Africa, the Outside Edge

Feb 15, 2008
Author: Kingsley Holgate

Blog 27 – Morocco and Tangier

After a short break for Christmas and end of year, the Kingsley Holgate Edge of Africa Expedition is on the move once again. We catch up on events…

December 10, 2007

By now the Moroccan military, forever aware of security in this battle scarred region, would have noticed three little specks, one behind the other, moving slowly across the vast desert expanse of Moroccan controlled Western Sahara. Zooming in on their binoculars they would have picked out that these were not camels but rather three-battered South African registered Land Rovers.

“Right hand drive, it’s those South Africans that have just crossed the military check point out of Mauritania,” probably mumbled the sergeant. “It’s the man with the big beard, they’ve got the flags of all the countries around the edge of Africa on the side of their vehicles, they’ve come all the way from Cape Town – must be bloody crazy.”

They’re bloody right, we are crazy. Nine months into the journey with 20 countries now behind us. It’s foot flat, 3rd and 4th gear against a howling head wind. The big 130 long wheel base Landie, driven by KZN adventurer Bruce Leslie, nicknamed “The Stomach” because it carries all the grub, is also loaded up with outboard engines, and two large rolled up inflatable boats and wooden floor boards ratcheted down onto the roof rack.

The other two Landies are standard TDi 110 station wagons that carry personal gear and camera equipment. The one is nicknamed John Ross and is driven by Ross and Annelie with Ross’ 7 year old boy little Tristan on board for a while, the other Landie, nicknamed Mary Kingsley after that great woman Victorian explorer who explored the rivers of West Africa, is home to Kingsley and “Mashozi” – the other seats are kept open for local interpreters and guides – herewith the story in Kingsley’s words…


All the way up the coast from Dakar in Senegal there’s been a bit of a buzz around the forthcoming Paris-Dakar rally, which this year is going to take place from Lisbon to Dakar. There’s also a bit of a controversy around an event that has so much glitz and money thrown at it but travels through some areas that are desperately poor.

The area that we’re now travelling through used to be called Spanish Sahara. Spain was going to hand it back to the locals but then the Green March happened in which Moroccan troops followed by King Hassan II and 350,000 unarmed Moroccans, waving flags and copies of the Koran, marched into the territory to claim Moroccan sovereignty. Spain was eager to avoid a colonial war and so handed the administration of the disputed territory to Morocco and Mauritania.

What followed was a long drawn-out war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, who claimed independence for the area. Now fortunately there is a cease-fire whilst the UN tries to organise a referendum, so giving us the opportunity to inch up the coast. Here there’s no turning off to camp in the dunes. Beware Landmine-signs line the road and there’s frequent police checkpoints and so we decide to head on through the night, stopping only to shine our torches onto a small pile of rocks that mark the Tropic of Cancer.

we were warned, leave the road and you will die…

To keep me awake Mashozi reads me pieces out of the food section of the Moroccan guidebook and in turn I feed through these tasty morsels of gastronomic information by radio to the other Landies. One of the dishes that have us all salivating is a sort of Moroccan potjie, which is called “tajine”. It’s a basic beef or lamb stew with vegetables in an earthenware dish with a conical lid that slowly simmers over a charcoal fire. There are also some very refined variations: barrogo bis basela, a lamb stew with prunes; safard-jaliyya, beef stew with quinces; sikbadj, lamb with dates and apricots; and tajine bel hout, a fish stew with tomatoes, ginger, saffron, and sweet and hot peppers. Black olives are invariably added to the honey flavoured sauce; apples and pears may also be thrown in.

We’ve been living a bit rough lately, following the coast of Mauritania, riding on the beach where the Sahara flows down to meet the North Atlantic, camping in the dunes at night, constant sand storms, sand in the food, in the coffee and between your teeth. By next morning we’re through the landmine fields to arrive in the garrison town of Ad Dahkla. Past the police checkpoints and into the old town, a street lined with pavement restaurants.

“Look at the Basotho hats” comes Ross’ excited voice over the radio, referring to the conical earthenware tajine stew pot lids that have the distinctive shape of a Basotho hat. We pile out of the vehicles. What a pig-out. Fresh fresh tomatoes, carrots, avocado, olives, cucumber; plates of lamb chops, just like those little Karoo ones with the crisp fat on the side; then came the tajines. A gasp of appreciation as each conical pot lid was lifted to reveal a steaming lamb potjie served with bowls of couscous. Bread, which accompanies every meal, is considered sacred and you will see people kiss it in reverence. Never wasted, it is gathered up at the end of a meal to make breadcrumbs for sweets. It’s as if we’ve arrived into another world.

