Sunday, March 27, 2016

Morroco - Marrakech, Andy's Odes & Top Tips

Morocco March 2016 - The Map

Do Geography!

Some Photos from Marrakech

The alleys - dodging donkeys, bikes, carts, motorbikes, other bikes and people - the hostel (& their famous breakfasts) the Bazzar & markets - the bike sorting from their travelling boxes

Supplementary Section - Andy's Odes 

(Musings that are sometimes poetic and sometimes not)

Ode to the Sac Plastique (Plastic Bag)

You are light
You are convenient
So easily disposed
You are everywhere
Sac Plastique

Caught on the many brambles
Caught in the sandy hollows
Kilometer after kilometer
Into the distance
Sac Plastique
You cover the barren lands
At the Entry
At the Exit
At most Villages and Towns
Oh Sac Plastique

In Blue
In White
In Green
What would these roads look like if it wasn’t for the

Sac Plastique?

What could we do 
Rather than use 
Sac Plastique?


Caution: The following section contains a few quick tips specifically for Cycle Touring

– Do not read: if you’re after a good story accompanying a good beverage –  Do read: if you’re thinking of going Cycle Touring in Morroco

Top Tips with Andy – Cycle Touring in Morroco

  1. Don’t bother with trains & bike boxes/bikes in Morroco – use the CTM busses. (We tried & after the ticket guy telling us it was fine we were stopped at the door & then spent the next hour getting different answers on luggage, lugging our bike boxes around & getting the tickets refunded)
  2. Buses:  Be specific about going to the CTM Bus Depot, rather than the Gare Routiere (We ended up at the Gare Routiere on the Taxi, despite thinking we’d emphasised the CTM sufficiently well.  This was a completely different experience to CTM. The Gare Routiere is a local station, crowded, loud, very busy and sometimes daunting!)
  3. Knowing French is a really good time in Morroco – Some people known a little English, but everyone seems to know French.
  4. Flying into Morroco:  If starting in Marrakech fly directly in / out of Marrakesh airport if possible to save a day of travel logistics etc.  We had to fly into Casablanca with Emirates, but could have flown out to Holland with Air Maroc from Marrakech.
  5. Bike boxes with Air Maroc – NB:  They cost about 550D ($80NZD) each with these guys – so factor that it.  You will need to pay this when checking in.
  6. The Moroccan Expectation of Payment:  Always be cautious with offers of help with baggage!  Only ask for help from women or shop keepers re directions.  Agree on prices of taxis etc & write it down on paper to avoid any uncertainty.
    Accepting an offer of help:  If someone does offer to help and you accept have a clear start/end point to the help, even if they seem genuine & want to help you buy your tickets etc…. They often are after some extra coin & will try and sell you a sob story to get some.  10 D seemed to be the min accepted here.
  7. Toilets:  Most times you could use a local café or petrol station toilet for free if you asked.  Keep some 1 D coins on you for the bus toilet areas etc
  8. Cooker Fuels:  Don’t rely on gas or other cooker fuels.  Petrol seemed to be the only solution or we did find some puncture only gas cartridges at some supermarkets.
  9. Finding Bike Boxes in Morroco:  Bike boxes are apparently a real pain to find in Casa – leave yours somewhere if you can.  We understand a lot of bikes are arriving in plastic bags now.
  10. Clothing & Sleeping Bags in Feb/March– It can be really cold in March – we’d suggest taking your good winter bags for this end of the season and warm clothes.
  11. Tenting:  40-50D ($10 NZD, 2016) seemed to be fairly standards at campgrounds fr two people and a tent, with 10D sometimes for a shower and most places having WiFi.
  12. Food:  We found couscous/veges and either Tuna or eggs the best meal options for quick and nutritious.  Dates & almonds from the markets were a winner (especially if you’re prepared to buy a 1kg packet of dates (25D).  Rolled oats from the Supi with yoghurt was a good change from bread.
  13. Advice:  Ask a number of people something, don’t always rely on one piece of advice (like the time Yousef told us there was a really good link road from near his guesthouse to where we were going & there definitely wasn’t)
  14. Ave Spending:  For us in 2016 = 240D/Day = $36 NZD for both of us (Nb: including mixture of tenting (80%) and hostels, cooking for ourselves 70% of the time and including taxis at either end/buses/hostel at Marrakech at either end)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Morocco: The Gorges and the Desert

Cycling in Morocco - The Summary:
  • -          728kms biked from Marrakech to Merzouga
    • via Tizi-n-ticka pass, Telouet, Dades and Todra Gorges and the N12 highway
  • -           Longest Day: 130kms
  • -          Shortest Day: 3kms
  • -          Highlights: Rest days, homestays and a trip into the desert dunes to see sunset/sunrise
  • -          Lowlights: Battling ongoing sore knees and the odd head wind challenge

Patte des Singe campground up the Dades Gorge

After a 13 hour “sleeper” bus, we are back amongst the bustling, bursting streets and alleyways of Marrakech. It was only two weeks ago that we were here last, but our confidence with biking round and navigating the busy medina has sky-rocketed and we are much more comfortable navigating the busy traffic on loaded bikes.

