Thursday, 22 November 2012

Poem/prose How About It?

So how about it then?
He can see her wrapped in his arms
Already hidden from salvation but
Still deluded in the half life of his smile.
She should never embrace this tainted folly
Yet here she comes, drawn through the revelry
To descend,
All too oblivious to the carnage of  '97
And the rubble of his dreams,
Bought at the cost of his dignity.
For him life has inverted,
What little there was left of his grace
Corrupted all the more the further he flees from ruin.
How could she know all that remains
Is that hypnotic, psychotic smile
Inviting another martyr to the bottom of his glass?
So how about it, then?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

African Adventure Part 7: Koba to Home!

Hello Mudpuddlers! What a sad moment, its time for the last installment in the story of my journey through Africa. Fear not, however, as I have spent this afternoon looking up adventures that I can take on next year, so I'll be back with more tales then, yay!

We left things last time at the camp in Koba which involved a raucous late party and table wrestling. Hangovers notwithstanding, we set off the next morning destination Dakar and the end of the Odyssey for the bikes and many of the 2CVs, including Eriks that I was co-piloting.

The journey itself was relatively uneventful, featuring some off road through the Senegalese savannah, and some tarmac pounding, however the most interest was caused by a stereotypical Senegal copper who thought his lottery numbers had come up. As it happens, we were one of the first cars away and therefore were one of the first to reach the mentioned officers checkpoint. Senegalese policemen get terribly excited when they see foreign number plates. An uncharitable fellow might suggest they enjoy trying to make something out of the encounter, but woe betide I be that kind of fellow. Anyway, our erstwhile rozzer immediately began to request every piece of documentation imaginable. Surely he could find something, wrong, surely? We had passports, driving licenses, overseas driving licenses, car ownership documentation and so on and so forth as local cars were waved through and the 2CVs, motorbikes and vespas began to piled up behind us. Bless him, you could almost see the cartoon dollar signs in his eyes as he surveyed the parked collection.

Of course, he found a missing piece of documentation, some of the permission for the vehicle to be in Senegal documents were with the organisation. So he insisted these were required and no-one could go on. Rule one, you don't blink first, so we all got out chairs and settled in for a rest in the shade as it was frightfully hot you understand, and we had a few hours to spare. This dragged on for some time and the poor lad saw his riches beginning to be swept away in the tidal surge of European bloody mindedness. The straw that broke the camels back was when one or two of the group started chatting to him about the amount of paperwork there would be for the 18 cars and bikes. Such a lot of paperwork. He took the hint, and off we all set again, in possession of all the things we were in possession of prior to the checkpoint. Europe 1 - 0 Senegal, injury time winner.

Rather than Dakar city, the end point for the tour was by Lac Rose, a beautiful lake about 20km outside the Senegalese capital. Now, I have to point out here that we were not on a rally, which is a race, but a raid, which is not a race. So it was not a race. Thats important to note. Having said that, Erik and I were first to arrive at Lac Rose. So, it wasn't a race, but on the other hand, we won. We won, we won, we won. Nuff said ;-)

The idea was for everyone to arrive between 1 and 2 by the lakeside for a celebration before moving in to the hotel compound at Chez Salim where we would be staying. Problem one, I was immediately swamped by souvenir sellers. I made the mistake of buying from the first one. By the time I lost my temper I had about six of them chasing me round the place. I was eventually rescued by the brilliant method of spending all my money. That, and the police, who turned up and moved the souvenir hawks on. Problem two was that it was really hot and three of the 2CVs hadn't got the message about timings and had stopped for a lazy two hour lunch en route. That would be Herman and Rita, the fabulous Spaniards (Dr Daniel and Jose) and a couple of retired lawyers known as the roommates (as they shared a cabin with Fitz and Stan from Barcelona to Tangiers). So we got to sit in the sun until nearly four waiting. The only time I got burned on tour actually as I had been good with my sunscreen until then.

There was a party atmosphere for the rest of the day, and some of the Vespa dudes were pretty emotional. I can understand that given the rather more challenging aspects of doing this on a small bike. Everyone made it, no cars or bikes failed, thats pretty amazing given the terrain and some of the damage incurred en route. Without GPS it would have been very different, I can understand how Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert on the Paris-Dakar back in the 80s! We had a good drink to round off the tour and I had a hut with air conditioning to myself which was wonderful as it was still drippingly moist at midnight. 10 2CVs were going on for a further couple of weeks and should be finishing up round about now in Benin, so they had a morning off the next day before setting out once again on their (further) adventures.

For the rest of us, after taking lunch we took the vehicles into Dakar itself, a short drive of 40km or so, to the port as the cars and bikes will be shipped back to Belgium for collection. It was another blistering day and its important to keep drinking, so I found a bar whilst we waited for the port to accept the cars and tucked into some flag beer. A strange bar which, bizarrely enough, had dusty christmas decorations on the wall and door of the toilet! The beer was very tasty though. Once the cars were ditched, we gathered our stuff and took taxis to a hotel Gert had sorted out where we had access to showers, booze and food as we were not flying until 10.45pm. I was too hot for much food so I settled for an ice cream and beer for tea.

