Goodbye Rally, and Goodbye Nate

After waking up in a field in the village of Sincem Boxe, still unsure what we had witnessed the night before at the Gabu School Party! and what it all meant, we drove to Gabu and pulled up to a single pump on the side of the road.  With the Cruiser nearly empty, we bought our first diesel since St. Louis.  (We would later discover that we made the right call in not purchasing black market fuel, as two rally teams ran into engine trouble after being forced to buy gasoline out of cans on the street during the Senegalese fuel strike.)  From Gabu we drove on the main road through much of Guinea Bissau, passing through a landscape that became increasingly green and verdant with each village.

Change from the seller of our morning bundt cakes, on the side of the main road to Bissau.

We arrived in Bissau, the capital and the rally’s finish line, in the early afternoon.  From the Guinea Bissau border it was clear that the rally was big news throughout the entire country.  There was a divided highway leading up to the burnt out, bullet riddled ruins of the presidential palace, where the rally was to finish, but for some reason we saw the traffic going in two directions on the other side of the highway.  Then there was a small traffic jam.  Only then did it dawn on us that the government of Guinea Bissau had closed down the main road to all traffic but rally traffic, and we felt a bit self-conscious as we turned onto the final stretch, crossed the finish line, drove around Praca dos Herois Nacionais and parked in front of the offices of Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), Guinea Bissau’s founding political party.

The Hungarian rally organizers, the Guinea Bissau national paraplegic basketball team, the local news media and a host of others were on hand to welcome us.  After hanging out with some of the local people in the plaza and watching some other teams finish (one Portuguese guy, who had a leaking tire and we had lent our air compressor to earlier in the rally, got out of his white van and popped a bottle of champagne right at the finish line), we checked into a guesthouse and set about unloading all of our gear from the Cruiser, before having a guy we met on the street give it a wipe down inside and out.  Everyone in town knew about the rally.  It was clear that Bissau, a very small capital city, is not used to the kind of foreigner influx the rally brought.

End of the road. Nate parks the Cruiser in front of the headquarters of Guinea Bissau’s founding political party after crossing the finish line of the Budapest to Bamako (or, in this case, Bissau) Rally.

Most of the teams that we had come to know over the past couple of weeks attended the rally’s closing party at Club Lenox.  There were some fierce traditional dancing performances, and free beer provided by the government of Guinea Bissau (which, again, made us feel a bit self-conscious).  This night was also Nate’s last—he had a 2:30 a.m. flight to Lisbon and soon back to work in New York.  He made a midnight exit as the party was still going strong, along with a group of Norwegians we met on the rally (who donated their vehicle to the local office of a Portuguese charity).

While some rally teams donated their vehicles to charities, or sold them and donated the money they received to charities, the majority seemed to come to Bissau with the idea of selling their vehicles and keeping the money.  Because of Guinea Bissau’s small population, somewhat isolated location, struggling economy, and relative obscurity, not many vehicles from Europe (or anywhere, for that matter) make it down.  There is strong local demand for vehicles of all kinds; many rally teams found that, as in Bamako in Mali at the conclusion of previous rallies, they could sell their vehicles in Bissau for a far greater price than was possible back in Europe.  Though we were not selling and therefore didn’t experience anything but persistent inquiries, many local buyers apparently had heaps of euros in hand, ready to buy.  Many rally teams did in fact sell, some at a loosely organized auction in the national stadium and in so doing—according to their calculations at least—paid for all or part of the cost of participating in the rally.


Gabu School Party!

As a result of the national fuel-truck diver strike, which created a nationwide fuel shortage, we were very low on fuel.  Luckily, we still had almost a half-tank of diesel from Western Sahara in the jerrycans on the roof, which we emptied into the Crusier before heading out of the park.  Though we will probably return soon to Senegal, we headed down a dirt road towards the Guinea Bissau border, occasionally passed by teams in the racing class (who do not appear to always know where they are going), as the rally hits its home stretch.

