The next day I honored my promise and I went to Souvian’s place for food. There was a big spread put on and about ten of us at the table. Barbecued lamb skewers were on the menu with salad and artichokes. It was delicious, and before I’d even finished eating I was invited back to have more food in the evening. I spent the rest of the day on the net and went to play pool with Souvian and his friend (i kicked everyones arse). we went back to Souvian’s for a supper of boiled lamb shoulder and potatoes with all sorts of olives on the side. Again, the whole extended family was there, and I had many wishes of bon voyage when it came to leave.
I went back to the embassy to get my visa and there was a huge queue of people outside. The only people I recognised were a Canadian couple who are riding down Africa on bicycles. We jumped the queue as most of the people were only just applying for visas and we grabbed our passports and left. As I had feared, my visa starts on the 13th and is only valid for 2 weeks, giving me only 4 days to get to the border if I want to use all the time. I’ve since decided that although I shouldn’t hang around, I would be happy to get the border with 4 days or more left on the visa. That will give me more than enough time to get to Nouakchot and get it extended. Still it would be nice to do things completely at my own pace, and Nourdine was on his way back to Temara and wanted to see me before I left. I would have liked to see him again to thank him for everything he had done for me but I needed to start heading south.
It was an easy ride to Marrakesh. The scenery looked a lot like Spain, except the derelict little buildings are still inhabited in Morocco! It got me thinking about how similar the two places are and that the Moors, who would have originated from the morocco area would have found Spain very similar to home when they invaded and ruled Al-Andalusia for some 600+ years. On arriving at Marrakesh, I set out to find a campsite that had been recommended on the websites. I knew there was two, one very good and one not so good. I found one easy as it was just off the main road. Ah that’ll be the shit one then! so i rode off into the city to find the other. it turned out that the other one was nowhere near where I thought it was and was intact very close to the other one. I still found it before dark so I was pretty happy, especially when I saw the nice swimming pool and found out that they had booze.
I had decided to stay in Marrakesh for just one night as i have to keep moving, but I thought it would be a shame if I didn’t go and have a look around the place. I got a rough idea of where the medina was and rode into town. It was really easy to navigate and I parked up outside a cafe and had a coffee. I asked the waiter if it was okay to park there and he said yes but they will close at ten. I tipped him 10 dirhams and went into town. Inside the medina, loads of people where out and about, with teenagers riding scooters through crowds at dangerous speeds. I found my way to the biggest souk, which had assorts going on, music, games and lots of food. I was dragged into one open-air restaurant and the waiter sat me next to two English girls. We got talking, but the waiters wouldn’t serve me because I only wanted soup. I had a look at the menu and realised that it was a rip off restaurant for tourists (quell surprise!). They had soup when they thought I’d buy kebabs at elevated prices but not once they realised that soup was all I wanted. I would have left the restaurant but I was enjoying chatting to the girls so I stayed while they were eating. The waiters wouldn’t even serve me a bottle of coke! The girl’s bill was sky high too. They paid up and we went to get dessert somewhere more reasonable. I walked back to my bike to find that the cafe had shut early, but the waiter was still waiting for me to return. He saw me coming, stood up, waved at me and then left. I rode back to the campsite in the dark without making one wrong turn. I was quite proud of myself for taking the bike into town, especially after the driving in Fes, but to be honest Marrakesh was a lot easier to ride around.
I got up early next morning and set off through the Atlas mountains for Ouarzazate. Within half an hour I was enjoying amazing mountain scenery with fantastic twisty roads. I saw loads of other bikers coming the other way. I guessed that they were on a tour or something cos their bikes were not loaded up with stupid amounts of stuff like mine is. The roads went high up into the snow capped mountains, then descended down into mountains of red rock.
The roads straightened out and by 2pm I was getting close to my destination. I had planned to take a detour to go and see Ait Benhaddou, a famous village that has been used in loads of movies (Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, The Man who Would Be King….look it up on wikipedia). I knew that there was a sealed road heading there, and my GPS was telling me that I wasn’t at the junction yet when I saw a sign for Ait Benhaddou pointing out over a barren plain of rock and dust. I mulled it over and decided to take the ‘shortcut’.
Its the first time I’ve ridden the bike properly in the dirt when it is fully loaded. The bags bounced around and moved all over the place but the bike kept going. I slowed down to about 20 mph and I almost stacked it at one point when the track turned sharply and I ended up taking it wide cos I was paranoid that I’d lose the front end. Off the track there were ditches of a foot or so deep, but I kept on the throttle and the momentum kept me from falling off. I only went for about 6 km and I was hot as hell. Its probably mostly due to the lack of a breeze but I’m sure the elevated concentration, paranoia, and flinging the bike around are the main reasons that I was boiling.
