Well, we arrived in Africa and with it
came the realisation of the exaggerated highs and lows of
travelling in this continent. I certainly had my lowest point since
leaving the UK but the day culminated in a spectacular sunset over
the Moroccan mountains.
We took the ferry from Algericas to Ceuta
(a Spanish enclave, similar to Gib on the other side)– all straight
forward and only 45 minutes across the water. Unfortunately though,
we had to deal with the immense frustration of no-one being able to
sign and stamp our VAT rebate form. Endless helpful policemen later
(and remarkable conversations with them speaking entirely in
Spanish and us entirely in English with the odd ‘si’ and ‘por
favour’ said in imploring tones) we had got nowhere. It didn’t seem
like a great start to the African mainland.
Then we hit the Ceuta/Morocco border, and real Africa.
Immediately you are dealt with the endless challenges of an
entirely different culture and not having a clue who is official
and who isn’t. Too many people trying to help and us being
inexperienced resulted in quite an unpleasant and stressful
experience. I didn’t cope with it well – as Neil would testify, but
we eventually got out of there and also managed to find third party
car insurance in the next town just a few kilometres on. One huge
relief for me, as soon as we were across the border, was that I
could start speaking French.
The roads and scenery as we left the border were very good and
stunning respectively. The Moroccan drivers, though willing to
overtake leisurely on the blindest of bends, seemed much less
aggressive than in Spain and weren’t at all phased by our slow
speed, which was a relief.
After all the rigmarole, we were left having to chase the sun but
we made it to our campsite in Chefchaouen just in time, under the
aforementioned magnificent sunset. It was a calm and beautiful
ending to a day during which we seemed to have travelled so much
further than the physical distance.
Chefchaouen is renowned as beautiful,
quiet and safe Moroccan town and it didn’t disappoint. It is
nestled in the mountains and consists of white and blue houses,
narrow, cobbled streets and an impressive red stone mosque. In the
air you could smell patisseries and meat cooking.
The people were friendly and unthreatening. Most of the older
generation were in full Berber dress and as it was Friday we heard
the calls to prayer and watched the men spill out of the Mosque.
We sat in the main square with a coffee and a thé à la menthe (mint
tea – the tradition of Morocco, or as our waiter described it to
us, Moroccan whiskey). We then couldn’t resist the pull of a Tagine
and it really was delicious – just as I had imagined. There will be
lots more where they came from.
Back at the campsite we began to think ahead to the rest of Morocco
and beyond. The immensity of what we are doing struck me afresh.
For me, the entry into Africa was really the moment at which the
whole of this vast continent, and our future beyond that stretched
ahead as a literal and metaphorical unknown road. I won’t deny that
it is overwhelming and that I know I am going to have ( as I had
today) difficult times of homesickness. I do not doubt for one
moment, however, that we are doing the right thing.
It is a great thing, I think, to be occasionally (probably once
in a lifetime) stripped of all the structures of life which make
one feel comfortable and in control. With no home, bar a tent, no
knowledge of where we will sleep tomorrow, let alone for the next 7
months, and no certain future plans, I find myself fluctuating
between feelings of vulnerability and freedom. It certainly does
put the spotlight on the very core of who you are – your faith,
beliefs, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships.
However, right now, as I sit in the tent, I’ll just focus on
tomorrow and what it may bring. I won’t worry about it though, as I
have read somewhere that it will worry about itself.
It’s a good thing that I didn’t worry
about today as it ended up being wonderful. We left Chefchaouen
early to head south towards Meknes. We need to get to Rabat for our
next visas but don’t need to be there until Monday, so decided to
spend an extra day on the way and visit Volubulis – a ruined Roman
city and a Unesco World Heritage site.
As we drove, the landscape flattened into farmland and then we
saw Volubilis. Imagine rolling hills and fields in the background,
the pillars, arches, half ruined houses and mosaics of a Roman city
in the foreground, the sun beating down and no one around. That was
our slightly surreal experience. I found Volubilis quite
breathtaking. At its height, it was home to 20,000 people. You can
still see all the living quarters, the streets, the baths, and some
impressive structures, including a Basilica. It was also completely
understated. It cost us 10 Dirham each to go in (about 85p).
