With the three
of us – again…
David, John & Keith
The drive from Torremolinos to La Linea was not memorable – possibly because of the previous evening’s Malaga Rosa – but more likely that the Sahara was drawing us onwards.
For once (we must have found secure parking) the four of us left the The Old Blue Truck unattended and walked across the causeway to Gibraltar. The contrast between the ‘pukah’ British and sloppy Spanish border guards was dramatic. Then up the cable car to the top of ‘the rock’ – spectacular views – Europe, Africa, Atlantic, Mediterranean – and rock apes – everywhere!
Down into the garrison town of Gibraltar for some last minute provisioning (of stuff that would go with rice) – and David bought a book. That copy of ‘The Exodus’ was to form the primer for two young men who would…
experience ‘The Middle East’ (as we Westerners so simplistically name it) during the following two years – from two quite different focal points. It is still (forty years on) capable of starting the odd ‘fireside chat’ – and so it should…
We drove the truck onto a boat in Algeciras and twenty miles later (a hundred years earlier) arrived in Ceuta. This little (tax free) Spanish enclave on the tip of Africa was founded 1,000 years BCE by the Phoenicians – taken by the Romans – then the Vandals – then Byzantium – the Visigoths – the Arabs – the Portugese – and then in 1580, the Spanish. It is unlikely that they even noticed the arrival of four young blokes in an Old Blue Truck.
Another 25 miles from Ceuta – over the border to Tangier, Morrocco – and we were in North Africa…
Tangier was dirty – and the sea front – even dirtier – but we found the casbah – the suuq – the medina.
It was our first (of so many) casbahs – and we were fascinated.
It was also the end of the fasting month of Ramadan – and the celebrations were frantic – the charging horsemen were not staged for tourists – FRANTIC!
Casablanca was cleaner – and (what else!) – white houses everywhere. We decided to stay for a few days and explore. Another casbah – where Keith negotiated a Berber carpet deal for John.
We found the Café Americain where the movie was made – and for hours we were Humphrey Bogart – waiting for Ingrid Bergman – sipping mint juleps and peppermint tea – surrounded by bubble pipes and funny eyes. Time goes by (nice title for a song?) – but Bergman never came. A tout (endless touts!) took us to a canabis factory – where they offered to sole our leather sandals with hashish – we declined.
From Basaclankey (as Peter named it) – we retraced our steps to Rabat and then turned East into the Atlas Mountains – and the cave dwelling Berber communities. We zig-zagged North & South – heading towards Meknes, Fez, Taza, Oujda and ultimately the Algerian border.
There was one village – south in the desert – and high in the Atlas mountains – where we were ‘accosted’ by an old hag and beckoned into one of the cave houses. Was it a brothel? More likely just a ‘Madame’ or mother in need of cash – exploiting a group of very young girls.
Adolescent curiosity took over – we had no intention of ‘sampling the goods’ – but we thought we were very ‘cool’ in negotiating a ‘group rate.’ We were too young to realise that in the wide world of commerce – when one negotiates a deal – one is expected to honour it – or get the hell out – quickly… Thankfully – our exit route was mainly down hill! We later learned that this form of female initiation is quite common amongst the hill tribes – but it is very unusual for foreigners to be invited to participate. Enough of this…
We crossed into Algeria 100 miles South West of Tlemcen, and very soon came across our first blown bridge. Quite recent too – and a little unsettling – we thought the civil war had been over for 3 years!
On through Sidi Bel Abbes, to Oran (the old Andalucian trade port) a fascinating melting pot of cultures.
On through Mohammedia and Ech Cheliff, towards Algiers.
By now, we had been in the Sahara for several weeks – driving hundreds of dusty miles – without bathing.
That bloody sand got in EVERYWHERE – and even into the truck! Boredom and body odour were constant and boredom does strange things to young minds.
Basic bodily functions became a sporting activity – see who could catch whom – on camera. Some of us have a sense of humour on this subject – and some don’t – so we’ll spare you the pictures!
But then we found a river somewhere – and with much whooping and hollering – we grabbed the soap – and jumped in.
Well – THREE of us did. The other one’s a Pom (and we all know that they don’t bathe) – he grabbed the camera!
