BY ROAD FROM VANCOUVER TO WEST AFRICA WITH MAC AND FERGUS 

PREAMBLE

In the spring of 2008, we started planning our next big trip. But this one would have some unique features. First, it had to accommodate our 2 Bearded Collies, Mac and Fergus, since we had decided that leaving them behind was no longer an option. Second, it would have to be mainly by road not by air so that we would always have the flexibility of our own vehicle, with all our equipment and necessities (plus an ample supply of dog food!). Thirdly, it would be a lengthy trip, meaning that we would rent our home for a year, beginning Aug 15, 2009, our planned date of departure 

We have always had a fascination for North and West Africa so that became our destination. In the early spring of 2009 we purchased a new Toyota Sienna minivan and began outfitting it for this long journey.We took out all of the seats (except for the driver and front passenger) and used the space to construct a storage and sleeping compartment as well as installing a cargo box and solar panels on the roof. These panels supply electricity to 2 large batteries inside the van which, in turn, are used to power a fan for cooling the dogs in hot weather and other equipment such as a small fridge, computer, printer etc.


A TEMPORARY SETBACK

Just weeks before we were set to leave, Bruce was diagnosed with advanced macular degeneration, a disease which attacks the centre of the retina. His specialist informed us that, left untreated, he would be blind in his right eye within months. It seemed, therefore, that we had no choice but to cancel our travel plans to concentrate on this issue. We moved to our cabin in mid-August and set our minds to alternative scenarios since we had already committed to the rental of our home for the year.  However, after the third treatment on Sept 16, having had an opportunity to reflect on the situation, we decided to proceed with our original plans even though this would mean that Bruce would have to fly back to Vancouver from various parts of the world for treatment every 6 weeks. So we set about reviving our trip plans including re-constructing our van, which we had dismantled when it appeared that the trip was off.

THE FIRST STAGE - VANCOUVER TO MONTREAL

About 1pm on Tuesday, Oct. 6, we left our cabin in our newly rebuilt Toyota Sienna to cross the country for a rendezvous with the shipping company in Montreal that would get our van across the Atlantic. Including a detour to Saskatoon to celebrate the 94th birthday of Rose Dukes, a dear friend and mother-in-law of Bruce's brother, John, we arrived at Rideau Ferry, near Ottawa, on Saturday evening, four and a half days and 4500 kms later. The next day we celebrated a moving and heartfelt Thanksgiving dinner at Bruce's sister, Molly Ann's lakeside home, with 24 family members, including the incredible 6-month-old Phoenix and her new heart.

CROSSING THE ATLANTIC

On Wednesday, Oct. 14 we delivered the van to the shipper in Montreal and for the next 2 weeks while it was crossing the Atlantic, we lived in Molly Ann's guest house and drove the rental car that we picked up at the Montreal airport. This time was a unique opportunity to renew relationships with family and friends and we thoroughly enjoyed it, in spite of our anxieties about being able to jump through all of the regulatory and bureaucratic hoops necessary to make it successfully across the "pond" and into the EU. One of the most important of these "hoops" was the credentialling of our dogs, particularly the health certificate for our frail 12 and a half year old Mac. Surprise, surprise, he passed without a hitch, partly due to a sympathetic vet! In fact, Mac has proven to be a hardy traveller and both dogs have coped exceptionally well. In addition to the health certificates, we also had to complete a complicated travel document for the dogs that attested to the validity of their rabies vaccination in a way that would be acceptable to EU officials. In spite of our efforts to assure that every "i" had been dotted and every "t" crossed, these documents were only cursorily examined when the time came.

On Oct. 27, all four of us flew out of Montreal, headed for Amsterdam on KLM after a long process at P.- E. Trudeau airport related to getting the dogs squared away. It was a sobering moment when they were wheeled away from us in their travel crates to be loaded in the cargo hold, not to be seen again for 9 hours.

AMSTERDAM AND ROTTERDAM

After a tense wait, the dogs were brought into the baggage area at Schipol airport safe and sound and raring to go. Merci a Dieu for that. The airport officials did have a brief fit when we told them that we were abandoning the dog's large travel crates because we had no way of transporting them. Calls were made, consultations took place and finally we were able to convince them that the world would not end as a result. So to customs, which went smoothly, for which we were grateful. Next, to Hertz for our car rental, which proved to be an unweildly tank of a large Opel station wagon, manual shift. The following day we asked for a smaller automatic vehicle and were given, miracle of miracles, the modern version of a Fiat Cinquecento, the same make and model of car that we purchased, well used, in Munich in 1964!! And what a story that car engendered during our one year ownership. Wait for the book to learn the whole story. In any case, our current Fiat Cinquecento, reputed to be one of the smallest cars in Europe, is neon pink and the object of many Dutch smirks. Nevertheless, it is serving us well as we await the arrival of our van, which is 3 or 4 days later than expected. We are installed in a very pleasant and reasonably priced 4 star hotel in a lovely suburb of Rotterdam called Papendrecht. Plenty of opportunity to exercise the dogs on the spacious grounds of the hotel and a nearby "Centrum" filled with shops and food services of every description. Nice gig, for now, but several hurdles to overcome including insurance and customs clearance for the van when it finally arrives, hopefully intact.

  

WE DID IT!  WE DID IT!  (posted Saturday, Nov 7 from Alicante, Spain)

With all the potential pitfalls of entering the EU with our van and dogs now behind us, we left Rotterdam on Wed, Nov 4 to make our way as directly as possible across France to Perpignan in the S/W corner, just on the Mediterranean border of Spain.  Our final hurdle had been the customs clearance of the van that we had been told by our Rotterdam shipping agent could be fraught with difficult complications, depending on the mood of a given official.  Not to be.  We sailed through the customs procedure in a few minutes with a stamp, stamp here and a scribble, scribble there, without anyone looking at our van or even asking a single question.

A word here about the Tomtom, our hand-held navigator.  It has proven invaluable in getting around in central Rotterdam to do our necessary business  with shipping agents , insurance brokers, customs offices, hotels and even some shopping (Yes, we did actually find a parking space in the downtown core).  But on Thurs evening on the outskirts of Perpignan, it got us thoroughly lost in the dark on returning to our hotel, to which it had guided us earlier in the evening.

On entering France, the first thing we did was head for our favourite hypermarche “Carrefour” to buy bread, cheese and wine to consecrate our arrival.  The French autoroutes that we used to cross the country are magnificent – excellent roads that can be safely and legally cruised at 130kph (at a handsome cost, of course, in tolls).  Unique to France are the excellent “aires de service” spaced, it seemed, about every 30 kms, with not only fuel stations but hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, overnight parking, showers, picnic grounds and dog walking areas.  As we made our way, signposts brought back a flood of memories. “Oh, look, there is the turnoff for Marvejol where in August of 1989, Ruffles, our previous Bearded Collie, got lost and was returned to us by an obliging gendarmerie” or “See, the next exit is for Roquefort where in 1991 we toured the deep caves where the famous cheese is ripened”.  We were, indeed, back in our beloved France, but not for long, as we pressed on to our first major destination, Agadir, Morocco.  Yesterday, we spent the afternoon in Valencia, marvelling at the “Ciudad de los artes y los ciences” an architectural feast of downtown renewal that set out to rival the Guggenheim development in Bilbao (and more than exceeded it).  Last night was Alicante and today, after we finish this posting, we head for Malaga on the Costa del Sol where, weather permitting, we may catch our breath for a day or two before heading for the ferry to Morocco at Algeciras, near Gibraltar.

  

DETOUR TO GRANADA (posted Monday, Nov 9 from Malaga)

We could not resist the pull of Granada, which our “Rough Guide” (in our view, the best travel guides by far) describes as the most important city to see in all of Spain, if not Europe.  Yesterday, we toured, along with huge, tightly controlled throngs, the Alhambra, a Moorish feast of architectural decoration that has withstood the ages amazingly well.

