Copyright © Alan Whelan 2010

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For Olive, with love




Title Page

Copyright Page


1. ‘Hello there’

2. Desert drift and the road that’s on fire

3. The bastard beast bites back

4. The last man on earth

5. The beating heart of West Africa

6. ‘Five hundred will buy tea and bread’

7. ‘Manger, du thé, reposer’

8. Tombouctou

9. Djenné, Bobo, Wagga and on to the Nigeria border

10. Welcome-welcome

11. I am the mud man

12. The X Factor

13. Bad spirits in Ndendé

14. Return to Mouila

15. Ndendé, without raising the spirits

16. ‘When in doubt, turn right’

17. Escape route to Pointe Noire?

18. Manicured desolation

19. Table Mountain in sight


chapter opener african map

Right, let’s have tea.

Margaret Francis

The wonder, and perhaps a little envy, on the faces of the businessmen on the forecourt of the motorway services coming in out of the rain confirms how I must look to others. I’m certainly not going to work. These besuited Audi drivers – who already look foreign to my eyes – get a fleeting glimpse of a life about to be lived; a fleeting, imaginary escape from the quotidian.

I’m drenched through so I have a warming cup of vending-machine tea in a privately ironic nod to my immediate future, and as a souvenir I leave a puddle on the floor of the service station.

I get back on the Triumph and gingerly ease my way out of the services onto the M6. Unused to the immense weight of the luggage on the bike, I squirm between the lanes of motorway traffic. I have so little control I feel more like a passenger. Despite battling with the steering, the amazing, mind-expanding thought is that this road I’m on will eventually take me to Cape Town – the same road these people around me are taking to get to their offices and factories and call centres on this wet October morning.

The adrenalin pumps through my veins, transmits itself through the bars to the forks and the tyres to the tarmac. I may be swaying all over the road like a drunk coming home from a Christmas party, but the road is mine, all mine.

It takes a week to reach the southern Spanish port of Algeciras, skimming along the surface of the washed-out autoroutes. The town has the feel of North Africa about it: the dark-skinned men walking about the city in slippers and djellabas, the unruly moustaches, the tea served in miniature glasses, the hostel that doubles as a brothel. The view from a hill overlooking the port serves to heighten the excitement of tomorrow’s ferry to Morocco. I’m here for one of the reasons this city exists – to disgorge the helpless, curious European, in above his head, to AFRICA.

I’m going not because I think I belong but rather because I want to belong. Since I got married to Olive, a South African, in Johannesburg in 1984, I have felt something dragging me back to the continent. The pull has been strong enough for me to want to get close up, to experience Africa outside of my usual frustratingly clinical arrivals at Jo’burg or Cape Town airports. I feel as though I’m on a ten-metre diving board about to take the plunge for the first time. I want to immerse myself in Africa on my quest for the ultimate cuppa, but more of that later. I know the continent is out there waiting for me and I can barely contain myself. As a family catchphrase goes, ‘I’m so happy, I envy myself.’

Less than a hundred kilometres from the ferry, I decide to have an easy first day in Africa and ride up to Chaouen in the Rif Mountains. The whitewashed village, aglow in brilliant sunshine, welcomes me to the continent with a warm breeze as I turn away from Europe and face south towards the rest of Africa.

Later, at five o’clock, the hungry villagers will soon be going home to the family evening meal they’ve been looking forward to since sun-up. The market in the Moroccan village is heaving, and the sale from the stalls of live and recently deceased chickens, dates and festival cakes is peaking. A bird is chosen from the holding pen behind the head of an unshaven man in a once-white coat; then another man wrings its neck and feeds it whole into the de-feathering machine, covering himself with soft down and warm blood. Chicken tajine for supper tonight, I think.

Mohammed and I take an aimless walk through the streets. One building with a huge pile of roughly cut logs leaning against it catches my eye. We approach and I see that the wood is used to fuel the furnace for a hammam. We descend into the furnace room, a small dark space with a man dozing in his cot, a pot of tea beside him.

‘He is furnace man,’ Mohammed tells me, redundantly. ‘Twenty-four hours in a day.’

The furnace stoker must get through gallons of rehydrating tea each day to combat the debilitating effects of the unbearable heat, which I cannot tolerate for more than a few seconds. We emerge, gratefully, back up into the light.

