A long day’s run from Tangier, the Atlas Mountains provide amazing Lotus driving roads. Dodging the rock falls, Johnny Tipler’s Marrakech Express is a Europa SE.
I never imagined schoolboy French would come in so handy, but I found out in Morocco. Hauled over by a couple of speed cops at night on an innocuous 60kph (37mph) road on the outskirts of Marrakech, words like ‘désolé!’ suddenly bubbled up and in fluent Franglais I explained truthfully that I’d lost my way to my hotel. Graciously they gave me directions and sent me on my way.
You soon realise you’re in a different continent. Morocco is the first rung on the ladder south through Africa, and Marrakech is like the idealised French colonial city of Célésteville in the Baba the Elephant stories. Exotic it may be, but there are few bargains – haggling only realises a fair market price; they just won’t sell you that rug if your best offer doesn’t match up. And crucially for the sporting driver, one thing you cannot do in Morocco is speed. Up in the Atlas Mountains you can exercise your Lotus’s handling to a degree, but down on the main highway, forget it, or your wallet’s toast.
My mission was to bring the Europa SE to Marrakech, but because the bulk of Lotus’s continental press fleet is billeted in Stuttgart, that’s where my journey started. I collected the car from European PR manager Andreas Maenner and gunned the zesty 220bhp missile out of Germany and down through France and Spain, overnighting at Orange in Provence and Valencia, close to the GP circuit, on the Spanish coast. On the unrestricted Autobahn I saw 210kph in the left-hooker and it felt very stable, though the fuel gauge told a more daunting tale. Notwithstanding the Europa’s appetite I decided that whilst these sorts of speeds were legal I might as well go for it. The 2.0 turbo GM engine (from the VX-220 Roadster) makes the Europa nearly as quick as the Elise SC. There’s a deeper, less urgent engine note to the Europa than the blown 1.8 Toyota unit in the Elise, but the turbo kicks in with no lag whatsoever. Acceleration is blistering, from 0-to-60mph in 5.5s and whistling up to 145mph, working slickly through its close ratio six-speed ’box. Short-shifting out of the toll booths on the péage there’s that funny little whistle every time you lift off the accelerator, like water gurgling down the sink. As a measure of limit-abiding fuel economy, an Autoroute tank-full got me from Orange to Barcelona, 430kms (267 miles) in four hours – averaging 106kph (66mph).
Shod with winter tyres (Pirelli Snow Sport, 195/55-16 front, 215/40-17 rear) in case of snow in the Eifel, Vosges and Ardèche regions – and maybe even the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada, there was also the prospect of indifferent surfaces in Morocco if further justification was needed. According to Andreas I was the first person to drive the Europa with that set-up, and it was absolutely fine – perhaps a tad more squirm in high-speed turns, but no less grip than standard Yokohamas. Though snow-capped mountains were a frequent backdrop I came closer to the white stuff in the Atlas Mountains than anywhere in Europe, and as it turned out, a Moroccan thunderstorm provided the worst of the weather.
Such a lightweight is inevitably susceptible to crosswinds, and at 160kph on the Spanish Autovia on that magnificent high-altitude stretch between Murcia and Grenada I was buffeted to the point where the weaving Europa needed a firm grip on the tiller. In an exhilarating climb over a small mountain pass, winding tightly to the summit the Europa steamed up it. These are wonderful roads for a Lotus, switching this way and that. I glimpsed 180kph tracking through the turns, it’s so very taut and poised.
Just after Algeciras and the Rock of Gibraltar I reached Tarifa, an old fishing and ferry port with ancient fortress and inevitable modern sprawl. From the water, its Moroccan counterpart of Tangier doesn’t look much different, only bigger. Just 14 miles separate Spain from Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar, though the sleek FRS ‘Tarifa Jet’ catamaran ferry takes the long way round, tallying 50-miles to Tangier. By now I’d met up with editor Caroline and photographer Jason on the giant speedboat, doing 25 knots to make the crossing in 35 minutes, a passage that takes a normal ferry 3 hours. If it’s too rough the catamaran simply doesn’t sail, though the conventional freighter still runs. FRS also goes from Algeciras to Ceuta, though Tangier has the better autoroute access going south.
