Jan 2006
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Check out Weeks ending:  [1 Jan 06] [8 Jan 06] [15 Jan 06] [22 Jan 05] [28 Jan 06]

Week ending 1 Jan 06 (Bob)

Cabo De Gata - On the weekend Micael and Ligia took us for a drive to one of their favorite spots, Cabo De Gata (Cape of the Cat) a wilderness 'reserve' east of Almeria.  We put the reserve in quotes because parts of it are covered in plastic - these are illegal farms where the owners pay a small fine whenever the rangers demand it, otherwise they continue operations as usual.  The salt flats have flamingos, ducks, and a myriad of other waterfowl and the coastline is pretty.  We had a great outing.

New Year's in Aguadulce - We had a quiet evening with Micael and Ligia, sipping the local bubbly,cava - the Spanish equivalent to champagne, and popping party poppers or pseudo-fireworks, while the local kids set off real firecrackers and rockets outside.  Overall our welcome to 2006 was quite low-key.  One of the highlights of our visit has been the nightly movie at Micael's Cinema as we select our daily title from our host's 900+ collection of DVDs and VCDs and settle back with a glass of wine to view the latest from the world of entertainment.

Preparing to go further South - We have decided to give Morocco a try, so we are almost in cruising mode as we plan our route, stock up on provisions, decide what spares to take, and read other people's accounts.  We plan to cross the Mediterranean near Gibraltar, tour Morocco for about 3 weeks and return in time to visit forlorn Long Passages in Italy in February.  Much of Bob's spare time was occupied getting our iPaq to talk to its dedicated GPS and soliciting Micael's help in downloading road and topographic maps of Morocco. These maps, now that they are calibrated, will be used to track our position as we explore small villages near the Sahara desert.

Whiling Away The Winter in Southern Spain - After 2 weeks along the coast, we can see why so many Britons and Germans escape the cold and snow to bask in the sun of southern Spain.  In the 10 days we have been here it has been sunny every day and even though the temperatures have dipped into the 40's at night it is normally near 60 during the day.

Mike in Galle, Sri Lanka back in Business - When we sailed from Thailand to Sri Lanka in 2003, we landed in Galle, Sri Lanka and met Mike who, with his brother, runs a small business helping cruisers with provisions, internet, and tours.  He was very honest and we enjoyed meeting him very much.  When the tsunami hit Galle in 2004, he and his family survived, but his business suffered severe losses and we were glad to have been able to provide some assistance to help him get his business going again.  A few weeks ago we received the following email from him:

Hi Bob & Judi,

        So how are you?  I think you and your family are well. first of all i would like to thank you to help me after tsunami effect.now  we are rebuild our bussines from your help. now every thing is o.k.galle habour also now in good condition.so now you can come to sri lanka again.please kindly pass this message to your other friends also. marry X'mas   &   Happy New year to your family.

Best wishes from mike .

So those cruisers heading to the Red Sea, East Africa or even Chagos, Galle and Mike are back in business.

Week ending 8 Jan 06 (Bob)

Yacht Spotting - On our final provisioning run to Gibraltar we spotted a familiar yacht anchored near the runway, and sure enough it was Herodotus, our companion in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea in 2003 and last seen in Turkey.  Peter was preparing to cross the Atlantic to St. Lucia while Susie and Melenion attended to scholastic matters in Australia.  We wished him a Bon Voyage!

Another Week, Another Ferry - By mid-week we were stocked up, oil changed in the van, and psyched up to tackle a new country.  The Trasmediteranea ferry left at 0800, so we were up at 0615, in a queue by 0700.  At 0801 the ferry crew threw off its lines and we left with 50 vehicles, on a fast ferry that could have carried 500!  Many of our companions were caravans and motor-homes - so we knew we would not be alone on the highways.  The ferry runs four times per day between Algeciras (across the bay from Gibraltar) to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco slightly larger than a ferry port.

