After picking up our bike from Abdul's "Yamaha" garage, Abby and I went to a remote place in the desert yesterday, called Aoussert, about 270km away from Dakhla. The ride was just amazing again. It had been raining there not so long ago so in some parts, the desert had changed to green. There were some mountains and each of them looked as if made of different minerals, some looked rocky and sandy, some looked white as clay, some offered a black surface shining under the sun, it felt weird, slightly scary. Some mounts had been eroded to the rope but their hearts being harder than the rest, it formed like a head, popping up from the eroded rest. In one case, from a distance, it looked just like the Sphinx in Giza.
The rare trees that managed to grow there had organised their leaves so as to form a large shadow at their foot. We didn't see many other vehicles on the road but a few black chameleons crossed our path, running very fast on the hot tarmac.
Fortunately, we had taken our jerrycans with us as we had to refill our Transalp long before we reached Aoussert. However, I had to turn the reserve back on just as we reached the little town.
Or should I rather say, the "spot". There were just a few lanes of low buildings there, looking awkward in such a location.
Aoussert is basically just a military camp near the closed border with Mauritania (another one) but a few civilians live there too, we were told. Even the only kid I saw was wearing a plastic military helmet and matching machine gun. He was so small. I sat him on the Transalp and told him to attack the wall instead of my leg.
Aoussert, we knew, had no hotels nor restaurants, that's why we had left early in the morning, so as to have enough time to return. What we didn't know however is that it didn't have any petrol station either.
The first person we asked said:
"No, we don't have gasoline, just diesel."
The second person said the same.
The third one was a young dude in military clothes who had arrived on board a military 4x4 truck. He told us the exact same sad news about petrol availability but then asked for our passports. "It is normal procedure here. We are in military zone."
he said. "When you leave, make sure to stay on the road. Don't ride your bike out of the tarmac."
"There are landmines?" I suggested.
"Yes." he replied "It's very dangerous."
I was about to suggest that they, perhaps, shouldn't have planted them there in the first place but who am I to discuss military strategy with a professional soldier?
He was very nice actually, 25 years old, smart, eager to help while very determined to do his job properly, he could speak French and English very well and he told Abby and me about his recent years in university. He even knew about Hong Kong and the 1997 passover! What could such a young university graduate, who could speak so many languages, and so well, be doing in a uniform too large for him in the middle of an hopeless land-mined desert, 270km away from any decent city? Wasn't that a bit of a waste? We learned, later on, that it wasn't an unusual fate for educated Berbers.
We were soon joined by the local chief of police. He very kindly asked us if we wanted to stay in town for the night. We politely declined. Then, after asking several locals, he miraculously found some guys with some gasoline stashed in a garage for us. Not cheap but hey, we couldn't bargain much, could we? Next time, we'll ride a diesel motorcycle, it'll be cheaper.
We filled up the tank and both our jerrycans to the hilt and off we went, back to Dakhla. The wind had been blowing quite hard on the way to Aoussert, now it was pushing us in the back and with the sun slowly declining behind us, drawing our shadow on the tarmac, I felt there wasn't much more a biker could want... except perhaps that reassuring sound and feel of a reliable Transalp VTwin engine under that not so uncomfortable blue seat of ours.
We spotted some sand devils spinning wildly around. Those just couldn't be anticipated. They might just go away or follow us along the road for a while and then suddenly "attack" from the side. It's weird. They almost seemed alive like in the film "Prince of Persia". A big one crossed the road right in front of us, coming from our right hand side. They've not proved very dangerous if I hold the bike tight but they do shake it quite a bit. The wind was blowing streams of sand across the road.
With a distance, it looked as if the road was covered with it, like some "mirages", but made of sand.
Our new kit chain is an heavy duty one this time. The crowns and the chain look larger than the old one. Abdul, our mechanic in Dakhla has really done a good job. He cleaned everything, including the engine. I don't think I ever saw our Transalp that clean and well oiled before. It's still squeaking though. No one has ever been able to find out where that squeak comes from, it has become the trademark of our bike, wherever we go, everyone is well aware of our arrival... works better than our horn!
As we approached Dakhla, down at the bay side, 25km from the city, we spotted a real crowd of kite surfers on the sea. The international kite surfing competition is taking place in Dakhla each year. All the champs are in town now and the city is full of mobile homes as Christmas holidays have them rush back here for a bit of practice.
We deserved a good dinner after spending the day on our wheels so we went back to Samarkand, one of our favorite restaurants in town, for some shrimps salad and some carbonara.
As we left, we met some Italian riders on their BMW. They came from Senegal and were on their way back home to work. They didn't look too happy to return to the cold. We can understand that easily as we aren't to keen ourselves to even cross the desert back to "real" Morocco. It's much colder up there! It never rains in Dakhla, we enjoy 27 degrees but there's lots of wind.
Back to the "Eraha" hotel, we parked our Transalp in the locked garage and, having picked up our laptop from our room, we sat in the lobby to check our mail. A gentleman who sat on one of the sofas introduced himself as Mohammed and asked if we were clients at the hotel as he, himself, was a long time guest. We told him our names and learned that Mohammed works a safety advisor on construction sites. He used to work as a police motorcyclist and we began talking about bikes and police training.
