Friday, 27 February 2009

Hurtling Through Morocco

When we left Tangier Port on Wednesday, we went on a madcap, horn blowing victory saluting whirlwind ride to a country club near by. We were escorted by siren screaming police cars and outriders and the population stood on the roadside and cheered and cheered, whilst oncoming motorists blow their horns, flashed their lights and gave waves and victory salutes in their thousands. The din and the clamour were incredible, and the noise we made was equally outrageous.

As usual, we arrived at the country club too late to eat, since we were in the last batch of vehicles to leave the port, and barely had we got there than we began an equally madcap ride through the night to Fez. In our itinerary, we left Tangier, all 110 vehicles, after 10 minutes in customs, had a leisurely lunch, and then made our way to Fez in daylight and retired to bed at 8pm. But as with the dangerously long Spanish legs, the distances didn't look bad on paper if you failed to understand that customs clearance for 100 vehicles could easily take 2 days or more, and so even with special arrangements, 15 minutes is optimistic. In the event we were out in about 6 hours,  and we began the ride to Fez at 7pm. 300 kilometres at about 60mph. The convoy, as before was broken into 20 strong sections, and we were savvy enough to get in the head of the queue, as group discipline evaporated, and vans pushed up behind the police to drive them along. The road was a toll 'motorway', lea ving plenty of overtaking opportunities which were soon taken, As we pulled up to toll booths, sometimes we would be allowed to form an extra lane, sometimes not, but then the trucks turned away from one line would be trying to force their way into another. Once beyond the booth trucks aggrieved that they had lost their position near the front would overtake and force their way in higher up the line. 

Someone had described the competitive feel of the driving as Wacky Races, but all this while we had been climbing, and now the road turned downhill, into the bowl of Fez. 

Trouble was brewing, too, for all the other reasons that I've talked about. Drivers were tired. There was, for many, a fear of the unknown. Just as Lager Louts cannot comprehend that people of another country have a different culture, and will not understand English even if you shout it, so some members of the convoy were disappointed, on this their first visit to North Africa, to find that the Police and Customs still had a job to do, and were not going to allow us to stroll through the country as an occupying force. Paranoia develops. 'They are trying to keep us from meeting the people', said some, while buying a coffee from the local stall in the Port, and having no comprehension of Customs Bonding. All our goods are in transit, no tax has been paid, and the vehicles are corralled and guarded each night. It's normal.

The first I saw of trouble was at what turned out to be the last toll booth on the motorway to Fez. The two vehicles in front of us were 'unable' to pay the toll in local Dirhams, and a row was developing. "They took Euros at the last toll', the ring leader said. I gave them 100 dirhams for the 2 vehicles, but now it had become a battle of wills and the recalcitrant cars would still not pay. 'It should be free, they're keeping the money, and putting it in their own pocket'.  'We were promised that it would be free, think how much money we would save to give to the Children of Gaza' said another. The cost of the toll was 46 Dirhams, about £4.

More people arrived from the back of the convoy to see what was happening. Someone complained that the police were leading the convoy down the hill at 70mph, and it was dangerous. It was. the toll booth martyrs did not like having their thunder stolen, and a fight started. People stepped in to calm the situation down, and the testosterone levels rose still higher.

The police had no choice but to give in and allow the convoy through without payment. It was now about 1 am, and  no one had any idea how far we still had to go. For most drivers it was the fifth night in a row that they had not gone to sleep before 3am, and had had to start early the next morning. so everyone was in a rush. The Motorway ended, and we were on a winding country road down a steep hill in thick fog. Vehicles pressed forward. the police speeded up, the English Ambulances put on their sirens and overtook round blind bends, relying on the police escorts to have stopped oncoming traffic. It was not Wacky Races, it was madness. Suddenly our small section stopped. An argument developed between the Police and those who thought that the pace set was too quick. We decided to leave this section and proceed at our pace along the road. About a mile ahead we saw a small section of the convoy pulled over. There was obviously a problem. We stopped and got out. A Policeman was ambling aimlessly around, and we asked what was the problem? "Glissade" he said - Skid. We walked up a little way, and there it was, nose into the ditch, at right angles to the highway, three people laid out alongside. It was a Police Car.

The three were only injured, though quite badly, and we waited whilst an ambulance arrived, blue lights flashing. How ironic that there were several UK Ambulances parked there at the time. 

Our journey had not yet ended. When the convoy resumed, we were taken along a narrow dirt road, some part up a very steep hill in which first gear was barely enough. We got stuck behind a slow truck, and the head of the convoy disappeared over the horizon. When we got on the flat it was obvious that we had lost the police leaders, and we were lost. Once again the toll booth martyrs started their paranoid rants. 'Why are they leading us down these dirt roads in the dark?' They're trying to get rid of us' said another, 'it's a plan to break up the convoy' said another, although nobody could think of a reason why that should be the case, what the motivation was. When I re-interviewed these guys the next day, they were barely penitent, but they couldn't look at the camera. Tiredness. A couple of us walked to the end of the convoy, where the escort at the rear simply moved to the front and away we went. Our destination was a fabulous country Club style hotel sat in the green land that is Morocco in daylight. Of course it took another 2 hours to allocate rooms. 4 or 5 to a 3 bedded room; but at least we were asleep by 3am. The rest of the convoy arrived 7, and there were no more rooms.

The next day a constant succession of homeless personnel showered in our room, and we had bookings for floor space from six. However, eventually the surplus, or most of it, got bussed off to another hotel, although some refused to go and we still had extra on our floor. But, oh yes, at the cost of three policemen, the madness of the disorganised convoy was at last stopped. We got a day off.

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