Friday, 1 July 2011

Back to reality

Well that's just about it =)
We made our way up towards Mallaga to meet Hana and David at MotoAdvenTours and had a great time talking about out trip and hearing their stories from their own adventures. From there we camped by a lake, stopped off at the Alhambra, spent a night sleeping on top of a mountain 40km up a dirt road in the middle of the Parc Natural del Ports, and pressed on towards Barcellona. In Tarragona at the 'hostal' we met Arborea; Shanti and Buck from Maine who were playing in town that night and nicely put us on the guest list. Finally we rode north to Robin's organic farm where we parked up the KTM under a tree and he gave me a lift to the airport with the roll sack stuffed with dirty laundry.

I think I can say this trip has changed me, I can see it when I look back at how I viewed the world I was seeing in each blog entry or think about the things that worried or were important to me before we left. Robin will keep on travelling, as yet unknown where, and it won't be my last trip either, in fact the HUMM will be a good mini adventure in three weeks time! I'm certainly glad we finally got out there and did it =D

PS Now that I'm back I'll be adding some GPS traces and better images to those post that are still in iPhone format in the next couple of weeks!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Atlas' the Riff

Getting round the loop and back on to the main road back to El Kebab got harder and harder. Rocks got bigger, scree got looser, slopes got steeper, the only thing improving was the donkey/goat count but maybe the road was just too rough for them! The balding rear tyre on the KTM meant the bike sometimes came to a halt still spinning while trying to get up loose stuff, getting back down often felt like the rear with all the luggage and spare tyre was going to overtake the front.
Eventually we crossed some tough river beds and came down in to a very rural village where carpets and clothing dried on the roofs and hung on the walls of the small half earth, half breeze block buildings. Women stopped working to look while children formed a moving grandstand what followed us as we rolled along the road, giggling and waving. No asking for stillos and cadeuxs here, it didn't look like any motorised vehicles came this way let alone tourists.
From the village we kept dropping, now riding along a ridge with the green valley spread out on either side and gradually descended in to it where a proper river crossing awaited us. Some farmers sat on a hill opposite to watch as we checked it for depth, maybe we disappointed them when we powered through with wet feet but without any other dramas and rejoined the main road, heading back towards Kebab and Khenifra for some lunch.
In a small cafe, sheltering from the midday sun, Robin got some kip while I updated the Captains Blog, stardate: about half past one. As the sun moved round we set off towards the Sources de l'Oum-er-Rbia. It looked like back in the 60s those in search of peace and understanding must have flocked here to look for it in the bubbles of a shisha pipe or at the bottom of a pot of mint tea, they would have stretched out on rich coloured carpets inside the now almost empty small wicker shelters, overhanging a narrow rushing river at the bottom of the rocky ravine. Several small streams,(the 'Sources') sprouted from the stone hill sides and were named by hand painted signs before they ran down between the love shacks. Even the men and boys trying to rustle up business seemed to have tested some of their own products and the whole atmosphere was very relaxed. We passed the women brewing tea and climbed up small wooden bridges and over slippery rocks (no H&S here) to a ten meter high waterfall that claimed to be the source of the river. It was quite a beautiful natural setting with the sun getting low at the end of the valley and the coolness of the spray until breathing deep we realised the smell, and the tissues all around. It seemed a lot of visitors felt nature calling in a more urgent voice!

We left and rode up through the Foret de Cedres which reminded me of the SchwartzWald in SW German, dark and humid and full of bird life, then suddenly opening up to grass pastures with views over the tree covered landscape. How we could have ridden from what felt like the surface of the moon to this in a couple of hundred miles seemed unbelievable.
There was just time as the light failed to get round Azrou and on to the main highway and  to Meknes. Nice things were written about the souks and old town of Meknes but finding a reasonably priced hotel proved no easy task, odd as it wasn't really on the tourist trail. As it neared midnight and we dodged a drunk hooker a recommendation took us to the elderly but very traditional tiled hotel Regina inside the medina where we were welcomed in to the courtyard with the bikes after riding up some steps we weren't sure even the 21" front wheels were big enough for! After dinner in the main square and dealing with a waiter who tried to double the bill with a tip for himself (!) Otman, Abdul and Unis at the hotel invited us in to their 'den' at the reception where the pipe was bubbling and the smokey air smelt of apple tobacco. Only Otman spoke enough French to communicate easily but it was an interesting talk about day to day life and work for Moroccans. He left late, pedaling his noisy mobilette up the road for an early start next day in the kitchens of a near by restaurant, of course not before we swapped contact details and promised to email the photos.
The next morning while our washing still dried in the window of the hotel room we ate breakfast in the cafe next door and I ordered a black tea. When it came I asked for some milk, the waiter looked at Robin as if checking his friend here wasn't mad then when he poured it in he checked again that he had done the right thing! We didn't have much luck looking for some of the things we were after in the medina but it was a really interesting place to wander around. More spacious than the others we'd been to it still had distinct areas, a shoe area, socks and underwear, dried fruits and sweets and even a blacksmithing quarter which was full of sooty black gates, window grills and bedframes, showered in orange sparks and noise and acrid with the smell of grinding wheels and arc welding.
