Thursday, 16 January 2020

Part 43 - Situation: Stuck in Spain, Dilemma: Deadline in Dublin

Situation: Stuck in Spain, Dilemma: Deadline in Dublin

All sailings for the week to Ireland, where I planned to store my motorcycle, were cancelled. An additional week of storms with gale force winds were predicted in the Celtic Sea. My sailing to Ireland lay in between those two weeks. I waited and worried in Santander, Spain checking the internet hourly in the days leading up to my ship’s scheduled departure. The thirty hour journey would pass through the often tempestuous Bay of Biscay before entering the Celtic Sea on its way to Cork.

Simple ways of life I left behind in Morocco's rural highlands

Almost two weeks before, I had begun riding north, up the Iberian Peninsula from Gibraltar. I ran headfirst into that first week of storms while travelling through Portugal.  The Atlantic coast was lashed with cold winds and water. I took refuge for two days in Porto, then again for three days in Santiago De Compostela, visiting both beautiful cities on foot, in the pouring rain. Photos were impossible.

Waking up one morning to a break in the weather I jumped on my bike and hit the fast toll roads. I rode east along Spain’s famously wet north coast toward the port city of Santander. It was a full day’s ride; fortunately, it rained only during the last two hours. The stunning Picos De Europa mountain range lay on my right for the final hour. Its gigantic peaks were covered with pure white snow. A route north from Gibraltar, through the interior plains of Spain would have been statistically much drier than the Iberian west coast but I knew that route would have brought me over some high mountain passes. I appreciated my route choice while watching news reports in my hotel room that first evening in Santander. The Hotel Santa Maria was warm and dry. I had given up on camping days earlier. The TV screen was filled with images of crashes, complaints of not enough snowploughs and highway closures in nearby mountains. I would never have made it through the mountains in mid-November on a motorcycle.

My dilemma was how to cross more than a thousand kilometers of angry ocean in time to meet my flight home from Dublin. I had purposely booked a sailing that was early enough to allow a run up through France, England and Wales if the weather forced marine cancellations. That crazy ride along France’s west coast would be dangerous; taking me through the same storms. It would require costly but convenient hotels, toll roads and fuel. There were also the matters of crossing the English Channel and the Irish Sea to overcome. It would be rushed, expensive and dangerous. I preferred the warm bed in a private cabin option I had already paid for!

The sea looked perilous

I waited nervously in my pleasant little room for four days. Thunder crashed, wind howled and the deluge continued. Bored, on the second day I took advantage of a break in the weather. I walked a few kilometers to the coast. The sea looked perilous. I emotionally needed to scout the ferry terminal; a habit Isabelle and I share so I suited up on the third day and set out for an 8 kilometer walk to the docks downtown. I was drenched through my boots and rain-suit within the first hour. Later and satisfied I understood the port layout and ferry procedures, I hunted down lunch. I spread it out over three different tapas bars, enjoying fabulous delicacies from the nearby sea. Spain’s north coast had terrible weather but terrific food.

My return route from Santander brought me along a small road across open fields near the Santa Maria. The fields were largely flooded. Wind gusts lifted standing water, spraying it against the road embankment at the edge of the field across from the hotel parking area. The road acted like a dyke, protecting houses on the hotel side from flood waters.

Blarney Castle

Sightseeing in Ireland

My ship did sail, I did get to sleep in a warm bed. The sky calmed itself more and more. The lurching, diving and rolling of the first five hours lulled me to sleep. No marine crossing would ever feel rough after the night, two years earlier, Isa and I spent aboard the Stahlratte crossing the Caribbean Sea. The flight home from Dublin was without event – just the way I like it. Isabelle put our dog in the car and drove to Montreal. They both picked me up at Trudeau Airport. It was a warm and gentle welcome I won’t forget. It felt great to be home again, sharing the holidays with family and friends.

