Pic shows snake charmer and cobra in Marrakech's Jemaa el Fna square
We boarded the Fez to Marrakech express at Mohammedia's posh gare and discovered that a fair percentage of Morocco's population was already on the train or had decided to visit Marrakech with us. Nevertheless with a bit of pseudo French negotiation we got two comfortable seats and watched Morocco roll by over the next four hours. The express was a little slow, as it seemed to stop in a number of towns on the way. Casablanca was first up on the coastal plain and then we made our way across increasingly undulating bare hills - green and grassy, with the occasional olive grove and wandering sheep herd.
Marrakech's beautiful new railway station was in the middle of the new town,which was easy to negotiate along wide boulevards, parks and fountains.
Then came the medina and the souks. We had booked the cheapest hotel in Marrakech online as is our normal custom - a place called Riad Dar Nael. This appeared to be on the other side of the medina from the large, chaotic and lively square called Jemaa el Fna- a fatal mistake!. We dived into the warren of labyrinthine alleyways in pursuit of the cheapest guesthouse in Marrakech - this place made Kathmandu's maze of alleyways seem positively ordered and simple to navigate. We soon learned that honey tongued "helpers" who went out of their way to lead us through the alleyways or derbs, were keen to earn a dirham or two.
We eventually arrived at an ornate door down a dark alleyway which opened to reveal our hostess clothed in full burkha with a pair of glasses peering out from her veil, ready with a welcome glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
It was a comfortabke retreat and we did finally manage to get to and from Jemaa el Fna twice more in our brief stay, eat couscous and watch the entertainment and activity all around us. The snowy peaks of the High Atlas, including 4000 odd metres high Jebel Toukbal (North Africa's highest peak) were etched against the blue sky in the distance. If we had been in Morocco a month or two earlier then we would probably have made a beeline for the open spaces of the mountains, but time is getting on this year.
With a stroll through Marrakech's kasbah this morning and past Royal Palaces, the mellah - the Jewish quarter- we are now on our way back to Mohammedia to get the boat ready for the next leg of our Atlantic journey.
12/14/2012, Mohammedia, Morocco
Pic sows the Bouragreg river at Rabat and Rabat's kasbah
The weather is still not suitable for the run to the Canaries and southwards. Unfavourable winds with a large 6 m swell coming from a deep low off Portugal doesn't seem a lot of fun, so we are staying put until a suitable weather window appears over the horizon. Mohammedia is certainly not a sleepy fishing village - it's bustling with activity. With a huge refinery nearby and a thriving fishing fleet, there is a lot of hustle and bustle.
We are situated within a small marina, with mostly game fishing boats surrounding us and we have to show our passports every time we leave the port. The town itself is not that inspiring but has some nicely kept gardens and a fish market surrounded by small fish restaurants, very popular amongst the locals.
We took a train to the administrative capital of Rabat and had a wander round. Not a tourist in sight. We are just beginning to wonder where all the millions of tourists that come here hang out. Rabat has a nice marina, which is also a lot cheaper than the one in Mohammedia, but it is just up a barred river. We passed it a couple of days ago in flat seas, but were unsure how long it would be till we could get out again.
Tomorrow we are going to check out Marrakech by train. The fares are half the price of Spanish buses for the same distance and an overnight stay is only 22 euros so not too expensive for us.
12/11/2012, Mohammedia near Casablanca
Pod of common dolphins off the Moroccan coast
Arrived at the port of Mohammedia after an overnight passage from Gibraltar.
The port has Morocco's largest refinery, but also a little marina where we are berthed. Here for a few days while we tap away on the computers to pay for all the diesel we have just burned up and the rather expensive marina prices.
The passage was in mostly light winds as forecast, but they turned right on the nose as we left the Gibraltar Strait and headed South past Cape Espartel. We had a whole day of headwinds - fortunately not too strong before we were able to put up full sail.
Today we passed hundreds of gannets, petrel, dolphins and our first whale since the Indian Ocean - a sign that the continental shelf on this side of Africa still has plenty of marine life despite the numerous trawlers and odd assortment of fishing contraptions we have passed.
One consolation is that the diesel engine has been working well, despite an oil leak, which has now been fixed. It has certainly had a good work out.
The winds turn south westerly for a few days while we are here - and then there is a 6 metre swell forecast and the wind shifts back to the north.
Time to see something of Morocco. Bye bye Europe.
12/09/2012, La Linea anchorage, Andalucia, Spain
Left the marina at 9 am this morning. An easterly wind - the levanter - is expected all today but the tidal stream leaves us with the choice of crossing the strait in the dark tonight or sidling down to Tarifa in the early hours of tomorrow morning. We have chosen the latter. Still not sure about the possibility of reaching Lanzarote in one hop as the low that was forecast to appear on Thursday is uncertain. The morning departure will allow us to return if the dodgy diesel spits water into the sump on the way and, if it doesn't, it will see us off Rabat before midday and Mohammedia before dark allowing easy entry into either if we so choose to do so. Otherwise, this is the best weather window since we arrived at La Linea and the only thing that will stop us is the state of the engine. If water again appears in the sump we will abandon any further attempt and arrange to fit a new engine in the new year. Meanwhile yet another sister - Susan and partner Nick - are already in Lanzarote and intend to island hop from there through to Tenerife. Perhaps we will meet up?
