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Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

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Morocco's Pirate Realm

Relocate from a cramped East End flat to a haunted mansion, in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown, and you can’t help but slip into the Moroccan Twilight Zone. It’s a world conjured straight from a child’s imagination – a realm of Jinn and exorcists, of dazzling colours, exotic foods, and unending possibility.

During our several years here, we have descended down through the interleaving layers of Moroccan society to its very bedrock. In that time I have become preoccupied with the Morocco that tourists rarely glimpse, the one that lies just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered by anyone ready to receive it.

            Every day Europe’s budget airlines ferry tourists back and forth, depositing them at the gates of a few key Moroccan cities – Marrakech, Agadir and Fès. Yet, the rest of the kingdom is left largely alone. So, stray a little off the beaten track, and the rewards can be immediate and quite extraordinary. And, as often happens in Morocco, the greatest treasures are where you expect them least of all.

I was reminded of this recently when my daughter, Ariane, came home and begged me to help with her pirate project. She’s obsessed with Johnny Depp, and imagines all pirates to be bumbling caricatures, rather than the ruthless killers of today’s African Horn.

Googling ‘Morocco Pirates’, she began a treasure trail which led right from our own door.

An hour’s drive up the coast from Casablanca is the capital, Rabat. It’s rather staid – orderly traffic, clipped hedges, and droves of diplomats. Across from it, nestled up on the windswept Atlantic shore is the small town of Salé. Most Rabatis like to stick their noses up at their down-at-heel neighbour. They regard it as sordid, squalid, a complete waste of time. I had bought in to the whole Salé-bashing syndrome, and found myself snarling at the mere mention of the name.

But Ariane insisted I’d got it all wrong.

She told a tale of a pirate realm worthy of Jack Sparrow himself, one where Robinson Crusoe had been taken as a slave. For eight centuries, she said, Salé had been a world centre of looting, pillaging, and of white slavery. The frenzied debauchery had reached its height in the 1600s, under the greatest marauder in the Barbary history, the infamous Jan Janszoon.

A Dutch freebooter, and former Christian slave himself, Janszoon made himself overlord of a pirate republic based at Salé. He waylaid many hundreds of ships across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, possibly extending as far as Iceland and the Americas. In true pirate tradition, he sired countless children. His descendents are said to embrace a Who’s Who of celebrity, including the Marquis of Blandford, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie O.

Intrigued by this curious fragment of international pirate trivia, I bundled Ariane into the car and sped north.

Soon we spied the skyline of Rabat, all proud and stately as a capital city should be. Across the estuary, the syrupy yellow light of late afternoon gave a glow to the ancient walls of what was once the pirate realm – the Republic of Salé.

Even from a distance there was something bleak and piratic about it.

Gnarled volcanic rocks, breakers, wine-dark sea, and walls right out of Treasure Island. Approaching from along the coast, we found ourselves at an immense and ancient burial ground – tens of thousands of graves packed tight together, the head-stones lost in each other’s shadows.

Unable to resist, we strolled slowly between the graves, the chill Atlantic wind ripping in our ears. Ariane said she could imagine the pirates sleeping there, cuddled up with their secrets and their treasure maps.

In the middle of the graveyard a fisherman was crouching with a long slim rod, and an empty paint can filled with fish heads. He was surrounded by cats. When I asked him about pirates he narrowed his eyes, nodded once, and pointed to a low fortress at the edge of the cemetery.

We went over to it.

Crafted from honey-yellow stone, the Sqala, as it’s known in Arabic, was built into the crenellated sea wall, rusted iron cannons still trained on the horizon. A policeman was standing outside. He had a weather-worn face, watery eyes, and a big toothy grin. Ariane asked him about pirates. Before we knew it, we’d been ushered inside.

He led the way through a cool stone passage and out onto a rounded terrace, bathed in blinding yellow light. There was something magical about it, as if it was so real that it was fake, like a Hollywood set. The cannons there were bronze, lizard-green with verdigris, each one bearing a different crest.

‘They were obviously captured by pirates,’ said Ariane knowledgeably. ‘If they weren’t, the crests would all be the same.’

 Staring out to where the water joined the sky, the policeman suddenly recited a poem about unrequited love. He said there was no better place in all the world to compose poetry than right there, and that poetry was his true love.

I asked if he’d ever heard of Jan Janszoon. He cocked his face to the ground beneath his feet.

‘The dungeon,’ he said grimly.

We went down jagged steps, along a vaulted corridor bored out from the stone, lit by shafts of natural light. Home to nests of stray cats, it was damp and smelled of death. The officer showed us a truly miserable cell which looked as though it had been quite recently used. His grin subsiding, he explained that the last prisoner had been forgotten, and had starved to death.