From Algiers we drove South and East – through Setif and Constantine to Spuk Ahres and the Algerian/Tunisian border. It was a bank holiday (don’t remember any banks!) and we were stuck for days at the border post with everything closed. We lived on bread and apricot jam for about three days. (David has hated apricot jam ever since!) We also played a lot of football with the locals. The football games were a real highlight – covered in mud from head to foot and being hosted (even feted) by dozens of family members (and others) and sheep – appearing on the river banks to watch the four crazy white guys get cleaned up in football.
It was also here that we ‘babes in arms’ were taught a little about the Middle East ‘situation’ which we had never read in our newspapers back home.
Finally – we crossed into Tunisia – and on to the Capital – Tunis. As always, when we arrived in a major city, we checked for mail at the Poste Restante. This time – TWO bombshells! John’s money remittance would not be available until Benghazi (he had run out several days before) – and Keith had been called back to Canada – and he should have been there a week earlier! The first available flight from Tunis was two days hence…
We used the time to visit the ancient Phoenician port of Carthage – just 10km outside Tunis. Founded in the 9th Century BCE as twin trade ports, it was captured by the Greeks – Romans and Vandals – before the Arabs destroyed it in 637CE.
John found an ancient boat ramp (which only needed replacement rubber rollers – well – they didn’t have nylon in those days) and we were a little unsettled by the Tophet – eerie dark tunnels surrounded by the headstones of (sacrificed) childrens’ graves.
Now – while we were traipsing around in the 9thC BCE – Keith’s mind was on more pragmatic things – like how he was going to make himself ‘nicer to be near’ on the long flight home to Canada. On the way back to Tunis he casually mentioned that after all these weeks in North Africa – we still hadn’t experienced a Turkish Bath. It seemed like a very good idea – at the time.
There are some stories that ‘happen on trips’ that probably should ‘remain on trips’… This is most certainly one of them – but – bugger it…!
Now – remember – four young men – four different countries – all growing up in rugby clubs, rowing clubs, hockey clubs – boarding schools – all quite used to how boys behave in the locker rooms. Right? All four – now wise in the ways of the world – too smart to fall for the old wooden penny – or the three card trick. Right? And we had all heard the old saying “just don’t pick up the soap.” Right? WRONG – only three of us had!
We split up into two teams and, as always, two of us stayed with the truck – while the first two entered the Baths – and after a couple of hours – they returned – bright and shiny – and smelling – quite different!
The next two left. Money changed hands and bathing shorts were issued (not sure why) and then the invitation to choose an attendant… For God’s sake WHY? – they were all men – who cares? Get on with it… a quick shower to get rid of the road dust and sand – some of the sand. “You want me come too?” “No – piss off” – no offence – just a smile… Then – into a magnificent blue steam room – with a huge fountain in the middle. Quite romantic really – under slightly different circumstances. Tiled mosaics everywhere – people sitting on them – lying on them – getting massages on them. Male people. We did all that – the massage was fantastic – and even more sand was found. Beginning to feel human again – mind wanders – relaxing now… “You want wash hair?” Of course – “Sure.” “OK – come shampoo room.” “Err – OK.” TWO shampoo rooms – side by side – no vision – just sound. What was happening in one room could be heard next door. Rinse – shampoo – rinse – PLOP (2 plops) – “Oh! Sorry – please get soap…”
From the shouts of indigation (and anguish) next door – one of us did… and it didn’t help that three of us found (the re-telling of) that story extremely funny. It took a few years before the fourth one could see the funny side of it – about 40 years.
The next morning we took Keith to the airport – and within minutes – he was gone.
We have often been asked why he left us – and the answer (always) was that he had to return for duty at Old Fort Henry – seemed perfectly straight forward.
Recently he reacted…
“…forgive me this one observation… I would not have left you guys for something as mundane as “duty at Old Fort Henry.” I was asked to come back by the government for our centennial celebrations and to become Battalion Sergeant-Major/Chief Training Instructor of the world famous Fort Henry Guard… Just so you appreciate the difficulty I had in leaving you lovely people…”
Still sounds like “duty at Old Fort Henry” – but we missed him… a little…
Now go to… d. Tunis to Cairo
Old Fort Henry – Canada – Link here:
A good Atlas of North Africa is here: