Wednesday, 30 September 2009

She Says – Major Border Crossing No.1!

26-30 September
Well it’s been my turn to be laid out with the nasty diarrhoea bug, and I’ve been unwell for just on 4 days now. I wasn’t feeling quite right when we left Laayoune, but thought I was just tired. It was a long trip to Dakhla, about 500km travel of nothing too exciting, although just outside Laayoune there were gorgeous dunescapes as far as you could see, including several lagoons, and sporadic dunescapes along the way. Otherwise it was dull hamada, with occasional cool rock formations and glimpses of dramatic cliffs on the coastline and more dried riverbeds. We kept ourselves occupied with a new game of ‘guess the movie’ (‘eye-spy’ gets boring after you’ve gone through road-sky-desert a few times…). Dakhla itself is at the end of a 40km peninsula, with huge beaches and crusted dunes lining the thin road down. That’s about all I can say about it, as I didn’t see anything else! I was feeling rough just as we arrived, Xander did all the hotel checking for us, got recommended a place that was really good with a garage (Hotel Taroudant, only 150 dirham, about 15 euro) and I wasn’t inside for long before I was sick for the first time, and spent the rest of the night running back and forth from the toilet for one reason or another. I spent all the next day in bed and slowly felt better the day after, before having a relapse after an excursion outside for a cup of mint tea. Was it the tea? Well, it made my tummy upset, but I don’t know. It’s pretty strong stuff, brewed for hours it seems and then heavily sweetened. We both thought the sweetness would be good, but I guess the tannins weren’t! Xander forced me to drink rehydration fluid to start with, which just made me feel worse; once I stopped that I was fine until yesterday afternoon. I’ve lost of couple of unwanted kilos picked up during the trip, but I can’t say I recommend the bread, water and diarrhoea diet to anyone :-(

The day we left Dakhla, we were supposed to be going just to the border. We got an early start and I was feeling better, although I felt exhausted when we got up. We had a choice of stopping 80km from the border at a hotel, or camping at a border fort. We decided to push on for the border and got there just after 12pm for lunch. By this stage I was feeling rough again, my tummy had been unsettled all day, but now I was not feeling great. We persevered, expecting border issues to take only 2 hours at most – the whole thing took around 4 hours! Procedures on the Moroccan side were the most time consuming, with Xander running to various offices of police and customs for a variety of stamps and writing of passport details, plus completing an exit form for the bike. I hovered around the bike, feeling less than great. Then our luggage was checked, not thoroughly but we had to open all 3 big boxes for checking - a nuisance but easy enough. Then a confusing policeman asked if we had drugs and we thought he said medicine, but he actually asked if we had any munitions! We were in the process of saying yes to medicine till we all realised the mistake! He just moved on after we said no. We packed up and got ready to leave, after checking that we could change money on the Mauritanian side (there were no change bureaus here, I guess because it is illegal to take Mauritanian money out of the country), but we also knew we could do black exchange in No Man’s Land. We tried to leave but were pulled over to check that our passports had been stamped out – OK, fine, but then we were pulled over AGAIN to enter our passport details in a book all over again!

Finally, we headed for the border. We had read conflicting information on how to go about the crossing, of most concern being exactly how long was the rough track through No Man’s Land between the two borders! We had decided that the best information said it was 5km (not 50!), which was correct, but it was no simple track. There are actually many diverting tracks that all eventually meet up and/or reach the Mauri border, but it was somewhat disconcerting as this is minefield country! We had heard stories of people hitting mines when they had strayed too far from the tracks; however, the tracks are pretty obvious so you go where others have gone and don’t blow up!!! The track varied from once-paved to solid rough rock to sand pits, and we got severely bogged at one point in a very short section of deep sand. Luckily, dropping the luggage off and a bit of wiggling and kicking sand under the rear tyre got us out. We got on OK after that, taking around 45 minutes for the whole trip. We were approached by a couple of cars for money exchange, though most were just sitting inside the Moroccan border. No hassle, no threat, though the number of trashed car bodies around the area was disturbing! We’ve heard the cities of Mauritania are bad for car theft, and had to wonder if this is where all the stolen cars end up…We finally reached the Mauritanian border and it was closed! We had to wait some time before they finally opened everything up again; by this stage it was about 4pm. They very much wanted to deal with the man only, but while Xander had to go deal with formalities, I kept getting chatted to, including one official who seemed convinced that Xander wasn’t my husband even after my persistent statements that I was married! Maybe it had to do with my uncovered hair, although I had kept my jacket on to cover my t-shirt. We got through formalities fairly easily with the help of a money changer, who I’m not convinced wanted money for all his help, just to change our money at the end. It helped to have someone guide Xander this time, as the customs office was just a timber hut with no signs on it, at the end of the line of money changers – we would have had trouble working it out for ourselves! Xander had to pay a ‘present’ to the gendarmerie to enter our details into their book, there was no question that we had to pay and we had had warning from our guide book, so Xander paid it – it was only 10 dirham (about 1 euro) but I’m not convinced we couldn’t have got out of it. From there it was customs, where we got our carnet stamped for the first time (with many more to come!) and also had to pay a fee (not a present this time so seemed more legit but…), then to buy compulsory insurance, and finally our friendly money changer changed our money. We had stocked up big on dirham in Morocco as ATMs are not common in Mauritania, so we’re pretty set now I think!

We travelled on to Nouadhibou about an hour away, at the end of another long peninsula with lots of sand dunes. We had planned at least 2 nights’ stay here, but will stay at least one more night to make sure I’m better. I was feeling better after the Mauri border, but then Xander was feeling unwell again! He’s recovered, I’ve been ill for the last two days, but now I’m just tired and bored and depressed mostly. I’ve been trying to push through the nausea and dizziness for the last few hours to get moving and get over it!!!

He Says – Jumpin’ the gun one more time.


I woke up at about 3 am. Nervous and itching to go. We had been sitting around for 3 days, the entire time me thinking about a 400km ride with bandits, no fuel and no water. On a bike that seems not to be living up to its reputation. In all fairness Anubis is fine, but after three days of sitting there worrying about Tam, the mind start coming up with things.. the speedo may not a be a broken cable (yet we know it is cus I have had the 2 pieces in my hand) the squeaky noise may not just be the faring (yet I know it is cus I can stop it by resting my hand on it). This is the problem with idleness you have nothing to do but come up with the worst possible scenario.

I let Tam sleep as long as I could then I packed the bike letting her just sit there nursing a dry and stale bit of baguette. By 8am I was packed and ready to go, it took Tam about 30 min more to get ready but we were on the road early. Dakla is big enough that I did no worry and jump in to the first petrol station I saw. But then I did not see any more so of course I jumped in the very next one I saw. This turned out to be the right decision because in the first 80k there was only one more. We hit the road prepared for being stopped every 50m like the day before, and had 10 pre-filled fiches ready. The first check- point we did come to seemed to recognise us and asked only if we had registered in that check point a couple of days a go. As we had we were sent on our way in seconds. We only hit one more all day and they only did a cursory glance at us. So much for all the work Tam did filling in the fiches.

The ride was actually quite easy, there was fuel and water available about every 100k (give or take 50k) and the road for the most part was in good condition. The landscape went from true Sahara, to rocky desert to sandy beach, to the oddest moonscape you have ever seen. There was a ½ metre of rocky crust that was under pinned by sand and when the sand was blown away it would collapse. This made for a series of “bad land tables” that were unnervingly close to the road. It was also a little disturbing that in many ways the road we were riding on was the same and you could see that in the not to distant future some of the road would fall to the same fate.

We made it to Barbara’s at about 1130h, both feeling quite good, in a spur of the moment decision we decided to go for it and get to Mauritania today. 80k later we pulled up to the border.

Now hungry we stopped for some lunch of stale bread and tuna, well the very idea of this turned me off of the food so I simply drank a coke. Refreshed we headed to the customs gate. Tam was feeling off. For some reason we did not even discuss leaving it day and headed in. The Moroccan border was slow. They take your passport, go hide in an office for 20 min call you and ask all the same questions that we have been asked a million times, and then point you to the next window, about 1 1/2 hours of little hassle but lost of standing around later, we though we were done. During this time we met a couple of British women, one in a 4x4 the other a large lorry delivering housing material to a charity in Mali. They knew the deal and were a bit faster then us. They offered to drive Tam across the no-man’s-land but I refused. Besides we had just found out that we now had to go through the military check point as well. Luckily this did not take long. While I was dealing with this Tam asked around to see where we could exchange our Durhams to Oogs, and we were told no-man’s-land is best or in Mauritania. We both thought it was illegal to bring out Durhams but as this was the official’s advice so I guess not.

Finally we were done. We drove out of the custom compound to ”no-man’s-land” and in to a sea of car carcases, landmines (no-joke), and black market money (and anything else) sellers. We passed by the black market and headed in to the rough track. It was bumpy and slow going, but we were doing okay, well that was until I chose the wrong side of the track and instead of getting though I bogged Anubis to the bash plate.

Tam was feeling very ill by this stage and was not happy about the delay, and we started to have one of the (more rare but) legendary “your not listening to me” fights. We got out by brute force and continued on. The track in ”no-man’s-land” is not really a track but a series of them, there is not one clear route so you kinda just have to pick your path at every turn. At one point the choice was up and over the hill or around it, up and over was obviously the shorter route, but something told me that if the other one exists then the up and over must be hard. We took the around the hill route. Except for one small back tracking at this point it all went smoothly. When we finally came around the other side of the hill I was proven to be correct, the British women were stuck on the hill. Well the lory was. As I pulled up to the side of the track on to see if they were in trouble I saw then drive off in their 4x4 (presumably to get help for the lorry). I had to decide then if I should try to help as well. Tam was increasingly feeling ill, and there was no clear (mine free) path to them, I would have to go all the way back. This would risk a bogging of our own. I am sorry to say that I decided on self-preservations and did not go back to help. I knew that they would get what they needed as there were too many able bodies around for them not to. For them it was a matter of time (and possibly money) for me it was a risk and a sick Tam. Only a few minutes later, as our speed and confidence grew on the track we reached the paved section of the Mauritanian border. The no-mans land was not 50k or even 5k but an easy 2.3k.

