Monday, November 15, 2010

Desert tales

After the Gorges du Toudgha, we had a stop-over at Boumalne for the Gorges du Dades, and then headed for Qalaa-Mgouna, to try a mountain track through the Jebel Sagho. Starting very easily, it climbed up the first passes and then descended towards the tiny village of Tagmout, in a green valley between the peaks. While passing through, we are invited by Hadjou, Fatima and Mina to drink tea and why not stay for the night. Son, brother and husband Said welcomes me while Isabel gets dressed up in traditional berber attire. We spend a lovely night eating, pointing/smiling/discussing and playing cards. The bad feeling that haunted us just a few days ago has disappeared completely: these encounters are what makes travelling so rewarding. Our good mood is undestructible now, even when the following day the narrow and steep track leading out of the valley is packed with dusty, rolling and gliding boulders, hairpin loops and badly eroded sides. I drop the bike unexpectedly, breaking the left pillion footpeg, but luckily the tires strapped to the side prevent further damage. We spend 3 hours climbing just a few kms out of the valley (Isabel rightfully reminds me of my words: 10min down and 10min up with the bikes) and again we are thinking of giving up and going back, but then the track gets better and we cross the most beautiful and colourful landscapes, greatly rewarding us for the hard work.

After a few days in Agadir to recover from our adventures and arrange for the camera, we plan to head south, direction Mauretania. At the very last moment, Isabel discovers that visa regulations have changed recently, and visa are no longer available at the border. Instead, we have to get back to Rabat, some 550km back north. We curse about everyone potentially involved, but there is no way around this. Next morning, we take the highway to Rabat. Pretty empty. After 25km, we understand why: the first "aire de péage" shows up and it is more expensive than in France. No way locals can afford this, but the few fully loaded (international) trucks and modern limousines that we meet on the way to Marrakech. From there, the road is more crowded, but again we notice so many cars parking on the side lane. If not for a puncture or an overheated engine, it is for a human need or to pray. The government has found it useful to put signposts every few kms reminding drivers that it is forbidden to park on the side line...

Rabat is very Mediterranean, modern and expensive (including metered parking!), but its geographic location shows in many things, not at least in the heavily pouring rain. We don't mind heading back south after 24h with the visa for Mauretania well pasted into our passports. We spend the night south of Agadir and now enter into the Sahara. In Goulmim, we stumble upon a huge sheep market, in preparation of the celebration of Eid Al-Haida, when sheep are slaughtered and cooked for family, friends and all those who happen to be around or need it. PETA, or our own Belgian GAIA has some work to do here on the market...

  After the horrible concrete dromedaries at the entrance of Tan-Tan, we meet the first police check point. As always, they are very friendly and polite, but it will not be the last time we have to show our passports. We wonder why they want to know our profession, after all they have to take our answer for real, and what profession could possible be perceived as a threat?
The night falls when we enter the National Park of Khenifiss, with its magnificent sand dunes along the cliffs bordering the Atlantic. It would be a shame to continue now, so we just take a side track that seems a bit less sandy than all the others and hope for a nice camping spot with less wind and a bit out of sight from the road. It leads to a construction area however, and we are standing in doubt when Brahim shows up. He is supervising the construction works and comes for an inspection of the heavy equipment while the workers are home for the holiday season. He is as kind as to provide us with a construction shed for the night. The guard helps us with gas and water and keeps an eye on the motorbikes (and bulldozers and cranes) during the night.

