It was an epic journey from London to South Africa that would take nine months – a distance of 35 000km through 26 countries. Over the next six issues we will follow the adventure as recorded in Ciara Korving’s journals. Entry one is titled “Sand Dunes and Sand Sharks”
It’s May 2005 and we are finally in Morocco on African soil … one continent down, one to go!
Our ferry departed from Tarifa in Spain and took us to the small port city of Tangier in Morocco, known to the Arabs as the “farthest land of the setting sun”.
The crossing took only 35 minutes – the distance separating the two continents is just 20km, but they are worlds apart!
As soon as we hit customs, the hustling and bargaining began … “This is the land of sharks”, my husband Steve kept saying each time we got ripped off! But we learnt quickly – and what a beautiful and interesting country it is.
We spent just one night in Tangier, before heading south to a town called Tetouan, where we stopped to visit the medina. This was our first lesson in Moroccan hustling and guide tactics! Tourism is one of their main forms of income, so they are desperate to show you around … and they won’t take “no” for an answer.
One guy said he just wanted to join us and practise his English, and at the end demanded a tip for his rather annoying company!
From there we headed to a smaller town called Chefchaouen, with a medina enclosed in the city walls. It seemed to be in a time warp … so little has changed or developed there.
We were fascinated, and wandered through the little alleyways which were all washed a pale blue, giving the town a really peaceful atmosphere.
Our campsite was located on a hill overlooking the town, making for an awesome sunset. Sleep proved a little challenging, though, with the dogs, hippies and Frenchmen adding to the cacophony.
We then started making our way to Fez, the cultural and religious capital of Morocco. The forested Riff Mountains opened up to a patchwork of prairies and olive trees. It was in this beautiful setting that Steve had his first bout of savage food poisoning. It was so serious that at times he was projectile vomiting 2m.
Yet this sad state of affairs led to the unexpected surprise of a fascinating evening with a local Moroccan farming family. We had asked to park on their land for the night, and they insisted on feeding us in great style and inviting us into their home for coffee. It was an amazing experience, especially as we didn’t have a word in common, and it was humbling how such poor people could be so generous. Fez was definitely one of our Moroccan highlights. After a very interesting day wandering the 9500 alleyways comprising the Fez medina with our “schizo” tour guide, Hemid, it was time for some traditional Moroccan relaxation. Or so we thought…
We headed to the local Hamam (communal Moroccan steam baths), to be ushered in with friendly smiles and not a word of English to be heard or understood. The guys opted for the “full monty” Moroccan Hamam experience, which began with a leisurely soaking of hot water and steam. Just as they began to relax in anticipation of the much-awaited massage, things went horribly wrong! Before they knew it, a big Moroccan masseur had Steve in an upside down half Nelson wrestling move. The others were doubled over with laughter as they watched him being twisted and bent in the most unnatural positions, begging for the pain to end. But the hilarity was short-lived, for their turns were still to come! Just when they thought the whole experience was finally over, the sand-paper body exfoliation began. This involved a masseur with sandpaper glove rubbing every bit of suntan off their bodies, while smiling gleefully and enjoying the experience of torture just a little too much.
There was unanimous agreement that it was a memorable, but ONCE in a lifetime experience!
In Fez, Tim made friends with “Ze Germans”, another Toyota fanatic couple. They had GPS points for an off-piste route through the desert along the Algerian border, and they invited us to join them. We spent a couple of days heading south crossing the Atlas mountains, which were stunningly beautiful but far drier than any of us had imagined.
Our destination in the south was the village of Mazouga and Erg Chebbi, Morocco’s only proper shifting dune field. It was here that we got to experience our first real dune driving, and where Tim and Justin finally got to test their Land Cruisers.
This proved a steep learning curve with the very soft Saharan sand making for challenging and exciting driving. The mid-day sun can also affect your judgment of gradient, with no shadows or contrasts.
The vehicles performed admirably, with only one minor hiccup largely due to human error when one of the drivers misjudged the gradient of a slope and drove into a wall of sand, successfully dislodging the roof rack.
From Erg Chebbi, we set off with Ze Germans on their GPS route that landed us in the middle of nowhere with no sign of track, people or single living thing.
Tim was in his element, testing Hum (our vehicle) to its limits over some rocky terrain that defied nearly any sane driver. We spent three days of serious off-roading and learnt the true meaning of desolate and hot.
But even in our most remote campsite, some Moroccans would miraculously appear, as if out of the sand itself, to try to sell us curios. This gave rise to our new term, “the Sand Shark”.
We passed through some pretty dramatic and rugged landscapes, winding in and out of Algeria as our route traced the Moroccan border south-west. The temperature was regularly above 40 degrees and the heat evaporated most of the four litres of water we each drank per day.
We were all relieved to see the palm trees and oasis of the Draa valley. This comes by camel via the small village of Tangourite, where we would spend the next few days before continuing our Moroccan adventures.
Next issue: Mauritania.