Born Sandy Devotional

HOW nutritious is sand?

Just throwing that out there in a vain attempt to work out exactly what has made up a large chunk of my diet over the past few days.

Since arriving in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, there has been the added bonus of some very welcome meat – courtesy of Ali Baba’s burgers and shawarma across the street from our base – but eggs, bread, vegetables and sand have been the mainstays of my very unbalanced diet.

With as many cokes as can be squeezed into the esky and a lot of water thrown in.

But everything – food, tents, clothes, truck floor – comes complete with a thin layer of sand.

Since emerging from the mud and floods of Morocco, the temperature has been going up and the scorched earth drying out – little wonder as we have been crossing the disputed Western Sahara (which was far from a desert when we first entered) and Mauritania with its average December rainfall of precisely zero.

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Truck life – The presence of shirts suggest this was after a trip to an embassy

Mauritania is also a strict Islamic republic so is completely dry in another sense, leading to some frantic downing of the remaining alcohol stocks before we reached the border and big plans for a rapid trip to the bar as soon as we cross into Senegal.

Probably most importantly, Mauritania is also on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of places where the advice is only for essential travel (further east, that advice switches to no travel at all, ruling out large swathes of what looks a fascinating history), while the Western Sahara’s ownership is not recognised by most countries, although Morocco is pretty clear it belongs to her.

It all adds up to two things – lots of police checkpoints (sometimes just a few hundred metres apart) and fairly rapid progress through both countries over the past few days with long hours on the back of the truck.

There are a variety of methods to ride out the time as truck days have fallen into a fairly similar pattern.

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Cramped confines – Our base in Nouakchott. Went down well with the non-snorers

The day starts – often to the strains of the call to prayer from the nearest minaret – early, normally 6.15am for the fire group, who chop the necessary wood (not so easy now we are in a desert), get the morning blaze alight (much easier now everything is not so wet) and ensure the kettles are filled and boiling for the tea and coffee addicts.

Next up are the cook group, usually 15 minutes later, to start setting up the kitchen and sorting out what they are serving up.

Some groups have been reasonably ambitious – Linda’s Spanish omelette – while a fried egg sarnie and the occasional eggy bread have been greeted with delight, but the standard options have been toast or cereal, especially with fewer shopping options in the last week.

Breakfast starts an hour before departure time and sees the masses gradually emerge from their tents, wolf down whatever is on offer and race through the morning routine – shower (if available), use whatever facilities are available (or not), pack up their kit and put away their tents and the kitchen.

And at the appointed hour, usually 8am, the buzzer is pressed to give Steve the all clear to set off and we fall into our travelling routines.

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Beached – An unfortunate member of the fleet at Nouakchott’s fish market

For the first couple of hours, that generally involves a lot of sleeping and a fair amount of listening to iPods (often both at once), with a bit of looking out of the window thrown in.

The first comfort stop of the morning sparks a bit more life into the group – especially if it is coupled with a shop to stock up on snacks and drinks – and we hit the road again until lunch.

That is generally taken on the side of the road, although Joe and Steve have sniffed out the odd beach and clifftop that has seen lunch include a bout of swimming and the odd kickabout or game of frisbee.

Afternoons on the truck can start a bit sluggishly, but tend to pick up as someone’s iPod is plugged into the speakers or a game of Uno breaks out, complete with a fair amount of shrieking and arguing over the seemingly endless list of amendments to the rules. Whichever ones we use, Karla usually wins.

Of course, there is always the option of looking out of the truck while we eat up the miles and there has been some sensational scenery and sights roll by the windows, which have spent most of the time rolled up to grant better views.

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Home sweet home – Nala pulls up at our quite stunning bush camp

Over the past few days, those views have involved a lot of sand, much of which has blown in on top of us, meaning the headscarves we were convinced to buy in the medinas have come into their own.

Mind you, fitting a pair of headphones over a headscarf is not the easiest job in the world.

