Amateur Emigrants #1 We Reach the Rif Mountains !

One year a bunch of us, family and friends, decided that a proper overwinter expedition to the sun was just what we needed. On a previous trip to Morocco some of us had spent a few weeks in France with friends in Lot-et-Garonne, picking plums off the ground for the funds to last us over the coming months. A day’s work on the minimum wage, we calculated, could last each of us almost a week in Morocco. So plums it was, that time, bringing us plenty of stings from wasps burrowed into the fallen fruit and an agonising period at the day’s end when we tried to straighten our backs. The plums were destined to become gastronomic treats as the famed ‘Pruneaux d’Agen’ but we never wanted to see a plum again !

This year, however, we had the combined resources of 8 of us to cover the costs of fuel, insurance, camping, ferries, so we had time to amuse ourselves at a friend’s house and help out with small building works and chores, so we had more of the feel of a travelling theatre group ! Even my mum had travelled down to France with us, (the longest she’d ever spent away from dad in her life !) before we saw her safely on an England-bound bus when we needed to head further south.

 

Our band of ‘Merry Pranksters’ as we styled ourselves, (after Ken Kesey’s gang), were definitely freewheeling south through the Pyrenees, in two old VW camper vans, heading first to Granada. Here we explored and marvelled the Alhambra (a great way to escape the flower-selling crones) and the food markets before crossing the Sierra Nevada and heading along the racetrack that is the Costa del Sol to Algeciras where we would take the ferry into AFRICA !

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I already knew my way around Morocco having previously driven camping tours there for Marrakesh Express, a small, short-lived adventure travel company, but also from a tour with a girlfriend on a borrowed Triumph 650 motorbike. So landing in Ceuta, the little Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast (along with Melilla, it was a duty free area of similar status to Britain’s claim on Gibraltar), was no big surprise for me. After an overnight on the campsite, conveniently situated for quadrophonic dog debates, the next morning, our desire to cross the border into Morocco took precedence, and we duly filtered up to the melee at the customs and immigration post. At the time of writing, the border is a high tech affair specifically upgraded to prevent illegal entry into part of Spain, and therefore, the European Union. In 1985 there was a row of sheds housing officials of one sort or another, and wooden poles controlled by ropes. Dozens of (mainly) women bustled about, shouting and arguing with uniformed officials and plain-clothed agents of security. They crossed into Ceuta to work in domestic and menial jobs, or to trade whatever brought a profit that day. Pedestrian traffic is still much the same, women buried beneath loads of boxes, or pulling sack carts for the meagre earnings.

Import and export stamps in passport for the campervan
Import and export stamps in passport for the campervan

Among them mingled young touts who knew their way around the system and for a fee would dash off to their ‘friend’ with documents to stamp. The driver of each camper had the details of the vehicle stamped into their passport to ensure they did not sell it without paying relevant taxes. We spent around half an hour being baffled by the proceedings before an official waved us impatiently forward, thrust documents through the van window and told us to get going.

 

Steep hillsides, the lower parts terraced and green. The sun catches a pond in the valley bottom, making it appear a magical place
Typical views in the Rif and Atlas mountains. Could the bright reflection signpost treasure ?

With a fanfare playing in our heads, we rolled south on pitted roads flanked by returning villagers, and ever vigilant for shepherd boys scooting down the rocky hillside and into our path to offer prickly pears for sale. This was quite a shock to Steve, new to traffic in developing countries who came very close to hitting one of these kamikaze kids. Having regained our composure, I took the lead in my white van as I was more accustomed to the conditions, and we snaked through the valley bottoms until we spied a small town up on the hillside. The signpost pointed up to Chefchaouen, and we climbed above the tight packed buildings, many painted in a heavenly blue, to reach the rudimentary campsite with a view across the Rif mountains, open mouthed as one horizon after another faded to misty blues and greens in the fading light.

a succession of seven fading mountain horizons made our evening view from the campsite
A succession of seven fading mountain horizons made our evening view from the campsite

We parked up and enjoyed a bit of time scrambling around on the rocky hill behind the campground. There was a lackadaisical ‘gardien’ who periodically disappeared for an hour or a day on private errands and reappearing sometime in the evenings, at times scaring the wits out of someone with his silent covert wanderings. In the daytimes, his place was taken by a succession of curious youths from the village, all apparently eager to practice their English and feast their eyes on the females in the group. They pressed small amounts of cannabis resin on us to try out, assuring us that the local variety was nicknamed ‘sputnik’ for good reason. Keen to experience local culture, we took the view that when in Rome, do as the Romans do ! And so it was, resulting in one or another of us being incapacitated in a comfortably numb fashion for hours at a time. This, of course, could not last, and noting our increased wariness they produced tiny clay pipe bowls into which they inserted a hollow stick of cane, charred at one end to ensure a snug fit. They produced a tiny screw of plastic bag with some green dust which they called ‘kif’, assuring us that it was actually legal in Morocco. The effect was much lighter and frivolous than the sputnik, but we were unconvinced by the alleged legality.

An ancient but sturdy bus plying the steep and rocky tracks through the Atlas mountains
Such venerable buses ply mountain roads everywhere

We really did enjoy ourselves in ‘Chaouen, as it’s known, and not only for that reason. We scoured the tiny cubby-hole shops in the village, testing out different varieties of couscous with our meals. We also found more types of olives than we knew existed, sold from 45 gallon drums, and becoming regular visitors to the local bakehouse, for our baguettes and monster flat loaves to mop up our casseroles – we had limited cookware so one pot stews were the order of most days there. The bakehouse was a good place to observe the local, shrouded womenfolk bringing conical clay tagines of all sizes, huge pans and their own loaves to take advantage of the oven for a few dirhams.

We had a lot of lazy days, reading, chatting and plotting, as our visits to the village became mainly for food or the post office. The locals had resigned themselves to not selling much to these impecunious travellers, and merely offered friendly greetings. We spent ages on some days, just scrambling over the rocky hillsides for the sheer delight of the open space (on some days the constant ‘company’ of village lads could pall). Inevitably as a source of food and entertainment, we acquired a camp follower in the shape of Poubelle a daring dog !

A fit looking dog scrambles over rocks
Poubelle (dustbin), the doughty camp dog goes scrambling with us – the only time I caught him !

As the time came to move on, it was decided to head toward Fes, logically enough. On a previous trip with Marrakesh Express I had chosen to go via the mountain route through Ketama, which had proved troublesome. Part way there, a couple of cars planted themselves fore and aft of the minibus and brought us to a halt. There were high pressure sales attempts made to get us to buy brick sized pieces of hashish – one of Morocco’s most significant exports, and with some difficulty we extricated ourselves and headed south. Where we rejoined the ‘main’ road, we were again stopped, this time by the Gendarmerie Royale who were screening vehicles and travellers from the Rif. Thankfully the delay was relatively cursory, (although on return to the UK I was frequently stopped, even once for 12 hours at British customs).  So there was no appetite in our current gang to repeat this experience, and an incident free drive was what we elected for. With mixed emotions at leaving this delightful place we headed south toward Fes and our route down through the Atlas mountains to the fabled Sahara !

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Next episode; The Sahara calls us !

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