Chap 6: Charity
The night air had at last taken a turn for the cooler, and so I slept on the roof (quite common in these parts). I didn't fall asleep until late, but some primal instinct woke me before dawn. As the light slowly bled into the sky, washing away the luminous mural of stars, the monochrome moonscape flushed with pastel pinks and purples, the ominous black silhouettes of the dunes slowly defining themselves against the paling sky. Then, as if by a switch, the first rays crested the rocky horizon to splash upon the sands, unveiling their enormity no more than a stones' throw from where I lay, the blue sky stark against their bright orange flanks - a herald of the heat that would soon overwhelm the lingering cool of night.
Nothing breaks the heat of the Sahara quite like....a morning swim??
Ships of the Desert.
Breakfast was another affair of breads and yogurts, and as I enjoyed my 3rd glass of mint tea a column of camels wound their way out from the base of the dunes, carrying the tourists who had chosen to camp there for the night. As the robed staff led the camels off to be watered, I chatted with two young American girls about their night under the stars, and decided that before I left, I had to go and see some of these dunes close up. I didn't even bother considering the bike – I knew with my lack of talent, its luggage and tires, I would be faster on foot. With a bottle of water and a pair of Volleys, I hopped down from the terrace and started off along the camel tracks, the somewhat alarmed faces of the Americans following me.
It wasn't until after I lost count of the dunes I had passed that I realized just how disorientating the Erg can be. The dry sand flows like water in the wind, and your tracks are soon gone once out of your sight. With no points of reference other than the golden waves looming over you, losing your way is very easy. An hour had past, but the sand, sapping the strength from each step, had let me cover no more than what I estimated to be a few kilometers. I was well out of sight of the hotel, so I decided to make for a high point and find my way back. The ascent up the dunes was arduous, sand slipping away almost as far as each step took you, but it was worth it for the view.
One Shoe to rule them all...
Where the heck am I?
Rivers of sand.
The hills in the distance mark the Algerian border.
The hotel, and behind it the plain from the previous night. The water pipeline is visible in the left foreground, and the Atlas mountains in the background.
I stumbled across this on the way back – as far as I could tell, it was the staffs' quarters.
Sightseeing done, I indulged in a glorious tumble off the side of the dune, cradling my poor DSLR as I barrel-rolled a good, gritty hundred meters, down into what appeared to be the water bore for my hotel. The pipeline made for an easy path back to civilization, where I surprised the American girls mid-breakfast by accidentally clambering back onto the terrace right next to their table. I paid a very resonable 500 dirham (~45 euro) bill for my stay, bade a grateful farewell to my hosts, and set off back into the rocky plain that had caused me so much strife the night before.
But in the daylight the trials became trivial, and I was quickly enjoying myslef, scooting along off-piste, blowing through lumps of sand with ease, no I could see where to go. I quickly found a piste, and then the tarmac, and before I knew it, I was cruising through the frontier towns I'd ignored the night before, stopping between the sweeping corners to take photos of the lush green rivers that wound along the otherwise desolate valleys.
Much easier by day.
Arfoud was much less busy buy day than it was by night. Possibly because of the 37 degree heat.
The contrast of the river valley oases to the otherwise totally barren desert plain was stark.
Entering the Atlas Plateau. The road was spectacular, but I was wondering what could explain those curious slanted strata in the rock (I'm thinking ancient seabed?).
The heat was up in the high 30's, but not overly bothersome in its own right. My pace was the problem - I was not drinking enough, and dehydration hit me hard by mid morning. Stopping at a roadside stall for a 50c bottle of 2L chilled water, I drew a laugh from a few locals by once again emptying it in single long draught. But half-an-hour down the road, I was still feeling light-headed and ill. I'd drained a further liter from my camelback too, and being no stranger to hot conditions, I was quick to recognize the problem. Water alone is not enough in heat like this – copious sweating was leeching my body of electrolytes. A 10 minute break in the shade of my bike, and 2 oral rehydrate electrolyte sachets, and the improvement was remarkable. But it was a sharp warning – I was pushing my limits, and it wasn't yet even lunch.
Truth was, I was still shattered. It was day five, and I was averaging around 10 hours riding to 5 hours sleep a day, skipping meals along the way to do so. I set myself a revised destination with an early arrival – Fez. Headache gone, I began to enjoy the sweeping bends that climbed their way back into the Atlas Mountains, and just as I scraped my footpeg for the first time that day, paradox struck. The cloud became deep and dark, and then opened, pouring thick, heavy rain onto the desert floor. Torrents of muddy water washed over the poorly-drained road, but the wave of cool, tangy air was a welcome relief. 'Florence and The Machine' blaring in my helmet, I happily splashed my way through the paradoxical desert storm.
The rain was not without its victims.
Not game to overtake on the wet, blind curves, I stopped briefly on the northern edge of the Atlas', allowing the slow moving traffic to creep down the last set of switchbacks. As I surveyed the vast plain below, two ragged, wet beggars, one with a grubby baby in a shawl on her back, climbed down the embankment and walked over, hands out imploringly. The small change in my pocket satisfied them, and they retreated to situpon some muddy rocks nearby, seemingly resigned to the rain. I looked around for their camp, first amidst the scrubby hills, and then out on the mile upon mile of plain in front of me. But I saw nothing, nothing but sand and rock. I'm not a father, and the last Moroccan beggar I'd encountered, I'd almost punched in the face. But this was not Tangier. This was, as close as I could tell, the middle of nowhere. I was suddenly and acutely aware of the vast gulf of wealth between me and this thin, sodden, young mother, as vast as the plain that stood before my feet. All I could think about was that I was wearing enough money to probably feed her child for a year.
Still garbed in my goggled stormtrooper outfit, I beckoned to her and after some reluctance, she rose and walked over. I fished out a 50 dirham note - as much as my last restaurant meal cost me, and easily 20 times the change I'd just given her. Surprise flashed over her face, then a thin, strong hand shot out from her shawl and snatched the note, only to return just as fast, palm up and waving, demanding more. No word of thanks, or even acknowledgement, this hand was quickly joined by her companion's, both eagerly and unashamedly seeking more of the charity I could clearly afford to give. I shook my head to let them know I would give no more, and returned do my bike, not sure what to think. They didn't follow, but simply returned to their spot in the mud. Climbing once again onto my shiny new BMW, packing my expensive DLSR into my warm, dry Gortex jacket, I found it very easy to forgive their greed, if you could really call it that. Could I? The ride back down onto the plain was lost, spent deep in introspection.