Framboise

Day 2 – Tuesday 1st August – Sahune to Bellecombe-en-Bauges (404km)

A short ride to lake Leman?

Nope. Not at all. In fact, as I write these lines before going to bed, I am still almost 100km from it, but I don’t regret a single thing, today’s route has been just marvellous.

My Exped mattress died and by the time I decided to do this trip it was too late to get a new one, so I took one of those self-inflatable mats. I takes up twice as much space as the Exped and is about five times thinner, so if you sleep on your side, like I do, it is very uncomfortable. Add to that a very hard ground on the campsite and heat that did not give up all night, and you can imagine how much sleep I got. At 8:00 I had already packed everything up, eaten breakfast and was ready to go.

The night before I had been studying the map and saw that even though it claims that the route has 21 mountain passes, in fact it is not possible to ride them all without having to double back, as there are alternative routes besides the main one that take you through those other passes. While planning the route the night before I thought that it would be a pity to miss some of the legendary ones, like the Col de la Madeleine, so I decided to plan a bit of a scenic route.

The ride to Gap was as good as it gets – just past Sahune the road was amazing, the air cool and the music on my iPod spot on. This stretch of the D94 between Sahune and Serres is a blast. When I reached Gap the GPS sent me through the ring road to avoid the centre, only there isn’t one, so it creatively made one up through some residential neighbourhoods. I ignored it as soon as I realised what it was doing and took the proper route (which does indeed cross the centre). I left northbound on the legendary Route Napoleon – yes, the same one as in the Bond movies, but not the bit in Cannes – which goes all the way to Grenoble, but I left it shortly after, in Corps, to take a smaller road to Sainte-Luce and the first pass of the day – the Col de l’Holme.

A very narrow mountain road took me up and down thick forests and I crossed two more passes – Col de Parquetout and Col d’Ornon – before joining the main route in Allemond and heading to the first two serious passes – Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.

Right after Allemond it was clear I was in hairpin paradise. The road up the valley past the impressive Lac de Grand Maison was the exclusive preserve of cyclists and bikers.

There was the odd car here and there, but never had I seen a car look so out of place on a road. At the top of both passes, dozens of exhausted but thrilled cyclists were taking pictures next to the road signs. I too took a picture but, seeing them, I almost felt as if I did not deserve it. I must say that I have the utmost admiration for all the people I saw today cycling their way up those roads.

From the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer I could see thick clouds gathering ahead, so I hurried down the other side, hoping to outrun the rain that looked certain to come. The way down to St-Jean-de-Maurienne was, if anything, even more impressive than the ascent – narrow, steep, with impossibly deep gorges. There were far fewer cyclists attempting the pass from this side, but those doing so must have been superhumans.

Back at the bottom of the valley, I could have taken the A43 and ride north to my final destination, as it was getting late, the sky was growing darker and I was tired. On top of that, the muscles on the left of my chest were aching, possibly from the night before but my scenic route for the day was not done, there were three more passes to go, among them one that has become a household name – the Col de la Madeleine. I left the A43 and started the ascent on a winding road through a thick forest. The hairpins were tight, but the road was not as narrow as the one I had taken to the first passes in the morning. Then, it opened into a vast lush green valley and wound its way to the top with amazing views. The storm clouds were still looming behind me but, so far, I had managed to stay ahead of them.

As I was taking pictures at the top of the pass I saw two couples from Spain on two Super Ténérés, one of them a blue First Edition just like the one I got stolen. I approached them and as we got talking and I told them the story the guy on the blue one said it sounded familiar. It turns out he got his from the same dealer that was selling mine, and he had told him my story! The world is indeed a small place.

Riding the Madeleine meant a detour to Albertville and then having to ride southwest before going north to Annecy. As I was riding down I saw curtains of water in front of me – the rain I had so far been escaping was right there on my way, waiting for me. The tarmac was soaking wet, showing that this was a classic summer downpour which would get me wet in a matter of seconds. Fortunately, just before I reached the rain, the GPS told me to turn right into another valley where the sky was not so dark. It was the way up the last two passes of the day – Col de Frêne and Col de Leechau. These are part of another one of the detours on the Route des Grandes Alpes and they are on a small road with no traffic at all. After passing the Col the Frêne I stopped for petrol in a village called Le Châtelard, and no sooner had I finished filling up and was ready to leave than the skies opened and the rain that had been chasing me for the last few hours finally caught me. I took refuge under the marquee of the Carrefour supermarket next to the petrol station and waited for the rain to pass as I checked the weather radar on my mobile.

The rain clouds were moving fast behind my position, and I could see that the sky was clear in the direction to the next col, so as soon as the rain stopped I left. Shortly after the village the road started climbing in and out of the forest, and then, on a long sweeping corner across a steep field of grass I saw a small campsite above me. I still had about 90km to go before reaching lake Leman, but I usually trust my instinct when it comes to choosing a place to spend the night. I often pass several ones just because they don’t feel right, and this place seemed just perfect. Besides, it was already 18:00 and I was tired, so I turned around and headed up the lane to the entrance.

