Dual Wed 06 December 2017

MAROCCO CROSSING THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS SOLO - Second part

October 14 is a beautiful day, perfect weather, cloudy and without wind. I leave Midelt but after 20 km I have to go back because the trail ends at the gate of a reservoir, probably a hydroelectric plant. I continue on a paved road and at a junction I meet three Belgians riding BMWs GS who are asking a policeman for information. Since I also have doubts on the road to take, since I skipped the route on the GPS, I get closer to listen at what they are saying. The Belgian is holding my same road map and is speaking with the policeman in French. I understand where we are and that they are heading my same way, Ouarzazate, so I ask them if I can join them and they gladly accept.
The route, a mix of trail and road, climbs from the 1500 m of height of Midelt to 2700 m, offering a succession of breathtaking sceneries and landscapes, outlined by wonderfully blue sky.
Down from the mountains we enter the valleys where mountain oases are found one after another in a string of tiny villages with a few houses made of stones and mud.
In every place we are surrounded by joyous kids to whom we give cookies, candy bars and candy; we realize that these people live in poverty, wearing old and torn clothes, barefoot and disheveled.
They are all shepherds or farmers who live off their land thanks to the watercourse. Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon we stop at a little restaurant to eat and the Belgians, after hearing the menu, negotiate the price. After we happily filled our bellies and lazed in the sun, we leave and around 7 pm we camp in a small valley out of the wind at 1700 m over sea-level.
Here we find two women, each carrying a child, who beg for dirhams; one of the Belgians offers some food but they refuse, asking for money instead. In the evening, sitting around the campfire, I discover that that they were on my same trail two days ago and camped in the same area probably not farther than 1 km from the house with the dogs.
The night in the tent with my new companions is good thanks to the good weather even if at that height temperatures can run low and in fact I wake up often during the night because I am a bit cold. In the morning, after a cup of coffee and a frugal breakfast with cookies and a few energy bars, we enter the enchanting Gorges du Toudra which we think are the Gorges du Dades. Only after we arrive at the town we find when we exit, do we realize it. Later, looking at the road map, we see that the two valleys are parallel to one another even if a few dozen kilometers apart; coming from the North, we chose the wrong direction at a junction that took us to the valley to the left instead of the one to the right. However, no harm done, Nature’s show was still awesome and worth the travel to that moment. After taking some pictures and buying a few things at the market stands always present in touristic places as this, we leave through the du Dades valley that disappoint us: nothing special except for dozens of cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the road. The next trail takes us to Ouarzazate and is rather boring; here, I separate from my companions who head for Marrakech and would setup camp for the night in about two hours, while I treat myself with the usual 20 euro hotel where I will plan my route for Zagora for the next day. We say goodbye reluctantly, in these two days we got on well and in sync. We met by chance and this proves that you can meet interesting people on trips like this. If the tour was an organized group tour, we probably wouldn’t have met since everything in these tours is planned and schedules must be respected.
On paper, the stage of October 16 looks easy; paved roads up to Zagora passing through the Draa valley for a total of 200 km. At a certain point along the road, I see a sign for the waterfalls of Tizgui. Intrigued and since I have no hurry, I follow it. I have to leave the motorbike in a parking lot paying a few dirhams to a pseudo-guard in a fluorescent vest, who assures me that I will find all of my stuff on the bike when I return. The waterfalls do not impress me, even if I must be thankful there is some water since this is the dry season. To get to see them I must go down stairs dug into the mountain side until I reach the stream on the rocky bottom; it is worth spending half an hour to admire the suggestive sight in the canyon.
Back on the road, I keep coming across roadwork to widen it to 4 lanes like a highway. I am skirting the oasis that is several kilometers long, when I see on my GPS that there is a trail that enters the oasis and exits after a few kilometers. I follow it through a beautiful landscape of date palm orchards and other plantations. I cross a few little towns to discover that the trail indicated by the GPS, that should rejoin the main road after crossing a stream, suddenly disappears and I almost get stuck in the sand. A farmer suggests I backtrack or go on in order to exit and obviously one doesn’t backtrack to see things he already knows, so I choose to go on. The trail leaves the oasis as it gets closer to the mountains becoming more and more difficult until it turns into a mule track full of loose and pointy rocks. I am afraid I will get a flat tire, but I reach the end without any accident. Back on the man road, in twenty minutes I arrive in Zagora; here I stop at a few hotels comparing prices and at the end choose a hotel that in the 25 euro rate includes breakfast and … a pool! The owner at first wants 50 euro, but as per their tradition, one must always firmly negotiate to get a good bargain.
In the evening, while I am dining in the gorgeous garden of the hotel, I meet a Portuguese motorcyclist. We exchange some information and he tells me that the trail I intend to take is paved, so I realize that I can only cross the Iriki lake. He has the GPS full of waypoints and he share some with me through the Wi-Fi since we have the same device; he knows the country very well and gives me some advice on the easiest passage. In the morning, after breakfast, I bump into him and he informs me that he had looked for me the evening before to ask me if I wanted to join him for the crossing of the lake. Obviously, I readily accept for the company but also for safety reasons. When we finish crossing the lake, I realize that I could have left my bags at the hotel, returning there at the end of our adventure to leave and go my own way. Oh well ...
We leave around ten in the morning and at four in the afternoon we arrive in Foum Zguid where we stop at a brasserie to have lunch, and the owner accompanies me to the hotel.
 

