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Morocco instantly made me think of souks, Fez hats and slippers with curly ends. That was before I went! Now I can still envisage all of those things and so much more besides. Long, straight, endless roads through the desert, glorious sunsets over the Atlas mountains, steaming plates of tagine and finding sand in the most unlikely of places days after getting home from driving across the desert.

When I told friends and family that I was going to take my old Ford Mondeo all the way down to the northern edges of the Sahara most of them laughed. But, knowing me as they do, it came as little surprise to any of them. I can change a wheel, a spark plug and maybe even manage an oil change but that is about it. If something went seriously wrong with the car I would have been in serious trouble. Best advice too is always to travel in convoy but I didn’t have that luxury either. What I did have though was breakdown cover as far as the south of Spain. A clichéd expression involving a chocolate tea pot springs to mind!

The trip had been knocking around in my head ever since my good friend, Stumpy, had suggested it to me over a beer more than a year ago. This trip though had developed a long way from the original route and purpose. Much planning had gone into it and I hoped that I had covered off pretty much every eventuality. The boot had two spare tyres, cans of tyre weld, a jack, planks of wood, a rope, warning triangle, shovels and so the list went on. There was enough space too for sleeping bags, rucksacks, tent, cooker and a few clothes besides. The inside of the car was equally busy with maps, car documents and a few travel books to stimulate ideas along the way but they weren’t needed.

To undertake a journey of this length in the time we allowed, 8/9 days, would be a little challenging and even more so if we encountered any set backs such as mechanical problems. Now whilst I cannot be one to condone speeding in any situation I must confess that we did run into the police and get flashed by cameras now and again. Six times to be precise. Once in Spain, twice in France and three times in Morocco. The one in Spain cost a hefty 70 Euros. This would have been 100 had we not been able to pay it on the spot. One of the Moroccan ones cost 100 Dirhams (approximately £7). I managed to talk my way out of the other two in Morocco. The big worry now is whether the ones taken by cameras in France will follow us back to the UK or not and also whether we shall get points on our licences for them.

extract from Time and Leisure Magazine, February 2008

The trip had a very distinct purpose to it. I wanted to identify an area which would benefit from an aid project – possibly to assist a school, enhance an existing hospital or improve a town’s water supply. Exactly what we could do and where, were the unknowns and the purpose of this trip was that of a fact finding mission. What we saw and learned on this trip would determine the shape of the forthcoming aid project.

Most people would attach some superstition to the fact that we left on Friday the 13th but to us it was a day that we had been looking forward to for quite some time – the date mattered not at all. We left Surrey on a Friday evening and joined the rush hour traffic snaking its way purposefully along the M25. The route to Folkestone was effortless and before we knew it we were on board the train and heading off under the Channel.

The first piece of driving was nothing of note – dark, rainy, dull French autoroutes. Our first night was spent in fitting luxury – huddled in sleeping bags in the car park at a service station. I have to say though that the rest of the trip yielded fantastic hotels at very affordable prices so the first night was soon forgotten. Some of the hotels we found were real gems.

We continued in a south westerly direction to Bordeaux and then across into Spain where we encountered unexpectedly beautiful scenery around the Pyrenees. Heading west we skirted Bilbao and then stopped in a city called Burgos for the night. When we got there it seemed a sleepy place but after our meal at a local Chinese, where we ate ‘Ants that climb trees’ and ‘Shrimps in love’ we emerged from the restaurant to find the place was just beginning to come to life. We though were heading for bed and some much needed sleep.

It was still dark when we left the next morning and the party goers from the night before were still everywhere to be seen, pouring down the streets in a drunken wave. Some drunken driver was in their car up on the pavement in front of us and managed to reverse his car into a lamppost. It was time for us to leave this town.

I managed to attract the attention of the local traffic police myself just outside of Madrid and was rewarded with our first speeding fine for doing 144kph. Thank goodness they didn’t catch me doing anything faster! It cost 70 Euros as it was and that was reduced from 100 Euros as I was able and willing to pay on the spot. The ever changing countryside continued to impress us with countless white windmills, usually perched high up on the surrounding hillsides. Almost side by side with these were the 21st century response – massive wind turbines, gently turning, humming, to harness the energy and generate electricity. These giants were constantly in sight all the way down to Malaga. What a hell hole of a place that is. Quite why anyone would want to buy a property in this concrete wasteland so that they could look forward to returning here for holidays every year is beyond me. There are possibly as many English people here as there are in England. The only difference being that here you can go to Tesco in sunshine all year round.

Our arrival in Algeciras came upon us suddenly. A fairly normal port and ferry terminal – grey, dirty and confusing. Ports almost all look the same and never really give a realistic flavour of the country that they are attached to. On chatting to some local chap with few teeth and even less hair I discovered that the last ferry for the day was soon to leave. He led me quickly across the car park and several busy streets to a travel agents shop where I parted with 304 Euros for the car and two passengers, return trip, on the fast ferry. He wanted a back-hander for his help and advice and as I only had 5 Euros left I offered him U$10 which he refused. I gave him the 5 Euros instead and wondered as to his mental acuity as he had effectively just halved his potential tip. Perhaps he was brighter than I knew and was on for a bung from the travel agent too. I had no time to think about this though as my ride to north Africa was soon to leave (or so I had been told!).

