We spent the entire day unpacking and repacking the truck. We then gave it a quick wash and put some stickers on. It looks good!
We had a late breakfast and took it easy. We packed up and left at 3:30pm. We found a site for the evening called Camping El Garrofer. It was large, had a lot of pine trees and kids. During the night a huge cat attacked the trash bag hanging on the back of the truck. When I say huge cat I mean much larger than the average house cat. I could feel it tug the bag and the truck shook a bit. When I unzipped the tent to look out at what was going on, he looked up at me, moved away, stopped and looked back again as if to say, “My leaving has nothing to do with you, and if you think it does I’ll punch you in the face.” Spain has some big tough cats.
We drove to Torreblanca and stayed at Torre la Sal 2 on a recommendation from an older German gentleman. I understand why he liked it, as I felt like we were back in Germany. Every license plate was from Deutschland and all of the camp staff spoke German. The camp is right on a beach at the Mediterranean Sea. The weather was so nice that we went for a run. On the run we found sand showers in front of a hotel that were designed as elephants; the water came out of their trunks. Not that Sugar Beach Condominiums has elephants, but the feel of being on the beach, the sand showers, the condos in the hinterland, and the sound of the waves took me back to when I was a kid and the family would head to Gulf Shores, AL for Spring Break or Summer vacation. Those were good times, even when I was allergic to milk and had the ice cream incident with my brothers and Christine and Carey Palmer.
We didn’t make it very far today. We drove to Valencia to find a DHL (think UPS or FedEx) store so we could ship some extra parts we don’t need. Parking in Valencia is nearly impossible. After 2 hours searching the city, we ended up “parking” with our hazard lights on in the middle of a small intersection. It worked, but was all for naught as DHL Express proved to be quite expensive (IF a U.S. postage stamp were .35 then at DHL it would be $53.35). We decided to wait and check the post office in Gibraltar. We spent the night near Cullera just south of Valencia. There was nothing fancy about this campsite except for the first signs of spring – a mosquito. Because of his lack of discipline (he just had to bite us) he had to be destroyed with a flip-flop. The camp was called San Martina. The guy running the camp showed up on a scooter to guide us to our plot. There was another guy in a 78 Land Cruiser staying there as well. He was alone, sitting in the front seat with a small light glowing on his spectacled face. He held an empty gaze and had a likeness to, I don’t know, a serial killer? I broke out the binoculars and observed him through the mosquito net of my roof top hide site. He eventually went to sleep in the drivers seat. The morning sun washed me clean of suspicion. It turns out he is a very normal guy who was traveling the outside edge of Spain alone because his wife doesn’t like camping. He was heading for Portugal to meet and spend time with his family. Darkness and imagination, a combination able to turn any activity into a sinister plot.
We awoke just before 8am. We got ready and got on the road again (Willie Nelson as a friend). We drove all the way to Mazarron (past Alicante and Murcia). We stopped for fuel, lunch and to peruse a hardware store (one of my favorite pastimes). We then drove through the mountains for a little while and found a nice steep road with a lot of slippery, loose, grey rocks on the surface. It split off from the main road. Celine scouted the route and I waited patiently. That’s not true. Celine scouted the route and I just started driving up it. It was quite steep and required four-wheel low to get enough power to the wheels for the climb. On the right was loose rock piled to the peak, and on the left was a deep ravine. The path was expertly made…. for an ATV. It leaned toward the ravine side, insuring that you felt as if you were about to roll to your death the entire time. The back end of the truck slid back and forth as the tires took turns gripping the unstable surface. I maintained control by pinning my left leg to the pad on the left side of the floorboard and pressing my right knee into the doorframe while working the gas pedal. I kept my thumbs from wrapping around the steering wheel as it swung violently back and forth mainly because I like my thumbs, not broken, but in good, healthy shape. As I crested the hill I found that there was just enough room to get the truck level before it plunged down the other side. The plunge was one that no amount of technical driving could have gotten you through. God was with us as He allowed for just enough space for me to turn the truck around without tipping over, though it was close. We drove back down the slope in four-wheel drive low and let engine compression act as the break for the descent. Is there a lesson here? Yes, patience while your scout checks the route. The crest definitely could have been worse. It was actually the minimum required to get the truck turned around. It is best to scout the entire trail and look over the crest before heading up. I am not 100% sure that I could have backed down the slope safely. Live and learn. Having said all this, the truck handled the slope with grace and agility. We considered camping there, but it was rainy and slick and the spot potentially dangerous in a heavy downpour. We got back on the asphalt and found a campsite 5 minutes down the road. We settled in at Camping Las Torres. After another swim in a heated pool, we enjoyed dinner amongst several “white hairs” receiving free Spanish lessons.
