14 May 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 3

It was to be a marathon ride, and Morocco’s roads were an unknown quantity: How good would they be? How busy would they be? Will there be good signage (in roman script)?

As we soon discovered, the main roads are in pretty good order, although mostly single carriageway. Speed limits are up to 100kph outside of towns, and typically 60 or 40 within them. The standard of driving is, as you might expect, poor. This caused some of the group a lot of stress, but I decided that there was no point getting fussed by it, to just accept it, and work with it – and in the main, it worked quite well. There were no collisions between any of us and other motor vehicles.

Our route was along the N13, and traffic was light by British standards. Overtaking was easy, although staying alert was essential because the use of mirrors obviously isn’t in the driving test. Worst of all were the long-distance “grand taxis”, mostly elderly Mercedes, who would use both sides of the road, stop (and pull out) at random and engage in kamikaze overtakes at unexpected moments.

If you think we’re heavily Policed in the UK, then Morocco will come as a shock. Police check-points are common, as are speed-checks – especially on the approach to towns, and crossing bridges or causeways which often have much reduced speed limits on them. The officers aren’t clad in yellow either, just their grey uniforms. That said, we were only stopped once in the whole time we were there and that’s because we were the only traffic on the road and I suspect the officer was bored! As in France, oncoming traffic was generally pretty good at warning of speed-checks with flashed headlights – although we also got flashes because of having our headlights on. Driving with headlights on in Morocco, even at night, is not the done thing.

Unleaded petrol is plentiful, and slightly cheaper than in the UK at around 100d per litre (80p), although few filling stations accept card payments. Our first fuel stop was on the outskirts of Chefchaouen, where we drank more Red Bull with some biscuits from the shop. The picture on the packet looked promising: two biscuits with a generous chocolate cream filling, but the reality was two thick, dry biscuits with a thin scraping of something brown in the middle… Not really living up to the “Max” name on the wrapper. Still, better than nothing.

Back on the road, and getting more familiar with the Moroccan way of things, we hopped past lorries, wove around mopeds and kept a watchful eye for oncoming grand taxis! About half-way between Chefchaouen and the next city, Meknes, we stopped for a comfort stop. With lush green vegetation and rolling hills we could be almost anywhere in Europe and I had to keep reminding myself that this was Africa!

Roadworks, of which there were many, are a very different proposition compared to the UK. The general absence of cones, flashing lights, signage and the like makes them interesting and sometimes challenging affairs. At one point we came to a four-way junction where they were building a new roundabout, and as a result none of the roads were connected to each other, and the signs had been taken down too. Fun. Two of the roads set off in generally similar directions, so we took one and hoped for the best. A few hundred yards down the road we spotted a pedestrian and asked if this was the road to Meknes – and of course is wasn’t, thus adding further weight to adage that if there’s a fifty percent chance that something will go wrong then nine times out of ten it will.

Doing a U-turn on an off-camber, gravelly road, with heavy luggage and other traffic travelling in random directions was interesting as we returned to the junction and picked the other road. Care was needed to avoid other traffic, the workmen, the plant and the piles of gravel and other materials strewn around, but both of us made it through safely – even stopping to re-direct a confused local who’d also got the wrong road.

The road offered a mixture of terrain, from plains with long, straight sections to mountainous areas with entertaining twists and turns, as well as steep climes and descents. Slow moving lorries were a regular sight as the struggled up hills, and when I say slow I mean little more than walking pace. Even when they were travelling in the opposite direction you had to be aware of them because traffic behind would overtake without much attention to other traffic – especially when the overtaking vehicle was another lorry that didn’t want to lose momentum up the hill.

Arriving in a village with a sign pointing to Meknes: simple. Next junction with left or right choices and no signs: not so simple.

It's times like that where a sense of direction helps – and a map. We had maps and also an electronic version on our Garmin GPS receivers. Unfortunately the electronic version didn't allow automatic routing, but at least it gave us a pretty good idea of where we were. As it happens, we didn't use any of that to decide the direction – just instinct, which proved to be spot on. Result!

Meknes, christened Milton Keynes by one of the Marks in a moment of confusion, is the largest town that Gareth and I rode through. It was much busier and more chaotic than any of the small towns and villages we’d been though, and there were Police officers, some of them female (which came as a surprise), directing traffic at junction, as well as roundabout and traffic lights. Traffic lights in Morocco have four phases: green, flashing green, amber and red before returning straight to green.