The crossing of the lake is wonderful and difficult at the same time, 90% of the terrain is rocky while the remaining 10% is smooth and fast, easily rode at 60-70 km/h; on some straight and flat stretches we are able to go faster than 120 km/h, pure delight, a pay back for the exertion spent on the most difficult parts, such as small dunes which could not be bypassed and on which I slid on a side a few times, luckily without consequences. The only problem I have is the breaking of the GPS rubber supports due to the incessant vibrations generated by the rocky terrain, which I fix with a fair share of tape.
The route I cover on the 18th is all paved up to Marrakech. I take a detour to follow a trail I started back in 2012 when I came with an organized tour, but which I never finished due to muddy and very slippery terrain caused by heavy rains; that time one of the participants fell spraining his knee. I have always been curious about this trail and this seems the right time to explore it. I am disappointed because now it is mostly paved and moreover the landscape isn’t extraordinary.
In Marrakech I stay at the “Le Relais” hotel-camping, the same place I stayed at two years before, where you can either camp or rent a room that resembles a Berberian tent, i.e. a wall perimeter with a canvas roof top. In the evening, I dine at the restaurant at the poolside and then have a beer, very expensive, in the garden while studying the route for the next day and writing in my dairy.
A relaxing stop is planned for October 19, i.e. I scheduled to take a ring route 200 km from Marrakech that climbs up the Atlas and then descends. Everything is going as organized but, as often happens, the unexpected occurs. At the beginning both the road up the mountain and the landscape are rather boring; it is like riding on a hill at an elevation of over 1000 meter, but then the road climbs to over 2700 meter and the surrounding mountains resemble the Dolomites (part of the Italian Alpes). I hope the descent won’t be paved; the signs indicate there is a town at 90 km and there the off-road trail starts: It is sufficiently easy and smooth with a few challenging parts.
I am enjoying my ride and am three quarters of the way through when my front wheel is deviated by a groove on the path and I slip to the right; usually, if one is paying attention, something like this has no consequence, but I am distracted and fall breaking the tank to the right-hand side that opens like a can of tuna and, even worse, the bolt that supports the footrest breaks as well. I can’t do anything for the gas, it gushed out in no time; I quickly fix the footrest support because I do not want to be caught by darkness while I am still in the mountains.
Seriously, Murphy’s law is always around the corner! Why didn’t I fall on the side of the tank that was already broken? Oh well. I fix the footrest using some wire and a zip tie, enough to rest my foot on it while I sit, but the rear brake is not working excellently and since the whole footrest slightly moves, I am not able to apply pressure to increase oil pressure.
The other problem is that I only have gas for about 70 km in my main tank and I do not know how far the next gas station is.
I am lucky, and I hit the blacktop soon after, and I turn my engine off for at least a dozen km to save gas. I finally reach a town with a gas station where I relax and drink a refreshing coke with a sight of relief. I see the sign for a hotel which is not farther than 15 km and don’t think twice: I go to the place I think of as a safety net, a nice spot beside a lake, mostly dry, but with a lovely scenery.