He said he had to chase rich Moroccan kids sometimes, driving Porsche and Ferrari like mad on the highways. I told him the only sport car we had ever seen in Morocco, was on our first day in Morocco, on the highway to Tetouan. We had seen a vintage looking Ford Mustang or the sort, preceded by a police motorcyclist and followed by four 4x4 shiny black, window shaded Toyota and another cop on a motorcycle.
-"Oh, that must have been Mohammed VI! It was our king!" Mohammed exclaimed.
-"Well, yeah, that's what I thought when I took him over, although... he looks a bit slimmer on TV." I nodded.
-"He's a good king, everybody likes him here. He's so busy, starting new projects in the entire country and, you know, he's always returning to check on them and if he's not satisfied, the people in charge get into lots of trouble, perhaps even go to jail. He's always somewhere, I don't know how he can keep a family life being so busy! And he likes foreign people too, he wants ten million tourists to visit Morocco each year!" said Mohammed with an enthusiastic tone of voice.
-"Yes, we saw lots of hotels and guest houses... well, Morocco sure is worth visiting and people are very nice and welcoming.
We just don't wanna leave!"
-"You could stay if you like, many foreigners become residents and buy or build a house in Morocco. What's your profession?"
-"I'm a French teacher and Abby teaches piano. I dunno if she'd get much work here though."
-"Maybe for her it is not so easy but you could find a job easily. French teachers are always wanted here. You can find a school to hire you." Mohammed assured me.
Abby and me had planned to leave Dakhla the next day but it became obvious when we woke up that we wouldn't be going anywhere. Abby's face had somehow become all swollen up and we didn't know why. At the reception, Rachid, our kind and caring concierge, advised us to go to the hospital and indicated the way.
Outside, the weather had suddenly changed as well, Dakhla was now invaded by such a thick fog, the sun just couldn't break through... what a strange day. We jumped in a "petit taxi" and were led to the Hassan II hospital on the outskirt of the city.
Being early in the morning, only a few people, mostly veiled ladies, were waiting next to a counter, forming a line. However, as soon as the doctor arrived, Abby was taken in charge and led into the building to a medical room where a kind doctor examined her. He couldn't tell what was wrong with her either, an allergy to food perhaps - but I had eaten the same food as her - or a bad skin reaction to the dry climate. Anyhow, the doctor prescribed two injections, mostly antibiotics, wrote a note for the pharmacist. A nurse came in and proceeded to pierce my little darling in the most tender and cherished parts of her anatomy. She was, however, able to bravely walk back to the street without having me carrying her in my arms. What better
traveling companion could I dream of!?
It took a few days for Abby to completely recover so we just relaxed, hanging around in town, having cups of mint tea while watching the world pass by. The new year festivities didn't cause much trouble or noise in the quiet city. The muezzin chanted verses of the Coran in a strange way that day, it sounded almost like an African dance and it lasted for so long that I just had to grab our recorder and, later on in the lobby, send the file as an unusual new year card to our mates on the Net.
One evening, as we were checking Google Mail down in the lobby, a young guy we had spotted around a few times talked to us.
He said he was a Sahrawi and explained that Western Sahara belonged to his people and that since 35 years, Morocco had been occupying Sahrawi land.
-"Why do they? Are there any resources in the desert?" I asked him
-"Yes, there's plenty of unexploited oil reserves."
-"That explains it I guess."
-"Sahrawi people are only about one million, that's why Morocco can control the region so easily. But 35 years is a long time..."
The next day, I received a Facebook invitation from Mohammed to join a group defending the Moroccanity of Western Sahara.
I didn't join either.
All I can say is that Western Sahara looked very good to us, even wealthier than the rest of South Morocco. Obviously the Moroccan Government pours lots of money into it while trying to lure as many Moroccans as possible to move there by removing taxes on all goods and reducing revenue taxes too. A liter of petrol is half the price we use to pay in France. The roads are excellent, the cities are neat and beautiful, the people are very nice. We always felt totally safe, unlike in the past apparently, and the presence of the military remained discreet.
We saw some Sahrawi tents planted in some backstreets and their occupants didn't look hassled or bothered, they went on their duties, dressed in their superb traditional blue robes, just like anyone else. The desert is still there and those, among the Sahrawi, who want to carry on being nomads are completely free to do so, as are those who prefer to settle down in a city. As I said, they can even camp in the streets as long as they want before setting back to the desert. So, all in all, I don't think we're in a Tibet situation here. The desire of Sahrawi to keep their petrol to just themselves might be understandable, unfortunately recent events, in Irak for instance, have shown that sometimes, legitimacy isn't going to apply. But our impression was that elder Sahrawi leaders had already understood the situation well and weren't willing to support or join the few Spanish activists who had tried to stir popular anger in Laayoune recently. The king's reaction of "inviting" as many people as possible to demonstrate in Casablanca in favour of Western Sahara Maroccanity, was, in our opinion, a little unnecessary. I wonder if he would take that risk again today, now that he saw the recent events in Tunisian, Algerian and Egyptian rioting streets... our guess is that he probably wouldn't.
