Just looking, not buying
January 31st: Got up early to replace the camera lens filter the old "captain" broke (I think his eyes are giving in). This meant rising before the crack of dawn and racing to Algeciras, before getting onto the ferry for Tanger. We boarded the ferry at 10AM and were off on the next leg of our journey. The trip took all of 35 minutes and was practically over before it began. Once there we headed straight for the border post.
On arrival there we were immediately harassed by masses of what I've begun referring to as Arab shit flies. wherever you go these guys are drawn to you like flies to shit (shit is the new sick for we are the shit-if over 30 you may not get this, Pat didn't). Once at the post an "official" looking official with a big matrix style trenchcoat and police sunglasses came to our assistance. He quickly walked us through the visa process, and while Sarah and I were completing ours he forcefully hauled Patrick away. In my paranoid ignorance I was envisaging a line - up and stoning, merely because he no longer looked like the chap in his passport, but rather more like a properly balding old git.
Fortunately the guy was just helping him with car insurance. We exchanged 250 Euros and got 3100 Dirham in return.
With the formalities complete we set off for Rabat, we arrived just as the sun was setting and made our way to the one and only campsite just outside Rabat in Sale.
I am at a loss for words to describe the place. For once I am left totally speechless. An evening of chronic indigestion, gas and early morning bucket of cold water dousing would have been on a par with regards to how much I was looking forward to sleeping there. To put things into focus for you I will elaborate.
The scenery was "fantastic!" our campsite was basically an enclosure (we later called ourselves camper exhibit A1). On one side of the site we had heavy machinery and construction going on, on the other side a rock band had set up headquarters, out front was a red dirt soccer pitch, and in the rear, closest to where we were camping and on a hill overlooking us, the best of all, a full to bursting graveyard. I also feel that the facilities were designed to put the fear of god, or Allah into you. I say this because in order to reach them you must pass in front of the graveyard, into the "skeleton bathroom" which is a row of 15 delapidated, disused stalls on either side which you must walk past in complete darkness to get to the solitary functioning stop and squat. In typical horror movie style the lights blink on and off, so that by the time you've reached the stall you've, in all likelihood, already shat yourself or just outright lost the urge completely through fear.
February 1st: Why did I so desperately want to get back to Africa?! What did I think I was going to find?
Besides the same old incompetence and people with bloated head syndrome ( I was always told that this was to make up for unfortunate endowment).
Why am I so irate!? Because today was just another day in this burning hell I call home. I broke my tent poles this morning. Really bad start, it could only go one way from here. The drivers here have an even worse case of itchy hooter syndrome boardering on the pathological.
Today we tried to extend my visa. So first stop was the South African embassy (directly across from the mausoleum - fates funny card game of life) in the hopes that they would write a letter authorising the extension. After sitting for nearly 30 minutes (I was the only person there) and being bounced between three different officials, one eventually told me they couldn't help and sent me on my way with directions to the police station that were completely wrong (incompetence). when we did eventually find the place I went in to the visa department to beg for the extension. The official, apparently, was off to lunch (something they seem to do frequently here). He asked what I wanted and I replied "extension" in a french accent, which he seemed to understand. He grabbed my passport, gave it the most frugal of checks and then adamantly and forcefully told me that in two weeks I must "piss off", no exception (bloated head - small balls).
When I returned with the bad news this caused what can only be explained as the atomisation of Pat. Like a little mini Arab hiroshima he exploded. Like a little mini Pearl harbour I was bombarded. For the next hour we walked up and down the streets looking for an alternative, with him seething and cursing, while between breaths threatening to put me on the next bus to Mauritania, (I'm amazed there wasn't any mouth froth) and me about five paces back trying to avoid the bulk of the seething onslaught as well as the stares of passers-by. After no alternative was found we went to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The sombre mood fit the setting perfectly and after the days trials I could have happily lain down with Mohammed and died (he probably would have told me to piss off after two weeks as well). We decided that the campsite was a hole, so we packed up and headed for Meknes.