Have we told you about los vientos?  Unrelenting and forceful wind.  From the moment we approached the Mediterranean last Friday, it has plagued us, which, along with the cold mornings (freeze your cojones, as the Spanish would say), has made camping very uncomfortable.  It even managed to damage one of the attachments for our solar panels.  Thus, we find ourselves this evening (and the next 2 nights as well ) in a terrific hotel, the “Campanile Malaga”, of  French origin. Highly recommended, with all the comforts, at 50 Euros.

Tonight in our hotel room, the TV news is filled with moving coverage, reliving history, from Berlin..  And what a coincidence for us, since we were also in Europe on Nov 9, 1989, holed up in our motor home in a campground on the outskirts of Paris (Bois de Boulogne).  As we stayed glued to our tiny on-board TV, we contemplated cancelling our upcoming flight home and driving to Berlin, as both of us had passed through the Wall into East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie in 1963, but practicalities got the better of us.

Today we almost threw our Tomtom into the Mediterranean.  It frequently screws up at critical junctures, particularly  when we ask it to take us back to somewhere to which it has already guided us such as in Granada yesterday when it took us flawlessly to the Alhambra in the morning to buy our tickets but completely mislead us when we wanted to return for our appointed entry time in the afternoon . Oh well, in a few days we shall be out of Tomtom territory (no coverage in Morocco and beyond) and having to rely on old-fashioned paper maps and intuition.

 STILL IN MALAGA (posted Wednesday, November 11)

Tomorrow we leave for Morocco via the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier. From all reports, the whole process is a madhouse, so wish us luck.
 

 CROSSING FROM EUROPE TO AFRICA, SLOWLY  (posted from Agadir on Nov 17)

Thursday, Nov 12 we left Malaga with high anticipation.  After some additional en route research, we purchased our ferry tickets (90 Euros, one way) just outside the Spanish port city of Algeciras, which lies almost underneath the Rock of Gibraltar.  We do have to admit that the Tomtom was useful in negotiating the labyrinthine streets and harbour to the ferry terminal, buried deep inside the industrial port facilities.  We arrived at noon for our scheduled departure of 1 pm for what was described as a 90 minute sailing to Tangier.  The actual timeline went like this: departure 3 pm, arrival 5:30 pm (including having to heave to for about half an hour, waiting for another ferry to clear our berth).  Then the fun began – clearing Moroccan customs, a madhouse, indeed, of major proportions.  Much of the delay in getting processed by various officials in a variety of uniforms was the inability of the Moroccans to understand that our personalized license plate – “VOYAGE” -  was genuine, even though it did not contain any numbers and was totally unlike anything they had seen. Our explanation, (“C’est fortement possible au Canada d’avoir une plaque d'immatriculation sans chiffres” etc ,etc) had to be repeated four times to various police and custom officers before we were allowed to be on our way at 6 pm.

HOTEL STORIES

Our plan was to stay the night at the closest coastal city south of Tangier, Assilah. Some gregarious gentlemen from Gibraltar, on the way to Rabat for a “Roundtable” (like Rotary, they said) weekend recommended a hotel there.  However, because of the ferry delays we arrived after dark in the unlit town where finding anything was devilishly difficult, meaning we had to take what we could find or, as the expression goes – “any port in a storm”.  Alas, the Hotel Mansour proved to be more storm than port.  We eventually ended up in a room on the cinqieme etage.  That’s 6 flights of stairs, no elevator, and no hot water in the evening, no water at all in the morning.  When we pulled back the bed covers, we discovered that there were no sheets on the beds, so 6 flights down to retrieve sheets, 6 flights up to make our own beds.  This was a “Rough Guide” recommended hotel but it failed the test miserably.  The dogs stayed the night in the van (too many stairs for Mac) and we left before sunup.

OK, that was the nasty hotel - now let’s talk about the splendid one the next evening.  It was in a very pleasant seaside town called Oualidia about 500 kms further down the Moroccan coast.  Very friendly management, right on a crescent beach fronting a tranquil lagoon.  A perfect place for our BC dogs to take their first African Atlantic swim and all for the same price (25 Euros) as the previous night.  But the best was the restaurant, that served us an evening meal in successive courses consisting of salad, fresh oysters, sea urchins, sole, something we never did identify (tiny fish, deep fried), calamari and  lobster, all harvested locally, plus dessert.  The portions were so huge that we were easily able to split a single meal for a total cost of 30 Euros, all accompanied by Bryan Adams  playing in the background.  Heaven!

LANGUAGE IN MOROCCO

Morocco is a bilingual country where most urban people speak both Arabic and French so it has presented a great opportunity for us to resurrect our French, which has lain dormant, with few exceptions, for many years.  What a pleasure to once again become comfortable in “notre seconde langue”.  Of course, since most of West Africa also uses French, we shall be speaking it for many months to come as we make our way south to Mauritania, Senegal and Mali.

ARRIVAL IN AGADIR (posted from Agadir on Nov 17)

 We are writing this posting from a four star hotel in central Agadir where we have rented an apartment for the duration.  Standing on our spacious terrace, we can see the famous Agadir  beach and the Kasbah on the looming hill that guards the north entrance to the city. This is where I stood with Terrence Rundle West, comrade-in-arms and now published author,  and viewed our first Atlantic sunset in the fall of 1963, only 3 years  after the devastating Agadir earthquake that killed 15,000 and left  tens of thousands destitute and homeless. This was my first confrontation with abject misery and it marked me for life.  In addition to the horrific aftermath of the earthquake, the area had been scandalized by the sale of contaminated cooking oil, which the poor purchased and used in good faith,  resulting in horrible disfigurement for many of the population. Those images of my 1963 visit have remained with me to this day so it is of some comfort  that, 46 years later, I now view a completely rehabilitated Agadir with people living productive lives.  Time often heals (but, of course, the misery has just shifted elsewhere in the world).


FIRST MAJOR INCIDENT

               
Approaching Agadir from the north on Saturday, travelling on a narrow, heavily used road with no shoulders and jagged edges to the asphalt, we were forced to the very limit of the paved surface by oncoming vehicles that moved out to avoid some pedestrians with their animals.  Our right rear tire dropped into  a hole and ripped a 4” by 4 “ flap in the inside sidewall with an explosive sound that definitely rattled us. We came to rest with half the van on the travelled portion of the road and the rest in a dusty rut, no room to move further off the road.  With our van listing at 20 degrees, we were completely at the mercy of the speeding traffic passing inches past us.  This was our first “crevaison” (blowout) so we had to figure out the methodology on the spot.  In about a half hour of dirt, sweat and frustration we were underway again, but not without fleeting thoughts like “Here I am, where is BCAA when we need them?” or “What is a 70 year old man with a serious eye disease doing on the  side of the road in southern Morocco, enduring dust, danger and heat to wrestle with changing a tire under such conditions?”  The answer came almost as soon as we were underway again.  On our starboard side, the most amazing beaches we have ever seen (and believe us, we have seen many beaches around the world).  Wide, flat sand with gently rolling surf for endless kilometres, completely deserted.  Paradise to which we intended to return once we reached Agadir and got our tire problem resolved. We did carry an extra tire in our roof box but  did not expect to have to use it so soon in our trip. The Toyota Sienna van comes with only a relatively useless compact spare so the extra tire is now in place on the right rear after some impressive work at the “Speedy” auto service here in Agadir, leaving us with the challenge of obtaining a replacement.  So far, we have been quoted, for the same tire we paid $130 Cdn in White Rock, 2000 dirhams (local Moroccan currency), which equates to about $330.

 

AGADIR, AGADIR, WE LOVE YOU (posted from Agadir, Saturday, November 28)

For the past two weeks, we have immersed ourselves in the life of this delightful southern Moroccan city. The weather has been sublime – mid to high twenties, ocean temperatures warm enough for swimming and the beaches beyond description.  Agadir is a major tourist destination for Europeans, mainly French and German, but the place is very tranquil and easy-going, with only modest and polite intrusions by touts and vendors.  The city was designed from scratch after the 1960 earthquake and, as a result, has a very hospitable beachfront:  no monster hotels, no busy streets, just a wide pedestrian-only corniche lined with pleasant cafes.