A couple of days later, Abby having fully recovered, we went to our favourite tiny restaurant for a last dinner of chicken and a glass of sour milk. The owner of the joint, the same who had re-buttoned my shirt once, having been so kind and caring, we brought him a little present from Hong Kong. Half an hour later, having finished our meal, we left without having been able to find our gentle host and say good-bye. We walked for a few yards when we suddenly heard someone calling my name. We turned to discover our restaurant owner, slightly out of breath, handing us a plastic bag containing two Tuareg scarfs, as green as the Kawasaki T-shirts Abby and me wore during our stay. What a thoughtful present! What a lovely man... we've been wearing our Saharian Kawasaki scarfs ever since.
The next morning, we said goodbye to Mohammed, thanked Rachid for his kindness and good care, and rode the Transalp to Samarkand for our last breakfast in Dakhla.
We were a little sad to leave, we had spent very peaceful days here and every local we had met had been from kind to lovely.
Nobody had tried to sell us anything or even drag us into a store, no begging, no attempt to "guide" us, no blatant poverty, it had been just smiles, good food and welcoming atmosphere all over the place. If that's the sort of Morocco Mohammed VI wants to create, then we can only approve because we enjoyed it tremendously. However, the fact that locals themselves do not complain in public has not convinced us of any lack of problems. In fact, it is our opinion that Morocco is, since a while now, trying to achieve peacefully what the rest of North Africa is attempting to do with revolutions. There's still a lot of work to do but with a country divided between three Berber cultures, a million Sahrawi and I don't know how many Arabs, I have to admit that, unlike its neighbouring countries, Morocco feels pretty calm, safe and kindly wise.
With all due respect, I wouldn't want the king's job for an empire... I don't mind having his Mustang though.
Our next stop was Laayoune. The ride up Western Sahara looked pretty much like the way down, empty, but from Laayoune, we could change for a new route, further East in the Sahara desert, to the city of Es-Smara.
Laayoune didn't leave unforgettable memories nor did we feel the urge of getting our camera out of our tank bag. People were very nice and looked reasonably wealthy and comfortable. We only spent a night there, just the time for me to open my skull passing under our ridiculously low bathroom door, like two minutes after taking off my helmet! I'd kicked myself, had it not been for those MX boots I was wearing.
The ride from Laayoune to Es-Smara didn't change the landscape from the previous day much, straight roads and desert. We had filled our jerrycans just in case and indeed, we stopped and refilled the tank on the way. We passed a few herds of camels, most of them running away as they heard us coming but a few, the stubborn kind we guessed, just froze by the side of the road, raising their long neck as we passed like an adder would do.
Camels, we could understand, their presence in deserts is somehow granted, but sheep... what are sheep eating in the desert and if they really have to be there, why are they precisely on the dusty tarmac right at the exit of the rare curves one could find around!? There's not much to eat on tarmac.
The emptiness of the whole horizon, the straight roads, the flat surface, the solitude of the lonely bikers, all that seems to add a little weight on the throttle somehow. Finding oneself suddenly surrounded by bunches of sandy sheep as one rushes out of a turn at the speed of 130km/h is, we can confirm, a excellent way to add adrenaline to anyone's blood circulation. A white sheep on my left polished my boot very professionally while I attempted to escape a black one rushing towards us on our right. It was, of course, all over very quickly but it left a distinct feeling of humidity along our spines. Damn, where did all that walking meat come from!? We thought Aid al Ada had wiped them all off Morocco! How come there's still so many of them!? Should we install a sheep wiper at the front of our Transalp and attach two giant barbecue sticks on the sides of the fairing? We could re-sell our catch and travel forever that way!
Es-Smara is a very charming little town with "Desert" written all over it. Aoussert was too much of a military zone to offer any real character but Es-Smara had that special touch we were looking for. Like Tarfaya, it was marked by the desert but not as much as to slowly disappear into the dunes. Of course the sand was everywhere, being the primary colour of the walls and buildings, but even that tone was faded by the intense sunlight. The shop owners, seeing no point importing manufactured street signs for their profession, had resolved to paint their own onto their boutique walls and blue wooden curtains. The result was often naive, almost childish but extremely charming as they too, faded rapidly in the blinding light.
Most houses were unfinished. It takes years, perhaps even generations, for a family house to be complete. So the last floor is often a work in progress, a wall now, a few more bricks next month, another room next year. Naturally, the first wall to be built, on this future floor, is the one that faces the street. So they raise it, complete with openings for windows and everything, except there is nothing to be seen behind these empty spaces, just an intense blue sky. Somehow, it made the presence of the whole building unreal and we ended up feeling like actors, walking along streets of cinema, all set for a mysterious film or another scene of "Lawrence of Arabia", complete with extras dressed in traditional costumes.
For the first and only time during our whole discovery of Morocco, our hotel owner had warned us not to follow any "dark skin guy" in the streets or accept lifts from anyone. I guess he didn't want us to be kidnapped but we didn't detect any hostile feelings towards us in the streets at any time.
In fact, since our return from Noadhibou, our contact with Moroccan people has become more and more relax, laid-back and easy going. We've got used to be talked to by complete strangers and learnt to reply their greetings and questions on a fun mode,
shaking lots of hands, kicking the ball back to the kid who passed it to me in such a simple, natural way, asking how things are going to locals we'd hardly seen once, stopping our walk for a short chat with some teenagers standing at corners. If someone wants to sell us something, we now look first and then refuse. By doing this, it seems, we give them "face" or rather just a chance to do their job, at least they tried, a potential client looked at their merchandise. That's good enough. Buying isn't a must but giving a little of our time by accepting to just take a look proved a much better way to get to know local people and remain in a good mood. In general, that allows us to see very nice artifacts and to learn a thing or two about how stuff get done around here as well.