Ait Benhaddou is amazing and I wandered up for a closer look. The locals who live there make a living out of being guides and I was chatting to one of them while we had his head in a book teaching himself German. He said its possible to stay there for 300 Dirhams (30 euro). I was tempted, I think Michael Palin stayed there when he did his Sahara program but I decided to continue to Ouarzazate and see what that place is all about.
After riding for another 20 minutes or so I was approaching Ouarzazate, which is quite a big town by Moroccan in-the sticks-standards and has a bit of a film industry, specialising in all manner of desert film shoots. I saw some signs for a campsite but it was quite a bit out of town and it was only half 3 so I continued into town were I saw signs for another campsite. I’m glad that I got to the town as early as I did. Its been my plan to ride throughout the day and to always get to my destination with enough time to find somewhere to stay and to find my way around, it just hasn’t worked out that way until the last two days. Anyway, the campsite was one of the most friendly that I’ve ever seen and the other campers came and said hello to me when I was setting up my tent. After struggling to speak French it turned out that they all spoke Spanish which made things a lot easier for me to communicate. Later in the evening I knocked on the door of a motorhome belonging to a French couple, Alain and Michelle I asked them if they knew of anywhere where I could buy some food (nowhere was open when I was riding about) and they said that they didn’t know but they very generously invited me to eat with them. They had a fully stocked fridge and they gave me whiskey and wine and lasagne! Others came to join us and I even got the guitar out to have a sing along, although I wasn’t too happy with having to learn James Blunt songs! I slept well that night, a little bit drunk but also knackered from the ride during the day. In the morning Alain and Michelle invited me back to the motorhome for coffee and breakfast before I set off. If the two of you are reading this then Merci Beaucoup!
I was undecided where to go next, but riding through Marrakesh and Ouarzazate had made me confident that I could get the the border a lot sooner than I had previously thought. I’d been offered a place to stay in Taroudant but I decided to head for Tata instead, as I could cut straight through to Tan-Tan and be in Western Sahara in a couple of days, which would only put me a few days late on the visa. I won’t get to see all of the places that I wanted to see, but that just means that I’ll just have to come back again sometime . The ride was fantastic, with sealed roads all the way, although they were not really wide enough for two vehicles at some points and I ended up in the dirt a couple of times. I was even tempted to just get off road at some points. The road to Tata heads west, meaning that the Sahara desert lies behind all the hills on my left hand side. I saw loads of little tracks heading off in that direction, but I will leave them for future fun. There will be plenty of dirt riding coming up in Africa, were I will not have the option of tarmac.
The campsite in Tata was a bit of a disappointment. There was lots of friendly campers there, but the entire place was concrete so I couldn’t put me tent up in any kind of proper way. I was considering just sleeping on the floor of the laundry room (if they would let me), but instead I went looking for a hotel. I haven’t tried to find any accommodation other than campsites so far and I thought it would be good to see what was on offer. I got a room in a hotel above a cafe. The room was clean, with 3 beds, but shared bathroom for 100 dirham (8 quid). I should have haggled really but I couldn’t be arsed. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and finding cooked food was hard. A pharmacist explained to me that most restaurants don’t open around this time of the year because everybody has lots of meat at home after Eid. I may have to stock up of food for some camp cooking over the next few days.
I took full advantage of the comfortable bed and got an early night so that I could get up early and make good progress on the ~ 400 km from Tata to Tan-Tan. I was on the road by about 8 am and by midday I was about two thirds of the way there. As I passed through a city called Guilem I came to an intersection with confusing signs. As I was about to ask a pedestrian, a guy on a scooter pulled up next to me, and asked me in English where I was going (sound familiar?) I told him Tan-tan and he pointed me in the right direction but then casually told me that I should load up on green tea as a gift for the officials at the Mauritanian border and that it was much cheaper there. He pointed to a shop and rode off. I stopped near the shop, but then I decided to go to another shop as I sensed a scam. I walked into the other shop, that was about 30 meters along on the other side of the road. While I was talking to the guy in the shop, a different guy turned up from nowhere, speaking English, telling me that I should buy a different tea. He was asking ridiculous prices so I walked back to bike and decided not to bother. Guilem is on the major route through to Mauritania and they must see loads of overlanders riding or driving vehicles on foreign plates. Probably quite a lucrative scam for them. As I was about tho ride off, the guy was asking me if I had anything to sell, and if I did, he knew someone who would buy it. I thought about it for 2 seconds then rode off.
