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]