Cruising in Morocco
It's been a few weeks since I last updated our blog. Cultural shocks need time to digest and staying in Morocco provides quite a few surprises. Nah... actually, just being lazy.
We stayed one month in our little Essaouira studio apartment. It was a very peaceful month. After that oil change, we took a few rides around. We went down to Agadir to try find some wheels for Abby but we only saw Transalps, too high for her cute but petite silhouette. We tried some pistes in the desert and went North to Safi which doesn't offer much in itself due to the sight and smell of its phosphate factories along the coast as one approaches the city, but the ride towards it, along the coastline was indeed pure oceanic bliss. At one point we found a narrow road that was the only link to a little island in the ocean and riding with waves a few feet away on both side of the bike was a new thrill we had never experienced yet, except on jet skis.
After Asia, hanging around in desert lands offers very interesting contrasts, like returning to a rawer nature or surfing on a different planet. But we are never alone. Everything being the same colour up to the horizon, we are sometimes surprised to suddenly see villages emerge from what we thought to be a lost world. Lots of people wave at us and watch us pass. Kids still love to see bikers in full attire cross their villages. Just like I was excited to see bunches of bikers from all sorts of nationalities invade my little city of Le Mans in the seventies, to watch the Bol d'Or, a 24h race on the Bugatti circuit.
I see this kids glittering eyes and I'm proud to be the latest motorcycle virus spreading agent in town. If the bikers world is to survive these hyper secure trends we're being hit with, it will be thanks to that glitter. Ride, Mate, ride as much as
you can and continue to awake the next generation of bikers as you do !
After all, many similar glitter generators have somewhat shaded away, like sex, drugs and rock'n'roll for instance.
Revolution, marginality, ideologies, social experiments, they all look seriously aged, in pass of being wiped away by time, political correctness and poor memory. Perhaps the sixties didn't believe in it enough to pass it on properly, an explosion doesn't care about its debris... minorities gotta deploy double energy to survive and being part of the majority doesn't require much strength, except to act dead.
However, dirt tracks do seem to always lead back to tarmac and eventually back to town and home but who cares as long as the tank can be refilled !?
Most Essaouirans we met were very discreet and friendly. Mahmoud, the young man who had led us to our studio came one day to invite us for a couscous with some friends of his. We ended up having a great dinner with two Essaouirans and two French, a mother, piano teacher like Abby and her teenage son. Our landlord offered us couscous as well, on a friday of course, as the tradition demands. Then he left on holiday and we never saw him again. His old dad took care of the place. However, while he was still here, he heard a noise at 2am one night. He got up to investigate and found a thief, robbing clothes, in an empty bedroom. He showed me the bump he had on his forehead after "zidaning" the thief. But now, he said, he had to report at the police station. It didn't look like much fun.
We always went shopping at the same "super marché", grocery that is, and the cashier always gave us some candies before we left. Just like in France in the late 60's when I was going to a bakery with my mom and the lady would give me some candy, as a sort of commercial gesture certainly, but with a kind smile.
In the little restaurant where Abby and I sometimes had a treat, the owner seemed impressed by our bike and the trip we're doing. He would stand there and stare at the bike in silence, then shake his head and go back inside. He always greeted us
warmly and made sure we had everything we needed.
We preferred to stay away from the medina, in our quiet "suburban" area. Abby was cooking great meals and trying new culinary tricks like spaghetti merguez with sardines, anchovies, boiled potatoes and a few olives... what ? It was delicious !
Going to the medina is a bit like plunging into an aquarium of tourists and sharks. The contrast is so sharp !
There, we had the sentiment that we just couldn't meet with locals for anything else but business. Everyone, it seems, had something for sale and insisted rather heavily in doing so. If by any chance we'd ask the price of something, it'd invariably be the same story:
"You tell me how much you wanna pay."
What's that ? Give it to me then coz me love free stuff !
"Hello (if we were lucky) Gimme 50 bucks !"
No ! YOU give me 50 bucks !
The worst case is when we need to buy something there. Of course, we don't go for carpets, brass plates, silver jewelry, donkeys or large leather goods but we do need stuff sometimes. Sure enough, the prices vary from ridiculously high to
outrageously unfair. We laugh. Come on Dude, tell us the price honestly!
Our Eurasian concept of efficient marketing doesn't match too well with that North-African bargaining thing. As we were explained, there's just no fixed prices around souks, it's all according to the look and feel of customers. Again, what's that !? To us, it sounds like pure robbery, to them, it's common practice.
But then again, some stuff do have fixed prices, one doesn't bargain in supermarkets, groceries, restaurants, petrol stations or tobacco shops but one gets ripped off when changing tires or oil, renting flats, taking taxis or, of course, at the souk.
So basically, there's two different markets around here, two concepts of making business, two worlds.
Being ripped off pisses everybody off and we don't like getting mad, that's not what we came here for. So hanging around the medina isn't really our cup of mint tea anymore when nice folks can be met anywhere else.
We decided to retire in the mountains of the High Atlas. Unfortunately, that meant returning to Marrakesh. Or at least near it as we found a campsite nearby called "Le Relais de Marrakesh". We met a few Dutch bikers there who directed us to a
certain "Bikershome" in Ouarzazate, and a few camping cars owners, all retired, on the run. Funny how many retired people live in mobile home. We don't see many younger tourists anymore, it's too late in the season, they're all back at work, they'll never know how beautiful and peaceful Autumn in Morocco can be... we feel lucky to be here but also a little awkward. What's that in the far corner of my head !? Guilt !? No way !!! Are we that conditioned, at the age of 50, that one automatically feels slightly uneasy about not rejoining the working troops after summer vacations ? Damn, was it time for me to leave then!
Our GoPro cam is dead, it had it on the piste the other day. When we came back to our studio, the last shot had hanged. I couldn't even turn the cam off, I had to remove the battery. The last file it'd saved was damaged but I recovered it with
our laptop. The next day, it shot a stupid three and half minutes and then shut down by itself. Since then, it pops an error message. I got in touch with GoPro support by email and they reckon it's had it. Gotta send the damn thing back and try to arrange for them to send me a new one, probably in Dakar. Sucks ! All we've got now is an ol' Ixus and Abby shooting manually in my back. It's rather more shaky but at least she shoots from different angles !
