Brighton2capetown - Morocco

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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Morocco

6th October

Our African adventure started today. In Spain. No sooner had we rolled up to the ferry terminal at Algeciras were we accosted by unofficial representatives of the ferry mafia who were keen, as will become all too normal to us, to offer their assistance and sell us their 'premium' service for our convenience. We rightly resisted and after a trip to the ticket office, secured our passage to Ceuta, the spanish enclave at the north of Morocco, for the standard (cheaper in this case) rate.

A little over an hour later and we were ready for brief formalities before joining the Moroccan Autoroute. Or so we thought. Our African adventure was about to get decidedly sweaty. As we disembarked and headed to the Moroccan border, a short way from the ferry terminal, we hit the queue and soon were introduced to our new and rather keen Moroccan 'assistants'. Being British we put our heads down and queued as good citizens should only to find we stayed exactly where we started. A quick rethink ensued as we worked out who to trust and, like a puzzle, we found ourselves at the next stage which involved a new game called, "find the bloke to stamp our passports before the nice lady at the window would give us the green-card". Nearly an hour had passed and we were through the last gates and on into freedom or should that be "Carmageddon"....

You may have heard of the legendary French disregard for driving regulations. You may have even witnessed the Spanish disdain for any notion of lane discipline. However, neither of these two examples could prepare you for the oncoming truck using our lane to achieve a racing-line on the blind mountain bend that initiated us into the brotherhood of motorised moroccans today. Not even our resultant, heightened concentration can detract from the truly stunning scenery through which we are now riding.

No Dirhams. Not a single one between us. A wallet full of useless plastic. Lots of Euros. A few Pounds even. But nothing to pay the man at the peage booth when we took a wrong turn on our way out of Ceuta. We're not sure how it slipped from our planning but this hasn't stopped us getting on the peage, a tankful of fuel each and a campsite for the night.

You might remember from our previous installment that we like to arrive announced and again, this time proved no exception as a hot Edward and another gentle slope ensured the thud of a 300kg laden Honda kissing maiden Moroccan soil. Without even pride dented, let alone a Metal Mule pannier, the trusty steed was duly photographed and righted.


16th October

Since our rude introduction to Moroccan motoring, things haven't been so bad.  The road from Chefchouan to Fes was variable in surface quality, and the traffic decidedly random (maybe partly due to the drivers' Ramadan-induced frustrations), but progress was swift, navigation easy and the scenery absolutely stunning.  Sadly the opportunities to capture the scenery onto SD card were few and far between - the area to the side of the road was rarely wide or level enough to stop a bike safely and get it onto a sidestand to go walking around for photos.  It was very disappointing to miss the opportunity to capture some truly red mountains with a glacial-green lake in front, but in light of our experience, road safety rightly took precedence over photographic ambition.

 

Our journey did not pass entirely without incident however, as a wildly gesticulating traffic officer placed randomly on a roundabout resulted in the smack of Edward's laden Honda on the Moroccan 'mac.  No pictures this time as it seemed ill-advised to try and take a photo of the policeman helping Ed right his bike whilst he was trying to get Dan to move his out of the way of the traffic at the same time...

 

The people continue to be friendly in the rural areas, and a little pushy in the larger towns - most vehicles that passed us as we sat under the shade of a tree at the side of the road for lunch flashed their lights, waved or both on seeing us and the bikes.  A shepherd and his daughter sat and watched us from a distance as we ate and they waved back when we waved to them on leaving.

 

On our approach to Fes, we saw a Total station displaying MasterCard and Visa signs and, still lacking hard dirhams, decided to stop for a top-up, only to find after one tank had been brimmed that they didn't actually accept cards because their machine was broken.  The young lad who translated all this for us then proceeded to try to get us to follow him and his dad (/ Fagin) on their moped to the Medina, as we had to see it and it would "all be shut tomorrow".  Sensing a ploy to make money out of us, we once again made our excuses, refused the assistance and rode off, only to discover to our amazement that they were chasing us, and tried to block us at the next roundabout!  The combination of the Fes traffic and a two-up moped could have made for one of the slowest chase sequences in motoring history, but another wildly gesticulating traffic officer randomly placed on this roundabout unwittingly formed our rescue.  On sight of him they thought better of hassling us further and went another way.