Then we hear the bad news: Four French tourists gunned down on the side of the road in Mauritania, the area that we’ve just come through. The Mauritania interior minister blamed the senseless killing on a regional al-Qaida terrorist gang. The sole survivor of the attack, the family's father, was seriously injured and flown to a hospital in Dakar, Senegal.

We all think back to what sitting targets we could have been: the three Landies with their rooftop tents, a simple fire, our little grandson Tristan with us. Ahead of us is Algeria where 37 people have just been killed by a suicide bomber. A few days later, as a result of death threats, the Lisbon Dakar Rally is cancelled. Across the water from us are the Canary Islands and up the coast Casablanca and Tangier, across the water the Rock of Gibraltar and Spain – North Africa here we come – we’ll keep you posted.

January 15, 2008

A boereseun from Casablanca

Greetings from Casablanca, are the words that head up Kingsley Holgate’s latest expedition despatch sent from Morocco.

Casablanca – what a romantic name, scribbles Kingsley, though nothing like its sin city image in the classical Hollywood movie that appropriated its name, Casablanca is an exciting metropolis. Its streets are choked with traffic and noise with an unofficial population estimate of over 5 million people making it one of the largest cities on the African coast. Despite the modern high rise buildings and billboards it is also a city with extensive poor areas called “bidonvilles” (shanty towns) many of which are hidden behind high walls, known to the locals as walls of shame.

We park the three Landies on the pavement outside the old Casablanca Hotel and that’s where we get the good news, one of our humanitarian sponsors, British Airways, is going to fly us home for a short break. We can’t believe our luck. Early next morning we leave the Land Rovers with Land Rover Morocco for servicing and Charl Möller, the acting South African ambassador from Rabat, whisks us through the diplomatic gate at the airport and hey presto next moment we’re having bacon and eggs at Heathrow and then on a plane home. What a treat – we haven’t seen families or friends for months, not to mention boerewors and braai, hot showers and a soft bed - all without having to put up a tent or light a fire – bloody luxury.

At home we listen in amazement to fellow South Africans complaining about high prices, the electricity crisis and how tough things are in South Africa. “Hey guys, when you’ve travelled from Cape Town to Casablanca through 21 African countries, you’ll appreciate what a paradise we live in and just how lucky most of us are. Our biggest challenge is to sort out the crime. We’ve got a great country.” And so it’s difficult for the expedition team to pull themselves away and head back to Casablanca.

To meet us at the airport is the newly appointed South African ambassador to Morocco, Mr Seleka. With him are Charl Möller and our new Moroccan expedition interpreter and expedition member – can you believe it, he’s a young 20 year old boereseun from Pretoria who speaks excellent Moroccan Arabic. Smiling, round faced Christiaan Bornman greets us with a big grin and an Arab handshake to the chest.

“Howzit you okes, welcome back to Casablanca.” Christiaan, with his family, has been in Morocco for seven years doing valuable humanitarian community work with the Berber people in the High Atlas Mountains. He was home schooled and in the taxi tells us that he learnt derija, the local Arabic dialect, on the streets of the medieval walled city of Fez. With him is a big tub of tuisgebakte boerebeskuit and in our bags, now safely through customs, some biltong, the odd bottle of Captain and a giant bag of spectacles which is part of our Grindrod supported Right to Sight campaign in which poor sighted people in remote areas receive ready readers.

We struggle to get the Landies out of Land Rover Morocco’s crowded car park. It’s full of Supercharged Range Rover Sports’ and the latest in big high speed BMWs.

“Can’t cope, business is booming,” says the manager. “A lot of it is dirty money from the drug lords in the North and they need fast get-away cars. You must be careful in the North, people will try to sell you hashish and the police jump at the chance to imprison naïve foreigners.”

Christiaan our interpreter tells us that it’s a big problem here and that the Rif Mountains in the North of Morocco are internationally associated with the massive cultivation of hashish. Although theoretically illegal in Morocco, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, have not criminalised “kif” and trade is brisk and expanding, it’s a hidden export industry with an estimated value of more than 500 million USD and an European street value of ten times higher.

Back in the Landies we cruise Casablanca’s playground, the beachfront Corniche of Ain Diab, famous for its restaurants and nightclubs at the western limit of which is a small rocky outcrop called Sidi Abderahmen, a picturesque cluster of white tombs and little rabbit warren houses accessed by pilgrims at low tide. We take off our shoes and wade across. It’s a place of the occult where people speak in whispers and burn incense and herbs to cure illness and sickness. A lady arrives wearing a smart coat and dark glasses. She seems harassed, money changes hands and a moustached man smoking a long-stemmed hashish pipe sacrifices a black fowl with a single swipe of a sharp knife. Still flapping its wings the fowl is thrown over the edge of the rocks and without looking back she walks down the steps and is pulled through the shallows to the mainland in a big tractor tube.