The sight of the tea brings on a thirst and I suggest to Mohammed that we find a café for some mint tea of our own. He gives me a quizzical look. Nonchalantly, he clears his throat and coughs up a large spit ball which lands at his feet.

‘Guide’ would be too grand a description of Mohammed’s services, but he is available to aid the stranger in town, interpret and answer questions. He has an impressive habit of hacking up great gobs of phlegm to punctuate his conversation. Much as I might ‘erm’ and ‘umm’ my way through a dialogue, he uses throat clearing to emphasise the importance of a particular point, to critique the ways of the world, to clear his airways and just to amuse himself.

We skip up a narrow staircase to an empty rooftop tea room.

‘There are forty thousand peoples in this village; it is very old but lots of poor here and around,’ hack, ‘but we live in beautiful place. Look around.’ Spit. ‘Many Berber people come and sell food in the medina but I,’ says Mohammed, stressing the distinction, ‘I am Arab.’ Big garggly hack.

Mohammed leans back on the low wall tracing the perimeter of the roof and shows off his Nike T-shirt with its slogan ‘Hello There’. We look out over the town clinging to the hillside. Chaouen is a beguiling place full of gracious, slippered people scuffing along the dusty streets and immaculately dressed children skipping home from school, their angelic faces rimmed by coloured head scarves. Occasionally, old women walk by dressed in four-cornered straw hats with blue pompoms attached. They all squint into the late afternoon sun, some stopping to look up and observe the stranger.

Mohammed tells me he is penniless – he pulls out his trouser pocket linings as some sort of proof, then dredges up a document from his back pocket from the Court of Justice administering a fine of 1,000 dirhams which must be paid by a date, conveniently, a few days hence.

He says, ‘If not I find the money at this date,’ he holds out his upturned wrists in mock shackles, ‘How you say? The jail is for me.’

He neglects to confess how the fine was incurred.

‘I have son, Ahmed, he six years. I cannot pay one thousand dirhams,’ he looks pleadingly at me.

I don’t believe a word. We look out over the rooftops to the mountains beyond until Mohammed breaks the silence.

‘I wait for six o’clock to arrive for some soup, some tajine, maybe some kif. You want kif?’

He’s determined to get some cash out of me one way or the other.

He pulls a great oyster-like gob from the depths of his chest into his mouth, rolls it around his tongue, tastes it and lobs it in a graceful arc to the street below. Ppboompff. He is pleased with its trajectory and its dusty landing.

‘I should bring for you, kif. Many people come for kif; they eat, they smoke, they sleep, they feel good. But many people they just smoke... and dream...’

‘No, I don’t want any kif, thanks.’

‘And I cannot drink this mint tea, my friend.’

‘Why not?’

‘I wait for the call from the mosque, for it is Ramadan. No food... no drink.’

Damn. I’ve started a tea tour in the middle of the Islamic month of fasting! My first African Tea Encounter is a nonevent. I sip my own tea and prepare to take a photograph of Mohammed.

Hoick, spit.

He may be unable to ingest anything during daylight hours but it’s certainly busy one-way traffic in the opposite direction.

‘OK, I hold it.’ He grabs the glass, leans back on the low wall and repeats the phrase on his T-shirt, ‘HELLO THERE!’

Although my tea with Mohammed yielded none, I am collecting tea bags where I can as a promise to a Cape Town upliftment project – a cross between a charity and a going concern that helps disadvantaged people get a foothold in the job market and gain employable skills. I like to think of each tea bag as a milestone. You could mark out your life in the stories that tea bags tell.

For many years the notion of riding a motorcycle through Africa seemed to me to answer the continent’s call; it was as if I missed something I had never known. Since my earliest childhood in London, like many others, I’m sure, I have dreamed of far-off lands and exotic cultures. But it was not until 2005 that I started taking the whole idea of riding to Cape Town seriously. Nobody else did, of course, but that’s the thing with hare-brained schemes, they wouldn’t be harebrained if everybody wanted to do them. The impulse for the trip also fed into the enduring idea of escape and, in common with many guys with a job, a mortgage and a CD-buying habit to support, as I get older there seems more to escape from.