 Only the next morning, we find out what a beautyful location we have chosen as our camp site: the construction works are needed to divert the road from a sandy oued. We start the day with an extensive photoshoot, before biting away the many many kilometers south. Seven hundred forty kilometers later, we have crossed the unearthy town of Tarfaya, the luxurious city of Laayoune, the pleasant village of Boujdour, only a handful of tiny villages and for the rest: endless empty plains, sandy valleys and rocky mountain plateaus on the left and the Atlantic on the right, as far as the eye can see. Our destination for today, Dakhla, is probably going to be a dusty border town, at least that is the impression we got from other travellers' stories and guidebooks. We are shocked to find a lovely lively little beach resort town, full of local tourists celebrating Saturday night around the souk and a small square near our hotel. Children are playing on the streets until late at night. We decide to take a day off here, before heading into the unknown.
Taking a day off at the peninsula of Dakhla with a beautiful view on the mainland.
For more pics, see the "Desert tales" album.
Tomorrow, we will try to cover the last 350km towards the Mauretanian border, and spend the night in Nouadhibou. Mauretania is officially to be avoided nowadays for tourists, even the main road between Nouadhibou and the capital Nouakchott, due to threats by Al-Qaida in the Maghreb to kidnap foreigners. There is no alternative, however, so we will take our chance. We had hoped to spend a few days in the country to visit its main attractions, but that will have to wait a few years it seems. We can only rely upon the advice of the authorities, regardless of what the atmosphere might be like among ordinary Mauretanians. After all, we have found out that it is sometimes necessary to consult the internet to know what is going on: while we were crossing the Western Sahara, the Moroccan army has raided a camp of political activists and there were several dozens of casualties. Not a single word at the police check points... the only rumour we heard was from a Belgian that we met on the road, but he didn't have any details. We hope for the best.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lots of sand and lots of cameras

We leave Erfoud by the old road, which is tarred for the first few kilometres and then becomes a broad well kept piste, which after some distance disperses in several tracks in the open plain. It's not difficult to find your way around here though, even without GPS, because the dunes can be seen from miles away. We aproach them from the north east, as we plan to camp in the dunes by ourselves far from all the guesthouses at the western side. The riding isn't difficult as the terrain resembles a large parking lot as Nicolaas likes to put it, level, vast and dark coloured. We pass some smaller dunes and have a pick nick in the golden sand. Plenty of time to reach the base of the Erg Chebbi and put up a tent if we continue at this pace.

We choose a large track that passes the erg at some distance, in stead of the one that passes just at the foot of the sandy hills as we reckon this wil be too difficult for the bikes. We'll follow it until the two converge a bit and then try to cross over. Shouldn't be too hard. Around 4 o'clock we give it a go. According to the GPS the two tracks are only 500metres apart now. We'l pobably be able to leave the bikes just beside the track and pitch our tent a bit further in the sand. Small dunes covered with grass are seperated by patches of a more rocky surface. At first all goes well, untill the rocky patches become fewer and fewer. In no time we each in turn get stuck in the sand. Nicolaas is able to free my bike when I help to push.
But his is heavier and the back wheel is seriously buried...  The first atempt just drives the wheel more into te sand. Different plan! Nicolaas suggests I better ride and he'll push. Said as done, I accelerate, the backwheel spins and raises a small sand storm for the camera which was still around his neck. A few blows seem to clear it from most of the grains and for the moment we give it no further attention. We have to tilt the bike, put it down and raise it again to get the wheel out of the sand just enough to push the bike out of the smal dune. A few minutes later we have to repeat the same routine again, and then another time...

At last we give up the idea of reaching the main dunes and decide to camp on one of the smaller ones. When we want to try to take a picture of the incredible starlit sky, the camera issue pops back into our minds. There seems to be sand inside the zoom mechanism. Endless reanimation efforts later we have to admit that we've broken our most important item. We end the day in a grim mood, we'll figure out what to do in the morning.

Early next morning, we try to make the best of it and walk up to the dunes, at least upto one of the smaller peaks. We wonder if breaking the perfect wind-made ridge is considered harming the environment... What to think of the fellow-motorbikers who ride up the dunes to the summit with their lightweight machines, or the 4WDs that leave tracks all over the place. The dunes cannot handle many more tourists, it seems, even if our side is completely abandoned at this hour.  Or not so... a caravan of dromedaries passes by, close to our tent. And a next one. They turn out to belong to a group of tourists that have spent the night in an "oasis", a nomad-style tourist camp high up in the dunes. We ask them to take our picture and they agree to send it to us. Their local guide reminds us of the existence of disposable cameras, that are available in the village of Merzouga, on the other side of the dunes.

