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Category Archives: Morocco
Dakhla, our last stop in Morocco/Western Sahara, turned out to be a far cry from the touristic hotspots of Essaouira or Agadir further north. First, we were greeted by no less than five different authorities boarding our small sailboat: the civil guard, the police, the customs, the military and the port authorities all wanted copies of our ships papers, passports and various other documents. Once these obstacles were surmounted we briefly explored the town, a short taxi ride away from the harbour. Walking through the long, dusty roads our little Jack Russel “Sparrow” sought shelter from the merciless sun wherever one of the artificially watered little shrubs would allow it, whilst Patrick and I longed for a cold beer – a rare refreshment in this Islamic town. Strolling amongst men in long dresses and women in long floating, colourful scarfs skilfully wrapped around the whole body, we felt like we once again entered a different world. However, the obvious presence of Moroccan military and UN soldiers, paired with one of the most hostile climates we’ve yet encountered, also made us feel slightly uneasy. Indeed we were almost a bit relieved when after a couple of days we set our sails once again to head further south.
To reach our next destination, Dakar in Senegal, we had to cover the distance of over 600 nm, more than 110km, which is the furthest non-stop passage of our trip yet! The most comparable journey took us from Svalbard to Jan Mayen across the North Atlantic. In comparison, the present crossing can only be described as benign, with the biggest challenge being posed by the burning midday sun. Low to moderate winds from the North gently pushed us further south, flocks of shearwaters and storm petrels accompanied us for much of the way, and occasionally a pod of dolphins jumped around our bow. One day we even spotted the big blow of a giant rorqual, possibly a fin whale, from a distance, the first big whale we’ve seen since leaving Iceland. Not much later a pod of large, black pilot whales briefly followed us, waking memories of cold Norwegian fjords, the last time we’ve come across this species.
During the third night Patrick suddenly cried out: “Léonie, come up, quick!” Sleep-drunkenly I stumbled on deck, to be told very enthusiastically: “Look, the Southern Cross! We’re on our way home!!”. Indeed, hovering just above the horizon were the five stars that make up the symbol of the southern hemisphere’s sky. We were definitely on the right track!
Two days later our chart told us that the “Cap Verde”, the green cape that Dakar is built upon, lay only a few miles ahead. It took some time to penetrate the haze that lies over the African continent but finally the ephemeral silhouette of the westernmost tip of continental Africa appeared through the shimmering air.
Shortly after we dodged around small, buzzing banana boats, uncharted ship wrecks and a handful of sailboats on anchor, until we finally dropped our own anchor in front of the “Cercle de la Voile Dakar” yacht club. Once we stepped on the rickety jetty leading ashore we received the warmest welcome of our journey yet: located between flowering bushes, acacia, papaya and palm trees lay the picturesque buildings of the yacht club, with a big terrace overlooking the bay crowded with a cheerful mix of yachties, European ex-pats and locals. We were quickly offered a cold beer, all arrival formalities were postponed to the next day, and after a cold shower we felt more home than we had anywhere for a long time.
But talking of home: back in Switzerland another very important event is taking place: my nephew turns five years old today! Dear Maxim, we wish you all the best and hope you have a fantastic birthday! This little video is just for you!
The last week we found ourselves busy with last minute shopping and last minute fixing of numerous small broken things on the boat, all to prepare us to return to Africa. While the intensely burning sun in the Canary Islands already announced the southern realms, the city of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria was very much a European town, with all the luxurious shops, restaurants, bars and clubs that come with it. Granted, hot showers in the morning are nice, but we longed for a change in scenery.
So, last Sunday we once again boarded our faithful little yacht Widdershins, and headed South. Almost 300 nautical miles lay before us, and rarely has the sailing been so relaxing. During the day we got rid of most our cloths, burning our skins in the blistering sun in many hidden places still harbouring our Arctic moon-tan! The north wind was moderate, and with the sea sheltered from the Canary Islands barely any waves rippled the surface. Instead, myriads of dolphins accompanied us for much of the way, and the further south we got, the more diverse the birds soaring around our mast became.
Then, finally, at the end of the third night, a long peninsula enclosing a wide lagoon became visible on our radar – and with it dozens upon dozens of fishing vessels leaving the shelter of Dakhla harbour. Normally, that would not pose a big problem, but most of the boats were not illuminated, or if they bore a light, it was so faint that one could only just make it out when the ship was a few hundred meters away. Granted, occasionally some would jump up and wave a faltering torch erratically in our direction, but the final approach ended up a wild careering race with the tide at our heels and various small dinghies providing a hair-raising slalom course!
