12 May 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 2

Watching the three bikes ride off was quite a sad moment, but we had slightly more pressing issues to deal with – namely how feed ourselves for the next couple of days. Spain does Sunday in a big way, and virtually nothing is open. We walked back to the supermarket: closed. Walked in to the next village and found a restaurant: closed.

We eventually found a newsagent that was open (run by Brits, see) and they said that there was one shop that did open on Sunday and we wandered off there to see what we could muster: sliced Chorizo, bacon, a (still warm from the oven) baguette and two apple pastries.

Back at the house, via a cup of coffee and slice of carrot cake at a café we had missed earlier, we tried to keep ourselves amused: it was too cold to swim, there was nothing worth watching on TV and a bike-ride was obviously out of the question – so we played croquet on the (billiard-table smooth) lawn. We didn’t know the rules, so we made it up as we went along; sort of golf with mallets and hoops!

Photo by Gareth Jones

All the while we were making plans: Dealer on Monday? What if it isn’t just the battery? How long will spare parts take to arrive? How do we get the bike to the dealer?

New KTMs come with KTM Assist, which provides breakdown insurance in the whole of Europe (and Morocco) while the bike’s under warranty. My bike isn’t under warranty any more, but I thought I’d give them a call anyway to see if they could help – and they could. For a fee of £250 (plus VAT), plus any costs incurred including call-out fees, recovery fees, labour charges and any parts used – ouch!

They did provide the details of two local KTM dealers, one in Marbella and one in Cadiz. They also told me there was a dealer in Ceuta [Soota], so that if I managed to get it to the ferry I might be able to get help there.

All our contingency plans for breakdowns revolved around being in Morocco, because with less than two days in Spain on the itinerary we thought that if we couldn’t keep it together there then we really would be in trouble – so we really were in trouble.

After many calls to the UK to get technical support, make requests, share problems etc. (O2 have done very well from me!) we discovered that local Ixie, Lee Bell, was back in the UK, the prime suspect was the battery, and if necessary people were willing to send parts to get me up and running.

Sunday night’s supper was an eclectic mix of what we’d bought, what we could scrounge from the cupboards in the house and some of the emergency rations we’d brought for the desert (not dessert). Bacon and cheese flavoured crisps, green olives, slices of Chorizo and bacon, some leftover cheese from the night before and a tin of baked beans (Heinz, of course). A call from the advance party confirmed their safe arrival in Morocco and that they were staying in a hotel in Chefchaouen [Chef-show-wen] – which is where we’d intended to be on Saturday night!

Monday arrived, and I called RAC’s European call centre in France who said they’d send help – but felt it necessary to explain that it wouldn’t be a RAC patrol (I was quite glad about that, for it would have taken a long time to drive to southern Spain in a Transit!). They assured me that help would arrive within 1h30. As is traditional with breakdown assistance, two hours later nobody had arrived so I called back to be told that the fax they’d sent (fax FFS!) to Barcelona hadn’t actually gone through, so they would re-send it now – and that help would arrive within 1h30. Ho hum.

Eventually, as promised, a recovery truck arrived – but how do you explain that there’s an electrical problem and you want the bike taken to Marbella when you don’t speak Spanish? I’m still not entirely sure, but the bike was loaded on to the truck, which had obviously had a very poorly car onboard recently because the deck was slick with oil, and we set off to KTM Marbella with Gareth following on his bike.

Arriving at the dealer, in a much less trendy area than the one in Malaga, and shortly before lunchtime (and the famous Spanish siesta), we managed to convey the problem to the mechanic and they wheeled the bike in to the workshop, past a very sorry-looking Bimota that had been down the road on both sides, and started checking the electrics and putting the battery on charge.

Time for the siesta, and two hours for Gareth and me to kill until the dealer reopened. Food, coffee, a stroll along the seafront, then finally back to the shop to find some interesting news: the battery had plenty of volts, so it should be able to start the bike. So what was the problem? Images of expensive electronic black-boxes, only available from Austria, ran through my mind.

 Photo by Gareth Jones

After further investigation, the battery was pronounced dead and a new Yuasa battery (140€) was fitted – but of course this needed charging too. Time crept slowly onward, and we’d looked at all the bikes in the showroom several times, watched the brand new Sherco demonstrator bikes being delivered, gone to the café next door for Coke and pastries… At long last, K2 was pronounced fit and well, so with my credit card considerably dented (although labour was only 21€ per hour), and lighter hearts, Gareth and I set a course for Sotogrande. By now it was after 20.00 and we’d heard from the others that they were now in Fes (which wasn’t in our original plan at all). We had another tin of beans and a bit of left-over bread before turning in for the night with the intention of being on the first ferry of the day to Ceuta.

My alarm woke me at 05.30, and with tired excitement we downed half a (very large) can of Red Bull and a chocolate doughnut each, stowed our luggage and, with a degree of trepidation, I turned the key in K2, pressed the starter and SHE STARTED!

