Updated On: May 10, 2006
Current Location: Dakla, Western Sahara
Distance Since Last Update:
2,925 miles
Total Distance: 7,399 miles
Current Weather: Sunny, 90's. Cool nights.
Local Fare:Tajine, Couscous, Mint Tea, Pastilla, Rghaif, Harira, Goat's Brains, Snails
Wildlife: Camels, Cobras, Noisy donkeys, fighting cats, a thousand barking dogs
Recent Activities: Crossing an endless sea of sand in Western Sahara.

 
 

Tarifa, Spain - April 9, 2006
(Sheri Writes): The day has FINALLY arrived for us to leave for Africa! We’ve been looking forward to this day for a very long time and are eager to start our journey through Africa.. While in Lagos, we were informed that we should take the ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish territory, and cross to Morocco there rather than Tangier as we would encounter fewer customs hassles. We woke up and got ready as quickly as possible, filled our jerry cans with water, and set off at 11:30 for Algeciras, Spain. Once in Algeciras we found the ferry terminal easily and then located the ticket offices. There are a number of travel agencies that sell tickets and after shopping prices we purchased tickets for two adults and the truck for 135 Euros (considerably cheaper than the the 185 Euros that the first agency quoted us). With tickets in hand we queued up, along with several other expedition ready 4x4’s, for the 3pm ferry. The crossing was a very short 45 minutes. Onboard the ferry, we were filled with so many emotions. While our trip officially started back in February, this was the true launch point for our adventure. To celebrate the occassion we had a toast (with some very poor Spanish beer and the worst ham and cheese sandwiches money can buy).

Once in Ceuta, , we loaded up on fuel (which is fairly cheap as it is not taxed) and headed for the border. Clearing customs proved painless and took less than an hour. Perhaps the biggest hassle was just dealing with the touts offering to guide you through the passport and customs process (which basically involves filling out a few forms and presenting your vehicle and insurance docs – didn’t even search our vehicle). While a guide is completely unnecessary, we still hired one for $1 US. This was money well spent because as soon as you hire a guide the rest leave you alone which allowed us to fill out the paperwork in peace. Once in Morocco, it was quickly evident how far from Europe we really were. People were everywhere and the streets were filled with venders, pedestrians, donkeys, and the odd goat. Our first destination was Chefchaouen, a relaxed town in the Rif Mountains, famous for it’s blue white-washed buildings. Around 7:00pm we arrived at Camping Azilan, located on the side of a hill overlooking the city. It was Sunday night and everyone was outside. There were so many people out that it was fairly difficult to drive through the roads to the campsite. We set up the tent and got directions down to the medina and set off to find a restuarant for dinner. From the campsite, we had to walk down a steep hill which passedthrough an old cemetery. Along the way wequickly learned that this was a popular area to purchase hashish, which we were offered several times on the way into town. . Soon we arrived at the entrance to the medina and made our way through a smokey maze of narrow, twisting streets filled with food venders, merchants, and shoppers. It was sensory overload as we were overpowered by the smells, sounds, and sights of such an amazing place. Eventually, the street dumped us into the central square. On one side was a beautifully lit kasbah and as we looked around us, we had the sense that we were in the middle of a movie set. Walking through the square, we passed cafes where Moroccan and tourist alike were sipping mint tea. Hungry, we found a place with reasonably priced tajines, where we both ordered chicken tagine and sweet mint tea. The tagine was decent, the mint tea was the to die for!. We had been looking forward to mint tea for a long time and it was well worth the wait. More than the tagine itself, we enjoyed people-watching and the beauty of the square at night. Finally, with our bellies full, and our lips beginning to pucker from all of the sugar in the tea,

we made our way back to the campsite where we quickly got ready for bed.

 
 

Chefchaouen, Morocco - April 10, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Our first night in Morocco was filled with the sounds of dogs barking, donkeys hee-hawing (or whatever they do) and 4am the call to pray. It will take a little getting used to before we are able to sleep uninterupted through the night. Non-the-less, we slept well and woke up eager to explore the city. There are dogs everywhere in our campsite, some stray, some not. While we were getting ready this morning we saw some adorable puppies, which I was very tempted to adopt. The sensible side of me however knew that wouldn’t be possible.. It’s market day today and we were looking forward to seeing what is on offer so that we can stock up a bit on fresh food. Once in the medina we had a fairly tasteless chocolate croissant for breakfast and then went in search of the market. Our first attempt proved fruitless, so we wandered around to get the lay of the land. The most striking thing about Chefchaouen is the blue white-washed buildings. Almost everything is a beautiful sky blue, even the walkways. After walking around a bit, we decided it was time for our morning mint tea. We found a great cafe that was on a terrace overlooking a bustling street just off of the main market. The tea was delicious and the entertainment was provided by the local butcher shop across from us. We were a bit curious about why so many people were lined up outside of this shop with chickens in their hands. It didn’t take long before we figured out that this is where the chickens go to “meet their maker”. You simply hand the guy a chicken, he slits the throat, lets the blood drain, plucks the feathers, and takes care of all the other niceties that come along with preparing a freshly killed chicken. Why do it yourself when you’re local butcher can take care of it? With our fill of mint tea, we headed into the market to do some shopping.. There were mounds of olives, nuts, fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat. We settled on very tasty olives, tomatoes, onion, oranges, and bread and found a place in the square to sit and consume some of the olives and bread for lunch. Afterwards we explored some more and then decided that it was time for more mint tea, so found a nice, quiet spot located on a hill overlooking a river. While we were sipping our tea a little girl, around 8 years old, approached us with a tray of the smallest cubes of cake that I’ve ever seen and insisted that we “try” some. We declined the offer, but she was persistent and eventually shoved two sweet, finger tip-sized cakes into our hands. Immediately after we swallowed this pea-sized portion, the entrepreneurial little girl told us that we owed her 10 dirham. 10 dirham seemed a little steep and with a little discussion she settled for a more reasonable sum of 1 dirham each. We handed her a 5 dirham coin and instead of handing us change she started cutting us three more of the micro cubes. While that was very clever of her, I wasn’t going to let her get away with that and insisted that she give us our 3 dirham in change. She refused, I insisted, she refused, I insisted, and this went on for a couple of minutes. Finally, she stormed over to a little boy that was with her and made change. She returned with a look of defeat and handed us our 3 dirham. I’ve got to hand it to her. She’s quite the tough little business woman and I’d love to see where she ends up in 20 years. In the meantime however, the waiters saw what she was doing and shooed her away by throwing rocks in her direction.

Before long we walked back to the campsite to make dinner. It was a tasty pasta dinner with tomatoes and onions, topped with Sharikay’s special dressing recipe. Also on the menu was tomato salad with balsamic vinegar, olives, and bread. We were tired after this, so cleaned up and crawled into the tent for more fun-filled sleep interrupted by the infamous call to prayer, barking dogs, and crowing roosters.

 
 
 
 
 

Chefchaouen, Morocco - April 11, 2006
(Sheri Writes): It’s time to move onto Fes today, so we woke up, packed up the tent, and Jim went down to the medina to take a few last photos. After a brief internet stop, we were on our way to Fes by 12:30. Fes is a place we’ve alway wanted to visit and we were eager to delve into it’s famous medina. Knowing that Fes is also famous for it’s hustlers and touts, including hustlers on motor bikes that can easily cause an accident as they attempt to lure you to follow them, we wanted to get to the city in time to find the campsite before dark. Our drive to Fes was beautiful as we passed through the Rif mountains and fields of yellow, purple, and red flowers. We arrived in Fes around 6:00, well before dark, and setout to find our campsite. Morocco does a great job of marking hotels and other points of interest and as we entered town, we quickly saw a sign for our campsite. Only problem was that we noticed it just as we passed it and we weren’t able to determine what direction it was pointing. To avoid getting lost, we pulled over to the side of the road so that we could wait for traffic to pass before making a U-turn to go back and check the sign. Enter the hustlers. Within seconds our first hustler arrives on a motor bike and pulls up to the window and asks if we’re headed to the campsite. He says he’s an official guide with the tourism office and would be happy to take us there so that we’re not bothered by the many hustlers that frequent the area. He went on to say if yo don’t believe me then check with the police officer down the street. Clearly a hustler himself, our primary concern was getting rid of him so that we could avoid dealing with him later. At first we told him we were just going for gas. Didn’t work. He just said no problem I’ll wait. While at the gas station, he told us to wait while he called a friend who spoke better English. Of course we didn’t wait around and as soon as he was gone we took off. Fast forward a couple of miles and he’s right right beside us again. Next Jim rolls down the window and Jim and told him that we were sure that he has the best intentions and that of course he is an official guide...who were we to question that? And yes, we will follow you. . Luck was on our side because he actually believed that we would follow him. He passed through a traffic light as it changed to red and kept driving. It took him about a ¼ mile to figure out his mistake and just as he did, the light turned green we lost no time making the fastest U turn ever made and went in the opposite direction. After driving for a few meters, we breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we had won the game and finally lost this guy. Our celebration was short-lived because soon, another “official guide” was hot on our trail and started the process all over again. This guy had a death-wish, apparently, because he decided that the most effective way to win our business was to place his moped directly in front of our very large moving truck and then stop. Well, he would have won the Darwin award that day if Jim had not been able to react as quickly as he did with a very heavy, 3 ton vehicle. Needless to say, we came inches from running over him, which he wasn’t very thrilled about. To show us his appreciation, he turned around and spit on our truck. He gave up on us and we were finally left on our own to find the campsite. Arriving after dark, we decided that we had had enough excitement for the day and decided to stay at the campsite for the night and deal with all the touts and hustlers tomorrow. We wrongly assumed that we were safe from the hustlers and touts once in the campsite because as soon as we checked in at reception, we got the hard sale from the guy at the desk trying to push an official guide on us. There’s nothing Jim and I dislike more (ok, I’m sure there are some things) than guides. We told him that we didn’t want an official guide tomorrow, but Moroccans don’t know the meaning of “no”, so he so “kindly” paid us a visit while we were eating dinner to ask, yet again, if we would like an official guide. He made it sound as if we were going into the jaws of death and would be eaten alive without a guide. We told him that we appreciated his concern, but we would like to go on our own. With annoying campsite man out of our hair, we went back to dinner which was soup with vegetables, tomato salad, and bread. We tried to boil water using the kelly kettle and found that it’s much more difficult to get the kettle to work than it appears. After several attempts, we finally got the fire to light and soon had boiling water. We went to bed immediately after dinner to rest up for the day tomorrow.
 

 
 

Fes, Morocco - April 12, 2006
(Sheri Writes): This morning we were met bright and early by the campsite manager who again, strongly suggested we hire a guide to explore the medina. We declined his offer inspite of the fact that he warned of our impending doom should we enter the medina along. Getting to the medina is a bit of a hike which required us to take a bus and then a taxi. Unfortunately, our Lonely Planet is from 1998 and the bus info is out dated. The campsite staff, all on the take, was of no help as they just insisted we hire a guide. Fortunately, we ran into a group of French people that told us which bus to catch and where we could catch a taxi later. Everything went smoothly and before long we were at the Bab Bou Jeloud gate into the Fes medina. The book warns of the unofficial guides that lurk outside the gates, but we weren’t bothered by anyone. Evenmore, we weren’t bothered by anyone the entire day. Apparently it used to be much worse and the government has really cracked down on the shop owners and faux guides.

As you enter the gate, you immediately encounter the flavorful smells coming from the smoke-filled food stalls. On offer at these stalls are freshly-cooked brochettes of chicken, beef, kefta, or sausage. This woke up our stomachs, but we wanted to walk around a bit before deciding where to eat. Fes el-Bali is the original medina and is full of twisting alleys, blind turns, souqs, restaurants, mosques, and medinas. It’s very easy to get lost in the twisting maze of alleys, but that;s the fun of it...getting lost and then finding your way again. At one count there were 9,400 streets and lanes and needless to say, we didn’t see a fraction of them. Walking down the very narrow streets can be a challenge as there are many obstacles to overcome. Among them are the countless mules and mule drivers who yell “barek”—or look out because you’re about to get pummeled by a mule on a mission. The mules are equipped with shoes made of car tires to help them up the steeper slopes. Along with the hundreds of mules comes hundreds of piles of mule poo, smelly mule poo.

We worked up an appetite walking around so finally settled on a stall and had a very delicious beef sandwich, fries, and mint tea. After lunch we explored the souqs some more and set off to try to find the tanneries. As we were referring to our map we were approached by two Swiss guys, Pierre and Tomas, who were looking for the same thing. After we talked a bit, we decided that we would set off together to find them. After all, we figured that it would be easier to find with four people rather than two. It didn’t take too long to find, but we decided that it was too late in the day to go and that visiting the tannery in the morning would be better. Instead of going to the tannery, we found a nice spot, a palace-style restaurant, to sip mint tea. After tea we decided to head back to the Bab Bou Jeloud gate for dinner and had a very nice dinner with Pierre and Tomas atop a 3rd floor terrace overlooking the medina. We all ate pastilla, a very delicious, rich dish of chicken, eggs, lemon, almonds, cinnamon, saffron, and, sugar in between many flakey layers of pastryand topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Eating pastilla is similar to eating dinner and desert at the same time. After dinner we decided to all meet again in the morning to see the tanneries.

