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Africa » Morocco
December 12th 2007
Published: December 22nd 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

Crossing the StraitsCrossing the StraitsCrossing the Straits

Our last view of Gibraltar and Europe as we crossed over to Ceuta in North Africa on the fast ferry.
Our next stop after Gibraltar was technically North Africa, but still not exactly Morocco: the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Ceuta is a vestigial holdover from the time that Spain claimed all of northern Morocco as a colonial possession (dividing the imperial spoils with the French) but only Ceuta, Melilla and a few insignificant Mediterranean rock outcrops are left. Ceuta and Melilla are close analogues of Gibraltar, foreign enclaves isolated on strategic peninsulas, and their retention by Spain make its perennial demands for the return of Gibraltar ring ironically hollow.

Nominally, we chose Ceuta as our next destination because it allowed us to bypass Tangier, whose notorious reputation as a European day-tripper's hellhole put us off (think: African Tijuana), and because we could then start our tour of Morocco by cycling along the Mediterranean coast, eventually turning west and climbing up into the Rif to get a taste of Berber mountain experience. An unspoken reason for choosing Ceuta was to hang onto what little bit of European familiarity and creature comforts we could before plunging into a completely new culture with unknown customs and language.

To cross the Straits of Gibraltar, we rode a 20km GPS-navigated route around the bay
Medieval walls of CeutaMedieval walls of CeutaMedieval walls of Ceuta

These walls in their turn protected Spanish, Portuguese and Berber conquerers.
to Algeciras, and managed to catch one of the fast (but not cheap, at E35) ferries to Ceuta with only a 15 minute wait. After boarding we barely had time to scarf our lunch and catch a last glimpse of Gibraltar before the ferry pulled in and disgorged us rather perfunctorily (without border controls, of course, since we're still "in Spain") onto the streets of Ceuta. The North African influence was immediately obvious as we rolled through the medieval city gates: the normally reserved Spanish, from whom we typically get the barest of acknowledgements when we arrive in town, were here supplemented by grinnng Moroccans leaning out of car windows and giving us the universal "thumbs up" sign of approval when they saw us negotiating the narrow streets on our loaded bikes. We ended up spending several days in Ceuta, giving us time to see the ancient fortress walls and Ceuta's fabulous waterfront "maritime park" with its artificial swimming lagoons, waterfalls, casino and immaculate landscaping. We also had time to do some route planning, laundry and even hang out a bit at the beach - great sunny weather for working up a little tan, but still too frigid in the
Sunset over MoroccoSunset over MoroccoSunset over Morocco

Az seen from across the bay in Ceuta, Spain
Mediterranean bay water (and, frankly, too trashy) for more than a toe-dip.

Not brave enough to cycle through Tangier but not wanting to miss it completely, we signed up for a day-long guided minibus tour (?30, including lunch) that took us on a 200km loop from Ceuta through Tetuan and Tangier. Pretty touristy, it featured the requisite kickback-fueled visits to the roadside camel jockeys (photos ?1), the Tetuan carpet-sellers (strenuously and successfully resisted) the Berber botanicals shop and the cavernous Moroccan restaurant where our little group, serenaded by excellent Moroccan musicians, comprised the only customers. The sprawling, labrynthine Tetuan souk (market) was the sensory assault we expected, and the sights and smells flashed me back to my first real experience of 3rd-world marketplaces in Oaxaca some 35 years ago. While touristy, we both admitted that being led by the hand through the Tetuan souk and being ignored by the locals on the streets of Tangier did alot to dispel the notion that we were about to land on some hostile, alien planet where the entire gibberish-spouting, pocket-picking populace was lying in wait for us (though riding in the minibus we did get a couple of sobering previews of what
Lunch with the tourists in TangierLunch with the tourists in TangierLunch with the tourists in Tangier

We wimped out on riding through Tangier and took a guided minibus tour with all the trimmings instead
might be in store for us in our encounters with Moroccan drivers.)

Back in Ceuta, we finally loaded up the bikes early one morning and headed 5km south of town to the frontier. It's a busy, chaotic crossing point for auto traffic, but, the anti-smuggling razor-wire and guard towers notwithstanding, getting across the border with the bikes was only moderately time-consuming with no complicated declarations nor pointed questions about our possessions or destinations. The real hassle occurred just 100m south of the border control point when a bracket attaching the rear rack to Kate's bike - one of the few parts that hadn't recieved an upgrade back in Boulder - spontaneously disintegrated, leaving her panniers dragging on the ground. We hauled the bikes up onto an island in the center of a traffic circle and the next hour was spent sawing rusted bolts off of what was left of the broken bracket and reattaching the rack to the seatpost clamp.

