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Hugo G.C. Vanneck

Morocco Bound

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At the end of April in 1994, having 5 weeks ahead of me with nothing to do, I decided to accept an invitation to visit some friends, a vet who had been working and living in Morocco for a couple of years with his wife, and to go by bike.

The furthest I'd ever been on my beloved BMW R65LS was from London to Devon in the south west of England, a distance of 180 miles, so how was I to prepare for such a long journey? I phoned my local dealer to ask what spares to take and they suggested Araldite (an epoxy resin bond from the UK - sets harder than steel) as any spares could be either obtained locally in Europe or delivered within 4 days in Morocco. In any case, they asked, where would I stop? Spare output shaft? Spare Engine? Good point, I thought, so Motour breakdown insurance and Araldite it was. I never needed the breakdown insurance.

I had recently rebuilt my Bings (carbs) and fitted new steering head bearings, valves and piston rings, so after changing all the oils and filters I loaded up and set off. I'd heard that if going to Morocco to take any old clothes or useful things like bags, rucksacs etc. you don't want as these can easily be bartered for rugs and carpets so I was more heavily laden that I otherwise needed to be.

I went down to the port at Dover and across the channel to Calais as the ferry from Southampton to Santander in northern Spain would have cost more than the petrol I would use going down through France. I was in a hurry to reach Rabat, the capital of Morocco, in time to meet my friends and go with them by Land Rover to the Sahara. I was running late. All you bum hardened bikers probably know this, but for any novices out there - don't be in a hurry...it isn't as much fun.

Calais had changed. There was a new ring-road servicing the ferry port and Channel Tunnel from the motorway - I would recommend anyone to head for 'Calais Ville' and then follow the signs for 'Autoroute', if that's what you want, as it's far shorter than taking the ring-road.

I headed south out of Calais towards Rouen, on the outskirts of which I ran out of petrol. Luckily, 2 motorcycle policemen on BMW K75's came along and stopped. They went and got me 5 litres of fuel and then escorted me to the petrol station to fill up. The biker fraternity is alive and well in France - everyone, even police riders, wave as they pass and if you ever stop at the side of the road without fail every biker will stop and ask if you're okay. Heading on I made Le Mans where I stayed for the night. The hotel was in the middle of town and the manager let me leave my bike in his private garage. The next morning I was up early and headed for Spain.

I had noticed something strange about the bike's handling. Whenever I got into the slipstream of a large vehicle the bike would start gently weaving, so when I saw a BMW dealer in Tours, Bellanger's, I stopped to ask about it.

Monsieur Bellanger found that the steering head bearings had slightly too much play in them but advised me that the weaving wouldn't get any worse and that I should just readjust them when I had a chance. He explained that new bearings often bedded in and needed readjustment with use. My mind was put at ease. In the showroom there was a Held tank bag on sale at 50% off. I bought this from Madame Bellanger to replace the holdall bag I had bungeed to the tank. Soon I was off and immediately thought how good tank bags were - it kept the wind off me and I could see my map. I was new to all this. 6 years later I'm still using the same bag and only now am considering getting a replacement.

Leaving Tours I immediately got lost and spent an hour going north instead of south. I was very annoyed with myself when I realised and spent the next hour and a half cursing myself and doing 100 mph to make up the time. Fuel consumption rose and I ran out of petrol again having left the fuel cocks on reserve when I'd last filled up. Luckily I was just a couple hundred yards short of a petrol station and laying the bike down on its left cylinder head gave me enough petrol to make it to the pumps. On the older BMW's there's only one fuel cock on the left side of the tank and there's always an extra reserve of petrol left in the bottom right side of the tank for emergencies.

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I finally reached the beautiful and elegant Basque town of San Sebastian in northern Spain fourteen hours after I'd left Le Mans. I stayed with old friends there for 2 nights and set off early morning in thick drizzle which cleared up as soon as I was clear of the mountainous Basque region. By evening I was in another beautiful Spanish town called Caceres, where I stayed the night. I would have loved to dally for a day or so but had a schedule so the next morning it was up early and onto Badajoz, in the arid Extremadura (literally: extremely hard) region, and thence into Portugal.

