PART 1 – THE CREW – this is the first part of a three posts about a 21 day trip across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
NOTE: this post is about the people on our trip…if that doesn’t interest you and you want to read about the places…wait for parts 2 and 3.
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride! (Hunter S Thompson – author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
We were 11 strangers if you don’t count the two couples and the Lesotho Ladyboy group ¹, (namely: Hannah, Marlou, Jeff and Rie).
Then there were our guide, cook and driver (the three wise men). The three of them Gift, Bheki and Munya, were tasked with the mission of getting us safely across 5000 kilometres of Africa. One should be clear who was in charge, at all times, and it definitely wasn’t the punters²
Our first introduction is the 5 pm briefing on the day before we leave. I am 30 minutes late as my phone, for some reason known only to itself, has decided to revert to Antwerp time and is thus telling me that it is 3.30 when it is 5.30 pm. This explains why all the shops that should be open until five are closed at 3.30pm but apparently this fact didn’t alert me to the phone malfunction.
Consequently, I arrive half an hour late for the briefing, apologetic and hot. No one seems to care which is a good sign. We introduce ourselves and our status. For the purpose of the trip we are all single except for Cecelia (Ceci) and Nicolas (Nico) and Mike and Kerry. Gift does, however, try and persuade Marlou and Jeff, who are sitting next to each other, that they might be a couple. They both hastily decline the offer.
The group is diverse. The Lesotho Ladyboy Group are, themselves, diverse and are a self-selected group from our hostel, who got together to travel to Lesotho in a hire car. Under normal circumstances they wouldn’t necessarily have anything in common.
First Hannah, also known by me as the Evil Princess. You may understand my relationship with Hannah by reading this book.
Hannah is a twenty something year old from Bury St Edmunds in England. Being from Bury St Edmunds says a lot, of course. The website “I Live Here” describes Bury as “your idyllic, middle class, low crime rate, small minded, boring Suffolk town. Otherwise known as the ‘Bury Bubble.’ It is known as this because it is a town so protected in its middle class bubble wrap, the people that live here grow to become clones of each other, having the same aspirations, hobbies and careers.
The inhabitants are described as “pretentious indie kids who all collectively wear the same clothes from Topman and listen to the same Mumford and Sons songs and go to Latitude or Reading Festival without fail each year. We would not, of course, describe Hannah that way for fear of an early death. On the other hand, Bury has recently been voted as ‘Happiest Place to live in the East of England’ by Rightmove, whatever Rightmove happens to be.
Then there are Jeff and Marlou. Jeff and Marlou are sort of clones except that, relatively speaking, Jeff is at nearly pensionable age whereas Marlou is just a baby, chronologically speaking. Both Jeff and Marlou are super cool, the differences being that Jeff is from the US and Marlou is from Bielefeld in Germany and, by definition, anyone from Europe is cooler than anyone from the US.
Marlou’s disadvantage is that Bielefeld is sort of the German equivalent of Bury St Edmunds. So much so that she was forced to move to Switzerland. There is an added disadvantage that Bielefeld doesn’t apparently exist
Marlou also has the advantage that she doesn’t realise she is super cool or, if she does, she manages to carry it off with such ‘sang froid’ that no one really notices the effort.
Jeff, on the other hand, is cool but manages to be cool in a way that says to everyone “see I am cool”. He’s not pretentious about it but you can see certain signs, such as the fact that he is psychologically incapable of showing any interest in social media. He will generally only engage with anything that involves the internet (such as uploading photos) about two years after the event occurred. By which time everyone has lost interest. Which is cool.
Jeff, as the cool style-meister of the trip, invariably looks like he just stepped out of his dressing room. He is the only person I know who carries an iron with him on a camping trip in order to iron his silk pyjamas before bed. But he swears me to silence on this issue by threatening to record aBanhee wail and claim it was my snoring.