I made breakfast and we were on-the-move (OM – pronounced Oscar Mike) by 11am. The sun was shining and brought out magnificent shades of green and blue in the sea. We paused to enjoy the view and smell the salty air. Our home for the evening was in Marbella at Camping La Buganvilla. We made good progress, covering several hundred kilometers.
We awoke and drove to Gibraltar in search of an English post office. Gibraltar is quite interesting. It is on the Southern coast of Spain, but is entirely British (yes, there is a Customs stop). It consists of an airport, a small town with a port, and a huge rock. The road crosses the airport runway, which has traffic lights on either end to stop you when a plane is taking off or landing.
We were unable to find a post office so we decided to head to a Spanish one. Miraculously we found parking near the Spanish post office and were able to communicate our need for boxes and international shipping documents. After many hand and arm signals, a trip to and from the car (to pack the items) and a run to the ATM (cash only) we were able to mail the extra parts to the U.S. I also sent out a bottle of Jameson to Massi’s dad and a bottle of “Wolf Tears” to Massi in South Africa. The “Wolf Tears” are a drink, similar to Jägermeister, that is made in Ergste, Germany. Ergste was plagued with werewolves in the early 18th and 19th centuries and the drink is made of werewolf tears. Massi, a safari guide in South Africa (whom I have seen walk up to dangerous wild animals on foot), is afraid of werewolves, so I thought the gift was fitting.
We headed to the port in Algeciras and made it with enough time to catch the 6pm ferry to Tanger-Med. Driving on and off of the ferry was akin to driving the clown car in a circus. A mix of Spanish and Moroccan vehicles laden with every item imaginable wobbled on overloaded tires up the steep ramp and into the cargo bay where a U-turn was required before settling in about 1cm from the surrounding vehicles. The cargo bay of this ferry is where you must come if you would like to observe the actual cargo load limit of a car or truck. Every van, car, and truck was packed floor to ceiling and then had another 5 feet of junk stacked on top; rubber was rubbing wheel-well, but all of them drove, and they were driven with aggression and (over) confidence. The ferry ride itself was short lasting one and one-half hours. The boat had coffee and sandwiches along with the first hints of African/Muslim culture.
We arrived on the shores of Morocco in the late evening and began the process of entering the country. Our passports had been stamped and a CIN number assigned on the boat. The CIN is your identification number for the Moroccan government, and is also (for the driver) the number attached to the truck. Evidently illegal car sales in Africa is quite a problem. The customs fees on imports are outrageous so some Africans as well as Europeans buy and drive cars into Africa on Customs plates and then sell them. The locals leave them on the customs plates. They get the new series BMW or Mercedes at an expensive price,but at a steel when not paying customs fees. It is not uncommon to see customs plates that expired in 1998. The customs process was fairly easy, but requires an extra step on your first visit. We had to walk to the police terminal at the bus station to have my (the drivers) CIN number verified. Verifying the CIN number just means that you go to a computer terminal and the Customs Official types your CIN in along with the registration number for the plates. After that I just had to fill out a paper for the truck that is basically a temporary vehicle import document. A customs official typed the information into an old, green-screen computer that buzzed and whirred, then we were on our way. We ran the highway (A1) for a bit before stopping at a gas station near Asilah where we spent the first night. We were serenaded buy the roar of big diesel truck engines and the growls, whimpers, and moans of a pack of wild dogs.
We awoke and drove all the way down to Casablanca. The highway is pretty good in Morocco and the toll for the whole way was about 80 Dirhams (DHS). I am reviewing this post after a few weeks here and must say that this one highway is nice. The rest of them have nice sections and then sections where the dirt has eroded from underneath the road. Sometimes there is no road, and occasionally it is a goat path through the mountains. If you come to Morocco and aren’t in a capable 4×4 then choose your route carefully.
We found something sort-of like a shopping mall which had an electronics store and a kiosk selling SIM cards. I tried to get cellular Internet for the iPad, which wasn’t so easy as I don’t speak French or Arabic. Eventually it worked out. In the meantime Celine surfed the Internet on one of the display iPads and Googled campsites near Casablanca. After purchasing a SIM we were sent to another store (Marjane), to get the new SIM card cut to fit in the iPad. This mission took us a couple of hours and we arrived at the campsite by late afternoon. It was a different site than the one Celine Googled. In our search for it we ran across a shepherd who shared his knowledge of its demise before pointing us towards the only remaining one in the area. Unfortunately the campsite was the worst we had stayed in (in terms of cleanliness) but good enough for one night. Update: It is still the worst campsite we stayed in.
