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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 12 Apr 2016

Location: Chefchaouen, Morocco

MapToday I felt like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World, for we’d never seen anything like what we saw on our first day in Morocco. But first of all we had to get through Border Control. I learned that there’s a little piece of Spain in Africa, as the ferry departed from Algeciras on mainland Europe to Cueta on mainland Africa, sailing right past the Rock of Gibraltar. Cueta is a little town near Tangier but is still part of Spain, and our touring party of a van plus eight motor bikes alighted from the ferry and drove a few kilometres along the coast before crossing the border into Morocco. The scene at the border checkpoint could only be described as chaotic.

There were hundreds of people milling around a series of booths, but only about one-tenth were actual border officials. The rest were locals, itinerants, beggars, men and women, young and old, with absolutely nothing else to do than sit, stand, chat, stare, beg, argue, sleep, and wander aimlessly. Some of them, however, are “fixers”. They offer to help you with your paperwork in crossing the border. Our driver Xavier (we call him Harvey) was well accustomed with fixers, and he befriended a guy who stayed with us for the entire two hours. Two hours filling out forms, getting them stamped, getting the motor bikes checked, inspecting the back of the van, more stamps, then signatures, then lining up at a window to eventually get a lady to type your details into a computer on MS-DOS, using just one finger for the “hunt-and-peck” method. If her mobile phone rang, it meant more delay as the computer would time out and she’d have to start all over again. Proceed to the next checkpoint, inspect passports, more scribbles and stamps, while trying to avoid getting run over by cars, bikes and bicycles, most of them completely unroadworthy and carrying anything from bulging bags of groceries or cement to old lounge suites and mattresses, all tied down with packing tape. When finally we got through, Harvey rewarded our fixer with 10 euros and we were on our way. Apparently only two hours is good for this border crossing. Harvey has had 5 hour waits in the past.

And so Anne and I set foot in Africa for the first time. With the Mediterranean Sea to our left, and the Riff Mountains soaring to our right, we sat in Harvey’s van as we followed the motor bikes along the coast past Tetouan before turning south and inland. Driving through the Riff mountains, we were looking up at sheer cliffs of solid rock, peaks towered above us like huge spires, some were shrouded in cloud. Eventually we arrived in the hillside town of Chefchaouen, driving uphill through the town as far as the narrowing streets would allow us. The final two hundred meters to our hotel had to be done on foot. As if this ascent wasn’t enough, our assigned room was on the top floor, up three flights of stairs.

By the time we’d reached our first night’s accommodation in Morocco, we’d become overwhelmed by what we’d seen. Chefchaouen is known as The Blue Town, due to the predominate colour that most of its houses. Founded in the 1400s, the small dwellings and cobblestone streets were obviously very old, and we felt as though we’d walked through a time portal. Men wore the djellaba, a loose fitting robe with a pointed hood (George Lucas dressed his Star Wars character Obi Wan Kenobi in a djellaba), and women wore a hijab in some brilliant colours. Doorways were small archways leading to small rooms with exposed beams of thick timber. Floors were tiled mosaics of many colours and patterns. Windows were arched, with patterns carved into wooden shutters. To top it all off, the Riff mountains gazes down on Chefchaouen.

As Anne and I stared at this scenery, seemingly at the top of the world, we felt that world away from little Tasmania.