After finally overcoming our electrical troubles in Spain, it was time to set foot on the African continent, albeit a week behind schedule. This meant that the visits in Morocco and Western Sahara would be somewhat curtailed, and flying days would be long, as we rushed to make up time through the Sahara Desert.
Filing our flight plan before departure:
Roger gave us a lift once again to the main terminal. This time I knew where to go, so it didn't take quite so long to pay our airport fees and then make our way through immigration and security; Menzies aviation were extremely helpful and reasonably priced for handling! They dropped us off at the aircraft where we loaded our bags, by now a fairly well practiced procedure, and then headed into FTE to say our goodbyes. We were permitted to taxi to the runway without the help of a "follow-me" car today, and before long were airborne and headed South.
Coasting out west of Gibraltar:
After just a few minutes, the Southern coast of Spain came into view. We coasted out somewhat to the West of Gibraltar, which was unfortunately hidden behind clouds, and could already see the Moroccan coastline ahead in the distance. We were handed over to Moroccan air traffic control a few miles out over the water, and this is where the fun began. Morocco has a series of VFR routes between airports, with reporting points that were not on any of the charts that we had on board. Searching online reveals no availability of Moroccan VFR charts, or information about these routes. We asked for, and were given, the GPS coordinates of the points for our first leg; there was some initial confusion until we realised they were giving us degrees, minutes, seconds while we though we were being given decimal degrees. Nonetheless, in the end the right coordinates were input for our arrival into Rabat.
Coasting in over the Moroccan coast:
Another quirk of Moroccan ATC (and, it turns out, a lot of ATC further south) is a constant demand for estimated times at reporting points. It's a good idea to have these points in your GPS so you can quickly and easily call up your estimated time to each! We were handed over to Rabat tower some 50 miles or so out, and stayed with them all the way into our parking spot; there is not much use of different frequencies for approach, tower, and ground; probably because there is not very much traffic around. In addition, the use of ATIS frequencies seems to be very sparse south of the Med, with tower generally just reading the weather to you over the radio on request.
The view from final approach into Rabat:
On arrival in Rabat it turned out that because of the delays, our handling agents had given up and headed back to their base; they did not, as we had thought, have any permanent presence in Rabat. They instead arranged for a member of the airport authority to assist us; while helpful, he did not quite know the proper procedures for getting flight crew through the airport. Instead of arranging for us to pass through the crew channel at immigration, we ended up waiting for quite some time in the immigration queue with an entire Airbus full of passengers who'd arrived at the same time, and were left very short of time once we finally got through; there was a lot to do here before heading on South to Essaouira later that afternoon.
First steps on African soil:
Sophia's friend Sanae collected us from the airport. Barriers had been set up 30m or so from the terminal building, and people waiting for arriving passengers were being held back here; they weren't even allowed into the terminal. Apparently this was a new development, and Sanae was unsure what had caused it. After a few false turns (it was more than a year since Sanae had been to the airport, and the city was very badly signposted) we headed into Rabat.
The plan was first to find somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, we failed completely at this because it happened to be the celebration at the end of Ramadan, when absolutely everything was shut down. We managed to find a cafe that was only serving drinks, and then moved onto the most important task, a hospital visit. Sanae took us to the hospital she worked at, which hosted a "Level 3" Ob/Gyn department, which delivered more that 16,000 babies a year. I was presented with a white coat and told to tag along as we toured the department. I really didn't know what to expect, but the rather tired and grimy appearance of the hallways before we even got to the department gave a taster of what was to come.
The grounds at the hospital:
My first thought was how lucky we are in the more developed world. The situation was no doubt worsened by most of the staff being off to celebrate the end of Ramadan, but conditions in the delivery area came across to my untrained eyes as very poor. In the pre-delivery area we saw where women are taken to wait when labour has started, but they are still less than 3cm dilated. Cubicles down each side of the ward each held two single beds, and occasionally up to four women. With a lack of staff around, I got the impression that women who were there for their second or third baby were taking the lead in supporting those who were having their first.
The actual delivery area was a similar ward, with cubicles with a single bed in each running down each side. Many of them had ladies in who had evidently just delivered, but had been left lying exposed without even any attempt to clean them up and make them comfortable. Many beds and floors were soaked through with body fluids from delivery. In one corner a lady was on a stretcher, evidently in great distress; there was no-one looking after her, and it was explained that she was waiting for an emergency operation but the operating theaters were not ready. She reached for our hands as we passed, but no-one gave her a second glance; when working in such an environment one must have to detach ones emotions to be able to work most efficiently and help the most people.
Sophia and Sanae at the hospital:
The visit over, we sped back to the airport for our next flight. With people still being kept far back from the airport by the military and police we were concerned about gaining access again, but in the end we were waved through without a moment's hesitation. After a short wait our handling assistant collected us and took us to pay our airport fees, and then put us into a van that took us across the airport to the military side. Here we received our departure briefing, with instruction given on the waypoints we had to follow leaving Rabat; a great big circle around to the North was mandated to avoid restricted areas such as the Royal Palace. We had elected to fly out to Essaouira, a couple of hours down the coast, so that the following day we could make Dakhla in a single hop; the problem this gave was that Essaouira was not listed on our permit. After some umming and ahhing the military briefer declared that this would be no problem and we were free to go. They were unable to make contact with Essaouira to let them know we were coming, but decided that we should just head that way anyway and divert to Agadir (a large 24 hour airport) if we couldn't contact Essaouira.
In-flight catering courtesy of Sanae:
At last, our flight plan was filed and we were on our way. We had been given the GPS coordinates of the approved VFR route South by the military, so there was no trouble this time with knowing where to go. Once again we were constantly hassled for our estimates for various reporting points, and even ended up at one point in concurrent contact with two different controllers who were asking for different, but similar, things. Once we were further South from Rabat, however, things became quieter and we were handed off to Essaouira tower, who turned out to be open, an hour before we got there.
The countryside south of Rabat:
Crossing a brand new highway as we approach Essaouira:
Villas outside of Essaouira:
The airport was open, but devoid of passengers; we breezed through security and immigration, and into a taxi. We were taken to a hotel in the center of the town, which had turned out to be something of a Moroccan version of Blackpool. After a hot, sunny arrival at the airport it was strange to find the town just a few miles away to be cold, windy and foggy; being a few miles closer to the coast can make all the difference. The hotel was fantastic, and just what we needed after such a long day; we ate Moroccan tagine there and worked on our plans for the following day.
The hotel we found in Essaouira:
The dining room, home of amazing tagine:
At last, we were inching our way down the African continent!