Merzouga is a small town pitched just on the edge of Erg Chebbi, a small range of sand dunes that creeps into Morocco. It is stereotypical Sahara. I decided that after around 1000 km I’d take a break for a day here.
The dunes are perfectly golden most of the day, and change colour as the sun rises and sets through a range of browns and oranges. I walked alone in the dunes for a few hours, only seeing two other people on my way. Walking in the sand can be extremely hard, and made me think of the war time movies of people stranded in and/or travelling across the Sahara. I was only out for a couple of hours and managed to neck 2ltrs of water!
I decided to trek up one of the biggest dunes, which meant around it too, I had tried going straight up but the sand just falls away as you climb. I found a ‘snowboard’ on my way up. It was an old longboard with the wheels removed I think, and lugged it all the way to the top thinking it would make a good GoPro video riding down. The result was rubbish! The thing wouldn’t slide, the more I leant forward the more the nose would stick in, if I tried to lift the nose out of the sand the board would stop! I am so glad no one was watching, because I looked pretty pathetic. (Although I do have the whole thing on film…)
Instead I decided just to sprint down the dunes and have a lie down. I took the opportunity to have a little sunbathe away from the Muslim eyes that may not appreciate the view of an half naked
hunk body in plain sight. My tan lines needed a little evening out as I’ve been wearing my longer cycling bib which extends below the knee, meaning I have a great tan from below my knee to above my sock line, about 7 inches! and one hell of a farmer tan-line on each bicep! The dunes were silent, apart from the odd gust that filled my ears with sand, and I lay there watching dust tornadoes form and dissipate over the valley as the land heated up in the midday sun.
I was the talk of the campsite amongst the elderly German, Dutch and French camper-van residents. The one German lady who spoke english really enjoyed talking to me and was apparently a keen cyclist. Her main questions were 1) Doesn’t your bum hurt? 2) what do you put on your bum? and 3) Can you take a look at the bum on my cycling shorts? Is the wear and tear normal?
I headed to bed pretty early after some dinner and a kick about with the grocers sons in town. The next few days would be tough, trying to up my mileage and cross over the Haute Atlas again!
Day 11 – 170km
I was up for sunrise, and stupidly, used all of my GoPro battery getting a time lapse of the sunrise over the sand dunes. After saying bye to the German bum lady, I started pushing my bike through the sand to get to the ‘road’. I started my ride through a hard packed field, as it was a lot
smoother less bumpy than the rocky road.
The first 50km would be back up the same road that I came down. I wasn’t to keen on this, the feeling that I had already ridden this road didn’t seem right. But getting a taxi for 50k would have been cheating in my book. In the end I stopped for a coffee at the same donkey beat/head kick place I had been at 2 days before. By lunch I had covered 100k, and due to the lack of places to eat, I had a crisp sandwich and waved goodbye to the last of my peanut butter supply. An hour later I passed a restaurant and decided to stop for a proper meal. A mini bus tour of 16 people had just turned up, and I sat with them to eat. It was nice after a week or so to chat in English, just about airlines, travel, food and other nonsense. Talking in broken french day after day can get exhausting, so I managed to relax for an hour.
I jumped back on the bike, stupidly forgetting to use the toilet!, and headed to Errachidia. My original plan was to stop here for the night, but I felt good and it was only about 4pm. So went around the town using the ‘bypass’, which was a very bumpy road taking me on a tour of industrial zones, a prison, army barracks and some less desirable residences.
I was approaching the entrance to the Gorge Du Ziz, and the map was showing a +12% incline soon. After one pretty tough up hill, I’d thought that I’d riden it, then another harder one came, which I also thought must have been it, until I reached the top, knackered and in plain view of a third, much steeper and longer hill… THIS one was the one the map was talking about and it arrived at exactly 150km into the day. I regretted not stopping in Errachidia. I had no food and it was getting late again. I ate two little bags of sugar I had on me and started climbing! About 10 mins into the climb a cyclist flew by in the opposite direction, only to turn around and catch me up. Ismael, a policeman from Errachidia, was training for a triathlon and although he had already been up, down and back over the col, he rode with me to the top. I think I may have given up without the help of him pulling me up. We kept each other going, whenever I stated to catch him up, he would press on faster and it became a bit of a race!