After this we headed to the campsite we had been promised about
10km down the road and found it (always a travellers delight). Very
friendly owner but we had to wait a couple of hours to go into our
plot as they were harvesting the olives from the tree in the middle
of the campsite.
We took the time to wander up to the nearest village and
discovered that in fact every tree was an olive tree and everyone,
from at least three generations, were out in force harvesting
olives. They were bashing them from the trees with sticks and then
throwing them in the air to separate the olives from the leaves.
People, this is where your olive oil comes from – entire families
working together and then lugging the huge sacks of olives in the
back of extremely old cars with the suspension almost on the floor.
The village was poor and basic and we felt quite conspicuous. We
bought some local bread, had a quick café au lait and headed back
for the night. What a fantastic day.
We have started meeting the same
travellers again – it didn’t take long. An Austrian family who were
in Chefchaouen were also in our campsite last night. A small baby
and a two-year old boy, they are permanently on the road. Really
We headed off mid-morning to drive to Rabat. We saw some amusing
sights along the road. Bearing in mind that this was the toll
motorway, we saw a man herd about 50 sheep across 4 lanes of fast
moving traffic. We also saw cyclists wandering around, people
having a chat whilst walking up the inside lane and many, many guys
on the side of the road selling, we think, dates. We did see a gap
in the market – it was about 200m, between seller number 400 and
One thing you have to get used to here is people trying to sell
you hashish – it is completely common place. Another thing you have
to do is start to interpret people’s hand signals as someone
blowing you a kiss, someone asking for water and someone asking if
you want a smoke all look remarkably similar and you wouldn’t want
to get into trouble.
This time we weren’t so lucky with the campsite as since our ’03
published Lonely Planet, it had been razed to the ground . We did
find somewhere to sleep – a campsite attached to a hotel. The cows
were herded out when we asked if we could camp there.
Today was mission visa. A first for us
and we were feeling slightly nervous. We left the Landy in the
field/campsite and decided to try out some public transport to get
us to Rabat centre.
We had been told that we could get a bus but when we arrived the
very friendly man we met there laughed at the idea of there being a
timetable. He also said it would take ages and we were keen to get
to the embassy.
The first taxi quoted us 200 DH which we felt was quite steep
and figured he was chancing his arm. The said friendly guy then
flagged down a ‘grand taxi’ for us. Despite their name, these taxis
aren’t actually big at all, they are old Mercedes Benz cars. The
‘grand’ seems to refer more to the amount of people they are
capable of fitting in them.
When this taxi stopped – with 4 people in the back, 1 in the
front and a driver, our British mindset told us it was full.
However, before we knew it, the woman in the front had got in the
back (yes that makes 5) and we had both been placed in the front
seat. No seatbelts, not really any suspension. Now this, surely, is
the real meaning of ‘car-sharing’ and would be one answer to the
West’s C02 emission problems.. The guy took us where we needed to
go – about a 20km drive and charged us (get this) 4DH each – about
30p!!! Well that was all thanks to our angel at the bus stop to
whom we were very grateful.
The visa wait was boring but simple with only a few ‘horizontal
queuers’ as we like to call them. We can collect it tomorrow and
should be able to get our Malian visa too.
We took three more taxis and realised another lesson which
Morocco could teach the West: never, ever, no matter what, under
any circumstances, get rid of your car. Each Moroccan taxi driver
has a similarly aged car to match and the one we took was very very
A brief walk along the Atlantic coast with the sun setting
finished off what had been a remarkably unstressful day. Let’s just
hope they give us that visa tomorrow.
Neil fixed lots of small things on the
car today (the fuel gauge now works and the speedo needle doesn't
wobble anymore) whilst I pottered around doing ‘wifely’ chores
(yes, on this trip more than ever we seem to stick firmly to our
gender stereotypes). I got my pressure cooker working – overcooked
the food and learnt a lesson for next time. I also acquainted
myself with the local wildlife – fat ducks and scrawny kittens and
couldn’t help but wonder if there is a messed up food chain going
on here. In the evening we shared a beer with Peter and Silke – a
very friendly German couple on their first driving trip to Morocco.
