Tan Tan

We had a very long day planned for our first day in Western Sahara. We wanted to ride all the way to the famous camping Le Roi Bedouin near Laayoune but my battery had different plans. Instead we had a 3 hour stop in Tan Tan where local mechanics fit me out with a “batterie d’origine” which is at best Chinese and most likely what they equip their 3 wheel trucks with. But it works!

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i have to give a special thanks to Steve who contacted me after seeing our blog on the ABR forum. Steve told us about a nasty little trick the police plays on unsuspecting out-of-towners. There is a concealed stop sign at a round about on the way out and a policeman hides and catches anyone who fail to see it. He charges 40€ for it! We were warned and managed to avoid being caught, unlike two cars of Senegalese people we had met at s petrol station earlier… Thanks for the heads up Steve!

The delay meant that we stayed the night in Tarfaya after the hottest day so far. What we saw of Western Sahara was far from what we had expected. Of course it’s long, dry and empty but we found it quite beautiful. The roads follows the Atlantic and now and then overlooks magnificent bays and kilometres of sandy beach. Our second day wasn’t even very hot; the ocean breeze was welcome and the north easterly wind meant it was in our back and made the ride easy. Also, there is no lack of petrol stations; we had been a little concerned about this.

Ocean breeze

We then made good progress through to Sidi Ifni, an old Spanish enclave which had only been hand back over to Morocco in 1969! Sidi Ifni is a seaside town popular with surfers and which has a very laid back atmosphere. The walls are whitewashed and doors painted blue.

20121107-094142.jpg We loved the sea-view room we found (Hotel Suerte Loca, room 12) and decided to spend two night and recharge our batteries. We swam for the first time on this trip but the current was so strong that we couldn’t go very far. We also attracted some attention as Louise was only one of three women in a bikini and some others were in Burkinis (burka bikini). That being said i think we weren’t out o bounds as this Was quite a laid-back place. We met Garth, an Australian doing what any respectable Ozzie does; travelling. He had spent some time volunteering in Cameroon to improve his French and was now visiting Morocco before going to eastern Africa and then meeting up with his girlfriend in Europe. I really like that in Australians and I think we should encourage our youths to all do gap years to see the world.

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Into the desert part 2

The roof terrace at Bikers Home was a great place to see Ouarzazate waking up. The colours at dawn and dusk in this part of the world are beautiful. We ambitiously set out to do a 65km track that Peter had recommended but after a couple of miles decided to backtrack. The track would have been too heavy on the bikes and would have delayed us too much. Instead we took the longer, Tarmac-ed road and didn’t regret one bit. It took us through amazing desert, very close to the Algerian border.

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The people here in the Djebel Bani were predominantly berbers, have darker skin and, we found, were much more approachable. The desert can have many faces and we rode through hilly black stretches, followed by long orange flats bordered by tall mountains. We then reached and followed a very wide dry river bed which drew a ribbon of palm trees through the valley. This is where we decided to camp; under a sky full of stars and miles away from anyone. So we thought though because the next morning, as we were ready to leave a man on a moped appeared from nowhere, parked his mount against a palm tree, shook our hands and disappeared a little further. We had no idea what he was doing but obviously this is where he spent his day…

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Into the desert

The following morning we woke up to glorious sunshine; we had a lump in our throats as we finally put some clothes out to dry in the sun. We then headed out of town towards the high atlas. The roads were amazing, the scenery a warm terra-cotta colour dotted with bright greens from palm trees. Up the mountain and through the passes we were then surrounded by deep valleys and waterfalls. Our road sometimes hung to the cliff’s edge and wound it’s way through magnificent vistas. On the other side, after the famous Tizi’n Tchica pass and its 1000 hairpin bends, we followed a Oued (river) towards the vast expanses of what would become the desert. The landscape stretched for tens of miles with orangey/yellow stones, bordered in the distance by rough, abrupt mountains. This was the gateway to the desert and the realisation that we had ridden our trusty (?) bikes all the way to this Mars-like place was amazing.

We reached Ouarzazate and stayed at the famous “bikers home” where Peter and Zeineb cooked us a delicious meal and provided great dinner conversation.

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The Good Samaritan

The next morning, as we thought things couldn’t get worse we had to put on our wet riding gear and head down to Marrakech. But as we left our parking spot Louise complained about a grinding noise from her back brakes. We checked and the brake pads, (which we had checked before departure) were completely worn… There was no way we would ride to Marrakech like that, but where to find a bike mechanic who knows about anything bigger than a moped, in Casa, at 8am? With no real plan we rode around looking for a garage but gave up pretty quickly.