 
 
 
  Fes, Morocco - April 13, 2006
(Sheri Writes): We met Pierre and Tomas at 9:30 and set off for the tanneries. First stop was a food stall to grab something to eat and we found our new favorite breakfast...rghaif, a flaky pancake which is deep fried in oil. Mine was covered in honey and Jim’s in cheese. Absolutely delicious. It’s kind of like Morocco’s version of a crepe. Surprisingly we were able to find the tanneries without a problem and once there were immediately bombarded with young guys wanting to be our guide. We didn’t have much of a choice, so Pierre and Tomas negotiated a price of 5 dirham (approx $0.50) for two of us. Once Pierre and Tomas had wandered off, the “guide” insisted on 10 dirham for me and Jim. I argued back and forth with him and was at my wits end, so explained the situation to Jim. 10 dirham is not a lot of money, only $1, but it was the principle and this guy was not playing by the rules. Jim was more interested in taking photos, so handed the 10 dirham to him so he would leave us alone.

With him out of our hair, we positioned ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the tanneries. The air wreaked of horse urine, but it was interesting to watch nonetheless. The men climb in a tub and use their legs to douse the leather in the tanning mixture to coat the leather. And they do this all day. Once we had our fill of observing this, we were taken to a leather shop, and of course expected to buy something. We didn’t. After the tanneries we walked around a bit more and then had lunch of grilled kefta sandwiches at a food stall. It was delicious and afterwards, after a day of doing pretty much nothing, we decided that we were tired and would like to sip on mint tea and relax somewhere. Tomas found a restaurant close by that had a nice, open room upstairs with long sofas. They asked the waiter if we could take a nap and he said of course we could. So, we all positioned ourselves comfortably on the sofas, had a round of tea and coffee, smoking a hooka and napping. It was the best. We stayed their for a few hours and then went to the New City to have dinner. Jim, Pierre, and Tomas had their fill of Moroccan so they all ordered pizza. I had a delicious chicken tagine with prunes. After dinner we found a bar, which is very difficult to find in Morocco because the Muslim religion forbids drinking alcohol. We had a few beers and then called it a night. We said our goodbyes to Pierre and Tomas, as they’re heading to Meknes tomorrow.

 
 
 
 
 

Fes, Morocco - April 14, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Our plan was to go into Fes again today because we had not done any shopping yet. Jim and I want to find a Moroccan door for our next house and a few other items. Because we both felt that we had seen a lot of the medina in Fes, we decided to pack up and move onto Meknes early today and do some shopping there instead. We were very glad to be leaving the campsite because it’s ridiculously expensive, dirty, and half the sinks and showers don’t work. Before leaving, we needed to get in a run, so we ran through the countryside near the campsite. It was a nice run, although fairly hot, especially since I had to wear pants, as it’s not particularly appropriate for a woman to wear shorts in Morocco. On the way to Fes we stopped at Marjane, a very large grocery store. It was nice to be able to shop in a grocery store for a change instead of the markets. We stocked up on a few items and then made the quick drive to Meknes. Their were no signs to the campsite in Meknes, so we had a little trouble finding it. It is half the price of the hole in Fes and cleaner. We quickly found a spot for the car, got our things together, and headed off for the medina. Our first impressions of Meknes were not great. It is much dirtier than Fes and didn’t seem to have as much life. However, it was also late in the day and many of the stalls were already closed. After spending some time exploring, we went in search of a late afternoon lunch. We were starving and our search soon lead to the ironworking section of the medina. There we found a small food stall, well off the tourist path, and sat down for lunch. As the only westerners in the stall, we received a lot of stares from the locals, The food was very good though and very cheap. After lunch, we decided that we would go ahead and return to camp and would plan to return tomorrow when the stalls open up again. On the way out we stopped at the square, which is fairly large and is surrounded by restaurants and tea salons, and had some mint tea while observing the square change as evening fell upon us. There were clusters of people all over the square, which of course piqued our interest. After finishing the tea, we walked around to find out what was so entertaining to these groups of people. There were storytellers, people selling potions, people playing Moroccan games, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. We watched this for a bit, then headed back to the campsite to make dinner.

 
  Meknes, Morocco - April 15, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Last night we were woken up by many calls to prayer and something we haven’t heard yet---someone singing a call to prayer which seemed to go on for hours. It’s now become our 4:00 wake-up call. We must be in the middle of hundreds of mosques. Waking up somewhat well-rested, we were excited to see the Heri es-Souani granaries and vaults today because they are supposed to be pretty impressive. As luck would have it, they are filming a movie in the granaries and they won’t be open for another six days. We won’t be here for 6 days, so we’ll have to catch them some other time, right. Next on the agenda was the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. Moulay Ismail apparently elevated Meknes to a capital city in the 17th century, so is considered one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history. For that reason, non-Muslims are allowed into the sanctuary, which is a rare treat. The Mausoleum is very peaceful and beautifully designed. We spent some time observing the architecture and then went to the square to grab some lunch at a stall. This time it was chicken brochettes on the menu with a salad and rice. Since the stalls were buzzing again, we explored the souqs and market and bought some fresh vegetables, olives, and bread. Of course the markets always have interesting items for sale, and this one had a cow’s head plus many other delicacies that we decided to pass on. Later we browsed a bit at furniture to get an idea of the cost of doors. Then it was back to the campsite to fix our tomato and cucumber salad with bread and olives. Quite the feast.
 
 
 
 
  Meknes, Morocco - April 16, 2006
(Sheri Writes): It seems like every night the “Moroccan Evening Orchestra” plays a new symphony. Last night, in addition to some of our nightly favorites like the 4am call to prayer and 100 dogs barking, we enjoyed the relaxing sounds of two cats fighting to the death. It sounded as if one cat was being killed by another. There’s never dull moment....or night.

Today was an administrative day for us that we desperately needed to catch up on laundry, journals, etc... It was also the first rain that we’ve had in a long time. Yes, somehow on the day that we do laundry it happens to rain. While working on our various tasks we made friends with a cat, or should I say that the cat made friends with us. She seemed very sweet—crawled on our laps and purred—until we saw her relentlessly chasing another cat. So, this is the cat that wreaked all the havoc last night. The other cat’s face looked horrible and the fur and skin on one side was gone. We left the “friendly” cat alone after seeing that. We started to go stir crazy so treated ourselves to a nice dinner at Restaurant Collier de la Columbe with a wonderful view over Meknes. We’ve been eating either at food stalls or cooking at the truck, so the beautifully decorated restaurant made us forget where we were for a while. After dinner, it was back to reality and onto the campsite.

 
  Meknes, Morocco - April 17, 2006
(Sheri Writes): This morning we geared ourselves up to do serious furniture shopping. After looking at doors the other night and hearing what they are asking for an old Moroccan door, we knew we were up for a challenge. Our first stop was at the Co-Operative where prices are very steep, but it gives you a good sense of what is out there. We found beautiful boxes and statues made of iron with decorative silver etchings that piqued our interest. They were asking a ridiculous price, so armed with plenty of information, we set off in search of the carpenters souq where the furniture is actually made. As we worked our way through the narrow streets, we found ourselves in the section of the medina dedicated to making iron and wood furnishings. We quickly found a small stall that made exactly what we were looking for. Seeing our interest in a couple of items on display, a young guy invited us in the small stall to look at a few other items and then invited us upstairs to see the two men that were hard at work making a coffee table. The only way to the second floor was to climb up a rickety ladder that didn’t quite extend all the way to the top floor. I had to take a pretty giant step to make it up and wasn’t looking forward to the trip back down! It’s pretty amazing to watch them create such intricate works of art. All by hand. All with the simplest of tools. The workers were very friendly and seemed to enjoy having us observe what they do everyday. Soon it was back downstairs to find out what they could make for us and how much it would cost. Jim’s French is getting better, but there was still a pretty large language gap, so the owner pulled in someone off the street to help translate. He brought out several pictures of their past work including coffee tables, mirrors, trunks, animal statues, and other items. Jim also spotted an old door that he was interested in, so we inquired about the asking price. The owner quoted us 2,000 dirham (approx. $200), a fraction of the 12,000 plus dirham we’d seen on similar doors during our previous outing to more exclusive shops in the medina. Clearly noticing our interest in the door, the translater offered to take us to nearby stalls see other doorsas well. This didn’t go over very well with the owner who gave the translater (I believe in reality he was interested in being a commissioned guide) a tongue lashing in Arabic and then threw him into the street. Concerned he was going to loose our business the owner then turned to me, shaking his finger at me, and told me in French that I couldn’t go with him. Jim told him not to worry, we understood his frustration and would not go with the translater. Instead we told him we wanted to go to lunch and would return in an hour to let him know if we were interested in buying anything. We went back to the spot we tried the first day—the place that has probably never seen a tourist before-- because it was so cheap and good. We ordered another veggie sandwich and reflected on the items we would like to have made for us. After lunch it was back to the shop and this time he had someone new to help translate. Apparently an old friend of his who lives in Casablanca, who happened to stop by the stall while we were at lunch. was there to put in an order. His friend, Mustafa, speaks great English and was tremendously helpful in working out a deal between us and the shopowner. He needed to get back to Casablanca, but it was obvious that he wanted to help his friend make a sale. It was altogether a great experience because neither Mustafa nor the shopowner were the least bit pushy. We negotiated prices on a door, a mirror that they would make for us over the next month or two, 3 lamps, a vase, and an elephant statue. Mustafa had to tell the shopowner how to ship the items to us because he hasn’t done this before. The shipping procedures are concerning to us, but Mustafa gave us his email address so he can help us further. We thanked Mustafa for his help and told the shopowner that we would think about it overnight and return tomorrow with our decision and money.

After all the time we spent at the shop, we decided to call it a day and return to camp to make dinner. We enjoyed veggie pasta with tomato and cucumber salad and bread with olives. After washing dishes we crawled in the tent for a good night’s sleep...at least until 4:00am, at which time we’ll enjoy the very lengthy, beautiful rendition of the call to prayer from the mosque that is apparently located right beside our campsite.

 
 

Meknes, Morocco - April 18, 2006
(Sheri Writes): With Mustafa gone we were on our own to communicate the final details of the furniture purchase. Because the shop owner is not familiar with shipping items to the US, we are concerned that we’ll never see the door or mirror, but we’re going to try for it anyway. We decided on the old door, mirror, and 3 lamps. We have to contact Mustafa to work out the details of shipping. but we’re confident that the shop owner will do his best to get the items to us in the US. We went back upstairs to see the guys working again and they gave Jim their tools so he could try his hand at working on the coffee table. Jim soon learned that it would take a long time to learn this trade and came away with an even greater appreciation for the work they do. Jim was offered a job, which I thought was a great idea. He could make a little money, I could travel....Just kidding of course, but they seemed to think it would only take 2 months for Jim to learn the trade. We think it would be more like 2 years. After visiting with the guys upstairs, we went downstairs to talk with the shop owner a bit more and take some photos. After seeing my small camera, the owner wanted me to send it to him after our trip so that he could trade it for one of their items. As we were leaving the shop, the owner invited us to his home for dinner. offered to take us to his house for couscous. We were very appreciative of the offer, but declined since we were way behind our schedule to make it to Azrou today. Since we couldn’t join him for couscous, the owner gave me a bracelet in the same design as the mirror we bought. We could tell that he was very grateful for our business and was genuinely interested in us. We said our goodbyes and told him that we would be in touch with Mustafa to arrange the shipping. We were both starving afterwards, so we went to the same stall and ordered our usual-veggie sandwich and a coke. We both really started regretting our quick decision to decline the offer for lunch as we had both been hoping to be invited into someone’s home. We made a pact to accept the next offer that would (hopefully) come our way.