As with the notion for an African journey, it feels like I have always loved tea, not only as a thirst-quencher but also as an important, and undervalued, social ritual – that welcome interlude that punctuates the events of the day. My Irish family help make their country the biggest per-head consumers of tea in the world, using the amber liquid to commemorate, commiserate and celebrate, so I’m used to turning to the teapot to help me through every occasion. It’s a democratic drink – the Morris Minor of the drinking classes. I am sure world summits and peace negotiations would be resolved more quickly over a nice pot of tea – pouring the precious liquid into a waiting cup breaks down perceived barriers and stimulates conversation; you feel closer to your host in a way that sharing a pint in a pub can never achieve. The ritual is in your own hands; you create the encounter and make it what it is, and each one is different.

In 2005, my thoughts on tea got me wondering, do Africans perform the tea ritual? Do they even drink tea? Is it enjoyed with the same formality with which it is occasionally served in Britain? Does the phrase ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ have the same connotations at times of crisis? Is it used as a soother, a pick-me-up or a consolation?

The journey began to take shape in my mind. I just needed a little push to make it a reality... and I got it from a most unexpected place. During a holiday with Olive to Cape Town I visited the township of Imizamu Yethu, a shambolic creep of humanity spreading like a rash up the side of a mountain. Compared to the desirable homes on the other side of the gorgeous valley, it was a blot on the landscape. And it was a lot worse close up. Our guide, a well-informed man called Afrika Moni, introduced us to people who were struggling to meet the basic necessities of life: food, fresh water, shelter, employment. The township was home to around 15,000 people, the vast majority of whom lived in simple dwellings to say the least – precarious structures made of odd bits of tin, wood and plastic sheeting nailed together to keep the rain off.

During the second week in the Mother City, Olive noticed a newspaper article about a project called Original Tea Bag Designs that was running out of their raw materials – used tea bags! Natural curiosity forced us to check it out.

‘Hello! Welcome to Tea Bag Designs. The kettle’s just boiled,’ said the smiling woman in an English accent. We had barely stepped inside the workshop before two steaming mugs of tea were offered.

‘I’m Jill.’

Jill told us that the project, which had grown to employ fifteen people from the township, made tourist gifts and souvenirs featuring painted tea bags: coasters and trays, bookmarks and jewellery, trinket boxes and candle holders, all featuring a mini tea bag work of art.

‘We dry the tea bag, empty the leaves then paint on it. All the designs are the artists’ own work and each one is unique. You could say they’re painting their way out of poverty.’

The products were terrific: delicately crafted, eye-catching and original in every way. I found it inspiring that someone had found a way of extending the life of the humble tea bag – the very epitome of the throwaway society – to create such a success.

‘The wages are higher than the local average and working conditions are good, as you can see,’ said Jill. ‘We have one woman who works here called Nomsa who recently moved out of her shack into a brick-built house because of the wages she’s earning. She’ll be the first to tell you it’s transformed her life.’

On our return to Britain we began sending all our used tea bags to the project. Dreams of the road and my love of tea coalesced into one idea: a tea tour through Africa on a motorbike, stopping for tea with people I meet along the way and collecting the used tea bags – each one hopefully with a story to tell. If tea is the ultimate democratic drink, is there such a thing as the perfect cup of tea, that elusive, definitive cup? It must exist out there somewhere...

I had just been inspired by a quest. The flame had been lit to search for the ultimate cuppa.

Next morning I continue through the Rif Mountains as far as Ketama and turn right down a spectacular and little-used road towards Fez. Accompanied most of the way by the sight of the 2,448-metre peak of Jabal Tidiquin, I travel by breathtaking mountains and cliffs, fir forests and perilously placed villages served by sparkling springs and waterfalls. There is hardly a straight piece of tarmac in the entire 150-kilometre ride into the ancient city. For the first time I feel the pulse of the journey as I make my way south towards the Sahara, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, then a yet-to-be-determined route to Cameroon, Congo and down the west coast to my final destination of Cape Town, South Africa.

The journey to Fez is also memorable for the lengths to which the infamous hashish sellers of the Rif will go to make a deal: I am waved down, chased both on foot and on bicycle, stared down in a high-speed game of ‘chicken’, flashed at by every other approaching vehicle, overtaken and yelled at from a car window – three times – and approached directly on a water stop at the side of the road by twelve guys amiably expressing a long-held desire to brew tea for a guy on a Triumph Tiger ‘... and maybe some time for kif?’