Finding quite where I was to queue up was not easy but my navigator made it as painless as possible. When we got to where the other cars were I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Our ship – a very stylish catamaran, was just reversing in to unload. We had plenty of time. I also remembered that ships from here run almost all day round. We probably could have got a cheaper deal if we took a slower boat but I was actually happy that we had paid as much as we had as this was due to get us across in under an hour.

The crossing was very calm and took us within sight of the rock of Gibraltar. I guess it would be different to be there but it didn’t look worth fighting over from where I saw it from. Other than hoards of screaming children and parents who seemed to take delight in beating them to increase the pitch of scream they let out, there was little of note on the ferry over. You could tell you were in Africa immediately. The waves of touts descended on the cars asking ‘Is this your first time here?’ We had no option other than to say yes. If you mess them around they have a terrible habit of being able to cause you problems with the police and other uniformed numpties which usually results in more palm greasing later on.

One guy was really pushing his luck though and started giving me abuse and was after more money after I tipped him and two other guys a total of about £5 for getting some forms put through the dreary but apparently necessary, and totally pointless, process. He came at me mouthing off about one thing or another and probably did not expect the torrent of abuse that I gave him back in front of his friends. In retrospect it was probably an unwise move but no ill came of it. Boys will be boys and standing my ground seemed to lessen further aggrovation.

The next hurdle was to get temporary insurance. It sounds easy but when you realise that it was Ramadan here and most offices were closed for people to go to pray you can see that we were going nowhere. We had to park the car up in the port and wait until the insurance office opened. We knew that after going to the mosque everyone would be off to eat so we had at least an hour to kill before anything would be open again. It was an immense frustration and one we could have well done without.

We left the car in full view and under a bright light. All the same we took the video case, the camera bag and the documents bag. With these we could still have a holiday even if the car was stolen. We settled down outside a nice wee restaurant on the edge of the port, a quarter mile away from the car, and had salad, olives and potatoes. A very welcome meal washed down with a soft drink. I really fancied a beer but not knowing what the driving rules are here we had to play safe.

extract from Time and Leisure Magazine, February 2008

An hour later we made our way back to where the car was and waited for the sad excuse of an insurance office to open. We had a coffee each, to kill more time whilst waiting, from a grotty wee snack shack. They cost 40p each which was probably a whole lot more than the locals paid for it.

Finally it opened and I sprang to my feet to be the first person there. We did not need any more delays. It took about 15 minutes but soon I was returning to the car tightly clutching my insurance papers which should have cost me the princely sum of 450 Dirhams. Unfortunately I did not have enough local money and they would not accept credit cards so I had to part with £30 plus 150 Dirhams which put the price up quite a bit. At least now though we could get underway and look for somewhere to stay for the night.

Getting out of Tanger was surprisingly easy. The traffic was quite calm at this time of day and soon we were on the payage and heading south. Our intended stop was the town of Assilah and we were there in little more than half an hour. Suitably tired but very glad to have made it to Africa. It seemed such a milestone and we had got here in less than 48 hours.

We checked into the Hotel Zelis. A nice old place with a rather unique smell and lifts which should have been condemned years ago. The man tending reception had a terrible eye problem – the sort that attracted your attention and that you both got embarrassed about but which I could not stop looking at. Thankfully I had been able to park right outside the hotel which meant I did not have to carry the bags too far to get them in.

Upstairs though I struggled along the corridor weighed down with all my bags. The room was very nice and offered clean beds, a shower which was more akin to a wardrobe and a small balcony offering views over the local fire station and out to the sea. A walk towards the old town and Medina threw up countless opportunities for places to eat and we stopped at a small restaurant with tables and chairs on the pavement. We soon had couscous and chicken, bread and drinks. Great food, so reasonably priced and a very interesting spot from which to spend time watching the world and his wife walk by. We found a place to have one small beer before retiring to catch some Zs.

After breakfast the next morning I found some phone books in the hotel foyer and started leafing through them. I was looking for a doctor. More specifically I was looking for a doctor to phone so that I could arrange an appointment to discuss local medical facilities and how an aid project might be received in the area. Whilst being watched by several rather perplexed hotel staff I fixed up the video camera to film me whilst I called one of these doctors from the hotel phone at reception.

The number I got through to though was a home number and the lady who answered explained that all such listings were for private homes rather than surgeries. The next obvious step was to visit the local hospital here in Assilah.

We went into the hospital and I explained the purpose of our visit to a man on the front desk and asked whether I could see the hospital director. I was asked to take a seat and was soon met and escorted up some stairs to a smart office two floors up. An incredibly polite man was soon explaining the fact that he would love to help but that first we required authorities from his boss who was the local deputy of the Minister of Health and who worked back up the road in Tanger. This meant we had to retrace some steps and this would delay us by half a day.

Whilst driving back up the road to Tanger I was stopped by a policeman who told me to get out and show him all my papers. He told me that I was speeding but I played the dumb tourist card and pretended not to understand all that he was saying to me. At one point he asked my job and when I explained that I was on my way to see the Deputy Minister of Health and that I was organising an aid convoy he told me to put the paperwork away and go on my way. Slowly! That was a stroke of luck.

