Thursday, 28 February 2013

Magnifique

The Todra Gorge differed from the Dades in two respects - firstly it was narrower with a long steady climb at the base of the towering cliffs rather than tight hairpins and secondly I was able to escape from the top end through some of the finest mountain scenery yet . A high wide plain traversed the High Atlas through remote Assoul passing some very basic villages and houses including Berbers camped in limestone caves. Two girls ran perhaps half a mile to meet me and all they asked for were shoes as unbelievably they had arrived barefooted after crossing broken limestone that would have shredded a mountain bike tyre. Again I felt very humbled as I had little to offer and after a sobering encounter headed on to the somewhat ironically named town of Rich. South of Er Rachidia the palms of the Ziz Valley Oases' hid numerous small villages tucked away in the otherwise barren gorge which gave way to arid plains and at Merzouga the appearance of true Saharan dunes rising to almost 1000'. Google '4L Trophy 2013' to see the adventures of several hundred brightly painted Renault 4's that had been rallying across the desert to get here from Zagora (I have taken the long way round).
After a return to Zaida I then headed off to old mine workings at Aouli where the lad I rescued cycling in storm force winds turned out to be the gardien of the once prosperous site and was happy to take me deep in to some of the various adits. I was invited back to met his mum and sisters and whilst tea and a simple meal were served was shown photos of other visitors, traditional family weddings and other aspects of their simple life.
Heading NE across the bleak Plateau du Rekkam that sits between the Haut and Moyen Atlas a gathering storm that had been shrouding the mountains descended across the road forcing me to stop driving - not for  rain as this turned out to be a somewhat alarming sandstorm that reduced visibility to almost zero, turned day in to dusk and obliterated everything in any direction. I pulled well off the road and sat with the engine off to prevent damage but the fan full on to try and minimise the dust intrusion as outside all hell let loose.
After half an hour or so things abated and I was soon tucked away in a quiet lay by chatting to a few kids who had come to fetch water with their donkeys. After settling down at dusk I was surprised by a knock on the door an hour later which turned out to be two friendly gendarmes concerned for my safety on a road they claimed to be prone to vagabonds. They advised me to drive the 40 km in to town and stay at the petrol station which I did - the gardien seemed happy with £2 and I slept soundly.
From Missour I headed north across the Moyen Atlas soon reaching the fresh snow that had fallen the day before. After Immouzzer I met a snow plough who had failed to clear the road across to Taza due to a landslide so I turned west passing through stunning scenery to Sefrou and then Fez for a night on a large but scruffy campsite with electrics to die for. This trip has not been about the cities so Fez was left for another time as I followed the Cirque de Jbel Tazzeka through pine woods with snow clad summits and extensive views. The Gouffre de Friouato was an unexpected reward - after dropping through a side passage to emerge a third of the way down a 160m deep shaft, several flights of shoddy steps brought us to the base of the enormous pothole. Khamil then dropped between two boulders and we continued on some way in to a vast chamber with some impressive formations. My fancy torch penetrated the darkness that his small headtorch struggled with - I'm not sure he had ever seen half the things we illuminated and of course he was very keen to buy it from me.
From bustling chaotic Taza a good road crossed the green and fertile Rif mountains for a moonlit night on the coast at Al Hoceima alongside a couple of other vans in an aire as the former campsite had been turned in to a civic park - walking round the town as the daily souk packed up was an assault on all the senses.
I had heard about a new road heading west and followed my nose to discover one of the most enjoyable routes I have ever driven. An almost empty, wide and well engineered carriageway swooped down in to valleys and climbed high over ridges with the greenery of the Rif contrasting sharply with the barren mountain ranges of recent days whilst to the north the Med appeared occasionally as a reminder that I had come almost full circle.
Chefchaouen was as pretty a town as you could wish for - the maze of alleys, steps and lanes in the medina made for a fascinating days exploration - the blue tinted limewash adding to the relaxed and easygoing feel of the place - a great way to finish what has been one of the most rewarding months of my travels. Today's return across to Tarifa was by Moroccan standards pretty straightforward and was celebrated in the bar with a German hiker with the first beers in a month.
I am very grateful that my first venture in to this amazing country has gone without a hitch : the perfect run up to my 53rd birthday- it may be another year before I return but as the locals say inishallah, inishallah..........

The photos HERE say it all and my meanderings up through Spain, Portugal and France over the next month will pop up HERE 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Way up High - Way Down South

