Volubilis and Chefchaouen

Day 10 – 4th January – Moulay Idriss to Chefchaouen (181km)

The short days of winter meant that we were spending most hours of daylight riding with little or no time to visit things once we had reached our next destination, so since Marrakech we had started to make shorter journeys and do some sightseeing along the way.

Today we had a particularly short day, and planned to visit two things. The first were the ruins of Volubilis, an important Roman settlement two kilometres out of Moulay Idris, capital of the Kingdom of Mauretaina and the actual place where Moulay Idriss I arrived in the 8th century and started Islam in Morocco, the present-day city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun not being built until two centuries later.

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A lot of materials to build the new city were taken from Volubilis, and today the biggest remains are those of the basilica and the Capitoline temple, as well as the Triumphal arch.

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The city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and at this time in the morning was deserted, which meant no other tourists and no locals trying to make some money as guides. We spend over an hour walking among the ruins, taking in the size of the city, appreciating the perfect location at the foot of the hills, between two small rivers or wadis, with a vast expanse of fertile land beyond its walls.

The sun was rising and with all our riding clothes on we soon decided that it was getting too hot to be sightseeing, so it was time to hit the road to get to our next destination with plenty of daylight left – Chefchaouen, the blue city.

For the next hour or so the road was rather monotonous, but past Ouazzane we entered the Riff and it became much better – green valleys, winding roads, great landscape… it all made for a more entertaining journey to Chefchaouen.

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Once we got there, realising that it was only one o’clock and that Ceuta, where we were supposed to go the following day to spend the night before taking the ferry back home, was only a further 100km away, there was a short debate whether to stick to the plan and stay overnight in Chefchaouen or visit it fast and go on to Ceuta. Gerard and Esteve were tired of so many days on the bike and the prospect of getting home a day earlier was tempting for them, but I wanted to visit Chefchaouen without hurry and rest a bit. And in any case, moving things up a day meant cancelling a night’s booking in Chefchaouen, advancing the booking in Ceuta and modifying the date of the ferry’s tickets, with no guarantee that we would get our money back in any of the cases. That argument seemed to be enough to convince them to go on with the planned schedule, and we rode into the city to find our house.

This time we had booked space in a place called Villa Rita, a guesthouse 15 minutes on foot away from the medina. It took us a while to find it, as there was no clear address and the GPS location was approximate, and when we knocked on the door, there seemed to be nobody there. Fortunately, after a phone call, the manager appeared and things changed for the better very fast – we had space to park the bikes inside the house, instead of just rooms we had a whole floor, a complete apartment for us, there was heating in the rooms, a fireplace in the living room, working wifi signal in all the rooms and hot water in the bath. This was by far the best place where we had stayed.

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With some hours of daylight left, we went to visit the famous blue city – called so because most of its houses are painted in blue and some white, making for a spectacularly colourful medina. Locals told us that the reason is that the blue colour is supposed to keep the mosquitoes away, and the white colour has the better-known function of keeping the houses cool in the summer heat.

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The medina was a lot bigger than we expected and, despite being one of the biggest tourist attractions in this part of the country there were not too many people in the streets, so strolled around taking pictures until it got dark.

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Chefchaouen is also known for being at the heart of the one of the main cannabis production regions in Morocco, and the tourists are openly offered to buy the product everywhere in the medina, as well as visits to the plantations.

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Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is not easy to find outside this region, and it is not legal to grow it or sell it in the country. However, centuries ago, a few families in the Rif valley were granted special permission by the King, and it still stands today.

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As part of our Moroccan experience, we decided to buy… Oooops, wait. This is a family friendly blog. OK, as a little homage to How I Met Your Mother, let’s say that we decided to buy sandwiches from one of the guys in the main square.

He went to fetch his friend, who told us to follow him to a less crowded place and immediately started talking. He told us that he was somewhat of a local celebrity, as he had appeared in a famous Spanish film in the 80s. In the film, called ‘Bajarse al moro’, two girls from a group of friends from Madrid who make some extra money selling sandwiches travel to Morocco to get some ingredients. The guy played a kid who offers to take one of the girls into the mountains to see the plantations and buy ingredients. Because he spoke Spanish, the film director also tasked him with finding all the extras for the crowd scene, and ever since, to Spanish tourists he has become a face associated with sandwiches so, according to him ‘life gave him no alternative but to go into the sandwich industry’.

