Hello all! We have had, as ever, rather an eventful time since the last update, but will try to limit the length of this instalment for the sake of your collective eyesight… We are now resting up in Marrakech, where it’s rather hot and dusty and tomorrow will be setting off into the High Atlas mountains where we may encounter snow – it’s certainly a land of climatic contrasts.
So, we are now finally getting further south after a rather circuitous route from Fes to Marrakech. From Fes we cycled south to a small town in the Middle Atlas mountains called Azrou, through very pleasant oak and pine woods and up rather less pleasant steep hills; The next morning things took a turn for the worse though, with both of us waking up with bad colds and Luke’s bike with a flat tyre. While replacing the tyre we managed to snap the tyre levers, so had to make a foray out to find a mechanic or a bike shop. Despite the fact that we are in a Muslim country, where Friday is Sunday and therefore Sunday is supposedly a weekday (if you see what I mean), the place was like a ghost town and the few people out on the street said with incredulity “mais, dimanche c’est le jour de repose!”;
Several hours later, with mission accomplished thanks to a mechanic who looked frightened out of his wits by the appearance of two foreigners on strange bikes, we finally set off. Thankfully the landscape was a bit flatter, and there was only a gentle breeze coming over the plain, with plenty of golden-leafed poplars and thickets of rosehip to provide a windbreak. We were feeling thoroughly miserable by the time we reached Khenifra on a flat, dusty plain where the locals seemed rather surly and even the sheep had a tendency to stare at us in hostile fashion. So we blew the budget on a luxury hotel (NB that by this I mean one with hot water), and stayed there the next day. By the time we left we had made friends with the waiter in the attached restaurant and been shown his entire photo collection (“me as a waiter in Agadir”, “me as a waiter in Tangier”, “me as a waiter in Rabat” etc etc). He was very nice though and kept giving us bowls of harira to aid recovery, as well as a large goody bag to keep us going on the road the next day! We managed an early start, just as well as it was another very hilly day, but with fabulous scenery, beginning with dry, pinkish gorges and then on to an upland plain later in the day, with bright blue skies with scudding clouds and larks and kestrels in abundance. The road surface deteriorated seriously towards the end of the day as it was being “repaired” but progress was slow, I think, because of Ramadan. It’s not too easy cycling up a steep track that only has the bottom layer of hardcore and old patches of tarmac on it! Crawling at low speeds though, we did see a snake slither across right in front of our front wheels and had several opportunities to test the dog dazer. This is a gadget on Anna’s bike, which “works by emitting ultrasonic sound bursts which can help to prevent the approach of unwanted dogs at distances of up to 5 metres”. To date we had only employed it for entertainment – pretty good fun can be had zapping annoying poodles in cities and it works on babies too (errr, allegedly). Anyway, last week it worked to spectacular effect on one hound, which yelped and hurtled a full ten metres back – much to Luke’s delight as he was nearer to it’s fangs at the time!
Exhausted after all the hills, dust and dogs we arrived in a small village at dusk, where thankfully there seemed to be rooms available above a cafe. The owner spoke only Arabic, but a French speaker, Oumar, was summoned and took Luke under his wing and on a tour of the village! Luke returned an hour later, having been introduced to most of Oumar’s very extended family in various houses around the village. Further enquiries revealed he had also been fed and given several mint teas and a bag of provisions – no wonder there was a wide smile! We demolished a heap of crunchy almond biscuits, halva/chocolate treats and roasted almonds, and half of an enormous flat loaf, still warm and crunchy. We were woken by the nearby mosque in the morning and so were away before 8am, barrelling along rapidly at first along golden plains with tiny black donkeys braying and hee-hawing like badly oiled gates. We wish we has a tape recorder sometimes – they really do make a funny noise. The weather took a turn for the worse late in the day, with a strong headwind and drizzle in the air, so we were exhausted by 2pm and set up camp next to the road on the only available patch of flat ground. Numerous vehicles passed in the next few hours, offering us a bed for the night and advice about where to best put the tent/how to avoid bandits(!). It was a very wet, wild and windy night but otherwise uneventful, so thankfully we had a full compliment of bikes when we stuck our heads out of the tent at dawn. The descent to the coast was through a more mellow landscape with cork trees and shaggy, damp goats (smelling very piquant after the rain!), and we arrived in Rabat in the early afternoon of the 28th.
We stayed in the medina and visited Chellah, the site of Roman and later early Islamic occupation in Rabat, and one very wet afternoon went to the Archaeological Museum, which is very modern and well laid out and has some beautiful bronzes from Volubilis. There’s a slight lack of information though and they don’t seem to bother to move anything before painting the walls so big splashes of red paint abound on the artefacts (aaaaaaaaaaargh). Rabat is the capital of Morocco, but is not too big and, with so many other significant cities and centres of historic and cultural importance in the land, it’s no London. Just as well, after the isolation of the previous days – entering a major metropolis might have led to heart failure. We also both went to the public showers as the hotel had no hot water. These sound a bit like they might have dodgy connotations, but are actually very clean and bright and the staff were friendly towards, if somewhat amused by, visiting foreigners not knowing the ropes. It’s segregated, so the female section is quite an eye-opener as there is no need for women to cover themselves up from wrist to ankle as on the street. Old ladies sit around in voluminous pantaloons with buckets of steaming water and women with small babies attempt to keep their soaped-up charges from escaping!