There was time for one last African Adventure though when it came to taking a taxi to the airport. The hotel receptionist said she could book us a cab and it would be 5000 francs, but if we walked to the street and hailed one it would be 2000 francs. Not wanting to waste money, Erik and I walked to the road and soon enough a cab pulled up. I say 'cab', it was somewhat hard to tell. We had a tessellated window with multiple cracks and no headlights (it was dark). I'd also like to say the tracking was off, but it was more that the wheels pointed in different directions. Oh, and the door didn't really close so much as cling on with its fingertips. He was a lovely guy though and I told him that his was the premier taxi in Dakar. Having got us there (somehow) he pulled away shouting 'taxi premiere!' at me with a big grin.

That just leaves the trip home. I slept most of the flight from Dakar into Brussels, waking up for breakfast about an hour out. Brussels was damp and cold. Noticably so given where I'd come from! I also had a four hour delay for my connection to Heathrow which I spent eeking out my last few euros on coffee and cake and timing how long it takes to walk the full length of the gate building slowly. 11 minutes, if you're wondering. The flight to Heathrow was only 45 minutes so no time to do much but buckle in and wait. Passport control was surprisingly easy and mine was one of the first bags off. Win! Dad picked me up and was there ready so the last part of the journey was a dozy ride back to Norwich and journeys end!

So, thats the story of my African Adventure. I hope you've enjoyed it. I'd certainly recommend this type of trip to amyone looking to get a feel of North and West Africa, and then offroading and camping gave it a much more adventurous feel than a hotel and beach tour (for example). I had a great time though and have many fond memories. A worthy odyssey.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

African Adventure Part 6: Keur Mesene to Koba

Aha! You weren't expecting an update today, were you? Well, I'm intending to devote tomorrow to the war on my liver, so I have dragged tomorrows update forward by a day. In fact, this will be the penultimate part of the story of my adventure, with the final part over the weekend.

We were resting up in huts at Keur Mesene. Excellent huts with electricity. Except that the electrics had a habit of overheating, so every couple of hours they would switch off the generator to let it cool off a bit for three quarters of an hour or so, then boot it up again. Possibly not meeting the minimum elf and safety standards in the UK, nor indeed the 'walk back to the hut and the lights suddenly go out' standards. The only upside being it was too dark for anyone to see me bugger over.

The next day we set off and headed for the border into Senegal. It was actually a really small border post on an off road track, so clearly we expected to get through rather quickly. Oh, that it were that simple! There was the small matter of having to provide ludicrous reams of data and information to the ever beaurocratic Mauritanian border guards/police/customs etc. I was also trying to get rid of my Ouigyas (Mauritanian currency), because there would be no opportunity to do so over the border. In the end, all of my remaining ougiyas and the small change I had in Euros purchased me a rather snazzy tee shirt in the Senegal colours that I am actually wearing as I type this entry. Have to say however, the inflation in Mauritania is frightening. Someone reported cans of coke for sale in the small hut there at 150 Ougiyas (40p or so), by the time I had borrowed 150 Ougiyas, they were after 500 for each one. Price gouging tossers. Should be a law against it. Oh, wait a minute, there is! Still, its Westerners 0 - 1 Price gougers. Oh well.

We had been at the small border post for 3 hours when Gert decided enough was enough. He growled something along the lines of 'I'll pay for us to get out' and went into the head honchos office. Literally one minute later we were being waved through with no further requirements. The system works. The system, in this case, being raw corruption and the power of the almighty euro. On the Senegalese side of the border we had to wait 20 minutes or so whilst we paid a toll for crossing the bridge into the country and that was that, we were on our way. Mauritania really doesn't help itself with its anal border bods.

We had a relatively short journey after the border to Saint Louis where we were going to have a day off from travelling to enjoy the sights and so on. Saint Louis was the old capital of French West Africa in colonial days and still has a rather colonial feel to parts of the city. We were staying at Zebrabar campsite, run by a delightful Swiss couple. The first thing to be done was to rush to the bar and there to slake the thirsts of about 70 Europeans who hadn't had beer for a realllllly long three days. A half litre of Gazelle, the beer of choice in Senegal. Well, a beer anyway.

The plan was to go and get hammered in Saint Louis, the centre of which was about 20km away, so we needed taxis. We ordered three for 12 of us, but there was a problem. The problem being the taxis turning up and taking others instead of us, so we were just hanging around getting steadily more irritable in the bar. Supping Gazelle. After about 2 hours, one taxi showed up, but by this point only five of us still wanted to make the trip into the city (Me, Fitz, Stan and the Rasta dudes), so five of us piled into the one taxi and off we went. About 5km into the journey we were brought to a shuddering halt by two other taxis. It was the other two taxis we had sort of ordered, kind of two hours ago! They weren't happy that they had driven 20km to find no fair. We were most understanding, and told them it was not our problem and to go and take it up with the guys at Zebrabar who had decided to stay put. We have, they replied. Excellent, we declared, and instructed our driver to drive on. Chutzpah doesn't always let you down.

