THE FAR HORIZONS
ALL THE WAY TO MARRAKECH
It seems that all my life I have been chasing, or dreaming of chasing, those far horizons. I joined the British Merchant Navy at seventeen and made two trips to South America, washing dishes all the way to Argentina and back again. Later trips took me around Africa, and then on the long voyage through Panama and across the Pacific to New Zealand, but although rewarding in some aspects they were frustrating in others. Time ashore was always too short, and there was barely enough of it for the necessary social tasks of slaking thirsts and pinching barmaids' bottoms and all the other duties of sailors briefly freed from the long routines of the ship and the sea. By the time these rituals were completed and one had sobered up sufficiently to plan the exploration of Rio, Buenos Aires, Bombay, or where-ever it might be, the ship had usually sailed and the far horizons were all sea and sky. I had some good times and travelled a great many miles, but all I saw of the distant lands I passed were fleeting glimpses through a green-rimed galley porthole. Plus a few bonus glimpses through the trailing bead curtains of bar-room doorways that were widely scattered but all alike, and generally viewed through a fog of cigarette smoke and joviality and a haze of rum-and-cokes and lustful designs on the nearest barmaid .
I quit after two years and volunteered to join the army, hinting that I would be quite happy to serve out my time in Hong Kong or Singapore, or any other suitably exotic post.
The army wisely declined my services, but by then I had heard tales about chaps who had volunteered for Hong Kong only to be sadistically incarcerated in Aldershot for three years and so I considered myself lucky. I decided then to become a writer; to make big money and travel the world in style, stopping here and there to casually scribble out a best-selling novel on a Himalayan mountain top or a tropical beach. I was very naive in those days and really believed that people bought books, and that writers made more money than the rest of us. Now I know better and often envy the dustman his regular wages.
However, I worked by day and wrote by night, and did manage to spend a few weeks of every summer in travelling; not in style but on a succession of temperamental motor cycles that conveyed me around most of Europe and the British Isles. My Hilton was a miniature tent with a sleeping bag, and the only tuxedo I ever owned was my waiter’s uniform, for waiting on tables alternated with pick and shovel work as my usual form of employment. Eventually I bought a second hand car, a 1956 Austin A30 saloon, and set out to tour Morocco.
I drove on to the car ferry at Dover at half past five on a still dark Monday morning, and at half past eight drove off into Boulogne in daylight. It seemed perfectly natural to be driving on the right again, but I was wary at the roundabouts. On my first trip to France I had relaxed confidently after the first five miles, but then I had to circumnavigate a roundabout fitted with a whole galaxy of bewildering and mind- distracting signs. I had emerged still unsure whether I was heading in the right direction and all but buried my wobbling motor cycle under an oncoming lorry. It took a second and a string of French curses to make me realize that it wasn't the daft Frenchman who was on the wrong side of the road. I skidded to the right only just in time. I avoided any similar mistakes with the car, but even then I almost killed myself the first time that left it by looking automatically in the wrong direction as I stepped out blithely across the street.
I bypassed Paris and averaged a daily two-hundred miles down the arrow-straight roads of France, stopping at camping sites and youth hostels overnight. France was too expensive a place in which to linger, and the sun, the veiled women and the desert sands were all calling me south. On the fourth day I reached the Pyrenees and the road began to twist upwards above deep green valleys. The scenery was wild and luxuriant and needed only a few brush-tips of snow upon the crests of the mountains and I could have imagined myself back in Switzerland.
I decided to by-pass Andorra, which I later regretted as I regret leaving all the places I have missed in my haste to reach the more distant places beyond, and I headed straight for the Spanish frontier at Bourg-Madame. Shortly after leaving the customs post, at the highest point of the pass, I made the foolish mistake of propping open the bonnet of the Austin in an effort to cool the over-heating engine. A few minutes later the wind gusted underneath the bonnet and slammed it upwards with a startling crack, leaving me driving blind above a two thousand foot drop into one of the deepest valleys I had yet seen. I managed to stop the car without going over the edge, straightened out the buckled bonnet, and ruefully added another note to my mental list of does and donuts for Continental driving.