I feel a bit as if I am in a tender reeducation camp among Berber people. A huge, beautiful one, full of natural, most often kind and welcoming, spontaneity. I've been soaked too long in Hong Kong mostly indifferent and distant atmosphere. It ground my humanity little by little. This habit of reasonably hiding one's emotions led to not having much anymore or perhaps the most extreme like anger, selfishness, contempt or longing for immediate pleasure. This overpopulated city gave me a deep feeling of pointlessness and its mega-materialistic and secured system eroded my desires and my passion for life a little.
I'm re-learning all of that here in Morocco. I surprised myself today by having the first heartfelt good laughter since ages. Abby and me are kidding all the time. I can feel it, I'm slowly getting back to myself, my anger no longer frightens me, I'm feeling more and more at peace with myself and most importantly with the world around me. I'm starting to feel again how good life can be if one doesn't take it too seriously and keep an open mind. Morocco seems to be the best antidote against all the would-be Sarkosists in this world and Moroccans do not forget where their heart is located even when walking in the streets.
Returning to work in Hong Kong is a thought that brings a dark shade in our eyes, almost fear... we simply don't know if we could even re-adapt to it, let alone wanting to! I'm afraid we'll have to find another solution because we both feel that living like we did again would taste very bitter indeed after such a journey. For a start, getting separated most of the day, Abby and me, would be the first catastrophe that would fall upon us if we returned to Hong Kong to work. We just hate that eventuality. We're doing really great together.
"Profitez!" is the most frequent advise we receive from our good friends in Hong Kong or in France - Take pleasure, enjoy!
Isn't it frightening? It sounds almost like a desperate cheer from prisoners watching one of their own escape! How we wish to find Aladdin's magic lamp and get all of our mates with us right now!
Although... perhaps our friends wouldn't have appreciated the lack of warm water in the bathroom that precise evening, as we discovered once back in our hotel. We decided that we weren't that dusty after all and watched the sun set on the desert instead. The moon was full and the sky shined with bright stars. Who needs warm water when showered by so many stars!?
We rode towards the North, the next morning, to Tan Tan... city, not Plage, like on our way down. Tan Tan is a charming town, on the borderline with Western Sahara, which hesitates between dressing itself in blue and white like the cities in the North or in sandy tones like Southern Saharian cities. I realised, as we visited the place, that I could walk quietly again, stopping here and there to shoot a few pictures or to chat with a shop owner or some waiters. We met three youngsters who wanted me to take a picture of them. By the time I was ready to click, there were nine cheerful persons in focus, including Abby. One of the youngster insisted on introducing his dad to us and invited us to eat tagine which we politely declined having just had our lunch. Instead we went to the neighbouring cybercafe to exchange our Facebook contacts. Typically, that's how we're being treated in Berber South Morocco. We still keep a vague memory that things aren't necessarily that fluid in the North, like in Marrakesh for instance and we smile at the stories some fresh tourists can report sometimes but we think they just need a bit of time to adapt and find themselves too.
Funny how Berber life seem to be just right for us. Mauritania almost made us regret Hong Kong but it's Hong Kong that got us running to Mauritania in the first place. Now we're in the middle and it feels just fine... even without any giraffes around.
We left Tan Tan for a beautiful ride back towards the Atlantic Ocean and the tiny coastal town of Mirleft, passed Sidi Ifni.
Mirleft is almost just one street that saw some tarmac, a very very long time ago, and surrounded by lovely arcades underneath which restaurants and coffee shops have installed their street terraces in case the traveler is too tired to enjoy their rooftop ones. Abby and me both liked that place straight away. There was an air of cowboy movie to it somehow, although most clients, sitting at the terraces, in the shadow, were wearing turbans instead of hats and drank mint tea instead of sharpening sticks and chewing straw. We checked the only hotel Lonely Planet was talking in good terms about but it was fully booked, which surprised us in such a small place. Soon however, a young Berber who introduced himself as Rachid, offered to help us find an accommodation.
-"Would you like a hotel or a house?" he asked.
-"A house? Where? Along the seaside?"
-"Yes, near the sea, not far."
-"How much would it cost?"
-"About 300 dirrhams."
-"Everything included? Is it furnished?"
-"Oh yes, hot water, bathroom, kitchen, TV, everything."
-"Sounds good, can we have a look?"
Rachid jumped on his bicycle, called another young man named Ebrahim, who apparently had the keys. Ebrahim sat behind Rachid and we followed them on our Transalp. From that point, every passersby we crossed path with greeted us with a smile. We spotted a couple of hippies camping in vans by the side of the road, kids played ball in the middle of it, others rode their bicycle for fun. It all looked very laid back and pleasant. Soon we arrived in an area occupied by very fancy Moroccan style houses complete with garden and lovely terraces. Rachid and Ebrahim stopped their bike in front of the gate of one of them.