We reached Saint Louis and headed for the Flamingo Bar, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who strays that way. It still has the feel of a fifties colonial haunt in terms of the manner of service, the decor and the building itself. I had a most excellent catch of the day (which I think was Red Snapper) and we enjoyed a few beers. Then we set off into town to sample the nightlife. We found an excellent bar which was dimly lit, playing jazz and had its own cool jazz dancing man, dancing to jazz and being a jazz man. Jazz pissheads are way cooler than normal pissheads. It wasn't long before we had attracted the attentions of a prostitute. Basically, give it five minutes in Saint Louis as a European bloke and you'll have attracted the attentions of a prostitute. She latched on to me because 'he speaks a bit of French' and convinced me to buy her a beer. Which I did, because beer is a sacred trust, and I would never deny the thirsty. She then asked me if I would like to go somewhere for a 'massage'. I managed my best Will from the Inbetweeners impression and informed her that 'non, mademoiselle, tous est bon dans ma monde'. To be fair, she didn't stay and argue the toss. And, besides, what happens on tour stays on tour! Oh, the humanity!

It was after this that Jari Rasta wanted to return as he felt unwell and I became the sort of man I've always hated who for some reason had 'had enough drink' and also wanted to return to camp. So, we took our leave of the others and headed to the bridge to hail a cab. Accompanies, bizarrely, by the drunk jazz dude who was promising to show us a good old Saint Louis time. Right up until he got into the cab with us and was ejected with a stern NON! He was last seen latching onto someone walking over the bridge and appeared to be mouthing something about a good old Saint Louis time....

The next day was a rest day, which was fortunate as it was blisteringly hot and I was knackered. It did however feature a pair of Makak (spelling?) monkeys that I photographed and videoed and a beach of crabs that would scarper when you ran towards them which I similarly caught on film. And hornbills. Quite the fauna hotspot is Zebrabar. I also found a hammock in the shade of a copse of palm trees which I dozed and dreamed in for perhaps about three hours. One of those indetermiante periods of time that you just drift away and enjoy paradise. In the evening I tried to make up for the night before and tuck into a few beers.

The next day was mainly off road, and was quite complicated as we kept losing the track. I guess thats what makes it more fun, although I'm sure the local farmers who's crops we were destroying would not have had as much fun as we did. At one stage I got out and went to look for the track on foot, succeeding only in luring the cars deeper into crops and further from the actual track. North, South, same thing innit, really? We did have a nice lunch however and a chat with some local children who came over to investigate us. We ended up at our last but one camp, Koba. We had straw huts to sleep in, four to a hut with a fresh outdoor toilet and shower at the rear of each. All rather rustic and enjoyable, and the evening saw a long overdue piss up and party. There was booze, there was table wrestling, there was terrible karaoke. Table wrestling is where you start on top of the table and have to get under it and round back on top again without touching the floor. It is something I am pledged to conquer over the coming year. And there I will leave it. Next update is the final one, the trip to Dakar and the journey home... almost as sad typing it as it was leaving Africa behind.....

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

African Adventure part 5: Mauritania

Whazzzzzup Mudpuddlers?! It's been 48 hours since the last update so must be new update time! To start with, an apology. The pictures for this entry are not yet sorted out, I might have to post them on a separate link in FB. Sorry bout that, but onwards and upwards..

We were in Nouadhibou as I recall. We left it as soon as we found it, which was something of a relief as I may have mentioned, Nouadhibou is a frightful shit hole. We come across worse later, but for now, we left the detritus of Mauritania's second city behind and headed back into the Sahara for some more desert action.

At first, the going seemed much easier than our first encounter with the Sahara, I was boldly predicting an arrival at our destination 'just after lunch'. Oh the optimism of youth! Firstly I should point out just how empty this part of the Sahara is. That might sound an obvious point, but there was nothing to break the view. No real dunes, very few trees, the odd camel. As Kell pointed out, if someone had put a blindfold on you and spun you round three times you would have literally no idea of where to head or where you had come from. However, we did find one tree within striking distance of the hard sand where the three cars (ours, Kell and Mal, Fitz and Stan) parked up to take lunch. There was (just) enough shade to keep us in it, and give the cars a chance to cool off a bit. It was actually rather civilised, and I remarked that it had very much a distinctly colonial feel to it. Five ridiculous Englishmen (and woman) and a Belgian taking lunch in the burning midday Sahara sun whilst all the sensible folk are off being cool somewhere. Mad dogs and all that. It was at lunch that I suddenly became very aware of how hot it was. I've been hot before, I've been in the desert before (just!) but this was different. It was absolutely baking out there, even in shade. The temperature had climbed into the forties and in direct sunlight (where I wandered for a comfort break) it was bordering on unbearable.

This was the start of  'revisit eta dramatically'-gate. Firstly, most of the 2CVs and organisation vehicles had passed us as we had our Englishmans picnic under the tree, so we were somewhat surprised to come across them all parked up a short distance further along. It transpires that Edwin had got the green mehari (that I rode in a few days ago) stuck in soft sand and one of the organisation 4x4s had gone against all usual protocol of 'sort it yourself' to pull him out and had itself rather hilariously beached in soft sand. That will teach them to twist the rules! That was the route through blocked, with no-one wanting to take the other optional track as they didn't want to block that too. Anyway, there was a degree of faffing I was uncomfortable with, so for once in my life I got assertive and summoned a couple of the lads to help me push Edwin out whilst everyone else was pissing themselves at the 4x4s fate. It was actually good timing as whilst we were doing that, about 10 people managed to push the 4x4 clear and out of the soft sand. The Mehari was not too difficult to shift, but it was painfully obvious that the heat was draining to say the least. In addition, the water (of which we needed a good 6 litres on a day like this) was heating up in the sun and was like drinking bath water. Does the same job, but is so damn unpleasant to chug.

