Gateway to the Sahara
Guelmim, the ‘gateway to the Sahara’ as it is known, which hints at it’s former importance as a trading post on the caravan routes of old, had few distractions for a solo cyclist like myself. I spent little more than 24 hours in town and fairly evenly divided this time between sleeping, doing my laundry on the hotel rooftop, eating chicken in the rotisserie on the Place Bir Anzarane roundabout, making use of one of the many internet cafes and drinking coffee – all of which required no further exploration than the 100 yards of road from where I had come to a stop on arrival in town.
Rachid and Rotisseries
Rachid the friendly owner of the rotisserie I happened to have stopped at on my arrival in town, helpfully showed me to a decent hotel and bartered the rate down to a fair Moroccan price. Between Rachid and the hotel owner, they carried my panniers up two flights of stairs to my room and took my bike round to a back street to park it in a garage – Now there’s service for you. It was Rachid also who later the following day, when I returned to the hotel mentioned that Lars, the Swedish cyclist had arrived in town – not surprising really since we had arranged to meet up when we first encountered each other a couple of days earlier in Tiznit. Rachid then sent his brother on a small mission to look for Lars who was looking for me.
I have encountered time and again throughout all of Morocco this kind of help that I must remember not to take it for granted. Nowhere else on my travels have I come across such a friendly, liberal, hospitable nation.
The desert beckons
Having met with Lars, we had chicken for lunch at Rachid’s rotisserie before departing on the journey south towards Tan Tan. The afternoon’s ride seemed hard work on a full stomach, but was at least made easier with company on the road. Conversations however being regularly interrupted by one of us having to manouevre into single file so as not to be knocked by a passing truck.
We camped that first night about 100 metres off the to side of the road, behind a raised mound of dirt and rock on the floor of the flat hammada. Lars happens to have the exact same tent as me, which seems to be a popular choice for trans-African cyclists – most likely because it can be pitched without the need for pegs and if it’s hot or you’re lazy like me, can be erected inner only, thereby providing a gentle breeze through the mesh lining and affording a good view of the starlit sky on clear nights – all without having to worry about being pestered by mosquitoes, flies or receiving unwelcome visitors, by which I mean the likes or scorpions, spiders or dung beetles (of which there are plenty) and not Swedish cyclists who happen to be travelling with you.
Not so hot
Speaking of clear nights, I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the limited star-gazing opportunities. The weather here has unsurprisingly been dry, but it has been clouding over before sunset and only partially clearing sporadically through the night. The sky becoming cloudless and bright blue only in mid-morning. This means that dispite the clouds, we still feel the full effects of the midday heat. Compared to central Spain in mid-August however, the temperature is at least bearable and cycling is pleasant enough with the breeze that typically picks up after lunchtime.
A head wind
The ‘breeze’ I talk about was a noticable headwind on that first day out of Guelmim and certainly didn’t help our progress. Lars assured me that he had been fighting this headwind ever since Marrakesh, although it was the first time I had noticed it. Fortunately since that day, we have advanced with ease with the aid of a tailwind and I can only hope it continues in our favour.
During the following day’s ride towards Tan Tan, we passed the first police check point that I have had to stop at and show my passport. Until now, the police have waved me on through and even pointed their speed radars at me to find out my speed and encourage me to go faster.
Muffled calls of ‘plus vitesse’ and ‘bonne route’ reaching me as I fly past the unlicensed cars and haulage trucks that have been stopped for checks. Those are the check points where the police have been actually doing their job, compared with many posts where the uniformed men would be sat in the shade looking any which way but towards the road and passing vehicles.
The sudden requirement to stop and have all my passport and bike details thoroughly recorded, as often on the back of a notepad as on any official looking documentation, is most likely due to nearing the ‘border’ of the Western Sahara, rather than any suspicions surrounding my unshaven cycling companion. The police have always been friendly enough and the same questions at every stop of where we have come from, where we are going and how long it will take sound more like casual conversation starters than an inquisition.
El Ouatia encounter
The second night we stayed in El Ouatia, a small port town also known as Tan Tan Plage. After dinner at one of the roadside cafes in the town centre, while walking back to the hotel, a couple of police stopped us and asked for our passports. A barrage of questions made me wonder whether there was a problem, especially since they already knew not only which hotel we were staying at, but also which room number and where our bikes were being kept – one in the room by the far bed and the other in the hallway opposite. No problem though. They were just checking that we were OK and wanted to assure us that if there was absolutely anything we needed we were to go to the Royal Gendarmerie for assistance. All a little strange, but nice to know we’re being looked out for – not that I’ve ever felt there’s a need for it though.
Near is far
The route to Tan Tan was not as flat as expected, considering we were supposedly travelling across the hammada.
Instead, the low-lying barren hills visible on the horizon all around gradually neared in front of us, until we were slowly crawling uphill against the headwind. The lack of features throughout the landscape made it difficult to judge distances: invariably, the hills took longer to reach than the suspected distance suggested and similarly, the hills too longer to climb than their unassuming height should have required.
