Thursday, July 28, 2011

Desert dreaming

Ben Amera, third largest monolith, dreaming in the Sahara
Chinguetti; home of learing through the ages, now
threatened by the sands.

In the vastness of the Sahara Ben Amera dreams: the third largest monolith in the world, somehow Buddah-like as it thrones over the vast plains that once was a shallow sea, then marshland that housed wandering tribes of fishermen. Later sweeping savannas hosted people who carved designs on the rock: giraffe, antelope, dances and other rituals. And today the mountain still endures, unchanged, as the sands sweep over the railway that carries iron ore from Zouerat to Nouakchott.

This rock was a waypoint for caravans of camels that passed here, trading caravans, some carrying pilgrims. The old people talk of caravans of twenty thousand camels passing here, on the route through the Sahel, towards Chinguetti, Tichit, Timbuktou, Tamanrasset and Agadez, and eventually far Khartoum and Mecca.
We spent two nights in Chinguetti, the home of priceless documents from the founding of the first city here, in the year 777. The families that conserve these ancient manuscripts admit to not really knowing what they have, although the collections include works of Ibn Sina who, as Avicenna, was one of the writers at the heart of the renaissance of western medicine.
The collapse of tourism hit this area hard, but they
are used to hard times.
Jealous families guard their heritage, conserving these documents in libraries built in the ancient way. An ambitious UNESCO proposal for a modern museum foundered, since it implied that all documents would be surrendered. Surely there must be some compromise possible?

Walls can protect a garden for years, even decades,
but the desert is patient.

Priceless works, family heritage, at the mercy of termites

Surgery under the trees

And then there was the 500 kilometer road, in 60 degree temperatures, to Nouakchott, where we had to do some major work that should have been done before the trip started. And then Senegal awaits.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mauritania: The Sahara: dreamtime and hard times

The sea cliffs of Nouadibou. The last we will see of the Atlantic for a while. 
Ready to embark on the 'piste'.
Mauritania, compared to the orderly, organised Morocco, is anarchy. Despite our month long tourist visa's we were given only seven days temporary vehicle import permits. Customs could not, or would not extend it, but some people went to the Gendarmerie and had it extended. We managed a two weeks extension, much later, in Atar, after getting the police to lean on the Customs guy. How to improve tourism!

Sad spring!
Then we undertook our first desert trip. And 6500 kilometers into the trip, and 45 kilometers into the 'piste' disaster struck. One of the air helper springs broke the remaining bolt and jumped out. Three hours of hard work in 55 degrees sun had us back on the road.
Team work
Bush camp in the desert
We slept in the high desert that night, hidden, we thought, behind rocks and a dune. And within half an hour a guy came walking, out of nowhere, to greet us, and invite us to come and have meat at his house!!

A moment of distraction, and you are stuck in the sand.
The four hundred kilometers of uncharted track was probably the harshest test of machines and people we had had yet. When we passed a sign announcing sixty kilometers to go before Atar, I had cramps in my shoulders and was so tired I wanted to cry!

Coming into camp I drank four mugs of water, despite having done a mug every 25 kilometers. And then drank some more!

Our next morning in Atar was also not a success. We tried to have the car papers extended, and managed, but were then told by a guy that this would cost another R 250 per vehicle, and there would be no receipt. I lost my temper, and told him this was bribery, at which he took umbrage and left. Then only was I told he was actually a police officer, and had gone 30 kilometers into the bush to find the Customs guy and get him to sign the papers. And the money was to cover his fuel!

After a Coke I felt better, perhaps my sugar levels were low.... And I dream of those orange juices of Marrakesh!

Parked in the courtyard of the Auberge Caravans de Chinguetti
Slowly giving way to the sands
And finally we are in Chinguetti, destination of camel caravans for centuries, depository of religious manuscripts sine the year 1200.  

From Marrakesh south to the border

For me Marrakesh symbolised Morocco. It is rich, lush and prosperous, with more local than foreign tourists. The people were open, casual and friendly.

Fortified village in a lush valley south of the Atlas.
Town on a hill near Sidi Ifni
From here we took another pass over the High Atlas, and descended down a pleasant valley into the desert once more. Here we found the modern equivalent of the Roman Latifundi: enormous farms under irrigation. Orange orchards that ran for kilometers, vast areas with bananas under plastic, and enormous vegetable farms could be seen from the road.

We staged in Agadir, where I had to attend to some car problems at a pleasant camp site complete with swimming pool. And then we started our long trek south, some 1500 kilometers to the Mauritanian border.

