Marathon des Sables – Chapter 14 – Tangier or Bust

Tangier or Bust
Move Over Jason Bourne

Friday and the aim today was to do more exploring of the Medina and the souks. A Middle Eastern “souk” is similar to what we call a market. Importantly, today was the day to buy most of the presents for family and friends that I needed to buy.

While going through the normal morning routine, we learned from the BBC that the volcano thing was getting more important and was looking like it could affect us. From this we decided that regardless of what happened, we needed to travel to the airport the next day to at least register our presence and readiness to travel on our scheduled flight. It really was starting to look like it was going to impact us, as they were already talking about flights being cancelled and closing down European air space. I still thought it would all blow over, pardon the pun, but we needed to consider our options.

Surprisingly, when we walked up to the main square to do some present shopping, and chose on a whim to walk down a different alleyway, we discovered that there was a whole section of shops, stalls and souks that we hadn’t yet even seen. We looked at each other with a shared look of “Duh”. How could we have missed all of this?

The next couple of hours were taken up by pleasant meandering up one laneway filled with jostling mayhem and down another. We saw stalls selling live chickens and children’s shoes, woven carpets and gold jewellery. We saw almost everything that can be bought, squeezed into a collection of commotion that stretched the senses. After marvelling at the experience and telling each other “We’re not in Kansas any more.” a few times, clever huh?, we made our way back to the villa and a very pleasant afternoon sitting on the roof drinking wine and eating nuts.

With the now virtually mandatory evening meal of a tagine in another of the restaurants by the square, another pleasant day drew to a close. However both of us were silently growing more concerned about the volcano and how it could affect us. Tomorrow could be interesting.

 *   *   *   *   *

We would need all our wits today as this was the day when we would determine if we were returning to England with our booked airline tickets or ……..? The BBC told us that all was not good and it was definitely looking like no planes were leaving. Nick’s almost ceaseless phone messages from England were adding weight to this conclusion. The airspace over Europe was now totally closed due to the risk from volcanic ash and we were hearing that there was travel chaos developing in Europe and England.

After the normal breakfast routine and an update from the BBC, we packed our backpacks with food and water and caught a taxi to the airport. Our intention was to find out what was going on and if our flight was, by some unforseen magic, actually leaving. If not then we would need to make alternative plans.

As soon as we arrived we could see that things were not good. For a start, according to the departure boards, the only flights leaving were those heading south to African destinations, or those heading to Middle Eastern places. If it was heading north, it wasn’t leaving.

We found the little office for EasyJet to register our presence, only to find that there was already a mumble of thirty hopeful travellers already there doing the same thing. Straight away I didn’t feel good about this. We joined the mob and shuffled our feet for the next fifteen minutes, waiting our turn at the window. I could soon see that the line wasn’t moving. Nick, being English where queuing has become a fine art, was now having a joyful old time chatting with other Brits in the queue. I could feel an upwelling of shrieking frustration forming in by shoes, so I suggested to Nick that he maintain our spot in the line and “Find out what you can”, then took myself off for an explore.

I walked down to the other end of the terminal, only to find that most of the offices and counters were closed. Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that. I came across a group of car rental company counters and the spark of a thought suddenly popped up. I kept exploring and finally found a place that sold maps, then paid the most exorbitant price ever for a map of Morocco. It was a good map, but at that price so it should be. I checked it to see what further ideas would come from it and discovered that Tangier, a city still in Morocco, was a short ferry ride from Gibraltar. My spark of an idea was starting to take shape.

As I headed back across the terminal towards Nick, I went over to the car hire counter with the most approachable looking lady and asked her how much would it cost to hire a car for a one-way trip from Marrakesh to Tangier. She looked a little surprised and turned to her companion to discuss the request. She told me that it would cost 2000 dirhams. A quick division by seven told me that this was approximately $A280, an amount that I considered acceptable under the circumstances. As I walked back to where Nick was in jovial conversation with his fellow Brits, I was considering my approach. Now being a full grown-up, I have finally learned that you can’t just tell someone what they should do, so knew that I had to get Nick “on board”, so that he considered this was a viable option.

I cleared my throat and launched gently into my sales pitch. It started, with me whispering in Nick’s ear “This is crazy. We need to find another way to get back to England under our own steam.” Nick immediately called on his memories of similar conversations ten or twelve years ago, which ended with us being bogged to the floor in sand for 26 hours, 300km from civilisation in The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. He looked at me with trepidation in his voice and said “I’d be happy to wait in Marrakesh to see what happens”.

