Our farewell to Northern Africa in Algeria and Morocco

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Africa » Morocco
November 26th 1974
Published: October 9th 2021
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We had a really memorable couple of bus trips that afternoon, taking 5 hours for the 150kms. The first, to the Tunisia-Algeria border at Bou Chebka, had several social stops, two mechanical breakdowns, and even an embarrassing pee stop for Joan. No hassles at the border, but it was a freezing walk over no-man’s land and about 30 minutes of business at the other end. The second bus was literally on its last legs, and took over an hour for the short trip into Tebessa. We checked into the Hotel Theveste and borrowed money from the local cop for a meat stew dinner. That was followed by an early night of washing clothes and playing cards, but there was no chance of a bath, with the whole bathroom under water!

A late start next morning gave us enough time to have breakfast and check out what an uninspiring place Tebessa was, before making it back to the bus stop for the 1pm bus to Constantine. Our failure to put our watches back an hour from Tunisia punished us by giving us an extra hour’s wait in the hot sun. The bus trip took over 3 hours, passing through barren countryside, either rocky or dirt and with few trees, along with some mountainous areas. Constantine looked pretty ordinary too, although the main fascination was a giant ravine which in effect split the city into two sections. We had 5 hours to spare for douches, dinner (with an Atrek bus crowd) and conversation for a couple of hours with French-Canadian Pierre. We then took the 10pm train to El Harrach, which was just short of Algiers. We booked in the overnight 2nd class carriage without sleepers, and unfortunately the carriage was quite crowded, but people were at least quite civilised and fairly quiet during the night. It was really cold in the compartment without any form of heating, but we managed to score a typical ‘sit-up’ sleep of a few hours each.

The story of today’s trans-Algerian train trip was one of multiple stuff-ups. Our arrival at El Harrach at 7.30am was almost 2 hours late, meaning we had missed our connection to Oran. We then had to take a bus into Algiers, after being told there were no trains at all due to a derailment. We had breakfast of an omelette and bread with a local conman, who spent most of the meal trying to sell us the world, before catching the 10am train to Oran. It was a different story this time. We transferred first to a bus for 15 minutes to cover the derailment, and then to a lighter train on account of a suspect bridge. These then resulted in our missing our Oujda connection. Instead, we caught a train an hour later direct to Tlemcen, arriving around 8.30pm. The scenery was pretty unspectacular, although the weather was sunny and warm. We were pleasantly surprised with the civilised and quiet set of locals that we shared the train with. The trip was particularly memorable for the friendly Omar Shariff lookalike who mistook Joan's friendly offer of a single cigarette and took off with the whole packet of very rare western fags, which cost around ten times the cost of local smokes in Algeria. We had huge hassles getting a room at Tlemcen, finally getting a pad at the last of 9 hotels in town, the Hotel Le Riad, where we ended up getting a great room for only 12 Da (3 bucks). As an extra bonus, we were invited to the home of the manager for a dinner of eggs, salad & clementines. After some limited French conversation, he drove us back to the hotel for an early night.

We had a rude awakening at 5am next morning to see if we could get through to Oujda for the 8am train to Fes in Morocco. We finally got a bus an hour later, but an almost 2-hour windy road trip through the mountains killed any thoughts of making the connection. The border stops on each side were a bit of a hassle – not so much for any particular reason, except that on neither side were they in any hurry. We had a bit of a fight changing back Algerian Dinars and finally had to settle for French Francs. We managed to hitch a ride into Oujda with a brand new BMW, arriving around 10am for breakfast, but then spent an unsuccessful hour, along with several others, hitching in the hot sun on the Fes road. We finally made it back to town for a set price lunch, with service so slow we only got half (and only paid for half) before having to take off in a mad rush to the station for the 1pm train to Fes. Third class hard seats and an 8-hour journey didn’t make for a particularly comfortable afternoon. The scenery was pretty barren and generally uninteresting. The carriage filled up later in the trip, and half the carriage, including the conductor, were stoned out of their brains on hash by the time we reached Fes. A local guy directed us to the Hotel du Commerce at 15 Dh (also 3 bucks) double. Our endeavours to chase up a restaurant were unsuccessful, and we finally settled for a meal of cake, fruit and yoghurt before crashing around 11pm.

We had a frustrating run around town next morning, with no joy from the local tourist bureau (they couldn’t even provide a map of Fes), a fight over Poste Restante, banks closed, and no aerogrammes available. It was virtually wasted, except that we got a glimpse of the new city, not that that was very inspiring. We then took in a visit to the Bain Moderne to get our bodies into good shape. We had a pretty scrappy lunch of bread and meat before strolling around the medina. There was very little activity as most shops were closed and boarded up, but we were thoroughly pestered by small boys wanting to guide us around the medina, for payment of course. The only real interest was watching the men dye cotton and the purchase of a blanket each for total 70 Dh. We got ourselves thoroughly lost getting out of the medina, but that at least gave us a good chance to look around. Late afternoon we rested up in the hotel before taking off for a great meal of steak, chips and salad, as well as picking up provisions for tomorrow’s bus.

We had another rude 5am awakening to catch the 6am bus to Tetouan, with the bus stop fortunately being next door to the hotel. We got a shock when we later found ourselves in Meknes, but it seemed this was just another Moroccan deviation. The road was pretty mountainous most of the way, but there was increased vegetation as we travelled north. A couple of hours of fog made it pretty cold, as it blocked out an otherwise clear, sunny day. We finally reached Tetouan around 2pm and managed to catch a bus an hour later for Ceuta, which is a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa.

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10th October 2021

You story of bad experiences is the reason I avoid going to dangerous, undeveloped countries...
without being in a tour group.
10th October 2021

Bad experiences
I don't disagree, Bob, but to some degree it is a risk/reward thing. There is no doubt that travelling in a group gives you a greater degree of safety, and usually some pleasant like minded company, but the downsides can be that every now and again you get someone (or more) in the group that drives everyone crazy, and also to some degree you get a more sanitised view of some of these culturally diverse countries. Some of my best travel experiences have occurred while travelling solo (or just with Joan), two that come to mind from 1974 being the homestay we had with a Tunisian family in the Sahara and also the 6 weeks or so that I left Bob and the Kombi in Europe and teamed up to travel with some great people during that period. But there is no doubt that as you get older, your appetite for risk diminishes considerably.
10th October 2021
Dyeing pits in Fes

Morocco is one of our favorites
Rich in history and amazing scenery this country has so much to offer. Thanks for the memories. Great blogs.

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