Nov 20 2009

one down, three to go…

With one month down since we departed from the UK we achieved our first goal to raise money for UNICEF. Yes we did it.. We managed to get our unfit bodies to 4167m and summit Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.
After spending a good few days in the desert at over 30 degrees C we made our way towards the small town of Imlil in the high Atlas. We covered aprox 130km of the Tizi-N-Test pass from 600m above sea level to 2100m. That was an experience on its own. Rugged single lane tar with clapped out trucks and prehistoric vehicles speeding down through the bends like they were gunning for pole position in the Monaco GP.. We made it, with a few scares and real close calls (along with witnessing a police investigation of a site where a panel van ‘mysteriously’ ended up 200m down a cliff, all the more nerve wrecking).
So we chugged into Imlil after a good 7 hr drive trough the Draa Valley and the coffin destine pass. Every man, his dog, brother and mule tried to convince us we required their services as guides or to take the strain off our backs and load up their well worked mule (they do work hard, when we were heading back to the town we saw one loaded with bags, supplies and a lazy tourist). ‘La shukran’ was again the well used Arabic I learnt in Egypt many yeas ago and we pressed on along Imlil’s only road with every man’s brother’s brother still trying to convince us. ‘La shukran’ again the most useful and close to only Arabic I knew. We got to the end of the tar and swung right on a steep dirt track that took us 3km to a very small village called Aremd. Starting the trek from Aremd cut off 40 mins or so and was hassle free so we decided to chance our luck in finding a camping area in this 3 mule town which hangs from cliffs and surrounded by skree.
After covering the dirt track we were stopped by non other than… Robin Hood the 2nd… This self named Berber hero admitted he was the first store on the path to Aremd and he was there to steal from the rich and give to the poor… Out came the usual English splab like ‘Ubly jubly’, ‘Fantastic’, ‘No money, no honey, no chicken curry’ etc etc. Good laugh and I bet if a talent scout ever ventured to Aremd, Robin Hood 2nd or his soon to be expected child (Robin Hood the 3rd) would get snapped up for the first Moroccan comedy film.. Robin, after further banter, kindly directed us to his good friend Omar Cherif, a 4 min drive on the cliff lined track, where we set up camp for the night, sans shower to Dale’s dismay however the desert nights bush camping prepared us for the tasks at hand but not for the sudden drop in temps. We chomp the prepared pasta from the previous evening, cleaned up and hit the hay only to be woken up several times by the rocking of the entire cab when the very strong winds swirled through the valley. It starts with a whistle in the trees and then it hits the tent, brace, exhale, then try sleep only to be awoken by the next long whistle and then the same procedure.
So with very little sleep we hauled ourselves out the tent at 6:45 and prepared a quick nosh and packed up. Fortunately we packed our gear for the trek the night before and Dale was not impressed when I cut down the clothing allowance nor when she put her pack on for the first time. Not a word uttered but I could see she was not a happy camper. We headed off on a very well marked path at 8am. I could see Dale was not comfortable so we went through the routine which we covered in the Sierra Nevada to get her pack more comfy followed by a few aggressive words of encouragement, well my way of motivating is the way I like to think of it.
The first day of the trek took us to just under 3200m and we spent the night at the newer ‘5*’ refuge… €40 for the night for the two of us in a dorm room incl. dins and breakfast and a hot shower! The first time we were in a bed since we sailed across to Spain, bonus and a splash out… We met loads of interesting people in the refuge and shared numerous cups of Berber whiskey (mint tea) with them all. The plan was to wake up at 5:45am, pack the bags with supplies for the summit, have a good nosh (breakfast) and hit the skree for the 1000m summit. The nerves were starting to kick in, along with a small headache from the altitude. ‘What was out there? Are we fit enough to do this? We don’t have a guide but we kind of agreed to head off with a bunch of 4 guys from England…’ We hit the hay at 7pm and slept like babies. We were woken at 5am by a noisy Spanish group who were starting their bid early so we ended up surfacing before the alarm went off.
We were out the door at 6:30am and the icy wind hit us. Thermals, fleece, soft shell and gortex jackets held out the cold but our poor tootsies and fingers took a beating.
After, just over 4 hours, numb fingers and toes and a load of skree stomping we got to the summit. The path was clearly marked with lumo orange spray painted dots (they must have used a load of cans to mark that as a dot or arrow approx every meter or so). The water in the tubes or our hydration packs were frozen solid. The task was to now strip off and get our UNICEF t’s in a pic so that everyone who reads this will know they need to get their short arms in their deep pockets and donate to our UNICEF fundraiser. OK a ¼ of what you intend to contribute then…
So after the pics we zipped up, I fired up a fag just to prove smokers are not unhealthy people, shook our fingers and started the decent…
We made it back to the refuge just before 12pm, warmed up, ate fruit and nuts, melted the hydration pack tubes and packed up the rest of the gear to hit the path at 12:30. It was a fairly carefree trek to Aremd and filled with banter with fellow trekkers who were heading back down so time passed fairly quickly. We rolled into Aremd just before 3pm and with jelly legs but perky spirits we got to the area where we left Mvubu. As we approached him I raised my hands and swore! I locked the keys to the safe which had the keys to the back lock in the back so there was no way of opening either. Out came the hammer and I started beating the lock which kept the left spare wheel safe. All the banging attracted Omar no. 2 and he could not understand why I had the car doors open but was stressing about the wheel lock. He ducked off and came back with a chisel and Omar no.1 popped the lock in a second, I took off the spare wheel opened the back, got the safe keys out and unlocked the rest of the cab before getting the spare wheel secured again. We packed up the cab, changed and hit the road to Marrakech.
We got to 4167m and back down in 2 days and then continued the coffin route to get a few days of chilling before meeting up with friends for the next week. Our legs are still like jelly but sense of achievement (and lessons learnt re locking keys away from one self) outweighs the pain and fatigue (note all the emphasis on the effort people).
A good few months to go until the next trek but till then… DIG DEEP!
[book id=’10’ /]