The border was closed. There where people milling around but nothing was happening. If we were the only ones I would have been worried but a few Mauritanians were there too and did not seem concerned. We waited there for almost an hour before they let us in one at a time. By this stage Tam was like a wilting flower and I was kind of worried. I kept asking her if I should just ask them to let her sit out of the sun but she refused. We got to the military checkpoint and they took the same details that the Moroccans did but they did not want the fiche I handed them. It was Moroccan! “phaaaaah”. Oh well more work for them, paper work completed I was told to give them a “present of 1€” (by them).. yeah some present. I explained that I had no euros and they told me the durhams, dollars anything is fine and had the prices for all of them.
As I was leaving I saw the two British vehicles arrive, my conscience was cleared of worry. I may not have made the nice choice but I think the right one (for us).

Once that was done we some how got in to the clutches of a tout. It happened so quickly that at first I did not even see it. However, in this case I think it was worth it. He cut me though the lines at the police check point. Where I went up with both passports and was told to “call over your woman” (Tam was guarding the bike and trying to be well). That check went smooth and no issues and no bribes.

I then had to go get the Carnet Du passage signed and sealed and if it where not for the tout I would never have guessed that the plank shanty shed was the official customs office. The tout, once again, brought me to the front of the line, and the paper work was take from me immediately and filled out immediately. I may have missed out of a cup of tea, but Tam was standing in the sun by the bike. However, she no longer looked green just a shade of grey. Here I was told the price for the carnet was 100 durhams I am not sure if this was another bribe or if it was legit but paid it anyway.

The tout then hustled me in to the insurance office, where I had to buy Mauritanian insurance this turned out to be cheaper then I thought it should be, but he only accepted Oogs. Well as luck would have it our tout friend just happened to be an official exchange officer,,, wow no kidding, what stroke of luck (yeah right!!).. None the less he actually gave me a good rate and I exchanged all the money we had. The insurance office was also a good place to do the exchange too, the border post was a very windy place and I ended up getting 91,400 Oogs, so a lot of paper and much easier to count in an office, then in the windy street.

We were done in less then an hour, and it was all done correctly. We were now free agents again. I did tip the tout 200 Oogs (about 0.75€), I think he did actually speed the process up believe it or not.

He Says - Dakla, 4 walls and a grey girl

26 -30 Sept 09

We woke early and got read to go we knew it was going to be a long arduous ride and were ready for it. Well kinda, okay I was not at all but it had to be done and Tam can’t ride the bike. I had to be readyish.

We got on the road by 0900h and by 1000h we had cut off 100km. We had also been stopped 3 times by the cops. It was going to be a tedious day too. In truth the ride was much easier then I thought it would be. In total we only got stopped 6 times and 2 were just passing stops.

The scenery was stunning the beaches, the cliffs, the sand dunes; all amazing. So far Western Sahara is the best part of Morocco I cant believe that it is the untouristed part of the county. It is the only part that I would like to come back to. All was not roses though. We stopped for lunch at a place with no name sign or other markings, bought a couple of Fantas and ate our ham(ish) (cus pork is not eaten here) and cheese sandwiches, but no sooner did we finish did Tam say she was not well. Like trooper she got back on the bike and I heard no more about it until Dakla.

The view and the new road game we came up with was enough to make the final 300km only drag by. We arrived in Dakla to the most unfriendly cop pull over.. He took our passports took the data off them and then through them on the table and that was it. ALL the others were at least polite if not chatty (too chatty mostly). We stopped in the campground were we planned on staying and found out that the cost was going to be 100dh per night and it was 7k out of town. We decided to look in town at cheep hotels first then decide. On route in some kids started throwing rock at us. It was enough to make me fall back in to the anger that I was feeling in M’hamid and Zagora. The cheapest hotels were in town clean and 80dh but no parking (so cheaper then camping). We looked at one that was cheaper still and would try to get the bike in the front door. But there was no way it would fit besides it was a little dirty. But the owner suggested an other place and we decided to look. We did think though that it would be well out of our price range. Tam was feeling very unwell at this point so I was doing the entire running around. We easily found the suggested hotel. It looked nice, I left Tam out front to nurse her belly and I investigated.

The rooms were stunning and were the same price as camping. Private bath added 50dh, and they have a locked garage. I was sold only question was do we need a private bath. I went out to talk to Tam to see her dutifully defending Anubis from a retarded man who was harmlessly poking every button he could find (good thing he did not find the 268db horn button!!). Tam however brave, was grey.. private bath it was. We parked the bike, and moved into the room, thrilled at the price. Tam was now a nice shade of green, in the next few hours she started to have diarrhoea and vomiting.

She took the drugs she had purchased for me, but they seemed to help little. I went out to get her something light for dinner (which I ate for breakfast the next day). I ate my dinner alone in a little fish shop, I was never hassled, or begged from. We were both in bed by 1900h.

Tam ended up having a rough night, worse then I did a few nights earlier. She was alternating between bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting. I got up early and unsuccessfully ran some errands. It was Sunday, and the next day we were to head for the border.

I am worried. It is about 350k ok for fuel but leaves us with little to spare to get anywhere in Mauritania. We have read lots of conflicting reports about how safe it is, how easy it it, if it is a paved road or not, the one section we know is not paved we don’t know if it is 50km, 5km or as little as 1km. The track could be really bad to Tassie dirt road. We just don’t know. As Ted Simon once said it is harder to contemplate doing something then actually do it. So far this has been mostly true. With the exception of the N12 road just ending , it was scarier to contemplate then do it.

Well a day later and we have not moved at all. In fact Tam has not moved more then a few meters in the last 72 hours. She has gotten over her bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting but it has left her weak and tired. Every time she got out of bed, she felt sick and had to lie back down. I have walked around Dakla a couple of times and there is very little of interest here. Although there is some big kite-surfing championships going on I think that they are being held away from the city as I cannot find it. As a general rule Western Sahara is a nice, place although I know I have been charged tourist prices a few times. One guy added up the bill in French and then add a few dh like I would not notice the cheeky bastard then ran a round the corner and asked me for money to help his family.

It is sad but I did not regret leaving Morocco. I have found it hard work. The people can be extremely nice but their constant vying for money (with out working for it) had really ruined this place for me. It has tainted the beauty of the landscape and the culture. The constant buzzing in my face has changed my initial opinion, I can not say that they are not a friendly people only a people that will do anything for your money. They lie, cheat and likely steal (although this has not happened to us). The country itself is stunning and I wish I could see more of the landscape, and maybe I will one day but at this point I am looking forward to heading to a place that is less touristed and more real. The big cites like Marrakech have a Disneyland like ambiance to them, e.g not the real Morocco just a play to encourage the tourists. Rabat did not care if we where there or not only that we got out of their car’s way. The smaller towns were a mix of both nice and dirty, and it only seemed like the time of day depended on if you were to get hassled or not. It appears to me that like so many developing countries Moroccans want the what the Europeans have and they want it now, and not work for it. They are building new building all the time and yet neglect the nice ones that exist. The park across the street from where I typed this is full of benches (~20) all but 3 are broken. There seems to be an attitude of buy, build it, but never maintain it. This is evident in almost everything, many buildings are built then finished in a shabby manner (e.g. as much paint on the floor as the wall), cars are bough and at most maintained to keep on the road but basically wrecked, sticker are printed for cars (or bike panniers) that last a week and houses that were once stunning are falling to bits. Most houses are only painted on the front the sides and rear are exposed brick and often unfinished. A big TV, a big car and a tiny mobile phone are the most important things to the new Moroccan.

But the worst thing about morocco is that sometimes, people come up to you with the only intention of being nice and helpful, but the touts and beggars have rubbed you so raw that you physically flinch at their approach, your knee jerk reaction is “no go away, I’ll not pay you”. But the person is only trying to be nice and help. I have been rude to several people under these circumstances, for that I am sorry. I am sorry to that 0.00001% or your population, which are these good people. To the rest of you money-grubbing rude greedy bastards, you will have to answer to your god one day.

I know I keep quoting him but Ted Simon was once ask was he ever disappointed in anywhere he travelled, he replied “I never go anywhere with expectations so I am never disappointed”. Well I came here with expectations. Expectations of legendary hospitality, of clean Islamic living, of tea served at the drop of a hat, of the Sahara, and of a people that lived to a code of honour. We have seen many of these in Tunisia, so I know they exist, but the influx of the tourist euro has forever tainted Morocco. My expectations were not met and I was disappointed. Maybe next time I will be the smarter one and see the next country with open eyes and not with almost impossible expectations for it to live up to.

Friday, 25 September 2009

He Says – FREE Western Sahara!

25 September 09

Tan-tan was a long ride but not too bad. The drugs had worked, I was not in any danger. On the route to Laayoune, it was the Police and National Guard that are the flys. We were stopped at checkpoints that seemed to be every 2k. At one point there was a National security check point and 50m (no exaggeration) further down the road a police one, they asked the same questions and wanted the same paper work. We were lucky that we had several copies of our passports. As such we never handed over the real thing and they never were able to ask for anything to give it back. I lost count how many times we were actually stopped during the 300km trip each check point taking about 5 or so minutes, it was more trying then the ride.

Once in Laayoune, it felt like I just entered Bagdad, there are solders, cops and UN patrols everywhere. The place has really odd feeling at first, but then you realise that it is a joke. The people of Western Sahara are nicer then Moroccans, and they do not expect to be paid for everything. They also hate being called Moroccans. One tout in approached us in two days, he say what he did, we said no thanks so he said cool. He than chatted with us for a little while never mentioning guiding again, then he went on his way. We did get some begging from children. But all in all it is a much nicer place.

We decided, on a whim, to try and get some little thank you cars (Card du Visitants) made up. Paul and Renata suggested it and we felt like it may be good idea.
So I quickly banged one together on the computer and we went in search of a printer. We popped in to a photolab and he told us where to go and did not even as for money!! We went to the place he sent us and found out that yes they could do it but not in the formate I made up. So we headed back to the hotel to get what we needed. On route, we stopped in a fish restaurant and had lunch. It was in the lonely planet but for once I think that improved the place it was amazing. It was the best meal that I have had (out side home cooked at Biker’shome) since leaving the EU. This was also the first meal that did not jump directly on the Marrakech express in 3-4 days (if you understand).

We relaxed a bit at the hotel and at about 3, although I was exhausted, we headed back to the shop. We got there about 1525h, and it was closed but there was a line of people in front so we waited. 5 min later it was open and the photographer was really excited to see us. With lots of laughing and miscommunications we got our cards ready, it was fun. In the end they had a lot of fun too and wanted a couple of cards to keep for themselves as well as a couple of actual photos of us. They printed 4 extra cards 2 for them and a bonus two for us. It was exhausting for me, but then my stamina has suffered from 4 days of eating but not digesting anything. Tam was so chuffed it was great. We did some chores and had small dinner. Tomorrow was the 530km ride to Dakhla.

