• Gone with the wind: South to the border February 6th, 2010

    “I always loved the desert. It sits on a sand dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines in silence.” (Antoine St Exupery)

    “The desert is a true treasure for him who seeks refuge from men and the evil of men. In it is contentment. In it is death and all you seek.”
    (Ibrahim- al-Koni)

    “Now there was a grey insect-like vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.” (Paul Bowles)

    It is a long road that leads from southern Morocco towards the Mauritanian border. Cutting its way through the World’s largest desert there are few towns or service stations to break up the monotony of sand, or more commonly rocky scrub-land, that define the Sahara. Images of picture post-card dunes may romanticize the idea of travelling across this vast landmass, but in reality it is a harsh and inhospitable place, much like other deserts I’ve cycled across.

    Dune-scape

    Having spent almost two-and-a-half months slowly meandering way my through Morocco I had little more than two weeks to traverse the remaining 1500km before both my Moroccan and Mauritanian visas would expire.

    My French neighbours at the camp-site in Sidi Ifni were quick to point out that I would need more water bottles than the four that were currently on my bike. “Il n’ya rien, rien ici”, they exclaimed pointing at various empty expanses on the map. It was more constructive advice than that voiced by an Austrian man, who laughed when I explained my intention to cycle to Cape Town and replied “I try not to be racist, but those niggers will kill you.” With that kind of attitude I’m surprised he was still alive himself.

    They were all part of the elderly fraternity, mostly French and German, who escape the European winter to drive their shiny white, satellite-dish-installed motor homes along the Moroccan coastline. The camp-sites are full of them and many had started passing me the moment I’d neared the coastline a few weeks before. Behind the security of their tinted-window and air-conditioned interiors these grey-haired nomads were seeing the country with somewhat more luxury than me. I found their vehicles a bit of an intrusion upon the landscape – the way they glistened under the sun like alien and unobtainable objects for the Moroccans who enviously watched them pass. Maybe when I’m old, tired, and in need of comfort and adventure in moderation I’ll view them differently. I suppose it’s not a bad way to spend a retirement through the winter.

    The desert didn’t begin in earnest until I rode south from the town of Guelmim. By this stage I’d bought a few more water bottles and bungeed them on to the front rack. Ten kilometres out of town I stopped on a bridge over a dry riverbed to watch a caravan of camels being led into the desert. It was a tranquil and timeless scene except for the traffic speeding passed. Apart from tourists crossing the desert most other drivers see the straight roads that stretch to the horizon as an opportunity to kill time by putting the  accelerator pedals to the floor.

    Camel march into the desert

    The further south I went the lighter the traffic became, but cycling on anything other than the main road through the Sahara would have been a recipe for death.

    Far more important than the traffic was the wind, both its direction and strength. It is the single most critical issue in determining whether a desert crossing will be boring and fast, or boring, tediously slow and painfully exhausting. On the back of your neck you won’t feel it as the tarmac flies by beneath you at anything between 25-35km/hr. Head on and it can be a gruelling experience as your speed is more than halved and your energy expenditure doubled.

    Fortunately for me the predominant winds blow from the north west. I was soon making serious dents into the map with 150km days, pedalling for 6-7 hours and stopping whenever there was a service station. Occasionally the road ran close to the coast, revealing wild and wind-swept cliffs that dropped  vertically to wide and empty beaches below. The breaking waves and deep blue of the Atlantic threw life into the oppression of colourless hamada that dominated the roadside. Fishing huts and tents sat perched on cliff-tops many miles away from anywhere. I wondered if the lonely souls standing with their rods were catching fish to sell or merely subsist on?

    Cliff top scenery from the edge of the Sahara

    Lunch-stop

    I stayed in another motor-home dominated camp-site in the beach-side town of El Ouatia, (Tan Tan Plage) but mostly pitched the tent out in the wilderness. When the winds continued to blow at night, which they did on several occasions, I searched for an abandoned building, but soon realised they were human shit-pits for passing motorists. Hollows or slight rises in the land were better options for shelter and invisibility from the road. When the night was still and clear, the stars shone and the moon beamed down it was easy to forget the hardships of the day.

    Desert camp

    Saharan star-gazing Morning in the Sahara

    Even on a bicycle you move too quickly to notice the real details in the landscape. Yes you see and smell the rotting carcasses of unlucky camels and dogs that lye in various stages of slow decay at the roadside, or a small snake that so very nearly made it across, but only when I stopped to leave the tarmac and pitch the tent did I see the many fossil shells embedded within the rocks and scattered amongst the sands of this former ocean floor, or some prehistoric arthropod whose home I’d disturbed.

