(Just enough) safety in numbers
On an adventure tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, Craig Tansley discovers why more Australians are opting for small group travel.
he bees of Morocco have come together on this day to kill me, it seems. Inside Chefchaouen’s old medina, they’re bombing the juice in front of me, and coming in closer. The buildings of the medina shimmer in the insane heat and I’m sweating so hard my sunglasses have fogged up, so I toss them aside. But we’re here right now for a very important meeting: “Tomorrow is going to be 47 degrees,” our Spanish guide (who’s accompanied us across our entire journey) says. “We need to vote, but my choice is that we take the cheap bus. We’ll be sitting next to locals and their chickens, with no air-conditioning. It’s a four hour bus trip to Fes, or we can pay more and get a five-star, air-conditioned Mercedes Benz bus with the other tourists. It’s your decision.”
I’m travelling with Intrepid Travel — a small group of Australians of all ages are expiring beside me; I’m thinking they’ll vote for the Mercedes; given there are couples in their 60s and inner-city professionals amongst the group. “Let’s vote,” the guide says. “Who wants to go on the Mercedes Benz?” Not a single hand goes up. “Who wants to go on the hot bus and meet some Moroccan chickens?” All 12 hands shoot up. Adventure wins out against creature comforts: not for the first time on this trip.
We’re at the tail end of a 15-day trip through three countries and two continents. We’re essentially travelling like backpackers (Intrepid asks that clients bring backpacks over suitcases) — though with a well planned itinerary. I like that this allows me to feel like an adventurous traveller, while enjoying the comfort — and safety — of a tourist. There are people in our group who wouldn’t travel alone, but travelling in a small group allows everyone to feel safe. It also allows us to choose just how much adventure we really want to be part of. For that part is largely up to us.
The adventure started the moment I landed in Madrid. Through its cobbled streets, I walked with my new travel mates to a restaurant where we could dine al fresco, at a table under fairy lights in a huge tree, looking down across the whole city. Each day we travel together as a group, but when we stop moving and find a new destination we have the choice of staying together, or going solo. We travel to the festival city of Salamanca where we siesta to allow ourselves to stay up late in the city’s lively old quarter. We head onwards by van to Portugal, and the grossly under-rated city of Lisbon. Lisbon is a Mecca for foodies — its seafood comes straight from the fishermen in their old boats in the harbour beside the city. Our guide asks us to trust him: he knows the best seafood restaurant in all of Portugal, he says. And so we follow; first on the underground train guarding our packs against pick-pockets, up narrow laneways, before scaling a winding staircase to an old seafood restaurant which looks across the city centre, that’s known for charred octopus.
Through Spain and Portugal we journey onwards, and I begin to see that the benefit of a small group tour is that it offers the adventure and fun of a backpacking trip, but with a pre-booked bed each night (remember the perils of turning up to a European city in high season with no accommodation booked?). No-one holds up a sign with our name on it at airports, and we won’t follow a single guide with a flag all trip (God forbid!). Soon, our guide becomes a buddy, just another travel companion in the group (though one who saves our hide, time and time again). I can also leave the group behind when it suits. One afternoon in Morocco, it’s just me climbing the slopes above Chefchaouen watching farmers guide donkeys and goats around me, blending in as much as I can within a world so different from my own.
But I’m grateful for safety in numbers when we ride the ferry across the Strait Of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco, and we’re set upon by the infamous touts of Tangiers. Hundreds of the city’s residents come at us from all angles, spruiking accommodation, tours and taxi rides. But our guide negotiates our way through the anarachy, and we find a van which takes us through the city, and out to the high grounds of Chefchaouen.
It’s time like these — in countries like Morocco — that travelling with a small group lets you forget that adventure travel comes with a long list of dangers and annoyances. Instead we get to pretend that a life of adventure on the road is as easy as it looks in the movies.