Friday, 27 December 2013

A Moment at the Kitchen Bench

As I stood at the kitchen bench, the grey rice water draining down the plughole in preparation for another camping meal, I had a moment. One of those moments where it’s like I look down from above, I picture the whole world and I zoom in on my own little figure, out here amidst the mountains of Southern Morocco. The sun’s dipping low, lighting the rocks all around into a deep and earthy red, the tops of the palms are silhouettes, fanning out as if exploding fireworks. In the still quietness of the dusk an Arabic call is wailed out into the night, the time to pray has arrived. A shepherd, clothed in brown camel hair cloak and vibrant blue head scarf, quietly leads his flock to eat  from the scrub before retiring to home and shelter. The first stars are faintly twinkling, the moon will rise to join them shortly in a great display of light in the darkness. Here at the bench it’s just little me, just washing the rice. It’s one of those moments where I think “Wow, how the heck did I end up here?!”

The recent days cycling through Morocco have seen us on a steadily westward course, each day inching us further along the map and closer to the Atlantic Ocean, our finish line for this the major phase of our journey. Within our larger pilgrimage to the Atlantic we were on pilgrimage to Tafraout, a town of 3000 people nestled in the Anti-Atlas mountains, our place to celebrate Christmas.

In so many ways these recent days zeroing in on Tafraout have encompassed so many of the reasons I would give you for loving bicycle travel. Let me tell you why.

We’ve cycled for hours in wide open spaces on the edge of the desert, the land only disappearing as it curves away over the horizon, and then in the space of mere minutes we’ve entered spectacular gorges and hills of jagged rocky peaks. On moving from the edge of the Sahara into the Anti-Atlas mountains the landscapes have continually changed and been pretty inspiring in their beauty and variety.

Yet inspiring landscapes alone would not satisfy. Dotted along our way, seemingly at just the right interval for a cyclist, has been village after village. Foum-Zguid, Tissint, Tata, Tagmoute, Anamer, Igherm, Azoura, Ait-Abdallah. Beforehand, for us, each is just a name on a map, afterward they are a memory with a distinctive event or character etched in our mind. In common each has food, water and a friendly welcome, and yet each has their own distinctively unique character. Some villages bustle with noise and activity, chaos to us but normal daily life for locals. Other villages are quiet, the people industriously working away at what they do, often hidden amongst the palms, the almonds or the olive trees. We’re only aware of anybody there by the flash of a colourful headscarf in the trees or quiet voices chatting one to another. Still another village, from a distance seems void of activity or spirit, yet upon entering its streets are found to be crowded with lively school students pouring out all over the streets.

So often along our way the chance take a break, to sit, to eat and drink, to watch life go by has become a real highlight of a riding day. Once we’ve bought our bread or biscuits or fruit and we’ve roved around in search of a place to sit, a friendly face soon emerges carrying a table and chairs and inviting us to sit and rest. Sometimes the locals will sit with us to chat, at other times they will provide us with what we need and then just let us go about our business of eating, resting and observing. What we observe is always fascinating, often entertaining, and only occasionally disturbing!

Being so close to Europe Morocco sees plenty of foreign tourists, mainly four wheel drive enthusiasts and retired French campervan travellers. As a result a good network of camping grounds are spread across much of the country. It’s great to have good accommodation and all the conveniencies we need, within a town centre, without having to check into some crusty hotel. Even better though have been our wild camps, the real pinnacle of cycle touring accommodation options. Wild camps have not been so common for us in Morocco due to the difficulty in finding secret places in such open country, but they’ve been real gems when we have come upon suitable spots. In recent days we developed a routine of arriving in time to get the tent pitched and life sorted before brewing a cup of tea and sitting in the last light to watch the sunset. Several nights we were fortunate enough to then turn and watch the moonrise just minutes later! To complete our classic African camping experience I thought I’d better be the man and light a fire. I failed dismally yet Anna in her graciousness assured me that these dry-land trees must surely have developed fireproof adaptations that were resisting my efforts!

To cycle through varied landscapes on both sealed and more adventurous roads, to enter villages and experience their culture and kindness, to observe local life happening all around us, to have some conveniences yet the freedom to be camped in the wild, all these things make for a truly wonderful cycling experience. At the end of it all we descended into Tafraout for Christmas. Knowing very little about the place other than seeing on our map that it had a campsite, we’d taken a bit of a punt. Our punt paid off and the mini pilgrimage was complete. Just one phase left on our way to the Atlantic!