It was after this little episode that we started to encounter the Vespas. They were taking a shorter route through the desert, but it was proving very very difficult for them. To be fair, wearing the sort of protective gear they were in that heat would be draining enough, without struggling against the terrain too. One encounter was trouble for us as one of the riders was suffering exhaustion, and was rather in the way on the track recovering with a couple of the others. We saw him in time, but Mal didn't and had to swerve and at the same time in doing so lost a suspension spring whcih hauled us all to a stop. We set up a cover over the cars to provide some shade whilst Mal worked to replace the spring and tried to give the exhausted Vespa rider some assistance and shade too. The heat by this point had long since stopped being a nuisance and was becoming a little concerning looking at the state of some of the riders. Mal got Laura patched up, but the effort of that was enough to have him throwing up, which I am sure he will be thrilled I have shared with everyone.

Further along we found a lone Vespa rider who had been trying to convince the others that they needed more speed to cope with the terrain and had been doing fine, but the others were not convinced and fell behind. The tour orgainser had caught him up and told him he must wait for the others as it is a strict no no to travel alone in these parts. So here he was, in leathers, without shade and with just a little water in 40 degree heat waiting for the others. Respect where it is due, these guys were taking a hell of a pounding today. Further still we encountered more carnage. More exhaustion and a rider had fallen off and damaged his ribs. In the end, the sensible option was for the 2CVs to be camels and do the heavy work. So there was a degree of 2CV co pilots taking on the remaining 20kms on the Vespas with the exhausted Vespa riders taking a ride in the 2CV instead, and we managed to attach the damaged riders 2CV to the back of Edwin's mehari and cram an extra man into Erik's car (Jari, one of the rasta dudes who was unable to get the Vespa back hence it went tied to Edwin's mehari). All is well that ends well and a rag tag collection of riders, 2CVs, broken bodies and overheated Europeans filtered in to Cap Tafarit over the course of a few hours. Just enough light left for me to run into the sea in my funky trunks and cool off. That was lovely...... and then we ran out of beer.

Running out of beer is one thing, but running out of beer in the strict Islamic Republic of Mauritania where drinking or selling beer is a big no no is another. And we had a rest day here in paradise at Cap Tafarit, 50kms as the crow flies from the nearest tarmac, on the Atlantic. With no beer. Did I mention there was no beer? A day of swimming, loafing, drinking coke and for some fishing was actually a welcome relief and we had big bedouin tents to hide from the sun in. In fact, one of the vespa riders whom we had assisted presented Rasta Robin with a bottle of spirits as a thanks, so we got pissed on that instead of beer (they had sneakily also kept a couple of crates back, which lasted for about 20 minutes in the evning, but then we really were out of beer!!) The evening meal was a barbeque of all the fish the guys had caught, so snappers, bass and the like were served up and were very tasty too.

The next day we headed back to the main road from Nouadhibou to the capital Nouakchott, and were told we should fill up at the petrol station just as we get back to the road as there was no further petrol station for about 200km. So it was with some concern we arrived at the station to find a few 2CVs parked up. They had no petrol. When was the next delivery expected? A couple of days! They did have some water though, so I bought plenty. It wasn't long before we had all the 2CVs gathered and we had a little crisis summit. The days off road meant noone had a load of petrol, and most didn't have enough to make the next petrol station. having said that, staying put was not an option. the organisation wouldn't be able to help as for one they drive diesel 4x4s and for another they are there to cater and fix broken cars, not mollycoddle Europeans on an adventure. In the end, Erik and me, Kell and Mal, Fitz and Stan and Edwin and Peter in the mehari decided to go for it. We had about enough petrol between us to get close, and we would have the option of towing if someone ran out 20km short or the like. A few westerners have been kidnapped on this road by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Not that I was crapping myself about that or anything. We got within 40km of the next station when Erik announced we were out of fuel. We managed to squeeze a little out of Fitz's jerry can and got another 20km or so before running out again. In the end, we didn't need the tow as there was enough in bits and pieces from jerry cans to get us to the fuel stop. The 2CV tank is 25 litres, we managed to get 25.6 litres in. Running on fumes somewhat! Happily, everyone got out of the sticky situation, although they were rather later than us to Nouakchott as some of them ran out short of target and the Rasta boys had to play fuel mule running jerry cans to and from.

Nouakchott is much less of a dung hole than Nouadhibou, but it is still fairly grim in places. Like the beach we went to look at before heading off the next day. Full of rubbish. However, all pales into insignificance when one has been to the border town of Rosso. Gert, the organiser, had tipped us off to take a look at Rosso market, which we duly did. It is a long street, perhaps half a mile or more long, with stalls either side. All well and good, but the entire length of it is piled up with rubbish. There is clearly no refuse collection, so the crap just gets discarded on the street. I've never seen the like of it outside a landfill. It really does defy explanation to those of us pampered in the West, this is a totally alien way of life and way of existing. It was also in Rosso that we met our first tosspot policeman. He had a little hut on the road out of Rosso with a 'stop' sign 50 metres after his hut. As we were last in the convoy of three we saw him running out of his hut putting his jacket on, but the others were past already. He wasn't happy and gestured wildly at them. To be fair, they stopped and came back, but PC plod thought he was on to a winner. He might have to 'fine' us for failing to stop. He did however make the genius move of demanding to see Fitz (who was a passenger today) driving license. Winner. He wanted cash, he had to make do with a pack of pens and an air freshener and not insignificant english insults he couldn't understand. All of this took us to the camp at Keur Mesene via an off road route which saw us crash through two trenches in the road. One buckling the wheel rim (replaced) and the other shearing the bolts on the suspension arm (fortunately removable and replaced with Fitz spare). Mauritania hey?