Nate and Lee hand out more school supplies in a village on the side of the road, as we drove to the Guinea Bissau border.

When we arrived on the Senegalese side of the remote border crossing, there was a guy in a camouflage uniform madly chasing kids away from rally teams with a small tree branch, sometimes swatting them, but often missing.  This seemed to amuse the kids, who enjoyed being daring and mischievous.  Once we got to the Guinea Bissau side, it had gotten dark and the border post lacked any type of lighting, even a flashlight.  A rally team from South Africa gave one of the immigration officials a headlamp just so he could continue to see what he was doing.  Our visas (which were on slips of paper, separate from our passports) weren’t even asked for, instead, they simply stamped our passports and sent us on our way.  The process was surprisingly quick and no one asked for a petit cadeau(other than a guy outside of the border post who had amassed quite a collection of gifts, but appeared to have no official position at the border).

A girl quietly listens, as the rhythm sweeps over the crowd.

As night fell, we drove along a dirt road with other teams in a hurry to get to the big Gabu School Party!, in the sprawling, sandy fields surrounding the school in the village of Sincem Boxe which the rally would be supporting—the village has about eight hundred children, but only thirty can attend school due to the cost of school supplies and teachers’ salaries.  (Although not in Gabu, the party became known as the Gabu School Party!, since Gabu was the closest sizeable town.)  The party was a chance for rally teams to donate school supplies to the school, for the village of Sincem Boxe to put on traditional drumming and dancing displays, and for everyone to have a great time.  What followed was a bizarre experience.

Justin and Nate, above it all, at a late night Gabu School Party! drum session.

We arrived in Sincem Boxe well after dark, and the Gabu School Party! was already going strong.  A city bus was parked in the middle of the main field, with strings of lights stretching from it to surrounding poles, casting a faint glow on only part of the area.  The local people, numbering at least 500 (with the vast majority of them kids), had started impromptu drum circles, which could be heard, out in the darkness, from several parts of the main field.  Few rally teams could actually communicate with the locals, since few spoke Portuguese, which most Guinea Bissauans can at least understand.  Some rally teams handed out light sticks by throwing hundreds into the air, setting off a brief melee.  Some of the rally teams set off fireworks, startling the villagers, many of whom may have never seen explosions in the sky before.  Some of the rally teams got drunk and a bit rowdy, jumping into drum circles to dance and sing Hungarian folk songs.  Local dancers joined in and competed for the drummers’ attention, and the rhythms increased in intensity.  People milled about as the party went deep into the night.  It was all in good spirit, though, and Sincem Boxe, and most of the foreigners present, may never see anything as pleasantly dysfunctional as the Gabu School Party! again.

A drummer pounds out the beat, late into the night.

A drummer pounds out the beat, late into the night.

During a break in the action, as teams started to set up camps (we were spending the night there, anywhere in the field where there was space), huge numbers of curious kids gathered around and asked for anything and everything.  Many of the rally teams, soon to leave Africa, were unloading stuff anyway and obliged.  Others, like a Romanian team, got a sleeping bag nicked from them while they weren’t looking.  One rally team member handed out his business cards to everyone; kids would then come by the Cruiser, as we cooked our dinner, attempting to exchange these cards for stuff like our tents, flashlights, or, in particular, soccer ball.

Nate and Justin, the center of attention once again, the morning after the Gabu School Party!

Occasionally, guards would come by and chase the kids away, but the next morning when we woke up, a huge swell of them gathered around again.  Nate brushing his teeth was witnessed by about 30 kids, who had circled around him to observe the momentous event.  It was all a somewhat extreme version of a typical African experience of numerous, curious children gathering around to watch whatever the foreigner happens to be doing.  We enjoyed interacting with these kids, who were always playful, smiling, and full of life.

Voyages Verts Exits Rally, Again Necessitating Catch Up

The Cruiser on the streets of St. Louis, with magenta bougainvillea growing wild over the pale yellow walls of many colonial buildings.