We had been told to find the English hospital in Tanger and that it was near some stadium or other. We needed to ask many people and it took us an age to find. In the end we found a small place that was not the English hospital but it was the Prefecteur. I went inside and cautiously asked some stern looking, middle-aged woman behind a desk if I could see Monsieur le Délégué. She looked me up and down and once more I was told to take a seat in a long corridor.

I sat in the cool, outside an impressive door. People were coming and going with bundles of important looking papers. All of them were smartly turned out, where as I was sitting in grubby trousers, unshaven and with sweat pouring off me. That was at least an honest look. Far too often I see representatives from aid agencies around the world who are over fed, pristine and unstressed, looking as though they consume more of the charities money than those it is intended for.

When we were ushered in I did feel rather embarrassed though. Monsieur le Délégué was in a shirt and tie, sitting in a smart, black leather seat with a large picture of the King hanging on the wall behind him. I asked if I could film and was told that I could not. He did listen though to the project proposal and we had a full 15 minutes with him. We exchanged business cards, he asked for a detailed plan of the project and we left having received his assurance that he would do what he could to assist further with the project. I was a very happy man. It felt as though I was finally getting somewhere.

We now had another fairly long drive ahead of us. No, I shall correct that – it wasn’t long, we were just starting later in the day than usual. Our intention was to get to Meknes. On the way I managed to get stopped for speeding again and once again managed to get off but this time had no idea why. By the time we arrived in Meknes we had only driven 190 miles during the day which was very easy compared to the last two which had been more than 600 miles each day.

We checked into the Rif Hotel which seemed rather unimaginative and was trying to be grander than it really was. The reception staff were all sitting in a small room eating – probably on account of it being just after sundown during Ramadan. One man came out and gave us both a date which we both loathe but it would have been far too rude to decline such an offer of hospitality. We ate them as quickly as we could and declined any further.

The room had a clean bathroom and badly stained furniture as though someone had brutally killed a chicken in it during the last week. Our sole window looked over a dark inner courtyard and small kidney shaped swimming pool big enough for a couple of terrapins. The carpet had strangely positioned bare patches which could have only been made by someone practicing dance moves right up against the wall.

We left to go out and see what the town had to offer. The town seemed buzzing now with people out to stroll, have a drink and eat after the day of fasting. We found a small tea shop and had cups of lemon and mint tea. Very refreshing but I doubt it will convert me from drinking Youngs bitter.

Whilst wandering the streets after this I found a barber shop and decided a shave would be a good idea, especially after having met the Deputy Minister for Health this morning and looking like a vagrant. The barber spoke no French but sign language for ‘a shave please’ is not beyond most people and soon I was being lathered up.

My barber turned out to be cruel beyond belief. He seemed intent on inflicting as much pain as Sweeny Todd and yet still he managed to leave my head attached to my body. The first shave felt like he had attempted to saw through my neck with a blunt, rusty saw. He then thought he needed to shave me again but chose to go against the direction of hair growth this time. After he had done this he had to mop the trickles of blood that were now running down my neck. He obviously thought the best thing to do next was to rub some sort of lotion into my skin to stop the bleeding. It all seemed to be calming and more under control when he reached for his razor once again to inflict yet more pain. It felt as though he was now rubbing broken glass into my skin and to add insult to injury he applied a liberal dash of aftershave which nearly earned him a good slapping but I was too busy holding onto the chair with whitening knuckles whilst holding in a big scream. I was on fire! When I left the shop, having parted with a couple of quid, I had a bad rash which lasted for three days.

We walked further and tracked down the Hotel Akouas where we were told we could buy a beer. We were the only ones when we went in but soon the place was noisy with another couple. It did not get any more exciting than that and you almost felt as though drinking a beer and playing cards was unclean. We left at a sensible hour and walked back to the Rif for bed.

Breakfast was better here than it had been anywhere else so far. We even had yoghurts at the Rif. There were birds which had flown through open windows and were now wandering around in the restaurant looking for crumbs. They were to become a common sight in most restaurants on this trip. Over breakfast we worked out where the Red Cross were located in Meknes. We knew that they had a large presence here but had no real idea what they did so we wanted to go and have a look.

One of the very first people I approached whilst outside their office only happened to be the Secretary General and this more than broke the ice. Once more I went through explaining what it was that we were hoping to achieve and soon we were upstairs being introduced to colleagues, sitting round a table and hearing about all the projects and initiatives that the Croissant Rouge had on the go in Morocco.

By the time the meeting had ended there were three more doctors sitting round the table listening to what I had to say and offering their advice. It was fantastic. If I am being honest I could hardly believe that I had managed to score the meetings that I had in the last two days and both with such positive outcomes.

