For those travel addicts, who have always wanted to do overlanding through Africa, via the West Coast of Africa this one’s for you. This exciting read is filled with adventure, slavery and history and will keep you informed and entertained to the very last page.
Whilst en route to Africa, I took the opportunity to revisit Gibraltar. My first visit was at the height of a long hot summer some years before, as a day out, whilst staying at the family holiday home in Marbella. After the drive along the coast road to get there, I parked the car in Spain, and I walked across the border into Gibraltar.
Being such a small area, every bit of land is used, and crossing the border on foot is an experience. The main road crosses the runway. When a plane is about to land, the road is closed with a bit of string slung across the road. I had started walking across but I noticed that there was no one else coming towards me or following behind me. I thought it odd that some people in uniforms were waving at me, until I realised that I was alone in the centre of the runway and an aircraft was coming in to land, seemingly with its lights focused on me. It was an uneven match and I started running to get out of the way.
I found that the place was crowded, sticky, hot, and smelt of sewage. This was the result of an excess of pressure and untreated sewage that shot up out of a manhole cover and ran down the main road. I climbed up to the top of the rocks and the monkeys grabbed at cameras and bags, their sharp finger nails scratching exposed skin. There didn’t seem to be much to do that I was interested in, so all in all, it was a bit of a waste of a day.
In recalling my experience of the place, many people were surprised as their experiences had been much more favourable. Therefore, I was quite surprised to find that after some researching of travel guides, that there is in fact quite a lot to see, and I had planned a couple of days to look around. Despite having a border with Spain and covering just 6.7 kilometres, it has been an enclave on the Spanish Mediterranean coast since it was captured by an Anglo Dutch force in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and ceded in perpetuity to the United Kingdom, as part of the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713; in part to ensure that Britain exited from the War of the Spanish Succession. It is an ideal naval base, as it controls the Strait of Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean, which is just thirteen kilometres wide at this point.
Technically it is a British Overseas Territory and there are thirty thousand who have voted repeatedly to reject unification with Spain. They are self-governing but Britain is responsible for foreign affairs and defence. The economy is based on tourism, financial services, gambling and maritime services.
I was hungry so I headed off to the city centre and I found a nice restaurant in the central square just by the bus station. I had a prawn tikka masala as I was unlikely to get a seafood Indian curry again for a while and I do like a tikka masala. I then walked along the lower coast road, passing the shipyards, the hundred ton gun, a sandy beach and I walked through three tunnels that the road took to get to Europa Point. There is a lighthouse and a mosque, several gun emplacements and a view across the straits to the coast of North Africa. It is not far away and can be seen on a good day but there was a haze, and it was an indistinct smudge on the horizon.
I walked back along the busy main road with a plan to get up to the top of The Rock. When I was last here, it was a long walk to the top but there is now a cable car. It rises to the summit at an elevation of four hundred and sixty-two metres, and the surrounding area is a nature reserve. Here is where the approximately two hundred and thirty Gibraltar apes live, but in reality, they are Barbary macaques, a type of tailless monkey, and these ones here are the only wild Barbary macaques in Europe; but be warned as they still snatch at bags and cameras and they will steal food, especially ice creams, from children.
I visited the Moorish fort and the Second World War tunnels, a mass of man-made caves hollowed out of the rock to be used as storage, barracks, defence, hospitals and passageways. They are on the north side of the rock and cannot be shelled from the sea by enemy boats. The pre-war population was evacuated to England, Morocco and the Caribbean for the duration of the war, whilst The Rock became a vital staging post for convoys to supply Malta and the Eighth Army in Egypt. There is also Gorham’s Cave where excavations have shown extensive evidence of Neanderthal habitation on The Rock.
Then it was time to meet some of the others who would be travelling with me through West Africa. Some of the group I already knew, such as the drivers and the guides; the dual roles undertaken by Kim and Gareth with whom I had spent five months touring South America. They had taken a ferry from England to Santander and then they had driven south through Spain to meet us in Gibraltar. By tradition, all overlanding vehicles have a name and this one had been christened Nala.