 

Morocco is, and this almost goes without saying, a fantastically developed country. Yes, there are the donkey carts, roadside fruit vendors and more people travelling by foot than in cars but you also notice the smart petrol stations, immaculate toll roads and rash after rash of new building projects. All of which would lead you to assume that you could still be in Europe and this is where some of our assumptions have let us down. Firstly, our plan to buy currency in each country and use credit cards to get by at petrol stations in the meantime has not been successful - which in fairness from looking at the patrons of these facilities was to be expected. Old Merc taxis full of cash paying customers, farmers filling their tractors and an array of people adding a litre at a time to their frugal mopeds - all people who are yet to experience a life of subjugation to the credit card companies.  Campsites, as expected, are much fewer and farther between than in Europe and the facilities more basic when you get there. The scarcity restricts both choice and opportunities for cost-saving, but the facilities you get used to.

 

In our time here we have worked on two new entries for the OED [Overlander's English Dictionary, Collins, 2009, ISBN TBC]

 

MO_'RO_CCO [noun] - Any country which occupies a small focus within the greater scheme of a given journey, but which should not be confused with one that is quick to cross.

 

'WES_TERN SA_'HA_RA [noun] - any area with sparse population and few roads, which should have been given ample consideration in the planning phase.

 

Fes.  Well, what can we say.  I guess we knew what was coming, and come it did.  The "Camping Internationale de Fes" when we got there was large and seemingly smart with a staff to customer ratio maintained at a steady 17:1.  It was reassuringly expensive at 80Dh per person with tent and bike, but the well tended shady pitches gave the option of hard packed dirt for vans or soft grass for tents.  The toilets were squatters equipped with a tap and a bucket rather than a cistern and a chain, but there were showers, and sinks, and wash basins, and a rat.  There was also a large new sports complex being built next door, which gave the whole place the air of a dilapidated ex-Olympic facility.

 

The electricity consumer unit in the neglected shower block was left open to show the ingenuity and imagination of the people who had installed and maintained the system.  No one had told them that if a trip-switch trips, you can fix the fault then switch it back on, but if it overheats, catches fire, burns to a crisp and chars those above it, you really ought to change it for a new one.

 

Our hosts offered to change some money for us, at the usual black market rate of 10Dh to €1.  Real banks offer about 10.9Dh to the Euro, so it's a nice little earner for them.  However, they also persuaded us to go into Fes the next day and take a tour, thereby doing themselves out of the currency exchange deal.

 

Our guide arrived on time the next morning, and proceeded to show us some of the main sights of Fes:

  • The Royal Palace with it's intricate mosaic façade - the King was actually in town at the time, hence all the flags and the even-heavier-than-usual police presence
  • The Jewish quarter with it's spanish architecture including un-arab outward facing balconies
  • A pottery workshop where they make mosaic items and patterned pottery of all types, where we were shown round the entire operation from clay to fountain by an enthusiastic proprietor modelled on a shorter toothless Borat, and then squirmed uncomfortably as we were led to the showroom full of lovely things we didn't want

  • The old town with 40,000 streets many no wider than our shoulders, a mix of pedestrian and donkey traffic (might is right), a myriad trades being conducted from medina buildings dating back to the 9th century, and the only place I know of where you can stock up on Colddate toothpaste and the finest selection of fly-blown sheep heads a Dirham can buy.
  • The university Mosque dating back to 859 AD, just about to re-open after a lengthy restoration.
  • A restaurant where we were just too British to demand a cheaper alternative (we ended up blowing a day's fuel budget on lunch) but at least we were out of sight and hence unlikely to offend the locals fasting for Ramadan...

  • The tannery where animal skins are still tanned in the 9th century vats using the same processes and materials - lime and pidgeon droppings to remove hair and soften the skins respectively, then a selection of natural dyes - mint green, saffron yellow, cobalt blue, mascara black etc...
  • Finally (at our request) to the modern city where we could get ourselves some internet access and do some research on exactly which cities we will have to visit to acquire the visas we need for the rest of our trip.

 

We left the campsite in Fes the next morning and set off towards the Middle Atlas mountains.  Soon enough the road started to climb and within an hour we had arrived on Mars.  Vegetation was sparse, the road was generally good though single track in places and degenerating into gravel track where the elements so desired.  The scenery was mindblowing - red soil, red rocks and red mountains turning lilac through the haze. 