Awaking in St. Louis, we each felt that we had truly and finally left the Sahara behind, and were solidly on the ground in West Africa.  Perhaps it was the sight of the vibrant colors of the batik fabrics worn by the women in the market, or the sound of palms swaying in the sea breeze along the back streets of the town, or the strain of having driven every day for thousands of kilometers since Budapest, but something led us to the bold decision to once again exit the rally, this time staying in St. Louis for another day.  After all, the Voyages Verts team did not want anyone to mistake us for being anything other than touring class.

So, while the rally blazed on, we drove through a fishing village onto the Langue de Barbarie, the barrier island that separates St. Louis from the Atlantic, and lazed about.

Street life on display in St. Louis.

Later in the evening, Nate and Lee, following up on a tip from a few Peace Corps volunteers we met earlier in St. Louis, went back into town in search of a restaurant known for its warthog.  In an alley off a back street, we found the restaurant and, after entering through a rough bar, we were soon sitting in a back garden, faced with a menu chalked on a wall and a woman nearby squatting on a stool, grilling meat over open coals.  After a few gestures and considering the menu, we were able to communicate that we were here for the porc sauvage (which, we were to later find out, is not French for warthog, but is what warthog is called when eaten).  Minutes later a plate of fairly tough, but flavorful, pork arrived, which we ate while drinking Gazelle beer and listening to the musings of a drunk, but good natured, Senegalese gentleman who seated himself at our table.  With an order of porc sauvage to go, we headed back to our guesthouse to pack up for the long day of driving that awaited.

Boats on the Senegal River, delivering their catch to Guet N’Dar.

Leaving early allowed us to pass through the fishing village of Guet N’Dar as the morning catch was being brought in, and the sights, sounds and smells of the market surrounded the Cruiser as we drove right through the middle of the action.  Boats, vibrantly painted with swirling geometric designs, pulled in and unloaded all manner of sea life, which was carried by porters onto trucks headed for Dakar.

What we missed in rural landscape the day before we took in via the potholed short cut we took to Parc National de Niokolo-Koba, passing through plains of dried yellow grasses and isolated acacia trees, with mud hut villages and the occasional leafless baobab tree rising in the distance.  After the monotony of the plains, we were stunned by the scope of the sprawling Friday market in Tuba, which seemed to go on without end, a mass of commerce unlike anything we had seen thus far.  After a successful stop for lunch (baguettes and grilled goat, which Justin secured fresh off the roadside grill) and an unsuccessful stop for fuel (we were to later find out that due to a national fuel-truck driver strike, fuel was unavailable other than from the black market), we arrived at the park entrance just before dusk.  Several other rally teams were there too, and everyone was waiting to get in.

While Justin negotiated the comical bureaucracy of the park entrance office, which included multiple requests for petit cadeaus and slow and repeated counting of the money, a near riot broke out when Lee and Nate decided to hand out some school supplies to the large group of kids who had gathered around the park entrance.  Before we even had a chance to even get the school supplies out, the kids stormed the Cruiser, nearly trampling each other in the excitement.  Thankfully an adult from the village was on hand to take charge of distribution, and he let it be known that nothing would be handed out until everyone calmed down, which didn’t happen while we were there.

Driving along the dusty trails of Parc National de Niokolo-Koba.

Finally, after about half-an-hour in the park entrance office, Justin emerged, laughing at how the frustrating delay had caused a Hungarian to erupt into a rage, which was greeted by nothing but snickering and further delay by the park officials.  Having the only vehicle with space in the back seat, we loaded a park official into the Crusier and headed into the fading light, through clouds of dust, along tracks flanked by towering, leafless teak trees and a few warthogs foraging in the undergrowth.  Before long we were once again setting up our tents after dark, this time in the rocky sand outside the park’s main camp.

Leaving Mauritania, and Final Memories of the Great Sahara

The rally leaves B2 Beach, after waiting all morning for the tide to go out enough to drive back along the beach.

