MOROCCO ‘The nearest far away place’
It had taken a long time, the idea slowly germinating and nurtured by the absorbing stories of Ted Simon, Austin Vince, Sam Manicom, Helge Peterson and other such adventurers. These fantasies illuminated my own omnipresent need for an adventurous life and a growing desire to see more of the world. Commitment to the dream in 2007 was the investment in two Yamaha XT600s, the second bike for my wife Jane, not a lady to be left at home or ride pillion. Is it strange that we buy food and such like, but we invest in things like motorcycles. The bikes new and unseen were purchased unwittingly, the result of my eagerness we were to find out later, when the odometers clicked round faster than the miles went by. They had been imported from Greece, but had I known I would still have still done the deal, so I let the issue be. When delivered the red dust that coated everything beneath the surface foretold the future with far more truth than the Fairground Gypsy turning cards or gazing into a chipped piece of china. Life is what happens whilst you make your plans and our lives held us back from taking the three weeks I wanted for the trip but eventually we booked the ferry, as you can only promise yourself something for so long and so set the date, Sunday 3rd October.
The long ride to the ferry was cold and wet, the prize being the feeling of riding into the hold of a ship and swapping plans with the other two wheeled adventurers. The boat bathed in the red and orange of the sunset headed to Santander and by skipping out the wide plains and alpine mountains of France set us well on our journey. Rolling off the ferry, the 630 miles of the Ruta de la Plata to Algeciras were split by a wild camp just south of Caceres. We left no trace, not even a match stick and we encountered the first of an ongoing theme of the trip, the dogs. At first we thought they announced the impending ‘get off my land’ from a red faced farmer but no, it was just the local farm dogs passing away the hours of darkness, the dogs no doubt having slumbered all day in the sun, they disturbed our sleep.
It took us a full day and a half to arrive in perfect sunshine at Algeciras and after a recee of the port we camped at Tarifa the nearest site we could find. A town allegedly credited with the origins of the word ‘tariff’ as the first port to charge for importing goods.
Wednesday 6th October 2010
In the cool darkness of the early morning we packed and headed to the docks only to find the building advertising tickets didn’t actually sell them and the long lines of concrete barriers, no doubt a sign of terrorist fears prevented us from going where we needed. An anxious encounter with a tout in a leather jacket and concentration on other things resulted in a dropped bike and a broken pannier lock. The box was secured with cord from the pannier of spares and tools we carried, a lifeboat into which I had packed all my apprehension and fears of an unknown country. At any moment the glowing embers of these feelings in my chest could be fanned to flame by what we would find out were fictitious tales, those scary stories told by armchair travellers who have never ventured beyond the land of the all inclusive package tour. We fled to a quiet side street, brewed tea and collected our thoughts before returning to the docks. These were becoming almost as familiar as our own back yard, but this time spotting a useful sign, we rode over kerb stones to the ticket offices.
Parking the bikes and then fending off the touts who told us that the ticket office was closed and we should go with them, Jane strode off to buy the passes to our adventure. This left me sitting alone guarding the bikes, the manly thing to do, sat there I was approached by Mike who was travelling on a Honda Pan European with his wife Chris. We later learnt that as veteran travellers they had been touring Europe since April and Mike spoke almost fluent French, an obvious advantage for where we were headed. Tickets bought we boarded the ferry, settled into the red velour seats of the saloon and steeled ourselves for the border from Ceuta, our destination, (which is in fact a Spanish enclave) into unknowns of the real Morocco. Swapping research with Chris and Mike confirmed what we knew and this gave us confidence that all would be well. At the border, Chris stood with the bikes whilst we dealt with the burocracy of the going beyond easy European boundaries. This went surprisingly well, except for not being able to purchase motor insurance as we had hoped, this was needed because our insurance company didn’t issue green cards for Morocco. As well we had not really needed the help of the tall elegant man dressed in a pastel blue robe who gave us advice and tried to take charge, however we tipped him two Euros for his trouble and company but then turned down his request for a couple more, even so with a smile he wished us ‘bon voyage’.
Leaving Mike and Chris, we headed to Tetouan, where we had the address of the insurance company and to save time spending the first of the new crispy banknotes from an ATM, we rode the new ‘Peage’ for the princely sum of 10 Dirhams each (80p). The two lanes of the motorway were almost deserted except for children wandering home for lunch and a workmen’s dog that chased and barked at our tyres. Was this the first of the rabid dogs that took delight in chasing two wheeled tourists we had been warned about ? No just a scary story which failed the reality test.
Arriving in Tetouan and trusting to good fortune to find the insurance offices we followed the signs for ‘centre de la villa’, but after circling round and round the narrow streets fending off the parking touts we gave up and ‘very English’ asked a Policeman. Joking with the tall ‘Gendarme’ Jane was threatened with jail as we had no insurance, but then kindly he led her off to the office which was surprisingly only two streets away. This man in a blue uniform, friendly and helpful, not the corrupt official ready to extract money from the hapless tourist given a chance, this was another scary story half put to bed.
Buying insurance involved a second trip to an ATM because the insurance broker was unable to accept Euros or a credit card and then parting with 950 Dirhams for each certificate with its silvery hologram. We still cannot decide who had the best deal as I spent the two and a half hours ‘protecting’ the bikes, the focus of attention from a varied cross section of pedlars, touts, local students wanting to practice their English, French or Spanish and children inquisitive about the over dressed foreigner and the two over loaded machines. But the experience had confirmed many things, including yes we can manage to deal with officialdom, luck seemed to be on our side, we both dislike busy cities, but a smile, wave or hand shake can go a long way and the truthfulness of the scary stories were starting to be in doubt.