Quayside at Tangier, disembarking was chaos because everything had been packed on board like sardines. I couldn’t extract myself from the Lotus without levering myself out on the door handles of the Mercedes alongside, and to get back in I simply waited till there was nothing parked next to me.
Now the fun starts. On the wharf you wait in line to go through the customs shed. You wait, and you wait. The posturing Tangier port authorities know how to take their time, lording it over the assembled voyagers while acolytes scuttle about to no good effect. Someone goes off with my documents – passport and car papers. Half-an-hour later he returns. They have been stamped but they are proffered with one hand while the other is an outstretched palm. Then I have to take the passport to two more police officials, one in a pokey office, the other in a sentry box, for verification of the stamp. Along with the vehicle’s paperwork is a new slip of green paper and this, I discover, is to be treasured. By the time I drive out of the port, I’m 150 Deram (roughly £14) poorer from ‘gratuities’, but the pompous copper at the port gate demands to see le papier vert yet again, Luckily I find it buried under maps and jacket.
At last I’m on the road south to Rabat, with about 500km (313 miles) to go to Marrakech. Jason and Caroline follow in a rented Citroën hatchback. Thank goodness I’ve already had ample opportunity to explore the Europa’s performance potential, from unrestricted Autobahn to arcing Autovia, given the preponderance of speed traps and traffic cops. I may be on state-of-the-art, newly finished Autoroute (tolls gobble £17 between Tangier and Marrakech) but I stick diligently to the speed limit, with glowering policemen swaggering like gangsters in the central reservation, cameras pointing up and down the highway. I count four speed traps in the first hour, which begs the question, if everyone knows they are always going to be out and about, how come people get caught?
Instead I contemplate the scenery. On either side it’s marshland, and to the right is the Atlantic Ocean, with eucalyptus and poplar plantations by the roadside. It’s like Holland with cacti. Agriculture in these parts is a mixture of strip farming in very small fields with lots of cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, the odd camel, and in some places the land is cultivated though it’s too early in the season to tell what the crops are. Occasionally there’s an intensive poly-tunnel farm. Dwellings are mud-baked with flat roofs, and people pop up from everywhere, walking along the side of the autoroute, running across it, or picking herbs among the profusion of roadside flowers. Herds of goats roam the hard shoulder and I can’t see what would keep them from coming down onto the road, though there are some barriers. Among the subsistence farming, brightly coloured carpets hang out to air on fences or off adobe roofs.
We stop for fuel and barbecued chicken at one of the frequent service areas – Afriquia, Mobil and Shell are the most common petrol brands - and discover for the first time that nobody takes credit cards: just cash, Derams preferably, or Euros. Portions are generous but prices are high.
Rabat is roughly halfway house. Policemen skulk at every crossroads and intersection, but now there’s a new phenomenon: every half mile or so for perhaps 50 miles a smartly uniformed soldier stands guard, with a pair of colleagues watching from every flyover. Though the limit is 120kph I keep below 100kph, figuring that if there’s royalty due to pass this way we don’t want some trigger happy squaddie taking a pot shot. The roadside guards peter out at Mohammedia, a port just short of Casablanca.
Road signs are in Arabic and French. Drivers on the autoroute behave no differently to Europe, except they tend to flash lights before overtaking and indicators aren’t used to the same obsessive extent as in Spain. There’s a whole gamut of cars of different makes and ages on the road, with the Clio-sized Dacia Logan most ubiquitous, many much the worse for wear. Trucks are 1950s American Fords and ’60s Japanese commercials, while the few big artics are invariably Spanish. In Morocco, the older the lorry the less good its lane discipline tends to be, and there’s a certain amount of wandering; I was lucky when a heavily laden flatbed pulled out and I just managed to squeeze past him. The older lorries are inclined to go for height rather than length, elevated loads more common than long ones. Punctures are commonplace.
I have plenty of time to contemplate the Europa cockpit. It’s what used to be called a fixed-head coupé, since the roof doesn’t come off. The roofline is higher than its siblings and the sill of the extruded aluminium chassis is cutaway to allow easier access. The Europa is also more civilised in terms of its cabin upholstery, lots of leather and also boot space, enough capacity for a decent sized suitcase, which you couldn’t get in an Exige. The car’s documentation and handbook is stashed here in leather holsters. Despite long days at the wheel I get out each evening without any aches or discomfort – my drive will eventually wind up at Barcelona, by which time I’ll have clocked up 2,850 miles (4,787kms).