Boujdor was only a waypoint on Saint Exupery's flights. Today a monumental
 entrance leads to a big town with major fish canning factories. 
The further south we went the more desolate was the terrain, and the more frequent the police check points. As we proceeded, we saw enormous housing projects in what used to be tiny desert towns. Massive fishing developments exploit the rich sea potential, and the towns have vast welcoming arches, broad boulevards complete with lamp posts, new palm trees and even benches to accommodate boulevardiers.

It was clear to us that Morocco will never let go of this piece of desert. They have too much at stake, too much face to lose.

Our last camp in Morocco: Pat's surf camp. Managing the sun
becomes important, the panel provided more power than the
Cruiser's alternator 

The long, long road south

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Morocco 1: Fez to Marrakesh and a first taste of the Sahara

Cedar forests
The first shakedown part of the trip is over. From Fez we drove into the Middle Atlas mountains, through the cedar forests. A small map reading error (blame it on the GPS) took us to a camp site near the ski resort of Mischliffen, where we heard the same hysterical music booming over the countryside as we heard at Fez camping. Can people not hear the silence any more?

The Arid plains, on the way to the High Atlas
Berber tents in the Middle Atlas
We saw the first Berber tents here, some with sheep pens, and the children came running to wave at us as we pass by. For elevenses we stopped in Boulojoul, a rough little farming town near the aptly named Plaine de l'Arid. Arid it is! The plateau between the Middle- and High Atlas is vast, empty, and reminded us of the Karoo. Then the harsh, dry heights of the High Atlas confronted us. Bare rocky valleys, here and there a few Berbers who rush up to try to sell their honey, some goats, and little else happens here. Then, at last, we see the gorge open towards the Sahara.
Water! Life in the desert
Meski: The ruins of the old walled city
Er-Rachidia is a well-laid out town with a heavy military presence, since the Algerian border is not far away. For the night we stopped in Meski, a well advertised resort called the Source Bleu. And well attended by the local community as well. Let it be said that the consensus of thermometers was above 50 degrees, and we were bathed in sweat as we drove. So one could understand why everyone that could leave Er-Rachidia came to bathe in the waters from the source.

Most people left at sunset, but we had a number of fellow Moroccan campers, including many youngsters who spent most of the night sitting on the lookout point, just above our tents, sweet-talking each other. And the dogs of the village were also not keen to sleep in the cool of the evening.

The blistering heat convinced us to abandon plans to take a swing through the desert on our way west, instead we took the highway and headed for the Todra Gorge. At the beginning we noted the Camping Le Soleil, then ambled up this impressive gorge, verdant and lush in the aridity of the hillsides and surrounding desert. Many Moroccan tourists, and a few foreign groups, thronged the stopping places, and we stopped to admire the ever-changing scenery. Then we returned to the welcome shade and swimming pool of the Camping Le Soleil, where we washed away the memory of the heat in cold, sweet fountain water.
Imagine, of a sunset, pleasant company, looking out over the lush green
The next morning we left for the Gorge du Dades, which is totally different, narrower and much longer. Abandoned mud forts and lovely old buildings loom over the lush gardens, and one could imagine lolling in the shade with a harem of local beauties, smelling the orange blossoms. But then you may be the one slaving away digging in the gardens, while your girl was being entertained by the local lord up there ....
Lookout point at the top of the Gorge du Dades
Wash day in the Gorge du Dades
After the Vallee du Dades with its thousands of hectares of date palms sweltering in the incredible heat, Ouarzazate is the so-called stepping stone towards the desert. A city big enough for us to get lost in, looking for groceries. Then we left towards Marrakesh, and turned up a small road towards Ait Benhaddou. Here we camped behind a big door, in a courtyard, and left the next morning up the pass towards Telouet, imagining ourselves to be raiders from the wastes of the Hamada heading to the high valleys and the riches of Marrakesh. 
Camp in the Kasbah Defat 
Telouet in the High Atlas above Marrakesh
The central valley is indeed a garden, and one can see how the Glaoui lords controlled the southern approaches to the Imperial city of Marrakesh. Then down a vertiginous pass, down into the cool and green, past Berber villages where the women produce Argan oil, sought after in the beauty industry and also for food.
Cracking the Argan nuts.
Fortified village guarding against raiders.
Our GPS lady took us on a conducted tour around Marrakesh before a friendly Gendarme, manning a roadblock, gave us the directions to the well-recommended Camping Le Relais.