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We didn’t want to buy stuff to make too many sandwiches, as we were on the way back and crossing the border the following day, so in the end we convinced him to sell us only a little and back in the apartment we found that the ingredients were so good that after just one sandwich we had had enough and went to bed.

The Holy City

Day 9 – 3rd January – Kasba Tadla to Moulay Idriss (308km)

We had a short day ahead of us today, so armed with the recommendations from our host we departed early and soon left the main road to ride into the Middle Atlas region through some very nice small roads. Not that the national road had been boring like the previous day, mind you – this time it went through nice green fields, it had more corners and better landscape, making the start of the day a rather nice affair.

When we reached the city of Kenifra we turned right off the national road and started gaining altitude through narrow roads again in the search of our first stop – a lake called Aguelmame Azigza. The open spaces of the green fields turned into cedar forests and there were patches of snow here and there, and even some ice when we stopped at a crossroads to check which way to go.

img_1974 I stopped on the unpaved ground where the road split in two without realizing that there was a sheet of ice right under me, and when I put my right foot down I felt it slip and almost lost balance and dropped the bike. Fortunately, I caught it on time and moved forward a bit out of the frozen ground.

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We found the lake a few kilometres further down a smaller road that turned into a dirt track for the last few hundred metres before the water. It was at the bottom of a shallow valley with a few nomad huts here and there where we heard the sound of sheep. We left the bikes on the road by the forest and walked down to the shore, quickly realising that it had been a good idea not to try to ride the bikes all the way down to the water’s edge, as what looked like dry terrain was in fact very slippery grey clay, so much so that we almost lost footing and fell several times.

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When we came back to the bikes we saw that we had a visitor. A monkey had come out of the trees and was walking around the bikes, probably looking for food. Gerard gave him some dates he had bought in Ouarzazate and when we got back on the bikes we realised that it had sat on all three of them, smearing mud all over the seats. It was a good thing that we had not left gloves, neck warmers or other stuff laying around, or he would have probably stolen it.

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Past the lake, the road became worse, still paved but with a surface so broken and with so many potholes that we had to ride slowly. On one of the worst potholes the front suspension on Gerard’s bike compressed all the way and the front mudguard caught in the crossbar that connects both sides of the crash bars, preventing the suspension from extending again. For a moment of sheer panic, he felt that he had no steering but luckily, he was going very slowly and was able to stop safely. When he was about to get off the bike, the mudguard lip broke free and the suspension extended suddenly, making him lose his balance and almost throwing him and Raluca on the ground.

A few months ago, he had had a crash with that motorbike. It had not been a serious one, but after the bike was repaired he felt some vibrations through the handlebars and had taken it to two different mechanics who had checked the front wheel and found nothing wrong. On the way down to Morocco, however, riding alongside him on long straight stretches of road while was recording some videos, I could clearly see with my naked eye that there was something wrong with the way the wheel turned. When fixing the problem with his headlamp in Errachidia I had looked down the suspension bars from above and I would swear they were slightly bent back. The incident with the mudguard confirmed my suspicions, as it should not touch some crash bars that have been specifically designed for this bike. It was clear that the suspension had bent back slightly but far enough for the mudguard to come dangerously close to the crash bars.

We were only a few kilometres away from our next visit, the Sources de l’Oum-er-Rbia, so we decided to ride on carefully and deal with the problem there.

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The sources are located in a rocky gorge and are actually 47 different sources of water that spring abundantly out of the mountain. 40 of them are fresh water, while the remaining 7 are salty due to minerals in that part of the mountains.

img_2008There was some infrastructure in place for tourists, with small stalls made of straw, but most of them were empty – the place was well away from the main routes and it seemed that it was not the high season to visit. There were a couple of women selling bread and some places that offered a Tajin meal that smelled delicious, but we had had a hearty breakfast and were not going to eat again until reaching our final destination for the day, so we politely refused the insistent offers from our guide, a guy who had insisted on showing us around from the moment we had parked the bikes.

Back where we had parked the bikes we took out our toolkits and set about dismantling Gerard’s mudguard. You are supposed to remove the front wheel to do so in a V-Strom, but with some pushing and pulling it came out easily enough, and he strapped it on top of a pannier for the rest of the trip, furious that neither of his mechanics had realised the problem with his suspension. I was also surprised, as it was a major problem, potentially dangerous and one of the obvious things to check after a front crash… Either both mechanics were grossly incompetent, or together with the insurance expert had decided that the damage was not bad enough to repair and left it that way, which is even worse.

