Taking the right turn

The tortuous Tizi n’Tichka pass in Morocco’s High Atlas mountain chain can spark a mixture of emotions in any driver. Yet for truck driver Omar Ait Mbarek, the road is his home and office.

National road 9 reaches almost 2300 metres above sea level, making North Africa’s highest mountain pass.

“I can drive through it in reverse mode,” says the 61-year-old in a tongue-in-cheek tone. Reaching almost 2,300 metres above sea level, making it north Africa’s highest mountain pass, the 50 kilometre-long stretch on national road 9 offers breathtaking landscape of snow-capped mountains with green slopes dotted with picturesque villages. An authentic taste of the Moroccan way of living that is hard to come by in cities, and a major draw for foreign visitors. Tizi n’Tichka, which means Pastures’ Pass in the indigenous Amazigh language, is strategic for Morocco’s economy: It connects Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, two cities that attract millions of tourists each year, and are also preferred shooting locations for moviemakers from Hollywood to Bollywood. 

But its hairpin turns winding along dangerous and poorly protected precipices on one side and ever-present risk of rock slides on the other, with road cave-ins and all too often reckless driving behaviour, may make driving through it a matter of life or death. Omar Ait Mbarek may therefore be entitled to boast, at least a little: He has spent almost a third of the 44 years he has worked in the transportation sector on this road without a single accident. How did he do it?

 

Hairpin turn

Tizi n’Tickha’s hairpin turns and winding roads have poorly protected precipices on one side and the ever-present risk of rock slides on the other.

Omar Ait Mbarek

Omar Ait Mbarek has been driving trucks for 44 years, and despite spending nearly a third of that time driving over the Tizi n’Tickha pass, he has never had a single accident.

“I never put the radio on when I am driving the truck on this road. Instead, I keep my ears focused on the engine to know what’s going on inside my truck and on the road. And you have to take it slow: I am not one of those drivers who hurries to drive as soon as they get up. I take my time, I sleep when I have to sleep, even if it means arriving two hours late,” he says as he pour himself a glass of mint tea during a roadside break.

After a hearty meal consisting of vegetables and red meat tagine stew, Omar Ait Mbarek goes about checking his Volvo FH tanker, which is carrying motor fuel from Marrakesh to the desert outpost of Zagora, south of Ouarzazate. 

Goat herder

Picturesque villages and the chance to experience the authentic Moroccan way of living, have made the region surrounding the Tizi n’Tichka pass a major draw for foreign visitors.

Since 1997, Omar Ait Mbarek has been working for Societe Transport Marouane et Freres Ltd (STMF), a Moroccan company specialising in the transportation of flammable products. He is their oldest serving truck driver. “I should have retired last year but they wouldn’t let me go! They insisted that I stay. I have become their most trusted driver and also train new recruits,” he says.

Omar Ait Mbarek started driving trucks in 1983, but spent 11 years prior to that working as assistant to truck drivers, which helped him pick up tricks of the trade. The first heavy-duty truck he drove was a Volvo F88.

“It was the best back in the day but the brakes would overheat on steep roads. Now, this new Volvo FH can carry up to 27 tonnes and rolls at the same speed whether it is on a hill or on a slope. The trucks nowadays are also more comfortable as they are fitted with a proper cabin while before we had to sleep under the steering wheel,” he says.

The cabin provides a much needed shelter especially during the winter, when heavy snowfall can bring traffic to a halt, sometimes for several days. Driving past the Toufliht village, Omar Ait Mbarek recounts how in 1998 traffic was halted for a whole week due to snow.

I never put the radio on when I am driving the truck on this road. Instead, I keep my ears focused on the engine to know what’s going on inside my truck.

Omar Ait Mbarek, truck driver

“We had no food and no blankets. No one came to our aid. Our only recourse was this bar which had a fireplace: The owner made quite the buck on drivers’ backs, selling us bread for five times the normal price,” he says grinning.

As he approaches the most dangerous part of the mountain pass, Omar Ait Mbarek’s mood alters as he points to a cellular sector antenna atop a cliff and starts describing the most horrific sight he has encountered in his whole life. It was early September of 2012, when the driver of a bus lost control of the vehicle in the dead of the night, causing it to free-fall 150 metres below. Forty-two people were killed and 25 others were injured.

 

Omar Ait Mbarek behind the wheel

What Omar Ait Mbarek dreads the most are rookie truck drivers. “I can spot a rookie from a mile away, even at night. They are real daredevils, caring little about the risks.

“I drove past the site of the accident in the morning. The bus was shredded to bits and pieces. That accident still haunts me and I pray I never see such thing again.”

Police said the accident happened because the bus had been carrying more people than its designed capacity. It was Morocco’s deadliest road accident on record in a country where about 4,000 people die in road accidents each year. The state has invested heavily to develop road infrastructures and impose road traffic regulations, but critics say the infrastructure development effort has neglected remote areas like Tizi n’Tichka.

You don’t want to have an accident here: If the fall doesn’t kill you, ambulances can take too long before arriving and there are no proper hospitals over a hundred kilometres around.

Omar Ait Mbarek, truck driver

Volvo FH tanker

Omar Ait Mbarek’s Volvo FH tanker carries motor fuel from Marrakesh to the desert outpost of Zagora, south of Ouarzazate.

“You don’t want to have an accident here: If the fall doesn’t kill you, ambulances can take too long before arriving and there are no proper hospitals over a hundred kilometres around,” Omar Ait Mbarek says and adds: “To me, what matters in life is my safety first and that of the people in front of me, as well as my kids, performing my prayers on time, to stay clean and to avoid causing harm to people. I have never caused death or disability to anyone; my life is good and I sleep with a clear consciousness.”

Born in a village tucked in the Atlas mountains, Omar Ait Mbarek did not have much of a choice other than to turn a chance encounter he had as a teenager into a career which has since become his passion. He was 16, when a truck driving by his village lost its load of cane. He hurried to help the driver who was so impressed that he immediately offered him work as his assistant for 15 dirhams a month.

Omar Ait Mbarek

“To me, what matters in life is my safety first and that of the people in front of me,” says Omar Ait Mbarek.

“Trucking was the only job not just for me but for so many in my area. The only thing that brought life to villages around us were trucks and buses,” he says and adds:

“Driving provides me with an indescribable high. It’s like a drug to be on the road, to meet fellow drivers and exchange information. It is an escape for me to be roaming these mountain roads with the certainty that I have managed throughout these years, to stay safe and to avoid causing harm to others.”

Volvo FH on Moroccan highway

In recent years the Moroccan government has invested heavily to develop road infrastructures and impose road traffic regulations, but critics say the infrastructure development effort has neglected remote areas like Tizi n’Tichka.

Societe Transport Marouane et Freres Ltd

Owner: Mr. Mohamed Asli, General Manager.
Number of employees: 365
Company started: 1996
Main customers: Shell, Total Morocco.
Total number of vehicles: 283
Number of Volvo trucks in the fleet: 236
Main load: Petroleum products 

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