Sunday, March 25, 2012

From the Driver's Seat

I thought I'd just add my personal views on the final week of driving in Morocco. Up until Monday last week we hadn't deliberately taken the Mog off-road. I say "deliberately" because with some of the Moroccan "roads" it's difficult to tell.

Anyway, we decided to take an old "piste", as off-road tracks are referred to here, from Zagora to N'kob and then another piste over the Jbel Sarhro, which is an offshoot of the High Atlas, to Tinerhir. The first part to N'kob was no different from many Australian desert tracks; rough, rocky, bumpy, a few dry river beds but nothing bad.
The Driver

The bit from N'kob was another matter. It started out as just another rough track but, as we began to climb, it got steadily worse. N'kob is around 650m above sea level and the top of the track, the Tizi n'Tazazert pass is 2,300. It's 40km from Tinerhir but it's not a straight ascent. There are many ups and downs where the track climbs 300 metres in a short distance and then immediately drops 250m. 

The track was exactly that, a rough idea of the path to be followed but in no way was it any kind of road. Potholes half a metre deep, boulders, hairpin bends, landslips, 150m drops at the side; it had the lot. Interestingly, I didn't need 4 wheel drive in the Mog because of the huge ground clearance and low-down grunt. Even though I had to stop and reverse, with a huge drop at the side, to get round some of the hairpins, the Mog coped perfectly well in 2WD. In the Land Cruiser I'd definitely have been using low range. By the time we stopped at the top I was absolutely exhausted.

The Mog took a real pounding and at one point a lot of banging and movement from the roll cage started. When we got to the top I found that one of the mountings to the chassis had sheared. Next morning the noise and movement got even worse and I concluded that the other main mounting must have gone. That was the point where I gave up the off-road ambitions and drove very slowly to the bitumen road. Kate has already told the story of the wonderful mechanics in Tinerhir.
Well deserved omelette at the top

So, I thought that was the end of any really stressful driving. By this time I'd ceased to regard the typical Moroccan driver's insanity and "insha'allah" attitude as abnormal, had adjusted my driving to cope with it and thought I was doing quite well. I was about to be sadly disabused of this belief.

Kate has already written about our drive over the Rif which is the hash capital of Morocco. From the driver's seat it was probably the worst drive of my life. The road surface, although bitumen, is horrendous with camber changing in the middle of bends, crumbling edges, potholes and only just wide enough for two vehicles, IF the two are driven by sane, competent drivers. Neither of these adjectives can be applied to the average Moroccan driver. At many points there's a 200 metre drop at the side.

The Rough Guide's comment is that "the road sees relatively little traffic". Wrong! I can only presume that they travelled at 2.00 a.m. There was every size of car and truck plus buses and, worst of all, an incessant stream of "grands taxis" (generally 30 year old diesel Mercs containing 6 passengers plus the driver) driven by suicidal/homicidal maniacs who had obviously been smoking dope all day. I lost count of the number of near accidents we saw with these lunatics. One of their favourites is to overtake on the outside of a blind bend going uphill. More than once I came round a bend to find one of these bastards in the middle of the road and a big drop at the side.

To make it worse, every crappy, filthy town we passed through appeared to have a market on with the resulting traffic chaos: cars seemingly abandoned everywhere and anywhere, donkeys being loaded in the middle of the road and most of the population bombed out of their heads from smoking dope and wandering about randomly. All this was aggravated by lunatics leaping into the road waving packets of dope and cars flashing their lights and trying to stop us so they could sell us dope. We'd heard about drivers being boxed in, stopped and forced to buy dope and it looked at one point as though a character in a Peugeot 205 was trying to make us stop. I think, however, that in spite of being bombed, he got the idea that 8 tons of Mog running over a 205 was no contest and gave up.

The stress of coping with the awful road surface while trying to deal with the totally unpredictable behaviour of everything else on the road was horrendous and by 15.30 I was completely exhausted with about 100km to go. This doesn't sound much but, because of the road conditions, we'd been averaging under 40kph. Normally, we'd just have found somewhere off the road to stop and stayed for the night but that wasn't an option in this part of the world with all the nutcases running around. Somebody would almost certainly have tried to break into the truck during the night. 

We eventually got to the campsite in Chefchaouen around 18.30 and looking back on it 24 hours later, I can't actually remember any of the last half hour at all as I was so knackered. The combination of the road surface, which would have been no problem on its own, and the total lunacy by which we were surrounded just did me in. The drive over the Jbel Sarhro (High Atlas) was tiring, mainly because of the size of the Mog, but there I only had to contend with the road.

We're now back in Spain and I've had enough of driving in Morocco. The driving isn't quite as bad as Indonesia but I get the feeling that they're working on it. I guess I'm just to old to cope with this kind of stress. However, it was a timely reminder of third world driving standards and an indication of what will have to be faced on the journey back to Oz.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Out Of Africa

We are back in Spain and camped in our favourite spot in El Puerto de Santa Maria. It feels like home, we even have the same pitch. It’s not quite the same without our buddies here, but lovely nonetheless.