February 2nd: This morning we all woke up in a somewhat better mood (I nearly stabbed a cat with my panga last night). We had decided that our course of action for the day would be to walk the streets of Meknes. Plans were quickly altered however when we saw that the campsite owners budding little business included organised horse drawn carriage rides that parked outside the site. It cost only 150 Dirham so we were quick to hop on one and set off.
On the roundabout trip we saw the gateway to the royal palace, a panoramic of the city, the Bab el - Mansour (Imperial Moroccan gateway), the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail ( a great sight) and possibly the best of all, and situated not five paces from the campsite, the Heri es - Souani & Agdal basin. Designed by Moulay Ismail, the Hari es - Souani is an immense granary and horse stable.The whole place is cooled and horses provided water via a system of underfloor water channels. The building provided food and stabling for 12000 horses. The viewing was made all the more pleasant by a native Berber who walked us through and explained the intricacies of the place. he was also an ace photographer who insisted he take the camera, and the pictures for us. He also insisted on explaining just how much better Berbers are than Arabs. At the end he also insisted on taking a full 60 Dirham of our money ( it was worth it though).
From there we headed back to the campsite, packed our things and moved on to Fes.
It was an easy two hour drive, but on arrival into the city we were immediately latched on to by Arab flies on push - bikes (a type of motorized bicycle). One was so insistent that we follow him that eventually we conceded and amiably let him lead us, only after we made sure it was for free. Fortunately he did lead us to a campsite next door to the Fes stadium without charge. The catch being however that we hire his brother to be our guide of Fes the next day. We realised it was fruitless to try disagree so the deal was made. We spent the rest of the day languishing in the sun. We did an African fix job on my tent poles using a piece of wire and some hosepipe. All the initiative seems to be in vain though as I am pitching my tent on concrete again. we cooked our first poetjie over the fire today. everything cooked fine except the peas! how the hell do peas not cook!
February 3rd: Woke up and had my first hot shower since Spain, it was amazing.
We then left to meet up with our guide at 9am for our three hour excursion of Fes, which basically consisted of a walk through the old city quarter marketplace, although the guide was a bit of a sneaky guy that took us to stores owned by his mates who expected us to purchase their goods. It was still the best experience in the country thus far.
The streets were a maze of small cramped corridors which, in most places, were enclosed overhead by walkways that totally blocked out the sun, adding to the congested, busy feel of the place. We started out in the food market which was packed with native delicacies from dates, to olives, to whole blocks of soft feta and spices, as well as a variety of meats (quite a bit of camel) that were apparently being stored in bottles with rather revolting looking white congealed fat.
We passed a few souqs (old disused hotels), a mosque as well as the main medersa (theological college) in the sector before taking a dark winding back route to the main (and apparently oldest) tannery in Fes. The owner took us for a better view from atop his shop, but not before he furnished us each with a good sized bundle of mint to ward off the stench. Once up there the view was quite something with an entire city block (roughly the size of a soccer pitch), as well as all the surrounding building rooftops, dedicated to the tanning process. In the centre are a number of dye pits where the workers wade well above knee height in dye and colour the leather. They then dry the hides on the surrounding buildings.. Once done viewing the owner did try to make a sale, but unfortunately, we weren't buying.
From there it was on to the rug merchant. On the way there I heard someone shout "BALAK!" as he urged his over laden donkey cart past us. The poor animal was so heavily weighed down it was basically doing the quickstep all the way to the drop-off (balak means look out and is a warning to all of his imminent arrival). Once at the rug merchants we were given another tour of the facility. The only working machinery consisted of two girls sitting at the big loom weaving the newest rug from a set design (I have never seen fingers move so fast). He then took us downstairs where he "treated" us to the local specialty tea, mint tea. Really it was more of a ruse to keep us seated for long enough to attempt a rug sale (once again, not buying). From there we took one final stop at the shop that manufactures and sells Kaftans, Jellabas and Hendiras (they tried to sell, we didn't buy).
