Sunday
Jan082012

Mauritania

Our route through the Al Queda kidnap guantlet - UK travel advisory

There were a lot of warnings about traveling the Sahel, mostly because there is a high threat of kidnapping in Mauritania and surrounding countries by Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M). More about the situaton here. Despite these foreboding warnings, my research into the matter puts the actual risk as fairly low - less 1 in 100,000, but of course the consequence could be quite high. It is much more probable to have serious injury or illness IMO.

Because security is such a major concern, there are more than 50 checkpoints throughout the country where you much leave a "fiche", a strip of paper with your personal and vehicle details so (in theory) if you don't show up at the next checkpoint - they send out someone to find you. Not sure it would actually work like that - it is highly doubtful communication between posts is that organized.   

Mauritania is really the start of west africa, where daily life is degraded of most refinements and boils down to the essentials. Scruffy, scrappy, dirty, messy, sandy and very black. Everything is surprisingly expensive - not sure how ordinarly people live.

Not only is it dangerous, but gasoline is hard to come by, as we found out when we nearly got stranded near Kiffa. I was also told it was pretty hard to even get a visa to enter Mauritania as an American. Americans had apparently been waiting weeks to get thier visas, but as so many things with adventure traveling - you shouldn't take anything as gospel. Since there really wasn't any choice about going through Mauritania to get to the rest of Africa overland, I took the plunge. Ready to pay an expediting fee (bribe) I showed up to the embassy in Rabat (Morocco) and asked if it was a problem with a US passport. They asked if I didn't have a 2nd passport, which I didn't, so they said it would be ready the next day - which it was.

Ubiquitous stripped and burned car-casses add a very post-apocalyptic feel to Mauritania

 Apparently the longest train in the world.

 The border was pretty rough, but the people are nice, maybe a little friendlier and smilier than Morocco actually. When finally got out of the seriously shitty no man's land onto the tarmac in Mauritania, the first soldiers we ran into were much more interested in a tv they found than checking our papers. The border process made Morocco look positively european by comparison. Waiting waiting for the customs guy to fill out the entry papers on the computer, hunting and pecking his way through the form. 

Finally on our way to No-idea-boo, the first town in Mauritania, everything is broken and nobody speaks english, with the slight smell of shit everywhere, with goats all over the roads, donkey straining to pull carts overloaded with rebar and propane canisters. Total traffic chaos, endless late model mercedes beeping horns, people walking right through it all, with trash and sand blowing around, and grunge everywhere. On the plus side it is finally warm now, 25+ celcius, cooling down to under 20 by morning. 

Once on the road to the capital, Nouakchott, we reconnected with the other Tony at a popular overlander albergue right in the center. A bolt holding one of my gas cans came loose and fell out, and I ran out of chain oil. Since the bolt was SAE and not metric, looking for a new one turned into a 3 hour ordeal. Some kid at an aluminum shop took it upon himself to find the bolt for me, and he drove us around from one grungy/sandy shop to the other throughout the "city".  Finally found a bolt that fit after about 3 hours. Finding purpose specific chain oil turned out to be a lost cause, and I settled for gear oil after a few stops. 

Heading out of Nouakchott, we got caught up in a real african traffic jam, complete gridlock. Understand that in addition to the regular one lane each way tarmac, there are dirt/sand tracks to either side, which normally has taxis and mopeds wrangling around the tarmac traffic. When things get jammed up, these tracks do as well - so you have 4-6 lanes of traffic jam each direction, people jockeying for one inch of advantage, gridlocking the roundabouts. It took us 40 minutes just to go a kilometer, dodging mopeds, donkey carts, and pushy taxis. Finally out of the city, we headed off toward Aleg, the next town. 

Kid using a barbecue for a hat

 Tony P has a neurological issue with his ear and wind noise, and can only take 4-5 hours on the bike before he starts to have problems, so we moved at a somewhat laconic pace through Mauritania. Leaving Nouakchott, we headed east towards Mali going through one dirt town after another - repleat with incredibly grungy food stands - passing the blackened dirt of tire repair outfits, lots of donkey carts straining to carry thier loads, trucks belching out thick black dirty diesel. 

