November 2, 2008

Well, we finally made it! After 4,500 miles across the US and Canada to Baltimore where we once again put the Fuso on a Wallenius Wilhelmsen ship and 1,800 miles across Belgium, France and Spain, we reached the ferry crossing at Algeciras that would take us across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco and Africa!

As we were driving across southern Spain, we kept passing ticket booths that wanted to sell us ferry tickets. We passed them up, hoping to get a better price at the port. We don’t really know what kind of deal we might have gotten at the booths, but we know that by going directly to the port we got a 60% discount over the internet price. Hard to beat that!

Before the ticket seller could confirm our ticket however, he needed to check to see that the ship could accommodate our 3.6m height. No problem, the boat’s hold height was 3.9m. After carefully backing us on to the ship, the mate securely tied us down and off we went.

The crossing only took 35 minutes and along the way we got a terrific view of the Rock of Gibraltar. Arriving on the other side, we were actually still in Spain (Spanish Morocco) and had to drive 3 km to the true border crossing.

Arriving at the border, we drove without stopping across the Spanish line to the Moroccan line. There was a very long line of cars and we prepared ourselves for a long wait. However, a border guard had other ideas, and waved us into a line that had only one other car in it. Hmmm, is this going to be good or bad? All was for the good as it only took us about a half an hour to get our passports stamped and our car documents completed. A local man helped us find the right booths, although it probably would have taken only five minutes longer if we had done it ourselves. We paid him 2 Euro for his help.

So we were now in Africa! Our fifth continent and the 24th country driving the Fuso on this incredible World of Wonders Project. We drove south and found a nice spot on the beach next to the Mediterranean Sea and had lunch. After lunch we found a very conveniently located ATM and got some Moroccan Dirhams. Now we were set, so we continued on our way to the town of Chefchaouen where there was a campground with our name on it.

Banks with ATM machines are the easiest way of obtaining local currency. They are common here in Morocco but we have heard that this might not be the same once we reach the countries in West Africa.

November 3, 2008

After spending another rainy night (we’ve had 14 days of rain in the last two months, 4 of them in a row), we awoke to cloudy skies. After doing some maintenance on the inside of the truck, we decided to dash between the rain drops and head into Chefchaouen. The town was founded in 1471 and is sacred to Muslims due to the presence of the tomb of Moulay Abdessalam Ben Mchich – patron saint of the Djebali tribesmen and one of the
"four poles" of Islam. Due to its location in a "fold" of a mountain, the town remained isolated until the Spanish arrived in 1920. It has kept a lot of its traditions since then as well.

As Rough Guides puts it, it is a town of "extraordinary light and color, its whitewash tinted with blue and edged by soft, golden, stone walls." It is a terrific place to wander around and discover the medina (walled city) with its souks (shops) and kasbah (fort). We thoroughly enjoyed getting lost and finding hidden alleys and doorways, all in the colorful blue whitewash that the town glows in.

We ended our day people watching in the main square, the Place Outa el Hammam, and sipping cups of hot, sweet, mint tea.

November 4, 2008

Waking to clouds again, we did our regular "coffee walk", walking to an overlook where we could look out over the blue walls of the city as well as the towering citadel walls of the Kasbah. We made it back to camp just as it started to rain again.

It continued to rain on and off and we made our way south through ever-changing scenery to the historic city of Fes. Our drive took us over the Rif Mountains where we crossed rivers and streams swollen with the runoff from the last week’s worth of rain. Oh yes, we were also able to find a mechanic to complete the oil change that we had put off for the last couple of hundred miles. Providing the mechanic with the oil and filter that we had brought, we made quick work of the oil change, charging us 50 dirhams, about $6.50 US for his labor!

One note of interest, we found that Mitsubishi trucks are very popular here. We get flashed (headlights that is) by the drivers of other Fusos when they see us. In the farming communities, we have seen Canters, which are smaller versions of our truck, loaded down with so much hay that we could barely see where the truck started and ended!

