Dual Tue 28 November 2017

MAROCCO CROSSING THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS SOLO - first part

My trips to Africa always originate from afar and from my longing for Africa that started from the first time I crossed the Mediterranean in 2005. Ever since, I have been trying to understand what “Mal d’Afrique”, which I heard a lot about, means. Now, many years and trips to Africa after, I still have not understood and I think I never will, therefore, for now, I concluded that it is only a strong desire to discover a continent with its peculiarities and traditions far different from our way of life: getting used to a much slower pace of life where what cannot be done today can be postponed to tomorrow, or even the day after, where your day starts at 9 AM and goes by quietly, almost in slow motion, where there are no breaks until the evening and stores do not close for lunch; where the people’s hospitality is overwhelming, even if often not unconditional since a fee is asked; where a tea offered as a welcome gift, refreshes and energizes helping one to get back on the road after a smile and a handshake. Maybe this is the Mal d’Afrique, something we are no longer used to, the simplicity of things which we forgot long time ago.

I started preparing a few months before, but even this trip came from afar, ever since the time I came back from my last trip to Morocco and Mauritania in 2014 and kept having the nagging thought of going back. I prepare for the trip studying the territory and mapping out the route day per day. It goes without saying that a trip planned on paper to last 10-15 days may change depending on the territory found day by day and on unexpected events. I always leave the last day as a fallback if I am late with my schedule, since there is always that last unmissable appointment with the homeward bound ferryboat.
In the mid-80s I bought my first enduro motorcycle, a second-hand Honda XL 600, and even then, I dreamed of circumnavigating the Mediterranean, an adventure. The leitmotiv is always that of the traveling endurance motorcyclist, it’s how I like to define myself, to ride through undiscovered countries and places. I have always been attracted to knowledge and unknown and fascinating countries, especially the African ones, where one can discover customs and traditions unusual for us Westerners, but to achieve this one cannot follow the route of invasive mass tourism that changes day-to-day habits.
The main purpose of this trip was to cross the Atlas Mountains from North to South. In these years, every time I unfolded the map of Morocco my curiosity was stimulated in seeing these mountains with peaks that are often higher than 2000 meters, and this also thanks to the various reports, photos and videos I found on the internet about this area. In my mind I always saw myself riding through these places on my trusted bike, which I carefully prepare and setup, almost obsessively, so much so that, close to the departure date, I get to the point of almost feeling nauseated while I keep thinking, day after day, if everything is ok in order to reduce the risk of mechanical problems as much as possible. Obviously, as per Murphy’s law, even this time I had a few mechanical failures that forced me to change my travelling plans.
But, going in order, let’s start by saying that 15 days before my scheduled departure from Savona the engine of my ride was still in pieces on the workbench in my garage because the piston rings needed to be replaced, and I still did not know if I was going to make it. Once the engine was reassembled, I tested it for a thousand km or so, to make sure everything was working so that I could dedicate the last week to packing: bike loading, preparation of tools and spare parts. I am so afraid of not having what I may need to fix the bike that I bring more tools and spares than clothes and … underwear :-)