It was getting late in the afternoon and we still wanted to go to Volubulis. We had already packed up the truck this morning and parked it close by ,so we were soon on our way to Volubulis, which according to Lonely Planet is home to the “most impressive Roman ruins in Morocco”.. It was a short drive to Volubulis and, as we approached the town, we saw a very familiar red truck in the distance. It didn’t take long before we realized that it was Sharikay and Eric! We had been keeping in touch, but it was totally unplanned for us to meet each other here. It was great to catch up with them, but we had to hurry to Volubulis before dark, so said our goodbyes and planned to catch up a little later down the road. Once at Volubulis we decided not to go in because it didn't seem that impressive to us. Instead we enjoyed the sunset behind the gates and Jim was able to take some photos. Since it was too late to drive to Azrou we ended up at the campsite in Volubulis, which I must say is an absolute dump.. After setting up the tent we looked around the corner and, low and behold, we saw Sharikay and Eric. Apparently they decided to stay here for the night as well before heading to Rabat to get visas for Mauritania. After Rabat they are heading to Meknes while our plans are to head to the desert. Jim and I have had our fill of souqs for the time being, so we are very excited to get into rural Morocco and the desert. We lit up the Kelly Kettle again, with much more success than the first time, and had soup and tomato salad for dinner. After dinner we had a short planning session to discuss our route for the remainder of our time in Morocco.

 
 
 
 
  Volubilis, Morocco - April 19, 2006
(Sheri Writes):
We said our goodbyes to Eric and Sharikay this morning and were none to sad to be leaving the most disgusting campsite we have come across. The two western toilets here and both are clogged. If they can’t maintain the western toilets, they should have the typical squat toilet, which, believe me, is much more preferable than a clogged, overflowing toilet. After leafing through some information, we learned that Rabat no longer issues visas for Mauritania, so Sharikay and Eric are heading to Meknes instead and we are going toward the desert. With a long driving day ahead of us, we wanted to leave camp as early as possible. We’re skipping Azrou and heading as far south as we can get so that we can make it to Erg Chebbi in Merzouga tomorrow.

On the way south we stopped in Ifrane for lunch, a very nice mountain resort town. Our drive took us through cedar forests, canyons, mountains covered in snow, and desert. The geography was varied and made for a beautiful and interesting drive. Once in the desert, we encountered a striking difference in the number of people that beg for anything from money to stylos to candy to clothes. The desert villages were beautiful with houses made of mud and kasbahs scattered throughout. We felt miles and miles away from the large cities of Meknes and Fes. We arrived in Er-Rachidia late at night and found a wonderful campsite at Source Bleu de Meski – located on a small desert oasis a few miles outside of town This campsite is leagues away from the hole we stayed at last night. As we drove into the entrance of the campsite, we felt as if we were at a nice hotel. The campsite itself is situated amid many palm trees and also has a pool that is fed by a natural spring. Once we found a spot and set up the tent, we quickly made dinner and went to bed.

 
  Er-Rachidia, Morocco - April 20, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Excited to get onto some of the more rural pistes , we woke up this morning eager to do one of Chris Scott’s routes taken from the Sahara Overland.. We set off for the drive which first took us through the Ziz Gorge, where we stopped for a few photos. Back on the road, we soon found the track with no problem, but were very disappointed to find that some of the road has been paved and the rest is in the process of being paved. The scenery was nice, but just not as much fun as it would have been otherwise. Toward the end of the route we spotted a riverbed to play in, enough to at least get the tires wet. Right around sunset we noticed a camel crossing sign and then about a mile later, we spotted a herd of camels crossing the road. It was our first camel sighting, and we took the opportunity to stop and take some photos. Not long after we stopped, a camel herder arrives and requests payment for photographing his camels. Jim refused however, the man was very photogenic and so Jim offered him two dirham (approx. $0.20) to photograph him. He quickly agreed and Jim shot some photos. Afterwards, he came to me asking for 2 dirham to pay the man. Only problem was that we didn’t have anything smaller than a 10 dirham coin and I was pretty sure the camel herder wasn’t going to make change. After quickly talking it over, we decided to return to the camel herder and offer him a total of 10 dirham (including the photos Jim had already taken) to go shadow him as he tended his herd. 10 dirham is a huge sum of money for such a thing and I’m sure he thought he’d struck it rich but it was the best we could come up with to get some value out of the situation. With the deal agreed to, off we went, cameras and all, to follow the herd of camels across the desert. In the end,the opportunity to be out there with the camels and camel herder was the highlight of the day for us and we ended up following them until after dark.

On the way back to the campsite we stopped in Er-Rachidia for dinner and to make a few phone calls. We arrived at the campsite around 11pm and everyone was already asleep. Since we got in so late, we parked our truck away from everyone else so that we wouldn’t bother anyone. Mohammed, one of the guys working at the campsite, would have none of that, and insisted that we park closer to a light, which also meant closer to other vehicles. So, we did as he asked and moved the truck. I was most annoyed that we moved it because you could here loud snoring coming from the two tents beside us.. That meant that the Moroccan Evening Orchestra would feature a new symphony which included the call to prayer, donkeys, dogs, cats, and roosters all singing away, and two men sawing logs. After I had gotten ready for bed and was crawling up to the tent, armed with my ear plugs, I heard sleeping bags being unzipped in one of the two tents. An older man and woman who looked very similar to George Castanza’s parents on Seinfeld, burst out of their tent as quickly as they could and started yelling at me in German. Not able to understand German, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. What I could understand from their sign language is that they were very upset. Mr. Castanza came barreling toward me making noises like a shutting door, complete with sign language. Well, sorry, but in order to get ready for bed, I have to open a door or two to get my things out. I almost told him that I was happy I woke him up because his snoring was already driving me through the roof. What I actually said was sorry, and then I ducked into the tent. I must admit, I’m glad I woke him up because he didn’t snore after that. Jim got a kick out of the whole thing.

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  Er-Rachidia, Morocco - April 21, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Luck was on my side today because we woke up after the Castanza’s packed up and left. I just knew that I would get another earful from them, so I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t have to listen to their complaints. As we suspected, Mohammed came by again and asked for Jim to trade god-knows-what. On a side note, what I have learned about Moroccans in my time here is that they are very friendly people, but they are very persistent and apparently don’t know the meaning of “no”. Mohammed finally left us alone and we were able to go for a run through some fields that ran along a river and down to the ruins of an old kasbah. It was horrible terrain for a run, but very pretty nonetheless and we passed Moroccans working in the fields and donkeys carrying loads along the river banks. After the run we showered and put our tent up. In the process of packing up our things, I misplaced the car keys. That set us back a while, partly because we were looking for the keys and partly because Chris, a man we met earlier in the morning that lives here 3 months a year, started talking to us and wouldn’t stop. It was very apparent that we were getting stressed about the keys and were furiously trying to find them, but he didn’t miss a beat. And to make matters worse, the words that came out of his mouth weren’t very interesting. I’m sure if I had more time and wasn’t in such a rush I would have enjoyed sitting down to talk with him, but it wasn’t the time at that point to be having a discussion. I was relieved when he finally left because we could both focus on finding the keys. Having no luck, we thought it would be best to use our spare key and look for it later. We knew it was somewhere in the tent or truck Spare key in hand, we left for Merzouga excited to see the dunes at Erg Chebbi. Along the way we stopped at a beautiful canyon overlooking lush green grass, palm trees, and water to eat lunch.

Back on the road, we took detour outside of Rissani that looked like it might be of interest. The 21km loop went through palmeries, villages and several ruined ksour. It was a great drive, until the point that Jim got out of the truck to take a photo of a ksour. We know that when we stop the car we will be surrounded by kids asking for anything and everything. We spotted some kids, but Jim thought it was worth it to put up with them to shoot some photographs. It ended up that these teenage kids, three to be exact, were different than the other kids who have approached us. Jim was about to open the back of the truck to get into his photography equipment when the oldest and largest of the kids approached him demanding his watch. The kid was now in Jim’s face and demanded his watch again. Jim acted as if he didn’t understand to buy time. In the meantime, one of the other kids asks for some pens, Jim, acted as if he didn’t understand what the kid was asking for and asked the kid to explain what a stylo was. All three kids start acting as if they are drawing. Jim responded in French that he’d take a look in the truck and see if he had one. As he was getting in the truck he pointed at a pen on the sun visor and acted as if he was reaching to get it while at the same time shutting and locking the door. As soon as the door shut. The kid who was demanding the watch grabbed the door and started shaking the handle vigorously trying to get inside. then said OK, let me look and see if I have anything like that in the car. The boy was still trying to get in the door as we drove off and I think we might have run over his foot. I was completely oblivious to what was happening the whole time until Jim explained it to me.

Glad to be on our way, we pushed on for Merzouga and made it there around 5pm. We got the waypoint of a very nice campsite from other overland travelers. We are baffled by how nice the campsite is. In reality, it’s a beautiful resort hotel..... that allows camping. THe resort is located just along the edge of the dunes and we setup camp beside a herd of camels used to take tourist onto the dunes.. What a perfect setup. We’re able to camp and still use the pool and other all of the resort amenities. We feel like we’re at a resort and are more than happy to be here for a couple of nights. The campsites that we’ve stayed at the past couple of nights are starting to spoil us, as we know we won’t have this type of luxury in the near future. Guess we should enjoy it while we can! After getting settled and checking out the hotel a bit, we hiked onto the dunes to watch the sunset. The dunes are spectacular and change colors as the sun sets, from a golden color to a peachy-pink color. It was nice to just sit there for a bit and enjoy the solitude. Back at the campsite, we changed clothes for dinner---we are treating ourselves to a nice dinner tonight at the restaurant by the pool. Dinner was excellent and the temperature was perfect. For an appetizer we had eggplant salad, dinner was chicken couscous and dessert was chocolate mousse. Fabulous and very worth the money. After dinner we got ready for bed and called it a night so that we could get up early tomorrow to explore the dunes.

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  Merzouga, Morocco - April 22, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Jim and I woke up this morning feeling a bit off, so we decided to put off the dunes until later this evening and plan to spend the day updating the website. . We definitely have a great place to do some catching up and a little relaxing. Our plans to go to the dunes in the evening fell through because the wind really picked up and it made being outside a miserable experience, as sand was blowing everywhere. We’re hoping that it improves tomorrow morning so that we can hike to the top of the dunes to watch the sunrise.. Because it is so windy and sandy, we felt it was better to eat in the restaurant again rather than try to cook in this mess at the car. What a shame. We enjoyed another delicious meal of Moroccan salad , chicken couscous, and a chocolate/orange tart for dessert. The wind died down enough for us to eat outside at the pool again. We just hope that it will be nice in the morning because we are leaving tomorrow and want to spend more time in the dunes.
 
  Merzouga, Morocco - April 23-25, 2006
(Jim Writes): The alarm woke us up this morning at the ungodly hour of 4:30am so that we could make it up the erg in time for sunrise. It was still dark out and the air was cool and crisp. After struggling to pull ourselves out of bed, we threw on some clothes, loaded up the camera gear and climbed out of the tent. Outside the sky was crystal clear and millions of stars were glowing against the night sky. By 5am the first signs of sunrise were evident on the horizon as we began our march into the dunes. Ahead of us was a guide with clients and three camels heading towards Erg Chebbi. After a taxing ascent, we reached a high dune just as the sun was poking its head over the horizon. It was a perfect desert sunrise and the warm morning sun turned the dunes a beautiful redish brown. This is why we came to Africa and it was absolutely worth climbing out of bed at 4:30am to see!

We made it back to camp a little after 7am and just as we were heading for the tent, we noticed Sharikay and Eric’s Land Cruiser parked on the opposite side of the resort. Turns out they’d arrived around 7pm the previous night and we totally missed each other. Sharikay was already up doing laundry and Eric was just beginning to stir. After spending some time catching up we discussed our plans for the upcoming week. They were now just a day or so behind us and were planning on a similar stay at Erg Chebbi before heading further south. To keep things moving we decided to proceed with our plan to depart today for a two day traverse of the desert via Chris Scott’s M6 route (outlined in Sahara Overland) and we’d hook up with them in a week or so.