Whilst we enjoyed Morocco, we are glad to be back in civilization. We took the 7.30am ferry from Tanger Med and got here just in time for Spanish Lunch!!  We walked down to our favourite restaurant and pigged out on seafood with a bottle of Palomino blanco. Yes, they make a dry white wine from Palomino in this region.

Things I loved about Morocco.

Ever loving Donkeys

  1. The donkeys.
  2. The dates
  3. Home delivered tagine – to your Mog door.
  4. Good souks
  5. Riad Chi-Chi
  6. The beer – it was really good when you could get hold of it.
  7. The Camping Parks right down in the south
  8. The loiterers – it’s a national sport in Morocco.
  9. The pastries
  10. The people we met – hopefully will keep in touch with all of you!!!

What can I say???

Things I won’t miss.

  1. Dirty toilets
  2. The Rubbish
  3. The drivers
  4. Dirty souks
  5. The camels
  6. Crossing the road (it’s best to follow a woman with a pram)
  7. The call to prayer 5 times a day (which sounded similar to a cow giving birth)
  8. Being hassled to buy stuff we don’t want
  9. Dodgy showers
  10. The dust

Why not???

 What's next?? - Watch this space...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Riff-Raff flogging Kif in the Rif

Once again this post is late due to lack of internet.

We’d read about the drug dealers and drug gangs in The Rif but decided that our Mog would protect us, and Lawrence was keen to cross this range to complete our Moroccan mountain experience.
The Riff

The idiots on the side of the road and in cars trying to flag us down were merely annoying, and fairly easily ignored. They were just a pest. It was the idiots driving the ‘grand taxis’ that were the threat to our lives (plus the buses, trucks and general maniacs). The Police are also a real menace with their continual road blocks which don't seem to achieve anything - maybe just collecting bribes.
A typical Riff Town - we didn't feel compelled to stay

I stopped counting the number of near head-on collisions, it was simply terrifying. If I’d been driving we’d both be dead by now. Lawrence was forced off the road several times to avoid collision, but this was fraught as well due to riff-raff on the side. If we’d known how bad it was we’d never have driven that way as the scenery was not ‘unmissable’, nothing near as spectacular as the High Atlas.

Lawrence will post a missive on the driving, so I won’t go on.

When we finally arrived in Chefchaouen we were both completely exhausted, and downed several beers in quick succession. Feeling slightly seedy today, but the town here is lovely and there is no hassle in the souk, therefore feeling relaxed again.
Beautiful Chefchaouen

Tomorrow we head to Martil on the Med before taking the boat back to Spain (which we now think of as home), and back to our lovely camp in El Puerto de Santa Maria.

And you thought WE were mad?

Friday, March 16, 2012

On Piste and piste off.

Leaving the edge of the Sahara and driving back across the High Atlas, internet access has been non-existent.

Day one:

I wrote this at 2300 metres in the High Atlas at the Tizi n’Tazazert Pass, maybe suffering from altitude sickness.

We left our lovely small campsite in Zagora (where there were 3 Unimogs camped!) and went ‘off road’, known as a ‘piste’ here to cross the High Atlas at the Tizi n’Tazazert.

The piste started off quite rough and then got worse, then it deteriorated and then it got worse.  Really it is the worst road I’ve been on and Lawrence has commented that it was the worst drive he’s ever undertaken, more like a goat track. Hats off to Lawrence for driving it without killing us or any goats (round of applause for Lawrence here please), really he was amazing, but spare a thought for me – I had to do all the backseat driving. On one of the highest nastiest pieces there was one man with a pick mending the road – this was not a comfort. 

It took us 3 hours to do the last 40kms.
                  On Piste (this was a good bit) and Piste Off...  The books flew out of the bookshelf!!!

Describing the landscape is really beyond my literary skills, it is so dramatic, almost like some artistic giant has sculptured it with an enormous trowel.  It is also barren, harsh and inhospitable. You wouldn’t want to break down here.

We couldn’t really appreciate the scenery so well because I was scared we were about to become a part of it. I could see the next travellers – “Ooh what’s that yellow speck way down in the ravine?” I’ve tried to capture it all on photo but the really rough parts of the piste couldn’t be photographed because we couldn’t stop and it was too rough for mogcam photography. The photos can’t really do it justice.

The Loo with a View
Finally we arrived at the highest point to be greeted by people trying to flog us stuff – where did they come from at 2600+ metres???? Anyway there was a VERY rustic “Auberge” near the top. I think they have one room for rent and you can have an omelette or an omelette, which we devoured gratefully straight out of the pan. 

The photo illustrates the toilet much better than I could describe it!!
The Dog wondered where his G&T was.

We parked on the edge of a cliff and quaffed our G&T at sunset, accompanied by a dog. How do I attract them? I think the word has spread about the dog blog. This is a really remote area, but the dog wanted to sit next to me, commandeering Lawrence’s cushion.

