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Thread: Slave labour camps, fossils and desert flowers

  1. #1
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Slave labour camps, fossils and desert flowers

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

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

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

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

    So how did I get on?

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

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



    The KTM 690 was wrapped up all cosy in the 'Hobbit' cave with the telescope and cases of cava for company.



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

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



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



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



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



    This is how a real expert does it in just 44 seconds!

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



    My lightweight bike stand from Endurostar in the States.

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

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

    Some people prefer soft luggage but when travelling solo I need to ensure my important stuff is safe when I leave the bike and explore places on foot. All the gear is totally waterproof in case of accidents during river crossings, a lesson learnt the hard way (haha).
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  2. #2
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Solar gain and wind chill
    One of the best expressions to describe the Moroccan climate is that it is a 'cold country with a hot sun', so if there's no sun, especially in winter, it can be cold. Before leaving southern Spain I did some experiments to see how solar gain helped the impression of temperature. We have a wireless internal/external temperature station at the cave and I moved the outside sensor from the shade, where it registered just 2ºC, to the sun and found it increased to 12ºC. This is for a white sensor, in the Spanish winter sun. Obviously a black sensor in the summer sun would be far greater gain.

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

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

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

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



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



    My route for the first 24 hours. Rather than crossing the relative narrow Strait of Gibraltar, the Almería ferry takes you much further to the east.



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



    (Yes, I know the gravel needs weeding!)

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

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



    Leaving Almería

    I've done this route four times now. If carrying camping gear then the cheapest crossing involves buying a recliner seat for the ferry, and sleeping on the floor using a sleeping mat (all the lounge seats have hard dividers to prevent people using them). I wasn't carrying camping gear, so I booked a cabin for the crossing. This is a bit pricy for just one person, but shared between two would be good value. I once booked a bunk in a shared four-person cabin and had to listen to two of the other three snoring all night long. Never again.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  3. #3
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Melilla to Oujda
    Melilla is still part of Spain, so once ashore you navigate to the border crossing at Beni Enzal. I headed into Melilla first to fill up with fuel and take a look around the old fort, by which time dawn was breaking over the boat I had arrived on.



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

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

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

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



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



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



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



    Health and Safety in Oujda!

    My first night in Morocco was at Hotel Al Hanna in Oujda which cost 100 dh/night (less than £7) with garage parking round the corner for another 10 dh.

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



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

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



    Map of the route to Oujda (green) plus the following day's route (blue) to Ain Beni Mathar. The black line running north-south at the right of the map is the Algerian border.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  4. #4
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Mobile phones and Internet in Morocco
    One of my first jobs in Oujda was to get a Moroccan SIM for my iPhone so I could use data services on the move.

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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

    Some of the videos later in this report were also taken with the iPhone, but mostly I used a helmet-mounted GoPro Hero.



    Most of this region is higher 1000m above sea level, and is described as "Siberian" in the winter time. Yup.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

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    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Jerada coal mine and the Cascades Oued Lhay
    I continued west from Tiouli, crossed the N17 and made for Jerada which is a pretty town surrounded by spoil heaps.



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



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



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

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

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

    When I arrived at Ain Beni Mathar I found that neither of the two fuel stations had unleaded petrol. This was a bit of a problem as I didn't have enough left in the tank to make the next fuel station further south at Tendrara. But in remote areas there's always a stash of fuel somewhere and after asking around I acquired 7 litres of fuel. The going rate for fuel from cans is 15 dh/litre but I don't mind paying that if it gets me out of a bind. And 15dh/litre is still cheaper than the UK!
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

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    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Around Ain Beni Mathar
    I stayed overnight at Hotel El Gara which was 100dh for a single room. There's a car park opposite with an overnight guardian whom I paid 20 dh. The hotel has wifi but is freezing cold in the winter months so I appreciated extra blankets. In the morning I went to find the railway station and any signs of the Berguent Vichy labour camp.



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



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

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

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



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



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



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

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



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

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



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



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

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



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



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



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

    I've been carefully tracking the KTM 690 R fuel consumption on Fuelly. As standard the 690 R has a 11.7-litre tank which worries some owners, who then add an auxiliary tank. However I've found that at Moroccan speeds I'm easily achieving 26 km/litre which gives me a range of 300km. I need to do something about wind protection for the winter months, but have no plans to add an auxiliary tank.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

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    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Bouarfa and Iche
    I really excelled myself with Hotel Sahara in Bouarfa which was just 60 dh/night. Once the customers in the cafe area had left I was invited to park the bike inside overnight at no charge. But you get what you pay for, and the hotel wasn't heated—I have to say it was really cold overnight. I carry a JetBoil stove to make coffee and soup, and when packing in Spain I had seriously thought about throwing in one of our fleece-covered hot water bottles. Big mistake not to do so.

