Monday, 5 November 2018

Lisbon and farewell. Welcome back to the Alentejo.

A new minimarket and cafe in San Antonio was worth dropping in to and then we spent the day cycling over to the ever fascinating railway station at Beira before returning via Castelo de Vide along a range of tracks before stashing the bikes and other clobber away as we decided they would be unnecessary in Lisbon. 

We headed off on the Sunday stopping en route to appreciate an old Roman bridge before arriving at the aire in Central Lisbon around dusk. It was conveniently situated on the old wharves just along from the impressive 25th April Bridge and very handy for reaching the main highlights. A few other vans were obviously almost in residence and joggers and cyclists occupied the adjacent track that followed the foreshore for miles. We walked up to the Presidential Palace with its numerous bored looking guards and then went in to the ferry terminal and underground station just to orientate ourselves before walking back along the seafront passing a promising looking restaurant.

After a quiet night we then spent a pleasant day walking the streets of Lisbon to visit its many attractions ranging from the castle through to the myriad of alleyways and steep narrow streets, various chapels and churches and the main squares of this compact and lively capital. We covered over 9 miles on a sunny day and saw most of the main attractions. The colourful trams squealed their way around and we noted that a number of the tuk tuks were now silently gliding around after an upgrade to electric power.

Back at the van we showered and changed before walking the short distance (fortunately as it had started to rain) to the Portugaria where we enjoyed an excellent meal in contemporary surroundings. There was a large internet conference taking place in the city and a number of fellow diners were tech savvy twenty somethings from a range of nations no doubt defining the world of tomorrow at a level I figure I would struggle with.

On the Tuesday we set the sat nav for Aeroporto Lisboa and were soon dropping Mandy off for the shuttle bus to Terminal 2 for her flight home. A slight delay had been texted from Easy Jet but good time was made on the flight and by tea time she was safely home.
I lingered until the flight had actually departed and then crossed the long Vasco de Gama bridge with flamingoes paddling in the extensive shallows at the far side and called in to a large campsite for a Campingaz exchange - the 907 cylinders had proved elusive but 13 euros seemed a good price - less than half the UK cost.
Thus I set off for the headland at Cabo Espichel where a large sandy and mostly empty car park was to be my base for the night.
It was blowing like mad making the walk out to the chapel and church of Nossa Senhora de Cabo quite exhilerating and causing some challenging flying conditions for a large military helicopter hovering over a nearby bay - it wasn't clear whether it was a training mission or an actual rescue, either way the pilot was obviously highly skilled.
The roof of the chapel was quite probably the finest I have ever seen but photos were discouraged unfortunately.
The lighthouse began to wink as the sun set and I returned for a wild and windy night grateful once more for the cosy warmth of the Eberspacher.

Wednesday looked set to be a wet day so I decided to hunker down and read until it started to clear up at which point I dropped in to Sesimba to walk its castle walls and view the busy fishing port before doing a supermarket sweep at Setubal and heading inland where the weather seemed calmer. Whilst a planned stop north of Evora provided an opportunity to drain tanks and fill up with water I decided its location alongside a restaurant popular with HGVs might not be so peaceful so decided to stay in the city itself on the marketplace parking - another large sandy expanse with plenty of room.

Evora's main sight is the remarkably well preserved Roman temple with the aqueduct also largely intact. 
The Chapel of Bones was a macabre sight whilst a collection of nativity scenes from around the world and across the generations made for interesting viewing.
Heading east I spent the night just beneath the castle walls at Marvao with spectacular views across to Spain with the sparsely scattered villages lit by sodium lights looking like a fallen galaxy.

On the Friday I called in briefly to collect my bike before taking up residence at the Barragem de Povoa which was much emptier than a fortnight previously - of people not water.
Saturday's 40 mile ride under a strong sun was a cracker - using the GPS I followed numerous tracks and trails to Montelvao and then dropped down to the hydroelectric scheme on the Tejo to cross in to Spain. Cedillo had a small shop so I stopped for refreshments before returning across the dam and making my way back via yet more tracks. Some striking cattle were grazing alongside the beautiful blue and white Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios and I arrived back in time for an hour in the sun watching a large flock of storks wading in the shallower water.

On Sunday I woke after 12 solid hours sleep and spent the day reading with the odd walk to ease my limbs before today I nipped across to Valencia for large amounts of fruit and veg, some goats cheese and a good helping of serrano ham as I am now in residence at Gary's site whilst he heads south for a few days.

I intend to give the van a good spring clean, service both bikes and enjoy what is to me the best of both worlds - an immaculate, well maintained and picturesque campsite - with no campers!!

Latest pics HERE

Friday, 26 October 2018

Old Favourites

Our excursion along the deep Douro Gorge gave us another perspective of this impressive ravine with the sun showing up the extraordinary geology. lichens and 'tidemarks' caused by the fluctuating water levels of Portugal's largest  hydroelectric scheme but by late afternoon we were crossing the dam over in to Spain to pick up the fast empty motorways for a 200 mile whizz south. Due to the hour's time difference we arrived around ten in Valencia D'Alcantara a few miles from the Portuguese border for a quiet night on the aire alongside the bull ring.