Late in the day we rode south careful of the speed limits, still a little wary of the tales of the Police; we headed for Chefchaouen on the edge of the Rif Mountains, the cannabis growing area of Morocco. The local farmers make a good living from its production, Kif as it is called and its sickly sweet smell occasionally filled our nostrils as we slowly wound our way behind the heavily laden wagons and battered Mercedes taxis, these sagging down on their springs, carrying six passengers and driver. We were told later that the government was holding back money to repair the mountain roads, this to encourage the local officials to do something about the lucrative trade of the weed being exported illegally to Europe and beyond.
Again our luck held out and as darkness fell, a small hotel appeared, it’s steep and uneven car park confirming we had to much ‘stuff’. The friendly proprietor sorted the room and board and suggested we park the bikes on the patio under the ‘guardians’ window for the night, for a small consideration of 10 Dirhams of course.
Thursday 7th October.
The next day we rode south warmed by the African sun, still apprehensive about the journey but as always once astride the bike, tarmac slipping by, the world seemed a friendlier place. Smile and wave at people and they reciprocate. Arriving at a small village we spotted two British bikes parked outside the modern looking café. So turning round we introduced ourselves to Ann and Austin, both Moroccan veterans and as we sipped the sweet tea with mint or Naanaa in Arabic, they helped to ease our worries with good tales of Morocco. As we were about to leave, again good fortune smiled, Mike and Chris rode by. So the remainder of the day was spent heading south in their company before finding the splendid Gite Ras El Ma, nestled into a quiet hillside just outside the town of Azrou. The Moroccan owners enjoy their retirement filling their days tending the needs of travellers and taking pleasure in the diversity of the people who came to their door, no doubt it keeps them young.
Friday 8th October
The area around Azrou is known as the Forest of Cedar Trees and is home to Barbary apes despite the height being over 1200m above sea level. So after friendly advice we rode the tree lined gravel track south through the forest and out onto the Middle Atlas plains, but sadly no apes for us that day. Tempting though it was to stop at every bend for a photograph we rode on eager for new vistas and the lure of the desert.
Barely stopping we rolled along under the hot sun, cool only when the air flowed through our jackets and we were grateful for the peaked visors to our helmets. The landscape turned brown and beige, hard sun burnt earth scattered with rocks. Finally at Midelt I slowed on the main street looking for tea, but trying to wave us down the touts eagerly stepped into the road and the busy side walks were too crowded for my hungry soul, so leaving it to fate we rode on. Fate came in the shape of a clean looking hotel with a tree shaded terrace on a quiet street corner. Pulling up onto the wide pavement no tout ambushed us and we leisurely greeted the waiter who suggested chicken, chips and Moroccan salad with the tea we ordered, so lunch it was in the cool and quiet. That was until Ronald introduced himself, from his face not a local, his clothes were clean but fringed with wear and he held himself up on a crutch as he introduced himself from Germany, he had nothing to sell nor wanted anything from us and despite my misgiving he stayed true to his word. He sat down with us and chatted about his marriage to a local girl, about Morocco, the politics, where all the money was coming from funding all the road works we had seen since entering the country. Years ago he had lived in London and also in Spain and he helped us to understand a little more of the land we were travelling through before he wished us well and limped off leaving us feeling that Morocco would be a good.
After lunch we were treated to the decent down the ‘Gorges du Ziz’, the river fed from the huge plains of the middle Atlas carves its way through the rock and feeds a lush green ribbon of trees and oasis before it disperses into the ‘Barrage Hassan Addakhil’. This huge man made lake built in 1971 to generate power for the town of Er-Richidia is over 15 km long and painted a deep clear blue.
Riding into Er-Rachidia, heads craned like Meer Cats we looked for a suitable hotel and outside the Hotel Meski spotted the black Honda of Mike and Chris alongside an unknown Irish Kawasaki. We had to say hello, so going inside we were greeted and introduced to JJ a solo Irish traveller and true veteran of Morocco with over a dozen visits to his credit. He had negotiated a 50% discount on the room rate with the English speaking and hospitable owner who was eager for the out of season trade. Mike and Chris had met JJ earlier in the year at the Horizons Unlimited rally in Ireland and had recognised his bike as they rode into town, how big is the world ? That evening JJ showed us round, a much needed education into the souks or markets, what things cost and the cheap places to eat. The 5 Dirhams we paid for soup, bread and tea was almost too good to be true. Meeting him helped both to release much of our remaining apprehension and save our budget. If we had not had the incident at the port we would have no doubt been on an earlier ferry and not met Mike and Chris which had led onto the fortuitous meeting with JJ, strange how destiny works sometimes. The only price to pay for the discounted hotel room was ‘Rocky’ the hoteliers dog chained up at the back of the building spending much of the night trying to out shout his neighbours.
Saturday 9th October
Eager for the desert and to ride the sand, the next morning we left our luggage and headed south, hoping our trail bikes and the off road training back in England would allow us to taste the delights of ‘off roading’ desert style. It was warm and dry, the bright blue of the sky contrasting against the increasingly sand coloured land which filled our view down the road. This was until we dropped off the plateau into the valley and once again the river gave life to a winding corridor of vivid green oasis and small villages.