Check-In To Morocco - In Spain, there are no road signs leading to Gibraltar until one is about 2 miles away - presumably Spain would prefer to forget that Britain has a chunk of their land.  In Ceuta it was similar, there were no signs leading to the border with Morocco; we had to follow our instincts to find the border crossing.  The final km was a desolate, plastic-strewn stretch with high fences to keep the countries at arm's length.  Once at the border we joined the queue, and watched indifferent officials slowly review passports and application forms and punch computer keys as they spent 15 minutes on each vehicle (we did see a few covert bills change hands - that seemed to speed those vehicles' passage).  After 1 1/2 hours we finally cleared and were headed south along the Moroccan Mediterranean sea, as blue as any we have seen, with good roads and the occasional marina.

Morocco Countryside - We passed through Tetouan and turned west, across rolling green fields to the Tangiers-Casablanca motorway where we turned south to follow the Atlantic coast-line to Sale, near the capital of Rabat.  Some sights during our first couple of days:

  • The roads were good, the fields large and well-tended, and the traffic was well-behaved. 
  • In Sale, we stayed at Camping de la Plage, a 0-star enterprise where the electricity went off at random and the toilets do not bear describing. 
  • On the road out of Rabat we passed the Royal Horse Track, with brightly uniformed guards.
  • On day 2 we headed east, passing through picturesque villages and more well-groomed farmland, reaching Meknes by early afternoon.
  • We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and had excellent chicken brochette and warm bread.  Judi succumbed to carpet fever again as we acquired a very reasonable Moroccan kilim.
  • We had GPS coordinates for Camping Agdal, but could not get any closer than about 1/2 mile due to the city walls.  Fatima, a very friendly Moroccan lady volunteered to ride with us and show us the convoluted route to a pretty spot inside the walls.  There were 15 other campers already there - we have no idea how they found it!

Meknes -  One of the largest cities in Morocco, it receives fewer visitors than the big destinations of Casablanca, Tangiers, and Marrakesh - but we have found it very interesting.  The Medina, or old city, is a 2 km walk from our site with many sights along the way:

  • High city walls, sometimes double walls.
  • The Royal Palace, and colorful gates leading into it.
  • Horse-drawn carriages that shuttle families to and fro.
  • Man-drawn wheelbarrows, loaded with sheep for delivery to families - and piles of hay to keep them happy.
  • Fruit and veggie markets with piles of fresh tomatoes, herbs, carrots, and all manner of good stuff.
  • Stalls with carpets, pottery, baskets, charcoal briquettes, tea pots, hardware, and clothes of all types.

A French Destination - Around the caravan park, we note that most license plates sport a big F - standing for France, apparently the source of most campervan visitors to Morocco.  France was the last colonial master of Morocco, and so most people in the streets and merchants make their first greeting in French, before switching to English as they see a questioning expression on our faces.

And A Lot Of Smiles - We have been gratified so far by the friendliness of the Moroccans - they wave hello on the roads, say hello on the streets, and generally have been welcoming and courteous.

Week ending 15 Jan 06 (Bob)

Feast of the Sacrifice - In Meknes we were surprised at the number of sheep being carted around the streets. Finally it dawned on us that the Feast of the Sacrifice (or Eid Al-Adha), the yearly Muslim holiday that celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for the love of God was upon us.  All families who can afford it buy a lamb, slaughter it (at 10 AM in Morocco) and share the sheep among family, friends, and the poor.

Volubilis - Since we were not part of an extended Moroccan family for the Feast, we took this day to go look at old rocks - in this case Volubilis, a southern outpost of the Roman Empire.  The city had been established in pre-Roman times and reminded us of Delos, a Greek religious center near Mykonos.  It reached its peak around 200 AD with a population of 20,000, in time to be part of the decline of the Roman Empire.  We spent several hours walking through the ruins, looking at old houses, olive oil presses, mosaics of animals and Herculean struggles, and finally several stork families who have set up housekeeping on top of old columns.  There is little control of where tourists are allowed to go, yet house foundations and exquisite mosaics survive from nearly 1800 years ago. 