It has a more fully upholstered cabin than the Elise or Exige, clad in black leather with three whites stripes down each door panel and there’s neat stitching on the dashboard and atop the main instruments. The main instruments are set in their own twin binnacle, cowled like medieval monks, as are the fascia air vents. The levers and switchgear is GM, as seen in Elise and Exige, plain but functional. It’s austere rather than luxurious, but all harmonious. The seats are adequately padded and covered in leather, the white lines matching the door liners. As well as the parcel tray there are several useful pockets for oddments, even in the roof headlining, plus those minimal sun visors, four huge speakers, an infuriatingly hard-to-access cup-holder between the seats, and the cigarette lighter socket where I plug in the Tom-Tom. It’s a nice place to be, even without the power-sapping aircon turned on.
South of Casablanca the road turns away from the ocean, and suddenly my expectations are fulfilled. Over to my left is the railway and, yes, there it is in all its pantograph-powered glory: The Marrakech Express! I’d deliberately downloaded the song onto my iPod and it’s a matter of moments to shuffle it to Crosby Stills & Nash’s hippy paean: ‘….sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind, had to get away to see what we could find.…’ As if inspiration was necessary! It’s locked in my head for the rest of the week.
It’s dark now and the first glimpse of Marrakech is through a series of conical hills flanking the motorway, with the city laid out on the plains below, bathing the sky in orange. Night-time traffic around the seven-mile long walled Medina is insane, a buzzing mass of mopeds, taxis and pickups, mixing it with donkey carts and ambling mules. Rows of little shops and workshops spill out onto the street, a hive of activity. We pull into a garage for directions and a youth offers to ride with us to locate our hotel, the Ksar Char-Bagh. Without him we would surely not have found it, though the hotel did offer to bring us in – if only we knew where we were.
Late evening we arrive, and rarely does the sanctuary of a hotel feel more welcome; a couple of miles out of town, the fortress-like Ksar Char-Bagh with its Alhambra-like courtyard enables a total unwind. Next morning we head for the Medina in one of the hotel’s London taxis, where a barrage of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells assail the senses. In the Djemaa El Fna main square there’s a freak show of snake charmers, hedgehog handlers, monkey minders, donkeys and carts, mules, horses and carriages, feral cats, the complete menagerie. Metalwork, pottery, carpets, leather, an abundance of spices, pastries, fruit and nut stalls contrive a riotous, dazzling palette. Spurning the touts who jump you the instant you appear in the marketplace we’ve engaged Azedine, an official guide who speaks excellent and witty English.
The souk is an absolute maze of narrow streets and mysterious alleyways, dark doorways leading to riads or inner courtyards. The moukef is a rabbit warren where innumerable artisans are hard at work in tiny cells crafting leather goods - from bags and hats to sandals and slippers – while hides cure on the ad hoc roofs covering the alleyways. Around the corner metal workers solder and stamp candelabra, lanterns and birdcages, and as you move along there are wood turners, carvers and marquetry inlayers. We don’t see any potters but the intricately patterned ceramics in the foundouk shops are fabulous. Weavers tailor djellabas – traditional full-length hooded robes - and it costs well over £100 for a good one; locals buy them on HP, says Azedine. Part and parcel of the action is the incessant traffic of mopeds and scooters, ridden at breakneck speed despite the narrowness of the alleys, usually two-up. Horns blare and fumes linger. One rips the button off my shirt cuff with his brake lever; he stops to make sure I’m not injured and without further ado winds on the throttle. All the while people are exhorting you to enter the confines of their shops, and of course you inevitably succumb and then the bartering starts. Which is why Jason and I come away with a Berber Kelim rug each. Over sweet mint tea the vendor leisurely unravels a selection of wonderful carpets woven by different Moroccan tribes, and smartly whittles them down to the one that most appeals. It will cost me £1,200, he says. I don’t want to insult him, I say, but I was thinking more like £50. Eventually we shake on £250. It seems a bargain, but you’re never quite sure.