Stopping at Rissani just south of Erfoud for our morning tea we sat surveying the street busy with donkeys, carts, local taxi’s and trucks, foreign 4x4’s and even a column of over a dozen French mobile homes, their bright white bodywork clashing with the pastel shades of the town. Each vehicle was being piloted and crewed by two aging tourists, sat, side by side in their winged captains chairs viewing through large goldfish bowl windscreens. Then our tea was interrupted by people we had assumed were other clientele, they hurriedly dropped down the vinyl sides of the terrace roof and it was then that we noticed the advancing cloud of dust coming up the street, this was our first real taste of the desert winds. Despite the wind and dust we decided to continue, the tarmac laid almost like an after thought over the rock covered earth. We leaned hard to counteract the relentless wind, the wind blowing like you only find in vast wide open spaces or out at sea.
Not too soon we arrived at Merzuga and the end of the tarmac, a painted arched gateway led onto the gravel and sand beyond and we rode down to where the tourist stop, where the Berber tents and camels invite rides out into the dunes. Putting my weight back, eager to try my skills I powered forward onto an area of deep soft sand hoping to enjoy the sensation of gliding over the surface. But no, like a drunken Friday night reveller, the machine and I swayed and swerved left and right before trusting to the mantra ‘if in doubt nail it’ I ended up falling in a blushing heap. The touts eagerly tried to assist this foolish traveller and despite my protests minutes were spent looking for the snapped bolt head from my cheap hand guard. Buy cheap buy twice. Irritated I replied ‘No we didn’t want a camel ride’ ‘No we didn’t want to sleep in Berber tent’ ‘No we didn’t want to look at the best prices’ and ‘No we didn’t want to help a Berber family', all of whom seemed to be dressed in knock off Nike and wearing huge shiny watches under their robes. All I wanted to do was ride the sand, failing at that, I took a single picture of the huge Erg Chebbi sand dune, cable tied the hand guard, rode back to the village and ate a very welcome but expensive lunch. Though to be fair how much should tourists pay when you come to the end of the road ? The afternoon was spent leaning hard the other way and we slept well, tired and stomachs full of Moroccan soup, bread and tea all for 5 Dirhams from the market soup kitchen.
Sunday 10th October
We were off early next morning, maximising full value for money, though I have yet to work out the pounds and pence per minute cost of the trip. Should you include the hours you sleep as part of the calculations because you sleep at home too ? It’s strange how modern working practices of best value and maximising efficiency creep into our holidays and adventures. Does it mean that we never truly relax and live in the moment, the here and now or how long does it take after clocking off that this way of thinking passes, or is it just me ?
The Todra Gorge was next on our route and stopping briefly to take photo’s Jane became the tourist attraction. Here we were, with this magnificent geological feature and some of the tourists just wanted to be photographed alongside the English lady, on her Japanese motorbike. We had no common language so I wonder if they had any idea who and what we were, but no doubt their holiday album will forever freeze the moment they stood along side her on her motorbike, a foreigner in a foreign land.
Following the rough road through the gorge, splashing through the river, the road turned into good tarmac and we climbed higher and higher, the landscape echoing North Americas Grand Canyon.
Our morning tea was taken high in the mountains at the tiny village of Tamtattouchte, there was no greenery or signs of industry so we wondered how the villagers made a living. The children playing in the streets looked ragged, unkempt and unclean for the first time. But no stone throwing, the marauding gangs of children throwing stones at passing bikers another scary story which failed the truth test. At a small Auberge we were provided with sweet mint tea, served in glasses without the usual tea pot for a top up and the man first sat quiet, then left us to finish, his mood seemed to reflect the growing cold and dampness in the air. Not a single car we saw as we rode over 80 km into the mountains, which grew colder and greyer, then the drizzle set in.
At Agoudal we turned onto the mountain track towards the Gorges du Dades. We had initially missed the turn as the 1 to 1,000,000 Michelin map at times made it hard to know exactly where we were, I wished for my good old Ordnance Survey Maps with contour lines, features and a scale I could visualise. The local funding doesn’t stretch to village name plates and many of the villages don’t justify themselves enough to be on the maps, though sometimes it is hard to know why one is marked and the other not. In a village it is normally easy to see where the ‘proper’ route goes in between the buildings, the way ‘signed’ by the well worn tyre tracks but here the villagers were in the process of concreting the junction and the JCB earth works had meant I’d unknowingly ridden past the turn. You have to be careful and keep a sharp eye otherwise you can end up riding between the wrong buildings and into some ones back yard. Even with all the road improvements, when the contactors reach a village the route between the building is often no wider than a car and the villagers refuse to allow their houses to be pulled down for the road widening, compensation would not be forth coming so would you ? So often there is new tarmac that stops at the edge of the village and then starts again at the other side.
In the gathering gloom and water dripping from our helmets we motor crossed over the road works, this was made hard by the excavations, the crowd of on lookers, the JCB and a group of Spanish bikers arriving at the same time.
Standing next to me Hammed taking his opportunity, he made his subtle sales pitch, ‘Yes we are English’, ‘Yes we are going that way’ I answered, ‘Sir come to my house, it is raining, the way is too hard for your wife, it is late, stay with me’. I smiled, thanked him for his concern, and forgetting to take off my glove I shook his hand and promised that if we came back we would come visit his house which he was vigorously pointing out. The small children gathered around Jane and her bike, calling for Bon-Bon ? Stelo ? Cadeaux ? But all the advice questions the wisdom of freely giving these gifts. We had none to give and the bikes mirrors helped her to detect little fingers trying to explore luggage zips for these prizes. All that was needed was a ‘Non’, a wagging finger and the youngsters cheekily smiled back and caught in the act they tried awkwardly to hide empty their hands behind their backs.