She Says – Laid-back Laayoune

23-25 September
In Tan Tan, poor Xander came down really badly with a diarrhoea bug, the worst I’ve ever seen. We spent two nights letting him get better before pushing on to Laayoune yesterday. The hotel was good, very relaxed, and with satellite TV we did lots of movie watching on the dedicated English movie channel! I took some of my first forays out on my own, which all went fine and I did not get hassled. My terrible French and useful phrasebook even managed to get me through purchasing anti-diarrhoea drugs and rehydration salts!

Traffic since leaving Tiznit has been easy, there are few vehicles on the road and it is easy to overtake if anything is going slow. The scenery has not been incredibly exciting, but not as bad as I was expecting – the guidebook describes it as many hours of endless hamada (stony desert). There were lots of dunes before Laayoune, some excellent looking coastline and massive beaches that went on forever, plus dried river valleys to cross. In some areas there were sand dunes that have sat so long their tops have become crusted, this only being obvious where the crusts have broken through. All the way from Tan Tan, there have been fishermen’s huts perched on top of the tall sea cliffs. It looks like there would be great exploring to be done around here, with hardly anyone else around to bother you – nice change from Morocco!

We’re now in Laayoune and there is a decidedly different air here. No hassle, only a few kids asked for money and one guy asked if we wanted guide, and people are very friendly. It’s full of soldiers and police, and several UN vehicles have congregated at one nearby hotel (guidebook notes many places are booked out by UN!). We found a decent hotel, same price as listed in our guidebook from about 6 years ago. We have a nice clean room, one of the best we’ve had in Morocco, even if we have separate beds. We were able to park the bike underneath in a room full of remnant plaster decorations! No extra charge for parking for once, which made a nice change. Xander is feeling a lot better, though he’s very tired, but at least he seems to be over the worst part of this bug.

Today, we got our ‘thank you/here’s our blog & email address’ cards made up, amazing! We spoke to a photolab who told us where we could get it done. We were happy when we walked in and found business cards on display! They couldn’t read the Word document Xander had drawn up, so we came back to the hotel, grabbed the computer and took it back to the photolab to show them! They got the idea and in the end Xander ended up using Photoshop on their computer to sort it out. We stocked up on passport photos while we were there because they were cheap and we are going to need some for every country we enter now. The photolab staff seemed to find us amusing for our attempts at French, with their bits of English mixed in, and in the end asked for 2 copies of our card to display in the shop, and the guys who helped us get everything sorted got a photo with us! Very amusing. We now have a stack of 100 lovely photo-quality business cards, using the picture taken of us at Tinfou Dunes, that cost only 100 dirham (less than 10 euros). Nice one!

In the meantime, I have completely unpacked all our gear and am trying to work on complete list of all the gear we have with us to eventually post on the blog. We also need to sort out packages to send home plus the thankyou gift to the lovely Alison and Andy in Spain to encourage them to come here! We didn’t have time to get to the big post office in the end (small one nearby doesn’t do overseas post), so have to hope we can do it in Dakhla, although it’s now the weekend and maybe they won’t deal with overseas posting either.

We got some internet work done, first time we’ve paid for internet since we started the trip! Our readings had us concerned about the Mauritania border crossing, saying there was 50km of difficult road ahead. We confirmed on the HUBB and the Sahara Overland website that it should only be about 5km of rough road, so we hope all goes OK! We’re getting into the territory of less available electronic money now, so while we have a stock of US dollars and euros to get us through, I’m worrying it’s enough. According to our guidebook, Mauri and certain other countries don’t have a lot of ATM access. We’ve been reading ahead to work out our route through western Africa, and have been having some doubts about doing the whole trip overland due to some problem areas, e.g. Nigeria. We are wondering whether to ship the bike to southern Africa and just skip the problem areas to save us hassle. We will have to see how things go! So far, Mauri sounds like a right pain in the backside, with constant police checks (going to have to get even more passport copies!), plus it doesn’t sound like there is a lot to see or do very easily, either because of difficult road access or police checks and having to hand over an itinerary for approval to go to outer areas! We are likely to spend less than 2 weeks in Mauri, just long enough to get our Mali visas in the capital and maybe look at one other smaller city.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

He Says – The city that wasn’t and the end of days.

22-24 September 09

Spending only one night in Tiznit, we decided that we maybe able to rescues a few days and by heading back inland we maybe able to see some rock carvings. We got about120km in to the ride when my speedo cable snapped. I pulled it off the bike and hoped that welding or soldering the two bits together would fix it. We went to the local mechanic and explained what we wanted.

He was unconvinced, but tried any way. He was a nice old guy that was impressed with his first attempt, as was I but upon trying it. It failed. He tried again with little more success, although this time rerouting the cable. At the end we gave up, I asked him how much and he said nothing because it did not work. Wow if only all mechanics were that way. I said no we will pay you, you tried hard. The first Moroccan that knows the value of good work. 50 durhams later, and we decided to set off as he asked us to stay for food. We politely refused, as I needed to think about what to do. Besides my stomach was not a happy thing.

We went to café drank a coke for medicinal purposes (Tam ha a fanta cus she likes it) and decided at lest for now just to use the GPS as the speedo and tacho. We road hard and made it to Tan-tan.

Tan-tan was the city that was not, we road in. We went directly to a hotel that was suggested to us by the HUBB and GPS and was nice and had parking. We parked the bike went to the room, relaxed for an hour or so. I dragged my sorry ass off the bed and went to get a pizza. Inside the pizza place the flies buzzing all around were actual flies, and it was a pleasant change. After all you are allowed, even encouraged to kill them!

The pizza was okay, my belly was not happy. I barely got back to the hotel. Only then did we realise that we left the medical bag (with the anti-diarrhoea meds) on the bike in the locked garage and the key was way at the moment (moment being all night). By morning I was very sick, I was unable to sleep. Luckily we were finally able to get the drugs but they did not seem to be working. Tam went out and bought me different drugs. I spent the day watching TV and polluting the local water supply. The hotel got satellite TV that had one channel that played English movies all day long. I saw nothing of that town. Tan –Tan was also our last stop in Morocco the rest is Western Sahara.

Two days later on the way our out of Tan-Tan we road to a round-a-bout with a stop sign, and as I sat there stopped, trying to figure out which way to go we were almost rear ended by a Mercedes. 5 metres later as I pulled out of the round-a-bout I was pulled over for failure to stop at a stop sign. Before I could argue he point out the sign in question and sure enough I did not stop. Hey I did not even see it. I said as much to him apologised but got a 100dh ticket. Bugger but it was a fair bust and they where friendly enough about it.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

She Says – Thwarted once again!

22 September
I should have just given up. Apparently destiny just wasn’t on our side and we were not to salvage this part of the trip! We headed off reasonably early towards Ait Herbil, location of some cave paintings I wanted to see. We were not far out of a small town by around 11am, when Xander suddenly realised that the trip computer was no longer giving us readings for speed and distance travelled - unlike the usual multiple 8s when it breaks down, which it has done continually since England, this time we were getting nothing at all. By the time we reached the town, Xander had realised that the odometer wasn’t working either, so it meant a major problem. Without the odometer, we have no way of knowing how far we have travelled on a tank of fuel and therefore when we would need to fill up. Crucial problem! Xander was still not feeling well as he didn’t sleep all night, had a low fever and felt awful all night, but he was better after getting going this morning. So we stopped and he poked around to see if the cable for the speedometer had become disconnected – no, worse than that, the damn thing had snapped!

Somehow, Xander remembered seeing a sign for a mechanic as we entered town, so we drove back to see if the cable could be welded together to provide a fix, even if it was temporary. Over the next hour or so, the mechanic tried twice to join the cable, with it working both times but breaking after only 100m or so test drive. After the second time we gave up, but when Xander asked the mechanic how much we should pay him, he shrugged and implied that we didn’t have to pay because he didn’t fix the problem! We insisted and he basically said to pay whatever we wanted (we think! It was all fractured French). Not knowing what was a fair price, we decided on 50 dirham (the cost of a meal of tajine or couscous, less than 5 euros) and he seemed happy but embarrassed by this. We decided we should go back into the town to a restaurant for lunch. I think the mechanic may have asked us to join his family for food, but we didn’t quite catch what he was saying before we geared up, plus Xander felt it would be taking advantage of him if we did. The restaurant we had seen was only serving drinks, so we sat there for a while trying to work out our options for the rest of the day and what to do about the broken speedo cable. Basically, we could stay somewhere and get a new cable shipped, or buy a new trip computer. We both preferred getting a new computer, seeing as the old one obviously has issues and will probably just die anyway, and if paying for expensive shipping it seems better to get something larger! A new computer would be very expensive though. It turns out our GPS has a trip odometer - I can proudly note over 13,000km travelled so far! Combined with the speedometer it has, which we’ve already been using as the bike is in miles per hour and we need to know km/h, this should get us through for the short-term and, most importantly, will enable us to work out when to fill up for fuel.

