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Rabat: where overlanding spirit goes to die

Rabat seems to be somewhat of a dirty word on the Oasis Trans Africa trip. It’s the capital city of Morocco, and if you’ve ever been to Canberra you’ll know that simply being a capital city does not make one fun to visit. It’s also the location of our first big visa run of the trip. It’s here that we organise visas for Mauritania, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.

Rabat has become synonymous with long waits, no showers, and the slightly left of centre African approach to visa processes. Last year’s Trans group were holed up in Rabat for 8 days, apparently lining up day after day outside the Mauritanian embassy until they got through. Naturally everyone wants to one-up the years that come before us, but in the case of Rabat everyone agreed that the sooner we finished our visa run the better.

Any initial optimism was dashed when we showed up at the Mauritanian embassy on our first morning, only to be told that it’s liberation day, a 3 day holiday, and to come back again the next day. A less than promising start.

Things got easier from then on and Lady Luck was clearly on our side. We managed to do the rest of our visa run in just four days. Aside from the nine hour wait outside them Ivory Coast waiting for them to individually process 26 visas, everything was pretty smooth sailing.

We spent our days between embassy visits wandering the medina, buying up big at both the Marjane and Carrefour supermarkets (I invested in some grandad slippers for cold weather luxury), and even going to the Hammam in order to save on baby wipe usage.

Hammams are a phenomenon that half of our group are now slightly addicted to. For fifty dirhams, you’ll get a Moroccan woman in her underwear throw buckets of water on you, exfoliate every inch (and I mean every inch) of you until you’re red raw, shampoo your hair, soap you up and then massage you down. It’s mostly humiliating, but there’s no cleaner feeling in the world than a post-Hammam scrubbing.

On our one full free day, I jumped on board a train to Casablanca to escape rainy Rabat. Casablanca lived up to its reputation for being a massive disappointment. But at least I can say I’ve had a cocktail at Rick’s Cafe, and at least I now know I never need to go back. There was some absolutely amazing street art spread throughout the city streets, but really, that’s about it.

Without a doubt though, the highlight of Rabat took place at one of our more luxurious bush camps: the Rabat Zoo car park. When our driver Steve initially pulled the truck up at the car park and told us to set up camp, we assumed he’d officially lost it. But Steve proudly claims that he stays at the zoo car park every time he’s in Rabat.

We settled into our zoo “bush camp” for two straight nights, and on the second one a group of us decided to unleash our inner 90s rave kids with some slightly enthusiastic renditions of Ebenezer Good. Beer was flowing, rave arms were in the air, and everyone was having a ball until ten to midnight when we saw the unmistakable flashing of police sirens pulling up outside the truck. Out piled two stern looking Moroccan cops. Those of us on board the truck rave stared sheepishly out the window, wondering if our singing could actually be so bad as to attract police attention. Our pint sized French speaking fire cracker, Kim, crawled out of her tent to save the day, and after a lot of arm waving, finger pointing, and confusing language breakdowns, we eventually discovered that we’d actually been approached by the world’s most considerate policeman. They didn’t want us to stop raving, they just wanted us to sleep near their police road checkpoint where they could keep an eye on us and make sure we were safe. So as the clock struck midnight, we sheepish ravers and the slightly more disgruntled group of overlanders who’d already been asleep were forced to pack up our tents, pile onto the truck, and follow our police escort to our new camp site. And can you guess where our allegedly safer abode was? 100 flipping meters down the road to the car park on the other side of the zoo! That’s Moroccan hospitality for you – always well intentioned, but more often than not a bit of a cluster fuck.

In hindsight, Rabat wasn’t the soul destroyer it could have been. But it was certainly a good feeling to pack our tents up on the last day and head towards the Todra Gorge where the promise of hot showers, flushing toilets, and not one visa application awaited us.

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An audience with the King of Fez

Fez has a medina made up of 12,000 winding streets, it was Morocco’s first big city, and it’s tanneries are world-renowned for churning out amazing leather goods. Fez is known for a lot of things, but to our little group of intrepid adventurers, it will always be remembered for Callum: the “King of Fez”.

Callum is a wheeler and dealer, a bit of a hustler, and when Oasis is in town he is also their fixer. Walking through the old Jewish part of town, leading us through the medina, even talking his way through a police road stop with a beer in his hand, it became quickly apparent that there was neither one single person in Fez that Callum did not know, nor was there a single business that he did not seem to own. Hence the legend of the “King of Fez” was born.

We spent two full days with Callum, during which he would constantly assure us, “Everything is possible with Callum.”

“You want to go to a Hamman? No Worries. I’ll get them to throw in towels for free. You want to find an open bar on Holy Day (Friday)? I make it happen. You want lunch for 20 dirham? I’ll take you to the top floor of a fancy restaurant and bring you kofta, just don’t tell the other diners how cheap it is with Callum.”

At the end of our second full day with Callum, the only thing in Fez that he had yet to come good on was to take us to a cake shop – after only a week of overlanding it felt as though we’d been without pastry for years. We said a hungry and slightly disappointed goodbye to Callum, tipped him handsomely, and said a polite but cynical thank you when he assured us that he would return to our campsite with pastry in tow.

