Monday, 19 January 2015

Deserts, Mountains, Gorges and Markets.

With our mechanical issue resolved we headed confidently down to Midelt and out to the disused mines complex at El Aouli where until the late eighties some 3000 people were employed. The sprawl of abandonned buildings merited close exploration - a few families still work small drifts on a very basic level and I could see the family of the lad I met two years ago still living in their simple shack high above the largely dry riverbed of the spectacular gorge.
Morocco's appalling litter problem was depressingly evident as we returned to town with sheep picking over the garbage just dumped at random on the approaches to the bustling transport hub.
The Ziz Gorge took us south of Rich and we stopped at a kasbah/camping ground surrounded on all sides by majestic cliff faces beneath which a shepherd moved a large flock of small black goats.
We met a German couple who were to reappear at various times over the next few days and assisted them in filling their large water tanks from the low pressure supply before spending a peaceful night in a remarkable spot.
Returning north slightly we turned east to Gourrama, stopping to explore the town's back streets and small shops before taking coffee in a small cafe where a guy tried to sell us a small lump of what he described as hash but looked more like ear wax or worse.

Eerily desolate mountain scenery accompanied us down to Boudnib and provided a good spot for lunch in the mostly dry riverbed. We discovered a real gem of a site on the edge of town, French owned but run in the absence of the patron by two friendly sisters who were a pleasure to meet. As it was such a nice site we decided to stay two nights and during the second day Rana took us off for a three hour walk to the old French Army's barracks, the Berber village that was destroyed by floods 6 years ago and back via a small olive oil pressing business where we picked up two litres of the genuine article for £5. EHO's back in the UK would have had a fit but so far it has proved delicious and there have been no ill effects. That evening the girls produced a superb meal cooked with the fresh food bought as we returned to the site which we enjoyed in the simple lounge with the wood burner and candles adding to a memorable atmosphere and it was with some reluctance that we headed away the following morning grateful for such a local and friendly insight in to the town's hidden gems.
Picking up the Ziz valley again we passed through bare mountainous plateaux before from a crest we had a remarkable and unexpected view down in to the extensive palmeries that contrasted sharply with the hitherto barren terrain - palms stretched away in to the distance with small fields under cultivation in their shade and pise houses and ksour pressed up against the gorge's walls.
Bustling Erfoud and Rissani gave way to desolate plains dominated by the black hammada - a volcanic rock that replaces the red hills at lower levels. From Erg Chebbi south to Merzouga the dominant feature was the eponymous hundred square miles of towering sand dunes with numerous accommodation choices signed off the main road down dusty pistes.
Camping Les Pyramides provided a good spot to stay at the end of Merzouga village with the dunes directly accessible. We declined the slick offer of 4x4 excursions and camel rides before setting up for a very quiet night beneath the stars and just across from Erkart the German from Zig.
We did some laundry and I emptied the contents of our bench seat to identify the cause of an increasingly difficult sliding mechanism - in the process our various tools, spares, recovery equipment and the like created the impression of a mini souk. With nothing blatantly amiss I repositionned a plastic casing that had been catching and lubricated the runners which seemed to resolve the issue.
After the magical colour changes in the dunes the previous evening we took off mid afternoon to give us time to reach the top of the highest dunes - surprisingly hard work but well worth the effort as we looked south to the Algerian border.

