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45 Days in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Graeme Bell Defender TD5 Morocco

by Graeme Bell (A2A Expedition)

Any long term overland traveller will tell you the same story - after being of the road for a long time the vehicle becomes a member of the family and, sometimes, the vehicle will decide that it needs to “rest”. Our vehicle is a Land Rover Defender and she has on three occasions chosen a beautiful place to demand some TLC. Her fuel pump failed in camp in the Northern Argentine city of Salta and before that her oil cooler imploded in Chile requiring a long stay in the dune bordered coastal city of Iquque. On both those occasions we were “stranded” for more than a month while waiting for courier companies to clear parts from obstinate customs procedures. In Morocco we attempted a 4x4 trail in the Rif mountains above Chefchaouen and managed to destroy our ancient clutch which led to a four day repair and recovery effort in the remote mountains followed by a six week wait and repair in Camping Azilan, situated above the famous blue city which locals call Chef.

The campsite itself is rather rustic but charming with a large parking area bordered by a forest of leaning pine trees. Once a tractor had dragged us off the mountain we had a small recovery truck piggy-back the Defender to the campsite as we knew we were in for a long haul repair. While sitting in the broken Defender up in the mountains I had made the decision to allow ourselves to be recovered and to return to the camp where, at least, we would have access to toilets, showers, the internet and other travellers. The tow truck deposited us in the middle of the camp and we settled in, working on the final diagnostics of the fault, ordering the parts from our friends Bearmach in Wales, and catching up with some work and chores while we waited, sure that we would be there a while but not entirely sure exactlty how long we would have to wait.

Though Chefchaouen is the very definition of a tourist city we set off to explore, determined to find where the locals shop and eat and soon established relationships with traders who we found trustworthy. Munir ran a small store far from the Medina where hardly any tourists visit. He was to be our source of sugar - Coca Cola, chocolate bars, fruit juice and biscuits. Boluhia (forgive the spelling) ran the wholesalers near the small taxi rank and he was our source of grains, pasta, coffee, tea, bulk tuna, mayonaise, milk, butter and cheese. Abdul supplied us with fresh fruit and vegetables ($3.00 buys two large bags) and two lovely head scarved young woman ran a bakery which kept us stocked with bread and the occasional cake. The local butcher, who made his own spicy mutton sausage soon learned to recognise us and always threw in a little extra of whatever we bought. In Iquique we had found the staple take out of the working class - rottiserie chicken and french fries and, near the administrative buildings we found a small restaurant which offered a quarter chicken, french fries, bread, bean sauce and a small salad for $3.00. Twice a week we would treat ourselves to a plate and a fruit juice. In the medina itself we found a small store which sold delicious smoothies and simple sandwiches which we used to lure the kids into town. Within a week we knew everyone and everyone knew us.

Every second day my son Keelan and I would take a small amount of cash and a backpack and hike down to the city. Camping Azilan is perched above the city, surrounded by municipal recreation facilities and men selling hashish, brazenly. Once the dealers knew that we were not in the market for their local speciality they stopped offering, well they offered less often. Our walk took us down past the large swimming pools guarded by a troop of stray dogs who barked all night. A large pond offered a parking area for travellers who found $13.00 a night too expensive for a charming campsite and opposite the pond stood two small soccer pitches which were pounded across until early in the morning - the exhuberance of the players no doubt exciting the swimming pool dogs. Smooth and slippery rock steps lead down the mountain where men dressed in hooded Thobes would greet us and couples would sit and enjoy each others company far from mothers eyes. Keelan would run down the steps and I would walk until we reached the abandoned cemetery and turned down into the city of blue, deposited at a cul de sac where twice a week a fresh food market raged at an arched entrance to the tourist medina.

Morocco at Night by Graeme Bell

The vendors never hassled us and they soon recognised that we were not buying curios. Stray cats dominated the narrow alleys and each other, some sleeping on piles of hand woven blankets, others basking in the sun while a few licked the wounds earned in night time combat. Sun slanted between the ancient walls and occasionally you would witness a mythical sight of contrasts - grass growing in an ancient gutter above walls of blue and multicoloured drapes, a cat poised as focussed on you as you are on it while an old man dressed in a hooded thobe shuffled past, the sweet, poignant scent of smoked hashish in the air. We knew we had been living in the city too long when we stopped witnessing the mythical and forgot to appreciate the beauty of the enchanting.

The young local men dressed in what we soon reffered to as “the Moroccan uniform” - white or black sneakers, blue or black skinny jeans, blue or black hooded jacket and an extravegant hairstyle. The young woman dressed either in skinny jeans, cream coloured fur trimmed hooded jackets with headscarf or in dark skinny jeans with a dark pullover and long black hair while older woman dressed in burgundy kaftans and head scarves, full burkas were rare. Adolescent girls giggled in groups while boys played ancient rock, marble, stick games and wailed on each other with fists, stones, feet, establishing a pecking order and earning respect.

Until the two Scandinavian girls were butchered in the Atlas mountains we never felt threatened or unsafe though we had taken every precaution while stranded in the mountains. On Christmas Eve we walked into the city and had dinner near the Kasbah. A hundred candles were lit in the square and posters bore messages of peace and goodwill, the smiling faces of Louisa Jesperson and Maron Ueland haunting from a makeshift shrine. And it was in the weeks after the cowardly attack that we noticed a change in the atmosphere, police patrolling the streets and even visits by the security branch to the camp on New Years eve. Overwhelmingly we sensed the Moroccan people were as disturbed by the event as we were and they were quick to reassure us that those criminals did not represent this beautiful, peaceful country.

Our parts arrived in Casablanca two weeks before Christmas and our Luisa had her hands full trying to get the parcel passed through customs and delivered to us. While waiting we worked on the Land Rover, my fourth book and the childrens schooling, but mostly we hung out with travellers from around the world who were split into two seperate entities - older couples in motorhomes and every type of overlander you could imagine. Every other night Keelan and I would take our forest axe and machete and go searching for dry wood for a campfire which acted as a magnet for the overland crowd.

Graeme Bell Walking Through Morocco

*Bearmach supplied A2A Expedition with the following parts to ensure they got back on the road as quickly and as safely as possible:

Clutch & Flywheel Kit - BR 3027BMK

Push Rod -  FTC5199

Heavy Duty Universal Joint - BUJ 6AR

Workshop Manual - BA 3250

Replacement Metal Snorkel Pipe - BA2123AMP

Hub Bearing Kit - BK 0103

Mirror Arm Long 260mm Hinge to Ball - RRC8443R

Rear Crankshaft Oil Seal - LUF100420R

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