12/06/2012, La Linea marina, Andalucia, Spain
Back in La Linea getting the boat ready for departure on Sunday for the Moroccan Atlantic coast (at least). What appeared to be the perfect weather window has again shrunk to three days before a strong low roars in from the West. Dodgy diesel permitting, we should get as far as Mohammedia near Casablanca, or perhaps Rabat, if the swell stays low and then wait there until the northerlies return before sailing south west. Hop, hop......hop. The rhumb line between the Canaries and the Caribbean still shows south westerlies from time to time, so the Atlantic remains odd this year.
We have been in this area since October. so we didn't really think that we were too late to get south but we don't want any headwinds at all if we can help it! There is a continuous eruption of a band of unstable air. Even the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers had to postpone their departure from Gran Canaria from Sun 25th to Tues 27th November because of unseasonal south westerlies. Only some of the racing division yachts left on the scheduled date.
Our trip to Gran Canaria sin Saraoni, was quite unplanned but a secure berth in La linea and cheap flights from Seville made it a good option rather than letting down the two sets of relatives. It also turned out to be a reasonable break from weather watching! With a casa rural booked in the pretty little village of Fataga, we were able to explore most of the island with Sue from Sheffield and Mary and Dave from Bedfordshire. The weather was changeable and windy while we were there. In fact that was why we were there on foot and not on Saraoni. Had the coastline been tranquil and not dogged by enormous swells from the south we would probably have been anchored quite peacefully off Las Palmas marina instead!
With 2 sisters descending on Las Palmas in the Canaries in the next week or so, we have delayed departure from Gibraltar until the first week of December. Saraoni's tired diesel has had some open heart surgery here in La Linea and is getting hard to start, so have ordered some more engine spares to take with us when we leave. A little later than expected, but no matter - at least we will not be in a hurry and can choose our route.
Boat all ready to go to hop down the Moroccan coast if the weather pattern still has only a couple of days or so of northerlies at a time before edging down past Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and then straight onto the Verdes.
11/07/2012, La Linea marina, Andalucia, Spain
Still at La Linea after a low pressure trough developed along the Moroccan Atlantic coast with Easterly gales here in the strait. It has rained now for two days continuously.
The real problem is the wind direction. We need Northerlies to get to the Canaries and there has simply been no weather window for the last month with more than a couple of days of Northerlies. Up to yesterday it appeared that a good window had arrived and many boats up and down the coast from here to Lagos in Portugal were getting ready - but the weather scenario shifted yet again.
We now have another chance next Monday - the long range forecast, which of course cannot be relied upon, shows Northerlies for at least a week - so here's hoping!
We are all set to leave Gibraltar. The weather conditions are mild but there is a continuous band of dull, grey cloud hanging over the rock. Here in La Linea marina some of the late departures like ourselves are contemplating their onward passages as well. We know another yacht called Quilcene, also headed in the same direction, so plan to leave early tomorrow with them. Of course that could all change depending on our perceptions of the weather, which we are continuously monitoring.
10/23/2012, La Linea, Spain
Pic shows the Rock at Gibraltar with its trademark cloud cap.
No, not a spelling mistake! The colour refers to the new paint on Saraoni's hull - normally blue. The colour change is not in sympathy with the red dust that periodically descends on Saraoni's decks from the great desert lands to the south - red paint was cheaper than blue paint at Almerimar's boat yard!
We came off the hardstand early yesterday with some new rigging and other improvements and are now plodding along the last of the Mediterranean coast towards Gibraltar. Predictably, the Med has delivered yet again calm seas and a countercurrent of about a knot, so the engine is again asked to do its job.
The news from the Atlantic is not so good. The Azores high pressure system, which is nearly permanently positioned in the North Atlantic, has broken down somewhat and has been replaced by what seems to be a huge, low pressure area producing large swells along the Moroccan Atlantic coast and contrary southwest winds between Gibraltar and the Canaries.
Magellan, Columbus and countless other seafarers, including us, depended on the normally reliable "Portuguese Trades" - the northerlies which take a sailing boat from Europe to the Canaries and beyond. We will just have to wait in Algeciras Bay / Gibraltar until the wind shifts.
Signs of winter are now appearing in Spain - the last front dumped a layer of snow on the Sierrra Nevada mountains past which we are now motoring. This coast is not one to hang around too long - there are no anchorages to speak of until Gibraltar and, despite the grand scenery of gaunt, brown hills, the Spanish have contrived to make an eyesore of their Costa - dull apartment blocks line the beaches while behind are the ever present hordes of plastic polytunnels. Perhaps the coast should be renamed the Costa del Plastico y del Concreto.