Monday morning gave us the opportunity to visit the regular market held in the main square alongside the church. The extensive range of fruit and veg left us spoilt for choice so we headed over to the clothing stalls first where the dour colours and patterns of the items on display were somewhat uninspiring. However I was attracted to some underwear bargains and left a happy bunny. Chorizo and serrano ham, sheep's cheese, a huge bag of fruit and veg plus some treats from the bakery completed our shopping so we headed towards Porugal stopping only to fill up as diesel is 10% cheaper on the Spanish side.

A side trip to the stark rocky ridge where last year I had watched vultures nesting was unproductive as presumably they are yet to arrive so we carried on through the empty customs and border buildings to the viewpoint above Castello De Vide alongside the beautiful chapel. A Spanish touring cyclist lugged his well laden bike to the top - his matching panniers and well equipped bike were equally impressive.

We then headed out to the Barragem half way towards Nisa where we planned to stay two nights.It was a scorching day and after a walk round we decided to take the narrow track down almost to the water's edge that was out of reach to the larger vans already parked up.

After a couple of hours in the sun we took the bikes out for a couple of hours as it was cooler and took a mixture of empty roads and unsurfaced tracks to Povoa e Meadas, the nearby village and back via an inpressive menhir that had recently been returned to its upright position.
Just as we returned an almost full moon rose across the water and after an evening meal we decided to sleep with the van door open to the striking view.

Tuesday dawned bright and sunny as a few local fishermen arrived for the day and we explored the far side of the water but failed to find a way round as the tracks dwindled to footpaths.
Thus after lunch we headed along another clutch of tracks and lanes to Nisa whose historic centre was a maze of narrow lanes and alleys with in one corner a colourful diplay of umbrellas suspended across the street.

On our return we stopped at the tiny bar near the dam for a cool beer and felt that with the nearby cluster of affluent vanners he was missing a trick by only offering cold beers and soft drinks. 
Once we were back we spoke at length to an English lady who'd bought a van I had admired a year or two ago at the Birmingham Camper Show. They felt it was not that well built and had a long snagging list for their return home, they also felt that it lacked ground clearance due to the underslung gas and water tanks.
After another night under a full moon we departed for Portalegre in a search for Campingaz but despite the 'stockist locater'app it was unobtainable in either supermarket - strangely we noted that neither butcher sold lamb at this time of year.

After a salad lunch on the slopes of Marvao we parked up alongside the walls and climbed through the streets to the castle where at the top of the main keep millions of flying ants were swarming. From here we could see the blackened slopes to the west where a summer fire had scorched a large swathe of the chestnut and oak forests. We dropped in to the small shop to surprise Joao who assists at the campsite before shortly turning in to the familiar gates of Camping Asseiceira.
It was good to see Gary again and over a cuppa we had a quick catch up before settling down in a private corner and offloading the bikes. Apart from a brief return to the UK in mid November I will be here until the New Year which is a very pleasing prospect.

Yesterday we cycled to Galegos and then through the quiet border lanes back to Valencia and then took a turning to La Acena De La Borega for a beer and tapas before taking tracks to the impressive dolmen El Mellizo.

An ice cream on the way home set us up for the final few miles and later that evening we joined Gary and some other guests at the Pau de Canela restaurant in nearby San Antonio das Arreias. I enjoyed baby squid whilst Mandy chose a more restrained omelette both accompanied by delicious chips and a mixed salad. Profiteroles for afters left us feeling replete as we walked home on a mild night.
Today we have been to see a project that Gary has in mind for the next few years - an olive oil factory last worked in 1975 that he hopes will provide a home plus adjacent holiday lettings. The old settling tanks, pressing equipment and various associated fittings will be incorporated in to what has the potential to be an interesting project..

Our circuit of the 'Roman Steps' walk was interrupted by a clap of thunder and some rain as we reached the road back but fortunately an engaging Irish lass who lives locally stopped and dropped us back at the site.

Here we have relaxed and caught up with news as I have taken up the internet pass available at £5 a day- my roaming data allowance having been used up over the past month.

The photos are here - my Spot device seems to need new batteries or has a fault but Marvao comes up on any map search.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Gorges, coast - gorgeous mountains.

After climbing back over the pass to the south of Potes we dropped through cloud and showers before taking the side road to Cains in order to start the Cares Gorge walk from the southern end. Despite the rain it was an impressive experience once more with numerous tunnels, bridges and an exposed walkway that had replaced a collapsed section of tunnel - to increase the experience a section was left open to the river far below with only a grate to stand on.
The adjacent small waterway that also snakes through the gorge was empty and at one point we saw an engineer on a quad following the concrete lined canal through a route every bit as impressive as our walk - an enviable job.
On our return the sun broke through and we headed off in search of a place for the night. This arrived sooner than expected in a nearby village, Posada de Valdeon, where the community had installed an aire with hook up points, water and waste facilities, loos and showers in the sports hall and all for 10 euros paid online.

After a walk round the village with its many old farm houses and elevated grain stores we enjoyed a peaceful night leaving next day for the lakes above Covadonga.