We were plugging along until about 250 clicks west of Kiffa, when we realized there were no more big towns, and none of the ones we had passed through since Nouakchott had regular petrol at all. Not seeing any mopeds (which are everywhere else) it became clear - there is no gas. I MIGHT have been able to crawl in (because the F8 is very fuel efficient), but both the tonies were absolutely going to run completely out well before Kiffa. We scoured town for some black market petrol, but nobody had any to sell. We talked to anyone who might have some, and they in turn called others. No go.  

Mr Idoumou 'le grand chef du tourisme' and bringer of gas.

Finally, the head of tourism for the area came by and he spoke excellent english. His plan was to get a taxi to bring 20 liters from the capital Nouakchott, 500 kilometers to the west - which would take at least 5-6 hours, and we settled into a long wait. He returned about 10 minutes later with 20 liters that he got from the local military. 

So we headed off to Kiffa where we finally found regular petrol - enough to get us to Mali where there would be more - and beer - finally. Heading out of Kiffa, there was a diversion of about 30 kms of piste (dirt track) that paralleled the main road that was under construction. It wasn't that bad, but not far into it, there was a military convoy of over 100 vehicles that were charging fast on the dirt, blasting us with dust. It was reassuring to see this show of force, most of them armoured pickups with machine guns on top and a bunch of soldiers in the bed. They had a few anti-aircraft gun versions, which was odd, since it seems the Mauritanians would come under air attack. After they passed you could finally see where you were going. 

Massive traffic jam in Nouakchott

 

Usually we stayed less than a kilometer apart, and waited at the next checkpoint for each other to catch up. Most of the time I would be up front, and they others would trickle in shortly behind me. As we finally almost to the border, and had heard that the security situation was not good, we were waiting for Tony G for quite a long time, more than 20 minutes. This was unusual - I turned around and went through the last checkpoint again - talking to the soldier who was concerned as well. Ohhh god, this is how it goes, thinking to myself, and despite worrying I would be heading straight into what got Tony G, I still thought it more likely that he got stuck in one of the many sand holes along the way. Backtracking 10 kms I was really getting worried, when, to my relief, I finally saw his headlight. Turns out he had a tech issue in one of those sand holes. Phew. 

Getting to the border at around 2pm, we thought we would get through in an hour. Between exiting Mauritania and entering Mali, it turned into a 2.5 hour ordeal.

Lots and lots of sand and wind.

We were asked for at least 2 bribes, which we got out by calling thier bluff and sitting them out. Tony G blogged about most of the details here.  In these kind of situations, you really don't know if you are getting a legitimate official fee, or if it is just baksheesh. Challenging the official might get you in a real jam. One thing that worked really well is asking for a reciept, as this would be proof that they got a bribe, and presumably in a world of shit if we reported it. 

Mauritania was interesting in a difficult way to describe - it is that quality of a place which has virtually no tourists or touristic value, is considered unsafe to travel through, and has little or no scenic assets. It is a place you have to get through - and these can be some of most interesting for overlanders - although I am not sure I can pinpoint why these places haunt your memories more than more touristy lands. They just do.

Wednesday
Jan042012

Western Sahara

I was hoping that once I got down here, that it would be warmer. It is, and the days slightly longer, but it is still pretty chilly on the bike and at night. Lots of very long stretches between cities - but scenic enough along the ocean the whole way. A lot more security down here, as this is contested territory between Morocco and Algeria I think. Not sure why anyone would fight over what appears to be mostly desolation.

Long stretches of wind and sand. Sometimes the sand took over the road.

 I was starting to see and connect with a lot more bikers along the way. I had seen police radar traps all through Morocco, and was sure I got snagged by more than a few - but they never pulled me over in Morocco proper. I don't know if it was because I was on a bike, or in an obviously foreign vehicle, and perhaps the word had come down not to tax the tourists.

Now down in the Western Sahara, this edict seemed to have lapsed. Overlanders coming the other way all told me about the infamous roundabout just south of Tan-tan, where most had gotten popped for not stopping at a stop sign. I got through that by being super careful, but coming out of Laayoune, I got snagged by a radar going 90 in a 60 zone. They said the fine would be 400 dh (about 50 bucks). I told him I was poor, and couldn't pay. I offered 200 and he said yes. In hindsight, I probably could have gone lower. I heard other guys got off for less. 

