Trans-Saharan Trip - Perth to Algeria


We're on a cheap flight to Europe - up to KL, then Air Lanka to a heavily curfewed Sri Lanka, and finally on to Paris. Geoff and I have a week in Paris to gather visas, staying in a tiny apartment on the left bank, with Notre Dame just across the Seine, visible from our bedroom window. We walk the length and breadth of the city, and understand why people love Paris - we love it too. The visas are easily arranged with the exception of the vital Algerian permit. Our applications are met with a flat "No, You should get it in Australia".We explain that we are here, and want to go to Algeria now, but no amount of logic, anger or pleading works. Finally, I resort to tears, and the official gives in. "Get a letter from your Embassy, then you can have a visa". We run to our embassy, get the letter, and are back that afternoon. The next day we pick up our precious visas, and look at them in horror - they will expire before we will reach Algeria! A half-hearted effort at pleading for a change fails, and we give up.

After three frustrating and irritating days in London, trying unsuccessfully to pick up a couple more visas, we head off to Folkstone to meet up with the Dragoman group. The ferry is scheduled to depart at midnight, but a bomb scare causes delays, and it's about 4am before we leave England. Initially, it is confusing, with 23 passengers and two drivers, names to remember, tents and duties to be organized, and everyone exhausted. Disembarking in Ostend, we discover that the first thing scheduled is to spend more than a week in Brussels and Paris, where the drivers get visas for passengers who haven't bothered to do it. Geoff and I are fairly frustrated by the delay, but it gives us all time to get used to the truck and our fellow passengers.

The truck is good - a Mercedes engine and custom-built body, aircraft-style seating, two sun-roofs giving great photography access, reasonable sound system, a fridge to keep the beer cool. The drivers, Mark and Frank, are fine, easy to get on with. Dragoman provides the tents, and the general organization, but a kitty will be kept for day-to-day expenses.

The passengers are organized into working groups, seven groups of three to do the cooking and cleaning one day a week. There is also a treasurer to look after the kitty, and a barman, in charge of keeping the alcohol supplies organized. In addition, volunteers take on other tasks - look after the water, pack the tents and baggage, restock the emergency food supplies, etc. Our fellow passengers seem to be a fairly mixed group. The youngest is 20; Geoff, at 41, is the oldest, but the average age is 24-25. Apart from Geoff and me, there are three couples (2 from New Zealand, one from the Isle of Wight), nine girls (3 Oz, 1 USA, 5 Brits) and six guys (1 Dutch, 5 Brits).

By the time we leave Paris and finally head south, the rift that is to divide the passengers and make this truck trip considerably less than pleasant has already become evident. Its hard to see why it happened, but an antagonistic group has formed. Geoff and I are just ignored, but the rat pack are actively rude to most of the single men and a couple of the single women, excluding them from their conversations and activities. This division, started in Europe, is to last right to the end of the trip, six months later for all but us.

October 13th, 1989 - my 39th birthday and the day we cross over into Africa. The ferry from Algerceris (Spain) leaves at night, so we set up a temporary camp on the beach and explore the town, in the light drizzle. At dinner the cooks surprise me with a huge cake and cheap Spanish champagne, and we make the crossing sightly tipsy, in the now-pouring rain. We set up camp in the ill-lit caravan park at Ceuta, cold and drenched through. Geoff and I thought the ground was a bit hard; in the morning we find our tent right in the middle of a bitumen road! At least it wasn't flooded out, as were some of the tents.

Ceuta is a Spanish enclave in Africa, and a duty-free port. Most of the passengers can't resist the cheap booze, and the truck head into Morocco laden down with boxes and bottles. Asilah is our first real taste of north Africa, with the old medina, bright white in the sun, and the new town spreading outside the walls. We camp out of town, near the beach, and spend the days down in the town, looking around the medina, and drinking mint tea in the endless tea-houses. I go to the hammam (baths) with a few of the girls; its not as sensuous as the baths in Turkey, but the water is steaming hot and and the atmosphere is amazingly free and easy for the women, in contrast to their covered bodies on the street. As we are about to leave Asilah one of the girls is missing; she is found down at the Police station, centre of attention, having tried to take a photograph of the street. One of the local people objected, and it takes an hour of patient work by Mark to extricate Andrea from the police without handing over her camera.

We have a couple of nights at Moulay Boussalham, camped on the lagoon, with free-range turkeys wandering into the tents. There are bright fishing boats along the shore, flamingos over the other side of the vast waterway, and beautiful sunsets over the ocean.

