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Old 04-02-2015, 01:38 AM   #1
Tim Cullis OP
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Location: London, Granada Altiplano and Morocco
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Morocco: slave labour camps, fossils and wild desert flowers

I didn't get around to writing up my last two big trips in Morocco, so here goes for the Jan/Feb 2015 trip covering four weeks and 7,800 km.

Basic plan
As always I did lots of planning in the months leading up to the trip, saving information about interesting places that I could potentially visit, looking at possible off-tarmac routes with Google Earth, and then finally putting together a master plan—which of course I didn't really follow.

I wanted to spend more time in Oriental Morocco (far east near the Algerian border), to explore more of the Rekkam Plateau. I was interested in the Oujda to Bouarfa railway line built in the 1930s and early 1940s by the French. The northern section was completed before World War II, but the southern section was developed by the Vicky French government using what can only be termed slave labour. The Sultan of Morocco protected the Moroccan Jews from the French in WWII but about 4,000 Jews who had fled to France from Germany and Eastern Europe ended up as slave labourers, together with some of the 300,000 Spanish republicans who left Spain after Franco's Nationalists won the civil war.

Given the time of year I would then concentrate on the (hopefully) warmer south. I planned to spend more time developing my sand riding skills—or lack thereof—in the Merzouga - Zagora - Mhamid - Foum Zguid cross-country traverses, revisit 'The Mummy' film set, locate more French Foreign legion forts, find additional fossil sites (orthoceras, trilobite, dinosaur) and so on. I also had a vague hankering to revisit the northern part of Western Sahara.

So how did I get on?

Why Morocco in the winter?
I get quite low in the winter months. November and December aren't so bad as it's just the beginning of winter and there's Christmas to look forward to, but January and February are dire and spring seems so far away. So I try to get away somewhere where there's loads of sunshine to blast into my brain. India is brilliant, but Morocco is a lot nearer, and we now have a cave house in the Spanish mountains in the Altiplano de Granada so access is easy.

Saying goodbye to the family, I flew British Airways from London City to Granada, took the airport bus into Granada then a rural bus to Castril where a friend collected me and took me to our cave. When I left the cave in November I had kept the windows open to keep it aired (there’s security shutters and iron bars on the windows) but despite it being 6ºC in late afternoon the cave was 13ºC thanks to the warmth of the rocks all around.



In its wisdom the British government decided to stop giving winter fuel allowances to expats living in Spain, but not everyone is experiencing mild winters—our cave in the Altiplano de Granada is at 960m above sea level and many nights have been below zero, even to the extent that the swimming pool froze over.

Getting the bike prepped
I liberated the KTM 690 Enduro R from its chains, dusted it off and started to get things ready. The bike needed a service so that occupied a couple of days riding the 230km over to Cartageña, checking into a hotel, putting the bike into the dealer first thing the next morning, then riding back home. The labour element of servicing costs are really low in Spain and with the weakness of the euro it's a great place to buy a bike.



I've had some real problems in the past mending punctures on my XT660Z Ténéré which has very deep tubeless-style rims. The 690 R has easier rims, but nevertheless I've recently become quite apprehensive about riding solo off-tarmac in remote areas. So I ordered some Michelin Desert tyres and Bib mousses shipped over from the UK. Looking just like a blown up inner tube mousses are made from butyl honeycomb foam with nitrogen-filled cells.



Mousses are known to be difficult to fit, so I had also ordered a Rabaconda mousse changing machine from Finland, a wonderful device which packs away into a carrying case.



Peter Buitelaar of Bikershome fame (who has a cave 40 minutes to the east of us) came over with wife Zineb and daughter Selma to help my friend and I with the fitting. The Rabaconda is optimistically called the '3-minute mousse changer'. It might have helped had Peter and I had read the instructions or watched the explanatory video beforehand, but men don't do that sort of thing and the quickest we managed was 30 minutes.



Luis Oliveira shows how to do it in just 44 seconds!

