zaterdag 1 december 2012

Tafraoute - Laâyoune: Operation Desert Storm

I made it to the Sahara. What's more, to an area where oases are few and sand dunes are plenty. In late November 2012, I was riding my bike not among snow ploughs, but among bulldozers clearing the sand from the road. It was an exciting week, so let's dive in!

24th of November: Tafraoute - Tinoumar
The hotel in Tanger is the first real Moroccan hotel of my trip. 30 dirhams a night, rooms of only a few square meters with just a floor, a bed and a chair, and a restaurant where you can eat for 20 dirhams. I saw a cockroach on the floor in my room, which may even be the first time I see one for real.
I nicely made it a full day of rest by leaving Tafraoute at the same time I had arrived the day before: 10:30. By that time I had replaced the worn rear tire. The mountain landscape west of Tafraoute is very different from the rest of the Atlas: hard round granite instead of soft layered rock. The landscape becomes a bit wetter again too: there is water in the river beds and there are lots of terraces on the mountain sides.
After you turn left towards Ifrane de l'Anti-Atlas, the landscape is no longer mountainous, just bellowing. Somewhere there I see this arc, called Bab Tlata. It reminds me of the schuttersbogen in the village where I grew up.

The agricultural landscape does not look promising for camping spots, but I pass some hamlets that have a little patch of trees along a river bed. I ask if I can camp in one such group of trees, and build my tent. A boy named Saïd comes to have a look. He teaches me the Berber names of my vegetables, I teach him a Kinderen voor Kinderen song and we share the meal. In the end he insists on my visiting his house. The parents and older brothers are of course surprised at first, but then forbid me to go back to my tent because it is too cold outside. We have a round of Moroccan tea while without my knowledge Saïd has been sent back to guard my tent.
After we break up my tent in the dark I can use their pre-paid 3G internet for a bit and go to sleep on their couch. I have had discussions back at home on what is more important: clean running water or internet. This Berber household gives the answer: internet of course! There is no tap, nor is there a bathroom. Nobody seems to mind very much: you can make tea with water from the well, and there is a walled cactus grove that serves as the village's public toilet.
What's also interesting is that Saïd's oldest brother Largou, in whose room I am sleeping, has video chats with European women over the internet while the women in his own village live an apparently segregated life. While I drink tea with the men, I catch only glimpses of the women through doors accidentally left open.
Largou tells me he tends to work in Europe for a few months and then come home again with lots of supplies for the village. It's how he learned all the European languages he speaks (French, Spanish, Italian, and some English). He used his language skills to host more foreigners in the past, offering his hospitality to French hikers and British motorcyclists.
Largou's and Saïd's father worked in the coal mines in Limburg and even speaks a few words of Dutch!

25th of November: Tinoumar - Guelmim

I wake up at 7 o'clock in the morning, and have a delicious breakfast with home-baked bread, olive oil, argan oil and instant Nescafe Largou brought from Spain. I also bring my La Vache Qui Rit and chocolate spread to the table. Largou tells me about the Berber people and their being repressed by the Arabs. The conversation is much like the one I had about the Basques with Asier, the Basque biker I met in Imilchil. I leave at 9:15, having exchanged email adresses.
As I ride south, the landscape becomes more like the southern oasis area where I was before: rock desert with villages in small palm forests. I have lunch after Ifrane de l'Anti-Atlas. When I am about to leave my lunch spot, Thomas arrives. Thomas is a Frenchman riding a bike from his second home in Meknes (Morocco) to Senegal or Guinée. We chat a bit and then he proceeds to have lunch on my spot and I hit the road again.
Shortly after lunch I reach Bou Izakarne, from where I planned to follow the main coastal road N1 to Laâyoune. It looked like a very bad plan here. The road is narrow and busy with trucks and buses. The verge of the road is full of pebbles in which you cannot ride. Some trucks and buses from the cheaper bus companies overtake me with only centimeters of space between us. And when they overtake with more space, they are going blazing fast, which together with the strong side wind causes turbulence that makes it hard to stay in control of my bike.
In Guelmime I check in to a hotel, and decide that if all of the N1 is going to be like this, I'm not going to Laâyoune. We'll see tomorrow how it is. Tan-Tan is 130 km away, and while that is more than my usual daily distance in Morocco, there are no other villages on the map in between, so I'll try to make it to Tan-Tan anyway. At least in the desert, there is nothing else to do than riding and logging miles.