Back in the open square a charmer hangs a serpent around Jason’s neck, uninvited, and to his credit he doesn’t flinch. Felt cold, he says. Azedine explains how the snake’s venom is milked first thing in the morning. The creature is relatively placid because it’s used to its circumstances in the square and doesn’t feel threatened. Most of the time the cobra lies limp like an old hosepipe, responding to the motion of the charmer’s pipe rather than the sound, and if it gets a bit hot and edgy they just put it in cold water and it calms down.
The brightly clad water sellers are a splash of glamour and soothsayers abound, from tarot readers to the guy who scatters 50 human teeth to predict the future (a trip to the dentist maybe?). Then there are the contortionists, the belly dancers, the cacophony of Gnaoua buskers - pipe band, drumming band, ethnic stringed instruments – plucked ouds, lotars, buzuks and the bowed rabab fiddle, plus haunting flutes and doumbec and djembe drums. Prevalent aromas depend on what spices are in the wind – turmeric, cumin and dried roses - and what meats are being barbecued. A blast of strange perfumes draws us into an apothecary where we sniff a galaxy of concoctions said to cure all known ailments, though we leave empty handed.
We end up on the terrace of the Café Argana where marketplace meets souk to watch the world go by. Jazz-fusion by Moroccan power-trio Zahar belts out, catching the mood exactly. As dusk falls we move to the enclave of tarpaulin-roofed outdoor cafés where you sit at a trestle table and they cook delicious tagines, couscous and vegetables to order, plus the inevitable mint tea, and watch the callers vie with each other to lure passing tourists to choose them. Daylight quickly fades and as the illuminations come on the atmosphere becomes quite magical with a sense of excited anticipation, the most evocative moment.
Next day, in deference to generous support from the Mobil fuel company on this jaunt we apply their decals, giving pause to contemplate the contours of the Europa body. They are subtly different to those of the Elise and Exige but no less pleasing. Styled as a Grand Tourer and designed in-house at Hethel by Barney Hatt, the frontal aspect has more in common with Evora than Elise. The roofline is higher than its siblings – just as the sills are cutaway for ease of access, and the rear clams have less rounded, more angled wheel arches than the junior Hethel line-up. Look in the side mirrors and you can see the rear spoiler as well, so it’s easy to judge the size of the car in parking situations. In any context the Europa is a brilliant car. It has much of the raw sportiness of the Elise in terms of handling and performance yet it’s a civilised version clad in a more sophisticated – less raunchy - body. Accelerate hard through the gears and that raw edge is immediately apparent, and there’s still the hard, uncompromising sports car ride, so that whilst it rides the bumps and it doesn’t necessarily transmit them to your backside, it certainly does go bonk over drains, potholes and gullies. Mostly though you can avoid them as the Europa is hyper-responsive to steering inputs. It’s so beautifully manoeuvrable that you can place it anywhere you like on the road, which is especially useful in sweeping mountain passes where you can be fairly sure no velocity vigilantes are lurking.
We move to the expansive Amanjena hotel on the opposite side of Marrakech, out on the road to Ouazarzate and the Atlas foothills. We fuel up in Marrakech, though we do pass one or two gas stations later, negotiate the burgeoning suburbs and head southeast to Asni, a small town 75km distant, within sight of snowy Jbel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain (4,167m). Domestic architecture consists mainly of mud walled buildings in varying degrees of decrepitude, terracotta coloured and flanked by olive groves, eucalyptus and palms, people living cheek by jowl with their cattle. Donkey carts are laden with herbs and logs, herds of sheep and flocks of goats, sometimes indistinguishable, stray onto the road. Every village has a mosque, and at certain times the landscape echoes to the sound of a dozen or so chanting muezzin calling the people to prayer from their lofty minarets.
By and large the main roads are smooth asphalt, randomly fenced by giant prickly pear cacti and olive groves beyond with sheep grazing in them. White milestones with yellow caps regularly divulge distances between towns. But every now and then the surface degenerates into massive potholes and trenches. There’s been a lot of rain and water coming off the mountains cascades into churning pink torrents beside the road. Red mud has washed off the hills, creating sandbanks across the road, while dwellings in the middle distance are the same colour as the outlying ground, making them pretty hard to spot. Five kilometres winding up out of Tahanaout there are serious rock falls, narrowing the slim thoroughfare to single track, with some recently installed Armco and old red-and-white painted wall to stop vehicles falling into the precipice. This is a major pass in the grand scheme of things but it is in pretty poor shape. They’ll need major plant to shift some of those boulders: eat your heart out, Charles Atlas.