Portugal is one of the poorest European Community members and the difference in road surface is immediately noticeable. Spanish roads are very good and smooth whereas across the border in Portugal they are not. I made my way bone-shakingly south to Albufeira in the south where my sister and her husband live where I stayed one night before heading to Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera and on to Algerciras, the main ferry port for Morocco.

It seems that anything to do with Morocco has a hustler attached. Arriving at the port I was immediately approached by a shady character trying to sell me a 'cheap' ferry ticket. This was a faint taste of things to come. I headed over to the ticket offices and bought a single ticket for around 20 UK pounds and then over to the loading quay where I waited. It was 8 pm and dark by the time we set sail. After an hour and a half of good coffee we arrived in Ceuta, the Spanish colony on the north tip of Morocco. It's the bit of Morocco that Spain kept when it left the country in the 1950's and is now the main channel for Morocco's exports to Europe.

 

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Morocco

Ceuta is tax-free and the place to fill up with petrol. After doing this I headed for the border crossing at Fnideq (pronounce this if you can) just 3 kms away from the port. It is at Fnideq that I got my second taste of Morocco (the first being the character at the port at Algerciras).

Arriving within sight of the customs buildings I pulled up beside a soldier to ask where I should go. Immediately a young man of about 25 with shoulder length curly hair appeared, thrust an immigration form into my hand and told me to follow him. I asked the soldier if this man was an official and he said 'No', so I told him I didn't need his help (I speak Spanish and French fluently). Despite this he told me to follow him in the direction the soldier had already indicated and ran in order to keep in front of me as I made my way there. As I dismounted the hustler told me it was okay to park there and then trotted behind me as I made my way over to the office. Once there he started to explain what I should do and when I repeated that I didn't need his help and pointed out that trotting after me all the time wasn't going to get him any money he got very angry, snatched the form out of my hand saying, 'Give me back MY paper' and stomped off to find someone else.

At the immigration desk the officer asked to look at my ballpoint pen, a cheap and garish object that I'd acquired at a hotel somewhere. He turned it around admiringly in his fingers and gave me a questioning look which I knew was meant to make me offer it to him. I pretended not to notice and got it back. After my immigration I had to go to another desk to fill out a temporary import form for the bike. This done I was through and it all took about half an hour.

The road from Fnideq takes you to the first Moroccan town, Tetouan, and as the road follows the coast my visor became blurred with sea mist. Coupled with uncertainty about the road, the expectation of a pothole or donkey around every corner and not wanting a run-in with local police and the ensuing bribe, I took it very easy. The road I chose was the one to Tangier - this has the odd pothole and gravel on some of the corners but taken carefully was fine.

Hungry, I stopped at a large cafe in the middle of nowhere where there was a butcher/barbecue stand outside with half a sheep hanging from a hook on the wall. In Morocco the male meat is valued more highly than female (an attitude I was to find rather ran through their whole culture) and this half a sheep had one testicle to show it was half of the best. I later found this to be common in butcher's shops throughout Morocco.

I asked the teenager behind the grill how much it was and he asked me how much I wanted. He then hacked off an enormous hunk of meat, expertly cut it into 6 thick chops and handed it to the barbecue boy, a lad of around 10 years old, who cooked it for me. This, plus a flat loaf of bread and a pot of sweet mint tea cost about 3 pounds (I later found it should have been half that) which I paid for in Spanish pesetas and got the change in Moroccan Dirhams. It tasted good and feeling a lot better I headed on for Larache, on the west coast.

 

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Between Fnideq and Larache I was flagged down 3 times by Royal Moroccan Customs officers and twice by the gendarmes but was waved on as soon as they saw I was European. They stop Moroccans returning from France on holiday to extract bribes, apparently.

Larache is an old seaside resort town originally frequented by the Spanish when the north of the country was still in Spanish hands but now by Moroccans. It is a relaxed town with as many women in the streets as men, unlike most of Morocco where women are kept at home or at work in the fields or are to be seen walking between the two, invariably carrying something heavy. Men, on the other hand, you see everywhere standing around doing nothing else but chatting.

