28/01/07 Morocco - Well, so far so good. We have really warmed to this country and especially to the people who are very friendly and welcoming. This may be due to the fact that we have avoided cities and larger towns (in fact areas popular with European tourists in general), I'm not sure, but in any event the people have been great. Their linguistic abilities amaze me. Most people speak Arabic and French and several people we have met speak some English as well. Given that we have stayed away from tourist areas, and that schools are few and far between in the rural areas, I think that's pretty impressive and puts our limited French to shame. Although I must say our attempts at speaking French have always been met with a warm enthusiasm from the locals and they have been very helpful.
We planned to pick up fresh food supplies every two or three days at towns or villages we pass through and this has proved to be easy enough to do. Bread and eggs are available in most villages, fresh meat in some, and when we have found markets there has been plenty of delicious fresh fruit, vegetables, olives, fish, meat, etc.
We have been very pleased with the 'Cobb' and Darren has used it to cook roast chicken and casseroles with beef and lamb with excellent results. We have also eaten at local cafés to sample true Moroccan fare. The local dish, Tagine (the name refers to the cooking pot itself as well as the food), is a terracotta plate/dish with a conical shaped lid. Inside, lots of vegetables are put around a central piece of meat, some herbs are added and then it is heated by a fire below the pot. Steam inside the pot cooks everything to perfection. The result is very simple food that tastes absolutely delicious!
Accommodation - Already we have discovered that by far the best option here is to wild camp. The spectacular scenery makes up for the cold (not an issue in March, April, May but then everywhere is busier at this time and summer months are just too hot).
There are times, however, when it is not possible to find a place to wild camp. There are plenty of camp sites in Morocco but they vary greatly in terms of facilities and cleanliness. Some are great. Some are, quite frankly, not usable if you have the slightest concern for your health! We have found both types.
Updated: 16/02/07 Miles travelled to date: 5,542
Not surprisingly, the further South we travelled the warmer the weather has become. We have been enjoying hot sunny days and cooler but pleasant evenings. We thought we had left the wind behind us until we reached Dakhla, and the area just North of the Mauritanian border, where a fierce wind blows across from the Atlantic.
ASSA, SOUTHERN MOROCCO LUNCH WITH THE LOCALS
We stopped at Assa intending to have a quick cup off coffee and then move on. The owner of the café, Aattman, was a friendly chap who couldnt speak English but did speak fluent French. As we were about to leave he invited us to his home (above the café) to have some Moroccan tea with him. So, his eldest daughter came to mind the shop and we followed him upstairs into his home. There were bare concrete floors everywhere except one large room which was laid with carpet rugs. We all took off our shoes and went in to sit on the floor amongst the cushions. The room was empty apart from two low tables and a cupboard at one end on which sat a TV showing a satellite music channel.
Aattman brought in a tray with teapot and small glasses. Then his wife, Fatima, came in and greeted us. She brought a gas burner and kettle which she put near her husband. Next she brought for him two ornate silver boxes. Then she left us and Aattman began the ritual held so dear by Moroccan men - making the tea. First, from the small box, a little tea was put into the teapot. Then he opened the much larger box to reveal enormous rocks of sugar. I thought he surely couldnt put in a whole one of those. He didnt. He put in two. The teapot must have been full (2 parts tea, 20 parts sugar). He then poured in some water from the kettle before placing the teapot on the burner. I couldnt imagine anything would pour from that pot. I had visions of us each scooping out so-called tea with a spoon. But pour it did, eventually. There is a fair amount of testing and tasting before the tea is deemed perfect to drink. Aattman handed me a glass and I took a sip. Mmm.. cest tres bon I lied. Darren agreed enthusiastically after receiving his glass and our host beamed at us, clearly pleased we liked his Berber Whisky. And so we chatted well, sort of. Our French isnt great, by any stretch of the imagination, but we managed to explain a little about our trip and learn that Aattman is of Berber origin, the only one of his family remaining in Morocco. His brothers and sisters moved to France and now live in Montpelier. We talked about his children, his town, Assa and of Wales and the UK. During all this time Aattman kept reheating the teapot and refilling our glasses with tea. By my third or fourth glass I was feeling quite sick but I smiled and nodded appreciatively. It suddenly became very clear why many Moroccan men have brown teeth and very few of them.