Past the watershed at Taroudannt village the road is newly surfaced and winds down along the valley before climbing again towards the Tzi-n-Tichka pass (7,500ft), final conduit from the snowy mountains into the desert. The sun is out under clear skies and it’s hot, though at Kasbah Toubkal just beyond Asni, off the main drag at Imlil the snow is two or three feet deep still. Winter tyres or not, we stick to the main highway, which is a proper Lotus driving road with a taxing variety of cambered bends and differing apexes. Every little input has an effect on the car’s direction, but you can also control the turn-in by lift-off oversteer: off the throttle, it tucks in, back on the throttle the nose comes out again. Enchanting, my Tagine Genie.
Time for lunch, and our chosen café has just opened for the summer season. Apart from mint tea, all the proprietor can offer is cheese omelette, but it’s possibly the best I’ve ever had. Soaking up sunshine in the Atlas Mountains may have something to do with it.
The valley floor broadens out, revealing villages in amongst the olives and conifers, pink flat-roof buildings protruding from the greenery. In spite of the remoteness there are plenty of cafés, restaurants, B’n’Bs and auberges. For a short while the road becomes single track with enough run off either side to get two wheels on the rough when something comes the other way. A Peugeot hatchback overtakes with all four in the dirt. Its occupants can hardly see out for their cargo of hemp plants.
At one location I spend half an hour driving the car repeatedly to and fro through a series of bends for the photographer’s benefit, and a shepherd’s family comes down to the roadside to see what’s going on. Two beautiful children sit on the bank. They grin and wave, and Jason gives them a few Deram each. They thank him politely and they and their flock drift off. It’s much the same reception everywhere. In Asni the college students hail enthusiastically and everybody loves the Lotus; young and old, ethnic garbed or Euro clad, they all wave and give the thumbs up as I pass by, and if they are within earshot it is, ‘comment ça va?’ or sometimes, from an older person or the hotel staff, the greeting is a more formal ‘salaam aleykum,’ peace be with you.
On the way back we pause at the Adrar Tinmel café with its accompanying ‘I saw you coming’ gift shop, high on a ridge with staggering views overlooking a big lake, 66km from Marrakech. It’s surrounded by mountains with powder snow on the tops and covered in scrub which the goats are tucking into. Locals squat on the hillsides chatting in the late afternoon sun. There’s quite a drop off on the side of the road down to the lake and the road is peppered with rock falls and potholes.
Heading into Marrakech in the dark the traffic build up becomes increasingly chaotic to the point of total anarchy at the Medina. This is not a good place for a brand new car, though the Lotus’s manoeuvrability doubtless helps keep us out of scrapes. There are many heart stopping moments in a generally nerve wracking experience; call it filtering, but the two-wheeled and four-legged brigade simply just do not look.
You can be as careful as you like to stick to speed limits, but waver a little over and Murphy’s Law says that’s where the trap will be. Sure enough, on the home run near Rabat we’re summoned into a gap in the central reservation by a pair of jackbooted cops for going a tad over the 120kph maximum. ‘Vous alliez trop vite, toutes les deux,’ says one. I explain we’re hurrying to Tangier to catch the ferry. They suggest E450 might be an appropriate forfeit, but after chatting about the Lotus - where it’s made, how much it costs (but not how fast it’ll go) - they think better of it, and with a cordial handshake, wave us on.
On the outskirts of Tangier kids run up to the car at red lights begging for goodies. By chance I pick up Hassan, an amiable djelaba-clad official guide who bought me mint tea at the port a week ago, and he breezes us past the glowering harbour police. Leaving Morocco is still time consuming but less fraught. At Tarifa docks a customs Alsatian sniffs all vehicles for drugs, but I do a Dog Whisperer on him and when it’s the Europa’s turn for scrutiny he licks me instead.
In Morocco, though, the Europa is just one more paradox in a country that has plenty of them, most obviously the new autoroute and the subsistence farming it bisects. On one hand I feel uncomfortable because the car attracts the attention of the authorities, and on the other it’s a delight to ordinary folk. The surprise is how friendly everybody is – I find even a wave to policemen is reciprocated - but it’s no bad thing to travel out of your comfort zone; it makes the adventure all the more rewarding.