    My plans for the next day were to visit the last of the railway sites, then head due east to Iche, the easternmost point in Morocco, before taking pistes south to Figuig.



    As I approached Bouarfa station there was half a dozen young lads hanging out on the roof and around the buildings. They were extremely interested in what I was doing, why was I there, and we spoke for quite some time about a wide range of subjects in a mixture of French and English. An interesting interlude.



    The tracks into the station had been torn up, so clearly the end of the line was some way north.



    Following the line back I came to where the tracks crossed the main road. I knew there was an interesting viaduct about 12km along the track so I tried riding along the rail bed for a short while but it was really hard going.



    I went back to the tarmac and found a rough track across from further down. After 7km the viaduct finally came into view.



    I reckoned it might be possible to drive across the top of the viaduct. But once I managed to get the bike up to the rail bed I came to the conclusion that would be a pretty stupid thing to do...



    I found a much better route back to tarmac and continued east to Iche.



    I am fascinated by the strata of the rocks and if I had visited Morocco as a child before making choices on subjects to study at school I might very well have become a geologist.

    So why am I parked on the left side of the road when I'm riding on the right? It's to do with the camber of the road and the side stand, I really need to get a small amount taken off the bottom, and at the same time add a wider foot. Why do all motorbike manufacturers fit such tiny feet on the sidestand?



    Iche was a lot further that I remembered. It's a tiny place surrounded on three sides by Algeria. This is the oasis on the final approach.



    Literally the end of the road. The rocks of the low rise on the left are Algeria, and you can see a lookout point towards the middle of the photo. Taking photos in border areas is of course a no-no and I was approached and asked to delete it.

    Which I did. But seeing as I had a data connection the photo had already been uploaded to the cloud and sync'd with my other devices. And with the latest version of iOS any deleted photos aren't removed from the phone but instead moved to a deleted photos folder. How long before border guards become aware of the technology changes?



    As you can see above, Iche is more easterly than even Figuig. I was planning to head to Figuig on the dark cyan route but with the fuel shortages I had encounted I had a rethink. I would be riding further into a dead end and if I couldn't get fuel I'd be stuck. So I decided instead to head west in one big hop to Errachidia. Normally I would take side roads and wander around more, but it was still quite cold, even in the midday sun, and I was eager to get further west and south into the warmth.

    Iche to Errachidia
    For some reason there's a dearth of fuel stations along the N17 and N10 main roads. There's a station in Figuig, another in Bouarfa where I had filled up the previous night, and the next is Errachidia. Some maps show fuel in Bouanane and Boudenib but this is a figment of someone's imagination. So the only way to make the hop was to go back to Bouarfa to refuel then it would be a 270 km leg to Errachidia.

    There are a couple of fuel stations off route to the north at Tajjite and Talsint which could be used and this would be a more interesting route anyway. I maintain a database of more than 320 Moroccan fuel station waypoints which can be downloaded here. I've concentrated on rural places and as many 'fuel from cans' as possible.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  8. #8
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Errachidia
    Errachidia is pretty much just a coffee break town for me. I once stayed overnight when we were following the Dakar Rally in 2006. All the hotels were full and we ended up sharing a small double bedded room between five guys—not a pretty sight. This time I stayed in Hotel M'daghra and after three nights of cold hotel bedrooms I succumbed and forked out an extra 70 dh for heating. But at least this meant I could do my washing.



    An unusual example of graffiti written in Tamazight (Berber). Probably reads, "clean me".

    Fuel stations
    Before checking into a hotel I normally refuel so this is one less job for the morning. In populated areas there's many more fuel stations in Morocco than in Europe, probably as the high cost of fuel (compared to earnings) means drivers don't put much into the tank each time they refuel. Practically every fuel station in Morocco has attendant service. There are a few that accept credit cards, but generally Morocco is a cash society and the attendant carries a wad of notes in his pocket.

    If you are prepared to visit several fuel stations you can quickly make change by asking for small amounts of fuel and handing over a 200 dh note. Asking for 'cent vingt dirham' (120 dh) will typically result in change of a 50 dh note, a 20 dh note and 10 dh coin.

    Unlike European fuel stations there's no sweetie shop attached, though in some places there will be a mosque for travellers to pray, and sometimes an attached snack bar.

