In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. If I’ve ever harboured the secret desire to be given a prostate exam by the Sahara’s scruffiest camel, well mission accomplished. My camel, Abdullah, is almost certainly on death’s door. What’s left of his flea-infested fur is tangled up in sporadic, matted clumps, there’s a grotesque
infection oozing pus on his hind quarter, and according to Sarah—an ex-dominatrix to the stars of LA and the latest of my unfortunate travelling companions—Abdullah’s frequent and fountain-like bowel movements don’t look like those of a camel who is about to lead a long and productive life.
If I’ve ever harboured the secret desire to be given a prostate exam by the Sahara’s scruffiest camel, well mission accomplished.
But it’s not the risk of catching fleas or dysentery from Abdullah that worries me, it’s the fact that with each of his limping steps, an unfortunately positioned bone on his hump is furrowing its way further and further up my behind, and any attempt to extricate myself from this unfortunate position will result in my unwitting sterilisation or falling off the saddle and being trampled to death by the trailing caravan.
So that’s why Lawrence always looked concerned.
Sarah and I, in the company of Brett—another young Melbournite who plans to fund his future travels by volunteering to have his little finger cut off in the name of medical research—have landed ourselves on a somewhat kitschy Sahara camel trek.
Although we’d originally hoped to spend an entire camel-saddled week trekking to some secret Moroccan oasis, Marrakesh locals politely informed us that the only people stupid enough to want to venture into the Sahara Desert in the height of summer were suicidal tourists, and certainly no native guide was about to endure scorching 50 degree C heat for weeks on end just to satisfy the photo-snapping whims of foreigners with a death wish. So instead we content ourselves with piling into a minivan and driving for two days through some spectacular gorges and natural oases before pulling into Merzougah, an unassuming little town at the foot of the Sahara, and clamber out of the van.
I’d expected the desert to develop gradually over our route, from sandy plains into larger and larger dunes. But no, the Sahara Desert just starts: a towering wall of golden sand rising like a misplaced mountain range from the black, rocky flats that surround it. I look ahead and all I can see is varying shades of yellow as the last of the day’s sunlight plays over the folds of the dunes.
We snap a few photos before being assigned our camels (so beginning my love affair with Abdullah) and set off on our somewhat token, but highly enjoyable, sunset ‘trek’ to a traditional Berber campsite. Having dumped my gear under one of the heshen tents, I grab a snowboard I’ve found lying about and pant my way to the top of the highest dune in sight, trying to ignore the driving wind sand-blasting my exposed face and legs.
The Sahara Desert just starts: a towering wall of golden sand rising like a misplaced mountain range from the black, rocky flats that surround it.
The scene that greets me at the summit is the most alien environment I’ve encountered. An entire mountain range, complete with bluffs, ridges, plateaus and valleys is spread around me, but it’s all sand. Everything. Not even a speck of green plant life pierces the endless caramel of the sand and the omnipresent blue of the sky.
“Here I come!” I roar to the group at the base of the dune, throwing down the snowboard, taking a large run up and hurtling myself down the slope.
As I make contact with the board it sinks into the soft sand and my forward momentum plants me face down on the dune. I stand, spit out a mouthful of grit and conclude that Saharan dune surfing is not as easy as I’d imagined.
I’ve just woken for the third time tonight and my clock reads 4.10 am. The howling wind has sucked every drop of moisture from my chapped skin so I drain the last drops from my water bottle; that’s six litres today alone.
I stare up at the sky, ink black and almost sagging under the brilliance of a million diamond stars, and it occurs to me: I’m in the Sahara Desert. I’m in the Sahara-freaking-Desert. Not to sound too juvenile, but how cool is this!
The next morning—after negotiating the delicate mechanics of relieving oneself while facing driving winds on a shifting sand dune—we remount our camels and begin the long trek back to Marrakesh. From there it’s onto the idyllic beach town of Essaouira and the handcraft Mecca of Fez, but soon I’m planning a return to the power showers and relative cool of Europe. Before I escape, though, I have one last run in with a faux guide.
On my last night in the country, a young Moroccan with dirty feet and a disarming smile named Taghar tails me for an hour, hoping to extricate a few dirham in exchange for a guided tour of the Fez’s medina. I refuse, but offer to shout him a drink instead. To my surprise, he accepts.
