Thursday, 5 February 2015

Moroccan Challenges

After a night in Nekob we set off to try and cross the Jbel Sahro with the sat nav eventually picking up a rough dusty piste that headed north across dry barren land with evidence of small scale mining for an unidentified mineral. After an hour and only covering 10 miles we were beginning to question the wisdom of our planned route as it was some 80 miles in total and we had not received any reliable indication that tarmac formed any part of it.
As we crested a ridge we looked down in to a green valley with palm trees edging a small village and decided to take a break with a walk out along the cliffs towards a distant telecomms mast. En route we met a young Moroccan man walking purposefully away from the mast - Mohammed was off to get water from the mine workings and asked us to join him for tea on his return in half an hour. Up at the mast a small 8' square mud hut contained a bed, a 12v battery charged from a small solar panel, a gas ring and a few meagre posessions whilst outside a slumbering dog eyed us casually. The view in to the valley was superb but rudely shattered by an enormous double explosion and cloud of dust that rose from a small field - Mohammed returned soon after and seemed unable to explain the event.
As tea was brewed he explained somewhat incredibly that he was the 'gardien' for the mast charged with ensuring that its array of solar panels remained intact and that the batteries were topped up and maintained. He had lived in the hut for 3 years with no water or other facilities and would see very few people during the days up there - an hour's walk from the village below and an hour by car on the rough track back to Nekob for food or supplies - but seemed very content with his lot. During the spring and autumn he would help his family who took groups walking up in the remote mountains but even so it seemed a lonely life with not much likely to change and we said goodbye feeling very humble and grateful for the insight in to his simple life.
The rough track dropped in to the valley floor where as usual the women were working hard in the small fields, children were playing alongside and a few flocks of sheep and goats were being tended by elderly shepherds. We cautiously made our way along the valley with a few bumpy crossings of the almost dry riverbed - at one point we caught up with a Portuguese couple in a hire car who were obviously rather concerned about their liability for damage but were heading for two distinct mountain tops they had been told of.
After another 10 rough miles that took an hour we reached a small open area with a couple of mud buildings that constituted the Bab 'n Ali gite and campsite. It was very basic but the owner was a friendly guy with limited French and English and we decided to stop for the day and consider our options. Abdul was conscious of a withered right arm but proudly showed us the 'facilities' - an ominous hole in the floor loo, a cold outside shower and his kitchen. Two or three of the courtyard rooms were available for overnight use but of course we were very grateful as ever for the comforts of the van and were soon set up - overhead lines had snaked up the valley but clearly he was yet to be connected up so we planned for a chilly night and decided to make the most of the afternoon sun by walking closer to the spectacular eponymous rock pinnacles of Bab and Ali that loomed away to the west. 

On our return we passed simple houses to which we could see the shepherds and their flocks slowly heading home after another long day on the rocky screes in search of fodder.
We cooked and washed in the van before retiring to bed with the usual additional insulation in place to ensure a cosy night and slept well in a spectacular location with no lights visible at all down the valley. Next morning Abdul assured us that at the top of the pass some 20 miles away the road improved so we set off with high hopes as the scenery was absolutely stunning. Within the hour though after covering only 5 miles we decided that the van was going to take too much of a hammering and with a lot of ascent ahead and no sign of any other vehicles or habitation felt that the potential for things to go pear shaped was significant.
Three rough hours later we were back at Nekob and turned west on tarmac for the Draa Valley which would take us south down to Zagora and the desert once more. Lunch was enjoyed high above a palmery in the Draa and a side route took us through humble villages and past stunning pise kasbahs. We passed through Zagora heading for M'Hamed and at one point crossed a river bed as a new bridge was being built - before Christmas this was the area that had suffered damaging flooding after torrential rain.
Unfortunately as we started climbing another high pass with many hairpins we both admitted to hearing new and unnerving noises from the front suspension and after a quick check underneath (where nothing immediately amiss came to light) we decided to drop back to Zagora and see if we could get things checked out. As we negotiated the rough back streets of the town the noises became yet more alarming and we were grateful to get to the 'Prends Y Temps' camping - a small courtyard under the palms inside a kasbah. The owner was very welcoming and we had soon set up and washed a fortnight's laundry by hand. After hearing of our issues Abdillah offered to take us to the best local mechanic the following morning and indeed next day we followed him round to a strip of mechanics units that we had passed the night before. As elsewhere in Morocco numerous tiny shopfronts were tackling all manner of repairs on a variety of decrepit vehicles and if nothing else Chez Ali's stood out by having a concrete floor, inspection pit and a range of testimonial photos on the rear wall. A French couple on the site had had their leaf springs strengthened and seemed to have confidence in the guy as did a Dutch couple whose 30 year old ex German Army ambulance had suffered a broken water pump. Apparently some people bring their vehicles here for servicing rather than in Europe and the general impression given was of a competent guy. After a brief test ride over bumpy wasteground Ali's boys had the van jacked up and worn suspension ball joints were diagnosed - top N/S and lower O/S. A long day then passed as other vehicles arrived with their woes and we chatted to the Dutch couple whose part was en route from Marrakesh 400 miles away. Sarah was a star as the hours ticked by and even plucked up the confidence to wander back to the site on her own as she had now adjusted to the country's differences and no longer felt threatened or at risk. Eventually by late afternoon Ali informed me that the parts would arrive (from Marrakesh) the next morning so the van was put back together enabling us to drive slowly back to the site.

