Wednesday 18 December 2013

Northwest Africa. Morocco, through the Western Sahara and into Nouakchott, Mauritania.

I boarded the ferry with trepidation. I was nervous, but each time I saw the mountains of Morocco coming steadily closer the excitement started to grow. This was actually it, a dream of twenty years to visit the continent and I was nearly there.

I crossed through the border with no real issues. This was the first real border crossing with my own vehicle, a vehicle which isn't insured either. You are meant to buy insurance, at around £70 for a month. I decided to give it a miss and no one checked. This proved to be the best decision as no police man ever asked for it in my entire time in Morocco. The wonders of travelling on a moped!

I was heading for Chefchaouen, a town in the Riff mountains that’s renowned for its beauty; small mazes of little streets with all the walls painted blue. It took longer to reach than I expected due to the roads through the mountains. I had to ride for hours in second gear and darkness hit. The twilight looked amazing, dodging goats, donkeys and hoards of children that would run after me screaming.

Chefchaouen was interesting to see. It was very touristy however. The thing that I dislike about touristy places is that the genuine character of the people is taken away from them, and you are mostly seen primarily
as a way for money to be made. Its understandable why Chefchaouen has got this way; the place is beautiful, but I didn't want to stay there long.

The typical streets of Chefchaouen.

 One morning, whilst I was treating myself to an omlette and coffee in a little cafe, a man came up to me and started to ask for money. Now before I started this whole thing, I agreed to myself not to give money to anyone; unless its an exceptional circumstance. This wasn't. I said no, and he asked again. I kept on saying no...

'But, but you're a tourist!'

'I know, but I'm away from home for a long time and I can't give money to everyone that asks...'

Then he got angry.

'Bah! you people, you're all the same. You're like Nazis! The French, the Americans, the English... you have too much money! All you do is bomb, bomb, bomb! Then you come here and drink and fuck and lie down...'

I didn't say anything.

'Come on just 5 Dirhams.'

After that tirade, really!?

I left the next day, and after learning that my girlfriend was coming to visit me in Marrakech in nine days time I decided it best to go and sort out my Mauritanian visa in the capital, Rabat, and then go and find a more genuine side of Morocco in the Atlas mountains.

The mountains are sparsely populated, with little villages with houses made from stone, collected wood and usually with a corrugated iron roof. I rode past a fat man in a Berber robe with a pointy hood sat in a wooden cart being pulled by an old donkey, giving a vacant six toothed yawn. The roads were mainly paved but it wasn't uncommon to come across parts of the road that had been washed away by a river, or areas where the tarmac had completely gone and all that remained was dirt or corrugated sand.

The first night I camped in the mountains was the most beautiful camp site to date. It was by a small mountain stream that was trickling slowly through the hills. My tent was pitched on a flat outcrop just above the stream and all around me were thick bushes hiding my clearing from the quiet road where the animal tracks that I'd followed led to. There was no sound of cars, and as the night began to set a full moon rose in the sky which covered the air in rich layers of silver hues in the night. I spent a good hour just sat outside, watching the stars in the mountain sky.
 When I went to bed and was just drifting off to sleep I heard an animal giving a long howl from somewhere in the pine tree covered hills around me. That sound pierced my heart and chilled me to the core. I'm not sure if it was a dog, a mountain coyote, or the newly discovered African wolf, but I felt privileged if not somewhat disturbed to hear it.

I found the genuine side of Morocco in the mountains. I would have to fill up my water bottles everyday, and more often than not, when I entered a small cafe to ask for water the would offer me coffee also and wouldn't accept any money for it. Its better meeting people who are happy to meet you as a person and not happy to meet you as a walking wallet.

Since I had some days to spare before I would meet Caroline in Marrakech, I decided to stock up on some previsions and find a camping spot to stay still in for a few days. I found one perched on the top of a hill in the mountains, with a beautiful view of the high Atlas mountains in front of me.

The photo doesn't do those mountains in the distance justice.

The weather was quite extreme with the altitude. When the sun was out it was hard to stay under it, yet when it went behind a cloud you could see your breath in the air. No wind though which was good! I stayed here for a few days just enjoying the quiet. The only people I saw were people carrying huge bundles of wood, sometimes aided by donkeys. They would giddily wave back at me when they saw me.

One morning at around six o'clock I was woken up by a dog barking outside my tent. Barking dogs have been my bane for most nights in my tent, there's always something barking in the distance. After laying there for half an hour just listening to its moronic, monotonous barking  I became enraged, stormed out of my iced over tent and chased the fucker down the mountain in my pajamas, hurling rocks and abuse.

