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.

Pics here

Spot here


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.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


A strange and distant land of mystery and intrigue - isolated villages in a barren, mountainous landscape, people speaking in an unfamiliar tongue, carpenters and bike repairers working  for a pittance in small primitive workshops, poor communications, rough roads and shops bereft of  fresh fruit, vegetables and anything but the bare necessities of life ..... still enough of Wales - I guess you want to hear more of Morocco.

So here we are about halfway through this particular trip and at the point of now heading generally north east to cover the High Atlas having headed south and west through areas I have not visited previously to arrive at the remarkable and isolated Fort Bou Jerif - a very unique and memorable location - more later.

Reluctantly leaving the comforts of Camp Serdar near Tazzarine I took lonely roads through sun baked scenery towards the Draa Valley turning south through the impressive palm filled gorge towards Zagora where two years ago my trip had come to an early end due to suspension issues that were in this country insurmountable. Pushing on south I eventually arrived after a minor sandstorm which produced an eerie red fog effect at isolated M'Hamid - the end of the paved road. 

Taking a sheltered spot behind the owner's mud hut I parked up at the very basic camping I had used 3 years ago - a grubby squat toilet and erratic gas shower were more than compensated for by the views away to the south and west in to absolute emptiness. I walked in to the village which was coming to life in the late afternoon and returned to a sunset greatly enhanced by the red dust that had enveloped the landscape.
The next morning the wind had ceased and the dust literally settled so I took off on the bike along a desert track until the deep sand forced me to return. Thus I then crossed the dry riverbed to enjoy a circuit of the palmery exploring a couple of kasbahs, encountering another jolly wedding group and finally returning in time for excellent kebabs in a small cafe around lunchtime. Walking in to town again at dusk the place took on a very different atmosphere of intrigue and mystery but as always I felt very safe and at ease and enjoyed the sights and sounds.

Returning to Zagora and refuelling (diesel around 80p a litre) I then took a former piste (unsurfaced) road that had until recently been for military use only heading west to Foum Zguid. Now well surfaced it passed through barren scenery with barely another vehicle for two hours until I reached Foum Zguid where I turned in to a small camp site - however as the power sockets were not working and the facilities looked somewhat rundown I decided to back track a few miles up the road to a hotel that offered overnight parking in its grounds. Excellent solar showers and good facilities were available and I walked across the dry river valley to explore an abandoned village before turning in for the night.
Next morning the only other guests - a German couple- were dismayed to find a flat tyre on their large motorhome - having neither the tools nor the know how to change the wheel they were awaiting the arrival of a repair man and thus I decided not to get involved as it was a heavy and expensive vehicle parked on soft ground.

Another desolate road running through stunning mountain scenery brought me to Tata where the Camping Municipal was choc a bloc with large French vans barely a metre apart so I headed a couple of miles out of town to find a smaller quieter site alongside a restaurant. This contained a huge MAN truck that made for a seriously well endowed motorhome for its German owner but as always I considered the sheer impracticality of such an arrangement for my interests and intentions. A friendly couple from Burnley were soaking up the sun and I stayed two nights spending the intervening day cycling in to the town for an excellent lunch in a scruffy cafe.

From Tata a circuit north to Igherm initially passed through palms and almond trees in full blossom  and a small village where I picked up fresh bread, bottled water and a carrier bag of fresh black olives that cost around £2, before taking a serpentine route that climbed to over 5000' before descending slightly to Igherm. Here I picked up a local lad heading south who claimed it was very cold (mid twenties so just right for me!) whom I dropped off some thirty kilometres towards Akka. 

Another former piste was being tarred and chipped as I passed along with the road crew somewhat disorganised in their traffic management to the extent that at one point I expected to be sprayed with tar and covered in limestone as they directed me close to the oblivious machinery - how they would have coped with more than just the one vehicle I don't know.

