Operation CORONA – How we escape Morocco

The account of the ascent of the Commodore Hostel from Agadir to Brest, France. The odyssey starts with the awareness of the COVID-19 crisis at the very beginning of a surf trip until the arrival of the bus in Brest, boarding 3 other surfers on the way in addition to the 2 customers newly arrived for a surf trip in Morocco.

– Reading 15 min –

INTRODUCTION

 

I’m sure it has escaped no one’s attention that these are troubled times. What appeared as a distant threat at the beginning of February, rapidly became a reality with circumstances that are hard to fathom: Europe is in lockdown.

At the start of March on the Moroccan coast, I packed up the bus and began my journey back home to Breton, France. Not without pain or stress and certainly not without adventure. Here is the story of the six incredible days that it took The Commodore Hostel to traverse from Morocco to France.

THE SURF TRIP

 

When the hosts arrive and the COVID-19 situation immediately begins.

Usually the seven-day surf trips start and end on a Saturday which allows the customers to join us without taking a day off the previous Friday. But this time I made the mistake of starting the trip on Friday the 13th of March until the 20th. This mistake put me in a sticky situation which was about to evolve very quickly but without it I would have found myself dealing with it all alone.

The days prior to this trip I was alone, parked on a cliff overlooking Killer Point, a few kilometers from Taghazout. The surf conditions are incredible with 2 meters to the series. While I’m on the roof of the bus enjoying the waves, two Italians approached me and came in to visit The Commodore Hostel. They were students stuck in Morocco and told me in broken English:

Anyway the universities are closed and all the flights to Italy are canceled.

This was the first alarm bell going off in my head. But I thought, we are stuck in a pretty great place; the surf is good and the weather can match it.

The bus overlooking the spot of Killer Point, the day before the surf trip.

Killer Point : the break

Friday the 13th

 

Vincent and Vini are the names of my two customers on this trip. A couple had cancelled a few weeks prior because they didn’t get their vacation time approved. Vincent and I have been friends since childhood. We played in the same ping-pong club but then we lost touch when I moved to Paris to continue my studies. It was a great opportunity to see each other again and to go surfing. Vini is a long time friend of Vincent’s.

The pair arrive on Friday around noon. The morning flight has been cancelled but that doesn’t feel too uncommon considering it is the holidays. Nothing to worry about. In Morocco the virus hadn’t even become a topic of conversation yet.

While waiting for the two to arrive, I meet a guy named Tim who has also just landed. I overhear him asking others if they would like to share a taxi. I go find him and offer to drive him to Aouir, 10 kms from Taghazout, which saves him a 25 euros taxi.

After we drop Tim off we park the bus at Banana Beach in front of Café Richie near Aouir. We surf a left hand break which is a very rare occurrence in Morocco.

Friday 21h25, a text from Tim : 

Hi Pierre, it's Tim (from the airport haha) my friends can't come... Morocco has just cut all air and sea lines with France. I don't know how I'm going to get home but in the meantime I'm here and your bus adventure has really connected me ! Would there be room for me from Monday to Thursday? Because Taghazout is nice but I want to see some more of the country 🙂

Have a nice evening

So we will meet up with him on Monday.

Vincent (on the left) and Vini (on the right) on the surf spot Banana Beach
Their return flight has been canceled earlier on Friday.

News from Friday the 13th – “Morocco closes its sea and air routes to Spain, France and Algeria.”

Saturday 14.03

 

Early in the morning, Vincent receives a call from his wife who works with Salaun Holidays, a large French tour operator. She informs him that the COVID-19 crisis is getting rapidly worse and encourages him and Vini to fly back to France as soon as possible. Disgusted both by what seems to be the end of the holidays and by the exorbitant ticket prices, they find a potential emergency flight via Manchester. All direct flights are now cancelled. The backup plan is organised and we were not going to worry too much more, even if we started to see a hint of worry in each other’s eyes. To shake off all the commotion and enjoy the last days of the trip, we decide to head for Imsouane with Tim.

Anchor Point, Taghazout
Hard to rush a start when the spot is on fire

Sunday 15.03

 

From then on everything accelerates. A notification passed, France opens tickets for the repatriation of French citizens back home. Airlines are overwhelmed making it impossible to book any flights. We have our final surf at Anchor Point and in the afternoon we walk to Taghazout with a classic Moroccan winter sunset as our backdrop.

