I am struggling to start this first post of our new expedition, as it has been almost a year since the completion of “11North55South” and since then I have left you without any news of what is happening.
A bit out of shape and overexcited of what is about to happen, please bear with me and let’s start with how the new expedition was born. Remember back in 2014 our year-long Epic Journey?
Well, the original idea back then was to drive from Greece to Australia, something that never happened as our low budget couldn’t support the shipping that was needed to get there.
If you read about my wife, the team’s co-pilot Rochelle, her overlanding past started in the 70’s, with her parents touring around Australia as band members.
That band was called HiWay-1 and as the years have gone by, the families have grown the idea of reliving that adventure. Traveling around the continent was always on the back of their mind. Here is where the new expedition is coming from.
Enough with the prologue, let’s get down to the plan now. 4 continents, 3 years, 2 people, 1car reliving HiWay-1. Does it all make sense now? This time, our route will take us through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean coast into North Africa.
Here, as Rochelle has to renew her Schengen Visa, we will explore Morocco and Mauritania for three months (before she is allowed to return to Europe) and we will head north traveling via Portugal and France, in order to drive Voukefalas into the UK and from there he will be shipped to Australia.
We will not be traveling overseas with him this time. Instead we have to fly over in order to prepare all the paperwork needed for the car’s arrival in Australia. In Australia now, we have planned to stay about a year, in order to get together the extended family of the old band and circle travel most of Down Under.
Moving forward, in the trip’s next stage, we will ship Voukefalas one more time to East Timor and drive northbound through South East Asia, via Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Lao PDR into China. Here, like we have done in the past, we will put together a group and cross this vast land from its southern end to the north, including all the major highlights that we have left out from our previous crossing.
Next up we will enter Mongolia, a country that has been very high in our “to go” list. On the last leg and on our way back to Greece, we will drive across vast, empty spaces of Russia’s Siberia and the rest of European Russia, until we reach the Baltic countries of Europe. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and finally Poland will be in our itinerary before the final push through Central Europe, in order to reach Greece. That is it!!! In short, 4… 3… 2… HiWay-1. How does it sound?
Are you ready for the logistics now? Our budget will be exact the same with the one from our last trip. That means that between the two of us we need to survive on 80 euros per day, including all expenses for us and Voukefalas. The good news is that for this expedition we will not have to do any major costly facelift in Voukefalas, as he is exhibition ready from the last one.
In reality, we over-catered in our previous trip and if anything is needed, Aussie land is the place to do it anyway. As for the countries we will be crossing, they are obviously much more expensive than the previous ones. So we must slow our pace down to almost half, in order to balance it out and make it with the given budget. Time versus money. We are hoping that this is where our three-year plan will help.
Since we first arrived back in Greece, we have being doing some side trips based out of Athens: a two-week trip in Chalkidiki, followed by a couple of smaller ones and a 20-day long one in Create as warm ups, in order to finalize our gear. For the last two months and in order to organize this huge circle navigation around four continents, some serious planning was needed. With new passports, a carnet de passage for Voukefalas, a general service done and the shipping process to Australia on going, we managed to set off on Monday, the 7th of October 2019, with destination Italy.
Crossing the Mediterranean Europe was smooth, although the expensive tolls and the constant need of diesel almost eliminated our daily budget. The highlights were the free camping we had overlooking Monaco – seriously the best view of the small sovereignty – our two days in Barcelona and finally, our overnight in the small city of Marseillan Plage, outside Montpellier in France. All and all and in an express rhythm, we managed to make it to the port of Algeciras in a bit more than a week, waving goodbye to Europe.
Morocco was waiting for us on the other side. Getting into the country was painful as we were stuck in customs for about four hours but as overlanders do, we try to forget the bad things and stick to remembering only the good. Starting from Martil, we took Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. Tetouan’s port is a modern beach town with a long cornice, paralleled by streets full of apartment blocks, cafes and ice-cream shops. As we found out, it is packed during the summer, but when we were there and for the rest of the winter months, it looked deserted. Next up was the undiscovered Al-Hoceima National Park, the hidden gem of this region. The park extends to 485 sq km and it is dotted with Berber settlements and criss-crossed by dirt roads, making it ideal for our first off road adventure. After a long dusty day, we reached Cala Iris, our overnight spot that lies inside the Al-Hoceima National Park. Cala Iris has a small fishing port and a beautiful, empty sandy beach that was out of season. Unfortunately the downside was that the beach itself has a lot of plastic garbage. With the coast pretty much covered, we turned inwards and towards the mountains.