We parted at the top, and Ismael rode back to Errahidia. I stuck my helmut back on, and flew down the 4km into the gorge.
Hungry, I bought some dates from roadside sellers. The man decided not to sell the good looking well packaged ones at his stall to me and instead went to the other side of the road and bagged some much worse looking ones. The other guys wouldn’t stop laughing, obviously at the fact that the was managing to sell the knock offs to an idiot tourist. I was sure I was getting ripped off and when he asked for 10dh, I gave him 5 and rode off. I haven’t really haggled at all during this trip, everything is so cheap, so haggling over 50p normally seems a bit off, when it means a lot more to them than it does to me.
The road was so smooth, and the gorge so beautiful, that I quickly forgot del boy and his dates. The Ziz gorge was looking pretty awesome as the sun set, painting it a brighter red as it got lower and lower.
I found a campsite in the middle of the gorge and after 170km I was ready to eat and sleep!
Day 12 – 166.5km
‘Climbing K2 or floating the Grand Canyon in an inner tube; there are some things one would rather have done than do.’ – Edward Abbey
I didn’t have the best start, exactly 37 metres into my ride I noticed I had a broken spoke on my rear wheel. I wasn’t sure if it had just happened or it was from the day before. It was on the gear side, meaning I’d have to take off the cassette. I had the tool, but no chain whip to hold it. I was told, by Keith at Bikes and Hikes, and by the Youtube video I’d watched that a piece of chain would do… I didn’t have that either. With brute force and a tea towel I got it off, but in replacing the spoke, noticed that all of the remaining spokes I had were the wrong size. I decided to replace it with an ill fitting one anyway, and if any more went I would swap some off the front wheel. Just the night before I had been reading Alastair Humphreys’ book about cycling around the world, the part I read involved him arriving in Patagonia, only to break spokes and realise he too had the wrong size, resulting in him re-building the entire wheel!
Eventually I got underway, and started to cross back over the high Atlas mountains. The ascent isn’t as hard as the Tizi n Tichka col, but the descent is magnificent, and lasts for about 10k. I’d crossed the mountains at exactly the right time. I looked east and there was a lot of fresh snow on the mountains, and it was heading my way. The temperature got cooler and the winds increased. I was pushing on, just beating the weather for the next few hours, although I did get rained on a few times, I’m sure I mannaged to stay ahead of the worst of it.
This is where I’ve decided to take the more direct route to Melilla (the N15). I was making better progress than I’d expected, and could have stayed in Morocco for longer, but there were spokes waiting for me in Spain, so I’d take the more direct route.
This road was awful! roadworks for a full 60k, and strong head winds. As I turned off I noticed a large tornado whipping up the sand. As I rode down the road it got closer and closer, eventually blocking the way. I had no idea how strong it would be, so waited for it to pass. I was sure it wouldn’t carry away 130kg of Seb, bike and bags, but it may take a couple of layers of skin and paint off during the sand blasting!
The road wasn’t getting better as it passed through many small towns, the residents of which rarely see any tourists. The kids would always block the road and gesture for money or food, I wasn’t stopping, breaking through their road blocks, but still being close enough for them to slap me or attempt to steal something off the bike! I tried not to let it get to me, after all, its exactly what my brother or myself would have done at that age, if a lycra clad man on a shiny donkey laden with bags that were no doubt packed full of food and money had the cheek to ride through our village!
