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From Morocco into Mauritania
19 -24 February

Leaving Laayaune on February 19 and continuing south down the Western Sahara to Dakhla, we saw very little apart from numerous police check points and a huge number of camels that leisurely loped around in the desert seemingly all on their own and often on the road getting in our way. We arrived after a long and hot seven hour drive; staying in Dakhla for three nights for what we felt was a well earned R&R.

Dakhla stands on the end of a long narrow peninsular and is the southernmost city in Morocco. It had a definite seaside feel to it with warm sunshine and a cool blustery wind coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. There was an air of excitement here with preparations in full swing for a big music festival, now in its second year, called ‘Festival in the Sea’. This title reflected both Dakhla’s location and main industry which is commercial fishing. For a final treat, we had a really good fish meal at The Auberge des Belges not far from the Regency Hotel where we spent our last night in luxury. Before going to dinner we met Freya and Colin, an English couple who found us struggling with our laptop in the foyer of the hotel. Freya, a photographer, was an absolute darling and tried to help us computer illiterate ninnies overcome our IT problem. Freya, thank you for being so patient with us!

Next stop Mauritania, but not before another long drive. This time we drove through a lunar like landscape, with huge live sand dunes that are on the move all the time. Arriving at the border just before 6pm, we found it closed and were told it wouldn’t open until 9am the following morning. We spent our last night in Morocco sleeping in Boris in the car park of an Auberge and, with the Harmattan Wind now blowing (a violent desert wind that comes at this time of year), it must have been the noisiest and rockiest night we have had in Boris yet. Liz was convinced we were going to take off, or worst still, blow over!!

Negotiating the two border crossings was certainly something to remember. On the Moroccan side the asphalt road came to an abrupt end at the police and customs post. After over two hours spent getting our documents checked and stamped, we then had a 10 km stretch of ‘Nobody’s Land’, as a Dutchman called it, before we came to the Mauritanian side. As this journey took us along an unmarked track through a mine field, we made jolly sure we didn’t lose sight of the van in front. Much to Liz’s horror the van, which was absolutely full of the most extraordinary people, got stuck in the sand. To make matters worse we were right beside a pile of wrecked vehicles that looked as if they had been blown up by mines! We couldn’t drive past without helping them, so, it was all hands to the pump, to get the van out of the sand, and of course, all was well. Phew, what a relief! When we safely arrived at the Mauritanian border post, we had yet another two hours of form filling and document checking in stifling heat. How strange that it now seemed so much hotter after crossing on this side of the border!

Pistes and High Mountain Villages, Morocco
11th – 18th February

With the realization that we only had just over a week to go on our car insurance in Morocco and that it was still a long way to the Mauritanian border, we now needed to get a move on. We felt that a short cut, using a piste, was now in order and that this would be a good test for Boris, as well as a challenge for us too. So on the 12th February, leaving Oulad Driss, a small village on the edge of the Sahara Desert, we began a day’s crossing on rough tracks to small town called Foum-Zguid. We probably left a little later than we should; nonetheless all started well and we found a clear and reasonable track. After about two hours the track began to deteriorate considerably, which surprised us as we had been told by a couple of Moroccans that it was clear and easy all the way. I suppose they always say that! At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon we were feeling tired and hungry, but we hardly dared to stop, not knowing if we would reach our destination before dark; this was really slow going! Crossing the Hamada, a stone covered desert, and the huge boulders in the Oueds or river beds, was slowing us down to a snail’s pace. The landscape was stunning, but in places quite harsh with high escarpments on both sides of us, we saw nobody, apart from a few wild asses, and little vegetation of any kind. This was not a place to get lost in! We had also discovered that following a piste was never as straight forward as we thought; there was always more than one choice of track to take. At one point the GPS showed that we were going too far south. So, rather than finish up in Algeria, we turned north to where habitation, according to our map, would eventually appear. As Peter said, ‘if in doubt, bug out’, and he was right. Going north meant following a track over a mountain pass which was very dramatic and absolutely beautiful. Eventually, looking down with the binos, we could see a house and a few camels; this came as great relief to Liz! Being on the other side of the mountain range made all the difference and we soon picked up a much easier track, bringing our speed up to 20 miles an hour instead of 2 miles! We were home and dry now and reached Foum- Zguid to find our next campsite in day light-just. Boris had passed his test well and we too had learnt a lot; understanding now just how long it can take to get from A to B on a piste. But gosh, what an exciting day!

