Truck Riders On The Storm

WE may be an international group drawn from around the globe, but our travelling band shares one very British obsession – the weather.

Writing this with the sun beating down and the strains of Bob Marley drifting across our Marrakesh campsite, you could be forgiven for falling for the stereotypical view of long, hot African days.

But the last few days have been anything but predictable, providing glorious sunshine when we were prepared for whatever conditions the Moroccan winter could spring on us, then drenching us with a night of torrential rain and a howling gale that left us clinging to the side of a mountain.

Throw in the intervention of the local police, a hair-rising drive through the mountains and the torrents created by the storm, not to mention a real-life game of rock, paper, scissors (only without paper and with a genuine knife replacing the scissors) and it has been an unexpectedly eventful few days.

Back when you last left us in Fes, we were well aware of what might be lying ahead after tales of previous groups heading to Todra Gorge wrapped up in sleeping bags on the back of the truck to keep warm while snow slowed down progress.

As it was, we were treated to some spectacular views as we traversed the Atlas Mountains with the sides rolled down and only the odd jacket donned as a long drive day turned into night.

Towering - The view from our base at Todra Gorge
Towering – The view from our base at Todra Gorge

Even with blackness enveloping our new home, the towering silhouettes of the cliffs above the truck provided a tempting teaser of what lay ahead, while the news we would not need to pitch tents but were sleeping on the floor of a room in the adjacent hotel sent everyone scurrying for the relative comfort and an early night.

Opting out of the lengthy trek up a mountain path to Todra Gorge itself, my more relaxed day took me up the road through some still spectacular scenery and down the road for a less than spectacular lunch.

A chilled evening was rounded off with a competitive session of Uno – which has taken on epic proportions with a series of rule changes to be argued over and forgotten if you have not been playing total attention – and a new sleeping spot, tucked up on the Beach at the front of the truck as Joe gave up his normal position to allow a few of us to sleep on Nala (and give the rest a quieter night in the communal room).

We all would have put up with any amount of snoring the following night as we were forced to contend with the most extreme conditions to date.

The day had been fairly low key after a quick detour further up the road from the hotel to check out more of the scenery before we headed out on a two-day trip to Marrakesh.

Our one major stop of the day came at an old casbah at Ait Benhaddou, which has provided the backdrop to a variety of films, among them Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. There is not an awful lot to see, but it provided an interesting change from the inside of the truck and one out-of-the-blue moment of drama.

As we pushed past the local children attempting to charge us to cross the bridge (well, sacks placed on rocks in the low-flowing river), a scuffle broke out on the far side – the elderly gentleman taking the money to enter taking exception to another guy’s suggestion we sneaked in the back way for free.

No exchange of words this, the older guy brandishing a knife while his younger opponent reached for a rock and two others did their best to keep them apart. They succeeded and, somehow, the guy had miraculously returned to his post to take our entrance money.

That, however, was just the start of the drama.

Far from still - The downpour leaves its mark on the road ahead
Far from still – The downpour leaves its mark on the road ahead

We eventually arrived at our bush camp for the night well after dark and a fair way up the mountain pass which will provide the high point of the whole journey (well, at least in Nala).

Up went the tents as the wind and rain threatened and cook group set about rustling up the evening meal. And then the police arrived.

Not happy with our choice of campsite, they suggested – nay, insisted – it was not safe and we should move to the car park of a guesthouse a little further down the mountain.

After driver Steve was taken down to check out our new digs – and discovered one of their number was a Moroccan rugby international – we packed up our tents in a hurry, rattled through dinner and headed down the mountain.

By which time, the storm had well and truly set in.

We have become dab hands at putting up and taking down our tents fairly quickly. Just not when being buffeted by horizontal rain and huge winds on the side of a mountain.

With the tents up and pegged down as securely as we could manage, there really was little option than to crawl inside, take refuge and listen to what the weather could rustle up.

Throughout a long night, sleep was patchy but thankfully so were the leaks as we waited until we had to brave the elements once more to take our sodden tents down again.

Remarkably, barring a small wet patch in one corner of our tent (nothing to do with an unwillingness to get out to go to the loo during the night), we survived largely intact. Especially remarkable as our tent was sat in the middle of a mini lake as we wrestled to pack it away.

It could all have meant a miserable, subdued morning, but warmed by a cup of tea by the owners of the guest house (and the use of their facilities), we headed off up the mountain in good spirits – albeit not for long.

We had already driven across one waterlogged section when we came across another, more ferocious torrent which even Nala could not just plough through – and which the couple in a car sat there waiting had wisely decided not to tackle as they sat out the night before hoping it would go down.