The trip is scheduled to go directly to Fez, but Mark and Frank are talked into going via Vesuvalis (Volubilis) and Meknes. Vesuvalis was the most south-west outpost of the Roman empire, and was set up as a base for collecting animals for the colliseum in Rome. The ruins are in reasonable condition, especially the tiled floors. Its hard to imagine what this area used to look like when it was a city, with wooded lands rather than the hard, stoney desert of today, and a range of animals now only associated with south-eastern regions of the continent. Meknes is well worth a visit, with a large souk (market) which we wander through, getting slightly lost, thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

Fez is probably the site of the best medina and souk in Morocco, but we don't seem to be able to make the most of our stay here. The camp is a long way out of town, and the medina is closed off for a day because of visiting dignitaries. In addition, I've got to do the shopping for emergency stores, and it takes most of a day to sort out. Mark and Frank have a Mr Fixit who organizes a trip into the medina. All 25 of us in crocodile file - into the souk, up to the dye pits, along to the obligatory carpet factories, home of the world's best salesmen, and finally to an appalling dinner, with bizzare re-enactment of a wedding ceremony. All the things that put us off this sort of group travel. Afterwards, we were very sorry we didn't get the chance to get back to the souk by ourselves, since it is a fantastic place, but even our less-than-satisfactory group tour was better than nothing.

The split in our ranks is much worse now. Geoff and I have taken to calling the group of antagonists the "kiddies" - we figure that their collective intellect is equivalent to that of a spoilt two-year-old. Other people in the campsite complain to our drivers about their behaviour, andin Fez we try to disassociate ourselves from them; I'm amazed that they don't attract the attention of the police - at times I wish they would!

Geoff and I aren't the only ones with Algerian visa problems, so we fill out the forms (yet again) and hand our passports over to Frank, who heads off to Casablanca to arrange visas, while the rest of us go to Marrakesh. Good old Frank - he managed to leave all the paperwork on the train (luckily that didn't include our passports), but persuaded the Algerian embassy officials to give us visas anyway. Why wasn't he with us in Paris? Meanwhile, we were in Marrakesh, trying to get the cambio to exchange travellers' cheques without a passport. We eventually managed to change money using Geoff's driver's license; the receipt is made out to M. Kidney Donor!

Marrakesh is great. The souk is big enough to fascinate, but not big enough to get lost in. The Saadian tombs are also well worth a visit. Outside the medina there are stalls and entertainment. Acrobats, story-tellers, magicians, faith healers and snake-charmers draw crowds around them, as do the string of orange-juice sellers and food stalls. We're staying in a hotel right in town, and enjoy both the break from the truck trip and the change of pace. Just wandering around the town is entertainment in itself.

From Marrakesh the group sets out on the much-touted "trek" in the high atlas. Mt Toubkal is Morocco's highest mountain, but we are only to go up to Chamharouch. We drive into Imlil, and wander around to the hut at Arema, where we stop overnight, then walk up to Chamharouch and back to Imlil the next day. There is new snow up high on the mountains, and we walk in light rain. The kiddies prove to be unwilling to do anything much more strenuous than whinge; the rest of us enjoy the walk, but it was hardly trekking.

Before leaving Morocco, we head across the Atlas mountains to Todra gorge. Unbelievably, the truck runs out of petrol on the Tizi-in-Tichka pass, with the wind blowing at gale force. Frank hitches a lift to the nearest petrol station, and the rest of us huddle in the truck, or brave the wind for short walks on the barren slopes; you have to lean against the wind, and it is cold, cutting to the bone. When Frank gets back, Alison and Piers are missing, and it takes over an hour to find them; everyone is a bit annoyed, and it takes a while for tempers to settle down. On the way to Todra we call into Casbah Ait ben Hadbou, a deserted but renovated casbah, where the films Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth were filmed. This route is through desert most of the time, with the occasional oasis, and the overnight stop at Ouarzazate overlooks a particularly spectacular oasis, near the start of the gorge. Todra is just magnificent. The rock walls soar 1000 feet above our heads, with barely a road width at the base. We're staying at the lodge there, and the local people provide a great meal. Its Mark's birthday, and some of the men bring out musical instruments, and put on the evening's entertainment, playing and singing.

The kiddies excel themselves, and start to sing obscene songs, drowning out our hosts. Eventually Geoff and I can't stand it any more; we make our thanks and apologies to the musicians and go to bed, leaving them to it.

Dragoman had planned to cross into Algeria at Figuig, the southern border crossing, but no overland traffic is being permitted through there, and we have to drive right back north to Oujda. At the border the officials turn back all the Brits - apparently Britain has expelled some Algerian students, and Algeria is retaliating by refusing to admit British citizens at land borders - their only option is to fly in, and even that is not guaranteed. Frank and all the British passengers head back to Casablanca, to arrange a flight to Algiers. The rest of us, with our truck loaded to the gills with illegal alcohol bought in Ceuta, carry on with the border crossing; six hours later we push our murderously heavy truck into Algeria, since even it seems to be sick of all the hassles, and has stopped co-operating. We find the nearest hotel and stop for the night.


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