Do you know the 4L Trophy? I heard the name for the first time more than a decade ago from a participant who had just come back from the event: a big road trip to Morocco for students. The sparkles in his eyes when talking about it caught my attention. I always look for experiences that can create this. A few minutes later, I had already made up my mind. I will embark on this adventure of a lifetime for the 2010 edition. But I had no idea I would learn so much from it, even years after the trip.
What is the 4L Trophy?
The 4L Trophy is a race from Paris to Morocco in the small and famous French car, the 4L. With more than 2,000 participants, it’s Europe’s biggest student race.
The objective is not only to have fun and discover the Moroccan desert. The participants have to bring some school and sports supplies as well as medical items to a nonprofit organisation: Les Enfants du Desert, which means Children of the Desert. Of course, monetary donations are also welcomed. In 2017, the charity supported 20,000 pupils and the building of five schools in the Moroccan desert. But can we really call the 4L Trophy a humanitarian raid? I’ll talk about this a bit later in the article.
Along the way, students face challenges that will teach them a lot.
Where did we go?
There’s a map showing our itinerary at the end of this article.
We spent ten days on the road, driving more than 6,000 kilometres, sleeping in our small car or a tent.
We drove all the way across France, from Paris to Bordeaux and the Basque Country. And then, all the way across Spain to Gibraltar. From there, we crossed the Meditteranean Sea to reach Tangier in Morocco. Then, we went near Enjil and Errachidia, all the way to the border with Algeria in the Sahara desert near Merzouga. We then stopped at night near Timerzit and Zagora. Our last leg to Marrakesh wasn’t uneventful with the famous Ouarzazate, the High Atlas mountains and the Tizi n’Tichk pass (2.260m) on the way.
Things I learnt preparing for the 4L Trophy
I had done budget planning before for travelling. But it had never been as expensive as the one we did for the 4L Trophy. I was used to backpacking solo at that time. The 4L Trophy adventure – and budget – was very different. First, we had to pay for the inscription, as if we were joining a tour for a few days. Then, we needed to purchase a car, equipment and insurance. We also needed to budget petrol and food costs. Our total budget was more than 6,000 euros.
As a solo backpacker, I was used not to planning too much ahead. But this was not an option for the 4L Trophy. There are trips where budget planning is essential and must be done carefully. Many things can make you stop or turn around in the middle of the adventure, and you don’t want financial reasons to be an excuse once the journey has started. I had the same feelings a few years later as I was planning my adventure to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s always worth trying when you have nothing to lose
As we were both on a work placement abroad when preparing for the 4L Trophy, finding local partnerships was nearly impossible. So when a French bank launched a competition to give a grant to a team, I knew it was our last chance. Unfortunately, I found out about this opportunity a few hours after the deadline. Or that’s what I thought. I remember the roller coaster of emotions when I realised – as I was in Australia – that the time difference was in my favour. The papers were actually due the next morning! I had nothing to lose, except a few hours of sleep, so I went all in. I spent one sleepless night building up our case and writing essays about consumers, banking and technology. And it worked: we won the competition!
We got half of our budget with this sponsorship. It meant the trip could happen.
It would paint the wrong image if I pretended I learnt mechanics during the 4L Trophy. But I did learn a few things that can still be useful now. The main one? How to change tyres. And I cannot believe I had waited that long to learn this skill. Why don’t they make us do it at driving schools? I now feel a lot safer during my road trips.
The second one? Old cars may be more reliable than new ones if you know what you’re doing or have the right people around you. When it can take forever to fix a new car because you need the right piece of equipment or even the right software to diagnose the problem, it’s nothing like that with a 4L. When you open the car bonnet, it almost looks simple. You can often see what connects with what – or what doesn’t connect. We had mechanics following us on the event, and there were also locals willing to give a hand when we were in a town.
Back in 2008, responsible tourism wasn’t the buzzword it is today. I had never heard that word. Although I was aware that tourism could have negative impacts, they weren’t as clear as they are today. I had only been once outside Europe when I joined the 4L Trophy. Participating in the 4L Trophy made me face some of the negative impacts of tourism for the first time. I had never been offered the option to offset my carbon footprint from a tour before the 4L Trophy. I wish we could see that offered systematically; it is still too rare even ten years later.