 

Crossing the Atlas is not at all like crossing the Pyrenees or Alps where you are treated to a succession of hairpins going up, then a succession of hairpins going down, until you're done.  Here, it is not only the colour of the rock that is different, there are a number of rocky ridges through which the road snakes, separated by plains of flat or gently rolling ground - some cultivated some not - through which the road simply takes a straight line.  And you can practically see the rock crumbling before your eyes as it submits to the powers of erosion.  At the top of a canyon wall, vast chunks of rock teeter ready to fall during the next snowfall or thaw.

 

After our descent through one such canyon (the Gorge du Ziz) towards Er Rachidia, the ground began to flatten out, and we found ourselves once again approaching urban normality, Moroccan style.  Skirting the edge of the town in search of a campsite for the night we came across an auberge, with a friendly and helpful proprietor who showed us around, pointed out that his restaurant was open if we were hungry (which we were - Ramadan has made it harder to pick up food during the day) and gave us directions to a campsite near the Todra Gorge, which was where we were headed next.  As it was still early in the day, we ate, followed his directions and headed out to Tinerhir to find the campsite.  On the way, our tyres got their first taste of Saharan sand as the road led in the direction of the desert before curling back towards the mountains.  The road signs warned "Attention Ensablement" but there were only small dustings of sand on the road, not the dramatic sand banks we'll likely meet further South. 

 

Sure enough, in Tinerhir we found another auberge set in beautiful surroundings offering camping at a much more reasonable 30Dh (approx £2) for a person with a tent and a motorcycle, complete with what would be our first hot showers since Spain.  The owner happened to have a mechanic friend who could weld the foot back onto Ed's sidestand, and arrived to take away the stand and its foot, promising to return with just one part the next morning.  After making contact with a shipping company to try to arrange the pair of rear tyres we hope to collect in Mauritania, we settled for the night, contented.

 

Or at least, Dan settled.  Edward on the other hand spent all night at the beck and call of his digestive system, which was not happy and needed a lot of errands running.

 

The various urgent errands were still in progress the next day, so there we stayed on 10th October, too - Dan enjoying the stunning view across the plain to the mountains and reading some of the Rough Guide to West Africa, Edward attending to the demands of his gut, refitting his now-repaired sidestand and enjoying the view as best he could.

 

The 11th October dawned and with the aid of a chemical cork, Edward had enjoyed an uninterupted night's sleep and was feeling very much better, so we packed up and set off only a little later than usual.  The rough plan was to ride up the road through the Todra gorge, take a piste (gravel/dirt track) over the intervening mountains to the road down through the Dades gorge and follow that back to the main road and on to Ouarazazate.  The scenery was stunning, again.  More crumbly orange rock, and the ride was made more interesting by the fact that in several places, the River Todra has made good progress towards its goal of claiming its gorge back.  Our navigational skills however, were found lacking.  Relying on our map showing the track we wanted starting at the end of the tarmac road, we blithely motored on up the gorge, out onto the rolling coutryside at the top and just kept going until we eventually realised we'd gone way too far.  We turned back and kept eyes peeled for a likely looking track but could see no reassuring signs.  Every time we stopped to try and check the map we were mobbed by a seemingly endless supply of increasingly irritating kids, so with time not waiting even for us, we cut our losses, headed back down the still beautiful Todra gorge and on to Ouarazazate.

 

The laden bikes got their first taste of climbing, descending and turning on variably smooth and lumpy gravel in those sections of gorge road the river had destroyed and to be honest, they felt fine.  You simply stand on the pegs, pretend it's a proper off road bike and it all just comes together.  Sure, if you tried to take them on anything much more challenging and/or got them a bit out of shape the weight we're carrying would become more of a challenge, but for the moment (gently plodding along roads and the occasional piste) we reckon they'll do fine.  More challenging will be anything with deep sand, and further south still: the sloppy muddy sections.

 


We stopped for lunch at a café on the way out of gorge (cue westerner menu with 3, less reasonable choices) and, realising that after a late start and a trip up the gorge we were stilll a long way from anywhere to stay, we put the hammer down and made full use of the clear roads to make progress towards our next target.  However as the sun sank lower we began to be concerned that campsites, like taxis, are never to be found when you want one.  Our hearts rose as we saw a  camping sign, and as it was unclear whether the site was 300 metres ahead on the right or 300 metres along the road to the right, we turned off.  We were immediately accosted by a pushy chap on a scooter and with him in tow, drove down the gravel track that awaited us.  It led us to a  barren rock-strewn wasteland with a camping sign. 