And, at some point, we pull in to our stop for the night and the whole process starts again – tents up (once everyone has worked out where the snorers are stationed for the night), kitchen out, fire on. If there happens to be wi-fi and showers, the race is on to get both of them at their best.

The race was of an entirely different type when we pulled into a spectacular bush camp in the shadow of a sand dune, plenty of the group lining up to race up to the top.

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Meeting the neighbours – A few of the locals wander past camp

We’ve had another night among the dunes and several in the enclosed compounds of campsites and hostels, while the truck day pattern was broken up by our first major border crossing of the journey.

It was all going so smoothly as we crossed out of Morocco, across no man’s land and into Mauritania with the smiles and jokes of the passport officials sending us on our way. Until one customs official dragged his heels with the final piece of paperwork for Nala and we were reduced to a prolonged bout of Uno to pass the time.

In the end, six hours after reaching the Moroccan border, we rolled into Mauritania.

It was enough to drive a man to drink…

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Goats In Trees, Trucks In Holes

WHEN you crawl into bed around 2am with no real idea where you are, chances are it has been a pretty dramatic night.

If you happen to be covered in mud as well, those odds get even shorter.

The events of our evening on a hillside somewhere in Morocco – still not sure quite where, but we had spent the day driving from Agadir, having been politely escorted away from removing any more firewood from land which just happened to be opposite a royal palace – will live long in the memory.

We got quite royally stuck and spent the best part of six hours digging Nala out of the ooze which much of Morocco has become in the face of record rainfall, which has even followed us into the Western Sahara.

But let’s rewind a bit first. There’s more to this tale than just a stuck truck. There’s goats in trees for starters.

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Star attractions – Goats in trees. Simple as that really

That’s goats. In trees.

A couple of the cook groups are starting to feel doomed as they have been hit by downpours pretty much every time they have even thought about setting up the kitchen around the truck, a fate which befell one of them the moment we pulled into our bush camp somewhere near the port of Essouaira.

This one also had the misfortune of having our cook group making our debut on fire duties as Martyn and I fought manfully not to be overshadowed by Martha’s efforts to get the fire burning amid the deluge.

Burn it did as the rain rolled away long enough for us to spend an enjoyable evening around the campfire and, by the time we rolled onto the sea front at Essaouira (another of those Moroccan towns with a vowel surplus), the sun was starting to peep out.

And it stayed out all day, providing the perfect (and very welcome) backdrop to a hugely enjoyable day exploring the medina, old fort and fishing port which comes with a relaxed, Mediterranean vibe we were more than willing to be lulled into.

After a session throwing a ball around on the beach – boys will be boys – the first dips in the sea on a glorious afternoon and a successful outing for our cook team on a spectacular clifftop bush camp find (amazing how a string of sausages can get people excited), there was even talk that we had outrun the worst ravages of the weather.

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Day at the seaside – Essaouira

The weather was certainly not at the forefront of our minds as we hit the road down the coast to Agadir.

We were on the hunt for goats. In trees.

Sightings have become one of the highlights of this trip’s passage through Morocco over the years and we had started looking out for them the previous day as we entered the area which is home to the argon trees they scale for the nuts used to make oil for cosmetics, soap and cooking (as we were told in a tour around a women’s co-operative marketing the stuff).

Sat up front, tour leader Joe was certainly on the lookout, racing to the back of the truck with the simple shout: “Goats. In. Trees. NOW”.

It was just one goat in one tree and by the time everyone had found their cameras and fought their way off the truck, the intended photo model had beat a hasty retreat to the ground and anonymity.

But we didn’t have to wait long as some of his cousins had the good grace to not only climb into trees, but do it right next to the road so we didn’t even have to clamber off the truck for the perfect photo opportunities.

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Going solo – A goat goes it alone

Another of the must-sees ticked off the list, we headed to Agadir and a distinctly unofficial campsite by the beach for the night.