The campsite at Foum Zguid had a lovely feel to it and better still, it had the biggest and best hot shower we have had so far .. we were able to have it together! On paying the next day we were asked if we both had showers. Yes, we replied, one for the two of us! This caused much confusion and laughter. Just like all the other campsites, we had our early morning call: the Imam calling the faithful to prayer, the donkeys braying and the cockerels cockadoodling! The longest lasting and loudest alarm call you could ever get.

Leaving Foum Zguid, we drove south to Tata (Maya please take note!) and then turned north and into the Anti Atlas. This was not our original itinerary, but we had met an English couple, Graham and Ruthie, in Meskie; they were avid climbers and urged us to visit Tafraoute , in particular the nearby area they had climbed last year, with its pink mountains and isolated crimson housed Berber villages. It certainly was worth the two day detour. Peter loved the geological formations and the twisted but beautifully sculpted mountains. Using Peter’s small, hand written copy of Graham’s map we spent the morning of Valentine’s Day climbing a scary, narrow and precipitous stony track to the small Berber mountain village of Amergui. Set at about 6000 ft, the cool clear air reminded us of Switzerland. The dozen or so houses were surrounded by the white blossom of almond trees, beneath which was a colourful array of unknown spring flowers. Being the eternal romantic, Peter picked a posy for his Valentine! The village, like so many in the area, was virtually deserted apart from two rather amused, elderly Berber women returning from picking herbs on the mountainside. On our downhill journey we found a small place to pull off the track and have our picnic lunch; the views were just spectacular. During lunch we were entertained by the sight of a local villager returning home accompanied by what was obviously his pet sheep; it was immaculately groomed, nibbling the grass and then running to catch him up, acting just like a dear faithful dog. What an endearing sight! Although Boris took the long and very steep climb in his stride; the return journey created some excitement when the combination of his weight, the steepness of the track and near constant breaking led to Liz smelling smoke and Peter to discover that overheating brakes were the cause. Time for a halt and several bottles of cooling water to be thrown at the rear wheels, followed by clouds of steam!

Despite this alarm we made it safely to Tiznit the same day and by now we were out of the mountains and not far from the Atlantic Ocean. The camp site here was absolutely huge and filled with campervans, most of them French. Although it was ‘complet’’, with some persuasion and the fact we were in a 4x4, we just managed to squeeze Boris in. There must have been 50 or more campervans parked around the city waiting to get in, so we felt rather smug! However, we have decided that at some stage we too will join the ranks of the geriatric campervan brigade, visiting friends and family where ever they may be; in your case, Frankie, parking in full view on your front drive!

We buy our food almost daily; scrumptious fresh bread direct from a nearby baker’s oven, fruit and veg along with dates, almonds and the odd bunch of mint for our tea from the busy, colourful markets. Buying meat, in particular chicken, tests Liz to the limit. The flapping, protesting bird is weighed, a sale is agreed, the chicken vanishes behind the counter followed by a loud squawk and within seconds it reappears plucked but still warm, finally it is cut into portions and into our shopping bag it goes. Liz buys with eyes closed and ears covered, asking Peter to let her know when it’s all over!

Whilst in Tiznit Boris had his 3000 mile service; so, with nipples freshly greased and oil changed, he is well and truly ready for the next haul. We too were pampered, spending our last night in Tiznit in the most expensive hotel in town. Such extravagance!

We left Tiznit early on the 17 February, heading south along the coast towards the Western Sahara. We drove along desolate roads with high winds creating clouds of sand and dust that obscured the sun, making driving, with headlights on, challenging but exciting. It was amazing how children in these remote areas would appear from nowhere, always waving and wanting us to stop and give them ‘bonbons’ and ‘stylos’. It was a long drive with the temperature rising the further south we got; it was a relief when, after about 4 hours, we reached the coast and with the Atlantic rollers came a cool sea breeze. The remainder of the journey we drove with the windows down. So lovely! The campsite, just north of Laayoune and next to a salty lagoon, was another beautiful spot and this time, apart from a pair of Little Owls, we were the only guests there. Les Bedouins was run by a Belgian couple, Luc and Martine, who gave the place some lovely little homely touches. They had a few goats and Martine made delicious cheese from their milk. Another treat was a carafe of red wine with dinner, our first since leaving Spain. The only downside was finishing the last two pieces of Toblerone. Thanks for those two huge bars, Julian!