Having checked that the tire was safely clear from the crashbars we rode on through more amazing roads, coming into the Forêt de Cèdres again, this time a bit further to the west than the first time we had crossed it on our way down to Errachidia. At Azrou we turned northwest, rode past Meknes and with the last light of the day reached Moulay Idriss, where we had booked a hotel for the night.

Moulay Idriss is a very important city for Moroccan people, as is considered the place where Islam started in Morocco. It is here where Moulay Idriss I, after whom the city is named, arrived bringing the religion of Islam. As it is considered a holy place, tourists were not allowed to stay after sunset until 2005. In practice this means that there is little offer in terms of accommodation, and the place is totally free of the usual tourist traps that one can find in the medinas in Fez or Marrakech. We had made a reservation in a small hotel and contacted them to ask about parking for the bikes, and when we reached the square where the hotel was supposed to be located there was a man already waiting for us to help us park the bikes. The hotel was in fact on a side street and was accessible by going down a narrow alley with steps, so we were told that the bikes would have to spend the night in the square, which also doubled as the city’s bus and taxi depot. It was a busy place, and there was a guy who would keep watch over the bikes during the night for 50 dirhams, so we were not particularly worried about leaving them there, especially as the place looked a lot safer than Marrakech.

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At this point on our journey it had become obvious that the country is not prepared for the winter. The houses are designed for a climate that is very hot most of the year, so the windows don’t adjust, there are big open spaces, curtains instead of doors in many places, no heating and barely adequate hot water facilities. At least this hotel had a functioning heat pump in the rooms, but the shower was the same cold affair as in most places so far.

It was already dark, but we still had time to visit the market and the medina before having dinner and, like the day before in Kasba Tadla, found them to be authentic and enjoyable, with no other foreigners around, no souvenir shops and nobody harassing us to buy things.

Ouzud waterfalls and the lone rider

Day 8 – 2nd January – Marrakech to Kasba Tadla (276km)

After the Marrakech experience, we had decided that it would be best to avoid big cities, so instead of spending the next night in Beni-Mellal we found a riad in a small town called Kasba Tadla, 30km further north. Even so, we had a shorter ride today, so for the first time on the trip we were going to stop along the way to visit something instead of just seeing the country from the motorbikes.

We left the narrow streets of the old town in close formation and dived into early morning traffic without having breakfast, as it was not included and our bohemian writer wanted to charge way too much for it. As I joined the main avenue leaving the city the two other bikes fell a few cars behind me as they entered one of the roundabouts, so when I saw a petrol station a bit further ahead I pulled up, waited until I saw Gerard’s headlights and rode to the pumps. When I got off the bike I saw that Esteve was not there. I asked Gerard and he said the he had just him right behind a moment ago. We waited a bit, but it seemed that he might have not seen us and gone on. I went up ahead but did not see him, and he had not turned up at the petrol station, where Gerard had been waiting so, just in case, we went back to the last roundabout to make sure nothing had happened.

It was clear that he was ahead of us, so he was bound to stop when he saw he was riding alone. We decided to go on to the intersection where we were going to leave the national road to start our scenic route, about 7 kilometres out of Marrakech.

He was not there either and, while we were debating what to do, we got an SMS from him, saying that he was fine and that we would meet at the Ouzud waterfalls, halfway to Kasba Tadla.

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We found him standing by the side of the road, looking happy to have enjoyed a whole morning of riding with the road all to himself, leaning against his bike and listening to a guy telling him about two houses, his wife and how he used one for himself and kept the wife in the other.

We reached the waterfalls quite fast, and started the usual ritual in tourist sites – have people pointing you into car parks, choosing one, paying the guy who said he was going to take care of your bike, say no to a few more guys offering to show you around, find the way to what you want to see and go.

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Despite the 2-hour tours offered by the locals, the waterfalls were five minutes away from the car park. I had been expecting to find them at the end of a narrow gorge, but in fact the footpath led instead to the top of the waterfall, and the gorge was at our feet. There were three different waterfalls pouring water into the river below, and by the looks of the terrain, there might be quite a few more when it rains. We walked around the top of the waterfall to get a different perspective and then back to the car park to continue our journey.

