Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Cirque Des Fées Episode 11: Flight from the Sahara

Flame begins:
The sun rose behind a grey blanket and the desert was bathed in shadowy rays as I woke in my tent. The humble fabric creaked above me, held by ancient branches that had moved from site to site with the Touraeg tribe. Many years had these same woven awnings, these same wooden limbs been packed upon a camel and hauled from place to place. A thousand sunrises they had seen, pitched by a thousand different dunes, in the shifting Sahara sands. I could only hope my own life would last that long. It might be equally as many sunrises before I saw my beloved homeland again. Yesterday after a long trek, through Erg Chebbi – the largest sand dune in the world, we had paused at an Oasis at midday to seek respite from the violent sun. It will be the last desert Oasis I will set my eyes upon for an aeon, as I must flee. Pursued by cutthroats and vagabonds my loyal serving boy and I are heading to the hills.

The Desert Fire Princess

Holi and our guide, Mohammed had readied our faithful camels and were waiting by the remains of last night’s fire. The morning was eerily still and as we boarded our ‘ships of the sand’ a light rain began to fall. How rare to see the sky so ominous, and water stain the ochre waves like the shedding of tears. Used to blistering heat, blinding stand storms and dry mouths,
my serving boy and I were unprepared for this moisture. We soon were wet to the skin, but I continued to retain my poise. Princess I was, and Queen I will be despite our current expulsion. With the rain an outward mirror to my breaking heart I poured over our new course of action.
After my father’s death the ancient Sahara Kingdom of Berbershana became fraught with war. My uncle had long desired to rule, and had been assembling an army in secret. It was on the morn of my adornment that we were attacked. My men were of course dressed for festival and ceremony, they had little chance to reach more appropriate weapons. It was an absolute massacre of which I can’t bare to tell. I leave a road paved in blood behind me, heroes who’ve sacrificed themselves for mine and Holi’s escape. You see – Holi, my mere severing boy, is our only hope. He has shown rare talent in the Mage arts. We go now far, far into the lonely hills to seek my half sister, Fatima Ou’ Djinn the enchantress. If Holi can learn the spells of the dead, and so summon the fabled otherworld army of the Sahara then shall my Kingdom be returned. At what dark price I know not – for tampering with these sullen arts means a pact with the very Devil himself. But I am willing to pay it.

Our trek through the Shifting Sands

Oli continues:
Back in the ‘real’ world, the Desert Fire Princess needed a beautiful gown to wear to go the Faery Ball. Proof, if any is needed that Life most definitely imitates Art. She and her long-suffering and ever-humble serving boy had scoured all of Morocco for the finest tailor and after many months of searching had tracked down the most excellent establishment in all the land. The only problem being that they it was one they had found several months earlier when passing briefly through a town on the other side of the country; it was only by comparison that they had come to realise that there was no equal. So for two days and two nights, they voyaged across deserts and mountains in their trusty Battlebeast, sleeping just briefly by the side of a great lake and only getting hopelessly lost in the town of Ouzarzate for about an hour and a half, until finally they came to the ancient walled city of Taroudannt.

The Faithful Serving Boy (soon to be Mage)

Now, I generally don’t believe in stereotypes, I like to imagine that everybody is different, at least to some extent. Morocco has seriously challenged my belief in that. There are only five people who live in Morocco, endlessly recycling themselves in every place you go to. Three of them are called Mohammed. The other two are called Abdul and Ali. All of them are men. I can’t comment on the women because none of them would speak to us, so perhaps there is a greater variety in their names and personalities which they are too modest to display to foreigners. However, it is equally possible that in the Great Stage Show that is Morocco, the characters who appear to be women are just one of the three Mohammeds, Abdul or Ali wearing a burka. Who knows? Of these five men, two are in their forties with a natty moustache, a big belly and a daughter called Fatima. The other three are all in their mid-twenties, very slim, two have a short back-and-sides and wear traditional Moroccan garb with jeans underneath. Both like Western music as long as it is by Bob Marley. The third has a John Travolta slicked-back job and is decked out in a muscle-shirt. All five of them have only three topics of conversation; Morocco – “It is good, yes?”, the fact they are Berber and so like to spend as much of the day as possible sitting around doing nothing but drink sugary mint tea and smoke, and how Moroccan people like to have much bigger houses than Europeans. This last misconception seems to stem from the fact that their houses are much bigger than our van and since quite a lot of Europeans also come to Morocco in vans, the myth has emerged that this is the typical sort of size for a European house.
So, the Princess and her faithful page boy were pleasantly surprised when they arrived at the tailors and were befriended by two salesmen called ‘Fareed’ (Fred) and ‘Brahim’ (Abraham). Yes they looked the part, both of them tending towards the oil-tanker-disaster-on-the ir-quiff look (and it turned out later that Fred had a baby daughter called Fatima), but having driven a filthy-hard bargain with our heroine and her esteemed sidekick, they duly invited them out for coffee with their friends. Here they found themselves in the company of a beatnik rabble of dreaklocked musicians (still called Abdul or Mohammed) in a café where they played Eye of the Tiger on the sound system and the guys complained about how hard it was to get a signed contract for a CD of Berber Reggae, which is actually not quite as bad as it sounds.

Tents of the Touraeg

The ball-gown was finished. The Princess was pleased and had rewarded her obsequious minion with a new pair of pointy slippers to replace the ones he had worn until they fell apart at the seams. It was time for the trusty pair to drive North again. Once more over the high peaks of the Atlas, past the hustling bustle of Marrakech, over the dry plains to the dingy Mediterranean port of Tanger. There the exhausted duo discovered they had missed the last boat and slept the night in the Customs loading bay surrounded by honking trucks, confused tourists and sleazy con artists.
The next morning, bleary-eyed and jaded from their disturbed slumber it took all their combined cunning to board ship without having to pay ‘baksheesh’ to the corrupt Customs officials, but they managed to dispense not a Dirham, chiefly because the ravenous page boy had spent their very last coin buying dates the previous evening. Soon they were winging their way back to Europe; land of paved roads, supermarkets, safe drinking water and women who are permitted to speak. A land where an exiled princess and her ever-faithful servant might walk hand in hand down the pavement with ne’er a glance from passers-by. A chapter of the tale had ended, but the adventure was most certainly not over…

Cirque Des Fées Episode 10: The Boarder Run

Before I begin today’s spiffing wee Episode, my dears, let me first apologise for the lack of appropriate pictorials. It was rather unfortunate that in our unlimited kindness we loaned the camera to two slightly odd winged folk (Felicity & Muddlehead indeed!) and on it’s return Oliver and I were greatly perturbed to discover half the Sahara wedged in the lens. When I complained the greenish clad one was extremely uncouth… he turned and lowered his britches before vanishing in a puff of smoke. I was quite, quite shocked, I can tell you. The authorities have informed us we will be camera-less until we find the correct specialist in Barcelona, some many miles distant.