The road surface deteriorated immediately on entering Spain and my little Austin jolted and rattled all the way to Barcelona. I spent a few days there, and then idled down the sun-drenched Mediterranean coastline. The road was never far from the silver-blue tapestry of the sea, ever visible below rock-strewn slopes or above the silver-green tops of the flat olive groves; while inland were terraced hillsides of rust-red earth and ranges of bare, grey-rock mountains, their blunt peaks lost in smoky wreaths of white cloud.
Whenever the temptation became too much I stopped to laze, to bathe in the sea, or to explore some of the small fishing villages. It was late in the afternoon when I entered the small town of Nules, some forty miles before Valencia and here there was an air or festivity and excitement that took my attention.
Something was about to happen, that much was evident from the crowds of people overflowing a stout street barricade as though preparing to watch a rodeo. Leaving my car I went back to join them. There were more crowds thronging the street beyond the barricade, and so I squeezed through a gap between the solid twelve-by-four timbers and wandered curiously into the centre of the town. I soon reached the unpaved main square and noted that every street leading away from it had a similar barricade after the first hundred yards. There were stout timbers boarding up every shop-front and doorway, and every window that was not already protected by an iron grill, and for no apparent reason there were ropes dangling from every balcony. The town might have been preparing for a siege, except that there were soft drinks and popcorn vendors everywhere, and the moving masses of people were so volubly cheerful.
I searched hopefully but unsuccessfully for someone who might speak English and be willing to explain what it was all about. As I did so I slowly began to realize that the jostling crowds around me consisted entirely of men. Furthermore they were all young men, or at least active men, all the older men were up on the sardine-packed balconies and the flat roof-tops with the women and children. I began to guess at what was about to happen at about the same moment that the bull was released into the main square.
The event was signaled by a chorus of frantic yells as everybody scattered, but I was still uncertain and curious and hesitated for a moment longer. In a twinkling the square had emptied and I was alone except for three baffled tons of live and angry oxo glaring and pawing at the dusty earth. We both recovered our wits in the next second. The bull charged and I followed the gallant example of the stampeding Spaniards and fled.
A few moments later I looked back from the safety of a reassuring corner to see the bull standing still again in the center of the street. His great black body was motionless but he was slowly swinging his massive horned head as the bolder youths inched forward to goad him into another charge.
Infuriated, he finally obliged, and the brave matadors promptly disrupted in all directions, vanishing through doorways or scrambling up barred windows. The meaning of all those dangling ropes became clear as some of the escapees hauled themselves hand over hand out of the bull's reach, and the ropes had the advantage of leading straight up to the balconies beneath the flared skirts of the laughing senoritas pressing close to the rails. The bull had sighted on a single target, but his selected victim took a flying leap on to a large barrel that blocked a shop-front and tumbled head-first inside only inches ahead of the lunging horns.
The young men grew more daring as the bull snorted back and forth and puffed himself out with repeated charges. They dodged nimbly across the streets beneath his steaming nostrils, tweaked his tail from behind, stamped and clapped their hands and parodied all the classic, sweeping movements of the bull ring. Whenever the maddened bull roared and wheeled in an unexpected direction they relied upon flying feet and the nearest rope or refuge to save them.
From above, on the packed balconies and roof-tops the children, the older men, the fat senoras and the lovely, dark- haired Spanish girls heaped waves of laughter, ridicule and advice, scorn and encouragement on to the heads of the amateur bull-fighters dodging and dancing around the bull below. It was all fine sport, but at one stage two groups of girls on opposite sides of the street lowered a man-sized dummy on a rope, jerking it to tempt the bull. El Torro hooked it into the air with such instant and terrible force that I winced to hear his horns rip into it. It was obvious that he was only too willing to give the same treatment to the backside of any would-be Corrodes who might be clumsy enough to slip in his path. Fortunately no one slipped.
Finally a hundred-foot length of thick manila rope was produced and the young men dragged it with them as they chased the now-flagging bull through the streets, although several times they had to drop it quickly and flee as the bull showed sudden revivals of spirit in about-turn tactics and swift rushes back the way he had come. Then they cornered him in the square and the braver youths attempted to throw a noose over his head. The bull broke free and sent them frantically scattering as he snorted down the nearest side- street, but then again he was brought to bay. He repeated the breakout charge a dozen times, but after a long series of awkward misses the noose was at last dropped over his head, thrown, rather unnervingly I thought, by a tame hero operating from the safety of a doorway.