North of Agadir lies a 40 kilometre stretch of accessible wild beaches which we have been visiting regularly.  Our favourite spot is a site where we can drive right to the beach edge, pitch our shelter tent as protection from the sun and spend the day without seeing more than a handful of people, mainly locals.  Most of the beaches in the Agadir area are wide, flat and amazingly clean, with a gentle surf and swimmable water.  Wide and flat means that there is large inter-tidal area that is packed rather than loose sand, making it perfect for walking long distances.  The dogs go nuts here, with Fergus trying to herd the overhead seabirds, racing at breakneck speed down the beach, almost out of sight before re-tracing his steps, time and time again, so exhausted finally that it takes him a day to recover.

We are very pleased with the accommodation we found after much searching – a second floor apartment in a separate low-rise wing of the Hotel Anezi, one of the largest and most centrally located hotels in town. The staff are very “sympa” , especially with the dogs and we are able to park our van right out front in a shaded area, which is a  huge convenience. After two weeks, everybody knows us, our dogs and our Canadian van.  Interestingly, when we are identified as Canadians, the immediate question is “Quebec?”.  But when our English accent is detected, it goes “Oh, Vancouver”.  This happens repeatedly.  In other words, in the eyes of Moroccans, Canada consists only of Quebec and Vancouver.  Bye, bye Toronto.

 TRAVELLING WITH PLASTIC

The lesson here is never depend on a single credit card when travelling. About three weeks ago, Nancy’s MasterCard stopped working while we were still in Spain although we did not learn the reason until we got a message here in Agadir that the card had been compromised shortly after our arrival in Rotterdam.  MasterCard asked us to call them collect to resolve the problem.  However, it is almost impossible to make a collect call from Morocco so we now have telephone charges of $130cdn on our hotel bill for the necessary calls, which MC has assured us they will cover. The complicated process eventually involved MC sending Nancy a new card by expedited courier (3 days from Toronto to Agadir). Fortunately, because we do carry a number of other cards, the inconvenience was minor but it did result in an enquiry from Visa when all of a sudden a charge for gasoline from an unknown service station in Morocco popped up ( we started using Visa as an alternative to the non-functioning MC).  This, in spite of special efforts on our part to inform all our credit card issuers of our specific travel plans.

TAROUDANT

Earlier this week, we drove two hours inland to the edge of the High Atlas Mountains to visit Taroudant, a walled city that is often described as Marrakesh without the tourists, a classic southern Moroccan centre with strong Berber overtones.  On our arrival, we drove through one of the entrance archways of the ancient wall without knowing what to expect, continuing as the streets grew increasingly narrower and more crowded.  Just as we were about to classify ourselves as really stupid for attempting such a stunt,  a tiny plaza opened up with a place to squeeze our van into, and in the shade.  Accompanied by Fergus, we slipped into the dense crowds and made our tentative way deep into the souk.  Eventually, we recruited a guide (or did he recruit us?) who proved to be extremely helpful, and a nice man as well.  At times, the crush of people and carts was so dense that Fergus would disappear from view at the end of his 2 ft leash.  Everywhere we went, though, he was well received, something that surprised us given the reputed antipathy towards dogs that we had expected in countries like Morocco.

Our guide seemed to know instinctively that we were not interested in the usual tourist spiel and so took great pains to educate us about his home town and to take us to unusual places of interest such as the ``Three Dirham Hotel``.  Tucked away in a spot reached only by a series of very narrow back lanes and interior passages, this ``hotel`` consisted of a cluster of cave-like enclosures opening onto a claustrophobic courtyard filled with debris and domestic animals.  It was here that some of the mountain Berbers stayed when they came for market days.  No water, no electricity, no headroom, a rough dirt floor.  All for 3 Dirhams a night (a Dirham equals about 15 Canadian cents)

From the dismal to the delightful, we moved on to a former Synagogue, a beautiful building that now houses a cooperative selling the very finest of southern Moroccan antiques, art, ceramics and jewellery.  Somewhat surprising to us was how proud the local people were of the Jewish heritage still evident in Taroudant.

As we made our way through the very heart of the souk, we developed passing acquaintances with a range of vendors, from carpets to spices, all very respectful (with one exception), anxious to be friendly but also anxious to make a sale, since this is their livelihood and we were among the very few potential customers.  Later in our journey, we intend to return to Taroudant to explore the city and surrounding area in more depth.

 HEADING HOME, BRIEFLY

Bruce`s travel arrangements are now set for his quick trip to Vancouver for his eye treatment:

Dec 8 – Agadir to Casablanca via Royal Air Maroc, departing 10:30, arriving 11:25

Dec 8 – Casablanca to Montreal via Royal Air Maroc, departing 14:50, arriving 17:45

Dec 8 – Montreal to Vancouver via AC, departing 19:55, arriving 22:29

Dec 13 – Vancouver to Montreal via AC, departing 8:45, arriving 16:28

Dec 13 – Montreal to Casablanca via Royal Air Maroc, departing 19:15, arriving 7:05 (Dec 14)

Dec 14 – Casablanca to Agadir via Royal Air Maroc, departing 8:50, arriving 9:50

 

THE DRIVING THING (posted Thursday, December 3, from Agadir

On our way back into Agadir from Taroudant, we were stopped by a policeman who claimed he had clocked us on his brand new radar gun at 70 kph in a 60 zone, even though we were moving in a line of traffic at the same speed as every other vehicle.  After he had requested, and had in hand, our vehicle registration, green card insurance form, driver’s license and customs document – in other words, the works – he demanded a  400 Dirham fine (about $60cdn), to be paid on the spot in cash.  Needless to say, this was not well received by the visiting Canadians, who mounted a strenuous defence in three languages: “Non”, “No”  “La” (the latter being the Arabic word for no).  Eventually, with enough repetition, the case was made and the policeman, somewhat dumbfounded, handed back our papers and bid us a “bonne journee”.  To be fair, this man, in spite of his questionable intentions, treated us in a friendly and courteous manner, something that we find universally to be the case here in Morocco.  We should also say that this was the first such incident for us in all of the driving we have done here so far.

While on the subject of driving, let us tell you about roundabout roulette.  One of the principle ways of controlling traffic in Morocco is the ever-present roundabout.  Unfortunately, there is no apparent (at least to us) protocol for establishing the right-of-way.  So sometimes vehicles already in the roundabout have priority and sometimes it is the entering ones that do.  There is the rule of “priorité à droite” (vehicles on the right having the right-of-way) but it is loosely applied.  Of course, it is customary for visitors to mock the traffic behaviour in lesser-developed countries but it is our experience, having driven in many of them, that you just relax, adapt and “go with the flow”.

Last week we mounted an expedition into the Souss- Massa National Park, about 60 highway kilometres south of Agadir and then on a lengthy series of back roads into the coast, paved but so narrow that when 2 vehicles approach each other, often at break neck speed, one must cede the pavement to the other, in repeated  games of "chicken".  Having already ruined one tire in similar circumstances, we developed a strategy of establishing our position by coming to a full stop on the pavement well before the approaching vehicle reached us. All of this in search of the Northern Bald Ibis, one of the world’s rarest birds, found, with minor exceptions, only in the Souss- Massa along with a unique abundance of other flora and fauna.

Tomorrow (Friday, Dec 4), we drive east again, 20 kms beyond Taroudant, to have lunch in the rural home of a Moroccan family that we met yesterday while they were holiday picnicking on our favourite wild beach.  Since last Friday, Morocco has been in major holiday mode.  In fact, for 4 days Agadir was shut tighter then a Sunday in fifties Toronto (difficult to even find bread) to celebrate the Muslim feast of ``Eid el Kebir``.  For many days leading up to the feast, we saw flocks of sheep being sold one-by-one around the area since it is traditional for a family to slaughter one for their celebration. The lunch tomorrow will not be so elaborate but it certainly will be multi-lingual.  The grandmother speaks only Berber, the mother only Arabic.  Thankfully, the father speaks excellent French while his 8-year-old son is learning French in school (which is closed this week because of the holidays).   It is worth noting that the spoken Arabic we retain from our visits to the Middle East is quite different from the Moroccan version.  For example, we recently used the word ``gamila`` (hard `g`) to describe a carpet we were viewing but were not understood until we realized that the word for beautiful is pronounced ``jamila`` in Morocco.