Your dear Aunt in the Sahara, my darlings

Nether-the-less we have been having an unsurpassably good time. The first official visitor to venture this way upon our gallant trip abroad was the honourable Mr Ralf Gey. Perhaps you’ve met? He is a right brick indeed! An octogenarian at present, the good old chap was in his late 70’s when we came across each other, himself just having taken up the positively frightful hobby of breakdancing. A ruffian’s occupation I do say. But it turned out the old codger was rather good. Of course you’ll keep that to yourself? I wouldn’t want there to be any smear on Mr Gey’s impeccable reputation. In any case Mr Gey arrived in our part of the globe in time to help with a difficult contemplation. Should we stay or should we depart? Our visa was to expire requiring us to return to the European mainland. Simple enough without accounting for weather. Spain at 17 degrees was worthy of distain. Mr Gey helped tally our 2 pence:

Morocco – Jolly Positive:
Sweltering Sunlight
Charming Scenery
Quaint Local Customs
A glorious amount of Sand

Morocco – A Tad Rum:
Inhabitants of low moral character – thieves, hustlers and vagabonds
Mid-night yodelling of a foreign religious nature (awakening one each night at 4am)
Basic commodities like fresh drinking water and nose powder vastly over priced
Leering local men with a fondness for ‘female circumcision’, What?
An abhorrent amount of Sand

The venerable Ralf Gey with one of the most charming Moroccan inhabitants I’ve been fortunate enough to meet – though he did try to bite!

Our dear friend Ralf, being a professor of mathematics, was able to point out what ought to have been apparent. “ Four in favour, five against, Kid”. Whatever would we do without him? There was nothing for it, after dropping the right honourable Mr Gey back at the Aerodrome, we began our next adventure. Mr Gey being my elected Chancellor of Vice ( myself Supreme World Empiress of course) I could only follow his parting words of advice “Sun outweighs the lot, Kid”. A visa run was called for – 700 treacherous miles fraught with danger, from slum ridden Marrakech to the loose morals and harlotry of the Spanish coast. All to retrieve a new stampette and return, so darling Oliver and I could partake of those golden rays.
Our first entanglement arose as we departed from a desperate city named Fez. Twas 40 miles hence when the road disappeared beneath bulldozers and a rusty canary coloured digging contraption. The roadway had been swept out by the torrential flood of some weeks past and still had not been reconstructed. We returned to Fez and again tested our luck on different roads three more times… but alas the floods had made each and every one impassable. My Oliver was foaming at the lip, his face beginning to boil with rage. “Buck up old chum” I said. “We’ll just have to drive 120 miles in the wrong direction, then we can take the Motorway directly to Tangier and the awaiting sailing vessels!” Tally-ho my darlings. 120 extra miles South West, not a spot of bother for an Englishmen abroad. We come from good fighting stock, you know. Adventure is in the blood.

Local geographical features and whatnot, my darlings

It was a ghastly time in the evening when we finally made it to the port of Tangier, through the subsequent X-Ray machines, and rows of jolly dull hatless bobbies. The motorvan was lined up nicely for the ramp on the ship when the inspector (a heathen man) pointed out we were missing a departure stamp. The bobbies had been useless as well at hatless! “I say – what?” queried Oliver, “ Blast and Damnation! And what time does the old girl leave port?”
“10 minutes hence” replied the rather seedy inspector.
So with a roaring that sent fumes of rubber into the still evening air I tore back through 5 terminals in the motorvan, skidding to a stop, while Oliver leapt out the side door faster than a pack of hounds. Even so the second hands seemed too fast in their daily progress as many minutes wizzed by before my handsome husband returned and panted “Don’t spare the horses, back to the terminal!” As I was saying we don’t have horses, but instead one of those new fangled automotors and I depressed the accelerator to the floor. After skirting several railway carriages we could see our target, she was still in port though the crew withdrawing her moorings.
“I’m sorry lass, she’s full to the brim now” the inspector grinned through his broken teeth.
“But we must make haste to Spain on this vessel!” I cried.
“Perhaps if you cross my palm with silver… 200 Durhams at least” said the Mongrel.
Oliver rummaged in his pockets producing two Dirhams, the equivalent of sixpence.
“Keep it”, the inspector snarled and motioned us forward. There were only 3 other automobiles on the rusty tub, and it could easily take 200! These African heathens and their backsheesh!

The Moroccan version of motorvans, a rather mishappen bunch of coots

Our troubles it seemed were not over, for the next morning, gallivanting about the Spanish port town of Algeciras a violent crashing sound brought me sharply from my reverie. It was my birthday and dreams of sugared plums and spotted dick had been dancing in my head. I awoke to find three angry looking Spaniards and a Policeman. Oliver had crunched the rear of our beloved motorvan into a rather less substantial auto. While we had lost our tail light coverings (I’ll silicon stick it together again later my darlings) the other vehicle was scratched and dented all down one side, with some mirrored pieces ripped off! Oh Oliver! What have you done? Twas a good thing I hadn’t seen the bill yet, as my birthday would already be without cake and custard. It turns out of course that venturing into Morocco invalidates our van insurance (What claptrap is this, surely European cover is European cover?) and we are now indebted to the crazy Spaniards the unwholesome sum of 845 Euros! Time to cut our losses and head back to the Sahara, I believe.
Gun the Engine Old Boy….. Tallyhoooooo!

And toodle pip to you lot, I’ll write again soon.

Much Much Love
Aunt Deirdre
English Explorer
Of the Heathen Lands

Oliver with his new friend – Jimi Hendrix, a well known resident

Cirque Des Fées Episode 9: The Great Flood

The coast of Africa. Wave shattered, sky scattered, star spattered. Raw elements at work. Wind and water carving this Northern shore of the Unknown Continent. Thunderstorms, headwinds and occasional hail forcing us to stay inside the van with our dwindling supply of decent literature and clean undies. It was time to head inland.
If you want to see ‘interesting desert’ you don’t go South, you go East. Over the Atlas Mountains and down the Draa Valley to the oases and sand dunes of Zagora. So that is what we planned to do. Little did we know that the eight hour drive, which we planned to split over two days, would take nearly a fortnight! We had barely driven 20km before we hit a traffic jam. “A traffic jam?” I hear you people back in the UK say. “That is hardly a sufficiently interesting occurrence to merit mentioning!” Well, in Morocco, especially on a rural highway where you usually expect to see about a dozen cars an hour, a traffic jam means Something. Perhaps a jacknifed lorry and two thousand gallons of diesel all over the road. This jam was so long we couldn’t see to the front of the queue. It must have been building up all day. After an hour, some army dudes turned up and started yelling at everyone. So we all started moving towards Goodness-Knows-What, queue-jumping on the wrong side of the road or in the ditch in the race to the front as one does in this road-rule-foresaken place. And then we saw what was holding us up. The little town ahead was completely under water. Where the two-lane highway had been was a river. Still, never let a bit of water stop anything. Through we went, and after about a kilometre and a half, the road looked like a road again, though the water was rushing in a torrent down a brand new channel which it had carved for itself, five foot deep on either side.

In Agadir, everything was a mess. The river, usually a patchy trickle at the bottom of a waterway 10 metres deep, had burst its banks. Houses on the sides had been all but swept away. It transpired that we had been living through the heaviest rainfall on record in Morocco, ever. Pants. It had taken us so long to get this far that we didn’t want to risk going on just yet. Driving in the dark over potentially flooded country seemed like an idea too dumb even for us. We stopped in the supermarket car park to gather our thoughts and there was a knock on the door. Usually this heralds some kid trying to scrounge sweets so we ignored it. But a face pressed against the window and we recognised Jo and Ajaa; two complete reprobates from Cornwall who we have bumped into occasionally as they drink, smoke and surf their way along the Atlantic coast in a graffitied yellow van with a busted starter battery. We were pretty surprised to see them standing there; not because their presence was exactly unexpected but mostly because it was the first time we had seen them capable of standing. They had a new recruit with them, Louie, aka Luigi, aka Rentboy who apparently had the dubious honour of sleeping on the remaining available patch of floor beneath the leaky hole in the roof. Anyway, they convinced us to go back with them to a quiet spot on the cliffs north of Agadir and to set off the next day.