With these options on our minds, we decided to turn back and head straight to Tan Tan. We realised later we didn’t need to, we could have kept trying to see the rock paintings, but I think we both just got focussed on getting somewhere where deliveries could be made, internet checked out, and where we could base ourselves if that’s what we decided to do. After a disappointing lunch of bread and spreadable cheese (hooray for Laughing Cow!), we banged on to Tan Tan and got here around 5pm. We got stopped at our very first police check – we’ve passed heaps of these while in Morocco, but have always been waved through. Apparently we can expect more of this from now on, as we are about to enter Western Sahara, Morocco’s occupied territory. However, we weren’t prepared this time and had to dig out copies of our passports for the police, as they prefer to take copies and let you move on quickly. We’ve stopped in a hotel that is costing a bit more than we would have hoped, but it is really clean and looked after (a bit unusual so far in Morocco), and the bike is locked in a garage. By this stage, poor Xander was really tired and worn out, so it was the best option for us. While I took care of formalities, Xander got chatting to a few Western-Saharan men, who not only could speak English, but wanted to buy him a drink! They made it very clear they were Western-Saharan, not Moroccan, and their attitude was quite different to other people we’ve met so far. After a rest, we went out for pizza (it was cheap and neither of us felt like a big meal, especially Xander) and got some food for tomorrow - everything was still closed today and we don’t want to risk not finding food tomorrow as we have a 300km ride ahead to Laayoune (if Xander is well enough). The lady at the hotel has been great, very helpful, speaks good English, and helped me get photocopies of our passports. We’ve now got lots of copies, as we’ve been told to expect many more stops in Western Sahara, and if not there, we’ll need them in Mauritania! So much for the few copies we got in Rabat…

We decided over dinner that we would just use the GPS and not buy any parts for now, and have worked out how to calculate distances for individual trips so we can monitor our fuel consumption. If we are able to base ourselves somewhere to get deliveries or if the GPS becomes a problem, then we will get the new trip computer. Please, no more problems?!?! We’re both on the edge of giving up. We don’t want to give up, but it’s getting really frustrating. I have had to remind us a few times lately that the only timelines and deadlines we have are those we give ourselves, so if we need to spend longer anywhere, we just have to do it. Of course, visa durations and living costs restrict us, but it’s fairly straightforward to get visas extensions (I hope!). However, more and more I am thinking we will only be able to get through Africa and not make it to South & Central America. If that happens because of limited money, then we should be able to explore some more of Africa than we have planned, which would not so be bad.

Monday, 21 September 2009

She Says – Party time!

21 September
Yay, Ramadan is over! Not that it has changed much mind you, today everything was closed and it would have been just as hard to get lunch as any other day! We had a really good run from Ouarzazate towards Agadir, turning south before we reached the big city to stop in a smaller town called Tiznit. The route over was brilliant, not too curvy through three mountain passes (a few hairpins on one), and some amazing mountain scenery once again - more contour-patterned mountains, plus a few ksar ruins and small villages, lots of goat and sheep herds, lots of smiles and waves today and not so many kids with hands out for money. Lots of happy people in shiny new clothes, as Eid-el-fitr is like Christmas day for Muslims – everyone gets new clothes and money. It was quite cold through the passes and we spent most of our time above 1500m - that’s higher than Tasmania’s highest mountain and it was all desert! I’ve realised that the main scenery/landscape things I like to see involve good geology, whether an impressive jagged snow peak or a desert badland hill or plain, a rugged coastline or impressive valley, it’s all to do with geology (apart from my love of cold wet rainforests and waterfalls, it all fits!). We even got to see the famous goats-up-trees, just a handful and impossible to photograph (especially as they left when we arrived), but there they were, climbing the argan trees to eat the nuts! It’s a strange thing that occurs only in this region because this is where the trees are grown.

We had lunch not far from Agadir, bought a cold drink and sat out front of a shop to eat to eat the breads we bought yesterday. Once again, a begging man hassled us; I was not facing him, but Xander said he had new clothes on and was asking for everything from money to cigarettes to food and back round again. Maybe the new clothes were for Ramadan, but who knows. Suddenly the shop closed up, the guy disappeared, and the shopkeeper gave us a large bottle of water as he left! Now we’re really confused – was it a random act of generosity? Was it something to do with Ramadan? I had read that they give things away at this time, but Xander thinks maybe it was his way for apologising for the man begging. Who knows, but it leaves us confused, as sometimes we have to be so rude to people hassling us, and other times people just do these nice things out of the blue and don’t want anything in return.

We are camping again tonight, but due to tiredness and being camped right in middle of town we had a restaurant meal for dinner. I can hear loud music nearby, maybe there is an end-of-Ramadan festival going on? Xander is not feeling well and is in bed quite early; it’s his turn for a dose of the Marrakech express, although he has it for real (I wasn’t too bad). We were in bed early last night too, and both had a great night of sleep, although I seem to have been attacked by bed bugs! I don’t understand why last night, it makes more much more sense from place we stayed in Zagora - in fact it was my one big concern there! Maybe they got into our sleeping bag liners.

Now we have reached the west coast and have properly worked out how far we have to travel each day to get to Mauritania, we realised we can spare a few days to try and salvage some part of our trip, and will go to see some of the towns and rock carvings that I wanted to reach yesterday. I’m feeling very disappointed about our trip to Morocco, that 1 month has not been enough to really see anything, that we couldn’t spend time in small villages or go exploring anywhere, that it has mostly been about cities and driving, and it has really frustrated me. I’m very concerned that the few weeks we will be able to spend in each country from now on are just not going to do anything justice, especially when we have to waste time waiting for visas in each country. I’m feeling that it’s just all going to be work, that it really isn’t enjoyable and right now I can’t recommend long-term independent travel to anyone!!!

He says- The piste du Resistance

20-21 September 09

The next day we decided to take our first real piste the N12, it was a major road so we though that although it may be pothole riddened it would be a good safe start. The map showed it as a yellow road (main) and complete. We asked some locals about its condition and all said it was really good. Okay so maybe it would be too easy, but it would save a lot of time. We set out early to avoid the Sahara sun’s heat. The road was easy to find and even sign posted for the town we wanted. We hit the dirt. It was smooth and easy, sure there were some corrugations and some potholes but no worries. In no time flat we were just cruising along.

37.9ks out; it just stoped. Ended without warning. Finished. No more. Thanks for coming. Kaput! There was a ~1km bit of sandy track that we took then nothing. It was just gone! Just a bit of channel where water had once flown. We could have looked for it off piste for a while but that would be just stupid. Alone, with no clue, no support, only a days water and food, and with no one knowing we were out there. We had to turn back, in the end we wasted 3 hours going out there and back to town.

We now have 1800km in go in 10 days before our visas expire, basically the Morocco trip has gone bust, it has become an exercise in frustration.

From Zagora we headed to back to Ouarzazate. This was our “Hotel California” we could check out but we could never leave, we just kept ending up there. It was a tiring day. Tried to get supplies for dinner in Ouarzazate but everything was closed except for the westerns overpriced supermarket. We ended up buying some rice and were over charged for it. My tolerance for Moroccans was now at an end. Although I argued with the man, I got nowhere and stormed out. As I left I told the westerns that were walking in not to go in due to the corruption, he did not listen. We then went back to bakery that we got lunch in a few days earlier, and got some Berber pizzas (these are basically stuffed parathas). That night we camped outside Ait Benhaddou I was exhausted. But started the dalh and rice, but dhal paratha sounded really nice. So we decided on that instead. We knew the dhal we got was the non-fall-apart type, which you have to cook for ~3 hours. So that is what we did. Just as we sat down to eat the manager of the campground camp up with mint tea and flat bread. He shared his final Ramadan break-fast with us. We, in return, share our dalh and bread. I don’t think he liked the dalh at all, couscous and tagine is really all there is for Moroccans. It was really nice of him and reminded me that all Moroccans are not greedy bastards; his one act did more for the country then most of the sights we have seen.

It occurred to me how often and disconcerting it was that Tam and I’s conversations turns to bowel movements and gut health. It is at least once a day if not more. The level of detail that we have started to go into to determine each others health is disturbing. However until it is a crucial plot element, I will save you the reader the same fate.

From there we road to Tisnit. To do this we had to go back the way we came then ride ½ way across the middle of the country, before we could head down to where the N12 should have gone. 1300k.

One wrong choice, e.g not getting the visa in Rabat when we were close, and the last couple of weeks of the trip are bust. We did have the choice either we could take it easy and do a couple of hundred kilometres each day, or push hard and do it in only a few days. Anyway you cut it all we are really doing is heading to Mauritania.

We got to Tisnit in much better time then we thought possible, and found a campground that was central and cheapish. Although once again the bill was fiddled, our tent was charged as a “family” tent as opposed to a tent “individual”. When I complained it was pointed out that individual was for one person.. yeah right.. so that larger 14 person tent over there that could fit 14 of our tents comfortable inside is what then?

We walked around the medina a bit, but my heart is no longer in it. I just cant seem to care about it. The touts are no longer cute and friendly but annoying. I was ready to leave Morocco I was tired of constantly being on guard. We were followed and hassled had stuff shoved in our faces. Shooma! At this stage I had really started to hate Morocco and its people.

We went to a café where I thought I ordered something different then couscous, it turned out to be an overcooked dry hamburger with chips and greenbeen/olive side. We returned to camp by 8 and I went directly to bed, exhausted and my belly was non too happy. I had the Moroccan mush for the rest of the night, I slept for maybe an hour all night.

Morocco is full of flies. Everywhere you go, everywhere you stop someone or something is buzzing in your face or ears. Most of the time it is touts or small children asking for money, or bonbons or it is men trying to tell you that you really want to buy something that you don’t, or the same man lying to you to get you to do something, and when that fails he will just ask for money with his hand out (hat still on head) and eyes wide and sad, it is sometimes just a cat acting like the children but sometimes, just sometimes, it is actually a fly.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

She Says - Thwarted adventures

17-20 September
I just cannot seem to be bothered to write my blog in the last week! It’s not been an easy week, and everything seems an effort, so I guess writing is just one more effort I don’t want to deal with. We’re currently in a campground just outside Ouarzazate (here once again! Xander says it’s like Hotel California for us – ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’), cooking up a very simple meal of dhal (spicy lentil stew) accompanied by yummy Berber pizzas (basically a stuffed bread with minced meat, spring onions, coriander, herbs and spices - very yummy). We realised we weren’t going to get any further than Ouarzazate today and knew there was camping here (Camping Tissa) from Ronald and Nicoline, and when we couldn’t get any vegies or other things to eat, this was it! We can’t even be bothered to make rice, especially seeing as we already had plenty of breads for dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. I’ve just refreshed after a nice cold shower, which, so long as temperatures stay like this, I think I can get used to! The temperature in town at 4pm was reading 30 degrees still, though it feels cooler at camp in the shade with a very stiff breeze.

OK, had to pause for a while there because we decided to get some much needed laundry done and hung up before sunset, and because dinner didn’t need too much watching over - partly because it is dhal and partly because the £$%&&$% stove has blocked up again. We are having constant problems with the stove getting blocked and either burning too hot or too cold, but either way it is creating a lot of soot that makes it very difficult to wash up, particularly as the soot becomes really greasy. While we were washing and hanging clothes, sunset and the final call to end Ramadan for this year took place, and we watched a nice sunset before eating dinner. While we were eating, the campground manager came over and shared some mint tea and pancake-like bread with us. We weren’t able to talk much, enough to say it was good that Ramadan is over and now they can celebrate and be happy, and to note how the wind was not so bad as when we arrived (you can talk about the weather in any language to get through small talk!). This was a delightfully unexpected moment, and next to one other moment today, has restored a little of my faith in Moroccan people, some of which has been taken away in the last few days.