    RIP

    Fossilised shells

    Prehistoric Anthropod

    My days were very simple. I’d wake at around 7am, boil water for a coffee and make an omelet (tomato, onion and laughing cow cheese) to eat with bread, then slowly pack up my gear and be on the road at around 8.30am. Within an hour I’d usually be bored of listening to the wind or sound of rubber on the tarmac, so would plug in my Ipod and have it playing for most of the day. It was a total saviour and I can’t remember how I crossed the long desert roads of Egypt and Libya without music to accompany me. The Rolling Stones for an hour might be replaced by a recent Giles Peterson podcast or the soothing vocals of Serge Gainsbourg. Most of the time I’d put it on random and when the battery ran low I’d attach my solar panel to a pannier to ensure it would be fully-charged again the following day.

    Morning breakfast

    A police check-post might appear at the roadside before a service station or town. There were many of these and the formalities were always the same. “Destination Monsieur?” (Mauritania), Profession? (it must have seemed odd for them to hear a sweaty cyclist say Professeur d’anglais). My passport details would then be written down before being wished “Bon route” and continuing on my way. If my water bottles needed filling (I occasionally carried 10-12litres when there was a big distance on the map with no marked settlement or knowledge of a service station) I’d do it here, else wait until I passed a service station or town. If it was lunchtime when I passed through  the latter I might search out a cheap eaterie  and on several occasions I’d get a plate full of fresh fried fish for 10Dirham (1Euro). When not eating in a town I’d make sardine sandwiches at a scenic spot (shade a bonus) and wash it down with a litre of coke. I never drink coke in England but on the road it breaks the monotony of water and is a great energy fix. I also have a theory that the acid helps kill any nasty bacteria in the stomach.

    Fish and chips

    I might have cycled anything from 50-80km by this stage and would aim to do the same in the afternoon, perhaps stopping once or twice to eat a packet of biscuits or some fruit (tangerines are very cheap and in season at this time) or dates. I’d wait until sunset before looking for a suitable spot to pull off the road and pitch the tent, by which stage I’d be famished again. Water would go on the boil whilst I chopped up some tomatoes, onions and garlic (bought if possible in the last town) and then enough pasta for two servings would be thrown into the water. When the pasta was done I’d put it on the side and fry the vegetables in olive oil, adding some tomato paste and water to make a sauce. A tin of tuna or a beaten egg would later be added to the sauce before seasoning it and throwing it over the gargantuan quantity of pasta. I’d demolish this within 10 minutes, belch with gleeful satisfaction then light a cigarette and cast my mind back over the day and the think about the road ahead. If I wasn’t asleep soon after I might read a little, listen to music or write in my journal.

    After several days of desert camping I reached Laayoune. This is the unofficial capital of the disputed western Sahara, but governed like the rest of the vast swathes of desert around, by Morocco. There is little to denote one is in an a disputed zone other than the large UN presence in the city. Nor does it feel that you’re surrounded by desert. Moroccans get to work here tax free and there is money being invested in new buildings and shops to ensure central control over this distant outpost.

    I rested for a day here before pushing on south, the traffic now lighter and the service stations and towns much further apart. Boujdour looked like a village on the map, but in reality it was a sizeable town, at least by Saharan standards. A Dutch man approached me on the street as I was stocking up on supplies from a small shop. He’d driven north from The Gambia and told me about meeting a Japanese cyclist crossing into Mauritania the previous day. I knew it was Hiromu san whom I’d met several weeks previously. I was hoping to catch him up, but had received an e-mail a few days before that said he didn’t have time to wait for me. His girlfriend would be in South Africa in one and a half years so he had to go quickly to keep to his schedule.

    The Dutchman wondered how I dealt with boredom on the road as he found it taxing just driving across the Sahara. I told him I thought of food and sex a lot. He laughed and said “In Holland we have a saying. Keep the mind on zero and the side on infinite” . That might work as well I thought.

    The remaining motor homes that were now on the road were all heading to Dakhla. This is the last town of any significance in Morocco and sits perched at the end of a windy peninsula. It’s earning a name as a top kite-surfing destination. Sure there is beauty in the sense of isolation and remoteness down here, but like most other Saharan towns it lacks character. It’s a very long way to drive your motor-home for a holiday that’s for sure.