We met at the airport in Gibraltar, but we were going to stay at a camp site some distance from Gibraltar on the Spanish mainland. There were some housekeeping jobs to complete. We would be camping and cooking for ourselves. We split ourselves into cook groups whose job it was to decide what to cook, buy the necessary supplies from a kitty, and then cook an evening meal and provide breakfast, plus lunch if we were having a lunch on the truck. Sometimes, we might be stopping in a town and either go off to a restaurant or buy our own choice of food from a supermarket. We had some gas in a canister, but it was reserved for emergencies as we would be unlikely to be able to refill it en route, as every country had different fittings. Therefore, we had a couple of lockers of wood. But cooking over a wood fire twice a day would soon use up our supply of wood, so whenever we stopped, we would scour the area for more fuel, but we needed to have enough wood to get us through the desert where there would be no opportunities to find more.
Not everyone had brought the right number of photos for their visas, the right currencies or inoculation certificates, especially yellow fever certificates, which would be required at several borders. There were also copies of credit cards to be taken, insurance details and a host of other things that needed to be sorted before we could proceed. It was our last chance to get everything in order, before we left Europe and crossed the narrow straits to land in Africa.
We boarded Nala and drove to the large Spanish port of Algeciras on the other side of the bay overlooking Gibraltar. Gareth drove the truck one way to join a queue of lorries, and the rest of us followed Kim towards the main terminal. This was a cavernous terminal building but being the low season, the few passengers that were here were lost in its vastness. We followed the corridors and the walkways and made our way to our ferry. It was a large ship, but it was empty. It had banks and banks of seats but only about ten percent were occupied. Certain areas were roped off and some of the shops on board were closed. It obviously becomes very busy during the high season to warrant such a large passenger terminal and ferries, but for us, we had a choice of places to sit and the opportunity to spread out.
We docked in Ceuta and filed off the boat. Although it is on the north African coast, it is still a part of Spain so there were no customs or passport controls at the port. I had often wondered how Spain came to have some enclaves on the Africa coast. The city was captured by John the First, king of Portugal in 1415 and it remained in Portuguese hands until there was a succession crisis in 1580 when Phillip II of Spain was crowned Phillip The First of Portugal. The Iberian Union continued until 1640, with the end of the Portuguese Restoration War, when Portugal regained its independence. Meanwhile, Ceuta had attracted a lot of colonists from Spain and they had sided with Spain during the conflict. It was only later under the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668 that Portugal acknowledged Ceuta’s political reality and ceded the territory to Spain.
It covers an area of 18.5 square kilometres, nearly three times the size of Gibraltar. Just as Spain periodically calls for Gibraltar to be returned to Spain, Morocco insists that Ceuta (and Melilla, another enclave on the north African coast covering an area of 12.3 square kilometres occupied by Spain since 1497), should be restored to Moroccan sovereignty but they refused, and the local populations prefer to be Spanish rather than being forced to be Moroccan citizens.
It was just a short drive along the coast road to get to the border. There were a few cars going into Morocco, but most of the traffic was queuing to get into Ceuta. The border crossing was relatively quick, and we drove on to Fnideq and we stopped to change our money. Finally, I felt as if I was starting my African odyssey to travel from the Mediterranean coast down the West Coast of Africa to the very southernmost point in South Africa.
We drove along the coast and turned inland to pass through Tetouan, a major town with a well renowned medina or old walled city centre. The city had plenty of green grass and trees, tall whitewashed buildings and was seemingly clean, tidy and well maintained. As we left the city and reached more rural areas there was more rubbish in the streets and plastic bags blowing across the fields as we climbed into the Rif Mountains.
We followed a river valley up into the hills. The fields gave way to steeply sloping hillsides and occasional tiny fields and mountainsides covered in olive trees. There was a new dam being built out of concrete and a saddle dam to one side. Some of the trees that would be flooded had been cut down but there was still plenty of work to do. Further up the valley was another already completed dam and over the pass was still a third older dam. I was surprised at the dams as I think of Morocco as an arid desert country but the winds coming off the Atlantic hit the mountains and drop a lot of rain.
We reached our campsite on the slopes above the town of Chefchaouen, bathed in the warm afternoon sun. It sits at an altitude of six hundred and seventy metres, but if a cloud came over or you walked into the shade of the trees, it was noticeably cooler.
