First taste of Africa

Day 2 – 27th December – Ferry from Almeria to Melilla and Melilla to Fez (317km)

Another extremely early rise did not help Gerard feel much better, and by the time we got to the port at 6am he was starting to have second thoughts about starting the trip, but we were all hoping that a good dose of drugs bought the previous evening and four hours to sleep on the crossing to Melilla would make him feel better.

img_1455The rest of us spent our time on the upper deck, the only passengers fool enough to brave the cold to contemplate the sun rise over the sea.

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When we got off the ferry the temperature was much higher, and after filling the tanks to make the most of Melilla’s special tax regime, we rode across the town to the border, where we officially crossed the door into Africa.

Well, actually, we first had to try to get our bikes across a human flood trying to get across the border. Not the immigrants or refugees that you hear about in the news, trying to reach this small piece of EU territory in Northern Africa, but a mob of Moroccans that cross the border to buy things that are cheaper than in Morocco or impossible to find there and then take it to their country to sell it. To prevent the border facilities from being overrun with people carrying boxes and bags the guards only open the pedestrian crossing at given intervals and then all the people waiting make a run for it. We were riding the bike behind a van and a short distance from the vehicles entrance we saw a lot of people sitting around and waiting, Then, as luck would have it, just when the van was driving over a zebra crossing the guards must have opened the doors, because everybody suddenly stood up, grab their stuff and dashed to the gate. In a matter of seconds, we were surrounded by a human mass, and I feared that someone would bump into or be pushed against us and with such a heavy bike and a passenger I would lose balance and end up on the ground.

Once we had managed to get past the crowd and into the border compound itself the chaos continued – we had prepared the import forms for the bike, but we still had to fill in a small immigration form, get the passport stamped and get the import form signed and stamped at the border and at customs. The immigration forms we had to fill in were nowhere to be found, and the reason was that the ‘helpers’ that are found in most borders had them. The ones here were very persistent, and the attitude of the people working at the border did nothing but encourage them – there were no signs and no explanations at all.

We navigated our way through that mess with the ‘help’ of one of those guys and in a matter of minutes had all the paperwork complete and just had to wait for the rest of our group while we enjoyed a curious show – a ridiculously overloaded car was trying to carry more goods than what I imagined the import regulations allowed, and a border guard had taken the wheel and was driving the car into a separate area of customs, while some men unloaded the trunk as the car was moving and threw bags over the fence where their friends were waiting to avoid having them confiscated.

Once we were all done, we left the border compound, exchanged some money and hit the road south. There was a lot of police, but nobody stopped us, and once the worst of Nador’s traffic was left behind, we enjoyed quite good roads until we found the motorway that led to Fes.

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After the rest on the ferry and some food, Gerard was feeling better and had decided to go ahead and continue the trip. We had started riding quite late because of the border crossing, and we were worried that nightfall might catch us before reaching the city and finding the place where we were staying, but we managed to get there just after sunset and ride into a maze of backstreets in a neighbourhood overlooking the medina, looking for the house where we were going to spend the night.

We had booked rooms in a property through AirBnB that was advertised as a ‘palace’, but the plain metal door we ended up in front of looked quite uninviting. The owner came out and told us that we were staying further down the road, and led us to the palace.

And what a palace it was! By now it was already dark, and after going through a metal gate we parked the bikes in the garage of a separate building and took our stuff down a street, across a patio, through a big doorway, down an alley… after few hours of sleep and lots of hours of travel, I was completely disoriented and felt I was floating from one place to another, until another big wooden door opened and we were led into a courtyard that could very well have been in the Alhambra.

img_1552After crossing it and walking up some stairs we reached our room – a cavernous space of about 100 square meters, ceilings over six meters tall decorated with elaborate carved and painted wood, thick curtains… it was unbelievable.

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It seems that the owner’s grandfather had been the Pacha of Casablanca and this was his second residence, where he kept his four wives and at least 12 courtesans while he was meeting the likes of Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosvelt.

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Overwhelmed by all the things we had experienced in the last 24 hours, we crashed in our beds under several layers of blankets and fell fast asleep.

Cold and boredom

Day 1 – 26th December – Barcelona to Almeria (825km)

6 o’clock in the morning. Pitch black sky over the city. A couple of drunken tourists walking down the street singing the kind of anthem that all drunken tourists sing abroad. A security guard deeply asleep in the warmth of his booth. Suddenly, a high-pitched siren echoes in the car park, and he opens his eyes with a jolt. Some kind of weird astronaut is ringing the bell, demanding that he opens the main door. He rubs his eyes and realises it is a weirdo all dressed up in motorbike gear. ‘For fuck’s sake’, he grumbles. ‘What is this guy doing here so early? It’s a holiday today, he should be in bed, still trying to digest all the food he ate for Christmas.’

Ten minutes later the bike was loaded and we were heading out of the city to meet the first of our travelling companions, Esteve, in Vallirana. To keep things interesting and cheap we combined national road and motorway for the first hours until we left Catalonia and met the two remaining members of our expedition in a service area in Benicarló, Gerard and Raluca.

With our group complete, all that was left to do for the remainder of the day was to cover the rest of the distance to Almeria, where we were going to spend the night before taking an early morning ferry to Melilla.