When fitted the mousses are the equivalent of running a tubed tyre at slightly low pressure. The real advantage is that they can't puncture, so there's no need for me to carry four tyre levers, two spare inner tubes, an electric tyre inflator, bead buddy, valve puller and bike stand. Michelin says not to exceed 130 kph (80 mph) but I rarely exceed 100 kph anyway as I'm focused on saving my tyre tread for the tracks.



My lightweight bike stand from Endurostar in the States.

Morocco can be cold at altitude so I fitted a controller to the bike for my Gerbing electrically heated under-jacket, and also some handlebar muffs to prevent my hands from freezing in the wind chill. Finally, a KTM 'touring windscreen' which is better than nothing, but really needs to be twice the height that it is.

Apart from these changes the bike is fairly standard. I have a Wings exhaust, not because I like the louder noise, but because the standard KTM exhaust runs so hot my Enduristan roll bag is in danger of melting. I have a small Enduristan tank bag and Metal Mule aluminium panniers. I've been using the Metal Mule pannier system for many years on various bikes and they take a lot of punishment.

Some people prefer soft luggage but when travelling solo I need to ensure my important stuff is safe when I leave the bike and explore places on foot. All the gear is totally waterproof in case of accidents during river crossings, a lesson learnt the hard way (haha).

.

For higher resolution photographs check out the original postings at the Morocco Knowledgebase
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Old 04-02-2015, 01:43 AM   #2
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Solar gain and wind chill
One of the best expressions to describe the Moroccan climate is that it is a 'cold country with a hot sun', so if there's no sun, especially in winter, it can be cold. Before leaving southern Spain I did some experiments to see how solar gain helped the impression of temperature. We have a wireless internal/external temperature station at the cave and I moved the outside sensor from the shade, where it registered just 2ºC, to the sun and found it increased to 12ºC. This is for a white sensor, in the Spanish winter sun. Obviously a black sensor in the summer sun would be far greater gain.

Against the effect of solar gain is wind chill, basically the same effect you see every day when you cool a cup of coffee by blowing over the surface. According to academic research, sitting on an exposed motorbike at 80 kph (50 mph) in 10ºC temperature feels like -3ºC. And at 5ºC it feels like -11ºC. Obviously then a high touring screen would be a good investment and it's a pity the KTM version is not high enough.

Does solar gain help obviate windchill? If you are riding south into the sun, you might hope the +10ºC temperature, lowered to -3ºC by the windchill will be lifted to +7ºC by solar gain, but I think most of the benefits are lost to the front of the body. Without a decent windscreen the wind blast doesn't allow the heat to build on the clothing. However, if you're riding north with the sun on your back, things are different—you really notice the solar gain and you can be in a weird 'Goldilocks' situation where your back is too hot and your front too cold.

Another part of the comfort equation is 'lapse rate', the cooling effect of increased altitude. In a dry climate you generally expect the temperature to drop by 0.5ºC for every 100m of altitude, and the first part of my tour was in Maroc Oriental province with altitudes of around 1200-1500m.

Setting off for Africa
The weather in Spain was generally sunny but pretty cold. Already I was getting over one and a half more daylight hours than in London. With the different time zones, sunrise was half an hour later than London, but the sun was setting a whole two hours later.



Snow fell on a couple of days (pic above is the track from the cave) and I spent several days watching the weather forecasts for Almería (the port to Africa), and a few places in Morocco, looking for a consistent break in the weather. Finally I decided and booked the overnight ferry to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in north-east Morocco.



My route for the first 24 hours. Rather than crossing the relative narrow Strait of Gibraltar the Almería ferry crosses to north eastern Morocco.



Ready for the off! A trial pack of the bike and short test ride the afternoon before leaving.



(Yes, I know the gravel needs weeding!)

With the frost the next morning I wasn't so sure, but I set out at lunch time for Almería.