We had a superb ride yesterday, from Marrakesh, on the road to Asni and beyond. This High Atlas is amazingly beautiful. The roads are a pure pleasure to ride but, past three o'clock, I have to be extra careful because entire schools are on the way back home, on foot or on their bicycles. Sometimes the kids spread all other the road and they're so much into their games that they can't hear my horn or see us coming, I have to reduce gas to walking speed. Who can blame them, there's almost no traffic on these roads. Most people earn 50 bucks a day in this country, a full tank of gas is well over 100 bucks so we end up being the only privileged bastards able to enjoy the view for our pleasure.
We got back to our camp and found out the next morning that our back tire had it as well. The road had been really bad the previous day but damn, do these back tires wear fast ! We changed this one in Carcassonne and rode at most 7000km on it. Too much load, too fast on too many highways... that's what killed it all the way down from Spain and Portugal, I guess.
Never mind we thought, let's get a new one now. There should be an Honda shop nearby. Yes, there was, except that's a Honda shop that sells new bikes but no tires. So we got the name of a place with tires. The GPS didn't recognize it so we got a taxi to lead us to it but we had hired the pain in the neck of the town. He took us to his mate instead, on the other side of town, just to earn a few extra bucks but that mate of his only had a second hand tire for sale. For sport bike that is. After
nearly an hour riding behind that taxi in the mad traffic of Marrakesh, I was beginning to get seriously irritated. Anyway, the taxi guy eventually took us to a decent workshop... that didn't have any tire either. Hassan, the owner, told us to come back at three when shops around town would reopen after nap time. Then he would try to get us one. Meanwhile the taxi driver who, we learned later, had announced us as "a pack of money coming in", was asking for 600 bucks for the trip. I managed not to impale him and sent him on his way with an outrageously generous 100 bucks which he really didn't deserve but sometimes you gotta pay people to let you get on with your business.
A kid who had just had his moped fixed told Abby that Morocco counted two sorts of people, good ones and bad ones. His name was Mohamed and he is a first year medical student. We talked with Mohamed about his country and he was quite concerned about the degree of corruption he could observe almost as a way of life here. He said that when he travels back home, he's a Berber, he sees people in the train throwing 20 bucks at the controller rather than buying a ticket. Wow ! Are controllers so badly paid that they are accepting losing face in public rather than giving up 20 bucks ? Well, I guess they do if that means almost half a day salary. Mohamed said that policemen were exactly the same, ready to accept even 10 bucks for shutting their mouth ! Neither Abby nor I are very sure if we'd be happy to live in such a system. Mohamed said that the only changes one could detect in that country were before elections. The rest of the time, the money goes straight into Swiss accounts.
Our feeling is that Morocco would be full of kinder people than anywhere else if all were paid, educated and treated decently.
We invited Mohamed to have lunch with us. His conversation was rather interesting. We sat at the terrace of a pizza restaurant. We ordered chicken and fries while Mohamed took a pizza. He said chicken here are receiving a healthy dose of
hormones because otherwise they'd be too small. Abby didn't finish hers.
A lady dressed in full burka approached our table and begged. She looked clean and healthy, certainly not like she was in need of anything so I did as I used to, back in India thirty years ago, and offered her food, in this case, a plate of fries.
She dug a plastic bag from underneath her burka and poured the whole plate into it ! Bemused, Abby offered hers. She took it as well... I was a bit shocked as that had never happened to me since the very poor suburbs of what used to be called
Bombay a very long time ago. People were in need for it then but that didn't seem to be the case this time. I asked Mohamed about it and he said that some people here didn't need to be poor to beg. Another full burka wearing lady popped up and Abby offered the rest of her half eaten chicken. She took it with no hesitation as well as the rest of our bread. She didn't look like she needed it at all either. I guess when one's not gonna be recognised...
We love the riding, the discovering new landscapes, and Morocco is rich of them, we can spend hours on sloppy little mountain roads. It seems that after each curve, a new panorama uncovers itself for us. The Transalp is a good companion on the road when it works. Did I mention that the day before leaving Essaouira, it started up on one cylinder only... again! I mean, does that twin wanna become a mono or what !? Then it was fixed by re-tightening the sockets of the electrical coil and changing the spark plugs. There are four spark plugs... I've always thought there were only two, that's telling how well hidden (ie. inaccessible) the two others are... and what sort of mechanic I am !
So the following morning, pretty sure of ourselves, we packed up the panniers, hooked up the tank bag, sat up the GPS, settled down on the seat and pressed the electric starter with full confidence. It's started on one cylinder again...
Aaarrghh! Back to the mechanic we go. We try the spare CDI unit we bought in Carcassonne just in case, and of course, that was it, the other cylinder came back to life. I can't believe it ! We shot two tires and two CDI units within 10000km and
we're only still just in Morocco ! Should we carry on or simply shoot that bike down right now !?
In the end, there was no back tire in entire Marrakesh for us. We had to order one from Casablanca. It should be there tomorrow but that means an extra day stuck in this city that even locals call "Arnakesh", meaning something like "Crooktown"
Abby and I had some brilliant rides lately, specially since the GoPro failed...
We had another one from Marrakesh, the day after our tire was replaced, to a place in the mountains called Oukaimeden. The road to it soon was replaced by a track full of stones and rocks with fancy stiff u-turns and we carried on riding to the top all the way to the end of the track where I shared my last cigarette with a sheppard who tried to sell me a goat. The ride was incredibly beautiful, the local houses are built with the rocks found around, there's no lack of them, so they fade into the landscape and one can hardly distinguish them. As we rode up to 3000m high, the landscape changed from autumn colours to pine trees to green lands to just rocks. But everywhere we stopped, there were people, popping up from nowhere, trying to sell us stuff, minerals, local jewelry, apples and nuts, argane oil, whatever. They almost begged us to buy something as there weren't many tourists hanging around their places, they said. How come they've got all these tourist souvenirs ready for sale within the second we arrived then ? We crossed a BMW rider on his way down, maybe he'd buy them something.
We left Marrakesh yesterday. Abby did a brilliant job at packing up the bike, except that we're fully loaded again. We gonna have to get rid of stuff.