And camping. Great camping finally. Since I was in a rush to catch up to the Tonies, I passed by what looked like great camping just as you reached the shore near Tan-tan. There were lovely dunes in a break in the cliffs (shelter from the incesant fierce winds).

Camel herder let us take pictures after we gave him bread. People are increasingly snarky about having pix taken.

 

Just outside Dakla, which is the last town of significance in Morocco, about 450 kms from the border, there were tons of campers parked on the other side of hill and lots of kitesurfers crisscrossing the bay. Since it was finally acceptable camping weather - over 20 celcius in the day, down to low teens at night - we decided this was the place to do it. And it was free. We had stayed in a cheap hotel the night before, so all the connecting was done, we could spend new years with some like minded people. Maybe not too many overlanders, but kitesurfers are adventurers as well. 

It turned out to be a great decision. Since Morocco is an islamic country, alcohol could be an issue. In the north it is more relaxed as people are pretty western, but down here was another matter. They locked up the booze and the booze selling places to prevent people from partying over New Years - and we were collateral victims, although we didnt know it. Beer wasnt exactly cheap - around 3 euros a beer. 

Camping on the beach near Dakhla with Tony G

The NYE party turned out great, and there was plenty of booze, so our frantic efforts to find some in Dakhla turned out to be unnecesary. We did find some incredibly cheap amazingly delicious fish. It was about 1 euro a kilo, called Bonita. It had a texture something like bluefish, and at the market they mixed us up some spices that made it even tastier when we barbequed it.


Some old british hippies gave us some hash brownies that were fantastic, and this french guy kept giving us these shots that had a sugar cube in them. It was something like grain alcohol with some bitter herbal liquor added in that made the whole thing kind of nasty, but got us pretty wasted. Top it off with a big blazing campfire and fireworks - what a great NYE. Tony P was dead set on getting out the next morning, but Tony G and I were both hungover and unwilling to leave the first really nice outdoor and free experience of Morocco.

Since it was a day off for school kids, they came at 9 am and started in with playing drums and singing, much to the chagrin of Tony G who had kept taking the nasty french shots all night long. It was kind of cool though. I spent the next day walking out over the nearly endless sand flats to an island a few kilometers out that was accessible at low tide. The next night we got the same fish and barbecued it again with the other overlanding couple from Holland. Then the next day we headed off to cover the 450 kms to the border.

 

Passing out of Morocco and into Mauritania, you need to pass through a no man's land. Since it is claimed by neither country, the road is in complete disrepair and total chaos. It looks like something out of Mad Max. Picked over and burned out cars. Deep sandy tracks and rocky roads lead all over the place. This goes on for something like 5 kms. There were no buildings between the borders, but there some sketchy looking nomads walking around there. Everyone who passes through this has vivid memories of the experience. Crossing the rubicon. "Real" Africa. Whatever your take, it is the gateway to sub-saharan africa with all its poverty and problems. 

Mad-maximum feeling in the no-man's land between Western Sahara and Mali.

Thursday
Dec292011

Morocco

 The ride from Cadiz to Algeciras was a bit wet - we were going to stop in Tarifa (the tip closest to Africa) but opted not to as we were cutting it tight to the boat, and it was wet/cold.

Ferry from Spain to Africa. Gibraltar off in the distance.

When we were pulling the bikes in, the ferry guy asked why we were going to Africa - like it was crazy. I told him that I was going around the world on a motorbike for the adventure. He made some lewd allusion to that it was about having sex with African women. 

Some deal made long ago got Spain an enclave in Morocco, and the ferry actually just goes to this spanish enclave. From there you go the border and into Morocco proper. This was the first brush with difference between Africa and the rest of the world - GPS maps of Africa are hard to come by and much less detailed than (certainly) Europe, the US, and most of the rest of the world. Routable GPS maps (where you can put in your destination - be it a city or hotel or gas station, and the GPS will guide you right there - that doesn't work quite so well in Africa. The major GPS map providers like Garmin and Tom/Tom - they have some Morocco and South Africa, and a few general maps of major routes for other countries - it is not commercially viable to them since Africa is so poor and the roads change all the time. So way finding is a bit of a challenge, especially since signs tend to be in Arabic and sometimes in French, and sometimes there is no sign - you just have to know. Riding into Moulay Idriss with Ryan near Fez. Combine this with no longer having mobile internet to have google maps, or trip advisor or anything like that, it adds a bit more challenge to knowing exactly where you are going - which is important when you have all your gear with you on the bike. 

