Joined: Aug 2009
Chap 5: Not my eyes!
Chap 5: Not my eyes!
What's that saying everyone has on their mugs now? 'Keep calm and have a cupcake'? My pre-trip research had drawn my attention to the sad story of two Portuguese motorcyclists, who had died on their Morrocan adventure 2 months earlier. They'd been riding about an hour from where I was now.
Whilst I had no cupcakes, I did still have a tin of 'estofado' and some muslei bars from the supermarket in Tarifa, along with at least 2L of water. It was now in the 'cool' of night (30 degrees qualifies as cool out there), and the bike had half a tank of gas, all my camping gear and a working GPS. 30 km of what I assumed was flat desert lay between me and my destination, which I figured I could cross as the crow flies. So I wasn't in any real danger – I just didn't want to get locked out of my hotel.
All hopes of straight-line navigation, however, were blown away as fast as my tire traks. The plain was far from featureless. In some places the sand had blown away to reveal fields of ruts and jagged rock which proved intolerable for my stock suspension. Gentle flats would abruptly end in long-since-dry river beds with steep entries, steeper exits, and a lot of soft sand in between. Everywhere, the hard-packed sandy gravel would give way to pockets of deep, soft grit, throwing the front end wide as it sapped the the power from the spinning touring tires. In the day, with better tires and less weight, I imagine the varied terrain would be a hoot. But at 10:30pm, running on three crackers for dinner, with little more than 20m of headlight before the next surprise, the going was getting arduous.
To make matters worse, I'd never really ridden in desert sand before. On this unfamiliar bike in deep, soft drifts, I just wasn't picking it up. The smooth power kept the back controlled, and 'Weight back, power through' was working on the straight bits. But there just wasn't enough kick to lift the front when it dug wide. Whether it was the suspension, the luggage, or (most likely) my own ineptitude, steering with the pegs couldn't reign in that free-spirited front wheel. By my third off in the deep sand, this time straight over the bars at 50kph, I realized the 30km to Merzouga could take much longer than I'd thought.
I had several back-up lodgings, but they were little more than arbitrary co-ordinates scrounged from forums, scattered along the fringes of the dunes. I dug the GPS out from where it lay buried in the sand, still attached to the bars. As I panned the map about, I realized what went wrong. Had I not been in such a hurry to leave the bustle of Arfoud, I would have realized the turn-off I wanted was further south. The main highway then doubled back east to Merzouga, on the western edge of the dunes. But the road I'd taken tried to 'cut the corner', going south east, straight to the town. Marked rather prematurely as completed, it certainly looked shorter on the GPS, but it wasn't the route I'd originally entered. At some point in the day (probably when my batteries last conked out), my SD card, along with ALL my waypoints and routes, had been wiped. The unit had defaulted to the shortest route it could find to the town center, and I was now in the no-mans-land north of the dunes, literally on a road to nowhere.
It was at this moment that four days of dawn-to-dusk riding, jetlag, skipping lunch and 30-plus degree heat caught up with me, in the form of a whopping dizzy spell, an overwhelming desire to nap, and a headache that came on so fast, for a moment I honestly thought my head was swelling in my helmet. 30Km isn't far, but it was late, the going was slow, and there was no denying it: I was shattered. I thought over my options: backtrack, push on south and try to find the highway and hope to stumble across a place to stay, or pitch camp here. As I wondered whether my tent was in the pannier buried under the sand, I suddenly realized I'd bought along much of my research on my phone, and there was a good chance some of the articles had the waypoints I needed. And so, in a truly surreal gen-y moment, I sat upon my upturned motorcycle in the sands of the Sahara, helmet and goggles still on, and started playing with my phone.
As my thumbs tapped across the screens between gulps of water, the wind died down, the sands settled, and for the first time I could see the plain around me. A blue-grey martian landscape cast long, low shadows in the moonlight, the vague silhouettes of the Atlas mountains far to the north, and to the south....a single, faint point of light. Exhaustion evaporated. Thumbs danced across glowing screens as heavy eyes squinted. Sands swelled and sunk as tired arms heaved. A cough became a roar, and with a fountain of orange grit, I pointed south to the string of numbers I now knew as Kasbah Yasmina.