From Erfoud we took a back road east to Goulmima and after filling up with diesel at 56p a litre headed up the Oued Gheris gorge towards Amellago. The gorge would be impassable during floods as evidenced by the huge swathes of gravel and boulders that had been cleared at each crossing of the river and the damaged road surface and mindful of the age of our transport we were happy to let the old Merc vans crammed with people, produce and livestock pass us and crack on ever upwards. 
At Amellago a gite promised camping but this turned out to be a small yard  within closed walls so we decided to drop back down the gorge a few km where we had spotted a track down to a small turning area suitable for a wild camp. The sun set behind the distant ranges and the temperature dropped to around 2.5 but as ever we cooked, brewed and washed to keep the van's interior warm before retiring to watch the first of the Homeland drama DVD's we had been saving for this trip.
In the small hours a stiff wind whipped up and I had to nip out and secure the bike cover but otherwise we survived a comfortable night under the starriest sky imaginable.
Our route over towards Assoul took in a few small mountain villages where the kids waved and smiled, women worked hard tilling small fields or carrying back huge loads of fire wood and shepherds moved sheep and goats across almost barren plains. Whilst in a tiny cafe run by a friendly Berber woman the local official with military escort called in to advise us that there was a severe weather warning for the next two days in the high mountains with snow forecast and he seemed anxious that we should undertake to drop back to the plains.
Thus an hour later we were climbing the hairpins towards Imilchil reaching the Tizi-Tirherhouzine Pass at 2700m for lunch from where indeed we could see that there was snow falling over the higher distant peaks. As this is an area I intend to revisit one summer we were content to return to Assoul passing a group of Dutch and Belgian bikers and eventually catching up with Erkart and his large wohnewagen. Soon after we were hailed by some locals who were trying to jump start a lorry that sported a water drilling rig. They lacked the basic requirement of jump leads and were trying to rig up an alternative with offcuts of SWA cable and I think had all a shock of some sort.
Within minutes the beast was roaring and belching black fumes to the delight of all present with smiles all round and our brownie points with the prophet assured for at least another day or two.
During our descent of the stupendous Todra gorge we stopped to explore a couple of side gorges, pleased that the clouds had lifted allowing the late afternoon sun to reflect off the towering walls before all too soon we were pulling in to Camping Atlas synchronising bizarrely with Erkart once more.
The site was more than adequate although the attached rooms and restaurant had been comprehensively attacked with sledge hammers and lay in a state of some dissaray awaiting a complete renovation that would apparently be finished in two months - I have to say this looked highly unlikely to be a realistic time frame but then again look at what was achieved at Lluest Cwm Bach bothy in a similar period. (Search this blog via the facility top right if this means nothing to you).
Today we spent an absorbing couple of hours in the chaos of the Tinerhir souk buying several days worth of fruit, veg, dates, nuts, pasta, meat and the like at ridiculously low prices with Sarah to her credit feeling more at ease and engaging with the traders who to a man were helpful, good humoured and courteous.

A climb over the Tizi N'Bouljou pass crossed the Jbel Sahro range and dropped us in Alnif where we enjoyed an excellent lunch of chicken omelette cooked in a tajine, Moroccan salad, frites and drinks for £9 with wifi enabling a check to be made on our affairs as the strong winds deposited a fine layer of dust on all and sundry.
Finally we have stopped in NKob on a small site with plans to follow a piste (unsurfaced track) back across the Jbel Sahro to visit the Dades Gorge as by then the wintry spell over the High Atlas should have moved on - apparently the overnight temps. in Imilchil were forecast to fall to -21 so we did well to take on board the advice offered yesterday.

Anyway the dongle has magicked the latest piccies to this link and the Spot monitors us via this link, both of which I hope will prove of interest.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Moroccan Marvels

The Algeciras to Tangier Med sailing across the Straits of Gibraltar went very smoothly with good views of the Rock as the Rif mountains loomed ever closer. After 90 minutes we were docking at the new container port and in contrast to the hectic chaos at Tanger Ville two years ago both our and the van customs procedures went very smoothly and we were soon on the road to Tetouan where we eventually found an ATM prepared to dispense dirhams at the rate of about 14 to the £.
The amazing roads in the  Rif climbed and swooped as we took the El Oued back road through gorges and small villages before reaching the campsite high above Chefchaouen just after dusk, despite the sat nav dumping us vertically beneath the site in a dead end construction road. Having stayed at the site two years ago I was aware of the dodgy electrics and primitive sanitation but we received a friendly welcome from the gardien and were soon installed on a terrace under the trees.
The 'blue town' was as stunning as ever and we nosed around the old medina with its narrow streets before heading out to look for an old washing machine hose that I could salvage some connectors from to make it easier to use the Moroccan tap fittings. After various comical exchanges we found a stall that had what I wanted and we later sorted a few cards and stamps for folks back home who are not online and enjoyed a meal outside opposite the old kasbah.
Our final deed for the day was to visit a tiny shack of a shop where the friendly lad sold us a Maroc Telecom USB dongle and 3G SIM, took the trouble to ensure that it worked in my old netbook and charged us the princely sum of £14 which included a month's usage up to a 10 Gb limit - amazing.
Back at the site we chatted to an Oz couple in a UK van that they had bought secondhand (or more) in London to explore the UK, Europe and for the last 3 months Morocco - whilst in the desert it had rained and they had got stuck with bridges washed away and roads cut off! They were now heading to southern Europe before moving north to Scandinavia and took on board my recommendation to do the Kystriksvein and Lofoten Islands.
After a second morning in Chefchaouen we returned via the spectacular El Oued gorge to the Mediterranean coast and then turned east following numerous hairpins and long climbs. From a lofty vantage point we were able to Skype Mum back home using the dongle and then dropped in to El Jebha where again Sarah experienced a headlong introduction in to Moroccan life and culture. In the port fishermen were busy mending nets, scruffy cafes were teeming with men doing 'business' and the market was in full swing out in the streets. We had decided to camp on a stony beach on the edge of town as a French guy in a van seemed to think it was OK and indeed despite (as he had warned us) two soldiers knocking on the door two hours after dark to see our passports all was well and we slept soundly.