If only the next day had gone so smoothly.

It all started simply enough and was shaping up to be a largely unmemorable day on the road, eating up the miles before we headed into the disputed Western Sahara region.

There had been a welcome stop to stretch our legs with a walk down to and, in some cases, along a surf beach to check out some stone arches carved by the elements, while a selection of cheesy music over the truck speakers had prompted plenty of singing and dancing. Yep, let’s call it dancing.

But we were still on the road as darkness fell, previous camping spots falling foul to the conditions and sitting underwater as we passed.

Eventually, we discovered a campsite up a mountain track and started heading uphill – only to grind to a complete halt.

As Steve (our driver and, after his efforts over the next few hours, hero – just don’t tell him that*) and Joe weighed up the situation, we gradually drifted off the back of the truck to do what we could to help.

And immediately discovered how easy it was to sink into the soft slop which hid just beneath the top layer of sand – in my case, before having a chance to follow the first instruction to go barefoot.

We did what we could, be it diving in with shovels, inserting or removing sand mats (metal strips to provide some grip under the wheels), holding torches or just handing stuff to people who appeared to know what they were doing.

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Hitting the heights – Another tree, more goats

Over the course of the night, we attracted attention from the locals, including the mayor of the local town, who offered advice (not all of it useful) on how to remove Nala from her predicament and to extract a sand mat which had lodged itself under the front diff and had Steve popping up from all sorts of places under his big yellow truck.

Of limited use, we set up a temporary kitchen on the solid ground so agonisingly close up the road to rustle up some pasta and meatballs or vegetarian ravioli as our fire-lighting lessons came in very useful.

Finally, as we huddled around the fire for warmth, Nala roared back into life and shot backwards out of the quite substantial hole she and our digging efforts had created and we leapt into action, loading up the kitchen equipment and retrieving the sand mats in a hurry to get off the hillside, out of the cold and to wherever we were sleeping for the night.

As we piled back onto Nala, comparing just how much mud we managed to have all over us, all seemed sweet until Martyn opened his mouth: “Don’t get stuck again”.

We promptly did, reversing the last section back to firmer ground, and the newly-packed away sand mats and shovels were quickly back in action – thankfully this time with more immediate success.

Monsieur Le Mayor led us down the hill and the race was on to get the tents up in the growing wind and set ourselves up for the night to grab a few hours sleep ahead of another long drive day.

Tired, cold and muddy, yes. But we signed up for an adventure and these are the days which we will talk about in the months and, hopefully, the years ahead.

Besides, we had goats in trees.

That’s goats.

In trees.

Who cares about a bit of digging after that?

* Steve has now read this and held his hand up for being the “stupid bastard” who got Nala stuck in the first place, although he offers the defence that he was acting on advice from the locals. Who now have a bloody big hole in their driveway.

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Beer and Clothing in Marrakesh

THERE are three things likely to provoke squeals of delight and excitement among an overland travel group – wi-fi, showers and access to alcohol.

If there are power sockets available, the chance to do laundry and it is not raining, it really is the perfect spot.

So imagine our delight as we emerged from the downpours of the Atlas Mountains to find the sun finding a few gaps in the cloud and shining down on all of that checklist.

There is an awful lot more to see and do in Marrakesh, but first things first – fill as many sockets as possible with charging kit, find the spot by the main gate with the best wi-fi, rush to get clothes clean and drying before the rain returns (or pay somebody else to do it, which is basically what the guys did the next morning) and wait eagerly for reports of whether the showers were hot or not.

They were. Sporadically.

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Under one roof – The packed confines of Marrakesh’s medina

Finding beer in Morocco is not the easiest task – and will get progressively harder and then impossible in dry Mauritania – so finding a campsite selling cans out of their fridge should have had us reaching for our dirhams and filling the eskies (the coolers which keep our drinks and, less often, meat cool while doubling as footrests and card tables on the back of the truck).

