Six Tips: Navigating the Moroccan Desert by Campervan

Morocco is a beautiful country filled with diverse landscapes packed into a relatively small space, making it ideal for overland exploration. After spending a couple of weeks meandering through the medinas of Marrakech and Essaouira, we were ready for an adventure on the open road. Images of sand dunes and Berber villages pulled us toward an itinerary centered around getting to Merzouga, gateway to the Sahara desert. Our road trip is one of the most memorable experiences of our travels, and while we learned some hard lessons we’re happy we went on our campervan adventure.

In our research leading up to the drive, we didn’t find a whole lot of people talking about campervan trips around Morocco. RV culture certainly exists, but we found that the majority of campers are European retirees, who spoke mostly French and were perhaps not the most active blogging population. Thankfully, Vandog Traveller’s chronicles of his van life in Morocco were enough inspiration to pull the trigger on the campervan trip. Once we found our van, driving guides from bloggers Mowgli Adventures and Along Dusty Roads gave us the confidence to hit the road. Their tips for road tripping in Morocco were invaluable as we navigated the oft-chaotic Moroccan thoroughfares.

We rented our van from Zig Zag Camper out of Marrakech. Zig Zag is run by Jessy and Cristina, a couple from France and Spain, respectively, who moved to Morocco to run their own business and start a family. They are knowledgeable, experienced professionals who negotiated a rate that suited our budget and walked us through our very first campervan rental. The recreational vehicle rental business in Morocco does not seem to be very large, as Zig Zag rents many of their vehicles to film crews rather than travelers and was the only option we found in Marrakech. We also contacted African Spirit, but they never returned our message. If you’re driving your own van down from Europe, Mowgli Adventures also has a post for that!

Our ride from Zig Zag Camper

1. Stock up on groceries in town. While markets exist in most rural villages, the provisions will be more basic, more expensive, and payable only in cash. We shopped at Atacadão, a Brazilian-owned hypermarket with multiple locations across Morocco, before heading out of town. It is enormous and equipped with everything we needed for 10 days on the road, having planned to eat at least two meals per day at the van. We spent just over $60 USD, and those groceries lasted us our entire trip with one or two top-ups at the market for fresh fruit and bread. That budget included not only food, but also essentials for the van: sponge, dish soap, paper towels, trash bags, cleaning wipes, aluminum foil, zip-close bags, and toilet paper.

We also like to check what tools are included with any van we rent before we go shopping. Sometimes it’s worth picking up a basic chopping knife, spatula, etc. if what’s provided isn’t up to snuff. Our morning coffee routine in the van was a simple pleasure that would have been non-existent if we had bought the wrong grind for the van’s moka pot.

2. Make sure you have roadside safety and maintenance essentials. Venturing out in a campervan, by nature, leaves you farther away from help should anything happen to your vehicle. Roads in Morocco are poorly maintained and full of hazards, increasing the risk of an incident. Before you leave, make sure you have at least these basic tools on hand to fix common problems: jumper cables, spare wheel with properly inflated tire, jack, tire iron/torque wrench, emergency hazard triangles, spare quart of oil, and a tool kit with screwdriver, pliers, and adjustable wrench. In most cases, having these will allow you to at least limp to the nearest service station for repairs. “Wow,” you might say, “you guys sure were prepared for the worst!” In fact, this was one of those hard lessons learned. In our case, we hit an incognito stone while making room for an oncoming car up a steep switchback, busting one of our back wheels and flattening its tire. Instead of a spare tire, we had cans of fix-a-flat, which were no match for that level of destruction. We were resourceful and met many friendly Moroccans who helped us get back on the road, but we lost almost two days of our trip dealing with it. Driving in Morocco can be dicey; be prepared for a break-down just in case.

See that tiny black spot at the top of the zigzag? That’s our Zig Zag!

3. Pick up a campsite guide book. Zig Zag included the (French language) book Campings du Maroc with our rental, and it became our bible for finding high quality campsites throughout our trip. This guide maps out campsites in every region of Morocco, listing their amenities, latest prices, and an overall rating based on quality and value. This information was vital in strategizing when to pay extra for electricity, when to do laundry, and when to expect a delicious tagine instead of couscous in the van. This is where I will echo other bloggers’ advice about having someone who speaks French or Arabic in your party. While you might be able to get by using an app like park4night in place of this guidebook, it would be very difficult and painful to navigate rural Morocco without knowledge of either language.

4. Don’t always trust Google Maps. At the risk of making our roadtrip sound like an absolute disaster, I’ll share another story with you. We’ll be the first to admit that life on the road would be much more complicated to navigate without trusty Google Maps. This trip, however, taught us not to be lulled into a false sense of security by Google’s reassuring blue routes and time estimates. Bad directions from Google, at best, got us to our destination later than planned. At worst, they got us stuck wheels-deep in the Saharan sand until a tractor came to pull us out. Google insisted the route planned was suitable for cars. The soft sand proved otherwise, and now we know how Michael and Dwight felt:

Michael and Dwight driving into a lake
My new friend and me pushing the van in vain

Trust your eyes and your instincts, and allow for 25% more travel time than estimated when possible.

At least this was our campsite after the whole ordeal

5. Be wary of unsolicited “help.” I have only positive things to say about our interactions with people we approached for help, whether it be for simple directions to our riad or a mechanic in a remote gorge east of the Atlas Mountains. We found, though, that when someone approached us offering their assistance, they had ulterior motives, usually to sell us something. In Marrakech, we fell victim to the tannery scam, thankfully with nothing more than a couple hours of our time lost. These interactions never felt unsafe or nefarious, just uncomfortable. If you find yourself in a situation like this, feel free to politely decline with a “la, shukran” (Arabic for no, thank you) or two. Take each interaction with a fresh perspective, however, as that person trying to flag you down in Merzouga might actually be trying to tell you you’re about to drive into a sand pit.

6. Get out and walk around! One of the best parts about a self-guided trip around the beautiful and remote areas of Morocco is the ability to pull over wherever you want and explore. Walk to the top of Aït Benhaddou for sunset (just don’t fall for the guys trying to charge an entrance fee), explore an abandoned kasbah, search for fossils at Gara Medouar. If something catches your eye, take a look! Avoid the temptation to focus only on your destination and allow yourself time to veer off-route. It could be the highlight of your trip!

We have mostly fond memories of our Moroccan campervan trip, and the traumatic ones have turned into great stories. I hope these tips inspire you to set off on the open road and experience parts of gorgeous Morocco that no tour could provide. Still have questions? Maybe we can help! Shoot us a note in the comments.

Map of our route, from Marrakech to Merzouga and back.
Our 10 day route from Marrakech to Merzouga and back

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s