All aboard Africa’s ‘pan­ther ex­press’

Tris­tan Ruther­ford joins the first pas­sen­gers to travel on the high-speed train from Tang­ier to Casablanca

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Africa’s first high-speed train has the pro­file of a pan­ther. With barely a purr it tip­toes out of Tang­ier sta­tion in a silken glide. The train’s rapid pounce up to 320km/h (200mph) is equally im­per­cep­ti­ble. Within min­utes of de­par­ture, the sun-mir­rored Mediter­ranean turns to salt marsh. Pine for­est into tow­er­ing Rif. A green sheen of pas­ture wel­comes nest­ing storks and graz­ing sheep.

The French-built TGV, which be­gan op­er­a­tions on Mon­day, aims to unite a tele­genic king­dom riven by moun­tains, rivers, desert and scrub.

Its north­ern ter­mi­nus is a case in point. Hav­ing changed hands more times than it cared to re­mem­ber, Tang­ier re­turned to Moroc­can sovereignty only in 1956. Only for Keith Richards to rock up, suck a pipe, then stag­ger south to Mar­rakech more slowly than to­day’s ex­press.

The car­riage in­te­ri­ors of the new train are nei­ther French nor friv­o­lous, but Moroc­can and mod­ern. In first class, princely red thrones gaze over flash­backs of coun­try life. End­less in­for­ma­tion jin­gles speak of a rail op­er­a­tor proud to run Africa’s first high-speed line. A dig­i­tal speedome­ter proves we’re trav­el­ling at speeds that would link Lon­don with Truro in a sin­gle hour. It tops any­thing Bri­tain has to of­fer in terms of speed, com­fort, clean­li­ness or style. Sit­ting on the dou­ble-decker train’s top floor is a must. From here a panorama of sea-me­d­ina-beach screams past like a Sa­ha­ran doc­u­men­tary on fast for­ward.

Se­cond-class seats are a rich Is­lamic green. Here more pas­sen­gers sport the djellaba, a tra­di­tional gown that keeps win­ter winds at bay while keep­ing suits sharp un­der­neath. Con­ver­sa­tion is more vol­u­ble. And po­lite no­tices to si­lence mo­bile phones are treated as an ab­stract rather than an in­struc­tion.

Just after an hour the train pauses at the royal cap­i­tal of Ra­bat. Un­til last week the trip from Tang­ier took nearer four. I have no time to alight as I’m merely sam­pling some key parts of what next spring will be Great Rail Jour­neys’ Mag­nif­i­cent Morocco & Moor­ish Spain tour; the first of­fered by a British op­er­a­tor aboard the new TGV.

After Ra­bat, ver­dant forests flash past the pic­ture win­dows. There are palms and canes, pines and plains, all back­dropped by a gen­tly crash­ing At­lantic Ocean. It’s like a greener Ca­naries, or an An­dalu­sian Africa, wit­nessed at Lewis Hamil­ton speeds. At the two-hour mark the new train prowls through the Casablanca suburbs. The jour­ney be­tween Tang­ier and Casablanca used to take nearly five hours, a du­ra­tion that will be re­duced to 90 min­utes when fi­nal up­grades to the track are com­pleted in 2020.

This city of seven mil­lion is a jux­ta­po­si­tion of lemon groves and vil­las à ven­dre, of shanty towns and quartiers less grand. Train tracks dis­crim­i­nate against nei­ther. A walk­ing tour re­veals a bustling French-At­lantic city far re­moved from the dis­so­lute Mediter­ranean-Berlin of Tang­ier. As Casablanca boomed a cen­tury ago, colo­nial plan­ners crafted an en­tire city in an art deco style Casablanca, above and above right, im­mor­talised by Bog­art and Bergman; be­low, Mar­rakech’s Je­maa el-Fnaa square lights up at night known as Mau­resque. Banks and ho­tels are graced with Moor­ish cupo­las and rac­ing lines. The cathe­dral is a vi­sion of con­crete. There’s Rick’s

Café that re­calls the leg­endary Bog­art-Bergman movie, plus the villa where Churchill and Roo­sevelt met in 1943.

But there’s lit­tle in Casablanca to en­ter­tain lo­tus-eat­ing hip­pies who back in the day were en­cour­aged to rail­road on to Mar­rakech. And I do like­wise, even though this part of the jour­ney is not yet high speed.

One hippy that trav­elled on “the train from Casablanca go­ing south”, “blow­ing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth”, was Gra­ham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash. To­day’s Mar­rakech Ex­press sways out of Casablanca like a beat­nik re­cov­er­ing from the night be­fore – and of­fers a cin­e­matic com­par­i­son to the new TGV. The lit­tle car­riages beat a rat­tling rhythm as au­then­tic as it is hyp­notic. There’s an il­lu­sion of speed although we’re barely past run­ning pace. There are mosques, schools, kiosks and boules. Plus nurs­eries grow­ing olives and palms to fur­nish the new marinas and malls on the Casablanca cor­niche.

First-class cabins con­tain six arm­chair seats of the style used to host mur­ders in Agatha Christie nov­els. Out here, ru­ral lo­co­mo­tion is pro­vided by bat­tered Peu­geots and don­keys. East of Mar­rakech, trans­port means pickup trucks and camels. Gra­ham Nash found his 1966 trip in first class a bore, full of “Amer­i­can ladies five foot tall in blue”. So he moved down the cor­ri­dor to se­cond, where “ducks and pigs and chick­ens” al­legedly called. Although as his song Mar­rakesh Ex­press was first per­formed at 3am at 1969’s Wood­stock mu­sic fes­ti­val, Nash’s rec­ol­lec­tion may have been as rick­ety as the rails.

At three hours, the Casablanca to Mar­rakech line is hardly an ex­press. Bet­ter than that, it’s a topo­graph­i­cal tour through Star Wars scenery. The orange earth be­gins to rust. Train sta­tions be­come plat­forms in the dust. From a desert scrub emerge orange or­chards, the fruit of which will be juiced and served along­side the sto­ry­tellers and snakecharm­ers in Mar­rakech’s Je­maa el-Fnaa square. Hills be­gin to roll. Moun­tains be­gin to rise un­til the snow-capped At­las back­drop the Red City like a scene from Game of Thrones.

Mar­rakech of­fers a his­tor­i­cal coun­ter­point to louche Tang­ier and com­mer­cial Casablanca. Thanks to the new line, one may break­fast on crois­sants by the Mediter­ranean, take a sar­dine lunch be­side the At­lantic, then dine on tajine on the bor­ders of the Sa­hara – an op­tion that will be­come even more vi­able when a planned high-speed line ex­ten­sion reaches Mar­rakech in a few years’ time. Un­til then Mar­rakech re­mains a thou­sand-year-old oa­sis where spices are still shipped across the desert, and where lo­cals dress like ex­tras in a bib­li­cal biopic. Although the end of the line is get­ting nearer all the time.

Travel high speed be­tween Tang­ier and Casablanca as part of a 13-day es­corted group tour with Great Rail Jour­neys (01904 527180; greatrail. com). The Mag­nif­i­cent Morocco & Moor­ish Spain tour (from £2,995) in­cludes four and five-star ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion, all rail jour­neys in­clud­ing first class Eurostar pas­sage, a ferry across the Strait of Gi­bral­tar and a ma­jes­tic rat­tle across the At­las Moun­tains from Fez to Mar­rakech, plus ex­cur­sions and se­lected meals. De­par­ture dates:

May 13, May 27 and Sept 23 2019.

READY FOR THE OFFA guard of honour at the launch of the new train


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