Fez lives up to expectations: very hot, noisy and enjoyably cramped. It is children’s day for Ramadan and in tiny school rooms throughout the medina all the little ones are dressed in gay costumes singing festive songs. There are craftsmen whose techniques cannot have changed much in hundreds of years, using open fires and bellows, primitive tools and inherited skills. I stumble across a windowless workshop with a fellow making teapots – tiny, silver vessels with beautiful inlaid decoration, just big enough for one decent cup. The heat from his torch is fierce and the seating position in the tight corner must give him day-long cramp. I want to buy a teapot but there is not a square centimetre left in my panniers. I know I will regret it, but I have to leave empty-handed.

The next day I make Rabat on the Atlantic coast after 200 kilometres on a dusty highway and hole up in a hostel filled with other European travellers. My ill-timed Tea Encounter with Mohammed in Chaouen was my first experience of Ramadan, but here in Rabat, while it is clearly a prayerful time, I see also a joyous festival with whole families on the street in the evenings in their finest clothes taking time to chat with neighbours while grazing on food from rickety stalls. During the day cafés are closed, so hungry Europeans have to buy food from grocery stores or stay in their hotels.

Early on the second morning the first sung note of the adhan wakes me. The whole tones of the call to prayer rise slowly up the scale. The voice pauses and repeats, but the second time it ends on a discordant, mournful note. I sense the mu’adh-dhin, who calls the faithful to prayer, is not too far across the city of Rabat, in a mosque, down an alley, sitting in front of a microphone, eyes closed. Languidly, the voice, middle-aged, clear and earnest, returns to the beginning of the phrase and repeats the call. It is still dark, too early to see the hands of my watch, but I guess it must be around five o’clock. Many of the faithful are already making their way to prayer, the first of five daily devotions on this, one of the final days of Ramadan. Traditionally during this month Muslims ask for forgiveness for past sins (and guidance to avoid future ones) and pray for patience, spirituality and modesty – three virtues I could benefit from on this trip.

The voice over the loudspeaker continues its pleading, melancholic motif, but now it is joined by a louder and more insistent call from a closer mosque that seems to say, ‘those of you who were not moved by the first call cannot ignore mine’. If more convincing were needed for the stragglers, a third plaintive voice fights for attention across the rooftops. I look out through the stained glass window of the dorm to the first bluish hints of daylight and wonder if it calls to me. The sounds build, until it seems the three voices have me located like a GPS. Finally, two sirens signifying the start of the day’s fasting rev up and fill any empty space in the atmosphere and any thinking space in my brain. It is a sound that calls everyone, excludes no one, so long as you are a believer. As the three voices and the sirens reach a powerful crescendo they all stop as one, leaving the ears bereft and hurting. The only remaining sound in the atmosphere is gentle birdsong, which brings me back down to earthly concerns. I step out into the open courtyard in my boxers and look to the dark sky, which now has tints of deep blue, light enough to see it is half past five. There is a slight chill and I dress. Rabat is ready for another day’s fasting; I am looking forward to tea and breakfast.

This large city is easygoing, and an aimless stroll through its streets can be enjoyed without the annoyances of the leech-like shopkeepers and guides of Fez. Rabat became the capital of Morocco – stealing that honour from Fez – after France invaded in 1912, and to this day the layout of the streets, the grand buildings and relaxed nature of the city reflect the influence of its old colonial master. Although on the surface Rabat appears to straddle the fence that divides Eastern from Western values – modern office blocks are filled with men wearing djellabas and slippers who are called to prayer five times a day while BMWs ferry around burqa-clad women who scutter into beauty salons – the early call to prayer is the defining introduction for me to Muslim North Africa.

I spend much of the next day at the Mauritanian embassy applying for a visa. Still finding it difficult to judge the width of the panniers on the bike, I leave a deep scratch and dent in the side of the ambassador’s Mercedes, which is parked outside. The incident is spotted by some sharp-eyed villains lounging on the bonnets of three Mercedes waiting for their own visas. They say they won’t tell anyone as their Italian-plated stolen cars are in transit to Mauritania. I am a little uneasy that they treat me as one of their own.

