Showing posts with label Morocco. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Morocco. Show all posts

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 …



Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Travels in North Africa - some observations.

North Africa, it is safe to say, is not the tourist industry’s flavour of the month. It is a region whose visitor numbers have dropped dramatically in the past couple of years, in Tunisia and Egypt in reaction to a few dreadful incidents and in Morocco in the fear that terrorists will strike there as well.

Tunis
The fear is real. Although we all try to say that “They won’t make us change our lives”, the reality is different. The major tour companies, whose insurance carriers among others are dissuading them from offering holidays in the region, are building their capacity to Thailand, Mexico and the Caribbean as alternatives, and the tourists will go where there are seats and beds. Our lives are changed.

Wandering through the Tunis souk was a sobering experience.

Tunis is a gracious, friendly, interesting, clean and most civilised place; it is a city of extraordinary cultural and historical depth, of fine architecture, of wonderful shops, of extraordinary sights and a quirky and mesmerising medina. It is also a city of thoughtful and extremely well educated people who wonder what has happened to their lives and their livelihoods. “You are only the third or fourth tourist I have seen today”, one intoned, and even allowing for a salesman’s hyperbole, it was already four o’clock in the afternoon and by now he would normally have seen dozens.

The Tunis Souk

“Will you tourists ever come back?”, he asked me. I don’t know the answer, of course, but to judge from feeling the city the lack of visitors is causing a palpable distress. I didn’t visit the tourist towns in Tunisia, but a few days later did visit Agadir an important tourism destination and indicative of the decline in the Moroccan tourism industry. Although not as bad as Tunisia, the Moroccan industry is way down; officially, it is only off a little, but talking to the restaurateurs, guides and taxi drivers the story was quite different. Agadir was empty, and even given that this is a slow time of the year, the number of shuttered shops, tumbleweed strewn restaurants and clearly decaying hotels was startling and told a vivid tale.

The deserted Agadir front
The street vendors’ persistence was sharp and all around one could feel concern; the deliberation as to whether to fleece the remaining tourists or treat them especially well was an equation that I saw racing across many faces; these are hard times for the tourist industry in a world that has become so finely sensitised to every item of news.

Yet for all of the concerns, the countries of North Africa offer visitors a wonderful experience. I met nothing but kindness, although sometimes tinged with an understandable self-interest, nothing but hospitality and I felt secure and welcome. My brief circuit took me to three distinctly different places; from the cosmopolitan city of Tunis to the unabashed tourist town of Agadir to the quintessentially Saharan community of Laayoune, and in each, I met a profound dignity and warmth.

The Western Sahara is a fascinating place. Although it is an integral part of Morocco on virtually every map one sees, the large presence of UN aircraft at Laayoune airport and their personnel in town tell a slightly different tale.

Laayoune in the Western Sahara


But no matter; the town is interesting in a way. It is not actually very interesting, but its location is, and lying some thirty kilometers inland tells a tale of The Desert. To the Bedouin people, whose complex lives and culture are intricately woven into the land and the sand, the sea is of no importance. 
The Sahara Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean
The water is salty, they cared little for fish, and swimming was not an obvious pastime; they are people of the desert. The sea is the end of the earth as known, and as such, it is best avoided. In consequence, their towns are inland, close to sources of fresh water, and there are hundreds of miles of shoreline where the desert meets the ocean with no signs of established life; a few newly placed tourism towns, and the odd port built to ship out the mineral wealth of the land but few traditional villages for people who had few traditional needs for the ocean.

(a bit of) The Sahara Desert 
The Sand is remarkable; contoured by the wind and constantly moving, this bone-dry landscape has all of the characteristics of the sea. The Sand moves; like a game of grandmother’s footsteps it is impossible to catch it moving, but the shapes, the dimples and fine curves cut into the dunes speak of a relentless motion. As we drove over the desert apparently at random, I was hoping that our driver had been well taught in the mysteries of The Sand by his father and his father’s father; as if to read my mind, Abdullah introduced himself as “Saharois”, a Saharan; simple, and to me (at that moment) comforting and the first time that I had met someone who chose to identify with this vast and demanding environment. My visit to the Western Sahara was moving, and a very special experience.

I love travelling in the Arab world; not, I would hasten to add, to the more severe, austere and stern countries, but to those whose concepts of hospitality are rooted in the ages and practiced to perfection. They offer travellers many, many rewards; their fascinating history, their long culture of art and education, the exquisite contemporary artisan work and the most delectable cuisine (and yes, some very fine wines from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon among others). Visitors are challenged and beguiled by the important and pervasive culture of the Islamic world.


The days punctuated by the calls to prayer, the hustle of the markets, the sounds of music and children playing are everywhere; it is a noisy culture, but it is a defined and understandable cacophony, and one that becomes understandable in very short order. It is remarkable how quickly one blends and adjusts, and it is only when one leaves and the daily momentum of the Arabic world becomes hushed that the rhythm of their life is really appreciated.

Abdullah, A Saharois Man