While they opted to head downhill – and even more issues – we waited long enough for it to subside enough to allow Nala to cross and head over the pass as the storm rolled on.

It all added up to a dramatic morning for those of us who spent it looking out at what little you could see – mostly just sheer drops just off to the side of the road and water rushing everywhere from off the mountain.

But as the road eventually headed downhill towards Marrakesh, the sky finally started to break and the sun peeked out on a whole new experience.

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Blanket Coverage

HAPPINESS, sang John Lennon, is a warm gun.

He obviously never spent much time overlanding or he would know happiness is a warm blanket.

Planning this trip, one of my major concerns was surviving nights under canvas – something which has been avoided for many years and on my last overland trip was abandoned after a couple of nights in favour of sleeping on our converted bus.

That is not an option this time and so much thought was put in to making life as comfortable as possible after dark – a blow-up mattress and a sleeping bag, albeit opened out as a quilt, working together to keep me warm and relaxed.

It didn’t exactly work on the first few, largely sleepless nights, but things have improved (although doubt anyone was predicting me rising before sunrise and the allotted breakfast time on a regular basis) with the addition of a pillow.

By royal appointment - Joe and the rest of us treat the palace in Fes with due dignity
By royal appointment – Joe and the rest of us treat the palace in Fes with due dignity

And last night our tent took on the appearance of a showroom from the Ideal Homes Exhibition with the arrival of two new Moroccan rugs.

Tent mate Michael (you can work out why we were paired together and why our fellow campers are so keen to know where our tent is pitched each night) opted for sprawling his across the floor, while mine is folded neatly (for now) along my mattress and topped off with the quilt.

Very comfortable it is too, although stiffer, colder tests lie ahead in the next few days.

The rugs were a result of a day in the labyrinthine medina of Fes, our latest stop on the journey around Morocco.

Having left soggy Chefchaouen just as the sun was finally emerging over the picturesque scene, the day’s drive to Fes was fairly subdued on the back of the truck.

What scenery we saw was well worth the pictures we took and staying awake for, as was the thrill of being chased around the mountain roads by a string of cars full of men trying to sell us hash.

But, sorry to say, most of us ignored tour leader Joe’s pleas for us to enjoy the passing countryside and spent much of the day catching up on sleep.

Our arrival in Fes brought us face to face with a second Oasis truck and a second, smaller group of travellers heading as far as Cape Town five days behind us, albeit via a slightly different route through Morocco.

Real leather - The colourful scene at Fes' tanneries
Real leather – The colourful scene at Fes’ tanneries

Much of the evening was spent chatting to what could have been our truck mates – all of which, allied with a restocked drinks chiller, proved a little too much for one of our number. Not only did he somehow entrust Joe with a pair of clippers on his hair, but he needed three goes to find the right tent.

We waved farewell to the other truck in the morning before meeting up with Callum – our guide and fixer, who knows seemingly everybody worth knowing in Fes.

He led us around the city, to the Jewish Quarter, King’s Palace, a pottery workshop and a scenic overview before heading headfirst into the medina, supposedly the largest car-free urban area in the world.

Dating back more than 1,200 years, the medina is vast with people on every corner and in every nook and cranny finding a way to make a living. There really does seem very little you cannot get in there if you know where to look.

But knowing where to look is an art, given the puzzle of finding your way around. Every time we thought we had some vague idea where we were, Callum would turn a corner, duck down an alleyway, through an arch or up some stairs and emerge in some new area.

All, of course, giving us plenty of opportunity to spend money at the various stops.

None was spent at the tannery (which did provide a fascinating, if pungent, view over the work being done on the leather round the back and the question of the trip so far from a passing American: “Are these wallets real leather?), and not so much at the pharmacy (a few spices and oils) or at the weavers (where a masterclass showed those who opted to buy turbans how to tie them).

But plenty was spent at our lunch stop – the carpet shop.

As well as feeding us – very nicely thank you with lamb koftas and more Moroccan tea, which is starting to prove a little too sweet – they gave us a quick show through their range and we lapped it up.

By the time we left, bags stuffed with rugs were tucked under arms and a couple of Berber jackets have been sported ever since.

My rug, evidently, is a aphrodisiac. May need to go for a lie down to check.

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I Love The Rain Down In Africa

THE mountain town of Chefchaouen is renowned for its beautiful blue and white-painted houses and as the hash capital of Morocco.