Family festivities shared at the house

Canadian natural beauty shared with friends

More great adventures together to come 

Monday, 11 November 2019

Blog Part 42, Losing Convenience, High Atlas Mountains and Berber Villages, late Oct, early Nov 2019

Blog Part 42, Losing Convenience

On a Day Ride

Most Oudes Were Dry

A Few Wet Oude Crossings

But Most Were Dry

Preparing for the Next Planting

Suburb of Tafraout

Tafraoute sits in south Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains. I used it as a base camp to explore the area on day rides without luggage. Then I began a long arc to the east and north. The route began with a rough road to Taliouine that took a whole day. There were many dry oude (river) crossings where the road had been washed away.  The way to Ourzazate was clear and I arrived in time for lunch the next day. The Dades Valley came next followed by the famous gorge of the same name. It really was as spectacular as people had described. I found a Berber guest house with a locked garage for the night. No one spoke French at the inn, only Berber. In any case, I was the only guest. The language of gestures sufficed, a price was negotiated and I settled in for the night.

In the Anti-Atlas

Palmerie in the Anti-Atlas

Anti-Atlas Palmerie

Anti-Atlas Scene

The Anti-Atlas Range

Desert Highway in the Anti-Atlas

Lower Dades Valley

Berber Guest House

View of Dades Valley from the Terrace

Dades Gorge

Dades Gorge

Dades Valley

Strange Rock Formations

In the High Atlas Range

I was trying to pre-ride famous routes in Morocco; that way, I could be sure that Isabelle would be comfortable riding them when we both returned to visit together. I was also building up a bank of useful places for accommodations along the way. The next morning, I rode back out the gorge the way I had come in. The road did continue to the north, the way I wanted to go but everyone said that it was a rough dirt track after the Dades Gorge. I wanted to check out the Todra Gorge anyway. Its mouth was about half an hour’s ride to the east of the mouth of the Dades Gorge.

Todra Gorge

Todra Cliff Houses

The ride up the Todra Valley was really enjoyable all the way north to the remote Berber village called Agoudal. I checked into the lone hotel, simply called “The Kasbah”. Once again, I was the only guest. What it lacked in refinement the Kasbah made up with its location well off the beaten path; it gave a glimpse of highland Berber life, still unchanged by modernity.

Near Agoudal in the High Atlas Range


In Agoudal

Agoudal was located in a 15 kilometer-long fertile valley at close to 2500 meters elevation. Inside the town there were no roads only dirt tracks between the adobe structures. Roads weren’t needed; there were no cars or even scooters to use them. People walked or rode a donkey to get from place to place. Careful water management and strong sun allowed nearly year-long cultivation in the valley even with cool high altitude air. Everyone was involved in food production. Each morning I witnessed a stream of chatty women walk past the Kasbah on their way to harvest crops. In the fields they sat as they pulled and picked with their hands. A few people rode by on donkeys but walked back to town. The donkeys returned loaded high with the day’s harvested crops.

The Kasbah

Working on the Kasbah

Preparing for Planting

The manager of the Kasbah spoke French well. He gave me route advice for day rides. His routes proved to feature mostly risk and potentially accident free riding. Both Isabelle and I were fed up with riding injuries. There were a few rough sections on those day rides but the routes were filled with scenery that was really worth the effort of the journey.

Highland Scene

A few days later I rode north to Azrou and a wonderful campground called Euro Camping. It was thoroughly modern and well run. It felt strange coming down from the highlands after having spent so much time in Morocco’s south. There seemed to be people everywhere. Huge expanses of cultivated fields spoke of mechanized farming. The city of Azrou was busy and filled with clues concerning its level of secularism, beginning with peoples’ dress. The change from the highlands was a bit like the culture shock Isa and I felt coming down from Bolivia and landing in thoroughly modern Salta, Argentina.

Erosion Patterns

Continuing north brought me past the Royal Palace outside Fez then into the coastal mountains. Isa and I will visit Fez together in the future. The suburbs of Fez reminded me of posh areas on Mont Royale in Montreal. North of Fez, there were many industrial and mining towns. Once I entered the coastal mountains towns and traffic disappeared.