Akka provided nothing in the way of accommodation so I headed west to Icht, turned down a bumpy track and pulled in to the large enclosed yard of a camping a l'auberge. Whilst first impressions were unpromising as it was a little run down the dozing gardien was friendly enough and unexpectedly both power and the gas showers worked so I decided to stay and as it was early tackled three weeks of laundry by hand which due to the heat and almost total lack of humidity was dry within the hour.
After a remarkably peaceful night and superb sun rise under another cloudless sky I continued heading west until the signs for Amtoudi 12 km off the main road. Here camping at another auberge provided the base for another two night stay. I took the bike to explore a rough piste that after 7 hot miles delivered me to a village whose raison d'etre I just cannot explain. Tucked away up a valley with only a tiny oasis of palms, no sign of any car, moped or truck and not a soul about it seemed to be without purpose but doubtless I was missing something.
Amtoudi however owes its relative popularity to a huge grenier or agadir (a fortified store house for grain, dates, arms and anything precious) that sat high above the village on an impressive rock outcrop. Primarily used in times of conflict the substantial structure was reached by a steep and rocky path. The ancient gardien took myself and an Italian couple through the various tunnels and passages of this remarkable building, showing us the numerous tiny store rooms, the water catchment system and the stone beehives before we emerged at the highest point with superb views in to the village far below. The roofs of the store rooms were limewashed to keep them waterproof and also to sweeten the rain water that was gathered in a cistern after passing through a sand filtration chamber. 

Descending via a different path I returned to the campground where after dark the friendly deaf mute gardien knocked furtively on the door to offer me  a can of local beer which I gently declined.
The next day I packed up and moved off only to park up in  the village for a walk up the impressively deep gorge passing beneath a second agadir on an even more lofty outcrop and picking a route through palm trees and small vegetable plots. As the gorge walls narrowed the path climbed steeply leaving the irrigation channels behind and following the river itself up a few waterfalls before leveling off to a valley with clear pools and heavily scented flowering shrubs.
Back at the village I gave the few persistent kids a pen each before heading away to the larger town of Guelmin. The main N1 road came as a pleasant surprise after the more basic routes of the last fifteen hundred miles but the route to Fort Bou Jerif was soon to change that. Nine miles of stony track heading in to nowhere brought me to this remarkable place - a hotel and camping ground situated a kilometre south of an old Foreign Legion fort that as the sun set provided some striking images. The extensive ruins above a wide river bed were worthy of detailed exploration, some of which I undertook in the company of a feisty German lady in her sixties who was travelling alone on her first trip to Morocco.
Today I decided to try to reach the coast - 10 miles as the crow flies to the west - so set off with plenty of water and the GPS displaying the Morocco map. Passing the old fort I took various pistes that varied greatly in quality as they traversed the undulating terrain - it was superb mountain biking country and after a cloudy start the sun emerged to drench the scrubby cactus clad land. Said cacti soon did for my rear tyre which resembled Desperate Dan's chin plus on closer inspection a sharp flake of rock had lodged well in to the tread and its removal produced a small hole that did not bode well. However I cut two lengths out of the old tube and wrapped them round the new one to add extra protection, reinflated the new tube and all seemed well. As I set off along the 20km track to the White Beach I met a young German guy on a dirt bike who was returning from there. He had not seen a soul in two hours and mindful of the tyre's vulnerability on such tough terrain I decided to modify my plans and instead head off to the coast at Foum Assaka where he and a few others were hunkering down for the winter in an array of ancient Mercedes vans. The route down was once another access to Fort Bou Jerif but devastating storms and floods in 2014 had destroyed much of the tracks in the valley and indeed my descent was challenging enough on the bike. Tiny Foum Assaka was right on the beach with crashing Atlantic waves, a few vans parked up, numerous abandoned and half built houses and a tiny cafe that was able to rustle up delicious kebabs for me and a substantial grilled fish dish for another couple. Three Dutch girls arrived looking somewhat shaken by the rough track in - being in a hire car they were no doubt concerned for their deposit.
Finally under a sweltering sun I set off using the GPS to pick an alternative route back that avoided the hairy descent and eventually arrived back at the old fort where I was impressed to see a retired couple of cycle tourists pitching their tent in the shadow of the ruins. To explore these remote areas by bike must be challenging but the rewards substantial and I was annoyed not to have a spare tyre with me as I doubt 27.5 inch replacements will be available here although I will give it a try back in Guelmim tomorrow.

