‘Fucking mafia!’ I called to Malte across the stationary quad.
‘Fucking mafia!’ he grinned back.
The phrase had become a byword for any problem, predictable or otherwise, that arose in this sandy outpost on the Morocco-Algeria border. First uttered by our host, when explaining the issues facing Amazigh people under a Moroccan-Arab government but subsequently used for everything from faulty laptops to blown light bulbs.
We had first gotten wind of a new year shindig in the Sahara desert whilst still in Essaouira. After countless, pointless hours debating the merits of hiring two cars to drive the near 750 kilometres ourselves we instead decided, by majority, to take the coach. It turns out that the car hire companies who happily throw about free damage collision waivers also command excess fees in the range of 25,000 dirham. Which is their prerogative, I guess, but as any learner driver will tell you; it’s not what you do on the road, it’s the other idiots.
Simply take a wander through a metropolitan area of any major Moroccan city and you will see there is no shortage idiots. I strongly doubt anyone who has done so would happily wager two-and-half grand sterling on those odds. Either way our journey via coach was cheap as it was as uneventful and our overnight stay in Marrakech was as predictable as it was overpriced.
In no time we were skirting the edge of Erg Chebbi, a sand sea of enormous dunes visible from 40 kilometres. Well, in daylight that is. Stepping from the coach into the crisp night air invoked a bizarre feeding frenzy of touts, taxi drivers and restauranteurs. A sight only made stranger still by the otherwise empty streets of the two-lane town that is Merzouga. Thankfully the hostel was but a literal stone’s throw away from the kerb that serves as Gare Merzouga and the owner was soon on hand to direct us through the melee.
The new year festivities, rather predictably after such a long and poorly planned journey, were cancelled. Or perhaps even non-existent, I never did look into it. Instead opting to spend the time wandering amongst the dunes or chatting with the and staff about local culture, minerals and meteorites all whilst smoking far too much hashish to do a great deal else.
It was during one of these conversations that Mohammed mentioned his day job. Having completed his education as a mineralogist at the nearby university he returned home to work, and hopefully find his fortune, in the mountain mines of Tadaout. As anyone who knows me will tell you this piqued my interest in no small way. For whatever reason shiny stones and dark, cramped spaces tick a lot of boxes for me. Why they don’t for everyone else is utterly beyond me. Strangely, the only enthusiasm for my idea in our shrinking group was from the effervescent Malte.
Initially we had contrived to convince Mohammed to reveal the secrets of the mountain but when we failed to mention the specifics, or any part of the plan whatsoever, he vanished on a day trip to Erfoud. In turn we turned to our host and less than hour later we were handed the keys to a distinctly well used four-wheel-drive quad.
The dents, dings, cracked bodywork and externally-wired battery, all secured by tattered nylon webbing were easy enough to overlook, this is Africa after all and the dusty mud-paved side streets act as a near constant reminder. This said, we really should have paid attention to the manually-controlled cooling fan and bottle of water jammed haphazardly under the front rack. Directions to the mine were also, on reflection, perhaps a little to simple; ‘Head to Taouz and take the dirt road on your right into the mountains’.
Three-quarters of an hour later we found ourselves on one of the myriad dirt-tracks that wind across the gravel strewn planes between the mesas. Undeterred we poke around a couple of open shafts and ramshackle shacks left over from previous mining operations. After a rather fortuitous check of the tank told us that further exploration would be an exceptionally risky idea we head back towards the village in search of petrol. Or at least we hoped it was petrol. As luck would have it this is a deceptively easy task when you consider the nearest station is more than fifty a kilometres north. Instead of a pump our petrol came from a barrel in the garage of some kind stranger with no English and not much more French.
Luck, the fickle mistress that she is, must have gotten off in Taouz because as the village faded into the hazy distance so did any semblance of pressure from the single cylinder engine. So it was, with a slow-rolling shudder we found ourselves at the side of the road with too much time on our hands and zero appreciation for the stunning sunset that dragged long shadows across the desert around us.
