Mountain madness, an encounter with a dangerous desert dog and a plague of locusts! All pretty run-of-the-mill for your average cycle tourist in Morocco. We are now in the desert, with dunes and camels and all, and are resting up in the sizeable town of Laayoune before tackling the next section down the coast towards Mauritania. But we should begin at the beginning….
Firstly, many thanks for all the “get well” messages for Luke, who recovered well from his ‘flu in Marrakesh, allowing us to leave on Sunday 14th and make good progress across the plains to the foothills of the High Atlas. In Asni, we stayed in a cold and very funny youth hostel – dilapidated and spartan and not at all like the efficient German establishments that we remember from childhood holidays – certainly no big breakfasts with unlimited hot chocolate to drink! Then it was on to Ijoukak the next day, through increasingly mountainous terrain and another cold night in a room above a cafe. In the morning it was perishingly cold, the proprietor was huddled in his djellabah by a brazier and the fields were frost-rimed when we set off just after 7am! That day involved a 40km uphill ride to the Tizi’n’Test pass, which is at 2100m, and a route that is famous for the breathtaking scenery and precipitousness of the road! We stopped off mid-morning at the mosque of Tin Mal, built by Abd El Moumen, one of the founders of the Almohad dynasty, around 1153. It’s a chunky, fortified structure, obviously built as much as a stronghold as a place of worship. Since 1990, a restoration project has been underway but progress is slow due to lack of funding. Nonetheless, a fair portion of the interior has been renovated and graceful rows of supporting arches are in place for the cedarwood roof which will, the curator hopes, one day be put in place. For the time being, two owls happily roost in one of the cupolas, but they were looking bleary eyed at that time of day and none too pleased to see visitors! The road then wound up, hugging the mountainside and passing the odd collection of mud houses, huge flocks of agile rock-climbing goats and stands of yellow-leaved walnut and poplar. The views back towards Ijoukak, with snowy peaks all around, were fabulous and worth all the effort – the traffic-free road was so exhilarating, in fact, that we were (honestly) glad to be gaining more and more height! Just below the pass, there was ice on the road and we needed our fleeces and waterproofs as we sat at the cafe at the top, drinking hot mint tea! The wind-chill was pretty severe on the descent too, as we zoomed down the other side along a road which Anna and the guide book both describe as “horrendously dramatic” Anna gripped the handlebars and tried not to look down as the road dropped 1600m in less than 30km, while Luke thought it was pretty much the best thing ever….! Some people just have a head for heights! The temperature soon rose again as we were back down at more “normal” altitudes and we had an easy day across the Souss Plain to Taroudannt, which had a distinctly different atmosphere compared to the northern Moroccan towns. Everyone seemed very relaxed and the flowing blue robes of ex-nomads from the nearby desert were everywhere.
We thought the High Atlas goats were agile enough, but the day we left Taroudannt we saw them climbing trees! At first we put it down to heat-induced hallucination, but more and more child-shepherds stood patiently watching in the shade as their flocks clambered in the branches a good few metres off the ground! The children are also very agile here, especially when running alongside the bikes shouting “bonjour bonbon” and “donnez-moi un stylooooooooo/dirham” – some even mistake the GPS on the handlebars for a mobile phone and ask us to give it to them as a present! It’s impossible to remonstrate as their French is limited to a few “give me” phrases and our Arabic is, well, limited to a few “give me” phrases as well…. But switching to a higher gear and waving as you pick up speed usually sees them off! Someone from the Olympic selection committee for Morocco should trawl the rural roads around there and build up a world-beating athletics team – there is more than enough raw talent. The Souss is also a big bird watching area, with thousands of migrants resting between High and Anti Atlas and fluttering colourfully between the shrubs. By the end of 18th, though, we were once again leaving the easy going flat roads of the plain and climbing up into the Anti Atlas, the third and final of Morocco’s three major mountain chains. We were feeling pretty smug at having knocked off the Tizi’n’Test pass without too much bother and as a result were a bit unprepared for what lay ahead. The next day consisted of 70km of uphill roads, winding on and on and hugging the mountainside. The views were dramatic – a flooded village where a new dam had been constructed, palm tree-tops still visible above the water line, then spectacular gorges and ruined kasbahs perched on flat mesa tops. The road was narrow in places and lacking any sort of barriers despite the drop – thankfully there was little traffic! Little furry rodents, striped like chipmunks, were a hazard. They kept scurrying across the road and diving in front of wheels – keen to escape no doubt, as they are destined for the tagine pot if caught by locals. Tagine de sibsib is apparently delicious as the ground squirrels feed on sweet argan nuts and almonds. Three German ladies on a day-trip from Agadir in a taxi insisted on having a photo shoot, and were quite disbelieving that we had actually managed to haul ourselves up the roads in question. They seemed reassured when they found out we were from the UK – obviously considering this sort of madness an acceptable part of the genetic make-up of the British! We passed them again thirty kilometres later, by which time they had enjoyed lunch and sightseeing in Tafraoute and were on their way BACK to Agadir – very, very demoralising! It was very cold by the time we reached the final pass at 1500m in the fading light and we had a rather “exciting” descent in the dusk to Tafraoute – especially as Luke’s dynamo refused to work! Thankfully Anna’s was powerful enough for two and we have head torches.