By the end of that night, still no sign of Callum. We sat around camp laughing that next time someone promised us pastry, we’d wait until we had eclair in hand before we tipped. We woke up early the next morning for a 7am drive time and again, no sign of Callum. We packed up, piled onto the truck, and waved goodbye to our campsite (along with all hopes of pastry). We got as far as the front gate when who else should be standing there but the King of Fez himself, in his pointy wizard cloak, grinning ear to ear, and holding four huge pink boxes filled with chocolate croissants, cheesy pastry sticks, and short bread dipped in chocolate and then rolled in sugary almonds.

After all, everything is possible with Callum.

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Life on board the gypsy truck

When you drive anywhere in a big yellow truck you’re likely to draw a few stares, but when you drive through a country like Morocco you quite literally stop traffic. People stop whatever it is they are doing and stare open-mouthed in wonder at the huge yellow beast rolling through their usually quiet village. Some call out “Welcome to Morocco”, others seem less friendly, but the children will chase after the truck waving for ages. When you pass a coffee shop full of Moroccan men in their pointy hooded cloaks, its as though you’ve interrupted a wizard convention. I can only imagine what they say as the truck disappears into the distance.

Drive days are long, especially if they were preceded by a truck party the night before. We’re usually up and eating breakfast before sunrise, then packed up, on board the truck and ready to go by 7am. We’re in the habit of starting our drive days with a group nap, followed by a lot of staring out the window and taking pictures of the scenery, hours of conversation (we’ve solved the majority of the world’s problems in just a week), playing cards, eating food, and then finishing with a bit more napping before we pull up to our next camp.

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We take it in turns to cook, in groups of three, for two straight days. It’s a massive job prepping, cooking, and cleaning for 26 people, but it’s a tiny bit of routine and normalcy on an otherwise crazy trip so it’s nice. Everything is cooked over the fire. Everything from pasta, to stews, to curries, to stir fries, and even banana pancakes when we have a particularly generous cook group. My group even managed to whip up fajitas last night.

We were spoiled in Chefchaouen and Fez with not only hot showers, but also with flushing toilets! But in the months to come they will just be fond memories of the luxurious lives that we once led. From Rabat onwards, there’ll be a lot of bush camping. That means pulling up in a sneaky clearing at dusk or just after, setting up the tents in the dark, cooking by torchlight, and going to the, ahem, ladies room wherever you find enough tree coverage. It also means showering with baby wipes and deodorant.

It’s not a glamorous life, but it’s fun and exciting and you wake up every day knowing it’s going to be a total surprise. Even when you’re driving through a Moroccan cork forest in the pitch black and cold looking for a suitable place to set up camp, it sure does beat sitting in an office.

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Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is a little blue oasis nestled in amongst the Rif Mountains. It was also our first stop here in Morocco. You cannot miss it for all the blue and white houses sprawling up the mountainside. I don’t know the story behind the blue, but I’d like to think it involves some ancient Berber smurfs. According to the copy of the Lonely Planet in the back of our truck, it’s Morocco’s “most picturesque town.” For once I’m going to hand it to LP, they were right – Chefchaouen is beautiful.

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We spent a full day wandering through the winding alleyways, sitting in the cafes drinking coffee and eating tagines, taking photo after photo of the incredible blue houses, and watching the locals go about their day to day business, looking every bit the wise old wizards in their woven hooded cloaks. I could easily have spent days here repeating the same routine. Chefchaouen is not a big town, but it’s the kind of place that makes you want to linger.

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After our epic trek up The Rock in Gibraltar, we were still pretty sore. But when we looked up the mountain side and saw a little old mosque halfway up, we couldn’t resist. So off we trekked trying to ignore our already screaming legs, and thank goodness we did because to look down and see the little blue city in all it’s glory was absolutely spectacular. We sat for ages on the wall surrounding the mosque, looking over the town and just taking it all in.

I think everyone came back to camp just as excited by Chefchaouen as I was – we could all happily have killed a few days there. But the trip must go on. Fez is calling. So for now, it’s a fond farewell to our little blue oasis, and hello to the next part of the adventure.

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Intro to overlanding: A cheeky Spanish sojourn

What better way to begin an African overland adventure than with a little Spanish sojourn, wouldn’t you agree?

We flew into Gibraltar where we were greeted by a crazy shout and waving arms from behind the waiting airport crowds. It was Ishi, our tour leader, who we’d been advised is a “flipping legend”. Possibly only out-legended by Steve, our driver, who has done something like 15 Trans trips. You take one look at him and you know there are thousand of stories behind that beard just waiting to come out over a camp fire or two.

I’d met the rest of my tour group that morning at Luton Airport. There are 24 of us in total from all corners of the globe: Australia, England, Poland, Tanzania, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan. There’s even a contingent from Belgium who have taken up the task of teaching me Dutch – so far I can count to seven and ask where the free wifi is

It turns out that we can’t bring the truck into Gibraltar so we had our first two nights in a campsite in Spain, I think near La Linea. My first trip to spain! I’m sure the campsite La Casita is no Barcelona, but I was pretty excited regardless.