    Hotel procedures
    I'm not looking for much out of a hotel when I'm travelling, if I'm only staying one night it's really just a 'bed in a box'. Clean sheets and hot water are essential, western loos and preferably ensuite is good. Many hotels have free wifi, though sometimes this doesn't extend to the rooms.

    I always ask to see the room before agreeing to stay, on the basis I am likely to get a better room that way. If you don't speak any languages just point to your eye with your finger, then up to the room. If the receptionist is any good he/she will show you several.

    Confirm there's hot water and check if there's a towel (serviette in French). Check on the parking arrangements. If you want to make an early start the next morning and need an early breakfast get this agreed to before you accept the room.

    You need to complete a police registration form. I have a fiche system for the passport details and I just hand over one of those—I certainly never let the receptionist hang on to my passport, there's a chance he/she will forget to give it you back and you'll have to retrace your route the next day to retrieve it.

    My luggage is organised so that the twin aluminium panniers hold items that I don't normally need overnight (tools, first aid, food) and all I need to bring to the room is my roll bag and tank bag. When you bring your luggage up to the room check the bed in case there's a rubber undersheet and if there is remove it otherwise you'll wake up horribly sweaty halfway through the night.

    Get your trail clothes off, do any clothes washing as necessary, then shower yourself and change into clean clothes.

    Clothes and washing
    I tend to travel with three sets of clothing, one that I am wearing and two spares. In cool weather or with high-tech anti-bacterial materials you can go two days with the same wicking layer. On this trip I had some long-sleeved fluffy Wed'ze skiing garments from Decathlon. These are amazingly comfortable with a fleece-type feel from the 'brushed stratermic component' whatever that is. It's important not to pack black t-shirts or wicking layers as these get way too hot when you take off your jacket for a coffee stop.

    Sinks often don't have plugs in Morocco, so I carry sink two different-sized plugs with me plus a travel wash line with dual elastic strands that don't need clothes pegs. You can buy sachets of washing powder from small shops, ask for 'teed' (Tide). Try to avoid your hands getting immersed for too long in the washing solution as it doesn't do them any good. After washing and rinsing, wring the clothes out thoroughly, then lay a towel on the bed, arrange the clothes on top and roll them up together like a swiss roll. Then put the roll on the floor and walk up and down on it. This will remove most of the remaining moisture, and you can then hang them up. If the clothes still aren't completely dry in the morning, wear them down to breakfast and your body heat should finish the job. Then you can pack them away when you get back to the room.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  9. #9
    Hi Tim, looks like you are having a cracking ride.
    For future reference there are two spots for fuel in Bouednib, both from cans. The main, and slightly cheaper, one is at N31.95050° W3.60493°. The other, also a workshop and tyre place, is at N31.95076° W3.60111°. If both are closed pop in to Caravanseril Rekam Boudnib http://rekkam-boudnib.com/ N31.94561° W3.61578°, François has the phone numbers for both guys. Also a nice place to spend the night. All grid refs are Lat/Lon hddd.ddddd°

  10. #10
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Many thanks Mr Ifan, I'll add both the fuel and hotel waypoints to the databases.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  11. #11
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Errachidia to Merzouga
    Until now I had been 'far from the madding crowd' and hadn't seen a single traveller or tourist, but now I was about to head towards prime time tourism in the area around Merzouga and Erg Chebbi. This would be an opportunity to drop the luggage and ride free for a couple of days, and as the temperature was set to rise, maybe also have a swim and sunbathe. There's some 70 accommodation options in the western lee of the dunes. As I was going to be there for three nights I decided I'd treat myself, so I used booking.com to obtain a reasonable 400 dh/night dinner, bed and breakfast at Hotel Kanz Erremal.



    I rode south from Errachidia following the lateral oasis of the Ziz river, using side roads parallel to the N13.



    A very short ride today. What is laughingly called the R702 is mainly piste. The tarmac approach to Merzouga is on the N13 via Rissani.



    And then rejoined the main road shortly before the artesian well of Bord Yerdi. The difference between a geysir and an artesian well is that a geysir only spurts sporadically, whilst the well is constant.



    The water is heavily contaminated with iron, so not suitable for agriculture



    When I reached Erfoud I cut across south east following the old piste that used to be the access to Merzouga before the tarmac road was laid. As you can see in the photo the piste is heavily corrugated due to the axle tramp of trucks so it makes more sense to ride alongside.



    Eventually I reached Kanz Erremal and had an extremely short dip in the freezing cold pool.