To backtrack, we took an easy last morning in Rabat, nicked more bread/cheese/ham-substance for our lunch, did some more internet work to get better GPS maps for Morocco (should have done it ages ago!), then headed off just after 11am to the Mauritanian embassy. The main reason we moved was that Xander wanted to check what he could on bike, but not in front of the hotel as they might get annoyed. When everything was pulled apart on the footpath, we were a bit concerned someone might think were trying to blow up an embassy though! Xander thought the problem might be anything from a headlight issue (headlight power draw was making the red light appear on the rectifier voltmeter) to the heated handlebar grips (he thought he got electric shocks while driving to Rabat, turns out it was just cramps from driving too long, as the wires were disconnected and he had them again later!). He first swapped the rectifiers, but the voltmeter still indicated we had a problem. By chance, though I know he would have found it eventually, he looked a little further along the wiring to the rectifier, and found that a connecting piece had completely fried! This was the cause of the burning smell, and after removing it and joining the wires directly together instead, the red light was gone. What a relief!!! So that left us waiting for 2 hours outside the embassy, which then opened half an hour late with quite a few people waiting. We chatted with 3 Polish students travelling in two 4x4s that are heading straight to Mali after only a week in Morocco. They had the problem we avoided – no passport, no hotel! They were stuck in their cars last night, after they too couldn’t find the Sale campground. They were very frustrated and have had enough of Morocco already, and have about a month left to go in Mauritania and Mali then back home. Thankfully, all went fine with our visas and we even got the timing we wanted – visa started that day but expiry is 31 October. Not that we want that long in Mauritania, but at least we can choose when to arrive, plus take our time if we have problems or want to stay in Morocco longer. While sorting out this visa has been a complete faff and frustration, we are very glad we did it now; if we had applied any earlier, we wouldn’t have had Ronald’s advice and would have to cut short our stay in Morocco to make the most of the Mauritanian visa.

So we banged back down to Marrakech and it was a fine trip; tiring and not too warm, no more rain, and we felt good about everything. The campground we chose was really good, nice condition, clean, and full of campervans. We got chatting with a lovely French couple travelling in a crazy little Citroen truck-thing that is fully kitted out with bed, shelves, portaloo, and an esky full of liquor! They invited us over for a drink, and between her French, his bad English and our terrible French, we had a great chat! We had a lovely meal of tuna pasta, with the vegies and supplies we bought several days before in Marrakech, but they were still fine. All was good, and we paid only 50 dirham (less than 5 euros) after the last two nights at nearly 100 euros per night!

The next morning, we drove straight down to Zagora, going through the magnificent mountain passes once again to Ouarzazate, which were freezing cold last time but cool and very bright this time. We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate, then on to Zagora through some spectacular mountain and desert scenery, then into the palmeries and broken kasbahs (walled cities/forts) and ksars (smaller forts) of the Draa Valley. Wow! The mountains looked like someone took a contour map and plonked it down on the ground – the hills literally had contour lines! The geology is such that the ground is made up of horizontal layers, and the hills have weathered into points, leaving rings looking like contours or fingerprints going up all the way up. I know I can’t describe it properly, I only hope my snapshots capture it! Imagine a big, layered pastry and the layers are separated by cream. Cut the pastry into slices and let them sit in the sun so the cream melts away. This leaves the pastry jutting out between each layer. That’s the best I can describe it! The palmeries, full of ripening dates, were interspersed with towns and buildings, and the ruins were fantastic, although it is hard to tell what is old or new, what are really the historic parts and not just buildings washed away in the rain! We reached Zagora late enough to be very tired, so didn’t stop to see much along the way, and started looking for a camp. Only camps here are really rooms! Berber-tent style rooms, with a material roof but solid walls and a simple bed. We only checked out two places, but after first place was very welcoming and second was not (he was really rude when we wanted to check out other places!) and more expensive, we went back to Prend Ton Temps (‘Take Your Time’ in French). 80 dirham for a room and 60 dirham each for a lovely three course meal. On top of that, when they broke fast for Ramadan, they invited all guests to join the staff and family for food and tea. They also us as much water as we wanted! It was a very social, brilliant place. Dinner, while served very late, was very good, but too much after ‘breakfast’ so we couldn’t finish all the couscous! We spent time chatting with a Spanish guy heading off on a 6 day camel trek to big sand dunes of Erg Chigaga, organised by the camp. We can’t afford to take a trip like that, either by time or money, but would have loved to. We asked about shorter tours, but decided to head off the next day to see the nearby small dunes and go to the small town M’hamid at the head of the big dunes to see if we could organise a better short trip there.

The day was a hassle from start. There were a lot of annoying kids in the area, begging and hassling us. We reached Tinfou Dunes, which were really good but small and finite. There were a couple of nice guys there, offering camel rides and tents to stay in. They chatted with us and gave very little hassle, even sat by while we ate our breakfast, and took a picture of us in front of the dunes and didn’t ask for money! “It’s OK here, this is not Marrakech!” We take the opportunity to fill with sand the bottle we bought for Alison and Andy, our hosts in Spain. As we reached M’Hamid, the real trouble began. We got flagged down by a tour guide on the road – we should never have stopped for him but didn’t realise he was a tour guide at the start. We decided to go see what he had on offer, but still couldn’t (wouldn’t) afford the trips, even a two-day one. This might sound odd, but we’ve already done a Sahara desert trip in Tunisia and we have a lot of other trips to do in later stages of our travels! So we headed to the edge of town to see if we could actually see any dunes. A guy comes up on a scooter, and tells about his family’s pace to stay, but very low hassle. The original tour guide turns up twice! He was very insistent about trying to find a trip for us to do, kept asking how much we wanted to pay. Eventually we gave our price, and he offered a room and meals in his semi-hotel for our price, with the opportunity to walk in the nearby dunes. We decided to go for it; well, it was probably more due to me than Xander to be honest – I felt we should do something to see the desert dunes! We stopped to get some lunch supplies, then we tried to follow the guy, but he took off down a rocky and sandy track along the dry riverbed that we just could not handle. We said to forget the hotel, but the guy told us he had already bought supplies for dinner so we would need to pay him back. We pushed on. He led us on a longer track, but it wasn’t much better! I ended up jumping in the car to make life easier for Xander. He kept falling behind as he struggled with the sand and rough road, and I had to keep making the tour guide stop and wait for the bike to catch up. Things were obviously going wrong but I couldn’t tell what had happened – turned out Xander had dropped the bike! I found him struggling to hold it up after he had lifted it from horizontal. We pushed on, but then came big bumps. Xander fell behind again and when he caught up, he stopped at a distance. I ran back to find out what was going on and he said he’d had enough, even though we were close it was time to end it. I was really angry by this stage, as I had to keep forcing the guy to wait for Xander to catch up. I start yelling at the tour guide, asking what he thought he was doing taking us on a track we couldn’t handle, after having already told us we would not be able to handle the track out to the big dunes! He tried to bribe us again by saying he had already paid for food and had spent money on us, also trying to blame us for damage to his car!! We left him our lunch supplies and got the hell out of there. We should never have dealt with such an insistent guide! Just to note, this guy is actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook – Zbar Travel. I’m sure his tours are good, but the level of insistence and the danger he put us and our bike in is enough to bad mouth him!!! We’re quite sure he didn’t even know what track he was taking us on, as we seemed to double back on ourselves on the return trip! We took the track very slow and two-up and we made it through somehow. Xander burned through one last part of sand and rock on own (the original dry river bed area). We had more kids hassle us, though they mostly wanted to help, trying to say the piste was no good. Didn’t stop them from trying to get something from us though!

We decided to head straight back to Zagora and stay at Prends Ton Temps again, as it was such a good place. Along the way, we stopped to admire the small dunes beside the road, getting as many photos we can to say ‘hey, we’ve been in desert!’ We were feeling very confident about Xander’s ability to ride through these conditions now, but it’s going to get worse, I just know it! We had very late lunch in Zagora as couldn’t find food along the way. We picked up bread for breakfast and lunch for the final day of Ramadan, but not without both of us individually having people try to scam us into going to a shop instead of the market! Xander even had women in the market telling him to buy stuff for them! He was getting really pissed off with people and kids now. We went back tot the camp, were welcomed in, ordered dinner, and had ‘breakfast’ again with the staff and family. We spent a lot of time chatting to the French-speaking owner about his hopes for the place and a bit of politics, also maybe how we could come back someday and bring others and get a free 6-day camel trip! With his French and the occasional drop of English, we somehow managed to understand…we think! I can actually understand some words now, I’m getting there with numbers to start with and hope the rest will come later! We had another lovely but late meal, ordering brochettes to keep it small this time, and it was almost 10pm when we ate! We had the most delicious salad, and fed pieces of tomato to the cute kitten who kept playing with us. Don’t ask us why, he seemed to like it! We spent both nights in camp watching small bats (s’halit in Arabic) fly over us while lying on the comfy couches outside, and the toilets and showers often have cute, spotty, little toads in them. Other Moroccan wildlife we’ve seen has included a small number of geckos, some very green-tailed lizards in Volubilis, the monkeys we saw further north, a few birds but not a lot, more pigeons than we’ve seen in a while, and lots of cats! Wildlife spotting has been pretty poor.