And while we saw enough of the blue houses exploring the enchanting, narrow confines of the old town and were offered enough hash to keep an army of hippies happy for weeks, the abiding memory from our visit was of one thing – rain.

Feeling blue - The soggy streets of Chef's old town
Feeling blue – The soggy streets of Chef’s old town

Our arrival in Morocco has coincided perfectly with the start of the rainy season which, our guide in Fes explained, only began after a special open-air prayer session but has made its mark on us and our laundry.

Downpour number one arrived overnight just outside Casablanca, turning part of our campsite into a lake, but that was outdone by the torrent which marked the end of our long day waiting for visas in Rabat.

Our bush camp was rather more compact that night as tents were set up under the tarpaulin erected off the truck and carried into position, while we took refuge on Nala for the bulk of the evening.

Thankfully, the tents remained dry – more than can be said for a lot of our clothes, which has made laundry and, in particular, drying something of an issue. Our current campsite in Fes has wet clothes hanging everywhere as the sun beats down on our first full free day of the trip.

But neither of those downpours could match the all-day cloudburst which took in our one full day in Chefchaouen.

No sooner had we packed up breakfast, showered and gathered for the walk down the hill into town than the heavens opened and did not relent until after dinner 12 hours earlier.

But has all this rain dampened spirits? Certainly not as it has been interspersed with the types of moments and places which will live long in the memory.

Knob gags - Insert your own here
Knob gags – Insert your own here

We arrived in Chef – let’s settle on the shortened version, getting all those vowels in the right order is a real pain – via a stop at the Roman ruins of Volubilis.

A lovely spot and a fascinating tour from our guide Abdul really should have been highly educational and informative. But what most of us will remember is the phallus emerging from a lump of stone in what used to be the town’s brothel.

Much hilarity and photo opportunities followed.

But the highlight of Volubulis came as we set up camp on the side of a hill among the olive trees with a spectacular view down and across the valley.

Unexpected bonus - Sunset over our bush camp near Volubilis
Unexpected bonus – Sunset over our bush camp near Volubilis

As we set about the task of collecting firewood, the landowner appeared from within the trees and welcomed us to “his mountain”, proceeding to help us get the fire going, chatting in a variety of languages and enjoying the spectacular sunset.

He was joined by another local, who also joined us for dinner – obviously not put off by my presence within the cook group – and voted in our first “Numpty of the Week” selection.

Best of friends - Martyn and Malcolm at the start of a beautiful friendship
Best of friends – Martyn and Malcolm at the start of a beautiful friendship

Awarded to the person who has made their mark in less than complimentary fashion throughout the week, the first (clear) winner was our Scottish traveller Martyn – not so much for getting locked in a supermarket toilet, but the gusto with which he recounted the tale and admitted he had simply not slid the lock across the door.

His prize was to be the first wearer of Malcolm the monkey, which must be worn at all times in public for 24 hours. Suggest we all may get acquainted with Malcolm at some point (although Martyn appears to be again leading the way for the next vote).

Spirits were high as we headed out of camp in the morning – complete with a big bag of olives our new friend had emerged from amid the trees to sell us – and off on the long drive to Chef.

Our first really long day on the truck was enlivened, with both sides rolled up, by some fabulous views as we wound our way through the mountains and a succession of small settlements – the arrival of a big yellow truck prompting amusement, surprise and plenty of waving from the locals.

And spirits remained high on discovery that our new campsite had the holy grail double of wi-fi and hot (well, sort of) showers. They got even higher among those who trekked down the hill after dinner to join in some form of festival and seek out a few beers (not all that easy to find in a Muslim country).

Those spirits, however, took a blow as the heavens opened the next morning, but undeterred we headed off into Chef to explore.

And, despite the conditions, it was a thoroughly enjoyable few hours, getting lost among the narrow, winding streets amid the locals going about their daily business – large chunks of which involved trying to sell us something.

But highlight of our exploration was a stop-off at Restaurant La Granada.

To call it a restaurant was being a little optimistic. It was essentially, three tables squeezed into two small rooms which also had to accommodate a kitchen and the one smiling gentleman who took our orders, cooked up some fabulous tagines for six of us, posed for pictures and even managed to stop for prayers behind his counter as we ate.

Congratulating ourselves on our find, our next move was not so clever (and may involve a group nomination to wear Malcolm) as we brushed aside the suggestion of getting a taxi back to camp and opted to walk back up the hill in the pouring rain, an idea we spent the afternoon regretting as the truck gradually filled up with returning explorers trying to get warm and dry.