Finally there is Rie, the fourth member of the Lesotho Ladyboys. Rie is Danish. No one really knows anything about Denmark, apart from knowing that Copenhagen exists, the fact that several thousands Danes get murdered every year on the “the Bridge” and that the Vikings came from there. This latter fact explains a lot about Rie.
Rie is principally responsible for consuming most of Africa’s food resources. She is a sort of Danish Amazon, covered in tattoos on one leg, who thinks nothing of eating the amount of food consumed during “La Grande Bouffe“, by herself, in one sitting.
From the Lesotho Ladyboy Group we can ascend up to the higher echelons of the trip participants. We have Mike and Kerry and Nico and Ceci. This is of course always potentially dangerous since Mike and Kerry are British and Ceci and Nico are Argentinian. Combining long historical memories about the “Hand of God” (aka Maradona’s) victory in the 1986 world cup and the Malvinas war can always be potentially dangerous.
Fortunately Nico and Ceci live, these days, in Canada, known for its relatively peaceful approach to world affairs and Ceci and Nico don’t really know, any longer, if they are Canadian or Argentinian. Mike and Kerry, on the other hand couldn’t be more archetypally British and so there is always a risk that they believe things that are typically British and absurd. Like thinking that to leaving the EU is a good idea or thinking they can win the World Cup again (1966 having been the last and only time for those who don’t know their soccer history). Or that the best way to beat Coronavirus is by all going to Spain for the summer holidays and having group sex.
Then there are the three solo travellers, if we count the Ladyboys as a sort of group. That’s me, Yvonne and Sonja.
Yvonne is Canadian but lives with her husband in the Ukraine. Yvonne introduces herself as working in the oil industry and asks that she not be hated for that. Which is possibly not the way her PR Manager would suggest doing it. While it is true that she is going to be, almost single handedly, responsible for the end of the world we try not to hold that against her. And she is the ultimate team player – always pitching in to help out – mainly to replace me as I am forced to sit idly by (see – unable to wash up with injured foot. It’s a known medical condition).
Yvonne is not supposed to be on our trip since she booked on G Adventures (forever to be known as G Spot Adventures by our trip). She is somewhat pissed off that she attempted to join another tour but was refused on the basis of being too old. It’s not too clear whether she failed to read the literature saying that around 30 was the upper age limit or whether, like myself, she imagines herself to still be around 25. Yvonne’s disappointment was probably tempered somewhat when we found ourselves sharing a camp with the G Spot bus which was entirely populated with a group of 20 year olds. We, on the other hand, are not too old but are perfectly aged like good wine. From Marlou, the baby, aged 22, to me aged 64.
Sonja: Now Sonja has taken her life in her hands and leapt into the unknown having, allegedly, never done anything like this before and because her English is not as good as she would like it to be. Sonja is German and lives in Germany even though her Facebook profile says she lives in Alaska, Michigan. Sonja would be what we would call the “dark horse” of the trip, who comes across as a little naive and innocent but is far from it.
Of the punters, there are two ‘Johnny Come Lateleys’, who joined the tour in Windhoek. This is announced to us in Swakopmund. We receive the news with protests fearful it will disrupt the balance of the trip which has been largely sweetness and light. And that we will need to share our seats more often. As it turns out Mark and Kirsty, despite suffering the burden of being from the fallen Empire fit in well and are quickly accepted as part of our group.
Then there are the three Zimbabweans. At least I think they are all from Zimbabwe – at least they live there even if they are from somewhere else originally. Bheki is from EMakhandeni a suburb of Bulaweyo, while Gift is from Victoria Falls but lives in Cape Town. Then there is Munya who runs the kitchen and about whom I have little information other than he lives out bush somewhere in Zimbabwe even though originally he’s from Victoria Falls. These are three wise men of the trip and they coming bringing all the necessary gifts, good food, good driving and good information, as well as good humour and company.