In Forest Near Fez

The air became thinner and colder after climbing for an hour. The road was filled with sharp-edged potholes and tight curves. I stayed in first and second gear for much of the time. The map said the road was paved and technically it was but two hundred kilometers took four times as long as my time estimates. I got caught after dark in a 50 kilometer gravel construction zone that descended toward the coast and to my campground. There was no sign of a hotel or even a private house in the dark. The final 1.3 kilometers to the clifftop campground were over a rough, steep and twisty gravel driveway. The driveway wasn’t especially difficult to ride but any amount of rain would change that.

Interior Valleys of Coastal Mountains

And it happened. I sat up from 3-6 am, during the worst of the storm, with my back supporting the windward corner of my tent. The wind was incredibly powerful. Things began to calm with the coming of daylight. There was a significant break in the weather mid-morning. I took a walk along that gravel driveway. The muddiest sections each had a way around that was clear. I decided to make a run for it before the predicted second storm wave arrived.

I got to tarmac without falling and continued west along the coastal road. It was as much fun as California’s coastal highway. Long and twisty climbs were followed by long and twisty descents; all-the-while revealing dramatic views of the Mediterranean Sea.

Dramatic Views

I camped in the Municipal campground inside Tetouan and rode to the ferry terminal the next morning. The crossing to Spain took just two hours. Culture shock struck hard as I rode away from the ferry toward Camping Sureuropa, beside the Rock of Gibraltar. Traffic was thick, comprised of new looking, modern cars that were speeding everywhere. Advertising billboards and electronic screens told of my arrival back in Europe. I stopped at a supermarket and was amazed at the square footage and selection of products. The campground looked sophisticated; the bathrooms so clean, there were toilet seats and paper in every stall. You could drink the water, right out of a tap!

If you spend enough time in a place where conveniences, even things you might consider necessities like drinking water from a tap and refrigeration, are missing you begin to adapt. You stop noticing a lack, stop thinking about deprivation and get on with living. You adapt to a new normal. You also begin to understand the smiles and happy chatter of women walking kilometers to the fields to work crops with their hands.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Europe Blog – Part 41, High Atlas, Marrakech, Sahara Desert, Anti-Atlas Mountains

Europe Blog – Part 41, High Atlas, Marrakech, Sahara Desert, Anti-Atlas Mountains

I followed the coast southward to Agadir before turning inland to Taroudant. Further east of Taroudant, I turned north, off the main highway onto a less used secondary road, the scenic “Tizi-n-Test”. It felt good to be back within mountain landscapes. The road became narrower and rougher nearing the highest pass. I rode the final 25 kilometers on a broken up single lane road before reaching Camping & Auberge du Col (mountain pass). The camping was rudimentary and overly expensive but the views were fantastic. It was a cold night in the tent at 2200 meters.

High Atlas Foothills

Approaching the High Atlas Mountain Range


Waterfall in Arid High Atlas

The Auberge served a nice breakfast and strong tropical sun warmed things up quickly. It was 16 degrees when I left, riding downhill toward Marrakech.  I passed Berber villages that were scattered throughout the highlands. Their adobe structures were often perched high up on rocky points. Dirt paths allowed people and animals to move throughout the villages. The paths were often much too steep for a car to navigate. No motorized vehicles were visible inside the villages as many Berber people still lived in the old ways.

Sunset at the Col

Sunrise at the Col

The High Atlas

Hillside Berber Village

Descent to Marrakech

The Road to Marrakech

Satellite dishes became visible on Berber rooftops as I neared the foothills and their lower altitudes. Wider and flatter tracks allowed cars and delivery trucks to pass within the villages. I rode on to Marrakech with its modern feel. It had shopping malls and wide, European boulevards. I did not pass through the historic centre on the way to Relais Marrakech and would have to wait until the next day to see it.

In the Marrakech Medina

Complained When Tipped

Camping Relais Marrakech was modern and very clean. Its restaurant was beside a beautifully landscaped pool area. It felt like an oasis. I vowed to bring Isabelle to that lovely spot. I stayed three nights, accomplishing a few tasks. One day was spent beside the pool preparing and publishing a blog post as well as washing laundry.