With that, we returned to our truck, broke down camp, and prepared for departure. On the way out we said our goodbye’s to Eric and Sharikay and then headed for Merzouga to stock up on supplies before hitting the piste. By the time we arrived in Merzouga the wind had picked up and a sandstorm was just moving in. After loading up on fresh bread, fruit and vegetables, we setout to find the trailhead. This proved a bit difficult and we found ourselves tracking along the edge of the dunes in a total “whiteout.” We couldn’t see anything. Not a track. Not the sky. Not 15 feet in front of us. It was terrible. Preoccupied dealing with the sand storm and searching for the start of the track, I wasn’t paying close attention to the soft sandy terrain and before I fully was able to downshift I got totally bogged in the sand (a rookie mistake). What’s worse, the storm was raging outside and you could hear the sand hammering the body of the truck. Before digging the wheels in deeper, I went outside to have a look. I clearly hadn’t laid off the gas soon enough because we were already buried to the chassis. Ugh! I quickly climbed back inside to get out of the sandstorm. Hmm. What to do? The options were pretty simple. We could dig ourselves out (best to wait a bit given the raging sandstorm outside) or we could run 3 miles back to town to get Eric to join in the fun (also better if we waited for the storm to settle down). Our debate lasted all of about 2 minutes before the first member of the Moroccan welcoming committee emerged out of the whiteout to survey what was going on. After circling the truck a couple of times he disappeared again, only to return a few minutes later with another person on a motorbike. Together they approached the truck and greeted us “Hello my friend! It seems you are having troubles with your truck. Let me help you. I worked with the Dakar Rally and, with my friend here, can have you on your way in 5 minutes.” I thanked him for the offer and asked how much his services might cost. As we were all being battered by the blowing sand, he kneeled down and drew “700 DH” in the sand. Considering the fact that a mechanic quoted Eric only 150 DH to repair his leaking differential, 700 DH seemed like highway robbery and we clearly felt these guys were trying to exploit the situation. I thanked him for his offer and told him that I had everything I needed to recover myself and could not afford his price. Persistent, as Moroccans can be, he didn’t accept my response. “My friend, let me help you. I want to help you. I will have you going again in 5 minutes. It will only cost you 700 DH. You can afford that.” Unfortunately, I cannot I replied and Sheri chimed in that all we had was 10 DH. “10 DH???? 10 DH???? That’s all you have? Then how do you pay for gasoil?” We used a credit card, I replied. “Well then. I will take your watch……. your spare gasoil…… your clothes…… and so the conversation continued. Look, I said. If you want to help us you can give me a ride into town so that I can get my friend and his truck and he will come and tow me out. I’d prefer that over digging in this storm. I will pay you a fair price of 10 DH. “10 DH” he angrily replied. “This is not worth my time.” It is fair I said. That’s what a taxi would cost. “A taxi???? A Taxi??? I am not a taxi my friend. This is the desert!” I will give you a ride for 300 DH.” No, I replied. “Then how will you get to your friend and his truck?” I will walk. It’s only 3 miles. Not a big deal. And so he ignored my proposal and returned to insisting on providing his recovery services. Clearly this conversation was going nowhere. We were drowning in sand and it was obvious he wasn’t going away any time soon. Having had enough, Sheri jumps in and says “look, I’m sorry. All we have is 10 DH. We can’t pay you any more and will just take care of this ourselves. Thank you for your offer.” Well, all I’ll say is that having a woman say this to him didn’t go over well and he began yelling and screaming. I didn’t catch most of what he was saying however the highline was that he didn’t like her and wasn’t going to help her. After pitching a fit, stating several times that he wanted to help me, but not Sheri, he got his friend and left. [Sheri writes: At this point, I was steaming mad and it took every ounce of control that I could muster to not tell him where he could go at that particular point and that we never asked for, or wanted, his help in the first place. He kept ranting on and on about me and kept telling me “slowly, slowly”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. If I weren’t worried about the safety of the truck, I would have shared some words with him. However, knowing that this was not the best course of action in our situation, I walked off to keep myself from opening my mouth and to give Jim a chance to smooth things over. It was clearly obvious that he didn’t appreciate a woman expressing her thoughts, especially when it didn’t benefit his cause.] He returned a few minutes later, this time approaching me and saying “I do not like your friend but I like you and I want to help you…….” And so the conversation started all over again. At this point, Sheri and I made the decision that the path of least resistance would be to head into town and grab Eric, knowing that he’d be eager to get some recovery practice, and return when the storm dies down a bit. Also, the longer we stayed by the truck, the longer they were likely to hang around. However, my one concern was that if we leave the truck, stuck in the sand, they might vandalize it while we’re gone. And so, I tried to make nice, explaining how appreciative I was for his offer of assistance and telling him I wish I could offer him more but that 10 DH was all I had. With that, he grabs his friend and storms off again. We were relieved that he left, but of course, the saga was not over. He returned again within few minutes, but this time with two more, somewhat shady looking, characters in tow. Oddly, he approaches us and exclaims, “I will help you for free! You do not have to pay me. Just let me help you!” Hmm. I hate to be skeptical, but there’s no way this his offer was free. I replied, “thank you very much for your kind offer. I greatly appreciate it. If you really want to help me, I would very much like a ride back to town”. “NO” he replied. “I will not give you a ride. I will help you dig out and you can drive yourself.” I declined again, as politely as possible, and so he stormed off once more, leaving the other two characters behind – now giving the truck a good look like a dog eyeing a Thanksgiving turkey. [Sheri writes: Now that it was made perfectly crystal clear that this guy did not want to hear a peep out of me, I couldn’t let Jim know how I felt about this growing dilemma with the introduction of the two shady characters. I wasn’t worried until this point and now started to feel very vulnerable and concerned for Jim’s safety. There were 4 of them and only 1 of Jim. At best I can only count for a ½. I tried as best as I could to communicate with Jim, behind their backs, to let him know that we needed to leave. As much as I didn’t want to leave the truck with them there, I was more concerned about our personal safety and what this new plan was all about—two new very shady guys and the offer to help for free. It didn’t add up and I certainly didn’t want a bad situation to quickly grow worse.] With the wind still raging, we decided that the best option was to head a couple of hundred meters back to the main road. By the time we reached the road, you could no longer see Betty who was now invisible in the sandstorm. Before heading to town however we waited by the road until everyone emerged from the whiteout and headed off in the opposite direction. Moderately comfortable that Betty was out of danger, we ran (always looking for a good excuse to get a run in) back to town – fortunately with the wind at our backs.

Within 30 minutes we were on our way back to the truck with Eric, Sharikay, their truck, and a second 4x4 full of eager guys from Rabat. With so much help (far more than necessary), it took only a few minutes to dig out the tires, set the sand tracks, and drive her out. Speed was everything since the weather was miserable.

With Betty back in action and the sandstorm still raging, we headed back to the campsite to regroup and wait for the weather to improve. In retrospect, getting stuck in suck a storm and having to deal with the pressure of dealing with the locals was great, gentle introduction to the more series terrain and situations we’re likely to encounter in the deserts of Mauritania and Mali. Throughout the balance of the afternoon and into the evening the winds continued to blow and the air was so thick with sand that you couldn’t see the sky. With no sign of the weather letting up we made the decision to hold off until the following morning before setting off again. This actually worked out well because Sharikay and Eric decided to adjust their plans an join us. In the meantime, we settled back into the luxury of the resort and lazed about, catching up with Sharikay and Eric over a long dinner of couscous and a bottle of Moroccan wine.

The next morning we woke up to beautiful weather. The winds had subsided and the sky was bright blue. Eager to get going, we broke camp and set off in search of the piste. This time we quickly picked up the trail and made our way down to Touganite, where we turned off the paved road and onto a rocky track which headed south through a dramatic desert landscape. Tracking south, we crossed all manor of desert terrain from rocks to sand to salt flats to corrugations. It was a fantastic drive, which took us past some of Morocco’s most majestic scenery.

Similar to previous experiences in east Africa, as we passed through small villages, the usual cast of a thousand children raced across the horizon eager to hail our passing truck. Once they reached us, they’d run alongside , or if possible jump onto the side-rails, shouting quite emphatically “Donnez-moi un Stylo, Un Casket, Un Bonbon, Argent!!!!” When we stopped for a photograph or to check our heading, often in the most remote, barren stretch of desert we could find, we were ambushed by children that instantly appeared from under every rock and behind every bush. The longer we stayed the larger their numbers swelled as more children arrived by the minute. Eric drew the analogy between the Moroccan desert and the Cucchi Tunnels in Vietnam. Only, instead of the Vietcong popping out of the rice paddies with AK-47’s blazing, Moroccan children would suddenly emerge from the desert insisting that we give them something. And when they weren’t insisting we give them something, they were insisting that we were going in the wrong direction. If our GPS indicated the next waypoint was southeast, they’d almost certainly insist we needed to go northwest. If the map indicated the piste cut across a sandy oued, they’d insist we needed to cross a rocky plateau. This struck us as a bit humorous since they always seemed quite certain of their directions, even though they had no idea where we were trying to go.

With the sun falling low on the horizon, we cut away from the main piste and through a series of low sand dunes in search of a discrete campsite for the night. As we navigated through the dunes we passed a herd of camels before finding a suitable spot just a stones throw away from the Algerian border. This was our first night camping in the desert and we’d been looking forward to building a campfire, cooking up a big meal, cracking open a bottle of Moroccan wine, and enjoying an evening under the stars. With about 30 minutes of light left we began setting up camp and gathering firewood. As we gathered wood, the sky south of us began to look dark and ominous. Concerned a storm was brewing, we repositioned the trucks to provide a bit more shelter from the increasing wind. By sunset, the wind had picked up and before we could set up our tents a sandstorm had moved in. By dark, the conditions had deteriorated and we found ourselves held up in the trucks waiting for the storm to pass. One hour passed and the storm was still going strong. The air was so thick with sand that it was coming through the closed vents on the truck and you could taste it in the air. All we could do was sit in the darkness and wait for the winds to die down. Another 45 minutes passed and the storm showed no signs of letting up. Finally, at around 9:30pm the wind stopped. Sheri and I climbed out of the truck and met Sharikay and Eric outside to discuss next steps. It was getting late and so much dust was still in the air that you couldn’t see the stars. Not wanting to get caught in the truck again, we decided the first order of business was to set up our tents. Afterwards, we could cook dinner and try to salvage the rest of the evening. In the 5 minutes it took us to setup our tent the “eye of the storm” passed and the wind whipped up again with renewed ferocity. Before we could scamper into our tents we were covered in sand. Once inside, the winds were so strong it felt like we were on a sailboat in danger of being blown away. Again, sand seeped through every crack and crevasse in the tent. As the winds raged on we crossed our fingers the truck wouldn’t blow over, dug in, and laid in the darkness listening to the loud rustling of the tent walls until we finally fell asleep.

At around 6:00am, we awoke to the sound of voices just outside the tent. Turns out a Berber had stumbled onto our campsite and come for a closer look. Eric happened to be outside already and chatted with him for a bit before he moved on. The Berber man was very friendly and pointed out that we were so close to the border you could make out an Algerian border post perched on a nearby mountain. The winds had dissipated during the night and the sky was clear again. With a long drive ahead of us, we quickly set about cooking breakfast (hot sweet rice), running through a quick check of the trucks (the corrugations and rocky piste gave Betty a pretty good shake down yesterday), washed off a bit, and broke camp.

Once underway, we headed for the low dunes near our campsite, before returning to the main piste. The trucks made it over several dunes with ease before Eric found himself bogged for the first time. More recovery practice – out came the shovels and with a little (well OK, a lot) of digging we managed to get her moving again. No sand ladders this time. No hi-lift jack (thanks to a little advice from Chris Scott).

Back on the main piste, we continued south through soft sand, over some pretty long stretches of rocky track (this must be the rockiest country on earth), through chat, into another sandstorm, and finally onto a plain so wide and flat you could sit and read the paper while driving. All the while, the scenery was incredible and climaxed with a climb over a ridge shortly before dark. By sunset we only had a few kilometers to go before reaching Tagounite, our stopping point for the night. Just as it got dark we entered the village of Blida and found ourselves navigating through a series of very narrow dirt streets flanked by high mud walled buildings on both sides. The deeper we went into the village the narrower the roads became and the more our GPS indicated we were heading in the wrong direction. It was pitch black and you could just make out the faces of people staring out of the darkness as we passed. Then, without warning the road ended and the only option was to go right on a street almost too narrow to turn down or back up. This brought our two-vehicle convoy to a halt. In a benign sort of way, we could imagine, if only a tiny bit, what it must have been like for the Army Ranger convoy that was trapped on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. Before we could workout our navigational error we were surrounded with boys who were jumping on the trucks and demanding we open the windows. Given it’s Morocco we weren’t particularly concerned however you can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the situation simply because it was dark, we were disoriented, the trucks were boxed in, and a growing mob was surrounding us and climbing all over the vehicles. I rolled down the window and struck up a conversation with a particularly entrepreneurial teenager dressed in a clean button down dress shirt and slacks. He asked where we were going and I replied that we were headed to Tagounite. He said it was OK. We could go right and the road would take us there. Another boy said no, you need to go back the way you came. Still others chimed in, some saying to go right. Others saying to go back the way we came. All were shouting in French which only added to the challenge however the nicely dressed teen, added that yes, it was possible to go either right or back the way we came. Right would take us down a very narrow road, possibly too narrow for our trucks (which was an understatement) and back tracking would take us to a much larger road. Given our experience with kids offering directions, we were a little skeptical. In the midst of all the commotion a man, dressed in a long white jellaba emerged from the darkness and chased most of the boys away. Now all that remained were the two boys perched on the running board of our truck. Interested in a second opinion I called the man over to our truck and asked for directions. He confirmed what we had already been told and suggested the easiest option would be to back track. Easy it was not, however we slowly worked our way backwards through the maze of narrow streets with the two boys still clinging to the side of the truck. As we drove the boy insisted we open the door and let him inside so that he could guide us to our destination. Now back on track, we thanked him for the help. Gave him a couple of DH for his directions and suggested he and his friend get off the truck before we went any further. They refused to budge, clinging tightly to the side of the truck as we bounced along the dirt road just outside of the village. I suggested again that they hop off and they refused, insisting they accompany us to our camp. Clearly unwilling to leave us, I decided to take a different approach. I again suggested they hop off. When they didn’t I slowly began to accelerate until they became uncomfortable and insisted I slow down. I did and again suggested they get off, which they did not, so I began to slowly accelerate again. As soon as I did, both jumped off, one right after the other and disappeared into the darkness.

