Morocco. Sand in the eyes

“Well, Mister Poros,” begins the Moroccan border guard, flipping through my passport, “what brings you to our beautiful country?” I smile and reply, “The highest peak in Morocco, Sir!” With a swift hand movement, the officer stamps my passport with the date of entry. “Good luck!” he says as he hands me back my documents.

Four Thousand Dreams

I wasn’t kidding. My mountain buddy Michal and I traveled to Africa to chase our dreams of reaching the 4,167-meter summit of Jabel Toubkal, the highest peak in both Morocco and northern Africa. The idea had been in the works for several years, but the pandemic and ensuing restrictions put a hold on our plans. There are countless articles and guides on how to conquer Toubkal, but it all boils down to a familiar routine: fly to Marrakesh, take a taxi to the village of Imlil, and then embark on a grueling hike for several hours through sand and dust to reach the mountain refuge at around 3,200 meters. There, a warm meal awaits the tired hikers with a view of the surrounding peaks and obligatory sweet tea. On the same night, assuming there were no significant issues with altitude sickness, we began our ascent to the summit. We didn’t intend to reinvent the wheel when it came to Tubkala, and we were accompanied by a local guide named Hassan on our way to fulfill our small mountain dream.

All the Time Up the Mountain

At two in the morning, the refuge starts to bustle with activity. In our small, stuffy room, twelve people sleep cramped together on joined beds. Everyone wakes up with the first alarm bell to make it to breakfast. The air is filled with excitement mixed with concerns about our own abilities and the hardships of the ascent. It is cold and completely dark outside the refuge. We venture into the black void. In the distance, we can only see the tiny lights of headlamps that from afar look like fireflies swaying high above our heads. We catch up to a large group that set out a few minutes before us. Hassan sets a brisk pace right from the start. Initially, we tried to negotiate the terms of such a quick climb, but our guide only remembered the agreements for the next three minutes. Then we had to catch up with him anyway.

If you saw it, you wouldn’t go!

We made it to the summit just as the morning sun began to rise, a truly touching and mystical moment. After years of waiting, we finally reached the iconic steel pyramid that sits atop the highest mountain in the entire High Atlas range. Standing above the clouds with nothing around us higher than the peak we stood on was a beautiful moment to cherish. As we began to make our descent, Michal and I couldn’t help but wonder if we had taken the same path up. The trail appeared steeper, the rocks larger, and some passages more challenging than we remembered. I finally asked Hassan, “Did we really climb this way at night?” Our friend burst out laughing and said, “That’s why you climb to the summit at night because if you saw what you had to go through, you wouldn’t go!”

What was his name?

Our plan to explore Morocco after our Toubkal adventure required a car, and in Arab culture, connections are key. You can try to arrange almost anything through word of mouth, and sometimes even the neighbor’s cousin can help you out. Our Imlil host provided us with a phone number of someone in Marrakech who supposedly rents cars. Though the details were vague, we needed a car quickly and without fuss. Plus, we had to pick up the car in Marrakech and return it in Agadir, where we would catch our flight back to Poland. We struck a deal with a stranger who promised to bring us the car the next morning. Feeling confident, we spent the evening strolling through the vibrant streets of Marrakech, losing ourselves in the city until well into the night. And yet, as we prepared to embark on our road trip, we couldn’t help but wonder, “What was his name?”

You can also have a Bentley!

In the morning, we leave the hotel, and there’s a car and a stranger waiting for us. We go through the paperwork while enjoying the incredibly sweet mint tea, and then head to a gas station together. The policy is that you receive the car with a full tank, for which you pay, and return it empty. If there’s any fuel left, it’s a waste. Therefore, it’s important to calculate the kilometers to avoid paying extra. In the meantime, a brand new Bentley Mulsanne pulls up at the neighboring gas pump. Wanting to strike up a conversation with our generous benefactor, whose name we still don’t know, I say, “Look how gorgeous it is. We could have rented something like that!” However, our new acquaintance didn’t take it as a joke but rather as a sales pitch. He takes out his phone and scrolls through photos, saying “Pay me a few hundred euros extra, and I’ll bring you a new Bentayga or a Mulsanne. Do you want it?!” We opted for the Clio because it was white and didn’t get too hot in the sun. But hey, who knows? Maybe we’ll go for the Bentley next time!