I was worried about the cold and had three layers on my legs and five layers on top, one of which was the heated jacket. I felt rather like Bibendum, the Michelin man. I got to Almería before sunset, went shopping in Decathlon for last minute stuff (Jetboil canisters), then killed time having some my last lagers for a month and tapas before boarding the ferry.



Leaving Almería

I've done this eastern route four times now. If carrying camping gear then the cheapest crossing involves buying a recliner seat for the ferry, and sleeping on the floor using a sleeping mat (all the lounge seats have hard dividers to prevent people using them). I wasn't carrying camping gear, so I booked a cabin for the crossing. This is a bit pricy for just one person, but shared between two would be good value. I once booked a bunk in a shared four-person cabin and had to listen to two of the other three snoring all night long. Never again.

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Old 04-02-2015, 01:45 AM   #3
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Melilla to Oujda
Melilla is still part of Spain, so once ashore you navigate to the border crossing at Beni Enzal. I headed into Melilla first to fill up with fuel and take a look around the old fort, by which time dawn was breaking over the boat I had arrived on.



I then had a couple of coffees, in the hope the queues at the border would then have died down. Some hope! Beni Enzal is probably the worst place to enter Morocco and I think next trip I will take the daytime sailing from Almería to Nador—Nador is mainland Morocco so police control will be done on the boat and everything should be quicker.

Travelling south east, I had planned to head for the mountains around Berkane but saw the low snow line and decided to hug the coast to Saidia instead. Saidia was to have been a fabulous Mediterranean resort designed to attract European holidaymakers looking for a beach resort. Instead it stalled, and the few developments that have been completed have mainly been sold to Moroccans who only visit in the summer, so it's a bit of a ghost town.

Marjane, the Moroccan hypermarket chain, has a supermarket in Saidia. Marjane is controlled by one of the Moroccan King's holding companies, so he was probably instrumental in deciding to 'support' the resort in this manner. In the last year the Marjane chain has decided to stop selling alcohol, and I thought it would be interesting to check if this also applied to the Saidia branch.

The answer was yes. So here we have a development intended to attract European sun worshippers and you can't even buy a bottle of wine at the supermarket—what chance of recovery?



I headed south, passing through a narrow gorge where, either side of a small river are two roads, one in Morocco, the other in Algeria. There's a stopping place either side of the border where people take photos with the other country in the background—the green flags in the photo above are Algeria. This is as close as most Moroccans get to Algeria. It's a great shame the land border is closed, if you want to visit you either have to fly in or arrive by ferry.



But I did go and take a look at a couple of other closed border crossings. The first, above, is at Ahfir. And yes, photos are not permitted.



Then just north of Oujda I did a diversion to the Zouj Beghal crossing point to Algeria. Lots of signs not to take photographs, and guards watching me, so I took a photo instead of the go-cart track that is situated right on the border.



Health and Safety in Oujda!

My first night in Morocco was at Hotel Al Hanna in Oujda which cost 100 dh/night with secure parking another 10 dh.

Oujda is a very pleasant university city which is the capital of the Maroc Oriental region. If you are suffering from tourist hassle, Oujda is the place to head for—everyone practically ignores you. But if you ask for directions, people couldn't be more helpful. Most of the people I met spoke English.



It was Oujda where I first noticed the enhanced security presence over previous visits, with six policemen guarding the Catholic Cathedral of St Louis (above). Personally I like seeing policemen and security forces out on the street in Morocco. By mixing with the population I think they have a good idea who the 'naughty' guys are, and are able to keep an eye on them.

By comparison I rarely see policemen patrolling on foot in London. When I do, they are invariably in pairs, deep in conversation and totally oblivious to what's going on around them...



Map of the route to Oujda plus the following day's route to Ain Beni Mathar. The black line running north-south at the right of the map is the Algerian border.

.

For higher resolution photographs and maps check out the original postings at the Morocco Knowledgebase
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Old 04-02-2015, 02:09 AM   #4
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Mobile phones and Internet in Morocco
One of my first jobs in Oujda was to get a Moroccan SIM for my iPhone so I could use data services on the move.