However it was a National Holiday in Spain and the traffic was heavy heading that way so we decided to head for the coast and stopped at popular surfing beach of Rodiles where a largely empty grassy car park was our base for the night. The beach was large enough to swallow the visitors and we enjoyed walking the full length admiring the surfers out on the roaring waves.
Next day we cycled in to Villaviciosa for food before returning for a relaxing day on the beach and a walk to a good vantage point that evening.
Sticking with the coast we visited Llastres with its pretty harbour and maze of streets covering the hill behind the town and felt it to be much nicer than the more popular Cudillero.

Cape Bustio felt very exposed but a good two hour walk rewarded us with excellent views - the 1:25,000 mapping on my GPS proving again very useful.

Puerta de Vega's aire located behind the substantial sea wall was a great place to stay and handy for a walk around the headland with good cliff and coastal views.

The maize harvest was well underway with the large combine devouring great swathes at a time.

Lluarca was another attractive fishing port with plenty of interest around the harbour and good views from the small chapel way above the town after which we headed south inland towards the mountains once more.

Our planned stop on the Sende del Oso had no water or waste working but another mile or so up the road a much nicer alternative was the aire at Teverga from where the following day we began a 60 mile ride following the vias verdes first and then looping over the mountains with a long climb before a fast descent back to a sunny cafe at Tunon by the mediaeval bridge. A meal out that evening was just reward but Mandy was less than pleased after the event to discover we had enjoyed baby eels in one dish.

En route south we passed through the stunning mountains and gorges of the Somiedo National Park and walked a route from a high pass on the Asturian border to the Lago de Cueva and others located high in the hills with cattle grazing the deserted slopes.

After refuelling we stopped overnight in the grounds of a cafe that provided facilities, free if you had a beer or two there and then continued on to Astorga with one of the finest cathedrals I have visited. Gaudi had also had a hand in the proposed Bishop's House and the evening light lit up his remarkable design flair.

We cycled out partly following the Camino de Santiago passing various earnest hikers heading along the famous pilgrimage route before turning off for striking Castrillo de los Polvas with its iron stained stonework looking superb in the bright sunshine.

Puebla de Sanabria had a substantial castle and pretty old town surrounding its solid walls and finally we pulled in to an aire on the slopes of Braganca's castle with easy access up to the main keep, the church, Romanesque town meeting house and the cluster of streets that define 'old town'. The newer centre was a short walk away and worthy of exploration with its paved, traffic free boulevards and fashionable shops.

Quince trees were heavy with fruit alongside our overnight spot and we slept soundly again very grateful for the independence the new van provides with hot water, a shower, loo and, if needed, heating. Despite the mountains and climbs we seemed to be getting a creditable 40 mpg and found eating out etc very reasonably priced.

We are now in Portugal at Miranda De Douro and have stayed on only our second camp site to get laundry done - a medium bike ride this morning took us to a remarkable viewpoint over the Douro where we now intend to take a river cruise before heading a couple of hours south to the Spanish/Portuguese border near Marvao.

Piccies sit here as ever HERE

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

To begin at the beginning.....

So - the Gap Year.

After returning from my last trip in early 2017 it became obvious that dear old Mum who had coped with such dignity with the loss of Dad some four years previously was now in need of additional suppport and as a trial she agreed to try residential care at the superb Hagley Place care home in Ludlow. The staff made her feel very welcome and within a week she was asking if she could move there permanently.
Mindful of her advancing frailty this seemed a very sensible solution and in time it became clear that she would not be returning to her new home in Bishops Castle. She had managed three happy years there but we all accepted she was entering a new phase in her life.
Thus over the late Spring and Summer of 2017 I began to head off again reassured that she was happy and safe, but generally staying nearer to the UK and taking shorter trips. Highlights included the traditional week in Scotland with old friends, a new experience in house sitting in a charming corner of Devon and a superb three weeks in France cycling the Nantes - Brest Canal. 
Unfortunately Mum developed Alzheimer's which produced a frightening and rapid decline in her abilities and whilst Hagley coped very well and met her ever changing needs she deteriorated quickly and required a hospital admission in September. Following her discharge she was extremely frail and required constant care and supervision.
With some misgivings we decided to visit Northern Spain in late Autumn before my usual Portuguese winter foray and spent three weeks enjoying the many excellent Vias Verdes (disused railway lines converted to cycle tracks - English version available) of Northern Spain, a superb return for me to the Picos D'Europa and then a pleasant few days in Marvao before Mandy flew home.

In late November on the very day I was also returning to the UK the home rang to say Mum had taken a turn for the worse and whilst en route to the airport another call confirmed that she had quietly passed away.

Thus on my return I became very much preoccupied with arranging a funeral in line with her wishes, the placement of her ashes alongside Dad in my brother's lovely garden and then attending to her affairs.
This became a focus of my attention for the following 8 months and suffice to say that whilst most public and private bodies acted with sympathy, sincerity and even efficiency her life time bank - Barclays - continue even to this day to be apalling in every way. They should be ashamed of the way they treated a loyal customer especially as, after acting in a similar way following the loss of my father, they had promised to change.