With a smile on my face we started our drive south. After a couple of hours we stopped for a wee behind a tree and to swap drivers. We were in a lovely thick forest with shafts of sunlight coming down through the trees. It all seemed so lovely until I heard a noise that I was not totally unfamiliar with. I shouted ‘Monkeys’ and immediately started looking around. As soon as my eyes tuned in I became aware of the fact that a whole troop of barbary apes were all around us. It seemed they were not unaccustomed to human contact and were a good deal more inquisitive than I really liked. With more than enough power to take on a human twice their size they are certainly not an animal to under estimate. It did present a great photo opportunity though and we spent about 15 minutes with them, just watching as they went about their business.

The map we had been using supposedly showed us the petrol stations along our route but it was proving to be rather unreliable so when we reached what we thought may well be the last petrol station for several hundred miles we filled up and filled the spare cans too. It was quite an odd feeling to know that we now had to watch what we consumed in petrol and also to know that once we were half way through it we had to make the decision to either turn back or go on in the hope that we would find somewhere to buy some more. We stopped for lunch at a place which purported to be an ancient Kasbah. It was in fact nothing more than a very nice hotel. It was tastefully done in the traditional’ style which although it gave the appearance of mud brick on the exterior was probably concrete and steel underneath. It was wonderful inside with intricately tiled walls, fountains and low sofas covered in cushions.

For lunch I had my first ever tagine – a dish of chicken, potato, lemon, herbs and gravy in a wonderfully shaped earthern ware dish with a huge pointy lid. It landed on the table fragrant and steaming and accompanied by the most wonderful bread. I can still taste each mouthful of that wonderful meal. It was supposed to be Ramadan and yet in certain places you could always get food when you wanted it.

Across the road from the hotel was further evidence that this place was on the tourist trail – or perhaps just aspired to be. A ramshackle shop of planking and corrugated steel sheets that defied most laws of physics in how it stayed standing. Perhaps it was the remnants of peeling paint that held it all together. Even they were few and far between and it looked as though the next good gust of wind would dispatch with the whole affair. This place sold rocks and fossils. Lots of them. They were everywhere outside and one wondered how they ever kept track of them when people came to look around. It all seemed to be done on trust. I stayed outside the shop and poured over crystals, trilobites, megalodon teeth and all sorts of other peculiarities that I definitely would not give shelf space to in my house.

I was soon engaged in vague conversation by a charming man who was rather lacking in teeth. One or two of the fossils could well have helped this chap out! (I am being too cruel). He led me to a pile of glistening crystals heaped up outside his shop and repeated ‘Cadeau, cadeau’. It was a type of gypsum which he said he dug up in the desert and was so common he could not sell it. Having been given a great big piece of this though there was no way that we could walk from his shop without purchasing something and parting with some money.

The items in the shop were generally more interesting but sadly most had been worked and in many instances damaged which lessened their appeal. In the end though I bought two small pendants for a very modest sum and the chap was more than happy to have made a sale despite how small.

Back in the car once again we headed south to the High Atlas. The drive was difficult and became progressively more so as we neared and passed through the Ziz Gorge. Heights and me are not good friends. The lack of barriers on the edge of the road only served to remove the very last remnants of calm I had. As we drove further a light sand storm started up near Errachidia and stayed with us all the way to Erfoud.

To get there we had travelled through Maadid, a very, very poor and battered looking mud brick, walled town. Large wooden gates hung in a position which had probably not changed in decades. I could not imagine that behind these walls lay anything worth protecting. Perhaps once upon a time the story had been different. Goodness only knows what its history was but now it had a tarmac road rolling right along its town wall. The minute I saw the place I wondered what lay behind the crumbling walls and what the people did in there from day to day.

We did not stop but I had made a mental note to revisit this place tomorrow. Only a few miles further up the road we came to the modern town centre. We looked at the outside of a stark concrete hotel and considered our options. It was dark, we were tired, the sand storm was picking up and we needed to get ourselves sorted for the night. I had been looking intently at the map and did not notice the person standing by the car window. I tried to shoo him away but he paid little attention. After a few minutes of him staring in he was really winding me up. Not something I am proud to admit but that is what happened. I was feeling threatened. We moved on in the car so I didn’t get any more anxious. Not much further on we found an even nicer place to stop for the night. It was in the Kasbah style but was obviously very modern and built to cater for the tourist.

I parked up in the courtyard and went in to ask for a price. This place was in the guide book we had but the price had gone up more than just a little. The first quote was for dinner, bed and breakfast and, if memory serves me correctly was over 700Dh. We declined dinner and the price came down to 400ish. Far better from our point of view. We had eaten well at lunch so we would certainly not be wasting away in the near future. It sure looks like we won’t be using the tent and sleeping bags much after all. There certainly is no shortage of places to stay here.

The foyer of the hotel was very inviting with mosaics, a fountain and a very impressive reception area. Going on through we came into another courtyard and there were various public rooms going off this. It was all rather grand. The mud walls were covered with hangings and the rafters were bare. The overall effect was very pleasant.

A porter insisted on taking us to our room and showing us the light switches as if we would be impressed with electricity. He was just doing his job though and seemed happy enough with the tip he was given in return for carrying a couple of our many bags. The plan had been to travel light but when we added the filming kit to the camera kit to our personal kit we had quite a lot of the stuff. I never like leaving it in the car overnight so it has to come in with us to where ever we stay. This made the rooms cramped at times and provided plenty of trip hazards to negotiate if you went to the loo during the night. I can’t remember how many times I stubbed my toe on the bloody camera case.