Out of necessity we had to go to Casablanca in order to collect a parcel containing, among other things, our new tyres – which have more tread to cope with poor roads than the road tyres we’ve been using so far – and the West Africa Rough Guide. It’s quite a shock to have one guidebook covering the next 12 or so countries and 6 months after having used one for each of France, the Pyrenees, Spain and Morocco – all kindly donated by Rough Guides. Picking up the parcel was something of a bureaucratic nightmare. It had attracted the attention of the goods inspector – they obviously open all parcels to check for dodgy goods and work out any tax/duty payable. We thus had to go out to the airport to get the parcel, which involved a train ride, and then a very hot walk to the freight depot. Innumerable offices, bits of paper and rubber stamps later we got to see the inspector, who informed us that the problem was that part of Morocco was shown on the guidebook map as being held by the Polisario…. This is the organisation which has been at war with Morocco for some time in the Western Sahara and many Moroccans like to deny their existence and certainly not admit that they hold large areas of the territory… The annoying thing is that the guide doesn’t even cover Morocco but the country appears on the map. So he duly and ceremoniously ripped out the offending map, telling us we were very lucky not to have the whole thing confiscated. To add insult to injury, we were then charged a holding fee as the parcel had arrived three days before we did…. All most annoying and a “waste” of most of a day. The only silver lining was that the customs man took a liking to our trip and decided somewhat arbitrarily that no import duty was payable!
Anyway, the main thing is that we now have our new tyres – much, much better, and quite a relief as Luke’s rear tyre had in fact worn out just before Meknes, to be replaced by a cheap local one, and Anna’s were getting pretty bare – and the guidebooks for the next leg. Next came a 5 day ride along the coast south and west from Casablanca. There are some incredible views of the ocean, with the road itself usually following the clifftop and giving views down to big sandy beaches. We camped on the beach in Oualidia on Bonfire Night, and had a most pathetic bonfire which consisted of, err, putting a match to one crinkled sheet of newspaper!!! Still, the thought was there and the sunset and general loveliness of beach made up for the damp squib. Shame there was no toffee, though. Still, we have the end of Ramadan to look forward to, which is this coming Friday and is apparently a big feast!
The countryside away from the coast has been quite samey, with plenty of soil and donkeys and not too much else. We left the coast at Safi and made our way inland towards Marrakech and found ourselves in a large village at about 2pm on Sunday. We had been reliably informed there was at least one hotel here, but it transpired that there was one hostel of sorts for people from the country who come to “town”. Our self appointed guide decided we shouldn’t stay there as it wouldn’t live up to our high tourist expectations!!! So he duly invited us home with him. We would have resisted this kindness more strongly had we realised that, as well as a 3 year old, he had a 22 day old baby, so his poor wife probably could have done without two itinerant cyclists. Anyway, it was quite an evening – great in terms of insights into Moroccan family life and improving our French (and Arabic!!) but depressing given how poor they were and once we realised that our host thought we were a heaven sent source of money for his children’s upbringing….. So, it was quite exhausting, as was the next day’s very hot ride across the plains, and we are glad to have a nice quiet hotel to sleep in here in Marrakech! Dinner was courtesy (in part) of an old man we met while resting under an olive tree in a rare bit of shade on the way here. He produced two aubergines and a pepper which, together with pasta and tomatoes, made a nice change from tajines. Just as we were marvelling at another bit of spontaneous generosity he returned with an enamel tray on which were two glasses and a huge pot of tea, and proceeded to pour and pour and jabber in Arabic. Total mutual incomprehension but smiles all round, and the small grandson that appeared certainly seemed pleased with the chocolate chip biscuits we gave him!
Anyway….we are staying in the Hotel Ali right by the Djemaa el Fna, the big square where it all happens. The hotel is popular with trekking groups so we are planning to get reliable info from the resident guides about snow in the High Atlas before we set off tomorrow. We are fairly certain there will be snow on the peaks themselves so have given up on the idea of a few day’s trekking as we’re not equipped for winter conditions. So we will cycle up towards Asni and on to Ijoukak. Then the next day takes us over the Tizi n Test pass and down to wherever it is flat enough to put a tent! After that (I hope you’ve got your pins and maps ready…), on towards Taroudannt and Tiznit, then back to the coast at Sidi Ifni, which was a Spanish enclave until 1969, would you believe. Then south into the desert…