We rode a four hours trip to Ouarzazate further South. That was an amazing journey again. We crossed the High Atlas via a curvy little road which was in a pretty good condition. Abby filmed the whole journey with our Canon Ixus. Actually the result is far more interesting than with just the GoPro hooked, as it was, on the front of the fairing, as she can shoot in every directions. Sometimes I just point as something of interest and she aims the cam at it straight away, it's like having a remote control !
Once we passed the mountains and a great collection of neat little curves, we rode down to some sort of semi-desert that was shining bright in the afternoon sun. Then the wind turned completely "loco". Seriously. I almost had to stop at one point as stuff were flying horizontally at us, sand, plastic bags, dust, goats, you name it. The dust managed to get into our helmets even though our visors were shut, we were wearing our balaclavas and my four months old beard blocked the way underneath.
It's the first time we see one of those small desert cyclones that spins columns of dust and sand while traveling its way through the landscape. Impressive ! As we passed very close to one column, we were entirely spread with sand and the bike
started to shake. Cool ! We gonna take that ol' grand-mothership to space one of these days !
We arrived near Ouarzazate at the place the three Dutch bikers had recommended back in Marrakesh but no one was home when we got there so we booked in a nearby hotel called "La Vallée", which looked pretty cool. We visited "Bikershome" again the next morning and had a chat with Peter, the Dutch owner of the place. He was pretty negative about going further South. He warned us about Dakar being a place full of thieves, including the police itself. He warned us about North Mauritania, saying that there were no army or police there, sort of no man's land ruled by gangs. Oh oh, I'm afraid my gang culture is a bit rusted !
Moroccans are cool but already we feel sometimes targeted as alleged money bags. Will it really get more aggressive and tricky on the way down ? He said to watch it when one's stuck in the traffic in Dakar as some guys use cutters to slide soft side panniers open and steal whatever falls from them. Charming ! However he said, there will be no trouble finding parts for the bike as all the gear from the Paris-Dakar race is still there.
Another question we haven't been able to answer so far is petrol. We'll be fine with regular petrol station until about mid-Western Sahara, in Dakhla. After that we will apparently need to be able to travel 500km with no refill. The safest way to pass, Peter said, is alone. There's not enough to steal from a single motorcycle when you can stop an entire caravan with a single pistol. But we'll need to hook up with someone in a Jeep or a truck and then follow it coz we can't carry more than ten liters extra fuel. Damn ! That's the way it's gonna be until Nouakchott in Mauritania and that's the trickiest part of course...
Before leaving Ouarzazate, we first went to the Post Office to send our GoPro cam back to its makers in USA. They needed my invoice paper for the warranty to work but naturally we do not travel with the receipt of every item we're carrying so there
was a problem there. Until I remembered that the HD Hero had not even been released a year ago ! Problem solved. Let's cross fingers and hope we'll get it back in Dakar (Senegal). We'll have to find an address there for them to ship it back to us.
At the Post-Office, the lady said the parcel needed to be checked by a custom officer. I asked if she had one available. She replied that he was having a break and would return in about half an hour.
After being patient for a long time while Abby was watching the bike outside, I asked the lady if she was sure that custom officer would show up today. "Yes", she said, "he's right behind you". I turned and saw a uniformed fellow chatting happily
with a postman. Why was I waiting again ? I showed him the cam and returned to the lady. "Oh", she said, "it's for USA ? I'm not sure it will arrive !"
Er... sorry, what do you mean ? "It isn't safe", she said.
Well, have you got any safe service to offer then ?
"Oh yes, she nodded, there's a speed post service, it's safe, fast and you don't need to show the content of your parcel to any custom officers!"
Today, as we traveled from Ouarzazate to Tinghir, we rode along the magnificent Rose Valley and into another desert. The rocks look so weird as erosion gives them strange shapes. It comes to a point and a dimension of beauty that one has to
credit nature for being the number one composer of art forms on this planet as one travels from sculptures galleries to delicately detailed landscapes that present themselves as an infinite canvas reflecting in the visor of our helmets as we reach the top of mountainous chains. I learned how to pause and just simply look in my mirrors because what I see there, in the little frame, is such a relief after what I had become used to spot in them, back in Hong Kong. Every time I do, it's almost a shock to discover more space and beauty hidden in my back, apart from Abby that is. A road has to be traveled both ways to fully appreciate its richness and beauty.
We passed over a lonely biker cruising in the middle of nowhere on a naked KTM. I become comfortable now with saluting with the foot. The cities we crossed and the houses along the roadsides started to look very different all of a sudden, sort of
cubic shapes and dry mud colour. Everything is sand colour around here anyway, even the sheep !
But somehow everything began looking neater, cleaner, less carelessly messy. We stopped in a small town to refill and have lunch. People were very nice, very polite, smiling, wishing us a good journey, no begging, no trying to sell us anything.
Kids were saying "Bonjour !" without adding "gimme five bucks"... what was happening ?
We carried on riding in the empty desert and finally arrived in an incredible valley. Incredible because after kilometers and kilometers of nothing but rocks and sand, there, down the cliff at our feet, was a green forest of palm trees and gardens
that looked so like paradise and cool. The villages we crossed definitely looked clean, nice and peaceful. What the heck ?
Have we changed planet again ?
In fact we did. As we arrived in Tinghir and continued to our campsite ten kilometers ahead towards the gorges, it became evident Berbers had become the majority. They seem to make all the difference as they're known to be welcoming and friendly.
The tension that had somehow built up in Marrakesh had now faded away, we obviously were among "good people" here as young Mohamed would put it.
Encounter in the desert
It's only about 4pm but I'm seriously knackered and Abby is already in bed having a nap. No riding today though, the Transalp is having a rest too.
This morning, after having breakfast on the sunny terrace of our campsite, I told Abby I was going to take a few pictures around. I walked towards the desert at the back of the camp. It's not a sand desert, there's only just rocks there. The mounts are made of conglomerated rocks and stones with a bit of mud and sand. I decided to investigate.
As I walked between walls of rocks, I wondered if they would crumble down onto me as they looked so fragile. I tried a yell.
Echo answered me. Whabapadoowha wha wha, balabamoo moo moo... that was fun, I should record my next report to Radio 3 there, the sound is perfect, one two, one two, testing testing ting ting ! Cantonese happens to echo even better than French or English. Yao Mo Yannaaa naaa naa ! (Anybody there ?)
