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.

merzouga

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.

img_1626

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.

merzouga-2

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.

merzouga-4

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.

merzouga-5

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.

img-20161229-wa0009

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.

img_1640

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]

Advertisements

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.

img_1567

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.

img_1580

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.

img_1591

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.

img_1607

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.

img_1604

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.

img_1594

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.

img_1599

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.