A trip to Fez – an Imperial City. I
can’t say that we hugely enjoyed the experience. Whilst the Medina
(old town) is a fascinating rabbit warren of little streets, full
of culture, food smells and traditional crafts, I found it to be
rather claustrophobic and intense. It is not easy to wander around
or be independent as many, many people constantly vie for your
attention and, more crucially, your money. We will have lots of
these experiences and hopefully become more accustomed.
Unfortunately for ‘accustomed’ read ‘hardened’, which isn’t really
what we want to be either. Clearly we have lots of learning and
adapting to do.
The highlight of the Medina was seeing the huge
tannery, which has worked in exactly the same way since the 14th
century and produces a large proportion of Morocco’s leather goods.
I also bought some delicious traditional spices which I hope to put
to use (more successfully) in the pressure cooker.
We finished the day in a ‘Marjane’, the principal Moroccan
supermarket chain, and could have been anywhere in Europe. Another
day in which we seemed to have passed through at least six
centuries in time and from the third to the first world and back
again. That’s Africa for you and we’re only just at the beginning.
Day 27 | 18 Dec 2009
Camping Source Bleue De Meski, Er-Rachidia, Morocco
Today we drove 350km from Fez to just
south of Er-Rachidia. It was another spectacular drive, perhaps
best summed up by one particularly remarkable scene. We started off
by driving through hilly cedar and pine forests. For those of you
who understand the comparison, it was very like Dartmoor, with the
low grey cloud, torrential rain and mist to match.
We reached the top of the final green hill and as far as we
could see to the horizon, the ground suddenly flattened out into
desert nothingness with only the occasional intrepid shrub. On the
horizon, the silhouettes of the High Atlas Mountains rose up and we
could make out some snow on the highest peaks. We were still under
the grey sky, but just ahead of us this stopped abruptly and ahead
of it was blue sky with tiny white clouds. It was almost a Narnia
moment as we appeared to be part of two entirely different worlds
As we continued our journey we passed through the Ziz Gorge
where the river enables palm trees to grow and many picturesque
villages huddle next to the water source.
We passed through Er-Rachidia at dusk – a beautiful well-kempt
Moroccan city and found our campsite amongst the palms. This feels
like the beginning of the desert adventure.
We woke under a blue sky which made a
nice change from the previous few days and filled us with
excitement for the desert stretch. We chatted to a Danish couple on
bikes and deliberated over our course of action with yet another
friendly Moroccan wanting to sell us his wares. We decided not to
buy anything at this stage – such a long road ahead and so little
We set off south – our destination Merzouga on the edge of
the Sahara Desert. I had my first market experience on the way and
even managed a bit of haggling:
C: How much will that be?
Stall owner: 40 DH
Stall owner: OK
Well it’s a start at least.
We continued to Merzouga and were wowed by the dramatic rise of
the Saharan dunes which appeared on the landscape. I don’t know why
I was so surprised, having seen so many photos but it really is
like you imagine.
We found a campsite run by a friendly French lady and had time
to walk the five metres from the camp to the beginning of the
desert and then wander up and down the dunes, past Berber tents and
groups of camels. If you are wondering what the sand is like – go
into Early Learning Centre, buy a bag of sand, imagine it a bit
more orange and there you have it – the softest and finest sand you
can imagine. I am still pinching myself.
After getting up early to
watch the sun rise behind the dunes – a beautiful scene – we spent
the rest of the day in and around the campsite. Neil worked hard on
fixing a minor diesel leak, and succeeded. I revelled in the fact
that, with the warm sun and wind, I could do lots of washing that
would actually dry!
The campsite turned out to
be a great find. We couldn’t help but feel like we were onlookers
on a quirky situational comedy with a medley of amusing characters.
Francoise – the French
owner who was very friendly and talked at top speed.
Jean-Marie – the single
retired gentleman from Andorra who has been going to the campsite
for 15 years and was great to chat to, giving us some good advice
about the area.
Manu & Sikru – two very
gorgeous Berber children – 5 and 3 - whose Mum, Fatima, works on
the campsite. They spent all day running around happily and we
played some football with them in the afternoon.
Hassan/’Larsan’ – the ‘site
manager’/gardener/cook who became extremely merry in the evening on
everything you can imagine and was very hospitable and really quite
hilarious. He particularly loved Neil because he was South African
and kept bursting out into Johnny Clegg classics.