26th of November: Guelmime - Tan-Tan

When I hit the streets in Guelmime, I find myself in a mild sandstorm for the first time in my life. There is a kind of brown fog, sand gets into every spot where you don't want it to be (like between your teeth), and everyone covers his face with a big scarf. I buy a lot of water, cover my face too, and get riding.
At first, the sandstorm is blowing in my direction, and I speed towards Tan-Tan at 27 km/h. Of course, such good things don't last and the wind slowly turns clock-wise to be against me. It also carries even more sand, and I find myself struggling to keep my bike going straight while I can see only 100 metres ahead of me and I am being sand-blasted.
The road does seem to be quieter than yesterday, and because of the high speed at the start I have covered 81 km already at lunchtime. As I sit there eating bread with my back against the wind, a car stops and gives me a banana, an orange and a bottle of water. The latter gift annoys me a bit as I am already carrying a day's supply of water and I don't need 1.5 kilos more to carry up the hill ridge I'm about to cross. But I'm too nice a guy to just throw away someone's gift, even if no-one is looking.
The landscape is a kind of rock desert, but not as deserty as I had expected. The road goes through a valley and there are even some big irrigated fields in there. As in the rest of Morocco, there are scattered houses everywhere in places where you think no-one has a reason to live. And there are lots of heather-like hardened plants between the rocks.
It was about 17:00 when I entered Tan-Tan, after being stopped at a police checkpoint at the outside, as if I'm in the West Sahara already. I craved a coke and a hot shower, but I first had to use the last minutes of daylight to clean the sand of my bike's drivetrain. A bunch of kids gathered around me as I was busy with the bike. They interestingly seemed to know everything about American pro wrestling, but could also lend a hand for the bike.
The hotel I stayed in is a typical Moroccan hotel for 30 dirhams a night. There is no shower, toilets are shared and the bed in the five-square-meter room is worn. The attendant is a nice man who brings me a chair to sit on when I'm looking at the street life from the hotel's balcony. Vegetarian food is nowhere to be found in these rough desert areas, and I have dinner not at the restaurant's hotel but at a typical Moroccan roasted-chicken joint across the square.

27th of November: Tan-Tan - Akhfenir

Yesterday I rode with a pattern of one and a half hour of fast riding, quarter of an hour of rest. I pick up the same rhythm today again, aiming to reach Akhfenir at about 110 km after Tan-Tan. I skip by El Ouatia / Tan-Tan Plage. After that I find myself riding along the coast. On my right hand, the endless ocean, on my left hand, the endless desert (and a power line). I see some mouths of dry rivers that look geologically interesting. This one just looks like a scale model of the Netherlands, with an estuary turned into a lagune behind a layer of dunes:
About an hour after lunch I see Thomas (who I already met two days before) having a break beside the road. We ride together from there on. When we reach the village of Akhfenir around 16:15, we do the usual shopping again. Thomas turns out to speak some Arabic, which he learnt from some Moroccan-French friends.
He wants to continue to try to camp with the groups of fishermen that you see on the cliffs. I like that idea and follow him. There are no fishermen after Akhfenir however, and the wind is getting ever stronger. When the night is starting to fall, we are in the middle of nowhere. There is a little house maybe a kilometer to the right, a bunch of sings that is possibly a police checkpoint a kilometer ahead, and there is a slope down and then an area with some rocks and plants to our left. We decide to camp to our left, here:
It turns out that pitching a tent in this wind is a challenge. Thomas stacks the rocks to form a wind-blocking wall, I do the same. I start pitching my tent. The soil is sandy, will the pegs remain in place? I think of securing the pegs by laying heavy rocks on top of them, but don't do it because I'm in a hurry and I'm afraid that the rocks will be in the way of the tent sheet.
Bad idea! Just as it is also starting to rain, my tent flies away! I catch it and with the help of Thomas pull it back into place as well as we can. Now I secure the pegs with rocks, but the pulling-into-place made that the tent is not staked out as tight as it should be. The wind is pulling and tugging and it doesn't look right. I move some pegs, add two guying cords, and secure all the pegs with the biggest rocks I can carry. This will have to do, there is no alternative.
Neither is there time for a proper dinner now, I just eat my breakfast supplies of bread and chocolate paste. After that I try to sleep in the scary noise of the tent sheet flapping in the wind.