A night in Marrakesh was enlivened by meeting a couple from Dumfries who have travelled extensively in South America - most notably perhaps with a motorbike and side car - and I hope to catch up with them in the UK to extract even more info.
Heading up over the Tizi n Tichka pass I was again crossing the High Atlas this time N-S but took a side turning to Telouet where I spent a  memorable night alongside the remarkable kasbah - slowly crumbling away but with a decorative inner sanctum that defies belief - the kasbah that is, not me. A Swiss couple had learned of a working salt mine nearby and we set off to find it - tucked away in barren mountains a few guys were drilling a seam of pure salt perhaps a foot thick working by gas light in primitive conditions - awesome.
I carried on down the valley which had a surfaced track contrary to the guidebooks' descriptions and passed through a remarkable landscape of rocky valleys, arid mountains and mud walled villages. A student was hitching some 20km home and on arrival I was invited in to meet her 8 siblings and various aunts before being fed with fresh bread, olive oil and honey whilst the kids sat equally fascinated.
A night on a site in Agdz was the introduction to the vast palmeries of the Draa valley which I then followed for many miles south crossing other mountain ranges to pass through Zagora and reach the edge of the Sahara at Mhamid where I experienced the vast stillness that settles over that endless landscape at dusk. 
Dawn of course saw the eerie call to prayer of the small mosque and I was soon heading north again as further exploration is the remit of the 4x4 or camel. Remarkably the Draa had been running south as well and disappears here only to reappear on the Atlantic coast  some 300 miles away. Passing the many kasbahs and palmeries once more I picked up a serene old guy hitching to Zagora who sat contentedly in the back and just gave a single wave as I dropped him off - the experience would be akin to me joining a Martian spaceship briefly and yet he seemed totally at ease with the situation.
After a longish day I parked up in the grounds of the Soleil Bleu Riad where camping was permitted - it had the best loo and shower facilities since leaving Marvao in Portugal a month ago and even with power was under £5 for the night.
The Gorges du Dades was spectacular but for the first time in a fortnight overcast conditions washed out much of the colour of the dramatic landscape as I climbed steadily up to Msemrir where the mostly surfaced road petered out. I did a few more miles of rough stuff but met two shepherds on mules who doubted I would get up to Agoudal. This was confirmed later in the day by a Belgian mountain biker who turned up - he had had to carry his bike in numerous places due to winter washouts and storm damage. Back in Msemrir a group of over enthusiastic kids managed to break my wing mirror glass as they scrambled for a pen each - they were hugely apologetic and looked terrified but later I made an invisible repair worthy of any garage with my shaving mirror and retraced my steps to spend the night in the gorge alongside a small hotel with 2 South Africans in a T5 plus Oz tent, a Dutch couple in a lime green micro caravan, 2 Irish guys in a hire car and 3 Spaniards.
Surprisingly there was light rain overnight but clearer skies in the morning persuaded me to head back up the gorge to retake my photos - which were enhanced by the fresh snow on the highest tops. The friendliness of the kids up in these mountains is remarkable - they have so little and yet always smile and wave - similarly the women folk who are hard at work fetching forage for the livestock, loading donkeys with firewood, washing huge rugs in the rivers or working the tiny patches of fertile ground dotted around the valley floor. Most people travel in the   ramshackle vans that ferry goods, people and livestock around and a lift is always appreciated as there are no fixed schedules to these 'berber taxis'. The stark landscape was some of the most impressive so far with the road zig-zagging between high barren mountain ranges linking up the dusty mud walled houses that formed the numerous small hamlets. Newer unfinished buildings were dotted around and the small bars and cafes all offered basic camping where space permitted so a return for longer next time is planned as the area has much potential for a little later in the season.
Tinerhir some 50km east has provided a place to catch up on the internet, source a slightly better wing mirror glass, chew the cud with a well travelled Ozzie guy on a 3 year cycling trip round Europe and North Africa ( and lose heavily at Scrabble) whilst a storm that came down from the High Atlas blew itself out to leave a fresh and starry night which bodes well for my exploration of the Todra Gorge as I enter my final week in this truly remarkable country.

The piccies HERE should give you a flavour of the past week and my whereabouts are revealed HERE

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Half Way

Two weeks in to my month here and I shall be very keen to come back for longer next time as the country sits very easily with hassle free travel.
Leaving Zaida I took a back road across the Midi Atlas passing through Aghbala - probably the most chaotic place I had passed through to date. Stunning mountain scenery gave way to El Ksiba via a tortuous descent but with the planned stopover venue closed I carried on through to Beni Mellal navigated at dusk as the huge souk was packing up - mayhem.
Another climb in to the mountains found me a quiet corner before en route to the remarkable Cascades d'Ouzoud I picked up two hitch hikers Patrick from Poland and Lisa from Taiwan who both had good English and made good company for 24 hours. The falls were impressive and fairly quiet - I stayed overnight in a shady olive orchard for £2.
Marrakesh was left for another time as I passed by heading for the coast - a good site south of Essaouira did the job - power, a shower and a chance to hand wash some clothes.
The coast south to Agadir was sublime and a small site at Imsouane will definitely be one to return to. A transition to even hotter climes was marked by the appearance of camels and banana plantations and the sun continued to beat down from dawn to dusk reaching the mid thirties in the afternoon.
Taroudant provided a fascinating glimpse in to life in the kasbah with all manner of trades carried out in small open fronted workshops - I soaked up the atmosphere during a two hour wander before heading off to the notorious Tizi n Test pass.
A remarkably engineered road snaked its way to 2100m where I stopped at the small cafe and decided it would be a perfect place to stay. The Berber family I had picked up asked me to take them another 20km but as I had brought them 30k I stuck to my guns - they were soon on one of the precariously overloaded lorries however - I guess they just got used to the comparative luxury.
A three hour walk to a nearby summit provided dramatic views down in to the valleys of the High Atlas - this south side sees little snow but I decided against further exploration this time as my left knee was causing concern again despite almost a fortnight's rest.
Today I have returned briefly to Marrakesh to restock cupboards in a largish supermarket - the descent from Ijoukak to Asni proving exhilerating. The Tin Mal mosque, a souk in Ijoukak and the stunning mountains all made for a memorable day.
Now I head over the Tizi n Tichka to Ouarzazate and the south - proper desert they say - with the Draa Valley the next major destination.
Photos covering some of the highlights appear HERE and the usual locations are transmitted daily (or more) HERE
Any news or views always welcome via email - I will be back in 6 weeks time to catch up properly!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Moroccan Meanderings