 

INCIDENT IN MAURITANIA

To situate us geographically, think of Morocco as the north-west corner of Africa, directly across the Mediterranean from Spain.  Immediately south of Morocco, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean, are Western Sahara and Mauritania, the areas we need to cross to reach Dakar, Senegal.  Western Sahara is currently occupied by Morocco under a UN mandate and is relatively safe even though the nationalist movement Polisario is still very much active in opposing the Moroccan occupation. Morocco has even built a defensive berm (wall of sand) almost the full length of the country to confine the Polisario to the remote eastern half as well as encouraging many tens of thousands of Moroccans to take up residence to establish a major territorial presence.

When we were planning this trip, Mauritania, by most reports, was relatively problem-free except for the 8 km rough track through the minefield on entering the country from the north (sounds worse than it is, says he, the unrepentant optimist) and the infamous border-crossing hassles.  Last Sunday (Nov 29), however, there was a major incident on the main coastal road  that runs the length of Mauritania, from Western Sahara to Senegal. This is the route we must travel to reach Dakar.

A Spanish charity organization travelling in a convoy of 13 vehicles filled with supplies that were being distributed to poor villages along the way was targeted by what  is believed to be a North African faction of Al-Qaeda militants. The trailing vehicle was picked off and its 3 occupants, 2 men and a woman, were kidnapped and spirited off into the remorseless and infinite Sahara desert.  Although it appears that this incident has had little or no media coverage in North America, we are monitoring it closely via  Spanish internet sites.  As of December 3, Canadian Foreign Affairs has not changed its level of risk warning for Mauritania on its very useful travel advisory website.  It must be said that, to our knowledge, this is the first time that something like this has occurred on the coastal road, even though there have been a few nasty happenings in the interior, one of which last year caused the cancellation of the famous Paris-Dakar overland race.  At the moment, it could be argued, and some will, that it would be indefensibly foolhardy for us to proceed into Mauritania but we are simply not going to make that decision now.  We do intend to make our way, later in December or early January, through Western Sahara at least as far as Dakhla and then re-assess.

 

A VERY SPECIAL DAY

We have been in Agadir 21 days and each of them has been a meteorological pearl – warm enough for swimming in the ocean but so moderate that we have not yet turned on the AC in our room.  But in addition to the perfect weather conditions, yesterday {Friday, Dec 5) we had the distinct pleasure of spending the day with the Moroccan family we met earlier on our favourite beach.  They live about 2 hours drive east of Agadir, on a small (4 hectares) but productive farm adjacent to the father’s home village of 270 people, both Berber and Arab.  Boubker, his wife Samara, his mother Kiya, his young son Suleiman and his good friend Rashid were our excellent hosts.  Many men from the village, including Boubker, have to look elsewhere for gainful employment but they all make it home for Eid el Kebir and other important holidays.  Boubker works in Cannes as a sales agent for a company that distributes Belgian beer (think Stella Artois, Leffe etc) in France.

After a tour of the property, we sat down to a mid-day meal that included an enormous communal platter of couscous abounding with chicken and vegetables grown on the farm. The whole family is delightful but the star was Boubker’s 58 year-old Berber-speaking mother.  Grandma Kiya took a shine to us almost immediately and was highly entertaining with the help of her son’s translation from Berber to French (not always necessary because of her expressive manner).  Some of the discussion centered on finding her a husband just like Bruce – she has been a widow since Boubker’s father died many years ago- and giving makeup advice to Nancy (who ended up slathered in mascara). A fascinating and adorable woman.

After the meal, Boubker and Rashid took us on a stroll through the tiny village where several more surprises occurred.  First, though, one needs to know about Hammams.  They are quintessentially Moroccan tiled hot rooms, similar to saunas and normally heated with a wood fire, used for cleansing and rejuvenation of body and soul.  Our friends had their own Hammam, which they had showed us, but as we passed the one that served the village, a conversation took place that concluded with Nancy being taken into the Hammam, which was being used by the women of the village, (reserved for men in the morning and evening and women in the afternoon).  To be discrete and respectful, we shall not go into detail in this public blog about what was seen but suffice it to say that Nancy felt uniquely privileged to have witnessed a truly authentic Hammam in action.

Later in our stroll and quite unannounced, we were invited into Rashid’s parent’s home where a holiday coffee-drinking family gathering was in progress.  Rashid’s entire family, parents, aunts, uncles , sisters brothers, etc, perhaps 15 in all, were seated on the carpeted floor, backs to the wall, in a long narrow  room, having a joyous visit that we were  graciously invited to join, again with Boubker translating.

After we returned to our friend’s house, Grandma Kiya baked bread for us on the open wood fire in the courtyard, which we all enjoyed with the house olive oil, sitting on the terrace with clear views of the High Atlas Mountains, including the famous and perilous  Tizi n’Test Pass which we intend to drive later this month, on our way to visit Marrakesh.

To express our appreciation for their day-long hospitality (and their parting gifts of clementines and olives) we gave Boubker’s family a leaf-shaped bottle of Ottawa Valley maple syrup, a dozen of which we had prepared for just such occasions.  The only problem with using maple syrup in this way, which we often do, is the difficulty in explaining what it is and how to use it. “It comes from trees”?  “What are pancakes?”  goes the conversation.  We suspect that there are many bottles of maple syrup lying unused on shelves around the world where we have visited.  Oh, well, it’s the thought, isn’t it?
 

THE JOYS OF FLYING (posted Thursday, December 17 from Agadir)

As the captive clientele of the commercial aviation industry, we are treated like cattle and behave like sheep.  Flying steerage class is definitely the most uncivilized method of travel ever invented by humankind.  So, after 40 hours of this to get back to Vancouver and return, Bruce was ready to book passage to North America on the Queen Mary and never set foot in an airport or airplane again.  However, after a few days of recovery and contemplation we have decided to proceed as originally planned by continuing south through Mauritania to Senegal and beyond.  This, in spite of learning that Bruce`s Macular Degeneration treatment is not going as well as hoped, effectively meaning that his trips home will have to be more frequent, perhaps every 4 weeks or less.  His next appointment is January 12, which probably means flying back from Dakar, Senegal.


GOING DOWN THE ROAD

Getting to Dakar is, of course, easier said than done given the situation in Mauritania but we are relatively confident that it will be safe on the coastal road, assuming we are allowed to enter the country across the Moroccan border. Our speculation is that, following the recent Al-Qaeda kidnapping, there will be increased security on the road.  In both Western Sahara and Mauritania there are frequent police checkpoints where one is required to supply the same detailed information (about 20 entries from mother`s maiden name to place of issue of passport) time and again so we have prepared 30 of our own ``fiches`` containing these details to hand out  as we are stopped.  The printer/copier that we carry with us has certainly earned its keep.  There is also the infernal border bureaucracy of visas, insurance, vehicle customs documents, currency matters, strict import restrictions (no booze or extra fuel allowed into Mauritania from Morocco), on-the-take officials, etc.  It is about 1500 kms from Agadir through Western Sahara (considered part of Morocco) to Mauritania and another 700 kms to the Senegalese border, then 200 to Dakar itself.  On leaving Agadir, we also plan to make a 200 km detour to Tafraoute, a very special and remote place that TRW and I visited in 1963, so our distance to be covered to Dakar is about 2600 kms. Given the conditions, it will probably take us about 10 days to make that journey, assuming all goes well (a faint hope, really).Under that scenario, we shall be in middle of the Mauritanian desert on Christmas eve and day, ”Insha’Allah”!  (If God is willing).

We now have our new extra tire, purchased locally for $172cdn, considerably less than our first quote. Unfortunately, it is a different tread than the Michelins  on the van but it will have to do as a back-up. The solar power system that we designed and installed is working flawlessly and will be even more useful as we proceed further south, recharging our 2 deep cycle batteries which supply power to our “Koolatron” and our large fan for cooling the interior of the van while parked.  Although the van is fitted out for sleeping, since we left home on Oct 6, we have slept in it only 3 times (but that will change as we move into areas with few facilities).