Then we were off into the maze of alleyways picking the most worn route before coming out of the village on the narrow and faint track, the grey sky and drizzle merging all the colours and definition. This was what we had come for, we rode for over 30 miles higher into the mountains, not a single junction, up and down, left and right, winding along the steep hill sides. There was nowhere to stop or pass and we hoped not to meet another vehicle, we were the smallest vehicle on the road, a 4x4 or truck would expect us to yield, but there was nowhere go to other than the steep rocky mountainside.
We rode steadily, not a place to fall or break something, the wet clouds and rain made the rocks and top surface of the red earth slippery. My head was racing, concentrating and concerned that it wasn’t all too much for Jane - had we bitten off more we could chew ? But I needn’t have worried, not once did she balk, the only slip being a dropped bike as she came to a stop to answer a call of nature, her frustration leaked out with each stamp of her feet. Then we dropped below the clouds, it stopped raining and then as the mud turned to hard earth and gravel, countless hairpin bends led us down to a river and the outlying farms. It was difficult to not look at the stunning view and keep watching the track.
We started looking for somewhere to sleep and yet again just as darkness started to unroll its cloak the village of Msemrir and its café appeared. No sooner had we stopped Hamid the proprietor stepped out, tall, dressed in a heavy black djellaba, the Moroccan hooded robe, he greeting us in English, shaking hands we quickly negotiated bed, breakfast and evening meal, with a locked garage for the bikes. No hot water made the deal cheaper, but nothing is quite what it appears. The Auberge was not part of the café, it was further into the village, later we guessed it was his old family home as they were now living in a bigger and more modern house behind. The anxious ride up and down the narrow, steep, rough unpaved streets behind his car, in the pitch darkness ended our day. We had the place to ourselves, a cold strip wash followed the sweet mint tea and mixed nuts he brought for us. Then we ate our first Tajine, chicken and vegetables cooked in their own juices in a thick earthenware pot, followed by fresh fruit and more tea, this drew the curtain on another long and full day.
During the night, the first wave of wind brought heavy rain lashing against the windows and a stream of water down the stairs leading from the roof, this collecting in a puddle on the ceramic floor. Somewhere a heavy metal door clanged loudly against its frame and the village dogs proved that they didn’t need to sleep. A few hours silence allowed us to sleep, snuggled down under the weighty blankets, the night had turned cold. But the second wave as loud as the first gave us an early morning call and we listened and wondered what the day would bring, assuming we decided to leave our refuge as winter seemed to have arrived. We need not have worried, daylight allowed us you survey our surrounding from the roof terrace, the clouds were breaking and wind had disappeared, this left us only with the biting cold.
Monday 11th October
We were collected for breakfast as arranged and we rode though the streets back to the café and this time stepping across the threshold different worlds met; a large television set was mounted on the wall high above the counter and rather than optics, row upon row of the distinctive red labelled Coke-a-Cola bottles decorated the wall. Two play station handsets lay on the bar, the long cables looping up to the TV and no guessing the owner’s other passion, as a large Barcelona flag dressed one wall alongside glossy team posters. Our meal was laid out including the foil wrapped triangular laughing cow cheese which accompanied many of our breakfasts. After we had eaten and were waiting to pay we again noticed the large pile of blankets on one of the low settees, but this time the sandals gave it away, we had not been sat eating alone, now we found that the younger brother of the owner had been sleeping hidden under the blanket.
John Wayne would have been proud, we were burning day light and so we were off before much of the village had even stirred, the dogs now quiet lounging lazily, not even bothering to raise their heads as we motored by – so much for this scary story. The scenery was such that it was hard not to stop at every new view to record and drink it in. The road twisted down the valley, steeply at times, hair pin after hair pin, buildings clinging to the steep rocky hillsides. And the rocks, layer upon layer visible, their tortured past shown clearly as the strata bent, curved and folded back on its self. At other times huge bulbous formations like massive fingers and thick layers of children’s plasticine looked foreign and out of place.
At the filling station the suns rays finally tempted us to strip off the wet weather gear and enjoy both the warmth and feeling that a full tank of petrol brings. Gazing up at the mountains from where we had just come, the white clouds only half disguised the freshly snow dusted peaks and ridges. This was the first snow of winter we learned later from the Dutch sage Peter Buitelaar.
The fellowship that comes with riding motorcycles meant we weren’t stood long before two German riders stopped and introduced themselves. They were Moroccan ‘newbies’ like us but with less time were racing around, with over loaded bikes. One was even carrying a spare back tyre, just in case ! We shared our inexperience with smiles and jokes and we described where they were going and they told us of our destination.
Onwards down from the hills we rode west towards Quarzazate, pronounced wazazat, difficult for my English tongue. Our smiles soon faded as the wind returned, the cold air from the hills rushing out to the desert and our lean angle barely maintained a straight line as the dust laden wind blew across the road. Enough ! Following a sheltered respite in a café the decision was made and an early finish at the BikersHome at Quarzazate was voted for. The Dutchman and his Moroccan wife Zineb make their living taking adventurers out into the desert by 4x4 or using their small fleet of off road bikes. They also offer B&B and it was to this welcoming haven we arrived, missing Mike and Chris by just 3 hours, never mind. The welcome and the ready humour of our genial hosts made us feel relaxed and comfortable. Our roof top room looked out over the town, the view smudged by the wind borne dust. That evening ten of us crowded round the table which was barely visible beneath all the different dishes and a deep relaxed sleep followed hours of good company and conversation.