It was a very hard day, and I was still making very slow progress, averaging around 10kmph into the wind. This is now north eastern Morocco and people around here seem a lot less friendly. Most of the time I was either ignored or stared at, any waves I do receive are normally instigated by myself and are rarely coupled with a smile. Things start to get to me, the wind, kids, the road and broken bits of bike! That is until the brow of the next hill, Mark, a cycle tourist from Spain pops into sight, his wide grin looking almost as stupid as mine! He speaks no English, but we exchange information as to what the next few hundred km involves for each other. He tells me to stay at the place he stayed at last night, despite it being 5pm and obviously at least a whole days ride away! As I talk to him I remind myself that I am still on a holiday, things are not that bad and at the end of the day it is my choice to come here and do this ride. I could always give up and jump on a bus! But that wasn’t going to happen. The hard times make the good times so much sweeter! As Abraham Lincoln said ‘People are only as happy as they choose to be‘, so I decided to be happy.
After I pass Mark, I have to endure a couple of dog chases. These are really starting to scare me, as I only just got away from the large Alsatian! I don’t want to have to sort out a leg wound en-route! They must, somehow, sense that I used to be a postman? The dogs seem to be guarding the olive groves that are dotted around these parts. After that, every time I pass an olive grove, I ride slowly by, my gears ready to jump into a sprint. If I hear a bark it sends me into red alert, my eyes scanning the trees for any sign of movement. I remember that I have a rock in my bar bag, I carry it to hammer in my tent pegs, but I’ve just thought of another use for it. I am sure that I am going to have to endure the wrath of dog again!
I spend most of that night changing spokes, under torchlight, in the forecourt of a small motel, hoping my wheels will get me to Melilla.
Day 13 – 137.5km
‘When my legs hurt I say “shut up legs! Do what I tell you to do“‘ – Jens Voight
The first cold morning! It is freezing and I’m riding with my hat, gloves and down jacket on! I seem to be up early enough to get some mileage down before the inevitable northerly wind kicks off. The smell of burning plastic fills the air. All around Morocco you can hardly ever look into a field without seeing a plastic bag snagged on a rock or bush and it is the local nomads that occasionally use them to fuel their fires.
A boy on a BMX tries to keep up with me for a while, he shouts to me and I can tell that his words are neither welcoming or nor words of encouragement. It isn’t worth wasting my energy this early in the ride to break away from him. He keeps gesturing for me to give him clothes and makes a grab for my coat, at that point I do my best to sprint off into the wind.
The wind is back, in force, and I find myself screaming profanities into and at it! The large road signs completely flattened by what must be a pretty consistent flow. I long for the helpful gust of passing lorries, which at worst neutralises the headwind for a few seconds and at best sometimes thrusts me forward. Oncoming traffic is another story, having to dive into their wake as if it is a large breaking wave! Surfacing the other side only to battle on into the current! These gusts are sometimes enough to knock my balance. Ive had a few close calls and near falls. They have normally resulted from reshuffling my balls or bum pad at the same time as traffic flies by unannounced.
I had hoped to get another 160km done today, but I was still spinning away into the wind, very slowly and had only covered an extra 30k in nearly 4 hrs since lunch. There is nowhere to stay, so I ask a local if I can camp behind his tent.
Bark (I’m pretty sure this isn’t spelled correctly, it may even be Barack? I didn’t hear him properly) told me that I would stay in his tent tonight! I’m not 100% sure of his job, but his tent was where he worked. His job title included the word Guard, and involved watching the roads and monitoring a CB radio, which went on through the evening.
The tent was about 7x7m and had a dirt floor.Bark had one bed and his apprentice, Ali, had the other, both covered in about 10 blankets each. Other than that there was a tiny portable TV, which we crowded around for a while watching athletics, a table and chairs, gas stove and cooking implements.
Bark prepared a tajine, and as he place it on the stove, the whole thing snapped. Food everywhere! ‘Pas problem’ he proclaimed, I laughed but secretly I cried, I was so hungry after another long day on the bike! Whilst cooking, Bark unrolls his prayer mat, faces east and starts to pray. I couldn’t help but hope he was mentioning my ride and the fact that the wind is too strong!
We eventually ate, and passed around my French and Arabic phrasebooks, between the two, we managed to keep the conversation going for a couple of hours until I unroll my mat and sleeping bag onto the floor, both Bark and Ali very impressed by my ‘futuristic’ equipment.
