I spent most of the night getting in and out of the truck with the shits so I was feeling pretty rough when we drove down to the port to catch the ferry. We had a bit of a run-in with an officious wop customs jerk and ended up missing the 9:30 sailing by 2 minutes so we parked up to wait for the 1:00 PM sailing.
Once on board the ferry, we found a comfy seat each and settled in. The crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar was quite rough but not too bad and no-one was seasick. It was pouring with rain and blowing a strong wind as we crossed the fabled straits, with long lines of container ships passing us on their way out into the Atlantic. The Rock¹ passed with just the merest glimpse through the murk then we were into the quiet waters of Algeciras Bay. We had arrived in Europe, and Africa was once again a distant continent: a part of our memories.
Customs were minimal as we disembarked and we drove up the Costa del Sol, now wet and dismal, its hordes of package tourists long gone and the resorts closed and shuttered.
¹The Rock of Gibraltar ² The Costa del Sol is, famously, a destination for English holidaymakers: somewhat tacky and often lampooned,
After a cold shower we packed up our gear and checked out of the hotel. amidst a mumble of complaining about not having another day in Fes (the malcontents were still…well, malcontented!), we drove out of the old city and headed north on the final leg of our journey through Africa.
The road wound up to the top of a range of hills giving a magnificent view out over Fes and the surrounding country. The day was fine and warm and the land was green and fertile under a clear blue sky.
It took all day to drive up to Ceuta¹ at the northernmost tip of Africa, with a few stops along the way for coffee and lunch. At about 4:30, we came over a rise and in front of us was the sea! The Mediterranean rolled calmly into the bay at M’dik-Fnideq, a small town about 20 KM from the border. We spent most of our remaining dirhams on a tooled leather belt for Brian².
We reached the border between Morocco and Spanish North Africa at 6:00, went through the Moroccan side without any trouble, and then stood in the cold wind at the Spanish side, watching Footrot Flats³, of all things, dubbed into Spanish, on a small TV inside the border guard’s hut!
They put a drug dog through the truck (the look of abject terror on the face of Skip, a hardened pot-head, was priceless!) but it found nothing and we were free to go.
We drove into Ceuta and found a campsite on the hill overlooking the sea but most of us slept in the truck as we couldn’t be bothered putting up our tents.
¹Ceuta is an 18 square kilometre enclave of Spanish territory on the northern tip of Morocco (and thus, by definition, on the northernmost tip of Africa) opposite the Spanish city of Cadiz, 14 kilometres away on the other shore of the Straits of Gibraltar. ²Linda’s stepfather. ³ An iconic New Zealand animated movie about a sheepdog and his adventures on his master’s farm: Footrot Flats. NB I carried a stuffed Dog (the sheepdog in the original cartoon strip and the movie is simply called “Dog.”) throughout our world travels.
After cold showers, Pete, Rob, Linda and I went out for a walk to change money and find the post office. After a run-in with one of the many wog dick-heads wanting to be our “official guide”, in which Rob smacked one around the head after he said “fuck off” to her, we found a bank and the PO then returned to the hotel.
Our real official guide, a guy called Good-one (!) was there and me, Mike, Scotty, Sale and Linda headed off in the truck for a tour of the city.
First stop was the Jewish Cemetary where the city’s large Jewish population bury their dead in tombs above ground. Across the road from there we looked at the magnificent gateway to the Royal Palace with its huge brass and copper doors set with mosaic tile patterns.
We then drove up to the hilltop lookout above the city where we had a magnificent view over Fez which was founded in the 9th century as a university teaching Islam and mathematics. The university, which we would visit later, is still teaching today and is the oldest working university in the world.
We entered the Medina via an arched gate and passed into another world. Steep, narrow cobblestoned passage, hemmed in by white-washed walls, led us deep into the mysterious walled city. We looked into a bakery where people bring their flat, round loaves of bread to be baked, and into a hotel/stable where traders from out of town can stay and house their horses or mules. Amongst the motley group of skinny and mis-treated horses, a sore-covered, skin-and-bone horse lay dying amid the rotting hay and evil-smelling mud. An apalling and pathetic sight.
As we walked deeper into the city, through tunnels and small sqwuares, a tell-tale smell told us we were nearing the dye-pits. A dark corridor led us to a courtyrad where men wearing only shorts worked up to their knees in a series of concrete pits, stamping animal hides in brightly-coloured and foul-smelling liquids. We ascended a set of timbe stairs to a rooftop balcony where we looked down on the pits where 80 or so men worked knee-deep in the pits, kneading and tramping the leather.