When we rose to leave Aattman urged us to sit back down as Fatima was preparing lunch for us and it would be ready any minute. We sat around one of the tables and our host brought over a sort of bucket with a sunken lid which had holes in. On this was a bar of soap and a kettle of water. Aattman poured the water as we washed our hands. Fatima brought in a huge bowl of cous cous with vegetables and chicken. She then returned to the kitchen while the three of us took our spoons and tucked in. This really was tres bon. Delicieux in fact! We were then given a bowl of thin, runny yoghurt and shown that it is either drunk or, the cous cous is put into it, soaked and then eaten. When we could eat no more we were given glasses of water to drink. Before leaving we expressed our heart-felt thanks to our hosts for their generous hospitality and bid them farewell. As we continued our journey we thought that, after all the tea and yoghurt (not to mention the local water), if ever there was a time we were going to be ill it was going to be very soon. Luckily however, we were fine and lunch with the locals will always remain a fond memory.
LAAYOUNE, WESTERN SAHARA THE BEAST TAKES A BREAK
Standing at the side of the N1 about 40 miles North of Laayoune, as cars and lorries hurtled passed, we considered our options. The steam billowing out from under the bonnet had subsided but the cap on the thermostat had blown apart probably caused by a problem with the head gasket. While we were still deliberating a Pajero pulled over in front of us and we met Monsieur Duez, to whom we shall be eternally grateful. He offered to tow us to Laayoune. He was a very nice man, probably in his 60s. I felt safe. Then we drove off. We were at the end of a five metre tow rope which, from where I was sitting, looked more like five feet. We averaged 50 mph except, of course, when we were overtaking other vehicles, which we did quite often. I consoled myself with the thought that wherever we drive during the remainder of this expedition, nothing could be as scary as this. In Laayoune, Mr Duez stopped to ask for directions to a garage. On our way again, we paused at a junction, indicating left, and Mr Duez was approached by a local man, called Larby, who insisted he should drive straight on and not turn left as this would be a better/quicker way to the garage. He was so insistent with his directions that he opened the passenger door and jumped into the car beside Mr Duez.
Having safely arrived at the garage, about 4 pm, Mr Duez helped Darren to explain to the owner/head mechanic what had happened and they immediately got to work assessing the problem. We thanked Mr Duez for his help and he left us, but not before digging out his map and showing me a good piste from Es-Smara, with great places to wild camp, for our return journey. What a nice man. Larby remained, watching the mechanics, talking to us and occasionally assisting with some translations. He asked us if we would like some tea. NO I replied rather too abruptly. Darren politely declined and Larby didnt seem to mind. Five minutes later he went off and returned with some tea. He handed us each a glass. I decided to be polite, (and wanted to get this ritual over with as soon as possible), downed the syrupy liquid in two gulps and immediately felt queasy. I kept a firm grip of my glass, fingers wrapped around it to hide the fact that it was empty, and held it close to my body. I felt confident this tactic would save me from the usually inevitable refill. It worked! Darren wasnt so lucky. He put down his empty glass and it was refilled quicker than he could say, Thanks, but Id like to have some teeth left when I get home. Once Darren had agreed the work to be done and the price to be paid we left the vehicle, relieved that we had stopped to pick up a spare head gasket en-route as we left the UK. Larby insisted on showing us to a hotel, which was about three minutes walk from the garage, and we checked in for the night. He offered to return in an hour or two to take us to a café or restaurant. We thanked him but assured him this would not be necessary. Reluctantly he left us. His departing line was that he would go to the garage and assist with the repair during the night. Knowing, from earlier conversations, he is a shop assistant we failed to see what help he could possibly be to the mechanics. But, ever polite, we just wished him a good night and went to our very basic but adequate room.
In the town there are UN vehicles everywhere. The larger, more expensive hotels (one we looked at was 1300DH/approx. £100 per night) are full of UN personnel, their new Toyota Land Cruisers and other such vehicles filling the car parks. We were amazed to see such a huge UN presence in the region twenty years or so after the hostilities. Laayoune looks and feels like an afluent town helped not only by the UN presence but also by its status as a tax-free shopping town. Many Moroccans go there to shop and the main street is a bright, busy array of shops, coffee rooms and restaurants. After dinner, about 9 p.m., we walked back along this main street. Many shops were still open, the coffee rooms were still full and, outside, people were strolling along unhurried. We had agreed to return to the garage at 10 a.m. the next morning but arrived early, about 9 a.m. The head gasket had already been replaced and a new thermostat cap made and fitted. Not a bad turnaround! Larby, who had arrived about the same time as us, tried a couple of schemes to persuade us to part with our cash but quickly realised he was onto a loser. He left us in peace and within minutes was hustling some French tourists who were waiting with their broken-down van. I dont think Larbys boss at the shop sees very much of him when there are foreigners in town! Darren checked The Beast. It was fully fit and ready for action once again. We paid the bill and left, eager to drive as far South as possible that day.