Getting the bikes back down the steps was much easier and we said our goodbyes and used the rest of the day to aim for Chefchauen and the hotel Rif again; it had been a great first stop in Morocco and it would be nice to see Abdul again and do some gift shopping before the crossing back to Europe. The chain of the KTM was making some strange noises on the ride but when I tried to tighten it I found the adjuster had seized. Even riding up the smallest track between the thickest bushes wasn't enough to find a spot to repair the problem undisturbed so while Robin explained to the three boys that popped up that we were spacemen from Mars I investigated. One lad was just old enough that he clearly though he shouldn't be quite so entertained by the puppet show of spaceships and monsters he was receiving but obviously couldn't help himself joining in with the other two! The chain didn't sound much better but the next day I found the problem; a missing roller, nothing that could be sorted now though.
Climbing up to Chefchauen took longer in the dark and stuck behind a trail of tired diesel cars that growled their way up the steep road. Abdul recognised the bikes right away and with a really genuine welcome we were shown to an ensuit room and shook hands with the owner. He was a large man with big smile and carried the air of having worked hard all his life and returned to his home town to enjoy the fruits of his labours, he looked at the sky and waved his arms about as we talked and he enthused about riding bikes in the desert and sleeping under the stars. It was nice to be back in what I think was probably my favourite town of the trip.

Monday, 27 June 2011


Spending a couple of nights at Julia's would have been nice. The food was good, the rooms nice and clean with things to do and see all round the area (I was particularly intrigued by the snowboards and skis outside one rental shop). It was only 40 kms or so across the Hamada (rocky) desert to Algeria and should we have fancied a go without the 50kg of luggage the dunes at Erg Chebbi near by were favourites for bikers to practice their sand bashing. It was also now nearly June though and we had an appointment with Hana to pick the stuff up Spain on the fifth, then Robin's temporary farm job starting and my flight home on the 11th. The plan was to leave the KTM with him until returning for the Horizons Unlimited Mountain Madness rally the following month. We sketched out the return journey that morning so we would leave Africa on the third and after a lazy morning playing with the kittens and a big breakfast (and tour of Julia's geological samples from the local area), for one last time we turned north.
The guide book we'd borrowed from Hana listed a 'tourist circuit' up the road in Rizanni, but rather than being a lap of the Moroccan TT it was a track through a dozen small farming villages that had been blessed with Tarmac for the benefit of visitors. Apparently the inhabitants of the town used to make their living guiding tourists to the dunes in Merzouga, now with the road being recently built and importantly included on gps maps (the old trick was the remove or alter the road signs) this was planned as an alternative income source. It took less than half an hour to cruise along the black top but we'd already been a little spoilt by the hidden gems we'd found elsewhere on our travels.
Thankfully getting away from the desert things were becoming a little cooler, again we were of course climbing in to the foothills ahead of crossing the east end of the High Atlas. The valley between Jebel Ougnat and Sahro used to be home to the stoney piste of Chris Scott's route M4, Doug who we'd met through the Horizons Unlimited site had also recommended it. Unfortunately for us Morocco's road building program had arrived before we did and most of it had been overlaid with shiny new tarmac, that said bits that couldn't be upgraded had been rerouted and some of the old track was still accessible. We followed one bit until it came to a crest beyond which there was a stoney dry river bed and 1:1 gradient climb up the hardcore to the new road. While I was off looking for another way round or a place to spend the night Robin met a local farmer who had come over to say hello, unexpectedly we found ourselves trying to speak Spanish as he spoke no French, but as Maria always says we managed to communicate with hands and feet! He invited us back to his house for dinner and to sleep but we just managed to explain that we wanted to camp in the mountains tonight, he was so genuine it was quite difficult but this was meant to be out last night in the desert and could be one of our last chances to sleep outdoors before Spain (as we noted on the outbound journey the north of Morocco is much more populated). Somehow it would have felt wrong accepting a meal from this man and his family but at the same time it felt wrong not too, he looked like he could barely afford to feed himself, farming as he was in this extreme environment, and yet he welcomed and invited us with a big smile.
We made it up the river bed to where I'd spotted a opportunity to climb on to the new road and a couple of miles further up Robin found a track in to the hills on the opposite side. We'd decided generally camping off tracks above a road was better than below it as people rarely look up =) After some hunting about amongst some herding pens off the track we picked a ruin where we thought it wouldn't upset anyone if they found us in it. The hills here were lined with the same green stone chippings we'd found just west of Zagora, it gave the illusion of a softer more familiar environment than this really was, finding a black scorpion the size of my hand under a rock was a quick reminder of the reality!