Fortunately this is a tale of poor planning rather than survival and rescue was a thirty second phone call and a thirty minute drive away. In no time we were en route back to Merzouga in a Nissan pick-up, listening to Touareg music and watching as our recovery driver knocked back Flag Speciales like a recovering alcoholic on an off day. After pushing the knackered quad to its home for, at the very best, the next few days we made sure to buy our rescuers a few beers. Surely even Moroccans couldn’t bring themselves to overcharge such generous beer benefactors, could they?
The following afternoon, as both Malte and I craned over the open engine block in the heat of Saharan midday sun, neither of us were half as confident. Once the cylinder block was open it became painfully clear the head-gasket had blown due to overheating and better still both the owner and mechanic were claiming they had warned our host of the risk. Which was, as we both agreed, irrelevant.
Owing to the fact the quad was the best part of two decades old and Merzouga lacks any sort of dedicated, well-stocked motor factor it was suggested the best course of action may be salvage. But where to find another twenty-year-old Suzuki clone here on the edge of the desert? With that enquiries were made, a throughly make-do set of tools stowed and, as Moroccans with time on their hands are wont to do, we headed for a coffee.
The mechanic, Abdul, was a small man in his sixties from Rabat with a sunny disposition and numerous, fine laughter lines at the corners of his eyes. He was on holiday but had been drafted in for what was now looking like an inevitable engine rebuild. In between messages from a girlfriend in Strasbourg he mentioned his time as a head mechanic on the long-line trawlers sailing from Essaouira.
‘The boats go out for anything from four days, a week.’ he began. ‘Captain, co-captain, mechanic, co-mechanic and twenty crew. Perhaps.’
When Malte enquired wether sea-sickness was a problem the reply was an immediate and emphatic yes. A great number of the crew would suffer this first time on the ocean but with the help of a little alcohol they were soon ‘reborn‘.
‘On the boat everyone drinks,’ he grinned. ‘The captain drinks, the sailors drink. But the captain must not know the sailors. And sailors must not know the captain.’
The old man smiled at this thought but even as it lingered in his eyes he stared out across the red sand-sea of Erg Chebbi.
‘I don’t work the boats any longer,’ he confided. ‘Two years ago I lost my best friend to the ocean.’
Abdul, by his own account, had seen and survived storms and ten metre swells without issue but this loss had come, as so many do, out of the blue. ‘We were working the lines, letting out the nets and we had to jam the spool with an iron bar,’ he reminisced. ‘I was standing next to my friend, my brother, and he asked me to pass the bar. I turn to fetch it and when I turn back he was gone.’
‘The line caught his clothes. Dragged him away and pulled him under. I tried to jump in to help but the crew pulled me back. “Is it better to lose one man or both?” they asked.
‘Inshallah.’ he shrugged. ‘I cried but I did not follow him. To turn the boat around we would have had to take in the nets. That would have taken a half hour. We didn’t even look for him. The Atlantic, fuck.’
We met again the next day to see what, if any, progress there had been. A replacement gasket had indeed been located – in Casablanca. We were informed this would take at least a couple of days to arrive, seeing as this was undoubtably a massive understatement being, as we were, in Africa. Having both agreed on a contribution we were happy to pay and began to plan our now overdue departure.
Had the owner demanded payment rather than ask for a contribution we would have gone with our host’s original advice on the matter; ‘If is small problem, you help. If is big problem with engine, fuck them.’ Instead, not wanting to see Abdul out of pocket for his help, I left my part with the hostel and laid the issue to rest in my mind.
If that was the conclusion of this little tale it would have restored some of my faith in Morocco. Yet unfortunately I found myself hounded onto the bus with demands of the original rental fee on top of the wedge, by local standards, I’d already handed over. This, I suspect, is the fundamental problem with Morocco – the country has a lot to give and is happy to do so but make no mistake it expects something, often a disproportionate amount, in return.