Arriving in Larache I rode around the town looking for a hotel and soon find The Hotel Espana, a grand hotel built by the Spanish with a beautiful Moorish tiled lobby. A room with a bath cost 10 pounds. It was here that I was introduced to the normal precaution against anything happening to your bike at night in the person of the ubiquitous 'guardian'. He charged me 2 pounds for the night, about 4 times what it would cost a Moroccan. This is normal in Morocco.

After a very comfortable night I set off for Rabat, hoping to reach there by 11 am. The main road south has an excellent metalled surface and being mostly dead straight and flat you can see for miles and high speeds are possible. There are 2 or 3 towns on the way, though, and you have to be very careful when passing through these as pedestrians can suddenly cross the road without looking. Cars, lorries, carts and donkeys turn without looking first and traffic lights, although few and far between, are often ignored.

Driving standards in Morocco are very poor. This is understandable, given that motor vehicles are a very recent thing there. As I had noticed in Portugal, the Formula 1 technique for overtaking was favoured - they drive 3 feet from the car in front and then suddenly pull out to overtake, regardless of a motorcycle (i.e. ME) coming in the opposite direction. This was a constant worry and many times I had to drive onto the hard shoulder to get out of the way of oncoming cars. You have to be quick as you often don't see them until the pull out. The other thing I hated was having cars 3 feet behind me while I was following slower vehicles waiting to overtake.

Once off the main highways, however, which is most of Morocco, there are hardly any other vehicles on the road and riding is wonderful. Wherever you are, though, if you are involved in an accident and a local person is injured, the local wisdom is to carry on to the next town and report it there rather than hang around and face local reaction /retribution.

A common idea is that if you, a foreigner, hadn't been there, the accident wouldn't have happened in the first place so it must be your fault. The other thing to be careful about is the police. Most of them speak French but if you get stopped and can speak French it's better to pretend not to. Bribing policemen is very common but if you cannot understand them they'll let you go without getting any money from you. Many times I passed motorists as they were handing their licenses over to policemen together with banknotes - 2 pounds is the norm.

 

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Thankfully, I arrived in Rabat without incident and in time to set off with my Land Rover friends for the trip down to the Sahara. We passed through Marrakesh en route to Zagora on the edge of the desert. That was a journey in itself. We stayed in converted 'kasbah' (castles) for between 5 and 15 pounds a night. The roads were good riding roads and I wished I could have been on my bike but wouldn't have missed the company for the world. Good friends are great to be with.

A week later I was back in Rabat and met up with my girlfriend who had come out from the UK by air to Madrid and from there to Rabat by train and ferry to join me. We headed south-east together from Rabat to Oulmes, a spa town in the hills leading to the Middle Atlas Mountains. Breathtaking scenery and good roads - the 100 odd miles took us about 4 hours.

On the way the electrics cut out completely, a problem I'd solved 3 or 4 times before by removing the tank and twiddling a large, white, multi-pin connector under it. This time I decided to do the job properly. We were just next to a car workshop in a village and they gave me some emery cloth to clean the connector. They were working on the underside of an old Mercedes Benz which they had lifted up and rested on its side on a pile of tyres with a log to prop it up. The connector cleaned and contact resumed we carried on, only stopping to watch the sun set behind us.

The evening light in Morocco is beautiful and we would always stop wherever we were to watch the sunset. As so often happens in Morocco whenever you stop in what you think is the middle of nowhere, 2 young men with a 2 year old child appeared out of the shadows. We shook hands and had a cigarette together before we carried on.

Arriving in Oulmes we quickly found the only hotel where a room cost us 8 pounds for the night. The following day we continued down Alpine hairpins and mountain straits to Khenifra, where all the buildings are red. At lunch we met a cycling team that we were to keep bumping into over the next 3 days. From Khenifra we turned north and headed for Azrou, taking the route through the cedar forests in the hope of seeing some Barbary apes but they were elsewhere. At first stunning, the forest quickly became boring. It gets better as you near Azrou.

In Azrou we stayed at the Hotel Azrou for 10 pounds a night. The hotel was fine except for the manager trying to spring an extra charge on us for allowing us to park the bike behind the hotel. When we arrived the bike fell over and the mirror broke off from its stem but Araldite fixed it a treat.