Just as we were starting to cook dinner in the early darkness a trail bike pulled up and stopped, a black figure greeted us as he beeped the alarm of his bike. The darkness made communication difficult but we figured out he worked for a mine further up the track, pulling something called verdigris out the ground. I've tried to find out what this is but as yet no luck, something to do with the copper stained rocks we guessed, can't promise a prize but any answers most welcome! We also worked out we should expect a hoard of workers to arrive the next day at 8.05am, oh well no lie-in then! After saying there was no problem with us coming for a look tomorrow morning he road off west in to the hills where a dog was barking and a light hovered on the dark silhouette of the land.
The dog woke me in the morning, snuffling around the camp, it ran off yelping when it realised we were there, I felt lucky it hadn't pee'd a good morning in my ear. Now the sun was coming up I climbed the hill above us as far as I could to take in the lay of the land, the yellow sunlight being slowly poured over the green shapes picked out every rock and contour. When I got back Robin was making friends with a kid about ten called Mohamed, it was his dog that had come exploring. He headed off but as we were packing up returned with his mother and two brothers from beyond the hills! We exchanged smiles, some words and gestures and Robin found out how many goats and other animals they had using the powers of animal impersonation, then the mother started gesturing wanting something to eat. We never travelled with more than we needed given how limited our luggage space was so we parted with half our breakfast biscuits, after all the little family looked like they needed them more than we did. A couple of 'shukran's and they again disappeared in to the hills.
The hoards of mine workers were well over due by now, riding over the rise to where the mine was supposed to be our failures in communication became more apparent; Mohamed's family looked like they ran the mine, by meeting the two parents we had by now actually met all the miners! The loose stoney trail climbed back and forth up the hillside, steep jaggy rock reaching up on the left and down on the right, below were the black goat hair tents of the family and small round stone pens holding the animals. At the end of the track the view was amazing, three hundred degrees of mountainous lunar landscape, black rock peaks bursting through grey sedimentary layers and the soft green chippings, dark volcanic rocks littering every surface. This was also where the mine was; several deep JCB cuts in the summit, fragments of translucent quartz lay around the place and a diesel compressor sat to one side. Just as we started the tricky descent on the trail we heard a voice from below, the mother was climbing up the rock face, she said hello again and climbed past us, taking a shortcut to the mine. She giggled to herself as she stumbled backwards and nearly dropped off the edge!
Our next stop was Todra Gorge, but not before riding through a swarm of bees. They clattered and popped over the fairing and visor but thankfully didn't get in the vents in my jacket. I felt bad, they smelt of flowers and I could imagine their faces as the remainder stared at the KTM shaped hole in the group.
Todra was a deep cutting in the sandy coloured rock, some times the sides came straight down or over hung on their way down to the crystal clear river at the bottom, other times they were layered bulges like stacks of giant donuts. Most of the road at the bottom was rough concrete meaning it could expect to find itself underwater at some point of the year. There was even a hotel hiding under one overhang, we both agreed it looked like it was living on borrowed time! The first half of the gorge seemed well touristed, the latter less so, in fact other than us there were only a couple of Dutch motor homes, bouncing along slowly.
Robin was following me as we came in to a very poor looking village on the left of the roadside. A boy and a girl about four and eight ran out, arms and legs flailing, in front of the big camper we were currently behind. It braked but while still moving they started trying to climb up it, shouting about bonbons. The mother or big sister ran after the smaller boy and grabbed him off the vehicle but the girl, with a desperate look on her face kept banging on the windows. The drivers was obviously unsure what to do, the girl was quite distraught and they obviously didn't want to injure her. Then the mother shouted and distracted her long enough that the driver moved off, crying and shouting she ran right past me and grabbed Robin, shaking him, in my mirrors I could see the bike vearing and she grabbed first the handlebar, then his arm and finally the pannier. We'd spoken to Barak, one of the guys who worked at Julia's about the whole cadeux/bonbon thing and he said as a kid he remembered tourists turning up and showering them with pens and pencils and sweets. It seemed these poor kids had been lead to view every foreigner as a Santa Claus, understandably they were upset when he didn't have anything to put in their stocking, tragically they were risking their lives to get his attention.
Slowly the gorge opened out in to a valley and when it got wide enough the base began to fill up with more cultivation, sides of the river lined with small irregular fields. Suddenly a large bush ran across the road followed by a short rotund woman, shouting at it. Just below the bouncing branches four mischievous donkey hooves were visible, we had to pull over to avoid laughing ourselves into a ditch as the bush 'ee-oh'ed its self down the road!
Further along we passed a cliff that was wall papered with bright carpets, sheets and clothes, drying in the sun while the family worked the crops below. As I turned back to the road a bike was coming the other way with the rider waving frantically, he was gesturing to stop, an oval country sticker on his fairing read 'TIM'. It was none other than Mr motocycling-in-Morocco himself, Tim Cullis, after a chat! Tim contributes regularly to ADVRider and other traveling wed sites, writing guides and articles for people heading to Morocco by motorbike, Robin had a stack of his info printed out and I had some of his guides in my phone, it was nice to meet the man himself! We exchanged news about the roads we'd ridden and got some pointers for the route ahead before a group photo and saying goodbye.
