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.

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