In some cases, neither state was achieved until after dinner as those of us who had not turned in for an early night headed to a hotel along the roadside from the campsite and sought refuge in their very welcoming bar – complete with a singer and Botswana v Tunisia on the TV, although there was little in that to grab the attention.

The evening continued for some in the adjoining nightclub, while the rest of us took the plunge to find out if our tents had survived the downpour.

Warmer climes (much warmer), we are assured, are just days away…

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Start-up Capital

JUST after passing through the Moroccan border from the Spanish enclave of Cueta, there is a sharp right turn up a steep hill.

By the time Nala, our overland truck, had fought her way to the top, we had covered more than one big hill – we had made it into Africa.

And as our last glimpses of the Rock of Gibraltar and Europe faded from view, we were thrown into the very different African experience.

IMG_0078
No place like home – Our first view of Nala in front of the Rock of Gibraltar

All very different from our first taste of nine months on the road, which had served up a taste of old England in Gibraltar.

We were staying over the Spanish side of the great divide – leading to a succession of currency confusions with euro, sterling and Moroccan dirham (once we had found somewhere that had some) – but after settling in to life at the campsite, our first full day was spent exploring something very familiar

Walking up Winston Churchill Avenue (after wandering directly across the runway which runs alongside the border with Spain), it is almost like being in an English theme park imagined by Hollywood. If they opted to set the Dad’s Army remake in the current day, they could do worse than move Walmington-on-Sea from the south coast to this southern tip of the European mainland.

Sadly, the urge to be typical Brits abroad – even from a few other nationalities – saw us bite into our time in Ye Olde England with a traditional few drinks and dinner in the main town square, meaning only a few made it up the rock itself.

They got their first clear view of Africa which the rest of us received the next day, after our first early alarm call (that’s 5.30am out of beds, as opposed to the normal camp departure time of 8am after breakfast, packing up our tents and using whatever facilities, or otherwise, may be available).

All we had to do to catch sight of our home for the next nine months was to turn round on the deck of our ferry – surprisingly brief, considering how big a leap in culture and lifestyle we were making – from Algeciras to Cueta across the Strait of Gibraltar and its busy shipping lanes.

Safety in numbers - We stick together during our first taste of a medina in Rabat
Safety in numbers – We stick together during our first taste of a medina in Rabat

The first border crossing into Morocco was relatively quick and painless as we headed up the hill and turned the corner towards the capital Rabat, our base for much of the first few days.

Much of our time in Rabat was split between our bush camp in a cork forest outside town and a supermarket, used to stock up, use the facilities and wait for the latest developments from our third main port of call – the embassies of our next few points of call as we set about the task of collecting visas.

While two of the visas went through in rapid style – one inside half an hour, which is pretty much unheard of – the third resulted in us spending pretty much the entire working day camped out on the truck in front of the embassy as they dealt with the seemingly endless task of processing all 19 of us through their system.

By the end, we had become part of the furniture and the staff dealing with our applications spent as much time sharing jokes and singing along to their music, all well after their normal closing time.

Home from home - the forest near Rabat which became our regular hideaway
Home from home – the forest near Rabat which became our regular hideaway

We did have a few chances to get out and about Rabat, exploring the lanes and stalls of the medina and finding the first of some genuinely hospitable and welcoming locals keen to keep us fed and watered.

But our evenings were spent in splendid isolation at our increasingly soggy forest campsite as we quickly fell into a bush camp routine – pile off the truck and collect firewood, set up camp as dusk fell and the day’s cook group set about creating dinner, while the previous evening’s chefs turned their hands to cleaning duty on the deck.

The evenings generally moved on to swapping a few tales around the campfire before heading into our tents.

We managed to escape the capital’s clutches for a weekend sojourn in Casablanca, breaking our trip with a stop at the beach

The rush for showers after two days in bush camp was followed for some by a race to get the first batch of laundry done. Those of us who opted against laundry were left feeling smug as an overnight rainstorm left the washing soaked on the line and several tents partially surrounded by the puddles – especially those on higher ground who found a laundry back in Rabat wiling to do a whole bag full of washing in a couple of hours for around £3.

Clean and dry – more than could be said of some of our clothes – we headed into Casablanca, which comes with a movie star reputation but surprisingly little substance to justify top billing.

Vanity project - the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
Vanity project – the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Its medina is interesting, but a touch too run down and small to challenge what we have already seen and what we have been promised, while the landmark Hassan II Mosque is certainly impressive and imposing on the shores of the Atlantic, but somehow left a feeling of style over substance.

Built to honour the former king, no money was spared on the third largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina) which houses 25,000 worshippers when full.