The town seems strangely empty. The king of Morocco has announced the closure of restaurants and cafes from that same evening. A sense of urgency begins to manifest in the air which was confirmed by Macron’s speech ordering the closure of the borders and the confinement for France from Tuesday.

As time passes, we can not believe what we are hearing from all of the news sources. Perhaps we have been naively oblivious to it all, off the social media grid in Morocco. We become glued to our phones and are inundated with updates coming in by the minute from all around the world on the COVID-19 pandemic. The usual night-time chill that fell on Taghazout seems to become more acute. It gets under the skin and radiates to the bone.

When we get back to the bus we begin plotting a plan of action late into the night. I propose to drive everyone back to Brittany. We decide to sleep on it and make a final decision in the morning.

Before bed I send a text message to Tim to update him on our situation:

Tim, there's been a lot of news with France, we're cancelling the trip to Imsouane. The guys are going to see if they can catch a plane tomorrow. It's their last chance to fly back to France and they want to try it. If we stay here we'll have a chance to go to Imsouane afterwards. You can catch the bus later in the morning.
Have a nice evening.
Pierre

Vincent & Vini, Anchor Point, Taghazout
We enjoy the spot one last time.

A STRESSFUL JOURNEY

 

As the bad news keeps rolling in, but the Commodore keeps pushing further north.

Monday 16.03

 

This morning, I decided that I am ready to abandon my own plan to confine myself to Killer Point. I have to get closer to my family and to attempt to flee this situation that was becoming more and more uncertain in Morocco. Today a girl named “Corona” pointed at me, and her parents pulled her by the arm to free her from my circumspect gaze. It may not sound like it, but this was perhaps the most concrete sign that things were going off the rails. I told the guys that I would try to get the bus back up to Brest and cross the border to Spain via Ceuta. The Spanish enclave in Morocco was obviously still open. Tim arrived at noon and decided to join the trip. Problem: Carlos, to whom I promised asylum and whom I didn’t feel like giving up on, was going to take the news head-on. Another problem: I didn’t have his number.

We decided to go around the surf camps of Taghazout in search of Carlos, “Spanish surfer, tall, brown hair with glasses”. The news of COVID 19 must have spread even more overnight as there are even less people around. The first Moroccan I met told me the name of the camp where he was staying. What a fucking stroke of luck. As time was pressing we began to run. We didn’t know how long the border would stay open for. Ceuta was 865 km away and we had to be there the following day to catch the ferry. In the back of my head I knew I was going to be the only one driving this fantastic ride. I could mentally see Ceuta first and then Brest in the distance. The thousands of kilometres. The mastic asphalt. The stress. The tolls. The motorway. I had never been bothered by this idea before, but now it was getting uncomfortable. I tried not to think about it too much and focus on my breath. We arrived in front of the camp entrance where we met another Spaniard, Eric, who immediately said he was keen to drive up north with us. He called Carlos. Within five minutes they had packed their luggage and we were leaving for Agadir airport, where Carlos had left his car.

A quick photo and off we went to Ceuta.

Carlos, Eric, Vincent, Tim, Vini – Agadir aeroport
Carlos got ride of his rental car, the excitement is at the maximum as we have no official information about the situation at the border in Ceuta and the maritime traffic.

2:00 pm: I began the 3200-mile quest to Brest.

Under pressure, I drove faster than usual. I made The Commodore Hostel commit to a good 100km/h instead of the 80km/h I usually give him. He and I usually form a team of senators on the road, sure of our limits. But this time it would be different.

4:00 p.m.: The engine overheats

The bus by the side of the highway, 60 km from Agadir

Mandatory and immediate shutdown. A 5% minimum gradient for more than 20 kilometers has overtaken the bus. All the trucks we proudly overtook not so long ago are now passing us by. We wait ten minutes. We leave again. The stopwatch is still running.

The signal overheats again 15 minutes later.

To needs must: we will finish the trip with the engine hatch open.

5:00 p.m.: Stress.

 

Vincent finally manages to reach the embassy. She strongly advises us to fly back by plane and to forget the idea of going by road. Ok. Too late. We’re on our way. Let’s give it a shot.