More favourably, we have seen gannets plunge-diving for the first tme since the shores of New Zealand (though these are the Northern hemisphere race) and together with shearwaters, petrels and dolphins, perhaps this is a hint that the now nearby Atlantic will yield more marine life.
Next to the Almerimar marina entrance a group of volunteers have been saving the life of an orphaned common dolphin - an area of water has been cordoned off for the last 7 weeks and tents house the people who go into the water with wet suits and snorkels to keep the little dolphin company.
Latest entry - we have now been anchored behind the breakwater at La Linea since yesterday. Wind finally arrived in gentle form from the East as we approached a gloomy looking Rock and the distant view of Morocco to the South. We passed serried ranks of large ships anchored or drifting near the eastern end of the Straits as we negotiated the overfalls around Europa point. A very British voice came over the VHF asking a pesky Guardia Civil to verify their intentions in "British Gibraltar territorial waters". The rock was shrouded in cloud and it blew 30 knots in gusts as we rounded the point into Algeciras Bay. Rather coincidentally, Alison's sister, Susan, was in Gibraltar that day for a trade union health and safety conference and the Easy Jet she took off in back to London passed just over our mast as we sailed up towards La Linea!
Since our arrival we have been treated to some very British weather. It has been cold, grey and wet, but to be fair to Gibraltar, the weather is widespread right across this part of Spain and nearby Morocco, too.
10/15/2012, Sabie, Mpumulanga, South Africa
Pic shows a vervet monkey - one of the two commonest primates in Southern Africa.
We are now sadly waiting to make the last 300 kms of a trip back to Johannesberg and our return to Spain and our plans to sail across the Atlantic.
We barely started our last day in Kruger National Park when we bumped into a delightful family of sociable hyenas blocking the track out from our campsite - the matriarch with five cubs in attendance was slap bang in the middle of the road. Sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles had been whooping around the camp all night in discordant harmony with the grunting hippos from the Olifants River nearby.
Then we saw our third set of the Big 5, one by one appearing into view throughout the morning.
Firstly, the white rhino meandering down to the water's edge of one of the rivers, now newly quenched with recent rain, secondly a herd of buffalo with offspring grazing on the edge of the road. Then, the gridlock of cars ahead of us indicated that there must be something potentially intriguing. It was three male lions, lounging just a few metres from the road in the spring sun near their recent buffalo kill, two jackals also in attendance.
Just up the road, three or four kilometres was a large, male leopard who was chewing away at the remains of an unfortunate porcupine, as could be seen by a quill sticking out the side of his face. No doubt decidedly painful, and possibly life threatening if the wound became infected.
Several lone bull elephants appeared from time to time not far from the road out of the park, though the many herds of mothers and young were not to be seen today.
The last mammal we left behind at the gate was a cheeky, vervet monkey. One had dived into our car one day and taken an egg and on another occasion its cousin had quickly grabbed an apple which rolled off the car roof.
We had also seen throughout the morning hippos, zebras, crocodiles, giraffes, baboons, wildebeest, impala, greater kudu. jackal, slender mongoose, duiker and many beautiful birds, all whose lives should be guaranteed into the future.
10/13/2012, Balule Camp, Kruger NP
Pic shows each of the so called "Big 5" seen in Kruger NP over the last few days.
Africa has long since not had to worry about the dangers of the so called "Big 5", originally named like that because they were reckoned to be the most dangerous large animals on the continent. One of the smallest of microbes - the HIV virus - now kills more people in the 4 countries of Southern Africa every year than any of the big 5 ever did in recorded history.
For us wildlife tourists searching for the big 5 and other large mammals and birds is a lot of fun and hundreds of South Africans pour into their game parks every day hoping to see the "cats": cheetah, leopard and lion, which are a lot harder to see than elephants, buffalos, rhinos, hippos and crocodiles.
Because Kruger has been open to car tourism for so long, the larger animals are very tolerant of people - as long as they stay in their vehicles. This means that you can get very close to many large animals without them getting worried.
We have now seen the Big 5 - different animals every time - on three separate days - hence the title of this blog - the big 15!
10/08/2012, Berg en Daal, Kruger NP, South Africa
Pic shows many species of animals all enjoying a bit of time wandering along or across the SA reserve highway system!
A scarab beetle the size of a large toe nail, that wraps up elephant and rhino dung into a circular shape and makes a nest with it, has right of way over a vehicle in nature reserves and national parks in South Africa. It is quite an acrobatic act with a small car negotiating these marvels of nature on a winding, unsealed road while watching for rhino, elephant, zebra and giraffe and all the other diverse species we still share this planet with and also have a right of way - in these sanctuaries, at least.
So far, trying to beat the clock to get back to our campsite compound by 6 pm, we have been in gridlock with elephants, rhinos, baboons, impala and lions and they all know who is boss on the national park highways. It was only a few minutes ago that a band of 30 baboons were fully aware of our deadline, but for some reason they chose to have a stop work meeting in the center of the road. Fortunately, they were endowed with plenty of sympathisers, so there were no roadside pickets or battles for them or us to worry about.