It had been a cold night and our breath misted in the cold early morning air. We had time to explore the medieval walled city of Chefchaouen that has survived with little modernisation to spoil the city. It was founded in 1471 to resist the invasions of Portuguese armies plundering the area. It is known for the various shades of blue in which many of the buildings are painted.
From our camp site high above the town, it was a downhill walk past several graves on the hillside and through one of the gates in the city wall. Inside was a maze of narrow steep streets. The town is one of the oldest unspoilt medieval Islamic cities that still exists virtually unaltered. It receives a lot of visitors in the high season and the authorities make a great effort to keep the place clean.
In the centre of the town is the kasbah or fortress which is open to the public. It has a central tower and a modest space enclosed by thick tall walls. The main square is under the shadow of the fortress and it is filled with market stalls selling handicrafts, clothes and tourist trinkets.Down the road from the square is the bus station and another square which is overlooked by three municipal buildings, and nearby is the central market where prices are low and there are all sorts of fresh produce on sale. I was part of the cook group with Sarah and Kenny. Sarah was travelling with her husband and they were entrepreneurs from Australia. They had sold their caravan park that they had developed for more than ten years and they were travelling around the world before returning home to build their dream home. Kenny was from the USA and in his twenties but he had had so many jobs working for different companies that I lost count; it was as if he was unable to hold down a job for long before moving on. But the common theme in all of them was that he was a truck driver.
We needed to go shopping but I didn’t need an excuse to wander around a market and view the local produce with all the different colours and shapes of the fruit, vegetables and fish on offer, which I don’t see in my local supermarket.
One of the challenges of camping and cooking is how to keep food fresh. We had cool boxes, but the challenge was to find ice to keep everything cool. We had decided that we were going to do a stir fry. We had bought some meat, but it needed to be kept cool. This is easier said than done, and I was tasked with finding ice whilst Sarah and Kenny carried the food back to camp. I asked around the market and eventually I found some, but after I had bought it, I had to get it back to camp before it melted. I walked to the nearest taxi rank and with the melting ice dripping water down my front and into my lap, I got a lift back to the camp.
It was a cold night and some people didn’t sleep well as it was so cold, and they were up early. They had lit a fire to keep warm. As part of the cook group’s duties, I had to get up early to set up the kitchen, boil water for tea and get everything ready for the others. Another early morning job was to light a fire, but Kenny and Luis, originally from Portugal who had just finished managing a hostel in Lithuania and he was between jobs, and both were awake due to the cold, so when I got up to start breakfast, they had already started a fire so that was one less job to do. And then after breakfast we still had to pack away our tents, fill the jerry cans with water and then wash up the pots and breakfast things before we would be ready to set off.
We had a drive through the Rif Mountains past peaks along valleys with rough mountain pasture. We left the mountains and crossed a rolling plateau with vast ploughed fields and only a few trees. We stopped at a small market town for the market, and for the next two cook groups to buy supplies before arriving in Fez.
Fez is a great place. It is Morocco’s second largest city after Casablanca, with a population of more than a million. It has the University of Al Quaraouiyine which was founded in 859 AD and is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. In 1170, it was the largest city in the world, with over two hundred thousand people living in the cramped quarters of the city. It was the capital of Morocco until 1912 and has an impressive palace for the king but it is not open to the public. There are seven gates to the palace, representing the days of the week and inside the high walls are gardens covering two hundred and eighty hectares. Fez was also the place where we were joined by Mike. He was an American and a former director of IT for a major bank. He was between jobs and taking a career break to explore the world before returning to the rough and tumble of business life.
I walked through the Mellah, the Jewish quarter and it was a Friday, so it was very quiet as just about every shop was shut. Then it was a five-minute drive up to a castle perched on the top of a steep hill, overlooking the city. From this vantage point and with the help of a map, I could pick out all the major attractions, the walls of the city with the old city inside, and the new city spread around the outside of the walls.
On the return journey we stopped at a pottery co-operative that made ceramics and mosaics. The process of making the mosaics was explained and demonstrated to us. The patterns are awesome and intricate, and it can take weeks to make some of the larger pieces.