There was, unfortunately, a British tour party in the hotel and they reminded me just why the British sometimes get the reputation that they have as tourists abroad. They were loud, rude and made no effort at all to even try one word of French, let alone Arabic. We could not really get away from them but we did not engage any of them in conversation and when we went to the bar we spoke in French. I doubt we fooled the bar staff but none of the English seemed to figure us out. I actually think the bar staff understood what we were up to.

We found a small table by the pool – yes it had a pool. It was rather stunning to be honest. Trees in massive earthen ware pots, floodlights, sun loungers laid out waiting for tomorrow. Our table was covered in sand. It was still thick in the air on account of the sand storm that was raging outside the hotel walls. It was in our hair, in our clothes and would probably have been in the beer but for the fact that I was drinking out of a bottle. Flag beer was pretty good and modestly priced even in a place as posh as this. The one problem with Flag is that the biggest bottle they do is 25cl. The minute you start it you need to be ordering your next one.

We sat and played cards, drank Flag, got covered in sand and successfully avoided engaging the Brits. By the time we were ready for bed it was quite late and we had had another awesome day.

Showering in the morning was a lovely experience. The little bathroom had hot water, a lovely clean shower and, rather weirdly a chimney (perhaps for steam) which allowed a shaft of natural light to bathe me as well as the water. The breakfast that followed was probably the best breakfast that I had on the entire trip. There was a great variety of breads, soft cheese, olives etc. I enjoyed plenty of everything. We cleared the car of empty water bottles, packed up and left.

The whole area was calmer than it was on the way in last night. Fewer cars, less donkeys, no people touting whatever they were touting. You could clearly see the sand piled up at the edge of the road and against walls. It must be a constant battle to keep it from engulfing the whole town. It would not surprise me to learn that small armies of people are tasked with bagging it up and dumping it back on the other side of town.

We headed back to Maadid. As we entered town from the west we parked in a space on the left of the road. The car instantly attracted attention. I have no idea how many European cars they get down here but it cannot be that rare an occurrence from what we had seen. I suspect though that the majority of people that come here do so on an organised tour – probably on a bus with a guide. Alternatively I suspect they just drive straight on through without thinking what this town might have to offer.

The car was soon surrounded and people were vying for our business. In the main they were kids and in all honesty I wish that I could have done something for each and every one of them. Not possible. After a bit of negotiation we took Abdelgani as a guide and he said we could pay him ’as we wish’. I should know better than to agree to this ever again as it only ever causes problems.

We crossed the road and left the car surrounded by kids. I had accepted the services of one of them to look after the vehicle but they were soon clambering all over it. Quite what I was employing him for I have no idea but if I had not agreed to hiring one of them I suspect something undesirable may have befallen the car. The treatment of property here is very different from ours and I just had to accept that this is how it is. The car was after all just an old Mondeo. A dusty, tired looking one at that.

I walked on followed by a swarm of chattering children. Abdelgani led the way through the city gates which were probably once rather splendid. Now though they looked rather battered and I wondered at how the hinges held their great weight in the crumbling mud brick walls. Just behind the main gate lay a small square with a well in one corner. There were children playing and a bicycle propped up against a wall. The place presented an odd mix of Eastern and Western cultures. One young boy was wearing a bright green Nike t-shirt. It just seemed out of place to me and rather in contrast to the ladies who were walking round in black dresses with their faces covered as generations before them have done.

The well had a roof covering, most likely to protect those drawing water from the well in the fierce summer sun. A simple bucket on a blue nylon rope dangled from a pulley down into the darkness which eventually met the water some twenty metres below. The sides of the square shaped well were lined with roughly cut stone covered in patches of green moss. To one side of the well was a sort of trough which I suppose was for animals to drink from. It was heavily polluted with rubbish.

Other than this we only saw one other source of water in the whole town. That was a sort of stand pipe which protruded through a hole in a small walled structure. I was told that this water came all the way from Erfoud. The problem with this water supply was that it was guarded by a group of young would-be Mafioso. From what I could gather they effectively sold water to people and if you could not pay, you did not get. What gave them the right to do this I have no idea but it seemed rather inequitable. I doubt that they paid for the water supply to be installed here.

Our walk around the town was immensely interesting and I came to learn that the town had 11,000 people in it. I was also informed that there is not one toilet in the town itself. I was invited to Abdelgani’s house and as he bolted the door behind all the children who had been following us around were left outside. It seemed a touch mean but it was a welcome respite from having my shirt tugged, being asked for pens, sweets and money.

I always welcome an invite to someone’s house abroad. We would never dream of meeting a stranger in, say, central London and inviting them back to your house for tea or to proudly show off your garden. Anyway, the house was on three stories. The floors and walls were just bare mud. The roofs showed off the supporting beams of the floor above. In the corner of each room there were some woven straw mats for sitting or sleeping on. In one room there was a tea pot and cups looking as though they had simply been left by the last person to use them. There were so few possessions that it was not possible to create real mess. With so few possessions and no family in the house I wondered why there were so many rooms. Perhaps families had been larger in the past. These houses were, I was told, 500 years old.