THE HUMAN ELEMENT

While Bruce was away, Nancy further explored Agadir on her own, discovering lovely gardens full of flowering trees and cacti, exquisite stone gateways and pleasant play areas for children.  Fergus is passionate about the beach, so she took him there almost daily.  One day she ventured unknowingly into the King’s domain – a seemingly empty area of lovely beach and sand dunes with nary a “Défense d’Entrer” sign.  However, the soldiers guarding His Majesty’s estate were very gracious in explaining the situation, not the officious types we have encountered in other countries.  The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, who is outwardly revered as the present generation of an historic and stabilizing monarchy, has palaces in every major city.  Here in Agadir, he has two: his beach estate (with the dunes) and his town palace (for receiving important visitors).  The lushness of these properties stands in stark contrast to the struggling lives of ordinary Moroccans but little complaint is heard these days.  The King is understood to be working assiduously for the betterment of his people and we see no evidence to the contrary.

Both of us met fascinating people while we were apart for those six days.  Nancy met the Director General of The Ministry of Defence for Iraq, staying in our hotel for a weekend getaway, who told her about how he was whisked away by the Americans during the first Gulf War.  She also socialized with some local Moroccans who were, as usual, so polite, friendly and hospitable.  Bruce sat next to a delightful Moroccan Canadian on the flight to Casablanca, who was returning from Ottawa to visit her family in Marrakech with her husband and two young children.  Yesterday, while buying our extra tire, we met a horticultural professor from the “Institut Agronomique et Veterinaire Hassan II” with whom we discussed the highly developed Moroccan agricultural industry (think tomatoes and clementines) as he helped us with our tire purchase.  As Bruce flew into both Casablanca and Agadir, he could see the farmland spreading out of sight in neatly proscribed fields and greenhouses. Bravo, Morocco!


 

THE FOLLOWING SECTIONS POSTED FROM LAAYOUNE, WESTERN SAHARA ON MONDAY, DECEMBER 22

TAFRAOUTE

Let me be clear.  Our trip to Tafraoute was as memorable as anything we have done so far and getting there was half the fun.  Steep, narrow mountain roads, a strip of tarmac not much wider than a single vehicle, bordered on one side by the carved-out cliff face and the other by...oblivion.  For most of the 4 hour in-bound route we were on the oblivion side, which did have its advantage in that it was the inside vehicle that was expected (forced?) to move over when meeting oncoming traffic, although many drivers still tried to play the “chicken” game, a game at which we are becoming quite adept.

Everybody should make the trip to Tafraoute at least once in their lives, but do so with a hired driver so you can enjoy the unique sights.  There are few places to pull over and gawk.  What you will see are valleys liberally sprinkled with ancient but still inhabited tiny villages, many perched precariously among huge boulders on the steep valley sides, some seemingly unreachable by anything but Allah’s hand or helicopter.  One could spend weeks exploring this area on a mountain bike (or, God forbid, on foot, as many do).

With a bit of luck on our arrival, we found Tafraoute’s venerable “Hotel les Amandiers”.  When you make your now obligatory pilgrimage here, you must stay in this hotel.  It is special and it also has a personal connection.  On a very hot October afternoon in 1963, TRW and I surreptitiously climbed the security wall at the back of the then very new, ritzy hotel and plunged into the only swimming pool in the entire region, carved from solid rock.  Delicious memory.  Today that pool sits as it was then but abandoned for a newer and larger one near the front of the hotel (so that they can keep an eye for the invading Canadians that they did not spot 46 years ago!!). When we told the manger our story, he was very obliging (as most Moroccans are) in digging out old photos and recounting how the King (then Hassan II, father  of the present Mohamed VI) had come to lay the cornerstone for the hotel’s construction and had returned, on occasion, to stay.

For those of you, and you are legion, who have responded to our descriptions of the weather in Agadir with spiteful envy, here is your shadenfreude moment – the weather turned miserable the day we left, making the trip from Tafraoute even more demanding.  Heavy rain, wind and fog plagued us all the way.  We intend to return for a longer stay when the weather is better.

 SOUTH TO WESTERN SAHARA
Making our way south after Tafraoute, we landed in a place called Sidi Ifni the next night. This town was a Spanish enclave carved out of Morocco until 1969 and is considered, according to our Rough Guide, as “the finest and most romantic Art Deco military town ever built” although the buildings now do have a fading charm.  Further down the coast is Tarfaya whose claim to fame, besides its beach (there’s that word again) is the homage it pays to Antoine de Saint-Exupery whom we all remember from our childhood as the author of “Le Petit Prince`` and my favourite - “Night Flight” but who was an adventurous early pilot  flying pioneer mail routes from Paris to Dakar with a rest stop in Tarfaya.  There is a metal monument in the form of his plane, badly in need of re-painting, erected at the north end of the waterfront and a museum, to boot (closed when we were there). Speaking of closed, we got blindsided by another 4-day holiday this week.  It was ”Moharem”, Muslim New Year, and again , everything was shut tight.  Live and learn.

LAAYOUNE

From Sidi Ifni to Laayoune, capital of Western Sahara, was a five fiche trip.  That is, we had to clear five police and military checkpoints en route, each one requiring detailed information about us, our travels, our heritage, our vehicle, etc. for which we had prepared pre-printed forms to hand out.  Worked like a charm.  And charming were the uniforms that stopped us, professional but ever so polite and friendly.  So unusual for such types, in our experience.

The next time you are in Western Sahara, you must stay at the Sahara Line Hotel in Laayoune, where we are writing this blog entry. The hotel manager, Mohamed Elayachy, a young father with a 4-month-old son, has become our friend and source of much wisdom, opinion and regional background.  At first, we conversed in French but later switched when we discovered he had taught himself English – an intelligent, voluble and gracious man. Most noteworthy was his take on comunal identity. The people of Western Sahara, who are called Saharawi, in his view do not need colonizing precepts or international agencies to identify them by drawing lines on a map. If you feel Saharawi then you are part of the Saharawi commumity regardless of outside meddling. Thank you, Mohamed, for the education you gave us.

One of the things that immediately struck us when we arrived in Laayoune was the overwhelming UN presence, supervising an 18 year standoff between the Moroccan army and the nationalist movement, Polisario.  There are apparently about 300 personnel here and each one seems to have a large, new  SUV to drive, always solid white with large, dark blue “UN” letters painted on each side. We counted 14 of them parked in front of the best hotel in town, block booked by the UN (which appears to have driven up hotel prices here generally).  This morning we had an instructive conversation with a Malaysian army officer assigned to the UN for a year’s tour of duty here.  He told us that there were 9 remote desert outposts that his team rotated through, each one with more comfortable facilities than our hotel.  Over the passing years, the UN has built itself quite a comfortable nest here, with no end in sight

You have heard all of this once before but yesterday (Monday, Dec 21) we learned that there had been another kidnapping of foreign travellers (this time, an Italian couple) in Mauritania on Saturday, the second in three weeks and that the border had been tightened  ( no visas are being issued).  This effectively spells “stop” to any thought whatsoever of continuing on by road to Senegal and beyond.  To have attempted to continue would have been indefensibly foolhardy. Some of you will be relieved.  We are not.  We are deeply, deeply disappointed.  But we are going to make the best of our trip to Western Sahara by continuing on a further 500 kms to Dakhla, the last town before the Mauritanian border, which will mean we will have followed the Atlantic coast of Africa more than 2000 kms from our starting point in Tangier.  We really like this area and the Saharwi people, who are even more welcoming than Moroccans.  However, by about January 9 we shall have to be back in Casablanca so Bruce can fly home for his Jan 12 appointment.  If we had been able to get through Mauritania, he would have flown home from Dakar, Senegal.