Antoine – the young French
guy who rocked up with a rucksack in the afternoon and seemed quite
bemused/amused by it all.
It turned into a lovely
evening. We offered Antoine some dinner and then Larsan decided to
entertain us in the madam's house while she was away for the
evening. We started off with some Moroccan tea and chit chat
although he stuck firmly to the red wine and whatever he was
smoking. Fatima and her children were also there and we had fun
sharing photos of the family even though we had next to no language
in common. We all laughed a lot (mainly at Larsan)!
We took it easy in the morning and
chatted to the others on the campsite before we headed off for our
240km desert drive to Zagora.
The road to Zagora is known as a ‘piste’ which is the French
word for an off-road track. This one is well trodden and clearly
marked on our GPS. The track is often gravelly but also goes across
dried mud flats and through some dunes. This is the off-road
challenge that Neil has been waiting for.
It was quite an experience. We were completely alone for the 6 hour
drive except passing 3 trucks and 1 Land Rover going the other way.
Our Landy lived up its reputation and seemed completely at home on
the bumpy tracks. We did have some hairy moments on the sand. This
included stalling at the top of a small dune at a precarious angle.
Ironically, the only time we got completely stuck was just as we
turned off the road to make camp, as the sun was going down. We
underestimated the softness of the sand and had to dig ourselves
out and use the sand tracks. We succeeded, feeling quite pleased
with ourselves and quickly set up next to a tree before the sun
This was real bush camping and whilst it was amazing to be so
alone with nature, we did also feel a bit nervous. Unfortunately,
as we got into the tent the wind began to howl – and I mean really
howl - and it didn’t abate all night. This is why I am now typing
this sitting in the car at 6am waiting for the sun to rise. We gave
up at 4.30 am as the tent was being whipped about so much. We plan
to set off as soon as we can see and get to Zagora this afternoon
for a good sleep.
After no sleep we set off driving
again at 7.30am which was a good thing as we had a long way to go.
After the nerve wracking moments of yesterday we felt more excited
about the second stretch of the drive as it was supposed to be
easier and we had seen what the Mpudi was capable of.
At the risk
of sounding like a guide book, it really was awesome – in the true
sense of the word. We crossed miles and miles of wide open flat
plains, as far as the eye could see, and then saw dunes and
mountains rising on the horizon. In the final 20km we climbed a
hairy mountain pass, descended, crossed a 7km wide flat valley in
between and then crossed another mountain. I can’t say there
weren’t a few frayed nerves but the views certainly made it worth
it. Hopefully the photos will go some way to representing the
After 8 hours of driving we arrived in Zagora and found a great
campsite. We were really happy to see Peter and Silke again – our
German/Austrian friends from Fez. Once again evidence that the
overlanding world is small. We also met a lovely Swedish family in
the campsite who have done a Sweden-South Africa trip down the west
coast of Africa. We hope to pick their brains tomorrow.
I couldn’t face cooking in our sand-ridden car so we ordered a
delicious tagine from the restaurant and had dinner with Peter and
Today we experienced our first
Moroccan mechanic. Neil wanted to get someone to look at the slight
oil leak from the transfer gear box and, amazingly, the mechanic we
had been recommended randomly drove right into the campsite and
pulled up next to our car!
To cut a long story short, he had a
look at the oil and tried to convince us that it was a major
problem. Neil really didn’t agree with this and there was no way we
were going to undertake a job like that without advice from our
guys in the UK, so we decided to leave that for the moment. We did
decide to get some additional suspension put into the back as our
car is carting a great deal of weight. I managed to go a lot
further this time with my haggling and was even described as a
‘real Berber woman’ , which I took as a compliment.
We then proceeded to have 3 – sometimes 4 – guys working on the
car for a couple of hours, using some pretty primitive methods but
doing a very good job. The result is that the car sits much higher
at the back and it will be more protected when we go over rough
In the afternoon and evening we had a really lovely time with
the Swedish family and Peter and Silke. We had really been missing
hanging out with other people and it was just what we needed. We
all chatted together until late into the evening and we gleaned
lots of information from Alma and Christof about their Sweden-South
Africa trip two years ago. They travelled with their two sons and
made it in 4 months – very impressive.