We spent a very lazy day in Tafraoute, which is a small place on the edge of a dusty and huge palmery with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. The campsite was surrounded by huge outcrops of pink granite and weirdly sculptured boulders, some an incredible shape. The sunset was breathtaking and, from the tent in the middle of a very chilly night (still at 1000m), the stars incredibly bright in the inky sky. Too bad we don’t know what all the constellations are! The climbing wasn’t over yet, though, and we had another hilly day through fantastic rocky valleys and over another pass, from the top of which we could finally see the sea again! So once again darkness was falling as we reached our destination for the day – Tiznit. We had an interesting few days along the coast, with nothing extraordinary in terms of scenery but plenty of human interest – a cyclist from France who spends several months a year touring (2005 sees him tackling England, Scotland and Wales for 3 months), living in Morocco for around 6 months a year. Then a group of NGO workers from the US, down in Sidi Ifni on the coast “catching some waves” (aka surfing) who spoke fluent Arabic and invited us to eat with them and their Moroccan friends by their beach camp fire. Next a travelling salesman of the traditional caravan and camels variety, who had given up a good job as a geology teacher in Marrakesh to become a long-distance trader as he found the former profession too restricting and bureaucratic! Perhaps we will bump into him next year when he is buying goods in Mali and flogging Moroccan babouches for twice their original price….? From Sidi Ifni we tackled a very rough piste inland to an old French Foreign Legion camp in the middle of nowhere. It took us almost ten hours to cover less than 50km, and the concentration needed to avoid falling off was pretty exhausting! We met a very kind Dutch couple in a 4×4 who offered to carry our panniers so we could ride unladen to the fort, but being puritanical about the whole thing we said no…and regretted it a lot over the next few hours! At the fort itself, ruined and romantic looking as we arrived in the setting sun, a Frenchman runs a somewhat touristy campsite and an acclaimed restaurant. We slept in a spacious nomad tent – who needs a penthouse apartment, huh – but passed up on the camel tagine and instead cooked for ourselves, taking care not to set light to the rug walls of the tent with our petrol stove…..! There was considerable relief when we reached tarmac the next morning, 7 km from the fort, vowing never to take unpaved roads again if we have the choice. We arrived in Guelmin very thirsty as the water from the fort, although conscientiously filtered, was too salty to be drinkable! We met an amazing number of gregarious individuals in the town who spoke numerous languages, and had either worked abroad or were desperate to do so. Rather unfortunately they seemed not to talk to one another, so that the keen young student talking about the gold-paved streets of London and his “one ambition in life” being to obtain a work permit for the EU could not benefit from the advice of disillusioned mechanic we met. He was on holiday in his homeland, his place of residence now Modena in Italy, where he worked for the tractor manufacturer Landini. He hated Europe because of the expense, the awful weather and cuisine (hang on, in Italy???) and the constant pressures of work and society. Here in Morocco, he said, you can “live like the President” on 20 dirhams (£1.50) a day and you can get up for work at 10am. All this was a bit of an exaggeration, but it was evident that his emigration had left him dissatisfied and lonely despite the material wealth it had brought him. Hopefully his visa-hungry compatriots will not make the same mistake.