Lowtide at Sidi Abderahmen, we take off our shoes and wade across…

Next in line is a beautiful girl dressed in the very best of designer clothes. I wonder what she’s come for. Christiaan, the boerseun from Pretoria, is a wealth of information. Young girls who are having difficulty in falling pregnant come here, he says. They stand naked in the Atlantic and let seven waves crash against their bodies. A lady with kind eyes and beautiful smooth brown skin paints henna designs onto Annelie’s hand and around Mashozi’s ankle. The wind blows cold from Europe.

Following the Corniche we pass the old 1920’s lighthouse on the point surrounded by shacks, all with satellite TV dishes. Further on is the Hassan II Mosque, the largest single building we’ve come across on the outside edge of Africa, the gift of a grateful nation to its previous sovereign on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 1989.

The magnificent building, complete with library, museum, steam baths and conference facilities was designed by French architect Michael Pinseau and financed by voluntary subscriptions. Built on the sea bed with water on three sides, it complies with a Koranic saying “Allah has his throne on the water.” Thousands of craftsmen used Moroccan materials – cedar wood from the Middle Atlas and marble from Agadir and Tafraoute.

The cost of more than USD750 million was met by various means. Special officials collected contributions from every home in the land, and some employers deducted a percentage from their workers’ wages. The late king’s highest officials are said to have fallen over themselves to be generous. The prayer hall, with an electricity operated sunroof over the central court, has space for 20,000 worshippers while another 80,000 can pray on the surrounding esplanade. The marble minaret is 25 metres square and 175 metres high, making it the tallest religious building in the world, beating the Great Pyramid of Cheops by 30 metres and St Peter’s by 40 metres.

It took 35,000 workers 50 million man-hours to complete. Visible for hundreds of kilometres out to sea, this is the largest mosque outside Medina and Mecca. A 32km visible laser beam points, like a giant finger, from the top of the minaret towards Mecca. Into the expedition journal I scribble: 750 million USD, that’s a load of money for a country that has so much poverty, but then again it’s brought a lot of pride to the nation. I guess it’s like the World Cup coming to South Africa and all the money that needs to be spent.

January 25, 2008

Reaching Tangier is a personal yardstick

“We’re still making our way up the coast of Morocco”, comes the latest news from Kingsley Holgate’s outside edge expedition received via BGAN satellite link from Tangier. “Its really a strange feeling being this close to Europe, the North Atlantic is now behind us and we’re at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Across the Straits is Gibraltar and from the harbour you can see the ferries coming and going.

The journey up the coast from Casablanca has been a great outside edge experience. Sometimes with our Landies just a metre from the top of steep cliffs that plunge down into the ocean. Rabat, the capital, is a beautiful city, an old lighthouse on the jagged edge of Africa and a walled Kasbah that used to be a pirate stronghold.

High on a hill overlooking the city we visited the remains of the Hassan tower that was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. It was the Friday call to prayer and hundreds of pilgrims arrived to worship in the large open space dotted with the remains of old stone columns. Colourful royal guards on horseback man the entrances to the square and traditional water sellers in bright red costumes pose for pictures.

Christiaan Bornman, our Arab speaking South African interpreter leads us up the steps to the mausoleum of Mohammed V and his son Hassan II. At the funeral of Hassan II an estimated 2 million Moroccans, many distraught with grief, flooded Rabat’s streets to say farewell to their king. We gaze down at his marble tomb in the knowledge that we’ve reached the heart of the kingdom.

The road to Tangier hugs the Atlantic coast and parts of it remind us of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula. It’s an area that’s been heavily influenced by Spain and Portugal with most of the Moroccan ports having fallen to either Spanish or Portuguese forces at one time or another. The Landies growl on – it’s winter in Morocco and we’re all wrapped up in scarves, jackets, longs and boots. Behind us is the heat and humidity of West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Now it all seems strangely civilised as we cruise along the outside edge and strangely emotional as we stop at Cape Spartel for a team shot.

holding up the decorated calabash, filled with cold Cape of Good Hope seawater, at Cap Spartel, the most north westerly cape…

It’s nine months ago that 347 Land Rovers escorted us out of the Cape of Good Hope, the most South Westerly point of the continent, and now we’re at this, the most North Westerly Cape. Outside the Cape Spartel lighthouse we hold up the Zulu calabash that’s carrying cold South Atlantic water from the Cape of Good Hope. If we’re successful, we’ll return to empty it back at the Cape of Good Hope, but that’s still several months and 13 countries away.