We took Nala back into town to be dropped off for a walking tour of the medina with a local guide. We entered through one of the fourteen gates through the thick walls that encircle the medina. We were taken on an extensive tour of the narrow alleys and streets through the old city. There were numerous shops, workshops and residences. Donkeys and carts are used to move goods around and you never quite know what is around the corner. Many of the alleys are hemmed in by three storey walls, and in places the walls have become unstable and have been braced against one another with thick timber to provide support.
We passed through a market area with fruit and vegetable stalls in the streets. Around another corner was a metal working area where various metal sheets were beaten into bowls, plates and decorative items. The city also has the Chouara Tannery dating from the eleventh century, one of the oldest tanneries in the world and no visit to Fez can be complete without a visit to the tannery. We were given a sprig of mint as we went in to help ward off the offensive smells coming from the tanning process.
The skins are left for days in various pots, firstly in a water solution of crushed limestone and pigeon poo to remove the last shreds of meat and hair. The skins are moved to various other pots and finally to the dye pots, to be given whatever colour is required. Only natural dyes are used, including the most expensive, which is saffron for yellow. It is a colourful sight and luckily for us it wasn’t a hot day but in the heat of summer, it must stink.
We passed several weavers and arrived at a carpet warehouse set up in a former merchant’s house. There were some spectacular examples of woollen and silk carpets with fine knots and beautiful coloured patterns. All the carpets are handmade, and some take months to produce. They are consequently expensive and not an impulse buy. I like the type of work but with champagne tastes and beer money, the ones that I like most are the ones I can least afford and tend to be the most expensive.
Back at our campsite we had to do some paper work. We would be moving on to the capital, Rabat. We had various visa forms to complete for countries further down the coast, such as the Ivory Coast, Mali and Mauritania, which we would be obtaining while we stayed in the capital. Travel is easy but getting the necessary paperwork to cross borders is becoming an increasing challenge.
We stopped at Volubillis, a large ruined Roman city. It was already a settlement before the Romans arrived, but they developed it into a city. It sits on a conf luence of two rivers, so it had an excellent water source and a good defensive position. The scenery around the city was a lot of the same rolling hills that we had been driving through all day, with fields and olive groves upon which the wealth of the city was based. It was abandoned in 808 AD when the king moved his imperial capital to Fez and the city shrank and eventually became deserted. It suffered badly from an earthquake in the mid-eighteenth century and the stones from the city were looted by builders who used the ruined city as a quarry, to construct the nearby city of Meknes.
After Meknes we took the motorway to the outskirts of Rabat, the present-day capital of Morocco, to find a bush camp. It was in a forest of cork oaks and most of the trees had had the bark peeled off the bottom section to be used for making wine corks, insulation and tiles and any of the other dozen uses possible for the bark. The campsite and the picnic area was a clearing in the forest, and there were posts put into the ground to control traffic, so that it didn’t spread too far into the forest. However, there were intermittent gaps in the posts and a ranger directed us through the line of posts and up a track and over the brow of a hill, so that we were out of sight just as we had requested.
Being further away from the usual camping pitches, there was plenty of firewood so we didn’t have to use any of our own. In fact, we filled up the last bits of space in the lockers with more wood. Wood is a precious commodity and we would conserve it as best we could, as there would be days when we could not re-supply as we crossed the desert further to the south. There were lots of pine trees and pine cones on the ground. These are excellent to get a fire going so Kim, Sarah and I got a large carrier bag and filled it with pine cones. The wood locker was already full, but the locker holding my baggage was only half full. It was meant for two people, but we didn’t have a full complement of travellers, so I had a locker to myself, therefore there was some spare space, so the pine cones got stashed in my locker.
We packed away the bush camp and drove into the centre of the city. We crossed the river and drove up the bank on the far side and turned off the main road and parked outside the Ivory Coast Embassy. Then we went in one by one, to hand in our completed forms, have our photos and our finger prints taken. While we waited, we filled in visa forms for Mali and Guinea as we would also be getting these in Rabat.
It took all morning to process us, so after that, we had a truck lunch opposite the embassy and then we drove to the outskirts of Mohammedia on the coast for a bush camp on the beach. ...