One of the great things about travelling through Morocco as a tourist of Middle Eastern heritage has been the trust it inspires in normally suspicious locals. Just like the young men I’ve spoken with in Tangier and Marrakesh, Taghar feels at ease discussing the hidden aspects of Moroccan life with a “brother”. Over three coffees and just as many
hours, we talk about his life, his hopes and his dreams. I learn for instance, that although public loyalty is required of them, most Moroccans hate their “girly” king, and that despite conservative Islam Moroccan girls are some of the most promiscuous on Earth.
I learn that despite conservative Islam, Moroccan girls are some of the most promiscuous on Earth. “Even the ones in the veils and burkahs?” I ask.
“Especially the ones in the veils and burkahs.”
“Even the ones in the veils and burkahs?” I ask incredulously.
“Especially the ones in the veils and burkahs,” he grins.
Taghar is studying languages at university so that he can become an ‘official’ guide, earning €10 - €15 per day. But even with a degree he’ll have to contend with the nepotism and corruption rife in the government before he stands a chance of selection. Taghar moans that nothing is free from corruption and that those without contacts are left to starve.
I comment that with such high unemployment and poverty in Morocco it must be frustrating for locals to look out to the unlimited potential promised by the Spanish (and EU) coastline just fourteen kilometres from the country’s north shore.
“Why do you think thousands of people drown each year trying to get there in wooden coffins?” he replies. “They are poor and desperate!
“I love my country, but the government is blind and the king is stupid. He has four palaces in Fez alone! He uses them maybe once a year. Each one could be a factory for 10,000 workers, but the King doesn’t care. He is just a puppet dancing to the tune of the rich people’s songs.
“You know …” Taghar clearly doesn’t relish what he’s about to say. “You know I want the French to come back, or the British to come or the Americans. If they had the country I would work for them and be happy.”
I struggle to fathom this. “You’d welcome the return of colonialism?”
Taghar nods with a hopeless shrug. “Better to be a lap dog than a starving dog.”
Three days later I’m sitting on a beach in the southern
Spanish city of Cadiz, wondering what Taghar would make of the hordes of hedonists gorging themselves on ice cream and beer. I’ve come to soak up some sun and surf before deciding where to head next but unfortunately it seems most of Europe—now officially on their summer holidays—have had the same idea. So instead what greets me on the Coast of Light isn’t endless sand and surf but a swarm of super-tanned Spaniards and bright red Brits slow roasting themselves on the shore.
What greets me on the Coast of Light isn’t endless sand and surf but a swarm of super-tanned Spaniards and bright red Brits slow roasting themselves on the shore.
The only consolation for me is the local, um, scenery. As far as I’m concerned, Spanish women have temporarily dethroned the Slovaks (who had dethroned the Serbs, who had dethroned the Bosnians…) as Europe’s most breathtakingly beautiful women. They shimmy about in slivers of clothing seemingly thrown on at the last moment as a reluctant concession to Catholic decency—carrying themselves with such vivaciousness that you can’t help but stare. (Some people may call this ‘leering’, but I prefer the term ‘people-watching’). It soon becomes clear though, that I won’t be able to enjoy myself amongst the louts and drunks, so put my hormones in check, pack my bags and head to the small town of Ronda.
As I amble about the steep, narrow alleys of its Moorish old town and occasionally reach up to pick an orange from the trees that lines its squares, I suddenly figure out where to go next.
year, at the insistence of my flamenco-obsessed cousin, I saw a French film called Vengo. Set in the whitewashed hill villages of southern Spain’s Andalucia region, it’s a melodrama of questionable dramatic value, but the hypnotic musical sequences and stunning scenery intertwined throughout paint a vivid and spellbinding portrait of a region consumed by clashing cultures and flaring passions. Well, I figure, I’m in Andalucia right now; why not try and find some duende, the dark, fervent energy that is said to surge through those skilled enough to tap into the very soul of flamenco?
Spanish women shimmy about in slivers of clothing ... and carry themselves with such vivaciousness that you can’t help but stare. (Some people may call this ‘leering’, but I prefer the term ‘people-watching’).