28th of November: Akhfenir - Tarfaya

When I wake up in the dark, I feel sand everywhere, and after I take a picture with flash, I can see on my camera screen that the inside of my tent now looks like this:

The strong wind is blowing in the right direction however, and after we managed to pack up all the sandy stuff again we make good progress. Riding your bike in a sandstorm also makes for nice pictures of course:


 There is a bit where the road goes back to the coast after going around a salt lake, and the wind is a headwind for perhaps 20 km. That takes as much time as the other 50 km to Tarfaya, which we reach at luchtime. According to Thomas's habit, we have lunch with a tajine in a café.
A look at the map shows that we can reach easily Laâyoune, or even its port of El Marssa 20 km further, in one day from Tarfaya. But after El Marssa there is nothing. So we better just stay in Tarfaya and go to Laâyoune tomorrow.
We stay in hotel El Bahja in Tarfaya, with offers a lot of friendliness for 50 dh a night, and even a hot shower. In the afternoon we also have our bicycles washed at the local car wash. Mine never looked as good since it was rolled out of the shop where I got it!
In the evening we have dinner with soup in the hotel's restaurant, and there we meet two motorcyclists, Czech and British, who spontaneously tell about their encountering two Irish brothers on bicycles - that must be Brendon! They're 100 km behind Thomas and me.

29th of November: Tarfaya - El Marssa

The wind seems to be blowing with us even more today, and with about 30 km/h we fly towards Laâyoune. As I'm getting used to by now, we reach it at lunchtime. The landscape between Tarfaya and Laâyoune is so monotonous that it is making you dizzy sometimes. Just brown rocks and sand with some small dark green plants, flat, as far as you can see.
In the village of Tah you enter the West Sahara, which I knew as the odd empty spot on the map south of Morocco that I saw in topography lessons in school. It used to be a Spanish colony until the mid-1970s. After that, it was claimed both by Morocco and the Polisario front who wanted independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Nowadays, most of it is effectively governed as a part of Morocco, but the numerous police checkpoints and the presence of a UN mission supply some exotic feel.
At these police checkpoints, you have to show your passport and answer some other questions (like your profession). The police officers running these checkpoints are generally friendly and chatty. Everyone who joins the police in Morocco has to spend time in the West Sahara, three years on the relatively densely-populated coast or two years in the empty hinterland. It must be boring as hell and loaded cyclists passing your checkpoint are a nice break from the routine.
Morocco built a monument on the border of the area commemorating their annexation of it:

Laâyoune looks like a bunch of military barracks with a small commercial neighborhood with a quiet market and a few cafés. There are supposed to be 200 000 people living here, but I don't see them.
Over lunch I decide to go with Thomas to El Marssa. I wanted to go there anyway to see the Boukra - Laâyoune conveyor belt: it is the world's longest conveyor belt taking phosphates from the mine in Boukra to the port in El Marssa.
Between Laâyoune and El Marssa, the road goes East - West instead of NE - SW for a bit, so the wind was from the side. And there is also a bit of sand dune desert there, so it makes for some adventurous cycling through a sandstorm again.

