The last lap to Tangier nearly broke me. In fact, it could have broken us. I don’t usually go into detail about our marital situation because a) it’s none of your business and b) petty rows seem even pettier written up. Likewise I don’t include all the torrid in and outs of dealing with a teenager (or two), but sometimes the facts so impinge on the plot, I can’t avoid mentioning them.
Hub and I had been having our usual ups and downs, but somehow this last week things came to a head. Perhaps precisely because we were so nearly at the end – of making it halfway round Africa clockwise that is. More likely (she said, editing in retrospect a year later) because menopausal madness was kicking in with a vengeance. Either way, this fall-out felt like one too far.
It boiled down to this: I was worried about my Mom and anxious to get to my folks, whom I hadn’t seen since April 2015. My brother had already arrived at their place in southern Spain and they were all waiting for us. Sampson seemed (willfully) oblivious to this, with his mind always – and only – on the next surf.
Now I’ve lived with him for 20 years and I understand the passions of the surfer. Luckily I love the beach, and have never argued against the main imperative of this trip being to follow the swell. All the way up the west coast, I had been patient, understanding the necessity of checking out all the breaks. I accept the universal principle of give and take, am adept at going with the flow.
But here on this last lap, it began to seem cruel to be stopping at Every. Single. Possible. Spot. Morocco is not particularly famous for surf, and especially not at this time of year. Of course waves in southern Europe were even less likely, so this was Hub’s last chance to seize some for a while. Still, it felt like the more I was giving, the more my giving was being taken for granted.
We’ve all been there.
Driving along the lonely coast sometimes felt like driving from Cape Town through fertile fields up to Ceres, though the cliffs were quite Cornish in places.
The main difference was the preponderance of weather-beaten peasants with lined faces and big ears looking like Van Gogh portraits, pottering along on donkeys.
Sampson took Big Reg on a wild goose chase off the main road trying to find a promising point at Tifnit. When we finally got there, it turned out to be a picturesque fishing village with ‘No Camping’ signs, so we told the carguard we had a little problem with the airbrake (which is never a lie) and parked off. I jazzed up our veggie supper soup by adding tuna, chopped black olives and salted lemons.
That night I dreamt of all the people we’d lost along the way. When I woke up I realised it was 1st July 2016 – 3 years since we’d left Cape Town. It felt like Joy, Emmanuel and Harry were cheering us on through the final hurdles.
In the morning Sampson was up and out early to check the surf, and came back disappointed. He was grumpy and impatient with the kids, hassling them to get up right now and do some exercise – so we could hurry up and move on down the coast to look for a better wave.
I breathed very deeply, got down out the truck to where he was stretching and said “For the last time: 1) I have worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get to this point where I DON’T have to be stressed in the mornings; if I have a rough night I can spend an hour coming round with hot water and lemon if I wish. Stop ruining my day before it starts with your FoMO on surf!” and “2) STOP telling teenagers what to do: it is guaranteed to produce the opposite effect to the one you want.” When he nagged them, Zola had immediately picked up a book and started reading – I didn’t want him to feel bad about that choice!
Sampson gave the carguard 20 dirham for keeping us safe overnight. Abdullah told me he’d read the novel Mine Boy and hoped people in SA were getting on better now? He speaks excellent English, French and German just from his interactions with tourists. I witnessed one old French geezer being horribly patronising to him and admired his stoicism.
Big Reg inched his way up the coast.
Agadir was suddenly surprisingly modern, full of big white hotels with palm tree-lined highways and endless roundabouts. After the fully wrapped fishwives of yesterday, it was a big shock to see European tourists in shorts and mini-dresses.
My main memory, however, is of surpassing myself on the exposition of algebra-trinomials-with-surds front as we passed through…
Taghazout, a place where Sampson had holidayed with school mates in 1989, was now full of shops called Tuareg Surf despite presently boasting the flattest sea ever.
We finally rejoined the main road into Essaouira.
On 3rd July Sampson took a random left to get down to the sea and ended up in the village of Moulay Bouzerktoun.
We parked next to a young Czech family in a camper van. While Sampson and Zola scrambled to get their longboards, I had a chat with professional windsurfer Igor Yudakov from Russia. Check out this video of the waves there he made this summer.
We made love that night. It was so good, Sampson made the kids laugh this morning by saying “I was expecting a round of applause at the end”. Thankfully they still both sleep like the dead.
For a couple of lovely peaceful days, we carried on with school while Sampson caught up with some odd jobs in between hours in the surf:
I was cheered by a handsome local in a surf shop who told me he’d crossed the border into Spain with his dog twice without being asked for papers. Hmmmmm….