    Sunset in Dakhla

    The winds, which had mostly been in my favour for the previous ten days, now started blowing from the south. Once I left Dahkla and rejoined the main road to cycle the remaining 350km to the Mauritanian border I was confronting them head on. There was practically no traffic now other than a few shared taxis, army trucks and the odd overland vehicle driven either by westerners or possibly Mauritanians or Senegalese.

    Relief from the elements came in the form of two cans of a beer and an Italian man insistent on cleaning and re-oiling my sand-filled chain. He was driving a motor home alone and had just returned from the Mauritanian border thinking that he could get a visa issued on the spot (you could before November 2009). “I love people like you. It is great what you are doing”. With 100km in my legs I wasn’t really thinking of beer at 2pm in the middle of nowhere, but as he went about removing the sand from my chain I gulped down the warm beer and thought what a pleasant surprise that someone in a motor-home should stop and offer help.

    Beer in the Sahara

    He was telling me about riding a motorcycle across Australia when a white transit van pulled up alongside. Three Senegalese emerged (one man and two scantily-clad women) saying they had no fuel and could I give them some. Sure enough the last service station I passed was over 100km back, although I’m sure they must have made this journey before and known when to fill up. The Italian reluctantly siphoned-off 5 litres and made some off-the-cuff remark about this being Africa and that I’d face lots of challenges ahead.

    I had one of my most frightening on-the-road experiences early the next day. Having just downed a bottle of coke and scoffed a packet of chocolate biscuits from a fly-filled forecourt of a service station, I was pursued by a pack of ten dogs. They had been dozing in the shade of the petrol pumps minutes before, but now decided to join me on the road as I pedalled off. Had there been one or two I would have followed the standard procedure of picking up a stone and motioning to throw it at them (works 50-70% of the time) else squirted them with water from my water bottle (a new and surprisingly effective, if somewhat wasteful tactic whilst on the move). Ten was just too many though and they were rather cunning at surrounding the bike. I started to walk, thinking they would lose interest, but twenty minutes later none had given up the game. Finally a car approached from behind and I waved it down to stop. The driver was French and had long dreadlocks. Half his teeth were missing and his eyes were bloodshot. I guessed he’d spent a long time in Africa and taken a lot of drugs. He explained that I should hold onto the roof rack so he could tow me along to out-speed the dogs.

    At 30km/hr they were happily running alongside the car. Up to 40km/hr and it was the same. I tried to explain that he should lower his speed a little and maintain a constant pace, but amongst the cacophony of barking and wind he continued to accelerate to 50km/hr. Most dogs had given up the chase now, but several were still in pursuit. By this stage my bike was leaning into the side of the car and I was losing balance. He continued to accelerate and the bike started wobbling. I glanced down at the computer reading 58km/hr and had a flash-before-my-eyes vision of skidding across the tarmac before being mauled by these hungry canine monsters.

    I let go and managed to regain my balance whilst the Frenchman disappeared ahead of me. Two remaining dogs ran alongside as my speed dropped to 30km/hr. After another kilometre they finally stopped. I felt victorious but wished I was carrying some weapon. Nothing would have pleased me more than to put a bullet in the heads of every one of these foul creatures.

    I reached the border feeling like I’d ridden to the end of the earth. For the last few hundred kilometres the map and road signs had been little use in telling me exactly how far the Moroccan immigration post was. Only the increasing number of soldiers standing at random outposts in the desert and signs warning me of land-mines indicated that I couldn’t be far.

    Treading carefully

    I hadn’t left myself much time to enter Mauritania before the 30-day validity of my visa expired. In fact it was valid until the 3rd of February and it was now 3pm of the same day. Before entering Mauritania however I had several kilometres of no-mans-land to traverse. I’ll save that experience, as well as my journey into Mauritania for the next post.

    If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to receive future posts via e-mail, you can do so here. I also use Twitter for  short updates. Many thanks for those who’ve made recent donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, although it seems you don’t have to cycle a big distance to raise a lot of money for an important cause.

    The long road

  • Surf’s up: Talioune-Tamraght January 2nd, 2010

    Running out of money and eating sardine sandwiches was not how I envisaged spending Christmas day, but I left Talioune thankful that the familiar blue skies had returned. The mountains that had been shrouded in clouds for the last week were now visible with a fresh layer of snow on the higher peaks.  It might be the last snow I’ll see in a long time. A different story back home I’ve been reading.