It’s Christmas day for Europeans and
it was great having our German and Swedish friends to wish a Merry
Christmas to. However, having determining to make it to Marakech
today we head off by 9am as it would be a long drive.
And it was.
Eighty kilometres of the journey was up and down quite an extreme -
and beautiful – mountain pass. We really had no grounds on which to
feel nervous though judging by the other vehicles we saw embarking
on the same route – enormous trucks, ancient lorries, coaches
filled with people….
The backdrop for most of the day was the snow-capped High Atlas
so we can say we had a little bit of a white Christmas. Bizarrely
we found ourselves listening to the Band Aid song at the same time.
I quote “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas”. Clearly
they should have checked their facts out.
The campsite we were aiming for has a very good reputation and
we had high hopes for a chilled few days. It has not disappointed.
It is absolutely packed with people (including the first Brits we
have seen since Spain) and promises to have a really nice vibe for
The question is – does Santa visit roof tents in Marrakech?
Maybe he could use the raised air intake as a chimney?
Work goes on in Morocco
and we headed off to a locally recommended mechanic to continue the
saga of the oil leak. What a relief. A straight-talking guy, who
gave a fair and honest price and promised to do the work on Monday.
We celebrated with a McDonald's and decided to spend the rest of
the afternoon in Marrakech.
We went straight to the Djemma el Fna
– the main market square in the old town. I loved the atmosphere
and the hustle and bustle without the claustrophobia of the Medina
in Fes. We saw snake charmers and traditional crafts and enjoyed
some tasty treats from the stalls.
The Djema-el-Fna really came into its own at dusk. The lights
came on and all the grills began to light which filled the air with
delicious cooking smells. It turned into a huge, bustling, open-air
restaurant. We had basically been eating all day but couldn’t
resist the pull of the atmosphere and so sat and ate more and then
topped it all off with a fiery ginger tea. A great experience.
A very full day today. We
set off early to the mechanic with high hopes. He was a great guy
who did a very good job at a very fair price.
We then headed into Marrakech in the car to find the Consulate
as we wanted to see if we could get some advice on the situation in
Mauritania. Unsurprisingly, due t0 the two incidents which have
happened since we left the UK, we are more than a little nervous
about the next stage of our journey. He was friendly but couldn’t
tell us anything we didn’t already know, so after a quick bite we
drove to Agadir, on the west coast.
The best moment of the day was when we turned in to the campsite
just behind Christophe, Alma, Victor and Ami – our lovely Swedish
friends who we had last seen in Zagora. We like to think that it
wasn’t just a random coincidence and we were very happy to see
We all went out for a drink and a crepe (Agadir is a coastal
resort very much geared towards Europeans, which wouldn’t normally
be our style but in the context of the months ahead it is very
Today we hoped to find a
shipping option which would enable us to avoid the drive through
Mauritania but the prices seemed to be completely prohibitive.
We spent the afternoon wandering along the beach and around the
town in the hot sun – avoiding the English and Irish pubs – then
made our last trip to a Moroccan supermarket.
We had a final lovely evening with Alma, Christophe and the
boys. Tomorrow we will head in opposite directions – us due south
and them due north. Who knows how many kilometres apart we will be
by this time next week! What a blessing they have been though and
we do hope to see them again one day.
We set off after lunch
towards Sidi Ifni, further down the coast.
On the way we did have one stop, which leads me onto a bit of a
For those of you who know us well you may know that Neil’s
favourite pass time is to wander around DIY stores coming up with
fantastic ideas. Unfortunately, these shops are my idea of a
terrifying nightmare. After a year of living within a stone’s throw
of B&Q on the Old Kent Road I hoped – wrongly – that we would be
free of such shops for the next few months.
Little did I know how strong Neil’s radar is. He managed to find
the European equivalent – Leroy-Merlin. It even smelled the same as
B&Q so I sat in the car and waited and waited…. So on leaving
Europe I was convinced that surely we must be leaving the world of
DIY. Was I right?? Oh no. In Morocco it is called Bricoma, and we
found it today.