Day 14 – 187km
‘Tenacity – When you’ve got enough balls to start something and your too stupid to quit when you realise you shouldn’t have started in the first damn place!’ – Steve Fugatep
Barks unexpectedly techno alarm blasts at 5.35, and he gets up to put the solar panels back outside and make his first transmission on the radio. I pack my things up and have mint tea, bread and olive oil for breakfast with him. I’m on the bike by 0645 and in Guercif, 30km down the road, by 0800. This is where I had wanted to get to the night before, so I was back to square one in my mind.
Across the country I have been waved through numerous police road blocks, but I am pulled aside at one just after Guercif. I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, and the policeman is just curious as to where I have been and where I’m going. He doesn’t understand what a Welshman is or where Wales is, and after 5 minutes of trying to explain, I concede, and tell him I’m English. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth! Partly because I didn’t brush my teeth the night before or that morning and partly because at this point I still didn’t know what the Wales v England score had been from the previous day.
If I had done any sort of research for this area, it may well have mentioned the strong northerly winds. Again, I was making very slow progress across large plains. The road was sometimes dead straight for 25km, and would take over two hours to battle across! Hills and mountains, in my opinion, are a cyclists friend. Like a friendship, they have ups and downs, and the hard times are usually followed by very good times! Wind, however, is that annoying ‘friend’ that sticks around all day, making life difficult! He’s easy to forget when he’s not around, but when he shows up again, you realise how you didn’t miss him!
Its another hard day, and I start to develop some pains in my legs. But I decide that I will finish in Meililla tonight, no matter what happens or how late it gets. When I stop for lunch, omelette is the only option. The lady sends her child to buy eggs. As he returns I see him drop the bag of eggs. I know you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, but it isn’t easy to make an omelette with a bag of broken eggs. Two minutes later a baguette and two fried eggs show up, it’ll do!
There is one final col in Africa, it isn’t that big, but it feels significant. In the end it is! Half way up my chain catches, and one of the links twists about 70 degrees! Although I have the tool, I have no idea how to remove a link. So I decide brute force, mole grips and a leatherman can do the job just as well, and I bend the chain back into shape! this gets me to the top.
I don’t seem to be coasting down the other side as fast as I should? I check the back wheel, the spokes are fine, but the wheel rim has broken. Its actually broken around the base of 4 different spokes and is so out of shape that I have to disconnect the back brake, completing the next 60k with just the front, and even then the tyre is rubbing quite heavily on the rear mud guard. I plough on as I’d already decided that I would get to Melilla today, no matter what, and after all, the wheels still rolled!
The last 40k is all urban. Through town centres and industrial zones, and I really enjoyed weaving in and out of the traffic again, forgetting that I have disconnected my back brake as I suddenly reach the first set of red lights!. I refuelled on two packets of crisps and two large chocolate bars and used the energy to sprint the remaining kilometres. I couldn’t stop smiling, and as the Spanish enclave came into sight I started singing the Blondie song ‘Maria’, with the word Melilla substituted for Maria.
I had made it, although there were parts of the last few days where I honestly thought I wouldn’t, at least not this quickly. After 187km I found a little hotel, there were three motor bikers in the lobby, they had passed me 3 days ago, as we both left Merzouga. I joked that they had taken the same amount of time as me! (They would later be on the same ferry as me.)
I sit here writing this the next morning, still in Melilla as they wouldn’t allow me to board the ferry to Motril with a bike, so I am on the later one to Almeria. Two men forcibly ‘helped’ me get tickets and then demanded 30Euros commission after. I gave them some Moroccan Dirhams I had left, after all, I could get refused access to a ferry on my own!
I’ve changed my plans about riding to my mum in the mountains, deciding to get a new rear wheel before I get back on the bike, I’ll get a lift up there. So I’ll have a few days off, hopefully I’ll keep my fitness up and not sit back and drink too much wine. I’ll be back on the bike again next weekend after Wales beat Scotland, and I’ve learnt a few basic Spanish phrases!
Morocco was awesome. There are many places that I will defiantly return to, and some that I might not. If any of you haven’t been, you should go, even if you don’t cycle!