I had found routable maps online, from a open source map project called openstreetmaps.com, but they weren't quite as fully featured as the Garmin maps. Even finding your way by entering a city rather than an address didn't always work because not all the cities had been entered.  Nevertheless, I forged ahead, with cautious optimism that millions of Africans seemed to find their way just fine. 

Crossing into Morocco had a similar feeling to crossing into Mexico. Huddling masses queued up to come into Spain, cars queuing to get into Morocco. The border was repleat with lots of "helpers", guys with some sort of credentials hanging around their necks, but not in uniform, and not much help usually. They corral you into the officials, and work for tips. The process was not fully africanized yet, since they are pretty computerized, and I had pre-registered online making the temporary import of the bike a smoother process. 

We headed to Chefchouen, the infamous blue city, for the first night as we heard it was nice. The driving and traffic along the way was a bit crowded and chaotic, cars, trucks  and people pulling out in front of you without too much warning - but fairly predictable. The road conditions were pretty variable - many to almost european standards - others a bit rough. The pavement itself was fairly slick when wet because it sometimes had a polished feel to it, like a marble floor. When there was a sandy grit and wet, it was a bit disconcerting, although nothing happened. 

We arrived in Chefchouen just as it was getting dark. Unfortunately, the hostel we had pre-selected was in the heart of the Medina. Medinas are the old town (and by old, I mean pre-christian) with narrow cobbled alleyways crowded with shops and people - you can't really drive into them - which means finding a secure parking spot. Unlike Europe where you could find either secure parking or park on the street - this just isnt a good idea in Morocco or anywhere in Africa. Thus began the ritual process for any new city - find a hostel - does it have parking, where to park - pay a guy 2 bucks to stay up all night and watch the bike? - hostel affordable (10-15 bucks)? - Wifi? - hot water?, etc etc. 

Well, the first thing that happens when you are trying to find a place in a crowded city in northern Morocco is that a tout - aka faux guide - pops up and offers to guide you to a hotel or parking or whatever, and offers to sell you hash. Always with the hash. 

This guy hops on the back of my bike to show us to parking and the hostel, but says "you will come smoke hash at my house after, right?" which turned into an ordeal for over an hour. He neither had a house or hash to smoke, and he brought in another hard sell guy, and they hung around our hostel until we were ready to find something to eat, and offered to help us find something to eat, but were really just worked us to buy some hash. The whole debacle turned ugly at some point when we made it clear we were really just hungry, didn't mind smoking some hash, but were not interested in buying any.  Later I read the travelwiki on chefchouen, which was prophetic to the letter on how the whole system operates. 

Sweet mint tea is a Moroccan staple.I had my first taste of the sweet mint tea that is the customary drink here. Berber whiskey they call it. Great stuff. And Tangine - a mixture of meat and veg with delicious spicing that is a mainstay of Moroccan cuisine. 

From Chefchouen, we headed south toward Rabat, stopping over in Moudray Idriss for lunch. The whole developing world thing was really kicking in, with sprawling, chaotic "souqs" (open air markets) where you can get fruit/veg/bread/meat/anything. Had some brochettes (shishkabab) and headed off to Rabat. The riding was sporty mountain stuff, but you couldn't really lean into the curves much because of the unpredictability of the road surface and oncoming traffic. Over taking trucks and slow cars is a constant, and although clearly traffic has gone feral, people are fairly polite and predictable. There is not any policing of traffic laws. 