Visits to Kalah Iris, another small fishing port and nearby El Torre provided stops for lunch before we climbed up and over the Rif to Targuist and then a quiet backwater to Taounate - the contrast between the rural villages and chaotic towns was startling and we filled up with diesel at 60p a litre before heading across the Rif proper towards Tazza. Up in the hills a new barrage that was absent from maps and sat nav provided we hoped a place to stay the night but as we walked the narrow but high dam walls a gendarme advised us that staying was 'interdit'.
However a couple of miles further on high above the water we found a superb vantage point and settled down under a starry sky with a few remote villages dotted across the surrounding hills.
On our way down a rough and remote dirt road to Tazza (and much to Sarah's consternation) we picked up two lads waiting for the 'Berber bus' - ramshackle old Merc vans that ply these routes overloaded with goods and passengers. They sat silently for an hour as we dropped out of the mountains and crossed the plain to the busy town - they insisted on giving us a large bag of dried figs as thanks - before we found our way out in to the Jbel Tazzeka National Park where I had last time descended the Gouffre de Friatou. The bare Chiker plateau was dotted with herds of sheep and goats each carefully watched by a well wrapped up shepherd and we eventually chose to spend the night in a picnic area well off the road and sheltered from a very strong wind by cork oaks. The setting sun was followed by a starry sky and the wind easing off leaving an overnight temperature of 8 degrees but the van staying at a cosy 20 degrees thanks to the extra insulation provided by unfurling our two thermarests and side screens to cover the windows. Half a dozen tealights added to the homely atmosphere as we started to watch a film but soon dozed off after an amazing day.
The sun soon warmed things up the following day and we were away by 8.30 only to stop fairly shortly to do one of the signed walks in the area. Sadly even here in a national park the ubiquitous litter and rubbish problem that plagues Morooco was evident. Broken bottles (many surprisingly beer or lager), plastic bags, yoghurt pots, cardboard and food waste were strewn around and the crumbling toilet blocks were beyond belief. With no bin provision or recycling facilities anywhere even we have had to resort to just burying our rubbish which leaves us feeling very uncomfortable.
On our final descent back towards the main road near Tazza we came across a market in full swing and parked up on the football patch (not a misprint). Diving in to the throng all our senses were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of food cooking, animals dying, fish melting and voices calling. Every manner of fruit, veg., ironmomgery, clothing, pulses, spices and the like were on display and we gradually built up a bag of fruit, nuts, dates and herbs before returning to the van with what for under a tenner seemed like a huge haul of goodies.
Our route south took us via Sefrou with its large city walls and again we plunged through an arch in to a maze of alleys and covered passages where again all manner of produce was on sale. Sarah coped well despite initial misgivings and I enjoyed the experience immensely as we weaved in and out eventually emerging at a small bakery where the shy Moroccan owner was delighted to sell us a box of treats. The 27 degree heat was enjoyed as we returned to the van where the gardien accepted a couple of dirham as thanks for keeping an eye on the old girl.

