Friday, 22 November 2013

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world ---

FOR those who know Casablanca only through that great movie of the same name, it is a city synonymous with new beginnings. Here, on Thursday, the adventure ended for the Petronas Trans Sahara 2004 expedition, and the 44 participants felt it was an appropriate place to look back on how it all began.
There is now a special bond among us, the kind that only comes from having survived an extended period of trials and tribulations together, as well as the excitement of shared discovery and exploration.
It has been a bumpy ride, literally and figuratively. The journey has taken the Petronas Adventure Team through six North African countries, plus a brief detour through Spain that entailed two overnight ferry rides for the expedition members and their 18 vehicles. Overland border crossings are always a tedious, time-consuming affair involving plenty of paperwork and patience. But serious differences between Algeria and Morocco mean the border is closed, thus making the trips across the Mediterranean Sea necessary.
A Roman fort in Tunisia.
With only a few rare exceptions, each day had begun early and ended late. In between, there were many hours of driving, more often than not over difficult terrain that took a heavy toll on vehicles and occupants alike. The rewards, however, were opportunities to behold numerous natural wonders that few Malaysians have seen before.
Spirits have remained high for most of our journey although there have been the inevitable moments when normally suppressed tensions broke through and tempers flared; and, of course, there was the melancholy as homesickness crept in towards the last few days of the long trek.
Everyone remained in good health for a surprisingly long time, considering the long days spent in the desert, camping without any water other than what had been carried in bottles and jerry cans.
However, just when everyone thought expedition medic Khairuddin Mohd Ali was having a relaxing holiday, the bugs bit with a vengeance. After nearly a month going through countries with ever-present hygiene concerns without major problems, about 90% of the team were hit by food poisoning, which led to severe diarrhoea and some vomiting, shortly after we disembarked in Alicante, a port in Spain – ironically, the cleanest country we had been to thus far. The prime suspect was the orange juice served during breakfast on the boat from Oran, Algeria.
On the morning after, “How are you?” became a question of concern rather than the usual, mechanical greeting. Another greeting frequently heard throughout the hotel corridors was, “How many times did you do it last night?”
Things were looking better as the sun rose over Nador, the Moroccan port where the team returned to in North Africa. But a dozen or so of the team members still looked ashen and less-than-enthusiastic adventurers.
The drive to the historic city of Fez got off to an inauspicious start when the local handler’s Land Rover suffered a broken timing belt barely two hours into the journey up the famous Atlas Mountains. It could not be repaired immediately and had to be left behind in the nearest town.
The Moroccan landscape turned out to be a dramatic and welcome change from the harsh, arid desert we had been passing through earlier. For a start, there was plenty of green everywhere and the silver glint of sunlight reflecting off the leaves on thousands upon thousands of olive trees got the cameras clicking.
The vegetation gradually changed from sparse shrubs to tall pine and spruce trees as we climbed higher, and the temperature fell to a pleasant average of 23°C.
Underground dwellings called 'troglodytes'.
Expectations were high in Fez, but the team was disappointed, mainly because there was not enough time to enjoy the old-world charms of this ancient town’s medina or bazaar. We were herded from one overpriced shop to another by the handler, Azeez, whom everyone suspected was more interested in his commissions from the vendors than our interests.
At no other time had we felt more like the typical tourist – precisely what the expedition did not wish to have happen. Justice was served when the rogue was dismissed and kicked out of the convoy several days later for running off to sleep in a nearby hotel while everyone had to camp in a rocky, dry riverbed.
Things improved somewhat as we set off higher into the mountains for three days of camping. The rocky ground proved tough going and the temperature fell to below 10°C at night. Freezing feet and toes made getting a good night’s sleep difficult, but there was some joy to be found in a roaring campfire.
The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. Most of the Atlas Mountains comprise sedimentary rocks formed in layers over hundreds of millions years. Geological forces have pushed the layers up this way and that, and countless millennia of weathering have exposed the many layers at all angles and shapes, and in many colours.
Our vehicles had to negotiate frighteningly narrow and bumpy tracks that clung precariously to the sides of steep cliffs. This was mountain goat territory, and there were plenty of these hardy animals around to stare at the unfamiliar sight of 4X4 vehicles crawling through their turf.
Traversing a pass took the convoy to nearly 2,700m above sea level, and into yet another amazing landscape which could be called Morocco’s own Grand Canyon. Deep gorges cut by rivers over millions of years have created a scene that resembles different varieties of layer cake (like the popular kuih lapis) in a bewildering array of colours and shapes.
This was also the area where the convoy encountered the phenomenon of rural Moroccan children, who have learned that visitors passing through meant handouts of food and other treats.
When there were only one or two children by the side of the track, giving them a packet of biscuits or some sweets was a pleasure, if only for the satisfaction of seeing the joy on their faces. However, when there were large numbers, they behaved more like an aggressive mob, chasing after and pounding on our moving vehicles. Some even climbed onto the cars and clung on desperately with one hand while using the other to take items by force. Some flung stones at vehicles whose occupants did not meet their demands.
Earlier, many of the expedition members had been anxious to know the local inhabitants better. But passing through the villages soon became a harrowing experience. It was with relief that we drove out of the mountains and into Marrakech, Morocco’s second biggest city and most popular tourist destination.
What joy! No more camping, no more going days without a bath. PAT members may be tough adventurers who enjoy roughing it out, but there comes a point when enough is enough, and everyone is ready to appreciate the creature comforts and niceties of civilisation again. A day of sightseeing and shopping for souvenirs in the huge, vibrant bazaar at Marrakech’s famed medina got everyone cheerful and upbeat again.
As the convoy rolled closer towards the final destination on the final day, many of the expedition members took turns on the two-way radios to address the group, thanking each other for the good times, for the little gestures of kindness that would be remembered forever, and apologising for any offence they might have caused.
There was emotion in the air, mixed feelings of relief because the end was near and we would be going home to loved ones soon. Yet there was sadness at the thought of the impending parting of ways for a motley bunch of people of all ages and walks of life who, for the past six weeks, had been closer than family.
There is always next year’s expedition to look forward to, and it’s a safe bet that everyone will leap at the chance if asked whether he or she would like to “play it again”.