The guy at reception had some good tips for us as far as a route and tourist sites go. We headed east towards the mountains on his recommendation. The first attraction we saw was Cascades d’Ouzad (a waterfall). It really didn’t look far on the map, and wasn’t as the crow flies. The mountains, however, slow you to a crawl. We followed a zig-zag path up and down the hills and crossed some very unreliable looking bridges. We arrived in the area of the falls, but after encountering the tourist vortex we began looking for camping (I was convinced I could find the waterfall without a guide). We followed a dirt road towards the source of the river (not knowing where the path would lead us). It was a proper 4×4 trail, with some good bumps, mud and river crossings which eventually lead us to an impassable end.
A local on mule-back explained that the source is only accessible on foot (or by the original 4×4 – a donkey).
It was a fun excursion, and a very beautiful area. We turned back and got on the main road where we found a sign for camping. We kept circling around the area though, as I could feel that the waterfall was close by. We drove down a small road to a little village where it narrowed creating a channelized route where a guy stopped us. He asked us to follow him on foot to a point above the falls. It was just around the corner behind his house. The people here are fairly clever when it comes to extracting money from tourists. This village in particular and covered every ingress/egress route to and from the waterfalls. The village surrounded it, and every path led to houses or businesses ready to lead you the rest of the way to the falls. I have no issue with giving money and food to people, but sometimes you just want the adventure of doing things yourself. Sometimes, in this world, that is difficult to achieve.
Having seen the falls and pleased with ourselves for getting eyes on without paying for parking or a guide, we drove to Zebra camping, which was the best campsite (including Europe) that we have stayed in. A Dutch couple, Paul and Renate, built the site, and have been running it for about 6 years. They put a lot of work into it, down to the smallest detail. It is situated on a hilltop near the falls, and overlooks the beginnings of the dirt path we took towards the source. It is surrounded by green hills and magnificent blue skies (at least on non-cloudy, non-rainy days), and is filled with nice people. The facilities are very clean and have been decorated with tile and small pieces of craftsmanship. The showers have excellent pressure and a good supply of hot water. The camp also houses a Berber-style tent lounge area attached to a kitchen. The Tagine meals are full of flavor, and our favorite is the Zebra (just the name of the dish, not what’s in it). A Tagine is the traditional Moroccon dish that food is cooked in. Because all meals come in this dish they call the dishes Tagine. We met a cool German couple, Thorsten and Annette, who are working at the Zebra Camp. They have recently travelled throughout Morocco and, along with Renate, have many bits of good advice on routes, sites, and Moroccon customs and culture.
We decided to stay a second night using the extra time to walk down to the waterfall. It was very touristy with a lot of little shops and Berber cafes. We bought an ice cream and then spent the rest of our money on a little armadillo carving. We didn’t really need it, but the guy was very nice and spent a good bit of time explaining how he carved, chiseled, and stained each figure. He explained the rock, its source, how to etch in the stone, and how to use oil and fire to achieve varying results in color and finish. Our hunger prompted us to hurry back to the campsite for some lunch. It was good timing, too, as the rain began to pour just as we arrived. The late afternoon was spent experiencing a proper Moroccan thunderstorm, with hail, lightning and thunder.
After packing up we headed for Ouarzazate, which is the “Gateway to the Desert”. Just after the mountain town of Demnate we met a French couple on the road who informed us that Ouarzazate was “another 140 km and the road is really bad”. After experiencing some of the really bad road we cancelled our plan to make Ouarzazate and instead pulled off and setup camp. By bad road, I don’t mean potholes. This road had sections of erosion under the asphalt, missing sections, boulders, and large holes. It was definitely passable in a good 4×4, but best done during daylight hours. We could see the faint lights of a mountain village and, as usual, could hear the dogs barking through the night. Mountains and stars, and cold, howling winds surrounded us. The gusts did not relent, and we packed up and left at 4:30 am. Our tent has a fly sheet that attaches over the top of the tent. It is difficult to get the fly sheet tight enough so that it doesn’t snap in the wind. We finally found that if we just take it off then the wind is no longer a bother.