The road south forked an hour later and we decided to take the slighly longer route through the hills where for some miles we were behind a perilously overloaded straw lorry whose load had shifted and seemed in imminent danger of overturning. Once safely past we passed through remote and humble Boulemaine where patches of snow lay on the ground, women fetched huge loads of brash on their backs for fuel and donkeys plodded back across stony fields to tiny shacks with the next day's water.
All the time we received friendly waves and even the odd salute which left us feeling very humble at the kindness and friendship shown by such impoverished people.
The long road down to Zeida was initially an arrow straight stretch of tarmac where we reached 60mph for the first time in days but as the setting sun lined up straight in our eyes it deteriorated and became rather demanding as we passed through small villages where it was almost impossible to see the straying donkeys, dogs, children and other roadside obstacles. Coupled with numerous diversions on to muddy tracks to avoid roadworks it was a trying time, slightly alleiviated by the sun finally setting and us reaching the main road.
Zeida was a small but busy junction of two main routes harbouring numerous roadside workshops and mechanics outlets, the usual food stalls, small shops and groups of people awaiting onward connections and ten minutes further south lay the Timnay campsite rather grandly marketing itself as the Inter Cultural Tourist Complex. The camping areas were empty as we parked under the trees and connected up after a warm welcome and I was pleased that the loos and showers were actually working this time round giving us both the chance of a good freshen up.
Today we decided on an easier day so set off to find a small fort marked on the map which involved turning off the main road north of Zeida down a rough track that led in to a vast featureless plateau with bare rock, minimal vegetation and impossibly basic shacks appearing as if from the bedrock itself. The sat nav had by now gone in to withdrawal as we looped vaguley north with no sign of the fort or anything remotely like it. As we cautiously climbed out of a dry river bed the alternator light came on suddenly, followed by the loss of power steering and a loud flapping from the engine bay.
We drew up immediately and soon enough confirmed my immediate suspicion that the fan belt had shredded and in doing so had flipped off the power steering belt.
Thus we pulled in alongside a small house, drove on to our levelling ramps for improved clearance and I began to assess the situation. No real damage had been done and content that I had the tools, spares and know how to resolve the situation I donned a a protective oversuit as the dry ground was rough and dusty. A few local children, some youths and the family from the house came out to see the excitement and Sarah managed to engage them in a mixture of French and English as I removed the engine tray. The new belt sourced in the UK turned out to be 5cm too long ( Lesson 1 : never just trust your local motor factors to give you the right part.) but fortunately I had an old spare tucked away which was soon fitted. The power steering pulley is a V shape and splits in to two with shims to act as adjusters and proved quite tricky to separate as I improvised with other tools to stop the pulley spinning freely. However with perseverance the job was done and we ready to leave. The family had brought out a bag of almonds and apples for us and wanted us to go back for tea but we thanked them profusely and gave all the kids pens and the father a spare pair of boots of mine as we felt that their gifts were a major part of their farm income before setting off to waves and smiles all round.
After lunch in the hills we dropped back to Zeida where I asked in a small 'Pieces D'Autos' shack if they had another belt. He hadn't but seemed to think we would get one elsewhere in town. After stopping outside a small mecanique's shopfront the owner took the shredded belt and disappeared in to the back streets emerging 5 minutes later with a new belt of the correct size for the princely sum of £7. No doubt I could have haggled over the price but it is not something I feel comfortable with out in the sticks for something essential so we shook hands and were on our way.
Timnay's restaurant produced a delicious chicken couscous for Sarah and kebabs for me for £14 all in after which we retired to the cosy confines of the van after what if you remember had been intended to be an easier day!!

Lethargic wifi has finally uploaded some pictures here and our occasionally somewhat isolated locations can be viewed here - we head south again tomorrow with rain forecast for Tuesday but who knows.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Christmas and New Year 2014 in the Alentejo

After the return from Lisbon's sights a rather debilitating cold took over for Christmas with sleepless nights and stuffy days but the excellent weather encouraged me to get outdoors during daylight and enjoy the local walks and a couple of bike rides. The clear blue skies and warm sunshine lifting the spirits whilst wifi at Campimg Asseiceira enabled me to keep in touch with friends and family. Yolande and Colleen invited me over for a Christmas meal with all the trimmings of crackers and decorations accompanying a prawn starter and locally shot venison main course. I had gone over in the van so could enjoy the wine and stayed the night.
A pleasant trip across to Lisbon saw Sarah safely collected from her Bristol flight and after a shop in Portalegre we were set up on the site, carefully placed to catch the early morning sun as overnight temperatures were dropping to -3 or so.
New Year's Eve saw us lunching at the Barragem de Povo before repeating the excellent walk from Cedillo along the Tejo with the ferry to Morocco and the Customs paperwork booked and completed online that evening and the necessary documents printed off - we sail on Monday morning so have plenty of time to meander down to Tarifa in southern Spain.

New Year's saw the return of Gary who also had a bad cold so we let him retire to bed and took Mya on a 3 hour walk through local tracks and lanes and acrosss the Roman steps.
That afternoon we popped up to the small chapel overlooking Castello de Vide before heading to Marvao for a memorable sunset followed by wine and beer in the cosy O Castello bar where the resident parrot was squawking away merrily.
The Pau de Canella restaurant in San Antonio served four of us a delicious meal giving me a chance to thank Yolande and Colleen for such happy memories since early October and we set off today for southern Spain leaving you to enjoy some piccies here.
We will send our location daily so have a look here and hope to get a SIM for an old dongle in Morocco to give us internet access so in the meantime