The rain came first. I could see it approaching on the horizon. After days of endless blue skies the clouds were now gathering and looking ominously grey ahead of me. My foot hadn’t fully healed, but after nearly a week in Ouarzazate I was seriously bored of the place. I’m sure the staff at the Hotel Ibis were tired of seeing me too. I’d been returning on a daily basis after discovering what a great place it was to use the Internet for free. Shame it was way out of my budget, although I never actually found out the price of a room.
My suspicions that it might rain were confirmed by another cyclist. We met close to Ait Benhaddou, which is famed for its red-walled Kasbah (used as a backdrop for such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator). The locals here had told him it would rain. They told me this too, but were more interested in knowing what I had to swap with them (my bike for a Berber rug perhaps?).
Stefan had cycled from his home in Germany and was en route to South America. At least this is where he wanted to end up, although in actual fact I’m not sure he really knew. After an hour of the usual biker’s talk – ‘What was that road like?’ ‘Where are you headed?’ ‘What was cycling in Tibet like?’ ‘How do you find the Rohloff hub?’ he wondered whether he might try cycling cross Asia instead.
The Kasbah was worth stopping to see, and after looking at the skies experience should have told me to quit cycling for the day and take a room in Ait Benhaddou. Instead I continued another 20km through the stony scrub-land (I believe the correct terminology is hammada) and pitched the tent in a hollow of land behind a solitary palm tree.
I would have preferred the rain to come before the wind that night. That way the sand wouldn’t have blown into the tent and left a film of dust over everything. It came instead closer to daybreak, and when I looked out of the tent a few hours later it was clear there was a lot more to come. What had also been a dry riverbed I’d walked across the previous evening was now a shin-deep and soon-to -become impassable torrent of brown water.
Packing up a tent when it’s raining (with no clear sky in sight) has to be one of the least enjoyable aspects of travelling by bike. Not only do you get wet, and often cold, but your tent weighs at least another kilo and everything generally has a damp should-not-be-packed-away feel to it, particularly if you’re doing it in the knowledge that you may be unpacking it all again later to camp that night.
Back on the highway south from Ouarzazate there were few vehicles in sight. The same was true of people; what villages there were lay signposted along piste tracks and invisible from the road. The rain fell intermittently, which was actually more of a frustration as I continued to pack the waterproofs away only to put them back on ten minutes later, and the wind grew increasingly strong. My attempts to ignore this by playing the Ipod at full volume were in vain as gusts continually buffeted me across the road.
Before leaving Ouarzazate I’d set my sights on deviating from the highway and attempting to cycle a piste track that cut between two of Morocco’s highest mountains. The current weather and the advice that followed should have been sufficient warning to tell me this was a bad idea. “C’est tres difficile Monsieur”. “Il n’est pas possible”. Somehow all the words of warning (at least those I understood) given to me by shopkeepers as I provisioned myself for what could be two full days without a shop (multiple packs of biscuits, 1/2kg peanuts, 1kg dates, 4 eggs, 1kg tangerines, 1/2kg onions, 1/2kg pasta, tomato paste, 3 tins sardines, 2 tins tuna, bread) seemed to spur me on more.
When the asphalt stopped 40km from the highway so too did the bike. Mud had quickly filled the space between both wheels and mud-guards and it was obvious I was going nowhere. I looked around half-expecting to see a group of shepherds collapsing in hysterics as I spent the next twenty minutes trying to carry all 60kg+ of my bike back to the asphalt, which was less than 100 metres away. This was made all the more comical in the howling wind and driving rain, and the fact that enormous clods of earth were now glued to my shoes. There was no point contemplating what to do next. Once I freed the wheels from the clay-like mud I began cycling back to the highway. It left me feeling a little defeated, and I have a strong suspicion this won’t be the last time that mud hampers my progress through Africa.
Nobody seemed the least bothered when they saw me re-appear the following day in Anezal (the village on the highway from which I’d turned off). Tea was provided by the same man who’d advised me not to attempt this piste road. He looked at the mud-covered bike, smiled, then disappeared back into the kitchen. It is a look of indifference I’m becoming familiar with in Morocco. Half-hidden under the hoods of their djellabas men watch with curious eyes and expressionless faces as I pedal through this country. They’ve seen these strange foreigners lugging bags on bikes before I think. Best to leave them be.
Occasionally someone will show greater interest and wave you down to stop. He’ll tell you that he is owner of an Auberge you’ve just passed and that you can sleep there and have a hot shower for 30 Dirham. (3 Euro) “I offer you low price because I need your help to write something. I have a brother who works at Bristol University”.
There was nothing that needed writing, nor was Hamid owner of the Auberge. I also very much doubted his brother had anything to do with Bristol University. By the time this became apparent it was getting dark. I’d been tricked, which didn’t really matter – the room was 30 Dirham and the shower was hot.
“Maybe you have some Vodka or Scotch?. Now is the time for drinking”. I told Hamid I had neither, which came as a surprise. Perhaps the tourist who’d donated his pair of gore-tex hiking boots that Hamid was now wearing had carried a supply. The questions continued “Maybe you have something to change? Just look and maybe you find something” By this stage a number of colourful woolen Berber bags and small rugs had been displayed and Hamid was rolling a third joint. He folded one of the rugs up to show how easy it could be carried in one of my panniers. I was actually quite close to considering a purchase until there was a power-cut. “Maybe next time when I return without the bike” I explained. Inshallah.
One hard-to-believe piece of information Hamid provided was that the weather would be wet and windy all week. Writing now several days later I can confirm this was at least true. When the road swung to the west the following day the wind hit me head on. I struggled to cover 10km/hr, even less so in the rain. It cut into me like shards of broken glass and after a few hours I was wet, cold and tired.
It was Christmas Eve. Not that I’d planned to reach anywhere with even a vestige of yuletide celebration in the air, I did at least hope to make it to Talioune, a town with a few shops, restaurants and maybe an Internet connection. Somewhat short of the bright lights I ended up sleeping beside the forecourt of a petrol station, several mangy dogs keeping me awake with their territorial all night long tirades.
More rain followed on Christmas day as I pedalled into Talioune. Under grey skies the short stretch of concrete buildings looked particularly drab. It was a long way from the bustling metropolis I’d somehow envisaged when seeing its name written in bold on the map. At least the hotel had hot water and decent tagines were available in a nearby restaurant. The problem was that the town’s bank didn’t have an ATM machine and I was down to my last 2 Euros. The hotel manager took pity on me, gave me 10 Euros and told me to go to nearby Aoulouz.
I would have cycled there except most of my clothes were still wet and the rain continued to fall relentlessly. I jumped in a mini-bus, waited another hour before it went anywhere and thought I should really be carrying some emergency money for such situations.
Aoulouz had about as much charm as Talioune, but at least there was a bank. There was also English conversation as I accosted a mud-splattered couple who’d stopped on their bicycles and decided they were continuing by bus. They joined me as I returned to Talioune, then spent most of the afternoon waiting for a bus to Ouarzazate. By this stage the first real signs of blue sky in the last week started to appear. I’m hoping that New Year on the beach will be drier than Christmas up here in the mountains. I’ll tell you when I make it to the coast.