The map marked the roads surrounding Tizi-n-isly as 'Difficult or dangerous',  though 'and' may have been more appropriate. A narrow strip of tarmac, frayed at both edges and pot-holled down the middle was a two lane highway, at best the kerb like drop to the dust and gravel at the side (or at worse the plummeting drop to the doom below) made passing oncoming traffic a challenge. Most drivers went out of their way to make room though before arriving in Tizi one fire engine ironically had forced us off the road. Tizi itself was a busy town with streets full of people and animals, built on steps up a steep hill, it felt as real and un-touristified as it could get. The road kept climbing and higher and higher we went on our way to El-Kebab. We'd chosen Kebab as a good breaking point for the night and it wasn't far from the route Doug had recommended, while the town may have had a disappointing number of fast food outlets it did take us up so high and presented such an amazing vista it felt like we could see all of north Morocco.
There was a small track on the GPS just beyond the 'Bab which went straight up the next hill and looked like it might be good for camping as the lower hills and valleys were usually farmed but higher areas less populated. As we climbed it began to resemble the 6-day Trials, but steep gravel slopes, washed out ruts and exposed boulders were only half the problem, the steady flow of surprised looking people and animals and people riding animals down the track made it tricky, stopping engines to let a goat herd pass was always followed by a tricky, scrabbly hill start. At least they were coming down, the hill top would be empty we thought, but no, green pastures and more and more people and villages!
After riding most of the track before it returned to the main road houses thinned out and an even smaller branch took us up to a summit where a quarry had been dug, finally the end of the line. From here the view was just immense, there seemed more hazey horizon to look at than the eye could take in. Mountains seemed to roll all the way up to the Mediterranean which the imagination could almost place right where they met the sky. It was quite a spot to pull out the mats for one last camp and our second last night in Africa.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Gone Feshing

I'd woken up in the in the dark to see an angry looking figure with balled fists standing over where I was sleeping, it glared down silhouetted against the starry sky. Luckily it turned out to be Robins DR and knuckle guards but it got the adrenaline going! Over all it had been a bad night for both of us though, it had been a hot and sweaty evening but the temperature had plummeted over night until we were wrapped up and shivering over breakfast. A big beautiful orange sun rose through the dusty desert air between the jaggy peaks and didn't have to climb that high before again we were peeling off layers. We'd read it in a few places and had found it was very true; Morocco was a cold country with a hot sun.
The trail we followed lead through a valley to the east before it opened up on to a wide plain of firm sand sprinkled with small stones. In the distance mountains and a couple of kasbars shimmered already on the horizon and a small dust cloud coming the other way gradually turned in to a white pick up truck which we then exchanged waves with. We got up to a good speed on the firm stuff with only a couple of soft wallows to negotiate before we were greeted by a high speed 2CV followed by a desertised truck, both Pari-Dakaring across the plain. The kasbars looking like Foreign Legion forts amongst the dunes turned out to be camping grounds, the high walls giving protection from the sand and wind and there were more than two once we got going, each announced it's location in the dunes or rocks with a battered hand scrawled sign displaying coordinates. People inside ran out to welcome possible visitors or beckoned us in when they heard the engines coming, we'd wave but in the sand stopping wasn't an easy option.
Aiming at a gap in the dunes occupied by one 'fort' in particular we burst through past it and on to a dry lake bed of crazed white mud. It was difficult to see definition and contours across the baked bleached surface but in the distance there were buildings at the foot of the hills and we found a shallow brown receding lake.
Stopping on the firm ground I tried to wash my hands in the water but only succeeded in painting myself brown, it felt good though; the heat was pretty intense by now.
From the buildings of Um Jerane ahead a white Land Rover appeared, a large moustached man trying to round up travellers for his auberge. We managed to get directions from him to find the right sandy track out if town which lead between two hills and in to the valley beyond.
However the Ktm was loosing power again. The hotter it got the more it seemed to happen. It was annoying on the road but on the sand it became dangerous. Several times while trying to power through deep soft stuff it went and the front dug in, without power the only way to avoid going over the bars or washing out was to work quick and balance the deceleration with the back brake, exciting stuff.
We stopped under a tree to let the bars on the gauge fall and heard two single cylinder engines approaching from opposite direction, two middle-aged French guys in bright coloured body armour on XTs were joined by three support 4x4s of friends and partners. In the spirit of desert comradeship they offered their help after enquiring if we were ok but unfortunately it wasn't the right place to start stripping the fuel system again. We exchanged notes about the roads ahead and wished each other well, we didn't share a lot of language but the words 'fesh fesh', a point at our baggage and a shake of the head didn't bode well for us! We shrugged and smiled, there was only one way to go, could it really be any worse than the sand we'd bashed before?
Well yes and no, ridding round a rise to see a valley filled with nothing but smooth rolling white dunes made our collective hearts sink. Ridding 50yrds in and getting the KTM buried to it's back axle had me climbing the tallest dune I could find and shaking my head like the Frenchmen!