With the visa stamped in my passport, I make Casablanca in an hour – and spend another hour flghting my way through the city’s traffic to my next Tea Encounter.

‘You’ll have no problem with me; I love the British.’

Such is my welcome from Mehdi Benslimane, a good-looking, twentysomething who somehow befits the archaic description ‘dapper’: close-cropped hair, crisp white shirt, black trousers, European shoes, designer horn-rimmed spectacles and precise gestures.

Mehdi, who was introduced to me by a contact in Britain, brings me to the family home, a very comfortable one-storey house with a small garden but still large enough for some gorgeous flowering plants and bushes and a palm tree or two. I park the bike inside the gate and follow him into the house. The large main living room is immaculately clean with three distinct seating areas, two with large couches and chairs and one with a chaise longue. The kitchen is occupied by a maid, Fatima, who is busy preparing food for the following day’s festival of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan and is the nearest thing to the end of Lent and Christmas Day rolled into one.

Mehdi says, ‘Welcome to Casablanca, will you have something to drink?’

‘Before sundown?’

‘We don’t worry about things like that as long as we eat and drink behind closed doors! Our neighbours are probably doing the same. In any case I’m not very religious, although it is a crime in Morocco to break the fast before sundown during Ramadan. That means no food, no drinks, no smoking,’ Mehdi says with some vexation. ‘So I have a coffee and my first two cigarettes of the day at home before I go to work, then I shower to get rid of the smell. I observe the rest of the fasting at work in front of colleagues.’

He rolls his eyes.

‘For me, Islam and religion as a whole is all about coherence. You can’t be praying at the mosque in the afternoon and gambling at the casino at night. I’m an all or nothing person, and for now it’s nothing. Right, let’s have tea.’

The maid brings a tray with two small glasses and tea in an extravagantly inlaid silver teapot. The mint tea is poured; it is mild and clean tasting.

Mehdi is an exceptionally enthusiastic host, calling for the maid to bring this or that, putting on music, making sure I am comfortable, and all the while giving me an entertaining history of Moroccan politics and the legacy of French colonial rule. During the course of the afternoon the rest of the family arrives. Driss, Mehdi’s father, is involved in property, facilitating European developers’ move into Morocco and away from the collapsing Spanish market. He is agreeably dishevelled, bald on top with greying unkempt hair to the sides, and wears ill-fitting trousers and an unironed shirt. He rarely makes a comment in English without ending it with a charming crooked-toothed smile. He has the most smiling eyes I think I have ever seen.

The first time I meet Mehdi’s mother, an elegant, slightly built woman, she is bringing food from the car for the celebrations, and almost every other time I see her during the following twenty-four hours she is carrying food; it is a measure of the easy, warm reception to her home that the only word of English she utters is ‘welcome’.

Nightfall signals the official end of fasting for the day and the end of Ramadan for another year. We sit at a large round table laden with enough food to feed twenty ravenous navvies although there are just eight of us: Mehdi and his brother Bashir, father Driss, mother and sister, and the three strangers to the house – Bashir’s new Dutch girlfriend with film star looks, Daniel, a Jewish property developer from London who is in town on business, and myself.

The plates on the table are piled high with hard-boiled eggs, dates, croissants and sugar pastries, chickpea and chicken soup, fresh soft cheese, tiny meat pancakes, latkas and water or espresso coffee. It’s a suitably indulgent spread with which to celebrate the end of a month’s daytime fasting. There doesn’t seem to be any accepted order in which to taste the carefully presented food so I just dig in hungrily.

Daniel, the developer, cheerfully puts his cards on the table describing how racist his mother is and how she worries for him, as a Jew, doing business with Muslims. The Benslimanes laugh good-naturedly and insist he would not be eating at their table if he was not welcome. Daniel is a jovially open man who is fascinated by my trip, but when I tell him my proposed route his head sinks into his hands, and as I reel off the countries I will be riding through he starts groaning with incredulity. He looks up with arched eyebrows as if to ask the question ‘you’re not serious?’

‘Do you want some advice about the DR Congo?’ He asks.

I nod my head.

‘Don’t go.’

I wait for the punchline...