Reaching Tangier has always been a yardstick for this Grindrod supported expedition and we’re all chuffed to be here. The port city has a wonderfully colourful history. By the signing of the Treaty of Fez in 1912 Tangier became virtually an international zone and after World War I another statute handed Tangier to the victors of World War I – Spain, Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Sweden. It became a duty free port and an international zone and for the 33 years that followed, a centre for unregulated financial services, prostitution, smuggling and espionage.

It was also a great favourite with artists, poets, hippies, bohemians, musicians and authors, prompting Kenneth Allsop of the London Daily Mail to write these words in 1959: The indigenous Tangier aroma compounded of flowers, spices, hashish and Arab drains, is infiltrated by the smell of typewriter ribbons from the overheated portables of best selling London and New York novelists.

Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths heiress, had a house in Tangier and was famous for her notorious parties. She even had certain streets in the Kasbah widened to accommodate her Rolls Royce. Her parties included Flamenco singers and belly dancers and even tribes people on camels carrying loaded rifles to perform their ceremonial dances. The late American billionaire, publisher and Arabist, Malcolm Forbs had a house in Tangier in which he held his much-publicised 70th birthday bash in 1989, an event that cost 2 million dollars and included entertainment by 600 drummers, belly dancers, acrobats and 300 Berber horsemen. Guests included Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Kissinger and the Getty’s.

We take digs in the downtown Holland Hotel – a bit ropey but safe parking for the Landies and a short walk from the Kasbah. There’s still an English church in Tangier and Mustafa, the caretaker, who’s been there for over 30 years, points out the grave of David Herbert whose tombstone reads: Born 3rd October 1908 – Died 3rd April 1995 – He loved Morocco. Muriel Louisa Phillips’ tombstone simply reads: Artist, painter, friend. Walter Harris, correspondent for The Times, died here April 4, 1933. He loved the Moorish people and was their friend, is written on his tombstone. The honourable Sir Reginald Lister died at his post of malarial fever on November 10, 1912 aged 47 years.

There’s still a service on a Sunday although the numbers have dwindled and the white flag with the red cross of St Andrews still flies above the church. Now outside the gate Berber women in big straw hats sell homemade cheese, loaves of circular bread and fresh herbs. Chico, an illegal guide, takes us through the Kasbah. We’re trying to find the key for the tomb of one of Arica’s greatest travellers, Ibn Battouta.

For me it’s a bit of a pilgrimage – I want to pay my respects to one of the greatest Arab geographers and travellers of all times. Born in Tangier in 1304, he set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca but his intended trip of around six months became a 29 year journey in which he vowed never to travel the same route twice. His incredible journeys took him East to India and China, across the Sahara desert to Mali and Niger, and down the coast of East Africa to Somalia and to what is now Kenya and Tanzania.

We finally gain access to his tomb which is only about 1.5 metres long and draped in green cloth. This was a man who talked about snow capped mountains on Africa’s equator and the mountains of the moon long before the European Victorian explorers like Burton, Livingstone and Stanley ever ventured into Africa. Back in Morocco in 1344 Ibn Battouta related his adventures to the Sultan of Morocco and was asked to dictate an account of his journeys to a young scribe called Ibn Juzayy in a book that was called El Rihla (The Travels) and was used as a guidebook by other travellers.

We pay some money to the key lady and make our way through the narrow streets of the Kasbah to the palace at the top of the hill where snake charmers perform for us pulling frighteningly big shiny black cobras from a wooden box. Massive old Portuguese naval guns point across the straights to Gibraltar and to the right is the house Matisse, the famous painter, lived in. At Café Baba the coffee is strong enough to stand your teaspoon up in. This was an old hippie hangout in the 60’s and there’s a black and white picture of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones dressed in a hairy sheepskin jacket and pulling on a long-stemmed hashish pipe.

Chico, the guide looks out across the sweep of the half moon beach. “In the old days there were just a few beach bars and hardly a light at night, now it’s just a mass of modern hotels and apartments, many owned by Arabs from the oil rich states and tourists from Europe, the old Tangier is over but a new era of tourism seems to be taking over.”

Tomorrow we leave Tangier to follow the outline of Africa after so many months of travelling North up the West Coast and then West around the big bulge of the continent, it’s going to feel really strange to turn the noses of the Landies East along the Mediterranean coast, direction Algeria. We’ll keep you posted.



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