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|Top: The Oujda at Sète with her passenger's fully loaded vehicles lining up in front.|
|Having spent the best part of a glorious late-Summer week in Paris, I made my way on the Friday evening to Austerlitz station. Despite SNCF’s attempts to encourage passengers to use TGVs and speedier services, there remains a hard-core devotion to the overnight trains and in many ways the scene here had not changed that much from ten, twenty or more years ago, with a host of lengthy loco-hauled trains being shunted into platforms and a great number of lingering farewells with heads poking out of the windows until the train disappeared from sight. The appearances are slightly deceptive however and it has to be said that in the truest sense, SNCF’s sleeper operations are not what they once were. The genuine but now ageing sleeper coaches have been gradually retired off but not replaced and on my train, heading ultimately to Port-Bou, the option had been withdrawn altogether, with a first class couchette the highest level of accommodation available. So it was with a degree of envy that I watched the earlier departures to Milan, Venice, Rome, Nice, Ventimiglia and so on with their ex-Wagons Lits ’T2’ coaches bringing up the rear whilst those to Madrid and Barcelona made use as ever of Talgo ‘Trenhotel’ stock.
Arrival in Narbonne was at an ungodly hour on the Saturday morning but, fairly refreshed, I spent a happy morning there before joining one of SNCF’s newly upgraded Corail Teoz rakes to link to Sète. Sète was glowing in the September sunshine and after grabbing an hour’s snooze in the sun on the station platform I was met by Richard Seville off his connecting train from Toulon. Sète really is a marvellous little place, and it comes as almost a bit of a surprise to find there is an international ferry port at the end of the little streets which wind down alongside the canal to the sea. A ferry port it is however and there, looming large above everything, was the Oujda, the ex-Pride of Hampshire and Viking Venturer of 1974, the first of Townsend Thoresen’s Aalborg-built ‘Super Viking’ class and one of the pair which were stretched horizontally by Schichau Unterweser in Bremerhaven in 1985/86. This ship, along with her sister (the ex-Pride of Cherbourg/Le Havre/Viking Valiant, now Mogador) spent her entire UK career running on the Western Channel routes to Cherbourg and Le Havre, initially from Southampton but latterly exclusively out of Portsmouth, being identified with the Le Havre run after stretching until being replaced by the former Olau sisters in 1994 and then replacing the remaining unstretched Super Viking pair on crossings to Cherbourg. This all ended in 2002 and the pair were speedily sold to El Salam of Egypt as the Pride of Al Salam 2 and Pride of Al Salam 1 respectively. Ongoing Summer charters to COMANAV saw subsequent renamings as the Oujda (after the city in Eastern Morocco) in 2004, with the former Pride of Cherbourg later becoming Mogador (the ancient name for the old town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast). The present Winter timing of the Hajj, which forms the peak in El Salam’s own Red Sea traffic, means the ships have the perfect operational balance with availability for two peak seasons at opposite ends of the calendar. That said, the Mogador has not returned to Europe this year.
|Click above for a Pride of Hampshire deckplan|
|MOROCCO, SEPTEMBER 2006
Part One: Oujda
Sète - Nador
2006 pictures © firstname.lastname@example.org
|Above and below: The Viking Venturer as she looked before and after the conversion in 1986 (the above image issued by Townsend Thoresen being from the ship's delivery voyage, slightly doctored with the later TT logo on the funnels).|
|Above: The ship as P&O's Pride of Hampshire.|
|After checking in, we went down to the marshalling lanes where the mainly Moroccan passenger load was waiting to board. There we were greeted by the familiar sight of ancient and heavily overloaded camper vans and cars crammed full of everything from furniture and rugs to electrical equipment, potted plants, food and bicycles. If you looked closely, you could just make out the vague outline of human beings trapped inside amongst their voluminous possessions. After a while, the metal gates of passport control creaked open and the handful of foot passengers were ushered through for inspection. EU passports were casually waved through whilst North Africans were stopped for a thorough examination. From there it was straight on board the ship over the stern ramp.
This was my first time on an El Salam owned ship and, even though the vessel was under the control of a COMANAV crew, there was that slight sense of doubt as we boarded that this was really a very good idea after all. Externally, a hint of rust around the bow aside, the Oujda looked in pretty good condition but since their rebuild, these ships have never been very reassuring to look at; whilst an ugly ship isn’t an unsafe one it did just add to that vague sense of unease. The main reason for that 1985/86 conversion had been to install a complete full-height upper freight deck above the original. At this stage only modest modifications were made to the passenger spaces, although the original car-height upper garage aft, now four decks above the waterline, became an area of crew cabins. It soon became apparent that in the stretched area at least, El Salam have made rather significant changes: the upper vehicle deck has become single, car-height only with the mezzanine level converted to an entire additional deck of cabins, together with a full-width reception foyer astern. This conversion appeared to have been fairly professionally carried out but it has to be said the whole deck soon became rather unpleasant with the stench emanating from the forward toilets particularly putrid and filtering back along the corridors. Upstairs of this on Deck 7, the old arrangement remains, with the original passenger cabins forward complemented by the availability of the crew ones added aft in 1986 which are also now in use by passengers, one of which was allocated to us. Most of the cabin keys were still P&O ‘Pride of Hampshire’ ones. Right forward, the small and infrequently-used Solent Room from the P&O days has become the ship’s mosque. The crew meanwhile had been relegated to quarters beneath the vehicle deck, in cabins previously allocated to freight drivers on Deck 2. [Report continues on next page]
|Above and below: A close look betrays the ship's former identity.|
|Above: The lower vehicle deck.|
|Above and below: The now halved in height upper vehicle deck, complete with connecting ramp from the deck below.|
|Above: A handy checklist.|
|Above: The reception area at the aft end of the deck of cabins installed by El Salam.|
|Above: The former Solent Room at the forward end of Deck 7 has had its seating removed and now serves as the ship's mosque. In COMANAV service, the call to prayer was made over the ship's public address system.|
|Above and below: Further aft, more evidence of the ship's P&O career in the Deck 7 amidships lobby (above) and the former bureau de change office lying out of use (below).|
|Above: About to board the Oujda; this is not the ship's most flattering angle!|