I didn’t actually get down on my knees to plead with him, but I was prepared to if necessary. Fortunately, after Nick looked at the crowd of people which hadn’t moved a millimetre in the past twenty minutes, and listened to the voices that were starting to become agitated and frustrated, he realised that we did need to do something. So he asked me what my proposal was. I told him about the car rental and that we could drive to Tangier. I showed him the map and pointed out the ferry crossing to Gibraltar. His trepidation started to wain as he thought about this and watched the fuss going on around us. Finally, after five minutes of pondering, I had convinced Nick that this was a good option. He was still muttering warnings and caution as we neared the car hire counter. I let him talk to the lady this time as a way to enhance his buy-in, and surprisingly this time the price for the car was down to 1900 dirhams. That was certainly a surprise to me. A minute or two more of decision process and Nick agreed to the plan.

Woo Hoo !!! Let the next adventure begin.

Decision made and time to move. Suddenly we had focus and purpose again. Now it was time to get moving and set the extremely loose plan into motion. What am I talking about? We didn’t have a plan. All we knew at this moment was that we had rented a car to drive to Tangier by 3pm the next day. Other than that, all we had was a furry idea that we would catch a ferry across to Gibraltar. That’s it as far as a plan went.

We drove the car back to the Medina and parked it so we could walk back to the villa.

Well, that was how the next bit was meant to go, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

We started to drive the car back to the Medina, took a wrong turn then got horribly lost. For the next thirty minutes we drove around the Medina, trying to find a recognizable landmark so we could park the car. Round and round and round we went, getting so caught up in crowded streets full of markets and donkeys that I thought we would never find our way out. This was the START of the new adventure and here we were driving in circles. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

At last and eventually we found the landmark, parked the car and started walking back. But there’s no denying that getting so lost so early in our journey was a bit disconcerting. Maybe it was a blessing because it told us not to get cocky and don’t take things for granted. For what we were about to embark on, we needed to keep our wits about us and keep thinking.

Finally we came sweeping into the villa full of energy. On the (extended) trip back we’d made a list of what needed to be done, which included going to the ATM to get some travelling cash, packing up all of our stuff, settling the bill with Abdulleila then going to the supermarket to buy travelling and “just-in-case” food. This was now exciting because it was the start of a brand new adventure.

As we were about to leave the villa for the last time and were saying thank-you and goodbye to Abdulleila, he asked us where we were going next. We told him that we were going to the supermarket again to get some travelling food and he held out his hand for the car keys. I tried to assure him that we’d be OK, but he virtually insisted that I give him the keys. Nick and I looked at each other because this was a little strange, but we gave him the keys anyway.

While Abdulleila was driving us towards the supermarket we were expecting to go to, the one that Nick and I had walked to a few days previously, I was more than a little curious when he went sailing past it and just kept going. I snuck a glance at Nick sitting in the back seat and we both shrugged our shoulders. Abdulleila’s English wasn’t very good, plus he was a very shy fellow, so he doesn’t talk much. We were now travelling through Marrakesh past the supermarket and heading for ….. well, …… we didn’t know.

Fifteen minutes later Abdulleila pulled into the carpark of a huge and modern supermarket. He knew that we were going to need a wider range of supplies than the first supermarket stocked, so simply took us to this huge one. I’d love to know what thoughts were going through his mind as he silently guided us on our way. Then again, maybe it’s better that I don’t. Not only was this supermarket perfect, but it was located on the highway we needed to take to leave Marrakesh and head towards Casablanca. More perfect.

We said our final farewell to Abdulleila and gave him money for the taxi fare back to his villa. This was yet another example of how friendly and helpful Moroccan people are. After twenty minutes of shopping for breakfast food, milk, cheese, you know, stuff, we were finally on our way. Tangier here we come! It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

When we picked the car up from the renters it had about a half a tank of fuel, and we had no idea what the conditions were like on the highway for fuel between Marrakesh and Tangier, a distance of almost 600km. So it was important for us to fill the tank before getting too far from Marrakesh.

Not far along the highway we found a service station that looked clean and legitimate, so pulled in to fill up. As we drove in, one of the pump attendants jumped up to serve us. He motioned to a pump where he started to put the nozzle into the tank. Surprisingly it didn’t go in, so he motioned for us to move forward to the next pump. That nozzle didn’t go in either and I started to consider that things often don’t work properly in the Middle East as I moved forward to another pump. With some persuasion the young fellow was able to get this one in and proceeded to fill the tank.

We paid for the fuel, got back in the car and started it up, but immediately an older fellow came rushing over and started urgently saying something to me in Arabic with a raised voice. I had no idea what the problem was and said that I didn’t understand what he was saying. Then he did something that both Nick and I found amazing, and just a little disconcerting; he reached in through the open window and turned the engine off. I was gobsmacked. I told him that everything was working OK and started the engine again to show him. He rolled his eyes, reached in and turned the engine off again, then took the keys out of the ignition and put them in his pocket.