Nov 15 2009

Morocco – diary 2009-11-02 to 2009-11-14


Tarifa was wonderful. Kirk and I bronzed up beautifully and were very relaxed – ready to take on the next part of our adventure. We packed up early for the reason that when we woke up there were ominous clouds lurking above and we didn’t want to have to pack up camp in the rain. All was done and dusted and we said our goodbyes to our Tarifa neighbours, Jan, Dot, Will, Tash and Ollie, who we had really enjoyed spending the afternoons and evenings with sharing a beer and listening to their travelling tales. Away we went to get our ferry from Algeciras to Cueta just across the Straits of Gibraltar. Upon arrival, we were told that the ferry had been delayed by an hour and that we had just missed the earlier ferry by 10 minutes. We had no option but to explore the city of Algecieras and find a café to have some much needed breakfast. We decided to sample the traditional Spanish breakfast of a hot crusty baguette with fresh tomato and olive oil. It was delicious and so easy to prepare. All they do is wizz the tomatoes in a food processor and serve it with some good quality olive oil on the side.
We made our way to the ferry terminal and were loaded on. The crossing was a speedy 45 minutes and we arrived on the African continent via Cueta – a Spanish enclave. Already it was evident that we were in Africa. The roads were in disrepair, everything seemed dusty and unkempt and the people were dressed in more conservative gear. We were about to cross our first African border and already everything seemed chaotic. People were everywhere; cars were queing up and honking their horns – a typically African thing to do as we have now learnt! The border crossing was pretty painless and took all of 30 minutes. We were officially in Africa!

We navigated our way towards Tangier to buy the infamous ‘green card’ that we needed for our car – 3rd party car insurance for Morocco only. Tangier was a real driving experience. Roundabouts will never be the same again. Drivers stop mid circle and other cars join the roundabout! It was hysterical getting to grips with the new chaotic driving regime. We headed out of the city as it was getting late and we needed to make camp. It was not as easy as we thought. Tangier is a maze of little streets and alleyways that come alive at night. The souks (markets) operate until all hours and there seemed to be a real hustle and bustle. We drove though the posh part of town amongst mansions that are occupied by Tangier celebrities and found our campsite in a small village called Cap Spartel. It was comfortable and a good resting place for the night albeit the cold showers!