“Warning : the spanish borders at Ceuta / Melilla will be closed to night at midnight”
Tweet from the french ambassy in Morocco

6:30 p.m.: Stress.

We’re 600 km from Ceuta, it’s 6:30 p.m. Even at 100km/h we still won’t make it in time. From France, Vincent’s relatives are helping buy plane tickets from Agadir for the next morning. At that moment, it is impossible to envisage crossing Ceuta and going back to Agadir if the borders are closed. We’ve already driven too far. Too bad for the plane. We’re on a losing streak.

At 00:30 a.m, we’re still 260km/h from Ceuta. I’ve been driving 12 hours almost non-stop. Everybody needs a break. So the border crossing will happen the next day. We’re sleeping on a highway layby in Kenitra.

THE END OF OUR JOURNEY

 

Where we cross the borders, drop off the Spanish on the way and get back to Brittany

Tuesday 17.04

We arrive the next day at the border of Ceuta at 12.30 pm. I buy the boat tickets while my friends watch so that no one sneaks in under the bus. This is one of the means used by would-be migrants to try to cross the border.

From a distance and by climbing on the roof of the bus while we are parked, we can see that the passage is being made, slowly but surely. It is hot. Sweaty people are waiting in line in front of an armed customs officer. It’s like a Mad Max scene.

Waiting for the custody to move the barrier to pass the border. The bus is too long to go around it. 

The Commodore Hostel finally crosses the two milestones and the patrol booth signifies the border. We’re in the in-between of Africa and Europe. I open the window and present everyone’s papers. The customs officer smiles:

Do you know there are no more ferries?

We’re betting on some customs humor.

A few meters further on, the Spanish border. The real one this time.

They're crazy on the other side `{`of the Mediterranean`}`. You know they don't give me masks and they don't pay me enough for this job. Go on, go home. Have a nice trip.
Have a nice evening

There you go. All the stress and rushing. The low-paying customs officer. The 900 miles of questions and engine fumes make a customs officer look like a laughing stock, unhappy with his hierarchy.

We’re in Ceuta, but still geographically in Africa. We still have to catch the ferry. And there are many of us who want to go back. Mostly camper vans but the ferries are still going back and forth to bring everyone back. We finally learn that France and Morocco have officially returned in confinement. It is now forbidden to circulate.

We will embark the next day at 7:30.

We will spend the night in this car park while waiting for the Ferry to come.

The speakers The loudspeakers spit non-stop in French, Spanish and Moroccan: “This is a message from the national police. Please respect the distance of safety…” I don’t remember the rest of it.

Wednesday 18.03

 

The rest of the trip continues without too many hurdles. The motorways are empty and no police presence on the side of the road in Spain or France despite all the said traffic bans. The Commodore Hostel draws pink, white and blue lines in the landscape, like an outlaw a little too conspicuous. While stopping in Spain in the parking lot of a supermarket, three police cars, one after the other, fall on us. Somebody reported us for not respecting the rule of the one-metre social distancing. The policemen are super tense and after a few words we are ordered to get back on the bus. Welcome to Spain!

We dropped off Carlos that same evening in Alicante, near Valencia and Eric in Barcelona the next day. We wish them good luck. We thank each other. We leave again, no time to visit the city. What a shame.

The crossing of the French-Spanish border will be done without a problem, under cover of traffic authorizations from the police officers posted there.

Since the arrival on the old continent, I closed the engine hatch and resumed the routine of 80 km per hour. It takes two days to arrive in Nantes where I said goodbye to Vincent and Vini. I left for Brest the following day.

As I pass the Boul Sapin area, I think back with little emotion to the team I left behind. I can only be grateful and thank them. Alone in the bus for my last few kilometers, my confinement can begin.

HEARTFELT THANKS.

 

Thanks to Tim, Eric and Carlos for trusting me to bring them home and for supporting me during the ride up. My most sincere thanks for Vincent & Vini who came to join the Commodore for a surf trip in Morocco and who accompanied and supported me without fail during this trip to France. Without you, no doubt I would still be in Morocco and for a long time.

Written by Pierre Mainguy and Antoine Pallier, correction by Lisa McSherry

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