We bought raisins and nougat in the nearby bazaar and stopped to look through the oldest part of the university, now disused and empty.
Good-one left us for an hour in the government-run carpet shop where the friendly and jovial salesmen soon turned sour and tight-lipped when they realised that we weren’t interested in buying any of their carpets. Good-one himself was fairly sour as he led us back to the truck as his commission had disappeared!
Linda and I had lunch at a small cafe – a lovely meal of salad and tahine vegetables, then spent the rest of the day lounging around at the hotel.
The whole day was spent driving the 350 KM to Fes. The landscape changed from flat and fertile irrigated plains to rolling hills then to a high range of hills where the temperature dropped to 2° or 3° and it started to drizzle.
We arrived in Fez around 6:30, long after dark, and booked into the Plaza Hotel, not as fancy as the name implies, but comfortable and clean for 20 dirhams.
We had a rip-off hamburger for tea followed by a hot chocolate and cakes at a patisserie.
We got up at about 8:00 and I went down to the restaurant for the usual breakfast of toast, jam and coffee while Linda had a shower. We packed up our stuff and left it in the room and went downstairs to pay the bill. The luggage didn’t have to be out until 12:00.
Pete, Rob, Linda and I walked up the street to the place where where the line of horses and carriages stood and negotiated with a driver to hire his carriage for an hour at a cost of 40 dirhams.
The route took us through the old part of the city along narrow streets and lanes leading to the ruins of the Emir’s Palace. We paid 20 dirhams to go in an look around in what was really only a huge courtyard surrounded by high walls with an orange grove in two sunken gardens.
From the old palace, we went round to the Emir’s new palace – high stone walls again and a studded door set between two stone pillars – then through the botanic gardens (dry and dusty) before returning to the centre of town. We had a row with the drive over how long we had been away and ended up paying him 60 dirhams for the trip.
Linda and I had a quick lunch at a corner cafe then grabbed our luggage from the hotel and boarded the truck at about 12:30. All of the free-loaders [ie the members of the trip wh, dis-satisfied with the way the trip was being run had wandered off on their own and who now had a very holier-than-thou attitude] were back and there were a lot of snide comments being handed around, by Skip in particular, about how much of a drag it was to be “stuck back in the truck.” For our part, those of us who had stayed with the truck considered ourselves to have had a great time without the others and their constant complaining!
We drove out of Marrakech into the country, heading north and spent the afternoon driving through and ever-changing landscape: sometimes brown and barren, sometimes productive and fertile with complicated systems of raised concrete channels for carrying water for irrigation.
About 3:30, we stopped for a coffee at a roadside cafe then a bit later on, we turned off the main road and climbed a steep, winding road over a range of hills and down into a valley at the head of which was a campsite beside a set of waterfalls called The Cascades. Unfortunately, the road to the falls was washed out so we turned back and made camp on a hillside at dusk.
After a comfortable and restful night, Linda and I got up at about 8:00 and went down to the restaurant for a yummy breakfast of toast, jam and coffee then went back up to our room where we spent a couple of hours sorting out our souvenirs and re-packing our packs.
About 11:30 we walked over to the market to begin our exploration of its dim and mysterious reaches. We entered one of the passageways and the hassling began. “Come and see my shop”, “cheap price” and all the other lines we have come to know in the markets of Africa. We went into a shop selling wood and brass items and bought a cedar-root domino set for 150 Dirhams (£12) then, later on, after a trip to a bank to change more money Linda bought her sought-after leather backpack for $US32. I also bought a belt for 20 Dirhams.
Deeper and deeper we wandered into the maze of narrow passageways past shops selling brass, leather, woood, jewellery, spices, fruit musical instruments and general goods. We found the section where craftsmen were making the goods we had seen for sale: blacksmiths, wood-workers, a guitar-maker, leather-workers and tin-smiths.
After a few hours, of constant hassling from vendors we were sick of the market and found a way out onto a back street which led to a roof-top cafe where we had a hot chocolate and a pastry.
We had dinner that night with Scotty, Mike, Rob, Pete and bloke called Sale who is another Kumuka driver, and whom we are taking back to London with us, at a small cafe.
We were up before the sun reached the peaks surrounding the alpine meadow in which the Cafe d’Atlas stood and packed up our stuff while the little man (we never did find out his name!) cooked us omelettes with cheese, and coffee for breakfast.
The icy wind was still howling down off the peaks, rattling the windows of the hut and shaking the bare branches of the walnut tree outside.
