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.