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It had felt nice to stretch our legs for a while, even if it was in motorbike clothes, and now the road was nice and the day was warm, so we had a good time on our way back to the national road. We still rode on very small roads for a good while, including climbing a series of tight hairpins on a road that was not even on our paper maps.

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Things changed when we got back on the national road, though, and despite only having a relatively short short distance to our destination, the traffic was heavy and the road monotonous, so we were really looking forward to the end of the day. The road had other intentions for us, though, and before Kasba Tadla we still had to cross Beni Mellal. Maybe it was because we were already feeling tired, but crossing this city felt longer than any other, and we were especially glad to reach our destination.

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Kasba Tadla looked small and friendly, there was little traffic and we found our riad straightaway. I liked the place, and after Marrakech, I really appreciated the friendliness of our host. We parked the bikes inside the riad, unpacked, had a shower and since we still had a couple of ours of sunlight (a first this trip) we went out to explore the city.

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It was immediately clear that we were not in a touristy place, and it was a welcome change after the big city. This was the Morocco we had found in Errachidia, a real taste of the country. We went to the market and it was the complete opposite of Marrakech – it was a small place, with locals going about their business and doing their shopping, and no one was trying to sell us anything.

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In fact, we were the tourist attraction there, everybody had eyes on us. I saw a small shop that sold accessories for the scooters and mopeds that are seen everywhere around the country, and went to try to find a country sticker for the motorbike. The boy behind the counter did not speak French, English or Spanish, but after some pointing and gesturing he understood and produced a sticker from behind the counter. It was a lot nicer than the glittery ones that I had found the day before and that seemed to be the only option available in the whole of Marrakech and shaped like a waving flag, so it would fit nicely in a gap between Bulgaria and Kosovo that was too small for a regular one. Gerard and Ralu had been wanting to get some spices for a while, and they found a greengrocer who had been living in Spain and who told them about the different types.

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Back in our riad, we had dinner and got some tips about things to visit the following day from our host, who also had beer.

The Wanderess and the call of Africa

Day 7 – 1st January – Marrakech (0km)

Not spending the night celebrating the new year in a wild party had its advantages, mainly that it was easy to get up early to go to the airport with Nat. In the taxi, the driver told us that there had been a terrorist attack in a night club in Turkey. Bad news to start the year, and I wondered what 2017 had in store for us.

The airport was very quiet and Nat got through check in and security fast. As soon as she disappeared past the gate I started to feel the usual emptiness that takes over every time I go on alone. This time was different, as I still had company, but for the first time after some years we had decided to buy intercoms to make the long distances more bearable, and we had got used to it very quickly – I was sure the long moments of silence on the bike ahead were going to feel harder.

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I meet the guys in the hotel lobby and Gerard, Esteve and I went out to check a riad we had found nearby while Raluca finished packing. It was supposed to be only a couple of streets away from where we were so that moving all our stuff would be easy and we would avoid parking the bikes somewhere else, but weirdly enough, we got different locations for it. The maps on Booking.com and Maps.me placed it two corners to the east of our riad, heading further into the old town, while Google Maps indicated that it was in the exact opposite direction, near the square where we had parked the bikes. We checked the first location but could not find any place with the name we had booked, Riad Jakoura. We asked the locals, went round and round the given location checking every alley in the medina maze, but could not find it. We even asked in another riad nearby, but they had not heard about it. We tried to call the number on the reservation to ask where they were, but nobody answered.

When it became clear that the location was wrong, we decided to check the other one. This time we had a street name and a number, but when we got there we only found a restaurant that was also announced as riad. The guy there had not heard about a Riad Jakoura, but when he asked us to show him the pictures in Booking.com to see if he recognised the place, we saw that there was a watermark that read Riad Calypso. That one he recognised, and pointed us to a place that was in neither of the locations we had. In the end, we found a small wooden door with the name Calypso on a small sign hanging above it. We knocked several times and after a good while a guy dressed in scruffy dark clothes and with messy dark hair opened the door and gave us a confused look.

Two things were immediately clear – one, he was not Moroccan, although we could not tell where he might be from, and two, he was monumentally hungover.

It took a while to make him understand that we had a reservation there, and once he got it he made us go in and sat behind his desk in a tiny windowless office. He hunched over a laptop that was missing several keys, his face lit by the orange glow coming from an electrical heater next to the laptop, only a few centimetres away from his head, and started clicking away, mumbling to himself, narrowing his eyes and asking me to spell my name several times while he talked to a young girl standing next to him in the semidarkness of the room and who, we deduced, was a new hire he was training.