Among the stones and pebbles, I noticed a little vegetation. Not much, not many kinds, but there are some tiny little plants that manage to survive in that environment. They don't wanna be eaten obviously as they're more built of thorns than leaves.
I spotted some strange looking stones, round and all roughed up on the surface. Some sort of rock illness I thought. There were many of those and of all sizes. I kicked a particularly rotten looking one to see if it'd break. Not only it didn't but
it stuck to the ground, not moving an inch. However my foot wasn't hurt quite accordingly. It had felt somewhat softer than a rock. I kicked it again and again and again. It started moving a bit. That rock felt as if it was rooted to the ground ! I kept kicking and soon, the whole thing turned over. It just looked like a big stony broccoli in a mushroom shape with a big single black root in the middle. Damn I thought, I just killed a plant ! Sorry plant. I turned it back and stuck that big root back into the ground from which I had just kicked it.
Obviously, I was walking in the middle of an "oued", in the bed of a river that had dried up. The pebbles were rounded by the flood and in some parts, the mud had turned into a crust, typical dry lands cracked up mud that draws some sort of improbable chessboard. On the side of the pound of mud, the sun had dried up thinner layers and produced flakes. Some of the flakes had rolled up on themselves and were looking like some chocolate wafers. I guess the river was still there, sometimes, when rainfalls would suddenly reform it from nothing and, seeing the width of it, there must be some serious flash floods around here ! Those had carried all sorts of rubbish with them. Broken glass everywhere, cans of cokes with faded colours, a pink bra, tin boxes, rugs, a blue Barbie hairbrush, lots of plastic bottles, all these will probably still be there long after the extinction of human race, as a depressing reminder for the Earth not to repeat that regrettable experience ever again.
I felt a bit guilty, when things are wonderful Abby should be there too. So I turned back towards the mountain village where we're staying. I got a bit lost on the tracks to the first houses and ended up scaring some ladies in their garden. Back on the road, a gentleman I crossed path with requested money. I know I should reply: "Allah will provide" but I forgot the Arabic for it so I pointed at the desert instead and told him to get lost. Damn, I still have some of that Marrakesh mood in
me ! Gotta watch it !
Some kids were playing football in the middle of the road. One of them played quite skillfully. I encouraged him: "Go Zidane, Go !" He laughed. "If I'm Zidane" he said pointing at my beard, "then you must be Ali Baba !" I giggled. My beard got me called a taliban, a pirate, Santa, a wise man and now Ali Baba. I like that one best.
Abby was browsing Internet when I came back. ""Where have you been ?" she asked "I was beginning to be worried."
I explained how I got carried away by the desert and told her I had returned to pick her up before walking too far.
We left the campsite by the same path I had taken earlier and I showed her what I had discovered before carrying on further.
As I was demonstrating the silliness of the echo, a dog started barking. It was right at the top of a mount, looking down at us as we passed. I whistled gently and the dog soon stopped barking and wiggled his tail.
Every time the bed of the dry river took a twist, we were gratified by a new superb panorama. We couldn't refrain getting further and further away. It's a sort of mermaid effect. You gotta carry on and see what's next, I guess that's why people
I spotted a sort of gigantic canyon with large caves into its walls and as we approached it, we noticed like a human shape at the top. Who was there ? Maybe some guy fooling around with an invisible girlfriend ? It couldn't be a sheppard, there were no animals around.
As we approached, I noticed a sort of tiny path that seemed to lead towards the top of the canyon. Now two human shapes could be seen up there. I waved at them. They waved back. Alright, apparently we're not going to disturb a couple of hermits in love then, let's take a closer look.
On the way up, I notice a little garden on the side. Looks awkward. What's that doing here ? And then, as I passed a big rock, I saw them. There was just a little camp there. Five women, seeing us coming, were busy tidying up a few stuff. There was only one tent there. Or rather just a big Berber woolen rug on top of a few sticks. Then I saw their cave, dug directly into the friable rock. The eldest woman was busy weaving a carpet. Two younger ones had their young son with them. Another was dressed in very glamorous fashion with a long robe made of shiny material. All of them waved at me, surprised but not frightened. However I decided not to come too close as there were no men around. I didn't want to scare them. I smiled at the old weaving lady who smiled back at me while saying "Bonjour !". Abby was walking a few meters behind. I'd return when she'll
I went all the way up to the flat top of the canyon. The view was astonishing. I spotted another Troglodytes "village" a few yards away with several caves carved into the rock. A few chicken were running around. What could they find to eat around here ? Dust ? They were quite fat however. I remembered Mohamed's hormones story but doubted they were injected into those desert chicken !
As we rode to Tinghir, I had noticed little piles of rocks people build along the road. There's lots of them. I had plenty of time to wonder why they did it. I guess it obeys the same logic as tagging graffiti onto city walls, a sort of statement like: "Nish & Abby were here" or something. Or perhaps, scared by the overwhelming presence of naked nature, humans reassure themselves that way. It's like building walls in deserts. What's the point ? The inside of the walled yards looks absolutely
as desolated and rocky as the outside so why even bother ? I guess it gives people a reassuring feeling of order, human order that is, and property of course. Walls, that's all we found to feel safe ? Sad, yes, but frankly laughable too as far as
nature is concerned !
Anyway, I did my own pile of rocks. Being an ambitious guy, four rocks were enough for me, but it stands there, on the top of that canyon, in the middle of nowhere, stating my short existence on earth in its modest and accurate way. Let the wind put it down...
Meanwhile, Abby had arrived at the five Berber ladies camp and they had invited her for a cup of mint tea. Now it was my turn.
The ladies looked happy to see me join them. They placed a carpet of the floor for me to sit. I had nothing to offer them except cigarettes. I guess there must be a man or two around since there were two kids with them. They could give the fags to them on their return.
I shook my pack and three cigarettes popped their filtered heads out. One of the ladies took the three of them. I laughed inside my head. Yeah, we're far from cities customs and social manners. If I offer three cigarettes, they naturally take three cigarettes, not just one. No worries.
I took off my shades. It's only fair they should see my eyes, I thought, when I realized how frank, simple and happy theirs were. And perhaps it would calm down that little boy who was crying from fear of seeing me here, in his home of the middle of the desert, with my Ali Baba look.