    I did some checking on the bike and luggage, worked out a route for the following day, then chilled by the pool the rest of the day before enjoying a wonderful meal in the evening. Being a traveller is such a tough life!
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  12. #12
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Circular tour to Hassi Bahallou
    Refreshed by the half day break, I was up to see dawn breaking over the camels and sand dunes.



    The previous evening I had carried my aluminium panniers to the room, and the only luggage for today was my tool roll on the rear rack and food and water in the tank bag. It was cold that early in the morning so I wore my heated jacket under the armoured jacket.



    There's now a fuel station on the tarmac road into Merzouga so first stop was to refuel and have a coffee—I had skipped breakfast.



    The route I had planned was south on tarmac to Taouz, then south west to Ramlia. From there follow the dry Rheris river valley north to the ruins of Hassi Bahallou which is thought to be a Portuguese fort, and then east heading back to Merzouga. Altogether about 200 km, with about 150 km of that off tarmac.

    As you can see from the map there's fuel in cans at Ramlia and Jadid, though I wouldn't need that. Also a series of at least eight accommodation options on the way to Ramlia, and it would be perfectly possible to use one of these as a base for a couple of days of exploring.



    There was a series of heavy storms in Morocco last November, in some places as much as 200 mm (8 inches) in 24 hours with consequential massive flash floods. One result is that this spring the desert is alive with flowers.



    Lots of trucks on the first part just past Taouz.



    The climb out of the end of a dry lake bed.



    Coffee pause in Ramlia. The bike was performing beautifully. I was already very pleased with the handling with full luggage but when travelling light it is an absolute delight. There was some method in my route planning for the day, the piste heading west from Ramlia towards Zagora area crosses the Rheris river bed which depending on what the last rains did to the track can be up to 6 km of nightmare fesh fesh sand. I went and had an explore and quickly returned, then turned north for Hassi Bahallou.



    Approaching the ruins of Hassi Bahallou.



    Exploring Hassi Bahallou.



    In the ruins I found a familiar plant—wild rocket. Tazahkt in Berber, harra in Darija, arugula in American English and rucola in Spanish and Italian. So many words for the same plant. Unlike the salad rocket variety it's a perennial plant, more spicy and pungent with more jagged leaves. For the remainder of this trip I nibbled extensively whenever I saw it.



    There was deep sand on the first section back from the fort but then the track became lovely and smooth. In this video you can see the beautiful lilac wild orchids over the hillsides.



    Camels grazing amongst the orchids.

    I had intended to explore the Ouafilal hill fort and rock carvings on the way back, but I left them for another trip. Not that I really need an excuse to return!



    The half-board meals at Kanz Erremal were delightful and well presented, this was an elegant salad for starters.

    .
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  13. #13
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Riding off tarmac
    The biggest danger when riding tarmac roads in Morocco is riding too fast for the conditions, especially in built-up areas. The converse is true when riding off tarmac—the biggest problem is normally riding too slowly. Without getting into the complicated physics behind motorcycle dynamics, it’s the gyroscopic effect of the turning wheels that helps keep you upright and the slower you go, the less help there is.

    Novice riders who quite sensibly ride slowly off tarmac, slow down even more when they come to a difficult section, then fall off when the motorbike overbalances. So it’s vitally important that you keep to a reasonable speed when riding pistes and for novices I would suggest a minimum speed of 40 kph (25 mph) on easier sections, which allows a reduced speed of 15 kph (10 mph) on 'frightening' sections.

    Some books will advise you to lower the tyre pressure when off tarmac. The theory behind this is that the extended contact patch of the deflated tyre acts like a caterpillar tread giving much better traction. This is great in principle, but Moroccan pistes are often sand/grit one minute and then sharp stones the next, and when running low pressures it's easy for the inner tube to be pinched against the rim of the wheel leading to snake-bite ‘pinch’ punctures on tubed tyres, so I prefer to keep tyre pressures high when off tarmac. This trip I was using mousses instead of inner tubes so all of this was irrelevant.

    Riding sand
    And then you come to sand. You might have read lots of advice about sand riding on the Internet. The perceived wisdom everywhere is to keep momentum up, stand on the footpegs, put your weight over the back wheel, whilst at the same time using your weight on the footpegs to turn the bike. It's all very well being told what to do, but the reality for a novice is that they slow to walking pace, sit down on the saddle, paddle through the sand with their feet, come almost to a complete stop and then the bike topples over.