20121103-212835.jpgWe stopped and looked at each other in desperation when our guardian angel Rachid appeared out of nowhere. In his late 50s with a shy smile and bad French, Rachid asked if he could help. We explained the problem and he told us “let me get my moped, follow me; whatever happens i’ll stay with you until we get this sorted”. In about 20min we were sitting at a cafe across the street from a local mechanic, waiting for it to open. When they told us they were out of croissant Rachid jumped on his moped to go find us some; how kind is that!? Once the brake pads were replaced with shiny new ones, Rachid even showed us the way out of Casa and put us on the road to Marrakech. The only thing he ever asked from us was would we come stay and eat at his house. I wish I could thank him more than I did. I hope he understood how grateful we were for his help and his time. He took it upon himself to help lost westerners on big bikes with a problem to solve. He stuck with us for 3 hours and was happy that he could help. Thanks Rachid!

We rode the whole day in a thunderstorm with very strong side winds which forced us to avoid the highway and stick to the smaller, slower roads. We saw next to nothing of the changing landscape as we were 100% focused on the riding but we did notice how everything in our peripheral vision became a warm shade of red, the colour of Marrakech.

We spent 36hours in the city and frankly, for both of us it was enough. We thoroughly appreciated the peace and quiet of Hotel Le Toulousain but were underwhelmed by how dirty the medina was and how aggressive the touts were. We also spent as little time as necessary on Jema el Fna with its awful shows of monkeys on tight leashes being forced on tourists’ shoulders for money and street sellers looking for the most vulnerable bus-tour/sandal-and-sock-wearing victim. I may sound harsh about Marrakech and I’m sure that there’s is much more to it but one needs to dig deep to find authenticity and disinterested kindness. We did have a wonderful dinner in a beautiful haven of a restaurant where we met a friend who happened to be in town.

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Lion river

Oued Zem was a real crossroad town and somehow it was a happening place for locals. At least the place next door to our hotel room… I woke up at night wondering how it was possible for men to be so rowdy without booze or women! Maybe Muslim men have better imagination than us westerners.

We woke up early and made our way to Rabat in time to collect our Mauritanian visas from the embassy. We found our way easily but the rain was still haunting us…we stopped at a service station outside of town to dry off and eat but of course, being Eid it meant no where was selling food. We managed to buy some over priced bits and pieces for a make shift lunch and were allowed to eat it in the cafe with our mint tea.

When we joined the small queue of people we had first seen at the Embassy when we came the first time Louise was in real travellers mode and decided to drop her bike trousers to dry her long-johns. She did ask around if that bothered anyone to which she was told “it don’t bother me but don’t try this in Mauritania!”.

Visas in hand we felt we were finally moving on after the delay. We could now focus on making progress south towards warmer climes. We high-fived each other and head out south west towards Casablanca where we would spend the night. Our curse was still not over and we were rained on horribly. Our wet clothes which had tried to dry were now soaked again and as we entered Casa our spirits were at their lowest. The traffic was unbelievable and the visibility nil. It was like if someone was hosing us down. I had a low speed collision with a moped rider who was trying to push me out of the way… I won. To raise our spirits we treated ourselves to some nice seafood and even had wine! We thus broke a 10 day dry spell!

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Global warming

Unexpected deluvial rain forced us to spend 36hours in Azrou. On our way there, as we were climbing and gaining altitude we entered the worst fog I’ve ever seen and then into a deluge. The visibility was so bad that we didn’t see the “St. Hubert” vista point I was keen to have my picture taken at. We were soaked through and through when we reached Hotel Salam. It was so cold and damp that we had to find a laundrette to dry our clothes. Even that didn’t help much…

We decided not to leave Azrou the next day because it was still pouring. Instead we spent our time drinking coffees and mint tea at the cafe where they had wifi. We were invited to tea at Mohamed’s, a local mountain guide. It was fascinating to see how him and his family lived in their traditional house in the medina. The first thing that struck me was how nice and warm it was! The thick walls of their old house kept warmth in in the winter and out in the summer. Why don’t we build like this anymore? No need for heating… Mohamed also showed us the lamb he had slaughtered the day before. It was skinned and dry, hanging in the kitchen. One leg was already missing as it was to be the dinner. We were told of how, on the day of Eid, Muslims do not eat the meat of the animal. Instead they make skewers with the fat and liver and steam the brain which they eat with onions and tomatoes. The meat is to be eaten with friends and families during the next week.