I march to the tourist office and tell the bespectacled, greying clerk what I’m after. “You know, white houses, in the mountains … lots of flamenco.”
“You mean the pueblos blancos.”
“Sure,” I agree, not really sure at all.
As it turns out, the pueblos blancos (white villages) are a collection of two dozen hamlets grafted onto the mountains of the Sierra de la Grazalema national park. While it sounds ideal, in the absence of public transport and my own set of wheels, I’ll have to hitchike my way between them.
“Is it easy to hitchhike around here?” I ask, extending my thumb in the internationally recognised signal.
She looks at me with a face normally reserved for those recounting alien abductions. “What is ‘hitchhike’?”
The Spanish, it seems, aren’t big hitchers.
As I hike a couple of kilometers under the midday sun to a feeder road out of Ronda, I contemplate that I must be the world’s most ill-equipped and inexperienced hitchhiker. Aside from a half dozen times in Asia—where a low-value note dangled by a roadside is enough to guarantee an eager lift with a local just happy to have a farang on the back of his motorbike—I’ve never done anything like this before.
And now I’m about to spend a week navigating my way around a national park armed only with a cartoon map on the back of a €0.20 postcard and piece of cardboard, pilfered from a supermarket dumpster, on which I’ve scrawled “Hola! Quisiera ir a Montejaque.” (Hello! I would like to go to Montejaque). Don’t worry, I assure myself as I hold up my sign up and smile, I’m sure someone will stop.
An hour later I’m still holding up the sign and my smile is quickly waning, while a crowd of construction workers have gathered nearby to gawk at me. Why aren’t I getting any lifts? I try to picture myself as the cars whizzing obliviously past do: an unshaven, sweaty, stranger squinting at them from the distance. I take out my marker and add the words “No Apesto.” (I don’t stink) to my sign.
This does the trick. Six minutes later, to the whooping applause of the labourers, a sparkling sedan toots its horn and pulls over in front of me. I stick my head through the window and am surprised to see a lone woman with a mane of jet black hair eyeing me cautiously.
“¡Gracias, gracias!” I pant as I yank open the door and jump in.
We take off down the road, but I can’t help but notice that my automotive saviour is clearly not at ease. She keeps glancing at me nervously through the corner of her eye, as if trying to remember whether she saw me on last night’s Spain’s Most Wanted. Picking up strange men on lonely roadways is obviously not a regular habit.
As the tension in the car builds, I feel it’s my duty to make her feel at ease. Luckily I’ve come prepared with a box of mints I’ve brought for the sole purpose of breaking the ice with potential lifts. Yup, there’s nothing like offering someone a piece of candy to prove you’re not a murderous sexual predator.
But when I reach into my trouser pockets to retrieve the packet, the driver freaks out. Convinced I’m reaching for a weapon, she screams, swerves the car violently to the side of the road and hammers the brakes. As we screech to a halt in a cloud of dust and gravel, I thrust the box in her face to prove it’s harmless, but all she sees is me lunging towards her. She claws at my face, lets out another piercing scream and scrambles for her door.
“¡Tranquilo, tranquilo!” I implore, pointing at the box. The bright blue words ‘sugar-free freshness’ finally seem to register with her and she calms down, taking a moment to wipe the sweat from her brow and recompose herself.
I smile apologetically and rattle the box towards her. “Mint?” I offer.
Carla, as I later discover her name to be, is forgiving enough to drive me to the town of Benaojan. From there it’s an hour’s uphill hike to my first port of call, the idyllic white village of Montejaque (population 800).
I trek into town somewhat surprised. I’d expected the pueblos blancos to be picturesque, but what I find is ideal. Close your eyes and imagine a rural Spanish village: steep cobblestone streets, walls so thick with whitewash that the corners are smooth and quaint central squares crowned by humble Moorish churches. Well, open your eyes and you’re in Montejaque.