The next day dawned clear, bright and windless and our host with thirty years experience in Morocco picked perfectly suggesting an off road route of 80km to the next town. This took us off the main road and into the rolling foothills, this was what we had come for. We hardly saw another vehicle, only three 4x4’s and four off rode bikers who sped passed us, with no luggage and far more skill, their dust trail led the way in the distance over the next hill. Stood up on the pegs, arms relaxed, weight over the front wheel, you couldn’t see your bike and like a scene from Titanic we flew over gravel for two hours.
The route for the day was to take us back into the mountains just west of Toubkal, Moroccos highest mountain of 4167m. The natural and ancient way north is to the east climbing the Tizi-n-Tichka pass from Quarzazate. But we had chosen the much quieter way of the Tizi-n-Test and it was as the day drew to a close we were still slowly weaving our way up this narrow and twisty route. The French blasted their way up and across the steep slopes and valleys from 1926 and 1932 to create this road. We rode ever higher hoping for a Gite or even somewhere to pitch our tent but the steep slopes gave us nothing until on a hairpin the La Belle Vue hotel offered us a bed. Mohamed the owner greeted us and after the ritual bargaining he made space in his garage for our bikes. The hotel was stretching it’s description, it had no hot water and no shower despite ‘la douche’ being promised, the rooms were basic and bare, lit by small ancient bulbs which gave off a faint yellow glow. I discovered the reason by the stairs, two lorry batteries wired to an unseen solar panel provided the only power. And no heating despite the altitude of 2100m, but we had our sleeping bags, the promise of hot food including our first Berber omelettes and a view which didn’t disappoint.
Then good fortune smiled again, we had been the only residents until Rafik and Virginie arrived, they were touring by car from Marrakesh airport. Virginie, a chemist for Unilever from Paris and Rafik an Algerian, a physicist for the French nuclear industry. Speaking Arabic he was greeted like a long lost son by Mohamed and I’m sure that our night’s food and hospitality improved once they arrived. Their company was great, Rafik gave us a few words of Arabic to ease our way across Morocco and he was eager to show off his Iphone. Despite the cold we opened the windows and using his modern technology we identified constellations in the stars which shone in their millions as we were above the clouds.
Wednesday 13 October.
The following morning breakfast was a leisurely affair, as always when you are reluctant to leave good company, photos and hand shakes eventually saw us riding away and almost immediately down the other side of the mountains. Bend after bend, hairpin after hairpin led us down the roads lined with cacti before we finally arrived at the small town of Asni.
Then the quiet of the mountains was rudely interrupted first, filling with fuel, the loud hustle and bustle of the garage forecourt and the vehicles stopping, turning and unloading goods. Then second, stopping for our usual morning tea, no sooner had we parked the bikes the touts circled and swooped. The direct approach of the first man failed, the second, Mohammed was far more subtle. He engaged us in conversation, his good English enabling him to enquire where we were from, ‘No not London the north’, ‘Middlesbrough ?’ he asked. He had a friend in Middlesbrough who came twice a year, how could he know that it was my home town ? He organised tea for us and he told us of his family and where to go, which towns to visit, when the market days were etc. Then his subtle sales pitch, slowly producing from a small black bag a selection of ‘genuine’ Berber jewellery and trinkets. We still hadn’t bought a gift for our daughter and this pedlar seemed as good as any, so carefully selecting one item we discussed the price, my paltry and cheeky offer of one eighth of his first asking price met with a flash of his eyes, but we agreed a little over half and shaking hands, the deal was done with a smile. And no we didn’t want anything else. The nice thing for me was that he didn’t then just fade away. He sat with me and chatted and when Jane went to buy some fruit he accompanied her and she paid much less in his company than normal. Then when another pedlar in broken French tried to sell his wares Mohammed sent him on his way and we were left alone to sip our tea.
Refreshed and pleased with our purchase we rode on and enjoyed the European money being spent on the roads, following the meanders of the river, we pushed on round the endless bends and curves on the smooth tarmac with little traffic, mindful of the occasional donkey and herd of goats. I almost wished for my KTM super moto stood garaged at home. Our route took us to Marrakesh and its chaos; the road signs disappeared once within the confines of the city and we barely avoiding riding into the souk with it’s ancient narrow alleys crammed with pedestrians and vehicles a like, squeezing between the stalls which bulged out onto the pavements . I only just managed to find the road north east and onward to our goal of the Cascades d’Ouzoud, waterfalls described as the most spectacular in Morocco.
As usual we arrived late in the day, the tourist coaches passing us in the opposite direction leaving us alone with the stall holders who were packing away their wares. Stopping to consult our guide we managed to fend off the touts, all except Mohammed who stood politely whilst we read our options and then he introduced himself, our Arabic reply eliciting the automatic touch of his chest and reply. He had the best hotel, at the best price not far away if we would follow him. He cheekily dropped down the pillion foot pegs on my bike but then saw that the luggage prevented him from sitting and despite my offer for him to stand behind me, off he trotted. It was almost like a Foreign Legion training run, he was dressed in a short sleeved shirt of a nameless colour, sandy cargo trousers cut short above his unusual high black laced boots, and he wore a peaked green forage cap and ran with the thin limbed gait of youth. We wondered how far it was as we bumped over the rutted streets, but Mohammed didn’t falter and parking the bikes in the walled court yard under the olive trees he showed us the best rooms, on suite with a hot shower, then we started negotiations. 300 for the room, 25 each for breakfast and 120 each for an evening meal, best price for us he offered, though I hadn’t failed to notice there was no one else staying the night. The exertion of the run was now showing as little beads of sweat formed on his forehead accompanied the facade of going to agree with his boss that we could have the breakfast as part of the room fee added to the charade. ‘My friend’ he kept saying, ‘best price’ putting his thin arm around by shoulders bulked by the jackets armour. Jane started to move towards the door and taking his hand I said 300 for the room, dinner and breakfast. Agreed ? At last he agreed, smiled and accused me of being Moroccan. Then he helped us to our room, turned on the water heater and all was well.
