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The Ship of Poles (& the Idiot Traveller)

We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian.

We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.

Loading and leaving Antwerp + Antwerp port wind farm

I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents “Slow Travel” despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.

Twas a foggy (and cold morning), leaving port, the pilot etc on the bridge

This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.

I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks and a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.

The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.

Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called “Poop” deck.

Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located. From here going up it’s up past “A” and “B” decks (crew quarters) and then on up to “C” where my cabin in located and “D” decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further down are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds and at the front the upper deck and the fo’c’sle.

Two many stairs, fixing the crane, the engine room and the engine

The fo’c’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English & formerly crew quarters) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar (there are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, normally) and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes.

From my perspective the fo’c’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.

Chris trying to be karmic and the dolphin I summoned

Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.


These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terms and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.

Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.


The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.


From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense as the dark patches swirl past of looking down to the centre of the ocean.

When not in ones cabin, the mess or fo’csle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting, on the bridge, with the watch officers watching the world go by.

Barbie on the passenger deck, the control panel on bridge, boat training

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first (Bogdan), second (Sambor) and third mate (Kamil), the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names. I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, if relatively normal and not too demanding, as a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and make very good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant – in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world administering and supervising German aid programs – but now sees all aid programs as largely a racist and paternalistic failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.

Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.

The rudder control room, Renate and Eduard relaxing?, engine room

Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy “Energiewende.” is a disaster and are climate sceptics.

Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.

Eduard is quite talkative which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong….” which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

The lifeboat with the 20 metre plunge, fixing the crane, boat drill (if we all stare at the life raft long enough it will leap over the side

Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently like the Americans there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.

I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?

I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.

Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.

The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society. As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading “The Lies that Bind” – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.

Flying fish

Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour. The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and, when some look a little put out, I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or simply is lost in translation.

Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.

Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.

Porto street art

On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.

Porto street art

From this their emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines. Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages – which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in getting previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.

Porto

Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch. Porto is a fine city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.

Porto

Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.

Vigo

Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.

Vigo

The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily, a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, its own air conditioning plant, a workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft and several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water.

The big beast (engine), Renate in engine control room, the air conditioning and the compressors

My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but like the rest of the transport industry crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.

There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

The bridge, water patterns, at sea, the crane (again)

One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.

This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food. As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.

Walvis Bay – entry, the lagoon and some bush regeneration

In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.

One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with ones insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and “swimming” pool.

Boat drill

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists firstly of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.

The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.

Unloading in Walvis Bay (taken from Cabin window)

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless, however, either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.

As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks. Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.

Water patterns, on the dock at Vigo, Walvis Bay cricket pitch (all the best places have one) and my cabin

Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.

Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna although, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.

Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles uncontrolled at high speed off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges at high speed into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best, other than those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

Randomly: Sunet, the bow (the only quiet place), Porto and lunch in Walvis Bay

Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to “obey the Master’s orders”.

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via rocket ship. One removes shoes, dons ones survival suit. Then you squat a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.

Cape Town – ocean pools and the beach

Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, so launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface. Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.

Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again which is currently lolling at at angle of 45º to port.

The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance similar to the mythical maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots – such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.

On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves. From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop. “xxxxxx” where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.

A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.

Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both and there is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.

We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s current stay on planet earth or at least the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.

From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day.

Greeted by whales, and Table Mountain

Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

Sailing Like An Egyptian (slowly down the Nile)

1980: The year of Rubik’s cube, of the eruption of Mt St Helens, of the establishment of CNN, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the murder of John Lennon…and Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.

All important events, of course, but…more importantly 1980 was the year we sailed the Nile. I say we meaning myself and a random group of French travellers I met in Aswan. As one does. We had all arrived (I think) – or at least I had, the previous day from Abu Simbel.

For those in the know Abu Simbel is both a  monument to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians and the rank stupidity of modern industrial society. Abu Simbel is not the temple’s original name – it’s named after a young Egyptian boy who led explorer Giovanni Belzoni to the site – the main temple was called “the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.

Abu Simbel

The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians –  and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth,  the sun strikes directly through the temple door and illuminates the statues of Ramses and two of the three Gods with whom he is seated. The fourth is the God of the underworld – so stays in darkness.

Legend has it that for all of modern science and engineering it proved impossible to site the temples to recreate, precisely, what the ancient Egyptians had done – so the sun now enters on different days that it would originally have done (this may be an urban/desert myth, I’m not certain – in other words fake news).

In the 1960’s when Nasser, in his wisdom, decided Egypt needed to tame the floods of the Nile and generate some hydro power, it also meant the flooding (and consequent relocation) of Abu Simbel, one of the great monuments of the ancient world.  This was a massive US$300 million project (in today’s money) that took 20 years.

Lake Nasser, behind the dam, is huge. It stores nearly six trillion cubic feet (157 km3) of water! This is about four times the amount of water stored behind Hoover Dam (USA, Lake Mead) and Three Gorges Dam (China) (Chao et al., 2008).