After a smooth crossing enlivened by the grounding of a large German van on boarding I entered the frenetic customs entry point where despite having filled in online and printed off the relevant forms there was some delay due to a 'computer malfunction'. A friendly young gendarme also had most of the cupboards out and took a liking to one of my many torches but was content with a fancy pen whilst the other various 'helpers' were content with a basic biro and eventually I was off in to the late afternoon traffic of Tanger. The sat nav soon had me up a blind alley behind a military complex surrounded by goats but eventually took me to a bank where 500 euros became 5500 dirham. Cape Spartel provided a first stop and a chance to reduce the larger denomination notes a little by having a meal in the cafe overlooking the lighthouse where another huge camper got rather stuck in  the small car park.
Further down the coast at Asillah I stopped on the edge of town with a few other vans and walked in to explore the busy centre and narrow confusing medina. A noisy street procession of drummers and dancers combined with the myriad of tiny colourful shops, street stalls and the profusion of exotic aromas made for an amazing first encounter as I strolled around until well after dark. The guardien's fee of £2 seemed reasonable and I spent a comfortable first night.
Heading south on Saturday torrential rain turned many roads in to muddy pools and the towns were a mass of mud and debris - I stopped mid afternoon at a small campsite near Moulay Idris and the Roman ruins of Volubilis to give it time to clear and soon after saw the large Silverstream caravan I had passed earlier pull in - a cumbersome combination on anything other than main roads.
A perfect day dawned for my walk around the impressive Roman remains - I arrived long before anyone else and the friendly guide was a fount of knowledge - most of which I could understand as French is widely spoken. Moulay Idris nearby draped itself over a rocky hill and made for an interesting explore before I headed off to find a supposed campsite in Meknes. Located near the old royal palace both had obviously not seen occupation for many years so I continued on towards Khemisset where a picturesque lake provided a good wild pitch which once the many friendly picnicing families had gone at dusk was very peaceful.

I then headed out on minor roads to cross the Midi Atlas entering a high barren limestone landscape with some pine forests, rough grazing and numerous herds of sheep tended by young boys who were always ready with a friendly wave. Their Berber camps were rough and simple - tarpaulins stretched over wooden frames and various donkeys, poultry and dogs scuffing around in the dust. At the Azigza Lake I decided it would be a perfect place to stay the night and was rewarded by a troupe of Barbary apes playing in the pines in a quiet corner. In a very humbling encounter a nervous young Berber mum came over with her 8 year old son who had toothache - with no dentist for 40 miles, only a donkey for transport and probably no funds she was very distressed and there was little I could do but give her some of my painkillers for him - it must have taken great courage for her to approach me and I felt very sorry for them both.
I visited the source of Morocco's largest river with its spread of tea shops and stalls having given a couple of locals a lift there - hitching and overcrowded pick ups (the Berber taxis) are the default mode of transport in these isolated areas
The sat nav developed a serious case of Tourettes as I tried to find my way across the ranges following successively rougher tracks with washouts, landslips, erosion, fords, gullies and debris all slowing my progress. The van performed beyond all expectation but we were finally defeated by a snow drift which although not too bad showed no sign of other tracks and I decided to return to the lake for another amazing night. The temperature at this altitude (5/6000') dropped to minus 2 but I was 'cosy as' thanks to down bags, insulation and a dozen tealights - the same dog slept alongside all night and was rewarded with a hunk of bread and pate.
Today has seen a successful route across incredibly barren mountain scenery to Zaida where I have stopped at a small but surprisingly smart campsite (by the standards of the region). Berber camps miles from anywhere on almost bare ground with patches of snow confounded belief as to how they survive - very much on a par with the indigenous people of Australia's red centre with which, apart from the mountains, this landscape shares many similarities.
 En route in a small village I consumed a delicious and filling lamb tajine whilst alongside a driver removed his lorry's gearbox and a guy cut up a large beef carcass - so much of this reminds me of my time cycling round India 25 years ago with the same friendly people who seem so much more at ease than the people back home despite having so little. A tankful of diesel cost less than half the UK price, lunch was £3 and the camping with (unexpectedly) hook up about £6 so life on the road remains particularly cheap and certainly very cheerful.
Anyway piccies HERE will give you some idea and my location will be reported daily HERE which updates every time I send a message.