For most people there's little need to get a local SIM card in Morocco. Many of the cafes have free wifi (pronounced wee'fee) and with my iPhone I can use Apple's Facetime to video call the family and use Whatsapp to send text messages. Neither of these require a local SIM.

If you want to use Google maps you can store the maps that you are interested in on your phone by typing 'ok maps' into Google maps and adjusting the area you want to store. There's a limit as to how big an area you can store, but you can store multiple maps. When you are away from a wifi signal the phone uses its built-in GPS receiver to work out your location and display it on the locally-stored map.

Other popular smartphone apps are MotionX-GPS and TopoProfiler, the latter being particularly useful if you are a cyclist concerned with steep climbs.

Unfortunately you can't store Google Maps satellite views locally on a smartphone, so I wanted a data connection in order to interrogate satellite views whilst in the middle of nowhere. Mobile and 3G coverage in Morocco is extremely good—it helps that such a high proportion of the population lives in rural areas as it means the telecoms companies have installed masts all over the place. The main operators in Morocco are Maroc Telecom and Inwi and as I knew where the Maroc Telecom office was in Oujda, that's who I went with. All the assistants in the Maroc Telecom office spoke English and when we were trying to sort the inevitable problems, it turned out most of the other customers also spoke good English. I can't remember exactly how much I paid for a month of unlimited data, something like 150 dh.

South to Touissite and the Tiouli rail tunnel
I had intended to stop two nights in Oujda to give me time to sort the data SIM but it was quickly resolved, so I decided to head on. I had some difficulty finding unleaded fuel in Oujda, and eventually filled up with high octane. The most boring way to travel south from Oujda would be on the main N17 road, so I decided instead to explore side roads. I headed south east from Oujda firstly to Sidi Yahia Oasis, then on the P6025 to Touissite which has some interesting lead mines that have been in operation since the 1920s.



On the way I came within 500m of the Algerian border again. It seems when France decided the border line, Algeria was given the high ground. In this blown up image you can see the pink Moroccan guard post severely overlooked by the white Algerian post on the top of the mountain.



From Toussite I headed south west towards Tiouli and as the rail line approached the road I went over it and headed north for a couple of km on a rough track to see the tunnel which, according to the sign, was constructed in 1930.



The Oriental Desert Express special train runs on this line once or twice each year



Though there's sometimes problems with sand further south... More photos



Not bad for a low-light snap taken with an iPhone?

I used my iPhone 6 for all the still photography with an HDR (high dynamic range) setting that gives a balanced exposure for both highlights and shadows. None of the photos are retouched in any way, the winter sky really is that blue!

What's great is that the iPhone stores the GPS location of each shot with the photo, so when I upload them to the Macbook I get a little map showing where each photo was taken. No need to write down locations anymore.

Some of the videos later in this report were also taken with the iPhone, but mostly I used a helmet-mounted GoPro Hero with the zoom set to normal rather than the wide angle that most people use.



Most of this region is higher 1000m above sea level, and is described as "Siberian" in the winter time. Yup.

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Old 04-02-2015, 02:25 AM   #5
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Jerada coal mine and the Cascades Oued Lhay
I continued west from Tiouli, crossed the N17 and made for Jerada which is a pretty town surrounded by spoil heaps.



The region is rich in high-quality anthracite and I stopped to explore some of the mine areas. The mines are now closed and the official story is that this was due to the high cost of extraction, but others say it was to quash a fledgling trades union. Echoes of Britain in the 1980s?



I had a pretty good idea where the river Lhay waterfalls were (N34 13.534 W2 18.185) but getting to them wasn't straightforward and I eventually had to leave the bike and walk the final stretch over a ploughed field.



A nice place for a paddle and picnic in the summer months.

From here I headed south then east to Ain Beni Mathar.