When the sun raised over the horizon in a splash of orange a landscape different to anything we’ve seen so far on our trip unfolded. White, low banks glared in the morning sun before climbing into distant cliffs and arid plains – all barren and burnt by the merciless sun. Once we tied up in the busy fishing harbour, and fought our ways through endless bureaucracy, we discovered a place bare of any vegetation, with long, dusty roads leading to the remote village of Dakhla. We are yet to explore this town but it already has that smell of adventure clinging to it …
April fools day arrived in Morocco to see two rather sorry fools gazing at a square package that had been occupying almost all of their combined attention and energy over the past month. I have to admit to dreaming on at least two occasions of finally placing my hands upon this very package – yet rather than the waves of relief that my dream counterpart experienced, I found myself gazing rather dejectedly at our long-awaited delivery. Though this square package did indeed hold the promise of providing us with propulsion at last, the package was bound in several layers of twisted wire with imposing lead seals featuring the star of Morocco. Clearly the intention was to deter us from any audacious thoughts of actually laying our hands on the gleaming brass propeller we new lay within.
After a morning spent trying to find out exactly what we were supposed to do next (there was no instructions or paperwork associated with our tardy delivery) we fearfully envisioned another convoluted dance through swaths of red tape. Than we realised it was April fools day! Being a glass half full kind of guy I quickly congratulated the witty humour of the faceless bureaucrats who had been holding our package for ransom for over a month, and chuckled as I snipped the seal.
Inside our box lay a very shiny new Brunton’s Autoprop – and as opposed to the one-bladed chunk of brass that had propelled us south from our last harbour, this version had three blades!
Buoyed with giddy optimism I donned my dry suit, took a glance at the murky harbour, found a spot free from any conspicuous floating hazards (we once counted 12 condoms on a walk down our weir), and dived in. I can’t say what followed was particularly enjoyable, but to be honest a job, which I had feared for some time, turned out to run rather smoothly. True the visibility only extended about as far as my arm, but having had quite a long time to think things through (over a month!) we had a system in place for every eventuality. With Leonie handing me tools, the dog barking in disgust, and me flailing in the gloom we actually only took half an hour to detach the mangled mess that had powered us through the arctic. In a jiffy we had restored our boat to mobility with the addition of a gleaming new propeller.
Next stop: the Canary Islands!
I guess some of you are wondering where the hell we are? Well in a sense so are we!
After the rather shocking discovery that our three-bladed propeller has somehow managed to adopt the latest internet dieting craze and lose weight through the amputation of two of its blades, we recently found we were in a rather inoperable state. One blade flinging around does actually propel the boat forward but the result is an unbalanced and ugly situation that does not bode well for the long term health of our boat…. I guess that stands as a warning: dieters beware!
While this came as a bit of a blow, we figured we could fairly quickly order a new propeller in. So upon arrival in Agadir we thought that soon we would be on our way. Again I find myself suffering the curse of the eternal optimist! It has now been almost a month since our propeller was impounded (entirely unnecessarily) by customs, and during this time … well we have not been doing a lot of exploring.
Don’t get me wrong, Agadir is actually a lovely town, but it is a little far removed from the “real” Morocco we witnessed in some of the less developed coastal towns we stumbled upon during our jaunt down the African coast. After a disastrous earthquake in 1960 the entire town has been re-built leaving one of the cleanest and most comfortable locations to be discovered … but for us it lacks that gritty unpretentious feel we fell in love with in places like Mohammedia and Cabo Tafelney – here the western influence and the hordes of tourists (including us!) seems to have robbed the locals of a little of their “local”-ness.
So … I guess this is just an update to appease the various folk that have been expressing concern over our resounding silence. We expect to get our propeller tomorrow (fingers crossed) and after that we will resume our adventure. Sorry for the lack of input from this end but to be honest the highlight over the past week has been lounging on the beach with a beer …. Not really worth a blog!
This evening finds our boat rocking violently in the turbid red water stirred by a Saharan storm. The sky is occasionally lit by violent flashes of lightening followed by the crash of thunder. Bursts of stark light provide moments of illumination in the otherwise dim cabin of the yacht – the power is out so we are in energy conservation mode. Outside rain hammers on the deck and upon my shoulders as I scramble about the violently pitching deck attempting to tie loose ends of the thrashing lines that are showing wear from the constant pitching and rubbing. The southwest swell from the Atlantic is surging directly into the harbour here in Agadir and it looks like another sleepless night.