It takes us some more hours to get the luggage ready, and when moments later Isabel doesn't find the key to her brake disk lock anymore, we start wondering if we have lost it... the spirit of travelling, I mean. It seems as if we are just not good at it anymore. And besides, the people in this country are tiresome, and we feel like we aren't getting anywhere this way. Suddenly, two blue-turbaned Tamasheq show up on their mobilettes. They say hi, sit down, ask for drinking water and start to chat with us, and it is only 20 minutes later that they invite us to a nice family-ran hostel some kilometers away. Since we might need some help getting out of here with the bikes, and the piste further south only seems to worsen (more sand), we accept their offer. After a lot of pushing, we ride the bikes back onto the main track and follow our friends to the hostel. Their little mobilettes are thirsty by now and we stop over at a small farmer's house, to buy fuel, a coke and drink tea. No signposts here to advertise this "station de service". By now, our temporary guide Mohamed has proven himself to be a nice discussion partner, and we are tempted to spend the night up in the dunes. But first, he jumps onto the rear of my bike and shows me the way to Hassi Labied, a village some 20km away, to pick up a couple of disposable cameras. I'm speeding and enjoying how the Tenere is dancing over the sandy stretches and bumps as if it were the smoothest tarmac ever. Mohamed is smiling when he gets off the bike later. He's been scared a bit with his only protection being a turban (he declined the offer of wearing Isabel's helmet), but what a hell of a ride... A shower and a 90min dromedary ride later, we eat a nice tajine with a group of Italian tourists. Marcello is a motorbike fanatic himself and doesn't find words to express how he admires Isabel's achievement to ride her bike all the way to the Erg as a novice...

Next day we ride back to Erfoud and then continue to Tinerhir, some 150 kms west. Abdelaziz, the attendant at the gaz station where I clean the chains and axles first, offers us a nice chat and we share the tajine his wife made him for lunch. In just a few days, we have met several really nice people. If one gets out of the most touristy places, it IS possible to meet people that like to discuss things and do not just want to sell you something... After another very nice experience in Tinerhir (a friendly tea for no reason whatsoever but hospitality) and sadly a bad one (a hotel that is better avoided), we find ourselves looking for a camping spot in the Toudgha canyon. By an incredible series of events, we end up camping near a water source on a flat grassland, amidst beautiful mountains of the Atlas range, in the merry company of 2 French ladies and their Moroccan guides. They offer us a beer and local wine from Meknes and soon the place is turned into a disco berbère, we are dancing to the cars' indicator lights, singing and drumming on the already somewhat dented bodywork of the cars... Next morning, nomads bring their cattle to the source, and Hassan and Youssouf ask them if they can provide us with a little goat tonight for a mechoui, a whole-piece grill. They can, and after a resting day with a visit to the hamam, we spend a night around the campfire waiting for the poor animal to be slaughtered and grilled. Intestines, heart and lungs go into a nice tajine...

By now we have been buying and using lots of disposable cameras and a better solution needs to be found. It turns out that the safest and fastest way to get a working digital camera that we like, is for Isabel to make a quick round-trip to Belgium from Agadir. It leaves us just enough time for one piste through the Jebel Sagho, the mountain range that separates us from the desert near the Algerian and Mauretanian border. We are keen to give it another try...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Boudenib - Merzouga the remake ??

For more pics, see Boudenib-Merzouga
The weather doesn't seem so promising though, as we leave Errachidia in the pooring rain. Hopefully this doesn't mean all the oueds will have filled up and the tracks will be muddy. We stock up with some necessary provisions in Boudenib and manage to find the beginning of the piste quite easily. The first few kilometres we advance at  steady pace. The track is good and even and we take the first wet oued crossing without any problems. Behind some small hills, safe from unwanted attention we make our first campsite. There is nowbody to be seen or heard within miles around and the sky is full of stars. Life is good...

Nicolaas adds: Actually I am quite amazed we've gotten so far without any problems. Seven years ago, I ended up back in Boudenib after a whole day of off-piste riding, having consumed 8L of water (August!) and 10L of fuel. Thanks to modern technology, paper maps are obsolete and it's just following the line on the GPS now... Isabel is right to make fun of me: I am usually slow to adopt new technology, but now I'm a fan.