I am not a typical tourist, and had reservations about doing the Medina of Marrakesh. However, it was worth-while. There was less hassle, more space, less haggling, and, except for taxi drivers, not the feeling that you were being ripped off. On the Fnaa, the famous central square, story tellers, herb sellers, magicians, and trained pigeons vied for the attention of passers-by, and for the first time we saw many foreign tourists.
Dinner overlooking the Fnaa

Tall blondes (Danes?) a Dutch family with daughters loudly complaining because they were being dragged away from the shops. Metallic American accents coming from a few girls, a (Nigerian?) gentleman dressed in splendidly embroidered pajamas and leather slippers, veiled ladies and children in summer dresses gaped at the shows, or patronised the fresh orange juice sellers. At
Tourism in the Fnaa in Marrakesh
four dirhams a glass it was an essential relief, although it was only 45 degrees. Interesting, none of the sellers actually let you see them press the juice. They take the oranges from their displays, then work away behind the counter, to produce a jug and pour it into a glass before you. How much water goes in? Refreshing, nevertheless.

As we sit planning our next leg, based on information from travellers coming up from the south, allow me to muse.

Water takes on a new significance here. At home my wife has to nag me to drink three glasses of water, but here I have an anxiety on me to drink. On the drive to Ouarzazate I tried to limit myself to a few mouthfuls of water at a time, but when we got into camp I could not stop, and drank the rest of the two liters of water for the day. And drank more before going to bed. We all lament that we did not fill our tanks at the sweet fountain of Le Soleil, as the tap water here in Marrakesh is salty and not drinkable. At least we can buy water by the five liter bottle in the supermarket.

The terrible heat of the desert, and worse await us, is a question of energy management. I keep the speed of the Cruiser down, and watch the temperature gauge like a hawk, since I had doubts as to the integrity of the system, and it lacks an expansion tank. The air conditioner immediately sends up the gauge a few notches, so on the long climb out of the desert we sprayed water on each other, and toughed it out. After the descent I had to stop and check the car, as the temperature gauge actually showed cold! But all was in order.

I also had a leak of brake fluid, but Toyota in Marrakesh shook their heads and offered to import the brake kit from Japan. A backyard mechanic was going to dig through his several boxes of left-over brake parts, until he heard that we are going south, then he assured me that we will get the parts in Mauritania, because there are many Land Cruisers there.

Women from one of the villages
From here we will begin to head south, towards the Mauritanian border and the great desert.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Here is the evidence!

Sitting on the roof of the Hotel Central
Madame Aissa at the container depot was most friendly and helpful
As promised, the first photos of the safari. We had already checked out in Casablanca when the news came: one container is blocked in, and could only be delivered during the night. In any case our road insurance was only valid from midnight, so it was meant to be. We checked back in and had a beer on the roof of the hotel. Next morning we went to the depot, and extricated the two Cruisers. Then there was the starting up procedure, and at last we were on the road to Fez.

Start your engines!

Arrival in Fez, to load our luggage.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Free at last!

Enfin! At last!

We finally broke free from the clutches of the port of Casablanca, where we were beginning to feel doomed to spend our days chasing papers from eno office in one end of the town to another at the other end, while the women do their best to buy up the entire Medina!

I will tell the story of the shipping clearance in another post, and it is a story worth telling. Somali pirates have to come here and learn! Kafka would stir in his grave if he knew what he missed!

Early this morning we left the Hotel Central,, and their duty manager tried to call us two taxi's, then walked us to the main road and helped us get two. One was surly, the other was ok, despite having started working at two in the morning. They took us to the indicated point, and our driver called the manager of the container depot, took us to where she waited for us, and charged 20 Dirham, according to his meter. The other threw a tantrum and charged seventy, since we were outside the city limits.

The Land Rover was already out of the container, the Cruisers not. A customs guy was there, very nervous, and checked that our papers were ok, then left. The assistants at the depot were over-eager, and helped jump-start the cars. Stephanus' Cruiser, brand new, lit up its lights, then needed jump-starting, my old '62's one year old SABAT main battery was stone dead, but the new Raylite Gel Deep gygle battery had enough left, after five weeks, to start it first go. We had a moment when the assistants jumped Hans' Land Rover from a fork lift, then held up both jumper cables in one hand, in triumph! Some smoke and a second jump, and it was running.

We left, surprised that there was nothing else to pay, and hit the road, first the coast road to Mohammedia, then the motorway to Rabat, then the motorway to Meknes and Fes.

At three we were in the Camping Diamant Vert, in nice, expensive surroundings, and being regaled by deafening “animation' from the nearby swimming pool. Then the big repacking started!