Mosque inside Marrakech Medina

Medina Market

Visiting the historic centre, Marrakech’s medina, was an intense day. There was action everywhere involving people, animals and small vehicles. Everyone kept far to the right in the narrow pathways between adobe buildings. Scooters and three-wheeled tuk-tuks zoomed and dodged around thick packs of pedestrians, adding to the frenzy of movement. Touts approached and pestered anyone who didn’t immediately fit in. They seemed impossible to shake off.

One quickly learned to ask the price of each item, even a cup of coffee, before accepting it. Purchases were followed by “upsell” offers that sounded free but never were. A tip was tailed by complaints of its insufficiency. Faux Guides asked, “My friend, where are you from? Keep to the right for the scooters! It’s this way to the Berber festival. Follow me.” If you fell for it you would be eventually faced with an extended palm. Giving a tip would then be followed by the customary complaint. It was all riotous fun!

Film Studio at Ouarzazate

The scenic road to Ouarzazate crossed over the High Atlas Mountains. The surface of the road was excellent. Riding its tight switchbacks was as much fun as riding those in the Pyrenees had been. Berber villages were dug into hillsides in the highlands. Eventually the highway crossed over flat desert lands that led to the outer edges of Ouarzazate. There were several studios and filming locations in the desert town. Camping Municipal Ouarzazate offered good value and very clean ablutions. The place was half filled by European snowbirds in campervans. Berber singers and dancers put on a fun show in the camp restaurant that night.

Taourirt Kasbah Courtyard

Image Inside the Kasbah

Inside the Kasbah

View from the Kasbah

In the morning I went sightseeing, beginning with the Taourirt Kasbah (palace) in the centre of town. The Kasbah had been owned and lived in until recently by a wealthy Ouarzazte family. The adobe palace was electrified and had rudimentary plumbing. The visit was free but a man wearing a reflective vest and sitting on a chair in the parking area came over and extended his palm as I prepared to leave. He was good at looking official, his body language seemed to say, “Surely you saw me here when you parked? I watched your bike for you.” I tipped him; his customary complaint followed.

On the Way to Ait Benhaddou Kasbah

Desert North of Ouarzazate

The next item on my list was located 30 kilometers north of town, Ait Benhaddou Kasbah. This ancient desert “service station” village was instantly recognizable. I discovered that it had been used as a set in numerous films over many decades. It’s more famous location credits included, Game of Thrones, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jewel of the Nile, Last Temptation of Christ and Gladiator. On the approach, I followed two tour vans when they turned onto a dirt track, off the road to the Kasbah. I was rewarded with a great view. The vans stopped to let passengers disembark at an overlook of the valley that contained Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, the famous caravan stop on the way to Marrakech. Tour operators always know the good spots.

View from Where the Tour Vans Stopped

Entrance to the Caravan Rest Stop

Inside Ait Benhaddou Kasbah

Street Scene in the Jewish Quarter

Ait Benhaddou Kasbah was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and featured traditional Moroccan earthen clay architecture. Climbing up and throughout the village-on-a-hill was fun and offered some good views too. I was pestered by touts from the moment I parked my bike in the modern village beside the World Heritage Site. Attempts at legal controls of the practice; hard working local people despised targeted begging as much as tourists did, had met limited success. A reflective vest wearing gentleman got up from his chair and flagged me down as I was riding out of the parking area. I asked several times in French but he refused to be specific about the price for parking. He simply extended his palm and said in English, “parking, money.” He too complained, looking for more after I tipped him.

Tifoultoute Kasbah Ruins

The next stop was a few kilometers west of Ouarzazate, the Tifoultoute Kasbah. Like the Taourirt Kasbah, the Tifoultoute had been lived in by a wealthy family until recently but had not been maintained. It also was used as a set in Game of Thrones. A late lunch in town let me bump into a French couple I had met on the Algeceris/Tanger Med. ferry.