We carry an old guidebook "Pistes du Maroc" (Gandini) to get some background information on the region and the potential difficulties we have to overcome. It's written for 4WD enthusiasts and I have noticed before that our bikes are no match for them in some parts of the pistes. Therefore, the next day I'm a little concerned when I read: "franchissement de nombreux oueds" ahead at km 57. Indeed, all of a sudden the rocky plateau is interrupted by canyons coming from the cliffs on the left, that mark the edge of the Hamada du Guir. At first they are not so difficult yet, but they become deeper and the slopes steeper when we get closer to the cliffs.
By now we are no longer riding a track, we are walking, lifting bikes, cursing, carrying luggage and consuming a lot of water and energy. The most difficult parts are where 4WD's have ruined the uphill slope, making it sandy but with hard bumps underneath. Isabel swears never to ride a track again and even I am regretting our venturing into the desert now. It takes us a whole day to cross the 5km (bird's flight) of oueds. Late in the afternoon, stones on the piste that it is closed and we are directed towards the cliffs. I obey and leave Isabel to check whether the track goes in the good direction. It does. Only to find out several hours later that it is a dead end taken by many, as the turning tire marks point out... Someone doesn't like tourists here, it seems.

 Anyway, we put the tent in a beautiful spot facing the horrible oueds and enjoy the absolute silence, which is only once brutally shattered by a (presumably army) truck passing by on top of the cliffs near the Algerian border, at least a few kilometers away... The next day, we go back to the "closed" track and find a nice piste leading in the good direction. However, the terrain remains tough and we start to get a bit scared. We are slowly running out of water (15L in total) and there hasn't been any water point so far to fill up. No choice but to continue, we'll see. Late in the afternoon, I am glad to detect a few dromedaries, which means nomads, which means water. We don't want to continue and push our luck, so we decide to take a track leading back to the tarmac near Erfoud, joining the piste that we took a couple of days before. This time, Isabel seems to fly over the boulders along the river bed, it is incredible to see how much she has learned in the past few days.

We find a welcoming and charming tourist hotel near Erfoud. The open-minded owner, married to a Belgian wife, tells us that the Boudenib-Merzouga piste was once part of the Paris-Dakar in its early days. And IT IS DIFFICULT. We are proud of ourselves, but if we keep on hammering the bikes like this, we are never going to get through Africa, so maybe we should stick to tarmac from now on... except for a little tour around the dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Which brings me to the bikes: except for the self-inflicted injuries (damaged wind screen, broken right hand guard and lots of scratches on Isabel's bike, scratches on mine), they are doing great. They consume no more than 4L on the road, not so much more on the dirt. Even with the heavy luggage, the suspension is more than satisfying, given our moderate speed. In Spain, I noticed that the rubber dampers in the rear wheel of mine were worn out, which is a known problem of the Tenere. I changed them for a used pair and hope for the best. Else... nothing. The Heidenaus have taken the beating on the pistes quite well but there are some signs of damage already. No punctures so far. The only thing I'm doing right now is greasing and cleaning.

A taste of off roading

Errachidia, the fall out base for the next couple of days is a pleasant little town. We get ourselves a not too dirty hotelroom ans busy ourselves without too many hassles. About that practise... It seems like a good idea to do some dirt tracks without luggage first, to get the hang of it a bit. We leave our stuff at the hotel room and dash off to a little used piste that branches off the main road to Erfoud for some 65 km's before joining it again near the beginning of the town. I'm still a bit whobbly on the bike in the beginning
For more pics see First off-road riding
and Nicolaas has to take over for the first Oued (=stream) crossing, but it did take some time and a larger stretch of sand to make me fall down. That's one and counting... 
We also get a little concerned about our fuel consumption (maybe we should've filled up the tanks beforehand?). Because of the low speed and a lot of riding in first gear the bikes seem more thirsty than usual. But  after some carefull calculations we decide to go on and by noon I feel a lot more stable. Lunch break in the shade of some thorn bushes and in the company of a small flock dromedaries, with 'only' 40 kms to go.
Seems like we got our second breath, because afterwards our speed rises and we progress steadily. Nicolaas even breaks the 70km/h mark on a straight strech of nice gravel piste. As we follow the course of a now dried up river, the road gets a bit rougher with sometimes sharp rocks and some small loose boulders. Being near the end of the speedcourse 'off road riding' I manage well enough, but I can't deny that I wasn't a tiny bit happy to see the tarmacked road again. Tired but content we ride 'home' under the setting sun.

The next day we prepare ourselves and the bikes for the real thing: "Boudenib - Merzouga the remake". Nicolaas tried this piste 7 years ago, but got to the first few kilometres as it was easy to get lost in the many winding tracks of the open plain. Now we'll make a new attempt. Armed with better equiped (though heavier) bikes, a GPS and high spirits, we might just pull it off this time... ?