We now plan to spend a couple of days lazing on the beach at Dakhla, a small seaside town on a peninsula and within a day’s drive of the Mauritanian border. We feel our travel worn bodies could do with a bit of a rest. We’ll send our next update from Mauritania!

Medinas and Dunes, Morocco
January 22nd – February 9th

With Spain left behind we felt elated and excited on the ferry crossing from Algeciras to Ceuta and also exceedingly chuffed with ourselves because we stumbled across a great deal on a ticket for the ferry, saving us just over £100, amazing! This made up for the Dover/Calais crossing which we paid over the odds for by not doing it on the internet.

We had to drive through Spanish Cueta before finding the Moroccan border and going through all the rigmarole of border formalities, which was far less painful than we had been led to believe. It took about an hour, with Peter being marched off by a helper(one of many who pounce on you the minute you arrive)to deal with the red tape and Liz was firmly told to stay in the car, as this was her place; like being in the home, cooking and looking after the children, the helper said! Once through this and the various police checks, the feeling of achievement and making it to the great African continent at last was immense.

It wasn’t long nevertheless before we found ourselves driving totally in the wrong direction and into the Riff Mountains. Yes, Leonora, and we have only just started! But all must be forgiven, because we did actually follow a sign to Rabat, unfortunately the route took us to a new motorway which was still under construction! So we drove along beside it for what seemed like hours, on awful, pot holed roads as evening descended. We did actually, the next day, bump into an English family in Asilah that had done exactly the same thing 5 days earlier. This made us feel a lot better.

With slow going and now driving in the dark, I began to have visions of locking ourselves tightly in Boris for the night and finding our way out of the Riff in the morning. These first experiences in Morocco were not what we had planned for ourselves, but thankfully in the distance ahead there were motorway toll booths; they were manned, the lights were green and the motorway was open, enabling us to find our first campsite just north of Asilah. What a relief. The tent is brilliant, out comes the ladder, up it flips along with all our bedding etc and Bob’s your uncle, our boudoir awaits!

The next day, 23rd January, we felt Asilah was worth a walk through. Founded by the Portuguese, Asilah’s walled old town was very pretty with the doors of the houses painted different shades of blue. We spent some time walking round the impressive ramparts and meandering through the streets of the Medina before then heading for Rabat, where we needed to obtain visas for Mauritania. We camped in Sale, near the sea and the wide river that separates the small town from Rabat. Although a little noisy at night from the non-stop barking of some dogs living on a nearby roof that overlooked us, it was a convenient three day stop over.

With the all important visas in our passports, we happily explored Rabat, first by taking a taxi from the campsite; our first mistake of the day, as it cost us an arm and a leg. Once there, we found the cemetery we had been told about, thanks Becca, it was really lovely and so was the one in Sale which was even bigger. On leaving it and standing studying the Lonely Planet guide book, we made our second mistake of the day by being taken in by Rashid, a well dressed young man who made a bee line for us, as no doubt we looked lost and probably were; he asked us if we had seen the beautiful Kasbah just round the corner. We hadn’t of course and, being the classic, naive tourists he had taken us for, agreed that if he could take us there- how very kind we thought- that would be great. An hour later we realised this was not a public spirited freebie and were asked to part with 400dh (about £25, serious money in Morocco!) that we hadn’t even got, so had to go to the bank for it. What was worse we agreed the asking price, despite the fact that the tour was short on information and Rashid’s English was virtually incomprehensible!! At that stage we probably still looked like travelling innocents abroad; pale faced, clean, fresh over from England and that right sort of age. Perfect targets, how right he was!!

Still we live and learn and I am really beginning to get into the bargaining mode. In Meknes, our next stopover, from 26-27th January, we actually bought a lovely, small Berber carpet for our travels. This was well and truly bargained for. So much so, Liz was given the dubious honour of being told, ‘you bargain jus’ like Berber wife’!