Our reward for the early start was a magnificent sunrise. In 2 hours we were out of the mountains and on a high, desert plain.
We stopped at the side of the road near an oasis (palm grove) and had breakfast while taking in the scenery. After the meal we drove on to Ouarzazate and did some shopping to stock up the fridge. We also had a coffee and a tea at a local café, while using its Wifi to catch up with everyone back home. It was a really sunny and warm day. Our next mission was to get better Internet for the iPad. The telecom company Inwi is fairly new and uses Edge technology. The owner of the café recommended Maroc Telecom. It is 3G and inexpensive. The owner arranged a SIM card for us, which we spent the rest of the afternoon getting running. The first obstacle was getting money. Bank Populare does not like my cards, so we had to search for a no-chip, friendly ATM. After getting cash the next challenge was finding an activity to pass the time until the Maroc Telecom shop opened. Once it opened the real fun began. Numbered tickets are just something to hold onto, they serve no purpose, as each Moroccan’s business and timeline are more important than everyone else’s. It is every man for himself in there, and without a working knowledge of French or Arabic, you are hardly in the fight. With paper and pen, and a fading talent for art, I went to explaining how I wanted to buy minutes for this SIM card, apply them in the phone, then cut the card and put it into the iPad. I succeeded in being shifted from one person to the next until being sent across the street to a smaller shop. There the man explained to us that for 200 DHS we could buy a months worth of unlimited Internet access. We just needed to take this 200DHS card, dial 555, then enter the code plus * and our phone number. We did as instructed then put the card into the iPad. It didn’t work. I suspected that maybe the APN settings needed to be entered, but it proved to be more than that. I returned to the shop and the guy took us back across the street to the main store. Rush hour was finally over so the guy had time to really help us. It turns out that the minutes had been applied as airtime not data. He switched it to data, gave me the APN settings and then explained that next time I must dial 555, then enter the 14 digit code followed by *2. It was a success and we were on our way. I was beginning to feel under the weather so we decided to find an actual room to stay in rather than the tent. We found a great Auberge and decided to stay there for a night. Our host was impressive. He gave us tea, taught us how to mix and drink it Berber-style, created conversation between a British/Dutch couple and us. He served us dinner and provided stimulation for continued conversation. The room was beautiful, the shower hot and with good pressure, and the sleep refreshing. It was a needed night of rest, and set me on the path towards recovering from whatever sickness I may have been coming down with. Well, the sleep and a good antihistamine purchased form a mountain pharmacy. Whether it was the kids version or not I can’t tell, but the translations came out to drink half the battle. I decided to just take a large gulp, which seemed enough to knock me out and kick the runny nose, then stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing.
We ordered breakfast for 9am which was delicious pancakes with honey, fresh orange juice, coffee, bread and jam.
After breakfast we reorganized the car again and took a short cut through a palm grove to Skoura. The area here is absolutely beautiful. It is desert as far as you can see, but with an oasis in the middle with a lot of palm trees and fresh green bushes. The houses of the village are nicely distributed and every now and then we drove past one of the old Kasbahs; both the ruins and the new hotels are quite impressive.
In the background are the Atlas Mountains, covered with snow contrasted by the intensely blue sky. The colors are incredible.
Our plan was to follow a piste, which passes through steep (sheer) gorges, and then come back down another piste through a few more deep gorges. We didn’t know the condition of the pistes so we had no idea how long this would take. We entered the road leading to the first piste and followed a camping sign as it was late in the day. We found the campsite, which was the parking lot of a very nice Kasbah. The guy in reception spoke only French and Arabic. We asked about camping and he pointed to the parking area in front of the hotel. Toilet? Shower? Oui, oui. He pointed inside. He then offered to show us the rooms and made an offer we couldn’t refuse. I guess it was low season, but we got a triple room with shower and a balcony overlooking the surrounding area for $39 a night. Priceline can’t touch that. We enjoyed fresh strawberries on our little balcony in the sun and I continued my water, antihistamine and sleep regimen. I spent the afternoon repairing the lumbar support in the drivers seat. I love fixing electronics, especially when they are attached to a mechanical system. The previous owner of the truck had decided he wanted an extra power source so he had cut all the wiring under the seat and attached the power to a new power outlet. I dislike loose, purposeless wiring, and had designed and implemented my own power sources rendering his obsolete. I wanted my lumbar support and clean wiring. I ripped the seat out and the center console and began testing the wires with my multimeter. Before long I had the power and controls reattached to the lumbar system and I watched with joy as the mechanical arm pressed the pad into the seat back. It is very satisfying to see the fruits of your labor.
