Continental Drift

The trip had many starts—the many watershed moments that made me think "this is actually happening"—whether it was getting on the plane to London, setting off for France or finally (after what seemed like an age in Europe) crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to the African continent. The moment I actually had to punt my bike up the ramp on this calm and sunny weekday morning was one of the more memorable ones.

The atmosphere on the ferry was up-beat with a mix of passengers from many walks of life. There were European families in well equipped vehicles on their way to discover the exotic tourist offerings of Morocco, North African families on their way home from visiting their fortunate relatives in Europe and the odd trader on a run back or forth across the gap with wares available only on one or other side of the aquatic (and cultural) divide.

After we pulled out of port I went out on deck to enjoy the glorious weather and bask in the achievement of leaving the West. I offered to take a photo of an Indian couple who like me had not invested in a selfie-stick and they returned the favour.

I wandered around on deck for a while and then went back into the main seating area to have the Moroccan policeman stationed in the corner take down my details and stamp my passport with a unique identification number. He was very friendly and interested in my trip, my over-the-top riding gear making it obvious that I was planning a fairly extreme holiday.

I had decided to go to Tangier Med—primarily an industrial port—because I'd read that it was a lot less hectic and more modern than the older Tangier Ville and I thought it would put me in a good position to head to Chefchaouen on my first night. This thinking was wishful. On arrival on the Moroccan side I got my first taste of the African border crossing—though just a taste and much more palatable than those that lay ahead—complete with an abundance of self-important and ineffective officials and a total lack of coordination between the various state departments of customs, immigration and police.

The port was large, sprawling and new and clearly an infrastructure project to be proud of but on that afternoon it was very quiet with only the motley crew and passengers who had come across on our ferry stumbling around in circles as if dragged by the crumpled papers they held in their hands, hoping for a ray of helpfulness from one of the disinterested officers.

It took a few hours to do what seemed like a few minutes worth of paperwork, delayed further by the fact that immigration refused to accept the ID stamps in most of our passports and sent us off to wait in the sun for a couple of hours for a policeman to return from lunch with his vicious dog and verify the numbers on a computer in what appeared to be an abandoned toll booth.

While waiting I met young Dennis, a 21 year-old German who was driving a senior-to-him Fiat campervan which he had saved up for while fruit picking for a year in Western Australia. The camper was named Karsten and had been well prepared on a minimal budget, most of which went into an enormous sub-woofer.

Dennis was just as baffled as me at the border crossing process. Neither of us could speak any French but his English was much better than my German and so we had a great chat while waiting to be set free into the Moroccan landscape.

After we had our ID stamps confirmed and touched up with a Bic pen by the police officer we were free to exit the customs area and get set-up with local SIM cards and money from some of the well equipped kiosks at the exit to the port.

Though it was all relatively routine and hassle-free (just slow) it felt like an achievement to have finally arrived and I was in good spirits happily chatting away to anyone displaying a hint of familiarity with English.

Checking my GPS before setting off convinced me that it was now far too late in the day to get anywhere near Chefchaouen and that my options were really limited to camping at the port or heading into the dreaded Tangier City. So, I looked up a place to stay online with my new SIM card and found a hostel for a good rate and with great reviews in the heart of the city—thank you!

The motorway was in good condition and within an hour or so I started to hit the edge of the city.

Naïvely, I still had assumed getting to the hostel would be as easy as popping the address in my GPS and parking out front, but Tangier had other lessons in mind for me. As I got closer to the dot on the map the line leading me there became more and more convoluted, looping back on itself and seemingly spiralling concentrically towards the target. I had heard the word "medina" before—and surely I'd seen hundreds of photos of those quintessential and complex old towns—but somehow I hadn't prepared myself to enter the ancient, narrow and hap-hazard streets never designed for modern-day vehicles.

I popped out into an open area with cars and bikes parked in close quarters on the uneven paving and people—mostly young men—milling about in the dusk. I kept following my GPS track but it got to a point where I couldn't possibly ride any further due to how narrow the gaps between the buildings got. I was close, but not quite there. A couple of local guys came up and enthusiastically offered greetings in various languages until one stuck, and then asked me which hotel I was staying at. I told them and they confirmed that it was deeper into the medina and that I would have to leave my bike in the parking area. I found a spot next to the only other "real" bike, which was a GS 800, and as I started wondering about what I was going to do about securing my stuff a tall, suave guy with a BMW jacket on came up and introduced himself.

The owner of the jacket and bike was Chris, a Tangier local of mixed Moroccan and Spanish heritage, a common lineage in this ancient melting-pot of a city. He took a great interest in me and my trip and was full of tips for Morocco and West Africa, even offering me free accomodation at his AirBnB in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire) should I want it. We exchanged numbers and he offered to send me some route planning tips for my route South through Morocco. He'd never ventured much further than Togo, and suggested that once I hit Nigeria I was "on my own" in more ways than one.

All the while my two "brothers" who had offered me initial directions had been hanging about patiently listening and being completely ignored by Chris. Once he said his farewell to me they sprang back into action to establish a relationship so crucial to the forthcoming sale. I arranged with an older, quieter gentleman in a hi-viz vest (a uniform familiar to me from South Africa's informal security sector) to watch my bike overnight for a small fee (advised by Chris) and I set off in the direction of the hostel with my dry bag, tank bag, helmet and gloves. The two touts wouldn't have a bar of it and insisted on helping me carry my heavy bags due to the long distance we needed to walk to the hostel.

The hostel turned out to be about 40 metres away, and a faux-heated argument about payment for the services ensued. I parted with too much for it and learned the first of a few lessons of this kind.

The hostel itself was very small and narrow, rising up over four floors with a winding, tiled staircase connecting them. The staff were young, cosmopolitan and interesting and made me feel very welcome. I took a well-earned shower in the malodorous broom-cupboard of a bathroom and ventured out to get some dinner at a local restaurant a few blocks from my hostel, recommended by my hosts.

I enjoyed wandering around the steep, darkened and lively streets of the old heart of the city. It was very vibrant with all ages out and about on the warm evening—restaurants buzzing, old men strolling and kids playing unattended amongst the rubbish and stray animals.

Groups of young men congregated around smart-phones or the odd television to watch football and hang out. The lack of any alcohol whatsoever means that scenes like this which might normally feel threatening felt quite the opposite, despite the mild chaos. Everyone was respectful and behaved—except the touts of course, but eventually I even got the hang of ignoring their forceful attempts at gaining my attention (and money).

After dinner I (somehow) navigated my way back to the hostel to retire for the night. I was totally exhausted. My old friends from the car park clocked me on my way past and were once again very eager to engage, but this time hoping for a sale of some no doubt overpriced hashish. After repeated, manically friendly attempts to convince me they gave up and as a parting salvo the more eloquent of the two expressed his disappointment, shouting at the top of his voice that as a "fucking tourist" I should "go back to where I fucking came from!"

I assured him that I would, but not quite yet.

© David Baskind · 2022