Back at the campground a rare sight indeed - a van with GB plates - Mike and Mary who were in a large Autotrail had persevered on the piste and were glad to have arrived without incident - at over 8m long with twin rear axles it was as big a rig as you would like to bring here. During the summer they live on a narrowboat in the UK but winter away, usually in Morocco and were planning to return via Portugal. We had a good chat over a brew before I grabbed a shower as the sun set  and then watched as a small group of horse trekkers that I had seen earlier by the coast arrived for a night under canvas.

Thus I now have three weeks to head north east with an initial foray up the coast to Tiznit before looping in to Tafraoute, then Taroudannt, a possible route through the High Atlas past Toubkal to Marrakesh, south again over the dramatic Tizi n Tichka pass and then up the Todra gorge and through the mountains to Rich.

Photos to date lie here and locations, once I get new batteries for the Spot device lie here.

Quick Pic Update

Photos available at this link for the previous post.

Heading out on the bike for the coast now - several miles of rough piste from Fort Bou Jerif which should be good. This is one of the most impressive places I have stayed at and well worth a Google and select the E - English translation.

With luck a new post covering the last week will appear tonight.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

2017 - On The Road Again - A Return to Morocco

Finally after much deliberation and soul searching I decided to embark on another trip south for the remainder of the winter.
An overnight ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe dropped me in France in the freezing early hours and I headed south planning to avoid rush hour in a couple of cities before catching a nap.
However after applying the handbrake at a toll terminal whilst I nipped round to insert my card the sub zero temperatures caused the rear brakes to partially seize and thus I took a break earlier than planned, settling down in a rest area to await day break and sunrise.

Thereafter a straightforward two days saw me across France, in to Spain at the western end of the Pyrenees and after a very quiet night in Caceres I arrived at Europe's most southerly camp site near Algeciras. Here I undertook an oil and filter change on the van which had clocked 333,333 miles earlier that day, did some laundry and walked on the empty beach with views across to the Rif mountains of Morocco barely 10 miles away.

Monday morning saw me obtaining an open return for around £160 and with under an hour's wait I was on the ferry soon to be passing the busy docks of Algeciras and then the vast bulk of Gibraltar.
Ninety minutes later we were docking in the new Tangier Med port which makes arrival and entry far simpler than three years ago when I arrived in the chaos of Tangier Ville.

I had got talking to a German lad in a fully restored Type 3 VW and we were both soon through immigration and customs thanks to the ability to precomplete the forms online and print them off. Thankful to have a few hundred dirham left from the aborted 2015 trip I was soon off on the back road to Chefchaouen where the familiar if rundown campsite provided a base for two nights.

A good walk in the town on Tuesday achieved much with my ATM card confirmed as working and the purchase of a new SIM card to revive my dongle giving me internet access whilst on the move -around £10 saw me with a months worth of usage.

Heading south I enjoyed the familiar sights and sounds of this engaging country with as ever the women seeming to do most of the work, agriculture still largely on a simple self sufficiency scale and endless half hearted construction of bridges, roads and housing. Friendly waves from the kids warmed the heart and miles soon ticked by before I arrived at Sefrou planning to try the municipal camping 2km out of town.

Whilst it did actually exist there was little else going for it - no water, loos or showers but the gardien seemed so pleased to have a customer that it was hard to move on. He hooked me up to a socket in his house and with a superb view over the town I decided things were just fine. Next morning I again headed south planning to return to Boudnib via various back roads and was within twenty miles when a well surfaced road stopped abruptly and became a sandy track heading of in to the mountainous distance.

Unwilling to take the risk I turned back and spent the night up in other hills assuming I was miles from anywhere and certainly above the snow line. Early next morning I heard a donkey trot by and observed an old man and a young girl sitting patiently by the road. As I left he came over to ask for a lift so I tucked them in the back to drop them off ten miles later amused and moved at their absolute amazement to be in such an incongruous setting.

The Rekkam Camping at Boudnib is run by Francois and provided two comfortable nights with the intervening day spent exploring the old kasbar - the mud walled town abandoned after floods but slowly being rebuilt. The mosque which was half way to being finished in 2015 was indeed now complete but little else seemed to have advanced. I carried on through the palms to another less crumbling village grateful for the GPS which at least left me a snail trail to retrace my route back to the main town.

