Monday, October 3, 2011

The Road to Morocco

    We were looking for a spring orienteering trip and weren’t having much luck. Last year, we travelled to Portugal and Spain with Sun-O and had a great orienteering adventure. There were a lot of positives to doing a similar trip this year. Interesting terrain, different culture and history, excellent weather, small field (by European standards – only about 1000 participants), and few North Americans. Plus, many of the European teams were there for spring training camp so the elite races were quite competitive. In our hotel alone were the Swiss and Norwegian national teams. Despite all these positives, we felt a bit of “been there, done that.”
    Until we noticed that Sun-O now offered an option to add a side trip to Morocco for a few days of orienteering and sightseeing. It was advertised as the first multiday event ever in Morocco and likely to be the first event there of any kind other than one urban sprint.
    Almost before we knew it, we were on a plane to Madrid and then into the rental car for the long drive to the Portuguese coast and the town of Figueira Da Foz (200kms north of Lisbon) for the Portugal Orienteering Meeting (POM). The exact dates for POM vary from year to year and this year it was held several weeks earlier than last year.
    This year, POM was a bit disappointing. The weather turned cold and damp and the terrain was not as interesting (coastal pine forest similar to the New Jersey Pine Barrens or Florida with sandy soil, lack of complex contour and rock features with an extensive trail network). Despite this, the courses were well designed and challenging and included four days of main events, two models, a night urban sprint, and a Trail O. The WRE on Day 2 was hotly contested and won by Thierry Gueorgiou (France) and Simone Niggli (Switzerland).
    A few days of sightseeing and then we headed 200kms inland to the Norte Alentejo town of Crato for the second WRE called Norte Alentejo Orienteering Meeting (NAOM). A model, middle, sprint, and long courses were high quality events on much more interesting and challenging terrain (very detailed, flat and rocky) and the weather was slightly better. The winners of the WRE events were Olav Lundanes (Norway) and Helena Jansson (Sweden).
    After the event on Sunday, a long 6 hour drive led us to the southeastern coast of Spain for a few days of training in Andalucia. The tour organizer (Sun-O) set out streamers in the woods for self-paced training on several maps of the national park in the area. In addition to the solid orienteering terrain, the hotel was on the training maps and we were only 200 meters from the beach. Too bad the weather did not lend itself to sunbathing or swimming!

