Mike kindly offers to take me to the Hamman before we leave. A Hamman is an old bath house where men go in the evenings and women in the day to wash themselves. You take your clothes apart from your underwear, collect water from two large tanks of water – one hot and one cold. On this occasion the hot water is cleverly heated by waste heat from the next door bakery. Mike explains to me the use of the olive soap and scrubbing cloths – the idea is to scrub as much dead skin off as it possible.
I notice a lot of the men staring at me awkwardly. Not unusual behaviour, I have been told I look strange. After some time I notice all the men are wearing black boxer shorts, how coordinated I thought, or perhaps it is lack of choice and variety in the colour of available pants. Mike obligingly demonstrates the friendly nature of back scrubbing – he does my back and I do his. It wasn’t until the next day when I wake up to hear mike recount the tale of him scrubbing my butt then standing up in my wet white boxers which have now become thoroughly see through that I realise the source of the men’s awkward expressions! Next time Ill wear black boxers.
Before leaving Mirleft we put on one more fire show for the people. Our helper, 70 year old Ahmed is keen to kick the lethargy out of the youth of the town, and hopes our performance might inspire some. Best explained in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQlIHgHMKTk
Sarah and I return north to pick up some Argan oil for a friend in the UK, at the same time we collect a friend, Rimbo, from Wales who is coming out to travel with us for the rest of the trip.
We say good bye to the coast and make our way east and inland. The anti atlas rise above us and keep doing so for the next few days. We take the mountains road through Ait Baha towards Tafroute. Rimbo’s grandfather had painted there many years previously. Tafroute is a small mountain town with rocks ‘like melted toffee’ as one described it. Our journey towards Tata goes along a less travelled road via Igherm and Souk Tieta de Tagmoute. This section of the journey is typified by a never ending surprise over each horizon. Summit after summit the forthcoming topography is epic. Mountains have been twisted and contorted resulting in some incredible earth shades and pattern in the mountains. We spend the night in an oasis at the bottom of an otherwise baron mountain-scape.
From Tata to Foum-Zguid the road is pretty good - save the odd unexpected pot hole. We pick up an old hitch hiking lady who’s only words were ‘Tissint tissint’ – A nearby town. Whatever we asked her we got the same response, accompanied by a smile so big it could have cracked her laugh crinkled face. Her eyes were like polished crystals.
Foum-Zqguid is the entrance to the Sahara. It is a good place to pick up last minute supplies and seek advice on the condition of the route across the desert. We change our route based on this advice. The lushness of the date palms and irrigated crops are mystifying given the contrast of dry desert we are to face.
The next day we set of following vague instructions to come of the road near to a single house on its own. We do so, following a distance of 3 km from the southern mountain range. The track is very bumpy. Plenty of rocks willing a puncture. It is slow, blisteringly hot progress. We know we are out on our own at this stage. For half a day we drive only passing one vehicle coming the other way. We stop at a well to check with a nomadic lady we are on the right track – she points us the right way – minutes later we are intercepted by a Moroccan military vehicle. Tourists are treated well here however the troubles to the south in Mali has led to an increase in military presence in this area and on the Algerian border. They wave us on fortunately.
After another 3 hours of slow driving we get our first glimpse of sand dunes. The colour of this red sand blown into forms so recognisable yet so distinct shapes. There is a loud silence about them. An early foray into driving over some baby dunes goes awry – giving rise to a healthy bout of precaution.
The tracks leading the way disappear and reappear until we find ourselves surrounded by dunes. The only way out is to go over them. Small in the big picture, but the first dune we faced, at around 4m from the ground was exhilaratingly terrifying. We knew speed was important so we hoofed it at this wall of sand. The front wheels rose skyward, all we see is blue. In a moment the wheels summit and return earth bound, all we see is the hard floor. The three of us chime expletives in unison. All four wheels on terra firma, heart beats still racing the adrenalin turns to hysteria. 3 laughing fools in a red Defender in the middle of the dunes. That laughter stayed with us for many days to come.