On the way to Salim

We leave bustling and noisy Marrakesh behind, bidding farewell to the vibrant bazaar on Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the labyrinthine alleys of the medina, and the walls of the red city. However, we can’t escape the overpowering scent of spilled perfume in the trunk, which I purchased last night. It’s amusing, really, as I joked with the seller that if the smell vanished in fifteen minutes, I’d return it to him. He must have been anxious, as even a tiny amount of the concoction lingered for a week. Energized, we set off to meet Salim Bekkari, whom I had the pleasure of connecting with through Ismael from The Petrolhead Diary blog. The GPS guides us through sandy wastelands, bisected by a well-worn road. In the distance, we spy the imposing walls of the mansion, which in the midst of the dust and heat appears like a cinematic oasis in a desert mirage. We approach the mammoth gates, but begin to doubt if we’re in the right place. Suddenly, the gates swing open and we’re greeted by a row of Porsches and an airplane suspended above the entrance. Yes, we’ve arrived at a motoring utopia in the heart of the desert!

A Collection in the Desert

Starting in the 1970s, Salim’s father Omar Bekkari, who was a civilian pilot, began the family’s impressive car collection. Alongside the collection, they created a unique estate. After Omar’s passing, his sons Salim and Younes carried on their father’s legacy. Each car in the collection was acquired within Morocco, and has its own captivating tale. For instance, one of the E-Types was brought to Marrakesh by Belgians, dismantled for renovation, and remained in cardboard boxes for several years. It took Salim’s team to piece the car back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The priciest car in the collection is the 1957 Mercedes 300SL Roadster. There are also several pre-war cars, including a 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom 1. This limousine was once owned by American actress Barbara Hutton, and the factory narrowed it by a few centimeters on each side specifically for her to move smoothly through the narrow streets of Casablanca. The collection is truly impressive, even including a miniature factory Ford GT40, one of only forty made. With every car Salim tells us about, he stresses that each one is operational and can be started at any time. The cars are regularly taken out for a wash, as dust and dirt are not conducive to an open garage. Salim suggests we select any car and take it for a spin around the estate. I opt for the Ferrari!

The King also collects

We’re lounging by the pool and I inquire of Salim whether his impressive collection is the largest in the country. He chuckles and responds, “My dear friend, you have no idea. King Mohamed VI is the biggest collector in Morocco. Rumor has it that he has a staggering 600 cars! But very few have laid their eyes on them.” The Domaine du Rétro estate, where we are currently located, is a stunning multi-industry enterprise that I believe is fit for a king. Although it is a private collection, the Bekkari family utilizes their extensive knowledge and resources to provide exceptional restoration services for classic cars. It’s impressive to learn that some of the mechanics have been working at Salim’s workshop for over a decade, including former employees of Bugatti’s factory. As our visit comes to an end, we take a stroll through the storage area where the cars are kept before restoration. It’s not hard to spot several Ferraris, Porsches, and rare Mercedes. The collection is truly a petrolhead’s dream come true.

Do you fancy a Lamborghini?

Morocco is a top-notch destination for many automotive events, such as the Grand Prix de Dakhla, Rallye Mille Maroc, Maroc Classic, and Rallye Vintage Maroc. These rallies are mostly aimed at vintage vehicle owners from Europe who consider these events as a fantastic alternative to a vacation in an intriguing country. To this day, the Moroccan Sahara remains a training ground for successive Dakar teams, as well as for regular rallies. Since 2009, one of the more captivating rallies is the 205 TROPHÉE, where only Peugeot 205s participate. As the organizers claim, it has ceased to be a student trip and has become a serious rally. Hassan II once said in 1987 that “Morocco is like a tree: its roots reach Africa, and its leaves breathe Europe.” The excellent climate and hospitality of the Moroccans have welcomed automotive events, attracting people from Europe. As a parting gift, Salim suggests a roadside restaurant that serves the best kofta in the area and mentions that there are several Lamborghini Miuras parked near his estate. In fact, there are fifteen of them! As it turns out, a Lamborghini Miura convoy from all over Europe is traveling along the road from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, which we are driving across Morocco. Behind the wheel of one of them appears Valentino Balboni himself. All thanks to the Miuroccan Mission – an expedition organized by Simon Kidston to celebrate the 55th birthday of the legendary model.