Ebrahim unlocked it and showed us the little garden and the alley where the bike could be safely parked. At the end of the alley, a door opened to a small open-air patio and the stairs to the terrace. Another door in the patio was opened and we entered the fully furnished kitchen. Wow! Nice house: three bedrooms, large living room with sattelite TV, a beautiful bathroom with fancy shower, bathtub, toilets, large mirror and two sinks. The view from the terrace was superb... we think we'll take it!
Rachid and Ebrahim left soon after but not without having invited us for a tagine & mussels dinner in town. I took Abby in my arms and made her spin in the middle of our newly acquired living room. We couldn't believe our eyes! Such a beautiful house for just the both of us and so cheap, home sweet home indeed, it must be a dream, pinch me Darling, please!
We unpacked the Transalp. We had only booked the house for three nights but somewhere, something told us we might stay there a tiny bit longer... so we kept our stuff tidy on the shelves in the guest room.
Then Abby just had to try out that bathtub. I soon joined her, attracted by her loud and enthusiastic comments.
We just loved the place from the beginning to the end. We had tagine with Rachid that evening, on the terrace of a very cool restaurant that played some reggae in the background while some local Berber rastas were spinning a little smoke or two.
Later on, Berber music started being played in the street and everyone just joined in for a quick dance and a good laugh.
Mirleft looked as if the youngsters had made it their own and, consequently, had attracted other youngsters from all over Europe. Dreadlocks could be seen everywhere, this was a town for artists, musicians, rastas and hippies and we loved its laid back atmosphere.
But we loved our house even more. After our three days has expired, we renegotiated the rent with Rachid and remained ten more days for 250 dirrhams a day. And then another week... plus three additional final days. We just couldn't leave, we felt at home there, in our dream house.
The region was very beautiful too. We took several rides around and along the coastline. One sunny morning, we rode to Sidi Ifni to take a closer look. After about an hour of delightful sea views and twisted roads, we arrived in a very cute little town that reminded us of Mirleft, except bigger. We were having lunch at the terrace in front of a restaurant near the seafront when a couple of British riders popped up and introduced themselves, Martin and Jo. They stayed at an hotel nearby and had spotted our British plate. Martin, a big strong fellow, rode a superb white BMW GS1200 and Jo, who looked a bit like Lois Pryce with her flamboyant red hair, was his passenger. We invited them to sit at our table with us and conversations leading to stories leading to shared memories, the night soon fell without any of us having noticed how much time had passed.
-"Why don't you guys join us in Mirleft for a night or two, we got a big house with two spare rooms, you can even choose the one you like; and there's enough space to park your bike safely behind the gates. You're welcome to be our guests." I suggested as they walked us back to our Transalp.
-"That'd be great if that's not too much trouble for you."
-"Not at all. There's a petrol station in Mirleft right on the side of the main road. Give us a call when you leave Sidi Ifni tomorrow and we'll wait for you there."
The next day, after Martin and Jo had unloaded their hard panniers, we left Jo relax on the roof terrace of our house and we rode our bikes to the pistes that stretch from Mirleft up to the mountains. We crossed several villages up there and the panorama was astonishing as the sun was slowly plunging into the Atlantic. Fortunately we made it back to the tarmac before complete darkness and arrived back in Mirleft on time for dinner. We spent a pleasant evening with Martin and Jo, discussing about travels and bikes. Martin is a racing champ and his stories reminded me of our good mate Geoff, back in Hong Kong. They have eight bikes in their garage, I'm Kawasaki green with jealousy, including one Tenere and one Triumph for Jo and two GS for Martin.
I showed them a picture of my dear Kawasaki W650 from my wallet, and the brass parts Geoff had designed for it - I saw that rare plain beauty in a French TV series the other day, complete with its subtle vintage exhaust sound, I was almost in tears - and played them an old video clip I had made of it on our laptop. An outsider would have bet he had landed in a session of Bikalcoholics Anonymous, except we had no beer to drink off our helmets.
Jo, having only a few days left before returning to work, Martin and her had to leave the next day after a last lunch in the city center... er... the street of Mirleft, that is. Our back tire being almost dead again, we stopped at the petrol station to order one. When I'm saying Berber people are cool, here's one example. Last time, we had paid Hassan in Marrakesh 2000 dirrhams for the exact same tire, plus 300 dirrhams for mounting it. In Mirleft, it cost 1600 dirrhams, everything included.
Sorry Hassan Salim, 59, Rue Rahal ben Ahmed - Marrakesh - Guéliz, but you're a thief, and please don't use the two fucked up Transalp 1988 CDI units I gave you to cheat another traveling biker, ok?! Mohammed, next time you fix your moped in his garage, you can tell "Arnassan from Arnakesh" I wrote that.
The next day, I killed that infamous costly tire by making a burn in the dust in front of our house and we went to have lunch in town, leaving the Transalp at the garage for a couple of hours. Then we went to test our brand new back shoe on the tiny pistes that spread in the mountains around Mirleft. Those were really narrow, I don't think Martin GS1200 would have passed with his aluminium cases mounted on as my own soft panniers brushed the rocky sides of the track more than once... good thing they were empty. I love riding the Transalp on these rocky dusty pistes, that's when our bike shows all her capacities and turns out to be a real treat to ride. Hats down to Honda engineers! And I have to admit my dear W650 wouldn't have been as fit as our Transalp for all the diverse riding conditions we encountered.
