Friday, 27 February 2009

Algiers to Gabes(Tunisia)

Convoy going uphill
View of the 'Little' Kebylla from the high plains of Algeria

The cold Djebel Chambi National Park. The mountains form a complete ring, and it would appear to be a gigantic extinct volcano.
Munir examines his dinner, whilst others tell tales of the convoy
Trees at sunset on the Algeria/Tunisia border, with the Pea's windscreen and condensation
Algerian soldiers at Constantine, with a Thorb in the middle.
Yvonne Ridley of press TV, accompanying the convoy, interviews our mysterious benefactor from Algeria
Boys with their toys.

I'm reporting to you from another four star hotel provided free of charge by an Arab Government. The last few days represent the ups and downs and contradictions in our fortunes. Last night was the coldest night of my life, sleeping in the van on the high plateau in the National Park called Djebel Chambi, while I am writing this tonight from my soft, warm, bed in a sea front hotel in Gabes Tunisia. The hotel is being run more like a hostel; I am in  a two bedded room which has had an extra bed put in it, and normal hotel services, such as washing clothes, have been suspended whilst they cope with 250 of us, but it is still a great hotel.

The reason for the differance in fortunes is that the Tunisian Government intended us to stay in this hotel last night. I've just talked to the hotel manager, and he is mightily annoyed at having to get ready for us all for a second night at such short notice, and told me at great length how he had all his staff working until 4am last night in anticipation of our arrival. Some people did arrive, some as late as 4am, but the main section of the convoy was stopped, as I said, just inside the border of Tunisia, and we were ordered to park up and sleep. The reasons for this go back to the problems at the beginning of the convoy.

The trip through Europe was not disorganised - it wasn't organised at all. Someone looked at a map, and set arbitrary travelling times for each day. It is quite reasonable to travel 500 miles a day on your own, but in convoy with slow moving vehicles, these times are difficult to achieve. Add in the organisation of civic receptions in San Sebastian, for which no time has been allowed, and gross errors, like forgetting to add in the mileage to Madrid, and you have impossible schedules that require virtually 24 hour driving, leading to fatigue, and a few bumps, although nothing worse. This situation was further compounded by the refusal of Galloway's man on the ground, Kevin, a hard man who was plainly stressed to breaking point, to listen to anyone or contemplate change. As a result, crews rebelled in Tangier and  the idea of travelling through Rabat was abandoned, although we still had a long journey to Fez, arriving late, and after a serious accident.

In Tipaza, the hotel resort near to Algiers, George Galloway arrived, and I filmed him being confronted by 2 middle aged, middle class, white ladies from the South East, complaining about the excessive length of the journeys, and the danger of the long long hours. The previous day had been the worst so far. We had been ordered to be ready to travel at 6 am, and as usual, we were. But also as usual the convoy did not get going until 1030 or so, and then did not stop driving until 4am 22hours. The police had decided that our section of the convoy would go to some unspecified resort East of Algiers, but then there was a problem with that. Some people went directly to Tipaza, another resort before Algiers, and were there by 11pm, but we were shepherded round the Algerian countryside for hours through the night until it was decided that we would also go back to Tipaza, a place we had passed many hours ago. At one point we found ourselves on a minor road, without police support, travelling to an unknown destination, an unknown distance away. The crews rebelled and decided to park on the side of the road and go to sleep. At this point a police car arrived; I asked where we were going and was told that we were only 10 kilometres away, but the drivers simply didn't believe him and refused to move. I told him to Allez and we would Suivons, but he must go immediately, or the crews would be in bed. He objected that he must wait for some reason - orders or some such, and there was a problem with parking; I'm told by others that my voice could be heard at the back of the convoy as I told him that he should Allez Immediatement, if we were to follow, and he did. All's well that ends well, although I fell asleep at the wheel three times on that journey, and stayed awake only by singing Men of Harlech at the top of my voice. I am still friends with Munir, however, he can sleep through anything.

So these ladies confronted George. This may be a matter of the police, they said, but it was a recurring theme. We wasted time in assembly, planned badly, tried to make impossible distances, then were forced to take a rest day to recover. We are now 3 days behind, but we feel lucky to be all in one piece. George was less than impressed. Travel to Gaza was dangerous he said, and it was the personal responsibility of every individual to do what they feel comfortable with. If they feel they cannot go on, they should stop. He never promised them a rose garden and they should get out of the kitchen if they can't stand the heat. The worst of his anger was reserved for me, however. He tried several times to get me to stop filming, and continued to try and stop me even when the argument attracted the travelling film crew and others.After the camera was turned off he said that he would throw me off the convoy if I ever filmed him again without his permission. Later discussions with him, brokered by friends, failed to produce any thawing of attitude.

Well, I'm not the first person to have received this threat from the leadership.