Meknes is also the home of some of Morocco’s alcohol producers, with wine and beer being produced there. We knew that there was alcohol available in Morocco despite it being a Muslim country, but we were less prepared for how readily available it was. As long as you were reasonably discreet about it, nobody paid any attention either.

Heading south out of Meknes we came across the most bizarre roadworks I’ve ever seen. A new dual carriageway is being built, and much of it is finished and in use. Some sections were only partly complete with a contraflow arrangement, and it was this that came as a surprise. Instead of a formal, marked cross-over the closed side was fenced off, with traffic carrying on around the roundabout and turning in a dog-leg on to the other carriageway with no cones, markings or any other indicators that there’s two-way traffic. When it’s time to cross back, a row of three rocks across one side of the carriageway and a bloke in a chair vaguely pointing at the central reservation is the cue to cross back – but not everyone noticed it and runaway lorries were observed still on the wrong side some distance further on. Imagine that on the M25!

It was on this stretch that we found a convoy of British registered Land Rovers and we got a cheery wave and toot as we rode past. British registered vehicles were few and far between, with French and Spanish being the most numerous, although there were quite a lot of German bikes – including, on our return journey, a long procession of Harley Davidsons, complete with Police escort, support vehicles and recovery trailer (with only one space – optimism!).

Once the road quietened down, Gareth and I rode side-by-side for a while, sharing the realisation that not only were we in Africa but that we had the biggest hurdles behind us, and with huge grins we knew we could do it and catch the others.

We’d been keeping in touch with the others via text message, and updating them on our progress. Actually, that’s not quite true: Gareth had been sending texts but was deliberately ambiguous as to whether I was there or not.

Coming to the first of the more mountainous areas, I was surprised to see a very modern variable message sign that wouldn’t have been out of place on a British Motorway. As in the UK, it’s there to show traffic information – principally whether the mountain road is open. The main difference was the provision of substantial height-bars each side of it to stop overloaded trucks from hitting it – and you could understand why when you see the amount of stuff people piled on to trucks: A triple-deck sheep carrier for example, based on a 7.5 tonne truck – and no, they don’t look all that stable.

For a hot country Morocco gets a lot of snow, even on lower ground, and snow barriers were a common sight along the route. Looking at the Atlas Mountains ahead, there was still a lot of snow visible on the tops, and later in the trip when we were riding through the mountains, rounding a corner to find a bank of snow in a shady spot was not uncommon. The temperature varied quite a lot, and you could feel the change from warm to cool and back again – although it was never actually cold.
The trouble with riding through such spectacular scenery is that you can’t appreciate it fully whilst riding, so on finding a suitable lay-by with a stunning view on the top of one of the hills we made out final comfort-stop of the day and spent a few minutes drinking in the view and taking photos.

Aware that time was marching on we pressed on towards Midelt, and hoped that we could find the hotel that the others were going to be staying in. Our third fuel-fill of the day, at a tiny Shell branded station, would see us through the last leg of the day’s journey in terms of both fuel and water.

Buying water at filling stations became a habit, as none of us were all that keen to drink the tap water (although we all did, unknowingly, at one of the places we stayed thanks to the refilled bottle trick!). A 1.5 litre bottle cost around 6d and a couple of those would fill my water-pack.

As the shadows started to lengthen, and we dropped out of the mountains for the last time that day along some wonderful sweeping bends, we drew closer to Midelt. We spied a group of three big bikes ahead and, wondering if they were the others, pressed hard to catch up. They weren’t, and keeping up the pace we soon passed them.

About 20km north of Midelt we saw a sign for an auberge ahead, and as we drew closer we spotted a bike parked outside the gate. A blue bike. A blue and orange bike. A blue and orange KTM Adventure S. We’d done it!

The look on the faces of the others that we were both there was one of astonishment, because they weren’t expecting me to be there at all, and they weren't expecting Gareth to make it there so early because they’d had a lot more trouble with the border and insurance than we had.

It was 17.15 as Gareth and I rode through the gate and parked up next to the other bikes. We’d been on the road for thirteen hours, ridden 525km, negotiated ferry and border crossings and done in one day what the others did in two and a half.

Still to come: pistes, crashes, desert and storms...

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