We were up early ate the last of our Quaker Oats porridge for breakfast, which felt pretty depressing! We packed up and went into town to change the last of our dirhams into French Francs and to buy supplies for the first couple of days in Algeria. We sat in a café to write a few postcards before heading back to our bikes at the camp site where we changed into our trousers, mindful to the expectation that shorts were not acceptable attire in our next country.
We said goodbye to the Swiss bikers and moved off, shooting down to the border which was 3 kms away. We arrived and were promptly told that we had to get our passports stamped by the police back in the station in Figuig. Also, Dan’s front rack had broken at the bolt holding it to the frame. We pushed the bikes a little way off the road, feeling pretty pissed off.
Dan got his tools out and started to mend his rack. Just then, an English Land Rover came past. I waved and stuck out my thumb for a lift. They too had been turned back. There were two women and a man.
“Any chance of a lift?” I asked.
“Sure. Hop in” replied the female driver.
I squeezed into their Land Rover and was whisked away back to Figuig with our passports, leaving Dan to sort out his bike.
It turned out that the man was Australian. They too were heading for South Africa or as far south as they could manage. They were probably in their early fifties. We drove up to the Gendarmerie and filled out some forms before they stamped our passports.
We headed back and they dropped me off next to Dan after giving me an aniseed ball sweet (which was a treat since not having had much in the way of ‘home food’ in three months. I thanked them for the lift and wished them well for their journey. They had turned a bad situation into a good one and saved us a lot of effort.
Dan had fixed his rack and we soon drew up to the Moroccan border barrier. To the right were the tents where the police and customs men sat looking very officious. We were asked a couple of questions by the police and were sent to the customs man who was across the road arguing with some Algerians.
We patiently stood close by. The three in the Land Rover who had given me the lift were still at the barrier. The customs man soon finished arguing with the Algerians and turned to us, asked some questions, and stamped our passports before letting us go.
We were now in ‘No Man’s Land’ and made our way to the Algerian police. They waved us in to their side of the border. We parked our bikes and were handed some forms to fill in. I was feeling nervous, for some reason. They were prying, asking many questions, questioning and searching us. I had heard stories about the Algerian border police in the guidebooks I had read.
We chatted to the policemen, one of whom was quite friendly and asked where we were heading for. The other policeman was a little more devious and authoritarian (Good cop, bad cop!). Outside, the three in the Land Rover turned and were going through the same process as us.
The devious policeman went outside and told the Australian man there was a mistake on his visa and that they would have to wait a long time to sort it out unless they made it worth his while to fix it. Their desire to be bribed was totally unashamed. The three of them look pretty fed up but they were not going to give him anything.
The same policeman called me into his office and, with a ratty smile, asked me if we had any dirhams. I told him that we had spent our last dirhams on Mars Bars. This was his signal that we were to have our bags searched.
A different policeman was to search our bags. We had to empty out all of our panniers and place the kit on the dusty, windswept ground. The Land Rover was getting searched too. They found nothing they wanted and, after half an hour or so we were allowed to pack our now dusty clothes and equipment back into our bags.
Eventually, we were given our passports back and went to the customs man. Here, we declared all of our currency, except for some francs and dollars we had hidden away for emergencies, and our valuables and bikes.
We checked it carefully and then went over to a customs man who flicked through our travellers cheques like a deck of cards, pretending to count them. He stamped our passports and then came outside to ‘search’ the bikes. He looked at Dan’s bike and took his pump off and sniffed the air coming out of it as he pumped it. He then looked into our water bottles (one of which he forced the cap back on without screwing it on almost ruining it). He then looked into a few other nooks and crannies of our panniers looking for, perhaps, drugs or bottles of whisky.
It was all rather unprofessional and pathetic. The wind was still whipping up dust in great gusts. We were told we could go. Without hesitation, we pushed off and headed for the gate but were stopped by another policeman before we could get there.
“Passportes”, he demanded.
We handed them over. He quickly told us that we had to go back and change the ‘obligatory’ amount of money. I said we didn’t want to do that and that we wanted to change it in Bechar, the first town we would come to on our route into Algeria.
Suddenly, he looked confused and angry. “You have to!” he shouted. He called someone else over who looked just as confused and angry.
“It is the law. It is obligatory. You must change money here”, stated the new addition to the official party.
I thought like saying ‘Oh, yeah! Let’s see the rule book, then!’ but thought the better of it. We relented and changed £70 at a bad rate and, at last, moved off.
Despite the hassle we had received from individuals in Morocco, we had experienced very little in the way of trouble from the authorities. So far, our experience of Algerian authority was one of reluctant bureaucracy, deliberate hold-ups and overt corruption.
To make things worse, we had seen some other European groups going through the border crossing and making no bones about handing over bottles of whisky to the border officials. Because we had not bribed our way across the border, we had been given a hard time. It had taken us a few hours to travel a few metres across the border.
Nevertheless, the wind was with us as we cycled along the road towards Beni-Ounif, before turning off to Bechar. The change of direction now gave us the wind on our flank which made progress slow, at first.
Soon, the English Land Rover folks came past hooting and waving. We waved back and they disappeared into the dusk. Not long after, we pulled over and headed for a bush we could see to camp behind for the night.
As we came nearer to the bush, we realised that it was not a bush but a large, tangled pile of barbed wire. We, then, noticed that there was a long line of these piles of wire which stretched into the distance along the border. This was a sign of past strain in relations between Algeria and Morocco.
We pushed the bikes up and over a small crest on a large, flat, stony piece of ground where we stopped and leant the bikes up against a pile of rocks and set up camp. We cooked up by candlelight (one of the frilly candles given to us by Rachida in Fez) in the chilly night.
I was very glad to be out of Morocco and into Algeria, despite the border hassle. It meant so much after the trouble getting our visas and getting through the illnesses. I fell asleep quickly.
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family, works in a technology company in London and does as many micro-adventures as he can.
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