I’ll remember Moulay Bouzerktoun for the kids loving the last episodes of Gavin and Stacy, Dad loving his post-surf massages by Ruby and me loving Zola’s goodnight cuddles. Precious peaceful times.
On 6th July I woke to the sound of a dozen local kids, many in new clothes, running excitedly up and down street screaming happily “Eid Mubarak!” When Big Reg set off that day after school, it was lovely to see a few cafes finally open, with groups of men chatting over drinks.
Later that day, we came into industrial Safi. While Sampson loaded water at the petrol station, I took kids to the little funfair next door.
I whipped ‘em on the dodgems.
It was quite something to reflect on how houses had changed:
We began to struggle to find places to pull off and park for the night.
We took the scenic road from Beddouza to El Jadida, and the colours of the countryside expanded from fynbos-like hardy little yellow flowers and pink thistles to greener, taller trees, more hot pink bougainvillea and violent orange pumpkins piled by the side of road.
I was feeling wiped out with a sore throat and painful glands; my supply of Vitamin C had run out and I couldn’t find any pills sans sucre or artificial sweeteners in local pharmacies.
I’d had enough of Ruby being vile to me every morning but loving me so much every night she always wanted to chat and cuddle and not let me go to sleep. When she ruined our morning with her grumpiness AGAIN I snapped. Then my period started, just 2 weeks 3 days since the last one; it explained why I was feeling so drained. Teen sulks meeting menopausal mood swings is a recipe for disaster in a 3m squared space.
At charming Azemmour, Sampson bought cumin from stall decked with colourful piles of spices and the best dates yet, nearly as large and moist as security guard at Tarfaya’s. But we were most delighted by the novel sight of a man selling giant paper conefuls of enormous freshly made crisps!
The weather was changeable and I was struggling with low blood pressure dizziness so we took a day off in 30˚C heat. Sampson transferred the last of the filtered oil off the roof into the tanks – there was enough left for another 1000km and it was only 450km to Malaga!
We threaded our way through miles of ‘luxury apartments’ to find a berth next to the sea in order to surf ‘La Bobine’ at Dar Bouazza. It was such hard work to get out the back, the boys christened it Paddle Point.
The next morning the wave was bigger, and more difficult. Sitting sweating in the waiting truck, Ruby said, “If he comes in again and complains, I might have to kill him”. I was busy researching ferry options and praying we could cross the Mediterranean this week.
That afternoon, we finally hit motorways, and did 200km past Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat; it was a bit like driving from Jo’b to Pretoria through Midrand, past thousands of boxy apartments, with Big Reg hitting 70kmh at times! It was a criminal waste not to be visiting these historical cities, but the timing made it impossible; we’d spent too much time in the surf and had to get a move on now.
We came off the highway looking for a quiet spot to overnight, drove down an empty road through a wooded area by a dry river bed, and turned a corner to find a monster sea with crashing 8ft waves and literally thousands of people thronging the enormous stretch of beach as far as eye could see.
This was Mehdia Plage, Morocco’s high season Torquay. Big Reg drove right down the corniche away from people and parked next to the old fort in the river mouth.
Early next morning, we drove back to the beach. As usual, all the fun was being had by men and boys who were running around freely. The vast majority of women were fully covered, in headscarves and wraps to the ankle. Some were in tunics with leggings and a very few youngsters were in denim shorts and bikini tops. But most women were wearing at least four more garments than the nearest man. Most were stationary, or restricted to paddling, watching their menfolk frolic in the water. No wonder most of the over 30s are pudgy and miserable-looking. Only one woman defiantly played with a ball in the sea with her 10 year old son, gamely trying to run through the water despite her wet robes and cardigan dragging her down.
The only time the genders appeared similarly dressed were as toddlers, but even then the tiny girls had headscarves on. Now I’m a staunch supporter of respecting people’s rights to wear whatever they want and, for example, don’t believe France should have banned the niqab. This was the first time the wearing of traditional dress really upset me because the incongruity of heavy layers on hot beaches, the lack of freedom for girl children to run about and play, just seemed so blatantly unfair.
(The burkini seems a brilliant solution; how on earth do the French manage to get offended by that as well?)
However, we couldn’t argue with the superbly clean beach. Ruby and I walked the whole length and found it spotless, with not even a hint of camel poo.
While the boys were surfing, I was busy doing fruitless research to obtain truck insurance in Europe. After scouring overland sites, I sent enquiries to Denmark, Germany and the UK Caravan Club but the online form didn’t give options for engines above 4L (Big Reg is 6L). It’s illegal to travel without third party insurance in Europe, but it seemed almost impossible to get!
