I drop down, turn west and and plough into the oued, hoping for the best, but it’s not going to happen. Soon I’m paddling madly in first, like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, engine screaming. The temp gauge reaches 134°C. Normally 100-110.
With vigorous paddling and feathering the throttle I j u s t manage to keep creeping forward. On firmer terrain the bike grabs traction and leaps ahead, then sinks at the next soft patch. The rear spins, the clutch creaks, I’m panting and my mouth is parched.
I inch towards some shade to let it all cool down. This shouldn’t be this hard – I’ve made a mistake somewhere. Those nomads upstream use old landrovers and wouldn’t camp in such a hard-to-reach place.
I set off on foot to try to find the track or recce a firm, rideable route. I’ve been lured in by a couple of car tracks – a common mistake to make when the way ahead isn’t clear. Thorny acacias and stony river banks limit options, but I work out a way to the south bank where I want to be.
Back at the bike I drop pressures to 1 bar – it can make a huge difference. I’ll need it as a 250 lacks the grunt of a 600 to hook up on soft sand.
Suddenly it’s all got a bit challenging, but if I ride short sections then rest, recover and cool the motor, I’ll make it out in a hour or two. Plus there are waterholes and even nomads if something like the fuel pump goes wrong.
Before setting off I suck down one of these gels; they were going cheap on Wiggle. I’m not usually into this stuff but it’s worth a go. The soft tyres transform the bike: traction makes faster forward progress – actual riding not paddling – and less spinning and revving and more airflow = less heat: win-win.
I climb onto the south bank and ride gingerly among the rocks on the flat tyres, working my way along the valley
I find and follow a stretch of track but it soon ends in a huge mound of flood-churned sand by a big waterhole (MW6-KM256). I set off on another foot recce to see if it gets better or worse and like they do, a nomad pops out of the scrub. Another tourist in a pickle, and he’d be right.
We do the greeting thing then I ask him “Hawza? [nearby army base]. Piste?”
He points across a spit of sand bridging the waterhole where the track once was (above; Bing image below).
That’ll do me. I check it for firmness as I already trod in some quicksand. I start the bike, reach the waterhole and shoot over, but see no track on the far bank. Sod it, I take off up the rocky hillside to cut the last bend in the oued, hoping the soft tyres don’t pinch.
Elevation is always useful when lost: from the top I see the track continuing south across the stony plain towards a pass.
Two years later I was in the same place on the Himalayan and with a 4×4. I’d made much less of a mess of the oued, but this time the gorge was a dry mass of deep sandy ruts which the bike would definitely not manage. I aired-down the rear and tried to walk and push around, but the torque of the heavy bike had the chain slipping on the front sprocket. Not a good sound. Luckily the two in the car saw me panting like a dog, came back and helped push me across. Once back on firmer sand, I took off over the stony hill, as I’d done with the WR. Alone, I suppose I’d have managed eventually, as I did on the WR. The trick is knowing when to stop and rest and drink – every couple of minutes if necessary. Don’t burn yourself out – a frazzled brain makes mistakes.
The sandy gorge from hell, as seen on Bing aerial.
Gnarly episode over, I air up with my trusty Cycle Pump. Generally I don’t mess around with tyre pressures too much, but that oued needed 15psi.
And very soon I reach another thing I’d forgotten about – an amazing view from the escarpment down to the chott (dry lake bed). If you have edition 2 of Morocco Overland you’ll see a picture of a 101 camper which stripped its gearbox trying to get up this steep climb.
That’s the climb from the base. Even on the WR it would be an all-or-nothing launch to get up it.
Behold the sun-baked chott. Surely, no more dramas.
On the chott. Like the famous Bolivian Salar, but without the electrics-eating salt.
Like you do, I get a bit carried away, looping some loops, but realise I need to head for some specific Dakar mounds on the south side to reach the track to the road.
Soon I’m back on the blacktop, the continuation of the restricted border road I was turned back from at Zag.
It’s another two hours to Smara. I pass a turn-off for the remote shrine of old Sheikh Sidi Ahmed Rguibi, the ancestral Yemeni forefather who led his people to this promised land, 500 years ago. The Arab Reguibat are the dominant tribe among the Saharawi nomads of Western Sahara.
Smara: road’s end at the Polisario front line, but looking quite prosperous for a garrison town. I roll up and down the high street and spot a few rough-looking joints.
I brace myself and pick the ‘Golden Sands’. The bloke in the office picking his nose is a bit bemused to see a sweaty Nasrani (‘Nazarene’ or Christian; ie: foreigner). Nevertheless he leads me to a windowless cell resembling a deleted scene from Homeland: a heavily soiled mattress and a dim bulb hanging on bare wires. Oh well, I’ve lodged as bad in Pakistan and elsewhere, and it’s only one night and three quid.
I’m just unpacking when the boss rocks up.
‘Come on mate, you can’t sleep here. Look at it, it’s shit!. Let us take you to a nicer place over the road. They got showers and everythink.’
Over the road feels a bit odd. My room has walls lacquered in ripe pig’s blood sprinkled with sequins, plus a matching satin duvet. And out in the corridor a highly scented lady gives the place the ambience of a knocking shop. Not sure this is what the g-friend had in mind when I told her I was off for some WR-ing about in Morocco.
I go for a wander and see a sign for Tfariti on the other side of the Berm, in the Polisario Free Zone. The Dakar Rally used to cross here to get to nearby Mauritania, but I always wondered how that was negotiated. Since the actual fighting ended, Morocco has pursued a full-time propaganda war against the Polisario, with all sorts of fake websites making out they’re pork-eating, drug-taking smugglers and terrorists.
As always in these towns, I have trouble recognising a place to eat. Cafes packed with blokes watching football while twiddling their smartphones over a fag are everywhere, but they only serve tea or coffee.
People stare at me: ‘how did he get here?’
I try a couple of places – “sorry mate, we repair typewriters” – then stumble into this place, rough as a granite toothbrush.
‘Got anything to eat?’
‘Sure, take a seat.’
My brochette arrives. One thing I like about these basic places is the total lack of pretension, a genuine welcome plus the food is cooked right in front of you so you know what you’re getting – not yesterday’s warm-overs.
Ok, so there’s no fork to pull the brochettes off the skewer. He sees me struggling, comes over and just grabs the meat with his fist and pulls them off the skewers. That’ll work!
Smara by night.
Meanwhile a spy informs me my publisher was spotted at the London Book Fair, spreading the word.
Part 6 > > >