We couldn't speak much together of course but one of the ladies began teaching me the Berber names of things surrounding us. That's one thing that touches me, after so many years among Hong Kong people surprisingly jealous of their dialect.
I appreciated the cup of tea and the biscuits they gave us more than anything we experienced in Morocco so far. Water must be so precious there. It's got to be carried in containers from the place we stay and that's a long way back. And the biscuits were such a luxury considering the conditions in which these ladies lived.
Thank you Berber ladies, you brightened up my mid-life crisis a bit !
On the way back, we spotted a herd of black goats with strangely long shiny thorns. Their sheppard lady was standing up a rock not far from them. When she saw us, she held her hand up, begging for money. I had not shot any picture when I was having tea with the Berber ladies earlier, by some sort of instinctive respect for whatever belief they may have had concerning photographs. But I shot a picture of that sheppard with no hesitation... and didn't give her anything. Am I a
bit too Yin & Yang lately !?
It's now only 6:30pm, the night has fallen. Abby is asleep. Dinner's in one hour. The campsite is almost empty apart from two retired Italian couples in their camping cars. It's calm or at least until the muezzin starts yelling again. The cold settles back in. Time for a hot shower.
The Gorges of Dardes
Both Abby and I are totally exhausted again ! We're just back from what must be the toughest ride of my entire life. But probably the most beautiful too. It just blew our mind to see what nature could draw. We rode in gorges all day.
First the road was decent, then it was covered with a heavy layer of gravel that made anything above second gear rather tricky. And then we arrived in a small village, at an altitude of about 2000m. The road stopped there. We needed to refill
but there was no petrol station of course, so we ended up in a small grocery shop and bought fuel there in a container. The shop owner lent me a funnel and I filled the tank. By that time, the entire village was surrounding us. All very friendly chaps. We had a good laugh with them as we smoked some fags in the sun light.
And then it was all rocky tracks. More than 40km of them, not even on the Michelin map, rising up to 3000m high in the mountains. Apparently no one was around but a few sheep. Soon we crossed the path of Berber ladies on their horses and some
donkeys overloaded with straw. The tracks were a bit tricky, I could almost never get into third gear. We crossed some little rivers. One of them must have had a rather slippery pebbles covered bed because even though I was quite slow in first gear, the bike just brutally slipped to the side forcing my wrist to twist the accelerator. Good thing I always keep my fingers near the clutch lever when conditions get tricky coz we'd have ended up crashing in the rocks so much gas the twist made me give. I must have reved up to 5000 tours but with the clutch lever pressed, I could get the bike to stop in time, no spill.
Describing the beauty of those gorges would take ages and words that don't exist. Sometimes it truly looked like some giant sculptures, I don't know how nature can create shapes like that. Sometimes the panorama was like a huge painting full of neat little details. These are among the most beautiful places I've ever seen. We emptied two Canon batteries shooting the ride long before it was over. Gotta take more juice with us next time !
In the end, I had to speed up a bit coz the piste had consumed lots of time and we didn't want to get stuck by darkness. We crossed villages with the horn pressed on all the way coz locals were all over the road. After the gorges, we reached the
desert. Good straight road with the sunset in our back drawing a huge shadow of ourselves on the tarmac. That too has to be experienced, it's just overwhelming ! I couldn't resist pushing the Transalp to 150km/h, screaming in my helmet ! After the hard slow shaky ride we just had, I could feel the bike loved the speed as much as I did. A three legged dog crossed the road in front of us, hurrying, probably aware of not being able to loose another leg.
Despite pushing the bike as hard as I could, we didn't make it back home before dark. By 5:30pm, the night falls like a curtain here. So I had my first go at darkness riding since our departure, not for long, less than 20km, but it was enough to scare the hell out of us. The roads to our mountain village are very narrow, the edge is irregular and broken, the cliffs are stiff, the bottom is far far down, there's no side protections, there's sand and gravel in the middle of the path, no lights and traffic coming in front. Add mad pedestrians, kids on bicycles, dogs, chicken and pot holes and one can easily imagine the fun. Of course the temperature dropped immediately after the sun had disappeared. We arrived frozen at home and had to jump in the shower to warm up a bit.
I can tell from my sour back, shoulders and wrists that tomorrow morning will bring a painful awakening. I don't remember having been that tired after a ride ! But it was fun and so amazingly splendid. Abby is laying in bed now. We're both dead
meat. I better get her up for dinner before she totally passes out...
Right, we're back from the restaurant after some brochettes and a couple of hot cups of mint tea. I feel better already. We'd love to stay longer here but it's going to be too cold soon. We'll stay another couple of days though. We want another treat of these gorgeous gorges. I'm glad Berber people and their region chilled us down so well.
That's to show though, tourism, money, cities, all these just generate a pure mess. Up in the mountains or back in the desert, we got to meet up with unspoiled people who were willing to help us gracefully, to invite us to their home for a cup of tea or even a couscous, who smiled and wave at us as we passed, wishing us a nice journey, ahhh, that's the kind of bliss we were looking for and I almost thought it had disappeared for good. I'm glad we ride a bike that allows us to reach remote
uncorrupted places. Tourism industry spoils countries and people as much as oil industry pollutes the environment.
By the way, Berber women are really pretty. Their skin is very pale, their eyes can be green or hazel, they're not covered from head to toes like most Arab ladies, they're not shy and very cheerful. I guess Caucasian girls were looking like that a
long time ago, before McDonald and beer wiped their cool shapes away... what a waste, what a waste !
Speaking of which... we didn't see a single Coca Cola advertisement the whole way today ! That's a nice change. Is there any way one could globally sue that brand for invading the environment so badly with their huge and dumb logo everywhere ?
Getting wasted with Berbers !
Ahhh, I just finally found some decent gear around here. My Internet connection needed a refill... my USB Modem works on monthly recharging. I have to pour 200 bucks each time in a "Meditel" shop somewhere, then the dude behind the counter calls some kinda number on his mobile and get an SMS confirmation and I'm good for another month.
Anyway, today being Saturday, most of the shops in town were closed. As I walked along the main street, some guy in a djellaba said "Hello Ali Baba !" That nickname cracks me up every time.
I was looking for some pharmacy opened as well because Abby caught a flu and sour throat and could do with some medication.