We paid the bill, which came to 127 Dirhams¹ all up then left the little man in his little cafe in that windswept alpine basin and drove off down the steep, winding road. The views were magnificent, with brown, eroded hills cut by deep gorges, with high, snow-capped peaks above.
The wind continued to blast off the tops, making it damn cold when we stopped for photos or to look at little craft shops beside the road. As well as pottery and polished stones, the shops all sold beautiful examples of geodes: amethyst, calcite, agate and other minerals found in these hills. Some of the larger geodes had been painted bright green or orange to make ordinary quartz look like something more exotic. Mike had found out about this scam to his cost the previous day, having bought what he thought was a geode of amethyst only to find that the purple colour of the crystals rubbed off to reveal palin quartz beneath!
As we neared the bottom of the valley, the individual crops growing there could be made out. vegetables, olives & walnuts were growing in the fertile soil at the foot of the pine-clad hills, and many small villages dotted the roadside. As always, the snowy mountains made a backdrop to the quiet and peaceful valley farms.
We stopped mid-morning for coffee at a cafe overlooking a wide, tree-clad valley then dropped down the last few miles of the High Atlas and out onto the plains near Marrakech.
We drove into the city through olive groves and orange tree orchards and found the Hotel de Foucauld, a palace of a place compared to the tents we have lived in over the last 3 1/2 months! The room Linda and I were in had a bath/shower, a SIT DOWN DUNNY² and 2 comfy beds. Two large wooden door opened onto a small balcony overlooking a park.
We settled in to all that opulent luxury for a while, then Rob, Pete, Linda and I walked over to the market. We had a fresh orange juice in the square outside the market, then entered the dim and exciting labyrinth of passages and streets that make up the Old Town of Marrakech, a place that has attracted travellers for decades.
Every new turn produced two more paths to choose from and from every door the merchants, some of them old and cheerful, others cunning and devious-looking younger men, called us to look at their wares.
It was too much to take in so we went and had a hot chocolate at a rooftop cafe with a view out over the central Market Square.
Later in the evening, we returned to the square to eat at the food stalls and have our pockets picked by vagabond kids.³ I bought a small set of Moroccan drums off a kid for £2-00.
¹The Moroccan unit of currency is the Dirham. ² DUNNY is Australian slang for a toilet. ³I thwacked an urchin that had its grubby little hand in Linda’s pocket.
DAY EIGHTY-SEVEN We got up at around 8:00 and I had a hot shower to relieve the pain in my chest. I have started taking antibiotics to knock whatever infection it is on the head.
We breakfasted on bread, jam and coffee then paid the hotel bill with food kitty money¹ and took our gear over to the truck. We went for a walk up the gorge to a spot where some locals have a well-tended garden and run goats on the scree-slopes beneath the cliffs. It took a long time for the sun to reach into the depths of the gorge and by that time we were on our way.
The drive down the valley away from the gorge provided us with some spectacular views of oasis villages with their meticulously cultivated and irrigated fields nestling in the valleys with snow-capped mountains behind.
We spent all morning winding our way across the hazy plains towards the foot of the Atlas Mountains and after lunch in a small town, we began following a river leading up into the mountains themselves. All along the banks of the river, plots of border-dyked² land grew crops of vegetables and olives. Trees wearing their autumn colours grew along the banks beside the rivers.
It became colder as we drove higher and the road became more and more winding and steep. The hills were clad in scrub and mountain grasses and shepherds guided their flocks across the steep faces in the cold alpine air. There were patches of snow in the basins but most of the big fall that had occurred a few days before had melted. Sleepy villages nestled in little valleys with the late afternoon sun bathing the buildings, which were hung with bright red flags, in warm, golden light.
Higher and higher we climbed until we reached a saddle at 2,300 metres just as the setting sun was casting a pink glow on the tops of the peaks. About a mile down the other side we found a place to stay. A lovely little café called Café-d’Atlas stood alone in a high and windswept basin with only a few trees and patches of snow to keep it company. A little man in a gelabia³ ran the café and proudly welcomed us into the little 4-roomed building which was actually built in Western style, with a sloping roof and a verandah.
He lit a fire for us in the stove in the room we would sleep in, and prepared us a meal of omelette and meat kebabs along with café-au-lait. He was obviously mad but he went out of his way to look after us as we sat drinking whiskey & Coke and wondering what the poor people were doing.⁴
We spent a very warm and comfortable night in that little shack at 2,260 metres, with the crystal clear stars shining on the peaks around us and the bitterly cold wind snarling around the eaves like dogs of war.