There I shall leave it for now, next time we cross the border into Senegal and near journey's end. Can't take as long to get out of Mauritania than it took to get in. Can it?

Monday, 12 November 2012

African Adventure Part 4: Tiznit to Nouadhibou

Ahoy Mudpuddlers! As regular as a well tended bowel I am back to gve you the next installment of my adventures in Africa. Excitingly enough, we will cross the border today from Moroccan controlled Western Sahara into Mauritania, but let's not rush ahead of ourselves....

So, I was at the tree camp in Tiznit, where one could not hide oneself when relief was required! SO let's move on swiftly to the last day of travel through Morocco proper. This was the second occasion we took leave of the Vespas for a day. Not for anything hideous the trip to Ksar Tafnidilt would hold but because the following day was a raw driving day through the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and the Vespas would not be able to cover the distances required in one day, so they were going on ahead of us to leave a shorter day two.

The main excitement for this day was a dramatic drive along the beach in a race against the incoming tide, but we had a good sample of the sea beforehand when we stopped for a drink at a beachside cafe. Despite the service being strictly on African terms (as and when, no hurry lads), I had a rather pleasant and decidedly right on mint tea and a good stroll down to the sea to watch the waves crash in. And crash they certainly did on many parts of the journey. We had left the mountains behind and the focus was now totally on the Atlantic coast, there were really strong waves crashing in all along the drive. very beautiful and in a way quite foreboding. We were to meet at a marine base at lunchtime so that the effort of racing the tide could be slightly better organised than the wacky races. Without being daft, it would have been all too easy to get the timings all wrong and end up either abandoning the car to a salty fate, or worse, being stuck in it as the tide swept over.

Unfortuantely, there was simply nowehere to buy anything to eat or get a drink at the marine base (it was just that, no other habitaiton for miles around). What followed was an excellent example of the team spirit that quickly grew up between all the cars and bikes, as everyone pretty much pooled the fag ends of bread, odd tins of tuna and packets of biscuits we had between us into a communal lunch, which in the end was as satusfying as any of the other lunches on the voyage.

Once that had been done, we had the beach drive to contend with, and the first part of that was getting the cars and bikes across an inlet of sea water that was between us and the beach. no problem for the dirt duck, but unfortunately one or two of the other cars (including poor Laura) get wetter than intended and joined the temporary ranks of  'buggered'. There was, however, time to get them all running and still beat the tide. The race along the beach was amazing! Flat out on hard sand with the sea trying to lap at the passenger side of the car (for left hand drives, anyway). It was extremely exhilirating, and concluded with ajust as exciting a ride through a canyon back to the roads which itself featured several patches of soft sand to get stuck in, water to soak you through the open window and generally harsh conditions for the now filthy 2CVs.

The stop for the night was as Ksar Tafnidilt, a pleasant camping site run by a French couple. They had rooms for rent as well and I took one as I fancied a night of luxury as opposed to another crick in the neck from terry the tent. Erik was keen to fuel up ready for the morning and he, Kell and Mal wanted to sort out some things in the nearest town of Tan Tan, so I rode the last several km to the campsite on an off road track with Fitz and Stan. Of course the 2CVs only hold two people, so in taking a ride, it meant standing on the rear reinforced bumper and climging on to a couple of hand holds on the roof. Not nearly as scary as it sounds and a lot of fun. Particularaly the feet leaving the bumper upwardly and landing squarely on it again (which was nice). You haven't really had a 2CV adventure until you have ridden one bareback, so this was my initiation.

The next day was one we were all fairly dreading. The long haul through Western Sahara starting at 5am. Just to explain, Western Sahara is a disputed territory. Morocco controls it but there is a UN presence there (we saw a couple of UN vehicles) and there are separatists that dispute control and the like. It is also a huge area with just 800,000 people or so living in it. There were perhaps 4 towns/villages along the road and thats it. And the road, I should point out, was 840km today. It was also the day that our 'fiches' first came into play. There are numerous police stops along the road, and they will always want to know where you are going, and plenty of details from your passport. Hence we had 40 or more copies of all pertinent info each on a handy handover sheet. Saves about 20 mins at every stop, and most police are more than happy to take the sheet rather than scrawl down details over and over again. Win win. I took my share of the driving today, and I will say this about it. I now know what a give way sign looks like in Morocco having blundered striaght through one and irked a cabbie no end, and I also know the precise clearance on the passenger side of a 2CV having apparantly passed a parked lorry with a millimetre to spare. I was tired, give me a break!