February 4th:Set off first thing for Rabat and the Mali embassy to apply for our visas for Mali. We arrived at opening time gave in 2 photos and 250DH each and were told to collect our passports at 2pm. We arrived at the Malian embassy 30 minutes early today. When they did eventually open and we walked in the official was quite taken aback. He hadn't expected us so soon. He quickly asked us to wait in the foyer while he gathered our information from his desk and raced upstairs to have the visas done. He had had since 9am to accomplish the task, but in typical African fashion it took him the ten minutes that we were waiting downstairs to get it completed from start to finish. After that task was completed we left for the Saharan dunes in Taouz. On the way there we passed through the beautiful mid Atlas Mountains, before stopping for the night at a rather idyllic Belgian sponsored campsite near Midelt. I say that it was idyllic because, besides being quite jacked up, they were the first place to have European style toilets!! No stop and squats or Buckit and chuckits! just marvellous!
February 5th: Pushed through and reached Merzouga, on the edge of Erg Chebbi, around midday.
On arrival there we were immediately swamped by the irritants on push bikes (it's become more of an anticipated nuisance, but no less trying). We told them we were fine and that we knew where we were going, but they refused to leave. We tried to outrun them to a campsite recommended by the lonely planet, which was down an extremely small, sandy road. We nearly got stuck in the sand, got out, got to the plot, and found it was closed.
We tried to turn around and make a getaway from the fly flock, but like an overweight whale in the desert we got cornered, beached and horribly molested until we just decided to give in and go with the waves. Luckily they lead us to a campsite close by that was actually quite decent. It may have not looked like much from the outside but really it had quite a bit going for it. It was positioned right at the base of one of the biggest dunes at the point of the Sahara. It also had decent facilities with hot showers, as well as provided an inexpensive, yet lavish meal. Once we had settled in there we got the idea into our heads, despite our little misadventure earlier, to do some dune driving. So we hopped into the car and off we went. well what started as fun and games very nearly became work and tears. we were a mere three minutes into the dunes when we got quickly and efficiently stuck. In the middle of nowhere we had gotten ourselves dug into powder soft sand. We quickly jumped into action like the extreme 4 wheel adventurers we are and began digging the sand out from around the tyres and placing down the sand ladders. Pat climbed into the car and tried to reverse but just dug himself in deeper.
We then suggested activating the diff lock, which he duly did, and without waiting attemted to reverse again. The car bucked like an unhinged randy donkey but didn't budge an inch. From where Sarah and I were standing it looked like he was trying to reverse with the handbreak up. After three failed attempts Pat climbed out with an expression on his face not unlike that of a man trying to pass a kidney stone. He was running his hands through his hair ( he seems to do this when upset or distraught and I believe it reminds him that there are bigger things, or should I say a lack there-of, to worry about) and grumbling something abouth the transmission having given in. I looked over to Sarah and she visibly paled in front of my eyes. With all the panic going around I started summing up my alternatives, starvation, or one of them. Fortunately the choice was unnecessary as the fret duration was long enough for the diff to kick in and on the next try the car was out like a bullet. Back at the campsite we had another "bright" idea (I have begun taking score to decide wether this trip will be classified as "the 3 musketeers tackle Africa", or, "Africa tackles the stooges 3", right now it's the latter). After everything we were going to climb the 150 metre dune. It may not sound like a miraculous feat, but believe me, trying to traverse a soft, powdery dune, almost vertically, having not eaten or drunk anything all day, leaves a person seriously questioning his capacity to make rational decisions. Suffice to say, I made it all the way to the top, and once there, all I wanted to do was go back down and drink a bucket of water.
February 6th: Today was to be our gorge seeing day. We started early and travelled hard, after about three hours we
reached Todra Gorge. The drive into the Gorge was relatively serene with only a few blind bends and hair raising
moments. The valley leading to the gorge is dotted with Berber villages, green palms and a tranquilly flowing clear blue
water stream. The main attraction of the gorge is essentially a 30 second drive between the cliffs. It houses a popular
hotel and restaurant that was just buzzing with tourists.