Now let me do a word sketch of this scene. We are on the outskirts of Marrakesh in Morocco buying fuel before driving 600km through the night. Nobody speaks English and the older Arabic speaking fellow has just confiscated our car keys. What would you be thinking?

He indicated for us to get out of the car, then in a very agitated voice he told the young pump attendant to help him push the car over to the workshop. I was starting to get a germ of an idea. We helped to push the car and another fellow came out of the shop and helped as well. As we parked the car in the workshop I asked this new fellow, who understood some English, if my understanding was correct. Had the car just been filled with diesel instead of petrol? Yes he said. Now it all made sense, but my heart sank to my boots. This can’t be good.

For the next half hour they worked on the car, while Nick and I were thinking about what we may need to do to save the situation. The basic practicality they used was surprising to me, a person who knows very little about things mechanical. The older fellow got an air hose used to pump up tyres, and wrapped a rag around it. Then he pushed this into the fuel inlet of the petrol tank so it was jammed in. Then he had another piece of tube which he pushed into the tank, with the loose end hanging out and into an empty container. When he let the air go into the tank, the fuel came out of the loose pipe and into the container. Brilliant!

It took around twenty minutes for them to be satisfied that they had all of the diesel out, then they pushed the car back out to the pumps and filled the tank again, this time with petrol. The older fellow indicated for me to start the car and give the accelerator a good pump. All seemed good so far, so he indicated for me to drive it around the concourse of the station, giving it a good ol’ revving as I went. All seemed good.

Phew! It appeared that the situation had been saved by the application of basic mechanical skill and good old common sense. I shook the older fellow’s hand and thanked him, then offered him some money to compensate for all of the fuel that had been wasted. He looked at me like I was an idiot, said something that was likely to be related to it being their fault, then waved us on our way.

We had left the villa less than two hours ago. This was going to be an interesting journey.

A few kilometres down the highway which, by the way, was a brilliant piece of modern freeway, we came to a long, gradual up hill section. The car, which only had a 1.2 litre motor, started to struggle and lose speed as it climbed. I had the accelerator flat to the floor and it was still losing speed. Before we got to the top of the hill it started to miss fire. This was not feeling good. We spluttered gradually to the top of the hill and over the top, where the motor started to run smoothly again. Nick and I were both holding our breath as we willed the car on. Then, with a final cough it cleared it’s throat and all was good from that point on. All traces of diesel were now gone.

We drove along enjoying the scenery for the next hour or so until it was time for my injection. I’ve learned over the years that when in a country where it’s unlikely that the police speak English, it’s best not to have my injection in a place that is in view of the public. So we pulled off the main highway and found a secluded spot up a side road. This also gave us an opportunity to drive through a small village, where we stopped in the hope of buying some dinner.

While struggling through our enquiry as to whether the chosen place of nutrition was able to provide us with a tagine, a local fellow who surprisingly could speak English, asked me if I could give him some money so he could fix his truck. When I politely declined his kind offer to let me help him financially he, while remaining quite polite, reminded me that I was from “the west” and was therefore rich. So helping him to fix his truck wouldn’t be much of an issue for me. I attempted to clarify for him that not all westerners were rich and that I didn’t have much money. Being obviously more worldly that I, he could not be convinced that I uttered the truth. So this interaction, combined with the news that the café did not serve tagines, meant that it was best for us to leave the village and rejoin the highway to Tangier.

We swapped drivers and kept driving into the night.

Suddenly Nick slammed on the brakes, briefly putting the car into a skid. Then he swung into the right lane and rocketed past a small truck that was stopped in the middle lane without any lights showing at all. Phew, that was close.

At one point at about 10 o’clock we stopped at a 24 hour truck stop to have a cup of coffee and a rest from the road. I was checking out the hugely expensive map that I’d bought at the airport and wondered why on the map “Morocco” in Arabic was called “Marob”. I can’t speak Arabic, but I am able to read it. Being a phonetic language helps. I asked the young fellow behind the counter why this was so and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He told us in reasonable English that in Arabic their country is called “Maroc”, but in writing it is spelled “Marob”. He said that he didn’t know why this was so.

The highway continued on past Casablanca, where there was a lot of road work being done and the travelling was slow. Then we continued north towards Tangier until eventually, after a very interesting day of ups and downs, we needed to stop for a sleep. So we pulled off onto a side road, found a spot with a reasonable amount of privacy and set ourselves up for the night.

Now don’t forget that we were in a 1.2 litre car with a back seat covered with bags of food and water. There was not a lot of room in this car to stretch out and get comfortable, so this ended up being the most uncomfortable night I have ever spent. It was even more uncomfortable than the night I spent on a rock at Wilsons Prom during my training for this whole adventure. That was luxury compared to what we endured during this night in the car.

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