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

Halfway

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 www.fortboujerif.com and select the E - English translation.

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