Well, nearly a week later we were still there on the cliff. Not for want of trying to leave. But first a bridge collapsed, then all the roads closed because they were flooded. Then when the water level went down it became clear that there wasn’t much tarmac left anywhere. So there we stayed and there we got mashed. Let’s be honest, there was nothing else to do. Flame had a cunning plan and, as the only girl, engineered a game of dares which somehow ended up with me licking Nutella off Ajaa’s nipples, Jo describing in unnecessary detail an explicit sexual fantasy involving himself onstage with Shania Twain’s backside during one of her concerts and Louie and Ajaa being covered in toothpaste and shower gel before ‘bodysliding’ each other. Tasty. Sadly no photographic evidence was taken. We sincerely apologise for this lapse.
We were going out of our minds. We had to escape. All the socks were gone. We had read all our books. It was still raining. We heard a rumour that a small country road parallel to the highway inland was open so we chanced it and went.

As you drive inland, the scenery changes. The lush, wide fields of the Souss valley become stonier, the road climbs, the trees thin. Up, up, up into the high chain of the Atlas where occasional goatherds wave from the ridges above the road and there is a café. Yes, just one café, the only indication of civilisation between two towns 150km apart on either side of a high pass. The desiccated carcass of a goat was the café’s only customer. We decided to play conservative and make our own tea in the van.

All the towns begin with ‘T’; Taroudant, Talioune, Tazenakht; each a little smaller and dustier than the last. Then the highway splits and becomes a one-lane-with-a-bit-of-dirt-on-each-side-so-you-can-swerve-out-the-way-of-oncoming-traffic sort of road. Somewhere in the middle of the hills there is an open-cast mine where copper and cobalt are extracted. The rocks all around have a greenish tinge. We stopped for a moment by the side of the road to make some popcorn and wonder at the little ramshackle of houses clinging to the mountainside. As usual, within a moment, some young guys came up out of nowhere and started chatting with Flame. They seemed friendly enough and we shared out popcorn with them. So, as hospitality dictates, one of them invited us to his house for tea. We scrambled down the hillside with our new friend Ali to meet his mother and father and various goats, chickens and other assorted relatives. Flame immediately fell completely in love with his mother who grinned constantly (except when having her photo taken, dammit!) so that you could see both her teeth. We were duly invited to stay the night and come down the valley to meet the other rellies.

Ali, it turned out, was quite an enterprising guy. At 21 years old, he had already left home once to work in the big city. He had been a chauffer with his brother in Tiznit and had worked in Rabat for a while too. However, he didn’t like the stress of the city and had chosen to return to his home village where he could work in the mine for decent pay and had established a large vegetable plot and some date palms by the side of the river in the valley near his cousin’s house. Now these guys really lived in the middle of nowhere. We had to drive two km down a bumpy dirt track, then park on a cliff-top, scale our way down and then walk along the river a little way to reach their ‘village’. There was a total of two houses in the village, I know because I counted them carefully. Only on closer inspection though, one turned out to be a shed for the donkey. The villagers were all Ali’s family, a matriarchal consortium stemming from wizened, blind Grandma through half a dozen sisters to a gaggle of kids.

Back at Ali’s house we discovered his ulterior motive in growing date palms in his garden. Once his mother was out the way, he surreptiously pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with something that sure-as-hell weren’t water. It was home-brewed date liquor which he and his cousin made in a secret shed in the mines. Just being in the same room as the stuff was enough to make you start seeing double. His cousin turned up to help us get though it. So ensued a raucous evening of my terrible guitar-playing, Ali’s even worse guitar playing – he was adamant that he was singing genuine traditional Berber songs but we severely doubted it – and Flame bravely trying to dance along. The next morning we made our woozy goodbyes amid a storm of protests that we should stay longer. We gave Ali a hat and an old ring as a leaving gift and he returned with a small mountain of crystals he had found in the mine and insisted we took them.
Eventually we were back on the road. The peaks softened, the gorges widened and before we knew it we were in a wide, sandy basin with a river and palm trees all along. The Draa Valley, gateway to the desert. Before us, the Sahara beckoned.

Cirque des Fées Episode 8: Imaginary Menagerie Managers

Animals are everywhere in Morocco. Dead ones are easily spotted; scorpions on keychains, fang-toothed eels stretched out at fish markets, the head of a honey badger hanging from the ceiling at an apocathery shop. The abundance of such sights has both horrified us and yet reassured us with the knowledge that at least these animals are alive in the wild in sufficient numbers that they can be found in the souks of every small town we pass. Their living counterparts are naturally harder to spot. The most exciting critter we have seen was a Short-Eared Owl (I think) watching us in broad daylight from a nearby tree.
And bugs. Bugs, everywhere. The van is abuzz with flies. Van flies, as opposed to house flies. These transient little monsties hang around at lonely camp sites and cliff tops watching and waiting for a friendly van-hold to adopt them. The earth crawls with ants and beetles. I can only assume that the Moroccans have either been to wise or too poor to smother their land with DDT and other gruesome pesticides, as we so tragically did in the UK.

I’m about to start on a rant now, sorry. But there will be a really cute story about a baby goat soon.
It is the domestic animals that have really struck a chord with us the most. In a wealthy European city, it is easy to imagine that Humankind strode their solitary path of social evolution by sheer determination and ingenuity. Here, it is quickly apparent that, actually, people rode there on the back of a donkey. Or a horse, or a camel using a dog to help them round up the goats and sheep they depend upon for survival.

Working animals are the backbone of Civilisation and many bear the brunt of the struggle. We are often angered by the sight of a tired, underfed mule struggling along a road carrying heavy packs, especially if their master is riding them to boot. We have since come to understand that often the people are doing their best to look after their animals, but are just as tired and underfed themselves. That excuses some, but not all, the cases we have witnessed. Sadly, some people are just cruel and have little time for the creatures they exploit. In the West, if you’re not an ‘animal person’ it is easy to have nothing to do with them. Here, if you can’t afford a car (and most people can’t) you get a donkey, whether you like them or not.

Right, social commentary over. On with the nice stories about cute animals we have met. The best one was definitely the baby goat. One happy lunchtime when we were sunning ourselves by the van with our awning up (thanks Kevin – awning works like a dream!), listening to The Pixies, Flame looked up from her book.
“Goats, Holi! Goats!” she cried in delight.
Indeed, three knock-kneed goats were wandering across the little plateau we were parked at, ears flopping. Then three more. Then about thirty of them appeared over the brow of the ridge all at once accompanied by the goat-herd-ess. They strolled about happily eating all the shrubs, leftover bits of dinner, car tyres and all those things that goats love best. Then…
“Oh, wow!” Flame exclaimed. “Oh, wow!”