Speaking as a Welshman, the following morning brought us a familiar treat. A small herd of wondering sheep came to visit. No shepherd insight, presumably panicking at the loss somewhere hidden behind far dunes. We fed them our vegetable scraps and they left happy – so did we.
We discover a problem with our winch that day. Not happy with progressing further into the desert without it operational we follow the direction of M’Hamid. Another day of dune driving takes us past Chegaga – the largest dune on this route. Impressive and virgin clean slopes are inviting for any barefoot explorer.
We each take turns in driving today. All succeeding in sand driving. Rimbo manages to get us stuck as we look for an of the ‘track’ camp up. Sand ladders and careful low gear work get us out in no time. Im quite pleased we do get stuck as I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it!
Another beautiful still night in the desert.
M’Hamid is an end of the road desert town. A genuine frontier town facing attack by encroaching desert 24 hours per day. Every man is turbaned as you would expect from the Saharene – or Saharan people. Winch fixed, we find a guy not a guide, with whom we can travel into the desert with.
Tahar is a 30 something man who has lived in France and is now re-establishing agriculture in the middle of the desert. A totally bonkers idea. Although he is no fool. The next day we follow him south towards the Algerian border towards his camp requiring 3 hours of extreme, enthralling, desert driving. We are always careful to follow other tracks so as not to drive all over the place, the land is so beautiful where ever possible we try to preserve it.
Out of the blue we spot a patch of green against the backdrop of red sand.
A 2 foot wall appears to be holding back the might of a 15m dune from the irrigated farmland. A pump brings water to the surface for irrigation. This is one of the last things we would have expected here. Tahar is not the first to pursue agriculture here however. In the past the Draa river was one of the most fertile in North Africa many farmed here. The story goes that when the government built a damn in the mountains, the river began to dry up, forcing many into the towns. Couple this with political unrest in the area and the remaining few left. The situation is generally much safer today.
We spend the next few days helping around the camp, sheltering from the sun ion the mud built house that is ‘sand sheltered’.
Like earth sheltered homes although with sand. The Moroccan lads seem to enjoy our company, or at least the date wine we brought with us. Combining the song of didgeridoo with the song of the nomad created a night of musical fusion splendour finished with tea by the fire under the sea of stars. This, my friends, is living.
Desert driving is not easy. Getting stuck is.
We ventured further afield from camp one day in search of the lost villages. Tahar had told us a tale of a 78 year old man who has lived alone in the desert since 1970. By coincidence or perhaps not, we spot him walking the dry river bed. Walking stick in hand, jalaba and turban wearing of course, with all of his necessaries hanging off him. I pick him up and he guides me back to his ‘house’. There are certainly no driveways around here. Our new friends house is in the shelter of a tree. His goods hang in bags from the branches and he sleeps on the desert floor. Swapping one side of the tree for the other depending on the time of day. This man’s face is desert warn. His welcome is desert warm. Without second thought we offer all food and water we have on us, without expectation he makes us tea, offers us dates and home-made bread. His access to water is by using a goat, and nomads provide him with food as they pass by. This man is one in a million.
The last leg of our journey takes us out of the desert, along the oasis of the Draa valley, on the track to the east, only suitable for off-road vehicles.
Empty Kasbahs punctuate the journey. Sketchy roads whilst lost at night accentuate driving difficulty. The odd souk stops us along our route over the Anti -Atlas. A track just east of Nekob heads north towards the peak of Ikniouin. Tyre bursting terrain the road is more like granite steps than anything resembling a road. This is low ration 1st and 2nd gear terrain. Reaching the top at dusk we were pleased to see some flat ground for camping on next to a Berber man and his mothers house. The welcome is warm and heart-felt. They allow us to cook in one of the rooms. We are warm comfy and fed, sitting high above the Anti-Atlas. Our Berber host informs us that on average only a car every 3 days passes by!
Our direction is Fez.
Aside from being distracted by peanut eating monkeys and sellers of fake Amethyst geodes (yep definitely had the better of me!) we made good progress.