Not an imperial city itself so much but beautifully perched beneath the raw peaks of the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen, our next stop, is one of the prettiest towns in Morocco. A blue-washed mountain village that feels like its own world. While the balance between local life authenticity and ease of tourism is just right, the old medina is a delight of Moroccan/Andalusian influence, with red-tiled roofs, bright-blue buildings and narrow lanes. Long known to backpackers (for the easy access to marijuana called kif here), the town is a great place to relax, explore or take day trips to the cool green hills around it. Did I say cool? Sorry, allow me to correct. Freezing green hills, at least the time we were there. Next up was Meknes that out of the four imperial cities is the most modest by far.
Meknes receives fewer visitors than it should, as it is overshadowed by its proximity to Fez. Quieter and much smaller than its “grande” neighbor, it’s also more laid-back with less hassle, and yet still with all the winding narrow medina streets and grand buildings. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a place to camp close to the city so we camped in a small village, in the rich plains below the Middle Atlas, some 30km away and used public transportation to move in and out. We were there on a Friday, so the Medina was practically deserted, although we still managed to get a good feel about it, sipping tea in the central square. A bit out of the way and in the middle of this agricultural region, there are the Roman ruins at Volubilis and the hilltop tomb of Moulay Idriss, two of the country’s most significant historic sites. Did we visit them? A bit overpriced, I must admit for what it was but at least Rochelle seemed to enjoy them. Next up was the city of romance, Fez, as Rochelle pointed out, where you can find the old district as well as a new named ‘ville nouvelle’ (although it’s only 700 years old) where our camp was.
Travelling from that part of the city to Fes el-Bali (the old quarter) was like stepping back in time. As an introduction to the old city, I am copying what we read in our guide book: “Bab Bou Jeloud is the main entrance to the old city, with two main streets descending into the medina’s heart. On your left, as you enter, is Talaa Kebira (Big Slope), with Talaa Seghira (Little Slope) on your right. Both converge near Pl an-Nejjarine, continuing to the Kairaouine Mosque and Zawiya Moulay Idriss II – the heart of the city. From here, it’s uphill to reach the northern gates of Bab Guissa and Bab Jamaï, or head south towards Bab R’cif.” Did you get it? Neither did we, because in reality every medina is a mass of small streets that criss cross each other. So we headed straight to the blue gate and followed our usual method of getting lost for two days wandering around. At the end, it worked out perfect as we eventually saw all the sights, with the plus of some cool local corners where we enjoyed the real colours of Fez. We have to admit that we were pleasantly surprised by this city.
So after stocking some supplies including booze, we said “see you later” (we will be back) and took the road to Azrou firstly and later followed the road into the Dadès Gorges. Here is where the nomad caravans in the old days used to cross valleys full of apple trees in order to end up in ancient kasbahs (rest houses). Nowadays and no matter what means of transportation you pick to cross, the Dadès Valley magically manages to capture your imagination. From the High Atlas (2986 m passage) to the north, to the rugged Jebel Saghro range south, the valley is dotted with oases and mud brick palaces that give the region its fairy-tale nickname – Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. With the landscape becoming more and more dry desert, we spent a couple of more days exploring the Todra Canyon, another magical canyon that you find in this region.
Although a bit more touristic, we still managed to find a local camping away from the crowds and took it all in before we made our way to Merzouga, which for many travelers fulfills Morocco’s promise as a desert destination. As you can read in most of the guidebooks of the region, the legend of the dunes of Erg Chebbi, rising majestically above the village of Merzouga, goes like this. When a wealthy family refused hospitality to a poor woman and her son, God was offended and buried them under the mounds of sand that today is called Erg Chebbi.
As this place can get really crowded during high season and in order to enjoy it without the crowds, we came here out of season, in mid November, that is supposed to be the quietest time, with the plus of some of the best weather.
Somewhere here though, we will leave you hanging for now, as all about our desert adventure will be in our next post. To be continued…