This view was almost worth the 2 hour hike up to the village. Almost. Enlarge »
I stumble up and down the quiet streets, asking “¿Donde est pension barrato?” (Where is cheap guesthouse?) until I find the chef of a local restaurant who’s willing to rent me a room. Now to get some food …
I’m up at dawn the next morning, lacing up my boots and setting off to the village of Grazalema. I hike out of the village along a narrow road soaring up spectacular cliffs but by midday I still haven’t scored a lift, probably because I’m yet to see a single car. Only now do I appreciate the idiocy of what I’ve set out to do. Hitching in Spain is hard enough, but I’ve elected to do it along a rarely used stretch of road, in a national park, on a Sunday, and during siesta. I end up hiking most of the way to Grazalema, catching the occasional lift with bemused locals who keep laughing at me, but find myself increasingly enjoying the wild hiking.
Over the next few days my life adapts a familiar rhythm. I awake as the villagers do, begrudgingly at nine, jolt myself into action with two caffe cortadas and then set off for the next village. Some days I score a lift almost immediately, while on others I’m forced to hike for kilometres along scarcely-used roads, winding through gorges of cactus or fields of sunflowers. I take refuge from the fierce midday sun with siestas under the shade of wild olive trees and stop to refill my water bottle in villages or mountain springs I pass along the way.
When the sun sets, I find myself a cervezeria and enjoy balmy evenings with a jug of sangria and endless plates of mouth-watering tapas. Nothing fancy, mind you, just roasted red peppers stuffed with artichokes, garlic and saffron marinated chicken kebabs, and mussels stuffed with goat’s cheese and chives. (Sorry, that was cruel.)
As I awake from a midday siesta beneath the shade of a fig tree on the fourth day of my pueblos blancos jaunt, I munch on an apple and contemplate that this is the most content I’ve been for a long time. I’m drifting about without a guidebook, plan or clue and for the first time in five months I’m also without a travelling companion. It’s a strange feeling of detachment, kind of like backpacking existentialism. And know what?
I’m loving it.
Clang, clang, clang, clang. Eeeeghh-bang!
That, in case you ever need to know, is the sound a goat makes as it loses a game of chicken with a speeding van.
The impact sends me and a few dozen paint tins bouncing around the van. Jose pulls the car over and, nursing a bruised head, I stumble out wandering what on Earth could have made that sound. While Jose examines his dented fender, I bend down and hopelessly look for any sign of life in the two-horned corpse lying prostate across the road. We’re soon joined by a breathless goatherd, who is clearly unhappy with the loss of one of his flock.
A heated argument between Jose and the goatherd ensues, and from their animated gesturing I guess it’s about apportioning blame and compensation. After much shouting and flailing a compromise appears to be reached, Jose hands over some money, and suddenly it’s smiles all around. I jump back in the van, relieved to get going again, but Jose follows me to throw a tarp over his paint tins, and then hoist the goat’s body, blood still draining from its wounds, beside me.
Unsure of what to do, I cradle the goat’s head with my hands to stop the bell from clanging with every bump and rather unimaginatively name him Billy. Billy the Kid.
If Billy had been hoping for a grand wake, the people of Setenil do not fail him. We trundle into town and judging by the streamers and decorations strung up across the square, I guess we’ve arrived on the eve of the village festival. Billy is carted off into the kitchen of a local tavern, where I’m assured he’ll be the guest of honour at a sumptuous feast later in the evening and I head off to find a bed for the night and join the throng in the village centre.
At eleven silence descends on the rowdy crowd and a lone guitarist with a greased-back ponytail climbs on to the makeshift stage, motioning for a bewitching woman dressed in an iconic black and blood red dress to do the same. She faces the crowd defiantly, almost daring them to make a sound. Moments pass before the first few chords of a song are drummed and the dancer throws her hands deliriously in the air.
“¡Ole! ” a drunk spectator behind me cries.
Over the following hours dancers and singers take turns on the stage, enraptured in the music and movements they perform and seemingly oblivious to the crowd watching them. I sit spellbound, but somehow no more satisfied for having stumbled across this small slice of authentic Andalucia. Sure, I’d set out to tap some village duende, but I somewhat belatedly realise that this isn’t what Spain’s about.
The essence of this country and its people can’t simply be summed up as flamenco and bullfights. It’s simpler than that: it’s an approach to life. For the Spanish, life isn’t there to be lived, it’s meant to be savoured. It’s a philosophy entwined in every aspect of their lives: the leisurely pace of work, the love of hearty food and good produce, the cherishing of family but above all the contented smiles to be found on their faces.
Spain, I think I finally understand you.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Billy was delicious.