We made it to Africa.
A smooth crossing and warm evening sun welcome us to Tanger Med, the commercial port 30km from the centre of Tangier. We don’t blend in that well on the boat amongst the well-used Moroccan cars piled high with European produce nor with the huge shiny 4×4 rally vehicles all driven by men with their glamourous women beside or behind them.
The shift from Europe is not as huge as expected but what does surprise is the unbelievable greenness of the Moroccan landscape compared to the already dusty hills around Malaga and the approach to Algeciras.
Treated to our first African sunset driving along the coast road into town, we find a hotel with parking reasonably easily along the promenade. The first thing that strikes us is the mass of languages being spoken: Tangier evidently still the age-old melting pot of nationalities and cultures it’s always been famed to be.
Sleeping until lunch the first morning we set about getting our bearings as well as doing some much needed work on the car which has been a bit cranky over the previous couple of days – and fair enough as she has probably travelled further and faster in the last week than in the last five years. She is definitely making herself heard so we especially appreciate having a day to rest our ears.
We set to work in boiler suits in the dark and slightly smelly hotel garage. Minding our own business we’re surprised when a steady stream of men start coming through the door and head for a previously unnoticed carpeted corner of the garage. They’ve come to pray and echoing the sound from the loudspeakers of the nearby mosques they chant the call to prayer, seemingly unfazed by the mechanical work going on in the same space.
Later we hit the streets and head for the medina, thronging with evening activity and a slightly run down but relaxed and friendly vibe to it. There are a few tourists but it’s mainly locals passing the time of day: men watching football in the cafés, people doing their evening shopping. No one bugs us to enter their shop or restaurant, they just welcome us politely when we do, and we notice that beggars approaching locals in the cafés always bypass our table – the opposite to what we had expected and later find in Marrakech. Considering the seedy reputation we’d read of we had anticipated more hassle in Tangier but it only comes in the form of offers of hash – which are politely declined.
Driving, scenery, noise
The drive from Tangier offers a small taste of the road chaos to come over the following weeks with speed cameras having little effect on the general free-styling of traffic. Leaving town behind us, the road sweeps along the gorgeous coastline with an Atlantic breeze tempting us further south towards Rabat. Smaller roads allow us to see more of the abundant countryside as we approach the capital, lined with huge eucalyptus and palm trees, cork forests and olive groves with wheat being cultivated beneath the trees.
By the time we reach cosmopolitan Rabat our ears are throbbing and the noise from Landy is turning into a serious problem with the decibel level measured at 96. With our ears still ringing in the morning and even the café music over breakfast feeling unbearably loud we make a team decision to dip into contingency funds to buy some hardcore ear plugs and defenders online, shipping them ahead to Marrakech.
Marred by sore ears – although the noise level is much improved by natural beeswax ear plugs (sadly not reusable) – we head cross country towards Marrakech through even more spectacular scenery.
On the dusky approach to the city Landy decides that high beam headlights are for losers so the last bit of the drive takes some real concentration. On arrival in Marrakech we approach the main ‘square’, Place Djemma El Fnaa, and realise we’ve reached a pedestrianised area with our destination on the far side and our path barred by a traffic policeman. A few minutes of chat has him removing the fence and smilingly waving us through into the square scattering the acrobats, snake charmers, monkeys, vulture handlers, stallholders and tourists in our path with Landy at full volume driving straight through the lot.
Even more than usual the city is abuzz with activity and the Marrakech Biennale, a festival aiming to build bridges between cultures through art, is in full swing. By chance we find ourselves bonding with the founder over a performance in the Djemma El Fnaa involving an artist covering his head with paint and duck tape and then plunging it into an enormous sack of feathers. This auspicious meeting leads to all sorts of introductions and we suddenly find ourselves going from new friend’s house to new friend’s house, knocking on doors with no prior warning and being given sweet mint tea and pancakes.
Tarik Mounim is one of these. The founder of ‘Save Cinemas in Morocco’ he takes us under his wing, gives us contacts in Algeria and Tunisia, shows us derelict cinema buildings around the city and tells us a bit about the history of Gueliz – the ‘Ville Nouvelle’ designed under the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956 when Morocco gained independence – and the local heritage that is being lost to recent development.
Gueliz also houses our favourite cafés, the clientele comprising an eclectic mix of young and old, local and foreign, men and women, traditionally dressed and in Western clothing. It is Tarik who tells us that the Quran teaches that you should always help travellers, something that we benefit from again and again in this welcoming country – a big thank you to Tarik, Dana, Françoise, Nura and Chantal for your hospitality.
Practicalities and doubts
We still had the issue of the broken differential to resolve, and are helped by David (All Wheel Drive) and Duncan (Britcar) who between them identify the replacement and arrange for it to be sent to the DHL office in Marrakech. We luckily walk up there on our first day in Marrakech to discover that it’s stuck in customs in Casablanca, and that to release it we have to sign a form promising to pay the – undisclosed – customs charge. A subsequent visit reveals that our precious ear protection has got stuck there too. Eight days and seven visits later we collect both parcels (the customs charges sting slightly but could have been a lot worse) and are pleased to be able to disprove the theories of people convinced we would have to involve a Moroccan national and pay a hefty bribe – it took time, but the official channels delivered.