The day of departure, which is timed at noon since the ferry leaves Savona at 11 pm, finally arrives. In the morning I am still making small adjustments to the motorcycle: side kickstand removed and welder to apply a shim to reduce the inclination of the bike when resting on the kickstand. This last-minute intervention is called for because the evening before the bike was so inclined due to the weight of the bags, tent and spare tires as to risk snapping the kickstand.
During the 500 km highway trip, I constantly keep an “ear” out for strange noises, but everything runs smoothly. In Genoa, I meet with my friend Claudio, also a longtime Africa traveler, for a pizza and a chat about our last experiments on our machines (he is making a superlight, super-modified Africa Twin which I think in the end will not weight more than 150 kg!). It gets late in no time, and after leaving my on-road gear with him and wearing my off-road gear, I run to catch the ferry in Savona arriving only half an hour before departure.
During the two days at sea I have plenty of time to check, study and memorize the route I planned, using the GPS and the Michelin road map; I also use this time to relax and sleep since the last month of preparation hardly allowed it.
I disembark in Tangeri Med close to midnight on October 9 and the first thing is to reach the hotel I found on the web which is located about 30 km eastward, in the same direction to take to cross the Atlas Mountains. The following morning, ready to start this new adventure, I turn on the GPS to select the route to follow and … there is nothing, the 23 routes that took me months to plan are simply not there! I start panicking imagining catastrophic scenarios. The worst thing was that without routes I could only rely on the road map, abandoning the dream of crossing the Atlas following off-road trails. I was totally discouraged; the dream was finished before it even started. Fortunately, the night before I left in trying to be longsighted I saved the 23 routes on a USB flash drive to bring with me; I only needed to find a PC to read it. At the reception desk of the IBIS hotel I ask if they can help me. I download the Garmin software which I need to load the 23 routes on the GPS but the installation fails due to restrictions that only the system administrator can authorize and obviously no one knows who he is. After wasting a few hours moving from one PC to another, they take me to an internet café where I can do everything, but it is close to noon when I leave and what I planned for day one cannot be achieved. After about 200 km along the Mediterranean coastline, I stop at a tire shop to change the tires of the bike lessening the weight and clutter on the bike and new tires to ride on the trails.
Before it gets dark I find a beautiful, luxurious hotel … darn, I already spent too much for the first two nights if I consider Morocco’s average rate that is around 10/20 euro per night, but these are deluxe hotels and therefore the rate is much higher and above all I have no other alternative.
In the morning of October 11, the “real” trip starts, I only have 50 km along the coastline before the steeply climbing trail begins. With all my tanks full (40 liters) and my various bags, I toil up in first and second gear, stopping often to cool the engine off, take a few pictures and take in the scenery that keep changing offering unique top views. On its first exertion the bike behaved perfectly without hesitating.
After about a hundred km the first mountains become a plateau, the temperature has changed, one can already feel how different it is from the Mediterranean climate where a light breeze refreshes; the trail becomes difficult and I start to feel tired, a contributing factor being the lack of summer exercise due to my bad knee. With dry heat one does not feel sweaty, but I know that I need to drink a lot, and therefore, I have two more liters with electrolytes fixed to the cargo net on the bags, besides the two liters in the camel bag.

On the plateau I lose the trail a few times and must pull out the GPS; after all it only takes a few drops of rain to cancel the trail. As I go ahead I realize or, better, I remember that distances are enormous and the perception one has when reading a map is totally different from the real thing; travel times are long, and I start to think that I probably will not reach Gourcif, where I planned to stay for the night, before dark.
More than once I have to stop in the shade to recover some strength and not tire too much, I do not want to make evaluation mistakes that may cause falls. In the early afternoon I stop for more than an hour at a little grocery store in the middle of nowhere, near a paved road. Very kindly they invite me to relax, the sun is high and the sky clear; sitting in the shade out of the heat my energy slowly returns, and I take the opportunity of drinking a lot while observing the people passing along the road and stopping at this little store, isolated in the middle of the plateau surrounded by the mountains. People stop here not only to buy something but also to say hello and chat with the owner or with other people stopping by. I understand that this is a meeting point, a place where to meet or hitch a ride. I get on my bike and the heat convinces me to choose the paved road over the last kilometers of trail and I am able to reach Gourcif; I roam the city looking for a hotel but there is a lot of chaos, I am tired and do not feel like driving in such a bedlam, so I head out on the road I came from, making for a hotel I noticed previously. It is affordable and even the room isn’t bad, above all it seems clean even if it looks like a brothel with its red walls; unfortunately, the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant, but the boy makes a phone call and half an hour later I am presented with a chicken and vegetables Tanjin that I inhale, literally.
Since I intend to leave early the next morning to avoid the mid-day heat, I go to bed right after dinner, even because there are no attractions to justify staying up ‘till the wee hours of the night. On October 12, I leave early enough but as I take the trail I am hit by a very strong wind which makes it impossible to proceed, therefore I decide to skip the first part to directly climb the mountains using the paved road. This is wide and smooth with no wind for many kilometers but then it starts climbing becoming tortuous with many exposed parts. Sometimes I think I am going the wrong way, but I decide to trust the GPS route and I reach 2000 meters above sea level.
The mountain villages are composed of a few houses with a few habitants who live off sheep-farming in these isolated places; as soon as they hear the sound of my bike engine breaking the silence they look out with curiosity and the kids run towards me. At a fork in the road I make the wrong turn and, in maneuvering the bike on rocky ground, I lay the bike on its side while two little girls watch while sitting on a dry-stone wall. I start cussing in the quietness as soon as I see that the tank on that side is slightly leaking from the bottom, not a big deal but I have to switch to that tank until it is empty in order not to lose more gas; the importance of having gas is second only to having water to drink. As I begin the last 50-km-leg on a plateau, I lose the trail again and rely on the GPS for a few hundred meters, but the trail ends in a small canyon, probably dug by water, impossible to climb. After riding along one side of the canyon looking for a way out I have to backtrack to the last fork in the road, to try to understand if the trail had changed in time since the route I had on the GPS was a couple of years old. The new trail leads me to a house of shepherds where I don’t see anybody. A few dogs exit the shed barking and as I get off the bike to knock on the door for information, the barking dogs multiply to a dozen; they surround me menacing and start to growl showing me all their teeth, their aggressiveness increasing; I pick up a stick and try to keep them at bay, but I am really scared, I never found myself in such a situation. Fortunately, a Berber woman comes out alerted by the barking dogs and throws a few rocks to drive the dogs away allowing me to relax; somehow, I am able to explain that I am looking for the trail and to understand that I must cross the canyon. I leave the house under the watchful eye of the dogs that keep barking at me until I am near a ruin 50 meters away. On foot I try to find the trail the woman told me about, but I do not succeed, the canyon walls are too steep to climb, so I give up and consider setting up the tent inside the ruin away from the wind and far enough from the dogs.
After I assemble the tent, since the sun is still up, on foot I resume looking for a passage for me and my bike but again without success. Studying the road map, I decide that the morning after I will backtrack for a dozen of kilometers to take the paved road for Midelt, my scheduled goal for that day.
Before dark, the head of the household returns home; I think he’s about forty years old but look much older, he is wearing a heavy wool jacket with a sleeve torn halfway down from the shoulder, every time he speaks the denture in his mouth move, a clear indication that it is not his own but was probably handed down by his father or bought from someone else, which is normal around here. The man somehow lets me know that it is better if I do not get close to the house to avoid being attacked by the dogs, that the trail for Midelt that climbs the mountains, is difficult or no longer exists, I am not sure which, and that I have to go back. Better not to launch into dangerous adventures. I fall asleep early right after sunset; during the night I sleep with an eye open, constantly worried I will miss a sound indicating the dogs are closing in. By 4 am it starts raining and I curse my bad luck, thinking of the muddy trail I will find in the morning and of dismantling the tent and loading the bike under the rain.
I wake up at dawn of the 13th and see that the ground is dry while the tent is still wet, so I pack and load the bike and then decide to stay inside the tent waiting for it to dry to prevent it from getting moldy inside the bag.