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Esteve and Gerard were waiting just outside the office, and while I was not having much luck making the guy understand what type of rooms we had booked, Gerard was having much better luck at something altogether different. Right at that moment, standing in the tiny hallway of the riad, he felt ‘the call of Africa’ after six straight days of not going to the toilet, and not wanting to waste the opportunity, he snuck into a toilet he found behind a small door under the stairs and made peace with the world.

By the time he came out, Mr. Hangover had finally found our booking and was ready to show us our rooms. Esteve’s and mine was on the ground floor, in the courtyard, and Gerard and Ralu got one in the first floor, but not the one he originally intended, it seemed – when he opened the door to show Gerard his room he found a guest sleeping. Apparently he had forgot that the room was taken, and after apologising profusely he took Gerard to the right one.

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We let him go back into his dungeon to nurse his hangover by the heater and went to get our staff from the other riad, but not before an unsuspecting Esteve walked into the toilet for a quick piss and ended up almost needing medical attention after finding the aftermath of Gerard’s ‘call of Africa’.

We also had to pay the guys in the square for another night of parking, and when we had done so and checked that the bikes were OK, one of them started asking something in Arabic that I did not understand at first. He was pointing at Gerard’s bike and then at me, and I gathered that he was asking me if it was my bike. I said it was not, and pointed at Gerard. Then the guy produced a bunch of keys from under his djellaba and dangled them in front of him laughing. Gerard had left the keys on the bike the day before! When we went past the bike with the panniers on our way to the other riad, the guy was still laughing.

While Gerard and Ralu finished taking their stuff into their room I started chatting with our host. I was curious to find out where he was from, as he spoke French fluently but with an English accent, but when I heard him apologise to the guy he had accidentally woken up in English I could not pin his accent.

It turned out that he was a writer and poet from Seattle, where he had lived until he was 21. He then moved to Paris until his mid-thirties, and then to Greece, where he had had a girlfriend. After they split up, he lived in different places along the Mediterranean coast of Spain until his latest novel, called The Wanderess, became a success. Apparently, he had made quite a lot of money out of it and of ‘selling some of his poetry to a pop star’, as he put it, and had thought it was time to make an investment in his future, so he had decided to buy a riad in Marrakech. He had been running it for only 10 months, which explained the change of name (but not the location problems).

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We spent the day in the intoxicating chaos of the medina, buying some souvenirs and enjoying the atmosphere. After so many days of long hours on the bikes it felt great to spend a day on foot just relaxing. We had a kebab in the Jemaa el-Fna square, a coffee and a goffre in one of the roof terraces overlooking the square and headed back to our riad to see the sunset on the rooftop.

img_1922Having seen the state in which we had found our host in the morning, we were pretty sure that this time we would finally be able to get some beer to enjoy on the terrace, and we were not wrong – the riad had some Moroccan beer that tasted like heaven after so many days of abstinence.

The brief description of the riad owner, mr. Payne, does not do his life justice. Check out his biography here.

Tizi n’Tichka and New Year’s Eve in Marrakech

Day 6 – 31st December – Ouarzazate to Marrakech (221km)

Even though the sun was already out by the time we started loading the bikes, the temperature readout on the dashboard was only 4 degrees Celsius. Today was going to be the big day, the last big challenge before we started to ride back home. There were two points during our trip that we considered potentially difficult – crossing the Middle Atlas on the way south to Merzouga, and crossing the High Atlas on the way back up to Marrakech. The first one had posed no problem, we had had good weather and even though we had found snow at the highest points, the roads were clear and temperatures were low but reasonable. This time though we were going even higher, through the famous Tizi n’Tichkaimg-20161231-wa0000 pass. In the last few days I had been sent several pictures and videos of people who were riding in different points of the Atlas mountains and general reports were of snow and cold. The usual image of a winding road against a brown rocky background had been replaced with a white blanket of snow and a thin black line of tarmac zigzagging up the mountains. Even though we had been assured that the road was a main thoroughfare across the Atlas and it was kept clear of snow, we feared that temperatures might be very low, so for the first time in the trip I rolled out the heavy artillery – winter running tights to wear underneath the riding pants, silk socks under thick wool ones, silk gloves under the regular ones and an extra layer under my fleece.