Another dude approached me and asked if I was from France. I said yeah but I don't live there anymore. He was. He's working in St-Nazaire. He just went back home for the "sheep festival". The conversation went on. After introducing himself as Nasser, he invited me for a cup of mint tea. Cool. We sat at the terrace of a coffee shop. Soon, the first guy who had called me Ali Baba, joined in. His name was Mounir. Both were very nice chaps and we soon were kidding and laughing. They enquired where I had been in Morocco and of course I mentioned Chefchaouen. They asked if I had been there for a "little tan on the brain".
What could I say !? I giggled and then innocently mentioned that quality was somewhat superior up there. So naturally Nasser guarantied me that he could find better local stuff and he went away to prove it. The conversation went on with Mounir and two other gentlemen who joined in. One of them was dressed in Tuareg clothes. I complimented him for it and the long silver ring he was wearing on his finger, carved with strange symbols. He told me he was running a guest house nearby. His mate was introduced as the one who had helped him put his place on the web. We discussed about Internet and websites that would be useful for the Tuareg.
Nasser came back and offered to go to a quieter place, somewhere slightly more discreet than a terrace in the main street, to have a spin.
We entered a riad nearby and climbed up the stairs to a terrace from which we could see the whole main square. Nasser showed me the stuff he had brought back. Just looking at it was promising. Smelling it brought a large grin on my face. Crumbling it a bit was pure bliss. Smoking it was... er... I can't remember...
Nasser had been to Amsterdam. He told me that the "Milky Way" and the "Paradiso" were still open ! I explained Mounir how the "Milky Way", a three floor ex-milk factory reconverted into a pot smoking, space cake eating, concert watching paradise, was located right in front of a police station and how the "Paradiso" was an ex-church reconverted into a pot heads center !
Nasser had visited the same river boats as I did in Maestrich ! We discussed the quality of skunk. Mounir was like, damn ! these two dudes must be severe pot heads but he wasn't the last to pull on the draw !
Meanwhile, the head of the neighbor appeared above the separation wall of the terrace. He wanted some rolling paper ! I guess the smell on our terrace had opened up his appetite...
We sipped our cups of mint tea while the doobie was passed around. Strange how this morning I was thinking how I missed smoking a few spliffs with my good mates, back in Hong Kong and, this afternoon, that precise kind of good feeling showed up while having a great conversation and a good laugh with two friendly locals. Berbers are really cool. If I ever end up going to Morocco again, no hesitations, I'll go stay in their region straight away. As I was leaving, they invited me to come with Abby eat some couscous tomorrow night if she feels better. I don't think we will as we're suppose to ride South tomorrow but that was nice to hear.
I sort of moon walked back to the Transalp, like when one suddenly finds oneself heavily stoned in the street... the "low profile, get there quick, watch where you're walking" thing.
And then it was the "watch where you're riding" thing although it wasn't easy to do so with the sun, low, in front of my, rather scratched by now, visor. The view being splendid, I avoided looking at it coz curves were too frequent to allow stoned
contemplative stares and therefore I managed to make it back alive to our campsite where Abby, worried that I might have gotten lost, was waiting for my return.
The effect of the doobies I shared in town are only just mellowing out. Good stuff indeed ! For once, the muezzin is sounding particularly melodious, they must have fired the previous one !
Erfoud & Merzouga
I was a little sad to let a cute cat behind, at the campsite near Tinghir this morning. We were in such nice terms. He used to climb on me and fall asleep on my chest. But hey, no space in the luggage so...
No Internet in Erfoud, at least with the USB modem ! We could therefore see lots of cybercafes around town. Erfoud is pretty close to the Sahara desert, maybe that's why ? I guess that's also why there were so many flies here ! They're the sticky
type, it's pretty useless to chase them away, they get straight back at you !
Erfoud is a pretty small town, not much to do there but people are very cool. They're Berbers too. Lots of Arabs as well I guess coz most women wore full black burkas. It cracks me up to see some local man "driving" donkeys from the sit of their carts while the loading part of it is full of women in black burkas. Every time it reminds me of the French revolution and the carts of prisoners that were led to the guillotine. Or a load of slaves picked up from the market... not too sure why.
Fossils are the town speciality. Abby and I had quick look at it and, yeah, they're fossils.
What, exactly, are we doing in a town full of fossils and black ghosts ?
We're here for the desert of course !
The morning following our arrival, we jumped on our unloaded bike, filled the tank and rode to the exit of Erfoud which we knew, led to the desert. The people at the hotel had said "no worries", with a bike like that, it should be a breeze to ride to Merzouga by the piste and return by the road.
We were still on the tarmac part of our journey when vultures began already flying in circles above our heads ! A truck had killed a camel and almost turned over by the side of the road. A small crowd was gathered but no one seemed busy trying
reanimate the camel. I am no veterinary so we carried on.
Soon, as expected, the road stopped. So did We, gotta reckon... damn, that view in front of us was big ! Big and empty and desolated and sunny. However, not to worry, the track after the tarmac bit looked obvious enough. Let's go !
The problem in deserts, and that was my first lesson, isn't the lack of tracks but instead, the multitude of them. I came to a point when I just didn't know which one to take. That's when having something to point to becomes useful. You can ride to
it. But there was none of it where we rode. The tracks became less and less obvious. Lots of rocks, gravel and sandy patches, nothing too bad. Then a novelty taught us humility... the hard parts of the tracks were corrugated. Good Lord & Sweet Little Jesus Inc. ! I didn't know which would fall off first, the bike fairing or my crowns ! At this point I had two choices, either I gave gas and ended up crashing in the soft bits within 30sec or I slowed down to first gear and hoped all the bolts were tight. That's what I did. With Abby sitting behind, filming, I couldn't stand up, it didn't make any difference anyway.
The film ? Er... it's shaky alright !
After about 20km of this, reflecting on how dry a mouth can become in such environment, feeling in the back of my mind that somehow I should admit I was lost but then again, not fully aware yet that trying to come back would be just as hopeless as trying to go forward, I glanced at the GPS which confirmed that I wasn't on any road it knew about, but the distance to our destination was definitely reducing, so we were in the right direction, at least in bird language, hence the amount of would be bird's tracks. The GPS said we were 22km away from Merzouga. I kept riding, sliding, shaking and bumping and it would slowly go down to 20km from destination. I felt great ! Then it would recalculate for a while during which we'd be 8542km away from destination - this GPS definitely likes reassuring its owners... anyway, once the calculation finished, we'd still be 22km away from destination ! Are we riding in circles by any chance ?