Fisherman on the rocky waterfront in Rabat. Rabat is the capital of Morocco, and pretty modern, with lots of young people dressing in more western styles. One of the first things you notice in Morocco is that the streets are just teaming with young guys, and only a smattering of women, most of them in burqas. Rabat has many more young women dressed in more western style. The medina/souq here was huge, lots of food sellers, and anything else you can imagine, packed to the rafters with people after dark. The medina is like a really dirty, but incredibly vibrant and diverse ancient shopping mall. Really a treat for all the senses. None of the touts and incessant sales pitches like you get in most of the more touristy spots here. 

From Rabat it was off to Ouarzazate - which is south of Marrakech and the Atlas mountains. We decided to skip Marrakech and head straight for more outdoorsy scenic surrounds. I was hoping it would be warmer here, but it was still quite crisp, especially in the mornings and the mountains, almost freezing actually.


Trying to communicate with Berber dude up in the Atlas. Crossing over the Atlas was a blast, but always holding back on the curves due to unpredictable road conditions (surface, rocks and dirt) as well as less than predictable oncoming traffic behavior. Great scenic views, but getting pretty cold at times. 

Coming over the Atlas, you are finally in the Saharan desert plain - and where northern Morocco is fairly green with olive groves, now is much more sandy and arid, with a sprinkling of oases, mud hut villages, and palm trees. Starts to have more of a red earthtone palatte to everything. Distances between towns and villages gets greater. 

We stayed the night in Ouarzazate. I was hoping to meet other bikers here as this was a bit of a mecca for riding the "piste" (dirt riding tracks that are famously scenic and challenging), however there didn't seem to be many others. We stopped by bikershome - and nobody was even there. I dropped a lot of my gear there the next day (to ride around without the extra weight) and we headed off to the Dades Gorge. Riding into the gorge we were treated to great vistas of incredibly varied rock formations and quaint villages along the way. The riding got much more technical (for asphalt), with lots of fun twistees, sweepers and hairpins. Riding through the Dades gorge. Gorgeous vistas, lots of hairpins and great technical road riding. Fun. We were trying to make a loop over to the famous Todra gorge, but the the direct road was out, so we took the long loop. What a treat that was, heading up into some high mountain desert gorges before hearing that the asphalt road was out. The only way through was some piste, but it was though a very rocky riverbed that was going to take us well after dark to get though, if at all, so we turned back and found a cheap place to stay right in the dades gorge. We were the only guests in the hotel that was right on the gorge, had a delicious dinner and hung out with some cool kids working at/next to the hostel, playing drums, singing and exchanging stories. It was really starting to feel like an unscripted adventure now. The next day we hiked the gorge for a few hours before heading south to Zagora. 

The road to Zagora runs along a river essentially through the start of the sahara dessert, so it all kind of looks like one oasis. We didn't really have a good plan as to why were were there, but apparently this is the stepping off point for many camel expeditions into the full dunes of the sahara, another 100 kms to the south. Overlanding crew at beach in Essaouira.We stayed the night in a place in Zagora, which was ok but a bit grungy, and it was cold still. I wasnt a big fan - we opted not to head into the dunes as it would have taken us another day or two, and Ryan was on a schedule to meet his girl coming in from Canada. 
I had talked to the two Tonies online a bit, and as they were headed down through the Sahel together potentially, I was eager to meet them and size them up for riding together. The sahel had seen some problems with kidnapping in the past, and it seemed like a good idea to link up with some other riders for this section. They were to be in Essaouira (on the beach) in the next few days. So we made a track to go there, as it turns out, not really great roads. 
Essaouira is a really quaint town on the beach. Most tourists head to Agadir, but the traffic coming in alone turned me off to Agadir. Essaouira is more of a big fishing village than a city, and we ended up staying there for a few days, chilling out with the Tonies, sizing each other up as travel partners. There was another guy I met just on the street who had ridden down from the UK - he was a piece of work. An older guy, but nevertheless fun to talk to for a day. 
Sunset over the fishing port in Essaouira 
I still needed to get my Mauritania visa in Rabat, which was supposedly impossible for americans, and with Christmas coming up, I wanted to spend it is somewhere a bit more social, so I trotted off to Marrakech on my way back to Rabat. It turned out that the supposed visa problem had faded and I got mine the next day, headed off at break neck speed back to Ouarzazate where I left a lot of my gear. Then I set off to pull some serious k's to get to the Tonies waiting in Dakhla at the bottom of the western sahara. I figured it was a really good idea to ride with other guys considering the security situation in Mauritania. 