Being stuck in Marrakech gives us time to think about what we are doing, weigh up our priorities and think about how we want to proceed from this point. With our ears still feeling the impact of the constant noise from the engine even after several days without driving we consider our options with mixed feelings – this is a much bigger and more unexpected challenge than the broken diff as it goes right to the core of our project: if the ear protection we’ve ordered isn’t significantly better than what we’ve already been using can we really justify continuing a trip that will clearly cause us permanent hearing damage?
We realise that we’ve underestimated the time it takes to cover long distances, as well as the time required to work out logistics, pick up spare parts and give Landy the ongoing attention she is going to need throughout the expedition. This now needs to be built into our schedule.
But on the positive side, waiting for parcels gives us the freedom to get to know the city far better than we could have hoped for had we stuck to our original plan, allowing us to meet all sorts of fascinating people and get to know them well enough to be invited into their homes. We have time to visit the souks, hammam and the cinema and to sample a huge variety of scrummy Moroccan foods.
Art wise, we finally have a minute to start doing more than just the odd quickly scrawled sketch with Anne-Laure doing lots of drawing and starting a beautiful oil painting and Lucy enjoying experimenting with oil pastels – her first piece of art for about 20 years and definitely no masterpiece. Back on more familiar territory and on a mission to build a roof rack to free up some space in the car, Lucy loves exploring hardware stores and makes friends with local ironmongers over an angle grinder.
Through Vanessa – founder of the Biennale – we meet artist Eric Van Hove and he shows us around his awesome atelier. A day or so beforehand we’d spotted thick slabs of locally sourced cork in one of his works and Anne-Laure had quickly identified it as having potential soundproofing capabilities. We broach the subject with him and a few minutes later he offers us the assistance of the craftsmen he works with to completely soundproof Landy’s interior.
Two days later and we’re back at the atelier with highly skilled Moroccan craftsmen corking and decorating the inside of the cab with beautiful engraved brass, while we spend the day lying in a draughty puddle under the car replacing the broken diff and reinstating the rear prop shaft and half shafts, before mending the headlights.
Massive thanks are due here to Abd Ali, Mostafa Jawal, Mohamad Wahado, Abd Al Kader, Abd Arazak, Abd Aghafour, Abd Rahim, Abd Allatif, Mehdi Ghinati and again to Eric and Samya for reiterating that helping travellers is a local (and family) tradition and for keeping us supplied with drinks and hot food – an uncomfortable day was made fun and it was a pleasure to get to know you and your friends.
All in all Marrakesh feels like a place of possibility with different and exciting things happening all over the city: a brilliant place to get involved or to sit, sip coffee and sketch whilst watching the world go by, and what’s more, there is always someone doing something weirder than we are.
Heading back north
Our drive back up to Tanger Med via the beautiful town of Chefchaouen confirms that freezing in a puddle for a day is worth it 100%: the landscape is even more green and lush and thousands of wild flowers line the road the whole way. We are loving the Moroccan countryside and small provincial towns, driving mostly on tarred roads with the odd dirt track, vying with bicycles, mopeds, horses, donkeys and carts loaded up to the gunwales along with the frequent semi-suicidal dogs, chickens, goats and children. Stopping on the side of the road we find ourselves quickly surrounded by people (often way before we want company depending on the reason for stopping). The whole countryside teems with life and activity. We’re sad to be leaving Marrakech but the fragrant smell of orange blossom wafts through the window and lifts our spirits, reminding us of the joys of the open road.
The newly laid cork looks fantastic and works well as soundproofing and our new ear protection is a huge improvement. It’s good to be on the move again.
The biggest insight from our experiences in Morocco is that we shouldn’t try to do anything too fast. Having the time to enjoy the chain reactions stemming from a chance encounter has been a phenomenal experience and has allowed us to get a better glimpse of the culture than we could have possibly gained had we covered more ground more quickly. We have decided to spend time in fewer places going forward with a good week in one location in each country to give us the time to meet people and allow friendships to germinate.
Morocco has been a great testing ground of our car, our project and ourselves. As the only non-European country on our route that we have both previously visited we had a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect logistically, however, our expectations of the people we would get to know and the reception we would receive has been surpassed at every turn. It has really helped define how we proceed with our project, clarifying our ideas in a way that was not possible from England.
We have been asked how we are finding things as two women travelling in an old – and occasionally unreliable – car, and we can honestly say that our experience to date shows both of these factors to be advantages, possibly because of our slightly quirky and non-threatening appearance. Our project and the Landy (and ourselves to some extent) have become talking points – people seem to engage easily with our story and often want to help us. Getting to know people has been amazing and it’s reassuring that these interactions seem to support the validity of what we are doing – there is a lot more to life in Morocco than is ever shown in the mainstream media back home.
Our thoughts now turn to Algeria which is a new country to both of us. Everyone we speak to has a different view so we have absolutely no idea what to expect, but we really can’t wait to find out.
So far so good.