Gift runs the trip with an iron fist and everyone obeys, except possibly Bheki and Munya both of whom are their own masters. But the whitefellas obey orders, as they should, arising on time, doing their chores and, generally, being obedient. Bheki’s two roles are driving and flirting, where Munya, largely, just smiles benignly and keeps his counsel.
We leave Cape Town on a fine sunny day. Essentially the first day of a trip like this is a form of polyamorous platonic flirting where everyone is trying to work out which if they can stand all the other people or if one or more of the punters will end up in a shallow grave somewhere in the Namibian desert.
Fortunately we find that there are no whining pains in the arse on our trip. However, the Evil Princess, Hannah, will, later, only just avoid an early death, since she chooses, to torment me for my incapacities, of which more in later parts of this trip blog
We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian. We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.
I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents, Slow Travel, despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.
This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.
I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks,
a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.
The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.
Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called Poop deck.
Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located.
From here going up it’s up past A and B decks (crew quarters) and then on up to C where my cabin in located and D decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.
Further below are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds. At the bow you also have the front the upper deck and the foc’sle.
The foc’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes. There are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, under most circumstances.
From my perspective the foc’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.
Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.
These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terns and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.
Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.
The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven, giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.
From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense, as the dark patches swirl past, of looking down to the centre of the ocean.
When not in ones cabin, the mess or foc’sle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting on the bridge, with the watch officers, watching the world go by.
Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first mate, Bogdan, second mate, Sambor, third mate, Kamil, and the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names.
I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, so long as they are relatively normal and not too demanding. They are a sort of inconvenient added burden.
My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and are good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant, in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world.
He administered and supervised German aid programs but now sees all aid programs as largely racist and paternalistic and, thus, a failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.
Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.
Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy Energiewende is a disaster and are they are climate sceptics.
Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.
Eduard is quite talkative, which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me, while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong.” Which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.
Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently, like the Americans, there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.
I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?
I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.
Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.
The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society.
As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading ‘The Lies that Bind’ – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.
Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour.
The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and some look a little put out. I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or is simply lost in translation.
Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.
Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.
On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.
From this there emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines.
Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages, which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in producing previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.
Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch.
Porto is a beautiful city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.
Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.
Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.
The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily.
There is also a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water and an air conditioning plant. The workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft.
My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but, like the rest of the transport industry, crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.
There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to transmitting WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.
One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.
This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food.
As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.
In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.
One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with the insurance company.
Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and a swimming pool.
It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists, firstly, of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.
The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.
Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.
As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks.
Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.
Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.
Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna. However, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.
Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles rocket ship-like at high speed, off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best. Those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.
Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to obey the Master’s orders..
For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.
In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via the previously mentioned rocket ship. One removes shoes and dons ones survival suit. Then you squat, a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.
Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, to launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface.
Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.
Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again.
The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance. In this way it is similar to the maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.
It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a an avid reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots, such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.
On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much just a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves.
From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much just comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.
A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.
Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both. There is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.
We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s stay on planet earth or, at least, the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.
From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day. Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.
1980: The year of Rubik’s cube, of the eruption of Mt St Helens, of the establishment of CNN, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the murder of John Lennon…and Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. And the year of my Nile trip by felucca with five French and one Nubian companion.
All important events, of course, but…more importantly 1980 was the year we sailed the Nile. I say we meaning myself and a random group of French travellers I met in Aswan. As one does. We had all arrived (I think) – or at least I had, the previous day from Abu Simbel.
For those in the know Abu Simbel is both a monument to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians and the rank stupidity of modern industrial society. Abu Simbel is not the temple’s original name – it’s named after a young Egyptian boy who led explorer Giovanni Belzoni to the site – the main temple was called “the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.
The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians – and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth, the sun strikes directly through the temple door and illuminates the statues of Ramses and two of the three Gods with whom he is seated. The fourth is the God of the underworld – so it stays in darkness.
