Joined: Aug 2009
Chapter 4: A dune too far.
Chapter 4: A dune too far.
I finished the last chapter after a night in Chefchaouen, so it makes sense that I start waking up there. Breakfast was a rooftop affair, set to a soundtrack of crowing roosters and the call to prayer, with views as exotic as the food.
You won't find any weetbix over here. Breakfast is served late, and consists of warm flatbreads with yoghurts and butter and jam, washed down with sweet mint tea. It's tasty and extremely filling, and I left town feeling that I got good value for my 50 Euros.
The route for that day could be summarized in 3 letters: N13. The N13 is a lumpy highway that bisects the country north-south, running all the way to the deserts of the northern Sahara, near the Algerian border. It's all sealed, but I wanted that. I'd promised myself I wasn't going to to come to Africa without seeing some desert, and I only had 3 more days to get there and back. As much as I wanted to explore the sedate gravel backgrounds that wound their way along the Berber villages, I didn't have time to do both. My destination was Erg Chebbi, one of the larger section of dunes near the town of Merzouga – over 600km away. It was 10am and already about 32 degrees. Today was clearly going to be the marathon stage of the trip, and a test of the F800's cruising capability (and its saddle).
A good ride doesn't always have to be just bulk knee-scraping corners. Sometimes it's the scenery that makes your day. This was one of those rides. Like a living documentary, I watched Morocco roll past. As I wove and bumped my way south, mountains gave way to rolling hills, then pine forests, followed by grasslands and arid plains. Everywhere men squatted in the shade at the roadside (a national African pastime, it seems), some smiling and waving as I passed, others too busy with the toil of the day to waste time on the frivolous gestures for rich tourists. Between towns, women huddled by rough roadside stalls, their colorful hooded robes contrasted against the brown backdrop. Boys with sun-darkened skin and bright white teeth sat sidesaddle atop donkeys that meandered 3-abreast across the road, laughing and chatting and making wheelie gestures as I rode past. The towns were as varied as the countryside . Some were comparably modern burgs with lanes and tarmac and roundabouts. Others, appearing suddenly in the middle of seemingly barren plains, were dusty, chaotic affairs, where the road was any place the squat breeze-block buildings hadn't occupied. 40-year-old Mercedes trucks overtook shiny modern BMWs, both pouring black smoke as they strove to double-park against a donkey and cart, all on the wrong side of the road, outside a shop roasting entire ( I mean entire) goats on the footpath.
Some might say that I shortchanged myself, choosing mileage over meetings. And I see that point. But not knowing the language left my communication options limited, and what I lost in cultural experience, I gained in geographic exposure. The N13 cut a vivid cross section of the country, and all I had to do was watch it roll past.
Donkeys get worked hard in Morocco. Sadly my request for “Un foto” of this fellows' owner was declined. Moroccans aren't big fans of photos.
This hill writing was outside a lot of towns. Prize for the first to translate it.
Yep. Looks legit.
Not sure why he wasn't riding in the front.
Couldn't resist taking the detour to get this shot. These dust devils are frequent in the arid south. Protip: don't ride through them.
By mid afternoon, I was hungry. The great thing about Morocco is the highways are littered with rustic little roadhouses, or 'auberges'. The one I stopped at (a little way south of Azrou_ was a well-kept log cottage staffed by a young guy who greeted me with a friendly “Bonjour” and an open interest in the shiny motorcycle now parked in front of his shop. My chicken kebabs and couscous salad were fantastic, and I was a bit of a spectacle to the other patrons, who were all quite friendly and curious about what I was doing. It was yet another bittersweet moment, where the language barrier stopped me from being able to do more than smile and shrug like a simpleton. When I finally picked a bit of Spanish out of the mix, I was able to tell them I was headed to Merzouga, which seemed to surprise them, and I knew why.
I'd been mulling it over as I ate my lunch: it was 4pm, and I had over 300 km to go. It had taken nearly 6 hours to cover much the same distance, and I really didn't know anything about road ahead. The sensible option seemed obvious: concede I couldn't make the dunes, stop here and have a relaxing return journey with more time to explore. So naturally, I finished my Coke, set my GPS for Merzourga and buttoned down for the long ride south. Fuck sensible; I wanted to see some desert.
I wish I'd marked a waypoint for this place. The atmosphere, despite seeming more appropriate for Europe, was as nice as the food. Which was pretty bloody good.
As I went to throw my leg over the bike, I heard someone call out from the door. It was the young publican, with the same friendly smile on his face. Out he strode, and extended his hand, speaking for the first time in English.
“Nice to be meet you! Good Luck!”
I shook his hand and gave the best reply I could come up with.
“Merci, et toi!”
