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.

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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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