Our “Behind The Scenes” Travelogue …
The DeliverAid Team dodge heat-crazed camels and suicidal Mercedes in the deserts of Western Sahara on their first delivery expedition back in the distant past of 2013 …
The traffic gendarme blinks. “You’re headed where?”
“Layyoune,” we reply. “It’s in Western Sahara.”
The policeman nods slowly. He is well aware of where Layyoune is. What’s less clear to him is why two very bleary eyed Europeans are driving there on a desert road in a rented Bipper at 4 o’clock in the morning.
There is a sudden roar of diesel, lights and wind as an 18 wheel leviathan thunders past into the night. Roads out here don’t have the usual distinct boundaries, instead they just tend to tail off into broken tarmac and sand. As a result, lorry drivers tend to stick closely to the middle. Tear along the dotted line, it says on the bottom of their driving licence, and they enthusiastically do exactly that.
They are also reluctant to give up that position, and if you are coming the other way in something further down the food chain than their big rig, then it’s a very one-sided game of chicken.
The gendarme is unfazed by the meteoric metal monster that has missed him by a matter of millimetres. He gestures with his thumb at the fading red lights. “Beaucoup de camion.” he observes. Lots of lorries.
He’s right, of course. No sensible person should be driving on this road at this time in the morning. The problem is that when you are trying contort yourself in order to sleep in a Peugeot Bipper in the middle of the desert (no mean feat for anyone over the age of 12) and all you can hear is a kitten that has appeared out of the dunes and crawled up inside the wheel arch of your vehicle in order to mew incessantly, said kitten refusing to shift despite your best efforts (which started out as gentle entreaties but which have rapidly deteriorated into yelled abuse and graphic threats), then “sensible” becomes something that just happens to other people.
Which is why at half past three, my driving companion Toby (with a curse I hope his mother never hears) decided that we might as well hit the road as stay where we were and go slowly insane. Dislodging the kitten took some doing, as it had climbed right up into the vehicle structure, and it was only by squirting some of our precious water into the general direction of the mewing that we were able to evict the now soggy moggy, usher it safely out of harm’s way, and hit the road.
Only to be stopped a few kilometres down the road by a Moroccan traffic cop, who is now looking into the back of our vehicle with a torch.
“What is in those bags?” he asks in French.
“Things and stuffs for orphans,” I reply sleepily. “Toys, books, pens …”
“Pens?” interrupts the gendarme suddenly.
Toby and I exchange glances. We know what’s coming, because we’ve been stopped a few times already by the traffic police since leaving Marrakesh what feels like a lifetime ago, although in reality it’s probably about fifteen hours. Toby seems to have a habit of illegally crossing the unbroken centre marking on the highway, where as I appear to be blind to the octagonal red sign with Halt written on it in Arabic. On our return to England, we will jokingly explain to people that Toby is always crossing the line, and I don’t know where to stop. (I guess you had to be there.)
In obedience to his instructions, we climb out and open the back of the van. We haul out one of our kitbags and place it on the sand. The zip catches on the inner seam and it takes a few moments to free it, then we open the bag to reveal the goods within.
The gendarme looks inside at what we are bringing, and seems satisfied that our story is true. He mentions that he has children, and leaves that fact hanging like exhaled breath in the slightly chilly predawn air. We offer him a handful of pens from our stock, and he smiles broadly.
Bidding us take care, he goes back to his car, and we continue driving south under a westering tea-stained moon.
A couple of weeks beforehand, we had come up with the idea of getting some useful stuff together, shipping it out to Africa by plane, then grabbing a van and driving it to an orphanage. We had collected a ton of pens and other stationery items from local high street banks, an accountant, and a variety of other small businesses. Medical supplies, computer equipment and toys make up the rest of the shipment.
The road meets the Atlantic ocean, and we drive on down the coast. This part of the coast is treacherous for shipping, and the beaches are littered with rusting hulks who zigged when they should’ve zagged. Every so often, we see a small shack with fishing rods dangling in the water. There is not much that the land can provide here, so aside from those places where rivers or irrigation systems allow food to grow, the only sustenance comes from the sea.
An orange fuel warning lights up on our dashboard. We’re aiming for a petrol station that is marked on our downloaded roadmap, and we are silently praying that it actually exists, and was not a random figment of the imagination of the person sitting in an office thousands of miles away who created the map.
Fortunately it does, and we are able to top up our tanks. Getting back on the road, we are overtaken at breakneck speed on a blind bend by an ancient Mercedes estate. It flashes past leaving a trail of smoke like the ink from a frightened octopus, and Toby has to touch the brakes to slow down until we can see the road again. Despite the fact that we have been dinged a couple of times by the traffic police, we can completely see why the Moroccan government is desperate to cut down on road fatalities.
Toby has to brake again as wild camels gallop across the road in front of us on the final approach to Layyoune. Why they should choose that particular moment to cross the road when we are the only car for 20 miles is a mystery, and we conclude that they have probably been out in the sun too long.
On arrival in Layyoune, we park up and hit an Internet cafe. We find what we are looking for, and a friendly local gives us roads directions to the city’s combined school and orphanage which lies on the outskirts a few miles distant.
Pulling up outside, we open the doors and start to unload the bags. It’s still quite early in the morning, and the non-residential children are just starting to arrive for the day. A young lad of around 10 years of age notices the kitbag that is still unzipped from our interview with the gendarme, and sees the pens inside. Shyly he approaches, and asks if he can have a pen. We pass over a handful, and his expression is a joy to behold. This is a country where the children are desperate to learn, to better their situation, and who look at pens the same way that children in our country look at the latest Xbox game.
We introduce ourselves to the people running the school, and are received with surprise and delight. They seem slightly unable to believe that a team from far-off England has suddenly descended out of the blue – and are keen to show us around the school.
We meet the children, one of whom asks if we know the band One Direction, and wants to know whether we could get a signed photo from them.
The headmaster shows us the classrooms, and presses us to a glass of the ever-present sweet mint tea. I’m not a big tea drinker at the best of times, and sweet mint tea is definitely an acquired taste. But for the sake of our hosts, I take a sip and smile, indicating that it is very nice.
Soon it’s time to head off. We have a long way to go to get back to the airport in Marrakesh, many hundreds of miles away across the desert. The headmaster shakes us warmly by the hand, and we climb back into the Bipper.
We have made our first delivery. We didn’t really know what to expect, but that’s okay, because neither did the people we were delivering to. Between us, we managed to work it out, and all of the issues and #firstworldproblems that we faced getting here have been made thoroughly worthwhile.
Some miles outside of town, there is a crowd of people gathered round an object by the side of the road. It turns out to be the Mercedes which overtook us, now lying forlornly on its roof. Evidently he also zigged when he should have zagged. Everyone seems to be okay however, and there is a gendarme on the scene, wearily taking a statement from a man who is gesticulating wildly.
As we zip past, I wonder if maybe he’s blaming it on a camel that ran out in front of him.