We were on our way again and headed through the small Atlantic coast villages. Our first stop was Assilah – a gorgeous whitewashed, blue door resort town that had a somewhat Grecian feel to it. The old town was nowhere near as busy as Tangier. The laughter of school children filled the air rather than the hustle and bustle of vendors trying to sell their wares.
We headed further south and arrived at the idyllic fishing village of Moulay Bousselham. We had our first official Moroccan lunch at one of the local cafés. I ordered the fish and Kirk the lamb brochette. It was excellent value for money – something that we could get very used to. It was interesting to watch the local people and how they go about their everyday life chores but still find time to socialise with friends and have a chat. Lunch was followed by a bird watching boat cruise with a very efficient guide. It was tranquil on the water and the spotting of our first pink flamingo in flight added some excitement to the afternoon. The sunset across the Atlantic was spectacular – a perfect ending to a perfect day.


Mauritanian Visas were the call for the day so a trip to Rabat was in order. We found our way and were told that they would be available for collection at 3pm the following day. We offered them more money for the same day but would hear nothing of it. We decided to make the most of the afternoon and drove to Meknes – one of the four imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat being the other 3). It again resembled a very traditional Moroccan city with the Medina wall and the Palace Royal dominating the scenery. We drove 33km north of Meknes to visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis. The city is the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco and was declared a Unesco Heritage site in 1997. It had the most amazing preserved mosaics and beautifully restored arches. It felt like we had stepped back into Roman times and were roaming the very same avenues that Hercules and Hylas once sauntered along. We headed back into Meknes in search of a supermarket and campsite. We successfully found a supermarket stocked with imported goods and quite expensive in comparison to the medinas and souks. Kirk managed to buy some beers at a heft 9.50 dihrims per beer. The campsite that we were looking for had been closed down in March because it had not paid its rates and taxes for many many years so we headed back towards Volubilis as we had passed a campsite along the way.


The medina of Fez el-Bali is the city’s biggest drawcard and it too is a World Heritage site. Before we could submerge ourselves back into the next Imperial city we needed to return to Rabat to collect our passports from the Mauritanian embassy. We took the scenic drive from Meknes and arrived 2 hours before collection time so thought it a good idea to check out Rabat’s beaches. King Mohammed VI was particularly fond of surfing and was the founding member of one of the surf clubs along the coastline. The surf was enormous. As we drove along we were flagged down by fisherman eager to sell their catch of the day. We found a quiet parking lot that overlooked a bay and made lunch. As we looked around at other parked cars we realised that we had stumbled upon lover’s lane where university students would drive to, park and make out for their lunch break! We tried to be as discreet as possible, ate our lunch and returned to the embassy. Our passports were ready and we were on our way to Fez.
We arrived quite late that afternoon, settled into the campsite and prepared our senses for the following day to come.


We decided to get public transport into Fez town centre as we were not too sure about how secure the parking may be around the Medina. We walked to the road and waited for the no.17 bus. We waited for quite some time and still no no.17. A local, who had been exercising in the surrounding woodland, kindly stopped and offered us a lift which we gladly accepted. He dropped us 10 minutes from the Ville Nouvelle and we made our way to the Dar-el-Makhzen (Royal Palace). The entrance to this grand property is a stunning example of modern restoration and was quite beautiful to admire. The property is not open to the public and we could not even get a glimpse of the palace as the walls towered more than 15 feet. We eventually made our way into the Medina. The thing with these Medinas is that you cannot see the entrance to them when you are walking amongst the houses and shops surrounding them; you also cannot see them from above as they are amongst the ancient residential areas. None the less, we eventually entered the Median and anticipated the thrill of discovery. We entered at the fresh produce section where vendors displayed their daily harvest. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, oranges, apples, figs, dates…you name it, it was there. We then walked into the butchery section where butchers hang the heads of their meat speciality. In one case, the head of a camel! The touts were constantly offering to guide us through the Median and offer us some history. We declined the numerous offers and continued our discovery. We really wanted to see the tanneries – one of the most famous sights in the Fez Medina. En-route we stumbled upon a carpet seller who welcomed us into the shop that he managed. We made it clear from the outset that we did not want to buy anything because we had no space as we were driving from England to South Africa. This was an instant hit. He loved the fact that we were South African and that he was going to the Football World Cup in 2010. He told us to make ourselves at home and to admire the medina from his viewing terrace. The terrace was lovely. We sat on a carpet and enjoyed our first taste of traditional mint tea also known as Berber Whisky. As I said before, the median is completely hidden below the rooftops and there was no evidence of such activities from where we were. It was however interesting to see how old meets new in Fez and that most traditional mud house has a satellite dish secured to its roof. We enjoyed the serenity of the view and got ourselves oriented for our trek to the tanneries. It is hard to miss the tanneries. Firstly the smell is so awful that you are offered a sprig of mint to hold to you nose as you view it and secondly there are touts at every corner offering their services to guide you in the right direction. It was quite a site. The traditional method of dying the leather almost certainly fails every health and safety prerequisite that would be instilled in any developed country. The leather is dirt cheap and some of the handbags, belts, saddle bags are beautifully made. I could have shopped for Africa but storage space will always be a problem. We had a lunch break in a square that we stumbled upon and leisurely watched the children playing. They have no toys or gadgets like most westernised children have, instead they amused themselves by jumping on walls, doing handstands and tricks. It was really lovely to watch.

