Africa. Crossing to Morocco.
We arrived at the city of Algeciras in southern Spain. It’s a port town and pretty industrial looking as the port facility has been extended right across the front of the city center, (sort of what they want to do to Auckland. It’s ugly) It is a busy port though as it’s the closest port to Africa and with the stability of Morocco, which is really more part of Europe than Africa, many people choose to enter Africa via this port than anywhere else. The area is surrounded by steep hills on both sides. On the east is the British Territory of Gibraltar, commonly referred to as ‘The Rock’ as the entire territory is perched on a very steep (and quite small at under 7km2) hard rock outcrop. What a strategic spot it is! Right at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and where its only around 8 miles across to Africa. It has a lot of history as you can imagine, a lot of it not so good. It was ‘captured’ from the Spanish in the early 1700’s by an Anglo-Dutch alliance on behalf of Archduke Charles of Austria who was attempting to take over Spain at the time. The attempt failed but in the process, the British got the Rock as long as they stopped fighting the Spanish. So, they won it fair and square, but it’s been a bit of a thorn in the side of the Spanish ever since who would really like it back. So much so that between 1969 and 1985 the border was completely closed by Spain. It came up again just recently with the Brexit vote with the Spanish Foreign Minister suggesting it could be ‘a good time to see a Spanish flag on the rock again’. In the last 500 years, Gibraltar has been attacked 14 times but has never given an inch of territory. This is where the term ‘as solid as the rock of Gibraltar’ comes from. It was a nice place to visit, but it was expensive and we couldn’t get a good carpark (again…) so I sat in the car while Christine went shopping for maps.
The next day was a big day for us. It’s really like the start of Our Epic Trip. We headed out from the hotel early as we had two really important things to do. Number 1 on the list was to make sure we completed the export documents for the car and the VAT refund for all the things we bought for it in the UK. The refund is over 1500 GBP which amounts to over 2 months’ travel expense in Africa! This is when the fun all started. It was early on the 1st of Jan and the customs officers had a late start. I’m not sure if it was because they had been out partying all night or what but we were not the first ship to sail that day so I can only assume that they had completed a pre-screening and decided that we were all a low risk. We made a call to miss the boat as the refund was worth more than the ticket (which cost 110 Euro all up!) We needed to park up and wait for the people to arrive and the only parking we could see was height restricted. 2.10 meters clearance. That’s fine, we have parked in 2.10 before. All good going in, but on the exit after we had completed the customs refund, BANG as the back of the car lifted ever so slightly as we went down the ramp. Oh shit… If the roof tent had caught on the front edge, it would have been all over for it as that is the hinge edge and I am sure it would never have been the same again. Lucky for us it hit right in the middle on the ladder. The road cover had a large rip from edge to edge and some of the fastenings and part of the tent fly was damaged also but that was all. PHEW! A few minutes with some duct tape and we were road ready again, lesson learned. (it cost 12 Euros to repair later on in Morocco).
Oh, what about number 2 on the list of important things to do before you leave Europe?? What was that? I hear you ask. Nothing too important, just getting some cash money so we can actually do this trip… I blame it on the efficient EFTPOS system we have in New Zealand and the fact that all of Europe is just like 1 big country so getting money was not too difficult. OK so we have landed in Africa with NO cash. And we both worked in Banking and should have known only too well the issues with getting large sums of cash in northern Africa..
Having access to a bank account when you are away overseas is pretty much the norm now. It’s OK when you are heading to Sydney or the Pacific Islands for a weekend or a week. We suck up the expensive bank charges as a holiday expense. It’s less practical when you are away for a year or 3 and we have made a lot of effort to streamline the process of access to cash and we have bank accounts in Australia, the USA and Germany even though we are not citizens (please don’t ask, its complex). One thing we didn’t realise is how fragmented the banking systems are in other parts of the world. In New Zealand and Australia, all the banks are connected and if you want cash (and don’t mind paying the small fee to access someone else’s ATM) you can get it. We discovered that in Europe this is generally not the case. We have to go to an ATM that has an agreement with our bank. Our German bank, N26 has been in business for only a few months… You might start to see our issue. It all stems from our trip to the USA in 2000. That year we left all our savings in our New Zealand account and just stuck our card in an ATM to get money when we needed it. That was great until the NZD crashed against the USD to a 45 year low. We lost heaps of value in our $ and watched around 20% of our savings vanish. Well, it was still there, it just bought a lot less than before. Fast forward to 2016 and we are smarter this time. We transferred all the NZD for the trip into USD and EURO first up… smart eh… until the darn Brits decided to quit the EU and the EURO has dropped in value heaps. If we changed the money to Euros right now we would have another E10,000… Yes, it makes us feel a little sick in the stomach to think about it but that’s travel and international finance. For every winner, there has to be a loser… I hope they are spending our money wisely! Anyway, we managed to find an ATM to dispense some Moroccan dirhams so we are OK for now.
