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.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Simon, Dan and Rosana here, nice to see some updates from you, would love to get to Morocco at some point. You might remember when we met you we were considering swapping our pop-top roof for a hightop, as you had done. I think that was 4 or 5 years ago at the AO show? We finally have a hightop :) We're hoping to get to the HUBB meeting this year as we enjoyed it last year, so maybe catch up with you there? D&R.

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  2. Hi guys - hope you are pleased with it , certainly makes a huge difference. Morocco is a truly amazing place to visit and easy to get to - 2 steady days from the Channel ports to Southern Spain then a short ferry crossing. Very cheap living, lots more campsites nowadays than the guides list and the most amazingly friendly people. Will be at HUBB 2017 so yes, hope to catch you there.

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