Travelling through the horizontal

Travelling through the vertical
Travelling smooth ways

Travelling rough ways
Bustling villages

Energetic markets
Quiet Villages

Locals at work

Morning tea observations

Lunch time people watching
Sunset contemplation with a cuppa
Wild camp classic on the desert edge

Wild camp under the moon's watchful eye

Wild camp on a mountain top
The pilgrimage to Christmas complete


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Wonderment and Wonderings in Morocco


Morocco has given us absolutely amazing riding and exploring joy; here are some of the scenes we've loved so far.

Marrakech is an ancient city, and the narrow winding lanes of its old city were built for foot traffic and maybe the odd camel to squeeze through. Nowadays they are dominated by a constant stream of motorbikes, giving the place a constantly noisy and full on feel. The foot traffic is still there though, and very well dressed, with men in their woven camel hair hooded cloaks and women in wonderful colour combinations of headscarves and dresses. 

Old town alleys of Marrakech

The streets of Marrakech
Another town scene, market day in Jorf

We crossed the High Atlas Mountains on a clear calm winter’s morning, with a dusting of new snow bright on the highest peaks. The road snakes up the bulky, stratified hills, making its crossing from the wetter and sometimes forested western flanks to the dry gorges facing out towards the Sahara.

The wetter flanks of the Atlas

Climbing Tizi N'Tichka Pass

Deep twisting gorges, the Dades and the Todra, coming out from the Atlas Mountains. As we rode inside them, I felt infused with the orange light that bounces off their walls. A line of palm trees, some patchwork strips of irrigated fields and occasionally the glint of a stream, give testament to the fact that this mighty passageway is indeed a watercourse. Along the sides of the gorge, and where it opens to more comfortable widths, villages are built from the earth on which they stand, now orange, now ochre, now brown houses clustered above their small green plots. 

In the Dades Gorge

The Todra Gorge

Villages in the Ounila Valley, Atlas Mountains

The upper Dades Gorge

Quiet, vast, ancient. We cycled out across the expansive dry landscapes that lie between the Atlas and the Sahara proper. Thorn trees, gravel, sand; flat topped strata outcrops, pieces of old plateaus, now tipped up, now scoured out by wind and maybe once, a long time ago, some water. 


There is a packet of biscuits. Round chocolate cream-filled biscuits, their open silver wrapping glinting in the bright mountain sunlight. At the base of this packet is my hand, holding on with determined if not slightly desperate grip. On the other end of the packet is a hand much more weathered and browned than mine, belonging to a nomadic shepherd of the Atlas Mountains, and he is also not letting go. For a few seconds we stand like this, in a very quiet but socially fascinating battle, until the nomad gives in and takes a healthy stack of biscuits from the packet instead, and relieved I move on to offer them to his mate, then Ollie and myself.

This would probably go down as one of the least successful cultural exchanges of our travels. I could try and explain my actions by saying that this was the only packet of biscuits I had for what was going to be a long tough day through the mountains. Or that when I offer an open packet of biscuits around even such an impromptuely gathered morning tea group, I consider it rude for someone to try and take the whole packet. But how much else is going on here that I can’t easily explain! Why was that his expectation? Is it indeed a reasonable one? What is a healthy way for our two cultures to interact now, and what about for the future?

This first meeting of the day had caught us by surprise, and as we continued to ride that isolated dirt road we got many other chances to adapt our response to the small groups of tough mountain folk who came out to meet us as we rode.  But we never settled on anything we felt totally happy with. Girls with chapped hands and ragged skirts tugged at my polyprop and gloves, saying clearly in any language, “Can I have these clothes for me?” Women with babies tied on their backs and no socks in their shoes tried to sell us small fossils they’d gathered in the mountains, or if they had none of these, to sell their photograph. This was no tourist gimmick, no dressing up poor to try and get some easy money, they were running to us just as they were when we appeared around the corner of their valley. If they had socks they’d wear them, the temperature was about 4 degrees.

So we did leave some extra clothes of ours there in the Atlas Mountains. As I rode down out of the mountains, I enjoyed thinking of the people who these socks and gloves have come from, Beth, Mum, Grandpa Yule, and the snug New Zealand wool they are made of, and hoped they would bring some joy and relief. But I was also unsettled, uncomfortable and very tired from the experience. Morocco has brought us more of these encounters than anywhere else we’ve ridden so far. Questions but not many answers. Attempts at genuine encounters, but realizations of huge inequalities not just in wealth, but also in the reasons that we’re each in that place at that time, and our expectations of our roles. 