It was like a dream seeing Caroline again. A week was not long enough. It was time enough to feel like it would never end at the beginning, but the end came too quickly. We would spend the days exploring the Souks, dodging mopeds, drinking mint tea and eating good food, whilst also been amused by the many offers of cannabis, usually with wispars of 'you want hash?' as we walked past. Or in some cases are more drawn out 'you want some drugs?' If I still smoked weed and took up every offer, you'll all be sat reading a blog of a man who isn't really going anywhere for a long time. It wasn't always offers of drugs though. One man offered me an elephant for Caroline!  It was comforting to know though, that after a few minutes it was like we had never been apart. Maybe in nine months we will be together again; she's planning on joining me in South America and then we will ride up to Canada together. Here's hoping!

I love this girl.

It was hard when she left, very hard. Going back to that hotel room alone were we had nested for a week was depressing. I drank the remaining bottle of wine, took some painkillers and a sleeping tablet, chain smoked then went to bed. I woke up in the morning, cried, packed and left.

When I rode that day and camped on the edge of the Sahara, in the seemingly endless plains of what is called the 'Hammada' I decided that I needed to find a travel partner. Despite the numerous handshakes and pats on the back from the passing goat herders, I'd never felt more lonely in my entire life.

The beginning of the Hammada.

The next day after riding in a straight line at 35 mph through the Hammada for three and a half hours I pulled over to the side of the road for one of my frequent stretches and a man started waving from a distance. He was maybe a kilometre away but I waited for him to come over. He was a goat herder, wearing simple clothes and a black turban. He asked if I had run out of petrol and I said I was just having a stretch. (we couldn't speak each others language but its amazing how far you can get with body gesture.) He then invited me back to his home for some food and tea. Why not? He lived in a makeshift house that was about two miles out into the sand and he pointed to a track that I could ride on to it, whilst he ran from the road over the sand to his house. It was very basic living, a wooden bed with a few sheets, bare walls, empty space and a rug. Around his house were animal lodgings and he showed off his two new born baby goats, these made him very happy. He then made a mint and very sugary tea from a little kettle on a fire he made from wood outside which he started from scratch in about twenty seconds. He then gave me a huge plate full of stew and I had to show that I was too full so he didn't offer me more. I didn't want to eat all his food. We sat and talked for a bit and then he said he had to get back to his goats, gave me a hug, a kiss on each cheek (the custom between friends) and then ran off to his goats. I've never experienced such hospitality from a complete stranger before. I was very humbled. 

The Sahara desert is vast. This may sound like an obvious statement, yet I've worked out that I've seen less than 0.1 % of it and I've been travelling through it for over two weeks now. The days are straight lined and monotonous. The one thing that's been keeping me in focus however is the weather, its really not been on my side! Sand is quite a difficult thing on its own when you are living outside; it gets everywhere. But coupled with the wind it becomes a bit of a nightmare. The locals call the wind 'Sirocco' and it was usually blowing either from the South or the East, meaning in my face or blowing me me to the side of the road. The sunglasses that Caroline gave me didn't stop the sand from blowing into my eyes either, which became a point of amusement at the many checkpoints.
Some of the views are awe inspiring, seeing huge sand dunes in the distance, camels roaming by, but in all I found travelling the 1700 km from Marrakech to Nouadhibou pretty difficult. It was the solitude mainly, coupled with the weather. I did have a lot of fun, saw some amazing things and met some very nice people, but its certainly been the most difficult stretch of the ride so far.

The lovely German couple who invited me round for breakfast.

The English I met with the wigwam in Western Sahara.

One of the many beautiful desert sunsets.

Riding the bike off road in the sand was never an issue if I got my legs out.

Looks like there's reason for all the triangle camel warning signs. This guy wouldn't move for anything!

It was quite exciting when I officially crossed into the Western Sahara. I'm not sure if 'officially' is the right term to use as this part of the World is a disputed territory. Its plainly obvious that Morocco is winning in occupying the region. Moroccan Dirham is the currency, and a vast number of Moroccan military and police, as well as a substantial NATO presence can be seen . Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of this territorial argument is that this area is now one of the most heavily mined places on Earth. A fact that I didn't take lightly lightly when I had to look for a camping place. One of the many wonders about the desert, along with the mirages and whistling wind, is that the dunes shift. Of course, this means that the mines go with them... 

The night before I reached Dakhla I camped on a cliff edge looking out into the Atlantic Ocean. When darkness descended I spent hours looking out at a lightening storm far out into the sea, amid a few dotted light of distant boats. As I got into bed to settle down the storm came over. The lightening got brighter, the thunder louder and the wind picked up almost instantly. Rain batted against the tent and I had to sit up and brace the poles for fear of them breaking under the strain. I didn't sleep well that night, and when I did wake after the brief few hours I found that the wind had pushed the rain through the tent lining, soaking my sleeping bag. The storm hadn't gone away entirely by the morning and I had to pack up in the rain. I had no choice as my water was running low. It is a difficult thing alone to pack a tent away by yourself in the wind, but coupled with the rain made it bitter, and even more so was the fact that the rain had turned the ground into a clay like paste which stuck to everything. By the time I'd finished me and my belongings were covered with mud. I didn't expect this in the Sahara.   