I laid the bike on its side and filled the hole left by the wheel but in the heat I had no strength to get it rubber side down again, luckily Robin arrived with a helping hand and a pep talk. He pointed out the obvious, we'd just have to churn through it!
The next five or six kilometres were a test of many things; riding skills, engine temperatures, rider temperatures and tempers. We were literally running in sweat, Robin stopped to adjust something and it poured out his waterproof sleeve, the pale corrida of my jacket was showing huge dark areas and our water supply was taking a beating. We wove our way though the soft sea, feet paddling and tyres spinning, trying not to run in to each other as we both tried attack it with some degree of speed to gain stability, while not getting separated amongst the dunes and dry oueds. This was proper Fesh Fesh, we'd had bits before but not kilometres of it without escape or ability to see the end or even horizon.
As soon as it had began it stopped and we were suddenly riding between dry fields on a road of sorts which became the outskirts of Ramilia. Builders working on a breeze block building ahead waved us down, not ones to miss an opportunity they wanted to be our guides and take us to the local restaurant, it took a bit of work to extricate ourselves before we literally rode round the corner to park under the shades of the very place, we were due a few cold drinks!
Achmed the owner could have been a stunt double for Quentin Tarrentino and sat and talked with us as the wind whipped the sand about, sticking to our wet skin and getting in my Fanta. Kids played all around in the hot square, entertained by pointing and giggling at the strange travellers while one older girl occasionally approached us trying to sell crafts we sadly had no space for in our luggage. Fatigue was showing all round and face down in a puddle on the table Robin fell asleep.
Luckily the road out of town was a bit better and we put tyre pressures up a little to deal with some of the small rocks now in the sand. We crossed more dried riverbeds, each a maze of small cliffs and canyons to navigate, it was overlaid with deep ruts and tyre tracks but at least the going was firmer.
The hot wind from the south was picking up clouds of sand and blowing them across our path, once so thickly we had to stop under a tree and wait for it to die down. As if by magic a small family appeared carrying a basket of crafts, after shaking hands and thanking them for their offering they said goodbye and disappeared again in to the dunes.
It was hot work riding and at a water break further down the road a chubby young guy, face wrapped from the wind and sand, arrived on a mobillette. He advised against the road/feshfesh ahead and invited us to his auberge but it was still too early in the day, he did however suggest a diversion though a village on the other side of the valley before bouncing off down the tracks making sand riding look easy, if a little slow and less exciting!
We had learnt the hard way to be a little caution of 'good advice', a few hundred meters of deep sandy oueds and rocky climbs out again had us wondering if the lad on the scooter was now dispatching a conveniently located 4x4 recovery truck from the village at the other end. However it wasn't the mobilletteier we should have worried about, rather the guys in the next village so desperate to 'guide' us poor lost foreigners back to the piste for a few Dihrams that the way ahead became everything from impassible or non existent to a forbidden military zone! It was on the Garmin though so we pushed past them but only to encounter a second wave followed by two on a scooter in hot pursuit. British manners nearly got the better of me and I stopped just short of telling them we didn't want the F-ing piste and where to stick their military zone before blasting off in to the desert quicker than they could follow. Thankfully it worked and the way ahead was all as predicted :)
Finally the main piste became gravelly and firm, we were riding a bright white roller-coaster of jumps and berms like down hill mountain bikers. The DR's shock seemed a little tired and it was bottoming out but the laden KTM was in its element, leaping from peak to trough like a hyperactive hippo on a trampoline, it was great fun!
I cleared a rise in the air and passed a mobillette on the far side, trying to wave. At the top of the hill we met the first of three blue Merc supply vans Achmed had told us were due in Ramilia today and rode past a few more desert auberges, there was a feeling we were slowly returning to civilisation. Indeed on the horizon a radio mast popped up followed by some pink buildings and a roadside distance marker for Merzouga, then the prize, Tarmac! We stopped to celebrate, each time we rode on sand and lived it seemed good enough cause, we still weren't skeletons in the desert and the carefully choreographed self timer photo of an aerial high-five proved it!
Chez Julia gave us a warm welcome, the earth building with a tall exterior wall was well signposted in Merzouga and the mercifully cool rooms lead off a central kitten filled courtyard. Julia was an Austrian photographer/painter come interior designer who had at some point settled in her country of inspiration, with the help of some Moroccan staff her B&B was clean, reasonably priced and prided itself on serving good food. After filling the shower tray with sand we met Hugo from Paris in the dining room, a young guy travelling for 10 days on his own he was a kindred spirit who had also found sanctuary from Marrakech in the desert. We sat and swapped stories for a while then, inevitably, turned in for a well needed early night.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Desert Garden

Getting back on the piste heading east towards Zagora was a bone shaking experience! The brown wavy sedimentary hills to the south contrasted with the darker black volcanic rock that spilled across the plain from the north and livened up the ride. To the south was evidence of a new road being built and it was no real surprise when at the cross roads for Bou Rbia there was a sign for Mecanique General! Luckily frpm here the piste widened and smoothed out, obviously used for servicing the village, with more curiosity than effort the Ktm was easily pushed past 80mph, a weird feeling but it seemed to confirm what the 990s were built for! After the short blast things became a little sandier until we rolled on to the Tarmac approaching Zagora.