With one of the nomadic Berber
Our track through the Atlas, between the Dades and Todra Gorges

More wonderment

In the huge orange dunes on the edge of the Sahara. The locals call them Erg Chebbi. They change in shape constantly, but are always there. Small groups of desert nomads still eek out a living amongst them, raising camels and goats. But with the Algerian border cutting through their traditional roaming grounds only 30km from here, it is now much harder. More of the nomads have now settled in villages on the edge of the desert, and many have found a way to continue in their beloved Sahara by working as tourist guides and hosts at the desert camps. A truly wonderful sea of sand, be it a little tracked out by tourist 4WD, camel and foot traffic. 


We've also had some wonderful meetings with some special people. With Youssef at his mountain auberge (hostel) where we were welcomed more like friends than paying guests; we were told to use it like our own home, and we shared our meals together: tomato pasta with Berber omelette; porridge with bread and home grown olives. 

Youssef and Ollie
With Barek and his nephews under the striking (Mount) Djebel Rheriss, where we spent the evening learning a new game with coloured pebbles, sitting around the fire, drinking mint tea and then sleeping in their tent made of camel and goat hair. African dream!

Anna, Abdul Ali, Barek, Hammad and Ollie

With Lessin and Muhammed one cold morning in N'Kob, where they invited us into the carpenter's shed by the local shop and we shared lots of the sweet mint tea, hot fresh bread and the Christmas truffles I'd just made. 

Anna, Muhammed and Lessin. Muhammed was serious about his tea making, and was determined that the photo would show him pouring the tea he'd been preparing for us!

A few other favourite shots...

Bonus track: The Ginger Beard!


Monday, 2 December 2013


 Bullet Points:
- We disembarked from our ferry in Barcelona
- We caught a bus a long way south to Granada in the region of Andaloucia
- We rode through the hills for 500km to the port town of Algeciras
- We caught a ferry to Tanger Med in Morocco

Riding in southern Spain was to put it simply, a lovely experience. We loved cruising with other cyclists along the city cyclepaths of Barcelona, Granada and Malaga, while also finding that the country lanes that we rode for five days between Granada and Algeciras were virtually cyclepaths themselves, so smooth, small and almost void of traffic. And when any traffic did roll up behind us, we were treated with the utmost courtesy as the cars crawled quietly along behind us until they could 100% safely give us a very wide berth. What a treat!

We were very well cared for by Warmshowers hosts in Barcelona and Granada. Adela in Barcelona met us after our ferry from Italy, and we spent a lovely evening of pizza, wine and conversations about adventuring and living in our diverse world. In Granada, a culturally and historically rich cty in Andaloucia, Southern Spain, we were hosted by Manuel and Miguel. Again, so generously cared for, shown around and fed with amazing food, given an inspired route suggestion for our ride, and even accompanied for the first 30km! Another rare and treasured treat!

The city of Granada, named after the Spanish name for pomegranate, was a prominent city of the Moors (a medieval Islamic kingdom) who inhabited Southern Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries. It was the last city to fall the to the Catholic "reconquista" in 1492, and it still retains a strong Moorish flavour. We visited the city's most famous showpiece, the Alhambra Palace, and wandered the intricately tiled rooms, the stately courts, fountains and pools and the finely arched colonnades. A really graceful and peaceful place.

The Spanish food we sampled was amazing! Selections of fried seafood, a tasty "paella" (like a rice risotto) with seafood and meat, delectable chocolate pastries, Spanish tortila a la our host Manuel. Even the simple breads, cheeses and toasts with olive oil drizzled on top were amazing!

Winter is making its presence felt even in this famously summery part of the globe. We had a couple of -4C frosts, which made for chilly starts on the bikes, but absolutely wonderful cool, clear blue sky days to follow! We rode through olive groves and ploughed fields, then into the sierras (mountains). Wonderful rocky peaks and bluffs, with areas of dry low conifers, which I think are called Spanish fir. Birds of prey with a huge wing span, again tentatively identified by us as griffin vultures, circled overhead as we rode and camped.

Every now and then we came to picturesque villages, with their white painted houses shining brilliantly in the low winter sun. Beautiful churches, common "squares" filled with socialable groups of elderly men, and the occassional stone castle and remains of city walls made these villages quite unique. Ronda was one of our favourites, set on a bluffed promontary, with a striking bridge and the oldest bull ring in Spain.

What a wonderful place to ride! A great end to our European section of our cycle journey. On our final night we camped in a wonderful hidden grassy spot under a tall bluff, and in the morning cruised a windy downhill out to the lowlands and the port, and the Straits of Gibraltar!