11 June 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 7

The day was already warmer than it had been, and the temperature increased as we headed south. Just after leaving Ouarzazate we took a short detour to the oasis at Fint. They really are an unusual sight, with lush green vegetation and trees in an otherwise baron landscape. This one was very much on the tourist-trail, and we had to vie for road space with taxis and 4x4s.

Wildlife likes oasises too, and this frog was obviously enjoying the river. Tempting as it may be, the advice is not to drink the water because it is usually home to various nasty bugs – although it should be OK if you use water purification filters or chemicals

Climbing back up from the oasis we followed the road up in to the hills once again. The road had recently been upgraded, and although it was unsurfaced it was wide, straight and fairly easy to ride. The old road could be seen in places, winding its way through the landscape whereas the new one ploughed through it.

Humidity was increasing and it felt like a sultry British summer day where even the altitude failed to offer much in the way of cooling breeze.

We’d been told that spending a night in the desert would be an amazing experience, mostly due to the lack of light pollution and the resulting show of stars in the sky. Our plan was to ride across the top of the Sahara from Foum Zeguid to the sand dunes at Erg Chebbi, spending one or two night in the desert en route. Tim’s comment when we’d asked if he’d done it was that he had better things to do – and we were about to find out exactly what he meant.

Even this far south there was a surprising amount of water around – enough to need fording, and for the local residents to grow their crops.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

And even in these harsh conditions, there’s always something that will grow in an unexpected place.

Dropping down from the hills for the last time the track followed the bed of a river which made for a challenging ride with loose shale and our first real taste of deeper sand. One of the most important tips for riding in sand is not to stop, because it’s the starting off that causes the most trouble. After one particularly lengthy stretch the leader decided to stop for a breather – and here's a hint: if you're near the front of the ride, please don't stop right on the edge of the firm ground it leaves the rest of us in the deep sand! Ho hum…

The sand hadn’t caused any serious difficulty, although Mark H had a couple of tumbles and with the ground being so soft it made getting off the bike to help a delicate balancing act so its stand didn’t sink-in and allow your bike to fall over too.

At the end of the river-bed stretch the track rose in to a small settlement and from there we joined a properly surfaced main road. It was wide, straight and recently surfaced – in fact they were still surfacing it in places, and there were detours off the road, through rough ground past the works and back on to the road.

With the five of us making progress we carried on towards Foum Zeguid. Looking back over my shoulder to make sure nobody had been left behind I saw nobody. Which was strange because there should have been a Gareth there. I turned back to try and find him, and before too long spotted him still riding along. It turned out that after the work on his bike the previous day, one of the fuel tanks hadn’t been turned back on causing the bike to stop because it had used up the other tank. It’s a common error, mostly because there are few bikes with two separately controlled fuel tanks – but it’s still alarming.

We came up behind a very new, slow-moving, French, Land Rover Defender and overtook. Looking back we discovered why it was going so slowly: it had obviously been rolled at some point, and the windscreen was missing, roof squashed down at the front and the two doors were bent out of shape: A timely reminder that things can go very wrong in the desert if you aren’t careful.

We made a comfort stop to stretch legs and take photos of our first sand-dunes, and while we were resting the Land Rover trundled past with the lady in the passenger seat looking, not unsurprisingly, cheesed-off! That was going to be a very slow drive back to Europe, and a very big repair-bill.

There was very little traffic, and as we arrived on the edge of Foum Zeguid we were stopped at the Police check-point. The officer spoke with Mark L who was leading, and apparently asked where we were going – and looked puzzled when told, “pour quoi?”.

Some of us were running low on Dirham so we were hoping to find a cash machine, and while we were in the town centre, outside an army barracks, we took the opportunity to have some lunch, brochettes avec frites, while watching a Portuguese film crew in a couple of 4x4s – although we’ve no idea what they were actually doing.

After lunch the time had come: we were about to ride in to the Sahara for the first time. Retracing our steps to the edge of the town we stopped in a petrol station to top-up our tanks and also fill up our spare fuel cans in case we needed any later. We bought extra bottles of water, and Mark H and I filled up our panniers’ water jackets with non-drinking water.

Turning on to the desert road, we ran off the tarmac and on to the sandy, gravelly track and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first camel.

Our plan was to camp overnight at an oasis en route. We’d been told that a night in the desert was a “must-do” because the lack of light pollution allowed a much better view of the night sky and that the display of stars was spectacular.

The road was wide, but very rough with a ridged “washboard” surface that took its toll on both us and the bikes. Deviating from the wheel tracks of previous vehicles gave an even rougher ride over stones – which was a surprise because the surface didn’t look all that much different to other tracks we’d ridden earlier in the trip.

Every so often we’d come across a bridge or a causeway that had been washed away. They were marked by a row of three or four larger rocks placed across the road, and that was our cue to divert around across the dry river bed. Missing the row of rocks could lead to a nasty accident, and I’m glad it was daylight when we were attempting it. The main difficulty of taking such a diversion was the soft sand and shale that you had to ride through, and with the extra fuel and water, the bikes were heavier than usual – and in the heat, man-handling the bikes was very tiring.

We rode on and on, the road was straight and apart from the occasional detour there was very little to keep us amused – not even any wildlife, scenic views or anything else to look at.

With the road being fairly new, it didn’t match with either our paper or electronic maps, so there was an element of guesswork involved in locating the oasis. When we found it, the family that were living beside it weren’t all that pleased to see us, with what we took to be the elder son making it fairly clear we weren’t welcome – although the mother seemed more keen, perhaps thinking there could be money to be made (everything in Morocco has its price!).

We decided that this wasn’t going to be all that satisfactory, so we returned to the road to seek out an alternative place to camp. This was easier said that done because, despite what you may have seen in films, deserts aren’t made of soft, shifting sands, but rocks, stones and gravel.

After a few more kilometres we found what looked to be a reasonably rock-free, flat area to pitch our tents in. As anyone who camps will tell you, no matter how careful you are, you will always end up pitching on something that you’ll only discover once you’re in bed and lying on it – and inevitably in such a rocky location it proved to be so.

A friend had kindly lent me his lightweight tent for the trip, and with hindsight I probably ought to have tried erecting it at home rather than trying to do it for the first time when it really mattered. The other four got their tents up while I struggled with mine – the strong wind and light structure of the tent made it resemble a kite more than a tent as I tried to get it to stay on the ground long enough to peg it down.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Dinner was taken from the long-life food that we’d brought with us for camping / emergency use, and because it’s easy to prepare being boil-in-the-bag: Mine was pasta and meatballs in tomato sauce.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

We waited in expectation as night fell for the stars to come out… only to have full cloud-cover. We saw nothing.

A side-effect of the cloud cover was that the temperature didn’t fall as we had been told it would, so it was a very warm and sticky night. Even the wind was hot. I turned in fairly early hoping to get a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t to be and I got very little sleep. The mesh walls of my tent weren’t all that good at keeping the desert out of the tent, and as the night went on a layer of sandy grit covered everything in the tent.

Dawn broke, and we were greeted with a spectacular view of the early morning sun lighting up the desert is a wonderful golden glow:

Breakfast was another long-life meal, baked beans with sausages for me, and I realised that I’d forgotten to bring any coffee with me which didn’t help matters (I don’t wake up until I’ve had at least one cup of coffee!). After breakfast it was time to strike camp and carry on towards Zagora.

It’s a funny thing, but you know that there’s nothing in the desert, that’s why it’s a desert, but when you get there and find that there really is nothing there, it still comes as a surprise. But strangely, even there, we weren’t alone.

To be continued…

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