Entering Fes, we were met at a round-about by a tourist-tout who guided us to one of the two campgrounds. Tourist-touts are individuals who follow around tourists, trying to get them to use their guides, visit their restaurants and shops – all so that they can get paid commissions from whatever the tourist buys, usually at highly inflated prices. He then plied us with information about his English-speaking brother who works as a guide (unofficial, of course).

We finally were able to break away from him and went in search of a site. The first thing we noticed was that there was no one else there. The second thing we noticed was that the traffic noise was quite high. Thirdly, according to our guidebook, this campground is pricier than the other one. So since it was only 3:30, we decided to go in search of the other campground. As soon as we pulled out of the campground, we were joined once again by the tout, who kept pulling up next to the car and wanting to guide us somewhere.

As we made the turn to the new campground, he finally realized that we were making our own choices and made a U turn. This campground was more open but also empty! Where was everyone? We registered and asked about other campers and the employee replied that there had been two large groups but both had left. Never fear, before the end of the evening another overlander in a Toyota Land Cruiser arrived and we spent the evening swapping stories and information.


November 5, 2008

It rained again during the night, but the morning looked promising and it was time to do some long overdue laundry. The campground had a washing machine, but we belatedly discovered that the machine only had one cycle – prewash – in which it was stuck for half an hour. After wringing out our clothes and hanging them up on a line under our awning, we took off to explore the city and the historic medina of Fes.

Just outside the entrance to our camp we were able to catch a local bus that we took to the end of the line, which deposited us in the new city. From there we flagged down a taxi that brought us to one of the gates of the old town where we promptly lost ourselves in the throngs of people heading into the medina and, even more quickly, got ourselves completely turned around and lost – what great fun!

A couple of young girls who were leaving school joined us and led us to one of the great mosques and ancient medersas found within the walls of the medina.  Medersas are the ancient universities established nearly one thousand years ago.

Now that we knew where we were, we were able to retrace our steps and find one of the old tannery souks. This is where leather is worked from the start – when it is covered by fur and hair, to the point where it is dyed before being processed into jackets, purses, etc. Considering that one of steps in the process is to allow the skin to soak for several days in a vat full of pigeon feces and urine – you can just about imagine how foul the smell could be. Luckily, we visited after days of rain so the smells, pungent as they were, were not nearly as strong as say, after a couple of 90 degree F days.

It’s hard to adequately describe the process and to give it a fair description, a photo will do more justice. Hundreds of round concrete vats filled with lye, water, feces, red dyes, blue, yellow, green and black dyes, with workers standing in the vats, scraping the skins, carrying mounds of skins and running here and there – it is an incredible sight, one that supposedly hasn’t changed much in four hundred years!

November 6, 2008

Once again we went into Fes to further explore the medina. Today it really looks like it might not rain. Which is good because our laundry is still wet. We thoroughly enjoyed our trek (dry this time) and spent several hours exploring. Dodging mules and donkeys, we crossed the length of the medina, eventually reaching the gate near the tanneries that we visited yesterday, a convoluted distance of about one mile. Along the way we explored the various souks, or markets that traditionally housed specific businesses. There was the henna souk, the slipper souk, the ceramics and spice souks, not to mention the butcher souk.

We also were able to enter and view the few Muslim religious buildings open to non-Muslims. The artwork, tile and wood carvings were spectacular, and the mosques with their green tiles against the blue sky were fabulous.

We finished our wanderings with a glass of mint tea taken on a rooftop café overlooking the rooftops and alleys of the medina. This time we got back to the campground shortly before dark and were able to spend a few minutes talking to the new inhabitants that are also heading south into West Africa.

November 7, 2008

Now that it finally looks like it has stopped raining, we took advantage of a car wash area at the campground. We scrubbed three weeks of road grime off and it took quite a while. We finally hit the road after stopping at the grocery store to stock up. And we wonder why some days we don’t get very far? Fortunately today’s stop, the Roman ruins of Volubilis, was not very far down the road.

Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s most far-flung outpost and it was situated at the end of the imperial road. The history of the village goes back to 3BC and the Romans stayed until 285 AD. After the Romans left, little of the village changed until the 18th century when pieces of it were carted off to the town of Meknes to furnish other buildings. The ruins you see today are mostly homes built by the wealthy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and include some absolutely beautiful mosaic floors.

We wandered around for a couple of hours, delighting in the joy of discovering the mosaics and enjoying the end of the daylight on the ruins.

After visiting, we had hoped to spend the night in the car park, but were thwarted by the Gardien (parking attendant) who said "no". He directed us up the road to a stand, behind which the proprietor would let us park. We checked it out, but decided against it because the ground was very soft and uneven. However after driving around for about another half an hour, all the while it getting darker, we decided that the shopkeeper’s plot wasn’t so bad after all.

November 8, 2008

Our nightspot was noisy with traffic and dogs and the ground was so angled and uneven that our refrigerator refused to work (a first). We were unable to level ourselves out in the mud, so we put in earplugs and shut out the world until morning when we cleaned up the mess from our defrosted fridge. But the shop owner was so enthusiastic and tried so hard to be helpful that we couldn’t help but smile in the morning at his delight when we paid him 20 dirham (about $2.50us) for letting us park.

We left immediately and headed to a parking area that we should have attempted the night before (we were afraid we would get kicked out.) It was flat(ish) and had a great view of the ruins with the morning sun shining on them.

We took our time and then headed out for Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Big cities are not our favorite places, but sometimes you need what they have to offer and in this case, Rabat offered the embassies where we could get the visas we need in order to enter Mauritania and Mali. Unfortunately, this is Saturday and we won’t be able to put in our applications until Monday, so we decided to take our time and explore along the way.

We stopped in a small village and decided to have lunch. We chose a roadside restaurant with Tajines on offer and ordered one up. The word Tajine actually refers to the method of cooking rather than a food. It is essentially a stew, steam-cooked slowly in an earthenware dish, with a conical lid over a charcoal fire. It typically consists of lamb surrounded by vegetables. We had to wait while it finished cooking so we enjoyed the opportunity for people watching. When the food was done we shared this huge dish between us, and dipped our bread in the tasty broth. It was a wonderful meal and we were absolutely stuffed (all for 90 dirham, just over $10.00us).  Oh yes, that is raw meat hanging from hooks.

Continuing down the road and following the instructions in our guidebook and on our GPS, we attempted to find the campground in Sale, just outside Rabat. No luck. As we have found in the past, beach areas get developed fast and the campground was no longer there. This means that there are now no official campgrounds in Rabat. 

So once again checking our guidebook, we headed for an area called Plage des Nations or Beach of the Nations, so called because the diplomats would frequent it with their families.  Trying to find our way out of town, our route took us across the old city of Sale where we just barely squeezed through the old gates on our way back to the main road.  Arriving at the beach, we were pleased to discover a parking area (with one other camping van) where the Gardien said we could spend the night (despite the no-camping signs.)

The view of the beach and the crashing surf was lovely, the people friendly and we enjoyed the best weather we’ve seen in a while.

November 9, 2008

Deciding that it would be good to know where we were going before the Monday morning visa rush, we took the opportunity to drive into Rabat on Sunday to find the embassies. We found them with relatively little difficulty and decided that finding a camping area on the south side of Rabat would make our commute easier in the morning. We headed once again toward the beach and found a parking spot on the street a block from the ocean.

We made ourselves a picnic lunch and took our chairs down to the water. Well sort of to the water. The area we were in was actually very rocky and sheltered the coast from the pounding surf. We climbed to the top of an outcropping and were treated to the surf slamming into the rock and shooting into the air. By the time we left our sunglasses were covered in sea spray.

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