GUEST BLOG: Life on the Road during Covid-19 – Part 1

A postcard from the road. Morocco under lockdown and all that jazz – from Sam ‘Van Dweller’

Sam ‘Van Dweller’ has been a blogger, musician and traveller for a few decades now. We first met her back in the mists of time at Endorse It In Dorset, and we have been bumping into her at festivals up and down this green and pleasant land ever since.

For the last few years she has been spending a lot of time in her van on the roads of Europe with her current musical project, ‘The Undying Heads’. Needless today the current international lockdown is presenting them with a few challenges, with them being stuck in Morocco.

So what does any good blogger do when in a position like this? Blog about it of course – so here is Sam’s postcard from the edge, in all its unedited glory.

 Life on the Road during Covid-19 – Part 1

I’ve lived in vehicles for the past ten years, for the twenty years before that I’d had links to the New Traveller scene through friends, festivals and raves.

In this thirty years I’ve seen this lifestyle become trendy, become criminalised, become unpopular and become trendy all over again with a new wave of travellers that call themselves ‘van-lifers’, as well as far more retirees in motorhomes, some worth in excess of £100,000.

This article is about my personal experience during the Coronavirus crisis and about how the wider New Travellers, Van-lifers and Motor-homers reacted to it and are coping with it, it is not about gypsies as I have no links personally to that way of life or its people.

In the last decade there has been a sharp rise in people living on wheels again, some of these people would identify as New Travellers but there are a huge amount of people now identifying as Van-lifers as well as a massive increase in Motor-homers, the retired Northern European sun seekers who spend the winter months in motorhomes in the South of Europe and North Africa. Some of these people live in their campervans or motorhomes permanently, and so have no other place to live. A lot of this group call themselves ‘full-timers’.

In the ten years I have lived on the road I have spent a lot of time travelling in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. I have travelled and explored but have also spent long periods of time parked in one place, on various illegal traveller sites and at times on friends land.

Planned route

My partner and I had been planning for the last few months a trip to Morocco and in mid-February 2020 we, and some of our friends also in vans took the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier Med port to explore the country. We were a mixed group, some of us New Travellers, some of us Van-lifers and some of us Motor-homers.

I had been working in the UK in the last two weeks of January and like everyone else had heard the reports of Coronavirus in Wuhan and how it was spreading through China. In the first two weeks of February we heard the news of a few cases outside of China and the infected people on the Diamond Princess Cruise ship. As it got closer to our day of departure cases were increasing but it seemed like something happening elsewhere, something that was unlikely to affect us.

With hindsight it is easy to say that we shouldn’t have travelled, it is easy to point the finger at the authorities and say we should have been told not to travel. It’s easy to say borders should have been shut by then, movement of people should have been curtailed by then but we didn’t have that benefit. We, like many other travellers and holidaymakers didn’t want to abandon our plans for something that was probably being blown out of proportion by the media and that probably was no worse than the flu.

On the 20th of February we took our ferry and drove to the lovely town of Asilah in Northern Morocco, where we spent a couple of days before heading on down the coast. We didn’t all stay in one big group, we split off into different groups depending on who wanted to see or do what. We met up with some of our fellow travellers at various points. Some of us came for the sun, some for the surf, some to make travel blogs, we came to explore, to embrace the culture, to sample local food and to hopefully pick up some Arabic.

In the queue at Algeciras waiting to board the ferry to Morocco

By the end of February there was more Covid-19 cases around the world but it still seemed like most of the cases were a long way away and although there were some other countries with multiple cases it seemed a lot of the other countries had just one or two cases. We, along with many others still believed we would be fine, that we would be able to continue on our trip and that we wouldn’t be affected.