We had a great few days in Fes, the old historical capital and here we had some good luck. Arriving at the end of the day and ready to search for the camp site, we were furiously waved at by an overtaking motorcyclist yelling, ‘wrong way camping, follow me’. Oh no, we thought, how much is this going to set us back!!But it was getting dark and we were tired, so trusting to good fortune, we followed him. Several miles of rush hour traffic later, not to mention multiple traffic lights and left and right turns, amazingly he delivered us to the right campsite and wanted nothing! But there was method in his madness, he told us he had a brother who was a badged, English speaking guide and could pick us up in his car at 9 o’clock the next morning to take us on a half day tour of Fes. We negotiated a price which was less than half the price Rashid had wanted in Rabat. The following day, we couldn’t believe our luck; Idriss, our guide, was wonderful; he spoke perfect English and took us to see all that needed to be seen. The highlights being the fascinating medieval Medina, the pottery factory, the tannery and the carpet and spice shops. Yes, Frankie, the very same places we went to together, but you missed out on Idriss, who was very squeeze-squeeze!! After saying farewell to Idriss, we visited a dentist to see if it was possible to stabilise Liz’s troublesome dental bridge. With Peter acting as interpreter and some tight hand holding, the offer of removing one if not two teeth was turned down and the dentist encouraged to repair the bridge only, this he did, making a great job of it and at one third of the cost in England. What a difference from the hurried few minutes in a Weybridge dentists chair just before leaving for Dover!

Peter was so taken by the Medina that he went back on his own the following morning to experience the hustle and bustle of everyday life at his own pace. By now Liz was feeling a bit Medina’d out, so was happy to catch up with washing clothes, followed by writing postcards and the journal in the sun.

Buying local produce from markets has been great fun and has given us some excellent meals with the help of Moroccan spices. We never realised how tasty a simple meal could be. Our camp sites up to now may have been picturesque but, by European standards have been pretty basic, in particular the plumbing systems are quite extraordinary and you are lucky if there is hot water. We do nevertheless always drive round the site when we arrive and look for the best spot (and there are always lots of spaces to choose from, being out of season) making sure we have the morning sun for breakfast. Very important after a chilly night!

Driving over the Middle Atlas, done mostly in a day on the 31st January, was stunning, with the scenery changing after every bend in the road. The treeless high plateaux both before and after the mountains (where we did see a little snow) were reminiscent, we thought, of what you might see in Mongolia. It was a cold but sunny crossing, made memorable by the colourful people of the isolated Berber settlements and the goatherds with their flocks. En route and deciding against a cold night in the roof tent, we decide to try one of the hotels in Midelt, with dinner, our first bath for10 days and a filling breakfast thrown in. Great room, great views of the Atlas Mountains and piping hot water. Bliss! It was a good choice, the following morning frost covered Boris’s bonnet!

From Midelt we moved on through pretty little oasis towns, heading towards the Sahara Desert. A 3 day stop in picturesque, date palm lined campsite close to a tiny village called Meski near Errashidia with a warm spring and swimming area, overlooked by an old, ruined Kasbah was a real gem. We even got to know some of the locals in particular a young boy called Toufik, who made animals and also a replica of Boris for us out of Palm leaves. He sold these to the passing campers, but Boris was a bit special and he needed help from an older brother to do this. Toufik invited us to meet his Berber family in Meski, which was a lovely experience, but we were amazed at what to all intents and purposes looked like a small mud brick house from the outside, was, once inside, spacious and quite palatial. It was also immaculate and the lovely Berber mamma made us some good, sweet mint tea and gave us homemade bread and biscuits.

After a drive along a rocky and at times sandy piste, we stayed near Merzouga and right on the edge of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes; a foretaste of the desert to come to the south of Morocco. Our campsite was quite magical, next to a hotel (where we spent our final night in luxury) and literally just on the edge of the dunes that seemed to change colour at different times of the day. Before dinner at the hotel, we went on a camel ride to watch the sun set. How romantic was that!

We left the dunes on February 7th and, after visiting a seasonal lake to see the flamingos, we drove to Rissani to buy food at the weekly market; lots of stalls, lots of people and lots of bartering! Turning south we then made a 4 hour drive to Zagora, formerly a French administrative outpost, amidst the palmeries of the Draa Valley. We found a tailor here, who made us a cover for our mattress, he was such an interesting man and we spent several hours with him talking about Moroccan culture, history and politics. Walking the alleyways and streets of Zagora we had firsthand experience of several ploys that the locals use to separate the tourists from their money. One very enterprising one was the post card trick; here the shop keeper ran out to tell us that he has a friend in England,(first of course establishing where we come from) he wants to write to and would we please write a post card for him, as he can’t write in English. Why not, we said feeling somewhat honoured by the request, so in we went, and that is exactly where he wanted us-trapped in his den! We sat down, he produced a suspiciously old and well used business card for someone in West Sussex; as we did the deed of writing to his friend, then out came the carpets so to speak! Peter said the card would be binned, why would the shopkeeper want to waste money on a stamp!

Next stop is a place called M’hamid, further south still, where there are more sand dunes, then some serious piste driving. We will let you know about that in the next instalment.

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