 

Tuesday
Dec132011

Andulucia

 

Since the F800gs was relatively new to me, I was eager to get some more confidence riding more aggressively, in anticipa*-tion of heading to Africa where there would be a wide range of different terrain to tackle. When you get a new bike, it takes some time to know the limits you can push it to. Yes, there is a lot of crossover between bikes, but the suspension/steering, the overall bike weight, etc mean each bike handles differently. Leaning the bike all the way over in a high speed turn in the mountains is not something you want to do straight away since it might respond unexpectedly. The F8 is the tallest bike I have had, and that tends to make it feel more tippy, consequently a bit more sobering as you lean deeply into curves. Since I don't to crash or get hurt, this means easing into pushing the bike all the way. There is a difficult to describe intimacy that is needed to fully surrender to the bike - in order to relax enough to throw your weight into the turns with confidence. This handling confidence confers to all aspects of riding the bike, knowing what she can do, and trusting the she will respond consistently. England was more of a get-to-know-you thing - between just starting up with the F8, the wrong side of the road thing, and much narrower and unfamiliar roads - I was always holding back while there.

Getting into Europe, it was the first time fully loaded, and this needed some getting used to. When I was crossing the Pyrenees, it was too cold (and potentially icy) to relax into things. Andulucia was the first time I could really put the bike through its paces. And put the bike through her paces did I ever. 

The mountain roads from Granada down to Malaga, back up to El Chorro and over to Rhonda to Seville, then back through Rhonda to El Chorro (overnight) and then down to Marbella to get the bike's periodic service got me warmed up. Then I really let loose on one of the best roads in southern Spain - the road from Marbella to Rhonda. The tarmac is in terrific condition, a combo of high speed sweepers and tight twistees, I charged into the turns full on, passing up cars and trucks in hairpins, just hitting it with all i had. I took a video of the whole thing, which I will post when I get the time to edit it correctly. Many of the roads through the Sierra Nevada were not in great condition, or didn't have good sight lines where you could open the bike up like this road. 

I was meeting Ryan in Cadiz before we headed to Morocco - and I was so jazzed with the mountain riding that I decided to take the long way to Cadiz, which meant riding in the dark through some barely populated country. I got to Cadiz without much fuss, but late. Finally got some of my critical vaccinations there by just walking into a pharmacy. We had met some fun Aussies the night before, and one was a doctor, who I asked to inject me before they split. Then we headed to the ferry - and Africa! 

 

 

Monday
Dec122011

Granada/Malaga/Seville/El Chorro

Ohhh boy - already I am slacking on my blog. Been having a shit ton of fun riding through mountains in southern spain.

I am deep in Andalusia at the moment, but want to catch up on what has been happening. Started to see these medieval villages that got turned into cities, but kept a lot of thier old world charm. 

Granada really started my love affair with Andalusia though. Super tight, narrow cobbled streets in the old town - barely enough room for cars to get through, let alone the throngs of turistas. This is a big holiday week in spain, so everything is packed. Found a great hostel with a view of the Alhambra. Spent a great couple of days walking around town and hanging with the hostel folk.

 A couple of nice girls showed us the caves up in the hills overlooking the Alhambra - had tea (for .50) outside a guy's cave in the hillside. They had a crapper right out on the hillside overlooking the Alhambra - what a glorious place to take a crap in the morning. Neat stuff. Very cool vibe going on in Granada. 

Malaga was another great descent into town with sweeping views of the med and crazy twistees. As it is more of a beach resort town, it had the predicted beach town feel, with crowded hostels (even in the off season). It was nice for a night, but then off to Valencia. The french guy at the hostel gave me some great suggestions, notably El Churro, a climbing mecca in the mountains nearby. 

Ryan is a good wing man to be riding with. We look out for each other pretty good - although we ride at very different paces. When he has a buzz on, he does tend to drone on and repeat his stories again, but by and large he is a good chap. I am really getting the bug to do some offroad, as well as be somewhere HOT like the Sahara desert. Soon.