Legend has it that, for all of modern science and engineering, it proved impossible to site the temples to recreate, precisely, what the ancient Egyptians had done – so the sun now enters on different days that it would originally have done (this may be an urban/desert myth, I’m not certain – in other words fake news).
Lake Nasser, behind the dam, is huge. It stores nearly six trillion cubic feet (157 km3) of water! This is about four times the amount of water stored behind Hoover Dam (USA, Lake Mead) and Three Gorges Dam (China) (Chao et al., 2008).
But more importantly, in terms of important globally understood yardsticks this is 340,000 Sydharbs approximately (1 Sydharb = 500 gigalitres) – more Sydharbs than you can poke the proverbial stick at (but perhaps my maths is wrong – it seems a lot). For the uneducated, Sydharbs are the global volume measuring standard – based on the amount of water in Sydney harbour)
On the Nile: women and girls gather water; Nile fishermen
The construction of the dam meant that millions of tonnes of silt normally carried to the Nile delta were now stopped by the dam – meaning that farmers now had to fertilise their crops with superphosphates. Aside from that there were the 90,000 displaced Egyptians and Sudanese, the erosion of the Nile delta and associated increase in salinity and the increase in prevalence of schistosomiasis/bilharzia, among other things.
That is not to say there were no benefits from the Aswan High Dam. It produces a significant amount of electrical power (enough originally for about 50% of Egypt’s needs, now less than 15%) that allowed electrification of “rural” Egypt. It controlled floods, it allowed permanent irrigation of many areas and it led to a fishing industry on Lake Nasser.
Having arrived in Aswan, I wandered down to the Nile from my Aswan Hotel – I don’t remember a lot about it after 39 years except it was on the 2nd floor, it had a bed (nothing else, nada), tiled floor and it’s walls were white – strange what sticks in the memory. My mission was to try and get a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailing boat). But being on my own made it almost impossibly expensive, especially on my budget, never mind much less interesting than travelling on a boat in a group. So I wasn’t hopeful.
The beauty of the Nile
Unlike today, where if you turn around you will trip over a tourist or possibly 40, 1980s Aswan was largely devoid of tourists. So a group of five white people haggling with Saiid, a Nubian, stood out like the proverbial dogs balls. I wandered over – it was my big break. They were leaving next day for Luxor, five days and 216 kms downstream (or, as the Felucca sails, nearer to 300-350 kms since you cross and recross the river with the wind). They agreed to take me as an extra passenger (and financial offset) and I was off with five non-English speaking Frenchies.
My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard, Miriame and Caroline. We spent some three weeks travelling together, down the Nile, visiting Karnak (in Luxor), the valley of the Kings, Alexandria and Cairo. I even flew back to Paris with Caroline. But unlike today where, if we like the people we travelled with, we are forever linked by social media, I never heard from or saw any of them again and I occasionally wonder where they are, what they did with their lives and if they are all alive or not.
Clockwise from top left: Bernard and Caroline on the way to Valley of the Kings (VOK); Alain at Giza, Alain and Bernard on the oars, The crew (l to r Francoise, Caroline, Bernard, Alain, Saiid, Miriame), Alain at Philae, Bernard and Francoise on the road to the Valley of the Kings
Feluccas are the traditional Nile boat, single sail and they travel by tacking backwards and forwards across the Nile using the winds out of the desert. In 1980 few people were taking the felucca trip down the Nile, so we were source of constant interest to everyone we met – in this case no one other than locals. While we saw a couple of large cruise boats heading upriver, from a tourism perspective we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe.
Before leaving Aswan we had to visit the Philae temples, which sit on an island in the middle of the Nile below the original Aswan (low) dam. Like Abu Simbel these temples would have been flooded by the original dam and to save them an entirely new island was build and the temples were reconstructed there.
Philae temples below the Aswan low dam
Ancient cities such as Edfu were entirely deserted. After a brief taxi donkey ride from the river we spend several hours exploring the complex entirely undisturbed by anyone else.