Oh, wow indeed. As the goat-herd-ess came closer we saw what she was carrying; a new-born baby goat. Absolutely brand new. The umbilical cord was still attached and I think that the extraordinary Berber woman who handed us her precious cargo for a hug was trying to tell us that the little tyke had just been born that morning. She only spoke Berber, not even Arabic let alone French or English, so I’m not too sure, but I think that is what she was saying. The mother goat was apparently rejecting her offspring and so the kid would have to be hand-reared, was the gist of the scenario. Poor fing. How could anyone reject anything that cute? Well we certainly weren’t going to. So as to prolong the time we could hug it, we made the goatherdess some popcorn and sat with her on a rock and helped her crack Argan nuts which she had collected to grind up for oil. The happy ending came when the kid’s mother turned up and, after a little coaxing, allowed it to suckle. My thoughts are always with that goat, I hope its mother came to love it after all.
Then there was the time we were woken before dawn by what we thought was a car alarm. But it wasn’t. It was a donkey with a very wiffly nose who had been parked by our van. Flame was quick off the mark with carrots, apples and cabbage to make friends with him. Donkey stayed with us all morning and then wandered off of his own volition.

The very same day, we were driving down towards the beach when a small caravan of camels wandered onto the road. They had no saddles and we couldn’t believe our eyes.
“I’m sure there’s no wild camels in Morocco,” I insisted.

Though these ones sure seemed to be. They rolled around in the dust and sniffed our van suspiciously whilst we took their photos. Then, of course, the camelateer turned up out of nowhere and demanded payment from us for taking pictures of his camels. This is one thing that has blighted our time here – people who demand money for photos. Occasionally you get a guy who is hungry and asks for food; fair enough. Usually though, people just want your money and then we refuse on principle.

Sorry, I’m supposed to be done ranting. But then there’s the stray dogs. These poor fellas make us really sad. Wherever we go, we sit down outside for a bit of food and they slink up from goodness-knows-where and sit a little way off looking hopeful. Most are pitifully thin and look pretty sick. Of course it’s not safe to touch them because of the risk of Rabies and that’s the hardest thing of all ’cos most of them look like they just want a hug. A few travellers we have met have adopted Moroccan strays – normally healthy-ish puppies – and given them all the jabs etc. to take them back to Europe. It pains us that we can’t do the same but we can’t afford another mouth to feed. We have done our best to leave them food, making extra rice to put out for them hoping that that is enough to keep them going until the next kind-hearted person stops by. One day, we keep telling ourselves, we will have our sanctuary and save all the animals we can. Until then, we have to just love them and leave them.

Cirque Des Fées, Episode 7: Exscusez Moi Madame – Eees this your Van?

Just before I start another torrid tale I’d like to write a quick note to you, our wonderful friends. Many of you have been a little worried about us, and scribbled notes of concern at our stories of woe, or felt guilty for giggling. We write the worst bits of our travels here because we are having a great time and we think that these juicy little niggles are the most entertaining! So go ahead and enjoy the high drama in one….
XXxxxXx Flame.

The view from our Essaouria Hotel

Here I was sitting in absolute luxury. Our new connection with the Essaouira Mafia had swung us a gorgeous hotel – Arabian carved wooden doors, cactus silk curtains, handmade furniture of stained cedar wood – for only 17 pounds a night with breakfast! Admittedly I needed it to recover from food poisoning. The previous night Oli had rescued me after my third bout of vomiting and fainting by tucking me into the van bed and then driving me to a doctor at 1am. After an injection in the posterior I was now doomed to eat nothing but antibiotics, rice and bananas for five days. But to do so in such elegance – Sumptuous!
Our new friends, who we dubbed the ‘Essaouira Mafia’, were the lovely bunch of guys guarding the car park around the tiny walled city that was Essaouira. The laid back leader of these lads was Omar who, in Panama hat and chunky stoned rings, had connections all over the town. We had first found it expensive and frustrating that you can’t park up and camp in Morocco without someone leaping out of the nearest tree and demanding guardian money. But here, where there is such poverty, it can also be dangerous. The guards are necessary and it also seemed gangster Omar could get us anything – even a good mechanic! So while I sat about like Cleopatra in satin sunlight, our van was off getting a new – and not-rusted-all-the-way-through – wheel arch and windscreen frame… or so I thought…

Oli burst in through the hotel door.
“Flame – come downstairs now! The police are here. The mechanic’s apprentice has crashed the van into a truck!” OUR HOUSE!!! Oh NoooooooOOOOOOO!

At this point the day began to blur. We were bundled into a muddy police car with two officers, the mechanic and Omar, all looking miserable and confused. Everyone was yowling in Arabic and I had no idea what was going on. We were driven to the van, which was sitting outside a dingy garage surrounded by rubble. Broken glass was littered everywhere. His front left tyre was in ribbons. There was a huge jagged scrape all down one side. Poor Battle Beast! And worst of all his left front door was munched up and lying in a puddle in the road. Puck’s hairy fairy bottom. Holy Hell. This was not good.
“It’s OK, Flame, it’s OK, nix problem”, Omar was patting my arm (possibly to restrain me from killing someone). The mechanic’s apprentice was nowhere in sight, which was damn lucky for him.
With the famed British tallyho bravado, Oli was perfectly calm. “At least it’s the side that needed the new wheel arch,” he said.
I was gritting my teeth like a snarling Moroccan Ratel. My tail was swishing ready to pounce. “Nix problem Flame, no problem. The mechanic will fix it all no charge, three days. Nix problem”, Omar kept soothing, amid the Arabic arguing. But the gesturing went on and I had no idea what was happening. The van is solely in my name so the policemen concluded by unsuccessfully interrogating me in French (???) and then made to drive off with my passport, log book, driver’s licence and insurance. Then I lost my temper. “My HOUSE! And now you’re taking my passport!” I screamed. With Wonder Woman strength I hurled myself through the police car window reclaiming the latter. A scuffle ensued in which it seemed I was under arrest, then Omar stepped between myself and the unfriendly officers. More Arabic negotiations followed and the four of us were bundled back into the police car (me still gripping the passport and hissing) and driven to the local police station. Which was absolutely fascinating!
The station was a plain concrete single-story box, with a heavy bench dividing off one area. All that was in it were two wooden desks with ancient typewriters and a filing cabinet. Nothing else. Not even a kettle. Could this really be a police station? Omar was insisting he would be personally responsible for restoring Beastie to his former beauty and running translation between the mechanic, the policeman and us. Apparently they were laughing at my snatching Banshee moves of earlier. I smoothed my tightly clutched passport and let them have it back. The poor mechanic’s apprentice was behind the dividing bench in tears.

My knees are slowly getting better – but we found another way of getting round town!

So far in our two weeks in Morocco we had not spoken to a single local woman. Wearing headscarves or covering their faces for modesty they were much more introverted and inaccessible than the men. Come to think of it all the shop owners and café layabouts were male – we had hardly even seen any women! But if I thought the lads were going to talk over my head and ignore me I was wrong. With extreme courtesy I was handed cigarettes (it seemed a good time to take up smoking) and consulted as ‘Madam.’ After three hours sitting on rickety wooden seats, the babble of three different languages and clicking of typewriters, Omar had negotiated a situation where the mechanic had to restore that side of the van to perfection and carry out our planned repairs for the original fee; if it was not to our satisfaction the apprentice would go to prison. Of course, I had absolutely no intention of prosecuting the poor young bloke (the way people drive here it could happen to anyone!) but I was acting tough to the nines. We had to have our home back! The mechanic could easily have fired the poor guy and left us with a trashed van, our rubbish 3rd party insurance and a court case. I think in England he would have, but employees are family here and honour is everything. And this is where the situation began to unfold revealing a flower in the garden of Moroccan culture.