We arrived at our campsite in Sidi Ifni before dark and were
delighted to find immaculate facilities and wifi, all at the lowest
price yet (less than £4 a night). We are right next to the Atlantic
Ocean, beside which we will now be driving for a long time. Sidi
Ifni is an attractive Spanish-built town with a quirky and relaxed
feel to it and its position on the coast certainly makes it
We stayed in Sidi Ifni
today, but it wasn’t the easiest of days as we were still debating
our next steps regarding the journey south. We followed a lead
regarding another potential boat option but it came to nothing and
left us feeling very frustrated and emotional – especially as it
was New Year’s Eve.
The up side was being able to use skype and chat to friends and
family whilst sitting on top of our Land Rover, looking at the sea,
drinking beer. The wonders of modern technology!
It’s a new year and it has
been a significant day for us. We woke up not knowing whether we
should continue to drive south, or go north to persist with boat
options. We spoke to our families again and decided to follow their
wisdom of driving south at least until we get to the border and
re-assess the situation there.
As soon as we set off we felt upbeat about our decision and felt
hopeful that everything would work out just fine.
The drive was straightforward to Tan-Tan, where we decided to
have (another) mechanic have a look to find out why our newly
upgraded suspension was making a strange noise on one side. Forgive
me if I now make a slight diversion to describe the great
cooperative that is Moroccan mechanics.
We asked mechanic 1 (m1) if he could do the work. He called over m2
and m3 to help translate from English to French to Arabic, at which
point m4 and m5 came over and all five went under the car to
investigate. M1 decided that m5 should do the work so we debated
the price with m5 (with m4 sticking his oar in every now and
again). Price agreed, we took the car across the road to m5’s
workshop where he worked on it with m6 and m7, using some original
and daring jacking techniques. When he needed a part he went over
to see if m8 had it across the road, while sending m2 off on his
bike to investigate the supply chain around the town. They couldn’t
find a replacement spring so someone (maybe m9?) straightened out
the one we had. While all this was going on we taught m6 and m7
some rugby skills and m4 went to get us some tea. Two hours later,
with the job completed, we paid m5. Goodness only knows how they
organise the money but much as Morocco seems to know the true
meaning of car sharing, they also provide a whole new, and genuine,
meaning to the cooperative. Good on them.
After all this, we made it to El-Ouatia (Tan-Tan Plage) just in
time for sunset – once again.
The momentum of the drive
down south began in earnest today and we managed to drive further
than we thought we would – making it all the way to Boujdour – our
longest driving day yet.
We officially entered Western Sahara with its dramatic
combination of desert and coastline, and the police stops began.
The drive was broken up by having lunch in Tarfaya with a car of
Italians. It was my first taste of fresh fish – straight from the
Atlantic – fried to perfection. This was fish and chips a
l’africain – two huge fish and about ten chips.
We didn’t have any guarantees from our Lonely Planet that there
was any camping at Boujdour and there weren’t exactly any nearby
towns ( try 300km away) so we were enormously relieved when we
arrived ( as the sun was going down) and found a very civilised
We have also met a French couple – Patrick and Marielle – who
are heading to Mauritania. What a relief and a confirmation of our
decision to keep going south. They are very friendly and made us
laugh a lot when they told us with dead pan faces that they had
packed bullet proof head wear and then came out of the car wearing
party hats! Just what we need in fact as Neil and I do have the
tendency to over-analyse and worry about everything. We have agreed
to meet up with them in Dakhla tomorrow.
The drive to Dakhla was a
further spectacular 350km through Western Sahara. This really has
been an awe-inspiring experience. Having crossed the desert –
nearly 3000 km of sand dunes and lunar landscapes - it is easy to
understand why the Sahara has historically created such a cultural
What made the drive even more remarkable is that the road
follows the coast. But there are no beaches. The desert stops about
20-30m west of the road and the cliffs fall vertically into the
Atlantic. The views are stunning because you take in desert, cliffs
and the dramatic ocean in one scene. It is such a mind-boggling
experience to be on the edge of the African continent and to see it
rise out of the sea.
Dakhla is at the end of a 40km peninsula, which juts out from
the coast. Picture driving down a narrow strip of land with an
expanse of sea between you and the edge of Africa . A natural
lagoon is created in the nook of the peninsula and the sea is
beautifully blue and calm.
We wish that we were here under slightly less tense
circumstances as it would be a beautiful place to spend a while.
For us though, this is the final frontier in Morocco so we are
psyching ourselves up for what is ahead.