Photos courtesy of Kidston SA / @kidstonmotorcars

Mind the camels!

We covered almost 2000 km on Moroccan roads in just a few days, taking us from the scorching sands of the Sahara to the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean near Agadir. It was a journey that delighted our senses with roadside cafes, warm sunshine, sweet mint tea, and the fragrance of my new Moroccan perfume. Although most of the main roads are in decent condition, many of them are still undergoing repairs and reconstruction. We noticed police patrols stationed at the entrances and exits of major cities, and they politely and efficiently checked drivers. Dressed in their striking uniforms, these officers commanded respect and trust. Surprisingly, the biggest danger we faced turned out to be camels! Or more precisely, just one of them. As we were driving along, we spotted what looked like a rock lying in a ditch by the side of the road. Suddenly, it got up and leapt onto the road. Quick as a flash, my driver, who had received a top-notch education, shouted out a warning, “Watch out, you bloody bastard! It’s a camel!” Thankfully, we managed to avoid the several-hundred-kilogram animal without incident. Moreover, most of the roads are only one lane in each direction, and overtaking can be treacherous, especially in hilly areas with limited visibility. However, the locals have a clever way of signaling to drivers behind them when it’s safe to pass, using their turn signals. This makes driving smoother and helps to avoid getting stuck behind buses piled high with all sorts of goods, from carpets to goats. It’s an incredibly common sight in Morocco!

Formula 1 Racing in Morocco

It is worth noting that car racing has been organized in Morocco since the early 1920s, attracting European drivers, mainly from France. The inaugural Casablanca Grand Prix series (1925-1928) took place in 1925 on the western outskirts of Casablanca, and European drivers were the prominent competitors. The winner of the first race was Count de Vaugelas driving a Delage. The race was renamed as the Anfa Grand Prix (1930-1934) from 1930 to 1932 and was held on the Anfa street circuit in Casablanca. The first winner was Moroccan athlete Charles Bénitah in an Amilcar car. The following year, the race at Anfa was won by a Pole, Count Stanisław Czaykowski in a Bugatti, and an article by Piotr R. Frankowski was written about him. However, the race disappeared for 20 years (1933-1953) with only one exception in 1934 when Louis Chiron won. In 1954, the race moved to the seaside streets of Agadir and took place there until 1956. The breakthrough moment for Formula 1 in Morocco came in 1957 when, at the request of Sultan Mohammed V, the Royal Automobile Club of Morocco prepared a new street circuit, Ain-Diab, in just six weeks. Certain sections of the track overlapped with the first Anfa circuit, and the races returned to the representative part of Casablanca. Although Formula 1 drivers participated in the first race on the new facility, the race did not count towards the general classification. However, a year later in 1958, Stirling Moss won the official Formula 1 race on the Ain-Diab track in a Vanwall car, and Mike Hawthorn came in second place in a Ferrari, becoming the first British Formula 1 World Champion in history by scoring points. Over the years, races have returned to Morocco in various forms, thanks to events such as Formula E. However, the Queen of Motorsport has yet to return to the country.

GP Agadir ’53, photos courtesy of L’Automobile Club d’Agadir

Get behind the wheel and head to Morocco, where your road trip adventure awaits!

As I lay on the scorching Saharan sand dune, gazing up at the twinkling stars above, I couldn’t help but think that Morocco is the ultimate destination for epic car journeys. Its vast expanse provides endless opportunities to explore different routes, from traversing mountain ranges to traversing sandy deserts and the frigid waters of the ocean. Moreover, the Arab culture in Morocco is tailor-made for travelling by car, allowing for plenty of freedom to roam and wander. The locals are incredibly hospitable and welcoming, but one must exercise caution and not blindly trust anyone, particularly when it comes to financial transactions. What’s more, Morocco is easily accessible from Europe, with Spain offering a convenient entry point. The country’s striking diversity is a feast for the senses, with each day bringing a fresh adventure. One day we were luxuriating in a first-rate hotel with a pool and a commanding view of the towering walls of Todra Gorge, while the next we found ourselves relaxing in a Berber tent in a nameless town. I firmly believe that in the coming years, Morocco will emerge as an alluring alternative to the hackneyed road trips throughout Europe.

Words by Sławomir Poros
Translated by Andy Zikeev