Today we tried to take the dirt track to Tata. I wanted to go this way to see more kasbahs, but also there’s a lot of ancient rock paintings in the western area. We had been told it was good piste by several people, but it had severely degraded and eventually just ended - they had ripped up the road and made a dirt wall! We got 1.5 hours in and had to turn back. There were some 4WD tracks leading over the wall, but there was no way we could risk getting stuck or damaged out there – there was hardly any traffic to help and we were in the desert after all! We got back in Zagora for lunch at nearly 12pm, very tired and sore from the bad road, and had to head back to Ouarzazate for hopefully the last time! We have no choice now but to skip what I wanted to see and head on highways to Agadir over on the coast then head south. We have little time left to get through Western Sahara - over 1700 km to get to the Mauritanian border in 10 days. As we headed back through the Draa Valley, we stopped to take photos of the kasbahs and palmeries. Every time we stopped, kids hassled us, always wanting money or sweets, and we’re very tired of it all. They suddenly appear out of nowhere whenever you think a place is safe to stop! Then there was a glimmer of hope – we stopped for lunch on the edge of a palmerie, it was peaceful, there were birds and an irrigation stream, it was nice and quiet and there were no kids around. Suddenly a boy appears on a bicycle and unloads his bag of pomegranates. He comes down bank, we say no thank you as nicely as possible, and he just drops 3 fruit next to me and leaves! Unbelievable. No asking for money or anything, just plain, pure generosity. We were stunned. People hassled us at another photo stop after that, one guy was just selling dates but the kid was a pain in the neck and the other adult either wanted to change money or was asking for loose change, I don’t know. Then tonight here in camp we have been shown such kindness and generosity again. I don’t know what to make of the Moroccan people but as I noted at the start of this post, my faith has been a little restored today.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

He says –The beginning of the end of the love affair

17 - 19 sept 09

We got our passports back, by me pushing and shoving our way though the crowed of annoyed Moroccan that had been denied for one reason or an other. We were happy; we only paid for the 1-month visa but got the six weeks we wanted. We left Rabat just before 1500h, and bee-lined it to back to Marrakech. It was a long and boring ride and we stoped in campground just north of the city, as night fell.

Here we met couple in coolest camper. It looked like it was an old citron milk truck that he had converted. It was simply awesome; they where an elderly French couple that invited us over for some drinks. We did go over to chat but not drink. Tomorrow we still had a long way to go to be even sort of back on track. We chatted for a while, until the long day and lack of food called to us. We returned to our camp made some dinner and crashed.

Early the next day bee-lined it to Zagora. This is my third time on the windy road to Ouarzazate. I now know it so well I was able to cut off an hour of our1st time. The road from Ouarzazate to Zagora was painful but I don know why, it was only a 150 or so kilometres. Once there we looked at a couple of camp sites, the first was okay but we decided to look around a bit before deciding, the owner was happy with this and said he hope to see us soon. The guy at the 2nd site got shitty with us, and mouthed off so we went back to 1st campground. Moroccans really only want your money and if they think you are not going to give it to them they would not piss on you if you are on fire. They should learn to shut up until they actually have your money. “Oh your being rude, and angery.. okay we will stay with you and give you money…” Idiot!

Zagora was another of the places in Morocco where you are unable to take a piss without some tout or kid popping up wanting something from you. Even in the campsite that we chose as the “nice place” every other conversation was them trying sell us a camel-trek or 4x4-trek. This continued the entire two days we were there. On the second day, we had actually packed up and checked out, to go a bit further into the desert to M’hamid. We stupidly stopped outside town when a guy was flagging us down. My first reaction was that he was in need of help, he turned out to be a extremely pushy tout from Zbar Travel (M’Hamid Morocco, BEWARE!!!). He ended up following us back into town. Tam really wanted a night in the desert sleeping on dunes, so our second mistake was we talked to the guy. It turned out that he wanted almost 250€ for one night. We left saying that we would “think about it” but he followed us around town in his car. We eventually told him no. He countered with” I have camp ground.. bhlah, blah..” Tam and I like the idea, and it was only a few k’s drive, it was cheap and Tam got her desert night. We started to follow him in his car, he turned on to a dry-deep-sand- river bed.. no way! Anubis two up fully loaded is way to heavy to navigate 30-60cm of soft sand for 6k.

The tout was also too far ahead for me to see the path that he took. I stopped, well actually Anubis stopped, we were bogged. Begrudgingly he came back and agreed to take us by road. Road my ass, it was a farm track, that was a jumble of soft sand and hard rock with kids running up to the bike begging every 10 metres. After one of the first stretches of sand he took Tam in his car.

This is when the track got bad. How he was able to keep his car moving I don’t know. I did see it bottom out and fish tail a few times. Now, 6ks out of town, one real fall and one half off: I said “no further”. Only problem was the tout was way a head of me, I waved and honked but they kept getting a way from me. I was worring about Tam’s safety. Was he just taking her and me in to the desert to rob us.? Now that he had Tam what could happen, I cant just stop. I gave chase. These fears were unfounded, finally Tam made him stop as I was too far back, for her comfort. I was worried about her she was worried about me. I caught up and when she came to me I said it was over. The tout was pissed off he tried to charge us any way, I was not having a bar of it. He yelled, I was too pissed off to yell. He tried to blame me for his car bottoming out “breaking it”…Ah you where leading, it was you who picked the road. He roared off in his car, our only loss was some laughing cow cheese and a can of sardines.

We still had to ride out. Funnily enough the ride out was not a bad as the ride in, the tout did not know where he was going our GPS told us the he did not take the road. He circled the road 3 time.. Idiot was so greedy he was willing to ruin his car to make 30€.! It only took us a few minutes and about a 1.5k to get back to the main road. So we learned two things, never stop for a Moroccan flagging you down, and Zbar Travel M’Hamid Morocco, are a bunch of idiots willing to do anything for your money, BEWARE!!!

Pissed off and toughly fed up with Moroccans and their greedy to the extreme ideals we left M’hamid with out seeing anything. We headed back to Zagora, and to the café where we had such a nice lunch the day before. We need some supplies for the next day, so first Tam then I headed in to the souq where we were both pounced on by the false guides, touts and sellers. I was already pissed off, and when one started to lie (as they all do) I yelled Shooma! (Allah have shame on you and your family) the tout was swarmed by the crowed and I made my escape. Unfortunately it made no difference, no sooner was I away from that one some woman in expensive cloths were begging me to buy this or that FOR them, kids were begging and men where grabbing at me to drag me in to their all-the-same-mass-produced-shit-they-call-art shops.

I don’t like kids at their best but when one kid with ice-cream in mouth started begging, leaving was all I could not to hit him. Later a group of kids actually started to throw rocks, a plastic bucket, and sticks at us for not giving them money. Kids and adults alike would wave us down on highways with give us money sign. Morocco now has lost my heart, it had it for a while but then the glamour faded and I saw the sick-greedy-twisted true nature of the people.

That night we stayed in the same hotel as the night before, only this time the owner, was getting progressively more stoned smoking hash. He would talk for a while (in French) about how I could become his Australian contact and send people to him for tours. “We could be rich” (although as far as I could tell I only got free tours). He would then talk politics for a while before repeating his offer of me being his contact. This continued until we left him to his drugs and friends for the relative peace of our bed.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

He Says - RABAT HELL!!

16 - 17 September 09

Tam and I decided to try and minimise the time loss and try and do Ouarzazate to Rabat in one hit. It turned out to be not to bad, we had to return over the same mountain pass, this time it was cold but there was no mudslides, only dirt, stones and a lot of diesel on the road!!

We rode hard, head down ass up, stopping only briefly for some snacks on the side of the road. We took the toll roads and you could not tell that you were in Africa. The only exception to this was the ubiquitous trucks that are running at a 45° degree angle due to the constant overloading.

We made it Rabat by early evening (1645h) both feeling okay but not ready for too much more. Considering the weather had broken and rained heavily for several sections of the trip we had made good time and had done well to make it. Parts of Rabat were flooded, and we had to do two water crossings to get to the campground that we wanted to stay in. Unbenounced to us it is now a construction site for a shopping mall.

The drivers in Rabat, are the worst I have ever seen they will pass on either side of you, push you out of the way for the fun of it. The use their bumper bars instead of turn signals. They’ll go the wrong way down the street if it suits them. The only law they seem to obey is a red light, however they creep forward the entire time and honk if you have not made it though the intersection. 0.00000001 of a millisecond after the light turns green. It was the most stressful driving of my life and several times is was only Tam's yelling “Watch out!” that warned me of a car trying to hit us (well not caring that we were in the way and was going to go though us to get where he wanted to go.).

We ended up riding out of town towards an other campgound that was in the guide book and a tout that caught us off guard made 1 durham for telling us it does exist. Night had started to fall. Just before true dark we had pulled over to decided where we where, and what we were going to do. There may or may not be a campground close by, but we could not find it. It was at this point that I noticed that my charge indication was indicating that Anubis’s battery was not getting charged.

This was the final straw, the drive made me very tired, the traffic conditions had fried my nerves and now the bike has gone wrong again! I felt like crying, I did scream. I shouted at Tam for no reason. She was great and calmed me down. She did what was necessary and decided for us. We will try and find the campground. As it turns put we were almost there, but it was the ugliest dirtiest shit hole I have ever seen. There was broken glass, bits of rusty metal, concrete chips, and old wire everywhere. At first we decided to suck it up and stay. I am not a squeamish or prissy person, but when I saw the state of the toilettes and showers I decided we leave now! There was faeces everywhere and it looked like it had not been cleaned well ..ever.

Back on the bike I could smell burning. We were nowhere near anyplace I could even look to see what was wrong. Fuck it!!! Knowing full well what it could mean we got on the bike and drove on. We headed back for Rabat and decided to stay at the Ibis, we had GPS point for it .. no worries.. Well an hour later we still could not find it. The GPS was always telling me that I was going the wrong direction. The charge monitor was telling me that I was killing my bike. The bikes temperature was skyrocketing. My temper was shorter then ever and I was starting to drive badly. We drove for hours all over the city and could not find one hotel. Not one with space or that was nice.. but a actually hotel.. we were driving in circles, via the GPS and not getting anywhere. Ultimately we found one, it was a western expensive one, a Mercur. It had no parking and was three times our daily budget. But it was now 2100h and were both at ropes end. We booked in. We calmed down, Tam got hungry I did not, but we both ate at the hotel (misspelled by them) “Kangourou restaurant”, it was the most expensive and least satisfying meal of the trip.

I had not slept a wink, but we had to get to the Mauritanian embassy by 1030h to lodge our visa applications or else we would stuck here till Monday. We would be stuck because it was already Wednesday it takes 24 hours for the visa application, and the embassy is closed Friday though Sunday. We also realised that we would need to stay an other night the expensive hotel a second night, as we will not have passports and you need one to rent a room. There goes the budget again!

We got up had breakfast (I had to force myself to eat). Got to the bike, quickly tried to see what could be wrong with it, but had no luck. For some reason everything was taking an age and we were not ready to go until 0845. We went to 4 bank ATMs that would not take our cards the 5th would not take mine but luckily it did take Tam’s. We were ready. We had the visa pictures. We had the photocopies. We had a map (and thought we knew where we were going). We were off at 0859h. 0910 realise that the map was not as we thought it was.. -0945 driving around in circles. Tempers flaring. Only 45min to go and we were no closer to the embassy. We decided to go back to the hotel and get a cab.

