Off-Road in Eastern Morocco

Part 4

It’s getting sandy / Day 2-3

An off-road adventure through the

Moroccan Sahara

Day 2 – It’s getting sandy / 73.77 km – 10.2 km/h

Do you have alcohol, or something to smoke?’ is not a question you expect someone to ask you in the middle of nowhere and definitely not when you’re about to hit an off road path with your bicycle. But let’s start with breakfast.

I was up early this morning even before the sun appeared on the horizon. With the thoughts about a warm breakfast I assembled my stove and started boiling some water for tea and something special. After filling up my thermos with hot water for tea I used the rest of the water to make a sweet couscous breakfast. Adding some milk powder, cinnamon, dates and raisins this makes a great meal to start a new day. What could be better than starting a day with watching the sunrise while having a cup of chai tee and sweet couscous?

Back on the unsealed N12 peddling the last kilometers until we would finally leave the official roads we got stopped by two guys working on a construction site of the new road parallel to the N12. You already know what their question was. It took us a while to understand what they were looking for as we didn’t expect to be asked for those things at all. After we figured out what this conversation was all about we politely cancelled this meeting and continued cycling. They two guys had been friendly but they still gave me a bad feeling again.

It wasn’t the first time in the last days that something like that happened to us. It once again gave me the feeling that a lot of people were just trying to take advantage of us without being even a little bit interested or not caring at all what we were actually doing and what our kind of travel was about. It wasn’t only me as Carlos had this feeling also. The way quite a few people interacted with us didn’t feel right. Once again I can’t really blame the Moroccan people for doing so getting back to the point how tourism changed their country which I mentioned before, but at the same time they should know that not every foreigner is the same.

The fact that it is way easier to get in contact with someone sitting on a bicycle slowly passing by than someone sitting in a big off road car made it harder for us to avoid encounters like this one. On the other hand this is what bicycle touring is also about. You’re trying not to ignore the things happening around you which also means that you will experience the good and the bad things.

Getting close to midday the wind started picking up speed. Sadly not in our direction, the wind really slowed us down. Hidden behind a big rock beside the road we cooked a noodle soup for lunch.

After 35 kilometers we finally arrived at the beginning of the off road path towards Taouz. Without our GPS maps we would have probably missed the path leaving the road to the right. With not much more than a few car tracks into nowhere it was really easy to miss the entry. The first kilometers of the path lead us along and through a small dry riverbed. So far so good. The surface of the track was bumpy but still good to cycle. Only a few times we had to get off our bikes to push a few meters through a sand pit. Leaving the small path to avoid obstacles wasn’t a good idea. After only a few meters beside the path our tires were full of spikes and it always took a while to get rid of them. Leaving the river bed we arrived in a big open plane area and we could already see a small village in the distance.

It was Oumjrane, the first of the few desert villages on our route. Already in sight it still took quite a while until we got there. More and more there were sand pits slowing us down. With all of the weight on two fairly thin tires most of the time we had no chance to stay on the bike when it was time again to cross one of the sand pits. It either took a lot of energy and concentration to stay on the bike while trying to peddle as strong as possible without steering or it took a lot of energy to push the bike through the deep desert sand.

The moment you slightly moved your front wheel you lost total control of the bike and got stuck. I used 50 mm wide tires on my touring bike which worked great on off road tracks but for these conditions nothing less than a fat bike would have been the right tire choice. With probably less than five percent of the distance covered with sand pits on the route until Oumjrane it still wasn’t that bad and we kept challenging ourselves how far we could cycle through the sand until we would finally lose the balance. Not a single car or motorbike crossed us on the path so far and it felt great to not worry about possible traffic.

It was already quite late when we finally entered Oumjrane. I can’t really tell how big it was but if someone were to ask me I would probably say 100 – 300 people. We stopped at the first person we saw beside the road to ask where we could get water. Pointing somewhere towards a small street to left we found the tiny shop of the village. Not surprising there wasn’t much to buy. Most of the time those small shops don’t only sell food. They sell everything a little bit like a general store and supermarket combined in a tiny version. We both completely filled up our water bottles again plus one extra bottle for preparing the dinner. We also got some small onions and a few tangerines.