However over the summer of 2018 everything finally clicked in to place with the tedium enlivend by a memorably harsh stay above Brecon during the Beast from the East, good cycling breaks near York, in the Yorkshire Wolds and in Lincolnshire and a tough undertaking of the Devon Coast to Coast Sustrans Route - far harder than we had anticipated. A long trip to Scotland was cancelled thanks to the delays from Barclays but we made the most of the unusually good weather that marked Summer 2018.

However Mandy became seriously ill in late June after a routine op and had a very close shave with sepsis which rather put our plans on hold but remarkably by late July she had begun to recover and we undertook a gentle tour of some of our favourite haunts, catching up with friends and enjoying the continuing good weather. Highlights of this fortnight included the superb Newport Transporter Bridge, a BBQ by the Severn on a perfect evening and a visit to North Devon where old friends are embarking on a new life in a very lovely part of the world.

With Mandy now almost fully recovered I decided to head off for August starting with a challenging cross Wales ride from Chepstow to Conwy staying at various bothies, returning to house sit hedgehogs, ducks and rabbits in Devon and then celebrating a clutch of birthdays with a memorable helicopter charter over the Devon countryside.

In early September I assisited the usual reprobates in running the final Brecon Beast Mountain Bike Charity Event. Over 700 riders enjoyed a demanding route and succeeded in bringing the total of funds raised over the years to more than £100k. Sadly intransigence and obstruction from two local public bodies has made running the event in future years impractical and I think all those involved over the previous years will remember with great pride the many expressions of thanks and appreciation from entrants across the board.

So finally in early October I felt able to set off on another longish venture, Mum's affairs were finally sorted,  and for those who've followed the blog over the years and noticed the new image at the top I was in a new home.

Whilst I actually purchased the van a year ago I have been ensuring that it is up to the task of matching the quite remarkable achievements of the old battle bus. Finally retired at 345,000 miles and 18 years it has I believe gone to a new owner and I now enjoy considerable comfort in a familiar but more refined vehicle.
Over the year I have had a full service including cam belt and water pump, changed the leisure and starter battery, had a new Eberspacher diesel heater fitted and as a precaution changed the clutch and DMF. Some rust around the screen was addressed although unfortunately this involved a dispappointing hiccup as the new screen leaked requiring the removal of all the interior trim, carpeting and seats at the front to dry things out.
Whilst in Portugal last Autumn the alternator failed and was  a sod to change but the old one is now refurbished and carried as a spare along with the usual filters and brake pads.

With Autosleeper managing to fit a very seviceable shower and loo in the LWB Topaz van and with the transfer over of some kit from the old bus I now have a very comfortable home that will I hope set the scene for many years to come - it is now 13 years since I gave up the smallholding life in the Brecon Beacons and I hope to be on the road for at least as long again.

The crossing to Santander on Brittany Ferries' flagship Pont Aven was smooth and enjoyable with porpoise spotted alongside.
Santillana Del Mar provided an unscheduled stop as having driven rather embarassingly through the traffic free mediaeval village centre ( never believe a sat nav) we found we could park overnight for 10 euros and were able to explore the narrow lanes and alleyways more appropriately.

Next day Gaudi's Caprichio at nearby Comillas was a cultural treat and San Vicente de La Barquera made for a pleasant stroll before we headed for the parking above the stunning beach at Pechon where we had enjoyed excellent swimming in good surf last year. However despite the summer heat the sea was cold even in wetsuits but nevertheless we enjoyed a good day on the beach and two quiet nights in a beautiful location.
Heading south over the Cantabrian Mountains we decided to tackle a peak on the Tres Mares Ridge and climbed steadily as the mist blew in on one side. Excellent views of the Picos were our reward before we dropped to Cervera de Pisuerga for a quiet night in an aire where we were able to fill up with water and dispose of waste.
Following the scenic road west to Triollo we took a shortish walk to a pair of viewpoints before unloading the bikes and setting off on a circuit of the Camporredonda reservoir including a side trip up to Cardano de Arriba where the lofty peak of Esperguete loomed over us.
A bottle of the local cider in the sun at a small cafe set the scene for the wobble back to Triollo after which we headed on to another aire at Velilla del Rio Carrion.
Food and fuel were obatined at Guardo on the Monday morning before we took the high Puerto De San Glorio road over to Potes in the Picos. From the magnificent Mirador de Llesba we watched as the clouds lifted from the major peaks of the Picos and I remembered my stay there overnight four years ago under a starry sky.
Camping La Viorna in Potes was as beautiful as we remembered and is a credit to the family who own it. We made use of the laundry facilities with washing drying very quickly in the dry mountain air - it was our first proper campsite in a week but closes at the end of October.

Yesterday saw us taking the Fuente De cable car up in to the mountains where we began a long walk through incredible scenery to the col at Horcados de Rojos from where we watched astonished as intrepid hikers descended a fixed wire down in to the valley below as part of a traverse of the main Picos range. Across the dry glacial basin the impressive Naranjo de Bulnes towered over the view and after a good lunch of bread, cheese and tomato we decided to climb the actual peak reaching the 8500' summit for the most rewarding views after a breathless scramble.
With a fair way to go if we were to catch the last cable car down we didn't linger long and arrived back at La Viorna tired and ready to enjoy an excellent meal in their small restaurant.