Highlight of the long long days driving was lunch. We stopped at the main town about halfway and found a cafe that most of the military (LOTS of them in Western Sahara!) seemed to frequent. They knocked us up a super quarter chicken, fries, carrots and olives each which was extremely tasty. The end of the day was also extremely agreeable as we stayed overnight at the beach at Dakhla, which is a camp known as Oyster camp. The reason for that is some local oyster fishers came along and sold us oysters fresh from the sea (and being thoroughly decent sorts shucked them for us as well). I enjoy a good oyster, and these were very good, and very fresh. I wolfed ten down before deciding I was oystered to the maximum. Not very fibrous oysters if the morning was anything to go by. Petrol, by the way, is ridiculously cheap in Western Sahara, about 75% the cost in Morocco proper. Shame there really is almost nothing to see or do there, just mile upon mile of striking, but empty, land.

The next morning was also an early start as we had to cross the first official border into Mauritania. Mauritania is a little visited country by westerners, and they are keen to promote tourism as it is also a very poor country and sources of income few and far between (there may be some oil fields they can exploit off the coast, but thats about it). Given that, you'd think they would make the border crossing as easy and swift as possible.....

Not a bit of it. Gert, the organiser, had prepared extensive spreadsheets of info to use at the border beforehand, but this wasn't enough for the Mauritanians! Oh, but before we get there, we had to exit Morocco, which involves driving 3km through a minefield between them and Mauritania (there were hostilities when the Spanish pulled out of Western Sahara)! You have to be very careful to follow the marked track. Blown up vehicles that tried to take a short cut are left in place as a warning to the rest. All a bit bottom nippy really.
Anyway, we made it through the minefield to be met with a logisitcal and beaurocratic minefield of delicious Mauritanian pointlessness. First of all it was there being no car serial numbers on the spreadsheets handed over, then it was drivers and co drivers not being ready and waiting by their cars and the threat of total car search if you weren't ready and waiting when the little man with a clipboard came round. There's also the whole pulava of having to pay the relevant amount for blind eyes to be turned to things and so on and so forth. Mauritania is a very strict Muslim country, but where there's a will there's a way. It was bakingly hot on this day as well and we were crossing at the heat of the day. In all it took 6 hours for us to clear the border and set off for the campsite. Tourism? Sort your border fiasco out first!! And there I shall leave it with further adventures in a new country to write about later in the week. We camped at a disappointing site with the ridiculous name of Camp Abba in the second largest city in Mauritania, Nouadhibou, whivh has about 74,000 inhabitants Nouadhibou is a shit hole. There is little more to be said on the matter.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

African Adventure Part 3: Zagora/Algeria camp to Tiznit

Hello again curious Mudpuddlers. Its been two days since I last updated the story of my journey, so that means its hypothetical pen to paper day! Hurrah! When we left off, the 2CVs and Motorbikes had arrived at dusk at Algeria camp on the Morocco/Algeria border. I am pleased to report all vehicles made it with the exception of (from memory) Herman and Rita who went off on a wild goose chase and after dark were still not even at the start of the desert road. Thankfully they didn't attempt the impossible and cross the desert sands in the dark.

The next morning we took the remainder of the Merzouga - Zagora road which is of a much harder and compacted sand than the first part, and hence we were able to zoom along at speed which was a lot of fun. One curious thing is that at the end of this famous route, tarmac is being laid. I am not sure I really liked to see that. The Sahara is one of the great wildernesses, a legend in its own right. I just can't equate that with the ultimate human stamp of a whacking great tarmac road ploughing through. I like my wilderness like I like my women. Dangerous and in their natural state.

Anyway, having reached Zagora we took to the roads through the Atlas mountains again for some winding about. As a change from the staple bread and tinned goods lunch we stopped and had a tagine. A very spicy and tasty tagine. Not only that, but we were treated to a tour of the kitchen by the immensely proud patron of the establishment. Why tell us what is in the tagine when he can take us on a tour of the kitchen and show us what's cooking! Whilst I mysteriously had a dose of Moroccan belly the next morning, I really enjoyed my lunch which was (for want of a better description) very rounded in spice and flavour. It was also filthy cheap. Kerching.

Our destination was Ait Ben Hadou, a well known Moroccan destination. It was once a regional centre but now is a very pleasant tourist centre high up in the Atlas mountains (the village is higher than the summit of Ben Nevis for reference) and the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains were visible here. It is also the location for many film studios and sets. Lawrence of Arabia for one. It was the first hotel of the journey which was a welcome distraction. Rather than the organisation providing dinner, we were treated to the hotel's cuisine. Tagine again, and a cous cous dish. Both very acceptable and washed down with a generous dose of Jupiler beer. Whilst I took the opportunity to recharge my electrical equipment, the real benefit of the hotel was protection against a cold night. Frost was still visible in the morning, and snow had fallen on the high mountains. We were also reunited with the Vespas at the hotel.

The next day was ostensibly a short one, although the route of 180km was mainly a winding one through the mountains. The descent from the highest point was lengthy and took its toll on the brakes. In fact, before the road was laid with tarmac, it was known as the most dangerous road in Morocco with fatal accidents on an almost daily basis. I can see why, it really was a wandering, winding and steep descent. However, it was well worth it as around late lunchtime we arrived at our destination, Marrakech!