    The Souss Valley is one of Morocco’s most fertile regions. It was half waterlogged as I free-wheeled passed fields of olive, orange and argan trees. And there was I thinking that water shortage was an issue in Morocco .

    I arrived in Taroudande in record time, having cycled 107km in just over 4 hours.  Impressive average I thought, but then I had descended 800 metres in altitude. Only a camera-shy tortoise that appeared to be sleeping in the middle of the road provided cause for a serious stop.

    Road block

    Inside the red-walled medina the  bustle of traffic and people came as a small shock after the previous several weeks in the mountains. I soon found the central hub and checked into a hotel that seemed to be run by two old women. They spent the entire time cleaning and were quick to point out that I would not be taking my bike into the room. Several hours later another cyclist arrived. He appeared to have trouble understanding  where he should put his bike so I attempted to translate, in Japanese.

    View from the hotel in Taroudante

    I’d already heard about Jimbo, or Hiromu-san as I called him, from Ian. Having quit his job as a travel agent he started his journey in Istanbul last  May. The plan is to cycle around the World for 5 years.  It was pure chance that we met. His route is also to head south through western Africa. There is no website,  just a bike and heavily-laden panniers with the words ‘Running with Emily’ written across them.

    Surly Long Haul trucker

    Emily, (Emire I think) it turns out is Hiromu-san’s  girlfriend.  How kawaii I remarked. Leave your girlfriend for 5 years to cycle around the World and dedicate the name of the trip to her. I haven’t spoken Japanese in over a year, but the words came back to me surprisingly quickly. Hiromu-san’s English is typically Japanese (he’s studied it for years but needs much conversational practice)  so I feel less embarrassed  in making lots of mistakes and it’s much easier, if far less useful at the moment, than French.

    It was interesting to see Hiromu-san’s ‘Plan of the World Round Journey’ – an ambitious list of about 70 countries enclosed with a letter to explain his  purpose. All very Japanese. I suggested he join me on the road south, although he already had a Mauritanian visa and I still needed to journey up to Rabat and visit the embassy.

    Before all that however my focus was on reaching the coast.  About a month ago I was contacted by someone who runs a surfing hostel. “We have a friend who follows your website. If you’re passing through come and stay”. Why not I thought.

    Tamraght is to surfers what Toubkal is to trekkers. The locals call it Banana village for the surrounding plantations. It’s not a pretty town. Unfinished breeze-block buildings sprawl over the rocky slopes that rise inland from the sea. It’s prime real estate land though. The coast north of Agadir has some of the best surf in Morocco. Most of the foreigners who come to this part of Morocco live for just that.

    Tamraght surf

    Surf's up

    The swell here can be strong. I spent most of  my first attempt at trying to surf by fighting the current, whilst kids of about 12 were happily paddling beyond the 3 metre breakers. Jalal, who runs the hostel gave me some instruction so I tried again the next day and was marginally better. On the third attempt I was nursing a hangover from the night before. Not a bad way to spend New Years Day,  but my ribs were hurting from lying on the board. My German/Arabic companions on New Year’s Eve were ready to sleep long before midnight.

    New Years's Eve nosh

    Hiromu-san had by this stage departed, but I’m hoping we’ll meet further south in Morocco or Mauritania. I recorded these videos as he was leaving.


  • Over the High Atlas: Demnate – Ouarzazate December 17th, 2009

    It felt strange to be by myself again after leaving Demnate. One thing I hadn’t mentioned in the previous post is how a guest in a Muslim family is rarely left alone. I knew that for my hosts it would have been rude to do so. There must be something written in the Koran about this. It’s really about time I picked up a copy, if there’s a light paperweight version that is. It was a similar story staying with locals in other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Syria and Libya. In the face of such hospitality all these experiences have left me feeling overwhelmed and indebted. At the same they’ve been complete contrasts to the comparative solitude of my normal life on the road.

    The concept of independent travel is a confusing one for many people here. Why anyone would chose to travel away from home without the company of a friend or member of their family, let alone ride a bicycle to South Africa, is hard to comprehend.

    These thoughts were occupying my mind as I sat eating a re-heated plate of couscous (I was spoilt with home-cooked food in Demnate) whilst a family at  a nearby able in the restaurant were sharing what looked like a much more appetizing tagine, and from time to time appeared to be making comments about me. They’d probably driven out from Marrakesh for the day to visit what is one of Morocco’s most popular tourist destinations.