We pressed on after a good breakfast and made it through the first gorge.
We paused on the roadside for some pictures and discovered a trail that had some off-road tours going through it. We thought we’d follow it to see where it led. It started at Msemrir and led us to Ait-Hani which is on the other route for the other gorge (Gorge du Todra). Shortly after Msemrir we stopped at a rather quiet spot (it was very windy) and had lunch there. I had a nap that turned into 16 hours of sleep (which marked the final defeat of my illness).
Celine was making breakfast when a girl from a group of ladies in the distance came up to her. She approached very, very slowly and carefully, pausing and looking as she came. Eventually she decided that we were no threat and she came up to talk. Of course, Celine couldn’t understand a word and she went off again, but only to get girlfriend support. The two together were braver and signaled us they wanted food and drinks (actually anything we’d offer) by putting their thumb to their mouth. Celine filled up a bottle of water and gave them each a package of crackers. Happily they went off again and then the next two appeared; same story. We packed and left not knowing if they would have brought their whole family. We kept going on the very rocky, steep and curvy short cut and arrived at Ait-Hani. At Ait-Hani we took a left turn and stopped for tea and lunch (Berber omelet. Very good). First we couldn’t pay the guy, because we only had a 200 DHS note and he couldn’t make change for it. He said, that’s okay, maybe next time. Luckily there was a Spanish couple whom had change for our large note and we paid him. The guy also showed us on the map where to go and we drove east passing Assoul, Amellago and then south into Goulmima. This is where the mountains abruptly end and flat, rocky desert (except for an oasis every now and then) begins. From Goulmima we took the route southeast to Erfoud. Just after Goulmima is a village and we were waiting for camping signs to show up. There were none. We followed a sign to a “maison”. The directions were good but the roads were not. They were more donkey trail than road, and took us into the the heart of the village. There were people everywhere and a bunch of kids followed us and managed to open one of the back doors while we were driving. When we got to the house the gate was closed and no one answered the doorbell. The boys, on their bikes, caught up with us easily and tried to explain something, or they were just talking; it was hard to tell. They guided Celine around the corner and wanted her to climb over the wall. They were cheeky. Then a man from the hotel showed up and ran them off after opening the gate for us. The hotel looked very nice but we actually didn’t want to spend the money for a room. It was also very overpriced in comparison to other places, and was in a poor location. Since I was feeling better we weren’t interested in staying in a room any ways. We were just looking for a safe place to camp, and maybe have a shower. He wasn’t too happy about it and tried hard to convince us to stay. We left again and in our attempt to find the main road we got a little stuck as the path we were following ended at a tiny bridge that we are sure no one had ever crossed in a 4- wheeled, motor driven vehicle. An old man on his bike signaled us it was better to turn around while the boys, still in hot pursuit, urged us to drive forward. We followed the elderly mans advice, but had to back out as the road was just as wide as the truck and had a creek running on the one side and a ditch from a field on the other. Easier said than done. Plus the three to five boys were with us all the time, knocking on the windows, trying to squeeze past on their bikes and trying to talk to us. They were almost yelling at us, because we didn’t understand them. I think that it had turned into a fun game for them. It was quite funny. I found a spot to make a bumpy U-turn in a field. When we left the village it was dark already. The next town, Erfoud, doesn’t have much camping either, just a lot of very fancy Kasbahs. After driving up and down we stopped at one of them and asked if there was any camping nearby. The guy spoke English and was a great help. He gave us directions to the only campsite in town but not without first trying to convince us to stay at his hotel. He offered us a nice deal: 600 DHS instead of 900 DHS, but we passed on the offer. The camping site called Tifina was a fraction of the cost at 90 DHS.
We thought that as soon as it gets dark everybody goes home for a cozy supper and early bed, but not so. We passed through town on the way to the campsite to find that it was very busy. There were people everywhere; young and old, and on bikes and scooters, in cars, on horses and donkey carts, etc. All mixed up and on the same road. The night was good and there was no wind at all.
A side note, we saw the first proper Saharan sand, just before Erfoud. It felt nice and cool. That morning we were up high in the mountains (about 2000m) and Celine dipped her toes into the snow. It is amazing how quickly and drastically the environment changes here.
The shower, even though it was more of a cold dribble, was still good. The weather is beautiful, no clouds, and no wind. We are sitting inside, writing and waiting for lunch….