‘Don’t go,’ he repeats. He is serious, still in a state of amazement.

‘Well...’ I begin.

‘Don’t go.’

‘Yes, but...’

Don’t! Bloody! Go! The place is totally lawless. If you get into any sort of diffi ...’

‘But I have no choice!’ I manage to blurt out. ‘There’s no other way down the west coast.’

He thinks for a few seconds while he tries to weigh me up.

‘Well, if you absolutely bloody have to... don’t stop. Don’t stop for anything. If they try to stop you at a checkpoint or anywhere else just throw dollars at them and get the hell out of there.’

As he is the only person around the table who has actually been to the Democratic Republic of Congo, nobody has anything to add. They all silently ponder my slim chances in the heart of Africa.

‘This is civilisation, Morocco,’ says Driss. ‘But Africa...’ He shrugs.

After breaking the fast the family tell a string of awful jokes. Driss tells only gags that begin ‘There was a priest, a rabbi and an imam...’ He struggles a little with the English so Mehdi has to translate the occasional word, but he never misses a beat and finds every well-worn joke deliriously funny. We’re all in fits.

The family switches between Arabic, which is always spoken for family matters, French and English for the Brits’ benefit. The Arabic sounds like a disagreement in a carpet shop, and in the middle of one animated discussion Mehdi stops the conversation dead and says, ‘We’d better talk in English or Alan will think we’re arguing!’

The Benslimanes all rise as one from the table and either help to clear the dishes or make their way out into the garden to have a smoke in the cool night air. Driss lies flat out under a light blanket on one of the couches in the living room and takes a nap. He is soon snoring gently while the bustle of family life continues around him. As the maid brings tea to the lounge, Bashir’s girlfriend and I are left momentarily alone at the table. We look at each other and mouth simultaneously, ‘What a family!’

Later, after inviting me to stay the night, Mehdi takes me to a sidewalk café in the glitzy city centre to meet a friend. At eleven o’clock, as I am looking forward to returning to the house to sleep, Mehdi looks at his watch and says, ‘We have to go or we’ll be late for dinner!’

I can barely believe we are going to eat again today, but we return home to the appetite-inducing smell of garlic roast lamb coming from the kitchen and the table being prepared for another feast. I go to bed replete, relaxed and happy.

In the morning while Driss is brewing up I tell him that I should quickly check on the bike, which has been left overnight in their front garden. I return relieved that all is well and he says, ‘It’s still there?’ in a tone of mock surprise, followed by a private chuckle as he pours me tea to take the sting out of the teasing.

Later, the house is filled with friends and family who bring gifts of more food or sing songs and catch up on family news. Mehdi and I slip out to the only golf club in Casa, where there are a few less-than-devout locals in shorts and baseball caps ignoring the festival. At the swish club house Mehdi orders Lipton’s tea ‘the English way’ so that I can take a tea bag with me.

The Benslimanes are among the first Tea Encounters in Africa but not the first on the Brew Ha-Ha, which started nine months earlier in Britain. I had tea with someone chosen at random, then asked for an introduction to someone else for tea and so on, hoping the ball would keep rolling. It did. I sketched out some criteria:

  1. My host serves tea
  2. I take a photograph
  3. I get advice for the trip ahead
  4. I collect the used tea bags
  5. I ask for an introduction to another Tea Encounter

The memory of each Tea Encounter and the advice given by the hosts would come in useful on every step of the African journey.

The British Tea Encounters ended a few days before my departure for Africa on 1 October 2007. I had my own optimism and an open mind, and I had a mission statement – ‘Never lose sight of the blinding light’ – created with the help of tea drinker Mike Finnigan, who was one of the few people as enthusiastic as I was about the journey. The ‘blinding light’ was the dream, a visualisation of succeeding in the quest, which in my case was not only discovering the ultimate cuppa but also ending the trans-Africa trip by riding into the courtyard of the tea bag project. That was the goal, that’s what was going to keep me going. I also had all the advice I could ever need to see me to Cape Town, which I printed and stuck all over the Triumph and panniers so I wouldn’t forget it. Then I included one more piece of advice from myself that I picked up from real bikers who seemed to know about these things and that sounded sensible – ‘Don’t ride at night’. Africa was daunting enough without having to do it in the dark.