Our first stocking-up trip done, we are preparing for the night, tomorrow we will do the car repair runs, stock up some more, and get ready to tackle the Atlas mountains. I will post our photos tomorrow as well, but first, we are free! At last!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Another week, and still no cars. But ...

Another week, a new month, and we are licking our heels in Fes, enjoying the 50 degrees heat (not!) while waiting for the news of our cars. And at last positive news! The containers are in Casablanca, have been identified, and an appointment has been taken for Customs inspection Monday 4 July. But first the rest of our story.

We had an invitation from a sister of a school friend of my wife's brother, living in Fes, to crash with them. They had just completed a new house, and had rooms available, so we bought cheap matresses and settled in.

Of course a visit to the old town was obligatory, and we had the advantage of Najeeb taking us to his friends, and warding off insistent guides.
Iside the old Medina of Fez
Fes is an ancient town, on the main route from Algeria, and has been a centre of political activity since ancient times. We were taken to an old mosque in the Medina, which also has an university attached, reputed to be the oldest in the region.

This ancient city has seen conquerors, Sultans and sages come and go. Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, among others described the business acumen and the wisdom that resided here in times gone by.
The gates to the old city
We left the women to continue the exploration while we went by train to Rabat to do the Cameroon visas, only to receive a severe talking to as we should have applied in our country of residence. Secondly, in our covering letter, we called our trip a safari, which the First Secretary understood to imply hunting, and he wanted to know what weapons we are carrying, as we would be in Cameroon in October, when they expect to hold elections.

After patient and humble explanations and apologies for our bad application we received the visas, valid only for the month of September, which will create problems for us if we are to see everything we want to. We will have to do this later.

Now we made in internet booking at the Central Hotel in the Medina of Casablanca, and were back on the train. Arrived there, we found the hotel basic, rather ramshackle, but friendly. Lines of men sit on the pavement watching the young men and boys racing their scooters around the square, and they talk and argue until four in the morning, when the azaan from the nearby mosque, instead of sending them off to prayer and work seem to send them to bed, as that is the only time the place was really silent.

Safmarine received us at nine, and assured us that they will do everything to speed up delivery, provided we pay what is owing. Now, it is to be remembered that we paid everything up front in Cape Town on the basis that we will receive the keys of the vehicles here, pay the road tax, and leave.

But first there were outstanding charges of some R 5 000, then a guarantee of R 5000 per container to put down, and then we have to make our own arrangements to transport the two containers from the port to the depot!

We tried through friends to find a clearing agent, and eventually fell on Los Cargos, on the basis that they had cleared a car last week.

The director listened to us with an air of amusement, and undertook, at cost to his company of some R 2000, to handle the matter. He undertook to identify the containers, arrange transport, book with Customs to have the chassis numbers checked, and to transport the containers to where the cars could be driven out.

Ali Baba had a cave..
On his assurance we returned to Fes, again by train, to dissuade the girls from buying the entire handicrafts centre, and to rest a little.

On Saturday morning we received assurance from Los Cargos that the containers had arrived, had been identified, and that Customs would be ready for us Monday morning. So, back we will go, once again by train, to have another battle with red tape.

A few words on the market procedures: Some people, used to Supermarkets where prices are fixed, get upset at being cheated when merchants want you to haggle down the price. One has to see it from their side. The merchant has products that he bought at a price he negotiated, but for him the products have little intrinsic value, he cannot eat it! On the other hand you want it, so for you there is a value attached, that you would be prepared to pay. We are used to having a basic, set price, but here that is not known to the buyer.

The best practise is to have an idea what you are prepared to pay for the smile on your mother's face, or that of your friend, when you unwrap the gift that shows you remembered her or him.
Where will that go on the Cruiser?
Some South African tourists felt they were being ripped off, and had hard feelings about their visit to the country in general, and we could not blame them when we heard how their 'guides' took them to restaurants with R 600 menus and were deeply aggrieved when the people did not want to eat there.

The authorities in Fes, as in other markets, have done much to get rid of aggressive touts, but we had to deal with people who seemed to feel they had a right to act as agents when we wanted to buy anything, eat anything, or be paid when we just look. Very irritating.

The girls found a handicrafts centre, where there were few tourists, no touts or guides, and a calm atmosphere. You could see people weaving carpets, making ironwork, and doors, and you could buy with a minimum of haggling, although prices were perhaps higher than you would have been able to arrange in the medina. Worth the cost, in my opinion!