The Digital Adventures

Chapter 5C

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

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Almost a Tragedy


After a sleepless night in the Land Cruiser, I was first in line at the Spanish customs shed by eleven. For an hour I waited impatiently while the guard wasted time, pretending to search the empty car. At the stroke of noon he lifted the barrier. I shot through the gate and roared along the road toward the city. In twelve minutes I was on the outskirts of Algeciras and could plainly see the harbor and our ferry steaming toward Africa. It was the first time Al had let me down. I’d be stuck in Spain for three or four days until the next ferry. Dejected, I drove to the pier to get the exact schedule.

A smart white ship was tied up to the pier, moored by one line, waiting to cast off It was a ferry. It was our ferry! A crowd was gathered near the vehicle ramp, and I drove straight for it, blowing my horn. When the crowd parted I saw our Jeep and camper stuck halfway up the ramp and Al beside them turning his pockets inside out. The captain was shouting frantically to a dozen sailors and wharf laborers pushing and pulling at the Jeep.

Al leaped down from the ramp and came running up to me with the ship’s angry first mace right beside him.

“I lost the key as we drove on,” he winked. “Let me have your spare.”

After I’d given it to him he turned to the officer and said, “You see, I told you our jefe had an extra key. Tell the captain we can sail now. All right, jefe, welcome aboard.”

Later, on deck, before I’d quite caught my breath, Al handed me a big paper bag.

“What’s this?” I asked. “Tranquilizers?”

“On the contrary, very untranquilizing. Open it.”

I did. It was filled with money, Spanish money. The customs officials had refunded our $1,750 in Spanish pesetas- which were about as useful as subway tokens in Alaska.

“What can we do with this junk?” I asked.

“Well I’ve been checking around,” Al answered, “and if there’s one thing Tangier has it’s a red-hot black market in Spanish money. Those wise guys aren’t getting any last laugh on the Trans World Record Expedition.”

The trip across the Straits was over before we knew it. In 90 minutes we had traveled fifteen miles and a thousand years into a world of veiled women and turbaned men, mosques and minarets, camels and caravans. Gone were the heady orange scents of Valencia and the flamenco beat of the caves of Old Madrid, replaced by the musky smells and haunting rhythms of Africa. Gone, too, I hoped, were the problems that had plagued us so far.

From Cueta to Tangier the map shows 25 miles, but it’s 65 if you have to drive it, for between the two lies the tip of the Tell, with peaks of the Ev Rif rising to 8,000 and 10,000 feet above the fields of wheat and grapes. Our heavily laden cars lumbered up the mountain, every space jammed with gear and supplies, water cans and wine bottles in wicker baskets hanging on the sides of the vehicles, gas cans strapped to the front of the trailer, and our six new tires lashed to the top. The pace was slow, but the girls sang merrily, for we were back on the road and into our second continent. They sang, little realizing what dangers and disasters lay ahead.

As we climbed a particularly steep stretch, about a thousand feet above the sea, with me leading in the Land Cruiser and hauling the camper, and Al following in the Jeep, I felt a sudden lurch forward, an instant lightening of the load. I jerked around to see a shower of sparks behind me. The trailer hitch had snapped. The camper had broken loose and was careening down the mountain road. Six thousand dollars’ worth of trailer and supplies was hurtling to certain destruction on the rocks below.

Al, about 40 feet behind me, had also seen the sparks and the wild camper, and throwing the Jeep into low gear, rammed into the rear of the trailer just before it reached the edge. The Jeep was knocked back with the blow, almost going over the edge itself. Everything was safe, with only a few bumper scars to give evidence of what could have been a tragedy.

It took two hours to put on a spare hitch and replace the snapped safety chains, so it was dark when we got to Tangier and met Woodrow and Willy. We wanted to find the campground but there were few people about at that hour, and those who were couldn’t seem to understand what we wanted. In desperation, after a succession of Arabs had greeted our questions with pleasant smiles but shrugged shoulders, we dragged our small tent out of the trailer and set it up in the street, then launched into a charade on going to sleep. We finally made ourselves understood, and two boys volunteered to show us the way to the campground. We followed them down a wide avenue and along the edge of the bay to a sheltered hollow of grass and sand near the beach. But our guides had misunderstood.

Not that the spot wasn’t a campsite, for it certainly was, though the tents were so filthy it was almost impossible to make them out in the dark. But they didn’t belong to any tourists. It was a gypsy encampment. The gypsies eyed us suspiciously at first, but after appraising the value of our equipment and the vigor of our three rather frightened females, they beckoned us to pitch out tents and join the family. We declined the offer, and eventually found our way to the official campsite, a secluded spot high on a lush green hill overlooking the ocean, a few hundred yards from a little-used beach. The hill was thick with palm and pepper trees, fragrant purple bougainvillea and rich red poinsettia. There was no sound save the pounding of the distant surf and the call of unfamiliar insects, no light save the brilliant points of starshine overhead. It was a world of our own in the middle of a world far from our own.

Our hill was said to be the tomb of the mythological giant Antaeus whom Hercules had slain. Other killings in the vicinity had not been so mythological, for all around Tangier are the ruins of Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman and Arab colonies, as they destroyed and succeeded one another, to be followed in turn by warring Portuguese, conquering Spaniards, colonizing English, reconquering Arabs, pirating Corsairs, bombarding Spaniards, and besieging French.

Only in the past century, when it was proclaimed an international city, did relative peace come to Tangier, for the major powers watched jealously lest any one become too powerful there. During the last war it became a center of international intrigue and espionage; after that, a gold trading center; today, capitalizing on its proximity to Europe, a pleasant den of vice where, for a price, any desire can be accommodated, whether it demands gold bars, male prostitutes, raw opium, aphrodisiacs, poisons, psychedelics, or pubescent virgins. Tangier became a home-near-home for the adventurer, the social outcast, the pervert, the mystic, the misfit, and the thrill-seeker. Whereas in North Africa the tourists sought out Cairo and Luxor, the businessmen Benghazi and Casablanca, the revolutionaries Algiers and Accra, the thrill-seekers headed for Tangier.

And there we were, though we weren’t seeking thrills at the moment. Garages and welding shops were more our concern, for we had much to do before we could face Africa. We put the special tires on the Land Cruiser, replaced our SA 30 motor oil with SAE 40 to reduce wear and heat in the deserts, greased both cars and repacked their front-wheel bearings. The storage trailer had to be assembled, our cargo shifted, film protected from the heat in Thermos chests, stoves cleaned, our Spanish money changed, food laid in. Three days. On the last of them we had to take the camper in to be welded and braced because the rough slide down the mountain had cracked the Spanish welds and put four new breaks in the undercarriage. The welders, working underneath with their torches, accidentally burned through the thin wood floor of the camper, setting afire the compartments where our clothes were stored and almost destroying the whole thing before we doused it.

  • Photo caption on page 69 of the printed publication:
    Steve, AL and Mira, one of the three New Zealand nurses who accompanied us into western North Africa, eating at a roadside stall in Morocco. When AL wore a fez, he could easily pass for an Arab.

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