The ride to Tan Tan was made difficult by a strong cross wind that had me leaning the bike over to go in a straight line. This turned into a sand storm a couple of times where the sand made it hard to see more than 10 m in front of me. I rode behind a car for a while to make sure oncoming traffic would know that we were there. After another hour of desert scenery, I arrived in Tan Tan town and for the first time since Tanger, I had to show my passport to police. The Policeman was very polite, spoke good English and told me that I would meet lots of other overlanders before I got to the border. I rode into the town and stopped for a coffee, where I realised that Tan tan is actually two places. The town and the beach. I set off for the beach and as I went around a ’roundabout’ before another policeman got me to stop. He asked to see my passport, driving licence, and import documents. I handed them over, then he told me that I had gone through a stop sign and I had to pay a 700 dirham fine (60 euro). This was blatantly a tourist shakedown as there is no way the locals could afford that, and I had actually read about the same thing happening in someone else’s blog just that morning. I tried my usual technique, which has served me well in Thailand, whereby I say I don’t have that amount on me and offer a lower amount, but the policeman was having none of it. I had the money on me but I went back into town to make it look like I’d been to the cash machine. I handed over the cash and another policeman (there were 3 by now) was filling out a ‘receipt’. One policeman even said to me that if I get stopped again I should show the receipt to the policeman to show I’d already paid! Traffic fine? More like paying a Troll to pass over his bridge! As you would expect, I was feeling pretty angry but as I got my documents back, I remembered that I only had 4th party insurance (no insurance) and I cheered up and rode off rapidly! (in case anyone is googling about camping in Tan Tan, watch for the stop sign on the roundabout on the road out of the town towards Tan Tan plage and Laayoune). I arrived at Tan-Tan beach and found a campsite with well equipped bungalows for only 100 dirham a night. I decided that I would stay here for a couple of nights. After 3 days of hard riding I reckon I’ve deserved a rest. Tan Tan is the last big town before I enter the disputed territory of Western Sahara, where I have heard there is a large military presence. From here I’m only 3 days ride from the border so I can afford to relax a little. As nice as the bungalows at the campsite are, the restaurant is very over priced. I went for a wander down the beach and found a cafe on the beach run by a Moroccan guy called Simo. Simo speaks excellent English and sent me in the direction of good local-priced restaurants. I went back to the cafe after it had closed to hang out and play guitar with his friends. One guy, Hamed, plays the guitar very well and I loved hearing his Moroccan tunes.
I did sod all (non-UK readers, sod all = nothing) the next day. It was still very windy and I was quite happy to just sit around watching movies on my laptop.. I went back to Simo’s cafe in the evening. Everyone was watching Morocco play Cameroon in the LG Africa cup. I walked in just as Morocco equalised, with everyone jumping up and cheering. I kicked everyones arse on the pool table. Undefeated in about 10 games. The boys were getting quite frustrated because it was obvious that I wasn’t a good player and all my pots were lucky shots. I stuck around after the cafe closed to chat with Simo and Hamed. They are very proud of Morocco (did you know that Morocco is the largest exporter of Phosphorus?) and Hamed was explaining to me why he loves the small town life in Tan tan Plage, making good use of the miles of coast for surfing, fishing and chilling with his friends.
I had a late start the next day. My next destination, Laayoune was just under 300 kms from Tan Tan so I reckoned that Id be there by 1 pm if I set off at ten. As it happened I didn’t get there till half two. As I was coming up to a town, I saw a German guy I met in Simo’s cafe who is traveling by bicycle so I chilled for lunch with him. I was quite enjoying the desert coastline but he was understandably bored with it. I’m envious of the lower weight that cycle tourers carry, but not envious of the 20 kmh average speed.
Laayoune is quite a big place and I went off to try and find some oil for the motorbike chain before finding a place to camp. I tried several petrol stations and a couple of auto part shops with no luck. I went down a street that had a motorbike workshop, but I don’t think the lads working there understood me cos they got all excited when they thought I wanted them to fit a new chain. I went into another shop and the guy was trying to sell me engine oil which I already had and was only planning to use as a last resort. Like Tan Tan, Laayoune also has a port on the beach, and I decided to wild camp on the beach for a night, since I hadn’t done any wild camping in Morocco yet and encouraged by the German cyclist who has been wild camping almost very night for the last 4 months. As I was riding along a saw a sandy area that was partly obscured from the road by a small sand dune. There was also a wrecked ship just off the beach making it too interesting for me not to camp there.