The last week has been, quite simply, awesome! We spent 2 nights in a family-run campground up the Dades Gorge where we were able to rest and enjoy some good company. We discovered the joy of riding un-laden bikes for day trips, so made the most of rest days to do some local exploring on much lighter and speedier bikes!

Riding up the Dades Gorge

Enjoying an early morning excursion!

Andy entering the Todra Gorge

After a grueling ride into a strong headwind, and another quiet day trip following, we rode on again towards the desert. There had been some choice regarding our route, however a friendly Moroccan tour guide convinced us to travel the N12 (National), a route he assured us was free from traffic and “just like Botswana and Kenya” – desert and acacia trees! So we followed his advice and headed for the desert!

The view from above the town of Tinghir
On the road towards Alnif and the N12

Getting closer to the desert

 At our finishing point for the day we located a café for a cup of tea and Andy asked about the possibility of camping. 5 mins later Mbark turned up on a motorbike, ready to escort us to his Cafe & house for the evening. What a stroke of luck this chance meeting turned out to be! Mbark and his family were so hospitable, insisting on feeding us both dinner and breakfast, despite our protests about being self-sufficient. After dinner, again, they insisted that they be allowed to dress us up in traditional Berber outfits – usually used for weddings and the like. The whole family seemed to get immense joy out of this and the obligatory photo shoot lasted a while! 

Festivities continued with Andy learning Arabic numbers from Grandpa (who had no English), while Grandma looked on approvingly as I convinced some of the daughters to do some colouring in with me. Talk turned to religion and politics and it was cool to have the chance to have a chat about some of these big issues with Mbark. The next morning, we were refused our offer of paying for breakfast, but we managed to leave some food behind for the family as a way of saying thanks, which they accepted. We biked off with full hearts, feeling thankful for a lovely evening with easy hosts.

Chillin' with the family

The obligatory photo shoot! A very serious occasion!

We bypassed Rissani (our planned overnight stop) as it seemed like a very industrial, harsh little town but a bit of a weird vibe. Despite a local guy trying to convince us to spend the night (“In the morning there will be 300 donkeys outside your window!! Tomorrow, is donkey day. Many donkeys!”), the lure of the desert just 40kms away spurred us on and we set out to find a nicer spot to camp.

Pedalling into a head wind during the final 40km to Merzouga

It was incredible to be cycling out across the plains with the desert dunes looming closer and closer. It felt empty and a bit wild. The hot, dehydrating wind sapped our energy, but the promise of our finishing point kept us pushing forwards. As we rolled into town, we were accosted by the usual hostel/campground manager trying to draw us to their small patch of desert. We followed Hassan after his promises of hot showers, a sheltered camping spot and good tea! As the sun set, we were cooking a well-deserved meal, gazing over at the mighty dunes.

The Sahara ....
We decided to be touristy and signed up for a camel trek – a wander into the middle of this dune system via camel train where we spent the night in a traditional berber tent, watching the sunset, having an epic feed, bonfire, drumming and up for sunrise the next morning. We really enjoyed being with other people and the conversation and mingling with a wide range of people that we haven’t had much of. Everyone was full of anticipation on the ride in, but I particularly enjoyed the ride out, where everyone naturally spent the time in silence appreciating the surroundings.

And then here we are  - the bikes are back in their boxes and tomorrow we are catching a train back to Casablanca, where we spend the night with a Warm Showers host (couch surfing equivalent for cycle tourers), before flying onto Amsterdam to start the European leg. We are really excited about the chance to meet some of Andy’s relatives, but are a little nervous about the weather and how satisfactory our gear will be warmth wise!! We’ll update you next time!!

Miri (& Andy)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Assalam Aleikum! Azul!

I am being bumped along in the back of a minivan, looking out towards the front windscreen with about 15 women in headscarves in front of me, several men squashed into the boot behind me, a roof full of bikes, panniers, baskets market-bound and an assortment of other bags. It is a van full of all ages, 2 babies, there’s friendly Arabic and Berber banter going on between the customers and the driver – the customers demanding a ‘direct’ route to market, and the driver continually stopping for yet another passenger. The music is pumping – it’s happy days!