But more importantly, in terms of important globally understood yardsticks this is 340,000 Sydharbs approximately (1 Sydharb = 500 gigalitres) – more Sydharbs than you can poke the proverbial stick at (but perhaps my maths is wrong – it seems a lot). For the uneducated, Sydharbs are the global volume measuring standard – based on the amount of water in Sydney harbour)

On the Nile: women and girls gather water; Nile fishermen

The construction of the dam meant that millions of tonnes of silt normally carried to the Nile delta were now stopped by the dam – meaning that farmers now had to fertilise their crops with superphosphates. Aside from that there were the 90,000 displaced Egyptians and Sudanese, the erosion of the Nile delta and associated increase in salinity and the increase in prevalence of schistosomiasis/bilharzia among other things.

That is not to say there were no benefits from the Aswan High Dam. It produces a significant amount of electrical power (enough originally for about 50% of Egypt’s needs, now less than 15%) that allowed electrification of “rural” Egypt. It controlled floods, it allowed permanent irrigation of many areas and it led to a fishing industry on Lake Nasser.

Having arrived in Aswan, I wandered down to the Nile from my Aswan Hotel – I don’t remember a lot about it after 39 years except it was on the 2nd floor, it had a bed (nothing else, nada), tiled floor and it’s walls were white – strange what sticks in the memory. My mission was to try and get a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailing boat). But being on my own made it almost impossibly expensive, especially on my budget, never mind much less interesting than travelling on a boat in a group. So I wasn’t hopeful.

The beauty of the Nile

Unlike today, where if you turn around you will trip over a tourist or possibly 40, 1980s Aswan was largely devoid of tourists. So a group of five white people haggling with Saiid, a Nubian, stood out like the proverbial dogs balls. I wandered over – it was my big break. They were leaving next day for Luxor, five days  and 216 kms downstream (or, as the Felucca sails, nearer to 300-350 kms since you cross and recross the river with the wind). They agreed to take me as an extra passenger (and financial offset) and I was off with four non-English speaking Frenchies.

My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard,  Miriame and Caroline. We spent some three weeks travelling together, down the Nile, visiting Karnak (in Luxor), the valley of the Kings, Alexandria and Cairo. I even flew back to Paris with Caroline. But unlike today where, if we like the people we travelled with, we are forever linked by social media, I never heard from or saw any of them again and I occasionally wonder where they are, what they did with their lives and if they are all alive or not.

Clockwise from top left: Bernard and Caroline on the way to Valley of the Kings (VOK); Alain at Giza, Alain and Bernard on the oars, The crew (l to r Francoise, Caroline, Bernard, Alain, Saiid, Miriame), Alain at Philae, Bernard and Francoise on the road to VOK

Feluccas are the traditional Nile boat, single sail and they travel by tacking backwards and forwards across the Nile using the winds out of the desert. In 1980 few people were taking the felucca trip down the Nile, so we were  source of constant interest to everyone we met – in this case no one other than locals. While we saw a couple of large cruise boats heading upriver, from a tourism perspective we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe.

Before leaving Aswan we had to visit the Philae temples, which sit on an island in the middle of the Nile below the original Aswan (low) dam. Like Abu Simbel these temples would have been flooded by the original dam and to save them an entirely new island was build and the temples were reconstructed there.

Philae temples below the Aswan low dam

Ancient cities such as Edfu were entirely deserted. After a brief taxi donkey ride from the river we spend several hours exploring the complex entirely undisturbed by anyone else.

On day three we ran out of wind. This required a us to bring our best rowing experience to the fore, taking it turns on the oars. By midday, however, the initial burst of olympic like enthusiasm for the task at hand and confronted by the prospect of another few hours of rowing in the heat the crew succumbed to the lure of a tow and we hitched the felucca to a cargo boat heading downriver.

Nile taxi (left); tea break on the Nile; Nile sunset (bottom right)

Nights are spend camped on the boat, where we eat, drink and smoke into the middle hours of the night; days are a gourmet feast of Egyptian sights and sounds, ancient cities, small villages, groups by the Nile, water taxis. And each day is embraced at both ends by golden sunsets and warm breezes. It is the blue riband of travel, scarcely to be found these days. And each day and night the Nile flows by carrying its myriad sights and stories. It’s the backbone of Egypt, its lifeline, its water supply, its power supply, its sewer, its drinking water, its bathing and washing water, its highway.

Five days after leaving Aswan we arrived in Luxor. Like all good tourists we visited Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was a rather different experience to today, I imagine. I remember wandering Karnak, both in the mornings and the evening and during the son et lumière with no more than 20 others spread around the temple complexes. We had no worries about security, terrorists, crowds. Nothing needed to be booked or arranged in advance.

Karnak

Our trip to the Valley of the Kings involved simply jumping on six bikes and heading off for the day. Along the way there were numerous side trips to fallen monuments and opportunities for visits to small traders. From high on the hills you can see the sliver of green, in the desert, that is the Nile. Never was any country so dependent on a single river. In so many ways it is truly astounding that this country built such a rich heritage and history from such a poor land and the Valley of the Kings simply serves to emphasise this. Astounding wealth and beauty in an empty, hostile and largely barren (and least for human purposes) landscape.