‘Was it the famous corsair, Jan Janszoon?’ I asked.

The policeman shook his head.

‘For him, you must go to the old city,’ he said.

After sweet mint tea, and yet more poetry, we escaped with directions scribbled in Arabic, directions to the home of Jan Janszoon lost in the maze of the old city.

After six years in Morocco, I am no stranger to walled medinas, and have traipsed through dozens of them – often searching for a cryptic address. In that time I’ve learned to be thick-skinned when approached by hustlers laden with tourist wares.

Slipping through the Bab Malka Gate, we prepared ourselves for the usual onslaught of salesmen and mendicants. But it didn’t come. Instead, the silence was so pronounced that we could hear the children playing marbles in the labyrinth of lanes. Without waiting for us to ask, one of them led the way to the great mosque.

Built in the glorious twelfth century Almohad style, its one of the greatest treasures in the kingdom, and one of the least known. The boy said there were seven doors, one for each day of the week.

Twisting and turning our way down the whitewashed lanes, we found a time-capsule of Moroccan life from a century ago. There were vegetables piled high on carts, and chunks of fresh mutton laid out on fragrant beds of mint; tailors busily sewing kaftans, mattress-makers and carpenters, brocade-sellers, and dyers hanging skeins of wool in the sun. And, rather than any tourists or tourist kitsch, there were local people out shopping, bargaining for underpants and melons, pumpkins, wedding robes, and socks.

When Ariane showed the scribbled directions to the marble-playing boy, he led us to a spacious square, the Souq el Gazelle, the Wool Market. It was packed with people buying and selling used clothes and brightly-coloured wool. The boy said it was where slaves had once been sold, having been dragged ashore from captured ships.

Nudging a thumb to the directions, I asked about the home of Jan Janszoon.

The boy beckoned us to follow him.

Winding our way through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, the air pungent with kebab smoke and baking macaroons, we reached the crumbling façade of a building. Once plastered, the dressed stone was exposed, ravaged by the elements. A fig tree had taken hold and was growing out from the side, and the studded wooden door was falling to bits. The boy glanced at the scribbled directions and gave a thumb’s up.

Ariane and I stood there in awe. We were on hallowed ground after all – at the home of the greatest pirate in Barbary history, the progenitor of Jackie O no less.

As the muezzin called the prayer, his voice singing out over the tiled rooftops of old Salé, I whispered thanks to Jan Janszoon and to his band of marauding corsairs. Through a special conjury of Moroccan magic, the Dutch-born freebooter had lured us through a keyhole into his own pirate realm, the Moroccan Twilight Zone, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.


Recognising the End

Every journey has an end. As the expedition leader, it’s your responsibility to decide when to call the team together and to give the order to retrace the steps, and venture back to the starting point. The obvious time for return is when you have come upon your goal — when you’ve found the lost city and had a good look around. But, as is so often the case, the goal tends to slip away. And what of it? To me, the goal is so important because it’s the magnet that pulls you forward, the beacon of hope… but at the same time it’s without much meaning within itself. Sure, it would be amazing to find the ruins, or whatever you’re searching for, but it’s equally valuable to have endured the unendurable for so long, and to have been part of the team. When you eventually get back to the base camp, have a feast prepared with remaining food. Then divide up equipment and hand as much of it away to the men as you can. Remember, if they live on the periphery of the jungle, they’re far more likely to have use for it than you. And, taking just the bare essentials, you can slip back into the world you came from… disappear with your memories, and start thinking of another expedition.



Rain, more rain, intestinal worms, dengue fever, sores, scurvy, fatigue: it all spells one thing… plunging  levels of morale. Once morale has dipped below optimal levels it’s very hard to drag back up. The worst problem is a sense that the expedition is going nowhere and that, as leader, you are forcing the team on towards unknown perils for no reason at all. As I have said previously, a good way to counter low morale is hot food and plenty of it. Another way is to have a football, or rest days, or an unexpected party. It’s true that parties and the jungle don’t go hand in hand particularly well… but you can stash some sugary food and party hats (and aguardiente of course) in a sealed bag before leaving. There’s another trick that I usually resort to at some point. Anyone who has read my books may have guessed. I take a crystalline white powder and sprinkle it on the tongues of the men in the most miserable conditions — when they’re all down with fever and general lethargy, or when the rain hasn’t stopped for weeks. They drool at the taste of it, and get a feeling that they’ve eaten a delicious meal even when they’ve not. The powder is Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG).  It works every time.