Having been told the age of the property I was very cautious as I squeezed up the last narrow stair way and out onto the roof. I am only 14 stone and yet the timbers under my feet were sagging with each step. I stayed near the edge, by the wall, where I figured the timbers would be stronger. It would be terrible if I fell through his roof!

In the corner of the roof terrace there was a small covered area that had a fire place. This was the kitchen. I could see no evidence of pots or pans, no plates or other dishes. It seemed quite eerie. Suddenly a door opened and a child ran out but he was soon followed and recovered by a woman and the pair of the disappeared again. Abdelgani told me this was his wife and child. No further comment was offered and I decided not to pry.

Being up here gave me a birds eye view of the town and nearly every building was the same height as its neighbour apart from the mosques which were plentiful. TV dishes could be spotted too which also struck me as odd. I suppose it gave me an idea of priorities. No lavvies but hey can watch TV!

On leaving the house the children rejoined us as we walked towards the school. Sadly I was not allowed in there or into the hospital. I so wanted to see what the conditions were like. Whilst Abdelgani spoke French it was not good enough for him to understand what I was trying to explain.

During the time that I spent in this most interesting town I noticed a great resistance by women and children to being photographed. It was far stronger here than it had been further north. A great shame as the opportunities down here were possibly even more interesting. It was also far more Muslim in flavour. Perhaps the distance from big cities and fewer foreign influences to dilute their customs meant they were better able to maintain their way of life. How would they react to the offer of aid? Who knows. It will have to wait for me to return to answer that question.

Donkeys and carts were also far more evident down here too. If there was ever a rubbish job to get – being a donkey must be it. Every where around the world they just seem to be abused as much as any animal possibly can be. Starved, beaten and worked until they drop. Misery at its worst.

Leaving the village by a modest doorway, we walked south towards the desert. The walk took us more than a kilometre through a palmery. There were people sorting dates on large plastic sheets. I learned that there are many different grades of dates and listened as I was told about the various festivals to celebrate the crops. I also learned that each night during Ramadan dates and milk are given in the mosque at last prayer. A rather nice custom I thought.

A hour later we were getting back to the car. I cannot rermember what it was that I offered Abdelgani but he was not happy. I was not daft enough to get my wallet out and told him that I only had 120 Dirhams and he wanted it all. I said I needed 10 Dirhams to get some water as I had nothing until I got to a bank in the next town. We agreed at 110D and shook hands. It seemed quite a lot for a couple of hours walk round town but in all honesty it mattered not at all to me. On getting back to the car I paid 10D to the chap who had ‘looked after’ the car, gave it a check to make sure I had all wheels, wing mirrors etc and then tried to get in and head off. Hands flew into the car but belongings had been secured. I revved the engine to get bodies away from the car and quickly accelerated, did a U-turn and headed west on the road to Ait Benhaddou.

Ait-Benhaddou is actually a small village made up of several kasbahs made famous as a film location in Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator, amongst others. It gave me the impression that the local people have largely left and are becoming ever more replaced by visiting tourists.

It has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site - one of the world’s treasures. The money that this and filming has brought has been used to renovate the rammed-earth fortified village and its crenelated walls. There is always the debate whether places should be left as they are or whether they should be preserved for future generations. I can see sense in both arguments myself.

You can follow in the footsteps of Orson Welles and camel merchants in what has become one of Hollywood's favourite locations and discover what is perhaps the best preserved kasbah (traditional fortress or palace) in the Atlas region.

It's not difficult to imagine life as it was here as far back as the 16th century. Possibly around the time of the Spanish Armada. This site once commanded all the surrounding area. Caravans passing through the area would carry salt across the Sahara to return with ivory, gold and slaves. Now, there are only a handful of families living here.

My most endearing memory of Ait Benhaddou must be of a little old lady that I met who was sitting outside her house spinning wool. Her face was kindly and heavily weathered. You could see the faint traces of traditional old tattoos on her forehead and chin. She wore colourful clothes made mainly of wool and allowed me to take a photo of her. I offered her some money in return which she was glad of. I thanked her and went on my way.

The drive on up to Marrakech was hard. It started to rain quite soon after leaving Ait Benhaddou and when I say rain I really do mean rain. It was torrential. It became dark too and just to add to all the fun the sand started to blow up once again. The mountain roads seemed even worse than the day before, were heavy with lorries which were difficult to overtake and at one point I nearly drove off the edge. It was due to tiredness but it did not deter us from pushing on. In retrospect it was incredibly stupid but I just wanted to get to Marrakech and to bed.

Several hours later we rolled into town. It was a confusing city and as we had no idea where we entered town we could not find ourselves on a map so we simply headed for the town centre. We found one hotel which was so expensive we could not afford it. It was several hundred pounds Sterling per night. The next few places we tried were all full. We were given directions though to an area which apparently had several hotels for us to choose from.

Whilst sitting at traffic lights a chap called Hassan on a motorbike engaged me in conversation as my window was down. He offered to take us to a hotel and we agreed. I offered him some money and he declined but he was anxious to show us round the next day – no doubt that is how he would make a buck or two out of us. To be honest, having seen how complicated this city was, I was more than happy to do that. He seemed a nice enough chap. We agreed a time for him to come back in the morning.

