Africa, the Outside EdgeMar 7, 2008
Author: Kingsley Holgate
A dispatch from Libya
Sorry about the delay in making contact but we were jammed in a military convoy.
Following the outside edge through North Africa has been tough. We were refused entry into Morocco, and had to make another plan. Unfortunately the security situation worsened while we were in Algeria and on one occasion we had more than 50 armed blokes, 7 police vehicles and an armoured car escorting our three little Landies. What was good however is that we were able to complete the 3,000km there and back humanitarian dash into the Sahara to distribute soccer balls, learning materials and Right to Sight spectacles to the Saharawi refugee camps. It’s a place where temperatures reach a scorching 135º F in summer and plunge below freezing in winter. Sandstorms, called siroccos, rip through the refugee camps without warning. Flash floods wipe out entire tent neighbourhoods, destroying everything in their path. Here, nearly 200,000 refugees are struggling to survive in this inhospitable part of the great Sahara Desert. Fortunately Algeria is behind us now, we've made it to the most Northerly point of the African continent in Tunisia and are chatting to you from Libya where we just had all sort of trouble crossing the border (Our Landies now carry Libyan number plates in Arabic). - Egypt here we come.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Kingsley, talking to us from the ancient Islamic walled city of Fez. A story best told in some scribbled pieces from the Greybeard’s expedition journal.
February 2, 2008
Seven days and big bucks to do just a 100 metres
We’re stopped at the boom, Moroccan police, customs and plain clothed security all gather around the three Land Rovers, no photos, strict security, a big military fort flying the red Moroccan flag high on a nearby hill.
“It’s the Algerians, they closed the border,” say the Moroccans shaking their heads dismally. “Not good country, dangerous,” says a man with a clipped moustache.
There’s a big ginger cat biting its way into a black garbage bag. The boom is closed and the whole place has got a sorry air of neglect. The Moroccans are concerned about al-Quaida terrorist groups crossing into their country and for a long time there’s been a dispute with Algeria over their backing of the Polisario movement in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. It’s a blow – we’d hoped for a miracle. Now we’ll have to return to Tangier, put the Landies and ourselves on a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, then follow the coast of Spain for 700km to take another ferry from Alicante across the Mediterranean to Oran in Algeria before back-tracking to the other side of the boom where we now stand – seven days and a massive dent in the budget to do just 100 metres of the outside edge.
The ancient walled city of Fez
Slowly we turn the three Landies around. Instead of moaning we decide to make the most of it. We’ll backtrack to Tangier via ancient Fez. We find cheap rooms on the third floor of the Hotel de la Paix on the broad palm tree lined Hassan II Boulevard. Mohammed the car guard assures us that “inshallah”, for a fee, the Landies will be safe on the crowded street. Mohammed the receptionist speaks a bit of English and throws breakfast into the room rate. Mohammed the porter points to the antique lift.
“Be careful,” he says, “it only takes two people.” But the rooms are clean and much to Mashozi and Annelie’s delight there are baths and hot water.
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The three Land Rovers climb up to a vantage point above the old walled city
Next morning we stand on a hill overlooking the ancient walled medina of Fez where through our Teaching on the Edge programme supported by 600 South African school children we hand over soccer balls, books, pens, rulers, crayons, colouring in books and spectacles for the poor sighted to a community from the High Atlas mountains.
The call to prayer from scores of mosques rises up to meet us as does the sounds of the thousands of people who live in a maize of alleyways, madras’s, markets and mosques that make up what is believed to be the most complete example of medieval Islamic civilisation in the world today. Through the keyhole arch of Bab Boujeloud, one of the main entrances to the medina and we’re into a world that Salim, our guide, tells us, has 970 streets, 344 quarters, 470 mosques, 376 acres enclosed in 14kms of wall, 8 gates, 350,000 people and foundations that date back to the year 789. It’s mysterious and exotic and for all the friendliness of the people to us strangers, it still feels a hidden place, a chipped and battered, North African jewel.
Crafts and trades of the medina have remained almost unchanged for a thousand years. We are given sprigs of mint to stick up our noses to help against the stink of fresh animal hides, steeped in urine to make them supple. Men crouch and balance over stone vats as they dip and soak the hides in natural dyes, roofs and walls are thick with drying skins. It’s back-breaking work that is handed down from father to son and the souks are full of the finished products – bags, jackets, wallets and belts. At one time whole libraries were sent to Morocco to be “Morocco bound” and tooled with gold. Tinsmiths, carpenters, gold and silver jewellery makers, painted doors, stone masons, carpet makers, butchers, grocers, nougat sellers, olives, spices, necklaces of dried figs bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops, tea houses and live chicken sellers are just some of the activities, sights and sounds that assail the senses in ancient Fez. It’s Saturday night, we’re footsore and desperate for a grog – not always an easy thing to find in Islamic North Africa where boozing is generally frowned upon and in some cases totally outlawed.