As we entered March things started to get more serious. On the 2nd Morocco reported its first case of the virus, a man who had flown in from Italy. Then on the 4th of March the Moroccan government banned large gatherings of people. This included the Nomad Festival on the edge of the Sahara that we were heading to. On the 10th Morocco reported its first death from Covid-19, an elderly woman who had been the second reported case a few days before. By the 11th March there was five cases, flights had been suspended to Milan and Venice and Morocco suspended all ferries to Italy.

first stop, the beautiful town of Asilah

Also on the 11th March the advice from the head of government in Morocco was to avoid over reacting and not to panic. We hadn’t heard any advice from our respective countries at this point, in our group were people from the UK, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden. We had travelled down a lot of the coast and had made our way inland to a Southern town in the Anti-Atlas Mountains called Tafraoute. It was here we had planned to get some work done on our van as my partner had been before and seen lots of campervans getting work done. So on the same day as being told not to over-react we did just that, got on with life and organised the work on our van.

The next day work started on our van and for the next five days we were parked at the garage with some other people in vans also getting work done. Every day there was a new development in the pandemic sweeping the world, ferries and flights between Morocco and Spain got suspended and schools got shut. More and more flights got suspended until it was all international flights. On the last day we were at the garage the government ordered the closure of all mosques, cafes, restaurants, hammams, gyms and clubs.

Getting van doors made in Tafraoute

It was a strange evening that day as cafes and restaurants started to shut. As anyone who has ever visited Morocco knows there is a massive café culture here, with the daily drinking of some mint tea while watching the world go by almost obligatory! There was still lots of people about but there was an air of uncertainty now among locals and tourists alike.

A meal with friends before going seperate ways

The embassies in Morocco started to advise holiday makers to get home and were giving details of repatriation flights. The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) were also starting to advise tourists to return to their home country. Ferries were still running to mainland Europe from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the Northern Morocco coast and so some people in campervans and motorhomes decided to go back to Europe.

Rumours were going round on social media that Morocco were going to go into lockdown sooner rather than later. The official line from the government was that they had implemented phase one of the fight against the virus and they would not implement phase two until there was 500 cases of covid-19 in the country. There were also rumours on social media that locals were getting wary of Europeans and some tourists had suffered verbal abuse. Despite this everyone in our group, who were scattered all over the South of the country were more than happy to stay until it was all over.

We decided that as the advice from the FCO to leave, was to holiday makers and short-term travellers that we did not really fit into that category. We intended to be in Morocco for the three months of our visa as so thought of ourselves as long-term travellers. We don’t have a house to go back to as our van is our home so why drive hundreds of miles risking spreading the virus to go and live in our van somewhere else? Added to that where would we even go, I am officially a UK resident but with no actual home there and my partner is officially an Irish resident in the same situation.

Some of our group were in a village on the coast, we had visited the same village a couple of weeks earlier and liked the place. They offered that we could come and park up there with them until the ferries were back to normal. It was outside a hostel that had shut due to the virus but we could have use of the facilities there, toilet, shower and WiFi for a very reasonable price.

A market just before lockdown

On the 18th March we drove six hours to get to Imsouane, the village some of our friends were already parked at. The day before some of our other friends had made a seemingly sudden decision to leave Morocco and the next day some more of them made that same decision. It was a hard choice and not one that anyone really had time to think through. Rumours were now rife about border closures, lack of ferries, campsites possibly not allowing new patrons and an increase in abuse towards tourists from locals.

What was really lacking and still is at the time of writing is specific advice for long-term travellers in campervans and especially those where their van is their only home. I understand the advice to tourists staying in hotels, guesthouses and other short-term accommodation that have taken a flight to another country to get back to their home country and their normal home. What I was not understanding is on the one hand the advice is to stay in one place and avoid all unnecessary contact but on the other hand there were thousands of campervans driving across North Africa and some of the worst hit countries in Europe, why?

The final journey for a while, driving to Imsouane

There are many reasons that I can see from friends and from reading about different experiences of people in campervans online. Firstly, no clear and concise advice from any government specific to our situation. Secondly, the people who have a house and so are not living in their campervans full-time only see themselves as short-term travellers and so felt the best place for them was to be back at home with more space and more home comforts. Thirdly, rumours with little basis for truth on social media were a very good way of making people panic. Stories of cases of the virus in certain towns, internal travel bans, ferries stopping, campsites shutting and of people being threatened with violence from locals all fed a sense of fear that was rising in some people. This seemed to pray on the minds of some of my friends and I even heard someone say they were worried that if food ran out what locals would do to us as tourists.