Our intro to overlanding was pretty soft; Ishi and Steve had set our tents up and had dinner waiting for us when we arrived at our spanish campsite (the first and last time that’ll ever happen). They even had an eski full of beer and wine to celebrate the start of our adventure. It turns out that we’re the only truck doing the full trans trip of Africa this year, which means we’ll be the only overland truck travelling down the west coast until at least next November. Ishi calls us the “chosen ones”.

The morning after we got to camp we took a day trip across the border into Gibraltar, affectionately known to most as “The Rock”, or to our group as “Little Britain”. You have to see it to believe it, but it really is like walking into a sweltering hot England. The first thing you see as you pass through Immigration is a red English phone box. You walk down Winston Churchill Avenue, and end up in a big square surrounded by fish and chip shops. There are Union Jack flags hanging out of windows and strung above streets. Even the shops are english; Monsoon anyone? Bizarre, that’s the only word I have for it.

Gibraltar has one of the most spectacular runways in the world. Not only is it scarily short (a less than amazing pilot is likely to end up overshooting the runway and landing in the ocean), but the runway goes straight through the main road and walkway into town. Little barrier gates come down to stop traffic so that planes can land. I’d hate to be stuck on foot in the middle of the runway when you see those lights start to flash!

A group of us decided to tackle The Rock, the mountain Gibraltar gets it’s nickname from. About one hour and many gallons of sweat later, we were greeted with the most spectacular view. We could see Morocco on the horizon, huge mountains sticking up out of the ocean. Mountains that we’ll be driving over in just a few days time.

It feels like the adventure is really about to begin.

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London Calling

I arrived in London sore, tired and, after a bajillion hours of flying, in desperate need of a shower. I fell instantly in love with the place. When you’re exhausted and jet lagged, little things like a strange Englishman helping to carry your bag through the tube station and the hotel letting you check in 6 hours really do add up.

My room at St Giles Hotel is actually, I’m quite sure, the world’s smallest hotel room. Think Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, and then cut that in half. But it’s right next to Tottenham Court Road station and within walking distance to everywhere you could possibly want to go in London.

London itself is just beautiful. The city well and truly stole my heart (though that might also have been the middle aged Italian restaurateur I think I’m now engaged to). In between the shameless touristing, I spent hours each day just wandering the streets, exploring with no real intent, and staring upwards at the huge green trees and gorgeous old buildings that line each street. The walkway up to Buckingham Palace was completely carpeted with yellow and orange autumn leaves. It’s a city that really does take your breath away.

My favourite part, not surprising for those who know me, was the Borough Markets – an amazing foodie haven just near the London Bridge. At the risk of sounding like a raging bogan, I had a toasted cheese sandwich that almost brought me to tears it was that good. I also had a german-sounding pastry that I cannot remember the name of but it had custard and cream and pecans in it, so naturally it was to die for! Long story short, if you’re in London, skip the Big Ben and go straight to the Borough Markets. You’ll thank me.

I’m boarding the plane to Gibraltar in the morning where I meet up with my Oasis crew and my new truck family. It’s where the daily showers and Internet access ends, but the adventure really begins.

For now, I’ll let my pictures have the final word on London.

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But aren’t there, like, lions in Africa?

Today’s the day! I’m off! It’s been FOREVER in the works and now I’m finally on my way.

This morning, after a few teary goodbyes and hugs that I wanted never to end, I boarded my flight from Brisbane to London.

That was 18 and a half hours ago, and now I’m sitting in Abu Dhabi Airport waiting for the third and final leg of my journey.

Waiting....waiting....waaaiting

Waiting….waiting….waaaiting

When you tell people that you’re running away to Africa for 9 months the most common response is, “Oh, so you’re doing volunteer work?” To which my somewhat guilt ridden response is, “No, just seeing the sights.” Following which I spend about ten minutes fielding questions about what the hell an overland tour actually is and why on earth anyone would want to sleep in a tent for 9 months, culminating in the inevitable: “But aren’t there like, lions in Africa?”

*face palm*

So while I’m passing time during my layover in Abu Dhabi, I want to take the chance to break down what it is that I’m actually doing!

I’m signed up for the Trans Africa London to Cairo trip with Oasis Overland. It’s 38 week overland tour that treks through 28 different countries, right down the west coast and then all the way back up the east coast. This map gives you a bit of an idea of the route we take:

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Our vehicle and home for the 39 weeks will be a magnificent yellow overland truck. It’s fitted out with everything we need – camping gear, food, cooking equipment, fuel, water, fire wood. The truck is pretty much the giant yellow heart of our trip.

My bedroom for nine months will be the tent that I share with one of my fellow overlanders. My meals, cooked in turn by my travel buddies. And my showers, well lets just say they’ll be few and far between for parts of the journey.

I’m flying into London first, where I have a few days of shameless touristing. From there we fly as a group to Gibraltar to meet our truck and crew. Then it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Morocco where the rest of Africa awaits!