With the guys who repaired the van. On the left of me is the poor bloke who crashed it and on the right of me is our fab friend Omar, the Mafia King of Essaouria

It’s hard to explain how amazing it was to watch our van take shape again over the next four days. Popping back each afternoon to cook another 24 hours-worth of rice and bananas (oh woe) at first I thought it was impossible. This tiny shack of a garage seemed only to have the most basic of tools – it just looked like a welding torch and a few screw drivers to me – and a herd of oily local onlookers. Actually it turned out the onlookers were in fact seven mechanics.
One guy drove the 352 kilometre round trip to Marrakech to get spare parts, one was an electrician, the head mechanic did the welding and another was teaching several boys how to fill and sand the bodywork. The windscreen was removed and replaced, the whole side was airbrushed flawlessly and I don’t know how on earth they fixed that door! Such teamwork and camaraderie, it was unbelievable. On the last night we had a party in the little garage. We brought out the champagne Tim had given us as a wedding present and I got glammed up and performed a fire-eating number on the stony ground. A lot of Muslim’s don’t drink of course, but these guys all tried a bit (the Champagne label said ‘Established 1786’ and I think they thought it was the year of produce which made them very excited) followed by mint tea and lots of hash. Omar translating here and there, but really the language barrier didn’t matter anymore. We were completely accepted into their company and witnessed first hand the Moroccan ability to fix anything with almost nothing (true recycling) and to uphold hospitality and morality with complete strangers. It was an honour I will not forget.

Oli on the Essouria Battlements.

Cirque Des Fées Episode 6: Weeeeelcome to Morocco… I do your Laundry? Veeeeeeery good, nix problem!

I remember when I was five or six my mum explained to me that Egyptians were no longer building pyramids, wearing snakes or worshipping the goddess of cats. Afterwards I had secretly cried in my room all day. I really, really wanted to see those things and it seemed rather unfair to be born too late. Twenty years further on I arrived in the UK, with similar wide-eyed naivety. One of my crazy Kiwi plans had been to camp out alone in Sherwood Forest for a few months. I could keep chickens, grow my own vegetables and no one would be able to find me except on horseback. How disappointed I was – you can now walk from one side of Sherwood Forest to the other in 45minutes! Right outside the main entrance (!) are a collection of B&B’s, the YMCA Youth Hostel and pubs with logos like ‘Tuck-in at Friar’s’. Pants!
Morocco, on the other hand, is not a place that will disappoint or make small children cry. It really is full of ancient stone Kasbahs, wild snowy mountain ranges, scorpions, monkeys, camels – and of course – in the South the vast Sahara Desert. But the wonder that fascinates me the most here is not the dancing cobras or shops full of jaw bones and cow skins dyed to look like tigers. The most intriguing thing here is the Moroccans people themselves – they are all absolutely, gorgeously, wonderfully – mad as hats!

This lovely boy’s name was Cappuchino!

My first example is our friend Marjshi who we met upon arriving at a broken-down campsite at Larache. In the morning he was outside in torrential rain sweeping a shingle driveway and ranting delightedly. “Welcome, weeelcome to Morocco. Everthing here nix problem, nix problem. Where are you from? Where are you from?” and continuing without giving us time to reply. He seemed lovely (though hard to comprehend) and two days later he roped himself into the problem of our ever-piling laundry. After a week of constant downpour we had bags of the stuff and not a clean sock to be found. Marjshi loaded all of this ceiling high in his tiny 30 year old Renault and, through a cloud of cannabis smoke, explained he was driving us to a Laundrette. “Nix problem”.
Traffic in Morocco has no law, even unto itself. Donkey carts, trucks, and women in wheelchairs cram the roads with the odd goat standing in the way to watch. I was concerned all of these crazy drivers got their licences from cereal packets until I learnt you had to purchase one. No test or instruction but by paying you were officially registered. Oh. Well that’s OK then! ???

The Poor thing. Donkey Carts are everywhere in Morocco. They have no lights in the dark so you have to be carefull!

Marjshi drove with exquisite Moroccan style. Using both hands to roll another joint on the steering wheel he chatted animatedly to Oli next to him, swivelling about to include me in the back and occasionally glancing at the road. No, really. I exaggerate not! Obstacles were greeted with a burst of extra speed and horn honking. Oli looked a little terrified but I was having a fabulous time. It was awesome to be amongst this vivid clutter of people and chicken feathers without a worry about our dinging up our van for once! At a road block created by a pile of vegetable crates I thought we could go no further – but flooring the little car Marjshi managed to manoeuvre over a stack of rubble and though a muddy stream to skid to a halt outside not a Laundrette but a Dry Cleaners. Damn! Marjshi haggled the bloke down to £35 for the lot, but not wanting to spend more than half our weekly budget, even for clean socks, we contented ourselves with a visit to a café instead – possibly responsible for my later food poisoning.

Laundry Day!

My second example of gorgeous Moroccan Madness takes place at the campsite just outside Marrakech, where finally it had stopped raining. After sharing a tiny bit of Christmas cake with the blokes in a Landrover next door, Oli & I spent Christmas and Boxing Day cranking our hand-turned washing machine. The workers at the site, used to posh types in campers with three rooms and satellite dishes, thought this was hysterical. In between siliconing the leaky roof (again!) and poking out rust around the windscreen with a screwdriver we were invited to down Moroccan Whiskey with a lovely man named Abdul. Moroccan Whiskey, it turns out, is what they call a seriously strong cup of tea. It’s brewed in a tiny metal kettle and served with about four sugars in a shot glass. Sitting on the crumbling boards of an oil-stained caravan glass in hand, in mime and broken English Abdul told us many tales. His brother had a tragic love story with an Italian; his own marriage broke up after 3 months when he discovered his wife was a cocaine dealer; but his best story was a simple one about German tourists and… laundry.

At the campsite there was the occasionally arrival of these wheeled monsters calling ‘Rolling Hotels’. Oli was lucky enough to be shown around one – the jumbo jet of tour bus towing behind it an equally huge trailer including 3 stories of pigeonholed bedrooms and a canteen. I couldn’t imagine anything more cramped and miserable but according to Abdul the Germans love them. I think we had got onto the subject by me asking Abdul what work he did around the site. He was saying the ‘Rotel’ buses were great because they paid well – especially for laundry. He explained how seating 42 people, the ‘Rotels’ always unloaded huge sacks of dirty clothes for the site to sort out. “Good money, easy, easy money”, he said. “Socks, jackets, trouser, your under-pants, we look for stain, we wash off”, then he mimed a bit of dabbing. Dabbing! Thinking of those unsuspecting Germans wearing their newly sponged ‘clean’ underwear I burst out laughing. Abdul really couldn’t understand why. I think he really had no idea! Just the cultural gap I guess – best to do your own washing here. Weeeelcome to Morocco!

Tune in to our next Episode when you may hear a crunch! Merde!