We’ve just biked 30km up a stunning valley following the advice of Yousef, a man who welcomed us to pitch our tent on the roof of his guesthouse. One week in, the kilometres still feel hard-won, and we are proud of distances covered over the undulating hills and gorges. Both of us are suffering from sore knees – me especially, so we are trying not to overdo it, or bike further than what is necessary.  It is with laughable frustration, that after being ripped off a bit by Yousef this morning when it came to paying for his hospitality, we now find ourselves at the turn off to a road which he assured us was “a very good plan for you and your bicycle”, which in fact is a very rough, steep, bumpy road. A man on a donkey, who only speaks Berber and some French, conveys that it is indeed a bumpy, gravel road for 14 km – further than what we have the energy to push if it came to it. There would be no rescue, no water, and no friendly locals on this road. So, embracing the outcome of our time with Yousef, we resign ourselves to a new Moroccan experience – the minivan!

As we whiz back along the road we have just biked, I am actually pretty content. We had some amazing late evening and early morning light, a quiet road with little traffic, and we are now a bit wiser in the ways of Morocco!!

Back on track, we set out again, this time up the Gorge du Dades – a river valley which is famous for its stunning rock formations. We have settled into a campground run by a family – the youngest girl, Fatima is able to speak some English which makes life a little easier. As I write this, she is enjoying my colouring book (a late purchase from Auckland Airport) and the few colouring pencils I have with me. We are pretty excited about spending a day or two here, recovering, slowing down, and letting my knee recover somewhat.

The road here has been hugely varied – we left Marrakach, with nervous anticipation as we settled into life on the bike. Our first two days led us over the Atlas Mountains and Tizi’n’chika pass – a road resembling a NZ ski road winding its way up and over the mountains. Almost every car that passed up tooted, flashed their lights, yelled out “Bonjour, ca va?!” or mimed encouragement which was appreciated as we wound our way up and over.

The fir covered slopes starting to wind up the Atlas

Miri cranking up to the top of the pass over the Atlas

Going past one of the many red-mud-stone villages carved into the sides of the gorge
That second night we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere as dusk fell, so decided it was as good a time as any to test out the wild camping experience! After a slight freak out that we would be moved on in the night by a group of local nomadics, we settled in for a freezing, tent-flapping windy night – an average first camping experience (sleep-wise) albeit a stunning wakeup location in the morn! We biked off; hopeful our bodies, the camping and the weather would improve.

For several hours we biked through a stunning gorge – the red outcrops of rocky strata visible high above the river below. We passed seemingly empty villages – unsure whether they were in fact uninhabited, or whether everyone was sleeping, gardening or someplace else. We tried asking for some tea at what was maybe a school, however, with no language in common and even our attempted Arabic, left both parties confused and wondering who the heck the other one was! We carried on, reflecting that we must look so strange with our bright orange and yellow paniers whizzing by.  With some more asking, we were pointed in the direction of a café, which I wonder whether it was actually a house. We were invited in, given tea and bread by a young girl, who then refused payment of any sort. We shared some biscuits as a way of saying thanks, which she accepted.  Ahh, this is the famed Berber hospitality we’d heard of.

We then arrived at Ait-Ben-Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was crawling with European campervans. It was a shock after being alone on the road for a few days. As we slowly biked through town a friendly berber man called out in English “Ah, you are looking for my hotel I think?” That was welcome enough for us, so after some negotiation we settled in for the night, and on his advice, set off to wander around the ancient village at first light – a special time of day to be alone in a ruined city, wondering about the people who have lived here in centuries gone by, the spices and goods they may have traded and wondering what bought the end of its era – presumably electricity, tourism and new roads.

Our second camping experience was no better than the first! This time in a municipal campground in Ourzazate (essentially a parking lot for campervans).  We pitched the tent in a howling wind, and soon discovered the mesh that makes up part of the tent inner is a terrible idea for camping in a windy, sandy environment. Within minutes, a thin film of sand was covering everything – eyelids included! I had a “woe is me” moment and we decided against a rest day here as planned and headed out early the next morning, bound for somewhere better.

De Lux breakfast after a sleepless night with Omelette, bread and the Moroccan Mint Tea

Classic village across the Gorge with the contrasting vivid green against the baran red landscape

Travelling on the sweet, newly asphalted roads adjoining the more arid valley landscape en Route to the start of the Dades

Tent site night 1

And so, here we are, finally resting after a very full first week of new experiences, new landscapes, language challenges and interesting interactions with locals and tourists alike. This truly is a fascinating country in terms of cultures mixing, ancient traditions, Arabic culture and a developing tourism sector. It would be immensely helpful to be able to speak French here.   We have found great satisfaction in simply finding and buying food and negotiating a place to stay! 

Bissalama (Goodbye)

Miri (& Andy)