It was a tiny campsite, with only a handful of lots, perched at the top of a hill overlooking the valleys of the Massif de Bauges natural park. I planted my tent near the bottom, with great views, had a shower and went to enjoy the luxuries the campsite afforded.

By luxuries I mean that, unlike the previous one, this one had a picnic table where I could have dinner, a socket to charge the camera batteries, wifi and a sort of reading room where I could sit down to write a bit.

As I was cutting the first slice of sausage I was going to have for dinner I felt a presence nearby. I turned around, the bit of sausage still in my hand, and saw this:

It wanted to become my new best friend since I had meat and cheese, and did not take its eyes off me for a second. Hypnotised, I couldn’t help but give it some, which only made things worst. A little girl came to get the dog, but she (it was a she, the girl told, me, and was called Framboise) refused to leave. Only when I had given her some more, finished eating and packed away the food did she answer the insistent calls of her owner.

Col counter:

1. Col de l’Holme 1207m

2. Col de Parquetout 1382m

3. Col de l’0rnon 1371m

4. Col du Glandon 1924m

5. Col de la Croix de Fer 2064m

6. Col de la Madeleine 1993m

7. Col du Frêne 950m

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Crossing the Atlas Mountains

Day 3 – 28th December – Fez to Errachidia (356km)

Most people think that the main drawback of travelling by motorbike in winter is the cold, and they are right, but there is another major factor at play that many forget – the hours of sunlight. While it would have been possible to make the most of the day and go directly from Fez to Merzouga in spring or summer, now we had to stop no later than 5pm because it got dark and temperatures drop very low, so we had to do the journey in two days. Because we wanted to spend most of the following day riding in the desert in Merzouga, we decided to go as far as possible today and then ride for only a couple of hours the following day. So, another early start.

Traffic had been the usual chaos in Fez when we arrived the night before, but today it was rather quiet, even though it was the morning rush hour. We left our palace and headed south through the new part of the city, and after leaving it behind, the road started climbing into the Middle Atlas mountains. We would spend most of the day well above 1,000 metres and, worried about the cold, we had put on several extra layers of warm clothes.

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The next big town was Ifrane, also known as the Moroccan Swirzerland, and it was easy to see why. If you think ‘desert’ when thinking about Morocco, think twice. At over 1,600m above sea level, we found a quaint town with snow and luxurious houses that would not look out of place in the Alps, with a skiing resort past the town.

Past Ifrane, the road took us close to Azrou and then into the foret des Cèdres, a thick forest with a great mountain road where I had a great time and where this amazing country brought us yet another surprise – monkeys! The forest is full of them, and they are a big tourist attraction, together with a tree called Cèdre Gouraud, a cedar over 800 years old.

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As we kept gaining altitude the forest cleared until there were no more trees and a vast expanse of snow opened in front of us. The temperature dropped gradually and reached a minimum 6 degrees Celsius as we rode over the highest point of the day, the Col du Zad, almost 2200 metres above sea level.

img_1590The snow remained part of the landscape until we started losing altitude again and the landscape turned into rocky desert plains on the way to Midelt, where we stopped to have some much needed hot tea before the last leg of the day.

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With the sun already low, we descended to the river Ziz, which we followed past the tunnel du Légionnaire and into the Gorges du Ziz, an amazing canyon that opened into a big reservoir built in 1976 to prevent the flooding of the palm tree plains down along the river.

Just after sunset we reached the outskirts of Errachidia, where we turned off the main road and rode a dirt track to a small group of houses made of mud and straw – we were going to spend the night in one of them, Gite d’Étape Khettara Oasis.

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A group of children, fascinated by the bikes as all children are, pointed us in the way of the house, and a small wooden door opened and man welcomed us into a beautiful inner courtyard. We were allowed to park the bikes inside for the night, and after squeezing the heavy beasts through the door, we unloaded them and were shown our room.

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Before settling down we set about fixing the headlamp in Gerard’s bike, which had stopped working in the morning. Fortunately, I had had the same problem with my V-Strom a few months later and knew how to fix it – it was a faulty ignition switch contact, which needed cleaning and adjusting.

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The owner of the house came shortly after and told us about the region and its history. He had been born in that same house, but after several consecutive years of unforgiving draught, his family had been forced to move to the city and try to make a living there. Fortunately for him, his father insisted that he kept going to school, and he had gone on to obtain a degree in physics. Feeling that he owed something back to his hometown, he had returned and turned his family house into a traditional guesthouse that was part of a network of sustainable tourism establishments in the Ziz river region. They employed local people and used local produce, and reinvested the money in improving water and irrigation facilities to support the local farmers.

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We enjoyed an excellent dinner in front of a fire in the central room of the house and went to bed early, ready for our first desert experience the following morning.