The young men began to drag him back across the battleground, a whole army of them shouting triumphantly as they hauled on the rope, but I did not stop to see whether he would be released or butchered. The sport was over now that the bull was spent and defeated, and it was getting dark and I had yet to find a camping site for the night. I ducked back through the barricade and returned to my car.
As I drove on I reflected that although bull-baiting might be cruel to the bull, it was certainly an ideal way for young men to blow off steam and high spirits, and incidentally impress their girl friends; much better than bashing old ladies over the head, or indulging in mod-versus-rocker gang battles on Clacton beach, which was the main occupation of frustrated English youth during that particular summer.
After Valencia I left the sea and turned inland, making a long looping circle that took me through the Sierra Nevada into Granada and then on to Cordoba, Seville and Cadiz before the massive Rock of Gibraltar reared majestically out of the sea beyond Algeciras a week later.
I had to collect my insurance papers for Morocco in Gibraltar, (the usual green card being valid only for Europe), but it appeared that the insurance agent whom I was to contact was a Hebrew and that some religious festival had entitled him to a three-day holiday. Nobody else knew anything about my insurance so I spent the three days in exploring the Rock.
I saw all the sights prescribed for tourists, including the famous apes. I remember them chiefly because of one solitary little ape who lay flat on his belly on the roof of his shelter, peeping down over the edge and observing with deep solemnity and curiosity the groups of humans who had come to observe his companions. To this day I don’t know who was showing the more intelligent interest in whom, and I have always wondered what was in that little ape’s mind.
At last I was able to return to Algeciras and from there take the ferry across to the small Spanish promontory of Ceuta on the far side of the Straits. This passage proved almost a third cheaper than sailing direct from Gibraltar to Tangier, although it does involve a fifty-mile drive by road from Ceuta.
This tiny Spanish pinch of Africa ended two miles after driving off the boat, (or four if you start by driving away in the wrong direction as I did), and after filling in entry forms in duplicate I finally crossed the frontier into Morocco. The roads promptly improved which was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
The fact that I was now in North Africa was unmistakable, not so much in the landscape which was in many ways reminiscent of the rust-red, olive-dressed hills of southern Spain, but in the people. The road passed through small dusty towns where it would suddenly become thronged with hurrying crowds; veiled women with babies slung on their backs like Indian squaws; bearded, grizzled men of the desert, looking like medieval monks in their coarse brown robes with great hoods shadowing their faces; men in fezzes or a knitted skullcap, on foot or riding bicycles, or on the innumerable donkeys that are the biggest driving hazard; and hordes of ragged little brown-bellied children.
Here and there men and women sat along the pavements with baskets of eggs or fruit of heaps of bright yellow melons spread out over a sack. The contrast between Europe and Africa was more sharply made by a young woman feeding her baby as she sat on the curbstone in a busy street. Her face was veiled to the eyes, which was discreet and proper, but her brown breast was revealed to all with the baby clinging hungrily to the nipple. Modesty in both forms became a wry joke.
It was in Tangier that I found my next adventure, and at that time the most exciting night or my life. At the frontier post I had picked up an Australian hitch-hiker named Ron, the world was full of hitch-hiking Australians in those days, and we were still swapping experiences as I drove into the city just before dusk. I had to brake hard and drive the Austin slowly through the formation of a gathering procession that was milling amiably and aimlessly with tangled banners held aloft, while a highly agitated Arab wearing a ceremonial white turban and robes made desperate efforts to form some kind of order. He had a fine prophet's beard and a curved silver dagger hung at his hip, while in his hand he carried a long, ancient rifle which he shook angrily at the crowd as they frustrated his commands.
I found a parking place for the car and together Ron and I threaded our way back through the crush of bodies for a closer look. We couldn't make any sense out of what was happening but after a few minutes we found an attractive American girl in a yellow blouse and orange slacks operating the inevitable tourist camera. Her name was Barbara and she was working with the American Peace Corps in Morocco, and she was able to explain all the activity.
It seemed that the people of Tangier were not as contented as they should have been now that their once-notorious city was no longer an International Zone. The good old days when Tangier had been a haven for every crook and swindler in the Mediterranean, with vice up all the alleyways and bodies floating nightly in the harbor were over, and Tangier was too respectable and dull. Profits had gone down, and now that Tangier was part of the kingdom of Morocco taxes had gone up.