So on the Friday we dropped the van off and headed off in to Zagora to send some postcards, enjoy a good lunch opposite the mosque and eventually return to the workshop to find the van still in the air. As I had suspected he had not been able to change the top joints as a special tool is needed but the bottom ones had been done which seemed good news. Unfathomably though he had also seen fit to remove the front shock absorbers and was busy modifying another set to fit, judging by a dent in the inner wheel arch something big had slipped and I noted a nick in the drive shaft gaiter so began to question his ability to reolve our issues. Once the modified shocks were fitted the ride height was uneven which Ali claimed required spring assistors fitting to the rear and at this point I decided we would halt all further actions and return to the site for a review.
Our options were limited and unappealing as we were 600 miles from the ferry to Spain and recovery/towing would be expensive - no breakdown cover is available in Morocco. Leaving the van and contents behind had a range of implications re customs and the loss of around £4k worth of kit - sleeping bags, tools, equipment, personal goods and the like whilst flying home and returning with another vehicle made only marginal economic sense.

Thus we decided to try and make our own way home - limiting the exposure of the van to further stress by sticking to motorways and catching the ferry from Santander to avoid 800 miles through France.
So after settling Ali's bill we headed north knowing that 200 miles and the 8000' Tizi n' Tichka pass lay between us and Marrakesh where Morocco's motorways began. The creaking and banging was as bad as ever as we tentatively followed the Draa north stopping for bread and yoghurt before starting the first climb over to Ouazarzate wondering just how far we were actually going to get. Unfortunately our predicament prevented us from really enjoying the stunning scenery which I had passed through two years ago and so wanted to explore in greater detail but gradually the miles were eaten away and by late afternoon we were way up in the snow covered High Atlas on a road that ressembled a plate of spaghetti on the sat nav screen. Some families had come up to play in the snow and even build snowmen whilst a coach load of passengers had stopped to help pull a car back on to the road after a minor crash but we concentrated on the job in hand easing our way north and down to the plains. The damage caused to roads, villages and fields in the valley as we dropped towards Marrakesh was significant and would take many years to repair - heavy machinery was at work on the worst areas but I guess the fields would be left to the villagers and their donkeys.

