Iceland To Africa By Bicycle 2004

Newsletter 6

Written 21st October 2004

Key statistics so far:
  • Miles: 2,503
  • Average per day: 53 (excluding rest and ferry days)
  • Days since departure: 67
  • Punctures: 3
  • Mechanical failures: 3 (a second pedal has caved in ... the new one too!)
  • Maximum speed: 42.0 mph
  • Highest temperature: 39 Degrees.
  • Number of times on a motorway: 3
  • Number of times stopped by the police: 1
  • Score: Yorkshire 2 - La Policia de Espana 1

As I sit here in Kenitra (doing battle with a half Arabic AZERTY keyboard), a bustling town some 150 miles south of Tangier on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, I am full of a mixture of differing emotions. It has been a very strange 13 days since the last newsletter which was sent from Almeria (where I spent 3 days recovering from the traumas of the mountain tracks, motorway and Spanish police). I know that I have slowed down and I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, the end of the journey is just around the corner (there are now only 100 miles left to Casablanca) and, whilst I really am thoroughly looking foward to returning home to the comforts of my house, my bed, my friends and family and my life,I can feel a tension, a resistance to accepting that I will have to stop cycling. Almost every day now for over two months I have packed my panniers, checked the tyres, the brakes, oiled the chain, adjusted the gears, put my feet on the pedals and headed out of town on a new adventure (because each day truly has been its own unique step into the unknown). I almost can't imagine stopping. It has occurred to me that I could keep going but I know that it is almost time to come home. Besides, my bank manager would have plenty to say on the matter if I didn't!

The second reason though is fear (yes fear, I confess!). The further south I've headed, the worse the roads have become and the more dangerous the journey, not to mention my enormous trepidation about leaving the comfort and sanctity of the European continent. I believe I have slowed down in Spain because I was scared of what lay ahead! Consequently I paused in Fuengirola (only 3 days after the last stop in Almeria).

The N340 was certainly a fear of mine - and there really was no other way round it without deviating deep into the interior. From Almeria I cycled West to Malaga via Adra and Torre del Mar (a very beautiful road running along the cliffs above the Mediterranean). It was here I had my first real taste of the N340 ... trying to get out of Malaga southwards without using it is impossible and eventually I simply had to do it. The road is a fast, narrow, dual carriageway with no hard shoulder. It's a constant balance between being too far into the road or bouncing the panniers off the menacing crash barrier to the right. Too far to the left would be very dangerous ... too far to the right and the barrier takes pleasure in pushing you into the road in a dreadfully unstable fashion. The concentration required is enormous, although most of this is directed at quelling the fear and shutting out the noise of the endless stream of lorries and speeding taxis.

I left Fuengirola on the 17th October and, much as I tried, there was no way by coast and I was forced back onto the terrifying N340. As I crossed the footbridge I spotted a professional cyclist and this gave me some hope and confidence. I nervously followed his lead. Two miles up the road I encountered my inspirator again - lying on his back, unconscious (I pray only unconscious), in front of a van. He had assistance in the form of the Cycle Club of Marbella who protectively surrounded him and I knew there was nothing I could do, so I cycled past - fast, hard, concentrating, feeling cold and shaken with goosepimples over my arms and legs and a heavy, unidentifiable emotion inside. I barely stopped for the 66 miles to Gibralter which went past in a blur.

The following morning, having stopped to post home some maps, a guide book and a camera film, we did the 16 miles to Algeciras, caught the fast ferry to Tangier and stepped out into a different world!

I have been to Tangier before and knew what to expect, but never on a bicycle. I cycled quickly through the crowd, ignoring the whistles (quite possibly police) and the calls of "my friend, my friend!", "hotel", "hashish" and "something special!". I cycled around, past and through them all, headed fast uphill playing chicken with the petit taxis (later realising I was going the wrong way up a one way street) and headed directly for a hotel I knew, arriving sweating and adrenaline fuelled 15 minutes later. On reflection I'm sure I could simply have strolled casually through the crowd but I had worked myself into quite a state of anxiety before I got there.

The next morning I readied myself, made an early start and, along the dreadful N1 from Tangier (being regularly forced off the road and into the dust by overtaking lorries and cars coming straight at me!), headed into that blasted headwind again to Asilah. Deciding that it was definatley enough for the day I chose to stop and assimilate my new surroundings, the new culture and the new dangers, including one I hadn't forseen ... Ramadan.

I have done my best to be sympathetic to, and in many ways observe, the tradition of Ramadan. From Asilah to Kenitra I have done almost 200km in two days on not much more than a couple of loaves of bread and a few bottles of water. In part enforced and partly out of choice. I did not want to be seen to be eating openly and there has been nowhere to buy food during the day anyway. Last night I stayed in the little village of Moulay Bousselham (which, incidentally, is a surfer's dream - a beach the size of a small, duned desert and the crashing waves of the Atlantic throwing mist a mile inland!) where everything was closed. I wandered round at dusk (dawn and dusk are marked by the deafening sound of an air raid siren) trying to find food and was very kindly invited to join five Moroccan lads for the evening break of the fast. We ate bread, a little soup and a few potatos in a stew with our fingers from a single, communal bowl. They spoke very little French and I no Arabic but with pictures I described to them my journey - I was grateful but ate only little, it seemed wrong to me to take food from people so much poorer than I am although I ate enough to not offend. We watched Arabic TV for an hour or two and I then thanked them as best I could and returned to the room I shared with a family of giant cocroaches!

Today I arrived at about 3pm in Kenitra (having eaten nothing since my bread for breakfast) and headed for the comfort of the 3 star Hotel Mamora. By the pool, and behind the walls that hid me from the rest of the city, I gorged on steak sandwich and chips and a couple of beers!

I must mention the Moroccan people who have shown themselves to be incredibly generous with their smiles and encouragement. From the children and their 'high fives' (and their grabbing little fingers causing you to occasionally swerve and accelerate hard leaving probing fingers clutching air) to all the broad smiles, clapping hands, waves and "bonjours" of everyone else. Having previously commented on the flying speeds of flys and mosquitos, this week I can confirm that the average Moroccan horsedrawn cart travels at around 8-10 mph, a donkey-drawn cart at about 5 mph and the average Moroccan child stops chasing when you get over 15 mph! For every 1,000 wonderful greetings I've had, there has of course been the occasional rogue element. I have had stones thrown at me twice and one chap ran into the road making as if to hit me ... I don't know why and I simply ducked round him and cycled on. There have been many shouts of "manger" (or was it "mangez"?) - I don't know if this is a question, an accusation or a request but the answer that seems to bring the biggest smile is "Non, je ne mange pas, c'est Ramadan!"

I realise that this newsletter is rather less light-hearted than previous writings, but I suppose that is an indication as to why it feels to me to have been a very strange 13 days. I have spent some portions of it in fear and, although I wonder what it will be like to stop cycling, I am looking forward now to reaching the safety of Casablanca and I know that my time here is almost done.

As regards this week's thinking, I suppose the one thought that has dominated my mind has been an incredibly strong awareness of my own mortality. They have a saying in the Arabic world that the man who travels far is wiser than the man who lives long. This saying is, I think, credited to one Ibn Battuta (full name: Sheikh Abu Abdallah Mohammed bin Adballah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim al-Lawati) who spent 30 years travelling the Muslim world in the early 14th century. I will never be wise but I do feel less unwise than I was!

The next writing , I hope, will be from Casablanca from where I will be asking those, who said they'd sponsor me if I did it, to make good their promise for Marie Curie!

On that rather cheeky note, it's goodnight from Kenitra.

All the best


Tom Bottomley
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