Cirque Des Fées, Episode 5: Bridging two continents by the skin of our teeth

As the dusty vineyards of Catalunya gave way to the lush orange groves of Valencia, our race against winter seemed to be turning in our favour. The sun shone as we sped southwards and when we turned the heat up full blast in the cab we were happily able to kid ourselves that it was a hot day at the end of summer. The shadows lengthened and, whilst I dodged and weaved round the potholes, motorbikes driving on the wrong side of the road, taxis parked half-on the central reservation and other assorted hazards typical of rural Spanish highways, Flame scoured the map for a likely place to stop for the night. And nearly pissed herself laughing.
“Peniscola Castle!” she guffawed. I kid you not. There really is a place called Peniscola. Do not ever attempt to purchase a soft drink with a name like that. Well, we couldn’t really not check it out could we?
So that was all fine and dandy and we spent a happy couple of days hanging out by the beach and exploring the old fortified town on the peninsula. Except that it was there that our gas bottle ran out again. This is just one of those things that happens every few weeks and generally causes a bit of hassle. Every country has its own bottle and regulator, totally incompatible with every other country’s, which requires the unfortunate traveller to fork out a hefty deposit (that never seems to get returned). It is particularly troublesome in our Beastie as the clever-clogs guys we bought him off had built the gas cupboard exactly three centimetres too small to fit a large bottle inside, so instead we have been forced to use the small bottles which cost almost the same for half the gas. Often, depots don’t stock the small bottles and we end up driving in circles for ages until we find one that does. To add to the fun, with Flame’s current knee-fixing diet of no wheat, dairy, salt, sugar, cooked oils or artificial additives of any kind and our budget of just 50 Euros a week, not being able to cook to make our staple rice and lentils is a bit of a problem.

So, late on Friday afternoon we set out on a mission to find a place where we could take out a deposit on a Spanish gas bottle. We found a guy with a truckload of the big bottles that don’t fit our cupboard but he said we had to find some office in town to make a contract. Well, we think that is what he said but neither of us speak a word of Spanish so most of the communication we have had with the outside world involves lots of wild, silent gesturing and looks of incomprehension. We drove round town for about two hours being sent in all kinds of wrong directions to find the office, until everywhere was shut. Hoping to have better luck the next day, we parked up for the night and dined on stale rice cakes and canned sardines.
Next day of course the office was closed for the weekend even though most places in Spain seem to be open on Saturday. By this point we were totally sick of Peniscola, which is frankly a bit of a slum. Figuring we might as well get further south, we hit the road and drove hard for the Costa Del Sol. Arriving in Almeria late on Sunday evening we had used up our supply of stale rice cakes and sardines and were in dire need of a shower (for which we heat the water on the stove when it is operational!) We did spy a petrol station selling small gas bottles though and excitedly awaited the morning when we would be able to eat some food and get clean.
Monday morning saw us up early and getting perfect directions to the new local gas bottle office. Which was blinking closed. It turned out that it was national bloody Spain day or some crap like that and nowhere opened their shutters. So we sorrowfully expended some of our new weeks’ budget on more sodding rice cakes and returned to our little windswept parking spot by the sea to sit, reeking and hungry, until the morrow.

Tuesday morning. The lazy bastards at the gas bottle office treated themselves to an extra day off. By this point we were totally out of clean undies and had been having ‘babywipe showers’ for four days.
Wednesday morning. The office was actually open and the woman there spoke a little English. She gently explained to us that in Spain you take out the contract for the small gas bottles in the petrol stations that sell them and don’t need to go to an office at all. Sometimes this is just life on the wrong side of the language barrier. Well, at least we got ourselves clean. Clean-ish anyway. There was nowhere in town for us to fill up with fresh water so we stole old yucky water out of the fountain on the roundabout to have showers and do laundry with.

Meantime, the van was really falling apart. We discovered that the water tank was not properly sealed and had been sopping onto the floorboards whenever we drove. We pulled out a load of rotten, moulding wood but fortunately the actual base flooring of the van was wet, but intact. The roof was also still leaking badly in spite of us fixing the full-on hole which I wrote of previously. And we had noticed a worrying amount of rust coming through on our front wheel arches. Flame, die-hard DIY Kiwi that she is, spent several days diligently wire-brushing the rust off the metal and the skin off her fingers whilst I fannied around with a hacksaw making a new shelf for the water tank.

Still, with it getting colder daily, we sped west to Algeciras where we could catch a boat to Morocco. And then it really started to rain. We had a thunderstorm that lasted for two days. Enough water came through the roof that it overflowed the pots we put down on the floor and totally soaked all our towels. The only time we were dry was when we were in the little ticket office where we bought our passage across on the ferry. The cranky old dude who ran it unceremoniously plonked down our tickets on the counter along with a Marzipan cake and a bottle of cider. There were crates of these two items piled along the back of his office and he was clearly desperate to be shot of them. He poured two glasses of Baileys from a bottle, snarled “Feliz Navidad” and glared at us until we drank them (this being 9.30 in the morning). It was clearly going to be one of those very strange days.
Our ferry didn’t sail at 1pm as planned. The storm in the straits was delaying everything. At 5pm we had been moved through three different queues of angrily honking Spaniards. At 7pm we were admitted through passport control. Then the hydraulic door system on the only ship sturdy enough to cross the waters, broke down. At 9pm we boarded and spent two hours staring at the dock. We pulled into Tangiers, groggy and confused, at half one in the morning. We had been instructed three things about the port at Tangiers:
1. make sure you get all your documentation back from the Customs officer
2. buy insurance for the van
3. get out of town as fast as you can before you’re done in by some hustler
So we did that. Well, the insurance place was shut of course, but we did the other two things. At least, we thought we did. But the next morning when we returned to the port to buy the insurance, we couldn’t find our ‘temporary import of a vehicle’ form. “The bloody Customs guy didn’t give it back to us!”
Flame was livid.
Hell, this was bad – possible fines, unable to take out insurance, we might not be able to get the van out the country again. My French is improving with practise, but it took a lot of explaining to an impatient police officer before he understood the problem. It turned out that we hadn’t been registered into their computer system as arriving in the country either. Seconds from being arrested under suspicion of illegal immigration, my French – and Flame’s eyelash-batting – improved drastically. Four hours ensued of queues, arguments and the thunderstorm continuing on this side of the strait too; finally we had a nice new green form and went to buy our insurance. Which turned out to cost £450 – nearly three times more than we had expected. Yeah, Ouch. That is five weeks’ worth of living funds that we are now going to have to cough up from our ‘F*?$-Knows-Where’ budget. Getting back into the van with heavy hearts and light pockets I spotted the original green form, which the Customs officer HAD given back to us, lying under a seat. Damn.
Cooking breakfast the next morning we ran out of gas again. This time I got the hacksaw, cut a sodding big slice out of the middle of the cupboard ceiling and we bought a large gas bottle. My clothes live in the cupboard above it and all my socks now fall through the hole every time we drive, but hey, what the heck, we made it. We’re in Morocco.

Cirque des Fees Episode 4: Desert Rose

The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain, but the wind, the wind will follow you everywhere. Or so we discovered after chasing autumn over the Pyrenees.
Our first night in the land of flamenco was rather turbulent. We parked up in a cozy little aire, nesting alongside a rather flash collection of Beastie’s campervan brothers, but a storm was brewing. Gusts rocked us from side to side and howling and hissing poured in through every crack and crevice. Still it seemed OK until I woke up at 1am remembering my friend Kevin’s advice about parking under trees on windy nights. Something about it being a bad idea? It was at this point a hail of giant pinecones smashed against the windscreen. Bleary-eyed, Oli & I jumped into the cab in our PJ’s and drove on outta there.