Unleaded fuel shortage
The price of fuel in Morocco is currently around 9.25 dh/litre for unleaded (65p) and 8.35 dh/litre for diesel (59p). Much further south in Morocco's Western Sahara region the fuel is subsidised at less than 6dh for either type.

When I arrived at Ain Beni Mathar I found that neither of the two fuel stations had unleaded petrol. This was a bit of a problem as I didn't have enough left in the tank to make the next fuel station further south at Tendrara. But in remote areas there's always a stash of fuel somewhere and after asking around I acquired 7 litres of fuel. The going rate for fuel from cans is 15 dh/litre but I don't mind paying that if it gets me out of a bind. And 15dh/litre is still cheaper than the UK!

.

For higher resolution photographs check out the original postings at the Morocco Knowledgebase
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Old 04-02-2015, 02:26 AM   #6
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Old 04-02-2015, 02:35 AM   #7
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Around Ain Beni Mathar
I stayed overnight at Hotel El Gara which was 100dh for a single room. There's a car park opposite with an overnight guardian whom I paid 20 dh. The hotel has wifi but is freezing cold in the winter months so I appreciated extra blankets. In the morning I went to find the railway station and any signs of the Berguent Vichy labour camp.



Ain Beni Mathar station. According to reports the slaves working on the railway lived in holes in the ground off to the right of this photo, but there's no traces as that area has now been built upon with shacks.



Ain Beni Mathar church is now a martial arts centre. Interesting that the cross hasn't been removed.

'Beni' means the people/tribe/descendents (like the Scottish Mac), and the prefix 'Ain' means spring in Arabic, so Ain Beni Mathar equates to the 'Spring of the Mathar people'. The actual spring is known locally as 'Ras el Ma' or 'Head of Water' and I rode around for a while to the west of ABM looking for it before getting bored. Maybe something for another trip...

French Foreign Legion forts
The N17 heading south is the eastern edge of the Rekkam Plateau, a vast off-tarmac playground. I had a waypoint for a French Foreign Legion fort so headed west on a likely looking track. It wasn't at all difficult to find and indeed there's a new tarmac road—not on Google satellite view—that I could have taken most of the way!



An attacker's view of Bordj Oglet Sedra (bordj means fort).



The fort is in a commanding position with great views over the surrounding countryside.



The forts in the Oriental province were probably constructed just after the First World War and were particularly active until the Berber tribes were finally suppressed by the French in the early 1930s.

Leaving the fort, I started south on an almost totally featureless plain. The tracks were faint, but great fun as I could go where I wanted. I had seen a crossroad of tracks on Google satellite view, saved it as a waypoint and was using that as general pointer to direction.



Although the day was beautifully sunny the temperature was low. I normally wear an open face Jet helmet (Caberg Hyper X) when touring Morocco and had combined it with a neoprene face mask. I was also wearing my electrically heated jacket.

Although I didn't have heated hand grips, my hands were warm enough inside the muffs to enable me to just wear very thin inner gloves. With the mix of high atmospheric pressure and cold the ends of my thumbs develop splits in the skin, but I carry micropore tape to address this.



Rekkam Plateau: there is life out here, but not as we know it.



I knew Borj de Trarite Rhars-Allah, another French Foreign Legion Fort, was somewhere in this area but didn't have a waypoint for it. As I drew near to the piste crossroads I had identified earlier I realised the small fort was right at that junction. Which goes to show that the faint tracks I had been following were probably 100 years or more old.

Tendrara to Bouarfa
Tendrara, the next town to the south, didn't have accommodation so I was intending to stop overnight at Bouarfa, however I needed to refuel at Tendrara and headed off cross country. But guess what? When I got to Tendrara the Ziz station didn't have unleaded and asking around didn't produce cans. The only thing for it was to head for Bouarfa on a very light throttle.



But in the meantime I wanted to visit the site of the Vichy Labour Camp that was situated at Tendrara railway stop, a few km to the east of Tendrara town.



