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]

Trouble in the desert

Day 18 – Friday  12th of July – Dossor to somewhere in the desert to Astrakhan (655km)

We woke up at sunrise, shortly after 5 in the morning, and by the time we had got the dust off all our stuff and packed the tents, it was already hot. As we were getting ready to leave, we asked the guy at the petrol station about the state of the roads, and he pointed at my route and said “problem, problem”. It seems that the road was in very bad condition, and people went around for 1,500km to avoid the 600km to Aktobe. I had talked to some bikers on the HUBB who had ridden it, and I thought I would take two days and try to make it.

I felt quite sad saying goodbye to Martin, it had been three great days riding together, and I would have liked to continue having company. Maybe I should have taken the same route as him through the Stans, I would have had the chance to do the Pamir Highway and the landscape would definitely have been more varied than in Kazakhstan. In any case, it was too late now, I had no visas, so Kazakh desert it was.

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The road was still good for about 10km north of Dossor, and then it went back to the kind of very potholed asphalt I had found after the border. The bike was shaking so much that I could not see anything on the GPS, so I reached to hold with my left hand for a second to be able to check the distance, when to my horror the whole assembly, GPS and mount came loose and fell. I stopped to see what had happened and after removing the windscreen I discovered the problem. The windscreen is held in place by four screws, and I had replaced the two at the top for longer ones because that was where the GPS mount attached. It seemed that the vibration had made the weight of the whole assembly act as a lever and the screws had loosened and fallen. I put everything back in place, held it with some electrical wire and hoped it would hold.

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I rode on and after a while the road became the nightmare I had been warned about. It is relatively easy to ride on dirt or gravel roads, but the problem here is that there had been an asphalted road at some point and now it was gone, leaving just some patches here and there, then disappearing, then reappearing, and it was very hard to try and avoid hitting the rough edges. I made very slow progress, and at one point took one of the paths that trucks had made on the side of the road to avoid it. It was soft sand and in ten minutes, the bike slid at the front and I fell.

I was OK, so I removed the tank bag and tried to lift it without removing the rest of luggage. It turned out it is easier on the sand than on asphalt, and I was able to do it on my own. Good thing, because there was nobody else around. I went on, on and off the main road, and about 100km from Dossor I thought I was making decent progress and I would make it to my destination for the day in decent time despite the bad road, when suddenly the bike started handling funny and I had to stop, thinking that I had got a flat tire.

I checked, and I was right, the back tire was flat, so I got the compressor out, plugged it and inflated it. Once it was done I started turning it, checking for damage, but I could not see anything despite turning the tire several times. I was starting to wonder how it had gone flat when I saw it – the rim was dented.

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I had changed the springs on the bike in preparation for the trip, trying to make it a bit more usable off road, but this was still mostly an asphalt and dirt road bike, not a true hardcore endure machine, and the suspension lacked travel compared to a KTM or a BMW and it had bottomed out several times on the harder sections, the rim must have got damaged on one of those occasions. The tire seemed to hold the air, so I weighted my options. I could try and go on to Aktobe, but that was a two day trip on the same kind of roads or worse, and the rim clearly needed repairing or replacing, and that might be hard in Kazakhstan. It seemed that the best option was to head back to Russia, where I had a place to stay and access the internet to arrange for a replacement to be found. I thought about it under the sun for a good while, as that would mean that I could not go back and try this route again, since my Kazak visa only allowed one entry.

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In the end, I decided to turn back. I started making my way back slowly and carefully, and after ten minutes riding I felt that the tire was flat again. I had not panicked yet, since I had been able to inflate the tire and I thought I could make it back to Russia without much trouble, but when I got the compressor out, plugged it in, flicked the switched and realized to my horror that the thing would not start, I felt panic starting to build up. I was in the middle of nowhere, a hundred kilometers away from the closest city, and I had no way to inflate that tire again. Things were starting to get bad.