Zagora was basically one long street. Like so much of Morocco they were busy resurfacing the road. We stopped in the shade for a drink and found Robin's front tyre was rapidly going flat, inside it looked like heat of the piste run had melted the previous patch and it was rolled up and blistered like a BCG scab, ew! Fixing the puncture was one thing, keeping the constant stream of mechanics on mopeds who wanted the job busy was another!
We'd read about an old battered metal sign on the way out of Zagora from the days of the camel trains that still read 'Tombouctou 52 Jours' but it was escaping us, luckily Hassan at the cafe wanted to show us after lunch and we followed his small but unstoppable 20kph mobilette through town and over the roadworks. Meeting him was much more memorable than the sign however which it turns out had been replaced with a painted concrete wall and story books. Not badly done but a little less authentic than expected!
One of Chris Scott's routes from his book Morocco Overland departs from the back of Zagora and arrives a day later
In Merzouga. Torsten told us he'd had quite an adventure along this route and Gert had been keen to escort us along it as it sounded quite tricky, it didn't sound like one to miss :) We adapted it a little by taking in the Vallee du Draa first and joining it just south of Tazzarine.
There are few bits of the Michelin map of Morocco so packed with palmtree and kasbar symbols as the Vallee du Draa, which gives a pretty good description of the place! From the stony desert we rode through a dense green ribbon of cultivation watched over by tall palms and huge earthen kasbars and towns. Small fields were lined with tall walls that over the years had slowly begun to melt back in to the ground and interweaving the lot were carefully maintained channels and canals, like arteries feeding the landscape. We took the piste up the east side of the valley rather than the main asphalt road and had the pleasure of riding through a near continuous stream of villages filled with smiling waving people and kids wanting to high-five as we rode past, it was like our first day in Morocco again.
The structures that could be built from just earth and straw were properly mouth openly stunning, five or six story tall fortresses with carvings and cutout decoration round the top, mosques with minarets and tall elegant archways, and amongst it all the disused buildings coming full circle and slowly returning back to the soil they originally came from.
It was getting dark by the time we arrived in Tarrazine and there didn't seem to be anywhere to stay, heading out we thought maybe we'd find a spot in the desert towards Tarhbalt but with luck screeched to a halt beside a sign pointing in to the sand labelled Les Jardines De Tazzarine, Auberge, it had to be worth a go! A tricky ride in the dark took us to a small walled farm where a boy in a stripy jumper ran out to nervously great us, it was a very warm welcome as the rest of the family waved from the house and we were ushered through a gate in the wall, they seemed very pleased to have guests even so late! As one by one the lad switched on the lights they highlighted corners of a vegetable garden edged with Bedouin tents and dotted with circles of stools and tables hidden in cosy corners and under wooden shades. It was like finding Eden in the desert, we were quite taken aback!
Dinner was huge on the low table in the carpet lined and open sided restaurant tent, they offered tajine and couscous but either of the two dishes that arrived would have fed both if us, even without the soup starter or melons for dessert! Saide the owner turned up looking a little flustered in his blue jellaba and tourist turban (presumably just called back from the pub!) completing the three generations we'd met that lived in the Jardins (
Our tent was lined with carpets and looked every bit a film set sleeping beneath the mosquito nets.
It was time to get back in the desert! Robin was up early to change his back tyre and pads but a few technical difficulties stretched things out until we snoozed through the midday sun, and oddly rain shower too as the wind picked up. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the property from Saide, through his house where the women were preparing grain and vegetables, on the roof terrace where an extension was being built and finally round the back yard where the donkey and some goats were kept. His father was a nice old chap dressed all in white with a small hat, with few teeth he didn't speak but smiled the whole time and shook hands at every opportunity. Saide lead us through his village back to Tazzarine for fuel, water and of course mint tea. Robin's old knobbly tyre found a home on what must now have been one of the gnarliest off road hand carts in the Sahara :)
Things got more desert shaped from here on, turning east from Tahrbalt the dusty Tarmac stopped but the piste was closed too, embarrassingly an old man chased the 'cadeux' kids away with stones while we asked directions. Heading out on a track we were soon at the top of a gorge overlooking the bridge building work that had closed the piste. From no where half a dozen curious kids arrived who lined up to shake hands before we left to find a way down.