I also learnt the dangers of giving to one individual. When you travel, it’s tempting to provide a little something for the kids asking for it. But we were briefed in advance not to give anything directly. I never imagined that just a pen or a small item could have an adverse impact. It turns out that it may develop mendicity. The company organising the raid even told us older kids can corner little kids to steal what you gave them. In the end, direct donations may create issues. That’s why it’s often better to go through reputed organisations if you want to make donations. Plus, if the kids think participants will give away stuff, they could put themselves in danger by staying near the roads to try to stop the cars.
Now that responsible tourism is a common topic and something I deeply care about, I don’t see the 4L Trophy the same way. I’ve thought a lot about this humanitarian race and shared some learnings in the last section of the article (things I’ve learnt a while after coming back from the 4L Trophy).
Part of the challenge to make the trip happen was to fundraise. We were, of course, paying for most of the trip with our own money. But the choice of doing this trip via the 4L Trophy, and for the charity Les Enfants du Desert, increased the costs. I never liked the idea of asking for money, so it was a challenge that I had to face. I was impressed by how much easier it was when you present something potential donors/sponsors could get in return. Fundraising is somehow very close to a sale exercise while being deeply different.
It was also easier to get objects or vouchers rather than funds directly. That’s why we decided to organise an event with a raffle to raise money. We managed to get enough prizes (from chocolates and mugs to a hot air balloon ride) to have winners with every ticket purchased.
We were travelling for ten days. Two of us, in a tiny car with the boot full of school supplies, mechanical equipment, tyres and camping gear. We had no choice but to pack only the necessary items. And we survived just fine. It saves a lot of time not to have a lot of things to choose from. I loved it. After this experience and the many other road trips I did, I wouldn’t pack the same way at all.
Things I learnt on the road to Morocco
Choose the right partner
An adventure like the 4L Trophy, or any road trip really, is always fun and full of discoveries. But you get tired, and you face challenges along the way. Sometimes, you make mistakes or get lost. I am glad I shared this experience with a friend who had the same mindset as I did. For us, it wasn’t about winning the race. Of course, we wanted to finish it. But we also both wanted to meet locals, create memories and take it easy. We didn’t talk about that before signing for the trip, and it could have been a catastrophe to realise we didn’t have the same objectives!
We faced stressful situations in the car and never got mad at each other. But we always chose to laugh at how ridiculous we were rather than being too serious about our questionable choices (although we’d acknowledge them not to repeat our mistakes). It helped us keep the stress levels low and look for solutions efficiently. But it could have been irritating and counterproductive to have this attitude with a partner who doesn’t have the same humour.
4L Trophy participants help each other a lot. Although it was a race and we were all competing, we all wanted the others to succeed and be on the finish line. The camp in the evening was a big marketplace for those needing some equipment to replace. You could not take a break on the side of the road without having other participants stop to ask if you were fine. You’d never be pushing your car alone if you got stuck. It’s a spirit I’ve found again in Australia when we’d take a 4WD to a remote place like K’gari (Fraser Island) for instance.
It’s fantastic to have so much support from others; it makes you feel safer. I wished all these students would have brought this spirit back home and kept it alive. But when I see how individualist our society has become, I’m afraid they forgot how good it felt.
The aim of the competition was not to be the fastest team. The ranking was based on our ability to reach the checkpoints by doing as few kilometres as possible. We hadn’t realised it would be that hard. Driving off-road through the desert was nothing like our driving experience in France. We had to use a compass, bearings and visual landmarks. I am glad I had this first experience with navigation as it made it a lot easier for me on other trips later in life, for hiking and scuba diving.
Obstacles look easier when a bigger one appears
The first time we went offroad with our small car, we were avoiding all the rocks bigger than a fist. A few days later, there were only stones of that size on our path. The ones we had to avoid were ridiculously a lot bigger. It was funny to remember how impressed we were at the start with the smaller rocks, and how different it would be to face the same obstacles again. Could we do a parallel with life here?
I don’t like haggling, but it was part of the culture in Morrocco. I remember finding it very hard to assess what would be a fair price from my French point of view. Since, I always research about this before travelling to make sure I don’t bargain too low or don’t pay a ridiculous price when I purchase souvenirs.