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On Saturday we finally departed and were not unhappy to see the back of Azrou. I’m sure it’s very pretty in the sunshine but its a bit bleak in the rain! The heavy rains had made off-roading impossible so, after seeing Barbary Apes in the Cedar Forest, we headed south towards Khenifra and were met by beautiful sunshine. We spotted a couple with a BMW GS Adventure with a Horizons Unlimited sticker on the side of the road and stopped for a chat. Nigel and Sharon were on a month tour of Morocco and funnily enough had been at the same HUBB meeting in Ripley in July! As a matter of fact they had been speakers, presenting their trip to Nordkapp in Norway.

20121029-130444.jpgAfter some friendly chat, some pictures and a promise to see each other at the next meeting we continued on a B road towards Boujad. Here we crossed rolling hills bordered by mountains in the distance. The landscape had changed a lot since the alpine air of Azrou. We were now in a much more arid section which reminded Louise of Arizona.

20121029-130550.jpgThe colour palette was provided by the dry yellow hills, the white clouds and the royal blue sky. We crossed many Oueds (river beds) which must had been rivers only days ago; the mud and puddles were a good indication that it had rained here too. We both agreed that it was one o our best days riding so far. The roads were made for dual sports bikes, the landscape was spectacular and the locals very friendly, as always. We found a hotel in Oued Zem where we were told that we wouldn’t find any restaurant open because of Eid. In rural parts of the country Eid is celebrated for longer. We therefore went straight to the Souk and bought supplies of bread, cheese and tomatoes for dinner in the hotel room. We did participate in the local evening event though, which is to walk around the park and pond, while seeing and being seen.

Louise made a quick calculation and we spent 270Dhm (£19) on food and accommodation today, that’s way below our daily budget and shows that Morocco can be enjoyed on a shoestring if you wish to.

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Rue Thami Lamdouar

The last stretch of road to Rabat brought us back to the 21st century. The back roads we took between Ouezzane and Souk El Arba du Rharb saw us in real rural, agricultural Northern Morocco. We rode through beautiful rolling hills with bare fields and beaten road surface. We crossed tiny tin shack villages and had our first picnic on the side of the road – sardines, bread and bananas – sheltered from the strong wind by our bikes. We then emerged at the back end (literally; the dumping ground) of Souk El Arba and saw what can only be described accurately as a souk… hence the name I suppose. Thousands of people were trading goods and food, mechanics were wrenching on old cars and tractors and no one looked both ways before crossing. The number of fat sheep being pulled around must have rivalled that of turkeys in America in this Thanksgiving season. The difference is that for Eid, the Muslim holiday, Moroccans buy a whole live sheep and push, pull and carry it all the way home! And there must be something in the air because none of them go easily; I reckon they know what’s coming. On a different note I spotted booths for public scribes (ecrivain public)! Talk about a different era…

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On arrival in Rabat we crashed at our hotel, Hotel Central (past it’s colonial glory but adequate and well situated). The road had been exhilarating but long and exhausting. We also knew that we needed to do the dreaded visa procedure at the Mauritanian Embassy the next morning. Most overlanders will have a story to tell about this. What we had heard didn’t sound good at all. We’d been told in Chefchaouen that they had stopped issuing visas, that an American biker had to drop his plans of riding in sub-Saharan Africa because of this. Tommy of http://www.rtwdream.com was at the embassy 12 days ago and wrote on his blog that it took him several attempts and that hundreds of people had also tried their luck amid scenes of chaos…a knife was nearly drawn too! So with this in mind we woke up at 5:30am so as to be first in line and secure a “hearing” with the guy with the rubber stamp and the shiny suit during the Embassy’s working hours; 9:30am-11am. Upon arrival we were indeed the first and were joined slowly by about a grand total of 12 very friendly overlanders like us, all with interesting travel stories to tell! We all had a nice chat, shared dried dates and the more seasoned helped the others fill in the paperwork… We spoke at length with Robert, a retired South African who had sold his house in Scotland and was making his way down to Cape Town on a Ural side-car outfit. Robert has no planned route and all the time in the world.

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So our time outside number 6 Rue Thami Lamdouar couldn’t have been a nicer experience! I think our timing was good though. Tomorrow is the Eid; this probably means that everyone who had to go back to their families south of the Sahara were in the same queue as Tommy; those that showed up today were not desperate to get home on time for the celebrations.

