Features: The Road to Meknes

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Arriving in Ceuta is a hassle free process; still part of Spain there is none of the bureaucracy to face just yet.

Armed with Chris Scott's 'Sahara Overland' (ISBN 1 873756 26 7, Sahara Overland) we took to a shady back street to prepare for the Morocco border.

Sitting back, everyone fed and watered attention was turned to the border crossing procedure. Detailed in the book step by step, we gathered together all the relevant information and set off for Morocco. Full of apprehension from my two previous experiences here the dreaded time had come.

We had been advised to collect a white landing card on the boat but these were nowhere to be seen. The Spanish waived us through to no-man's land where we were met by a procession of people waiving us down officially with white forms, our book advised us to ignore and proceed. Once inside the haven of the Moroccan border post an uniformed person guided us into a parking space. The sun was high; the day was getting hot.

I jumped out fully prepared and marched over to the first passport window. A couple of sleepy touts half heartedly offered their assistance but did not push it any further. Morocco is two hours behind Spain so we were here in the early morning.

The only white forms I could see were in the window of the passport office, so I waited patiently until I caught someone's eye and asked for a couple. I started chatting to three English chaps at the border whilst waiting in the passport queue. They were on a day's shore leave from a sailing course in Gibraltar. They had paid for their cards on the lead up to the border and were already under the watchful eye of Ahmed. A taxi was arranged to take them to Tetouan and ensure a most hospitable stay. I warned them of what lay ahead, probably the best carpet Salesmen in the world and to enjoy the experience but don't part with any money.

First the passports - one window, then change money - only one Bank to choose from (Dirhams are not available outside Morocco and no black market exists as the official exchange rate is close to the actual), then the temporary import document for the car. This is where I saw the true chaos, these days the Moroccan and tourist border crossings are separated, good for us tourists. On the Moroccan side amidst the throng every trick was being tried to sneak through. A half hearted attempt by border guards to stop people clambering over the concrete wall and up the hill, the occasional bag thrown over the wall to an awaiting accomplice. At window No.2 I was given a form to fill out. I was beginning to get a little hassle so retreated to the confines of Bumble to complete the form. Back to window No.2 to hand in the form, duly stamped and back to purchase third party insurance. A 10-minute wait while the form is laboriously typed out. There seems to be a flat rate regardless of your vehicle age/type etc, Dr 850 about £55 for one month.

Now with all the paperwork complete it was back to the border for a vehicle inspection. The Policeman was not impressed by Chaka who had to be removed to a safe distance; the fridge caught his attention then the GPS. Try explaining what a GPS is to someone who has never heard of one or knows of its existence. I managed to persuade him that it was not a mobile phone or a CB with which he was happy. He disappeared into his doorway and appeared two minutes later with our 6 month temporary import permit which was snatched by a mischievous character, basted with glue and stuck on the inside of our windscreen followed swiftly by a hand in search of payment for the service. I planted PTS 100 in his hand which remained firmly in place for more, another PTS100 and that was it. Grudgingly he retreated after a more lucrative prey. We saddled up and moved forward to see what the rest of Morocco had in store for us. (Insist on a stronger glue, our's fell off after a week and is now held in place with brown parcel tape.)

The whole process from start to finish had taken little over an hour. There are guides hanging around waiting to assist but with the help of Sahara Overland we felt competent enough to give it a go on our own.

I had crossed this border twice before, both times on foot, the first whilst hitching in my gap year across the Sahara. Ceuta/Tetouan was my first introduction to Africa in 1986, at the tender age of 18 I was not prepared for it. After the horrendous experience in Tetouan, hustlers in your face, every one after a piece of you, intimidating carpet Salesman, death threats, I spent the next three sleepless nights racing through to Algeria where things quietened down. Not put off by this experience I returned 18 months later, was subjected to the same mayhem but managed to enjoy some of Morocco.

In the mid 90's Morocco outlawed 'False Guides' making it an imprisonable offence. This has gone a long way to calming down the hassles of old. However with such high unemployment there is still evidence around the big tourist attractions, a few firm 'No's' seems to do the trick, after all it is their head on the block and plain clothes Policeman patrol the areas. We have found shopkeepers and Parking attendants also very good at shooing away-unwanted attention.

Waived through the barrier we were enveloped in chaos, thousands of people, hundreds of taxis and everyone after something. We were persistent in our progress emerging the other side in one piece. A little daunted by Morocco we opted to by-pass Tetouan and make Meknes in the day, only 258 km.

Police checks every few kilometres before Tetouan waived us through; we hung a right following the signs to Chefchaouen. Sue has slowly been developing her map reading skills and directions. After 20 km it appeared we were on the wrong road so had to do an about turn and head back. We made steady progress up the Rif Mountains, Chaka clinging to the fridge whilst hanging his head out the window and we resisted using the air-conditioning until we really needed it. Just before Chefchaouen we parked in an isolated spot for a break. Chaka dug himself a cool hole under Bumble whilst Sue and I sat in the shade.

Before we started off again Sue headed into the bushes, she only got 5 paces when she discovered we had company, our isolated spot was not so isolated, we had an audience. The gentleman offered us his hospitality, inviting us to his home in the mountains where we could sit down and share some kif. When we liked it we could go back to England and tell all our friends to visit him. A simple plan on his behalf but he took some persuading that we weren't interested. Eventually he left without incident.

Onward and upward, over the Rif Mountains and down the other side. The temperatures were rising and we eventually conceded to the air conditioning, a welcome relief. The temperature continued to rise so the air-conditioning was set to 2, five minutes later nothing, without warning it all stopped.

We arrived at Meknes at 6 p.m.; it was still 36 deg. C in the twilight, and nearly 40 deg. C inside Bumble. We drove around looking for a phone heading in the general direction of the station, which alas we never seemed to end up at. The next landmark was the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) which we had passed a couple of times. By 7 p.m. we parked up and leapt out into the relative cool.

The phones outside the tourist office were card phones, the phones in the foyer of the Western Union office would not accept my coins and I eventually found a 'Teleboutique' with change. Our contact Mike Cloud was not due back until 9 p.m., but I managed to leave a message on his mobile.

We sat and waited, walking Chaka around the square, sharing a Coke and an ice cream until just past 9 when I tried Mike again. He was in, would we like to stay and he would be with us in 10 minutes.

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