Try local food and drinks
Mint tea may be my biggest regret of our Morrocan trip. I don’t like tea, so I kept refusing the mint tea that was offered to me. But one day, we started chatting with a group of men in the desert who had just helped us push our car after we got stuck in soft sand. And they offered us mint tea. It’s one of these situations when saying no could feel a bit offending. So I accepted and drank mint tea. And wow. I loved it. I could not believe how sweet and tasty it was. Nothing like any other tea I had tried before. Lesson learnt, I now always try local food and drinks, even if I think I won’t like it!
Comfort isn’t that important
The comfort during the trip was basic. Although I thought it would be part of the challenges, it ended up being easier than expected. When you see magnificent landscapes, meet fascinating people and live something extraordinary, you tend to forget that you are covered in dust and sand. I’m glad I realised that early in my adult life. It opened many doors for my next travels. And now that I live in Australia, I often travel to remote places with no facilities.
I also remember the joy when we arrived in our hotel room in Marrakesh. Never had I felt that happy to take a shower. It taught me how much we take water, a luxurious resource, for granted in my country.
Travelling to places in the world that do not have easy access to water and/or electricity is often eye-opening.
Things I learnt a while after coming back from the 4L Trophy
The 4L Trophy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll never forget. I regularly think about this trip. Most of the time, it’s about the beauty of the desert, the delicious mint tea or the lovely local people we met. But sometimes, a more serious topic is on my mind.
I don’t feel it’s right to be thanked that much for this type of humanitarian action.
I felt a bit disturbed by the way our arrival was celebrated. Let’s be honest: all 4L Trophy participants are mainly there for themselves, not to support a cause. It’s a fun and beautiful trip across Morocco. Although giving to a charity is a nice add-on that makes us feel good and hopefully help locals, it’s not the first reason why students go on such a trip. When I think about it, it would have had more positive impacts to donate the money from my participation than to bring a few bags with pens and notebooks. I could even have joined a guided trip in Morocco for less than what we spent for the race and donated the rest. I believe we should be thanking Moroccans for allowing us to have fun on their lands and not the other way around.
Were we really helping?
It made sense to give back to the communities we were visiting. But years later, when I read about “voluntourism” and the “white saviours complex”, I could not help thinking of our trip. I wasn’t into responsible tourism at that time, and I did not research the charity and its impacts.
It’s always hard to criticise actions from people that genuinely mean to bring positive change to fix a problem in a foreign nation.
But I feel it’s even harder to ensure these actions to help underprivileged Moroccan children are positive in the long-term and do not perpetuate white saviourism. I’m not saying that the 4L Trophy is about white saviours. But the question has stayed in my mind and I’ve learnt over the years that it’s an important topic to consider when travelling.
When I read on their website, ten years after my participation, this quote from a participant (that I translated into English): “Morocco is a rich country that needs the support that the 4L Trophy can bring to continue to develop and shine as it deserves”, I wonder if we will ever try to change this idea that they need us. And the Ambassadors taking photos surrounded by all the Moroccan kids who don’t seem to be having fun or the Youtubers visiting the schools after donating money can raise questions too.
But the charity Les Enfants du Desert seems to do things a lot better than many others I’ve seen, though. I like that the charity is involved with local associations who know the region and the culture, rather than doing all the work themselves. They seem aware of the risks of imposing the western culture. And they nowadays focus on the quality of the donations rather than the quantity. No volunteers physically help in building the schools. They employ local skilled people. It does feel like their actions have a long-term positive impact on the local economy and access to education. And the Enfants du Desert do say that they don’t want dependency from the locals.
I just hope there is a long-term plan for families to one day have access to school supplies if the help stops. Or will they always rely on the arrival of the hundreds of 4L?
Why I would not do the 4L Trophy – or anothe similar race – again
There are a few reasons why I would not do the 4L Trophy again even if age wasn’t an issue (I’m no longer eligible). And it’s not about the comfort or because I no longer feel like camping and roughing it.
When I visit a place nowadays, I’m conscious that I should spend my money locally. And if I choose to go with a tour, I’d select the one that supports the local economy. Although we were supporting a charity with the 4L Trophy, we were also giving a lot of money to a for-profit tour company.
We didn’t see much of Morocco and hardly engaged with locals. I’d much prefer to visit a smaller region but take time to understand the culture and local life. I’ve been to Morocco with the 4L Trophy, but I don’t feel like I know Morocco at all. Most of my best memories during the 4L Trophy are of the few local people I met. And the time we spent with them always was always too short.