A few days later, having enjoyed the sun on our terrace like two human solar panels, we decided to take a day trip to Tafraoute, up in the mountains. It would have been a totally pleasant and spectacular ride if the narrow roads had not been invaded with large, slow, view blocking camping-cars. One of them almost pushed us into a huge hole on the side, as I took it over, and, for the first time in Morocco, I gave the driver the finger. I rarely do that but, in this case, I'm quite sure Abby pointed hers as well. Ok, I know these elderly travelers paid 45000 euros for their rolling container, and they don't want a scratch on it before they finish paying the instalments but it's gonna be a deep MX boot dent instead one of these days, damn!
Tafraoute felt freezing cold. We chose a sunny terrace to warm up, had lunch and then hurried our way back to the warmer coast, via Tiznit. We arrived back home at sunset and took another hot bath to reach more human temperatures.
Actually, that bath might have been slightly too hot... as soon as she walked out of it, Abby just fainted and fell to the ground!
Or maybe she had a flashback of that big deep hole on the roadside we nearly fell into, earlier, at the speed of 120km/h?
I jumped to my feet and rushed to administrate a few good slaps on her face - a chance I had never met so far - and she regained consciousness, looking at me as if I had just beaten her. Go figure!
I took her in my arms but she fainted again. I carried her to the bedroom and laid her on the bed where she came back to me.
She took a good rest that night and the next morning, she popped a little bottle from her beauty case and, rubbing her cheeks, she said:
-"Next time, just put this under my nose instead..."
What!? I learned it from movies, I swear!
It was heartbreaking but we did manage to get out of our Mirleft heavenly home. We had decided to revive our GPS from its case and trust it to lead us to Ighrem, a place surrounded with nice potential rides. It totally failed its job, determined as it was to take us some 670km away which was less than plausible. Both Abby and me also failed at our signs reading and we ended up in the completely opposite direction, in the city of Tiznit.
Strangely, we had crossed Tiznit a first time as we were heading towards Mirleft. Then we cruised along its streets again the day we had visited Tafraoute. Now was the third time. We decided to call it fate and see what that sticky little town was so eager to offer. We booked a room above a restaurant. The waiters had to clear up the entire terrace outside to give me access to the garage but the Transalp was safe for the night.
We discovered the next day that Tiznit speciality is to craft jewels made of threads of silver. We saw some pretty cool silver belts that would ravish some Hong Kong bikers I know. After visiting the medina and found "the source", a little pond of water that, apparently, justifies the existence of the city, Abby purchased a little more argan oil at a local fair and we spent the rest of the day, happily chatting with a few young local guys, at the terrace of a coffee shop, watching the world pass by.
On our way back to our hotel, we crossed a campsite with a sign that said "No Camping", but about thirty camping-cars and even trucks loaded with nicely decorated container-homes were parked there, obviously not interested. I think I'm in love with this country! Taking it easy with the law and getting away with it!? Sweet Jesus! Imagine that in Hong Kong? I bet Moroccan policemen don't really give a damn if local teenagers change their birth date on their student cards around here. They can buy cigarettes at any age anyway. They, unlike my unfortunate daughter back home, don't spend a night in jail for so little... useless "Hello Kitty" uniformed morons!
Tata, our next destination, means "auntie" in French, so naturally I tried to find a postcard of the place to send to my own aunt but I couldn't spot any at all. Considering the amount of French traveling in Morocco, isn't it sad to see such a brilliant business opportunity wasted or has Hong Kong changed me into a daring entrepreneur over the years?
Tata is a very cute city and it obviously tries to be even more so by having a sort of rather artificial looking cascade with a plastic miniature deer in it, planted at a crossroad with a modern digital clock/date/temperature standing in front of the "chef-d'oeuvre". Each public lamp post was decorated with a pot of plastic flowers and I wondered who was doing the dusting that high. After all, the desert, once again, surrounded the town and its long shadowy arcades.
The view over the sandy town, the desert and the mountains in the background, was astonishing. The sides of the mountains looked as if some god had brushed them with his giant comb and as we rode, all alone, towards Ighrem the next day, we were surrounded all the way by their bizarre beauty.
Ighrem is a little pleasant mountain town. The temperature wasn't at its best but people were friendly and gave us a warm welcome that made it up a bit. We sat in the sun and ordered a few cups of hot chocolate, greeting and being greeted by almost every passerby. A couple of women looked at Abby with a big smile on their face. One of them gently brushed Abby's cheek and laughed. There was so much kind curiosity in her eyes. Abby was moved and gave both of them a little present from Hong Kong. We finished our chocolate, refilled the Transalp at the city only petrol station and took another route to go back to Tata. That route had been a piste not so long ago, it was narrow but the tarmac was excellent. We were still surrounded by weird brushed arid mountains but, since we rode right down their valleys, we crossed many little villages set along small rivers in luxuriant palmeraies. They all looked like small corners of paradise making me wonder why my idea of heaven was so close to nature when my own lifestyle required so much materialism. Well, having both or at least the freedom and leisure to travel from one to the other, there, that was the ultimate nirvana, and, excuse my French, but doing it sitting on a white Transalp 1988 with my sweet lady behind me was just pure jaculatory bliss. I became fully aware of how miraculously precious our present days were, having it better than locals, having it better than in the golden cage (Hong Kong), and how much indeed we should enjoy every second of these moments while they lasted. We were savoring pearls in vinegar here... not that I tasted one lately.