    So how do you get from being a novice to a fairly OK sand rider? I have yet to find a website or book that leads you through this. So here's some techniques I found by trial and error. My suggestion is that when you get into a sandy area, drop your luggage at a hotel and dedicate half a day to getting to grips with sand riding.



    Putting it into practice riding with full luggage in the low dunes on the western approach to M'hamid.

    Shallow sand sitting down
    Look for a section of sand on the piste about 1m (1 yard) long. Ride through this however you like, but sitting down. Go back and do it again, but a bit faster. Repeat several times more until you are happy going through at 40 kph (25 mph). Now move on to a longer stretch of sand and repeat. Keep repeating and finding longer stretches until you are OK with riding 5m of sand at 40 kph. Whilst practicing this introduce a very slightly open throttle so the bike is being actively pushed by the rear wheel. Now try approaching the sand stretches at, say, 20 kph, and crack open the throttle just before you hit the sand. You'll generally find that with higher speed and some acceleration the bike is better controlled. Keep practicing until you are OK with riding 10m of sand at 40 kph. If you find that you are going too fast with an open throttle, use the back brake to keep this under control. It sounds illogical to have an open throttle with braking at the same time, but for some reason it works and improves your control.

    Shallow sand standing up
    When you are sitting down it's difficult to influence where the bike goes, so you now need to get confidence standing up. Start all over again with the 1m stretch of sand, but this time standing up. Just stand naturally. I know people suggest you keep the weight over the back of the bike, but this means you are out of balance, pulling on the handlebars, and have less control. This is something to only add later once you've mastered the other aspects. In the meantime relax and get used to the bike moving underneath you, and use the throttle to settle it. Carry on as in the 'sitting' section until you are OK with riding 15m of sand at 40 kph.

    Turning in sand
    Now look for an area you can practice some turning. Try this first on a hard surface. Stand on the pegs, look in the direction you want to go, turn your upper body in that direction, drop the shoulder closest to the turn and put your weight on that footpeg. And lo and behold the bike turns without you having given any handlebar input. You use this technique for both turning and for correcting the direction when the bike's been forced off route.

    Now move to a sand surface and keep practicing this for a while until you are all set. You'll find a top-heavy bike such as the Yamaha Ténéré is easier to turn this way than a BMW 1200GS which carries its weight lower down.

    Deeper sand
    Until now you've probably been practicing on piste on shallow sand, maybe with only 25mm (1 inch) of sand between your tyre tread and the piste bedrock. Riding on deeper sand is more difficult as it's a power robbing surface with a lot of drag on the bike, takes much longer to accelerate. So it is now really vital that you keep momentum. There can be deep ruts in the sand from 4x4 vehicles, sometimes these have compressed the sand giving a firmer surface at the bottom of the wheel ruts in which case it makes sense to ride in the ruts, but often the reverse is true in which case you are better off making your own fresh tracks.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  14. #14
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Slavery in Morocco
    If you ever read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, you might recall the book opens with Robinson being brought into the port of Salé on Morocco's Atlantic coast as a captive of pirates.

    The Salé Rovers weren't a Scout group, they were part of the Barbary Pirates, a yesteryear network akin to today's al-Qaida. The pirates operated out of ports along Morocco's Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean between the 15th and 19th century, raiding the European coastlines from Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, Spain, Italy and Greece, capturing whole villages of people for slaves.

    Over the period of their operation it is estimated the pirates captured and enslaved more than 1.25 million white Christians. White Gold tells the story of one of these slaves who worked under Moulay Idriss in the building of Meknes.

    The BBC History website has a chilling account of the fate of many of these slaves.

    Slavery in Morocco goes much further back, however, and since the late 7th century it is estimated about 20,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa were traded each year into North Africa, which works out at about 2 million black slaves for every hundred years. Although some of the slaves in Morocco were deployed as domestic servants, many were used in the army and it was these 'black moors' who were at the head of the forces that invaded Spain.

    (Going off on a tangent, the English 'Morris Dancing' is thought to derive ultimately from Moorish dancing, and some of the dance troops still blacken their faces before performing.)

    Slaves in the Tafilalet
    Slavery was outlawed in Morocco when the French protectorate was established in 1912 but it continued in the Tafilalet until the region was finally occupied in the early 1930—so this is still just within living memory. Previously the slaves had worked in the oasis and fields, but as they didn't have land or resources of their own, when freed many of them went to work in the mineral mines that were established at nearby M'fis. Some of these workers lived close to the mine in what in marked on the map below as 'ghost town'. Others settled in Khamlia and Taouz and today Khamlia is well known as a place to go and the traditional experience Gnawa music of their ancestors.

