The next step of our journey called for a long drive from Fes to a town south of Erfoud, the last sizable city before the southern highway ends. We are planning a camel trek into the desert. Are you thinking of Lawrence of Arabia? Or Luke Skywalker’s desert home in Tatooine, perhaps? Good–they were both filmed in Erfoud!
But first things first. We learned from our drive to Fes that trip planning is more art than science in Morocco. For instance, it is impossible to use simple math to calculate driving times (50 miles = 1 hour, for example), because it is impossible to know just how fast you might be traveling on any particular road. Most roads are small—one lane in each direction—and your speed often depends on how much traffic is coming the other way, which can limit how often you can pass the slow truck in front of you.
So we did some research about how long it would take to reach Erfoud. Or tried to. But it turns out that pretty much nobody, man, machine, map, or anyone else, has the slightest clue how far Erfoud might be.
We started with our lovely, giant, cumbersome, printed-on-both-sides Michelin map. This thing is almost impossible to use, because it is about five feet by five feet, and folded like origami. If you want to see the whole thing, you need a situation room. If you want to see just a portion, good luck. Michelin tries hard to be helpful, though, I guess. We spread the map out in our hotel lobby, and using our fingers, measured that it might be about 300-400 km from Fes to Erfoud. Or maybe 500 km. But probably not more than 550, and almost certainly not more than 600. No handy chart showing distances or times, though.
Next we tried the machines. Bess, our mostly-reliable GPS gizmo, cannot find Morocco (she doesn’t know the country exists), although she seems to have a general familiarity with some of the cities (Fes is 218 km SW of where you are, for example). She has no idea where the roads are, and when we turn her on (solely for entertainment value, if you can call it that), she shows us driving across non-descript grayness, often parallel to where she thinks the road is. No help, although not far off the mark, as we sometimes found as we drove through non-descript gray deserts.
On to Google. Google has a nice clear map, showing pretty much all the cities and all the highways. Fes and Erfoud (called “Arfoud” by Google”), for example, are connected by a road known to Google and Michelin (though not necessarily to the Moroccans) as the N13. But if you ask for driving directions from Fes to Erfoud, Google is stumped: “We could not calculate directions between fes, morocco and erfoud, morocco.” Hey, Google, might one of the roads work? How about the N13? No help.
No more luck doing an internet search for driving times. The Moroccan government site? Nothing. Perhaps the Moroccans don’t care how long it takes to get around in their country. Or maybe the just don’t know how to figure it out. Or maybe nobody has ever driven all the way from Fes to Erfoud? Hmm.
Next step: ask the locals.
We first asked our extremely helpful and solicitous concierge in our Riad (guest house) in Fes. We opened the giant Michelin map together, and she pointed to each town that we should go through, one after the other, from Fes to Erfoud. Imouzzer-Kandar, Ifrane, Azrou, Midelt, etc. (I could have done this myself, by the way—they are connected by a red line, apparently representing the N13, that we are supposed to drive on. But I did not want to appear impolite, so I listened with interest as she named all the towns.) She stopped at one in particular, Midelt, which she proclaimed to be halfway between Fes and Erfoud, and told me it would be a good place to spend the night, because Erfoud is 14-16 hours away. Hmmm. That’s a long time to go 400 km, n’est-ce pas? I took this to mean that perhaps this lovely and solicitous woman had never been to Erfoud. Or, more likely, had never driven a car. But just like Michelin, she tried to help, so full credit for effort.
Next, while haggling over the bill, I asked the English owner of the Riad, who claimed to have spent considerable time in Morocco over the past ten years (although he lives in London): 7 hours, but lots of hemming and hawing. He admitted that he had never driven from Fes to Erfoud, and asserted, rather archly, that “that is something I would normally hire a driver to do.” I was left to guess whether hiring a driver somehow eliminates the driving time.
Next we tried a loud German near us at dinner, whom we overheard talking about Erfoud (and a whole lot of other stuff). “Four hours. 500 km at 80 km per hour. Maybe 5 hours. 6 hours max. We’re renting our car in the morning. Do you already have yours?” I noticed both the fact that he had not yet driven in Morocco and the fuzzy math, and decided we might not want to trust his estimate.
Then the proprietor of the restaurant, a guy whose shtick is catering to the English-speaking tourists by hiring only waiters who have a specialty degree in English. This guy gets extra credit, because he did not just make something up. Instead, he shouted the question to three or four waiters he employed, and got three answers shouted right back: 8 hours, 10 hours, 30 minutes. Maybe this last one should be disqualified—he thought we were asking about the Er-port, not Er-foud. But heck, his answer was not enough of an outlier to disregard entirely–perhaps it only takes 30 minutes if you hire a driver?
We found nobody else to ask, so all we knew was that Erfoud is at least 300 km away, but might be 600, and takes at least 30 minutes to reach, but might take 16 hours.
The story has a happy ending, though, including the first-ever, ground-breaking, scientific discovery ever completed and documented by the Culhane family: We now know how long it takes to drive from Fes, Morocco to Erfoud, Morocco. We might be the only ones with this knowledge. But I will share it with you, if you read to the end of this post (how do you keep your friends in suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow….), and promise not to tell a soul. Here’s how it goes:
8:00: Leave Fes. Get a little lost on the way out of town. There are no big signs telling you which way to go. There are small signs at some intersections. And the people are very friendly and helpful.
9:25: Ifrane. Wow. This place looks like it was lifted out of the Alps and dropped into Morocco. Are those pitched roofs? Yep! Why? Because it snows here. They even have a ski resort, not too far from one of the royal palaces. The king loves to ski. (Sorry about the lack of pictures–we must have lost our wits!)
9:45: The N13 highway has changed into a dirt road. Wow, look at that giant tree ahead. What are those?!? Monkeys? Stop the car!
11:15: Past the fork in the road leading to Boulemane and Sefrou.
11:40: Midelt. Half way. Stop for the night. (Just kidding. Keep going. We’re making good time.)
12:10: Fork in the road to Missour.
1:40: Ar-Rachidia. Stop to use the bathroom and buy a bag of chips. Stop again to use the ATM. (The ATMs in this country are fantastic—far more reliable than Italy, for example. Plus, once I withdrew 4000 Moroccan Dhirams (abbreviated MAD), and the machine gave me a stack of 100 Dhiram bills over a quarter inch thick. Woo hoo!
2:30: Aoufouss. No, that’s not Erfoud. But it is beautiful.
2:55: Erfoud. Whew! The promised land!
3:45: Merzouga, near the sand dunes, with camels, Bedouin tents, etc. And our lovely Riad, which greets us with Moroccan mint tea, cold water, and a lovely view of the desert.