It's thought the buildings on the left were for the Moroccan guards, those on the right for the French. The slave labourers lived under canvas. I found this a thoroughly depressing place and I didn't stop long.



I had planned an off tarmac route from Tendrara to Bouarfa (cyan on the map above), but given the likelihood of running out of fuel I carried on slowly south along the N17. Within 7km my fuel light came on which meant I had about 2 litres in the tank. And according to the km marker posts alongside the road, Bouarfa is 70km away. Well, I used every trick I knew and miraculously got there without having to dig out my emergency 1 litre stig bottle of spare fuel. 11.42 litres went into the tank which meant I had about 0.25 litres spare.

I've been carefully tracking the KTM 690 R fuel consumption on Fuelly. As standard the 690 R has a 11.7-litre tank which worries some owners who then add an auxiliary tank. However I've found that at Moroccan speeds I'm easily achieving 26 km/litre which gives me a range of 300 km/200 miles. I need to do something about wind protection for the winter months, but have no plans to add an auxiliary tank.

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Old 04-02-2015, 03:30 AM   #8
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Tim,
Thoroughly interesting thread. I'd be concerned about traveling alone, care to share your thoughts on that ? How are you for supplies in case the bike breaks down? Do you have cell phone service everywhere ?
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Old 04-02-2015, 06:25 AM   #9
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ErikMotoMan: Cellphone coverage is good.

I've ridden solo literally tens of thousands of km off tarmac in Morocco. In some ways it's extremely liberating—I can stop when I want for photos or just drink in the view, don't have to discuss routes with anyone and can go exploring for hours at an end.

I have to admit there have been times when I wished I was with someone else for company, or to help in a difficult spot, but I've progressively moved to smaller lighter bikes which are easier off tarmac. I have a healthy regard for my own safety—there's no 'golden hour' in Morocco, no air ambulances—so I try to be careful and will often stop and walk ahead to check out really difficult spots. Generally speaking I'm riding off tarmac to visit interesting places, not as some form of racing sport, though occasionally I let things rip.

You can never fully anticipate breakdowns. This trip (7,800 km) I checked and oiled the chain most nights, I topped up the engine oil twice, and the second of my mirror stems broke through metal fatigue. I tend to ride very sympathetically, I need the bike to get me home! Simple stuff like chains, bearings, tyres are easily obtained. Anything more technical I suppose would have to be couriered in.

In all my trips I've just got onto the Internet whenever there's a problem and asked for advice. Once someone was on their way down through Spain and brought over what I needed. In 2008 I was stuck in Chefchaouen with a faulty fuel pump controller (1200 GSA) and someone rode over from Meknes with a spare! He arrived three hours later and I was quickly on my way.

There's metal workers in every town who can fabricate lots of things. In my Carry on Dakar! thread from 2006 you can see a crash which broke the plastic pannier mount on a 1150GS.

Three hours of metal work and about £15 ($22) got us a perfect 3D replacement in metal.



Nine years later it's still on my mate's bike—and he's still yet to paint it!

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Old 04-02-2015, 11:30 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim Cullis View Post
[B][COLOR="LemonChiffon"]

If you want to use Google maps you can store the maps that you are interested in on your phone by typing 'ok maps' into Google maps and adjusting the area you want to store. There's a limit as to how big an area you can store, but you can store multiple maps. When you are away from a wifi signal the phone uses its built-in GPS receiver to work out your location and display it on the locally-stored map.
Thats a very good tip...Thanks!!
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Old 04-02-2015, 12:56 PM   #11
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Pretty cool so far...looking forward to more.
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Old 04-02-2015, 01:11 PM   #12
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Great report, fascinating stuff.

Please carry on!
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Old 04-03-2015, 05:23 AM   #13
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Adding maps to the write-ups
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Old 04-03-2015, 05:42 AM   #14
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interesting area of the world.

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Old 04-03-2015, 05:59 AM   #15
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Brilliant report - thanks for sharing.
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