Day Two:

We left Tizi n’Tazazert quite early not knowing what was in front of us. We only did 30kms on the dirt before wimping out once we hit the black top. We could have crossed this road for more punishment on the piste, but the roll bars on the mog were rattling like nobody’s business and needed attention, not more roughing up.
A Woman's Work is Never Done

We limped into Tinerhir and found some wonderful mechanics, who sized up the problem, worked out the solution and got straight to work. They had to remove one of the fuel tanks and God knows what to weld the roll bars back onto the chassis. They did a fantastic job in about 4 hours flat.  It cost just over 100 euros.

That night at dinner we met some great fun American guys who were travelling across Morocco on big BMW road bikes. One of them was fascinated with the Mog. They had the grand tour in the morning, and crawled all over it. I tried to sell it, but no go! We drove through the Todra Gorge next day with them and then sadly waved them goodbye.
Ewen and Charley? No! Bob and Randy.

Day Three
We drove through Todra Gorge which was of course amazing, but to me looked very much like the Kimberely – but maybe on a bigger scale. Coming out of the gorge, the landscape was incredible, ever changing, dramatic, barren but with fertile valleys, which were cleverly irrigated to make the most of the water.

Our lunch stop at Camping/Auberge Ibrahim was sensational, one of the best meals we’ve had. If it had been later in the day we would have been happy to stay. It was a really lovely spot, clean, neat and friendly. We met another American, Ryan, who was doing 2 years in this remote spot working with the Peace Corps.
The bitumen wasn't much better than the piste

We camped in a gravelled area that night, as I was spooked by the lovely place by the lake. You know how sometimes somewhere will give you the heebie jeebies??? Poor Lawrence had to drive an extra hour and a half on a really bad, steep, winding road, then find a place without the local urchins begging for money and pens.

Day 4

Easy day into Azrou. This is an Alpine style town with a ski area nearby, the steep pitched roofs look strange after the flat roofed mud brick villages across southern Morocco. 

More work needed on the Mog. Once again we have been blessed by fantastic mechanics, who came to the camp, took the exhaust pipe away, repaired it and are now fixing it back to the truck at 8pm. All this whilst we ate our Mog delivery tagine. We bought our own tagine today at a local souk. Cost a whole 4 euros. Please send recipes.

We are down to our last bottle of wine. We are hoping to find a ‘Marjane Supermarche’ on Saturday near Fes so we can restock…

Spain beckons… we just need to cross the Rif without being hijacked by the local drug gangs, and we’ll be back at Tanger Med and across the sea.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

As we are on the edge of the Sahara, we thought we should do the obligatory Camel Trek. If there is a more uncomfortable way to travel, I don’t know of it. Those damn animals should come with an OHS warning.
The Bloody Camels

The saddles are clearly made of concrete, cleverly disguised with a blanket for the unwary tourist. My arse was screaming within 10 minutes, but I bravely soldiered on. The guide, who was sensibly on foot, kept turning around and saying Ca Va? Bien? We grinned back Ca va!! After 30 minutes of this torture, he’d call out “CaVa?” and not knowing how to say “no, you jerk, my arse is killing me” in French, I’d groan “Ca Va!”.

Lawrence and I made the decision that we could not possibly endure 3 hours of this torture but held on until we got the sand dunes. “No more” we cried and dismounted with very little dignity. We were led into a mud hut for mint tea, which cruelly had small hard uncomfortable stools to sit on but even they felt like velvet compared to a camel.

The Dunes

We walked the hour back to the campsite with the camels looking well pleased with themselves for having got rid of us. Large stiff gins were required.

I’m sure we’ll have a good laugh about this one day – when the skin grows back.

Wonderful Campsite

The campsite however is quite lovely. We have our own little mud brick courtyard, furnished with a large rug and some outdoor furniture, we even have our own dog, a small puppy who came to visit when our lunch was delivered. The home/mog delivery service at Moroccan campsites is going to be the thing we miss most about this country.

The air here is so dry that when I put any kind of moisturiser on, my skin makes loud sucking noises. The days are still warm and sunny, getting hotter, nights are still cool.
Home Delivery

The town, M’Hamid is a scrappy little affair, with little to recommend it other than access to the pre-Sahara and a Nomad Festival. We could hear the music last night but just didn’t have the heart to leave our wine glasses and stagger into town after our camel experience. Interestingly we could hear the distinctive haunting sound of the didgeridoo – we might go in tonight, if they can get the power supply sorted.

Resident cute dog

This is the furthest south that we’ll venture. We are at 29º 49.2 N and 5º 43.2 W (for the geeks) and so far have travelled a total of 4,813 kms – which is a bit pathetic when you consider we’ve been on the road since September 26. We did 4,500kms in 10 days when we went out to Lake Eyre.

We’ll probably head north tomorrow and back over the High Atlas via some interesting roads that Lawrence has been researching. I hope my backside it up to it by then.