The rough tracks through the stone strewn hillside were a maze of dead ends. Eventually we found a scrabbly track down a cliff face in to the valley below where there seemed to be an oasis. With a gulp we rolled over the edge, it was hard on the arms with some big drop offs and slippery gravel. I got to the bottom and watched Robin from the valley below, it was scary just as a spectator! The sandy track lead to a house with an old man and a girl with a baby, we checked directions and crossed over the dry sand filled riverbed before climbing in to the village on the other side. Villagers stopped us left and right to offer directions but it was as much to see where we were going and coming from. Crossing over the river again and up a steep climb three young women pointed us down the road out of town. It deviated from the gps track I had for Um-Jeran but when Robin stopped to ask the girls panicked and nearly ran away, they were smiling and laughing but obviously unsure of the spaceman asking directions to the next village, even the spaceman took an unsure step back!
The track lead through a rocky valley before a branch climbed up to over look a plain. The route down was badly eroded but watching a moped in the distance we were able to retrace our steps and find another track. The scree on the track was tricky and the worn tyre on the ktm struggled a little, even Robin with his new Metzler spun a doughnut on one ascent.
On the plain we found a ridge to sleep on, the wind died down and it was another amazing stary night. In the distance were the lights of Um Jerane and once or twice before we fell asleep the yellow glow of a mobillette headlight rose and fell on it's way through distant dunes.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Once more across the Atlas...

I took the baffles out the KTM's exhaust today. In general we tried to minimise the attention we drew but amongst the Marrakech traffic I felt the more people looking the better, given shoulder checks were unheard of and mirrors scarce. Vehicles still pulled out, in particular the mopeds, but it felt better knowing they at least heard and glanced over to see their fate approaching! Five minutes had already been enough to convince me no one riding a moped in Marrakech had any intention of living anyway!
It was so hot yesterday, there was no relief from a breeze either, 38decC it said in a petrols station in the cooler evening and everything was sticky and clammy. Today was nearly as bad but with things to do we headed in to town with the intention of making a break for the mountains before long. Maybe it was because of the heat that after leaving the Unimog draining over night Jason found a big frog doing back crawl in the oil change pan this morning, poor thing!
As we found any area of Tarmac can be used for a vehicle in Marrakech, speed and safe proximity have no relation, priority and even driving on the right side of the road are optional and heaven help anyone who believes in lane discipline! In no time just to make progress we found ourselves throwing thoughts of roadcraft to one side and at least partially adopting the lunacy of those around us, the scary thing was that evidence of the driving style not working was also all around!
With some Googling, some scouting and some seeing off of an annoying tout with no teeth and bottle bottom spectacles (I've never seen Robin loose his temper before!) we found Cycle Afra, a couple of guys selling scooter parts who hid their angelic wings well, that's what they turned out to be when they said they could get shiny new Metzeler tyres to us by 11am the next day. We did wonder if that was on an African clock but after another night back at the camp site we were greeted with big grins and a MCEKaroo and Enduro3 for about the same price as back home, thanks guys! For anyone else in need: Latitude: 31.620492° Longitude: -7.990622°
Not only did it cool heading in to the mountains it started to chuck it down and in 30 seconds we were drenched, in 60 I remembered the bottom of my right pannier was still split open!
Splashing through the mud we found our way in to the colonnades of a part built shop where the workers were sheltering and a scooter or two joined us. I taped up the box and after half an hour or so we ventured out again, steaming and sticky in the sun.
The foothills of the Atlas enroute to Ouarzazate looked a bit like Scotland. The hills were rocky but dark green and sprinkled with sheep, what made them different were the cacti, earthen buildings and increasingly chasmic drops! As vegetation thinned to individual bushes on the hillsides the bottom of the valleys became filled with sheets of green and gold; billiard table flat overlapping terraces of crops like handfuls of giant beer mats sprinkled from up high.
Eventually the road climbed up over the jaggy volcanic teeth sticking out the top of the Atlas, it looked very similar to the hills in Edinburgh and I wondered if they shared a history. We passed number of victims be it a truck that had emptied it's guts in an oily mess, a sand filled lorry on it's side clinging to the crumbling verge or a crumpled post van opposite a truck driver climbing up the cliffside with some of the pieces. On every corner small piles of crystals and fossils were for sale gathered by locals, often teetering on the brink of a Tolkien-esque plunge.
We rode along a short ridge before dropping back down the other side, on both crossings the south of the Atlas had been more rolling and less rocky and by the time we took a shortcut off the N9 left to detour past the ancient city and kasbar of Ait Benhaddou the trail was a BMX track of compacted dry clay, great fun!
Up on the hill the terracotta town looked an ancient warren of towers and terraces. On reflection it would have been a fascinating place to stay but this evening our target was Ouarzazate. Unfortunately the Bikers Home promising a workshop, hot showers and cold beers was closed but we were lucky to find the friendly Hotel La Vallee who locked the bikes in a courtyard and did a great breaky for less than tenner a head. At the restaurant across the road we met the toughest kitten in town, he was beating up the other cats and even tried to get the dinner off our table, all while looking like the photo on a greetings card!
In the morning one of the staff Hamid told us a little about the pistes between Foum-Zguid to Merzouga as his village lay just past Zagora. Torsten had experienced quite an adventure riding from Merzouga to Zagora and it had made us a little apprehensive about the route, particularly as Gert had also offered to take the luggage and escort us in the Hilux! A compromise seemed to be to ride up the Vallee du Draa after Zagora and shortcut down from Tarzzarine, taking 70kms or so out of the rocky stuff.