On day three we ran out of wind. This required a us to bring our best rowing experience to the fore, taking it turns on the oars. By midday, however, the initial burst of olympic like enthusiasm for the task at hand and confronted by the prospect of another few hours of rowing in the heat the crew succumbed to the lure of a tow and we hitched the felucca to a cargo boat heading downriver.
Nile taxi (left); tea break on the Nile; Nile sunset (bottom right)
Nights are spend camped on the boat, where we eat, drink and smoke into the middle hours of the night; days are a gourmet feast of Egyptian sights and sounds, ancient cities, small villages, groups by the Nile, water taxis. And each day is embraced at both ends by golden sunsets and warm breezes. It is the blue riband of travel, scarcely to be found these days. And each day and night the Nile flows by carrying its myriad sights and stories. It’s the backbone of Egypt, its lifeline, its water supply, its power supply, its sewer, its drinking water, its bathing and washing water, its highway.
Five days after leaving Aswan we arrived in Luxor. Like all good tourists we visited Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was a rather different experience to today, I imagine. I remember wandering Karnak, both in the mornings and the evening and during the son et lumiÃ¨re with no more than 20 others spread around the temple complexes. We had no worries about security, terrorists, crowds. Nothing needed to be booked or arranged in advance.
Our trip to the Valley of the Kings involved simply jumping on six bikes and heading off for the day. Along the way there were numerous side trips to fallen monuments and opportunities for visits to small traders. From high on the hills you can see the sliver of green, in the desert, that is the Nile. Never was any country so dependent on a single river. In so many ways it is truly astounding that this country built such a rich heritage and history from such a poor land and the Valley of the Kings simply serves to emphasise this. Astounding wealth and beauty in an empty, hostile and largely barren (and least for human purposes) landscape.
From Karnak and the Valley of the Kings we travelled south by train to Cairo and Alexandria.
Saiid Hassan Araby and Family on the road to the Valley of Kings; Deir El Bahari and Temple of Hapsetshut
Cairo, for me, is my childhood home and the place where I grew to love (most) aspects of Middle Eastern culture and hospitality (see: The Generosity of Strangers in a Strange Land). I spent five years here between five and ten (1960-65) and this was my third trip back to the city. When we lived in Cairo it had a population of 3.5 million. Today that is closer to 20 million and it remains one of the world’s fastest growing city.
City of the dead (centre); Mohammed Aly Mosque (right)
Cairo has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of theÂ city. It was founded in 2,000 BC and ruled by King Menes who united Upper and Lower Egypt. It remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and, if you suspend your tourist “danger” monitor, one of the most friendly and interesting.
Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and Al-Azhar University and having walked across Cairo from my hotel, I was approached by a friendly Cairean. Like a myriad other names and places his name is long forgotten but I shall call him Ahmet, after our Egyptian cook (yes, colonialism at its best).
As usual he wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. At this point he told me he was the “guardian” of several closed mosques and would show me up the minarets if I was interested. At this point all the stories about idiot travellers robbed and left for dead in the backstreets of strange cities came to mind.
“Ah, well, I thought “nothing ventured nothing gained. So commenced a day of experiences only open to idiots who cast aside the normal warnings. After trips to the top of three locked minarets, he (whose name is long forgotten) invited me back to his flat.
Now I saw, again, the headlines about tourist kidnapped, drugged, operated on for their kidneys and left for dead. But I accepted regardless. Five minutes later he opened the door to his tiny flat. Inside were approximately ten other men all in a lather of excitement. It turned out the occasion was a soccer game: Egypt versus some other African nation.
A childhood in Cairo
I spend an hour in a room with a dozen frenzied Arabs screaming and throwing things at the television, calling down Allah’s curses on the opposition. If the second coming was happening in my guide’s front room they couldn’t have been more excited. About 4 pm the match ended (yes those were the days when football happened during the day). I prepared to leave. Mustafa grabbed my arm. He requested five dollars (about $20 in today’s money). When I asked what for, he replied “You wait”. Fifteen minutes later he returned, grabbed me and two others remaining and we went off to the tea house. Except it wasn’t. In my naivety I had assumed all of these little cafes with people smoking were tea houses.