There’s very little traffic in Spain at that hour, and we made good time to the port at Algeciras where we tracked down some tickets for the 08.00 boat with Acconia Trasmediterránea. It was only just 07.00 so we had plenty of time to spare, and we watched the Tangiers ferry loading including a very large orange, Dutch registered, desert truck on to the very small catamaran. It was the last to be loaded, and the boat definitely shifted in the water as it drove up the ramp!

Photo by Gareth Jones

By this time someone had appeared in the Acconia check-in booth, so we rolled up, presented our tickets and boarded the seacat, Alboran, strapped the bikes down ourselves (they were the only two on the crossing), watched a couple of cars forget their roof rack loads as they drove on to the upper car-deck, and climbed up to the lounge with a serious need for coffee and food! The world’s strongest coffee con leche and most meagre chocolate muffin kept us going. The ferry was very lightly loaded, and just over half an hour later we were docking in Ceuta, which is a Spanish city in Morocco (think Gibraltar!) so it was a domestic ferry with the minimum of fuss or formality – at least on the outward crossing.

What’s “Morocco” in Spanish? We weren’t sure, but after a lap of the port, and another of the city’s one-way system, we finally worked it out and set off towards the Moroccan border – which is exactly how you might imagine an African border-crossing to be: lots of people, vehicles, animals, touts, officials, lost-looking tourists, impatient locals…

In the event, it was surprisingly painless. We enlisted the help of a chap with a (homemade-looking) ID badge, and for 20€ he pointed us at the right booths, supplied the right forms, looked after the bikes, and got us to the front of the right queues. I’m loathed to pay people unnecessarily, but we had a lot of miles to do and time was of the essence if we were to catch up the other three, who were heading for Midelt today.

Importing a vehicle in to Morocco is a serious affair: the details are recorded against your passport and you cannot leave without the vehicle you brought in. Import tax is very steep (someone mentioned 200%) so you really don’t want to have your vehicle stolen or left so that you cannot get it out again (more of that later). You are also assigned a Moroccan ID number, which is stamped in your passport and used on all the official paperwork, including your vehicle import forms and insurance paperwork, and is yours to keep for future visits.

The next challenge was finding vehicle insurance. The insurers in most European countries automatically extend cover to Morocco, but for some reason not many British insurers do. Our new friend offered to take us to the insurance office in Tetuoan [Tet-twan] – and with hindsight I’m quite glad he did.

Tetuoan is about 20km from Sebta, the Moroccan name for Ceuta, so our new friend jumped on the back of Gareth’s bike and off we went – him holding on to his cap with one hand and the bike with the other!

Before you visit a new place you often don’t know quite what to expect, and this was the case with Morocco. The main road from the Sebta border was a wide, two lane dual carriageway along the coast, with manicured lawns and flower beds, decorative street lights, and smart-looking houses, hotels and apartments. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. New places often have their own special smell, and the air was lightly scented with a fragrant fruity spicy smell, with just a hint of sewage.

All the guidebooks tell you that the official insurer is Axa, and to look for their blue sign – but obviously they lost the contract, because we discovered when they opened at 09.00 (Morocco stays on GMT all year, so in the summer is two hours behind Spain) that they couldn’t help.

We also made out first schoolboy error. The Moroccan currency is the Dirham. It isn’t a traded currency, you cannot take it out of the country, and the exchange rates are fixed by the government. But how much is a Dirham worth? We went to a cash machine and withdrew 300d each before discovering that insurance for a month is 950d…

Back to the cash machine then, and this time we took out 1000d each – which is £81. I also slipped up in that you are supposed to present your vehicle registration document to buy insurance, but all I had was my D16 import documents, passport and driving licence. Our friend had a word, and all was well!

The insurance is basic, third-party only, cover as required by Moroccan law, and makes in itself a nice memento. Again the cost of insurance is set by the government, as are the periods of cover available: one or two weeks, a month or three months. We were going to be there just over two weeks, so we took the month option.

Paperwork done, and the certificate neatly folded in to a wallet by the lady (I’m sure she must be a black-belt in origami), which was just the right size to hold your passport and D16 too, we set off back to the bikes. We’d left them in a secure, semi-underground car park, for the princely sum of 1€. When we arrived at the car park and our guide told us to ride in, we wondered what we were letting outselves in for – a very steep, curved concrete ramp and heavy bikes is an interesting combination, but there were plenty of vehicles in there, and they moved a couple to make sure the bikes were out of harms way.

The insurance office, banks and parking were in the old part of town, the Medina, with narrow streets and alleys, lots of people, shops, cars and very little in the way of directional signage. The two languages of Morocco are Arabic and French, plus Spanish in the north. Whilst I have a fighting chance with reading and understanding French or Spanish I really have no hope with Arabic, and whilst most signs are bilingual many are not. Wandering around the city centre as it woke (and warmed) up was a bit daunting. We both stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because we were European.

Sweating profusely, we got back to the bikes, gave our new friend another 20€ and made ready to leave. We asked if we could take a photo, and he initially refused because he’s a Muslim, then he relented – as long as we didn’t put it on the Internet!

So with the border formalities out of the way, insurance purchased, Dirhams in our wallets and the rest of the day ahead, we set off in hot pursuit of the others.

To be continued…

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