 

Posted from Dakhla, Western Sahara on Saturday, December 26

CHRISTMAS IN DAKHLA

It started with a Christmas Eve surprise at our hotel, the Regency Sahara.  When we went down to the dining room for the evening meal, the regular menu was on display as usual but as soon as the chef spotted our arrival, he descended on our table with a broad smile and presented us with  a special menu which read:  1)Assiette Royale, 2)Rôti de Dinde Farci, 3)Buche de Noel.  We were floored.  And very touched, since we were the only guests in the dining room that evening. The meal began with an enormous charcuterie plate, prepared with great attention, followed by, miracle of miracles, roast turkey stuffed with dressing and then the “piece de resistance”, a stunning, melt-in-your- mouth buche de Noel.  Photos were taken, appreciation expressed – “Merci, mille fois”, “Shukran, Shukran” (Arabic for thank you).  Handshakes all round and countless “Joyeux Noel” from the hotel staff.  We have decided that this thoughtful act on the part of the chef has earned him one of our special bottles of maple syrup that we intend to present on our departure in a day or two.

               THE CATHEDRAL

               Now, about the Spanish cathedral.  Our Rough Guide lists not a single “tourist site” in Dakhla but we had read, during our own research, about a cathedral built during the Spanish occupation (like many African nations, Western Sahara has been a colonial pawn, passing through the hands of various imperial powers).  Earlier this week we went in search of it but no one we asked could enlighten us. So when all else fails while travelling, what does one do?  Why, of course, ask at the tourist office.  In this case, however, the tourist office proved harder to find than the cathedral. Stopping at what looked like a possibility, we were told “no” it is “up the street”.  Nancy had made the enquiry while Bruce waited in the van, stopped in a no parking zone.  Someone volunteered to show Nancy the way and so we set off, Nancy and guide on foot, followed slowly by Bruce in the van, thinking that indeed the tourist office was “just up the street”.  Eight blocks later, our little parade ended in an obscure back street where the tourist office was located on the second floor of a nondescript building with absolutely no signage outside.  We concluded that we may have been the first people in Dakhla’s history to have made an enquiry there. But never mind, someone did know the whereabouts of the cathedral.  As it turned out, we had been walking past it with the dogs every day.  In fact, we could have lobbed a clementine into its courtyard from the balcony of our hotel room.  A real lesson in false assumptions, as we had visualized a building of traditional cathedral architecture not the ``modern`` Moorish design that we found, with its back to the main street.  The building was locked up tight but on Christmas  morning, while walking the dogs, Nancy encountered the caretaker, a very nice man in a wheelchair  who obligingly agreed to show us the interior.  Deftly manoeuvring his chair over various obstacles, he led us on a tour, explaining that there were about 50 Catholics and 25 Protestants in Dakhla (out of about 70,000 residents) who used the facility occasionally (but surprisingly not on Christmas eve or day). Once a month a priest from Laayoune makes a brief visit.  The cathedral was exceptionally well maintained by our friend Mohamed, the caretaker.  It even had a working pedal organ on which Nancy played the hymn ``Abide With Me`` followed by a little Christmas music, our one and only exposure this season, for better or worse.

              Christmas afternoon we made our way north to the beaches.  About 30 kms out of Dakhla is a small  camping colony of European ``snowbirds``, predominately German kite surfers who are attracted by the unique wind and sea conditions in the long bay formed by the Dakhla peninsula.  Kite surfing is a spectacular sport to watch, as the surfers fly over the waves tethered to an enormous kite, often becoming airborne.  The water is warm and inviting but access to the beaches is often difficult because of the formidable cliffs that front them.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

              For several days, preparations had been underway for a wedding to take place late Christmas day in a huge tent erected on a wide side street within sight of our hotel. We had been told that this was to be a genuine Saharawi wedding, different from traditional Moroccan ceremonies and we looked forward to it with much anticipation.  The indigenous music, the beat resonating deep into our room, started about 4:30 p.m. leaving us to assume that it was preliminary to a whole evening of celebration.  About 7 p.m. just as it was dark we wandered over to enjoy the spectacle, only to discover that everything had wound up, after only 2 hours. The only excitement we witnessed that evening was a runaway camel in panic mode, scampering down a busy main road, tying up traffic.


 (The following sections were posted from Marrakech on January 8, 2010)

PARADISE LOST

After Christmas, we started moving north again, poking into every prospective seaward road or track.  For hundreds of kilometres along this part of Western Sahara and Morocco, steep, intimidating cliffs bar access to the coast, with rare gaps that open to wild stretches of beach.  On Dec 29, we stumbled onto our version of paradise – a “piste” or desert track that led to a perfect camping spot above a completely deserted beach, leaving us with one foot in the Atlantic and the other in the Sahara.  We just could not resist setting up camp here in spite of limited supplies (we had intended to re-provision at the next town, 50 kms further north).  The first 2 days were absolutely delicious and the nights illuminated by the Blue Moon, turning the ocean breakers into a vast field of luminescence.  But as New Year’s Eve approached, an Atlantic storm unexpectedly hit us with driving rain and high winds, effectively marooning us in place, low on food and water, huddled in our billowing shelter tent.  Our inventory for our New Year’s Eve dinner was two medium-sized potatoes, a tiny can of tuna, and one hard-boiled egg, all of which went into a sort of improvised hash that was almost inedible due to the disgusting tuna.  We toasted the arrival of 2010 with the last of our drinking water and went to bed. A few hours later we were stumbling around in the blackness, frantically digging latrine holes in the sand with our handy camp shovel.  Sic transit gloria!!

 


TWO OF THE BEST HUNDRED

After a brief recovery in Tiznit, we decided to tackle the famous Tizi-n-Test road on our way to Marrakech.  The serpentine Tizi-n-Test was carved out of the High Atlas Mountains by the French during the late twenties and its south approach to the 2100 metre pass rises to this elevation in only 36 precarious kilometres.  Our guidebooks describe it as ``unbelievably impressive``, ``the most glorious mountain drive in Morocco``, and ``not for the faint-hearted``.  We began the trip from a Riad we discovered just east of Taroudant.  Riads are unique Moroccan inns housed in traditional buildings with rich local decor.  To reach this one we had to make our way through a dusty village, down a dirt track and ford a wide but shallow river.  Having enjoyed a delicious Tajine dinner in the hotel`s ornate dining room the previous evening, we left early in the bright morning to begin what was to be two of the best  hundred days of our lives – January 3 and 4, 2010.

 Clear sunny conditions, light traffic, and stunning views at every turn.  Making one last check with the police stationed at the entrance to the summit road (winter storms sometimes close the route), we began our ascent.  The switchbacks were in some cases so severe that one could almost reach out and touch the returning section.  Surprisingly, however, it was a pleasant, leisurely drive with few oncoming vehicles.  At the higher reaches, we occasionally found tiny cafes perched on the edge of the road with parking for one or two vehicles, the owners imploring us to stop.  Right at the 2100 metre col (pass), we spent time in conversation with Mustapha Id Said, who is almost single-handedly building a carefully planned facility to be called ``Auberge du Col``, which will include a 6-room inn, small camping area and restaurant, all squeezed onto  the only available flat speck of ground and commanding views both north and south.

Descending the north side of the pass, we were treated to continuous views of snow-covered Djebel Toukbal, the tallest peak in the High Atlas and a worldwide favourite for trekkers.  Further down the valley in the middle of what is now nowhere, one finds the Tin Mal Mosque, a  12th century building still, in large part, in its original condition.  It is one of only two of Morocco’s thousands of mosques that can be visited by non-believers (the other is the spectacular but very touristy Hassan II mosque in Casablanca).  After the gardienne obligingly unlocked the entrance for us, we found ourselves in an ancient wonderland of pillars and archways that we have never seen elsewhere.  Remember, now, this is one of those perfect days, both personally and meteorologically and Tin Mal is a highlight.  Shortly afterwards, we passed through Ijoukak, the most authentic village we have seen so far.  The road is so narrow that we could almost touch the inhabitants who were busily loading mules, repairing mud walls and selling local fruits and vegetables - a scene that immersed us in a place frozen in time.

As we drive on, the scenery evolves from valley to mountain and back as we constantly digress to explore nooks and crannies, sometimes ill-advisedly, since our Toyota van is not an off-road vehicle, by any stretch of the imagination.  Oh well, so far we have always been able to extract ourselves from situations without outside help and hope to continue to do so, Insha’Allah.