Cannibalising Stuff

Do you remember a few days ago I was ranting on why you should avoid all that stuff from fancy expedition shops? Well, it’s because that you’re in the jungle, you may have to start ripping stuff up, turning it into other stuff. You’ll soon see that you miscalculated with equipment and your own personal kit… that you left behind valuable things which would make life easier. But use your ingenuity. It’s much easier than you imagine to make stuff. Think of it like a battleship that’s out at sea… they learn to ‘refit at sea’. That means to make do with everything they have with them. We have all become very spoiled with equipment and general possessions. Whereas our forefathers knew that things had to be crafted from constituent parts, we have got so lazy we can’t imagine making anything that isn’t sold in the form we require. Again, it’s worth remembering to take lots of constituent parts along — twine, plastic sheeting, needles, tar, strong glue and so one. You can make just about anything from that stuff.


Living off the Land

In the movies, the jungle expedition always gains plenty of food from hunting, fishing, and gathering wild berries. Well, in reality that doesn’t work so well. One problem is that it’s very very time-consuming… and if the team have been carrying 30 kilos each all day, or have been hauling rafts up river, they are too tired to hunt or gather berries. It does work to have one or two designated  hunters, who love to try their luck at night. And you will need at least one 20-gauge shotgun for this with ammo. You can cut down chonta palms for ‘heart of palm’ but it’s not very nutritious. Beware though of scurvy, which sets in much sooner than you might imagine. You must search for sources of natural vitamin C for this, and there are plenty, as such small quantities are needed. I have always found that you must take food with you, otherwise you proceed with crippling slowness. Or, if possible, get a couple of local Indians working with you, and they will have a good chance at hunting, or at least fishing with bow and arrows.


Rafts and Zodiacs

I’ve taken a lot of rubber boats into the jungle. A well-known brand ifs the French Zodiac. They have advantages, namely that you can take them out of the water and carry them easily over land. They work pretty well over rapids too. The disadvantage is that they get holes, especially when you are dragging them up rapids, something which tends to be done frequently depending on the height of the water line. I’m a huge fan in building rafts, and have found that anyone living near a jungle knows almost instinctively how to do it. You find a grove of balsa trees, fell a few of them (always leaving many trees). While some of the guys strip the bark into strands for the lashing, others make chonta-palm nails. You can use river-stones as hammers, and knock together five or six tree trunks (about 10 inches in diameter), tapering the ends. A team of four men can make a raft in about 45 minutes. The huge advantage is that they can be slipped up rapids with enormous ease, they can also be used as windbreaks and seating, and can even be abandonned when necessary.


Setting up the Camp

As I said yesterday, it’s good to give each man a chore. The most important is cook, and the cook should be compensated in other ways. He can be given one or two assistants who help preparing food, boiling water, washing up and all that. Usually one man will volunteer to cook, and the rest of the group will either support or refuse him. I’ve always been lucky to have good guys cooking, and nothing is so important as hot plentiful food. Give others the duty of setting up the tent etc. On most jungle journeys I have arranged all the men and myself sleep under a single canopy. We don’t take tents as they tend to isolate the men. I have found it’s better to set up a kind of football goal structure, and drape a long tarpaulin over it, tethered at an angle either end. The fire is also important, and the natural place where people accumulate. Most of all, it’s key to have the supplies arranged neatly in the camp, and accounted for before you move on.


Camp Life

Spend weeks of months in the jungle, and camp life is something which is important in keeping morale high. You can’t ever expect the men to be fuelled with the zeal that stirs you, but you do need them to be on your side. Give specific men chores, but hold regular leisure activities. It was a good idea to buy a football, for instance, before leaving the town. Football helps the men to relax and to bond. It’s all about having fun. I’m a believer in giving small amounts of fire water each night, as well. It’s a perk which can later be removed if necessary. I understand completely why the navy always gave each man a nip of whisky. It’s something they look forward beyond all else.



I could go on for days about the highs and lows of leadership, and the qualities necessary for the job. Something I have noticed as being especially important is to have some form of continuity and a strong chain of command. After numerous jungle journeys I have come to understand why the military is how it is. Every man answers to the one above him, and the officers give orders even without consulting others. The advantage of one man making the decisions is leadership continuity. By this I mean that even if the leader makes a less than perfect decision, against a backdrop of his other decisions, the general direction remains correct. From my point of view, the most important thing is to lead from the front. I would never, ever ask someone to do something which I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I’m always there, at the front, trying to set an example, pitching-in… and I’ll never eat until my team has eaten all they can. They go first, always.