CROSSING THE MOROCCO / MAURITANIA BORDER
The Moroccan border control was less of a bureaucratic process and more of a haphazard free-for-all. A crowd of people jostled at a door to hand in passports and receive forms to fill in. Once completed, said forms were handed in with passports to disinterested men who then placed them in piles on a table before wandering off for, presumably, a cup of tea. At some point in the near future these men would return and randomly pick up a passport/form and then process it (i.e. stamp it) before calling out a name, through the doorway, to the waiting crowd. Bearing in mind the number of different nationalities and possible pronunciations of each name, this took a little time. But, eventually we were through the first hurdle and off to the office that dealt with vehicles. Once that paperwork had been dealt with we were free to drive to the Mauritanian border control. However, nothing is quite that straightforward is it? The drive to the Mauritanian border is approx. two miles on a rutted piste of sand and rock through a minefield which remains after recent hostilities. The occasional sight of nearby remains of burnt/blown up vehicles ensures your concentration remains on the route ahead. There are no signs and there are a number of tracks. The general rule is to stick to the piste that appears most used.
The Mauritanian border control consists of an array of dilapidated wooden huts. There are policemen, army personnel and customs personnel inside, and wandering around, these huts. You need to be seen by all of them. There are no clues as to which hut is for which check or where you should go in what order. But, somehow we managed to find ourselves in front of various tables in fly-filled shacks with men in uniform asking questions and completing entries in books. Forms were filled in, money was paid for entry visas for us and for our vehicle (which was promptly placed into the trouser pocket of the official dealing with us at the time) and all that remained was for us to purchase vehicle insurance for our visit (another hut) and exchange some money for Mauritanian currency at the bureau de change (which was a small tourer caravan). All that taken care of, the only thing between us and Mauritania was a large plank of wood across the piste with six inch nails sticking up from it. Soon enough, this was moved aside for us, by a soldier, and we were on our way.
MAURITANIA THE TENT HAS ITS TOUGHEST TEST YET
We had a few very hot days of hard driving South from Laayoune to Dakhla and then from Dakhla to the Mauritanian border. The road (N1) was flat, straight and boring taking us through a featureless landscape of sand and scrub. A stark contrast to the driving we had enjoyed in the Atlas Mountains. About 40km into Mauritania, North of Nouadhibou, we came across a beautiful long stretch of beach. After the previous few days the sea looked very inviting and it was the most picturesque wild camp opportunity wed had for some time. And so, about midday, we set up camp, took a stroll along the beach and a heavenly dip in the sea. It was a little windy but even so we enjoyed a lazy afternoon relaxing in the sun.
Late afternoon the wind had increased considerably and continued to do so. By evening we were struggling to sit outside as the wind rocked us in our chairs. Eventually we had to take refuge in the cab of The Beast which was also being rocked in the wind. When we later retired to the tent the noise from the wind and the flapping of the tents roof-cover was unbelievable. We thought that either the wind would die down or we would become so used to the noise we would fall asleep anyway. A few hours later, still awake, we had second thoughts. I had visions of the tent being ripped to pieces. Around 3 or 4 a.m. the wind was at its worst and sounding like a herd of charging elephants. By 6 a.m. we had given up all hope of sleep and decided we should probably venture outside and move on. By 7 a.m. we had talked ourselves into it. We left our warm, cosy tent to brave the elements. Said tent was intact and looking none the worse for the ferocious beating it had taken. We have to take our hats off to those clever chaps at Howling Moon!
After spending several hours looking for the start of a piste, and failing to find it, we wondered where to go next. It was getting late and we needed somewhere to spend the night. I had seen a sign for Agadir and it seemed like a feasible option. So, for no other reason than we couldnt think of why not to, we headed for Agadir. The approach was much like any big city, huge confusing road junctions and chaotic traffic. We drove towards the secteur touristique expecting to hate the place and just stay one night. (In fact we liked the relaxing holiday atmosphere and stayed for three nights).