Azrou & Ifrane - After Meknes we continued south, climbing into the Middle Atlas mountain range, finding snow (a lot more snow than we expected in Africa) and more surprises.  Near Azrou are dense cedar forests including the Cedar of Gouraud, reportedly over 800 years old, although we never actually saw it and have a sneaking suspicion that it may have fallen on hard times.  Ifrane was the biggest surprise, architecturally.  Most of Morocco has concrete block housing or adobe-like mud houses and are functional and plain.  Ifrane is an Alpine village and ski center with neat cream-colored houses and A-frame red tiled roofs, wide streets, parks, and a very prosperous look about it - we wish we had more time to stay and explore it.  Ten miles to the northeast are several lakes; we had lunch on Lac Aqua where the local horsemen tried to entice us, unsuccessfully, to gallop around the lake with them. 

Midelt and a Berber Lunch - After crossing the pass at 7000' the highway dropped to the plain between the Middle and High Atlas where our goal for the day was the Timnay Inter-Cultures Tourist Centre (aka caravan park). It was nice but a little lonely at this time of year - we were the only customers, quite a change from Meknes where there were 25-30 campers each night.  We decided to take an excursion around the Cirque de Jaffar to experience:

  • 3 hours of riding in a LandCruiser through dry river beds, up steep tracks, and along canyon edges.
  • A lunch stop with a Berber family who shared their home; conversation was difficult as we speak no Berber and little French - but we managed to communicate the basics.
  • 3 hours of walking in mud and snow through a spectacular canyon very much like King's Canyon in Australia.

Typical Berber home

Untypical fancy house

Berber family where we had lunch

Horse pen along the circuit

Said - our guide on the circuit


The Atlas - The center of Morocco features three mountain ranges: the High Atlas, Middle Atlas, and Anti Atlas, with plateaus between them - check the map above.  They peak at around 3700 meters (12,200') with barren rocky landscapes with passes at around 2200 meters (7000') and occasional stand of cedars.  The Berber people (indigenous inhabitants of Morocco) often sport facial tattoos, on forehead, nose, or chin, to correspond with the mountain of their birth.  We have crossed the Middle and High Atlas and will tackle the Anti Atlas on our planned drive to Marrakech.

Coincidences(?) - We were crossing the High Atlas on our way to Camping Tissirt, reportedly a nice spot in an oasis, and at an overlook with a great view we decided to stop at an overlook for a photo op:

  • In a conversation with a local, Rashid who spoke very good English, asked for a ride since we were going his way.  We agreed, although it has been our practice to NOT pick up hitchhikers.
  • Along the way, Rashid guided us through Errachidia while telling us he operated a tourist lodge near the Sahara, and also knew the manager of Camping Tissirt, Hassan.
  • 100 km later we again pulled over to take more photos and Rashid spotted Hassan at the rest area, also viewing the spectacular scenes of miles of the Ziz Valley.
  • Hassan volunteered to lead us to Camping Tissirt, a short 2 km away
  • This has turned into a stroke of good luck since our engine started leaking water and Hassan knew a local mechanic who has come to the caravan park to diagnose the problem and make repairs (see below).

Ziz Valley - We are currently encamped in the Ziz Valley, a 1000' deep valley carved into the dry plateau by the Ziz river.  The valley bottom is thick with date palms and houses whereas the plateau above is dry and rocky.  The caravan park is at the edge of this oasis, with palms all about us and excellent shade in the summer.

Just Like Cruising - Cruising is often described as Waiting for parts in Exotic Places - at the moment our 'land-cruising' feels similar.  The mechanic confirmed our fear that the problem was our water pump - the bearings were shot and it was leaking water and anti-freeze.  It took him 3 hours of convoluted effort to remove the old one - and being Sunday, there was no replacement to be had in the area (we are 20 miles from the nearest towns).  But he worked by the problem and by 8 PM had located a Fiat pump in a town about 110 miles away, so Monday would be devoted to picking it up and hopefully we will be able to move by Tuesday.  At the moment we are sleeping at an angle with limited battery power - but it could have been much worse - we could have been in Erg Chebbi with the Sahara all around us and the nearest city 150 miles away!

Week ending 22 Jan 06 (Bob)

Wait For Weather - That is the expression cruisers use while waiting for good weather to move from place to place.  In this case it was our van repair that waited.  By Monday afternoon the mechanics had arrived with the sparkling new water pump - just at the same time as the rain!  They soldiered on for an hour or so, but finally the cold rain and failing light became too much and they gave up and called it a day.  It rained all night and the next morning brought the snow - so we were surrounded by deep mud and our mechanic friends did not return until late Tuesday afternoon to finish the job.  By 5 PM all bits and pieces were back in place and tested - no squirting water this time! 