That afternoon Zola got his long overdue birthday outing when we bought the kids tickets to the AquaPirate waterpark. Sampson and I walked back to the truck, content they would be safe and happy for several hours, conscious we were alone for first time in months.
So did Hub seize the opportunity to cherish me? In fairness, he did put the kettle on, but when he started telling me about the surf tomorrow I said quietly but definitively
“Remember when I said to you, in the middle of the desert, that there would eventually come a time when looking for another wave (and another, and the next) would have to stop because I don’t want to be late for my parents’ birthdays? And please NOT to argue with me about it then? Well that time is NOW. We have to go – I’m not staying here 3 nights”.
Did he pause to reflect on how patient Ruby and I have been, dithering along the coast for weeks, moving only 20km along at a time? Did he weigh how many hours we have sat sweating in ugly places, waiting for them to get out of the (mediocre) surf? Did he consider how long my aged parents haven’t seen me?
Did he ****.
He let rip. On and on he raged, about how he’d promised Zola ‘a final surf’. He threatened to go back to AquaPirate now and fetch him out, or go in again at 5pm when they got back… As he ranted, something inside me broke. I didn’t argue because I was already exhausted from the upset, crying and sheer indignation and knew he was way too tired for a second shitty surf. In my hormonally compromised state, his crashing thoughtlessness had already ruined everything: that evening’s ‘meal out’ treat we’d planned, the last few days of the trip, the very last leg of the journey.
The sudden death of his Mum a month after we’d set off in 2013 had been such a shock to us and a sharp lesson about not taking time with loved ones for granted; I couldn’t believe he was risking putting me in the same situation with my Mom now. It was too much. I felt betrayed, sick at heart and very shaken. The last bit of my self-delusion had just crumbled. I felt such a fool for believing my husband was any more sensitive than any other. Is there a man out there who doesn’t behave like a child when he doesn’t get his own way, for the sake of others?
Perhaps this was why the sight of the determined woman vainly trying to run in the sea with wet clothes flapping round her legs, weighing her down, so upset me today.
We ended up eating chips on the street that night, before wandering round the funfair and tasting some of the best nougat ever. At 200D a kilo it was very expensive but, as it’s my Dad’s favourite, we splashed out on a lump for his birthday present with our last note (there were no banks or ATMs in Mehdia). I wish I’d had more cash to do another bumper car ride with Zola; he couldn’t believe I was still nailing him.
So far, our memories of Morocco mostly featured lots of shouty men, being moved on and feeling unwelcome in tourist areas and boys throwing stones. But the next day, in Kenitra, a rather pretty town with outdoor cafes lining the streets, M. Saïd changed all that. While Sampson was filling up with water at the second garage we asked at, I went to the boulangerie for bread and debated whether to splash out on the rotisserie chickens with the most-delicious-ever odours wafting from Les Quatres Saisons next door.
I never got my long-promised tagine last night, so I asked for a poulet complet without extras for 70D – but when M. Saïd heard details of our trip he gave me a 20D discount and insisted on adding chips as well. I came back with overjoyed children to say thank you and take a photo before feasting in the picnic area down the road. I saved a portion of the chicken and the chunk of fresh herbs and chilli paste stuffed inside to make tonight’s soup – YUM. Thank you for your kindness M. Saïd, it was a balm to the day.
We then drove another 200km along the relentless motorway. I hate there being no fellow humanity by the side of the road. It felt unutterably sad not to feel a sense of triumphant togetherness as the kilometres to the end of the continent ticked down. For the first time in my life I felt I could not speak to my husband. I tried to think of the future, consider options, some sort of separation, but mostly I felt numb.
It was a soul-destroying way to realise that no matter how wonderful the journey, how amazing the sights, how much of a great adventure for our family, it all meant nothing to me if we were not doing it together, as a team, with a sense of common purpose. If our priorities were not mutually understood and reciprocated, the whole thing became a sham, a pointless backdrop to my sudden acute awareness of miserable loneliness.
As we reached the end of the motorway, the ginormous port of Tangier Med loomed up on the horizon. We drove past it and parked on top of a hill looking down on a packed beach off La Village de Peche Dalia.
That night 13th July was possibly the worst of the entire trip. Sampson had overruled my suggestion to drive down into the village because he missed the turn off and instead pulled over in a truckers’ carpark. In between juggernauts swopping in and out and the thumping sound systems of drug dealers cruising up and down outside, our sleep was so disturbed, he had to move the truck to a far corner after midnight. About 2am I felt horribly wide awake, still reeling with feelings of hurt and irreparable damage, and a sense things were definitely OVER.