Now, to complete this perfect day we need to start looking for a place to stay the night.  At that particular moment  we arrive in Ouirgane  and spot  “Le Sanglier qui fume” (the wild boar who smokes). The dogs love the spacious gardens and we love the accommodation, the food and the casual but elegant hospitality. After our evening meal of mechoui” (lamb very slowly cooked for many hours), the delightful tiled fireplace in our terraced bedsitting room is stoked with pieces culled from the dead limbs of local cypress and olive trees and burns most of the night, as do our aging but fully functioning passions.

Day Two of our best one hundred starts with more sumptuous scenes, the images pouring into our consciousness as we make our way to Marrakech.  At Asni, we take the 17 km diversion to the tiny village of Imlil, the trekking capital of the High Atlas.  The road is as bad as we have seen but the trip is enlightened by our brief stop at Richard Branson’s “Kasbah Tamadot”.  This is luxury accommodation at its most devoted but Branson, the unique character that he is, has insisted that the local Berber people be specially trained to work in this fabulous facility rather than import already available staff from elsewhere.  We were very moved to learn of this in what is otherwise a supreme piece of elite decadence. The contrast with our friend Mustapha’s “Auberge du Col” is inescapable.

Imlil is certainly a special place but is hardly Moroccan, or even Berber, anymore.  It reminded us of Taghazoute, north of Agadir, which has been captured by surfers.  Imlil is definitely in the hands of the trekkers, for better or worse, with their overburdened Land Cruisers crammed into every available crevice along the narrow and cluttered main (and only) street.  By carefully threading our way, we managed to drive to the top of the village where the road becomes a trail to the high-end “Kasbah du Toubkal” overlooking the valley.

Finally to Marrakech, after 260 kms from our starting point near Taroudant.  To complete this experience, we had used booking.com to make reservations at the Golden Tulip Farah, about 10-15 minutes walk from the Medina and the Djemma el Fna, Marrakech`s notorious and unique central square.  On our arrival, we suggested that because of the dogs it would be preferable to give us a ground level garden apartment rather than the standard high-rise room we had booked.  And so they did, for the same 50 Euro rate.  So here we are, happily ensconced in what may be the best accommodation we have had on our entire trip, where we can park our van at the back door and walk through the front patio doors to an immense and carefully tended garden with a large swimming pool buried somewhere in the interior.

A word here for the Dutch-owned Tulip chain of hotels.  We also stayed in one near Rotterdam for a week and were equally pleased.  Highly recommended.  We might also take this opportunity to recommend booking.com, an online hotel-booking website that has proven very useful, reliable and simple to use, in addition to offering unbeatable room rates.

 

MARRAKECH

Marrakech is one of those special cities that simply has to be seen (and heard, and smelled, and felt, and tasted).  On our first full day here, we drove our van as far as it would go throughout the ever narrower streets of the Medina, escaping humiliating entrapment at certain points more by good luck than good management.  This gave us a sense of the geography of the Medina, but, of course, the labyrinthine souks themselves can only be penetrated on foot, which we have been doing over the past few days. Two evenings ago, we walked from our hotel to the Medina in search of “La Maison Arabe”, a highly recommended hotel and restaurant deep inside.  At night the Medina is a confusing place for newcomers and our first attempt at navigation failed miserably.  Starting again from the Djemma al Fna, we eventually found our way, and a good thing too since “La Maison Arabe” was more than worthy of the search.  If you do not have your dogs or your camper van with you but do have your thick wallet, this is definitely the place to stay in Marrakesh.  Our meal was exceptional and our tour of the facility, including one of the suites, was impressive.  The place is redolent of authentic Moroccan hospitality.  At the very least, during your next visit to Marrakech, have a drink at their intimate bar. To find it, head for the back of the Bab Doukkala Mosque and look for a long narrow alley leading to the nondescript entrance.

Of course, Marrakech is most famous for the “Djemma el Fna”, the fabled main square with its chaotic activity of snake charmers, trained monkeys, soothsayers, entertainers, colourful water vendors, food stalls and all manner of persistent touts.  With questionable bravado, we did manage to drive into the Djemma and actually park just adjacent to some snake charmers captivating a throng of spectators, only a small sampling of which were actually tourists. Our exploration of Marrakech continues.

ANOTHER TRIP HOME

Nancy will stay here at our hotel in Marrakech while Bruce returns home for another eye treatment, travelling Air France/ Air Canada via Casablanca-Paris- Montreal-Vancouver on Jan 11 and returning Jan 14/15.  We shall need to leap out of bed at 3 am on Monday to make the 2+ hour drive to Casablanca for a 7:50 am departure.

The following sections posted from St Louis, north of Dakar, Senegal  January 27,2010

MAURITANIA, HERE WE COME.

In the final analysis, we did decide to continue our trip south as originally planned, after returning to Rabat for our Mauritanian visas.  This involved having to sleep in our van in front of the Mauritanian embassy located on a very narrow side street in a suburb of Rabat and line up early in the morning with a diverse collection of others seeking the same visas.  Eight hours and 100 Euros later, we were on our way south again with 2100 kms ahead of us to reach the Mauritanian border. Just south of Tan-Tan we were caught in a deliberate police trap just at a point where there was an unusual roundabout with a stop sign, which we honoured completely.  Nevertheless, we were pulled over and told we were to be assessed a 1400 Dirham (130 Euros)“amende”  for rolling through the stop. “Mais, pas vrai”.  We absolutely refused to pay which meant “le chef” had to be called form the police headquarters in downtown Tan-Tan.  After saying NO to everybody involved for three-quarters of an hour, the issue was resolved amicably, and with some humour, in our favour.  So far, on this trip the score is Moroccan police 1, the Ketchums 3.

 After all of this, we are now in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, having made the border crossing yesterday (Jan 23).  This involved a 700 km drive on narrow desert roads from our last stop north of Dakhla, an hour long process just to exit Morocco, a half hour slog through the no-man’s land separating the 2 border posts and 3 hours  in 31 degree sun on the Mauritanian side, struggling through a cumbersome and incoherent bureaucracy. The highlight of our stay in Nouadhibou was using French to  ordering Italian food (spaghetti Bolognese) in a Spanish restaurant while drinking Dutch beer in an Aradic-speaking country

Because the two countries cannot agree on the exact location of the border, all vehicles transiting between Morocco and Mauritania must pass through a form of Hades – 4 kms of former minefield with no established road, just a myriad of tracks from which one must choose by instinct alone.  It is difficult to follow another vehicle since the conditions are so bad that anything but dead slow will result in undercarriage damage because of the rocks, deep holes and pockets of soft sand. The only rule here is to drive only where tire tracks are visible.  If another vehicle has passed over the ground, it is relatively safe from unexploded mines.  Along the way, there are many abandoned, damaged and burned out vehicles as well as many simply waiting for their owners to retrieve them. Anything goes here since it does not fall under either countries jurisdiction.

Today we are planning to continue on to Nouakchott, the capital of this very sparsely populated country and expect to be in Dakar, Senegal in a few days. To reach Nouakchott from Nouadhibou we must travel the road where the Al-Qaeda kidnapping of 3 Spanish charity volunteers took place in late November but we are confident that it is safe since there are now many more police and army checkpoints en route.  As a matter of interest, so far on this trip in southern Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania, we have had to clear 56 police and gendarmerie checkpoints in total.

As we scuttled apprehensively down the road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott we experienced the real desert, with a raging sandstorm for many kilometres that blasted the windward side of our Toyota Sienna so forcefully that we were concerned it might remove the paint.  It made the road ahead almost invisible to see much of the time but occasionally, when  there was relief from  the storm we were aware of seeing nothing but nothingness in the flat, endless Sahara.  Hollywood notwithstanding, the Sahara is not continuous sand dunes a la Lawrence of Arabia but, rather, large expanses of flat gravel scrubland interspersed with the classic and awesome dunes.

