IMG_5076       Our last days in Mirleft with our traveling companions of musicians, film makers, chefs extraordinaire and gypsy traveling heros is coming to an end. 

Mike kindly offers to take me to the Hamman before we leave. A Hamman is an old bath house where men go in the evenings and women in the day to wash themselves. You take your clothes apart from your underwear, collect water from two large tanks of water – one hot and one cold. On this occasion the hot water is cleverly heated by waste heat from the next door bakery. Mike explains to me the use of the olive soap and scrubbing cloths – the idea is to scrub as much dead skin off as it possible.

I notice a lot of the men staring at me awkwardly. Not unusual behaviour, I have been told I look strange. After some time I notice all the men are wearing black boxer shorts, how coordinated I thought, or perhaps it is lack of choice and variety in the colour of available pants. Mike obligingly demonstrates the friendly nature of back scrubbing – he does my back and I do his. It wasn’t until the next day when I wake up to hear mike recount the tale of him scrubbing my butt then standing up in my wet white boxers which have now become thoroughly see through that I realise the source of the men’s awkward expressions! Next time Ill wear black boxers.

 

Before leaving Mirleft we put on one more fire show for the people. Our helper, 70 year old Ahmed is keen to kick the lethargy out of the youth of the town, and hopes our performance might inspire some. Best explained in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQlIHgHMKTk

Sarah and I return north to pick up some Argan oil for a friend in the UK, at the same time we collect a friend, Rimbo,  from Wales who is coming out to travel with us for the rest of the trip.

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Tim in the morning after crossing the anti-atlas
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Oasis near to Tagmoute

We say good bye to the coast and make our way east and inland. IMG_5082The anti atlas rise above us and keep doing so for the next few days. We take the mountains road through Ait Baha towards Tafroute. Rimbo’s grandfather had painted there many years previously. Tafroute is a small mountain town with rocks ‘like melted toffee’ as one described it. Our journey towards Tata goes along a less travelled road via Igherm and Souk Tieta de Tagmoute. This section of the journey is typified by a never ending surprise over each horizon. Summit after summit the forthcoming topography is epic. Mountains have been twisted and contorted resulting in some incredible earth shades and pattern in the mountains. We spend the night in an oasis at the bottom of an otherwise baron mountain-scape.

From Tata to Foum-Zguid the road is pretty good –  save the odd unexpected pot hole. We pick up an old hitch hiking lady who’s only words were ‘Tissint tissint’ – A nearby town. Whatever we asked her we got the same response, accompanied by a smile so big it could have cracked her laugh crinkled face. Her eyes were like polished crystals.IMG_5114

Foum-Zqguid is the entrance to the Sahara. It is a good place to pick up last minute supplies and seek advice on the condition of the route across the desert. We change our route based on this advice. The lushness of the date palms and irrigated crops are mystifying given the contrast of dry desert we are to face.

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Quality Unearthed and trusty ‘Big Red’ through the northern Sahara

The next day we set of following vague instructions to come of the road near to a single house on its own. We do so, following a distance of 3 km  from the southern mountain range. The track is very bumpy. Plenty of rocks willing a puncture. It is slow, blisteringly hot progress. We know we are out on our own at this stage. For half a day we drive only passing one vehicle coming the other way. We stop at a well to check with a nomadic lady we are on the right track – she points us the right way – minutes later we are intercepted by a Moroccan military vehicle. Tourists are treated well here however the troubles to the south in Mali has led to an increase in military presence in this area and on the Algerian border. They wave us on fortunately.

After another 3 hours of slow driving we get our first glimpse of sand dunes. The colour of this red sand blown into forms so recognisable yet so distinct shapes. There is a loud silence about them. An early foray into driving over some baby dunes goes awry – giving rise to a healthy bout of precaution.

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Barefoot in the dunes

The tracks leading the way disappear and reappear until we find ourselves surrounded by dunes. The only way out is to go over them. Small in the big picture, but the first dune we faced, at around 4m from the ground was exhilaratingly terrifying. We knew speed was important so we hoofed it at this wall of sand. The front wheels rose skyward, all we see is blue. In a moment the wheels summit and return earth bound, all we see is the hard floor. The three of us chime expletives in unison. All four wheels on terra firma, heart beats still racing the adrenalin turns to hysteria. 3 laughing fools in a red Defender in the middle of the dunes. That laughter stayed with us for many days to come.

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That first night camp was in the shade of tree amongst soft red sand dunes. Sarah cooks, Rimbo reads and I play didgeridoo. After food we sit half in silence staring at the starry sky.IMG_5178

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A welshmans wonder. Sheep in the desert

Speaking as a Welshman, the following morning brought us a familiar treat. A small herd of wondering sheep came to visit. No shepherd insight, presumably panicking at the loss somewhere hidden behind far dunes. We fed them our vegetable scraps and they left happy – so did we.

We discover a problem with our winch that day. Not happy with progressing further into the desert without it operational we follow the direction of M’Hamid. Another day of dune driving takes us past Chegaga – the largest dune on this route. Impressive and virgin clean slopes are inviting for any barefootIMG_5266IMG_5262 explorer.  

We each take turns in driving today. All succeeding in sand driving. Rimbo manages to get us stuck as we look for an of the ‘track’ camp up. Sand ladders and careful low gear work get us out in no time. Im quite pleased we do get stuck as I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it!

Another beautiful still night in the desert.

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M’Hamid is an end of the road desert town. A genuine frontier town facing attack by encroaching desert 24 hours per day. Every man is turbaned as you would expect from the Saharene – or Saharan people. Winch fixed, we find a guy not a guide, with whom we can travel into the desert with.