And finally off to Morocco
    Up before dawn on Wednesday for the 1½ hour drive to Algeciras for the “fast ferry” to Ceuta on the North African coast where we met our travel companions for the next part of the trip. The only other North Americans were Margaret and Brian Ellis from Canada. The remainder of the group were half from Spain and the rest from northern Europe.
    The ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar was picturesque with the Rock of Gibraltar serving as backdrop as we sailed away from Europe towards Africa. The ride was about an hour and then we stepped onto African soil. Or did we? Yes, we were on the African continent, but still in Spain. The town in which we landed was the Autonomous City of Ceuta, a small remnant of colonialism which remains Spanish territory (much to the chagrin of Moroccans). Even though it is on the African continent, the Euro is the official currency, Spanish is the official language (although French and Arabic are widely spoken), the houses are whitewashed, and there is no official border crossing. In this way, it is similar to Gibraltar (which is British territory located in Spain).
    And, where were the sand dunes with camels?  This part of Morocco is quite steep and forested with a mild, Mediterranean subtropical climate with a decent amount of rainfall. Not one shifting sand dune to be seen.
    We boarded our bus for the tortuous ride to a small national park in the nearby mountains. As the bus climbed high above the port, we spotted controls in the woods. The Moroccan tour guide chattered on in English and then Spanish about the city below us on our right, but all eyes were glued to the hillside on our left as we yelled, ‘There’s another one in that steep reentrant!” We knew we were getting close to making history by being the first people to orienteer in the North  African forests. We disembarked at a pull out on the side of the road (complete with restaurant and spectacular views of the city and the Mediterranean), changed into O gear, and hiked to the start on Mirador de Isabel II.  The course was a Motola, with four map exchanges (map and photos on page 27).
    A quick recovery and change of clothes and we were on our way back to town for lunch and a few hours of self-guided sightseeing (we spent our time mostly visiting a fort and then napping on a bench in front of a shrine of some sort). The bus then maneuvered its way through the town of Ceuta and then the start of our journey south to the town of Chefchaouen (founded in 1471, situated in the Rif Mountains, known for its blue-rinsed houses and buildings).
    But first, we had the border crossing to deal with. Because Ceuta is EU territory, but located in Africa, it is a focal point for illegal entry and security is tight on both sides of the border. Two 30-foot high patrolled barbed wire fences made the area seem more akin to the DMZ. We were sternly told, “no photos allowed”.
    Our Moroccan tour guide collected all our passports, tossed them in a plastic shopping bag, and casually strolled over to the guard house to have them stamped.  About 40 minutes later he returned, distributed all the passports, and we were ready for Morocco. Except me. I did not get my passport back. A few tense moments while the guide searched. We were the only US citizens. Did they want my passport? All kinds of crazy thoughts race through your head at times like this. But, alas, the guide had just decided it would be fun to play around for a bit. Finally, he “found” my passport, laughed, and we were ready for Morocco. This time the bus moved forward, all of us filled with anticipation.
    Arriving in Chefchaouen after dark, exhausted, we checked into our hotel. We opted to stay in a traditional Riad, steps from the main square in Chefchaouen’s tiny medina or old city. The other option was a modern European style hotel just outside the medina. The main redeeming quality of the European hotel was that it was the only place to purchase alcohol in the entire village. A real dilemma for us, but we opted for tradition, deciding we could always go to the bar at the other hotel (we never did because the bar was filled with tourists, all smoking heavily).
    After settling into our room, we joined our traveling companions for a traditional Moroccan dinner (tajine, a vegetable stew with chicken, couscous and harira, an interesting tomato based soup), and then off to bed for an early start the next day.
    No alarm clock needed in Morocco as the call to prayers assured that we arose before dawn each day. But, the early awakening did give the opportunity to explore our unique lodging and the surrounding area.
    Chefchaouen’s medina featured a labyrinth of Byzantine passageways and dead end streets, too narrow for any vehicles with four wheels to travel. This was the venue for the morning event, a sprint/middle in and around the medina and it proved to be the highlight of the trip.
    We have done urban sprints in Europe, but this added another dimension with the intricate nature of the streets. Also, fifty or so Europeans in orienteering kit running through the medina proved quite a contrast to the residents in their traditional garb. But, the locals were curious and very friendly, with many of the children directing us to the controls and even offering to take our punch cards and run ahead to punch for us. Perhaps some orienteers for the future…
    In the afternoon, we were led on a guided walking tour of the medina (including the areas through which we had just orienteered) and a demonstration of traditional rug weaving. But, we were not done orienteering just yet. Event 2 was held on more traditional, but very steep, orienteering terrain outside the city and finished once again in the medina. 
    Our last night in Morocco began with another traditional dinner at the hotel. This was followed by awards and several presentations, including one by the local tourism board about preserving traditional Moroccan culture and how orienteering tourism could fit right in.
    Once again we collapsed into our bed ready for an early start the next day. The highlight of our last day was a sightseeing tour of the city of Tetouan and a lunch at a restaurant which included traditional (we called it touristy) Moroccan dancing and music.
    The brutal bus ride back to Ceuta through this mountainous area provided the opportunity to reflect on this unique experience. Orienteering in Morocco is still in its infancy and we were the “guinea pigs” to help Sun-O determine whether to expand this option. Even though there are currently only a few small maps, the combination of the culture and the orienteering proved an intriguing mix. The main topic of conversation on the bus was looking out the window at the terrain and debating whether it would be suitable for mapping – a clear indication that everyone seemed to give the trip a thumbs up!
    We concluded our trip with another WRE weekend event (model, middle, sprint, long) in Ronda, Spain. Ronda is best known for the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), completed in 1751, which dramatically transverses the 98m El Tajo gorge below and is still in use today.
    Finally back to Madrid and a few days of sightseeing before returning home.
    All in all, the trip provided an excellent mix of culture and orienteering. We didn’t tally up the events, but during the three weeks we could have probably done a different orienteering event every day (two on some days) if you included the models and the trainings. We can recommend it to anyone looking for intense orienteering training with an option to experience the cultural history of this part of the world – true orienteering tourism.

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