04 June 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 5

By morning the rain had cleared, and we were horrified to find five cleaner (on one side at least) bikes parked outside. Sure enough, Grandpa was still sitting on the step: although I think I woke him when I went out with my luggage.

After a typical Moroccan breakfast, including coffee with goats’ milk, we set off towards yesterday’s target, the Dades Gorge. This meant riding back through the village, but the touts from the night before were obviously still in bed and we had no trouble at all riding through. The road skirts around the edge of the flood-plain, and after an unusually wet winter the amount of greenery was quite impressive and there was even water in the river.

Arriving in a village on market (souk) day was an interesting experience, and we initially missed the turning to start our journey through the mountains to the top of the gorge. A U-turn, and an opportunistic Dirham-scrounger later, we set off along another riverbed. The road had obviously seen a tough winter, and was in a very poor state of repair. At one point it diverted in to the dry bed of the river itself and the shale made tough going before it rejoined the actual road.

I had my second misjudgement of the trip and clobbered one of my panniers on a rock, dislodging it from the bike. A feat I repeated soon after, on another rock. The only apparent damage was to the lock securing the pannier to the bike which would hold the pannier on the bike but no longer locked with a key. Much later I discovered that I’d put a hole in the pannier, and when trying to fill the water jacket it just poured straight out again.

Climbing up the winding track was a matter of preference and technique. With a steep drop to one side and a rock face on the other you had two choices: the inside or outside wheel-track. Most people opted for the inner track, although I preferred the outer track because the odds of clouting a pannier on a rock were much lower.

Riding along a ledge like that isn’t for the faint-hearted because the potential for things to go wrong is significant. That said, if you concentrate too much on the drop then you have less concentration for the road ahead, and there’s always that age-old hazard of target fixation. I have done a fair amount of riding on tracks like this one and the drop isn’t of particular concern. Obviously I respect it, and know what could happen, but otherwise I treat it much like any other stony track.

The map showed a settlement near the (road’s) summit, but when we got there it turned out to be a single, abandoned house without a roof. The views were spectacular though, and we were close to the snow-line: riding around a bend in to a shaded spot and finding a bank of snow on a warm sunny day comes as something of a surprise.

After a short break we began our slow descent, and it was here the differences between our bikes began to show. My 990 is completely standard in terms of gearing and I was struggling to ride slow enough not to run in to the back of the bike ahead, and even in first gear I was having to slip the clutch. A popular modification is to change the number of teeth on the sprockets to improve off road performance, and this probably helped the others – although I don’t know exactly how their bikes were setup.

Being at the back of the ride I took advantage of being able to stop and take photos of the scenery and the others ahead:

Once we got to the bottom we had a river to cross. Although not our first of the trip, it was the widest, deepest and fastest flowing. A gathering of children raised the stakes even higher in terms of sweets, Dirham and general pestering. Whilst Mark L went to see if there was an easier place to cross, Gareth waded in and the rest of us rode though with little difficulty. Mark returned having found something that looked easier to find us all on the other side, so he had a go himself after entrusting his camera bag to me to carry through on foot.

Anxious to get away from the pestering of the children we set off down the road and found a shaded spot between the river and the cliffs to have a breather. We’d not been there long when two young girls on donkeys came past and Mark H tried to take a photo of them – which didn’t go down well at all: Many people in Morocco, especially those in more isolated or rural locations, are superstitious about having their photo taken and the effect it might have on them in the afterlife. It didn’t stop a degree of banter with them, and I suspect they understood more than they let on.

Having been at the back of the ride most of the day I took the lead for the next bit. Mark L showed me on the map where we were going and told me to look for a right-turn at some point. When we came to a junction with a road to the right I stopped and pointed at it. Looking back I saw Mark apparently nodding his head, so I duly turned right – only to discover that the nod was indicating that we should go straight-on. Oh well…

We knew that the road to the Dades Gorge had been properly surfaced because it is a popular tourist attraction, but we were coming at it from the other side and the road was still piste. There is a village at the top of the gorge, and it’s here that you join the tarmac.

There’s no denying that it’s a spectacular sight, but sadly it is also full of tourists. We stopped to take some photos before carrying on through.

There are a few cafés along the road side, and we decided to stop for a coffee and something to eat. One of the things that we were missing most was junk food like chocolate. The healthy Moroccan diet is all very well, but sometimes you need some tooth-rotting sugary sweetness (other than the tea), and when we saw they had Snickers bars we couldn’t resist.

Looking down from the café gave a superb view of the road ahead: hairpin after hairpin, on recently surfaced tarmac. Brilliant.

Photo by Mark Littlewood
A common way for tourists to see Morocco in with a Berber guide in a 4x4, and as we were preparing to leave, a number of these 4x4s drew up outside. We chatted with a Canadian family who appeared to be doing a whirlwind tour of the country, and had our photos taken by group of American tourists who were interested in what we were doing, where we were going, what we were carrying etc.

We set off down the road ahead of the 4x4s and even on a heavily laden, knobbly-tyred KTM it was a fantastic bit of road. While we’d been having coffee we’d seen a group of three cruiser-style bikes go past heading up the gorge, and we half wondered if they’d be heading over the top the way we’d come, or whether they’d be following us down the surfaced road (silly question!).

The road wound its way down the gorge, and offered some spectacular views:

Our plan for the night was to head to Ouarzazate [Wazzat] and stay at the well known Bikershome. This meant a lengthy, and mostly dull, road ride across the plains. The road was busy, and there were a number of convoys of road bikes going the other way. From the plates I think they were mostly German and guessing from guide at the front of each group, an organised tour. There were a good number of BMW GSs amongst them, but one thing we did notice is that despite the number of them we saw, none of them bore any signs of being used on the pistes. It seems a shame to have ridden all that way and not take advantage of exploring the more remote parts.

Heading in to the setting sun wasn’t much fun, and the dust on our visors (inside and out) left us peering through the shadow cast by the peak of the helmet. Another hazard was the presence of so many tourist 4x4s, mostly Land Cruisers, with their kamikaze Berber drivers having no qualms about overtaking in to the face of oncoming traffic, then barging their way back in-between us to get out of the way.

This was the busiest we saw a road outside of a city, and as usual there were regular Police checkpoints and speed-checks. A new bypass around one town, Skoura, caused a bit of confusion with Ouarzazate being signposted the opposite way to the road shown on the map..

On the way through the city centre we needed to stop for cash, but the presence of a cash machine doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to get your money! It was the one recurring problem, and one that there isn’t a solution to other than take advantage of any working machine you do find! With the delays and detours it was getting dark by the time we wound our way through centre of Ouarzazate to Bikershome.

Bikershome is run by Dutchman Peter Buitelaar and his lovely Moroccan wife Zineb. Pete was out when we arrived, but Zineb made us very welcome, taking their 4x4 out of the garage to make room for our bikes, and cooking us a very welcome meal.

We intended to stay two nights, to allow us a rest-day, but plans change.

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