Mauritania may have among the lowest population densities of any country in Africa, and its people were among the most relaxed we had met so far, but the center of its capital, Nouakchott, was home to a tangled mess of traffic.  Every intersection was crowded with all manner of vehicles, each forcing and weaving its way through with no apparent order.  Often there was complete gridlock until one driver backed down and either stopped, or backed up to open up a bit of clear space.  With no working map of the city, just a guidebook providing a recommendation where to stay, and a complete absence of street signage, finding our guesthouse took over an hour as we made our way through the main market and back and forth through the sand streets.

Menu of food on offer at our guesthouse in Nouakchott. We regretted eating elsewhere.

Soon after settling in and having our dirty, dusty clothes sent to be laundered, as dark settled on the city, we set out to find a place to eat.

The chaos of the traffic during the day was juxtaposed with the mostly deserted streets at night.  We wandered the near-dark streets, asked for directions to a recommended restaurant, and wandered some more based on the directions.  As we were about to give up, after an hour of dead end leads to the restaurant we were searching for, we came upon a place with a few people sitting outside, and beef, rice, pasta and couscous served from trays behind the counter.  It looked good, but was arguably the worst meal of the trip, ameliorated slightly by some of the hottest hot sauce we had yet encountered.

A new day in Nouakchott brought another battle with its chaotic, no-rules traffic jams.  Many drivers enjoyed using the optional dirt track side lane, usually to speed by other vehicles in the paved lane.  After the worst of the traffic, featuring, among other highlights, a donkey cart carrying half of a car, followed by a second donkey cart carrying the other half of the car, there appeared, in the dusty median by the main traffic circle out of the city, a series of what appeared to be goat rodeos.

Nate and Justin, none to happy with their dinner in Nouakchott.

Driving south, the villages began to appear more regularly, and the foliage on the trees became denser—the Sahara was gradually giving way to the Sahel, as we received the first true indication that our time in the great desert was coming to an end.  We were fast approaching the Rosso boarder crossing into Senegal, the rally’s chosen crossing point, but which, as we had read, has long been considered one of the worst in Africa.  Having been told by a Frenchman in Nouakchott not, under any circumstances, to use the Rosso crossing—he was adamant that it was frustrating, time consuming, and expensive (due to the bribes that would have to be paid both to border officials in each country and to the ferry operator to cross the Senegal River, which forms the physical border)—we decided to leave the main road and head to Diamma, a less frequented crossing.

We soon found ourselves driving on an embankment through the Senegal River delta, skirting the northern edge of Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj.  As dusk settled on the delta, we drove through a flat landscape marked by small creeks and head-high grasses, with a huge array of shorebirds flying overhead and feeding in the shallows.  Warthogs darted through the underbrush—and signs along the road warned of how dangerous warthogs could be (which we were to disprove first hand across the border in St. Louis).  While the scene was peaceful, with the subtle greens and browns of the delta fading with the sun, the road was brutal.  For almost an hour we endured bone jarring vibrations from the heavily washboarded road, which seemed endless.

Finally, though, we arrived in Diamma and commenced border formalities.  Fearing the worst, and after two hours of paperwork, special (but negotiable) “fees,” and Justin and Lee being physically forced to leave Senegalese customs (during the opening minutes of the Senegal – Equatorial Guinea, Africa Cup of Nations soccer match, no less) without necessary papers, until Justin barged back in and paid the special (but this time nonnegotiable) “fee,” we managed our way through the border and drove into Senegal.  A group of Hungarians in three large trucks crossing the border just in front of us (one of which was carrying medical supplies to be donated in Guinea Bissau) also got through, but only after paying a series of hefty bribes at each station on both sides of the border, which they did not resist too vigorously.