I did a U-turn and slowly rode onto a track in the sand. The track split and as I took the left track the front wheel slipped and I stacked it into the sand. I tried to pick the bike up but I couldn’t get it past 40 degrees off the floor without the sand giving way under my feet. I took all the luggage off and was able to get it upright although I somehow managed to crack my windshield doing so. Will cover it in gaffer tape tomorrow before heading off. I also noticed today that my odometer (mileage counter) is broken. Not a major problem but annoying as I’ll have to get into guesstimating distances for oil changes and fuel consumption. Anyway, after picking the bike up and dragging it back through the sand (which was also a physical pain), a guy in a Mercedes pulled up and asked if I needed any help. I told him I was fine and he produced a plastic bottle full of Johnnie Walker and fixed me a drink. I don’t think he had seen me drop the bike, but it was just what I needed. I decided to walk the bike to where I wanted it to be. I was completely knackered at this point and stinking of sweat. I started to put my tent up when I found out that the sand was only and inch deep before hitting rock. Enough sand to plant my bike into the floor and slip under my feet but not enough to put a tent! After all that effort and hassle I was determined to set up my camp and I ended up holding the tent in place with rocks. I wandered up to have a look at the ship wreck when a guy camp out of a little building nearby. Turns out he is a solider guarding the coast and he told me that i can’t camp there. I reasoned with him that it was too late for me to move on and that I would leave super early in the morning. He let me off and even came over to chat later on, not that we could really understand each other. I have been listening French lessons while riding. I know its a distraction but there is sod all on these desert roads. The odd camel here and there but you can see them a mile off. Still after an hour or so, my ears start to ache from the headphones being pushed in by the helmet. Then the worst bit, taking the helmet off really hurts and you know its going to. Its why I don’t listen to music while motorway riding back home, but I really need to learn French asap so I will suffer the pain until I find time to listen to the MP3s off the bike.
I slept well with the sound of crashing waves drowning out any cars or tucks passing by. I was up before sunrise and packed my stuff. The tent was soaking with condensation and it was a pain to pack it with the sand sticking to it. I rode about 100 miles before I stopped at Boujdour and had breakfast of a coffee and a cake before hitting the last 350 km to Dakhla. There were many checkpoints on the way and I was a bit intimidated following my run in from the other day, but most of the police were super friendly and it was fun chatting to them. It was a long ride. At some points I could see miles and miles of coastline with nobody on it. Other bits just looked like desert but I could still smell the sea air. The view of the Dakhla peninsula was stunning as I rode towards it.
I pulled over to take a photo and stacked the bike again in the soft sand. This time I managed to pick it up with out taking the bags off though. I had a little ride around the town and then went to look for a place to stay. There was a couple of public beaches on the way in that looked quite nice but I really wanted somewhere with power and WiFi so I could update the blog and charge my batteries. I went to one campsite and got a cheap room. After unloading the bike I found out that the electricity for the rooms came from a generator that only comes on after 7. So much for charging anything, and there was no WiFi. As I unloaded the bike, I noticed that one of the ‘lifetime luggage’ panniers that my friend Jon had kindly lent to me had started to fall apart. I compared their weights and found out that it was much heavy than the other. Who knows how this happened, but I wasn’t going to ride on without doing some sort of repair. Its always frustrating when things go wrong so early into the trip, but I guess repairing stuff constantly is part of the overland motorbiking experience and the sooner I get used to it the better. The lid had come off a jar of apricot marmalade in the other bag and I emptied the waterproof bag looking for my thread which had gone missing so all my things ended up scattered all over the floor of my room. I went into the town to get some thread, engine oil and something to eat. I needed some cash too and I went to use the ATM. The bastard machine ate my card. I tried to call the bank in UK but they were shut. I got back to the campsite and had a few beers with an English biker I had met. Bob has traveled through Mauritania and Senegal several times. It was interesting listening to his stories and I got to prepare myself for the experience of trying to get through the Senegalese border. I’ve heard that it is such a pain in the arse that I’m going to consider crossing the border elsewhere. I’ve heard that there is another border that is less of a pain so I’m going to try to find it. Also I heard from a few French people at the campsite who have traveled through Mauritania lots of times, that there is very little to see outside the capitol and that I can do it all in a few days. Bob was impressed the kit I’m carrying, but reckoned I had too much stuff and we had a huge debate over their relative merits. We ended up agreeing that no matter what you have it is the journey that matters and that you shouldn’t obsess about it too much. Another two bikers on BMWs with UK plates came to stay. I met them in the morning as they were heading off to the border. The guys much more stuff than me, which helped reassure me that I hadn’t gone too nuts with packing. We swapped numbers and are planning to meet up for a beer in Nouakchot. I’ve been to the bank and got my ATM card back (phew – their machine was eating everyone’s card last night) and now I’m chilling for the rest of the day preparing myself to head off to Mauritania tomorrow.
P.S Its becoming a real problem to find WiFi to keep this blog going. I’m going to keep writing it but I’ll have to include photos as and when I can get a good internet connection. I’m currently in a posh hotel using their WiFi and having a couple of expensive cold beers.