Fez is not an easy place to wild camp, and we don’t recommend the international campsite south of the city. However entering the old medina at Bab al Jaloub is like going back through the gates of time. Narrow streets filled with hawkers of various trinkets. There are 365 mosques in Fez so they say, so call to prayer is a magical time, try and get onto a roof top terrace to take it all in.
After the desert Fez feels far too manic for us.
We proceed onwards towards the blue walls of Chefchauen. Chefchauen is surely one of the prettiest towns I have ever visited.
Nestled up on the slopes of the Rif Valley the old town is painted in varying shades of blue.
The shade indicates if a street is a dead end or not.
We finish our journey here with Mike and Rene, celebrating Rimbos birthday, buying carpets and hand painted sinks, whilst soaking in the mountain sun sitting at the centralplaza.Chefchauen is well know to tourists but has a laid back air to it. I visited here 6 years ago and the
beauty of the place is unchanged. If you need a few days to relax before returning to Europe, this is the place.
Morocco had one last surprise to throw at us. Customs, as I have mentioned, tend to be abrasive places for us. Getting stopped and questioned and or searched is familiar territory. However on this occasion is goes smoothly, far too smoothly. A high tech x-ray vehicle scans all motorists before boarding the ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar back to Spain. We get out of the vehicle whilst the scanning takes place. Subsequently as we wait to board our ferry I see the white van driver next to me jump out of his vehicle with a confused look on his face. Watching in my wing mirror I see him poke his head under his van, only to drag out a young Moroccan man from underneath! Some x-ray machine! The two of them tussle. Jumping out to calm the situation they look at me with confused expressions, which I’m sure were returned. We wave the young man on for him to make his way sheepishly back out of the port. Hopefully to try again another day.
Tarifa to Bilbao can be driven in a day it transpires. Snow greeted us in the north and the cold weather of late February in the UK the other side of the ferry. Its back to work with Quality Unearthed now, time to get things ready for the 2013 year. We try to bring our experience of travel into our approach to alternative holidays with Quality Unearthed as well as our approach to business. If you are interested in setting up an alternative accommodation structure and would like to pick our brains about what we do, then get in touch via www.qualityunearthed.co.uk, email@example.com or call on 01348 830 922.
I hope you enjoyed some of our tales. If you want any more specific information, feel free to ask and I will do my best to oblige.
So…. we have been robbed.
The unfortunate loss of camera with all pictures, iPod, money and notebook came after a run in with the police following a fire show at Sidi Ifni, southern Morocco. Until recently a Spanish outpost and still a hotbed of instability.
The journey to get us this far started in Tangier 4 weeks ago…..
An international border is usually an organised affair with carefully designed layouts and buildings with well-trained, honourable officials. Arrival by ferry to Tangier is a free for all! First off the boat and fastest to the customs, wins. A ten euro ‘oiling of the cogs’ gets our vehicle authorised for entry with minimal fuss save for one over zealous customs officer who was convinced we were carrying arms. Perhaps due to the conflict in Mali. Fortunately our lubricated official ushered him and his inquisitions away.
Our SatNav guided us through the busy streets of Tangier where our interpretation of the chaotic yet curiously ordered rules of the road go something like ‘whoever has their nose in front has the right of way, regardless of speed of travel’. This applies equally to horses, goats, donkeys, bikes, and the blind.
The road south along the coast is a good one. Although it is a toll road we enjoyed making good miles driving through the rich and advanced farming land with miles of poly tunnels. The pipe irrigated fields and well-organised crops like ribs of an old washing board are part of Morocco’s powerful drive into development.
So far Morocco is barely discernible from parts of Europe. Indeed in these urban areas women are as likely to be unveiled as veiled. Commonly they wear tight clothes with skin showing – something less common in other Arabic countries I have visited. Amusingly we passed 3 girls all in matching tracksuits and big gold earrings who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the UK. Continuing south we see ever increasing numbers of new build developments. Although these appear to be tourist developments I am reliably informed that these are mostly for the growing Moroccan middle class seeking a place outside of the city. This development is not without its rewards.