When we finally reach El Marssa, there is only one hotel there, which charges 290 dirhams for a room for two people. Thomas thinks it is too much and starts asking around with people. He seems to be able, speaking a little bit of Arabic, to do business the Moroccan way. Have a chat, take it easy, take your time, build up trust, and eventually you will together arrange something. A man named Rachid knows another man who has a flat where we can stay for 150 dh. 150 dh for a whole flat sounds good, so we wait for Rachid to finish his work. Then Rachid takes us to a flat and we have to wait for the man who lives there. He arrives after another hour and a half, and at this point it feels like finding a place to stay was a more important activity today than bike riding.
The flat's inhabitant, Lassin, sees us as our guests. He shares dinner with us and does not accept payment again!
Like everyone in El Marssa, Lassin works as a fish trader. All of El Marssa smells of fish and there is an industrial area where there are small factories where fish is frozen and packaged for transport. There are suspiciously few women on the street, even for Moroccan terms: probably many men from northern Morocco work here but still have their family in the North.

30th of November: Around and in Laâyoune

Thomas and I have breakfast in a pâtisserie close to Lassin's flat. We had to celebrate my reaching the southernmost point of my trip, so we have petits pains and cake and lots of coffee. While in Morocco, I have discovered why I don't like coffee with sugar at home: Europeans don't use enough sugar. But if you use one and a half metric ounce of sugar for one cup of coffee, the result is delicious!
We ride South together until the conveyor belt. There we take a picture of me, exchange goodbyes and I had back against the wind to Laâyoune. So here I am, further South than I have ever been:

After that I head back to the city of Laâyoune, against the wind, taking another route than the one by which we had come. It passes by a beach village called Foum el Oued. The sight of a European cyclist on the back road tickles the curiosity of two police officers passing by in an unmarked car. They ask if I gave my renseignements, and before I can recall what that means again, he is calling his boss to ask what to do with me. The boss is in a good mood apparently, because I can go on without even filling in my renseignements for the umpteenth time here.
In Laâyoune, I happily discover that there is a city center that Thomas and I missed when we passed the place for the first time. Enough cafés and shops to spend my time until I find suitable transport back North. There is also a good hotel, and to my surprise, this morning (1st of Dec) I saw the bikes of Brendon and his brother in the luggage area!

And now?

It feels strange to stop. I'd appreciate a few days of rest, but ultimately I want to live the riding life again. To have your times of sleeping and waking determined by the sun and to eat a week's amount of bread, couscous and pasta every day.

On the other hand, continuing towards Mauritania and beyond, while possible, doesn't feel right either. I'd be missing most or all of the winter in the Netherlands, which means degradation of my speedskating skills, not to speak of my probably pathological Fear Of Missing Out on outdoor ice. And most of all, why Mauritania? There's presumably more of the poverty, the language barrier and the sandstorms, and less of the cultural heritage and the good food. Continuing from here on means first traveling around Morocco on buses, taxis or planes to get a visa and vaccinations and then some 1500 km of more desert. Not my idea of a good time.

So I'm going to try to reach home by Christmas over the earth's surface. That way I can visit Marrakech (again), Tanger, Gibraltar, Madrid and/or Barcelona.

Morocco should be doable with buses and trains, even though the Compagnie des Transports au Maroc attendant responded with the single word "interdit" when I asked if I can take a bicycle on a CTM bus. The smaller bus companies, indeed, those cowboys that I curse every time one of their stone-age vehicles spewing black smoke chases me off the road, seem not to make so much trouble about unusual luggage.
People tell me Spain is doable by train, even though long-distance express trains do not take bicycles.
France is the real hurdle: you cannot take a bicycle on the TGV, regional trains that do take bicycles do not form a full network, and there is a booking bureaucracy. Riding some bits? Hitchhiking with the bike? A strategy could be to reach Basel or Strasbourg and use the much easier German trains from there.

So I hopefully, a week from now, I'll be writing another post from Gibraltar or around there somewhere!

The route

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