Tahar is a 30 something man who has lived in France and is now re-establishing agriculture in the middle of the desert. A totally bonkers idea. Although he is no fool. The next day we follow him south towards the Algerian border towards his camp requiring 3 hours of extreme, enthralling, desert driving. We are always careful to follow other tracks so as not to drive all over the place, the land is so beautiful where ever possible we try to preserve it.

Out of the blue we spot a patch of green against the backdrop of red sand. 

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A 2 foot wall appears to be holding back the might of a 15m dune from the irrigated farmland. A pump brings water to the surface for irrigation. This is one of the last things we would have expected here. Tahar is not the first to pursue agriculture here however. In the past the Draa river was one of the most fertile in North Africa many farmed here. The story goes that when the government built a damn in the mountains, the river began to dry up, forcing many into the towns. Couple this with political unrest in the area and the remaining few left. The situation is generally much safer today.

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We spend the next few days helping around the camp, sheltering from the sun ion the mud built house that is ‘sand sheltered’. 

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Like earth sheltered homes although with sand. The Moroccan lads seem to enjoy our company, or at least the date wine we brought with us. Combining the song of didgeridoo with the song of the nomad created a night of musical fusion splendour finished with tea by the fire under the sea of stars. This, my friends, is living.


Desert driving is not easy. Getting stuck is. 

We ventured further afield from camp one day in search of the lost villages. Tahar had told us a tale of a 78 year old man who has lived alone in the desert since 1970. By coincidence or perhaps not, we spot him walking the dry river bed. Walking stick in hand, jalaba and turban wearing of course, with all of his necessaries hanging off him. I pick him up and he guides me back to his ‘house’. There are certainly no driveways around here. Our new friends house is in the shelter of a tree. His goods hang in bags from the branches and he sleeps on the desert floor. Swapping one side of the tree for the other depending on the time of day. This man’s face is desert warn. His welcome is desert warm. Without second thought we offer all food and water we have on us, without expectation he makes us tea, offers us dates and home-made bread. His access to water is by using a goat, and nomads provide him with food as they pass by. This man is one in a million.

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The last leg of our journey takes us out of the desert, along the oasis of the Draa valley, on the track to the east, only suitable for off-road vehicles.

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 Empty Kasbahs punctuate the journey. Sketchy roads whilst lost at night accentuate driving difficulty. The odd souk stops us along our route over the Anti -Atlas. A track just east of Nekob heads north towards the peak of Ikniouin. Tyre bursting terrain the road is more like granite steps than anything resembling a road. This is low ration 1st and 2nd gear terrain. Reaching the top at dusk we were pleased to see some flat ground for camping on next to a Berber man and his mothers house. The welcome is warm and heart-felt. They allow us to cook in one of the rooms. We are warm comfy and fed, sitting high above the Anti-Atlas. Our Berber host informs us that on average only a car every 3 days passes by!

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Our direction is Fez. 

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Aside from being distracted by peanut eating monkeys and sellers of fake Amethyst geodes (yep definitely had the better of me!)  we made good progress.

Fez is not an easy place to wild camp, and we don’t recommend the international campsite south of the city. However entering the old medina at Bab al Jaloub is like going back through the gates of time. Narrow streets filled with hawkers of various trinkets. There are 365 mosques in Fez so they say, so call to prayer is a magical time, try and get onto a roof top terrace to take it all in.

After the desert Fez feels far too manic for us. 

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We proceed onwards towards the blue walls of Chefchauen. Chefchauen is surely one of the prettiest towns I have ever visited. 

Nestled up on the slopes of the Rif Valley the old town is painted in varying shades of blue.

The shade indicates if a street is a dead end or not. 

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We finish our journey here with Mike and Rene, celebrating Rimbos birthday, buying carpets and hand painted sinks, whilst soaking in the mountain sun sitting at the central 

plaza.Chefchauen is well know to tourists but has a laid back air to it. I visited here 6 years ago and the 

beauty of the place is unchanged. If you need a few days to relax before returning to Europe, this is the place.

 

Morocco had one last surprise to throw at us. Customs, as I have mentioned, tend to be abrasive places for us. Getting stopped and questioned and or searched is familiar territory. However on this occasion is goes smoothly, far too smoothly. A high tech x-ray vehicle scans all motorists before boarding the ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar back to Spain. We get out of the vehicle whilst the scanning takes place. Subsequently as we wait to board our ferry I see the white van driver next to me jump out of his vehicle with a confused look on his face. Watching in my wing mirror I see him poke his head under his van, only to drag out a young Moroccan man from underneath! Some x-ray machine! The two of them tussle. Jumping out to calm the situation they look at me with confused expressions, which I’m sure were returned. We wave the young man on for him to make his way sheepishly back out of the port. Hopefully to try again another day.

 

Tarifa to Bilbao can be driven in a day it transpires. Snow greeted us in the north and the cold weather of late February in the UK the other side of the ferry. Its back to work with Quality Unearthed now, time to get things ready for the 2013 year. We try to bring our experience of travel into our approach to alternative holidays with Quality Unearthed as well as our approach to business. If you are interested in setting up an alternative accommodation structure and would like to pick our brains about what we do, then get in touch via www.qualityunearthed.co.uk,  info@qualityunearthed.co.uk or call on 01348 830 922.

 

I hope you enjoyed some of our tales. If you want any more specific information, feel free to ask and I will do my best to oblige.

Love,

Tim

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