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.

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