It is still dripping now and then and all I can do is to wait it out; my vacation just begun so I still have plenty of time and I also need to get used to the pace of this place which is not the one we have, that’s for sure. After a while, the man I met the day before announces himself with a loud cough: he brought me some bread and hot tea which I gladly accept while offering him a few dirhams to thank him for his kindness. The dogs are with him and every time I move they bark even if they do not get closer; every now and then the man throws a rock at them to make them stop, but after a few seconds they pick it up again until their master heads back home with his animal body guards. About 30 minutes later, the sun and breeze dry the tent, so I pack it and leave, constantly under the watchful eye of the barking dogs that follow me for a few hundred meters.
As I planned the day before, I backtrack for a dozen of km and take the paved road towards Missour. I reach the city in the early afternoon and stop at a brasserie for an energizing meal that finally isn’t made of sandwiches and energy bars; in this place, lamb meat is cut and cooked at the moment … delicious!
I am on the road again to cover the 100 km that separate me from the city of Midelt. As soon as I take the trail I must backtrack for the strong wind that blows from the west and that prevents me from riding straight and makes me realize that it is impossible to go on. So, I am back on the paved road and hardly keeping the bike straight even if I slow down to 70 km/h; along this stretch there are no towns, the road is arrow straight and crosses the plain for tens of kilometers that I cover with a bent bike. The wind stirs up a lot of sand, the cars and trucks from the opposite lane raise even more sand that hits my face and I am forced to stop to wear the balaclava under the helmet to cover my face, nose and mouth.
I arrive in Midelt and, as usual, I look for, and find, an affordable hotel; after I freshen up I go for a walk in the city of apples, named this way because apple growing it the main source of income in this area. While looking for a place to eat I see an endurance motorcyclist covered in dust riding a Honda Transalp going into a yard, I follow him, and we start talking. He is a Spaniard covered in dust and sweaty, he tells me that he is part of a group of motorcyclists and that driving through the Iriki lake he fell spraining his knee. He was going North on paved roads and would meet with his friends, who continued off-road, when boarding the ferry.

End of the first part
Text and Photo: Efesto Moros