I rode to the south end of R9 the next day, to a village called Mhamid near the mined Algerian border. I was excited at the idea of seeing the Sahara Desert open up before me once I got past the final foothills of the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Instead, I was greeted by a dirty brown and white curtain that blocked all vision on the right side of the plain. As I drew closer to the left edge of the curtain, the wind became stronger and stronger. Sand blew across the road like drifting snow. An oncoming vehicle threw up a rooster-tail of red/brown dust. I looked in my mirror and saw that my moto had sprouted a brown tail too. Fine raindrops joined sand particles, picking at my helmet visor.

Trying to Outrun a Sandstorm

Arriving after the Storm

By chance, the R9 skirted the edge of the sandstorm, turning away from it at just the right time. I arrived at Camping Hamada du Draa, just south of Mhamid, happy that my motorcycle’s air filter had escaped a good clogging. The air inside the campground walls was still heavy with fine dust. I spoke with a French snowbird couple who told of strong wind and sand so thick they couldn’t see the end of their camper. My nasal passages began to burn from the dust.

Dusty conditions persisted throughout the evening. Fine sand particles penetrated the mosquito netting of my tent, contaminating everything inside. The next morning there was a thick layer of red dust on my sleeping bag and on the exposed tent floor. My nose was quite sore. I walked throughout the village on the edge of the Sahara to research a camel trip into the desert for Isabelle and me in the future. I considered taking a short trek myself but gave up on the idea, preferring to share it with Isa and also because of my sore nose. I was happy to leave Mhamid for clearer air in the mountains the next day.

Boys at Play In Taliouine

Taliouine Street Scene

Near Taliouine

Future Mt. Rushmore?

I rode to Taliouine in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. The journey took all day. Auberge Askaoun sat on the eastern edge of town at 1200 meters elevation. The air was clear and crisp in the evening. My room cost $15 CDN and there was safe parking inside the hotel for my bike. Board cost $15 more. I stayed for three nights in the cool mountain air and my nose began to improve.

Sahara Desert on the ride North

Toward Taliouine

High Atlas

Washing the Sahara Out of Everything

On my last day in Taliouine I rode a remote loop through the mountains to the north. The desk man at the Auberge recommended the route. He promised in French, “All paved, no piste.” The winding and narrow single track road led to a Berber village named Askaoun, at 2200 meters elevation. The scenery had been unique and humbling. Switching off my engine allowed me to enjoy the views and the complete silence on the deserted road. My bike drew a flock of young boys when I stopped at a cafĂ© in remote Askaoun. 

Toward Askaoun

Entering Askaoun

Toward Tafraoute

I rode to Tafraoute on some rough secondary roads. There were some oudes (rivers) to cross during the final 70 kilometers. There were no expensive bridges on that single track, remote road.  Normally, a vehicle crossed a river on a thick concrete slab. In wet times the road was either impassable or required slow wading. The riverbeds were of course dry at that time of year but in some places, the concrete fording had been washed out and left unrepaired. One of them almost sent me tumbling.

A Real Bridge but Still Some Washing Out 

I had forgotten to disable traction control on my bike before going onto the loose surface. My rear wheel slipped as expected when I climbed a steep rock-pile ramp. Within a few thousandths of a second, traction control software cut power to the rear wheel. The bike slowed instantly and I almost fell to the left, off the piled rocks.  Instinctively and unconsciously I applied more throttle and clutch. The rear wheel found traction again and the motorcycle bucked hard. The only thing that saved me was the same BMW software that had caused the problem in the first place. This time, the bike’s computer gave anti-wheelie corrections. My front wheel sat firmly down and I was allowed to use it to regain my balance.

Tafraoute seemed more modern than many of the towns in Morocco’s south. I found a lovely apartment to use as a base camp for a few days. Grocery shopping, writing and photo editing occupied the first complete day.  The wifi was reasonable and allowed me to publish this post.

Part 43 - Situation: Stuck in Spain, Dilemma: Deadline in Dublin

Situation: Stuck in Spain, Dilemma: Deadline in Dublin All sailings for the week to Ireland, where I planned to store my motorcycle, w...