THE WORST HOTEL EVER

On our arrival in Nouakchott, it became even more apparent that we were transitioning from North Africa to West Africa.  For example, the skin of the local population became less Moorish brown and more African black; vibrant colour sprang up everywhere, particularly with clothing and architecture.  This is all going to be challenging and exhilarating.

After the usual search, we felt we had little choice but to stay at the Hotel Halima in Nouakchott.  If you ever come here, do not stay at his hotel.  In fact, never come here.  The hotel wanted to charge us 34,000 Ougiyas (yes, that`s the name of the currency) or 93 Euros for a room that was so small that the 4 of us could barely turn around and no water in the morning for showers.  After some heated negotiations at check out, we agreed on 27,000 Ougiyas (74 Euros), which is still double what one would pay for the same accommodation elsewhere. The factotum who was supposed to attend to the many faults with our room was so afraid of dogs that he tried to lock us (and the dogs) in the room.  When we forced open the door, he ran the entire length of the corridor and down the stairs.  It was only after we put the dogs back in the van that we got our needs attended to, albeit unsatisfactorily.

Adding insult to injury, the traffic in Nouakchott is unregulated frenzy – the few stop signs are taken as an invitation to hurtle through an intersection.  This place makes Morocco seem like Switzerland.

JUGGLING CURRENCIES

In the space of 3 days, we conducted transactions in 4 currencies -- Moroccan Dirhams, Mauritanian Ougiyas, Senegalese CFAs and Euros.  Both Ougiyas and CFAs are diluted currencies with Euro exchange rate of 365 and 650 respectively, meaning wads of bills to contend with for even routine shopping. For many months now, our base currency mentally has been Euros not Canadian dollars.  In other words, we now think in Euros not dollars when establishing comparative value.

AT LAST, SENEGAL

The border crossing from Mauritania to Senegal is infamous and places the traveller on the horns of a dilemma -- to take the shorter but much more problematic crossing at the Rosso ferry or to take the longer but more tranquil route across the dam at Diama.  We chose Diama and sorely regret it, in spite of all the advice we had that this was the lesser of two evils. It is not and here is why.  The 100 kms of “piste” (dirt track) took us three and a half agonizing hours to cover and threatened the very well being of both the vehicle and passengers. A vehicle with normal road clearance should not attempt this route in its present condition (as of Jan 25, 2010). We intend that our return journey will be via Rosso, in spite of its reputation as a den of hyper-aggressive thieves. Moreover, Diama does have its pecuniary pitfalls including payments to enter the National Park and to cross the dam, as well as a border rip-off exiting Mauritania.  On the Senegalese side, one pays only for the vehicle “Passavant” (2500 CFA or 5 Euros).  However, the required vehicle insurance is not available at the border and must be purchased in the nearby fascinating city of St Louis.  The local police, knowing this,  watch for newly arrived foreigner and attempt to “fine” (blackmail) them before they reach an insurance office.  This happened to us twice, one policeman (using the term loosely) mollified with a box of Moroccan tea and the other with 2700 CFA (just over 4 Euros or $6 Cdn). Very unpleasant.

Our first impression of Senegal, after only two days, is that, by and large, most Senegalese are unloveable. This may change but it stands for now. Everybody tries to hustle you and not necessarily in the friendly fashion we are used to in Morocco.

Nevertheless, St Louis is a place like no other, its World Heritage old colonial center sitting on an island in the mouth of the Senegal River, joined to the mainland by an antique iron swing bridge constructed in 1897.  Our hotel is located near the end of the spit that separates the river from the Atlantic.  In fact, the hotel property has beach fronts on both the river and the ocean and from the terrace bar we can watch the fishing fleet leaving port in the evening, wave after wave of colourful pirogues.

We have our own very private beachside bungalow where the dogs can run at will.  To reach the  Hotel Mermoz, though, one must drive through the “Port de Pecheurs” where scores of fishing pirogues unload their catch every day, some of it spilling under the tires of vehicles trying to make their way through a narrow road made even narrower by the mass of human activity and equipment spread out along a one kilometre stretch.  Do not make this drive before a mealtime without holding your nose but do admire the colourfully decorated pirogues whose art work and shape are mindful of Haida canoes and do not miss the  colourfully dressed housewives carrying teaming baskets of large live fish on their heads.

Posted Jan 28 from Dakar

DAKAR
We are now in Dakar after a full day of travel from St Louis, including two hours just to make our way from the outskirts to our hotel, through teeming traffic. This congestion does serve a purpose, though, for what we call road warriors, vendors of everything from telephone cards to fire extinguishers who descend in droves on stalled traffic as their captive market, persistently rapping on car windows and waving their products in front of you, the trapped motorist. We did buy delicious fresh cashews and bananas from two different young women with smiles so pretty that we gave them their asking price without a single demur. Tomorrow we shall go in search of our Mali visa and provisions for the very long journey inland in the direction of Timbuktu, In'shah Allah.


CHANGE OF PLANS

On Friday, (Feb 12) we drove into Dakar to renew the customs document (“Passavant”) for our van and in typical Senegalese fashion, we were refused the extension required to allow us to stay in the country long enough for Bruce to take his booked and paid for next trip home and back on Mar 3 to 6 from the Dakar airport.  Obviously, we have no option but to cancel the Dakar flights (at considerable expense) and make other arrangements,  which means driving back north at least as far as Casablanca, more than a  week of hard travel from here. We shall leave asap tomorrow morning (Monday) and probably be out of touch for some time while on the road.  More Senegalese stories to follow in due course.

 




MEKNES

 




Yesterday (Feb 19), on the way back from Fes, Morocco’s ancient showpiece, we passed by the outskirts of nearby Meknes, which is also a World Heritage city.  For the past 4 days, the weather across this entire country has been ferocious and cruel. As we travelled north, we witnessed and experienced massive flooding from hurricane force winds combined with relentless, driving rain.  On many occasions, we had to ford deeply inundated roads and cross bridges that seemed in imminent danger of being washed out. We passed through villages and towns where the population was standing in groups, agog at the sight of their homes, businesses, roads and bridges teetering on the edge of collapse. Dry riverbeds became massive torrents  of water tinted deep reddish orange by the characteristic soil it was carrying away and instant mini lakes formed everywhere. The sun-baked ground exacerbates the effects of the storm since the rain does not penetrate it, leaving most of the water as run-off.  Winds were so fierce that it was often difficult to move about.

As we approached Meknes, we debated whether to go into the old city, deciding against it due to the never-ending rain, wind and cold temperatures.  Later in the day, we learned from a news report that 300 worshippers had been attending Friday afternoon prayers in the old city, just at the time we would have been there, when their mosque’s minaret, weakened by the storm, collapsed and killed  at least 40 people, injuring many more.

In the next few days, we shall be re-crossing the Straits of Gibraltar for Spain. Bruce will fly home for his next appointment on Mar 3 from Madrid

MANY STORIES TO COME ABOUT OUR TIME IN AFRICA

Alive and well and living in Beziers  (posted Mar 25)

After returning from  4 months travelling by road in Africa (Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco) and spending a few weeks in Spain, during which Bruce made another trip home for treatment of his Macular Degeneration(Madrid-Philadelphia-Seattle and then rental car to Vancouver), we have settled in s/w France at Beziers, on the Mediterranean coast, very near the Spanish border and within easy reach of Barcelona, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montpellier etc.

We have found a very comfortable villa with all the ‘mod cons’, including a good internet connection,  a fully-walled yard/garden for the dogs and 3 minutes walk to an excellent local boulangerie, 10 minutes, by the supplied bikes, to the beach.  We are only a 100 metres from  a vast open expanse of vineyards and fields where we walk the dogs to their heart’s content.  Our local village (Portiragnes) sits right on the world famous Canal de Midi.

 The house, which is only 10 years old and built to high European standards, feels truly luxurious compared to what we experienced in Africa over the last 4 months or so.  We intend to reside here until the end of April (7 weeks) while renewing our acquaintance with this part of France and further exploring the adjacent regions of Spain.  The weather is becoming very late spring-like with every indication that warm or very warm weather is just around the corner. The villa is owned by an Irish couple, so we have been dealing with them by email from Dublin.