    As well as lead, the M'fis mines produced white nickel and barite which is an exceptionally heavy non-metallic substance that is used in a wide variety of applications, from the filler in playing cards (makes them easy to deal) to x-ray shielding.

    The mines of M'fis
    So my plan for the day was to go and explore the various mining sites.



    First though, breakfast overlooking the dunes.



    After filling up with fuel I headed over to take a look at Dyat Srij, a seasonal lake that forms along the route of the Ziz river.



    Three of the mining spots are marked on the map. There's two main ways to get to the mines. I took the easiest route which is to head south from Merzouga for about 10km, through Khamlia until well past the dunes, then take a piste to the north east.



    The water table is near the surface all across this area. I turned south east after the well on a faint track to explore some more.





    After a big loop round I came across the first of the mine workings, very much an amateur hand dug affair.





    Heading west I then came across a much more professional setup with pumps to drain the water and mechanical hoists to raise the rocks.







    And just before regaining the main piste I came across the main mine plant which closed around 1990. Clearly some form of processing was carried out here but I have no idea what it was.



    I went through the mine workers' lodgings (ghost town on map).



    Carrying on across the main piste I came across the workers' graveyard.



    When I reached the southern tip of the dunes I headed down onto the piste then south west to drink a well-earned coke in Cafe Nora in Khamlia. Then back to Kanz Erremel for a swim, sunbathe and plan the next day's route.





    Nicely presented healthy and tasty food. The tagine is chicken in onions with prunes, apricots and egg.

    There's still a lot more to see and do in the area. I didn't get to the Ouafilal fort and rock engravings, and there's more tracks to explore, particularly when there's less water about. But I will leave this for another trip.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

  15. #15
    Trailblazer Tim Cullis's Avatar
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    Visiting 'The Mummy'
    The first part of the day's plan was to revisit the crater of a domant volcano to the west of Rissani that was used as one of the locations in the 1999 film 'The Mummy'. Morocco has a pretty strong film industry which brings much needed funding to the country—around 800 crew and extras worked on the Mummy.




    I would normally have travelled cross country to 'The Mummy' but the water levels in the Ziz were high.



    This is how the location appears in the film with Egyptian style obelisks to represent the lost city of Hamunaptra.



    And the reality of what was probably a French Foreign Legion fort. And yes, I made a right 'pigs ear' of the climb.



    The Mummy's backside



    On the satellite view of the volcano you can clearly see the round rim of the crater with the entrance wall at the bottom and you can just make out the second wall to retain water part way up. What I have realised since is that there are items on the ground that need further investigation. The rectangular shape to the bottom right could be a parade ground—I’ve seen similar at other forts. And then just to the bottom left of the entrance wall there’s a series of round dots arranged in a 4x5 grid…

    Dakar piste to Foum Mharech
    The next part of the route was heading south on a piste I'd seen used in the 2006 Dakar Rally. I'd been following the 2006 rally with friends and we were supporting the British teams—Si Pavey/Matt Hall/Charley Boorman in the BMW Race to Dakar team, Nick Plumb from Touratech, and Patsy Quick/Clive Town from Desert Rose.



    Si, Matt and Charley on the piste. Charley crashed out later that day with injuries to both hands. The emphasis for most riders is not so much to compete for positions, but to actually finish the gruelling event, which Si, Nick, Patsy and Clive all did.





    Car and truck competitors. Just shows how much instant video technology has improved in the last nine years.



    It's bit nerve wracking heading off on an unknown piste that's been used for the Dakar—surely it must be very difficult? But no, quite beautiful in many places, though I doubt competitors would have been admiring the orchids.





    Apart from a few sandy stretches, some of which you could just ride around, it was very enjoyable.



    One possible stop enroute is Auberge Petites Dunes which is the first of the two accommodation options I've marked on the map.



    Auberge Mharech is situated in a narrow oasis at Foum Mharech where the (normally dry) Mharech river passes through a defile in the rocks and out onto the plain below. Foum means mouth in Arabic so is similar to Aber and Inver in Gaelic, from where we get UK placenames such Aberdeen, Inverness and Plymouth.



    More orchids.



    It was still early in the day so I carried on a little way south to refuel from drums at Tafraoute Sidi Ali, then returned to Auberge Mharech for the night. Did some washing, enjoyed yet another tagine and had an early night.
    "For sheer delight there is nothing like altitude; it gives one the thrill of adventure
    and enlarges the world in which you live,"
    Irving Mather (1892-1966)

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