The next evening’s sleeping was equally successful. At about 7 o clock the wind and torrential rain was so crazy we had to pull over or face certain death, and all we could find was a sort of parking lot near the motorway to stop in. Four hours later some friendly policemen stood outside our door in the bucketing rain to inform us that roundabouts (or whatever we had stopped on) weren’t good destinations for holiday camping. OK, yes my blue uniformed darlings, but better that than being swept into the path of a 12-ton truck!
Anyway, the next night we had run out of water and wanted to avoid the local fuzz so the thing to do was take a quick squizz at the, curtsey of Mac D’s and their free WiFi. Online the closest suggestion was inland. WC yes, Agua yes Parking yes …and… a mini cathedral in the middle of the desert! What more does one need! Perhaps a wind shelter? So we ended up high in the red hills, surrounded by a 360 view of the stars.

The thing that makes me a little sad about France and Spain is that the land is so, so utterly used. The vast expanses of planes and rolling hills are ploughed and walled and chewed and planted with complete precision. We drove from one side of France to the other and only saw two woods. The less farmable parts of Spain are covered with miles and miles of greenhouse tents taking whatever they can from an already low water table leaving fertile areas even more dry and desert like. There were no insects splattered against our windscreen after days and days of driving. These countries have a low population per capita in comparison to the UK and so really no excuse.
Anyway… back to this amazing desert with the 360 view of the night sky.

Here we were, parked in the garden of the Virgin Mary, outside a little church in the middle of a dusty desert of red earth and sleeping vineyards. It was cold but gloriously clear so we stayed overnight, planning to use our ‘WonderWash’ in the morning. Little did we know we were being stalked! In the dark of night a shadow patiently, longingly, keep watch over our van. At sunrise I opened the door to find her crouched alert across the road. ‘Dog’, the desert’s only other inhabitant. After being surveyed by her for half the day we realised she wasn’t a farmers dog, but must be a stray. The wee Alsatian was a clever beastie and had discovered this place, occasionally visited by tourists, was the best spot to find food. Heaven knows how long she had been living here but in the dead of winter there were surely no rabbits around now, or many kind wanderers. Of course we were willing to share though all we had was rice, lentils and blinking leeks… the cheapest vege in France! (50 Euros a week doesn’t go far for two… especially not with, oh woe, all the van repairs we needed, but Oli will regale you with that later). Mr Hubby started boiling grain and I brought ‘Dog’ out some water in a wooden bowl.

The poor girl was skinny, skittish, but frisky as a puppy. After a lot of coaxing she hopped up to sniff the water, then in a trice she tipped over the drink, picked up the bowl and carried it off into the blackened vineyard! Arggggggh! I love those bowls, dammit!!!! ‘Dog’ hung out, rolled on the road and played tag with us for the rest of the day. We feed her four portions of rice and eventually she let me give her a hug. When we finally got our bowl back (involving a very complicated manouver) there were only a few chunks missing! We had to depart but by this time Dog was following me everywhere and it really broke my heart to have to leave her. She was a beautiful girl and I can’t help but worry about her alone out there, but we just can’t afford her. I’m gutted. Though that girl was a real surviver. I Somewhere out there in the dust of dying vinyards my new friend ‘Dog’ is the Desert Rose of Spain .

Cirque Des Fées EPISODE 3: Romance behind Walls

As I write pools of amber light and moon-glow reflect in the ripples of sea before me. The twilight in Spain is sumptuous. With barely a cloud in the sky, even in December, the hues of sunset linger for a delicious eternity. The colours caressing the sky remind me of summer and Tip Top orchard fruits icecreams, with all those swirls of peach and raspberry. Actually what really reminds me of summer is my instance of wearing giant Paris Hilton sunglasses. The lenses paint everything gold and convince me it’s more than 14 degrees. A good trick to play on oneself. Hee hee!
But leaving night in the Mediterranean and returning to the last weeks’ adventures in France. It has been years since I’ve kept a diary but I was again inspired to begin one after being caught in awe by the Romance of Walls. Walled cities, walled fortresses, castles inaccessibly bricked off from the outside world. Those stones that were laid in labourers’ blood, then stolen away and used again. But the most gorgeous thing about treading those well-worn steps is imagining the centuries’ pass. The monks who trudged upon them, lovers who fought and cried on them, children who stubbed their toes and screamed upon them. These all might be ancestors of ours. When I first arrived in the UK, a Kiwi girl with eyes as wide as dinner plates, I licked the Roman wall in York. I wanted to absorb such ancient-ness as part of my bodily make up. (Yes, I know I am mad as a hat!). It’s not a practise I can keep up; there is just so much historical wonder in Europe one could get a very sore tongue licking at it all!

Two weeks ago Oli & I discovered the walled village of Mont Saint Michel. This is a sacred rocky isle, nearly detaching itself completely from the mainland at high tide when the sea pours in ‘with the speed of galloping horses’. The Abbey is it’s crowning glory. This is situated on St Michael’s leyline, one of earth’s energy lines, which runs through several other sacred sites and to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Building supposedly began on the Mount originally as a fortress against invasion from the sea – though I wonder if it had some pagan significance before then? What I really love about exploring the Mount is the winding streets crammed with curious little houses and shops that have grown to cater to the Abbey’s many pilgrims. They twist upon each other creating layer upon later of shuttered windows and state roof-tops – reminding me of the Goblin City from the film ‘Labyrinth’.
Apparently the walk to the holy building itself was made steeper to appease the many pilgrims while the monks and nuns have their own quick route up the side!

Carcassone used to be one of the last outposts of France when Spain was three separate kingdoms, and Oli was determined to see it. We arrived at dusk and while driving in loops and circles to find a park I looked up to the hills and something like a ‘What the… holy hell… oh my Wow!’ fell ungracefully out of my mouth. There on the slopes above the town ship stretched a vast collection of walls and turrets, layer upon layer upon layer. A more complete castle than you could find on any film set. And a trail marked ‘Old Cité’ lured one up the hill.
The next day we discovered while wearing my gold hued sunglasses I could smile sweetly and get into the inner fortress courtyard for free. This was built over the 12th and 13th centuries by the Saracens, a palace with close walls fortified against the villagers themselves! Later additions by the conquering French created the outer layers of defensive towers, keeps, moats and murder holes that gave the place such a nasty reputation no one dared to attack it again. Strangely enough I felt more like twirling along its staircases in tiaras and long dresses than boiling invaders in cauldrons of oil. So I did.

The Fortress of Bellegrade loomed up unexpectedly when I was fidgeting with the Sat Nav in the Pyrenees. Having no idea what it was we were both driving up a 45 degree slope to see, we were pretty in awe at the monster that loomed before us. A hulking impenetrable windowless mass only just begins to describe it. Surely any horror film director would cut off his right arm to get the other hand on this thing!
Totally isolated in a bleak and rugged landscape, exposed to the elements on all sides, this mountaintop hideousness stands. Vast, lonely and grey. Was it an ancient military defence post, a grim and doomed prison or bricked up jail for the insane? Perhaps it was all three – but on that bright autumn day the heavy wooden gates were barred and we determined to return in the summer opening months to find out. Off all the walled cities we’ve found in the last few weeks it is this mystery I am most compelled to visit again. The Gothic soul in me bleeds to unravel the full story…