Taking the advice of a 20-year-old surf book handed down to me by good Aussie friends we turned off the roads and tracks (to SatNav’s dismay) in the direction of Imsouane. A small fishing village with at least 2 very good surf waves. After a few days of wild camping we were happy to pull into a campsite overlooking the beach and the best surf spot. Former windsurfing pro Jamie owns the camp.
Despite a successful campsite with friendly alternative living guests Jamie has diversified inadvertently into glamping. Based on a principle of taking a small space and making it warm and comfy, attractive and inhabitable, Jamie has converted a small fishing boat. By raising the sides and adding a roof along with a glass door and a very romantic bed inside he has created the most successful plot on his site. The view in the morning from bed through glass doors towards the sea is well worth leaving the tent in the bag. Unfortunately our photos are in the hands of a mischievous Sidi Ifni resident!
Friends of a friend live in Taghazout, a few hours south, just north of Agadir. Another surf village with multiple good surf beaches in the heart of Argan oil country.
Argan oil is a very precious oil made by hand from the nuts of the tree that only grows in this small part of the world (also in some areas of Mexico). The oil is used to nourish skin and hair. It is an organic and ancient tradition made exclusively by women. I am helping a friend set up his argan business with which he is selling the finest quality hand made organic argan oil made by the local women from the surrounding argan trees. He sells
at the best prices too! In the region of £10 per 50ml and £100 per litre. The edible version of the oil is commonly eaten here with bread for a delicious breakfast.
Continuing further south we take another break form wild camping and stay in a villa courtesy of our friends at sister company Quality Villas. Dan and the team have kindly offered us a stay and have bent over backwards to set it up for us. We arrive after dark to this palatial seaside villa, but the true magnificence only becomes apparent in the morning. The miles of Aglou Plage beach are on our doorstep (or pool step to be more precise). The owners who we invited over for dinner were also incredible and all in all a great break from the dusty road. See http://www.qualityvillas.com/agadir/agadir/villa-fatima
An old friend from New Zealand and his partner join us in the villa as well as Edu and Camile, professional musicians and performers of Cuban, Colombian and other Latino music. Edu recounted on one occasion stories of some of the 30 or so friends he has lost to war in Colombia – in the eyes of beautiful people who might be sitting alongside you now will be tales so vastly different from your own it is hard to refute the concept that there are 6-7 billion worlds on this planet. We hang out discussing P.P.R. – philosophy, politics and reggae – surely a Degree subject of the future!
Luxury villa over its time to get back on the road. Mirleft is our next destination; a small unvisited town in steppe country. The very friendly people remember with great fondness the hippy movements through the ages and welcome such kind souls with open arms. The ‘Dirty Hippy’ Americanism of the Vietnam war era never succeeded in brain washing the people here. Wild (ish) camping next to Europeans from Denmark throws us into days of delicious Moroccan food courtesy of Hannan – think couscous and tagine.
After days of surf far too large, I finally have a chance to get in again. There are strong rips that I use to help get me out back. No one else is in and as the first set waves roll in I can see why – they are HUGE! The first set wave breaks right on top of me, never a comfortable place to be. I duck dive underneath only to get tumbled. Surfacing to the unpleasant sight of an ever bigger wave breaking ahead of me I dive under again.
This time I was tumbled with that ferocity only Mother Nature effortlessly produces. My efforts are now far more concerted and I’m clinging onto my board for buoyancy, which duly bounces off my head and face! Relieved to come to the surface there is a break in the waves. I catch my breath long enough to notice I have drifted disconcertingly close to a lobster pot line I definitely don’t want to get caught in. More Set Waves. Surfacing I see I am now uncomfortably close to a large rock outcrop in the middle of the sea which may be beautiful in the eyes of those on the beach, but less so from out here! My heart thumping I decide my survival depends on getting back to the beach. I could have kissed the sand when I made it back. Despite scaring myself I am thankful for putting myself outside of my comfort zone, for whatever reason or mistake I made in getting out there, for my body mind and energy learnt from the experience. It will make future experiences easier.