800 km of motorway were not going to be interesting, and even though we were lucky and the weather was good, it was still cold for most of the day. I had been thinking about replacing my rear tire for this trip, as it had almost 12,000km on it, but had decided against it in the end, not wanting to break a new tire in with so many kilometres of motorway on a loaded bike, so we taking it easy to save fuel and preserve the knobbly tires, which meant that the journey took longer than expected. We were planning on getting to the hotel by mid-afternoon, but sunset caught us still a long way from our destination, blinding us for about half an hour.

After what felt like ages riding in the dark, and with Gerard suffering from a bad cold combined with hay fever, we finally arrived in Almeria, located our hotel and had a warm shower. Gerard called it a day and went to bed without having dinner, hoping to feel well enough the following day to be able to continue the trip, and the rest of us went out to enjoy some beer and tapas.

Coming soon… Morocco report

We are already back from Morocco and settling into the daily rutine. Unlike other journeys, this one has been in group, so enjoying the company at the end of the riding day, together with the poor quality of the Internet connection in most places have meant that I have not been able to post as I travelled. I am putting the final details to the stories and will publish very soon.

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Moroccan paperwork

Next step on our trip preparation – arranging the import forms for our motorbikes.

I have been told that there are long queues and general chaos at the border crossing in Melilla, and it is possible to expedite the process by having the temporary import forms for the vehicles you are travelling with ready beforehand. That way you save the hassle of finding the right window to obtain the forms, filling them in, dealing with local ‘helpers’, etc.

It is possible to fill in the temporary import form online and print out a copy to hand in directly at the crossing on this website.

Fill in all the information and print a copy. You get three copies of the same form in one A4 page, sign each of them in the ‘signature du déclarant’ section and they will fill the remaining information at the border (date and number). Customs keep the bottom form (Entrée), the second one (Apurement) will have to be handed when you leave the country and the third one (Exemplaire déclarant) is for you to keep.

If you do not speak French and need some help to fill in the online form, there is a translation/explanation in Tim Cullis’ Morocco Knowledge Base.

How to get the bikes to Morocco

One of the first things we looked at once we had the dates and a rough outline of the route we were going to do was to consider which options we had to get to Morocco. There are more than 1,000 km of motorway to get to the ferry that crosses the Gibraltar strait, too much to ride on one day.

The first alternative we considered was the ferry from Barcelona to Tangier – it would save us a long ride, petrol, tolls, tires… but unfortunately the ferry does not operate every day, and there was no ferry available for our departure day, the 26th of December.

The second alternative was to put the bikes on a trailer and drive to Algeciras. We would be able to take turns at the wheel, reducing fatigue and pay fuel and tolls only for one vehicle. It sounded like a good plan, if it were not for a couple of details – one, we did not have a trailer; two, none of our cars had a trailer hitch. Then Gerard remembered that his family have a trailer in his hometown – not a trailer for motorbikes, but a big one nevertheless, big enough to take three trail bikes. Not the kind to be easily discouraged, we rode halfway across the country to see the trailer and test whether the bikes would fit on it. If they did, then we could consider fitting a trailer hitch on my car and splitting the cost among the five of us.

The trailer was big indeed, but definitely not designed for motorbikes. It was quite high and did not have a ramp, so we had to improvise. Gerard provided an old desk that looked sturdy enough to support the weight of my bike (the biggest one) and I got it up the improvised ramp using the throttle and clutch while walking next to it, with the rest of the guys holding its back.

Once we got it on the trailer, it became clear that there was no way three bikes were going to fit in there.

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That would have been the end of the trailer story, but a friend of mine offered to us his, which is specific for bikes. With our hopes up again, I went to get a quote for fitting a trailer hitch to my car and, to my dismay, it was a lot more than we had anticipated. Not only that, but there would be the extra cost of homologation, including a trailer in the insurance policy, the paperwork and having an extra license plate made. On top of that, the trailer is designed to fit three bikes, but of a smaller kind – endure bikes, race bikes… we had no guarantee that it would be able to take three big trails. That, and the time it would take to find secure parking for the car and the trailer near the port for two weeks plus the potential cost finally put us off the idea.

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We also considered having the bikes sent as I did when I visited the south a couple of years ago, but the shipping costs for a two-way transport service, plus plane tickets were too high compared with fuel and tolls.

Finally, I was told that there is another ferry line connecting Almeria to Melilla and Nador, which would save us about 300km, bringing the ride down to about 800. We reckoned that if we set off early we could be in Almeria by early afternoon, giving us time to have a good rest and enjoy some tapas before taking the ferry before sunrise the following day.

Planning is half the fun!

Two weeks of holidays for Christmas mean that another big trip is coming up. This time I am going to head south for the first time – Morocco!

I have no excuse for not having visited Morocco yet. Living in Barcelona, Morocco offers a taste of African adventure only a day’s ride away from me, making the desert one of the big must-see destinations for European bikers alongside the Nordkapp, Stelvio Pass, Transfagarasan Road, etc. Well, actually, I do have an excuse – I only have holidays in August, Easter and Christmas, and can not take any days off besides that. Easter would be the perfect time to visit Morocco, but I only have a week, which is too short to ride there, see enough and then ride back. I have a lot more time in the summer, but the temperatures are too high, which leaves the winter holidays. It will be cold and we won’t be able to see most of the Atlas mountains, but there is a lot more to discover.

dsc_0777I won’t be riding alone this time, though – we are going to be five people in three motorbikes.

We’ll keep you posted!