Having survived the desert, I was dropped off in Rissani – a small, friendly town with little to distinguish it except that it lies practically on top of the site of Sijilmassa, the fabled city that was a thriving commercial centre at the head of the trans-saharan gold trade routes.
As has become customary, within five minutes of unloading my gear from the 4×4 and barely taking a seat at a roadside cafe, I was in conversation with a local guy and my plans for the day were changing with every exchange. My intention when I left the desert was to cycle back to Erfoud and then begin the journey towards Marrakesh through the Dades Valley which I expected to take a good five days. However, I was still rather weak from having been ill and not eaten properly in days, that I was happy to sit and sip coke for a while. Mohammed, the guy I was chatting to owned a shop in town and he invited me back for tea (really quite sick of the tea now, but it always seems impolite to refuse, especially when I’m in no particular rush) and if I wanted I could rest there for as long as I wanted. So having drunk yet more moroccan whisky as they call the tea here and slept for a while on a pile of carpets in the corner of the shop, it was mid-afternoon before I emerged into the daylight again. Mohammed offered to show me the old kasbah in town, which as it wasn’t far away I agreed to. What I didn’t realise was that after looking round the old kasbah, Mohammed wanted to show me the ruins of Sijilmassa, the jewish quarters, the souk and then get on a motorbike for a tour of the other sites in the vicinity. By the time I returned to town the sun was low on the horizon and I was being invited to stay for dinner and rest in town with Mohammed’s family at least until the following day. I knew if I did this, I would never make it to Marrakesh on the bike.
Despite feeling exhausted from the afternoon’s tour of Rissani, I got on the bike and cycled to Erfoud with the sun setting and kids returning to their homes in the countryside for company until I reached the outskirts of town when a local farmer joined me for the ride. He invited me to stay with his family, but by this stage I could think of nothing more luxurious than a cheap hotel room in which I could fall straight to sleep. So I thanked him kindly for the offer and made my way into Erfoud. Stopping for food and bottled water (not feeling brave enough yet to try the tap water again) I was again invited for tea with some locals who also said I could stay with them. I was beginning to think I was being very ungrateful about all the generosity and hospitality on offer, until my stomach came to life again and I had to look for a hotel in earnest, just so I could use the toilets. This was clearly not the time to be accepting invitations into newly-made friend’s homes, only to become rapidly acquainted with their toilet facilities.
The following day I was exhausted and weak and the thought of cycling 145km to Tinehir made my stomach tighten and recoil in horror. I decided another rest day was in order. By the time I had recovered and was feeling fit enough to cycle, I was running out of time to make the coast to meet another friend.
So I called up Kevan, who was still in the desert at this stage and was offered a lift to Marrakesh, which I gratefully accepted. I’d travelled through the Dades valley on a previous trip to Morocco and there was going to be plenty of long-days desert riding ahead of me, so I didn’t feel I would be missing too much.
The journey to Marrakesh retraced, at a significantly faster pace, my route through the Middle Atlas. I then spent the following 24 hours in Marrakesh doing little except eating and drinking… replenishing and rebuilding my reserves I kept telling myself. My eyes and stomach working overtime with the overwhelming variety of sights and smells of every conceivable style of food coming from each street corner. A true assault on the senses.
With a concerted effort I was finally riding out of the city in the heat of the day, towards the coast and into the blinding sun (I’d lost my sunglasses and not yet replaced them). My legs were tired and the kilometres passed slowly along the straight, flat, monotonous road. As it was getting dark I passed a small town where I stopped to get some food for dinner. I decided I’d cycle a few kilometres down the road and set up camp.
On leaving the town however, I was joined by two teenagers on a motorbike who insisted on riding behind me. Then there were two motorbikes. And a third. The dark road being illuminated by their headlights and guiding me around the potholes and alerting the oncoming trucks to my presence. There was no way I was going to be able to stop and camp without this small army of youths on two-wheels, which by the time I was feeling exhausted was now numbering eight bikes.
As fatigue set in and my polite requests to be allowed to cycle alone were repeatedly ignored, by temper frayed and I stopped by the semi-tarmacked road and told them where to go in no uncertain terms. My outburst, in finest English, was understood far better than any previous French attempts, even though none of the lads knew a single word.
I did feel bad for the outburst, since they were only trying to help me progress down the road in safety, especially when they quickly dispersed with one lad returning to apologise profusely for any inconvenience they’d caused.
Once the bikes had all disappeared into the distance, I pushed my bike off the road and looked for a discreet place to camp. I happened to be next to a quarry with not a single other defining feature on the landscape. At least, not one that was visible under the starlit sky.
I hauled the bike into a space between the mounds of rubble and set about making my bed for the night. A quarry may not sound like the most sumptuous abode, but when you’re lying back, cosy in a sleeping bag, arms folded behind your head, looking up towards the vast sky, it’s darkness impenetrable except for the stars, glistening in their billions, countless, across the black canvas, you can imagine yourself anywhere, in any time.
I slept out in the open that night, too tired and lazy to put up the tent. My lack of effort was rewarded with fifty-eight bites to my legs, abdomen and neck, which since then have itched intermittently with such intensity that I have woken myself numerous times with ferocious, unconscious scratching to the point that I look like some contagious, disease-carrier. Bring back those pesky black flies of the desert any day.
Awaking to the cockerels and dogs in the distance, alerting me to the dawning of another day, I was on the road by 6am. To the beat of Bob Marley, I cruised towards the coast, covering the remaining 100km with ease to arrive in Essaouira mid-morning.
Here, in this cool, chilled-out town, I met up with Gina and Giles. More friendly faces. The luxury of an apartment. Plenty of time for a beer, or a coffee, or sitting on the beach, or swimming, or eating, or another beer. As you may imagine, I didn’t want it to end. In three days, I ate such an obscene quantity of food that my clothes nearly fit me again, so it’s a good job I’ve been back on the bike, burning calories..
So now I’m relaxing further down the coast, at a small surf town called Taghazoute. Again, I’m finding it hard to leave. So for now, I won’t. Time here has little meaning, which is why it’s getting on for six weeks since I arrived in Morocco and there’s still a way to go before I reach the border. Time is one luxury I can afford.