All aboard Africa’s ‘panther express’
Tristan Rutherford joins the first passengers to travel on the high-speed train from Tangier to Casablanca
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
FROM THE OCEAN TO THE DESERT