Today we decided on an easier day and just walked in to Potes, stopping briefly en route to assist a Dutch couple as the lady had sprained her ankle. Potes has an attractive older centre and the La Soldreria provided us with one of the best meals in recent memory whilst sat in a sunny courtyard.
This afternoon has been spent uploading this lengthy update - tomorrow we move on to the impressive Cares Gorge and then the Covadonga Lakes before we head back to the coast and NW Spain.

Piccies should be available here.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Gap Year

After a break of some 18 months - more later, I am just refreshing my (limited) skills with the blog and trying to master Google Photos which has replaced Picassa, so far with limited success.
This link should get you (and me!) to a review of the year in photo form RIGHT HERE

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Another One Bites The Dust

Crossing back over the river alongside the uncompleted bridge which looks bizarre on Google Earth imagery I returned to Asni and cut across the north western flanks of the Toubkal Massif where a surprising number of people from presumably Marrakesh were heading to the Ourika Valley. I cut across towards Demnate turning south briefly to visit the muddy waters of the Lac des Ait Aadet before at one point picking up a group of women waiting patiently by the road for the next ancient Mercedes van 'taxi'.
They were obviously delighted to be onboard and laughed and  giggled as we headed east - they were fascinated by the van's interior and gave me the friendliest smiles and waves after being dropped off at a market. Short of Demnate I turned south again to visit the remarkable natural arch of Imi -n- Ifri which was reached by hundreds of steps down in to the gorge with falcons swooping round from their lofty nesting sites. 

A rather precarious path enabled you to walk through the arch whilst climbing on an exposed ledge before eventually returning to the road. Whilst chatting to the parking gardien he said that the road south towards Skoura was no longer just piste and would be snow free so I decided to take a look and headed out through some remarkable mountain scenery where I found a peaceful spot to spend the night tucked away amongst cedar trees..

The road south passed through some remote villages as it climbed the Tizzi n Outfi and Tizzi n Fedrahte passes at around 6000' with the snow covered bulk of Irhil M'Goun away to the east at over 12000'. On the approach to the second pass the road became just a rough and rocky gulley eroded out of the bedrock which the van tackled at a steady pace - I was glad to have replaced the font and rear shocks, springs and bushes and felt confident that we would get through despite the ever deteriorating surface. 
Broken tarmac eventually reappeared on the downhill side and at a junction with a track in the middle of nowhere two guys and a toddler were waiting by the roadside. I pulled in and one guy plus his wide eyed daughter were grateful for a lift of some 15 miles down to his village. On the run in to Skoura a very distinguished older gentleman hopped in for a lift to the main road before I turned east towards Boumaine du Dades where I picked up fresh fruit, veg and bread. Heading out of the town two young guys with large rucksacks were hitching across Morocco heading from Cassablanca to Merzouga where the annual Renault 4 desert challenge was being held. They were on their first trip around Morocco and took selfies sitting in the back and asked for a group shot when I dropped them in Tinerhir. They were obviously excited to be away and had loved their brush with my domestic arrangements - as a way of meeting and in many cases helping locals offering lifts builds many bridges and I thoroughly enjoy the experience. Sadly I doubt many of the larger more sophisticated vans with their sun seeking occupants ever stop as I detect in many cases an indefensible 'them and us' attitude.
At Tinerhir I returned to the Camping Atlas where two years ago they had been engaged in a dramatic demolition of their rooms and sanitation facilities in place of which there now stood a handsome building with rooms on the upper floors and excellent camper facilities on the ground floor. The friendly lad genuinely remembered me and I was soon pitched up in a quiet corner of the empty courtyard and had a good clean out of the van as it had picked up a lot of dust on the high mountain roads.
The next day I asked to use the antiquated washing machine and an hour later leaving the clothing to dry in the sun took off on the bike to explore the large palmerie that occupies the valley floor. It was a good way to explore the maze of paths and tracks that led to abandoned pise built kasbahs slowly crumbling away as the locals have understandably moved in to more modern accommodation with water, power and in some cases sanitation available. Sadly therefore these quiet shady ruins will eventually disappear back in to the very soil from which they were built - in effect the ultimate in sustainable building materials.
Eventually I wound round the valley, crossed the river on a palm log and dropped in to Tinerhir to have a look at the network of streets behind the main drag. Here a jumble of stalls and workshops, butchers and fabricators, mechanics and hardware shacks provided a colourful and hectic scene that kept me absorbed until it was time to head back to site.