The day began well from Guelmin to Tan Tan – we were pleased to be finally making progress south and excited about getting into the desert. For most of the morning we raced along at a good pace, and were very disciplined about food stops as we had 130km to cover. Then – disaster! As we were speeding along at 25 kph, a dog appeared on the left. At first it paid no attention, but then started to give chase with Anna desperately trying to zap it with the Dog Dazer. Just as we were getting away, and it was inches from Anna’s heels, her bike clipped Luke’s back pannier and she lost control, crashing to the floor at high speed. The dog was stunned by the sudden noises eminating from its quarry and thankfully scarpered, as Luke came running back down the road to try and pick up the panniers, water bottle and bike from the road. The dynamo light had been knocked off and Anna’s clothes ripped and covered with tar from the road. As ever, Moroccan helpfulness was near at hand, with half a dozen worried motorists helping to get Anna to the side of the road and plying us with water and offers of lifts as well as ibuprofen gel and painkillers – from a passing pharmacist, who happened to be driving his van through the desert! It was two hours before Anna felt well enough to get on the bike, and the remaining 70km were pretty painful. As the light began to fade, every rock or plastic bag began to look like an attacking hound, so that Anna was a bit of a nervous wreck by the time we finally reached Tan Tan. Matters weren’t helped as we were stopped by two policemen and endured a laborious form-filling operation – all foreigners have their movements logged in these regions. Nonetheless, after a few days of rest in Tan Tan we both felt much better, especially as we were both able to phone our parents. Emails are great but it’s even better to be able to hear a familiar voice you are missing.
After Tan Tan we were expecting long flat stretches of boring desert, which sounds pretty dull, but you can have too much excitement sometimes and we were looking forward to just getting some distance done. We covered 25km in the first hour – all going well – then started to notice strange piles of red stuff by the side of the road. Another ten kilometres on and the piles were getting higher and the things were alive and airborne – LOCUSTS! The rest of the day was one long battle as the plague engulfed us, with literally millions and millions of creatures in various states of “aliveness” battering us and whirling about in the strong breeze. A french couple in a 4×4 stopped to warn us that things got worse further south, which they did. By lunchtime the road was inches deep in a pink goo and every time a lorry went by (going fast to try and outrun the swarms) we were sprayed with insects. Headscarves and tucked in clothes helped, but they land and latch on to you, the panniers, anything that they can get hold of. It was all pretty unpleasant and slowed us down a lot so that we arrived in a little place called Akhfenir – the first habitation after Tan Tan – at nearly 7pm. Thankfully we found a small hotel with secure windows so relatively few locusts had found their way inside! The next morning we set off fearing a repeat of the locust nightmare, but luckily the wind had been blowing strongly all night and the plague was well on the way north (apparently it has now hit the Canary Islands). Still a lot of very smelly dead locusts though and a few airborne stragglers. Life seems rarely to be easy though, and the usual northerly wind was absent with a strong breeze blowing from the south instead – a big headwind. The wind howled, sand streamed across the road, whipped up by passing lorries. Headscarves on again, then, to protect us from being sandblasted. It was miserably slow progress – down to only 5 miles per hour at some points, so we were fed up and tired out when we arrived in Tarfaya in the dark. It’s a very small place, with very sandy streets and an economy based almost entirely on fishing. It did also used to be a stop over for the Aeropostale pilots, including Antoine de Sant Exupery, but nowadays it’s just sand and the smell of fried fish! The locals do a good line in huge, sugary doughnuts though, so we ate quite a number of them to cheer ourselves up. While Anna was trying to wash off locust-gunk and dust in the hotel’s one cold shower (which flooded as the drains were blocked with sand), there was a power cut so she was left in the dark, with the odd locust and a number of cockroaches scuttling around her feet. We thought we’d tell you all this to try and stem the tide of envious “your trip is so exotic!” emails! You have to laugh at how ridiculous it all is, sometimes….
So, from Laayoune we had hoped to take a little-used inland route via Bou Kraa and Galtat Zemmour into Mauritania. The upshot of our investigations here is that because of the military presence in the region, political sensitivity and (possible) smugglers in the area the authorities strongly advise people not to go that way. There are mines from the Polisario conflict which are still live, and we would have to obtain a sort of authority or laisser passer – we can’t even find out exactly who from and it would all take a lot of time. So the next part of our journey involves three 5-day stretches down the coast, stopping in Dakhla, crossing the border at Nouadhibou and then it’s on to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital where we will most probably spend Christmas. It will still be quite hard, with 100km or more between settlements, many of which consist of a few houses and one or two cafes but, we hope, neither dogs nor locusts…