Snow?? - We awoke Monday morning to heavy white stuff dropping from the sky - here in Africa, in the desert!!!  A local told us this was the first time in 45 years it had snowed here - we are not sure whether to be honored at the opportunity to witness it or not.  The snow melted within a few hours, but left deep mud in the caravan park, and when we left on Wednesday we got stuck, and had to have a tractor tow us up a steep hill to the highway.

Scammed - While in Erfoud we got caught in a typical tourist scam - a youth snuck an old bicycle under our front fender, out of view of the driver's seat, and when we pulled away from the curb we ran over the bike.  This caused the youth and all of his buddies to raise hell and claim severe damage, although I could see minor damage to the frame - probably old.  We negotiated a payment and went on our way, hopefully wiser and more cautious, but it took the luster off of the friendly image of Moroccans.

Into the Sahara - Our goal for the week has been Erg Chebbi, large red sand dunes on the NW edge of the Sahara - and we made it mid-afternoon on Wednesday.  The dunes are stunning and we are parked within a few hundred feet of them - with a camel herd between us and the hills. We have settled into Auberge Tombouctou, a nice resort with some flat space for camper-vans.  We are parked outside of a toilet block, with power cords run through a window plugged into the shaver outlet. We are planning a camel trip into the dunes and a couple of days of relaxation before moving on.

Week ending 28 Jan 06 (Bob)

Progress so far - Three weeks into our tour of Morocco we feel we are on the home stretch. After a week in the desert we have returned to civilization in Marrakech, one of the ancient capitals of Morocco and city with a beehive of activity.  We have crossed the Middle Atlas and High Atlas twice, driven through bright sunshine, driving rain, and slippery snow and are looking forward to a dry and peaceful drive to Ceuta next week and a smooth crossing of the Straits to Spain.

Overnight in a Berber tent - We had to do it - spend a night in the desert that is.  We hired a guide, climbed onto a pair of camels and headed out into the sand dunes.  We followed well-used tracks for 2 hours to a small oasis, and settled into a c-o-l-d tent.  No chance of getting lost on this trip, but it was fun and within 20 minutes of leaving our van we ere surrounded by dunes, and needed tracks to know where to go. Only two other visitors were at the camp (young couple from Miami).  The evening went quickly as we shared a bottle of wine, ate typical Moroccan fare prepared by our guides, and joined with them on the drums (they tried to get us to dance but no joy there).  Early the next day we re-traced our tracks, polished off breakfast and enjoyed a hot shower.  Only downside was a TOTAL lack of toilet facilities at the camp - we made do as the nomads did in nature's large sand-box.

Todra and Dades Canyons - After nearly a week in the desert we pulled up stakes and turned north to a pair of canyons that have been carved out of the south sides of the High Atlas mountains.  Although they do not rival the Grand Canyon, both canyons have high cliffs, magnificent geological landscapes, and narrow roads that follow the rivers that drain them.

Marrakech - We had deliberately decided to explore the countryside and desert rather than the big cities, but decided to make an exception with Marrakesh - we would live in the bowels of the city for 3 days!  Picture this:

  • A city center with snake charmers, fortune tellers, strolling musicians, and aromatic nightly food stalls.
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages, taxis, and wheelbarrows competing for space in crowded, narrow streets with rarely an angry word or gesture.
  • Narrow alleys packed with leather bags, spices, brass plates, ceramic pots, bright bolts of cloth, walls of slippers, Arab robes, fine woodwork, jewelry, and antiques - a bazaar to rival Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

That provides a snapshot of daily life in Marrakesh.  We stayed at the Riad Magi, a small hotel/pension a few steps from the bazaar with 6 rooms, but only a few customers this time of the year.  We used the central location to visit the nearby Marrakesh museum, a beautiful old palace as well as walk to the new town.  Our spirits were 'dampened' each day by rain, but it is still an exciting city.




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