Dire Straits

Saturday 1st October 2011, Chefchaouen, Morocco
Well here we are. Modestine has made it to Africa!

We were up before daylight this morning, anxious to arrive in good time for the ferry as we had an open ticket. If too many people had already booked for the 11am ferry the remaining tickets would go to whoever was at the front of the queue. Well, we were at the front having arrived sooner than expected. Modestine stood all alone at the head of the queue with nobody around except the cleaners. They at least told us we were in the right place.

To get to the port I ran the gauntlet of Moroccan immigrants, no doubt desperate to obtain a few centimes – heaven knows how they live. They are though a serious nuisance finding every possible pretext to stop us, jumping out in front of us, waving their arms in gestures of panic, implying Modestine is overheight and will crash her roof unless we let them direct us by a different route; anything in fact to get us to stop and give them money. At least our previous adventures have already made us aware of such activities and we drove round them being sure not to slow down enough for them to cling on. However, once we'd reached the barrier inside the gates of the port there was nowhere to go. One particularly persistent man hammered on our windows for at least ten minutes pleading and shouting for us to give him money. We wound up the windows, locked the doors and turned on the radio to drown him out. It sounds awful and we felt dreadful but we have been warned that giving them money only creates a bigger problem. If we'd done so all the others would have demanded the same.

Eventually he went away and we were left in peace for over an hour before the gate opened and we could check in. We used the time to read up about Morocco. Until now we've not really had time to discover much about this country which is completely unknown to us.

Once we were eventually on board we were grateful for coffee and croissants though shortly afterwards wondered whether it had been wise. As the ship rounded the rock of Gibraltar and Europa Point to head out across the Straits, the sea, churned up by the high winds of the past few days, heaved and tossed, lurching the ship around like a cork. Poor Modestine, down in the hold with her diesel sloshing around inside her!

Algeciras through the haze of pollution

Yet another view of Gibraltar

Europa point, our last view of Europe

Visibility was very hazy over Algeciras and indeed, throughout the crossing. We were almost at Ceuta before the outline of the mountains of Morocco became visible. Indeed there has been a dull, acrid fog covering the country for much of the day. Heavy industry in both Spain and its toehold in Africa at Ceuta are the likely cause.

Arriving at the Spanish port of Ceuta

Once we'd disembarked Modestine felt fine again and we filled her up with duty free diesel. Ceuta is a Spanish tax haven. Some six kilometres into the continent of Africa we reached the border with Morocco. Here it was complete chaos with hundreds of foot passengers returning from a cheap day's shopping in Ceuta laden with whatever costs more in Morocco. It was all very colourful with ladies in bright jellabas and head scarves and men with crocheted skull caps, baggy trousers and long tunics. Many others wore ordinary western dress.

Once again we were shouted at by men eager to "help" us (for a fee) with the formalities of getting through customs. We had already downloaded and completed all the necessary documentation for Modestine online so had no need of help. At the border all the documentation was already on the computer screen and we were through with little difficulty. At customs we were asked in French if we were carrying guns! It seemed such an odd question we burst out laughing. The guards also laughed and let us through with no further searching. This was a relief as we had a little more wine than is really allowed in a Muslim country, intended as a present for our alcohol starved friends who have been working in a voluntary capacity here for the past year, deprived on one of life's little luxuries.

Our next problem, once I'd negotiated several vehicles driving the wrong way round a roundabout, and traversed a market of goods laid out on the pavement for thousands of brightly dressed Moroccans to rummage through, was to find an ATM so we had some money. The trick was to find a machine with somewhere to pull in nearby. The first one refused us any money saying it didn't have that much left! Ian had only asked for the equivalent of £100 or so! The next machine wasn't even working when we eventually found it and finally we stopped at a supermarket where we did successfully leave with a couple of thousand dirhams.

The Rif coast near Ceuta, Morocco

The street scenery was nothing like we expected. White flat-roofed buildings edged with blue lined either side of the dual carriageway near the sea front. Mosques looked vaguely like lighthouses with their white and blue minarets. The roadsides were spotlessly clean and there were flowerbeds and bright green grass along the verges. Huge teams of workers tended the lawns, mainly women wearing large straw hats over the headscarves that hid most of their faces. They also wore colourful baggy patterned trousers and tunics.