A convenient coincidence of us crossing at Diamma was that there was no way we would make it to the night’s rally campsite, just across the border from Rosso.  Instead we drove about half-an-hour to St. Louis, France’s first settlement in West Africa, now a tumbledown colonial town set on a small island in the Senegal River, sheltered from the Atlantic by a barrier island.  We were not entirely surprised to discover that several other rally teams had made the same decision, and the narrow streets of the town were at times crowded with their vehicles, parked for the night.  The town was not in high spirits since, as we watched at a bar and heard echoed by collective moans on the streets, Senegal lost to Equatorial Guinea.  But, it being Senegal, the now muted party did go on, and we called it a night at 3:00 a.m., after dancing for the first time in West Africa.

Into Mauritania, Through No-man’s Land

On our way through the southern part of Western Sahara, the road once again hugged the coastline and, given the brutally hot Saharan day (and that the Cruiser does not have air conditioning), we were hoping to pull over for a quick swim.

Justin and Nate jump into (and soon retreat from) the cold water of the Atlantic.

When we saw a dirt track that apparently led down to the beach, we took it.  The track didn’t quite lead all the way to the beach—instead it dead-ended at a small shack, which we would later learn was a Moroccan marine security post.  The two plain-clothed guards greeted us with offers of tea, in the Saharan tradition, which we accepted and reciprocated by giving them a package of our own Chinese green gunpowder, the tea of choice in the Sahara.  We soon noticed that they were taking advantage of something the Sahara has in huge quantities:  sunlight—far from any settlement, they were using two solar panels and a battery system to power a satellite TV (which, with Morocco currently playing in the group stage of the African Cup of Nations, the main African soccer tournament, was not just a luxury).  As they looked after the Cruiser, Justin and Nate jumped in the Atlantic (which, although we had driven hundreds of kilometers south of Tan Tan, was no less cold) and we collected driftwood for a campfire.

The road to Mauritania wound through increasingly large dunes and, after a bend in the road, we were confronted by the first of what would be many wrecked or burned out vehicles along the side of the road.  Driving past, and after a final fill up with famously cheap Western Saharan diesel, we headed for the Moroccan border post.

Burned out expedition vehicle on the road south to Mauritania. And we’re not even in no-man’s land yet.

The Moroccan border formalities were, once again, surprisingly quick and trouble free.  While in line for our exit stamps, we met a group of Merry Prankster-types in a caravan of ragged buses, who, despite appearances and fully exposing the ridiculousness of stereotypes (ours included), were headed to The Gambia to continue work on school, which they funded through holding summertime raves in Europe.

The border crossing was two-part, with a four km UN demilitarized zone (which neither Morocco nor Mauritania is allowed to enter) forming the “no man’s land” between the countries.  We crossed into this bizarre place with great expectations (which we place on the official Budapest to Bamako Rally Road Book:  “since no country has control over the place it is full of smugglers, illegal money changers, blown up vehicles, land mines, cars left here from various insurance scams and piles of trash”).  In reality, it was a dusty, rocky unmaintained road, through more or less a garbage dump with a large number of burned out cars, broken copiers, refrigerators, TVs and other assorted detritus, with bored-looking people occasionally sitting on boulders in the distance.  We thankfully don’t have anything to report about the land mines.

Following the ambulances which will be donated to Guinea Bissau, while avoiding the land mines, in no-man's land between Morocco and Mauritania.

The Mauritanian crossing wasn’t bad either, and soon we had entered our second African country of the trip.  After driving for about an hour, we spent some time in the coastal city of Nouâdhibou, which formed an interesting juxtaposition to Dakhla, in Western Sahara.  Whereas Dakhla was an almost shockingly modern city, with broad streets, sidewalk cafés and a notable absence of inhabitants, Nouâdhibou was a somewhat non-descript port with sandy, teeming streets, no traffic rules and piles of garbage (where, as luck would have it, we were able to scavenge more wood for a campfire).  It did, however, feel like an area where the line between North Africa and West Africa was becoming blurred—the people we passed on the street provided a sampling of the mixed Arab/African population of the country and the attendant diverse manners of dress:  flowing white robes, to blue jeans and plenty in-between.