We decided that this was the ideal time to get some car roof footage. So I hopped up and, amongst the swaying and bumping, attempted to. The sight was magnificent and quite awe inspiring, the natural rock formation and the crystal clear water was just stunning. I was a bit distracted during the filming by locals and tourists alike pointing, laughing and taking pictures of me (really now, have you never seen a guy roof surfing). Once we had navigated our way through the masses we headed back out of the gorge and on our way to the next stop, Dades Gorge.
The route there was extremely steep and winding with intense hairpin bends that the Nissan struggled through with its wide turning circle. Eventually we reached the mountain pinnacle. The sight was breathtaking, but we hadn't yet reached our target, so it was a brief interlude before we continued. On our first pass through my mind was wandering and, even though I was staring out the window, I still managed to miss it. It was only on the return trip, when I was back on the car roof, that I registered it. It was a worthwhile sight but not quite as memorable as that of Todra (minus the tourists of course). From there we tried to push on and cover as much distance to Mhamid from where we were going to take the piste and do some serious Saharan dune driving. However by late afternoon the sun was unbearably bright and trying to travel in a westerly direction was made almost impossible.
We eventually stopped in a small, little known campsite just twenty minutes before Ait - Benhaddou in Kasbah d'Amridil called camping Skoura. Comparing it to the seeming camping standard in Morocco this one put them all to shame. We weren't too sure when we first drove in, and first impressions were somewhat doubtful, plus the place was completely lacking in any other campers. This was to be our first proper lesson in not judging a book by its cover, or rather a Berber by his tent. For a start the people were just so very friendly and hospitable. They were genuinely interested in our travels and trying to introduce us to the native Berber ways without trying to force a sale or service upon us or "suggest" that we do something that they would likely benefit in. The toilets were European style and sparkling clean. all the lights worked, all the facilities worked and all the showers were steaming hot. The prices were excellent and we just had to accept the offer of a home cooked, Berber meal. When the food came it was a massive Tajine ( a type of Moroccan ceramic pot with a flattish base and pointy lid), it was layered with onions, carrots, tomatoes, corjettes, peppers, huge chunks of meat and deliciousness, with bread on the side. For desert we had some local oranges, and I can honestly say they were some of the juciest I've ever eaten (SA needs to stop exporting their good stuff). The whole night including camping, showers and the meal cost 300 Dirham.
February 7th: Woke up this morning feeling quite refreshed but hungry. Supper must have streched my stomach somewhat.
We skipped breakfast and took off early in the hopes that we would be able to make some decent headway into the Piste
today. Just after midday we arrived in Mhamid and were immediately swarmed by little shits wanting to be our guide. We declined politely about thirty times (seriously) before charging off into the dunes. Once beyond the sight of beady little Berber and Arab eyes we let the tyres down and began the real adventure. Three minutes later we were stuck. Only for a short while though. We let more air out of our tyres, planned the route, took a bigger run-up, and just barely cleared our first dune (it was all of 1 metre high). From there things went smoothly for the first twenty kilometres as we dealt mainly with sand. Really it was great fun gunning along the sand at around 60km per hour. After that it became a bit crappy and the inside of the car was the sight of many jiggly bits. For the rest of the day it was pebble driving at no more than twenty kilometres per hour. Half way through we found a dry river bed, drove up the centre and set up camp. The evening was the most relaxing, quiet, comfortable night yet. The clear night sky was just a canopy of lights and not a voice, car or hooter was to be heard (you could have heard a cricket fart if there were any). We ate some of Pats 1 pot goulash, I entertained with some harmonica melodies (screeches and beeps), and then we bedded down.