Temple of Edfu; getting a tow on the Nile; gathering water.
It turns out a significant proportion were hash cafes and Mustafa has just used my $5 to buy a big nail of hashish. We sit in the cafe for about two hours progressively smoking the entire amount via a water pipe as the proprietor brings us charcoal to heat the hash. Now anyone smart, knowing that these guys probably smoke hash for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I generally had only consumed drugs once every blue moon, would probably have made off, after half an hour, in a reasonable ambulatory state. But no. Yours truly waits until it is late, dark and he is totally shitfaced.
At this point, several kilometres from my hotel, in one of the seedier parts of Cairo, with no taxis or other transport visible, I lurch off into the night trying to head in what I think is the correct direction. I have no idea where I am going. The streets are dark and unpaved.
This is normally the point in the story in which the Idiot Traveller ends up in the gutter, robbed and mugged, at best, or dead at worst. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale; an hour and four kilometres later I turn the corner and see my hotel. It is the closest thing to a Damascene miracle since Christ was a boy. Except in this case, in Cairo.
The pyramids at Giza
Hash and football nights aside, Cairo, and the nearby sites of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara, are so rich in history and glorious buildings and sites that one could spend a lifetime exploring. Our time, on this occasion was limited to a week, just enough time to visit Giza, Sakkara and Alexandria. Then it was time to part never to meet again.
The Valley of the Kings (left top and centre); Sakkara stepped pyramid; above the valley of the Kings, 1980
I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California.
Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid Genesis £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for £2000.
There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.
I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were.
Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.
Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.
So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.
Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes Traveling the trainÂ throughÂ clear Moroccan skies Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall American ladies five-foot tall in blue
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind Had to get away to see what we could find Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led Listen not to what’s been said to you
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? They’re taking me to Marrakesh All aboard the train, all aboard the train
I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there I smell the garden in your hair Take the train from Casablanca going South Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air Charming cobras in the square Striped djellabas we can wear at home Well, let me hear ya now
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? They’re taking me to Marrakesh Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? They’re taking me to Marrakesh All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard
And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for complete shit. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.
The decor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice.
People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still, at least we got there alive, albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.
My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts, meaning, of course, that a revisit is required to make amends.
This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.
Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds.
Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.
My two-week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.
It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.
My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.
Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available in the Medina.
I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.
The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.
Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where, hopefully, you can buy a wine and look at the city below.
That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.
My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.
This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.
So you jump the train to Meknes, the nearest train station, omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes, not the first. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the grand taxis which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town to Volubilis.
The holy city of Moulay Idriss
Here I encounter Chloe Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloe is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.
Chloe says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.
On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloe as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move, which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.
So I persuade Chloe, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi.
Chloe’s protective alarm systems appear to be at Code Red although, when I later tell her this, she denies it. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her.
Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.
Communication is sparse as Chloe follows the female strategy of don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you. This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.
In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.
Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloe wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way.
For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience. Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and, by the time we come to return, it appears that Chloe is no longer at code red.
Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.
This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built and inhabited since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.
The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.
The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.
By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).
The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis
Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.
Volubilis. Every step a joy
Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our grand taxi is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloe and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.
Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloe has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air.
Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.
I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.
In my view better, by far, just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan, if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.
Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.
The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.
This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.
Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip.
Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns. Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.
Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew
Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex.
She appeared to accept this, and appeared to even like it, until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.
The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.
It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.
Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why.
The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.
In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.
The music and performance are worth going for, but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.
There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being therethat you feel that they are about to start weeping.
You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.
From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.
Metal miners in the desert cold
Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.
Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive
The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious.
We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride and the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.
So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much more so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).
Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music. Unlike at the previous stops, the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts, a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.
Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session