 

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We stayed there for 2 nights, spending the first morning wandering around the bazaars (shops) in Azrou and the afternoon visiting the 'Sources of the Oumer Rbia' back a few miles along the road we had arrived on. This is a place where there are about 40 holes in limestone with undrinkable water gushing out of them. On the way back we stopped at a 'souk' (a weekly local market) where I bartered all the jeans, T-shirts and shoes I'd brought with me from England for 4 lovely old hand made Berber rugs. I also parted with about 17 pounds in cash. Azrou is a carpet and rug centre but rather than buy from the shops there it is cheaper to buy directly from the Berbers at the countryside souks - the more remote the location the better.

We had learnt of a souk in a very remote place, on the way from Azrou to Fes, our next destination, so we took a large detour to a small village in the middle of nowhere. There were women there selling fleece, dying it in big vats and selling rugs they had made. There was a 'dentist' with an enormous pile of old molars he has extracted, knee-in-chest, without anaesthetic, from his hapless patients, plus a couple of new ones with still wet blood on them.

Everyone was interested the strange visitors, a European man and a Japanese woman, and there was a lot of smiling but that was all. Everyone else had arrived there by donkey so the bike was of considerable interest. Here as elsewhere, children seemed most interested in the tyres and kept squeezing them, apparently because of their size as they are so much larger than those on the mopeds they are used to seeing. The only other thing of note was a thief they'd caught. A crowd of men were marching him off to the donkey park for a good beating. Justice is swift and hard in the countryside of Morocco. The man was terrified.

After a couple of hours of wondering around we set off north for Fes, stopping at Sefrou, a small town with a 'Medina', which is the old walled part of a town where all the commerce typically takes place, and was as yet unspoilt by hustlers. Sefrou is about 30 kms south of Fes. After a typical lunch of beans, a kebab, vegetable stew and delicious bread washed down with sweet mint tea (all for 90 pence each) we wandered around, followed eventually by all the children of the town. This happens everywhere and it's essential to keep your sense of humour. I always answered the inevitable request for '1 dirham please, monsieur' by holding out my hand with a smile and saying, 'Thank you' in Moroccan. This would raise a laugh and I would follow it up with some tricks I know, like waving a pencil between 2 fingers to make it appear to bend.

 

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Everywhere we went we had deserted roads, spectacular scenery and people waving as we passed. When we stopped people were very friendly, offering us tea and food on occasions. Morocco is well worth a visit for these things. Go anywhere on the tourist path, however, and the hustle is constant and very wearing. Fes is a good example of this.

Arriving at the first set of traffic lights in Fes a youth on a moped stopped next to us and told us to follow him to a nice, cheap, clean hotel. Next set of lights, different youth, same thing. You should never answer with an 'It's okay as we're staying at so and so hotel' as he'll be there later insisting that he is your guide. We checked into the Hotel Olympic which was clean, friendly and had hot water. If hot water is important to you you should always check that the water is hot and also check when it's hot - it's rare to have it 24 hours a day.

Fes is actually 2 towns - the old town, or Medina, and the Ville Nouvelle which was built by the French as their administrative and residential quarter and is now where all the hotels are. On arrival at the hotel you are immediately met by someone claiming to be the hotel parking guardian. Take this with a pinch of salt and ask in the hotel who the guardian actually is.

A 10 minute ride takes you from the Ville Nouvelle to the Medina. There are various gates into the Medina and each one has a car park just outside. As you ride in you'll be met by your first hustler who will claim to be the official car park guardian. The actual one will wear a large brass badge and you should only deal with him. Park where he tells you and walk to the gate.

As soon as you've walked 5 yards another hustler, if you've managed to get rid of the first one, will come up and tell you he will guide you. When you say you don't need a guide he will insist that it's too dangerous to enter the city on your own. If you tell him that you won't pay him any money he will insist that he will guide you for free if you just give him a little present. If you make it clear that you won't give him anything he will get angry, shout at you, call you a racist and stomp off. 5 yards later you will be accosted by another hustler and have to go through the whole thing all over again. Once inside the Medina the hustling stops, perhaps because the tradesmen are intolerant of anyone who bothers their potential customers.

You may decide to hire a hustler as a way of keeping other hustlers away. If you choose this path, as we did on the first day, the hustler will only take you to places that he knows and which belong to his friends. At the end of the day, despite having agreed on a price at the beginning, he will insist that you pay double for undefined extras. The main thing to remember is to never get angry as these hustlers are very quick to flare up and fight.