Still good to eat it wasn’t hard to tell that most of the fresh food in the shop was already quite old and not the best looking. Why I’m telling you this? All the things we bought in this store in Oumjrane were perfectly good to eat but you would never find them in a supermarket in our countries like this. Not one hundred percent fresh and also not perfect looking this was food which gets thrown out in our supermarkets because almost no-one would pay for it. Once again we had the whole attention of everyone who saw us passing through the village.

One of the guys standing in front of the shop asked us where we were going or at least this is what we thought he was asking. We told him that we were heading for Taouz. They didn’t seem like they would believe us or they just couldn’t imagine why someone would even try that. We didn’t have the language skills to explain to them our motivation and we also didn’t have too much time left until it would get dark.

We got back on our bikes and decided to set up our camp a few kilometers out of Oumjrane. From entering the village our route made a 90 degrees right turn now heading straight towards the east. Directly after we left the village the route turned out to be almost impossible to ride. Instead of having a few patches of sand every once in a while like before it was now the other way. Every once in a while we found a few meters of rideable surface between the sand pits. We didn’t worry about it too much as this would be the problem for tomorrow and not today.

About two kilometer from Oumjrane we found a few trees on the left hand side which would hide us at least a little bit from the road. Slowly pushing my bike through the loose soil I recognized a silent sizzle coming from my front tire. And there it was – my first real flat tire on this bike. Using them for already more than 10.000 kilometers I never had a flat so far. The timing could have been better but I had everything with me to fix this problem. Carlos was happy to be in the role as head chef today while I kept struggling to remove my front tire from the rim. It took me a while but the tire was full with air again before dinner was ready.

After a big portion of rice with lentils I was more than ready to go to bed. This second off road day was great but also demanded a lot of energy. Having a nice and soft surface I decided to not put up my tent for this night. Instead I just used my tarp to create myself some protection from the wind. Laying in my sleeping bag under the tarp I had a long wide view into nowhere. I could spot some bigger sand dunes in the distance glowing in a red colour with the sunset before I finally closed my eyes.

The route

Day 3 – Technical problems / 45.84 km – 7.35 km/h

The night was cold but I slept well under the tarp. We both got up early and had another awesome sweet couscous breakfast before we got back on the road just before 9am. Our target for today was to make it at least to Tafraoute Sidi Ali, the next village on our route. Checking the map on my phone I estimated that it would be a bit more than 40 kilometers to get there. After pushing our bikes the first few hundred meters through sand the track got a little bit better again and we got back on the saddles.

Unfortunately not for long.

Arriving in another wide open area the track started splitting up and turned into one big sandpit with no end in sight. In the first few hours we still tried to cycle as much as possible of the path but after a while we had to admit that it took way more energy to constantly get on and off the bike to try cycling a few meters through the sand instead of just pushing them all the time. With our shoes full of sand pushing our bikes hour by hour it was getting fairly warm this day. With no clouds in the sky and no trees to hide under we had to force ourselves to go on.

We needed more water than expected so it got even more important that we would make it to Tafraoute Sidi Ali in the same day. The sand wasn’t our only problem. The worse the track conditions got the more car tracks we had to follow. Whilst not a problem in itself, it turned out that the plant spikes which so far had only been beside the track, had now made their way on the paths.

My theory for this change was the fact that there was less traffic on each track caused by the many different ways through the sand. Less traffic means better chances for the small thorny plants so survive on the tracks. More and more often we had to stop to free our tires from those nasty things but it didn’t take long until Carlos had the first flat tire of the day. Not even 10 minutes after we patched the tube of the rear tire for the first time it was already flat again. Those thorns turned into a serious problem and stopped us more and more often. While pushing the bikes through the sand the flat tire in the back wasn’t that much of a problem.

We couldn’t go faster than walking speed anyway and the tires barely moved in the sand anyway but when the track would get better again we would need four working tires to go on. We decided to not patch the tire again until we would get back on a better surface without spikes and lucky us this is what happened a while after.

In this time more and more sand dunes appeared to our sides and I finally had the feeling that we had arrived in the Moroccan Sahara. Since we left our camp in the morning we hadn’t seen or met another person on our way, which was great but also showed us that our route definitely was a serious off road trail. A lack of motivation, communication problems between Carlos and myself, more technical problems, running out of water and also starting to be impatient were things we had to avoid from happening.