Setting off up the superbly impressive Todra Gorge I dropped off an Aussie couple who keep a motorhome in the UK to explore Europe during our summer and return to Oz for the summer down under - an arrangement I have long considered the perfect mix.
Whilst deep in the lower section it was very chilly the sun had warmed things up as I headed up towards Tamtattouchte where a few enterprising locals had set up basic camping provision which I will sample next time. At the next village a market was in full swing and was well worth a walk round in a chill wind.
I had decided to try to get over the Tizi Tirherhouzine pass at 2706m and climbed steadily for many miles with the snow covered tops stretching away either side. Just at the top I passed a guy on a donkey miles from anywhere and could not imagine where he was heading - he gave a friendly wave and seemed OK so I passed on before stopping at the top to enjoy the stunning views all round. Unfortunately my camera had decided to pack in so I was reduced to using the Go Pro in stills mode to capture the view but it has a fairly wide angle lens so produced only moderate results.

After a quick lunch and intent on dropping to Imilchil I was tempted by an alternative side route that headed out in to some very wild terrain with snow drifts on the road, remote villages where there were some signs of spring and roads that were washed out in places but passable. Topping another high pass near Jbel Masker (3277m) I met a guy on a moped just coming up from the other side - his pillion was way behind walking up through the snow that almost covered the road. The north facing slopes held far more snow and I contemplated my options not so much regarding a descent as the chances of retracing my steps if the route through further on proved too much. A controlled slither through the snow in low gear saw me down and I rolled through cedar woods and sturdy villages towards Boumia. At one stage a shepherd waved vigorously which I acknowledged only to find a mile later that he had been warning me as the road had collapsed and disappeared in to the river for as far as the eye could see. The sat nav which has in fairness been indispensable had been warning of limited map information for most of the day and offered no alternative other than a return back over the snowy pass. As I carry snow chains this was an option but instead I booted up the GPS which had superior mapping and showed me a diversion that wound down a different valley for some miles before climbing back over the ridge to join the original route. At the junction a young man with his wife, mother and a pile of baggage was very happy to get on board for a lift to Boumia Ait Orrhar. He invited me back for tea but it was late in the day so I declined but he kindly insisted on scribbling down his mobile number should I need any help in the future.
Arriving at Zeida as the sun set I pulled in at the Tinerhay camping I have used before relieved to have covered such challenging tracks in remote terrain with no issues.

As my return to Europe was less than a week away my general heading was north but again the pull of the road less traveled was strong and at Boulemane I turned north east to try and reach Taza the back way. Beyond Imouzzer des Marmoucha with its spectacular waterfall I left all signs of human habitation behind and climbed steadily to Tizi Bou Zabel at 2400m where progress down the north side was after a mile or so blocked by snow drifts higher than the van. 

A careful reverse enabled me to turn round and although the GPS did show an alternative route it would have been higher still so I dropped back to IDM and took a lower road to Jbel Tazzeka National Park where I found a good wild camping spot on a limestone plateau a few miles from the Gouffre de Friatou. It was noticeably cooler being high up and north but cooking a meal, having a good wash and then retiring to bed kept me warm and cosy as I watched a film with not a sound to be heard outside.
Taza gave me a chance to enjoy wifi in a cafe as the dongle's month of data had expired before a steady day crossing the Rif mountains brought me to Aknoul where again I tucked away up a track as the first rain in weeks fell and a strong wind rocked the van gently.
The road north to Al Hoceima was being upgraded as part of a massive engineering project and I reflected on how hard it must be for such a relatively poor country to finance infrastructure improvements - the fact that power and mobile coverage has reached almost every community is a remarkable achievement in such challenging terrain. Better water supplies and sewage treatment will follow and I hope eventually waste collections as the country is still troublingly overwhelmed by litter and rubbish supplemented by building and construction waste.

Paralleling the Med coast but some way inland the N2 road swooped up and down as I turned west and decided to have one last night in Chefchaouen as it is a very appealing town. Two heavily laden cycle tourists looked somewhat overwhelmed by the long climbs but would be rewarded with stunning views north to the Med and south to the Rif ranges which I will explore in more detail on a trip later in to Spring than this one.

The site was quite busy as I guess quite a few winter visitors were heading north but I enjoyed a good chat with two guys from Bristol. The son had qualified as a doctor and was about to join a relief mission in Mali. He and his dad were driving an old but well equipped Toyota Land Cruiser down there which would remain with him at the hospital whilst Dad flew home - they had five weeks to make the journey and were keen to pick my brains about routes south and the availability of food and fuel as well as the safety and practicality of wild camping.
Saturday morning saw me pulling in at Tanger Med for a trouble free passport and customs clearance which included a whole vehicle scan whereby ten vehicles at a time were scanned as we all stood out of the way - I believe it is able to pick up CO2 and is therefore intended to catch stowaways.
The 90 minute crossing is short but full of interest with Gibraltar and the busy port of Algeciras slipping by and after a quick shop in Tarifa I was back at Rio Jara for a much needed shower and relaxing walk on the beach.
A steady few hours on the Sunday brought me to Camping Asseiceira near Marvao where Gary was kind enough to take me out for a meal and we caught up with each other's news. As ever it was a truly special place to stay in a very lovely part of Portugal and whilst looking forward to a return home to see family and friends there was a huge temptation to linger for a month or two and enjoy the good weather.
On the Monday I cycled over to catch up with Yolande whose small farm I had looked after for over a month two years ago and was greeted by the remaining trio of her dogs who now enjoy a cleverly landscaped series of terraces and seating areas that surround the house. This helps counteract the problems of a local grass seed that can get in between the pads of the paws and then travel up the limb causing a nasty abscess - as indeed had happened to one of the dogs whilst I was there last time. We had a good lunch and a catch up and hope to rv again some time - again the temptation to linger longer was very strong.
Before heading for the final ferry home I had a lazy day reading in the sun and nipping up to Marvao for the sunset and left after breakfast on the Wednesday for the 1200 miles up to Caen.
Unfortunately the coolant level light had flashed briefly the night before and closer inspection revealed a slight leak in the area of the water pump but it wasn't huge and only needed a top every couple of hundred miles - I did check if it would be possible to return from Santander and avoid the 900 miles or so across France but the ferries were fully booked for a fortnight so I stopped at Morcenx once more and then south of Rennes the following night. I decided to give the van a good jet wash to avoid drawing attention at customs as it was in a rather muddy state from the high level routes with their slush and muddy river crossings of the previous weeks and as the saying goes she scrubbed up rather well.