Before attacking the pass we wanted to visit Ait Benhaddou, the famous mud brick fortified city that has featured in countless films.

img_1820It was a beautiful sunny day, and when we parked our bikes and crossed the river to the city entrance the temperature was quite high.

img_1813The first thing we visited was the kasbah, a dark and cold maze of narrow corridors, staircases and rooms, but when we stepped out in the sun and started walking up the city streets all dressed up for the cold we soon regretted our decision to wear so many clothes.

img_1834The visit was worth sweating a bit, though, and we were soon on the bikes again, so we kept them on.

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A couple of days earlier, a friend had recommended a more scenic alternative to get to the Tizi n’Tichka – instead of going back to the main road after visiting Ait Benhaddou there is a small local road that continues past it and goes through several tiny mountain villages before joining the main road just before the pass. With such nice weather we thought we would risk it and take this route.

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We were soon way off the beaten track on a narrow road with no traffic going up a beautiful rocky valley with small mud brick villages appearing here and there. In all of them children came running out to meet us on the road when they heard the roaring of the bikes approach their houses – no matter where you are in the world, all kids are strangely fascinated by these machines. The landscape changed from dusty rocks to dark brown clay as we gained altitude and then the valley opened into a fertile plain where our route turned west and we caught sight of the mountains we were going to cross.

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There seemed to be a lot less snow than we had anticipated, and the temperatures remained reassuringly warm as we kept climbing. Soon we started to see pine trees by the side of the road and there was also snow here and there, but it was clear that most of what we had seen in pictures from a few weeks earlier had melted away.

img_1894We were very close to the main road now, and a thought crossed my mind – this was a very small road, and I was sure it was not cleared of snow as regularly as the main road to the pass. All it would take at this point was some snow across the road, say 20 or 30 metres, to make us have to go all the way back to Ait Benhaddou and up the national road, losing several precious hours.

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Fortunately, we met the main road without any further incident and soon we were at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka.

img_1885We had been very lucky and enjoyed great weather and some of the best views of our trip. It was now time to face the following adventure – the infamous traffic of Marrakech, a daunting prospect that was not made any easier by the fact that our hotel was in the old city, a maze of narrow streets infested with suicidal scooter riders.

After a long ride down the other side of the Atlas range with a short stop to remove several layers of clothes we reached the outskirts of the city. At first the traffic was reasonable – seen for the first time it might have appeared chaotic and dangerous, but there was a kind of order in the chaos, with scooters, pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses and taxis all moving within millimetres of one another but miraculously avoiding touching.

We reached one of the doors in the wall around the all city and things got a lot more interesting here. The GPS sent us down a narrow alley with lots of people and scooters, and our bikes felt like lumbering elephants inching ahead among a blur of movement. We reached a small square full of parked cars and pulled aside for a moment to locate our riad.

We were relieved to see that it was just around the corner, but not so happy when, having unloaded the bikes we asked where we could park them and they said that they had no private parking. We did not want to leave them out in the street in such a chaotic place, so after a lot of arguing the guy in the hotel told us to follow a friend of his who had another riad with a courtyard that was accessible from the street and who agreed to let us park the bikes inside. We went into an even narrower street and he opened a small wooden door and gestured me to take the bike through it. It was clearly too narrow for the handlebars, and there was a high step down into it, so when I tried to put the wheel in first and then twist the bars to get one side in and then the other, the only thing I managed to do was to get stuck. The man had to pushed me back out, while two more guys pulled from behind to take the bike out in the alley again. It was impossible to park the bikes there, and the only alternative was to park them in the square, where we had to pay 50 dirhams and some guys would keep an eye on them all night. The security guard from the riad who had been helping us far swore that the bikes would be safe, and the guys in the square showed us that there were a couple of big motorbikes under some blankets parked between some dusty scooters, so in the end we agreed to leave them there.

The second disappointment with the riad came when we told them that we had decided to spend an extra night there to have time to visit the city after Nat had taken her flight back home and they showed no interest whatsoever in extending our stay. ‘Check whether there are available rooms on Booking.com’, the guy said. We were tired after a long day on the road and trying to find a place for the bikes, so we decided to have a shower, get changed and then look up alternatives online to spend that extra night. After we agreed on a couple of places that looked good we went out to find a place to have dinner and visit the medina.