The citizens had loud grumbles, and so the young King Hassan of Morocco was making a diplomatic visit to show what a jolly good fellow he really was, and at the same time give them all an excuse to celebrate and forget their complaints. The procession that was now forming was part of the celebrations, the highlight in fact, and formed a gift-carrying ceremony of presents that had been offered as tokens of loyalty to the King, and which were now to be taken to one of the mosques to await eventual distribution amongst the poor.
The presents were many and varied and included two magnificent bulls, one black and one brown, both with their horns and hooves painted gold. There were a dozen or more young camels offered by the desert sheikhs, and a large wheeled ark that was gorgeously draped with gold and silver tapestries.
The smaller gifts were carried on large round trays balanced high on the heads of a score of veiled young women. More and more people arrived as the procession took shape. There was a group of dancers in green and white silk robes, and Arab musicians with wooden flutes and skin drums. Finally there was a whole squad of excited citizens in baggy pants and knitted skull caps with their precious donkeys who had come, probably uninvited, to join the fun.
The old man with the white robe and turban had at last organized the noisy babble of confusion into the trailing column it was meant to be, but before he could give the order to move off, Barbara, Ron and myself were abruptly noticed by the donkey owners. A second later and we were besieged, each man insisting that one of us must ride his particular donkey. There was no escape, even we had wanted it, and we were practically lifted up into the saddles. The ungainly little beasts were used to hard work and all sorts of burdens and accepted us with barely a shuffle. The procession began to weave forward, amid a great amount of shouting the donkeys were whacked into movement, and we were off.
It was an Arabian Nights experience. The dusk was deepening and rapidly becoming dark, and as we moved further into the city the streets were packed solid with people. Progress was slow because every hundred yards or so the whole column stopped and waited while the whirling dancers gave repeated performances to the crowd, supported by the Arab orchestra with their wooden flutes wailing and screeching above the ragged rhythm or the drums.
Immediately ahead of our disorderly contingent of donkeys rode the desert sheikhs, perched high on the rolling humps of their camels and leading their strings of gifts. One black- robed warrior carried a naked sword which he waved and slashed wildly towards the star-filled sky, as though drunk with hashish or excitement, or just the sheer thrill of lording the scene above everyone else.
The route became a river of neon, passing beneath great, brilliantly-lit archways that had been specially erected for the occasion. It seemed impossible that the vast, cheering crowd on either side could become more massed, and yet it did; a literal sea of dark, surging faces, the huge eyes of the women mysterious but ecstatic above the concealing veils. Not only the whole of Tangier but the whole of Morocco must have been there to applaud. The men shouted and clapped but the women swayed more hypnotically and uttered rising waves of shrill, keening cries that were born somewhere deep in their throats. The noise frightened the camel rode by the black-robed sheikh and the beast began to rear and plunge out of control. Its rider roared with either delight or anger, it was impossible to define, and flourished his glittering sword more fanatically than before.
For three unbelievable hours we rode our lurching donkeys through the pressing swarms of people, through the wide streets of modern Tangier, and then through an arched gateway and up a narrow, steeply-ascending street into the old medina. We wound slowly through the Petite Socco and then the Grand Socco, the two market places in the heart of the old town, and then past the slender tower of a forbidden mosque.
The procession had nearly reached its destination and crawled up another steep, darkened street where keening women sat along the cemetery walls. Here the dancers stopped to perform for the last time. Fifty yards ahead was the mosque that was to receive the gifts, and where we would not be allowed to enter, and so the three of us dismounted from our donkeys. The little donkey-owners who had assured us at the start that they expected no payment were suddenly demanding huge fees after all, but the procession and the crowds were mingling in a disorderly mob again and we evaded the indignantly outstretched hands in the general crush.
We parted from Barbara the same night after escorting her safely back to her hotel, and Ron left Tangier the next morning to return to Spain. I stayed a couple of days to explore the city more thoroughly but it was tame after that fantastic introduction. There was the urge to travel on and I headed south to tour the ancient imperial cities Rabat, Fez and Meknes.
