Friday, June 24, 2011

Morocco without vehicles!

We completed the inevitable last minute preparations, and then we were off, loaded down with luggage. In our haste to get the cruiser ready and down to Cape Town I had forgotten to load the groundsheets, and afterwards had found the right coil, oil seals for the front driveshafts, and a few tools I should have packed. We also added a lot of medicines, a drip set, and so on.

Qatar Airways took us to Doha in a relatively painless way, and again on from there, to land at Casablanca almost 24 hours later after a stop in Tunis. Interesting how the modern transport system works, that you can travel around Africa in one day, to drive back in five months!

A word for the air hostesses of Qatar: From all over the world: Indian, Chinese, Russian, and Moroccan, as far as we could identify, they were friendly, pretty, helpful, and seemed not to get tired! The controller of the economy class cabin from Doha through Tunis to Casablanca was as efficient, making jokes with the passengers and helping with everything at the end of the voyage as she had been eight hours earlier, at 01h50, despite the cabin being filled to capacity with families and children returning to Tunis. She helped put drops in a passenger's eyes, lift hand luggage back into the overhead lockers, and served extra sandwiches to children. Let's hope they are well rewarded!

I could not get everything I needed at Doha duty free, despite having written and been assured that they would try to get me a tripod, as well as some other camera equipment. The memory cards and external hard drive they had, at a third of what I would have paid in South Africa. Now, why can their duty free prices be lower, while Johannesburg's prices are higher than street prices? The price quoted for the tripod was less than a quarter the price the same model sells for in Pretoria.

Once in Casablanca we drew money, bought a local sim card, (no RICA hassles )and found our driver, who took us to the SAFMARINE offices. We wanted to establish contact, and to find out what could be done about the delay in arrival of the cars. The shipping agent confirmed that the ship had again been delayed in Dakar, making it a week behind schedule. However, he could do nothing about it, but conceded that the agent in Tangiers may be able to comment on the possibility of clearing the vehicles in there, as the container was due to spend four days waiting in Tangiers for a connection to Casablanca.

The Hotel Maamoura was reasonable, but not in a pleasant area. After checking in and crashing, after the long flight, we spent some time walking around, visiting the Hassan II

Mosque, and developing blisters on unaccustomed feet.

The train is a good way of getting around Morocco, and took us to Tangiers in five comfortable hours, where we resumed our fighting with the taxi's. In short, there are big taxi's, almost all Mercedes sedans, which can take up to six people, and have no meter. Then there are small taxi's that can seat three, and have a meter. Of course they prefer not using it, if they see you coming.

The rest of the team arrived from Spain on the ferry, having had a marvellous time, and they were loaded with luggage. Having decided that they would stay with us in the Hotel Rembrandt, we needed to get them there. None of the big taxi's would take less than fifty dirhams, about R 40, for the luggage and two passengers, and we were about to start walking, when one stopped and agreed to do the trip for fourty. Three days later one small and one big taxi' conveyed all of us and our luggage to the station, for a total of about thirty dirhams! And that was a longer distance.

Tangiers is an interesting city, with a history going back to the times of the Romans, and for a

time it was an independent city, until it was absorbed into the French colony of Morocco. Its old city was our first exposure to the ancient medinas of north Africa, full of history, packed with a combination of things for everyday life as well as sale to tourists.

In the meantime our attempts at corresponding with SAFMARINE continued. At one time someone suggested routing the vehicles to Port Said, which is in Egypt!! The people who would talk to us tried to convince us to stay with the original schedule, warning that there may be all sorts of costs for making the voyage shorter

and less expensive for them, while wondering if we would get a customs broker to clear the vehicles. We found a customs broker, who declined our business because, he assured us, we would get the vehicles out of the containers, drive them to Customs, get the stamps, and be on our way without needing his services.

In the meantime a further delay of the ship meant that the containers would now wait some days in Algeciras in Spain, and be trans-shipped through Tangiers to Casablanca, so we would not save time any more. We are almost reconciled with the idea of going to Casablanca to clear them there.

While enduring the frustration of not having our own transport we went to Rabat to begin applying for visas. First was the Embassy of Mauritania, and they would have the passports ready Friday afternoon, at two. Visa’s would cost Dh 340 per person, as opposed to R 800 in Pretoria. The Mali Embassy agreed to receive our applications on copies of the passports, then we would bring in the passports Friday at three to be stamped.

Our information was that we should apply for Cameroon here too, and the girl at the Cameroon Embassy was quite out of her depth with the idea of people not having plane tickets! But we will have to come back for that one, after we have, we hope, cleared our cars next week.

The taxi wars continued in Rabat, with the small taxi's at the station demanding fifty dirhams to take us to the Hotel Yasmine, and us refusing flatly. In the end a Senegalese student took us to Budget car rental, found out that the hotel was some 500 meters from the station, and helped us carry our many bags there. He was quite embarrassed when we offered him a ten dirham tip, and disappeared, assuring us that those taxi drivers would not go to heaven!

In fact our visits to the Mauritanian and Mali Embassies bore out the right of our cause. Switching on their meters, the drivers took twenty or twenty five dirhams for a much longer distance than that from the station to the hotel.

Of course a courtesy call on the South African Embassy was an obligation, and the Ambassador

was happy to receive us and inform us of the political problems he had to work with every day. He promised to talk to his Cameroonian colleague to speed up our visa application. The staff was helpful and gave us valuable advice.

Rabat is another ancient town, having been a Roman colony, and also the base for the famous Sallee Rovers, a gang of pirates that terrorised the passing shipping during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Their spirit is still alive and well, as we discovered when we visited the Casbah des Oudayas, a well preserved town on

the walls of the old fort that guarded the mouth of the river. There is a demonstration of carpet weaving, and the people are friendly, showing you how they weave the carpets, but then they insist that you make a donation!

The ladies had a hard time resisting the urge to indulge in shopping for dresses, leatherware, carpets and what not else, because we would have to carry everything! Once the cars are out of Customs .......

Some reflections: costs here are in many aspects less here than in South Africa. We bought G3 modems with a month of connection time, for 200 dirhams, which is

about R 180. One can top up for another month at 100 dirham, about R 90. Fast, where there is coverage, which is almost everywhere. Even on the train we could surf the net, send mails, and communicate.Fresh food is also not too expensive, and we are all hyper-vitaminised by the cheap, fresh orange juice you can get everywhere.

Morocco is making a big investment in transport infrastructure, as well as education. Cities and

buildings look a little rundown, and cleansing services are not as efficient as we would like, however there is a feeling that things are going well.

The King has pushed his agenda for constitutional change forward, and we will experience the

referendum next week on whether to go ahead. In rather dramatic moves he proposes to relinquish a lot of his powers, but critics say there was insufficient time to consult, and that the reforms are not going far enough. Everyone we spoke to appreciated what the King is doing, and we saw a couple of children running through the crowds in Tangier, carrying a flag and chanting praises for the King, and the bystanders cheering them on.

The country has a feeling of dynamism, but large numbers of apparently unemployed people

sitting around. According to the international media there are trade unions that feel the King should do more, faster, to reform the country and get rid of corruption and economic restraints.

We got our visas for Mauritania and Mali, and tomorrow we plan to go by train to Fez, where we have a friend and a place to crash. Next week, we hope, we will be able to get to Casablanca to clear the cars, and then maybe go back to Fez to pick up the remaining members of the expedition, spend a day in Rabat to do the last visas, and then ….. we do Morocco! At least the part we have not done so far.

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