Typical town, Rif coast

Moroccans keeping the roadsides tidy

Strange building, Rif coast

We were agog at the smart cleanliness of the roadside and the surface was up to the standard of any western highway. Further on however it all deteriorated. The surface stayed good and with ample roundabouts and road signs in French as well as Arabic we were in no danger of losing our way. One problem we encountered was sheep wandering on the road – still within an urban conurbation, then cattle, then a few donkeys, chickens and eventually camels!!! The donkeys and camels were both heavily laden but whereas the donkeys laboured with huge panniers, the camels had high saddles covered in bright fabrics. They were lying casually on the roadside while their driver took a sleep!

Camels by the roadside, Rif coast

When we stopped at the supermarket to use the cash machine we also used the restaurant, chiefly in order to get some small change so we could use the immaculately clean western toilets. Pizza Hut is as boring but as convenient as it can get in Morocco.

Mosque near the supermarket, Tetouan

Then we explored the supermarket. It was exactly like being in France. Even the same brands were available! Ian could have bought his favourite cheese from the Jura mountains if he wished. It is amazing how strong the French influence still is here. Everything official is also written in French as well as Arabic. It's far easier for us here than it was back in Spain. Away from the larger towns though I'm sure things will be different.

We drove on, leaving the highway behind and wound our way up into the Rif Mountains through a scruffy landscape of rubbish-strewn hillsides. We were now away from the common tourist areas so the real Morocco was beginning to show itself. There is a complete lack of awareness of just how beautiful the landscape is and how ugly it can be made by thoughtless neglect. A car passed us and seconds later an empty drink can was tossed out onto the roadside. Outside a shop a child ripped a wrapper from a candy bar and threw it onto the ground. Every bush across the hillside seemed to be harbouring the tattered remnants of torn plastic bags and the roadside ditches were full of splintered plastic water bottles.

But I don't want to be negative. All along the roadside through the villages, people were walking, frequently burdened with huge loads, or leading a donkey, or pushing a wheelbarrow. Men sat together at roadside cafes, women in bright flowery robes and scarves stood chatting to each other. Everyone seemed busy doing something, even if it's nothing – such as the man dozing in his chair by the roadside under a fruit tree. A small boy held up a punnet of red fruits by the wayside hoping we'd stop. A man hopefully waved a dead rabbit at us as we passed. Fruit and vegetable sellers gathered along the roadside to sell their wares. A man with a wayside restaurant rushed out gesticulating at us to stop and sample his food. Others just waved and smiled at us. That was easy, we waved and smiled back.

Fruit and vegetable sellers, Rif mountain village

Roadside onion seller, Rif mountains

Moroccan ceramics, Rif mountains

And so we reached the Rif mountains. They are huge and rugged with the steep road winding through them, up to the top of a pass, down again and then up. Poor Modestine got right down to 1st gear at times as she struggled with problems of overheating. The final ascent to this campsite was as much as either she or I could cope with. I'm not sure which of us was hotter as we pulled up at the gates above the town of Chefchaouen which we will explore tomorrow.

Rif Mountains

Rif mountains

Rif mountains

Rif mountains

Rif mountains, erosion

Approaching Chefchaouen

It's rather strange, but over the past couple of years we've been toying with the idea of coming to Morocco but were nervous to travel outside Europe on our own. A company called Desert Detours runs rallies of campervans for British travellers wanting the security of group travel and in particular wanting to visit places tourists don't usually get to. The organiser was helpful when I contacted him some months ago. All the places though were booked three years ahead. He gave me some helpful tips when I said we'd decided to go on our own. We arrived here tonight to find him here with a group he's leading down to the Sahara! It's a small world! They are going to a number of places we are planning to visit. The group is friendly but I don't really think we would have enjoyed travelling with fifteen British campervans. There is a greater sense of achievement doing it on our own.

British campervans in Chefchaouen

Time here is two hours behind Spain so it gets dark really early. Tonight as we prepared supper the muezzin's call to prayer came up to us from the mosque down in the town. We ate outside by candle light chatting to all our British neighbours about rugby and grandchildren. Tomorrow we will discover more about the local people as we explore down in the town.