The rest of our afternoon's flat ride to the beach town of Martil was uneventful, though finding a hotel for the night was tricky due to the dearth of possibilities and the guidebook's misnaming of the only decent
Roadside repairs in Morocco Roadside repairs in Morocco Roadside repairs in Morocco

We'd barely crossed the border when Kate's rack gave up the ghost; an hour with the nut driver and mini-hacksaw and we were on our way.
option. Since Ceuta, the TomTom GPS has gone dark since its "European" map database ends at the Spanish frontier, and since there don't seem to be any other commercial digital mapping products that cover Morocco we're back to navigating by our wits.

Martil was a wierd ghostly place, chock full of unoccupied and/or unfinished beachside apartment complexes, and we were happy to get out of town and start cycling south along the coast, bypassing Tetuan, to our next destination of Oued Laou. The ride started flat with a tailwind but after 20km turned into what seemed an infinitely repeating set of 150m climbs and decents over steep coastal bluffs. We arrived exhausted in Oued Laou, and this time the guidebook accurately led us to the only hotel in town, very basic but enlivened by the kif-inspired hospitality and culinary skills of the two young men running it. The next day's ride, turning away from the coast and ascending west into the Rif mountains to the city of Chefchaouen at 600m, started badly with a 30km/hr headwind and got worse, with every hard-won granny-geared gain in altitude seemingly nullified by a heart-rending descent. There must have been some net gain,
Mediterranean coastal roadMediterranean coastal roadMediterranean coastal road

Between Martil and Oued Laou. Started out flat with a tailwind...
though, because we finally arrived at the main Tetuan highway for our final 150m push straight up to Chefchaouen, where we treated ourselves to a nice room with attached bath at the Hotel Madrid, just steps from the kasbah (ancient Islamic palace). After a few days chilling out in Chefchaouen we'll be heading further west - hopefully down hill again, towards the Atlantic coast.

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Kate on the way to ChefchauenKate on the way to Chefchauen
Kate on the way to Chefchauen

Our toughest day of climbing so far.
Road to ChefchaouenRoad to Chefchaouen
Road to Chefchaouen

Up up up, the road took us through this dramatic gorge.


4th March 2008

I have now been there, done that!
Hey guys, sorry it took so long to get a message off to you, but acclimating back into Californiaocity took longer than I thought it would. Dan and I talked of you all and how much we enjoyed our all too brief talks. We were glad to finally get home and into other people's company, if only because we had begun to say the same thing at the same time in a given situation, and it was just a little too spooky, especially for me to relaise I was beginning to think like Dan! Now he may say the same about beginning to think like me, but as I'm sure you are aware after having met him, I would be at the biggest disadvantage in that situation. Actually, we are still chums, mates, buds, and all that after three weeks' travel together, the last of which was in a car with no one else around, so I think our friendship did rather well. I noticed you didn't write anything about Chefchouen itself and understand. Frankly, while the drive there was really cool-how about that orange suspension bridge; we were hesitant to drive the car over it, but did so without mishap, obviously-the village itself underwhelmed us. Having read the LPG, we were anticipating something very beautiful and cool to behold, and that was not what we saw. We stopped at one point to take a phot of some goats climbing into a tree to get access to some particularly tender leaves, and suddenly, the goatherd came running at us yelling and waving his arms. I knew there was an etiquette in not taking a human's photo without first getting their permission, but id not realise it pertained to goats as well! We got stopped by the gendarmes three times in one day with Dan at the helm, as it were, and thankfully I am able to be obsequious in French as well as English, as was able to schmooze our way out of a ticket. Dan passed on a solid line twice and failed to stop properly at a check point. Of course, everyone else was passing on the solid line as well but they knew when the checkpoint was coming and restrained themselves as they drew near to the place, and we also failed to stop fully at the one place because there was so much over-writing on the bloody sign it was rendered illegible to my eye, at least. We also got yelled at by a soldier at a dam when we stopped downstream to take a phot of the river, which I explained enough for his satisfaction, but we had taken a photo of the thing upstream unbeknownst to him, and plan to sell it to someone who is interested blowing the thing up, as soon as we figure out who the hell that might be. Our favourite town ended up being Asilah, south of Tanger, where we spent a couple of days just relaxing and walking along the breakwater and eating paella. It was a good prelude to the flight home. Dan promises that he will soon send the photos he took of you all and of us together and I will forward them on to you. Did you end up heading across the pass through the Atlas to Zagora? Did you get enough deisel fumes on the trip? Drop a line when you get a chance! David

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