He had taken us to El Harti hotel which was opposite a park of the same name. We were both exhausted but needed to go out for something to eat. We walked a short way down some wide boulevard, across a vast paved area with people whiling away the evening smoking, playing dominoes, chatting, and kissing each other. We found a place that did great pizza and ate it before returning directly to the hotel without so much as one beer. We were far too tired to think about that. Bed beckoned.

The sleep had done us good and we were up early the next morning. We had a balcony above the front door of the hotel and it was nice to stand there and look out over the park. It was also reassuring to be able to see the car.

The breakfast was pretty dull but was served on a nice balcony over looking the park from the 5th floor. If it had been any higher I would have eaten in doors. Once again there were small birds hanging about awaiting any opportunity to jump in and pinch whatever they could from your breakfast plate.

We packed up the car and covered all belongings with the blanket so it was out of sight. Hassan came to the hotel at the agreed time and met us. We drove around some area that was being developed with very up market looking houses. Mainly for foreigners. After that we drove into the old city and parked up. He walked with a very pronounced limp and yet he could go at some pace. He took us to all manner of interesting places; down an alley to see two chaps whose sole job seemed to be to chop wood and stoke the fire under a Hammam, When we got there they were just languishing on a sort of camp bed. I had no idea if they lived in this alley of if they had a home to go to after they had done their work.

We also went to a Berber pharmacy and carpet shop where we were pretty well expected to buy stuff. The usual pressures put on tourists. I have to say though that they were very nice about it. We were taken into one huge hall which we were told was hundreds of years old (it certainly looked like it) and then the selling tactics started. After several cups of tea I was the proud owner of a new carpet for a couple of hundred pounds.

We passed an array of sights that you would never see on UK streets; a man washing his Dalmatian dog under a tap, a young lad carrying animal skins to the tannery on his head, and wood carvers. This place had a great feel to it and to be honest we could have stayed here for ages but time was against us. Getting the car out of the old town was a challenge. I had to do a 9 point turn. Not made easy on account of the people, mopeds, bikes, donkeys and narrow streets. Soon though I was out on the wider roads and I was thankful not to have knocked over any stalls or injured anyone. We paid Hassan after the usual disagreement over price.

I am pleased to say that it wasn’t me who was driving when we were busted at 153kmh. The police had caught us on a radar from quite a distance and they then stood in the middle of the carriageway with their hand in the air. Life expectancy can’t be that good in this job. Being in the left hand front seat though it was me the policeman ushered out of the car. I had my boots off to relax and had no time to put them back on. I had to walk across both lanes to the central reservation where three cops were standing beside two rather large and powerful looking motorbikes.

Pretending to speak even less French than I can didn’t help me at all. The forms came out and the policeman started filling them out. I was sent back to the car to get documents and counterpart licences. Only when I was getting the Moroccan car insurance out did I realise that this only covered me. I had only got it in my name. How stupid of me not to have noticed before. Whilst the policeman was filling the forms in I kept on enquiring about this or that so as to break his concentration. Whether that worked or whether we were just bloody lucky I have no idea but he never queried the insurance. The fine was 100Dirhams which is only about £7. The policeman had been great to be honest. He just did his job but in a nice way and he was capable of a bit of chat and raised a smile now and again. We were sent on our way with the usual caution for the onward journey.

We continued on to Larache with no further event of note. It was dark by the time we drove into the centre of town and found the Hotel D’Espana. It was very unassuming from the outside but the minute you went through the front door you could sense how grand this must have been in its prime. A long, wide, sweeping stairs to the floors above, a lengthy reception desk, marble floors and a charming manager to receive guests. He spoke fantastic English and was just what the weary traveller needed to be greeted by. It cost surprising little to stay here, it was about 250 Dirhams.

The room had a small balcony overlooking a busy street below. It looked more as though we were in Spain to be honest. It just didn’t seem like Morocco this far up north. Maybe it would have seemed like Morocco had we not been so far south. The duvets were huge, the bathroom was very adequate – all in all it was a pretty nice place.

We heard that there was a place that sold beer called Estrella del Mar. Beer and good food are often my two top requisites after a hard days travelling. You don’t always get them but it’s worth looking! Estrella del Mar was not an easy place to find though. En route we stopped off at a place the locals eat at. Strip lights, tiled walls and floors, basic tables and chairs and a long chill cabinet showing what they had to sell. Liver, kidneys, sausages, ‘meat’ and salads. We sat by the open doors despite the cold night. I had some hot meat and a roll filled with all sorts of salad delicacies. It was gorgeous. The locals here didn’t get many foreigners. We were quite the novelty and there was lots of sniggering when we ordered our meal with a mixture of pointing, gestures and smiles.

Once we had eaten we were led by a friendly local to Estrella del Mar. He was explaining the fact that alcohol was no issue here and no one minded the fact that visitors (by which he meant foreigners) wanted a drink with their meal etc when they came to town. What we did learn though was that drugs were apparently a major problem in this town. It was sad to hear and there was no apparent reason.