If the streets leading to the riad had seemed chaotic, going deeper into the medina was even worse. The streets were narrower, there were thousands of small stalls selling all kinds of stuff to tourists, each of them with an over eager guy trying to get people into his by singing ‘amigo amigo’ or the equivalent in any language they needed, while all the time locals on scooters zoomed past, rendering the air unbreathable. We found a quiet restaurant and had an early dinner before heading to the main square to see if there were going to be any special celebrations for the new year, but found that the party was in the new part of the city, not here. We wanted to hang around until midnight and celebrate out in the streets, but as the time went by the stalls closed and the streets emptied, and we were feeling cold and tired, so we decided to get back to our hotel and welcome the New Year there.

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The medina was deserted now, and there was an eerie atmosphere in its narrow streets. It was impossible to identify any reference points to find our way back to the riad now that the shops had closed and all metal doors looked the same. To add to our confusion, some streets closed, which meant that we had to take long detours just to get to the other side of a wooden gate. We managed to get out in the end, though, and reached our hotel in time to hear the midnight bells of the Big Ben on TV, but we had no champagne to toast the new year. It is complicated to celebrate these things in a Muslim country…

Gorges in the south side of the Atlas

Day 5 – 30th of December – Merzouga to Ouarzazte (424km)

The sound of lots of voices outside our room woke me up just past seven, and when I stepped outside I saw a huge group of people looking very cold and attacking the breakfast buffet. Where had they come from? The riad was rather small, there were not near enough rooms for all that people. It turns out that they had spent the night in the desert to see the sunset and the sunrise among the dunes – most riads have a camp set up somewhere in the Erg Chebbi and hosts can choose to spend the night there instead of the riad. After about an hour ride on camels, people have dinner, see the sunset, spend the night in a bereber tent, see the sunrise and go back to the riad for breakfast.

On the way down here we had taken a new road that goes straight through the desert from Erfoud to Merzouga, saving us half an hour and the hassle of crossing Rissani, but at the same time missing out on the town that had been the capital of the country in the 14th century and one of the many recommendations that our host in Errachidia had made – bereber pizza. However, the route to Ouarzazate took us back there, so at least we got a quick tour of the city from the bikes. We missed out on the pizza however, as the only place we found open so early in the morning told us that we would had to wait for almost an hour before we could get one to take away and we had a long day’s ride ahead of us, so we decided to move on.

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The views we found on the road after Rissani more than made up for it, though. The landscape was amazing, the snow covered Atlas mountains were to our right, and all around us was rocky desert with beautiful rock formations and low hills.

When we reached Alnif we turned north on a smaller regional road until we reached Tinghir, and from there we rode up the river Todra and visited the Gorges du Todra. They are a narrow canyon where the road zigzags at the botom along the river, with imposing tall rock walls on both sides. We rode up the river until the canyon opened again, then stopped to see the views and check the route to our next stop – the Gorges du Dades.

img_1777When we took out the map we realised that the road continued up the river, into the mountains and then down again into the Gorges du Dades, which was bound to be a more interesting route than going back down to the national road and then up the Gorges.

img_1775The problem was that we had not counted on that, and we were all low on fuel. If we wanted to take that route we needed to go back to Tinghir to fill up the bikes, which would add well over half an hour to an almost two hour detour, and we were already running against the clock to make it to Ouarzazate before sunset, so we reluctantly decided to go on with the normal route.

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We were starting to feel tired when we turned into the Gorges du Dades, so when we saw a café with a terrace overlooking the rock formations across the river we stopped for a well deserved rest.

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We got back on the main road happy to see that there were only 90km to get to our hotel, but little did we know that they were going to be a hard 90km… We were riding straight into the sunset, and unlike the sunset on our first day, when we were riding across Spain, there were no hills or corners here to hide the sun from time to time, and we were not in the relative safety of a European motorway, so our eyes were exposed to unrelenting torture and we could barely see incoming traffic, potholes or what is worse, pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds and animals on our side of the road. While my bike and Esteve’s had low windscreens, Gerard had recently had a taller one fitted, meaning that he had to look through it, making it all but impossible to see the road. To make matters worse, the road went through lots of towns and villages, further slowing our progress.

Things only got better once the sun set, but that meant that we had barely half an hour of light left to reach the hotel. Luckly, we made it into Ouarzazate just in time, and we were glad to see that getting to the hotel was straightaway – no navigating through heavy traffic or narrow streets.