We sat and ate a hearty dinner, the food was good, so our decision to stay a second night came easily and the next day saw us wandering around the waterfalls watching the coach loads of tourists being led through the ‘system’ to maximise the money they spend. Somehow we felt different and it was if, because we walked through the village rather than alighting from the air conditioned coaches they saw us differently. We also noticed that if we carried something, be it bread or fruit in a cheap plastic bag and didn’t show any interest in their wares, the vendors left us alone.
The cascades are home to a troop of Barbary apes and they descend to the paths and viewing platforms to extract food from the tourists, this you can buy from the stall holders despite the large information signs explaining the reasons not to. The strangest sight of the day was watching Jane being mugged for our lunch by one enthusiastic ape. The Spanish tourists also thought the same as they clicked away with their cameras, as Jane eventually won the tug of war when the plastic bag shredded, she held onto the two bananas victorious as the ape retreated, loudly objecting at losing what he thought was rightfully his. The sight seeing day off the bikes had been good.
Next morning riding north with no particular plan we followed our noses enjoying the scenery and the sense that we had begun to feel comfortable and relaxed in this foreign land. The roads were good, the people friendly and many good things had happened to us since those first anxious days. It was Friday and we hadn’t really given much thought but the roads were quieter and the shops were closed longer for lunch. This meant our usual routine was disrupted and we ended up buying food at a large and unfriendly service station, the concrete forecourt the size of a football pitch. At least they provide covered shelters to shade us from the sun as we ate the most expensive wayside lunch of the trip.
The day worn on and with the scenery forever holding our eye, we decided after a failed negotiation for the night’s bed and board at Kenifra, to finally use the tent which had been redundant since Spain. So a few miles north of Mrirt we slipped off the road onto a gravel track, leading out into the hills. It was good to be riding stood on the pegs, the bikes raising a trail of dust on the newly graded surface being prepared for its tarmac top coat. On we rode the clouds above like a biblical painting led us to some derelict buildings and an area of flat earth which we later guessed was the school playground and football pitch. So as not to attract the attention of the farmers on the nearby hills we decided to cook and then pitch our tent in the dark and be away by first light. A small roofless dry stone building provided some shelter from the evening breeze as our tea warmed through on the stove. A distant farmer started towards us on his donkey and again we feared the British response of ‘you cannot stay here’ or ‘get off my land’. But no, he was only hurriedly rounding up his goats and cattle for the night and came no closer. As the light faded a large green tractor of unknown vintage chugged along the track and for a moment I thought it wasn’t going to stop, but then the two young men on board waved and came slowly to a juddering halt. As they walked back to us we could have been back in England, the white trainers, tracksuit trousers with the Adidas strips, Nike tops and neat haircuts seemingly out of place in these hills. My Arabic greeting did the trick, warm hand shakes, followed by questions in broken French, yes we were okay thank you, no not from London, but not far from Manchester Utd, they understood, thank you for the offer to go home with you but it is a nice night, we have a tent. Jupiter was already bright against the matt black sky. Their French was limited and I was also unsure how their family would feel about them bringing home two dusty motorcyclists. They were polite and wished us good night and asked did we have any whisky ? No but I did have a torch to help them get their tractor going which was dropping oil at an alarming rate onto the ground.
So we were alone cloaked in darkness, no one seemed to mind us camping and the food was almost cooked, we sat sipping our black tea content and relaxed, just a little cold, the clear sky draining away the last of the days warmth.
Then silently from around the building, out of the dark Mohammed appeared, slim and dressed in western clothes, we had neither seen nor heard him approach. Standing, I greeted him in Arabic and with the slightest of bows he touched his chest in reply. He spoke no French or English so we were at a loss, I stood there like an awkward teenager unsure of what to do next. Smiling, we played a game of charades, we should go with him, and holding his hands together, gently he gestured sleep. What to do, I thanked him in Arabic and he smiled, I tried to explain we were okay, food cooking and had a tent but no smiling he insisted and sat down his back against the building. Jane and I wide-eyed looked at each other, what was the etiquette, I took another aluminium pannier off the bike, gave it to him as a seat and then offered him some of our bottled water. The food now cooked, needed eating so we divided it into three and shared our pasta in tomato sauce, with bread. I guessed he was only being polite as he ate just a couple of fork full’s before putting down the plate and draining the cup of water.
Jane and I unsure hurriedly wolfed down our food, what was to be lost if we went with him, my senses gave me no thought that he meant us any harm, we could always ride away if unhappy or worried, even if it appeared rude. Then a second older man appeared, this time wearing the Moroccan djellaba. They greeted each other and a short conversation followed, we appeared to be being introduced by our new friend. The older man refused any food or our seats but sat down in the dust, happy to share the water and Mohammed’s conversation. We hurriedly packed and as we did so the older man, shook my hand and walked off into the night, who was he where was he going ? Our friend eager as ever kept miming for us to go with him and he almost seemed relieved when we mounted our bikes and slowly followed him. Our headlights barely picked out the route over the rain worn earth, the engines loud against the silence of the night. Where and how far were we going ? The ground rising up, we slithered across the mud of a dry streambed.