We might have been a tiny little bit lost but at least we were not alone. A Tuareg on a Peugeot 49cc moped joined us on our piste, took over (stop laughing) and followed a track on the left. Then he checked if I was following him. I wasn't. Sorry, I don't feel THAT lost yet !
We carried on for a while and the GPS definitely showed that we were in the right direction. Some sand dunes started to be seen in the horizon.
The Tuareg on his moped showed up again on my left, he rode his wheels back in my track and stopped, making me sign to stop as well. OOh what the hell, a little confirmation as if we really were in the right direction wouldn't hurt. I stopped the
The Tuareg unwrapped his face from the blue turban he was wearing and said.
"You should not go any further. It is too dangerous with a motorcycle, there are rivers of sand."
"Really !? Thanks for telling me."
"Do you want me to show you back to the road ?"
"Nah, thanks Mate, we'll be alright I think."
A 4x4 car showed up in a cloud of dust. It stopped next to the motorized Tuareg and enquired in Arab what this crowd was all about. Then he turned to me and said:
"He can take you to the road. Don't carry on to Merzouga like this, only 4x4 can go, it's too dangerous for motorcycles, there are rivers of sand."
"Ok, and how much does he wants to lead us back to the road then ?"
"Never mind" I said "we'll be alright."
"100 bucks then ?"
"As you wish." he replied with a semi-hurt look on his face.
I started the Transalp and left them behind without a second thought. 150 bucks to deprive me of the joy of a good ride in a real desert, I mean one where we could really get lost for good !? No freaking way !
And anyway, what were those two dudes doing there ? Ain't one suppose to be alone in deserts ? I mean, really, the other day we end up on a harem of Troglodytes and today on some Tuareg riding mopeds and 4x4 instead of camels, where's the world going down to !?
Alright, alright, before starting blaming it all on Mounir and Nasser's excellent gear, let me explain the whole truth.
We had read in "Lonely Planet" that before Merzouga, there were some sand dunes to be seen. There were even supposed to be some Tuareg campsites for tourists at their feet, and one of them was named "The Golden Sand" in French. Remember the sand dunes I mentioned ? They looked gold in the sun. I didn't need any guide when I could see those dunes.
We rode to them, the GPS confirming that we were getting closer to Merzouga, and when we arrived, we spotted two tourists sites indeed, no sand rivers, and a hippie looking van, in the middle of them, that wasn't mentioned in "Lonely Planet". The
dunes were right next to us but only a patch of sand separated us from the van where, not surprisingly, I had decided to get further information rather than from the tourists sites.
The patch of sand was deep though. Next time, I'll ask Abby to get down.
Yes, we sort of crashed, shamelessly, in front of two Dutch hippies, a Tuareg and their dog. Well, we didn't fall off or anything, neither did the bike, but I was holding it so low that I needed Abby's help to get it back straight. I like to make people laugh as soon as the curtain gets up... then the Tuareg called me a Desert Ninja as soon as I took off my helmet and showed my black balaclava wrapped head and finally he changed his mind when I took it off as well and said:
"Bonjour Ali Baba !"
Funny how I get to speak about the "Milky Way" and "Paradiso" for two days in a row. The Dutch hippies told me it had turned quite commercial now... isn't there anything sacred in this world anymore ?! The guy started spinning while the Tuareg showed me some paper print describing his skill as a desert guide. He proudly announced that he had a French AND a German version of the print.
"You haven't got any in English then ?" I asked.
"No" he said with a concerned tone.
"Would you like me to translate it in English ? Then you could show me the way to the road on your way back ?"
"That'd be great !" he said.
"That'd be great !" I thought.
I got to work while the doobie passed around and when I was done, we kissed the Dutch lady good bye, wished everyone a safe journey and jumped back on our seat to catch up with the Tuareg and his moped.
He took us through all sorts of terrains, some soft, some corrugated, some sand patches too but I kept following his wheels so everything was fine. Then he stopped, showed me the road on the horizon, a few fossils from his bag and we let him go back to the maze of tracks.
We reached the tarmac with no additional clowneries and I gave some gas towards Merzouga.
Suddenly I killed the throttle dry. What's that !? It looked like a rehearsal for "Mad Max IV" ! Buggies, dirt bikes, quads everywhere ! People wearing helmets jumping on all sorts of vehicles, wheelings on my right, clouds of dust on my left, flags, race support, Le Mans revisited ! Was this desert sponsored by Pirelli or what ?
There was an hotel nearby which sign advertised the fact that bikers were welcome. On the porch near the entrance, there was one sleeping under his protection jacket.
"Is that the way we're welcome ?" I thought.
I shot the departures of several buggies and bikes while Abby was gathering information. Some Italians had organised a race in the desert and they were finishing the preliminaries, timing each racer for the next big day. We had a chat with a French rider who had just arrived on his quad, all the way from France. It felt home but we left back to Morocco after a while, where is Merzouga !?
Well we reached Merzouga soon after. It's only one street anyway, not even paved, nothing much in itself but we could see the mountains in the background and we knew that Algeria started there. We had some refreshing mint tea and watched the locals close their shops for their afternoon siesta, then we took off, by the road this time and reached Erfoud by the early evening.
The desert had wrapped us in dust but the tires of the Transalp were particularly showing where they had been.
I learned something that day. When tires are covered with such a crust of dust that even the road can't clean it, then the adherence is reduced. As we reached our hotel, a car in front of me stopped a bit too fast and my front wheel just slipped as
if I was on ice or something. I didn't hit the car and fortunately, my boot didn't slip as well so we didn't go down. But I was holding the Transalp so low that I needed Abby's help etc, etc... twice in a day ! Damn !
Clean your tires Mate !
We woke up early today and rode a little 250km to Agdz where we had planned to stay for a couple of nights. It's got to be the most beautiful Moroccan home since the riad in Chefchaouen. (http://www.rosedusable.com/). The ride was as splendid as usual, we took a shortcut to Afni after hesitating at a crossroad. A gentleman approached us as we were battling between our maps and our GPS to find that shortcut and declared that Berber GPS were the best. He then pointed at the correct destination and off we went on a desert little road, happy enough to enjoy all sorts of technologies as long as they get us there.