On the Sunday when it came to leave a power cut also meant there was no water to be had so I bought six 5 litre bottles of spring water to tide me over.
Moving on I arrived high above the impressive Ziz Valley for the awe inspiring view over the vast palmeries that stretched away south. Having on previous visits passed through I have decided to make this a more leisurely trip as there are things I have no need to return to and a moderate list of new intentions.
Thus a sign to Camping Hakkou near Asinou tempted me to turn off and I was soon parked up in a large courtyard with clean loos and good water with only one other occupant - an 8m van with GB plates.
David, a writer, hailed from west Wales and his partner Frankie was an artist from New Zealand so we hit it off straight away - however I had unloaded the bike and was keen to explore so set off up the back roads amongst the palms and villages creating quite a stir amongst the locals who are unused to visitors being some way off the main road. On my return a wedding party had erected a large tent and furnished it with brightly coloured rugs and cushions around the edges. In the centre dozens of women were dancing enthusiastically whilst outside the men were supervising the roasting of a goat. They seemed keen for me to join in but mindful of the possibility of an older unmarried sister I politely declined their invitations and made my escape.
It was very liberating to explore on the bike as I could also head off the rough roads and cut through the palms following the paths that linked all the small fields where broad beans, wheat and brassicas were growing irrigated by the network of ditches and shaded from the worst of the sun by the date palms.
Back at Hakkou I cooked an evening meal and was able to keep in touch with people back home, catch up on world events and check out onward plans.
So one week in I was planning to move on early when David mentioned that Achmed the site owner was going to take them on a tour through the local area and I was welcome to join them.

Thus for 4 hours we were escorted through the maze of trees and fields calling en route at a traditional olive oil mill where a patient donkey was padding round and round turning a huge millstone that was crushing many kilos of black olives picked locally. The set up was a cooperative for local farmers so no oil was sold as everyone helped process the harvest for their own usage. The simple press was based on layers of circular discs made from palm fronds that were screwed down by a simple thread and ratchet with the black oil draining away in to an adjacent pit from where it was carefully ladled in to 5 litre bottles.
Achmed explained that many of the dates had an infectious organism causing them to die but government scientists had developed resistant varieties which were gradually being introduced. Similarly solar pumps costing a fraction of the diesel variety to run were making the water abstraction more affordable.

Further on we arrived in Asinou on the main road where a local womens cooperative were making a better and more independent living adding value to the date crop with jams, juices and a delicious fig paste flavoured with aniseed and almonds. I was tempted by two slabs of the paste and a jar of date kernel coffee the latter of which I have yet to try.
Anyway we eventually returned and I left for a site recommended by Achmed near Tazzarine reached by a good road through stunning mountain scenery. Camping Serdar was in fact 12km south and then 6km east on a dirt track and was indeed as claimed 'camping in the middle of nowhere'. The large mud walled site contained plenty of space for the few vans lined up and the facilities were excellent. Two solar heaters provided hot water and Brahmin was proud to show me the tents available and the handful of comfortably furnished rooms - all very much unexpected in such a remote location. Whilst very happy to stay out in the sticks I also feel it is important to support the people who attempt to provide facilities and at around £5 a night with power it is well worth the peace of mind to be legit.
Thus today I set off in to the desolate lands around the site following various tracks and trails with the sun shining and temperatures in the high twenties. After several miles I came across a quarry where huge blocks of limestone absolutely saturated with fossils were being carved out - they are then sliced and polished to make unique floor and wall tiles but at this stage they were just large blocks that would be finished elsewhere.
Using the mapping I had installed on the GPS I headed across country to the N12 road where after turning left I arrived in Tazzarine to buy some fresh fruit and veg at the weekly market. The simple system involves filling a washing up bowl with your choice, presenting this to the stallholder and then paying the final price based on most items costing about the same. As I headed out of town I was tempted by the aroma of tajines bubbling away in a roadside cafe so took a table in the shade to enjoy an excellent meal and watch the world go by.

A final 12 miles much on dirt tracks returned me to Serdar where the thermometer showed 32 degrees - a very comfortable temperature as there was zero humidity and a modest breeze.

Tomorrow I move on again down the Draa Valley and will try to find time to work out the mechanism of Google Photos which has replaced Picasa. Thus there are no photos to see other than those embedded in the above but the SPOT device reports my whereabouts daily at this link.