The organisation served lunch rather than dinner at our campsite and after some fairly fruitless 'washing the sand out' of my clothes, we took a taxi into Marrakech to spend the late afternoon and evening there. I say we took a taxi, I should define we. 6 of us and the taxi driver. Thats four grown men in the back, and Kell and Mal both on the passenger seat. Nice. Cheap. Cosy. Once in Marrakech, we took a look round the Souks. I was on mission man bag. Time for me to put aside my masculinity and invest in a decent man bag for the portering of my electrical goodies you understand. I found the very satchel I was looking for deep in the souks, and having scoffed at the opening request for 700 Dirham (70 Euro or so), managed to beat him down to just under 300. There was plenty to see and admire and barter over and I would recommend a visit to anyone in the area at any time. Just remember to barter!! Afterwards we went to take dinner in the grand square. How to describe it? 40 identical restaurants with the same menu at the same price (with one or two personalisations on each one) all chasing you to take dinner with them. One very perceptive restauranteur noted my resemblance to Bruce Willis and used it as a hook to get me in, although in the end we plumped for one that Rick Stein had reportedly eaten at. Lamb chops and fries. Very tasty lamb chops at that.

After dinner, Kell, Mal and Erik returned to the campsite, and I went with Fitz and Stan to a hotel they had frequented before where we tucked in to some Moroccan beer called flag. Flag is rather tasty actually, but it needed several to make that judgement. We had a couple more back at camp before I retired to the comfort of the tent. Marrakech is fun, a definite highlight of the trip.

Of course the stay there was only for the half day and the next morning we were off on the road again. This was the last day of much mountain activity, and we again soared up to 8000 feet plus, and the views were nothing short of magnificent. I'll pop some pictures at the end of this entry so you can see for yourself. It was an interesting day in that I took a ride in a different vehicle for a change. I partnered up with Edwin who drives a green mehari. Again, a picture will follow the text. Edwin is a one off, and we had a very enjoyable day taking the mick out of the motorbikers. At the highest point of the journey we paused (we were in a group of six cars today, the usual three, Edwin's mehari the gifkikker or poisoned frog, Jean and Robby and the Rasta dudes Robin and Jari) and Edwin lost his glasses down a near vertical drop. No problem for him as he attached a rope to his waist and got us to lower him down to retrieve them. Never a dull moment!

We ended up at a bivouac camp called the Tree Camp - in the middle of some trees surprisingly enough after a ride through a maze of cactus plants. One of those nights were nothing was left to the imagination when taking one's relief!

And there I leave it for now. Next time I'll tell you all about Oysters, driving in Western Sahara and the unmitigated joy of border crossing into Mauritania. A bientot!

The mehari is the green vehicle in the last picture, Robby and Jean drive the blue and white and the rasta duck is the three coloured car.


Thursday, 8 November 2012

African Adventure Part 2: Tangiers to Zagora

Welcome back! Now, when we left off, I'd just arrived at port in Tangiers. It wasn't too onerous a task getting through as the Moroccan authorities had completed most of the paperwork and formalities with us onboard the ferry, so just a case of showing completed paperwork, passports and changing some money into Dirhams. A good job really as it had been a long haul and it was getting later on in the evening. Fortunately, we only had 80km to cover over tarmac to reach our first campsite of the adventure. A note on tarmac (no, seriously), there has been a noticable investment into the Moroccan road system (a result for good or ill of the increasing tourism into the country), so many of the roads, especially around the cities, are of a good quality to drive on. Of course, that's less of an advantage when you are offroading most of the time!

The first camp was at Assilah, and I would certainly commend the campsite to the subset 'basic'. There was water for washing, magic electricity trees that sprung from the ground and executed your electrical goods and, for added excitement, two types of toilet. The first was the kind that we are used to, the second a toilet from the darkside, a bizarre invention of both brilliance and cruelty. for the remainder of the blog, these shall be referred to as Btoilets. To describe to those unused to such horrors, imagine a hole large enough to take your waste with two raised footrests in front and either side of the hole. Now squat. you get the picture. Then you throw half a bucket of water down to flush and throw your paper into a waste paper bin. Genius.

Having thoroughly exhausted my interest in the Btoilet, I set up my tent for the first night. I had invested in a pop up tent, so it was easy to get myself sorted (see further on for the inverse difficulty of decamping). The organisation (who whilst they may sound like a James Bond villain group are really not) had arrived with the support vehicles - catering truck, Mankat, 4x4s and the like, and were able to get dinner sorted out for not too late in the evening, so after a couple of beers in the surprisingly cold Moroccan darkness I retired for the night. Nights didnt really get warm until Southern Mauritania, the clear skies really do lead to some dramatic temperature diurnal ranges.

OK, decamping for the first full day of African fun and games! Pop up tents are magnificent on the way up, they are literally a 2 second job. However, reading the instructions for taking them down was not very helpful. It might as well have read 'take the obverse side of the front end and retreat whilst folding paralell to the inverted doorway with both sides clear of the tents equator'. I am not proud, I'm smart, I asked a girl for help! Specifically Kell who has experience of these things. It would take a week and a half for me to master taking my own tent down.

The first day took us from Assilah to camp at Boujad Forest, a fairly hefty 403km. Erik was content to do most of the African driving which left me free to enjoy the views and ask pointless questions to which I probably already knew the answer. The first part of the journey was more tarmac as we ploughed through some 'numbers' (got some mileage under our belts). The highlight was stopping at a fairly large town (the name of which regrettably escapes me at the moment) where we shopped for lunch. Handily enough a chap cycled past with a baguette in his basket, so we enquired as to where they were on sale, baguettes being lighter than the rather doughy/cakey Moroccan loaves. He pointed us off to the opposite side of the street. Before that though there was time for looking round the town. I caught, from the corner of my beady eye, a shop selling some electrical goods and the like and, proudly on display in a cabinet, some Beats by Dr Dre headphones (rrp in the UK £150 -£250). I was informed they were on sale for 80 dirhams (7 and a half euro, £6). They were, on that basis, obviously the genuine article! OK, maybe not, but at £6 who's arguing? I snapped them up and am happy to report they are not at all bad for the money invested. Beats by Dr Dre they ain't however!

