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.

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