Leaving Nouâdhibou, we headed south with only a vague sense of our destination—having tried, but failed, to load the West Africa map into our GPS, we reverted to older methods of route finding.  Through trial and error, we found the rally camp, off the main road in the desert, again at about 10:00 p.m. and pitched our tents for the night.

The next day we followed a series of waypoints completely off road, through trackless desert in Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, one of several national parks along the coast which are famed for the migratory birds which pass through.  We drove over, through, and around sand dunes, black volcanic rock fields, salt flats and plains strewn with acacia trees and tough, thorny desert scrub as we made our way south through the park, passing isolated camel ranches and nomad tents.  It was one of those days that rewarded all the hard driving we had endured through Europe—and the considerable investment we made in the Cruiser, which performed flawlessly in some rough conditions.

Lee and Nate take to the air during a break from desert driving in Parc National du Banc d’Arguin.

Nate, after a hard day of driving, and after a stop at a fishing village where Justin managed to arrange the purchase of three sizeable fish, handed over the Crusier to Lee for the last drive on the beach to our campsite for the night:  the famed B2 Beach (famed, that is, only by the rally).  When we arrived, as the day turned to dusk, the place was packed.  Big Hungarians in very small bathing suits.  We entered in style—driving to the far end of the group, before cutting back through a stretch of soft sand and, in low range, spinning all four tires as we slowly, slowly made our way to the spot we picked for camp.  Filmed by three Hungarians, up close, perhaps as an example of how not to look cool when arriving at B2 Beach.

Fishermen in the village of Lemhaisrat, where Justin bought fish to grill on our campfire at B2 Beach.

After setting up our tents and enjoying a dinner of grilled fish and pasta, we mingled with the crowd.  Hours later, and on several occasions, we kept a Hungarian dentist serving as a rally medic (with, as we later discovered, a “Danger:  Don’t feed the Wookie Inside” sticker on his car) from face-planting in the sand.  We then approached another group, which was listening to ‘80s Eastern Bloc rock cover tunes, but this time failed to prevent one of its members—a Hungarian on the search for more of his own homemade plum pálinka—from face-planting in the sand.  After testing the strength of the pálinka a few times by blowing it into the campfire, creating flaming balls, we called it a night.

Yes, the Rally Does Actually Exist, and We Are a Part of It

We awoke in Tan Tan and, after our usual leisurely start, were once again on the road.  Routine morning tasks, such as sorting and packing our gear, checking the Cruiser’s fluid levels and tire pressure, discussing the day’s route and caffeinating our minds, seem to take forever, but we’re slowly becoming more efficient as we adjust to life on the road.

Small French RV against a great, wide desert and a deep, blue sea.

Leaving town, the road soon curved towards the coast, and we were rewarded with our first views of the Atlantic since Casablanca.  On the outskirts of a small port we pulled over and Nate and Justin walked through an expanse of low dunes, with abandoned buildings interspersed, to the water.  The water, which was a brilliant shade of blue, was swimmable, but maybe only just for a short while as it was still quite cold.  Farther down the road we stopped at a small group of RVs, which seemed to have established a semi-permanent community around a fresh water standpipe.  While several Frenchmen stood regarding the scene, a Moroccan with an inner tube was free diving for shellfish close to shore.

Between these stops the road continued, through the flat expanse of the Sahara.  Because of the relatively good shape of the road, and the scarcity of traffic and settlements, we were able to drive around 120 km per hour.  We even, in a surreal change of events, overtook several other rally teams.  Along the way the landscape varied ever so gradually between low dunes and rocky plains, broken occasionally by camels wandering in the distance.

Nate gauges the distance to towns we never imagined.