We could already see Tafraoute Sidi Ali from far away when the surface finally got better again. The loose sand almost disappeared completely and after fixing the rear tire of Carlos’ bike we were finally able to cycle again. There wasn’t a track anymore until the village but we basically couldn’t go wrong. Having the settlement in sight we just had to keep on cycling in the right direction on the surprisingly hard surface of something that seemed to be a salt lake. I can’t say it for sure but the bright white color of the ground with only a thin layer of sand on top seemed similar to salt lakes I’ve seen in Australia. Anyway it was definitely good for cycling and after hours of slowly pushing our bikes through the sand it felt almost like we were flying to Tafraoute Sidi Ali with almost no effort at all. With not much water left this was the first thing we did when we arrived in the village.

In the small shop similar to the one in Oumjrane we were able to fill our bottles again with fresh clean water. Talking to the man in the shop with our hands and a few word of French and Spanish we found out that there was a supply truck coming with fresh food and water every two weeks. Caused by bad weather conditions it can happen that those trucks show up later than planned or even don’t come at all. Tafraoute Sidi Ali was definitely way smaller than Oumjrane but don’t ask me how many people where actually living there. On our way to the shop we passed by a small hotel and a campsite. Wondering what kind of tourism would get there the guy told us that the village was a common stop for “adventure” desert tours. Built for foreigners coming in their off road buggies or motocross bikes. We were happy that we hadn’t met any so far and also couldn’t figure out how often groups like this would get here.

Same plan like the day before we were looking forward to leave the village a little bit behind us before we would check for a good camp site but there was a problem. Just before we were looking to go on two guys on an old motorbike arrived clearly looking for us. I already knew what would happen next. And like I thought those two guys came over to offer us a place in the hotel of their friend. I shouldn’t use the word offer as this isn’t really matching the situation. Forcing us is the word that gets closer to describe this conversation. They didn’t accept a simple “no thank you” and didn’t stop talking to us, ignoring our answers. Common phrases in sales conversations like this are “democratic price”, “special price”, “cheaper for you my friend” and so on. It was pointless to continue this talk and we were also slowly running out of daylight. After a quick “thank you” and “good bye” we started leaving the village towards the east. But sadly this was just the beginning of this problem. Getting out of Tafraoute Sidi Ali to look for a camp spot the two guys started following us on their motorbike. Not wanting them to know where we would stay in the night we continued cycling hoping that they would turn around soon. But they didn’t. It takes a lot to make me angry but this was too much. Not giving a s*** about our decision and privacy even after we told them the third time that we wouldn’t stay in their hotel was way over the acceptable limit I was willing to ignore.

Already a few kilometers out of the village and still followed by those two guys I decided that it was time to make things clear. Being in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception was definitely not the best place to start an argument with two locals but there was no other way to solve this problem. They always kept some distance behind us so I started waving to tell them to come over. We started talking to them in a way more aggressive way than we did before to make it clear that it was more than time to leave us alone. Carlos in Spanish and me in German and English. Every time they tried to argue with us we were throwing new words towards them.

I’m not proud about this whole thing but there was no other way. Even having two guys shouting at them in languages they didn’t understand didn’t make them turn around in the first minutes. People asking you to stay in their hotel was normal in Morocco but to corner and follow them, definitely not. It took another few minutes which seemed really long to me to make it clear that there was nothing they could do to bring us to their hotel. Obviously not happy they finally turned around and left towards where we came from.

What a pain in the a**!

They definitely had ruined our evening. Thinking about if our behavior was right or not we waited a while to make sure they wouldn’t come back. Not looking for more trouble we both knew we would need a hidden place for our tents to make sure they wouldn’t find us camping somewhere if they wanted to. The track got way worse again and cycling was impossible. Checking for possible camp spots we continued dragging our bikes through the sand. Running out of energy for the day we spotted an abandoned looking stone hut a few hundred meters to the right. Maybe we could hide in there. Without the bike I started running to the hut to check it out and yes it was abandoned and seemed like a really good spot for the night. Protected by four transparent walls there was enough space in the inside to put up both tents. The hut didn’t have a roof anymore so there was also enough light coming in.

Still angry I also felt relieved that we found a hidden spot for the night. What a day! Awesome desert landscape, perfect weather, at least as much pushing as cycling and once again a not so nice encounter with human beings was more than enough for a single day. Not really motivated to prepare a proper dinner we just had some bread, dates, raisins and chai tee for dinner before it was time to sleep. It took me a while to finally close my eyes as I couldn’t stop thinking about this sad encounter in the evening.

Part 5 – Coming soon!

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