We have been in Agadir for over a week with little option but to explore our surroundings. Despite the helpful assistance of Brunton who have shipped us a new propeller to replace the one bladed piece of ballast currently attached to our boat, we are still waiting for delivery following a series of inexplicable delays in shipping. Seriously, DHL is a shipping company that despite a high profile around the globe seems incapable of delivering anything approaching the promised “express” service. After a week of delays and misinformation we are still no closer to knowing when our important package will arrive! I’ll keep you updated on the full scope of our propeller woes in a later blog (hopefully with the new prop in hand!), and divert my ranting to perhaps more interesting commentary on the fascinating land we find our-selves in.
The storm raging outside is rather the exception than the rule, and since our arrival here we have been enjoying beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches. A few days ago we also got the chance to hire a car and explore the surrounding countryside. As we climbed into the rocky hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean we quickly discovered a stunning landscape that appears barren from a distance but reveals a surprising vitality once you take a stroll.
Argan trees with gnarled trunks and wicked thorns provide patches of dusty green to punctuate the red rocky landscape. The trees are a-twitter with small birds occasionally flashing into the air to pluck an insect on the wing, and the birds in turn are watched by the hawks circling above the rocky crags of the summits. The mountains are composed of layers of tortured sandstone folded into twisted shapes that spill their load of fossilised marine life into the tumbles of boulders on their slopes. Among the fossils, live beetles and scorpion scamper and lizards laze in the sun. Ground squirrels bounce around the rubble before plunging into their burrows upon the sight of our camera aimed in their direction.
Actually I can’t blame the squirrels for being wary. On our travels we found one child proudly displaying a thrashing squirrel on the end of a rope he was holding up in triumph. Though we were unable to communicate with him (he spoke only Arabic) he was delighted to pose with his catch. Perhaps he was going to keep it as a pet, but I fear that the poor little thing was going to end up in the pot. Later on when we descended into a verdant green strip of land lining a sheltered gorge we also found children perched on the side of the dusty trickle of water fishing for eels. Humans seem alien in this landscape and it is easy to fall into the habit of wishing people would just leave dessert life alone – after all life is difficult enough here without having to dodge the clutches of curious children. But then you look around and find that human habitation is built into the very architecture of this land. Rock buildings blend into the walls of the river valley, and upon a second look it is clear that the tiered slopes are actually moulded by the hand of man. The goats scampering on the slopes are guided by people living a life very similar to that of their forefathers. The people of Morocco have lived in these lands for thousands of years and the only aliens around here are a couple of suntanned tourists with a dusty dog in tow.
After our grand entry in Essaouira (i.e. being stuck in the middle of the harbour and becoming the daily entertainment for residents and tourists alike) we soon left our embarrassment behind and met the locals on more congenial terms. While Sparrow befriended the numerous stray dogs, cats and camels on the beach (alright, she was more interested in their droppings) Pat and I were soon besieged by the vendors of the countless little stores lining the narrow alleys of the Medina. I must admit, between all the bric-a-brac and the omnipresent sunburnt tourists we did feel a little bit forlorn, and where about to turn our backs to this too-busy harbour town, when the captain of the coastguard boat, our neighbour in the harbour, invited us to dinner at his place. After accepting the gracious offer we were delighted to find ourselves in an amazing traditional house with swallows winging through the open courtyard! We had a great time, a delicious dinner and as a bonus learned how to cook traditional Tajine, a great addition to our growing recipe book.
When the weather forecast predicted a few calm days we decided to head for an anchorage further south. A local diver had confirmed that around Cape Tafelney we’d find some suitable sites for conducting some more reef life survey dives. However, once we slipped into water we soon discovered that not only was the visibility less than two meters, but we also failed to find any reef. Quite frustrated we paddled back to our boat and heaved our heavy equipment back on board.
While Pat was still in the dive gear he figured that he may as well check out the bottom of the yacht. We had been losing power under motor recently and thought there was a chance our propeller had caught one of the countless fishing nets encountered along the coast, but when Pat resurfaced from his inspection the news were much worse. For some incomprehensible reasons two of our three propeller blades had simply disappeared! Of course this does not only render the propeller close to ineffective, but also places a huge stress on the engine … alas, the first major breakdown since we left Iceland!
To get out of our gloomy mood we decided to take our dinghy for a visit ashore. The only route to land was via some big, breaking waves crashing upon the beach of a picturesque fishing village – and of course our tiny outboard was not strong enough to escape the swell! Before I knew what happened I was washed out of the dinghy and found myself flailing in the surf. Well, at least now we know that our dodgy Spanish life jacket inflates when you find yourself under water! Sparrow was likewise unimpressed by the sudden immersion, but fortunately the beach was close and soon all three of us scrambled ashore with the flooded boat in tow, earning a few funny looks from the locals. We later watched as they pulled their small fishing boats up at the same beach in a much more graceful manner … oh well.