Eager to reach our camp, I turned on the spotlights and headed for the next waypoint only a few kilometers away. Before long we reached the campsite, tired, and happy to call it a day. After setting in we joined the campsite staff for tea in a berber tent, followed by a huge dinner of couscous. Stuffed we retired to our tent and laid under the bright stars listening to a special presentation of the “African evening symphony,” which featured a thousand dogs barking and four calls to prayer.

 
 
 
 

Tagounite, Morocco - April 26, 2006
(Jim Writes): This morning we got off to a slow start. Up early, I did a mechanical check of the truck to make sure nothing had come loose during the pounding Betty experienced the previous two days. Afterwards, we sat down with Sharikay and Eric to discuss how to sync up our schedules since we’d been apart for so long. By the time we finished discussing the optimal location, duration, climate, and price for a camel trek, debating possible locations for a backpacking trip, and reviewing potential overland routes across southern Morocco, it was mid afternoon. In the end we decided to defer the camel trek to Mauritania, cut out two off-road legs, and head for Zagora before continuing north into the Draa Valley. Around 3pm we broke camp and made the 60 km drive up to Zagora. Once there we spent the balance of the afternoon walking around town and having lunch at a local café. Can’t say Zagora’s the most interesting place. Other than the sign noting it’s 52 days by camel to Timbuktu and hiking up to Jebel Zagora, Zagora doesn’t have much going on. In any case we gave it a look and then found a local campsite where we stopped for the night.

 
  Zagora, Morocco - April 27, 2006
(Jim Writes): Up early (for us at least), we broke camp and were on the road by 7:50am. Our plan for the day: slowly work our way through the Draa Valley to Tinerhir. From Tinerhir, pick up a rocky piste to the Todra Gorge – our stopping point for the night.

The drive through the Draa Valley was beautiful. We made good time and reached Tinerhir ahead of schedule. Hungry we stopped for a leisurely lunch on a café with a rooftop terrace. It was expensive and very touristy, however the food smelled great, we were hungry (read: vulnerable) and the view from the terrace was pleasant. This proved to be a mistake as we arrived on the heels of two tour buses full of hungry French tourists. Ugh! We sat patiently waiting to be served for over an hour without getting as much as a drink. Finally, we cut our losses and left without even being noticed. Just down the street we found a small local café and decided to have a closer look. When we asked for the menu the waiter quoted us prices that were twice what we usually pay at similar restaurants and in fact slightly higher than the expensive tourist café we’d just ditched. Forget it. We got up and walked out. Of course the waiter came running. “Why are you leaving?” We explained his prices were ridiculous and kept walking. He followed behind offering to cut them in half but we kept going. Further down the road we found yet another restaurant. This time the prices were about 25% higher than normal and half the items on the menu were unavailable. Clearly we were having bad lunch karma and needed to cut bait and leave. We decided that if he didn’t right-size his prices we’d just hit a stall on the way out of town. He didn’t (clearly – this is a major tourist lunch stop and everyone in town is used to taking tourists for a ride) and so we headed back to the trucks, stopping to grab some bread and cheese on the way out. So much for the nice leisurely lunch.

After programming in the GPS waypoints, we found the piste and bounced our way (literally) north for 64 km through some of Morocco’s most dramatic scenery – winding through rocky canyons and past small villages. Along the way we stopped at a well to refill our jerry cans with water. We were in the middle of nowhere however it wasn’t long before a little boy shows up asking for the usual handouts. He looked to be from one of the nomadic families living in the area and seemed less well off than others we’ve seen. We gave him some cookies and he quickly started shoveling them down. A couple of minutes later, with his mouth still filled with cookies, I asked if it would be OK for me to take a photograph. He shook his head to indicate yes, and then outstretched his hand to indicate in exchange for some dirham. Now I have to say, this seems a bit unappreciative to me. You beg. We give you food. We ask for a simple photo. You say no, it will cost you. Hmm. What’s more, his friend soon arrived and together they went about the business of asking for more stuff. I reminded him I’d already given him food and asked again about a photo. He shook his head “no” and extended his hand to indicate pay me. Meanwhile his friend continued to beg for more stuff. In any case, I lifted my camera and as soon as I did a big smile appeared on his face and he quickly ducked behind his friend. From behind her he continued to smile as he wagged his finger no and then extended his hand indicating pay me. I smiled and lifted my camera again. He started laughing and ran behind Eric’s truck. And so, a game of cat and mouse ensued as I chased him about with my camera. At this point, the goal wasn’t to take a quality photograph, rather he was seemed to be amused and I just went with it. I chased him around the trucks, under the trucks, on top of the trucks, and everywhere in between. The game went on until we were both spent. No good pictures game from it however a funny by product is that my camera shoots 9 frames/second and I nearly have enough photos of him running around to put together a short movie. With the game over, he quickly regained enough energy to start begging agaain. Before we left, Eric gave the little girl a cup of water. She looked at him, poured it on the ground, and walked off with the cup And so we departed.

After a long day of driving, we arrived in the Todra Gorge shortly before sunset. What an amazing place. Sort of like the Grand Canyon but with sections that are not much wider than a road, with vertical walls rising 1,000 feet on each side. Shortly after dark, we set up camp along a river, which runs through the middle of the gorge (next to Hotel Restaurant Yasmina). You couldn’t ask for a more dramatic backdrop. After settling in we set about cooking dinner (boiled potatoes, with sautéed fresh vegetables). While making dinner, a man walks from the hotel down to the river to have a smoke and refill his water bottle. He was only a short distance from our truck and so we struck up a conversation. His name was Ali, a Berber from Midelt who works as a cook at the hotel. After talking for a bit he invited us to join him later for tea. Sure. We’ll never turn down mint tea. Around 11pm, he came back down to the river carrying a small tray with 3 glasses and a teapot. We found a nice spot on a large rock and Sheri, Ali, and I sat under the stars listening to the river and croaking frogs, and chatting about life, Morocco, and a myriad topic. Sheri turned in around midnight and a short time later Ali invited me to continue our discussion under a nearby tent. There he made us Moroccan beds and we continued our discussion into the early hours of the morning.

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Todra Gorge, Morocco - April 28, 2006
(Jim Writes): After a restful night under the stars, we got up early to catch the morning light pouring into the gorge. Our plan was to do a day hike through the gorge before setting off for El-Kelaa M’Gouna to see the Valley of the Roses. While breaking down camp, Ali stopped by to give us a hand drawn trailmap to ensure we didn’t get lost and a bag of oranges to eat on the trail. Once underway, the trail climbs up the side of the gorge via a series of switchbacks before reaching a saddle at the top. Once there we continued to the summit another 10-minute hike up the mountain. From the top the view of the gorge and surrounding valley was excellent and we took the opportunity to break for lunch. While eating, we were approached by a young girl attending her flock of sheep. She told us we could take her picture for 10 DH (about 10 times the going rate). We declined the offer however we did invite her to share in our lunch, which she eagerly accepted. Afterwards we followed the trail back down the mountainl passing a number of goat herders and mule trains along the way.

Back at the trucks we were preparing to leave when Ali stopped by and invited us for afternoon tea. Parched, we gladly accepted and all four of us met him at the tent we’d chatted under the night before. While sipping tea, Ali asked us what our plans were. We told him we were getting ready to part for El-Kelaa M’Gouna to spend some time in the Valley of the Roses. “El-Kelaa M’Gouna, he replied. I have relatives that live in a neighboring village. Would you like to stay with them? I could accompany you down and we could have a traditional Moroccan dinner.” The offer sounded great and we quickly said yes. “OK then, what would you life for dinner – Couscous? Tajine?” As we debated, he said, “ You mentioned earlier that you were thinking of taking a Moroccan cooking class in Marrakech. If you’d like, we can hold off on fixing the meal until you arrive so that we can turn it into a Moroccan cooking class. We’ll go to the market together and I’ll show you how to pick out fresh ingredients and I’ll teach you how to fix it.” It sounded great and we agreed and said we’d like to prepare chicken tajine. Ali replied, “Great, I’ll call them to set everything up and we’ll leave in about 30 minutes.” While Ali was busy making arrangements, we were sorting out how we were going to fit Ali into one of our trucks. We each have an extra seat in the back however both were folded away and in it’s place are four jerry cans filled with water and two expedition cases that would need to be relocated. We decided it would be best to put Ali in our truck. With a bit of rearranging, the extra seat was in place and we were on our way to El-Kelaa M’Gouna. Along the way Ali asked if it would be all right if we stopped along the way so that he could express his condolences to a friend who’s mother had passed away the previous day. We agreed, and just before reaching his house we stopped off at a market so that Ali could pick up a bag of sugar, the traditional gift given in such circumstances. We arrived at his friend’s house and he invited us to join him. Before getting out of the truck, he taught us all how to give our condolences in Arabic and then together, with our large bag of sugar in tow, Ali, Eric, Sharikay, Sheri and I all went up to the house and met with the family. It was one of those unique experiences that’s a bit awkward but incredibly insightful culturally and we were honored to be part of it. I think the fact that we spoke a bit of French and were able to express our sympathy in Arabic made an impact as the family seemed genuinely appreciative of our visit.

Afterwards, we continued on to El-Kelaa M’Gouna. During the drive, we had a wonderfully educational chat with Ali about everything from French (getting better every day) to the origin of kasbahs, to ksars, to the arched gateways, to Islam. We also asked Ali how he was related to his relatives and learned that “relative” is loosely used in Morocco to mean close friends and family. In this case, the relatives were actually close friends he’d known for the past 18 years. We arrived in El-Kelaa M’Gouna at around 8pm and before heading to their house, we stopped off at the local market to pick up ingredients. First we stopped at the butcher and selected two chickens. Next we when to a produce stall and selected tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, olives, lemon, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, and beets. Then it was off to get eggs, before finally hiring a guy on the street to fetch us some bread. All together, we had enough food for what seemed like 100 feasts!

Back in the trucks, we turned off the main road and worked our way through a series of dark narrow dirt alleys lined on both sides by 2-3 story nondescript row houses. Deep into the maze we arrived at our hosts’ home and with groceries in hand proceeded to the front door. There we received a very warm welcome from Miriam, our host for the night and one of 6 children in the family, and her best friend Fatima. Inside we proceeded up a staircase to the main floor where she proceeded to give us the grand tour and pointed out that this is our home now and we should make ourselves comfortable. Afterwards, Miriam brought out a large silver tray and served mint tea before heading back to the kitchen with Fatima to begin preparing dinner. Shortly afterwards, Ali invited us into the kitchen were he lined us up on a wooden bench and began instructing us as to what was going on. Miriam and Fatima were working feverishly as Ali belted out orders in a mix of Arabic, French, and English. “Please, as fast as possible!” he would order them. Food was flying everywhere. There were chickens being prepared on the counter while vegetables were being prepared on the concrete floor. Potatoes were rolling all over the place and when someone needed a vegetable that had gone astray they just kicked it back into the middle of the floor. Then the raw chicken was being mixed with the salad vegetables. It was an incredible display of efficiency, of utilization of a small space, and of poor sanitation practices (basically every rule of food prep taught in the US was broken within the first 10 minutes. If you were to believe what you’ve been taught at home then we’d surely been dead by morning).

At some point during the preparations, Miriam’s, younger brother, Yusef, came home from full contact boxing practice. At 22 years old, Yusef is the youngest member of the family. A very friendly guy, with lots of Moroccan bravado, dressed in an all white tracksuit. Within minutes of meeting him he reiterated Miriam’s request that his home is our home and we should treat it as such. We couldn't have felt more welcome.

Around 9:30pm Ali said he needed to call the hotel where he works to see when he needed to be back the next day. Since he doesn’t have a phone he asked if I could drive him to a local hotel to make the call. So off we went for what I thought was a 10-minute outing. At the hotel he made the call. They said he had to be back by 6am. Then Ali asked me if I’d like to have a beer at the bar before going back. OK I said., and we headed into a bar filled with Moroccan men who were being entertained by a Berber band and several belly dancers parading around the floor. Before long, one beer turned into two and Ali was introducing us to half the men in the bar. By the time we finally made it back home our short errand had turned into a mini night out within itself.