We turned down a side track to find a place to spend the night - again aware how crucial the van is to spending a night in comfort and some sophistication when travelling under our own steam and how many issues would arise in its absence.
On the Sunday we approached Marrakesh only to find the road blocked by police and a mass of people and vehicles jamming up the area - we set the sat nav to take another route in to town which took us down a rural link road that produced the full range of unnerving noises from below - this merely served to convince us that we were making the right decision but also ended in a road block so we decided to avoid Marrakesh altogether which involved a 90 mile detour.
Whilst crossing a barren plateau at speed in hot sunshine the oil pressure light began to flash along with a warning beep and I switched off the engine immediately before coasting to a halt. As the rev counter had also stopped I diagnosed a break in one of the small alternator wires which was soon confirmed and swiftly repaired although as the break was very near the connector there was little to play with. Two officials in a van stopped to check we were OK which was very kind and reaffirmed my conviction that the Moroccan people are some of the friendliest and most helpful I have met.
Later that afternoon we were some 200 miles in to the 400 miles to Tangier when an almighty bang shook the van - in the middle of nowhere with no other vehicles, people or other activity something had fallen from the sky and struck the door frame an almighty blow - a foot or two to the left and it would most likely have gone through the screen or the fibreglass roof and killed or seriously injured one of us. Judging by the marks left the most likely (but equally unlikely) explanation would appear to be a fragment of meteor......
An hour after dusk and 30 hours after leaving Zagora we creaked across the speed humps of Tangier Med Port and after brief immigration and customs formalities were on the ferry to Algeciras - grateful for an open ticket that allowed us the much needed flexibility to get across to Spain where our recovery cover was at least an option. A final twist in the tail was that the boat also called in at Gibraltar before we finally offloaded at Algeciras and eventually found a place to wild camp just off the motorway around midnight.
Motorways took us north on the Monday - we stopped to book a ferry only to find that there were disruptions to the service caused by weather and mechanical issues with one of the vessels. We booked a crossing for the Sunday to give us some flexibility and later that day stopped in Zamora at an aire in the centre of town amazed and grateful to have got so far.
Tuesday saw the alternator wire part again - an easy fix but a new connector will be the only way to resolve the issue permanently and we decided to stop early that day on a reservoir near the motorway which offered peace and quiet, a chance to walk the shoreline in the warm sunshine and then spend a cosy night with the generator chugging away in the background providing all comforts.
With great relief we arrived in Santander on Wednesday and at the Brittany Ferries office were told we could get on the premium ferry on Thursday for an extra fee which we were more than happy to pay. The helpful lady also told us of an aire a few miles out of town that had power and loos for £10 a night and we were soon there with no one else staying on the brand new facilities.
We rang the office the next day to confirm our booking but were advised that the Pont Aven would be delayed by a storm in the Bay of Biscay with departure scheduled for Friday. However passengers were being asked to turn up as scheduled and offered the chance to use the boat as a floating hotel which seemed an attractive proposition so we packed up to head off.
Having paid the fee to the part time aire supervisor earlier we had been assured that the barrier would allow us out - guess what!! Anyway two ticks with the Leatherman and the system was switched to manual allowing us to make our escape and reach the dockside.
Once on board we found our cabin and settled down to explore the 40,000 tonne vessel that contained perhaps 10% of the possible 2400 passengers over its 10 decks.
After a comfortable night customer services announced that the storm was still causing issues and departure would now be delayed until Sunday so with at least three nights on board ahead we decided to update to their Commodore cabins as these offered much more space, better beds, TV, free hot drinks in a private lounge and breakfast with only the one night actually charged. Vehicles had remained on the quay so we popped back to get some food and clothing before settling down for a few days as strong winds and torrential rain swept in.
We made friends with a lovely couple from London who along with other dog owners were rather concerned for their pets and when the weather eased took a walk round the squares and streets of Santander, calling in at a supermarket for wine and nibbles.

So finally by mid afternoon Sunday we were off - during the day several merchant vessels arrived that had been sheltering elsewhere - but as soon as we were beyond the headland the fun began. Screaming winds and heavy seas caused the boat to sway and lurch dramatically with waves crashing over the restaurant windows on the 7th deck and side waves hammering the steel plates beneath our cabin towards the rear. We retired to bed to watch the last of our Homeland DVDs and eventually the conditions eased towards midnight giving us a good night's rest. 
The crew had to be changed due to the delays so a diversion added 6-8 hours to our journey as we called at Roscoff but by 10pm we had rounded the Isle of Wight and were berthing at Portsmouth.
Despite some heavy snow through Wiltshire along the M4 we rolled silently in to Jean's drive at Shipham near Bristol around 1am absolutely delighted to have manged to get back some 2500 miles without a major mishap. 
The van is currently having the work done by Ali undone and other potential issues inspected so I hope to be mobile again by the end of the week - yesterday saw a bike ride across to Bath for some much needed exercise and with cold but dry weather forecast I may well head back in to mid Wales.
Morocco proved yet again to be an enormously rewarding country to visit and I will return again early in 2016. Whether or not it will be in this van or another remains to be seen - there is a show at the NEC in Brum in a week or two that might give me some inspiration but in reality newer vehicles are ever more complex and would be unfixable in the remoter places that attract me.

As regards the issues this time - the wear and tear on the suspension should have been addressed given that the van has covered 307,000 miles and is 15 years old  (although in my defence your honour it did sail through an MOT immediately prior to the trip) and Ali's unauthorized bodging of the shocks and avoidable damage to the drive shaft gaiter was unfortunate. The alternator wire is a side issue - just part of running an older vehicle and to be fair we did cover several thousand miles in only a few days to get out of trouble with no real incidents. Avoiding further meteor fragments is just a matter of luck like so much in life and at the end of the day we were able to recover ourselves and return to the comforts of western life - something that Mohammed at the mast can only dream about.

Photos summarising the above sit here and our recent locations here.