On the morning of the 20th before leaving, I try to repair the right-hand footrest better, but I am not able to remove the piece of bolt that remains inside with the tools I have. With the help of the hotel’ staff I am able to insert a slightly shorter bolt to have at least a solid support, fixing everything with more wire and zip ties. In these conditions I ride for more than 300 km and the makeshift repair holds up; I can’t ask for more, but driving standing up is out of question and therefore my off-road adventure finishes halfway through my trip.
Probably, while I was repairing the bike, some air entered the rear brake circuit so braking yield is halved; I stop at the first repair shop I find to bleed the circuit and top the oil, but I have to do it on my own since the mechanic is not skilled and almost soiled the brake disc with oil. I proceed along the paved road towards El Jadida where Massimo Manzoni, ex-gondolier, runs a B&B. During the day I dedicate my time to checking the footrest and to thinking what to do the next days and the most sensible thing is to finish the trip along paved roads. In the evening, I have dinner with Massimo eating a magnificent carbonara, drinking red wine and chatting the evening away.
On October 22nd after saying goodbye to Massimo I leave for Casablanca which, with all its chaos and traffic, makes me waste a lot of time … I should have drove around it; I head for Kenifra and then Midelt: on the map it is marked as a paved road but due to roadwork it turns out to be dirt for may kilometers and this makes me worry about my right footrest; but things go well, even if I slide-slip a few times because of the few centimeters of big gravel they lay on the road before paving it. I then take a curvy road up the mountains and pass at only 80 km from Midelt, the place where one week ago I met the three Belgians. I have to choose whether to head for Meknes or Fes, two almost parallel roads even if kilometers apart from one another; I decide to take the first one because it looks like it is easier to find gas stations along it and because I see on the map that it passes through the forest of cedars which intrigues me. From articles I read, I know that this is the area of mountain monkeys, but I do not know their exact position, so I got there by luck; the forest is at an elevation of almost 2000 meters and the monkeys are almost domesticated by the tourist from whom they accept food; I say almost because they remain suspicious and do not come too close.

I get to Meknes in the early afternoon, too early to stop for the night; from a quick look at the map I realize that I can drive around the town heading for Fes and avoiding heavy traffic. In Fes, I am approached by the usual good priced-hotel brokers and tour guides; as soon as I fill up the tank, I head out of town but after a few kilometers I realize that I am going nowhere, the landscape reminds me of the desert, so I head back to Fes.

My decision is heaven-sent: as soon as I reach the town I become aware that something is wrong, I check and find that I have a flat tire! It is the third time I come to Morocco and the third time I have a flat to the front tire occurred on paved road during my return trip not far away from Tangeri. Incredible! I inflate the tire at the first gas station I find and look for a tire shop to change the inner tube; a difficult task, most tire shops don’t want to do it, probably because the rubber tire must be removed by hand, which is very difficult. I finally find one who does the job; while the guy is changing the tube, a Sicilian with an SUV comes in to change the tires and when he understands that I am Italian we start talking and he tells me the story of half of his life and that he is in Morocco on a business trip. I ask him if he knows of a good and cheap hotel in the area and as soon as his car is ready, he accompanies me to a nearby hotel where he knows the owner. The only flaw is that it has no inside parking and I have to leave the motorcycle on the sidewalk, but luckily there is a guard who, for a few dirhams, will watch over it for the whole night: in any case, to stay on the safe side, I still chain it up. I walk through the town which I find nice with modern structures and with a beautiful pedestrian area downtown.

The 23rd is the last day before I catch the ferry in Tanger Med to return to Italy. I want to reach this city through a route I set out while I was preparing for the trip, but it went the other way, North to South. At a roundabout near Chefchaouen I stop to check my map; while I’m at it, I’m approached by a youngster who cautiously offers me some hashish. I refuse but the guy insists so much I’m forced to take the road again.
The road meanders and one third through it the signs give names I do not have on my map, so I stop to ask the locals for directions, but even if I show them the map they aren’t able to help, or I don’t understand them. In the end, a policeman tells me in English that to reach my destination I must backtrack because the road I want to follow no longer exists!!!
I backtrack and in the meantime, I abundantly exceed 200 km; in one of the towns I find gas out of a canister at a price increased by 20% and top up with a dozen of liters, enough to get out of the mess I got into.
The following road wears my patience thin, a hundred-twisting km on the mountains over a sea-like waving blacktop, a continuous, irritating toule ondulè that doesn’t allow me to pickup speed. At a certain point, near a town, on the road, I find two different groups composed of many festive people a few hundredths of meters apart from one another, who occupy the whole road; women are dressed in loud colors surround a young woman celebrating her while the men play music sing and dance; I think I’m recording everything but the Sony on my helmet is in photo mode, so I lose the first event, but I record the second one. In both cases, I park to the side of the road with the engine off waiting for everybody to pass. While the first parade goes by calmly, the second is composed by people who are too merry and who too “happily” approach me asking for money. I have the impression the merrier ones are under the influence of drugs, so I turn my bike on, rev up a few times causing the people to move farther away opening a gap I can pass through.
I spend the last day at the port waiting to go through customs, which is easier and faster than when I arrived, and embark.
It has been a trip different from the previous ones, I learned new things to treasure, not to take things for granted, that the unexpected is always around the corner, that to travel alone offers both advantages and disadvantages, but the most important is that when I travel with my bike, my body and mind feel free and I look at the world with different eyes, breathing in the wind every day while my daydream becomes true.
For all these reasons, as soon as I am back home, my mind starts planning the next trip.
MAYBE THIS IS THE AFRICA BLUES.

Photos and text: Efesto Moros