It was now 11pm and dinner was ready to be served. We all gathered around a knee high table in the main living room as Miriam and Fatima began bringing tray after tray of food. First came the Moroccan salad, then the bread, then the olives, then the tajine, then the tea…….. by the time the food stopped coming there was enough on the table to feed (read: stuff) a group three times our size. Next came a toast Moroccan toast and then we all dug in. We ate with our hands all sharing from communal plates. We started by dipping the bread into the tajine to soak up all of the sauce. Then we began eating the chicken (our host waited until we were well fed before eating any chicken themselves so that we would have the best parts). The entire meal was absolutely incredible and the chicken was by far the best we’ve had in Morocco! We ate and ate and ate until we were so stuffed we could hardly move. There was still tons of food on the table and, as we realized later, there was still another chicken and all of the fried cauliflower still to be served. After dinner came a large bowl of oranges for dessert.

By the time we’d finished dinner it was 1am and we were completely stuffed and dead tired. But the night was still young and Ali quickly proposed that we all go out for a drink at the same bar we had been to a couple of hours earlier. We were all beat and going out was the furthest thing from our minds but what do you say. Instead, we smiled and said let’s go. There wasn’t room in the trucks for everyone so we all walked. When we arrived the Berber band was still playing and the belly dancers were still dancing. 1:00am became 2am, which became 3am, and then 4am and then 5am. Along the way, Sharikay were coerced into dancing with the belly dancers. Not my finest hour however Yusef was very nice and joined us on the dance floor which took some of the pressure off. Watching him strut his stuff, it’s clearly obvious that he’s spent many hours at weddings and parties refining his Moroccan dance moves.

By 5am Sheri was asleep, despite the blaring music,, Sharikay was dozing off, I was dozing off, and Miriam and Fatima were passed out. Ali and Yusef were still going strong and wanted to know why we were tired. Most of the other men in the bar were so drunk they could hardly walk straight and I watched as one man got into a fight with the bartender for groping one of the belly dancers. Fortunately, Ali decided to call it a night and we headed for home.

Back at the house, Miriam and Fatima set about making our beds and finding us something to sleep in. Yusef actually laid out two outfits for me to choose from. I looked ridiculous in both and would have been better off going out to the truck and getting something else, however they were making every attempt to make us as comfortable as possible so I happily dawned my new sleep duds. Before turning in, Ali came to Sheri and said “OK, I’ve talked to Miriam and Fatima and they are getting up at 8am (now only 2 hours away) to begin preparing breakfast. You should join them so that you can learn how to prepare a Moroccan breakfast. After he left, Sheri looked at me like are you kidding. It’s 6am!!!!! And so we went to sleep.

 
 
 
  Boumaine du Dades, Morocco - April 29, 2006(Jim Writes): We ended up getting up at 10am. Miriam and Fatima were already hard at work preparing breakfast, which was now almost ready. Still trying to wake up after a long night, another huge feast arrived at the table. There was rghaif bread galore, as well as fruits, preserves, tea, and coffee. It was fantastic. While we were eating, Ali announced that he would be taking us all to the local hammam (the public bathhouse) after breakfast. I’d expressed an interest during one of our previous conversations and so he wanted us to experience one first hand.

After breakfast, Miriam took Sheri and Sharikay into her room and began preparing them for the hammam. I’m not sure what exactly happened in that room however when they emerged they were dressed in elegant jelabas and Sheri and Sharikay looked about as Moroccan as two blond haired Americans can. Meanwhile Eric and I grabbed a change of clothes, towels, and our toiletries.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d read a bit about hammams and knew that they were public bathhouses where men (and now women in separate hammams) go to bathe and receive a massage. Years ago, I’d also seen a Lonely Planet travel documentary in which Ian Wright went to a hammam. What I remember most about his experience was Ian being stripped down to his underwear and being placed spread eagle, face down on a wet tile floor by a man dressed in a tiny speedo like pair of underwear. The man proceded to climb all over Ian, contorting him in every which way, smooching his face into the floor and generally turning him into a wet pretzel. Fortunately, Ali, didn’t mention anything like that. He just said it’s a place that you can go to have a bath and enjoy the sauna. [Sheri writes: I recall seeing this Lonely Planet episode as well and was not very eager to set off to the hammam. Not only was I concerned about my body being contorted into unnatural positions, I was also concerned about having to prance around in my birthday suit in front of everyone. I’m a very modest person and the thought of this made me very uneasy. Sharikay asked Miriam what to expect from the hammam and was told that you go into a private bath to bathe and are given a towel to reach your next destination, the sauna. Sounded tame to me.]

The hammam was located on a small dirt road a short drive from the center of town. When we arrived, Sheri and Sharikay followed Miriam and Fatima into the women’s hammam and Eric and I followed Ali and Yusef into the mens hammam. Once inside the men’s side we followed Ali and Yusef’s lead and stripped down to our underwear and grabbed a large empty bucket from the corner. Next we entered a large brown and tan tile steam room where a man was squatting in the middle of the floor, stark naked, bathing with a bucket of water. It was incredibly hot in the room and I immediately thought this must be the steam room. Then Ali said, this is the cold room, follow me. Through a door we went into the next room, which was twice as hot. Before we could adjust to the heat Ali says, “This is medium heat. Follow me.” And we followed him through another door into a room so hot I nearly passed out – literally I started to feel a bit sick. Inside the room he showed us two faucets – one hot and one cold. We filled our buckets with water from the faucets – mixing the two to get warm water, and then followed them back into the medium heat room. Inside the room we watched Ali as he squatted on the floor and started to bath. We followed his lead doing the same. 10 minutes later, Eric and I were totally clean and thought we were done when Yusef comes over and says here’s some soap. Wash with this. It was a thick tar like olive paste. And so we bathed all over again. As we bathed I noticed that Ali, dressed in his speedo like underwear, had placed Yusef face down, spread eagle on the wet tile floor and was starting to climb all over him and contort him like a wet pretzel. Oh no, I thought! I’ve seen this routine before. And yes, before I knew what was happening Yusef, dressed in his speedo like underwear, had me face down, spread eagle in the middle of the wet tile floor. He then climbed on my back and, armed with a exfoliation glove, began scrubbing every inch of my body. To say I was completely comfortable with a nearly naked 22-year-old man climbing all over me on a wet tile floor would be a bit inaccurate. As I lay there face down, pressed hard against the wet floor, I could hear the water squeaking inside my ear every time he contorted my body into a new position. All the while I couldn’t help but think about how far out of my comfort zone I currently was. I also couldn’t help but predict where this might be going. Ali had climbed all over Yusef exfoliating and massaging him. Yusef was now doing the same to me. Did that mean I was going to have to do the same to Eric???? Oh God, please let that not be the case I thought. If I have to go over to Eric and tell him to roll over face down so that I can climb on top of him for a massage…… I’m all for new cultural experiences but that might send me to my breaking point. All that being said however, it was totally worth it. The exfoliation and massage were very relaxing and well worth the awkwardness of being splayed on a wet floor by a nearly naked man in a hammam where we clearly stood out like sore thumbs. Most importantly, when it was over, Yusef approached Eric and asked if he would like a similar working over (that meant I didn’t have to do it). Eric declined the offer and so we spent the rest of our time in the hammam laying on the floor in the “cold” room and relaxing. Finally, fully rested, we grabbed our buckets, rinsed off, and headed back to the reception area to change before leaving.

[Sheri Writes: When we first stepped into the hammam, I knew that this experience was going to be nothing like Miriam described earlier. First sign: none of the women were given towels after undressing and they were all undressing in the front room. Second sign: Everyone was bathing in the same room…we did not have private bathing rooms. While there are hammams that cater to tourists, it was obvious that this hammam rarely, if ever, sees a foreigner because, as we were led to the various saunas, (ranging from hot, to very hot, to unbearable) EVERYBODY was staring at us and wouldn’t take their eyes off of us. It’s never fun to be stared at, let alone when you’re wearing basically nothing. Sharikay and I chose the “coldest” of the rooms and Miriam and Fatima gave us mats to sit on while they got buckets of warm water for us so that we could wash. I was extremely grateful to be sitting on the mat and not on a bare tile floor, as most women were doing. I can’t imagine that the floor was even close to being clean. As Sharikay and I sat there, feeling a little uncomfortable with the situation and most uncomfortable with the woman sitting directly across from us who would constantly stare at us, we tried to figure out what we were supposed to do. A very friendly old woman sitting diagonally from us explained, using hand signals, the various steps so we proceeded to bathe and wash our hair. A few minutes later a woman comes to exfoliate us…with the same exfoliation glove that everyone else uses. With no choice but to use the same glove that has scrubbed MANY other people, we geared ourselves up to have a topless stranger scrub and scrub and scrub EVERY public and private inch of our bodies. I have to say that even though I lost about 50% of my skin cells, I felt sparkly clean and relaxed afterwards (and relieved that it was over). After all the scrubbing and washing, we relaxed for a few minutes in the scorching hot sauna and then changed into our clothes. While this adventure into this other world brought me way out of my comfort zone, I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience a genuine hammam with local woman and learning more about their culture.]

It was now early afternoon, and Ali eagerly presented us with a full agenda for the balance of the day and into the next (remember: Ali was supposed to be back at the hotel by 6am this morning and Miriam was supposed to work today – I think they must have very flexible schedules). As much fun as we were having, the experience was very tiring (I’d only had 8 hours sleep in the past two nights, plus you’re always on), and we really needed to press on. With that we politely declined the offer explaining that we needed to continue south to make it to Mauritania in time. Disappointed, they clearly understood, but insisted we have a quick lunch before leaving. We agreed and before you knew it the table was full of food. Out came the second chicken. More tajine. Fresh fruit. Olives. Bread. More salad. It was a massive spread and again we stuffed ourselves senseless.

Afterwards, having had an unforgettable experience, we said our goodbyes and headed for the Valley of the Roses. Along the way we found a renovated kasbah located atop a small canyon. We’d been wanting to stay in an old kasbah and so we stopped to have a closer look. Inside the kasbahs mud walls we found a large main room lit by candlelight with sheep skins covering the floor. In the middle was a large fireplace and small knee high tables and cushions where they serve dinner. The rooms seemed equally interesting, each with fireplaces, Berber rugs, and Moroccan art. It was perfect and we booked two rooms for the night.

Just before parking our trucks behind the kasbahs fortified walls, Eric and I noticed a dirt road leading down to the river inside the canyon. Always interested in doing a little exploring we headed down for a closer look. The dirt road crossed a section of the river to a rocky island in the middle. After checking the rivers depth we took the truck across which quickly drew the interest of several Moroccans who made their way down to the river to watch the action. While Eric and Sharikay drove a bit more, I found myself involved in a cutthroat game of skip the rocks with three young girls and a Moroccan man. I’ve skipped a rock or two in my life but these were world class experts who delighted in giving me a sound beating. It was good fun for all and provided a rare opportunity to interact without the constant hassles to Donnez-moi….! Donnez-moi….!”

Back at the kasbah we had an enjoyable dinner by a roaring fire and then retired to our room, completely spent from the previous two nights activities.

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  Boumaine du Dades , Morocco - April 30, 2006(Jim Writes): After a good nights rest, we got up and had a huge Moroccan breakfast before checking out of the kasbah. Our plan for the day was to spend the morning exploring the nearby canyon before departing for Ait Benhadou around noon. After loading up the trucks we headed back down the dirt road that lead into the canyon. Our goal was simply to explore a section of the canyon by truck. We started out by surveying the river – checking its depth, noting the strength of the current and looking for rocks and other obstacles along the bottom – wading across where necessary to insure a safe crossing. Next we followed the route that we had previously scoped out slowly working our way up the river. Generally, the water was shallow, usually only half way up the tires. In some places where the water was pooling, it was deeper however these areas were easily identifiable by their dark green hue and could be avoided. It was a beautiful drive up the canyon and Sheri and Sharikay both had turns at the wheel. After stopping to take a few photographs, Sheri and I continued up the river with Sharikay and Eric a couple of minutes behind us. We traveled another 100 meters or so before we reached a point where the river narrowed a bit and you could see a deeper section ahead. We were on a thin section of sand on the left bank of the river and determined the best option was to cross the river to the right bank before it got deeper and then turn around and work our way back down stream. Before crossing, we found a safe exit point and then headed across. The water was deeper than other places however still only just barely to Betty’s chassis. We made it across without a problem and then headed up the right hand bank for another 50 meters or so to a point were we could turn around. Just as we reached the turn around point, Sharikay radios to us that they’re having some trouble and might need our help. I looked in my sideview mirror and could see them in deep water just over the front headlights and the truck was clearly stuck and rocking back and forth as Eric tried to climb up the right bank. I radioed back to hold on, we’re on our way and will give them a hand. By the time we turned the truck around Ginger (Eric and Sharikay’s truck) was pitched at such an angle that the both front wheels were well off the ground and the truck was yawing back and forth wildly as the rear wheels, with diff locks engaged, struggled to make it up the steep bank. We immediately realized they were in serious danger of flipping their truck and yelled as loudly as we could to stop. How the truck didn’t roll over sideways I have no idea, however Eric immediately let off the gas and the truck settled back down resting on its rear end with one front wheel well off the ground. The truck was still tilted at quite an angle and the wind was blowing so hard the truck was rocking back at forth. Concerned the truck could still roll over, we told them not to move and went about positioning Betty for a winch recovery. Once in position, I started to attach the cable and then realized I’d disconnected the battery leads to the winch motor (to keep from having vandals attach my winch cable to my rear bumper and turning on the winch, which would cut the truck in half). With no time to spare, Eric and I decided the best option was to manually reel out the cable and attach it to their truck, and then gently reversing our truck slightly to pull out the slack. This would secure their truck while I attached the battery lead. We all relaxed a little more once the cable was attached. After the winch was hooked up to the battery, we were ready to try the recovery. I turned on the winch and with a bit of help from Ginger, down came the front wheel and slowly but surely, out of the water she came. Ahh. A collective sigh of relief! Disaster averted!