This deception, for me at least, extended to other features on the landscape: what looked in the distance to be a water tower, turned out to be merely the back of a sign on the opposite side of the road. With these deceptive perspectives and shimmering hazes on the road ahead in the midday heat, merely reflections of the sky but giving the appearance of pools of water, make it easy to see how desert travellers in the past have mistaken mere mirages for verdant oases and even cities rising out of the dunes.
Where are the camels?
Despite passing a road sign with an image of a camel only a few kilometres out of Guelmim, it wasn’t until four days later that we passed any real, living four-legged, hump-backed wandering herds.
The first camels, or more correctly dromedaries since they are the Arabian kind with only one hump, were in a group of about fifteen, of varying colours, ranging from sandy white through golden to a dark, almost chocolaty brown shade. They seemed unperturbed by our presence and only slowly meandered away when I kept creeping, not very stealthily mind you, for ever closer-up photos of these kings of the desert.
Bizarrely though, the first camel I spotted was cooped up in back of a 4×4 that had been stopped, like us, at one of the many check points. The police barely registering the large head sticking out of the wound-down rear window and had waved the vehicle on before I had chance to capture this odd sight on camera.
The force of the Atlantic waves
The road continued along the coast from Tan Tan Plage towards, first the village of Sidi Akfennir and then, Tarfaya. Following the coastal cliffs, the road was flat with the exception of the banks of three rivers that flowed in the Atlantic which had to be cycled down one side, over a bridge and up the other.
Stopping regularly and wandering over to the cliff edge, on looking down you could see the waves crashing against the rock faces, the force of which caused white spray to rise to impressive heights before dispersing into a fine spray which could be refreshingly felt on the bare skin.
Angler’s huts dotted the clifftops. Ramshackle wooden sheds, covered with tarpaulin, noticable as fisherman’s abodes not from the clothes hanging, haphazardly from these shacks or the blankets lying to air, but from the nets scattered on the surrounding rocks and the buoys and ropes lying in heaps against the huts. The majority of the fisherman however don’t own boats and simply fish with long rods from the tops of the cliffs. As I cycled past on the road, I could barely spot these men atop these mighty cliffs if it wasn’t for a lone parked car or motorbike suggesting their presence.
As we neared Tarfaya, the cliffs receded and turned instead to vast windswept, sandy beaches, the force of the Atlantic waves continuing to pound the shores. The beach faded into the misty distance, the air damp and full of moisture. This region of coastline is renowned for strong winds and poor visibility and many a ship has been wrecked close to these shores. I saw several small fishing boats bobbing incongruously just offshore, barely distinguishable as boats in the vast ocean that was laid out to the horizon and far beyond.
That was the view off to the right, looking west. In every other direction however, was the same flat, barren, stony hammada as far as the eye could see. No hills, no trees, just a continuous row of electricity pylons diminishing into the distance and signalling the direction of the road which they follow.
Using the Michelin map for guidance, we had planned on taking one of the pistes across the hammada as a short cut between Sidi Akfennir and Tarfaya for the road which contoured around the coast. Having reached where the piste should have been, there was no obvious track to take. I thought I found a disused, unsurfaced road which was now mostly covered in sand. Not a thick layer of sand, but enough to remove all evidence of the track beneath for large sections at a time. A little further along, Lars spotted what looked like a piste and we turned off the asphalted main road and decided to try this route instead. Unsure what the piste would be like further along, we agreed to go 10km before deciding whether to continue or return to the main road. We had only just agreed this and set off slowly down the bumpy track, when we came to drifting sand that had settled on the path, making cycling impossible and us resorting to pushing the heavy bikes on through with the tyres sliding on this unsure surface. Five minutes later and we unanimously agreed to give up and take the road. There are going to be plenty more unpaved roads that I’m going to have to struggle my way down on this journey to Cape Town that I didn’t mind giving up on this one.
Coffee, coke and beer
We bypassed the town of Tarfaya and camped by the roadside a few kilometres further on. The following morning we made a concerted effort to leave early and were rewarded with an easy 90km morning ride into Laayoune, the Western Sahara’s principal city.
This included time for coffee and coke breaks which are something of a necessity – a caffeine fix first thing; a refreshing, sugary energizer as it gets hot; any excuse to break up the monotony of endless hours in the saddle.
After eight continuous days cycling, I’ve been enjoying a lazy couple of days here in Laayoune – sampling most of the cafes and small restaurants that line the street, which the hotel we’re staying at is on. We even found a bar for a few beers to celebrate. Celebrate what exactly we didn’t decide. I have now cycled over 5,000km since leaving the UK a little over three months ago – that seems a good enough reason to celebrate for me.
So we’re now leaving Laayoune behind for the 800km ride across the Western Sahara and into the next country, Mauritania.