Edu, Camille, Rene Mike Sarah and I decide its time to travel south to Sidi Ifni for Souk (market) day.
We will take the opportunity to do an evening performance with music dancing and fire show – filmmakers Mike and Rene will document the experience. Sidi Ifni is arguably the entrance to the Sahara. Formerly a strategically important fort it still has a frontier town feel. We set up at the market and wait dusk to perform in front of Mike and Rene’s truck. Edu and Camile light the musical flame with Latino tunes as Sarah makes rings of hula-hoop fire – a beautiful spectacle. A fire breathing part finishes my rope dart and fire juggling part. Unable to find Paraffin we use a substitute somewhere between paraffin and white spirit in constitution and heat of flame – a decision instantly regretted as I put it in my mouth with the immediate sensation that my mouth was being dissolved. I think I will be in trouble with the dentist. Not recommended. 100 or so blank faced Moroccans observe tentatively. They seem to really enjoy the show despite the impressionless faces!
As we pack up and chat to the inquisitive audience an unmarked car pulls up and out jumps a portly balding man who charges at us like a goaded bull. Instantly demanding passports and evidence of our authorisation for making ‘spectacular’ – nice of him to say so. Cautiously hesitant to hand over passports to this angry plain clothed person who might or might not be police we delay giving original passports opting sensibly instead for copies of our passports – serving as a red rag! With the arrival of the very pleasant uniformed police – who by the way have been excellent throughout Morocco – ID is given, we are cautioned, told not to stay here and sent on our way towards the fateful beach.
This too-good-to-be-true park up right on the beach inevitably is. On our first night there, whilst sleeping above the vehicle, our locks are picked and backpacks removed. Despite the loss of possessions and subsequent time at the police station, our love for the Moroccan people and country is unwavered. By far, more safe than otherwise. Whilst some possessions have gone our happiness has not. We return to Mirleft and prepare for the next stage in the Moroccan adventure; The Sahara!
Next time; Stuck in the sand and the desert man.
We are half way through a 2 month journey from the UK into the dunes of the Northern Sahara in Eastern Morocco. Sarah and I travelled by ferry to Spain, crossing the narrow gateway to the Mediterranean into Morocco at Tangier. From there we travel the Atlantic coast as far as Mirleft / Sidi Ifni and pointed the wheels east dancing through dunes, gorges and ancient cities and hopefully the odd Bedouin encampment. Our ‘Magic Carpet’ for this journey is a 1994 Land Rover Defender 300 TDI bought second hand from our friends at www.hummingbird-tipis.co.uk. He is known as ‘Big Red’ for no other reason than he is big and red. Despite 200k mils on the clock Big Red is in great working order, helped largely by our friends Dave Ward, Martin Vaughan and Dan Calder from St Davids garage. Much work has been done to prepare Big Red and equally lots of is gear needed. I will post about this, along with a what worked and what didn’t when we get back to the UK. Worth a mention is Jumbo James of Wood Park Farm, Pembrokeshire (www.woodpark-offroad.com). Jumbo is a Welsh farmer with the stature of countryside nobility and his knowledge and training were invaluable. I would recommend anyone considering such an overland trip into extreme conditions to be sure they know how to drive the vehicle. We found it was like learning to drive again! So finally after months of preparation of vehicle, toil and torment fitting everything to the Defender, we were finally ready. However, to find that my passport wasn’t in its usual ‘safe’ place was ‘unfortunate’ as leaving-do pints had to be skipped (well mostly – don’t tell Sarah!) and still with only a few hours to take-off I was still tearing the place apart looking for the passport. We search high and low, the yurt and my office are unceremoniously ransacked but the passport was nowhere to be found. Thoughts of missed ferries and visits to the passport office flooded my mind. Our friend Chas suggested we check the Quality Cottages & Quality Unearthed car but no, it’s not in the boot, not in the doors, not in glove box, not under the drivers seat, loads of old papers under the passenger seat – best bin them……..wait…..what?