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I thought that I needed to arrange some kind of transport to get the bike to a repair shop, so I stopped a passing van to try and get some help. They were workers from an oil rig, and one of them spoke a little English. He told me that there was no recovery truck anywhere nearby, so there was nothing they could do. He then draw a rudimentary map on my notebook indicating that there was an oil rig or refinery or something like that five or six kilometers down the road and that I should try to make it there and ask for help. I got on the bike and slowly rode in first gear, trying to avoid the roughest parts of the road, but it was impossible not to hit some bad patches from time to time, event riding in first gear. Sweaty and miserable, I made it to the gates of the plant almost an hour later. I called the security guy at the door and tried to explain my problem. We spent at least half an hour with me trying to explain that I needed to get back to Astrakhan and him trying to make me understand that there was no transport to be arranged. The only thing travelling on those roads were oil tankers coming and going from the wells, and it was not possible to put the bike on one of them. Then he asked me if I had dollars, and seemed to indicate that he could fix the wheel. He made some phone calls and then gestured me to take the wheel off the bike, so I took out the tools and got down to it in the scorching heat at the entrance of the plant.

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Another guy came, apparently a mechanic who worked there, and took the wheel into the plant. He came half an hour later, with the tire inflated but some chunks of lip missing where he had tried to bang it back into shape. I checked it and it seemed to hold the air, so I put it back on the bike, paid them and got back on the road as soon as possible.

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I thought that the botch job would not hold for long, and I was already regretting having paid them when I saw a bike approaching o the road. We stopped and it turned out to be a guy called Wesley, from the UK, who was following the same route as me before I broke the rim. He complained about the state of the road (and he was riding a better bike than mine for that kind of stuff) we discovered that we both knew Stephen Stallebrass  and we exchanged details. He wished me luck and we parted ways.

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The botch job got me all the way back to Dossor, where I got some petrol and checked the pressure. I asked several people again, but I got the same answer, no recovery truck, no way to take the bike back into Russia. Seeing that the tire was holding, I decided to try and make it there myself, especially because it was getting darker and the wind was blowing very strong, there was a sandstorm forming. I zigzagged my way out of the petrol station through the queue of huge tankers that were waiting to fill up with diesel in the last town before heading into the desert and into the storm, and started making my way back. The tire held the air well all the way to Atyrau, where I stopped to check the air pressure. It was still OK, so I pushed to the border, hoping to make it to Astrakhan before nighttime.

I had avoided the sand storm in Dossor, but the sky was getting dark and there seemed to be heavy rain to my right. It was still very hot, and I did not want to waste time stopping and taking out the waterproof layer for the suit, so I decided to take the risk. About half an hour later the rain started, big drops that soaked me up quickly. Fortunately, it did not last very long, and before getting close to the border I was starting to dry up. I was starting to feel confident that I was going to make it, but then I got to the bad section before the border and hit a couple of potholes; sure enough, the tire went flat again instantly. I limped to a small group of huts by the side of the road, but they did not have a pump. Back on the road, I stopped a couple of Ukrainian tractor heads who connected a hose to the truck’s air system and pumped my tire. I made it to about 10km from the border before it went flat again, and things were getting bad. The sun had set, I was exhausted and the tire did not seem to hold for more than 10km at a time. I limped the last 10 km to the border with a flat tire, and while waiting for the passport and bike papers to be checked, talked to another truck driver who pumped my tire. I was only about 30km from my host’s apartment in Astrakhan, but the tire let go again when I arrived at the pontoon bridge on the river. Crossing it with the bike in perfect conditions was scary, doing it again with a flat tire was absolutely terrifiying. The bike slid all over the place, and more than once I was very close to losing it. Sweaty and shaking, I made it to the other side. I had only 20km to go, and I tried to stop a car to try and plug my compressor into their 12V socket, maybe it was only the socket on my bike that was not working and the compressor itself was ok, but nobody stopped. After a while I saw a petrol station and a girl who had stopped there for petrol let me try in her car. It worked, and that last charge was enough to get me to the apartment, where Lex and and Valentin were waiting for me. It was almost midnight, and never in my life had I been so happy to see somebody. They gave me some dinner, I had a quick shower and just crashed into bed.