The first sign of civilization was the corrugated road I went right over. The second was the beaten metal signs, in English, that I almost ran into. One light became two, then four, as the ruts shook me to bits and the sand drifts made me long for the the ruts. I wasn't expecting much when I got there - a few mud huts and a tap maybe. But as the lights grew closer still, I couldn't believe what they revealed.
It was a palace, styled after the Moorish forts that dotted this country a thousand years ago, although they probably didn't have swimming pools. I rode in through the gates, parked in front of the largest building and slouched into the lobby. The neat robed man who greeted me spoke good English, and wore surprise and concern openly on his face.
“You were riding out there, in the storm?”
“Yea, I got a little lost. I was trying to get to Merzouga.”
“Ah, you took the Arfoud road! It is not yet finished, you see?”
I told him I did see. My requests about a bed and a meal were met with emphatic reassurances, and insisting that I pay in the morning, he led me to the empty dining room, where I was given a deceptively large entree of amazing bruschetta, followed by an equally impressive (in size and flavor) plate of koftas. As I ate, I talked with the two waiting staff, both of whom had little else to do, and lounged on cushions watching “How I met your Mother” on a laptop. My original host bought me a two litre bottle of water, and much to their amusement, I downed half of it in a single swig.
“So you are English, yes?”
“No, Australian actually”
The obligatory impersonations of kangaroos were performed, then one inquired where I'd stayed in Morocco so far, and whether their country was living up to my expectations.
“Well, I stayed in Chefchaouen last night, and it was fantastic”
Incredulity spread across his face. “You came from Chefchaouen? All in today? No no, it is too far, you make a mistake?”
“Blue city, up in the mountains, lots of cats?”
They seemed convinced, and quite impressed. “ I have never before heard someone go that far so fast. And how long?” asked my host.
I said about ten hours, and they all nodded appreciatively.“I am thinking you are very lucky to make it here, my friend. You look very thirsty, very tired” he chuckled.
“Yeah, I figured all the hotels would be closed, I was about to get out my tent”
“Oh no no no, you cannot camp out there,” chimed in one of the others, “You will be hit by truck!”
That hadn't occurred to me.
“Yes, yes, you are very lucky you find us here. Just over there, is Algeria. If you ride there, the army, they catch you, shoot you, pull out your eyes!” said my host emphatically.
I started to laugh, but it was met in triplicate with humorless faces etched with concern. I learned a lot in that conversation over dinner. There are dozens of these desert palaces scattered around the dunes, all for rich western tourists to relax in comfort with an African icon on their doorstep. They're fed by generators and underground springs, and the staff learn English and travel from all over Morocco to live and work here and send money home. But the one overarching theme was that Algeria is a very bad place. The border between the two has been closed for many years, it seems in both the cultural and geographical sense.
I bade goodnight to the staff, and as I sat alone in the dining room, gathering up my things and listening to the chef clean up in the kitchen, I caught a flash of color in its doorway. A very beautiful face with long black hair and almond eyes, framed in a bright red silk hood, looked out from behind a fridge. Morocco is one of the more progressive Islamic nations, and so far I'd seen plenty of women out and about, many even wearing western clothing. But I still wasn't sure what the rules were. So when I waved, gave a smile and said “shukran”, I was glad I got a smile and a wave back. Then she was gone.
The room was modern, enormous and air conditioned (even if a wobbly shower-head belied a slightly lax construction code). With my phone on charge, I slipped into my swimming undies and made for the pool. As I soaked away my headache, I struggled to comprehend just how bizarre it was, to be in the swimming pool of what was arguably a four star hotel, here in the middle of the desert. It was certainly not what I'd been imagining as I sat in the sand three hours before. Part of me almost wished it wasn't here - I felt like I was cheating. Oh well. Maybe it would seem less surreal in the morning light.