0955 we jump in a cab, show him the address, he shakes his head. “no polivo france” he says. We tried to explain what we need, he shakes his head again. We try again. Something Clicks. He says okay. The meter goes on.. HOOO no arguments there then that is good! He starts heading towards Sale’, I may not know where the embassy is but I know this is wrong. I show him on the map. Head shaking again. Finally I said the name of a major road near by, a light bulb goes on over his head (it may have been my blood pressure or the stress but I swear I could see it). He swings the car around. I hear squealing of brakes as other cars stop to let us by. We start heading in the direction that Tam suggested just as we gave up. I was trying to follow our movements on the map. It did not work.

1012h He tells us we are on the major road. Tam re-reads him the address and it clicks, he corrects her pronunciation, and asks if it is the Mauritanian, Portuguese or Mali embassy we need.
1015h we pull up in front of the Mali embassy, I run back to find the Mauritanian one
1025 I walk though the door. They don’t close at 1030h anymore it is now 1230.

We struggle to fill out the forms but get it done hand over 680durham, ask if all is okay. They said “yes pick it up tomorrow at 1400h”.

1049h the trip’s progression is out of our hand. We then realised that our taxi driver did not say he could not speak French but that he could not read western script. This is something that never occurred to me. We walked back to the hotel so that I could find it again the next day stopping for a cold drink and a mars bar, for once we ate in mostly plain sight. We stopped in the Chellah (the ruins of the old city). It was a nice respite from the hustle and hassle of the city and as we did not have cameras it was kinda nice just to walk around. The rest of the day was spent in the hotel recovering from the night before. Eventually, we ventured out at about at 1800h to look for some dinner but Rabat has two types of restaurants bloody expensive and those that are no where near the hotel that we were staying in. We ended up eating Pringles and pudding from the one of the very few mini-markets that was open. Our gourmet feast was accompanied by a 1€ pirate DVD purchased in Marrakech, all in all I was in heaven. We still have not figured out what is wrong with the Anubis.

Next day stayed in hotel till 1100h, and then went to Mauritanian embassy. Anubis was running perfectly fine. No warning lights, once at the embassy in the shade of the a huge tree I switched rec/regs for the spare. Still everything was running well no warning lights. Bugger now what could it be??? I let the engin get hot, and the problem reared its ugly head. It was only then I smelt and saw the fire! The high voltage cables coming from the stator had caught fire taking the connection block with it. During this procedure with my bike smouldering, a fancily dress woman, came up to me showed a picture of a handicapped boy and asked me for money. I could not believe it so I ignored her, Her she is in a fancy dress, I’m covered in grease, bike is burning she is begging off me. She touched me with hand out and I yell at her to fuck off! She left in a hurry rage burring in my eyes. Once she was gone I calmed down and cut out the burnt wires and bypassed block splicing the wires in directly. Suddenly everything was good the RPM were stable and the power was all good. Some how the leads had short circuited and caused the fire. The electrex regulator/rectifier has lived up to their claims (so far) it had survived the fire/short. That afternoon we started to head back to Ouarzazate then to Zagora and the Sahara.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

She Says – Fear and loathing in Rabat

14-16 September
Peter had to take off on our second day in Ouarzazate to help some bikers who had had an accident and needed a support vehicle for the rest of their trip. They were already planning to stay with Peter anyway, and he runs a breakdown service across the country. Zineb looked after us wonderfully, we had wonderful food including the best couscous ever – melt in the mouth chicken just falling off bones, topped with a yummy, sweet, caramelised onion/sultana/cinnamon topping. Using the extra day, we had time to make sure the bike was running fine, the fuel tank repair had worked, check all was working OK with the computer and new external hard-drive, and create backup DVDs of all our photos. We even got the dodgy hard-drive to behave and got a backup onto it! With a lot of stress off our minds, we had some time to relax, plus got some of our clothes really clean in the washing machine! We had a great location in the upper levels of the house, sleeping with our door open to the terrace, and with an awesome view to mountains in the mornings. The rain held off, although we did get a few splashes in the afternoon.

Since we left Ouarzazate, things seem to be getting worse. Our trip up to Rabat was good and uneventful, taking around 8.5 hours to complete, including lunch and bum-rest breaks, plus a trip to the supermarket to get groceries for dinner as we planned to stay in a campground. We got hit with some good rain but nothing too bad. It got quite cold travelling back through the high passes towards Marrakech; I actually had to put on my polar fleece jacket! Who would have thought we’d get so cold in Morocco!?! After reaching Rabat, everything just went wrong! Traffic here is crazy, the worst we’ve had (though we’ve heard Casablanca is the worst in Morocco); however, it didn’t help that technically we were in rush hour. Actually, I’m not entirely sure if that applies here, the real rush occurs before sunset for end of Ramadan! The GPS wasn’t particularly helping us, although we eventually managed to make our way to Sale, the town across the river from Rabat where camping was supposed to be near the beach. With no signs to help us, we managed to navigate our way to the supposed campsite using the guidebook map and GPS. Yes, supposed, as we saw no sign of it anywhere! We had to complete our first water fordings, as some of the beach streets had completely flooded. By this stage, we were pretty sure the campground was no longer open, but spoke to a guy who confirmed it. He told us the next campground was almost 20km back in Temara, towards Casablanca. We had to pay him for his help, the first time we’ve actually done this, as we usually ignore anyone who tries to help so we aren’t expected to fork out money all the time. There’s only one bad thing with this, and that is sometimes people are just trying to be helpful to us and don’t seem to be after money. I feel really uncomfortable to always be turning people away, especially if they are just trying to be friendly. I hope it doesn’t taint the view that those particular people have of Westerners, as I feel so rude sometimes. But when I don’t know their intentions, turning aside all help and expectations of payment is the safer bet. It really ties my stomach in a knot having to deal with this and worry that I am offending perfectly helpful people.

We managed to pick up the quiet coastal road and headed back to Temara, by which time the sun was setting. After a while of not knowing where we were or how much further we should go, Xander pulled over and then found the voltmeter he had made to test the rectifier (voltage regulator) was reading red. Just great, all we needed was more problems! By this time, we were both getting pretty grumpy, so this didn’t help things at all. We worked out that we had a few more kilometres to go till Temara and headed off desperately trying to see a campground. We eventually found one, the staff of which were rather unhelpful but understandably Ramadan had just ended for the day. It was a pretty crappy looking site, and we had to scout around for a space that wasn’t covered in glass, bits of metal or power cable! As I started to pull out the tent, Xander came back from the bathroom and said we weren’t staying as it was absolutely disgusting in there! We hadn’t seen any real sign of hotels anywhere in Rabat or on our way back out of town. We hunted around Temara for a while, finding one place but not being happy with it because parking was out the front with no possibility of getting behind the hotel, when we noticed a burning smell. Xander located the smell to where the rectifier sits. Great, just what we needed. At this point, he remembered he had seen an Ibis Hotel on the GPS and decided we should just head back into the city, where we could get secure parking plus photocopies of our passports for the visa application. The only problem was, we couldn’t follow the GPS map, we got continually lost through Rabat, roads appeared where there shouldn’t have been any and turnoffs didn’t exist where they should be. I think we covered all of Rabat that night! We still didn’t see any hotels anywhere, plus driving at night gave us a few scares with cars coming out of nowhere and trying to pass us on the wrong side. Tiredness wasn’t helping either. Somehow Xander managed to get us close to the Ibis, and while we didn’t find it, we did find a Mercure hotel and managed to get a room with parking out the front, security provided by a guardian. It is costing us a fortune to stay here (over 90 euros), and the parking situation is not ideal, but at that point we really had no choice.

Worse still, the next morning we realised that we had to leave our passports with the Mauritanian embassy, and you have to fill in a registration form every time you check into a hotel and most of the time you have to actually show your passport. I think sometimes they are happy to see you are using a passport to get info and don’t bother checking themselves, but if you didn’t have your passport it might be a problem. So we booked in for another night, rather than pack everything up and cause ourselves a huge hassle trying to find a new hotel then going to embassy, especially as we were concerned the embassy closed at 10.30am from something we had read. Ouch, but oh well. We were able to get passport photocopies done in the hotel, and after a breakfast buffet (where we nicked some bread, cheeses and ham-like substance for lunch!), we dashed out the door and off in what we thought was the direction of the Mauritanian embassy. WRONG! Confused by the GPS, driving around in circles and quickly getting crabby, we dashed back to the hotel, dumped our bike gear and took a taxi instead. We got to the embassy at 10am and squeezed into the tiny visa application room along with a few others, getting our applications in just before 10.30am. Phew! Finally one thing went right. The visas cost 340 dirham each (roughly 30 euros), and it starts from the day of application, meaning we have limited time to spend in Morocco after getting the visa. However, Ronald told us they managed to get the timing they wanted by requesting a different end date – we have tried that too and will see what happens! We had no idea about filling in the form, consisting mostly of long-winded, unintelligible-to-us questions and all in French. Xander checked with attendant at counter several times, who wasn’t part that helpful, and eventually we got some help from a German family also applying. Hope all goes well!

After getting through the stress of our first on-the-road visa application, we decided to walk back to hotel via a shop for cold drinks and a bank. We have been having terrible problems with banks not accepting our cards, so it pays to try every bank you can find. Xander’s card seems to have a near fatal flaw, and has only worked a couple of times. We’ve no idea what’s going on! The walk did us good and calmed our tensions a lot. We walked up to the chellah, the old Roman city and later Islamic necropolis, which was extremely peaceful beside the franticness of Rabat’s traffic. We took a very easy day after that, taking advantage of free wi-fi, got our French blogs uploaded finally, and sorted out a few other bits and pieces. We even ate Pringles chips for dinner while watching a DVD, as we couldn’t find any cheap restaurants (in fact, few restaurants of any sort!) near the hotel. A cheap night after expensive day! So while we have not given Rabat any time or justice, it has left us with a bad impression from what we have seen – just another big business-oriented city.

Naturally Xander is very concerned about what is causing the new electrical problem. We are carrying a spare rectifier, as it’s a common problem on this bike, and will try to test it tomorrow to see if that is the problem or if it’s something else. Otherwise, we are going to head to Marrakech tomorrow after picking up our passports at 2pm, and Xander will test the wiring in a campground. We know we can make it to Marrakech easily in that time, as the toll roads have been very good and almost empty. They are definitely worth using and total cost to get to Rabat was only a bit more than some of the individual French toll roads we took!