 

Sensing a scam, a quick nod to each other and we were out of there, only glancing up as we passed the actual site at about 70mph moments later but with our hearts already set on the town which lay 40km further.  We knew we had cut it fine and the race began to beat the locals to their dinner.  Sure enough we pulled into town as darkness descended. The campsite was a walled courtyard with gravel pitches, twice the government's legally required number of cats, and proper loos - more on that later.  Good start  - welcoming brits offering chilled beers in a dry country.  By the time the tents were set up, Ed announced that his illness was returning and we retired for the night. Sadly the night took not one victim but two, and by daybreak no activity was to be seen in camp with both Ed and Dan laid flat out in their tents after a night spent pacing between loo block and beds.  Ed, already an old hand with this particular malady made it to the shops for cold Cokes and drugs but no further activity is recorded in the log for the day.

As dawn broke over sleepy Ouarazazate, Ed was already hatching an escape plan involving more bottles of Coke, handfulls of Imodium and the promise of an opt-out should the illness stir.  Within a couple of hours the bikes were packed, thirsts slaked with Cokes and spirits were lifted as our sights turned towards Agadir, Tan-Tan and the start of the Atlantic route to Western Sahara.

 

Our arrival in Agadir was another race against the clock.  As night was falling, no campsite signs were to be found and we began to get a little concerned.  Directions gained from a petrol station attendant sent us towards the port, but the motel advertising rooms for 150Dh (£10) at the same petrol station was looking very tempting.  Dismount, check it out and discover that it's all locked up.  Disappointed, we set off back into the twilight to search for elusive camping.  When we found it, we knew we were back near a large city - second rate facilities at inflated prices never fill a traveller with joy.  These were the sort of facilities that would make a healthy man turn to Imodium...

 

As October 14th dawned in Agadir, we were already up and making the best of the customary cold showers ready to flee the city in favour once more of the countryside.  Navigating our way out of town was not difficult, though we learnt a little more about Moroccan motoring on the way. 

 

The first rule of Moroccan roundabouts: You do not talk about Moroccan roundabouts. 

The second rule of Moroccan roundabouts: There are no rules...

 

Our journey south from Agadir to Tan-Tan was uneventful in a good way.  Vast expanses of nothingness open out before you as you climb each of the ridges that break up the monotony of the plains.  The scenery transported us again, this time to perhaps Nevada.  The soil gets noticeably more sandy and when we stopped to take some photos, we noticed that we were parked on what was basically a mixture of sand and rocks. 

 

Our arrival in Tan-Tan didn't go unnoticed by the authorities, the long arm of the law reached out and stole a pen from Dan's tankbag.  In the north of the country, we'd grown used to the routine of the police checkpoints - they were clearly there to check the documents of the locals, check that there were no more than the regulation 14 goats on the back seat of each Renault 12 and so on.  As we'd had all our documents checked at the border, we were of no interest to them and were always waved through without being stopped.  Until Tan-Tan.  Already surprised to have been stopped and questioned on his nationality, occupation and where he was going, Dan was more surprised again to be asked to remove his helmet and how long he was travelling for, by which time simply feigning a lack of understanding of the phrase "Avez-vous quelque-chose pour nous?" was clearly not going to cut it. 

"Pardon?  Quelque-chose?  Quelque-chose pour quoi?"

"Un cadeaux, un cadeaux pour nous"

"Errrrr....  Comme quoi, par example?" 

"Comme vous voulez, Comme vous voulez..."

[Rooting around in the right pocket of his tankbag, well away from anything valuable]: "Un stilo?"

This appeared to do the trick.  The officer of the Gendarmerie Royale grinned, clearly enjoying his power trip, and having gained a Tesco Value ballpoint pen. Bonus.

"Bonne route monsieur, bonne route - Et monsieur?  Est-ce qu'il y a des autres? Ou seulement les deux?"

"Seulement les deux, monsieur, seulement les deux. Au revoir".  So you're not getting any more pens as we don't have any mates following us...

 

Tan-Tan Plage (a little beach resort 30km from Tan-Tan) yielded bargain accomodation - camping at 24Dh for the both of us by the beach, with a friendly proprietor happy to walk us back into town to find something to eat and get some groceries.  The beach itself would once have been lovely - sadly now a mess of litter and fallen down concrete walls.  It was however a good spot from which to watch the sun set over the Atlantic.

By morning however, the price of the camping had more than quadrupled to 100Dh, much to our frustration.  But when the guy's got your passport details, it makes sense to keep him sweet, so this we duly did and coughed up the 100Dh. 

Disappointed but undaunted, we set off for Western Sahara