At Caen on the Friday having made very good time I decided to pay a supplement to travel that evening and suddenly it was all over again - the Isle of Wight and then Portsmouth's busy harbour providing a fitting finale to what has been another amazing trip . The people of Morocco were again the major feature followed  a close second by the stunning scenery and largely perfect weather but underpinned once more by a vehicle that yet again performed beyond all reasonable expectation. Tackling long climbs on rough surfaces in high temperatures, taking in the at times very poor roads in clouds of dust, providing a comfortable place to sleep in every night and giving something back to the many people who joined me en route the bus just kept on giving - with over 339,000 miles on the clock I still managed a shade under 50mpg on the long steady trip back through Spain and France and with luck will have the water pump changed locally here in Shropshire tomorrow before heading north . A timing belt is due but not before my trip to Scotland in a fortnight the results of which will probably encourage me to update this humble missive.

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Friday, 17 February 2017

Crossing the Atlas - Anti and Haut.

Leaving the remarkable Fort Bou Jerif by the long rough track I again reflected on how difficult it must be to staff and stock such a remote place with the town of Guelmin reached an hour later. Here a western style supermarket of the Marjane chain enabled me to buy a few stock items but as regards fresh produce their choice was less fresh and much pricier than the markets and stalls in towns. A number of larger French and German vans were stocking up but I was away before long stopping briefly in the town to confirm that replacement 27.5 inch tyres were unavailable.

Heading to the coast at Sidi Ifni there were a number of cramped looking sites overflowing with sun seeking Europeans so I pushed on until I found a track down to the coastline and spent a quiet night on the seashore as strong winds whipped up sizeable waves. An old guy drilling for water came over for a chat and sensing he was rather down on his luck gave him some fresh bread, bottled water and a micro fleece as he was kipping under a rudimentary tarpaulin.
Calmer conditions the next morning saw me away up the coast before turning inland and stopping at Tiznit for a walk around the streets and markets within its substantial walls. There was an interesting jewellery quarter and pungent fish market and after a couple of hours I headed off to start climbing the Anti Atlas to Tafraoute where after the lofty Col de Kerdous at 1100m I took alternative back roads to arrive in Tafraoute by mid afternoon. The main campsite was spilling over in to adjacent wasteland and looked very uninspiring but Camping Granite Rose another kilometre on was much more appealing.
The walled yard had good clean facilities only two other guests and a very friendly gardien - Omar who lived in a tiny room in one half of the gatehouse, the other serving as an office. The town's mobile mast was not far away giving me a chance to catch up with news and family but as the weather was good I decided to head out on the bike as a few miles away lay the Roches Peintures. These were created a few years ago when a Belgian artist used the local fire brigade to hose 18 tons of blue paint over a collection of granite boulders out in the sticks. Since then additions including graffiti have extended the scene which provided good photo opportunities although gathering clouds rather affected the light and I returned a couple of days later for better results.