 

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Once inside the Medina you step back a thousand years into a maze of narrow lanes and passages crowded with artisans, merchants and shoppers engaged in centuries old activities. On sale are spices, rugs, shoes, dyes and traditional minerals and colourants for hair and skin care - kohl for the eyes and henna for the hair. There are fresh vegetables, fruit and meat. The lanes are narrow and twisting with donkeys and mules carrying impossibly wide loads with barely enough room to squeeze through - you soon get adept at hurrying into doorways to let them pass. You want to go back again and again.

We spent 3 days there and found that as our faces became known we were bothered less and less by hustlers. What didn't stop was being followed into shops by them and having them tell us in a loud voice what a good shop it was and how the prices were not tourist prices but Moroccan prices. If you don't tell the shop owner that you don't know the man you will be charged extra to pay a commission for your 'guide' for bringing you into the shop. Once exposed he vanishes.

On the first day, when we got back to the bike we gave the guardian the agreed 2 dirhams (knowing that it was only 1 dirham for a local) and he insisted that we pay 4 dirhams as he'd been extra careful looking after the bike. We refused. Next day, same guardian, same thing. A comparative study of the return rates for visitors to Morocco and Spain was done and it was found that whereas 95% of first time visitors to Spain said they would like to return one day, for Morocco it was 5% with most respondents citing the constant hassle as the reason for never wanting to go back. It is a great shame as Morocco is a truly beautiful country and has a tremendous amount to offer, especially to anyone on a bike.

While staying in Fes we also explored the surrounding countryside as far as a place called Karia Ba Mohammed, about 30 kms to the north of the city. On the way back to Fes in the evening we stopped on a hill overlooking the old town to watch the Medina turn red in the setting sun. As we sat there an old farmer on a donkey leading a herd of sheep with his wife bringing up the rear on foot appeared. He invited us up to his house for tea. We accepted and set off up a mountain path that got so bad that we had to leave the bike at a neighbours farm and carry on on foot. By this time it got quite late and we ended up staying the night. This sort of spontaneous hospitality is common.

We left Fes the next day and headed north back to Ceuta, the last 60 miles in the strongest wind I've ever experienced. The force of the wind meant long stretches of the bike leaning over about 10 degrees off vertical just to go straight with sudden and short gusts pushing us forward and down. It was very tiring.

At Fnideq it took an hour to get through immigration and to get the bike cleared and we arrived at the port at Ceuta at 8 pm, half an hour before we were due to sail but only to be told there'd be an hour's delay as a lorry full of beer on the ferry had fallen over in the crossing from Algerciras crushing 4 cars. In the end it was 5.30 am before we actually got going.

 

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Dog tired in Algerciras we tried to revive ourselves with coffee at a bar. It was bliss not to have to haggle over the price and know we weren't being charged double. I should mention that bargaining for something you want can be fun and is a part of Moroccan culture but you need considerable skill. You need local knowledge, humour, time and patience and the ability to bluff - you have to be absolutely sure you really want what you are bargaining for but also need to be able to walk away without it and come back the next day for another session. This is how they do business, but the constant overcharging is a nuisance and the relief I felt at being back in Spain was immense.

Tired as we were, we decided to press on for Jerez de la Frontera (the home of sherry) arriving there through stunningly beautiful countryside in the early evening light. As we approached the town we could hear what sounded like motorcycles in full song - it turned out to be the famous Grand Prix circuit but the noises weren't bikes but Formula 3000 cars doing shakedowns. We took a ride over and the security guard let us in to watch. Pity there weren't any bikes.

My girlfriend and I split up in Jerez, with her catching the train to Madrid for her flight back to London and I was left to spend a leisurely week making my way back to the UK through Portugal, Spain and France stopping here and there to see family and friends. In Spain I bought a crate of wine and together with the rugs I'd bought in Morocco the bike was very heavily laden. 3,500 miles and 5 weeks later I was back in London with a bald back tire and just enough cash to fill up with petrol on arrival in Dover.

My only regret? Not buying a new back tyre before setting off on the trip.

Tokyo 20th March 2000

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