We crossed into the Southern Provinces of Morocco, also known as the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and soon approached Layounne, its largest city.  There was no official crossing, but just a few kilometers after our GPS indicated we had entered Western Sahara we were stopped for what was the first of many checkpoints, which for us involved handing over a copy of our fiche.  (A fiche is a document detailing the personal information of the occupants of a vehicle passing through, which usually allowed us to move through checkpoints without producing our passports; we made fifty copies in anticipation of the regular stops and the accompanying demand for a copy of our fiche.)  Layounne had a heavy military presence on its outskirts, but the city itself seemed relaxed and very newly built-up.  For the most part its streets were empty, since it was prayer time on Friday, and after a lunch of roasted chicken and fish tagine, we moved on.

At this point we had seen several vehicles with Budapest to Bamako Rally stickers, pretty much every day, and with increasing frequency.  These were fellow stragglers who we sometimes stopped and spoke with, while at other times we simply saw them parked on the side of the road as we drove past.

Setting up our first camp, on the beach, after catching the rally.

By the evening though, we had finally chased down the rally.  With the help of GPS coordinates provided to us by the rally’s organizers, we found the turn off to the official meeting point for the evening, made our way down the access road to the beach, and there we were.  Our dogged pursuit had finally paid off—we were now over 2,000 km into Africa, finally pitching our tents on an isolated beach in Western Sahara among the largely Hungarian rally teams.  We celebrated by driving back into Bojdour, the nearest town, for camel burgers topped with fried eggs and a bottle of Moroccan wine we picked up in Marrakesh (which was the subject of several conversations, as assorted characters throughout town, including our waiter, attempted to get us to sell, barter or simply gift our remaining alcohol).

The next morning Justin attended the rally’s daily briefing, which is given in English and Hungarian, primarily for the racing class.  This would be the only briefing any Voyages Verts team member attended.

Fully briefed, and once again among the last to leave, we began the drive towards the Mauritanian border, where the rally would camp before crossing in the morning.

The Cruiser (with Nate taking in the view from the roof) on the cliffs high above the Atlantic.

Our activities during the day led, invariably, to quite a bit of driving into the night, when the vastness of the desert in Western Sahara becomes, in many ways, its most striking.  There is only a single, two-lane road that leads south to Mauritania, which made the absence of other vehicles seem all the more unusual.  Between towns there were no lights.  Often we would drive for upwards of an hour before passing another vehicle, often a large truck carrying goods up or down the country.

Soon after our arrival around 10:00 p.m. at a hotel attached to a gas station, bizarrely laid out as several floors rising from a central garden atrium open to the highway, Nate and Justin brought the last of our beer and wine (but not our whiskey, which we would hide away and take into Mauritania) down to a mostly Hungarian gathering that had formed in a Muslim prayer room.  This was the only space available, and where the hotel staff encouraged everyone to go since the garden atrium had been shuttered for the night.  Once again, the Hungarians produced and quickly consumed their pálinka.  Some local guys, friends of the hotel staff, ventured in and wanted to be given alcohol; everyone obliged in generous portions.  Apparently, not accustomed to drinking in a place where alcohol was scarce, they rapidly and with considerable bravado downed their drinks, and began to act drunk almost immediately thereafter.  The next morning, while we were filling the jerrycans on the roof of the Cruiser, we saw several of the local guys again, and despite suffering the effects of the night before, their interest in being given free alcohol had not been diminished.

Marrakesh to Planet Tatooine

Draining the oil from the Cruiser, at a back street mechanic's shop in Marrakesh.

After several long, hard days on the road, we decided to treat the Cruiser to an oil change in Marrakesh.  Justin negotiated a decent price with a mechanic who had a back street shop, so we bought the oil, pulled a new filter from our spare parts box and were soon ready to hit the road.  Or so we thought.  On our way out of town we were stopped by a traffic cop who claimed that Nate had run a red light, which he went on to claim would require us to pay a fine of 700 dirham (about $80), in cash, on the spot for the violation.  After first asking whether any of us spoke Arabic, he pointed to a section of his pocket Moroccan traffic code, written in Arabic, which did indeed state that committing an indecipherable violation would result in a 700 dirham fine.  We had, in truth, not done anything wrong, and instantly we knew that this would the first of many bribes we would have to pay on our trip.