From Agdz to Foum-Zguid the hills were gentler but the occasional canyon or plunge still took the breath away. There was less farming here and the cliffs and hillsides were beautiful stripped ribbons of sedimentary layers, as if the contour lines of the map had been painted on and then subsidence and weather taken their toll.
As we entered the valley just after Tasla it looked like everything was covered in a thin layer of chickweed, I had to stop and check, in fact the dark shimmery green was fingernail sized chippings of rock and we soon passed through what looked like a large copper mine. There were a few other mine shafts in the hills too and the green shimmer still tinted areas when we rode through the oasis and onto the piste of the N12 heading east.
This was a barren volcanic rock strewn plain between two jebels that could have been used for spoofing the Apollo moon landings; grey sand was nearly lost amongst the jaggy carpet of fist to football sized black chunks. In the complete lifeless-less silence we pitched camp in a sandy hollow, the sun disappeared and the clouds came over. With a few spots of rain a hot, moonless black duvet was drawn over us.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Escape from the Sahara

Bends in the road, curves, ups an downs, earth and green stuff, palm trees, even water, this wasn't desert any more! We turned right out of Tiznit and climbed in to the hills towards Igherm. The road swept and rolled through villages and and over summits, mostly good quality Tarmac it was an endless rollercoaster compared to the thousands of miles we'd just ridden. Contrary to the warnings though it was hot, very hot, one local told us the weather was unstable just now, it had just been raining hard the other day.
And it was nice to feel welcome again, kids shouting and waving and groups of village elders returning sageful nods. Only the women who seemed to be working hard everywhere were more reserved; in the first village all wearing black with gold hems, covering their faces as we approached and from there on dressed like bright coloured Japanese ninjas, all but the eyes veiled up. A lot of villages were dotted with billboards showing photos of the king.
As evening drew around us we found a track to a phone mast on a ridge and getting away from the road. Ruins of what looked like a walled farm complex sat on the summit and all around us were piles of eroded rocks, riddled with veins of hard quartz like medical teaching aids. Again we slept under the stars, this time looking across several valleys and villages.
The sound of a savage battle awoke us, it was impossible to tell who was winning; the donkeys or the cockerels in the villages below, both were making equally good efforts! With golden sun breaking across the rocks we got an early start to cross the Atlas mountains. Gert and Remmie has texted to say they would be in Marrakech the previous night so we arrange to meet them around midday, what we didn't factor in was the road ahead! 200kms, mostly single track, partly gravel, often victim to land slides and subsidence and climbing to 2400m up a near vertical wall of rock. This wasn't built by the Swiss, nothing was blasted through, it clung to the outside edge of every projection and only sometimes was a 10 inch wall there to hide a little of the fate awaiting the unwary! I've ridden a good share of Alpine roads but this was the first mountain pass that really gave me a touch of the vertigo wobbles.
With luck but also a little disappointment we found the northern side of the pass to be gentler gradients and easier on the tyres, brakes and survival instincts. It unwound from hairpins to rollercoaster to plains and by early after noon we arrived in the outskirts Marrakech.
Wide streets and the gps it was quite easy to find Camping de Relais where we had planned to meet Gert and Remmie. But as we got nearer we spotted them going the other way, a note left at the camp site said they had headed in to town and were then going to head south, it didn't look like our paths were going to run parallel after all. Right after that the KTMs fuel pump problem seemed to return, it was popping and banging and cutting out again, we just managed to limp in to the camping site.
Relais wasn't cheap but we treated ourselves to a 'nomad' tent, the PVC smelt like a bouncy castle in the sun but it was nice inside and over looked the blooming garden and pool. But one thing more than the others we were very aware of was this place was hot, we were baking without any breeze! In the slightly cooler evening we hauled the left tank off again and the fuel pump out, no obvious signs of plastic shavings this time but we tried giving the tank a good wash out just in case. After a swim the next morning I took the other tank off as well and began a battle that would last until the afternoon to pull the subframe straight and get the tanks fitting right without pinching the fuel hoses again. Luckily Chris came over to say hello, a young guy driving a 4x4 Transit camper south on his own (brave lad!) with an awning to get out the sun and a selection of bigger tools! He even had a bottle jack to spread Robin's pannier rack back out! Parked beside Chris were Jason and Claire in a most impressive UniMog camper that looked like it could go pole to pole without even noticing, their site is
By the time everything was shipshape again the head of the day was intense. Riding in to town to see the ruined Palac de Balaii, amongst the chaos of Marakech traffic with scooters coming out of both armpits, was all just too much and we gave up, settling for a walk instead and trip to the local supermarket. Luckily they sold both beer and ice-cream and after two lollies and riding back through a thunderstorm we had a barbecue with Chris, part way making up for all the beer denied to us over the last few weeks.