I rode off, sincerely wishing I had taken the time to learn more French.
Ahead loomed the High Atlas Mountains. Traffic thinned and road conditions improved as I shot across the rocky plain. I have to say at this point the F800 did disappoint me a little. The previous 6 hours of potholed and rippled tarmac had been slow by necessity – whilst the suspension did well enough in most situations, I really felt the bigger bumps at speed. But now the smooth roads were back, I was missing the big lazy thump of my 950 twin (Actually, I was just missing my 950 in general). The F800 seemed a little more strained than it should have above 120kph, the steering became a little light and the wind blast a little strong. More importantly, I couldn't wheelie in second! Not by any means a serious issue, and the saddle was still keeping me happy well into the 7 hour mark, but it just wasn't what I was used to for high speed cruising, and I really needed to do a bit of that right now. Of course, I forgot all about that once I entered the mountains.
Dark cloud loomed over the baking rock peaks, contradicting my expectations of the desert as they draped tendrils of rain over the moonscape, evaporating before they hit the ground. The road itself was a double edged sword – smooth sweeping bends, each with an equally random chance of sporting the oil slick that would kill you. If Moroccans maintained their cars a little better, this would be a fast, beautiful riding road. As it is, it's a death trap, with many car wrecks scattered at the roadside to remind you. On my half-'n-half tires and with the sun already set in the valleys, I took no risks, and no photos. After an hour I had wound my way between the jagged teeth of the northern mountains, crossed the sparsely populated central plateau, and descended through the table-tops of the southern ranges into a second sunset over an eerily green lake. As I rolled down into town, my fuel gauge flashed on the bottom bar - it had been 340 km since I last filled the 16L tank. It was here I realized the big strength of this Rotax engine. I know my 950 would have needed another 6L to get that far, and only if I had nursed it.
I watched the sun set and took what I thought would be my last photo for the day, as I waited in line at a grubby petrol station outside Errachidia. With 130km to go, I had some crackers for dinner and set off to do exactly what everyone had warned me not to do: ride a motorcycle in Africa at night.
By the time I made this stop, my pockets were so full of change I sounded like a tambourine. A 20 dirham (~$2) tip to the fuel pumper always got a big smile and a pat on the shoulder.
Whilst it was harder to see (owing to the Moroccan propensity to 'save electricity' by not using their lights), the traffic by night didn't change much. This wasn't really a good thing. Trucks, tractors and pedestrians would wait in the middle of the highway in a slow-moving reverse-ambush, and the no-holds-barred traffic in these rural desert towns was hard enough to deal with when you could see them coming. Africa comes alive in the cool of the night, and in towns, the poorly-lit streets are just as packed with cars as they are with pedestrians, bikes, scooters and donkeys, all shrouded in a haze of woodsmoke and dust. By the time I made my way through the bustle of Arfoud to what I thought I was my turn-off, I was well keen to just get the hell out of there. My GPS said I was on-route, so when the street became an alley, and then narrow road lined with construction signs in Arabic, I didn't give much thought to turning back.
The road was good, but for the first time, it was totally deserted. I figured that out here, a paved road must surely lead to a town. I pushed on, anxiously ticking off the kilometers to the hotel I had marked as a destination. The infinite velvet darkness of the surrounding plain was cut only by the now seemingly very small cone of my headlight, illuminating that comforting strip of asphalt. A hot night wind picked up a sandstorm that swirled in my headlights, shrinking that little cone of comfort and forcing my goggles back on. The going was slow and the atmosphere tense, with the silhouettes of the dunes creeping onto the road in deep drifts. At 40km to go, the tarmac ran out, becoming a rough, horribly rutted gravel road that looked more like the foundations of a highway, only buried in sand. Before long, the earthworks came to an end, replaced by a faint set of car tracks, in an otherwise smooth plain. Then without warning, the single track became many, starbursting off in all directions, each no more than a pair of slight indentations in the sand. Before I had a chance to slow and even think about choosing one, I was past the mark, into soft the sand, and on my side.
Getting back upright and moving took a bit of time with all the luggage and the 50/50 tires. I turned around to follow my tracks back to the junction, but they were gone, covered by the same sand filling my goggles. I cut a few widening loops, trying to find hard ground again, but it was all a featureless plain now. It as 10pm. The tarmac was miles back, now also likely swallowed by sand. I killed the engine, stopped, and took a good deep breath. The silence was broken only by the sound of wind on my helmet, the darkness around as featureless as the seemimgly tiny wedge of illuminated sand in front. As I pawed at my GPS trying to find a road or town I could set as a new reference, I noticed the label Garmin had automatically printed on this section of the map: Sahara Desert.
I had arrived.