and example, and the inconsistencies in what crops up that makes it a great adventure. Growing up in Mumbai, I can only imagine my lessons taken to a 100th degree – so much to keep an eye on and learn to digest at once that driving in Toronto must be boring! (I know I also find it boring). Morocco it is!

  15. All-in-all seems like you did well driving in a place you’ve never explored by car before. Thanks for the tips and for sharing your experience!

  16. I think I would be up for something like this! :)

  17. Great! Sounds like the driving I did in Tunesia a few years back – in a twenty year old Peugeot 106 from a more than dodgy local car rental…

  18. Try driving in Cairo. Same rules apply.

  19. On June 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm Scott Intagliata said:

    In 2000, my wife and I drove from Casablanca to Marakech, then up over the Atlas Mountains (with a dramatic stop off at Sidi Bou Asid) and then into Fez. It was a great, stressful, maddening, funny, scary drive with unique mini-adventures on every leg of the trip. Glad to read your take on this.

  20. Ha ha – that was hilarious! I especially like your “reason for honking #5″. I’m going on a girls’ trip to Morocco soon and we’re trying to decide whether to rent a car or not – but I’m not sure I should share this article with them. If they’re nervous already, this will have them running for the train station. I’m trying to gauge how this is compared to other places I’ve driven on the stress-scale … I live in Toronto, but have driven in NYC, Ireland, England (including London), France (NOT including Paris!), Spain, Germany, Czech, Mexico … What to do, what to do!? Anyway, thanks for the tips and entertainment!

    • Hm, I think it’s off-the-charts different from TO or NYC or London. Definitely more in line with Mexico or Bogota (also insane), but with added cliffs and strange turn signals. Totally understand how people might want to pass, however! It’s not for the faint of heart (but I had such a great time driving there.)

  21. Getting ready or my big road trip to Morocco this fall… This post made me excited and nervous at the same time

  22. Wow!!! You took the words right out of my mouth. I too also a female, only 21 and with a little car full of five people drove through this whole country and across the High Atlas Mountains. You have said everything that I could not and put in words! I like to tell Everyone, Morocco was my greatest experience so far!! I wish everyone could get the actual sense of what it’s like driving over those Mountains.

  23. I live in Marrakech and my Moroccan husband is encouraging me to drive here, but I just can’t. The driving in Moroccan cities is like trying to kill themselves. The worst are the mopeds and all type of motor bikes. They don’t respect any rules, any lines and just go where ever they please. You have to instantly watch your both mirrors just to ensure there is no bike anywhere. I am trying to get the courage to drive but during the peak ties there is no way for me.

  24. On August 14, 2013 at 5:04 pm omer a idrees said:

    nice. so not a whole lot different from driving in Saudi.

  25. what a lot of weary nonsense. I have driven many time in Morocco and driven this same journey traveling over the tits and testes pass! Moroccan driving is pretty relaxed out of town, roads are usually deserted, having said that your do have to keep your wits about you. You will see things that you wont see anywhere. Driving in a city, such as Marrakesh is not for the feint hearted, there are rules (strictly enforced if you ask a local), they are not the same rules that you would find in Europe!
    As for the horn, rarely used outside Marrakech except for taxis calling for business.

    • Hey Phil!

      Not sure why you’re so irate at the post. It was 100% true — and remains one of the most fun road trips I’ve ever taken. You make it sound like I was complaining, but quite the opposite. It was a great adventure. Horns aplenty, weaving aplenty, and everything else I wrote.

      Why would you assume it’s not true? I’m not from Europe, but have also driven in other crazy fun destinations during my travels, so I’m not sure why you’d point out that there is a difference in road rules. Obviously every destination differs in application, culture and mores. That’s what makes the world fun.

      This great Atlas trip, NY, Saigon, Bangkok, all chaotic in a different way. And all great.

      Hope your travels bring you to fun places too. Thanks for reading.

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