Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Budapest to Bamako

The journey so far

West Africa is not the most visited region of the world, and for those who are frustrated by the phenomenon of “overtourism”, it could be an ideal destination. It is a land of geographic and societal contrast, overwhelming space, vast deserts and high, craggy mountain ranges. It is a region with thousands of miles of raw Atlantic seaboard punctuated only by isolated military lookout posts, ever vigilant for the stream of refugees fleeing the poverty of the sub-Sahara.

It is a land of stark contrast, extreme beauty and a harsh living environment that is so alien to those who have the fortune to live in “The West”.

And the Budapest / Bamako rally, started some fifteen years ago by the Hungarian adventurer Andrew Szabo, draws a line through the region, and attracts some 600 folks to give up their comfortable lives for a two-week run through six countries, to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Bamako part of the trip having been abandoned (at least for this year) for security reasons, but the brand lives on.

It is first and foremost a car rally. There is an objective among the racing group of our number to reach way points, speed on to the next and cover the distance, and detours satisfying only to off-road drivers (in off-road vehicles of which an ambulance is decidedly not), and reach Freetown with the highest, or possibly lowest - I have no idea how they count, score.

It is most certainly not a tour.

While I knew the nature of the event before we started, I had made an assumption that those of us not participating in the competitive part of the journey would have more time to explore a little along the way. This, however, has not proven to be the case so far. We have driven long and hard, hard enough to require two new rear shocks and the rejoining of the chassis and the sub-frame that had come apart in Tan Tan, and from early in the morning to dark. Not, I hasten to add, a hardship, because I like driving, but a very different way to experience Africa.

Panda climbing in Morocco
A major advantage is that driving consistently through thousands of kilometres of highway, it is possible to see landscapes unfolding and evolving in front of one’s eyes. The subtle changes of scenery that create the boundaries between topographical systems become obvious, and the different lives of those who are adapting to their environments become alive and immediately noticeable.

To date the journey has taken The Ambulance from Esperaza to Perpignan, where I had to turn around and return because I had left the insurance document on my kitchen table, and then back to Perpignan and south to Gibraltar.

This early start was necessitated by a major computer malfunction, and the thought that if I needed a new one, in Gibraltar I could at least find one with an English keyboard. AS it turned out, the issue was “dirt in a connection to the BIOS battery”, which meant absolutely nothing to me other than the fact that the bill was only £65.

And so, a week later when my two Australian colleagues joined me, we headed across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta lying on the Moroccan coast. There we waited another day for our final colleagues to arrive after driving their Fiat Panda from The Orkney Islands to Budapest and then on to Ceuta.

Then we headed south, crossed the border into Morocco and headed 2,800 kilometres south to the Mauritanian border. Morocco is a very big country indeed, but more of that next time.

Now, it is time for breakfast and onward …

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Malaga and the Costa del Sol

Malaga and the Costa del Sol are not strangers to me, and I have been here before, of course, but not for some time; and, my goodness how it has changed.

I love Gibraltar
Fleeting glances in the early 2000s, and longer lasting memories dating back to about 1970 have installed memories that refuse to budge. It is the same with everywhere and everyone, I am sure, our initial memories are the bedrock upon which change is measured, considered and finally accepted or rejected. People are the same: “My, how you have grown” is the irritatingly common observation heard by most ten-year-olds at some point, and so it is with travel.

I am even old enough to remember James Michener’s fine novel, The Drifters, an image of Torremolinos in the 1960s that first urged me to travel and has left an indelible print on my imagination regarding the perfect beach and the perfect vacation.

And so, here I am. The first leg of my drive to Sierra Leone with The Ambulance, and here to wait for my two Australia colleagues to catch up. My computer disaster (or actually potential disaster, averted by a Gibraltarian wizard) brought me south a week early, with ample time for lengthy computer repairs and to enjoy the Costa del Sol.

Well, the computer repairs were all of an hour (fortunately), which left time to explore.  Unfortunately, any semblance of James Michener has been firmly eradicated, and there is not a self-respecting Drifter to be seen.

The most interesting part of the coast is possibly Gibraltar and La Linea. Another example of dual-economies with each distinct place living symbiotically with each other.

Gibraltar; from a distance 
Gibraltar is a very odd place; a combination of Georgian England still mildly revelling in the victory at Trafalgar, the centre for the global on-line gambling industry and some rather innovative tax shelters. All of this exciting economy needs a large number of workers, and to fill the needs, between 6 and 10,000 folks cross the border to Gibraltar every day to work. On the balancing side, thousands of young Gibraltarians live in La Linea where there is plentiful accommodation at reasonable prices. This works for both sides, but we will see what the new post-Brexit border looks like; while the border in Ireland has been the focus of most discussion, the frontier at La Linea will also become an external EU border, and will certainly have a basket of new formalities.

Between La Linea and Malaga lie an almost continuous chain of identikit Spanish villages. The differences lie in the village names and the potted history that is displayed on large signs at each beach; tales of “when this was a fishing village” and “how we used to use olive oil” and the origins of the local castle. Mostly indifferent restaurants staffed by disinterested staff peddling indifferent food to indiscriminating visitors at silly prices.

Spot the resort
And Real Estate Developments; the number of developments that are being built, being sold and catering to who know who …. While a concrete block with a “sea view” of the coast some five miles away, offering “on-site” restaurants, swimming pools and entertainment may appeal to some, and obviously they do. The coastline is dotted with an unimaginable number of these compounds and just occasionally, discretely hidden a few kilometres off the main road, one can find an actual Spanish village, possibly with some actual Spaniards living there.

Tourism is a major industry; it is responsible for far more jobs in places like Andalucía than any other industry can possibly generate. It is the economic lifeblood of this region and many other parts of the Mediterranean. The sea is the economic driver.

However, for those with a hankering for a destination more in line with the 1960s than the 2020s, there are still many places to go. Montenegro, southern Italy, the non-Russian resorts of Turkey and more. Even parts of the Spanish coast are still quite delightful (you know how much I love Tossa), but the Costa del Sol has really become a parody of itself, and indistinguishable from so many other international resorts the world over.

Time to move on.