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.

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