…..that’s it, Thats It! Found it! An immense feeling of elation! Thrill seeking personalies would need to be incredibly brave to submit themselves to the torturous sensation of losing it in the first place however! The drive from St Davids to Portsmouth is easy. Not unfamiliar to customs checks (is it the hair?) upon arrival we are duly directed into the security search area where by now we know the routine but once through and safely on board our cabin is comfy. The strangest thing about this part of the journey is the time warp tardis we find ourselves in. This alternate reality is populated by gala bingo players all driving white refrigerators – we are to encounter these strange fridge drivers many times in the coming weeks. From Bilbao we get some miles behind us. Direction Salamanca. The bonsai tree like mountains become canyons with rising mist, vineyards and our first camp. A small lake, spotted by Sarah on the map, bordered by rounded boulders atop sand, is reminiscent of those at Hampi, India. Seeking a quiet spot we follow bumpy lanes down dead ends until lack of daylight prompts us back to an easily accessible route to the lake. Dusk is upon us. The sandy road down to the lake has a water carved ditch cutting across it, not 2 foot wide by 1 foot deep. Considering we have seen cars down there this ditch cannot be insurmountable. With Jumbo James wise words in our minds I approach the ditch at an angle so as to drop one wheel in at a time. Drivers side front wheel in, I apply gentle throttle, when there is a secondary drop from the rear…….the drivers side rear wheel has collapsed the edge of the ditch behind us leaving 2 wheels in the ditch and an unhealthy tilt to the right. “No problem” I think. Into low gear; nope. “Try applying central diff lock” – just wheel spinning. Damn it! It’s our first ‘got stuck’ and we’re not even 24 hours into mainland Europe! So it’s out with the sand ladders and shovel….. but not enough leverage / traction – damn it again! OK so out with the winch. An anxious moment as the front winch has been temperamental, but out she pulls perfectly. Aimed at a large rock – but the wire isn’t long enough! OK, out with a heavy duty ratchet strap and 7m strop so it reaches. All safety procedures duly followed. Back in the vehicle and Sarah safely out of the way the winch takes the strain – pull, pull, pull – winch is turning but Big red isn’t moving. We have only gone and pulled the entire rock! Take 2. Forget the rock. This time there is pull, but what is happening is that the winch direction of pull is tipping us further onto its side. Stop. Re-think. Take 3. Aim the winch cable in the other direction, off towards the left….winch takes the strain…again the whole rock is pulled towards us. Take 4. Take strain. Low gear, diff on, some throttle, up. Yes. Up little more. Yes. keep going, up, up and yes! All four wheels up and past the ditch! I jump out with huge smiles and high fives with Sarah! Its dark and has taken us 2 hours but we are elated at having thought through the problem, analysed the solutions and implementing them successfully is particularly rewarding. The next morning we have coffee sitting on the rock for breakfast. Silence. No traffic no people nothing, only the occasional ting-a-ling of a cow and her bell. A short drive today. Tonights camp is again by a lake Sarah spotted on the map, not far from the main road to Sevilla. Following a track otherwise impassable without a 4×4 we head around the back of a headland to a quiet flat spot out of view and overlooking the lake on both sides of us. We park under the shade of olive trees. Roof tent out, gather wood for the fire, Sarah cooks, we eat, drink tea and feel merry.
For me, this is the feeling that glamping sites aim to provide. Sleeping comfortably in a beautiful natural environment where we are warm, well fed and watered, with a fire for entertainment and each others company.The stars in the sky are smiling at us. We smile back. It is these moments of emotional centeredness that we remember. Simple moments where inner peace prevails and our bodies and minds thank us for the chance to heal ourselves.Great glamping sites and alternative living homes of any variety, or for that matter any cottage or villa, should ultimately aim to provide this experience at its core. From here we push on through to spain to Tarifa and the ferry crossing to Tangier, Morocco. Another continent and a world very different awaits… Next Installement: Blog 2 – Bribes, donkeys, glamping boats and Argan oil.