It was a close call. We talked at length about what went wrong. In hindsight, Eric had missed my tracks and traveled another 10 meters or so up river before trying to exit. The water was much deeper there and the exit point was a nearly vertical incline of about 3 feet. Not realizing how steep the exit was he got stuck and before surveying the situation further locked front, center and rear diffs and tried to claw up the vertical bank. This is what caused the front wheels to climb into the air and the truck to rock from side to side, which nearly flipped the truck over.

In the end all was OK. The rear cargo area was flooded with water but it will dry out in time. Most importantly, the experience stressed how quickly things can go wrong and important it is to be conservative all of the time.

Once out of the canyon we found a place to pull off the side of the road and Sharikay and Eric opened the door to the cargo area to have a look. Inside, they found the lower half of the cargo area flooded with both drawers full of water. The next hour was spent drying off gear and shoveling buckets of water out of the drawers.

Afterwards, we set off for Ait Benhadou, 100 km down the road. We arrived around 5:30pm and setoff to explore the restored kasbah and surrounding hilltop. Somewhere along the way we lost Eric and when he turned up again he was wearing a pair of funny looking Moroccan sandals that are sold to tourist in stalls throughout town. Clearly still shaken from his driving experience, Eric ran into a guy on the side of the road who said he liked Eric’s Tevas. After some discussion, Eric agreed to a trade. 30 minutes later Eric shows up wearing a pair of sandals that retail (before negotiations) for about $10 and were at least 4 sizes too big. It provided a good laugh for all of us, including Eric (who was planning to get rid of his Tevas anyway) and seemed to provide some comic relief to an otherwise stressful day.

We made it back to the trucks a little after sunset. Exhausted after a long stressful day, we were eager to unwind and decided to backtrack to Ouarzazate to find a campsite and have a relaxing dinner.

 
 
 
  Ouarzazate, Morocco - May 1, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Up early this morning, we got ready to leave for Marrakesh. Our campsite left a lot to be desired, with clogged toilets and non-functioning showers. But, better days are ahead of us as we made a pact to stay at a nice, traditional hotel in Marrakesh for a little R&R. We decided to look for a riad, a renovated courtyard style home. Happy to leave the campsite, we made the four-hour drive to Marrakech through beautiful, dramatic, twisting mountains. The drive got a bit hairy at times as Land Rover after Land Rover passed carrying very large, tall loads on the top of their trucks. These loads caused them to lean while taking the turns and one literally almost turned over right in front of us with it’s rear end fish tailing around the corner and it’s heavy load shifting wildly from side to side. That brought a scare to us and we were relieved once we were out of the winding roads. Once in Marrakesh we dumped the trucks in a walled parking lot, and headed for the medina. Our first order of business was to find the famous square, DjemaaEl Fna, and a restaurant. It was 3pm and none of us had eaten lunch yet. Djemaa El Fna is a huge place, filled with food stalls and surrounded by countless restaurants. We ended up selecting a nice place with a rooftop terrace overlooking the action below. In the sun it was scorching hot and by the end of the meal we were sweating bullets. After lunch we set off on a three hour search for the perfect riad—something unique and quaint, but not terribly expensive. Many of the riads proved difficult to find as they’re discretely tucked away on narrow back streets with little or no signage on the outside. Having trouble navigating to one recommended riad, we asked a palace security guard for directions and he kindly guided us to the riad. Between me and Sharikay we only had 10 Dirham. We offered it to him and I think he must have been a bit offended as he handed it back, muttered something in French and walked off. The riad was beautiful and exactly what we were looking for. Unfortunately, it was full. After visiting what felt like another 100 riads, most of which were already full, we settled on a wonderful place, but only after a little drama unfolded.

To make a long confusing story short, after visiting several riads and turning up empty, we visited a riad that, like many of the others, was full for the night. The riad’s manager however said that he had another property nearby that he could show us. Now eager to find rooms for the night, we followed him down the street to have it look. It was nice but not anything to write home about. Moreover, it only had one room available and we needed two. The riad’s manager said that he could also show us another riad (owned by someone else) across the street which also had one room available. And so, we followed him across the street to have it look. As soon as we walked through the elegant Moroccan door, we knew we had found our place. It was a spectacular hotel that rivaled the most expensive boutique hotels in Marrakech. All the rooms were beautifully appointed, with typical Moroccan furniture, colorful paintings, fountain with rose petals in the courtyard, a dramatically lit courtyard swimming pool, sundecks, and several inviting rooms and small spaces perfect for escaping Marrakech’s hectic streets. Problem was, the manager of the first riad had told us there was only one room available. We suspected otherwise, and asked the desk attendant who was showing us around if we could have two rooms for the night. We clearly caught him off guard and, looking confused, he consulted the other riad’s manager in Arabic and then replied that yes, we only have one room available. It quickly became obvious to us that this wasn’t the case. Rather, the other riad’s manager, who was referring us to this hotel, clearly wanted to fill his empty room and this was just a way to provide us with the second room we needed. Moreover, it was clear that this had been communicated to the staff at the hotel we were interested in. Not knowing what to do, we decided the best thing would be to leave and return after the other riad’s manager was gone. This was exactly what we did, thanking everyone for their time and telling them that we’d think it over. A short while later Sheri and Sharikay returned and inquired to another member of the riad’s staff about availability. We were right. They had two rooms available. As luck would have it however, the other riad’s manager returned in the middle of our conversation, apparently to veto our request. Now thoroughly frustrated that we were being denied a room simply because of some back door referral deal between the two hotels. One thing led to another and we determined that the only way we were going to get our two rooms was to tackle the problem head on. Eric and Jim drew the sort straws and off they went to argue there case with the two hotel’s managers. A huge argument ensued in Arabic between the hotel managers. Who knows what was said however when it was all said and done, the manager of the other riad stormed out without saying a word to us and we had our rooms. Quite a bit of drama just to get two hotel rooms.

Relieved to have the riad hunt behind us, we checked in and immediately left to go to the square, not wanting to miss out on any of the action, as it starts to pick up in the evening hours. As you wind your way through the hustlers, touts, and smoky food stalls, you encounter every manner of entertainer from Berber acrobats, to snake charmers, to storytellers, to potion sellers, to monkeys smoking cigarettes. We stopped at one of the crowds where a man was singing about woman in the larger cities and comparing them to the moon and stars. We of course didn’t understand any of his Arabic, however a Moroccan man standing nearby gave us a quick translation. The singer was funny just to listen to. He was an older man and dressed in a white jellaba. Each word out of his mouth sounded as if he was choking and for some reason it cracked me up. Then, after he finished each phrase, he would do a cute little dance. I wished so badly that I could understand him because everyone seemed to be so entertained by him. After listening to him for a while, we developed an appetite and were ready to eat dinner. There are tons of fruit and food stalls filled with smoke and tempting smells coming from every direction. As you walk past each stall, a tout blocks your path and urges you to eat at his restaurant. A bit annoying but also part of the bizarre atmosphere that makes the square so unique. Our first stop was the snail stall where we all tried a bowl full of snails. Escargot they were not. Next, Jim had the bright idea to try goat’s brains, so we found the goat brain stall. Call me a wimp, but I had to pass on this one. I have never had the urge to try brains, so I settled for mint tea. Feeling a bit more adventurous than myself, Sharikay. Jim and Eric settled down with a plate of brains, lungs, and god-knows what else between them. They all agreed that the fatty part of the brain was less than tasty, but the lungs were pretty good. Relieved to be leaving the brains behind, we set out to find real food and remembered that there was a Thai restaurant before we entered the square. I had been longing for Thai for quite some time so couldn’t wait to get there. It was a beautiful restaurant but we were floored by the prices on the menu. Pad Thai here was twice the price of Pad Thai at home. On principal alone we decided that we couldn’t eat here, so we settled for cocktails instead. Fine with me because it’s been a long time since we’ve had a cocktail as Morocco is generally a dry country. After enjoying our cocktails in the swanky Thai restaurant, we went to the trucks to get our bags and head back to the Riad. Back at the Riad, we settled into our very comfortable bed and enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

 
 
 
 
  Marrakech, Morocco - May 2, 2006
(Sheri Writes): I slept like a rock last night. Not wanting to get out of the warm, comfortable bed, I had to drag myself out and into the shower. Several times at the campsites we’ve been told that we can have a hot shower, but more times than not it turns out to be a cold or there’s no running water at all. So, it’s nice to know that you are going to have a hot shower---with water pressure! Awake after the shower, we went downstairs to enjoy a great breakfast of rghaif, yogurt, bread, coffee, tea, and juice. Following breakfast we went to the internet cafe to catch up on emails and then found our way to McDonalds for a Big Mac and fries. Having eaten Moroccan food for nearly a month now, McDonalds was a welcome break – a bit of home. Having had our fill of grease, we headed back to the Riad because the skies were growing dark and it was so on going to pour. We hoped to be able to get out to the souqs later that evening, but the rain never stopped and actually got worse. Instead, we took the opportunity to do some catching up and turned in for the night fairly early.
 
  Marrakech, Morocco - May 3, 2006
Since we weren’t able to go to the souqs yesterday, we decided to stay an extra night in Marrakesh. Having agreed to only stay two nights in a hotel, we checked out of our fancy riad at around 3pm, having milked our late checkout as much as possible, and headed to an internet café just down the street. Afterwards we braved the touts, grabbing dinner at one of the food stalls on the square and stopped for ice cream before departing Marrakech for a local campsite. The campsite listed in our1998 Lonely Planet Guide was closeby, so we thought there would be no problem finding out. After searching around for almost an hour we determined that a posh new tourist hotel had replaced the campsite. Tired and frustrated, Jim asked a police officer where the campsite was and we were given good directions to the new site location about 18 km outside of the city. At 11:00 we were at the campsite, relieved to have finally found it. .
 
  Marrakech, Morocco - May 4, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Last night a new cast of characters were added to the African evening symphony...mating peacocks. They make a very strange, loud noise...over and over and over again. We left around 10am for Essaouira, a small, laid back city on the coast. It took around 3 hours to get there and once there, we walked around a bit to get the lay of the land. We located the port and watched as fishermen brought in their catch for the day and watched as large fishing boats were being built. Later we walked through the medina and browsed shops for babouches, traditional slippers that are in every Moroccan’s closet. We’re looking for a pair to have in the tent. Knowing that we had to make dinner, we headed out soon after to find the campsite before sundown. The campsite turned out to be a small hotel that felt very much like the main house in Out of Africa. There was no power and a windmill turned the pump to draw water from the well. Inside, the dining room was very intimate, completely lit by giant candelabras filled with candles. It was terribly tempting to We were invited to eat dinner in the dining room (for a price of course), but since we had been treating ourselves the past few days, we reluctantly declined and went back to the truck to make dinner.

We opted to forgo having dinner in the main house (which was pricey) and instead fixed dinner at the truck. It was so windy that we had to put up the shower skirt in the back of the truck to be able to cook in peace. We had stopped at Marjane on the way out of Morocco and bought vegetables and frozen shrimp, so we made pasta with sautéed vegetables and shrimp. The shrimp was a nice change and we thoroughly enjoyed our tasty dinner.

 
  Essaouira, Morocco - May 5, 2006 We have let so many things pile up that need to be addressed, so we took most of the day as an admin day. At 5:00 we went into town to go to the internet cafe and to have dinner. Dinner was at a great, traditionally decorated Moroccan restaurant and we both enjoyed the chicken couscous. The couscous was delicious and possibly the best I’ve had yet. Following dinner we went back to the campsite and Jim and I enjoyed an episode of the BBC version of The Office.  
 