Cirque des Fees Episode 2!: Nous Sommes En France

So we’ve been on the road for nearly a fortnight now and we’re starting to get a feel for some of the intricacies of life on the move. We’ve only been hassled by the police twice (most recently this morning!) and are yet to get thrown into a French jail for Vagrancy, which can only really be considered a bonus.
When you have two people living in a very over-cluttered van, it becomes necessary to develop tight routines to overcome the more mundane practicalities. It’s all fine and dandy to have a shower in the back, but first we have to remove four large plastic boxes, a bin-bag full of costumes and the hand-crank washing machine which then have to be balanced in the middle of the floor until we can put them back away again. We are becoming like two well-oiled eels on ice-skates; ducking, weaving and slipping seamlessly past each other in the narrow space we inhabit.
For all our adeptness at manoeuvring ourselves inside the van, the woes and troubles which conspired against us in our attempt to leave the UK have continued to haunt us since arriving on the Continent. In France, Monday is a day when almost everything is shut, particularly in a small and rather crap town like Bellac, where we had pulled in late the previous evening. This makes it a rather unfortunate day to discover you have a punctured tyre valve hissing forlornly at you when you try to drive off. But all was not lost, for shortly before leaving England we had extravagantly purchased a Sat-Nav courtesy of Flame’s dad. Her name is Artemis, after the rather bossy but astute talking cat in the Japanese cartoon ‘Sailormoon’ which we are great fans of. Artemis is useful in such scenarios because she tells us where all the local amenities are situated and, after a few no-goers, we found a garage which was actually open. There was already a queue of sorry-looking tourists with broken-down camper-vans in the lobby. I wondered vaguely if the garage kept itself in business by sneaking around town on Sunday night with a penknife letting the air out all the tyres of the vehicles with foreign bumper stickers.
With a mixture of my bad French, Flame drawing diagrams and both of us gesticulating wildly, we managed to explain the problem and thus discovered that the French word for ‘The Valve’ is ‘Le Valve’. Neat, huh? Anyway, it’s an easy problem to mend and the morose mechanic had us fixed up in no time. As we paid out the princely sum of 20 Euros for the privilege, we consoled ourselves with the fact that at least on this occasion we had resolved our problem with the minimum of fuss and were ready to be on the road again before lunchtime.
‘So we just go to that place across the road to put a bit more air in the tyres, then we go?’ Flame suggested.
Then the roof fell off the van.

Sorry, hang on. What happened?

No, you heard me. Then The Roof Fell Off The Van!!!
OK, OK. I admit I am actually exaggerating this point slightly to make the story seem even more terrible than it really was. Quite a lot of the roof actually stayed where roofs traditionally go, on top of the walls. But we have these pop-up air vents, each measuring about 2ft square and we had stupidly neglected to put them down before driving off. As we went under the low canopy at the entrance to the tyre place, one caught against it and ripped straight off leaving a gaping hole exposed to the elements.
With the clouds lowering ominously above and the memory of the torrential downpours we had endured nearly every day for the previous week, we figured we had to do something pretty fast. Retrieving the offending piece of roof and parking next to a wall of about the right height, I gave Flame a leg up.
“Hey!” She called down. “The damn thing was only held on by plastic screws in the first place!” We consulted Artemis who helpfully informed us that the closest open supermarket with a hardware section was 40km away. Driving through the rain with a hole in the roof we naturally got stuck behind the slowest tractor in the entire world which was meticulously spraying horse shit across the surface of the road.
So, about three days later, once we had managed to overtake the tractor, get into town, get lost in the one-way system, find the supermarket, discover that there was a height barrier over the entrance to the car park, park somewhere else, put on our scuba gear, swim to the door of the van to get out and buy some bolts and washers I found myself sitting on the roof with our trusty cordless drill. Which had a flat battery.
“There’s only one thing for it hun,” said Flame as she plugged the battery into the overnight charger and handed me a roll of sellotape.

Cirque Des Fees Episode 1: Two Faeries take on the World!

Episode One: Brighton – Bon Voyage!

Our plan in our little van – two Faeries set to conquer the continents of Europe, Asia and Australasia – should have had me brimming with excitement. But alas, instead it filled me tip to toe with an emotion that quietly bordered on vein bursting, blood bubbling howling! One day before we cruise off to fair France and the van was in pieces. Bits of wall were missing, wires bared to the elements, shelving on the floor – the ‘Beastie’ was completely unroadworthy and uninhabitable.

“It will take about 4 hours to install.” Kevin had said on Monday. Our skilled electrician friend had convinced us of the many merits of solar panels. A green supply of electricity; being able to monitor our amp usage; parking up for several weeks without needing to drive to re-charge. Yep, it seemed a lushalicious scheme. But what happens when you let a damn Phooka play with your electrics? Two days after he first popped his nose under our bonnet Beastie had become a maze of wire.

“It seems these crazy dudes that sold him to you have wired the earth to the body” he said. That sounded like a Chinese medicinal practise? “Yeah, this guy has been real dodgy with the electrics. Basically I’ve gotta trace all these wires right through the frame and make sense of them. Don’t worry though, Flame. It will be done by tomorrow”. But the light had gone from the sky and still Kevin was out there drilling more holes in our van.

And then there is the Awning. Beastie’s beautiful Awning. Now those of you who do not have a fascination with life on the hoof I can hear you sigh. An awning? So what, who cares? Park under a bloomin’ tree. You’re a Faery aren’t you? But on the one day we picnicked beneath it’s gentle shade I fell in love with that awning. Of course that was also the same day we had no idea how to put it up (or peg it down) and in half an hour the whole frame was wrapped around the van at jaunty angles while Izzy & Roge frantically joined us in trying to unscrew the thing as we were glared at disapprovingly by a local policeman. The awning, of course, was busted. And I was determined it would be back up – or we’d have a new one – before we departed to Dieppe at 4am on Thursday morning.

So here we were on Monday hammering, drilling, sticky with silicon. And Tuesday. And Wednesday. 6pm, 10pm, 1 am….. Thursday morning appeared peeping through the Brighton street lights…
‘Kev’ I said. ‘You know we really do have to be on the boat by 4am. I think we have to be at the wharf in two hours.’
‘Don’t worry about it shelia – check out the awning! It’s beautiful! The shelves are back in, you’d never even know I had to take off half the roof! And I found your missing 6 volts. Basically the leisure battery was ruined, it’s only been putting out 50% juice. That’s cool, you can pick up a new one in France’
‘OK. So what are you guys running the inside lights off now?’
‘The car battery. It will be fine.’

At 2am the RAC pulled up outside. Yep. The car battery was dead. We had to jump start the van. Through exhausted eyes I looked at those flashing yellow lights, the friendly man in overalls, Oli handing over £100 for a new battery and thought to myself ‘Can things get any worse?’
Well – yes they could. They could and they did. The evidence was in my pocket.

‘Oli – can I just show you something? It seems there is no 4am ferry to France.’
‘What? Flame – did you print out those tickets?’ my poor sleepy man asked.
‘Yeah… but they seem to be from Dieppe to Newhaven.’
‘Errr What?’ The poor monster. He was very bleary but I had to break it to him.
‘The tickets my love are from France to the UK, we’ve bought them the wrong way round. Pants.’
Yes. Bad. Bad. Bad.

The only resolution that presented itself was to spend the few hours that were left before dawn camped outside the Ferry terminal. At 8am the doors opened and we were still in yesterday’s clothes and looking dopey in the queue. Luckily there was a lovely French woman in there who rolled her eyes at us endearingly.
‘You Englieesh. So ‘opelesss’ she purred understandingly.
‘I’m from New Zealand’ I tried to get in.
We booked a new ticket anyway. Then we went to bed!