The goal, of course, in any of these types of situations is to pay nothing.  And this is sometimes possible, with a bit of persistence, local language ability, and maintaining that we did nothing wrong and are wise to the game.  But, since we were in a rush to leave and hadn’t yet discussed our strategy for these types of situations, the best we could do was make a deal.  Justin, once again deploying his negotiation skills, got out of the Cruiser and after a bit of back and forth we agreed to pay 200 dirham (about $20), which went directly into the traffic cop’s pocket..  In an effort to enforce discipline, we are considering instituting a system whereby if one of us is able to avoid or reduce a bribe, he will receive the savings, but will only be allowed to use the money to buy the others beer.

Café culture on display, in the seaside city of Agadir.

Back on the road, we decided to yet again delay our triumphant return to the rally by instead going to the coastal city of Agadir for the night.  Lee had somehow mixed up the cities of Agadir and Essaouira, so instead of enjoying the breeze off the Atlantic from a bar on the ramparts of its ancient medina, we went to an Italian circus (yes, seriously).  After the circus, we retired to a café to watch Real Madrid lose to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.  Lacking the artsy, foreigner-focused vibe of Essaouira, the cafés in Agadir were much more Moroccan:  only guys (and huge numbers of them) and no alcohol.   Add to this mix spit-roasted chicken take-out, super sweet mint tea, and a pesky street kid who was playing up some of the other patrons by harassing us, and our night in Agadir was complete.

The next morning we set off for the drive down to Tan Tan, the last stop on the rally before entering Western Sahara.  Actually, we couldn’t have had planned our arrival any better:  we would rejoin the rally just in time for a party in the desert, and not just any party, a Star Wars themed party at a site named Planet Tatooine, where rally teams were to be awarded points for wearing Star Wars apparel.

Hot, straight, fast driving, with camels and trucks, through the Sahara.

En route, at one of the many desert towns we passed through, we missed a turn and got a bit off track.  Soon the road became narrow, and it was already nightfall.  As we wound our way through the alleys of the town, it became apparent that we were nowhere near the highway to Tan Tan.  Curious locals began to stare at us and soon, after gesturing to show that we were looking for the highway, a guy emerged with a bicycle, and indicated that he would show us the way.  With that he turned and began riding, and promptly crashed in the middle of the alley in a cloud of dust.  Jumping to his feet, he signaled that he was fine and began riding agin, fast and determined.  We followed him through the town, turn after turn, for a couple of kilometers.  It was almost pitch black, with dust rising around us, and lights on the highway began to emerge in the distance.  There was something almost magical about this simple act of following a guy on a bike through this town.  In any event, we were soon at the highway and, after thanking him and offering some baksheesh for his troubles, we were back on track to Planet Tatooine.

Further along, we stopped in another small desert town on the outskirts of Bouizakarne, to take the covers off our spotlights (the Cruiser has low beams, high beams and two spotlights, or bush beams, mounted on the front push bar, which we only use when driving in the bush).  Nate ran into a nearby Moroccan truck stop café to grab a couple espressos and was greeted by several guys, just sitting there, one of which decided to shout “Hey Tom Cruise,” which Nate, of course, took as a reference to him.  Simply wanting to engage Nate in a conversation, the guy asked whether it would be better for them to speak in English, French or German.  Which, in a way, was disappointing, since a guy who was obviously pretty intelligent, was just sitting in a truck stop café, on the side of the highway to Western Sahara.

Despite our efforts, and continuing our trend of late arrivals, we arrived in Tan Tan after midnight.  With regrets we decided to stay in the town, where there were a smattering of other rally vehicles, but not the main pack, which was presumably at Planet Tatooine.  (Later, our disappointment of not having the pleasure of seeing a real, live Star Wars party was somewhat relieved when we learned that there had, in fact, been no Star Wars party since the team carrying the projector for the night’s movie showing got lost in the desert and didn’t arrive until 3:00 a.m.)