   
 
  Essaouira, Morocco - May 6, 2006
(Jim Writes): When we woke up this morning the wind was still howling. After going for a run, we broke camp and headed into Essaouira to do a bit of shopping. Afterwards, we fueled up the trucks and hit the road for the long drive to Tan Tan. Our first leg of a 1,500 km drive through Western Sahara to the Mauritanian border. For the first few hours we just motored along, enjoying the ocean views. At around 4pm, as we were heading through the Anti Atlas Mountains, we came around a corner and saw three teenage kids on the side of the road. Just as we passed, we watched one of them fire a rock straight at our windshield. Next thing we heard was a loud SMACK as the rock struck Betty’s head on. I couldn’t believe it. I knew we were going to occasionally receive “incoming rounds” from kids, that’s part of the reason we installed safety glass. That said, I didn’t take well to it and screamed for Sheri to stop the truck. She slammed on the brakes and I jumped out and took off after them as they disappeared into the surrounding mountains. They were gone like ghost in the night, however another boy turns up who clearly had a guilty look on his face and I started to let him have it in French, and when I ran out of words, continued without a beat in English. If I could have positively identified him as one of the three I probably (read: definitely) would have done more than give him a tongue-lashing. All I got out of the kid was that the others had run into the nearby woods. As I’m giving it to him, Sheri turns to me and says that she has bad news. The truck wouldn’t start. What? I stormed back to the truck still firing off choice words along the way. I jumped inside and turned the ignition. The starter turned over but the truck wouldn’t start. I tried again. Nothing. I tried again, now muttering “$%&?!*$?&%$!!!!” under my breath. You’ve got to be kidding me I thought. Talk about a bad time to have truck problems. I tried a couple more times. Nothing. Clearly it was a problem with the fuel system but I wasn’t sure what and this clearly wasn’t the place to be sorting it out. Eric and I talked it over and decided the best option would be to fix a recovery line and tow Betty to the next town just 5 km down the mountain. Once there we could have a closer look and sort out the problem. It took about 5 minutes to set up the line, all the while I’m still muttering angrily under my breath and occasionally stopping long enough to fire a few more words at the kid who was still standing beside the truck looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. Just as we were getting ready to tow, a police vehicle passes us and pulls over to see what’s going on. I explained to him what had happened and he told us he knew a good mechanic in town and would be happy to escort us to his shop. And so off we went, with Betty at the end of a towrope being escorted into town. We stop at a small shop located on the main road and the officer makes the introduction. Within 30 seconds, there are 3 guys climbing on top of the engine and about half a dozen more peering under the hood. Off went the cover to the timing belt. Off went the fuel pump. Out comes a strand of red wire which they jerry rigged to one of my batteries and then the sparks started flying. In a mix of Arabic and French they are trying to explain what’s going on. Bad gasoil? No. Timing belt problems? No. Clogged fuel line/pump? No. More sparks. More voodoo magic. And with the turn of a key it started. I have no idea what went on under the hood however the mechanic pulled me aside and told me that the fuel cutoff switch was turned off. In an ironic twist, I apparently tripped it during my hasty departure from the truck to chase the boys. Perhaps a bit of bad truck karma. On the other hand though, Betty weathered her first incoming round without as much as a scratch and the truck was mechanically OK so I guess all’s well that ends well.

Before departing I asked the mechanic how much I owed him. He said, “whatever you like.” So I offered him 100 DH (about $11). He looked at the money with a bit of a grimace and said that he’d like another bill just like it. 200 DH, I asked? Yes, he said. Hmm. This seemed at bit steep so Sheri suggested I offer to barter cigarettes instead. A bit unsure of the market value of cigarettes and still warming up to the idea of bartering, I offered an additional 40 DH plus a pack of cigarettes. When he saw the cigarettes, his eyes lit up and he accepted by offer without hesitation. Clearly the cigarettes were a big hit and in retrospect, I should have just offered the pack of cigarettes (maybe not even a whole pack) and that’s it – no money at all. It was a valuable education, well worth the overpayment, and I’ll speculate that he made out better than the next guy will, who will make out better than the guy after him. Hopefully, over the long haul we’ll save quite a bit as we slowly get better.

We were back on the road around 6pm with a long drive still ahead of us. We finally arrived in Tan Tan around 11pm and had no luck finding a place to camp. A gas station attendant told us we might find camping 25 km further down the road. No luck there either. We asked a taxi driver who recommended we look along the beach. This led us to a run down public parking lot with public toilets located just on the beach. Eric and Sharikay stopped to have a closer look and were met by a man who emerged from the men’s restroom. He said he lived in the restroom but would let us camp there for 20 DH (just over $2). A steep price when you consider that it was being levied by a homeless man squatting in a “public” parking lot. Tired, and without a better option, Eric agreed to the deal and we were in our tents within 15 minutes and dozing off to the sound of the wind battering our tent and the waves pounding he shore.

 
  Tan Tan, Morocco - May 7, 2006
(Jim Writes): We woke up this morning curious to have a closer look at our impromptu campsite. It was a gloomy, windy morning. The parking lot was only about 100 meters from the water. The beach was covered in garbage and the entire area appeared terribly run down. I headed over to the restrooms and just as Eric had said, there was a man living in the men’s restroom. The man, dressed in a long tan jellaba, greeted me and said that I should use the women’s restroom. Inside the women’s’ restroom, all the toilets were out of order except one squat toilet and when I tried to turn on the water to have a quick cold shower nothing came out. Eager to wash off, I found a faucet in the squat toilet and used a water bottle to bath. Not ideal but it worked. Sheri skipped the birdbath all together and we wasted no time in packing up to leave. Shortly before we were ready to leave, our host emerges from the men’s restroom to request payment. I happened to be holding a bag of trash and he offered, as a value added service, to dispose of it for me. Without thinking I handed it to him and watched as he walked across the empty parking lot and dumped it on the beach. I should have known better. When he returned he gave us a toothless smile, held out his hand, and requested 20 DH per vehicle. It was obvious that he was squatting and had no real right to request payment however Eric had agreed to it the previous night and it was only going to put us out 20 DH so we were willing to go along with it. Before handing him the money, I realized that I still had a half used bottle of black olive oil which I’d intended to put in the trash. I offered it to him and he quickly countered that he would take it plus 5 DH. I accepted and we drove away shaking our heads and laughing at the fact that we were somehow satisfied with the deal we’d struck with a guy that had no real right to be asking for anything.

From Tan Tan, we worked our way 400 km south through Western Sahara. The drive was a long monotonous slog through an endless desert that reached right up to a barren coastline dotted with the skeletons of past shipwrecks. At times, the road cut through sand dunes that covered the road in places. Along the way, we passed bulldozers that, like snowplows, were working up and down the road clearing away the sand. A never-ending process as the desert threatens to overtake the road.

The only other distraction came from the numerous police checkpoints. Each time it was the same routine. Sheri and Sharikay stayed in the car while Eric and I accompanied an officer into a shabby little hut (only lit by candlelight at night) and presenting our passports and answered a series of basic questions as the officer wrote down the answers on a scrap sheet of paper. The questions were always the same: name, marital status, occupation, etc. At first I presented myself as a photographer however I quickly changed my occupation after they started asking lots of follow-up questions to determine whether I was a journalist and what I planned to photograph. My new occupation was “Publicity” and we decided to keep it simple and say that Sheri’s occupation was publicity as well. The process usually took around 15 minutes and we found the officers very polite – sometimes sharing food with us and often eager for conversation.

Shortly before dark we decided to bushcamp a few kilometers outside of Boujdour. After a quick search we found a secluded spot behind a low ridge and setup camp for the night.

 
  Boujdour, Western Sahara - May 8, 2006
(Jim Writes): With yet another leg ahead of us, we set out early for Dakhla – 300 km away. Again, the drive was a long slog through the desert only broken up by periodic police checkpoints and the occasional passing of an old Series Land Rover – one with a live camel stuffed in the back. We arrived in Dakhla mid afternoon, stopping on the way into town to check out an amazing blue-turquoise lagoon situated in the middle of the desert. Along the beach we found the first signs of tourist we’d seen since Essaouira. Parked along the beach were a handful of caravans from Germany, France, and Switzerland as well as a Dutch couple who were taking 15 years to bike around the world. We stopped for a closer look and were greeted by one of the lagoon’s caretakers who lived in a tent on the beach. He proved very friendly and we ended up chatting for quite some time. As it turns out, the lagoon is a favorite destination for European kite boarders and wind surfers. It was kind of odd seeing colorful kites flying in the air over an otherwise baron desert.

Sharikay and Eric had gone ahead of us earlier in the day and had already setup camp by the time we arrived. With summer just around the corner the place was dead and the only other travelers at the campsite were one German and an Austrian guy named Joe who was driving a huge military personnel carrier that could have easily carried our Land Cruiser in the cargo area.

Joe was on his way back to Europe after spending 2 months in Mauritania. Sharikay and Eric had already met him and before long we were all hanging out and chatting about Mauritania. He proved to be a great source of information and told us stories of when he got his truck so stuck in the sand that he thought he was going to have to abandon it. A bit scary I might add, since his truck looks like it could go through pretty anything.

Later we went into town to grab dinner and do some exploring. The food was terrible! The town was quite interesting. A modern oasis city, built by Morocco as part of it’s efforts to establish its claim to the territory.

 
 

Dakla, Western Sahara - May 9, 2006
(Jim Writes): An admin day, Eric and I took the opportunity to rotate the tires while Sheri took care of laundry and other items. Our goal with rotating the tires was to pull the front ones off, move the rear tires to the front, and put the two spares on the rear, so that we’re getting even wear out of all six tires. Overall, the task was easy. It just took a little while since we didn’t have the benefit of a hydraulic lift. Instead we jacked up the truck, rear first, and placed two jack stands under the axles before removing the tires. Since our truck has a built in compressor and air tools, the task should have taken less than an hour per truck. In the end, it took longer because we decided to get some practice using the hi-lift jack (Yes, I know a bottle jack is infinitely better suited to the task, however during a past sand recovery in Morocco, we found the hi-lift a royal pain to use and Eric and I wanted some more experience using it in a controlled environment so we’d be more comfortable the next time we have to use it in a recovery.). For anyone unfamiliar with this device, it may be the worst invention ever in the history of the world. In my limited experience, which includes a recovery training course in which I was trained on its proper use, I’ve found it difficult, potentially dangerous and a bit unreliable. Using it for this task proved no less cumbersome and added a considerable amount of time to the job (I’ll save the details for a book). Bottom line, in the future, I’ll do anything to avoid using it during a recovery.

With the tires rotated and several other to do’s taken care of, we cleaned up and headed into town to grab dinner at a local café. The dish du jour, camel meat brochettes. Not bad. Tastes like fatty beef. While eating, we struck up a conversation with a local Moroccan named Aziz. Turns out, Aziz is 56. Sowed his wild oats during the hippy erra in Marrakech and Essouira during the 60’s and 70’s and now seems to know anyone and everyone in Morocco, including every overlander who’s ever passed through Western Sahara. An incredibly friendly fellow, we had tea together and then Eric and I joined him a local bar to chat some more over beers (a rare treat in Morocco).


 
 

Dakla, Western Sahara - May 10, 2006
(Jim Writes): Off to a slow start, we stopped by an internet cafe to fire off some emails before departing for the Mauritanian border. The power went out and we couldn’t get the emails off. This also kept us from filling up with gas because the pumps were dead. So we had lunch and waited. Finally, it came back on and we hit the internet cafe and then the gas station. On the way to the station, I felt the truck start to wobble. I stopped and checked the wheels. The nuts on the left rear wheel had worked themselves loose so I tightened them again – this time extremely tight. We finally, hit the road a little after 4pm. Our plan was to drive to within an hour or so of the border and then bush camp so that we could cross over early the next morning. According to feedback from other overlanders, this is the best time to cross as the border officials seem to be less likely to ask for bribes than in the afternoon. About 35 miles outside of Dakla, we stopped to double check the wheel nuts. All was good. Just before setting off again however, Eric came to the truck and said he’d left his journal back in Dakla. Given the late hour, we decided to continue on and they agreed to catchup and meet us at the border the following morning. Off to a slow start, we finally hit the road for the Mauritanian border a little after 4pm.

By 7pm we were 175 km from the border and began looking for a safe place to camp for the night. Not long after we started looking, we found some dunes to the right of the road with a track running into them. We took the track which worked it’s way to the beach. Along the beach it was very windy and so we headed inland and then cut away from the truck and tucked ourselves between a section of low dunes about a ¼ mile off the track and a mile or so off the main road. Once settled, we cracked open our only bottle of while (it’s illegal to import alcohol into Mauritania), fired up the Kelly Kettle, and fixed dinner. On the menu: tomato salad with balsamic vinegar, Moroccan bread, and soup.