I soon found that the best way to penetrate the fascinating mazes of the medinas was to engage one of the many eleven or twelve year old boys who were always eager to act as guides. The insistent professional guides took themselves far too seriously, charged too highly, and insisted on mouthing dull monologues of dates which no one could possibly remember. The school- boys simply had fun, scampering ahead, cheeking shopkeepers and pulling faces at the passing donkey riders with their continual cries of ''Balek! Balek!” the Moroccan phrase for “Make way.”
At the same time they showed me all that I wanted to see; the gleaming brass markets and the silver markets, where you could watch the metal being hammered and worked; the souks, or workshops of the carpenters, the blacksmiths and the basket-makers, and the “Dante’s inferno” souk of the dye merchants in the heart of the narrow tangled streets of Fez.
Here men dodged between the great, steaming vats of dye, their bare arms dripping as they dipped the raw skeins of white wool and then hung them up over wooden beams spanning the street to dry in the sun. The whole souk was a blaze of color -- deep blood reds, yellows, blacks and fiery orange -filled with rainbow curtains made from the thousands of coils of draped and drying wool. In fact, the small boys showed me everything that I wanted to see, and suggested a few things that I didn't. They were all named either Mohammed or Abdullah, and all spoke English which they had learned at school.
I also visited the holy mountain city of Moulay Idriss, which is named after and contains the tomb of the King who first brought the Islamic faith to Morocco. The road wound up into the steep Zerhoun hills not far from the highway between Fez and Meknes, lined by dusty olive groves and great clumps of prickly cacti. Somehow I lost the main road and approached the city after circling through the mountains over some of the most rugged country I had ever attempted with my long-suffering little car. I repeatedly had to draw off the narrow, crumbling road to avoid shuffling donkeys and some of the bends were hideously cambered. I returned by the main road, a more relaxing drive, but by first approaching the city from behind I was treated to a splendid view of the old biblical walls of Moulay Idriss spreading over twin peaks above the olive-scattered hills.
Finally, after four weeks of unhurried driving I reached my goal, Marrakech. Here some unidentified object flying up from the road snapped off my fan blade and caused the broken end to gouge a vicious hole in the radiator. The necessary repairs delayed me for five days, but there are worse places in which to be stranded than Marrakech. For a thriller-writer there can be few places more likely to titillate the imagination than this massive, red-walled city on the edge of the Sahara, within sight of the dark purple ranges or the Atlas Mountains. Also the camping site where I stayed was situated next door to the municipal swimming pool, which meant that my days were spent in sun-bathing and swimming, while by night I prowled and absorbed the mysteries of the medina.
The famous square of Marrakech, the Djema el Fina, was always thronged by crowds watching the snake-charmers, the prophets and the storytellers, and the sellers of potions, and all the other performers who gathered there. Smokey lights flickered above the cheap eating stalls, and the strange sights and smells and sounds created magic in the air. I can still see that ragged, villainous-looking snake-man swallowing the head or a live python in his mouth and waving the long, coiling body at his entranced audience, while a hooded cobra hissed uncertainly at his feet. Later I used the memory as the opening scene for my novel Murder In Marrakech which was published under my pen name of Charles Leader.
At last the car was ready and I headed north again, and by this time I had picked up another hitch-hiker, an Englishman named Brian. We became friends and I took him all the way back to England. On the way we spent two days at Casablanca, Morocco’s largest and most modern city, and then drove back to Ceuta and the ferry across the straits. We didn't stop much on the long route home through Madrid and Zaragoza because we were both out of money. I had just enough to keep the car in petrol, and we fed ourselves with bread and cheap wine, plus a five-day supply of apples we had foraged from an unguarded orchard. I drove as swiftly as possible through France, and then came the Channel crossing and those dear old white cliffs of Dover.
It's strange how I always associate chalk cliffs with home, a long soaking bath while my favorite jazz records play on the turntable, a visit to the local pub and a foaming pint of dark brown ale. Foreign travel is wonderful, but as long as England maintains her hop gardens I shall always return.
UPDATE: A check on the internet shows that they still do a bull running festival in Nules. But now it’s for children and the bulls are mock bulls mounted on bicycle wheels. For the real thing go to Pamplona, but be careful. In 2013 21 people were crushed, trampled or gored when the charging bulls followed them into a tunnel leading to the bull ring.