Of course his attitude is simply wrong. The local governments would not tolerate individuals breaking off from the convoy and doing their own thing. In any case the impact of the convoy is in its completeness. People turn out to cheer and to wave not at a random collection of vehicles, but at a disciplined convoy of vehicles which is often taken through towns, sirens wailing, whilst other traffic is pushed to the side of the road. Without the discipline and integrity of the convoy there is nothing. But then the convoy is an entity that it is difficult to escape. I constantly feel frustrated that I cannot get to shops because the Convoy moves around large towns, and does not stop. But then it does stop in the middle of nowhere and we all hang about. Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. Our whole life, like that of a soldier, is in the hands of the organisers: when we get up, drive, eat - or not - sleep and relax, if at all. Galloway is the man who will get all the credit for this journey, and we are his cannon fodder. Just like a war, he owes it to his troops to do the best he can for them. He wants to blame relations with local police and governments for the problems, but the fact is that he has no specialist staff working on the project, although there are several people with logistics experience travelling with the convoy. We cannot be sure what the balance of blame is in North Africa, but the organisation in Europe was so totally execrable, and entirely the fault of the convoy organisation; now people will always distrust George's outfit when it comes to deciding responsibilities.

Nevertheless, After Tangier, a camper van turned up on the convoy, from Portugal, with a married couple in it, striking in that she, a tall willowy blonde, is the only woman not wearing a headscarf of some sort. I have spoken to them, but they deny that they have been brought in to strengthen the organisation, although they have brought extra CB radios - essential for communication up and down the chain of command. But the big change came after the confrontation in Algiers. 

To end the confrontation with the women, Mr Galloway agreed to a public meeting and discussion, and to an extended meeting of the team leaders. Two things were agreed there, that there should be, in principle, a night time driving ban, and that crews should get organised in their groups, and so have a little autonomy within the convoy structure. 

The second part of this agreement was ignored immediately, as we all set off from Tipaza in a mad straggle, but the distance rule held, and we had a good journey to Constantine, up over some very rugged peaks. We discussed how the city was named after the same Roman Emperor I have mentioned before, who brought Christianity to the Empire, and how the road was travelled by the companions of Mohammed, preaching the word of Islam. Being in a minority of Infidels on the convoy has really heightened my understanding of how the very landscape has been affected by these great religious movements, and needless to say, still does. It is purely for religious reasons that we are on our way to Gaza, if you think about it, and it is religion that drives the naming and renaming of places - Canaan, Samaria, Israel, Palestine. The ancient town of Nablus has been in all these countries, and in Syria as well.

Anyway, the next day we set off for the border, and reached it only two hours behind schedule. The Tunisians processed us through the border at a fast clip, not more than half an hour, seeming to dispense with customs altogether. I must digress and tell you about this area around the frontier. Very High, it is freezing cold, poor soil, constant dust storms. While we were re-fueling we even got a few flakes of snow. Snow can be an enjoyable experience, but this area seems to be permanently ravaged by strong winds, which give a wind chill factor of several degrees. Trust me, even the Yukon in December did not feel so bitterly cold. The locals here wear a Thorb, a thick all in one floor to hair garment that makes them look like Darth Vader, but more handsome. I covet one of these items, but have been unable to find the time to buy one, for the reasons above.

Since Tipaza I have been suffering from something which is probably flu. I have been aching in my bones and running a temperature, not eating and sleeping all day. From Constantine to the Djebel Chambi we had to call in the services of a spare driver to help out as I lay helpless in the back seat of the van. I don't want your sympathy, not yet anyway. I'm building a picture of the laws of unintended consequences, perhaps you've already guessed. As a result of the changes made to the operation, travel times are limited to daylight and early evening hours. As the convoy set off across the the Tunisian border we were updated on the rows going on between Kevin and the Tunisian authorities. They wanted everyone to make the journey all the way to Gabes that night, a journey of an extra 200 kilometres or 125 miles, but Kevin, now instructed on the day-time rule with the same inflexibility that he previously held the laissez faire rule, was arguing that we should find somewhere before that. So the police just stopped us on the road in the coldest part of the world I have ever experienced, especially as I was shivering from the flu anyway. Those who did make it all the way were given a hot meal even at 4am, and then had all of today at leisure, while we had to wash in cold water and drive for 4 hours before the usual chaotic scenes of checking in. If only we hadn't had that silly rule of short driving hours I wouldn't be freezing to death, and stumbling over cactus to pee.

C'est la vie. It's easy to think that if we had all made it to the hotel life would have been better, but I don't think so. As the Hotel manager confirms, there was no intention for the hotel to be used for a second night. If we had all arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night we would have been expected to be up and on the road at 6am (why is it always 6am? We never move before 10 anyway), and life would have continued in the same overtired way. There still does not appear to be the sort of time planning that I have been asking for. Driving 125 miles in a saloon car, even on a bad road, might be expected to take less than three hours, on a motorway only 2, but in a convoy, 4 is the minimum, and we are still forgetting that.

Libya today - I'm writing this by the lifts in the hotel at 5.46 am, because this is the only place that I can get Wi-Fi - so we'll be moving soon, and rumours are that we have a big reception in Tripoli with Gaddafi on Saturday. So it will be another long drive today, then.

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