With our passports safe at the embassy waiting for another stamp (and, I’m sure clearance from the Mauritanian secret service database…right!) we set out to sort something that had been bothering us since our entry; Moroccan bike insurance. We have all medical and travel insurance but third party motorcycle insurance needs to be purchased in Morocco. We had planned to buy it at the border but all the agencies were already closed. We then thought we could get them in Chefchaouen but none would insure us; “only in Fes and Tetouan” was the common answer. So we walked a thousand miles and then a thousand more to find an insurance company in Rabat that would insure our foreign bikes. After many attempt at finding the elusive “assurances Hazzan” we came across the lovely Housna, a 22y/o computing student who told us she didn’t know where it was but she would walk with us and help us find it. How nice! After a 30min walk and a good chat with Housna we finally found it! (FYI for overlanders it’s Axa assurance 87 avenue de la Resistance assazam@menara.ma) They relieved us of 1200Dhm and the worry of riding uninsured.

We could then enjoy what all the walking had made obvious to us; Rabat is a really nice city! I’m impressed by it; it is clean, has beautiful colonial architecture and a laid back attitude despite its bustling energy. The best in my mind is that it’s people are extremely friendly and at no point were we hassled by anyone. To the contrary, everyone wants to help or give us something to taste and there’s lots of traditional goodies around for Eid. I would recommend visiting Rabat to anyone who wants to experience the real urban morocco; as I write we have just come back from a long walk in the huge medina which by far beats that of Marrakech. When I was there 6 years ago I was disappointed at how much of a tourist attraction it was, with all the negative implications. Rabat, on the other hand, is authentic and very friendly. No hassle.

Oh, and I forgot we dipped our toes in the Atlantic Ocean; pretty cool to have ridden until here.

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Welcome to Africa (23 October)

With the bikes sorted we made our plans to head south and make up for lost time. Destination Granada. Out of Madrid the roads started to become more interesting. Eventhough the wind was still strong and biting the sight of olive plantations along the road gave us the satisfaction that we were indeed making progress towards warmer climes. We then crossed the Sierra Nevada with its stunning snow covered mountain tops and arrived at our campsite for the night. We received a very warm welcome and were told that, had we arrived an hour earlier, there would’ve been paella for us…

We were glad we are carrying earplugs with us because the site was much closer to the busy road than we had expected!

Granada to Algeciras was a real high; the first part reminded us of the morning of our ride in California with Walt and Cindy Hastings as we could feel a Mediterranean air but were surrounded by low fog. This was followed by a 50km stretch in him drizzle until we came down the mountains and approached Malaga.

Here the weather became hot and the vistas opened up to a majestic Mediterranean Sea bathed in sun and populated by sailing boats. We both cheered in our intercoms; we had made it to the Mediterranean! Not a great achievement if you are used to driving down with the family for the summer but it was a real milestone for us on our 650cc bikes we commute to work with!

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We had planned to cross straight to Tangier but the ferry timetable dictated that we should land in Ceuta; the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan side. We had been warned of the touts who make the crossing a nightmare but frankly, with a big smile some jokes and a determined air we managed to be left in peace. I think that looking Moroccan helped too! In fact, the first thing I was asked when we got the bikes through customs was whether I am Moroccan; a question I was asked a 100 times during my last visit and have already been asked a dozen times in the last couple of days.

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Once I told the customs official “tonight in Chefchaouen and then all the way to The Gambia” he smiled, waved us through and wished us a safe voyage.

That’s where Africa began! As soon as we were on Moroccan soil things changed rapidly. The roadsides were populated by people selling everything and anything. Cars were mostly old Mercedes Benz 240 which had probably spent their youths as taxis in Germany but were now on a second or third life. Repair and reuse. People changed too, faces were darker, women wore veils and men robes. We also saw hundreds of sheep and goats whose days were clearly numbered (its Eid on Friday) and a few donkeys who probably wishes their end was nearer. Speaking of fauna, Louise spotted a camel! I didn’t though and am pretty upset with that; I usually spot things first…

So after a long day on the saddle we finally made it to the Rif mountains and the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. We found a guard for our bikes, Abdul, and our hostel for the next two nights, Riad Baraka. Funnily enough, as we were speaking to Joe, the owner, he told us that he gets adventure bikers now and then and asked us if we’d heard of “Tim Cullis who wrote a great review about this place which has increased business ever since. I over-heard him speak of Morocco and there’s no doubt this guy is an expert”.

So here we are, enjoying Chefchaouen for two nights. Unfortunately we have to go to Rabat tomorrow for a day or two to get our Mauritanian visas. We’ll take the small picturesque routes but it does mean that we’ll have to miss Tim’s recommended route to Fez.

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