Clockwise from top right: The tomb of Seti, tomb of Ramses VI, Hassan Araby’s daughter, fallen statue of Ramses II, The Nile valley in the distance

From Karnak and the Valley of the Kings we travelled south by train to Cairo and Alexandria.

Saiid Hassan Araby and Family on the road to the Valley of Kings; Deir El Bahari and Temple of Hapsetshut

Cairo, for me, is my childhood home and the place where I grew to love (most) aspects of Middle Eastern culture and hospitality (see: The hospitality of Strangers in a Strange Land). I spent five years here between five and ten (1960-65) and this was my third trip back to the city. When we lived in Cairo it had a population of 3.5 million. Today that is closer to 20 million and it remains one of the world’s fastest growing city.

City of the dead (centre); Mohammed Aly Mosque (right)

Cairo has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of the city. It was founded in 2,000 BC and ruled by King Menes who united Upper and Lower Egypt. It remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and, if you suspend your tourist “danger” monitor, one of the most friendly and interesting.

Glass blowing (left) – in Cairo

Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and  Al-Azhar University and having walked across Cairo from my hotel, I was approached by a friendly Cairean. Like a myriad other names and places his name is long forgotten but I shall call him Ahmet, after our Egyptian cook (yes, colonialism at its best).

As usual he wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. At this point he told me he was the “guardian” of several closed mosques and would show me up the minarets if I was interested. At this point all the stories about idiot travellers robbed and left for dead in the backstreets of strange cities came to mind.

Cairo

“Ah, well, I thought “nothing ventured nothing gained. So commenced a day of experiences only open to idiots who cast aside the normal warnings. After trips to the top of three locked minarets, he (whose name is long forgotten) invited me back to his flat.

Now I saw the headlines about tourist kidnapped, drugged, operated on for their kidneys and left for dead. But I accepted regardless. Five minutes later he opened the door to his tiny flat. Inside were approximately ten other men all in a lather of excitement. It turned out the occasion was a soccer game: Egypt versus some other African nation.

A childhood in Cairo

I spend an hour in a room with a dozen frenzied Arabs screaming and throwing things at the television, calling down Allah’s curses on the opposition. If the second coming was happening in my guide’s front room they couldn’t have been more excited. About 4 pm the match ended (yes those were the days when football happened during the day). I prepared to leave. Mustafa grabbed my arm. He requested five dollars (about $20 in today’s money). When I asked what for, he replied “You wait”. Fifteen minutes later he returned, grabbed me and two others remaining and we went off to the tea house. Except it wasn’t. In my naivety I had assumed all of these little cafes with people smoking were tea houses.

Temple of Edfu; getting a tow on the Nile; gathering water.

It turns out a significant proportion were hash cafes and Mustafa has just used my $5 to buy a big nail of hashish. We sit in the cafe for about two hours progressively smoking the entire amount via a water pipe as the proprietor brings us charcoal to heat the hash. Now anyone smart, knowing that these guys probably smoke hash for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I have only consume drugs once every blue moon, would probably have made off after half an hour in a reasonable ambulatory state. But no. Yours truly waits until it is late, dark and he is totally shitfaced.

At this point, several kilometres from my hotel, in one of the seedier parts of Cairo, with no taxis or other transport visible, I lurch off into the night trying to head in what I think is the correct direction. I have no idea where I am going. The streets are dark and unpaved.

This is normally the point in the story in which the Idiot Traveller ends up in the gutter, robbed and mugged, at best, or dead at worst. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale; an hour and four kilometres later I turn the corner and see my hotel. It is the closest thing to a Damascene miracle since Christ was a boy. Except in this case, in Cairo.

The pyramids at Giza

Hash and football nights aside, Cairo and the nearby sites of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara are so rich in history and glorious buildings and sites that one could spend a lifetime exploring. Our time, on this occasion was limited to a week, just enough time to visit Giza, Sakkara and Alexandria. Then it was time to part never to meet again.

 

The Valley of the Kings (left top and centre); Sakkara stepped pyramid; above the valley of the Kings, 1980

The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for£2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.

I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.

Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.

So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen not to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going South
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard


And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.

This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.

Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.

On the road to Merzouga, Morocco

My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.

It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

On the road to Merzouga

My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.

Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food  cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available  in the Medina.

I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.

Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort

The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.

Fes (Blue gate, Mosque, square outside Medina, pottery shop)

Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.

Fes

My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.

So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.

On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.

So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi. 

Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.

Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.  This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.

strangers

In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.

Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.  Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.

This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.

The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.

The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).

The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis

Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.

Volubilis. Every step a joy

Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.

Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.

I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.

In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.

Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.

The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.

Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip. 

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.  Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.

Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew

Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.

The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.

It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.

Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.

In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.

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The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.

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The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians

There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being there  that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.

From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.

Metal miners in the desert cold

Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.

Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive

The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked

So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).

Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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