Back at the site two cycle tourists had arrived, erected minute tents in a corner of the yard and spread out their various possessions to air. I walked in to the town and was enthralled by two guys who had removed the larger part of a coach's rear suspension in the street and were hammering away at recalcitrant bolts prior to wielding the welding torch.
Overnight it rained heavily - quite a novelty for me to hear it on the roof but the next day dawned dry and bright so I decided to explore the Ameln Valley to the north which contains more than two dozen small villages all located on the spring line of the dramatic red Djebel el Kest range that towers above them. Each village was worthy of a visit and I used the GPS to link some by paths that provided an alternative to the tarmac passing through orchards, small cultivated fields, crossing streams and surprising the locals.
At one point the rain had flooded the piste so I had to backtrack to another crossing place before continuing on the forty mile route that eventually returned me to Tafraoute before the heavens opened as the temperatures fell. Taking pity on the two cyclists I invited them to join me and we all spent a memorable evening exchanging travel stories - the German lad had been away for four years having ridden overland from Germany to Singapore and then flown back to Egypt to cycle the east and now the west coast of Africa. Whilst in the south of Morocco he had ridden from M'Hamid where I had looked out in to an unforgiving wilderness to Foum Zguid, an impressive 100 miles or so of sheer isolation on difficult terrain.
Both were slowly heading home and were invited by Omar to sleep in the utility room as it was still raining heavily - I was very grateful for the comforts of the van but next morning nipped out early to get us all croissants for breakfast as unusually the town had a decent little bakery. I set off with every intention of completing another circuit to include the villages in the east of the Ameln and climbed out on a dramatic road before setting off down the isolated piste that would return me to town. However the overnight rain combined with an upgrading of the track had led to very muddy conditions that made progress all but impossible so I retraced my route and returned to the Painted Rocks for better pictures in the evening sun.
After a break from travelling for a few days I was pleased to be heading off again and climbed the back roads towards Igherm meeting the French cyclist again en route. Dropping down to Taliouline I picked up a local heading that way who was very grateful to be dropped in the village and then turned west to Asalouz. Here I took a minor road that would have circled to the south of the Toubkal Massif and passed through a busy village where the weekly market was just packing up. Heavily laden trucks and minibuses were lumbering up the valley which contained a fast flowing river - this turned out to be the authorities releasing water from a large reservoir to cope with the weekend rain and as it was late I decided to spend the night in a large layby overlooking the dam.

Heading away up the dramatic valley all seemed well for an hour or so until rounding a corner I saw a line of minibuses parked up - ahead was a substantial landslide that had blocked the road for several hundred yards with lorry sized boulders that had destroyed a reinforced concrete retaining wall. By all accounts it would be weeks before it could be cleared as it would be dangerous and precarious work so the locals were clambering across the unstable fall to continue their journeys on buses parked at the far side.
Thus I turned round, returned to the N10 and picked up the Tizi n Test road that I had tackled four years ago. The impressively engineered road climbed steadily over 30km to 2000m - it was rare to have to drop below third gear and eventually the col was reached where I decided to stay once more at the tiny café with its dramatic views down to the Sous plain  far below.
Mustapha warmly welcomed me and claimed to remember my previous visit, who knows, and I took a walk up to the snow line further along the adjacent piste before enjoying a rather primitive but warm enough shower in the auberge and a salad and omelette in the café where the chill was alleviated by a log stove - built in to the chimney was a large kettle to provide rudimentary hot water for the tiny kitchen. The van had retained the heat from the day and was very cosy as I settled down to a peaceful night under a starry sky with the lights down on the plains seeming very distant.
Next morning I headed north but couldn't resist the track down to the remote village of Agbagh - with a fair bit of snow alongside the road and some impressive washouts I lost most of the height gained yesterday as I dropped in to the isolated valley - en route a guy who had been at the col the previous night was grateful for a lift - he was a forestry worker and intended to complete a remote circuit back to the col over the course of the day. Equipped with only a walking pole this seemed quite a call but he set off happily up a rough track a few miles short of the village. Here I parked up and walked down the valley through blossoming almond trees joined eventually by a dozen or so friendly and politely inquisitive kids. In a small field a toddler was safely secured to a tree as his mother worked below in the river - he sported a filthy bandage covering a rather nasty looking wound to his forehead which the other kids explained had been called by a falling rock.
Eventually I returned to the van, climbed the impressive route back to the 'main'road and then began the superb descent towards Marrakesh around 80 miles away following a series of hairpins that passed beneath snow bound ridges.

The impressive but now abandoned Tin Mal mosque is open to non Muslims and I was able to explore the extensive ruins as last time the gardien had been absent. Up to a thousand worshippers had attended when the large town was at its height but now less than seventy families live in the area and use a smaller, newer mosque. During my visit two British backpackers emerged from a decrepit taxi, grateful to escape the cramped vehicle which had apparently tackled the road with alarming gusto.
Lara and Rosie from Bristol were coming to the end of three weeks in Morocco and heading to Marrakesh for flights home - they were grateful for a lift down to Asni from where I was turning west over the hills to Amizmiz. Another stunning road with a few rough stages dropped me in to a valley where a substantial but unfinished bridge stood like an airport runway with both ends hanging in mid air. To cross the river required a watery section and then some rough concrete before the opposite bank was safely reached. Here would, I decided, make a good place to stay the night and I was soon settled in watching a few overloaded vans, battered cars and the odd mule cross the fast flowing waters. At dusk one of the vans stopped nearby and three friendly lads also stayed the night, cooking on an open fire and sleeping in the van - they were off to work in a valley further on for a few weeks.
Thus this morning I rolled in to Amizmiz where a busy market provided fresh food, some good looking beef, dates, nuts and yoghurt as well as bread from another decent bakery. Coffee in a café saw me fit to climb out on a twisting road to remote Azegour with superb views of the Western High Atlas including Djebel Igdet at a lofty 3616m.
Lunch with a decent Radio 4 signal was a treat before I dropped back to Amizmiz to enjoy some internet access - hence this update.
I leave this remarkable country in just over a week so the next post is likely to come from Portugal, meanwhile as ever there are piccies here and you can track my progress here.