The Fez Medina was a good introduction to Median shopping and prepared us well for the future because these are the places that we would be doing all of our grocery shopping in for the remainder of our time in Morocco.

The bus journey home was interesting. We waited and waited and waited for the No.17 bus which eventually came. The locals had a good chuckle amongst themselves when they saw these 2 very touristy looking people constantly peering out the window afraid that we would miss our stop. The busses have no stop bells on them so we learnt very quickly that if you want the bust to stop you need to push your way to the front and instruct the driver to stop. We managed to do this just in time and felt satisfied that we had truly experienced Fez.


Sefrou was our first real Medina shopping experience. We left Fez early and needed to stock up on groceries and meat. Armed with a pocketful of money and my Waitrose shopping bag, Kirk and I went looking for the best bargains. We bought tomatoes, onions, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, olives, bananas, apples, bread, lamb, turkey and veal for about 130 Dirham. Cheap as chips! We were very chuffed that we could get so much for so little.
We were eager to get in some more walking before we do Jebel Toubkal so we decided to make our way into the Atlas Mountains and walk up Jebel Ayachi (3737m). In order to do this we needed to drive to a small town called Tattiouine where we would be able to find a path. The drive was spectacular. We climbed to above 2000 meters and enjoyed the views of the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas Mountains. This was Morocco – rural and an unspoilt landscape with traditional Berber houses appearing out of the mountain. We drove to Midelt, the main town before Tattiouine and followed signs to a campsite just outside the town. It seemed good but was still a fair distance from the staring point of the climb. We decided to drive to Tattiounine to see if there was any accommodation closer by. As we drove into the village we were given a warm welcome by the local children. They are always willing to help ‘lost looking’ tourists. There was an older gentleman along the road who walked towards the car and introduced himself as Sharif. Sharif didn’t speak much English, in fact none at all. We managed to ask him (in broken French) if there was any place for us to camp and he kindly offered his back yard. His kindness did not stop there. We were invited into his home for the mandatory mint tea and this was then extended to dinner. There we were, 2 complete strangers to his family, yet they were willing to welcome us into their home and eat out off the same plate as them. We were joined by 2 ladies from Midelt who also had a very limited knowledge of English. We were all made to feel so welcome and ate a hearty meal of chicken noodle soup followed by Chicken and potatoes done in a lemon sauce. It was delicious! We ere offered a bed in the house but kindly declined as we had warm sleeping bags in our roof top tent.