Agdz & Mahmid
Today we were up for a 360km ride in and back to see more sand and dunes. We rode to Zagora and beyond to Mahmid, almost at the Algerian borderline.
Again the road made us pass some mountainous bits before delivering us to the infinitely long straight parts in the desert.
We crossed a collection of small sleepy towns before reaching Zagora which we found surprisingly modern and well set. There were even pedestrian crossings and proper sidewalks. We were almost expecting a traffic jam somewhere !
We only stayed in Mahmid long enough to reach the end of the road. The electricity posts end there as well. Then it's the desert with rocks and sand dunes. However we could spot a few houses away from the village and therefore from electricity. In
India I would assume these were held by Untouchables but here, what or who could have pushed these people away from the lights ? Maybe it's their choice but I doubt it very much so how come some have to live still in such poverty in this
otherwise rather wealthy looking country ? And we thought Hong Kong presented outrageous inequalities ?! Sorry Hong Kong !
As one Hong Kong biking police officer once put it to me, it's not so bad indeed.
Frankly, there are some parts of this country that reminds me of India 25 years ago, except it's not the poor kingdom of Nepal one finds in the North but wealthy modern Europe... hence the incredible invasion of hotels and guest houses all over
the place. I've seen countries like Indonesia, Thailand or even Hong Kong evolve in terms of personal and general wealth over the past 25 years but the lower classes in Morocco today give me the same impression of poverty as in Tunisia in 1971 or in India in 1981. What's going on !? Is greed the plague of Morocco ? The rich, here, seem to live as well as any Spanish or French middle-class citizen with his nice riad, his 4x4 Toyota and his educated fat children when he takes over a cart pulled by a donkey loaded with illiterate twelves years old, burka wearing, argane seeds crushers.
On the same sidewalk, one can regularly cross the path of 14 years old school boys with skateboards, Nike shoes and MP3 readers next to other 14 years old shoe polishers in filthy T-shirts.
I dunno, something isn't sounding quite right there. I mean, let ideologies and politics aside, what happens when the son of a burka wearing seeds crusher ends up watching some richer kid browse the Internet on his mobile for instance ? How many more or less seeds will his mother have to crush then ?
Isn't the gap becoming a tiny bit too deep for either of these kids to bear with ? How do parents answer their questions at home ?
We rode back home with the sun getting lower and lower in our faces. Now I'm good at riding with one hand on the throttle and the other in front of my visor... balance is my middle name.
Agdz main road still had not been repaired. It was just a long stretched piece of mud as the workers were regularly watering it to prevent dust, rendering the whole thing quite enjoyable for mud surfers but very poor fun for bikers. We reached home safely however, as we seemed to have left our unwanted curse of acrobatics in Erfoud.
380km in 4:30h. I'm proud. Yesterday, we left Agdz and took the direction of Tazenakht by a road that's absent from our maps.
Nice road, almost empty of any traffic, it led us into the mountains again and when I wasn't trying to avoid potholes, I could admire and gasp at the landscape as every turn unwrapped a new panorama and reasons for feeling overwhelmed to be
Posted by Pascal Leclerc at November 13, 2010 08:15 PM GMT
there. Abby was shooting nonstop. She's been efficiently and courageously replacing our on board cam for so long now !
That's why we're returning towards the Atlantic. Abby is getting cramps ! GoPro should be sending our cam back to some safe address as they'll use a speed post service and Agadir seemed to be the best choice. We'll still be able to ride
around Tafraoute before heading towards Western Sahara, just as planned.
After the mountains, we reached the flat and the straight. The roads were still pretty empty, the sun was in our backs, it was perfect for a good spin. Even heavily loaded as it was, the Transalp did a great job at climbing mountains, negotiating tight curves or going for a fast run on a straight stretch of asphalt. If it wasn't for these CDI units, I'd say it's pretty much a perfect bike for anything. But the tachometer seemed to get up a quarter of second late this morning when I started the bike and I hope that's not the beginning of the sign that a CDI is going to fail again. It usually is, tacho down as well as one cylinder... been there, seen that ! If indeed a CDI fails again, then obviously something in this bike causes that
particular failure, could be the starter, but anyway, we won't be able to rely on it anymore.
We arrived safe, despite of the speed, on the excellent roads near Agadir. Suddenly we found ourselves in Europe, in yet another contrasted side of this incredibly diverse country !
I had an Albert Camus sort of mellowing feeling as I was enjoying a Spanish seafood paella, with Abby, at the terrace of a very French or Spanish looking restaurant, opposite a large and nicely decorated mosque. We just watched the traffic, there's no monotony felt yet, we don't need to stab anybody to feel alive for Agadir seems to gather all the Moroccans we met along our trip, from the whitest to the darkest, from the most religious to the most westernized and from the richest to the poorest, with a heavy dose of Western residents added to the crowd as well. The city feels very 70's. An earthquake destroyed it in 1963 so the style of its buildings is much more European than Moroccan. Yes, there's a definite "The Stranger" atmosphere to it. Not unpleasant at all.
We found a cheap studio apartment to stay but there's no fridge or burner in our kitchen. The level of noise outside reminds us of our flat in Brown Street, back in Hong Kong and there's even a drill in some apartment above that completes the "home, sweet home" picture. Abby reads "The Alchemist" and seems to enjoy it a lot.
We brought the Transalp for a good and well deserved revision this morning, for a change of oil and a quick wash too. Again, the tacho started a bit late... we're a bit worried about these CDI units. A new one would cost ten times the price here, it
would be cheaper to go back to Spain and get a load of them. Maybe, it would be cheaper and safer to get back to Sevilla and buy a whole new Transalp instead ! Maybe we're just freaking out for nothing and all will be fine. We'll see how it goes
during the next few days. We still have nearly two weeks on our Moroccan visas, that should be enough to figure it out.
We just learned that the Moroccan army had been rather heavy handed on Layoune people so as to clear out any doubt that could have been formed about Morocco letting Western Sahara be. That will probably not reassure my old parents... apparently we cause them lots of sleepless nights.
Is it selfish to live free ? Apparently my daughters sleep well. Abby and me too... must be something else then !