Estrella del Mar was up a flight of stairs. It was so obvious from very first setting foot in this place that they focus on seafood. There were charts on crabs, lobsters, fish etc all over the walls. There were also photos from some car rally or another which I guess may well have been the Paris – Dakar. Some were taken outside the restaurant so perhaps it stops here on the way down south.

The night was another quiet one. I think we only had 3 or 4 drinks, played cards and then headed back to Hotel D’Espana. I didn’t feel at all drunk but I do recall that it was difficult to find our way back. Normally I have such a good sense of direction. I can only put it down to the fact that we were led there and I was paying no attention at all.

We had to get up really early to try and make the ferry and get as far through Spain as possible. Time was very much against us and would remain so until we had crossed the Channel. The car was outside the hotel and there was some poor chap outside on a chair in a thick coat and a hat. He was the night guard. I paid him and he seemed happy. I honestly cannot remember how much I gave him but he was happy so I was happy. It must be a pretty miserable job but at least he can make some money.

We left the hotel in the dark and got back onto the payage. It was a staggeringly good road. I hammered it all the way to Tangers, 110-120 mph all the way. I just wanted to get there as soon as possible. At the port though we met the usual touts. I left the car and went to try and sort the papers. I did not like being away from the car but had no choice.

I was in a different office, with different touts and a different procedure that I did not understand. It all boils down to a bit of palm greasing here and a bit of palm greasing there. I am not a massive human being but demeanour and attitude certainly count here in terms of limiting how badly you do or do not get ripped off. I only parted with 30 Dirhams which is about £2. It was actually all that I had left. The chap who helped me was pleasant, fast, courteous so as far as I am concerned he earned his money. He seemed happy with his tip and thankfully didn’t argue. Thankfully for him – I was not in the mood!

We waited an absolute age for the ferry. There were almost no vehicles going on. The ferry was dead. The crossing was far rougher than the crossing we took to get down here. It was sunny though which gave rise to some far better photo opportunities than when we had been coming down. We munched our way through some pretty dull and very over priced sandwiches washed down with a coffee each.

It seemed odd to be back on mainland Europe. Almost as if some element of adventure had been removed. I think in all honesty that it was relief. If the car broke down from here on we were insured and would get home. The car had made it as far as I was concerned. An ’S’ reg with 120,000 miles on the clock and we had not even had a puncture!

We made good progress all the way to Malaga. It was a bit of a dilemma to decide which was to go; via Seville (where I had a friend we could visit) or via Malaga which was the route we knew. We took the latter. At Malaga (horrid town) the rains really started to come down. I really do mean they started to come down – it was torrential.

We needed petrol, food and a stop for the sake of stopping. A service station soon came up and provided us with more than we could have dreamed of to be honest. I had driven 250 miles so with was time to change driver anyway.

I can actually remember crouching behind the car when I was filling it up. The rain was lashing in and I would have been soaked. Even with my evasive techniques I was getting wetter than any sensible person would have wished. Inside though we had a variety of tapas that were all pretty good and very well priced. The thing that startled us both though was the fact that you could buy beer here – at a motorway service station! Needless to say we avoided it.

We were now heading up the E10. I knew very little about it though as I slept most of the way. It was 250 miles before I got back in the drivers seat. By now it was dark and raining. I felt tired despite my snooze and only managed 100 miles before we had to pull over. We were both shattered and driving any further really would not have been sensible. My eyes were closing and we needed proper rest. We had driven quite a distance today.

The place we stopped at was called the Zenit Hotel at Alcolea Del Pinar. It was just a functional, motorway style place a bit like a Travelodge in the UK. Not too inspiring but it served our needs. The room was not as cheap as last nights had been and it smelled of stale cigarettes. Apart from that it was very good. We dumped all the gear in the room and headed back down to see what sort of food was available.

There was a very tantalising menu but we found out that none of the food on it was available. We sat at the bar and deliberated over a beer and some nuts. The people in here were strange indeed and we attracted a lot of stares. Perhaps because we were strange to them – who knows. We managed to get some tortilla, some sausage in a sauce and some other tapas before heading to a much needed bed around 11pm.

We had a coffee for breakfast and then packed. We were out and on the road by 9.15 a.m. and bound for Paris. I was dozing and enjoying it until we made a high speed emergency stop which brutally awoke me from my slumber. Apparently we hit the pheasant or whatever it was that ran out in front of the car. I felt as though I had been hit too but at least the seatbelt had done its job and kept me in one piece.

The journey merits no comment and was quite dull most of the way. We just pushed on and on, taking it in turn behind the wheel. We were both flashed at high speed by traffic cameras in northern France and wondered whether the tickets, fines and points would follow us back to the UK. Only time will answer that one for us.

We made Citie Europe on the outskirts of Calais in time for a late lunch. Almost all the shops were closed which was a shame in so far that we had hoped for a little duty free shopping. We drove on down to the terminal, boarded the train and were soon sous Manche bound for England. We had accomplished a lot in the last nine days.

We were home before 5pm. I threw some washing into the washing machine and headed to the Dukes Head for a pint of proper beer before getting a curry and heading home to watch some TV.

Click here to view the Morocco photo gallery!

(C) Mike Laird 2024