Instead, those in need of a drink (pretty much the entire group) clambered back onto Nala as Steve took us in search of a bottle shop which Karla had heard of while chatting to one of the trolley guys at our supermarket stop (trust a Kiwi girl to find directions to beer).

What we got was an impromptu city tour as Gilly’s off licence proved beyond our navigational skills and a second visit to Ercham in the supermarket car park, from where two of our number were despatched in a taxi with orders for vital supplies.

Their efforts, together with the campsite stock, made for a very convivial (and, courtesy of the showers, clean) evening.

Which put us in good spirits to tackle our biggest challenge of the trip to date the next day, exploring the labyrinthine delights and excesses of the Marrakesh medina.

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Mission accomplished – The successful search for beer draws a crowd

Medinas – basically, market places in the heart of old towns selling pretty much whatever you might need and an awful lot of stuff you don’t, but which they will work hard to sell you anyway – have been a constant throughout Morocco.

Rabat’s was compact and got our feet wet in the world of medinas, Chefchaouen had plenty of charm (and got rather more than our feet wet), while the warren which is Fes left us thankful for Callum’s expert guidance and clutching plenty of bags.

Marrakesh takes it all to another level.

Personally, Chef and Fes were more up my street (as was arty Essaouira, but we’ll get to that), but there’s no denying the sheer energy and assault on pretty much all of the senses as we spent the bulk of the day exploring the narrow lanes, fighting off (with mixed results) the insistent sellers, shopping (in my case, another addition to the collection of bracelets around my right wrist which could take on epic proportions in the next nine months) and arguing with a snake charmer who insisted my arty shot of the main square and minaret was actually of him and his cobra.

Tea leaves - A Moroccan tea gets a little bit congested
Tea leaves – A Moroccan tea gets a little bit congested

His request for money fell on deaf ears, but only after he’d seen the contentious picture and finally accepted my argument that he was only in it because he was storming towards the camera.

There were more arguments as the search for beer took hold again around lunchtime, a helpful local steering a group of us down several shady-looking side streets and into an expensive-looking restaurant we declined to enter.

Much to the annoyance of a guy on the door, who took exception to our impromptu guide leading us off elsewhere and started punching him. As a nearby policeman joined in the brawl, we beat a hasty retreat and took refuge round the corner with a few pizzas.

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Changing scene – Marrakesh after dark

The search for beers was more successful later as, teamed up with Karla and Joanne (that’s me, a Kiwi and an Irish girl, how could we fail to find booze?), we settled into a rooftop bar for happy hour which, thankfully, overlooked our agreed meeting place in another, dry vantage point and we were able to draw the rest of the group our way by waving a few beers in their direction.

By the time we emerged into the evening, the main square had been transformed by the arrival of a string of open-air eateries, each complete with one or more people determined for you to eat at their particular stall.

For some reason, they seemed to think my ability to eat might be worth attracting to their tables, quoting Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare at me before one finally lured me in, not by his insistence that Rick Stein and Antonio Carlucci had eaten there, but so had Jamie Oliver who he dismissed as “a right plonker”.

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True blue – Michael, right, and I model the latest in Tourag chic

A good decision as tent mate Michael and myself wolfed down an excellent, cheap meal and headed back out in the melee, dodging food sellers only long enough for another of the traders to extract money from me for a traditional jacket.

By this point, the constant attentions of the sellers had got too much and there was only one place to take refuge – back in the bar.

We were not the only ones to come to that conclusion, so by the time the belly dancers appeared just before our taxi time, several more happy hour beers (and at those prices, it needed to be happy hour) had been sunk and one or two other bellies were swung around in some form of dancing.

Guilty as charged.

NB: The rain which has hit Morocco in the last week or so has been classed as the heaviest for 50 years, had locals flooding out to watch the rivers rush by at previously unseen levels and, so various reports have told us, claimed the lives of more than 30 people.

They would return to make our lives a tad more difficult, but that’s another story…

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