We were totally alone on that road and I had a choice of riding pleasures. I could speed up a little and make those curves a little more interesting. I could slow down a bit instead and take my eyes off the tarmac longer to enjoy the views. I could cruise a while, swinging the bike from left to right to add a cradle effect to our comfort. We could just stop by the side and let the sun warm us up through our dark clothes. Almond trees were if full blossom and tenderly revived the sides of the mountains, painting the rocky slopes with white and pinkish flowery spots. Was there any limits to beauty and why was it laying there, just for us, unappreciated by most people who were presently busy in ugly places? I remembered that Hong Kong businessman who hated holidays because he couldn't make any deals during that time. Would he still remain blind here? Damn, I felt so scared to return! I was too old for that shit now... I wanted to enjoy the rest of my life. Too old for Hong Kong, too young to retire, still penniless, what was I going to do!? Would anybody mind if I hanged myself to one of these almond trees while I was still being very very happy? Hmm... yeah, I guess.
Our next stop would be Zagora. It was located on the edge of the desert so it should be warmer. We filled up the tank and our jerrycans and we first had a gentle ride, in another set of incredible views. We just had to stop and take a few pictures.
The entire landscape was filled with mini-canyons, we had never seen such thing, a large oued (river of the desert) had slowly been digging and devouring the land at our feet through hundreds of small canals, forming a track of giant disjointed tiles fit for the steps of some sort of over-sized cyclopes.
We arrived just in time for lunch in the cute city of Foum-Zguid. The next part to Zagora would be made of 130km of dirt tracks, we'd better gather our strength. After making sure we were heading towards the correct direction, we left the city and, sure enough, the tarmac soon changed to dirt. Not a bad track at all at first, in fact a road was due to be built pretty soon and the surface of the piste had already been flatten.
An hour later, in the middle of nowhere, we suddenly saw a couple of KTM parked on the side of the track with no rider around. Weird. I slowed down and stopped the Transalp near the abandoned bikes, thinking "that's it, Abby will want one for her own but I don't care, I'm keeping this Honda", when a couple of riders popped up from a ruin on the side. They must have been thinking "Damn, can't take a pee in peace anywhere these days, even in the desert!"
Wolfgang and Maggie were riding towards Foum-Zguid so we told them about Ighrem not to be missed and in return, they strongly advised us to lodge at "Chez Ali" in Zagora. We discussed about our journey for a while, about the shape of the track ahead, we exchanged a few more tips and left, both couples on each direction.
Wolfgang and Maggie had done the worst part of the piste already when we met them, which means we hadn't... and indeed, the flat ground soon became a memory and we were left with a bad mean MX Club track, or should I say tracks instead. A whole lot to choose from, none very deep nor convincing. Obviously, as little help as the GPS can be in these circumstances, it's still good to know we're getting closer to our destination so it came back up from its case and down on the handlebar once again... only to spend the rest of the trip "calculating". Thanks for not much, Garmin!
When in the middle of nowhere, with exactly the same sort of horizon in any direction, two tracks, perfectly similar, suddenly show up in front of my wheel, which one am I suppose to take? I just didn't, I stopped. Brain dead. Ghh! I looked around, went Ghh! again, gave another blank glance at the two tracks and resorted to ask Abby for her preference. She went Ghh! too... great!
We stood there for a little while. It was really a case for a flip of the coin. No one around we could bribe for the info, no Tuareg on mopeds this time, no clouds of dust coming in our direction nor dunes to aim at. And we didn't even know how to dig a proper grave! That's it, we were meat for vultures!
Not yet! A track is a human thing if it's got traces of tires on it, so it gotta lead somewhere, even if not exactly where we aim at. As long as we're not returning on our way nor riding in plain nature, it didn't really matter if we took left or right, we'd get somewhere eventually. And we didn't have enough juice with us anyway, to risk ending up lost 300km away, in Algerian Sahel, where a 58 years old Italian lady had just been kidnapped. So we took right.
So now we know what sand rivers are.
It's just like a normal river, it has waves on the surface, it gets deeper in the middle, really deeper and everything, and it's large. But it's made of sand.
Abby got off the bike, I tried my little acceleration trick, failed, sunk, stalled.
I pushed with my feet, Abby pushed from the back, the bike fumed and reved high in first gear, sometimes having a sudden jump as the madly spinning back tire brushed on a few stones burried underneath the sand, and slowly, painfully, sweating gallons, praying our faithful VTwin engine wouldn't seize, we made it out of the river, completely soaked, as if we had just crossed a liquid one.
The bike was out of breath too, it's the first time we saw its temperature raise to red and the exhausts had never fumed before and never did since. But she made it, our dear ol' 23 years old grand-mothership, what a lovely trustworthy Grannie!
The last bit of track to Zagora was just like its beginning, a soon-to-be road in the early shape of a large flattened dirt track. Just perfect to dry out our sweat and regain some dignity before entering town.