The weekend before I left, Olive and I went away for a couple of days, which may sound rash considering all the lastminute tasks that needed doing, but even the African Brew Ha-Ha had to pause for a landmark birthday celebration. It seemed at once oddly perverse and perfectly apt that the weekend before I go to Africa (perhaps to balance my growing concern about the ready availability of food on the continent) Olive should opt to go to the Fat Duck, a hysterically overpriced restaurant recently named the best in the world. I can remember finishing the fourteenth course thinking ‘I’m going to Africa on Tuesday...’ followed by a big empty space in my brain that needed filling. Now that the trip was only days away I had to admit to myself I knew little about Africa and less about the urge that was drawing me there. But there was only one way to find out.

Mehdi and I return to the house which is packed with more people preparing for yet another feast. They invite me to eat, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I load up the bike and get on the road exactly twenty-four hours after my arrival.

During the journey south I find myself reflecting on the Benslimane family and their warm-hearted welcome to a stranger. I have struck tea gold in Morocco, the first African country I visit. If tea is social glue, the Benslimanes are well and truly bonded. Tea on arrival, tea after breakfast, tea with dinner, tea the following morning and tea at the golf club showed, if nothing else, that they had certainly cottoned on to the theme of the trip. And I left with yet more advice – from Mehdi: ‘When in doubt, turn right,’ and Bashir: ‘If you hurry you will be late.’

The fight to get out of Casablanca is beset with some spectacularly absent-minded driving. The traffic gives me plenty of time to draft my own mini-guide to the Moroccan Road...

  1. Indicators, like fairy lights on a Christmas tree, are for decoration only and come in a variety of colours: red, amber and au naturel (i.e. with the glass missing).
  2. Lit brake lights on the vehicle in front do not mean that it is stopping or turning, but probably that the driver is just making up his or her mind as to where to go – if you haven’t gone into the back of the car already.
  3. An especially large face-full of fumes indicates the driver in front has just changed gear and intends to take the next sixty seconds attempting to overtake the equally slow van ahead.
  4. There is no need to drive between the white lines on a highway as you can easily get seven vehicles into four marked lanes.
  5. Roundabouts are handy for:
    • Taxis to pick up a fare
    • Bikes to stop and ask for directions from polite policemen
    • Washing cars
    • Guessing if this particular town employs the ‘give way from the right’ rule or the ‘give way from the left’ rule.
  6. If you’re in front you’re always in the right and the rules of the road do not apply.

The barren, red rust landscape on the road towards Marrakech 200 kilometres away is a shock to my eyes after the buzz of Casablanca. Occasional bedraggled sheep with knotted wool like white-haired Rastafarians dot the vast landscape, looking lost as they seem to tiptoe over the stony earth in search of nourishment. Along the route walled settlements, cloaked in mud, seem to rise up from the earth. I want to stop and find an excuse to stay the night with the people who live here, but I see no signs of life.

Marrakech is much further than I had anticipated and with dusk approaching the petrol gauge seems to be dropping like a stone. After a worrying half hour, I finally reach a village. No fuel.

‘Prochain village?’

‘Vingt-huit kilomètres.’

Oh shit. Twenty-eight kilometres to the next village and no guarantee there is any fuel there either. I open the fuel cap and give the tank a shake. I can hear a feeble slosh of petrol and decide to take a chance. I ride on at around 50 kph now to conserve the precious fuel as darkness falls with just the faint silhouette of the mountains for company. I reach the village and allow myself a small inward whoop of joy when I see the gaudy, battered sign of a gas station. There is no sans plomb but this is no time for having a crisis of conscience over CO2 emissions, and I fill up with lead-rich Super. In fact, it is many thousands of kilometres before I use unleaded petrol again, and in any case the bike runs better on the more polluting fuel.

I get on the highway and realise I’m already breaking my own advice to myself, never to ride at night. The crosswind from the east is fierce, so bad that I have to lean at an angle, bracing myself into the force of the storm, and when large trucks pass me they draw the air out of my lane creating violent turbulence. It is as if I am being sucked into the wide empty space of Africa.

Then the rain starts and epic lightning illuminates the outline of the mountains like the backdrop to a cheap film:


The Road to Marrakech
The Triumph
as himself