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...

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