Monday, 14 September 2009

He Says — Real Movies are made here; pirate DVD elsewhere

13 – 15 September

We headed to Ait Benhaddou a town whose Kasbah has been the backdrop for 20+ Hollywood movies. These include titles like “The Mummy”, “Romancing the Stone”, “Gladiator” and a host of others. On the trip down I started to smell petrol, it was odd as it was an actually chilly day so there should be little tank evaporative loss, but did not think much of it. We spent the afternoon walking around the Kasbah but being so close to Marrakech and so touristy it was full of touts and scams like not telling you how to get in to the city with out going though a persons house for a price of course, and then trying to get you going out as well.

Completing a challenge set by my ex-work mates we stayed in a fancy hotel and had a fancy meal. The owner of the hotel was in at least 10 of blockbusters himself (as an extra) including the three mentioned above. We slept well and were packed and ready to leave early the next morning. The petrol smell was strong, I had noticed one of the hotels kids (they are like the cats, strays that are everywhere) playing with the bikes throttle so I again thought nothing of it.

It was to be only a 30km trip this morning to a place called Bikershome in, Ouarzazate so that we can have a day out of the way and a place to do some work on the bike. Once there I found the source of the petrol smell. I discovered that my fuel tank has a leak. This turned a one-day visit in to two. Most of which I spent high on petrol fumes as I tried to fix it. We were also told that we would not be able to get our Mauritania visa at the Border and so we have to head 900km back south to Rabat. This was a nice place to stop it was run by (yet an other) Dutch guy and his Moroccan wife. She was an amazing cook and fed us very well during our stay.

That night a mad-man attacked a car outside the house, I stumbled out of bead at the ruckus it caused but by the time I looked over the terrace all was calm. I assumed that it was just one of those things and went back to bed. It was not till the next day did I hear the harrowing tail of a knife wielding nutter smashing car windows and threatening people.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

She Says – Ancient citadels and leaking fuel

11-13 September
Yesterday we left Marrakech, having spent a pleasant sunset the night before watching the city come to life. There was a lot of sun over the square, which stood out incredibly against the thick black storm clouds at the edge of the sky. We sat in an expensive café, taking sneaky photos of people passing through the square (we weren’t alone!). We headed for Ait Benhaddou, northwest of Ouarzazate, in the early morning, travelling along 200km of twisting, winding roads up and down through the High Atlas Mountains. We went through a pass at 2260m high, and saw some spectacular views. The landscape is stark, and while I agree with Xander that you can’t really call it beautiful, it really does have an appeal to it. Like some kind of Martian landscape, hardly any vegetation, the rocks changing colours all the time, little villages tucked into the folds of the hills, and on top of it all, big clouds hanging over the highest mountains because the weather is still hit and miss right now. It actually got cool at this height. All along the road were people selling local fossils, rocks and minerals, either in little roadside stalls, proper shops, or just on some scary bend with a truck coming the other way on your side of the road as they leap out to wave an amazing huge (but usually dyed) geode in your face!!! At the end of the passes, it was onto the plains and the stony desert they call the hamada – this was the real thing, we were in desert Africa!!!

Ait Benhaddou contains an old kasbah (think walled city/citadel Morocco-style!) that I have wanted to visit for some time. It’s an iconic place, featuring in movies (e.g. Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator) and Michael Palin’s Sahara, and is the classic mud-coated construction that you see from the Sahara region. We got there in the early afternoon, which was nice for a change, and meant we were feeling fresh enough to check out a few hotels instead of taking the first one that seemed good. We had been wondering whether to take this opportunity to treat ourselves to something nice courtesy of the challenge Xander’s work colleagues had set us. I looked at two places that were OK but not quite right – they had views of the kasbah on the other side of the river, but not great ones. Then I found a third place, La Fibule D’Or. Looking absolutely nothing from the outside, in fact I wasn’t even sure it was open!, I fell in love with this place when I got inside. With stunning complete views of the kasbah from our bedroom (and therefore I knew from the roof terrace) and a rustic homestay feel to the place, I knew it was time to complete our challenge. The whole building was covered in the mud and straw coating typical of the area. The rooms were decorated in a very simple Berber style, so they had personality and were not just a standard room – that goes along way with us. The more we learnt, the more we loved it – the owner take roles as an extra in the movies made locally (e.g. The Mummy, Kundun, Lawrence of Arabia), he offered us a lower room price so we would have dinner there (we had already taken the breakfast package), the dining salon was gorgeous, and the roof terrace was amazing! Xander brought the bike around and we were able to park inside a side room, entering via the front doors – a strange experience! We let the manager’s son, a very serious little boy of about 3, sit on the bike and he checked out all the controls like an old pro. After we settled, we were treated to a free mint tea on the terrace and got to lay back and take in the stunning views all around us. We were pretty close to fulfilling our third challenge for the trip, the one our friend Sam set about finding the most amazing place in Africa, but I think there is something better to come yet. As it was getting late, we crossed the river to the kasbah for a look around. This involved shoes off and wading over, as they had had enough rain to get some water in the generally dry river. We had to fight off the kids with donkeys, horses and camels to get over the river. OK I exaggerate, but they were smart at taking advantage of easy money! Over the river, you either go around the edges of the kasbah and make your way in for free, or you pay 10 dirham to go through a house. I thought it would be cool to see the houses, to get a feel for how people live. We had several kids trying to make us pay them, but we eventually got an adult to come out and let us in. Unfortunately, the houses are no longer occupied or guided (maybe if you took a kid!), but were set up as a museum of life in the kasbah with tools, cooking equipment, and other pieces of everyday life. We also got to play with some Berber wooden locks, a neat system using little pegs that raise and lower to the pattern of the wooden key (looks like a hairbrush missing some teeth!) to open and close the lock. Really cool! Much of the kasbah has been reconstructed, either through use in movies or by grants from UNESCO World Heritage, so it was hard to tell what was traditional or not, but the buildings were beautifully decorated. The kasbah doesn’t seem to have many people living in it now, but has many shops selling jewellery and clothing, all the usual bits and pieces, but also some selling really nice watercolour paintings. I watched a guy demonstrate how they make the colours – the yellow paint is a mix of tea and saffron (maybe something else), which he paints onto thick paper, then heats the painting over a gas flame, thus darkening the colour. The pictures were very simple, mostly landscapes and men riding camels, in various shades of yellow and the blue of the Tuareg people. I got myself stung because I watched the demonstration without buying anything, and the local custom is you pay for an artisan showing you how they work. I don’t like this, though I understand it I guess. However, it means you rush past things, as we did in Marrakech, instead of taking the time to watch art and creation and handiwork in progress because you don’t want to pay for every person you watch. In turn, you don’t get to learn about the techniques. Not that they request very much, but the principle should be to watch and learn and that should encourage you to buy, not to get money out of you in every possible way! I also don’t like it because I don’t know what is a reasonable amount to pay for a demonstration, so it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Funny thing is, it’s the first souvenir I’ve actually wanted to buy for myself because the paintings were really good! I loved their simplicity and use of natural colours, but there is nowhere on the bike I can keep a painting safe enough until ready to post.

We stayed at the kasbah till it was ‘golden hour’, then went back to hotel as we hoped to take photos of the city in the dying light. Luck was not on our side, and it clouded over! We decided to get up for sunrise to catch the morning light on the kasbah, as it was supposed to occur at a reasonable time. We watched sunset and looked over our map to work out what to do and how to do it, as there is a lot to see around this area, including camel trekking in the desert, and we can really only spend about a week here. Xander had also noticed that the clutch is sticking and that maybe we needed an oil change. We decided our best bet was to go to Ouarzazate to visit a Dutch guy who has set up a place called Bikers Home, complete with garage and space for doing oil changes. We also thought it would be good to get some local knowledge about touring the area, how long various roads would take, road conditions, etc. We then went downstairs and enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked meal in the salon of harira soup, chicken couscous, oranges dusted with cinnamon, and pieces of melon. I assume the melon came from the large yellow fruit/vegetables that we’ve been seeing for sale all everywhere on roadsides – a mystery solved!

This morning we got up before 6am to find it was nearly sunrise already - our GPS was giving us the wrong time! Time has changed for Ramadan, but this is obviously not transmitted to the satellites. As luck would have it, the sun rose directly into the only bank of clouds around, but as it rose above the clouds, we had magnificent light across the kasbah. The whole stay had been totally worth it – challenge complete, thanks everyone at University of Birmingham who contributed! Before we left, we had the manager’s whole tribe on the bike, and took photos that we were able to download straight onto their computer. As we prepared to leave, we noticed the room where the bike was parked was full of fuel fumes; Xander found that the boy who sat on the bike last night had caused a leak with his serious testing of the bike’s controls!

We got to Bikers Home bright and early, and Peter welcomed us in. While the price is a bit expensive, especially after last night’s indulgence, we have decided to stay. It is all-inclusive, we have the use of the garage for the bike work Xander needs to do, secure parking, and even a washing machine! After chatting a while with Peter and his lovely Moroccan wife Zineb, we went into town to run errands and get oil. While there, we bumped into Ronald and Nicoline from Camping Zebra in their 4x4! What a bizarre coincidence, but I just knew we would see them again, although I expected it to be later in Morocco or maybe even in Mauritania or Mali. They followed us back to Peter’s for a drink, and filled us in on getting our Mauritanian visas in Rabat. People that Peter knows of were recently turned back from the Mauritania border without visas and had to go back. This is a major blow to our current travel plans, but in the end, it will be fine. The visa is very straightforward but takes 2 days, we can travel fairly quickly after Marrakech up to Rabat via toll road highways, and then we can come back and do our tour of the area. It’s a shame that we will lose time, but I guess we should have stuck with our original plan to go to Rabat after Fes.

In the mean time, while doing the oil change, Xander discovered that the fuel smell is coming from a leak in the tank! Part of the fibreglass around one of the fuel taps (which had already caused us problems before we started the trip) had delaminated. He has just finished sealing the leak – cross fingers it holds. We will now be staying an extra night to make sure the repair is secure. Xander has also been able to fix a few other problems, including the pannier locks that were not secured properly anymore, and to attach the strap mounts he bought in Fes to the top of the main panniers. Hopefully all will be good!