We were the first in the line for the next boat to depart. We went to the ticket office to buy new tickets and good news, we had an open ticket so we didn’t burn the 110 Euros like we thought we had. Great! The trip was not unlike a trip across the Cook Straight between Wellington and Picton back home. It only took 70 minutes and we were in Africa. Being the first car off the ship in Tanager, we had to find our way to the exit and the customs and immigration check. We thought we had our first Africa border crossing aced! We did the vehicle import permit and waited for the customs guys to check the vehicle. ‘Speak French?’ We were asked. No… It didn’t matter to them. They just kept talking and talking…pointing and yelling ‘Scania Scania, you go Scania’. I ask around and find out it might be ‘scanner’.. Oh, must be the licence plate recognition scanner, so I have to drive back the wrong way on the one-way road so they can ‘scan’ us. Off we go. At the gate we are promptly turned around to go back. We arrive and get to the back of the queue and wait. Oh, same thing AGAIN… this time they made me leave Christine behind and put a customs guy in the car to show me where to go. It WAS a Scania.. a vehicle x-ray machine mounted on the back of a Scania truck… who knows, but we got scanned and were able to head back to the new end of the queue and wait some more. Finally, as the sun was setting on our first day in Africa, we headed out of customs to the main road and freedom in Morocco.
We drove for 40 minutes or so until the first gas station rest area. It was well dark by then and we were breaking the golden rule of not driving at night within the first few hours of being here. We found a good car park and set up camp, a bit worried that we might be moved on as we were the only ones camping there. We had picked up a SIM card from a guy on the side of the road when we exited the customs area. It cost 5 Euro but we couldn’t work out how to top it up from the French instructions. The gas station attendant was a great help. Not only were we able to buy food and drink but he sorted us out with a new SIM for 5 Euros and topped it up with 5GB of data for 5 Euros. We need not have worried about staying in the car park as when we woke up the next morning, the place was full of people sleeping in cars and camper vans. We headed down the coast to a town south of the capital called Mohammedia where we found a campground by the beach. If this is how Morocco is, we might not leave! The locals really are friendly and welcoming. Nothing is too much trouble, and they love cats! Within 5 minutes of arriving at the campground Christine had a cat in her arms. Other than cats, we have also met a lot of great travellers. Lawrence and Laura from Austria camped next to us for a few days and we had a great night around the campfire with a few drinks. They decided to come to Morocco at the last minute in the van Lawrence built into a camper. They have a heater… We also met Bernard and Nicol from France. We hope to meet them again further south for a fishing excursion.
We stayed a few days at the first campground getting used to Africa time. Things are moving slower here that’s for sure. Unlike Europe, we are meeting a lot of travellers and being able to compare stories and experiences is excellent. After hearing more about Morocco from other travellers, we decided to head back north to a small city in the mountains called Chefchaouen.
If you have ever seen photos of Morocco showing the blue buildings, this is the place. It’s well off the beaten track, but is still full of tourists. Other than the beautiful blue buildings and the totally amazing scenery, this area is also famous for its hashish and kif as the locals call it. Unlike Californian, it’s still illegal here but every second person on the street will offer you ‘the best’ Morocco has to offer in any volume you could imagine. I was talking to a local at a scenic lookout who told me about how it used to be in the city 20 years ago. He said they called the river that runs through town ‘hippy river’ as the hippies would come and camp for free by the river for weeks and weeks pooping all over the place and walking around nude, generally having a ball. They cleaned it up and hippy river is no more. He told me “it’s all changed now but the hippies they still come only now they are old and drive expensive campervans” I laughed so hard! He told me most farmers can produce around 1 ton of crops each year and they have been doing this for generations. It is unofficially the most valuable resource for the mountain area people and just like Colorado and Washington states in the USA, it’s a major drawcard for western tourists who arrive in big numbers, with cash… Anyway, I asked all the right questions and after a while I was offered a tour of the village where they produce the hash and to see it made first hand. It was arranged for the next day and we met and we went into the hills via taxi. We travelled over what was the roughest road I have ever seen to a village that was spread across a small valley. We arrived at the house and went to a room that was set up just for this job. Sacks of kif lined the walls 3 and 4 high and in the middle, was a large plastic basin. The basin had a stocking type material stretched over it onto which the kif is placed. A sugar sack is then used to cover it all and a bungee is used to keep it all in. The sugar sack is then beaten with sticks (like playing a drum). This process loosens the pollen from the plant flowers and leaf’s which falls between the very small gaps in the stocking mesh and collects in the basin. To get the brown looking stuff you see on the TV drug bust shows, the pollen is rolled and kneaded together and made into bricks or bullets. The heat from the hands is enough to blend it all together. I wanted to take some photos but when I got out my camera… I was told no photo, no internet!! Here’s hoping they don’t mind blogging. It was very interesting and I can say for sure that it was off the normal tourist path.
We headed to Fes which is the de-facto capital of Morocco. It’s a big city and really the first place where I have been wowed with the Islamic architecture. The buildings are not big sky scrapers but more like a sprawling carpet of dwellings and shops all around 4 of 5 stories high and if not connected at the side terrace like, they have been built for it with windowless side walls. To me, it looks like a modern take on classic art deco style. The look is very modern but with curves and lines from the deco style. I could have driven around all day looking at the buildings but the traffic lights kept distracting me. Check out the photo, they are amazing! We have visited the medina in old Fes but we plan to head back for another look after finding out we went to the new part of the medina (still 100’s of years old) This time we will get a guide. It will mean we will not get constantly hounded by want to be guides. We made the mistake of chatting to someone who said ‘go that way’ and then followed us asking for guide money. One guy I just gave him the change in my pocket just to get rid of him. It wasn’t a nice experience. I think a photo of the chap first off with a warning I will give it to the police if I get asked for money might have been an answer...
Right now, we are in Casablanca in a hotel as we both have colds and I am nursing a wound on my right hand that might yet need some treatment. I will explain more about that in the next blog. (we have been VERY busy with…something…)
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!