Then we were there, the white washed walls of the low single storey buildings almost growing out of the ground and the chorus of barking dogs long since heralding our arrival to those indoors. We were met by people that we later guessed were Mohammed’s mother, his wife, both wearing traditional clothes, head and arms covered and a younger man possibly his wife’s brother, dressed in a European style.
We couldn’t have been treated with more kindness and respect, hot water was brought in a shiny, curly spouted kettle, a large blue plastic bowl and towel to wash our hands before we were fed and given hot sweet tea. Without a common language, we joked and laughed at each other’s pantomimes, my cameras pictures and map only able to communicate a little of where we had been and who we were. The room warm both from the single gas light and the generosity of our hosts, we wished we spoke more Arabic and had brought more pictures of home. Eager to communicate Mohammed produced a mobile phone and rang his brother who, in stilted French tried to convey a message, sadly his and our French didn’t seem to match so the meaning will never be known. Our night time ablutions were taken as directed in the fields behind the farm and we returned to be greeted by Mohammed with the kettle and towel once more. It was with a great sense of humbleness that we slipped off to sleep feeling safe and warm in their living room, thick colourful rugs acting as a mattress. So much for the tent, only the night time grumblings of the dogs outside reminded us where we were.
Saturday 16th October
In the morning, I found our bikes had been covered with thick blankets despite their coating of dust and dirt and the dogs from the night weren’t just roaming but were tethered in a circle round the farm and its livestock for protection. We were treated to breakfast, including the company of the older man from the previous evening, who in ceremony poured us endless glasses of tea, the sugar broken in lumps from large blocks in a box. What do you do ? How do you say thank you ? Should you pay ? Offer money ? Would that offend ? If we offered a bed to someone at home we would not expect payment, but they had so little. No running water, no electricity, but never once did they asked for anything. I had noticed that the previous night Mohammed had used an old torch with a fading yellow light, so I made a gift of an LED light, with spare batteries, and now I know the real reason why I carry a spare. Jane gave gifts of unopened tablets of scented soap and an unopened jar of jam we had been carrying, for just such an emergency. Was it enough ? Not enough ? We will never know. Posing for photographs Mohammed smiled happily and almost seemed to glow so I hope so and one day we may take them a photograph back for their Berber kindness.
Then we were off waving over our shoulders following the tyre marks back to the track, my head full of new questions and thoughts. There was also a sadness that just as we were beginning to feel really at ease we were heading home. It was tempting to stretch out our time in Morocco but neither of us wanted the pressure of racing across Spain in the two days it had taken coming south, so it only left us a day and a half before we would be back in Spain.
We needed fuel, I had tempted fate by not stopping in Meknes and now I was unsure of just how far we could ride or close the next filling station was. There was a long section on the map with no towns and not all the small villages had petrol. Gambling I turned off our route to the town of Moulay-Idriss, perched high on the hill the white houses stood out against the brown and green of the landscape. The petrol station on the edge of town was derelict the pumps rusty and the windowpanes broken, I guessed wrongly there would be one at the other side of town. We rode up the main street, the only street and today it was market day, the stallholders and crowd of pedestrians, like the fans at the end of a local derby filled the street, the road was theirs. Turning round was not an option, the street narrow and the steepness of the hill combined with the pressing crowd guaranteed a dropped bike. So air cooled engines and clutches complaining we crawled through the people yard by yard. It felt like I was being punished for not taking the opportunity of refuelling earlier, my schoolboy error putting Jane through this trial. Stopping at a break in the stalls, I realised the reason for the space was because it was outside the Police station, the three uniformed men sat on chairs in the shade looked at us and I could almost hear them thinking, you foolish boy, what are you doing riding up here. Refreshed from the camelbacks we always wear, once more into the crowd which was walking even more slowly as the road steepened, but eventually we reached open road and guessing the way I found the main road and a welcome petrol station with a teashop. Never again will I miss the chance to fill up and gamble on the next opportunity.
The road was easier now as we were reversing our second day’s route and spotting a group of German bikers we stopped to say hello. It was strange how they were eager with questions just as we had been not many days before, it was as if our grubby clothes and dirty bikes told them we would have to answers.
We also rode through our final Police check point, most days we would pass through a number of these. Bright yellow and red speed limit signs slowed the traffic to a 40km crawl and the two or three ‘cops’ waved in vehicles for documents to be checked. At this one like all the rest we slowed down early, waved at the officers and were waved through on with a smile, never once on the entire trip were we stopped or questioned. This finally putting to bed another scary story.
We rode into Chefchaouen and it was strange that by coming from the opposite direction gives a town a different look and character. We decided this time to stay in the centre and enjoy the souk, so we rode round and round the one-way streets failing to find the hotels promised on the information signs. Finally we stopped at a tout who showed me a room, clean enough and at the right price, but no food, we would need to eat out. Moving in we discovered again it wasn’t quite as sold, the 30 metres promised to the secure parking was in reality a walk two streets away, but it was in a high walled yard with a night guardian for which we paid 20 Dirhams.