¹The food kitty was, strictly-speaking, meant to be used to buy food for the whole expedition crew. But, as a number of ill-contented people had decided to go off on their own, we made the collective decision to splurge some of the kitty cash on our luxurious night in the Todra Gorge Hotel.
² Border-dyking is a form of flood irrigation widely used throughout the world. Water is allowed to run from a channel along the edge of a slightly sloping field which has raised “borders” at intervals across its width. The borders allow the water flow across the field. When one field has been irrigated, the outlet from the channel is closed and the outlet onto the next field is opened so the process repeats.
³ The jalabiya (I miss-spelled the word) is a traditional Moroccan garment. It is a long robe knitted from heavy wool, with long sleeves and a hood.
⁴Slang for feeling smug about one’s situation
FOOTNOTE: While we were at the Cafe d’Atlas I bought a pair of figurines carved by the little man who owned the cafe. To this day, they sit on a shelf in our house, one of the souvenirs of our adventures that I am most fond of.
DAY EIGHTY-SIX We were up before dawn cooking breakfast in a bitterly cold wind. We had showers in the open air shower block then left Meskie and drove into town for coffees.
On the road once again, we headed for Todra Gorge, about 300 kilometres away, taking our time and stopping for plenty of coffees on the way.
I was feeling pretty crook¹ with the beginnings of what felt like a chest infection so I missed a lot of the day’s scenery through being asleep.
At around 4:00, with the sun well down towards the horizon, and a real chill in the air, we were stopped by a police road-block at the mouth of the gorge. Their story was that a flood had closed the track up to the Gorge Hotel but it was obvious that a pay-off had been made by the owner of the hotel just outside the gorge to drum up more business. One of the locals went up to fetch the owner of the hotel up in the gorge. He came down and basically told the police to Fuck Off & we were free to carry on up into the gorge.
We drove up the river-bed in the centre of the gorge, down which flowed a stream of lovely clear water through which waded a procession of aging Italian tourists with their shoes off and their skirts lifted.
On both sides, the walls of the gorge rose sheer for 200-300 metres and much of it was, in fact, overhanging, with the last rays of the sun bathing the topmost part of the cliff with bright yellow light. The hotel is built right in under the deepest part of the overhang. We parked the truck on the opposite side of the gorge and crossed the creek to see what delights were in store for us. We were assigned a comfortable room for all 7 of us to sleep in, but, best of all, there were HOT SHOWERS and HEATERS in the restaurant.
We had coffee in the warmth of the restaurant and took turns luxuriating in the very hot water of the showers – our first hot showers in 4 months!
Tea was a long-winded affair with salad, soup, stew and tahine (pronounced Tah-zhine), the traditional Moroccan way of cooking, served with couscous and vegetables.
After coffee and dates, a trio of locals played Moroccan music for us with drums and a banjo. Outside, it was a very cold night with only a small piece of the clear, cold, star-filled sky visible above the cliffs. We all slept well in the comfort and warmth of our room.
We got up with the sun and had porridge and toast for breakfast. Back on the road, it only took an hour and a half to reach the town nearest to Meski Oasis. We spent two hours there, buying some meat and veges in the market, drinking cafe au lait at a street cafe and getting some wine, bread and cheese to have for lunch at the oasis.
We left town and drove the 15 kilometres to Le Source Bleu du Meski which is a large and fertile oasis set down below the level of the surrounding plain in a gorge.
There is a good camping site complete with souvenir shops, a restaurant and a big swimming pool full of fish! The water for the pool flows out of the base of the cliff from a cave that the local women have turned into a grotto where they pray for fertility.
We sat in the sun and ate our bread and cheese and drank the fairly cheap-tasting wine, then spent the afternoon in various states of relaxation.
About 4:00 PM, pete, Rob, Linda and I crossed the river and walked up to the ruins of an old fortified town on the southern rim of the gorge. The fort dates back to medieval times and is a maze of narrow passages and rooms which are slowly crumbling as rain and wind takes effect on the mud and straw the entire fort is built from. We spent a fascinating hour clambering around in the ruins with the lowering sun casting intricate shadows over the crumbling walls. Several intact rooms and Muslim archways remain but most of the fort is just a mass of demolished walls.
We left the old town with its crumbling walls and silent passages as the sun was setting and crossed back to the camp through the irrigated gardens and date palm plantations of the oasis with a cold breeze behind us and the promise of a chilly night ahead.
For tea, we cooked up a huge meal of steak, pumpkin, beans, spuds and grilled tomatoes washed down with a lot of Scottie’s secret recipe mulled wine.