To warm our soaked selves we went for a stroll up the hill. While I scrambled on all fours trying to follow Pat and Sparrow up the steep slopes I discovered that the whole terrain was covered in fossils. As Pat had always dreamed of discovering a dinosaur, we spent the next few hours turning every small rock upside down. Although dinosaurs were not amongst the fossilized fauna, we did find some small seashells, brachiopods and snail shells – finally some sea life despite our unsuccessful diving attempts!
After a couple of nights at this anchorage the weather turned windier. While standing on deck in the raising swell and contemplating our onward route with our broken propeller in mind, we were suddenly startled by a big blowing sound to starboard – then we could hardly believe our eyes when a big, lone male orca surfaced just meters from our boat! The closest encounter I ever had with this deadly hunter!
A very uncomfortable and bumpy night later we finally pulled up the anchor and set our sails to head further south again – next stop: Agadir.
While in Mohammedia we had the chance to take a train to Rabat where we were flung into the chaos of street stalls that made the medina of our humble port of entry seem like Zen therapy. Rabat is the administrative centre of Morocco and while it is by no means the most bustling market town, after the wide spaces of the ocean we were a little overwhelmed by the crush of the crowd…. But not too much to appreciate the exotic sights and smells and consume enough sugared treats to make the psychedelic colours of the stores spin (they like things sweet here!).
After the train ride back home (memorable only for the dogs earnest protest at the indignity of beiong stuffed into a back-pack – a requirement of the trains here), we boarded Widdershins and made all ship shape for a dash south towards Essaouira. The trip was rather longer than expected but the occasional dolphin pod was there to keep us company and the brown coast of Africa was always in sight to inspire us with dreams of adventure… and we got a pretty happy dose of adventure when we arrived!
After anchoring for the night outside the harbour we pulled in the anchor for an early entry into the harbour. What we forgot to do was a) turn on the radio and b) check the tides. Fact a) resulted in us missing the fervent efforts of local skippers telling us that we should not enter the harbour. Fact b) meant that we didn’t realise that a particularly low tide combined with the fact that the port had not been dredged since perhaps the Phoenicians were trading dyes from this craggy rock meant that the sea was not quite deep enough.
Thus our grand entry to Essaouira came to a rather sticky end. Well at least we got to know the locals as they spent a couple of hours hauling on lines to drag us through the mud so we could tie up alongside the local coast guard vessel. The Captain wryly mentioned that we should probably have our radio on, but overall I think the whole catastrophe provided them with a nice diversion from the normal throngs of tourists that seem to outnumber locals here. It is an amazing town with rampart walls and twisting streets filled with enthusiastic vendors, but the fact that it’s hard to find a local shopping on the street lends it the air of a theme park. Oh well … we are one of the tourists I suppose.
We left the port of Sines in southern Portugal with high hopes of adventure as we set off for the passage away from Europe towards a new continent. The winds seemed to take their lead from our own elation and we were soon skimming across the Atlantic Ocean at an exhilarating seven knots with the rocky coast or Portugal rapidly diminishing in our wake. Dolphins leaped at our bow and the occasional leatherback turtle peered at us from the choppy seas.
After only two days at sea, our second dawn saw the sun rising above the hazy horizon which soon revealed the low hills of Morocco and the harbour of Mohammedia. By lunch time we were tied up in a tight little harbour surrounded by rafts of slightly dodgy fishing boats and were attended by a swarm of well-wishing locals all shouting enthusiastic recommendations on how to tie our lines to the dock. In the background the wailing of a Muslim call to prayer pierced the general clamour of the harbour and the warm breeze carried exotic smells. Soon we had the customs and immigration clambering (somewhat unsteadily) on board and beginning the arduous round of paper-work.
Once we had signed all the required forms, had our passports stamped and (with some trepidation) handed over all our ships documents for the duration of our stay, we were free to explore our first stop in Africa. With only two days of sailing we have truly arrived in a different planet. The warm climate has nurtured a profusion of green growth – the alleys are lined with palms and bright flowers and every spare patch of ground seems to play out a vegetative battle for space ending in a leafy profusions. Cats wander everywhere, leaping out of bins at the most unexpected moments and harassing enthusiastic puppies. Winding streets make a maze through the old medina where stalls of exotic wares dazzle the eyes and the prominent minaret of the local mosque is the only landmark. Folk dressed in traditional veils and robes mix freely with more liberal elements with modern clothes and cheeky children take full advantage of the fact that I didn’t know the work for “no” in Arabic – one child climbed all over me and had a good attempt at pulling poor old Sparrows tails off! Seems they are not used to dogs and scruffy sailors in these parts …