I was slightly annoyed when we set out to find food, much rather wanting the ease of a meal in a hotel, but I warmed to the hustle and bustle of the market. Like true Moroccan veterans we bought supplies for tomorrow and it appeared the longer we stayed in Morocco the prices seemed to drop, maybe our tanned faces and the lack of the wide-eyed tourist stare entitled us to better prices. We paused outside the markets soup kitchen knowing that despite the grubby appearance the food would be okay and very cheap. As we hovered making the decision to enter, a voice, in clear English said ‘I wouldn’t eat in there if I was you, the soup only costs 3 Dirhams’. The voice belonged to a smartly dressed youth of seventeen called Mohammed and he barely broke step as Jane replied ‘Why not we’ve eaten in place like that before’. He wasn’t a tout and after a brief conversation he took us to a basement restaurant hidden way from the main road. It was obviously not a tourist haunt and we would never have known it was there if Mohammed had not taken us. The food was some of the best we had eaten and the bill half of what we had paid elsewhere. At our invitation he stayed with us and drank tea, for an hour and a half he shared his company, with the clear sight of youth he talked of Morocco, its poverty, its politics, the Police, the future, its past and what he would do if he was King. His obvious education and knowledge showing through. Again good fortune had smiled on our last night in Morocco, if we had eaten in a hotel we would not have met Mohammed and had a different insight to a country we were reluctant to leave and eager to return to.
The night, again different from all the previous ones, The African cup was in full swing, the cafes stayed open until late, and the closing of the shutters disturbed our sleep but not more than our six legged friends. As we had come back to the room now in darkness, we switched on the light and a number of beetle like creatures scuttled across the floor and the bed sheets. Catching a couple we decided to use our sleeping bags pulled tight round our heads rather than the bedding provided, but it was too warm so my arms and shoulders uncovered I slept until the feeling of tiny feet marching down my arm woke me and ended my slumber.
Anyway, it meant an early start and we had been told we could collect the bikes at seven. Bags packed we walked to the now firmly closed and padlocked steel doors of the compound. It was Sunday morning, so very ‘English’ we tapped on the doors, no reply, a couple of friendly residents came to our aid, and they bellowed ‘Mohammed’ and other words not understood. I feared the whole town would wake such was their calling. Shuffling from one foot to another we stood embarrassed at all the noise but our bikes were on the other side and we wanted to leave. The two residents had failed and one even pushed the doors so hard a metal pipe lent against the inside fell away with a hollow clang, no doubt it was used as an alarm as the doors still held. All of this still failed to rouse our snoozing guard. Again ‘we were burning daylight’ so I loudly re-started the wake up call, ‘Mohammed, Bonjour Ca-va’ I shouted and repeatedly hammered on the doors urged on by the grins of the two residents. But to no avail, so years of scaling mountains and rock was put to good use, I scrambled up onto the top of the twelve-foot wall and dropped into the yard full of cars. Still shouting a morning greeting, I entered his tiny shack like home but still no movement under the thick woollen blanket. ‘Bonjour, Ca-va, Êtes-vous morts’ I called, shaking the mound, a sleepy face greeted me and I bundled him out of the door still half-asleep, the gates open we were off, the wrong way down a one way street in our haste. There was no traffic to tell us our mistake.
We were at the border with five days of holiday in credit but it was difficult not to think of the trip coming to end as we queued through the barriers and security. Strange how it seemed friendlier this time, making sure that we had the necessary stamps added to our papers to confirm that we had taken the bikes out of the country. A boat was waiting and the relief was palpable as we lounged on the same red velour chairs. I had thought I had come to relax and feel at ease in Morocco but it wasn’t until the unknown tension ebbed away that we both realised how tense we must have been most of the time. We landed and entered Europe where the price displayed is paid, shopping comes with receipts, RAC recovery kicks in and motor insurance is fully comprehensive. Two hours of our lives disappeared in an instant as the time zone was crossed.
Monday 18th October to Friday 22nd October
To avoid the feelings of a holiday over, we focused on a whistle stop tour of Spain, a country neither of us had explored before so avoiding the motorways we wetted our appetites for future tours. The mornings were bitterly cold, frost on the ground and even with no wind the cold pierced our clothing as we tried to shrink down behind the bikes screens. The biting cold meant we treated ourselves to double coffee and thick toast covered in jam at our now ritual morning stops.
We briefly tasted the chaos of Cadiz and rode high picturesque roads through limestone landscapes, before camping near Aracena. We had the wooded hillside site to ourselves, the water in the taps piping hot so we made full use of the facilities. Horse chestnuts, ripe, fell from the trees with a thud and scattered everywhere, large mushrooms also peppered the earth, the delicate fungus amazingly pushing large clods of earth skywards as they forced their way out of the ground. Near to the impressive walled town of Avila we failed to locate a campsite so found a quiet spot on the High Sierra, off the road and out of sight over looking the rolling hills to the north. The iridescent moon shone so brightly we hardly needed a torch and stood sipping coffee over an almost silent land, a lone dog barking in the distance. Our final night was spent in luxury on a site near to the village of Potes in the Picos mountains. We were the only people braving the cold night under canvas, the rest of the campers residing snug inside their mobile homes. Sleep came easily as the day had finished following the countless switch backs and bends up and over the passes into the heart of the pale grey rocky peaks.
A final twisty road out of the mountains in the morning led us to the motorway and our ferry and even though we were homeward bound you can’t not fail to feel the sense of adventure as you ride into the hold and strap the bike down. The bikes almost the forgotten hero’s of the trip had never missed a beat. It took us two more days before we finally arrived home, heads full of memories and eager to go back