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The Greybeard looks out over the medieval labyrinth of alleyways, mosques and markets that make up ancient Fez
Saturday Night in Fez
We go underground, down the steps, into the dimly lit Nautilus Bar. “Music American”, says the barman with a grin as Hotel California blares from two little speakers that are placed either side of bottles of gin, whiskey, brandy and Pernod. Sadly there is no Captain Morgan, so we go for West African brewed Flag beer. A couple cuddle on a couch and at a table in a corner a group of moustached middle-aged men with their girls drink up a storm. Moroccans smoke with a passion and everybody puffs away to the sounds of Elton John and then WHAM belting out the hit Faith. There’s a jolly buzz and peels of laughter as at the corner table a large-busted girl’s chair collapses leaving her spread eagled on the floor looking up with a bemused grin at the circle of moustached men who leap up to take pictures of her on their mobile phones. In comes the banjo player and the music is turned down. Soon everybody is clapping and dancing. Plates of artichokes and peeled radishes are offered as snacks. Midnight and a frightening bar bill chases us off to bed. I wake up fully clothed.
It sounds like I feel, even with the help of three disprins and a few cups of coffee. We’re still heading for the Tangier ferry and have stopped off at the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis which in AD 45 was the empire’s most remote base. By the end of the 3rd Century the Romans had gone but Volubilis maintained its Latinised structure and when the Arabs arrived in the 7th Century the mixed population of Berbers, Jews and Syrians still spoke Latin. Much later, in the 18th Century, Moulay Ismail, the Islamic leader desecrated Volubilis by removing most of its marble to adorn his palaces in nearby Meknes. The Lisbon earthquake in 1755 damaged the city and it fell into ruin and it only came to the attention of the outside world again when two foreign diplomats stumbled upon it at the end of the 19th Century. Our guide is Khalid of Nazareth. His father had worked as a cook for the resident French archaeologist from 1933 to 1976.
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Khalid of Nazareth signs the Mandela Scroll at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis
“I used to help my dad in the kitchen,” says Khalid, “and got to know the visiting students, learnt some English and qualified as a guide. When I was 14, I was an actor in the movie Jesus of Nazareth, filmed at my village nearby. I was in the stable with Joseph and I made enough money out of the movie to buy my mother a house and some olive trees. That’s why they still call me Khalid of Nazareth”.
And so with Khalid we explore ancient Volubilis. From the Tangier gate down the broad Decumanus Maximus carriage way to the Triumphant Arch. What a grand lifestyle these ancient Romans must have lived. Lavish public baths that provided a meeting place, to chat, do business, exercise, eat and drink, and grand houses with elaborate heating systems providing hot water and steam for baths and heat. The mosaics on the floor of these vast houses are still in excellent condition. There’s Bacchus, the god of wine in a chariot being pulled by panthers. The house of Venus has a stunning mosaic of Hylas being abducted by nymphs and the bathing Diana being surprised by Acteon. It boggles the mind – there’s Dionysos discovering the sleeping Ariaden, Orpheus, the god of music, charming wild animals with the playing of his lyre. There’s a mosaic of nine dolphins believed by the Romans to bring good luck and Amphitrite is in a chariot being pulled by a seahorse.
Khalid of Nazareth leads us down to the forum, the public square where the Romans would hold daily political debates. “A Roman surprise,” he says with a shy grin as he points to a stone carving of a large erect penis and testicles. “It’s the pointer to the bordello.” Steam baths on the lower level and the cubicles with girls on the upper – a great favourite with the Roman soldiers. By this time my hangover has moved from my head to my dragging feet and my stomach’s a bit dodgy.
“Aah! the latrine,” says Khalid from Nazareth pointing to a line of holes where the Romans could sit and talk politics whilst abluting. “Politic you know,” he says in broken English, “it has no smell. This big square rectangular stone basin, it’s Vomitarium. The Romans when too full from much feasting would take a feather to tickle the back of throat – whoosh! make the big vomit to empty stomach so they could eat and drink more.”
I feel nauseous – and so ends our 2000 year old journey of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis. Algeria here we come.
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In the ruins of the 2000 year old Roman city of Volubilis
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