Our guide was keen to stress those figures, but not so hot on the background of Islam for us to understand why all the extra touches she was so proud of were necessary.

Why exactly does a mosque need a huge hammam (two actually, one for women as well, as the guide was very keen to tell us) heated to a constant 33 degrees centigrade? Especially when it has never been opened.

All just a few hundred yards from where many Casablanca residents are struggling to eke out a living on the edges of the medina.

But Casablanca did leave its mark after our first delve into the world of street food.

Courtesy of two small food stalls, we were handsomely fed with pancakes and, in my case, a sausage bruschetta, and introduced to the delights of Moroccan tea.

It could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

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Do Bears…

AFTER months of planning, waiting, drawing up (and eventually tackling) to-do lists, packing, sorting out my life and repacking, the nine-month adventure around Africa has finally begun.

Given the whole journey is likely to rack up 50,000 km on the road – to say nothing of the ones covered on foot and any other form of transport we need on our trip through this huge continent – we have barely scratched the service.

But we have been hard at work learning lessons which will hold us in good stead for what lies ahead as we adjust to life on and off the truck.

Lesson one, which started far too early at Gatwick for the flight to Gibraltar, was getting to know the rest of the touring party.

In all we are a 17-strong group from around the globe, hailing from Australia (what group travel would be complete without at least one?), New Zealand, Argentina, Japan, Holland, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, France (via Tahiti, Mauritius and, he assures us, a bit of China), Canada, Wales, Scotland and a sprinkling of English.

Early morning, Gatwick Airport -
Early morning, Gatwick Airport – Joanne, Michael, Terry, David, Dajiro, Me, Kris, Martyn, Martha and, front, Karla, Linda, Sam, Derrick, Matt, Reto and Ale. Jesus joined us in Gibraltar

Fifteen of us are signed up to go the entire route to Cairo with others coming and going along the way.

Steering us along the way are two more Aussies, tour leader Joe and driver Steve, fountains of knowledge, information and stories, plus a reservoir of patience as we fail to grasp – or, in some cases, choose to ignore – their instructions and advice on what we should be doing to make our life easier and the whole journey smoother.

Completing the group is possibly the most important member – Nala, our truck, home, transport, base and holder of all the stuff we crammed into our bags before the off (and my reputation as an over packer has been well and truly trumped by others).

Learning our way around Nala, adjusting to living off what is stored within her (and where everything is stored) and to life on board while we are on the road have dominated our first few days.

Tucked away within Nala’s bowels are our tents and all the food, cooking, camping and cleaning kit we need to keep us fed, watered and, where possible, comfortable as we head through some testing and occasionally remote terrain.

We’ve also been learning how to use all that kit to feed our passengers as the three-strong daily cook groups wrestle with a limited budget to shop for and create a meal for 19, plus breakfast and, usually, lunch for the next day.

The cook group hands over responsibilities to the next before taking over cleaning duties aboard Nala – the hardest part of which is keeping people off the truck and out of their lockers for long enough to get the job done – in the evening before making the most of a few nights off.

Our first bush camp - Handy trees and soft ground
Our first bush camp – Handy trees and soft ground

Our group of confirmed non-cooks has reached that point after coming to terms with creating a minced beef concoction, a vegetarian alternative and enough rice to create a big bowl of rice porridge the next morning. Dinner the next day was rather less ambitious (the overlanding version of the office sandwich lady turning up, only with more work involved on the part of the eater).

We also had to cope with the new experience of cooking and living in a bush camp.

Putting up and taking down tents we have got down to a fine art – well, we can do it pretty quickly and nobody’s has fallen down yet – but bush camping is bereft of any  home comforts.

Cooking and tents were the least of our worries as we also had to cope with the total lack of facilities and our introduction (think most of us have taken the plunge) with what has become known as the shovel of shame.

Calling it a night - the moon rises over our first bush cmp
Calling it a night – the moon rises over our first bush cmp

Essentially, it involves wandering off a reasonable distance from camp, digging a hole and doing what comes naturally before covering the evidence.

My aiming still needs a bit of work, although thankfully did not fall into the trap of misjudging exactly where my jeans were.

Imagine the excitement as we rolled out of camp this morning with rumours builing that our next destination contained hot showers (partially true) and, best of all, wi-fi.

Both utilised to the max – although time and the slightly inclement weather combined to prevent a first bout of laundry – it is with fresh clothes, clean body and a newly-processed receipt for another visa safely tucked away that our first Saturday night beckons around the campfire.

And there are toilets just a few yards away…

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