Finding "Chez Ali" wasn't very difficult, the city isn't very big, and we soon found ourselves in a little paradise. A family owned and held heaven. For 360 dirrhams per day, we get our own little riad, with toilets and hot shower, complete with an adorable terrace full of flowers which looks upon Ali's idea of Nirvana, a big blossoming garden, purple and green, with a few orange and lemon trees, little shadowy terraces, a couple of fountains, lots of palm trees, a large bird house with eleven small parakeets that never stop singing and an incredibly handsome peacock that open the feathers of his magnificent tail for a bit of bread. Did I mention breakfast and dinner are included? Wifi? Yeah, of course. A garage for the bike? But certainly! A repair shop? We've got two of them twenty meters away and they specialize in races and rallies since so many people come here to play in the sand. They work fast and they're charging very reasonably. We've seen people coming here to pimp up their old truck before returning to Europe to sell it.
Er... yeah well, clearly we've been here since a while. I stopped counting when we passed two weeks. Time doesn't count in paradise, so I just gave up. We have long lazy breakfasts in the garden, we feed the cat, give chips to the peacock - he likes sour cream & onions - we enjoy the sun on our terrace, Abby visits the hammam. We go for walks in the desert, along the river, through the green palmeraie and the gardens full of vegetables since Zagora is basically a big oasis. We enjoy the silence and the solitude there. We hang around on the dry cracked tiles of mud, seeing more beauty in the patterns layers of sediments form as they pile up. A young palm tree pops its tender green head from the dusty ground, lifting a thick block of dry mud in the process. A tibia bone puzzles us before we decide it must have belonged to a goat. We find strange looking plants and awe at the tricks they deploy to resist the 50 degrees temperature that melts the region in summer. We love the desert, beauty can be found in every detail... until thirst drags us back to town where we end up watching life, in the streets this time, from the outdoor terraces of coffee shops. The Berber articraft salesmen no longer try to lure us into their stores, we just shake hands, have a laugh and exchange a few kind words before carrying on our way.
We visit the market on Wednesdays or Sundays. It's a good market with lots of diverse and colourful merchandise from fruits and vegetables to construction wood and animals. It's hard not to be conspicuous when filming a market so we just followed a couple of British tourists once, Tim and Sophie and Oona, their baby girl, as they bargained their way around, and shot nearly an hour of the loud and passionately mercantile show. Berbers do business nicely though, they don't push too hard and smile a lot. Bargaining is a traditional must but ripping off the tourist isn't the game. Handicraft isn't made in China either and we saw superbly hand worked Berber carpets of a quality and a craftsmanship we had not seen anywhere else before.
We still don't buy anything though. We don't want just a little piece of Morocco, I guess, like a carpet or a nice lamp. No, I think we want a Moroccan home full of Moroccan stuff and located in Morocco too if possible. Nothing less. Bringing back an object anywhere is never going to make us feel better about not being here anymore, would it? So, it's useless and space taking.
One day, we met Larsin and his son Elias at the market. Larsin invited us to his place to have tea. We ended up staying for hours, having tagine with his family and Fatima, his wife, gave Abby her first experience of henna on hands and feet. We came back a few days later and Abby gave her rollable piano to young Elias who was dancing with joy. Later, I gave him a couple of rides on the Transalp and made him further giggle. Larsin has spent 21 years serving in the Moroccan army, far in the desert, at the time the Polisario army was rather aggressive, but there's nothing "macho" about him at all. I'd vote him Mr. Cool if there was elections. I tasted my first Moroccan wine with him, a bottle of red from Meknes, stronger than the Spanish or Portuguese wines I had tasted on the ride down, but very pleasant. I also tried the 45 degrees alcohol of dates but I'd rather have Japanese "sake" really. The next morning too...
Smart guy too, he speaks French and English very well and his conversation taught me many things about Morocco. Talking about the recent events all over North Africa, I asked him if, in the highly improbable case of Morocco following the new revolutionary trend and demanding the departure of the monarch, the military would stand on the people side or on the king's.
His answer was clear. The army would defend the king, for the simple reason that he is the chief supreme of it. In Tunisia or Egypt, the role of the army is to protect the country, not the government. Big difference.
And indeed, although all the TV screens we saw were tuned to the news, Morocco remains calm. We did see a tiny demonstration in Zagora main street, the other market day, that seemed to deal with unemployment issues but there must have been a maximum of thirty persons present... and not a single policeman, which seemed a bit odd. But as Larsin puts it, this might not be a democracy but people here are still free to express their opinions without resorting to kerosene.
Prophet Mohammed's birthday has passed without much Xmas-like fuss about it, not that people are not devoted or religious, no, it's just that they seem to really "live" it on a personal level. Spirituality has its time dedicated to it, during prayer that is, and Larsin might have a glass of Meknes wine with me, he doesn't want even his son to disturb him when he goes in the next room to pray. Again, this reminds me a bit of India. Like an outsider who doesn't speak the language I still can't comprehend that need people have to believe in whatever god they choose but if the goal is to be reassured and lifted up, I really don't see the point of making the birth of a religious icon such a commercial event as Xmas. Sounds to me like an undermining lack of respect for those who truly have an intimate relationship with their god. But as I said, who am I to judge of these things? I am already in Paradise!
Nish & Abby