The wind really does blow in Tattiouine and we felt it all night long. None the less, we had a good nights rest and woke up to another glorious day. We were welcomed into the home once again and offered a hearty meal of warm bread – baked in the wood clay oven outside, honey, cheese, apricot jam and the obligatory mint tea with lots and lots of sugar. The honey is collected in Tattiouine itself and sold through a co-operative along with other jams made from the fruit grown in the local orchard. I was really impressed with the Berbers sustainability and self sufficiency. They are the epitome of subsistence farming and it was a real privilege to experience their way of life. They do not have the services that a developed country has yet they are still able to provide all the necessities to live a comfortable life.
After breakfast the 5 of us headed up towards the peak of Jebel Ayachi. Sharif set the pace and took us through the village, across the dam wall and into the river valley. The valley was completely dry, apart from the main trunk, which allowed us to explore the gorges and caves made by the erosive waters of the non-perennial river. The walk was lovely and very leisurely – not quite what we were expecting. We realised after and hour or two that we were not heading to the top but rather to the foothills where we enjoyed an hour tea break at a lonesome house perched on the hills. The Berbers love tea and it has to be sweet. They put up to 10 teaspoons of sugar into one pot of mint tea. We then started our descent and were home in time for lunch. Again we were treated to a lovely chicken and cauliflower dish made with saffron and other spices. After lunch Sharif announced that it was siesta time and wanted to know if Kirk was going to join him whilst I went to ‘visit’ with the ladies. I agreed to this and Kirk attempted to get a snooze in but Sarif’s snoring didn’t allow for any sleep at all. I on the other hand had a lovely afternoon. We went to visit a friend in the village. When we got there she prepared some food – bread, dumplings, jam, cheese, nuts and mint tea. After a hearty meal at lunchtime the last thing I felt like doing was eating more but rather than offend, I gave in to the demands to ‘tich tich’ (eat eat) and enjoyed homemade apricot jam and another made from fruit I have never tasted before. I tried to ask what fruit it was but due to the language barrier I couldn’t get an answer. It was a really lovely afternoon shared with Hsna (Sharif’s wife), Michelle, Yamna and Aiysha.
Kirk and I had offered to provide ingredients for dinner that night so when we got back from visiting it was time to prepare the lamb for brochettes. Ghadija (the oldest daughter) and I cut up the lamb, sliced some tomatoes and onions and placed them on a braai grill. Whilst we were doing this, Kirk had pulled out the video camera and was videoing the boys in the lounge area as they were all aspiring singers. We said our goodnights after an entertaining evening, good food and a really wonderful day.


The time had come for us to leave the Zaanoum family of Tattiouine. We were not allowed to leave before breakfast which went down well although we were both feeling overfed and sugared out! We were very grateful to the Zaanoum family for their tremendous generosity and will never forget them.
Continuing our journey south we drove towards the Moroccan Sahara Desert where we passed some exquisite sights. The drive took us though the Ziz Valley and the Barrage Hassan Adakhil (Turquoise Water). The villages along this route thrive from their dates sales. The Date Palm tree branches strain under the weight of the numerous dates that grow on these tropical looking plants and the air has a sweet aroma around the area where the dates are picked and spread on the ground to dry out. We eventually reached the first of the famous dunes of Morocco. Erg Chebbi is an astounding mound of reddish desert sand surrounded by hard blackened rock. We followed the piste and stopped for the evening at a campsite called Ponte Sahara. When we arrived at the campsite we were not alone; 2 German couples had arrived before us and immediately we struck up a rapport with them swapped route history and experiences. An early night was essential as both Kirk and I had not had much sleep the night before in Tattouine as the wind had blown worse than the previous night. I too was experiencing sugar withdrawal and was feeling worse for wear.


Our first night in the desert was a good one. We had both slept very well and were ready to embrace the dry harshness that the awaited us. We had breakfast with Hauj, Gabbi, Manfred and Dorris and agreed to drive with them along the piste to Zagora, the gateway to the bigger better Erg Chigaga. We drove for most of the day in and amongst some dunes but mostly along the gravel piste. We stopped briefly for lunch at the top of a dune and admired the stark nothingness that surrounded us. We continued to drive along the piste in the direction of Zagora and at 4pm decided to stop and make camp. We found a secluded spot in the middle of the desert amongst some dunes for the evening. There was nothing but nature surrounding us. The stars were spectacular that evening with many satellites and shooting stars above us. It was a good introduction to bush camping for Kirk and me as we had the security of 2 other couples who had loads of experience in desert driving and camping.