Recent developments in Agadir have included the closure of all camp sites except one. However, motor home owners still flock to this resort for its large, clean, sandy beach and winter sunshine. Consequently the camp site now resembles a sardine tin. However, we managed to squeeze in with The Beast causing quite a stir amongst all the plastic fantastics!
We took a walk along the main street that runs parallel with the beach. There were grand hotels and lots of restaurants, every one of which looked inviting. Then we saw The British Pub. Normally, in a foreign land, this would cause us to walk in the opposite direction. But, after 5 or 6 weeks in the heart of a Muslim country, the lure of beer was too tempting to resist. We sat outside with our drinks watching people of all nationalities, and various dress-codes, walk by. We felt as though we had been transported to a different country. We could have been anywhere in Europe but surely we couldnt still be in Morocco?
We ordered some more beer and had to laugh as we remembered that just a few hours earlier we were in the middle of vast open scrubland where all tracks had run out and there was no piste in sight anywhere. This was after driving around in circles within a small village laid out like a maze. At one point - and Im still not sure how we managed it - we ended up in a mans cactus garden. I dont know what the poor chap thought when he suddenly saw the big yellow Beast in his grounds but he was very friendly towards us. He directed us to his front gates which he opened to let us out and then offered to help by giving us directions to where we wanted to go (if only we knew!) In the end he directed us to the main road, from which we could make a decision about our onward journey.
That evening, amidst our fellow European campers, we cooked the camel meat we had bought earlier and enjoyed a very tasty camel casserole.
Our guide book described the pass as not for the feint hearted and that just about sums it up. This road, through the High Atlas, winds its way to a height of 2120m and consists of hairpin bend after hairpin bend seemingly going on forever. The road is very narrow with solid rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. At times there is no tarmac road at all, just a dirt track. If youre a passenger (and not of a nervous disposition) - and therefore not concentrating on the road because your life depends on it - you can enjoy fantastic views of the Anti Atlas and the Souss valley.
I think another way to sum up this pass would be: Once driven, never forgotten.
Knowing that Ketama is the hashish growing/selling region of Morocco, we avoided this area on our outward journey through the country. However, on our return journey, we found ourselves nearby and therefore, travelling through this region was the only logical route to the North Coast. We thought it would be fine as long as we drove straight through without stopping. We had no idea what was in store for us.
Miles from Ketama itself we had an early insight of what was to come. Clearly the hashish business in this region is not what you would call underground. There were men standing at the roadside openly trying to sell their merchandise. But nothing could have prepared us for the zealous salesmen we were about to meet.
We encountered several vehicles which drove close behind beeping their horns and flashing their lights before overtaking and then driving very slowly in front of us. The front seat passenger held a package out of his window and the driver indicated for us to pull over. On a very narrow, winding road it was hard to get away from these vehicles, but we would eventually manage to do so and then the whole process would begin again and continue until they eventually took the hint that we werent interested and gave up.
One vehicle I shall always remember was a black Mercedes. In the manner described above we drove precariously with the driver unable to overtake because of the dangerous road. Eventually, despite a sharp bend ahead, and a vehicle close in front of us, he began to overtake, driving alongside us gesturing madly. We couldn't have pulled over even if we wanted to (which we didn't) due to a wall of rock on our right. An oncoming vehicle appeared and I thought a head-on collision inevitable. Im sure my heart stopped beating. Darren slowed enough, and just in time, to allow the vehicle to pull in front and avoid us all meeting an untimely end. After more shenanigans the vehicle drove off and we thought we had seen the last of it. However, several miles on we spotted a black Mercedes at the side of the road and a man standing in the middle of the road gesticulating for us to stop. We somehow managed to pass by without running the man over and the cat-and-mouse game (for want of a better word) began once again. We did eventually lose this vehicle.
I must say, it was a very scary experience. Dangerous road aside, I cannot believe that someone could be that desperate to sell some weed. Either the driver was a suicidal psychopath or he meant to deprive us of much more than the price of his merchandise!
All that said, I must add that this was not typical of Morocco or the Moroccan people. On the contrary, this brief encounter was the one and only time during our whole trip that I felt threatened and/or feared for our safety.
The moral of the story
When in Morocco, stay far away from Ketama!
(From home in Pembrokeshire) Total miles travelled: 8,859