    In a country with so little rain I didn’t have high expectations for Morocco’s largest waterfalls. In fact I almost didn’t bother with the 16km detour off the main road to reach them. Yet even with the water of the Oued Ouzoud way below its normal level the 110m drop into the red-walled canyon was a sight worth seeing. More impressive was the fact that I could pitch the tent a mere 50 metres away in view of them.

    Rather than backtrack the next morning I followed the canyon upstream as a narrow and little-used road climbed between pine trees, then descended into a patchwork plain of brown fields. Now that the harvest of crops is over much of the land here lies dormant, awaiting the onset of winter. Other than the shaking of olive trees and the occasional farmer shouting at his mule as it begrudgingly pulls a plough through hard dry soils there is very little activity at the roadside. Several Moroccans have remarked that March and April are the best months for visiting the country – before the summer heat when the landscape is at its freshest and most colourful. To be here then however would have involved a mid-winter departure from home. The fields may be a  little bleak and monotonous, but when the skies are clear, the daytime temperatures around 20C and the tourist sites generally quiet, I’m all in favour of coming here in December.

    Warm clothes are a necessity though. The mornings and nights became increasingly cold as I continued east and began climbing into the High Atlas. I’d wanted to cycle this part of Morocco with Tim, but time had run out and rather than push on south into the desert, thereby leaving the only real mountains I’ll encounter in Africa behind, I decided to detour yet again,  lured by those minor white lines on the map.

    Roads that run alongside bodies of water usually make for scenic rides. Against the arid brown slopes the deep blue surface of Bin el-Ouidane reservoir provided just that. It was the only real colour for miles around, although it’s levels looked low – a reminder that water, or lack of it, is becoming an ever more critical issue in this part of the World.

    A steep 15km climb took me way above the reservoir the following morning. I was only several kilometres into it when up ahead a familiar face  came free-wheeling down the other way. The shirt was different, but he was still lugging a useless spare tyre on the back of his bike. It was quite a shock to see Ian again, having said goodbye several weeks before in Chefchaouen. That this was a minor road made the encounter even more surprising. He was on his way to Marrakesh and now had a flight booked out of Morocco in January. We chatted at the roadside for a few hours, Ian explaining that after returning to Bangkok in the New Year he would be cycling in Vietnam, China and Japan during 2010. Yet more new roads pedalled in countries he’s visited numerous times.

    There was more I wanted to probe behind the purpose of it all. Was it love of new landscapes, meeting people, the fact that staying in one place for too long became boring, or that living any other life than a nomadic one on two-wheels was now, after over a decade and a half, too difficult to imagine or begin? He might have wondered the same thing about my motivations for being on the road. At that moment the view behind was as good an answer for both of us I’m sure.

    I considered suggesting he share some of his experiences and photos on the Internet. Yet like other full-timers I thought if he’d wanted to bother with a website or blog he would have done so now. I would have been the first to tell him that they can be time-consuming to maintain.

    Later that day I reached the small town of Tagleft. It’s easy to recognise a place that sees few outsiders pass through when the locals regard you with curious and cautionary stares from the roadside. More climbing ensued after a cold night camping in woodlands, and when the paved road ended and the piste began I had the feeling that the local shepherds thought I’d lost my way.  I too thought this when the piste involved walking though a river. Not a single vehicle passed me all day. The trees thinned out above 2000m and what villages there were didn’t exist on my map.

    I stopped by a natural spring to fill the water bottles and make my daily sardine sandwiches (there are going to be a lot of these consumed in Africa – lunch could be far less healthy) and was soon called over by an old woman and a teenage boy from a nearby field. It was the first of many invites for tea along this piste track and I was glad to have biscuits, tangerines and a bag full of dates (my new energy food) to offer as some form of gift and exchange.

    To give or not to give, what to give and how much to give is often an issue in these situations. Is there an expectancy in the mind of the host that by stopping to share tea this comparatively super-rich foreigner will provide some exotic gift, that he usually doesn’t have, from his home country? And if there is no expectancy then does the act of giving create a dependency and an association in the host’s mind with the next foreigner passing through? It’s never an easy one to call, whether you’re receiving a simple cup of tea, a meal or a bed for the night. I’ve probably made the wrong decision, either giving too little, too much or sometimes none at all after my host has refused to accept my offering of a gift or money. The great irony is that those who possess the least are frequently the ones most wanting to give. Later that day I pedalled into another bedraggled village and asked if there was a shop to buy food. Ten minutes later I was sat in a dingy mud-brick room and being force-fed warm bread with fresh butter and fig confiture. An enormous second round loaf was packed in a bag and my protests for them to accept some Dirham were refused.