While some of these stories became fact they were all rumours on social media days before they happened. Morocco have been very strict on tackling any fake news appearing in the country via social media and one such piece was the reports of two cases of Europeans with the virus in a small town on the edge of the desert. A friend of ours was there and heard the rumour from people in the town, I read it on Facebook and it sounded like it was false. Two people were being hunted by police for spreading this fake news on social media.

Another reason that I think some people left is that there seemed to be a strongly held belief among many people that we, as Europeans, would be happier and healthier amongst our own. There was the view that our healthcare systems were better and that to be around other Europeans would be better for us. As someone from the UK who works in the care industry, I am well aware of the failings and underfunding in the NHS. I have nothing but admiration for the front line workers, the doctors, nurses, porters and cleaners, who are under massive pressure under difficult circumstances. Due to years of underfunding I certainly don’t feel I’d be better off there if I got ill. I’m not saying I would be better off here either. I don’t really know much about the healthcare here although one of our group did have to go to hospital before the virus got to Morocco and he was treated well and quickly in a modern accident unit. What I do know though is there is this kind of innate response from many people that they are better off in their own country and sometimes the reasons stem from a kind of exceptionalism and are borderline racist.

Our group had at its strongest been twelve people in seven campervans, one motorhome and one tent. Some with homes in the UK and Portugal but most with only their van as their home. By the time of writing all have left Morocco except me and three others. All of the group that left made a quick dash to Ceuta driving many more miles in a day than they would usually. They all had to pay extra to change their tickets as the port where their return ticket was originally for was now closed. They faced long queues on the border of Ceuta and queues at the ferry port.

The motorhomers of our group were a retired couple with a home on the Algarve so they made it back to their house without too much travelling once they docked in Algeciras. There they were able to self-isolate and had family nearby to help them if needed. I can understand their want to get home. Some of our group got back to the UK after long drives and more ferry crossings. A couple of others who seemed to have genuine reasons to get back to their country of origin are now parked up in Spain and it seems that really they just wanted to get out of Africa and back to somewhere they could get free healthcare if need be.

After two days in our new park up there was still only 66 cases of Covid-19 in Morocco. Despite the official line of a few days earlier the government moved into phase two of the fight against the virus and announced a state of emergency starting from 6pm that night. This meant that only essential shops would be open and only until 6pm every day. It also meant that people were to stay indoors apart from getting medical help or supplies, essential shopping and work. Exceptional movement permits were required for everyone, these are forms provided by the local authority giving you the right to be on the streets for various different reasons. Ours gave us the right to be out for essential shopping.

Surfers in Imsouane before lockdown

Internal travel ground to an almost halt, public transport was much reduced, even newspapers stopped printing. The village was on the whole quiet but not everyone was taking the lockdown seriously. No children or Moroccan women were out and about but plenty of local men and tourists were still out enjoying the sunshine and socialising. Many were not keeping a 2 meter distance for each other and were still sharing bottles of water, cups of tea, food and cigarettes! Imsouane is a surf resort and quite a few locals and tourists were still going out surfing. All this is still going on at the time of writing and is frustrating when you are doing your best to keep to yourself and to keep away from others.

Repatriation flights were still going on although they were getting less and less and by the 22nd most repatriation flights had ended. A few people in Morocco in vans decided to leave their vans and get flights home instead. Europe was on lockdown and restrictions getting tougher as each European country brought in more measures to fight the spread of the virus.

In Europe campsites were shutting down with all apart from permanent residents given five days’ notice to leave. Someone I know who was on an aire in the Algarve was told to go back to her home country, I think the trouble was that campsites are seen as housing mostly short-term holiday makers with homes to go to. In other parts of Portugal I am aware of other people in small groups free camping who have had no trouble with the police. In fact the police have been helpful and understanding.

playing music during lockdown

A friend free camping in the South of Spain was moved on by the police but I also know someone elsewhere in Spain who has had no issues. Moving people on seems against the advice for people to stay in one place and you have to wonder what the thinking is behind this. Like in many other countries the instructions given to the authorities are not always clear and can be interpreted by the police in different ways. This can be frustrating and dangerous as my friend in the Algarve ended up driving all the way back to the UK after being evicted.