Anyway, back to lunch! We couldn't find the bakers. Then, as if by magic, the same guy on a bicycle came past. Now, he's either a magician, or a very cunning mobile advertisement, as he agreed to take us directly to the bakers where baguettes were on sale. We were actually treated to a tour of the bakery where we saw them preparing Moroccan loaves before exscaping with many a farewell and a bag of baguettes. Lunch was taken under a shady tree by the roadside (most days we had bread and tuna or cream cheese or sardines etc for our lunch)

The second half of the day was a little more frenetic as we took our first off road route, a slaloming piste of not too difficult driving. However we did encounter, shortly before reaching camp, a very rickety and dangerous bridge which was full of holes. It involved me having to guide Erik across to miss the holes and stick to solid bridge. A task that proved beyond me, so I coopted some further assistance who, unlike me apparantly, were not happy to let the 2CV disappear down a hole (I still maintain you could have taken a bus over it no problems). I'll put some pictures below, but, suffice to say, the 2CVs and Vespas managed to get over the bridge, the motorbikes took a 1KM detour around it (which earned them opprobrium that lasted to the end of the jaunt, not that we dared tell them, to their BMW faces ;-))

Camp was a bivouac - where there are no camping facilities, just a village made up of the vehicles, support vehicles and our tents etc. It did feature a very beautiful sunset however.

Day 2 took us to the Gorges De Todra. The first part of the drive was very scenic and took us for the first time into the Middle Atlas mountains. We climbed up to approximately 9000 feet for some stunning views, although the 2CVs were finding the mix a little rich at that altitude and struggled a little without entrirely giving up the ghost. The descent was an interesting test for the brakes (pump those buggers!) and took us to the spectacular Gorges De Todra, a beautiful canyon which we drove through, and again I link to in pictures below, although they fail to do it justice. Camp was at Le Soeil campsite where WiFi allowed me to dose up on Facebook and the like. I was also extremely tired, and took the opportunity to rent a room for the night rather than my tent. At 30 Euros I think he probably diddled me out of some cash, but I needed a good nights sleep and I got one. Good job too, as day three saw us enter the Sahara for the first time.....

Day three was the first day of split journeys. The Vespas were not able to take on the desert route and so went their separate ways and we would meet them again at the end of day 4. For the 2CVs and big bikes, we got away early and convered 220km of mainly tarmac by 11.30. That left us 'merely' 110km to reach camp. Unfortuantely (or fortunately given the spectacular views and location), this 110km was the famous Merzouga - Zagora trail across the Sahara. Obviously entirely off road, the route took us through sand, a salt lake, mud and the like. Let's be gentle and call it 'stop, start'. The cars got stuck very easily in patches of softer sand, and once beached need pushing or pulling out, and the use of sand ladders. I quickly worked out you are better off being the car that gets stuck, as if one of the cars in your group (from today onwards, Erik and me, Kell and Mal and the other English pair, Stan and Fitz) gets stuck you have to help them, but you can't also stop in soft sand so you have to drive on and find hard sand to park on, then walk back through the desert to the stuck car to dig and push it out. Whilst the organisation had their 4x4s etc around, the idea of this is that the 2CVs sort their own mess out, so a tow out by a big beast was never on the table.

Fitz and Stan were the most often to be beached, and on one occasion we had to drive on about a mile to park and walk it back to help them out. Whilst we were at it, we also helped Francine and Erik who had beached and so as a 'reward' got a lift back to our parked cars from the photographer Dominique in his trusty 4x4 truck. I was hanging off the side hoping we didn't go over anything too 'chuck Dave off'ish. That we didn't was little consolation as the latter stages of the desert track saw the second 'Dave' moment of the adventure. Erik had said that if we were starting to crawl to a halt (in soft sand you hit high revs and maintain down the gears whilst slaloming), the idea is for me to jump out just as we approach a stop and push to keep us going. Anyway, at a certain point we started to slow and Erik said 'get ready to get out'. However, all I heard was 'get out', so I opened the door and tried to get out. Even on soft sand, this is not the best idea whilst travelling at a reasonable speed. I knew I had made a mistake as soon as my foot touched sand. I honestly expected to hear my leg snap (and on a hard surface it would have done), but my leg acted as a pole vault and sent me (luckily) flying clear of the car and landing awkwardly in the sand. There was one of those moments of 'what is broken/missing?' before I realised I had completely gotten away with a ludicrous act of pure Dave, and suffered merely bruised pride and a grazed arm. You are permitted to laugh. I did. So did everyone that saw it!

Camping was a bivouac within a traditional Kasbah (defensive building/fortification) in the desert. GPS says the camp is within Algeria, although it is niominally Moroccan. However, I am claiming Algeria on 'countries I have been to) as a result! And there, friends, we shall leave it for now, and I will update the next part of my adventure over the weekend when we relive the splendour of Marrakech.