We had a late start to the day as we had a hearty breakfast of scrambled egg and toast. The boys needed to do some routine maintenance (re greasing, cleaning air filters etc.) and the girls dusted the cars and washed the dishes – little changes even in the bush; women still do the domesticated things! The drive went well although both Kirk and I were aware of a squeaking sound coming from Mvubu’s front right wheel. As we neared Zagora we were approached, on more than one occasion, by numerous mechanics that were on the look out for independent travellers such as ourselves and offered their business card in case we needed a mechanic once in Zagora. A very expensive method of marketing. They must spend quite a lot on fuel. We made our way to a campsite in Zagora and decided that it was time to give the cars a wash. Manfred and Doris’s vehicle was giving them some trouble so they needed a mechanic to have a look at the bearings on the front wheels. Kirk also wanted someone to have a look at Mvubu’s squeaking sound that had got progressively worse. What was meant to be a short time at the mechanic turned into a long, tedious evening. Manfred and Doris’s vehicle got new bearings and Mvubu had his CV joint inspected, re lubricated and re greased. We couldn’t diagnose any problem with Mvubu apart from some grit or paint residue that was in amongst the lubrication fluid. As we were about to leave we noticed that Mvubu had a puncture in his left back wheel. It was discovered that the tyre was not punctured but rather that the steel rim had a leak in it. We left the rim with Mohammed, the mechanic, and asked them to repair it with some silicon as that is where the leak seemed to be. Luckily for us we had pre-ordered our dinner and made it back to the campsite just before 8pm. We were starving and very grateful that we didn’t have to cook. The cous cous was delicious, so fragrant and full of spices. Kirk’s lamb tagine was also good and all washed down with some Moroccan red wine.


Before we could get going Kirk and I needed to get the admin out of the way. We needed to collect the wheel from the mechanic and everyone needed to restock on some groceries before we headed out into the desert. We went to the local souk and managed to get everything we needed. Again we were completely blown away by the cost of the food. It was for nothing. Fully stocked we headed for Erg Chigaga – a large series of dunes stretching for 45kms with the biggest erg being 300 meters high. The drive into the desert was exciting. It was a completely different environment to that of Erg Chebbi. Rather than the dunes being surrounded by black hardened gravel, it was more desert like with lighter coloured sand dunes and lighter gravel surrounding them. We made camp amongst some dunes at 4pm and got straight to cooking. Kirk had promised a chicken potjie for dinner and needed to get right on the job with me chopping veggies whilst he prepared the fire. The result was very tasty indeed. Our fellow travellers enjoyed the taste of South Africa and afterwards we shared some travel stories around a fire. A good camping experience indeed.


The good thing about being in the desert is that it doesn’t rain that much. A bad thing is that the dust gets everywhere and I mean everywhere. It is something that we have become very accustomed to and have found a way to reduce the amount of dust hat comes into the vehicle when driving in the dusty conditions. We set off into the dunes after another great breakfast of eggs and bacon and coffee. Our undertaking was o find he great Erg Chigaga. We drove and drove and drove in search of the great erg. En route we stopped on numerous occasions to search the horizon for some sort of indication as to whether we were heading in the right direction. Whilst stopped, Gabbi would get out of the car and walk around the area looking at the stones. She has a very good eye for spotting old remnants from the Stone Age or even early settlers. She found an old piece of pottery that had patterned engravings on them as well as a flint rock used to start fires. She gave me some useful tips about what to look for when travelling through the rest of Africa as there is so much to look out for.
We navigated our way to the main erg and made camp for the evening. Gabbi and Hauj made some delicious Spaghetti Bolognese for dinner which everyone ate with enjoyment as we had not stopped for lunch.

Nov 2 2009

Adios Espania… Sawubona Africa…

We are about to head south to Algeciras to board the fast ferry to Ceuta. It has been a great, chilled stay in Tarifa and I’d suggest that each and every one of you try make it to this neck of the woods when travelling in Spain. The clouds have moved in and it seems the sun may be a distant memory for those who remain in Camping Torre Dela Pena. Met some great people here and had an awesome munch last night with beer and sangria.

So, adios Espania.. but more importantly Sawubona Africa.