In Morocco campsites shut to only new people so at least the people already there didn’t get kicked out. All the shutting down of campsites and aires and the moving on of some free campers has left many ‘vanlifers’ suddenly faced with the very real problems New Travellers have had to deal with for a long time. Where to safely park up without fear of eviction, where to get access to clean water and waste disposal. What started as a fun lifestyle of adventure and freedom has turned into a nightmare for some. In my experience so far the New Travellers seem to be coping a little better, in terms of not panicking so much, than the Vanlifers and Motorhomers.

A few days ago the border between Morocco and Ceuta closed leaving approximately 500 vans in a queue waiting to get in to get ferries back to Europe. Many people were literally trapped with no way to turn round to get out of the queue. There was no access to clean water, waste disposal or toilets. Some people spent 48 hours in the queue. Tempers were fraying and some cassettes (the waste part of a campervan toilet) were emptied onto the pavement. The Moroccan authorities could see something needed to be done and so they provided all those in the queue a huge carpark equipped with a couple of porta cabins, one housing toilets and one a shop selling essentials. There was also clean water provided and waste disposal.

Our host, Hicham who has let us park up outside the hostel he runs called Action Point

At the time of writing some of those waiting have returned to Europe. There has been a ferry for campervans only put on between the Moroccan port of Tangier Med and the French port of Sete. There is another ferry due to depart tomorrow, 2nd April. Most people taking these ferries would have normally returned by the much quicker ferry crossing to Algeciras in Spain and so they had a much longer and much more expensive crossing. On board people stayed in cabins and had to have their temperature taken twice during the crossing.

Here in Imsouane we are now on day eleven of lockdown, it is the last day of the month and there are now 602 cases of Covid-19 in Morocco. The hardest thing for me personally has been watching some of our group not taking the social distancing as seriously as we are. Different countries have put different rules in place and because in some European countries it has been stated that people can go out once a day for exercise people here are doing that even though that’s not actually been advised by the Moroccan government. The rule here is no-one outside except for essentials, some would say exercise is essential but can be done at home. It’s a tossup between using a bit of common sense and obeying the government exactly.

Like all major disasters this pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people and it has been no different among the travelling community. Just like house dwellers some travellers will get too involved with the negative aspects and rumours on social media and the lack of human contact may bring depression and anxiety. On the other hand many will be used to spending their time being creative at home or working from home, for example the digital nomad has taken off in recent years. Many vanlifers will still be able to make the videos they have taken on their travels into watchable YouTube content and many bloggers will still be able to write accounts of their travels.

Still things to smile about

As for keeping myself occupied I, like a lot of people, have been doing some things I’ve been meaning to get round to for ages. Some of those things are odd jobs which once done are done but also more long term things which I think are really important like reading and writing more and learning to play guitar. I feel blessed to be in a good place and lucky that I am quite used to being at home doing my own thing which often involves creative things I can still do now. Obviously only time will tell the effect of long term living like this.

What will be the hardest for those living roadside will be getting moved on by the police and no access to water and waste disposal. The UK and Ireland have put a temporary stop on evictions for those living roadside or on illegal sites, but there are still some open loopholes that could mean people still get moved on. If you are in the UK or Ireland then it is worth reading the latest advice from gypsy traveller organisations, they can also offer help if you are faced with eviction.

What people living roadside or free camping in other countries do if moved on especially if their van is their only home, I have no idea. I have not been able to find any concrete information on whether the police have any right to move people on at this time. I have also not been able to find any charities or organisations that can give up to date help and advice for full-time vehicle dwellers outside of the UK and Ireland.

The state of emergency or lockdown here in Morocco officially ends on 20th April, a month after it was implemented. Time will tell whether it is lengthened but I hope to bring you another article at around the end of April. For now stay safe and stay at home!

Sam Wilkinson – 31 March 2020

If you are a New Traveller, Gypsy, Vanlifer, Motorhomer, Nomad, Van or Boat dweller and need help and information during this time try:

There is also a dedicated Facebook group called Nomads, New Travellers, Van & Boat dwellers Covid-19 Support & Information.

And while we are at it – here be some tunes from Sam and the gang