Sampson went from “What?” to “What’s going on?” to “Let’s talk” two days too late. I was desperate NOT to get more upset and drained ahead of this big day/week – I needed to save spoons (energy and strength) for the crossing and reunion with my family and it was pointlessly tiring to reiterate stuff he knows full well already. He was totally freaked out that I wasn’t talking – so unlike me – but I just couldn’t.
The way he’d (over)reacted at Mehdia had been the last straw. I began to wonder whether I could cope with travelling back down the east coast. There’s far less surf that side, so what will carry him through if he can’t begin to motivate himself for the joy of others?
For the first time I felt I was finished, I couldn’t go on any further. It was crushing because I suddenly felt there could be no celebration of the completion of the west coast half of the journey if this achievement was to be crowned with divorce. Writing a book about the trip seemed a hollow ambition now.
I was thinking: I’ll go back to Dakar alone, apply for a job, let him take the truck – try that separation and take it from there. Keep the house rented until the kids get through the Baccalaureate in Senegal. Let him go back to surf in Liberia like he wants, see how we both go. But I was not pushing for continuation Clockwise, as I always have done. For the first time ever, I was thinking perhaps it’s not too late, maybe there’s someone out there who could love me a little more tenderly.
Thursday 14th July was a day of extremes. After a subdued morning walk on the beautiful beach next to the clear aquamarine and blue sea next to the village, Sampson and I agreed to head to the port and sort out a booking, perhaps for the next day, and then go park off somewhere and spend our last dirhams stocking up on Moroccan olives, dates and Camel Balls before leaving.
My brother called from Spain in a state: our Dad was driving him up the wall and he needed my back-up, when were we arriving? This unleashed a whole slew of conflicting emotions within me, culminating in a useful acknowledgement of how very difficult the Pearces are to live with. It wasn’t really surprising Sampson was pushing to make the most of his last days of freedom. I took another deep breath and decided to be more forgiving of my long-suffering, (maddeningly but perhaps blessedly) forgetful, clodhopper husband.
Giddy with exhaustion as we drove back down, I was thinking it was most unlikely we’d be able to get on a ferry today, without a booking in advance. But the immaculate port was superbly efficient. Apart from having to studiously avoid another shouty man who looked like a cartoon version of Alexei Sayle, the whole experience was almost surreally easy. We went straight in and took advantage of a Trasmediterranea promotion that gave us a discount to €220, and the lovely curly clerk said he could book us on the 4pm boat but if we hurried we could make the 1.05!
While Ruby fed the cats again to make them sleepy, we drove through miles of empty lanes, then whizzed through passport control and customs. Big Reg went through the huge scanner while we sat outside on a sunny bench, smiling as if completely relaxed, wondering if their little bodies were showing up… We didn’t have any cat passports; Tigger and Cleo were still too young for inoculations, so if we got caught, we’d have to leave them behind.
We were waved on down to the quays as the lorries were backing into the ship’s hold. Big Reg was the last one on. We couldn’t believe we made it.
It was 3 years and 2 weeks since we’d set off from Cape Town. We’d spent 2 years on the road (around the delay due to the Ebola pandemic) crossed 20 countries and covered 23000km in the Big Green Truck travelling on waste vegetable oil.
Last on, first off. After so many border crossings, I found myself bizarrely nervous about entering Europe, but of course our privileged British passports were routinely scanned, with no questions. At customs, the guardia asked us to open the side door and asked “Are you an NGO?” “No, a family” “Oh…OK”. They didn’t even come in. I speak zero Spanish and felt so disempowered; I couldn’t offer the usual distraction of the story of the trip.
Meanwhile, out the driver’s window, Sampson was doing an interview for a Discovery Channel programme! We’d officially made it through all frontier procedures, but Big Reg pulled over 5m in front of the barriers so the cameraman could come and film the inside of the truck – when suddenly Cleo jumped out! Sampson panicked as he saw a line of police coming towards us but it just so happened that six of them were getting into a van together… Phew.
Sampson started up the engine and as he pulled away, while looking in his newly extended rear view mirror, saw Cleo leap from beneath the truck . He braked hard as Ruby (in one smooth movement) opened the side door, rattled the cat food tin and scooped up Cleo as she scampered up the tyre. Sampson put his foot down and Big Reg screeched away before anyone noticed. The whooping was probably heard back in Tangier. Cat-astrophe averted.