There was one last problem when the guy at the hotel told us that the ‘parking facilities’ mentioned in the website was an empty lot opposite the building.

img_1805We told him that we did not want to leave the bikes there and in the end they cleared some tables and chairs from the hotel café terrace right by the entrance door and let us park the bikes there, under the reception window and within view of a security camera.

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Riding around the Erg Chebbi

Day 4 – 29th December – Errachidia to Merzouga and tour of Erg Chebbi (239km)

After a rather cold night in our Gite d’Étape, we rose with the sun and headed for Merzouga, the place where everybody goes to get a taste of the Sahara. 4×4 expeditions, quads, motorbikes, tourists on camels, people looking to spend a night in the dunes and see the magical sunset and sunrise all converge on this small town of dusty streets and family run riads where a whole industry has flourished to cover the demand.

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It took us a while to find our accommodation, but it was worth it. This one was the best place where we had stayed so far, all luxury and nice facilities, and after dropping all our stuff we planned the day.

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We wanted to go for a ride in the desert and maybe get a taste of the dunes, so we removed all the cases from the bikes and headed out, while the girls booked a tour on quads. We had a track on the GPS that went around the dunes of the Erg Chebbi, a route that was supposed to be a bit under 50km, and we started heading south and then turned left into a track of hard packed sand and stone. However, after just a couple of kilometres we run into soft desert sand and the front wheels of our heavy bikes dug in.

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Not being expert offroad riders, we decided to head back to the road and ride a bit further south to find harder ground that would allow us to ride all the way round the dunes, which was our original intention.

A bit further south we found another track that looked good and headed into the desert – it was easy terrain and we soon started to enjoy the amazing landscape, with some very gentle rocky hills where we came across some ruins of what seemed to have been a village in the middle of nowhere. As we rode through it we saw that there was at least one house that was still inhabited. Past the village the landscape changed into a vast open space and we could see rocky hills far in the distance and much closer, to our left, the majestic dunes of the Erg Chebbi.

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We were riding north along the east side of the dunes, and having started the route further south than we had intended, we set a time and/or petrol level limit, at which point we would decide whether we could continue and complete the tour or head back the way we had come.

Some kilometres further up we ran into softer terrain, not dunes but patches of softer ground, where we had to be more careful, and we rode past a bereber tent here and there. A 4×4 also going north but travelling much faster caught up with us and we took the chance to ask them how much further it was and whether the terrain was going to get much softer, and they reassured us that it was passable on our bikes. After the 4×4 left, a bereber riding a small motorbike appeared out of nowhere and started to ride along us, showing us the best ways to avoid soft terrain and washboard.

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We kept going and going for what it felt like hours, and we started finding more and more patches of soft ground, which turned into desert sand, making our progress slower. Our bereber friend stopped and in very basic French told us that he was near home – we understood that he lived in some settlement nearby – but if we wanted, he offered to show us the rest of the way to complete the tour and get back to Merzouga. We agreed that it would be better to have him around, as he knew which way to go to avoid the sand, of which there was more and more, and negotiated a price of about 6 euros.

There was quite a lot of sand now, and we were getting tired. All of us had several ‘moments’ where we were about to taste some sand, but we all managed to keep the bikes upright with more or less style. We finally reached the northernmost part of the route and started heading down southwest. The ground turned harder again as we got further away from the northern tip of the Erg Chebbi, but with just a few kilometres to go, as he reached a crest Esteve hit a soft spot, his bike slipped from the back and he ended up on the ground. I opened the gas the get to him faster and help him, but he was already up and lifting his bike on his own. He had not got hurt and the only damage on his bike was a bent brake lever which we tried to straighten as much as we could to make the bike rideable again.

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After the incident we reached the road to Merzouga in a matter of minutes, said goodbye to our guide and headed into town to find a place where Esteve could get the brake lever into proper shape.

We asked in our riad and were directed to a local workshop where they repaired the lever while we cleaned and oiled the chains in our bikes, which were completely covered in dust.

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The girls texted us that they had already come back from their quad tour inside the Erg Chebbi, which had been great, and had gone for a walk to visit the town, and when the lever was fixed we saw that we were still in time to see the sunset from the dunes behind Merzouga, so we started the bikes and rode a bit into the desert until we found a small dune and sat on it to see the sun go down over the town.

[video coming soon]