I rested in Dakhla for a few days and gathered provisions before I made the final push into Mauritania. The last 100km of the Western Sahara was beautiful. Huge outcrops of weathered rock stuck out fro the sand as masses of white dunes dominated the background. I completely forgot that I had read that that road was notorious for banditry and a recent Al Qaeda kidnapping until I got to the camp ground Nouadhibou that night.

The crossing into Mauritania was quite straight forward... aside from the 4km of unpaved no man's land, which was in a terrible state and dotted with African refugees that got denied entry to Morocco and can't get back into Mauritania. It took three and a half hours to complete all the entry procedures in the heat. I don't think my breathable waterproof trousers were designed for the desert! 
 When everything was sorted I tried to start my bike and get on my way. My bike wouldn't have it though. I knew that the spark plug was on its last legs, but talk about giving in at the wrong moment. It took around two minutes before a crowd had gathered offering help, for payment of course. 'I am the best mechanic in Mauritania!' I had two other spark plugs, one brand new and the other with around 2000 miles on it. The brand new one was unfortunately right at the bottom of one of my panniers, I didn't know which one and didn't fancy emptying all my things out onto the floor in front of everyone either. Obviously the used one didn't want to work, and after much banter between me and a quite particularly mad man and his 'helping' which provoked much laughter from everyone, I ended up getting pushed into Mauritania by eight people. Talk about making a grand entrance!

I found an Auberge in Nouadhibou and seeing as it was my birthday in a few days time I decided on staying for a while, resting and hoping to find some other overlanders to go South with. My Birthday came, but no body else to travel with arrived. My back tyre though, decided it was the right time to deflate. Understandable as it had only been stood there doing nothing for two days...

My 28th Birthday.

I had my birthday meal in a cafe with wifi, Skyped Caroline for two hours and went back to the camp site thinking that I would shower and go to bed on my first dry birthday since I was seventeen. In the Islamic republic of Mauritania I could go to the one bar in town. But at 10 Euro's a drink, no thanks. When I got back though, Henk and Peter had turned up. Two travelled Dutch guys who when they found out it was my birthday brought out a barrel of wine. Another two French guys then drove into the camp site in a massive truck which they're planning to drive to Mozambique. I ended up drinking wine and talking until the early hours. I think this was the first surprise birthday party I've ever had.

The next day whilst I was having diner with Peter and Henk, Peter offered to give me a lift to Nouakchott, reckoning that we could fit my bike into his caravan. I got a good feeling with the proposal straight away, which is more often than not a sign that its a good idea. I really got on with these people and decided that there wasn't much point in riding the road alone for three days when I could spend the day getting there in the company of good friends. Its still Liam and c90 around the World, its just that I'm sat in a car enjoying the pleasure of being driven whilst 90 is having a rest in a caravan.

We arrived in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott that day, and Peter knew a place, the Auberge du Sahara. Its a prime stop off for travellers who are going South through the Sahara. Almost instantly I saw the two Vespas parked up in the courtyard next to a huge KTM 640. I got chatting to one of the Vespa guys and was explaining that I have a Honda C90 in the caravan that we just arrived with. The owner of the KTM, Esteban overheard that I was travelling with a C90 and said 'are you Liam?' We'd been in touch on an internet forum before. The internet can make the World seem like a small place. It is far from small, however.

That afternoon, Sergio and Thanos, the two Greeks with the Vespa's asked me if I wanted to join them on their ride South. I said yes.

Stergios and Thanos.

Esteban setting off to venture South. Just look at that prime example of an adventure touring motorcycle that you can see propped up against the wall in the background. 

Here's Henk and Peter. Two really good people.

Peter took us on a drive through the desert to a national park and we got stuck in the sand.

Definitely worth the effort to see this though.

So after almost 5 weeks of being in the African continent I am almost about to enter 'black Africa.' From meeting fellow travellers and talking with people about the road ahead I have decided to change my route through West Africa slightly. Originally I was planning on going through Guinea and Cote d'Voire, But the borders between these countries are quite insecure and there is a risk of robbery from armed militia in both countries. I have been advised to not go to Cote d'Voire also. Its looking like the most secure road through is to enter Southern Mali and then cross into Burkina Faso. We got our visas for Mali yesterday.

I have drawn our route for the benefit of my family and friends. I am very aware of the current situation in Mali, but all of the trouble is in the North. I know of many people who've been there recently and they say its totally fine in the South. It will be! I'll keep an eye on the situation before I enter. Bon chance!

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