February 8th: Rose early enough to witness the Saharan sunrise. With the lack of wind there was no raised dust to impede the sight, nor a cloud in the sky. Breathing in the cool, crisp morning air it really was an absolutely beautiful sight to behold. We skipped breakfast (coffee substitute) and headed off. The day became hot, muggy and dusty very quickly. For the first 2 hours of plodding along at 20km/h everyone was still amiable. For the next 2 hours temperatures began to rise both outside and inside the car. Each bump was followed by a curse, and considering the landscape you can just imagine the spitfire style firing off of profanities being produced from the captains seat. By the time we reached our last hour of Piste I was praying that we wouldn't encounter any other travellers because at this point he had convinced himself that the crap driving conditions were their fault and that this was "their idea of a joy - ride!!" Suffice to say we eventually crawled out of the desert in Zagora without bearing witness to any joy - rider brutality. I lost my perch in the back and was temporarily promoted to head navigator. Intent on proving my abilities I plotted the best, most direct route to the coast. In the end it proved to be the best, most direct route to confusion, irritation, and an absence of camping. It was already nearing 7PM and our only alternative was to head a further 50 kms down the coast to Guelmim for camping. We arrived there just before 8PM and fortunately found an international camping site on the main road into town. The people there were friendly enough, unfortunately the facilities are a bit shite as they have no showers and the site has absolutely no protection from the elements, namely the gusting torrential winds that seemed to be funneled between the mountains on either side. This whole section of morocco appears horribly prone to dust storms and tonight was no exception with it being difficult to see even a metre in front of you at times. I attempted to pitch my tent, but the area was one big giant rock. During the evening it was beaten horribly by the wind and collapsed, but not before the wind had pushed enough sand under and into my tent to completely cover me in it. Sarah and Pat were also having problems as the wind attempted to rip their tent apart and at times literally lifted the back (+-20kg) section of tent right up. After my tent collapsed I got out and made alternative arrangements. I ripped it apart, kicking and screaming and cursing the elements venomously under my breath. I hunted around and found a little bamboo lapa thingy with a concrete floor. It didn't stop the wind but did manage to abate it somewhat so that my tent wouldn't bear the brunt of the savagery. Using rocks I pitched it again. By the next morning it had just barely held up, but only because I had been sleeping spreadeagled out and holding the corners in place. As soon as I climbed out, it collapsed.
February 9th : We all got up early (would say woke but I don't think anybody slept). We were all tired, dirty and smelt like a donkeys hind end (haha - the ass). There were no showers so feeling totally native we left for the Saturday Guelmim market where we were, at that stage, fitting in quite nicely. To date this was the best food market with all the produce being fresh, organic, and extremely cheap. We left having spent only 28 Dirham (Just over 2 pounds) and had purchased: 4kgs of oranges, 2kgs of onions, a bag of peppers, a bag of tomatoes, and a mixed bag of chillis (mine) and garlic. We did give the meat section a relatively wide berth though - the camel and geep heads just weren't that appetising. We drove down the coast for the rest of the day, making our way through quite a severe sand storm, into and past Laayoune, and then as the sun was waning we passed through Lemsid (a real one donkey town). Half way between there and Boujdour we found a lovely secluded spot on the beach and camped. Even though I was dirty I slept like a Berber (say that with a Scottish accent and you'll get my meaning).
February 10th: Drove pretty much non stop today (except for police stops olbviously) for 500 kms to Dakhla. We arrived
there around mid - afternoon and drove through the city. We did literally drive through it because the city is just one long
street from one end to the other. It's quite a dirty dishevelled place with pools of water collecting everywhere in the road.
We went and filled up and found out that, because there is no taxation here, that the diesel (amongst other things) is
especially cheap (about 4 Euros per litre). We then headed for the campsite that we had noticed just outside town called Surf -
Extreme - Peche - Dakhla. The place was great and we immediately picked up on the really chilled vibe. It seems that
every kind of surfer bum ends up here while trying to escape the trials of life. In the evening we met a pommie called Jamie
who invited us to his bungalow for beers (after 10 days abstinence I was so in there). It was there that we met Jan, a
recently divorced surfer from Finland; Mark, another fellow traveller and budding photographer; and Colin, who seems to
have taken up permanent residence at the campsite.
February 11th: Got up early to collect mussels as we have run out of meat. The rest of the day was spent relaxing.
Unfortunately due to the sun sensitivity side - effect of my doxycil I got burnt like a lobster.
February 12th: Same as yesterday except this time I avoided the sun like the plague. Pat and Sarah went to town to collect
sugar and returned with a solid, overly phallic looking block of the stuff.