    What is less of a decision process but more of a frustration is dealing with the cries of donnez-moi donnez-moi which sound out at the roadside from children. It was a pleasant surprise that up until this moment I’d encountered very little of such hassle in Morocco (in the rif mountains it was non-existent), but once you join the axis of tourism, which the Dades valley I headed towards after leaving this particular piste is, people (mostly children, but also young adults) consider it common practice to ask for sweets, money, pens, cigarettes, your sunglasses, hat, shoes,  the socks drying on your panniers,  the bike – anything that can be seen or thought of in the period of time they have before you pedal away.

    In one village I stopped to ask directions from an elderly man, then leaned the bike up against a mud brick wall to take a photograph. Several children ran over to jump into the photo frame, followed by their friends. Palms quickly turned upwards and a cacophony of calls for bonbons ensued. I decided to reach into my pannier to hand out some dates. By this moment I was smothered with a dozen more hands and ended up having to drag my bike away, almost running over those who decided to stand in the way. I realised the next morning that my bicycle lock, which was attached to one of the rear pannier straps and I knew was there shortly before entering this village, was now missing. It would have given me more satisfaction if they’d actually stolen something useful.

    I resolved myself to the fact that this will probably be a common occurrence, the expectancy of a handout that is, throughout many parts of Africa where either tourists or aid-agencies have unknowingly created a sub-culture that probably hinders more than helps African communities to stand on their own two feet.

    Said the shepherd seemed offended about this. It was in his hole-in-the-roof red mud brick shelter where I discovered the lock was missing, and that I acted out the behaviour of children in the nearby village  harassing me. He’d seen me bumping my way along another piste track later that afternoon as I was headed up to the Tizi-n Ouano. At 2906 metres this is one of the highest ride-able passes in the Atlas mountains. A few years ago I would have scoffed at the claim that anything below 4000m is high altitude, but I’m not going to find much higher to cycle in Africa. With a little more than an hour left of light in the sky he pointed to the collection of small red-brick buildings that were almost camouflaged against the valley walls. “Dormir ici” Why not I thought.

    They were more suitable sleeping quarters for his sheep, and judging by the surface of the floors it looked like they had a free rein over where they rested at night. Having been invited I was hardly going to complain. And over a basic potato and lamb tagine (he seemed less impressed with the remaining macaroni cheese I cooked up for starters) he re-installed my faith in the hospitality of strangers.

    I woke the next morning to find the bottom of my sleeping bag had turned white. Snow was falling through the roof. Said was laughing when I found him making bread over an open fire in the next building. He seemed unperturbed and said it would stop. I decided it wasn’t worth waiting to see if he was right.  A couple of hours later I was still pushing the bike up the remainder of the pass as the wheels continually slipped in the snow. Another shepherd, who had been practically invisible until the last minute in his white jellaba, greeted me near the top of the pass. He seemed to be in high spirits, as was I . I wanted to tell him that in the months to come I’d probably be dreaming about having a dose of snow in my day as I cycled through the equatorial heat of Africa.

    Even in the reduced visibility the views and descent down the other side were pretty stunning. Wild and windswept craggy slopes led into the Dades valley, the joy of free-wheeling and occasionally sliding only lessened by having to stop every 10 minutes to run on the spot and swing my arms in an effort to restore some feeling into my numbing fingers and toes.

    The children were up to their usual palm-outstretched antics as I continued through the bleak and colourless villages of Tilmi and Msemrir. Here the piste ended again, but the landscape became no less dull as I continued to descend alongside the Dades river, passing crumbling Kasbahs and red-walled valley sides. Judging by the number of Auberges, cafes and restaurants this place must be full of tourists at other times of the year.

    Out of the mountains I joined the Highway and headed west. Where there were olive trees north of the Atlas I was now passing clusters of palm trees and a desert landscape that will become much more familiar over the next few months. My plan was to reach the city of Ouazarzate, leave the bike and catch a bus up to Rabat. I’d made provisional arrangements to visit a school there, talk about the journey and charity and also collect a Mauritanian visa. But after 9 days of riding a 12-hour bus journey didn’t seem so appealing, particularly with an ankle that was oozing pus when I rode into town here.