‘A’ if for Atlantic Highway

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series.
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.

See also: Western Sahara

Recently I rode Morocco’s 2300-kilometre Atlantic Highway nearly all the way to the southern border and nearly all the way back. I last came this way in 2006 heading for our Empty Quarter crossing. I knew it then, I know it now: scenically, mile for mile, the Atlantic Highway is pretty dull by Saharan standards – a drab limestone plain where, encounters aside, sea-cliff viewpoints and a few barchan dunes are as good as it gets. If you’re on a mission to get to Mauritania – as I was on this occasion – here’s what I found.

Up north, use the autoroutes to dodge the N1 and speed traps

It’s a long way so coming from the northern ports, I recommend sitting on the A1 and A7 motorways all the way to Agadir where the A7 ends, even though you pay tolls (about £30 for a moto/car). South of here traffic gets thinner and thinner. The alternative coastal N1 trunk road is slower, less safe and is commonly staked out by cops with radar guns, especially around Essaouira and Agadir.
Otherwise, there are any number of great ways of exploring inland Morocco, across the Atlas mountains and all the way east and south to the Desert Highway along the Algerian border.

The speed cops are creeping south

Even though I was hyper-aware of the risk of radar cops, I still got caught leaving Tan Tan doing 80 in a 60. That would have been 300d but however I handled it, I handled it well and he let me off. All the way to Layounne and Dakhla, be wary of lurking speed cops as you approach or leave settlements and even out in the desert. Crossing solid white lines is another favourite and easily done when stuck behind a soot-spewing lorry crawling up an incline,

Western Sahara checkpoints and fiches

As ‘Western Sahara’ is a a military zone, checkpoints increase south of Tan Tan, and unlike up north, they don’t just wave foreigners through but want your passport details. Handing over a pre-printed ‘fiche‘ (French for ‘form’ – below) helps speed up the process. With one, they can log you in once you’ve gone.
It seems they’re less needed these days; I got through only about six on the way down – the last one at Dakhla Junction. Some checkpoints will insist on seeing your passport anyway; others just want a chat.

On the Ni, subsidised fuel begins 92km south of Tan Tan

Along with a few other key commodities, fuel is subsidised by about 30% in Moroccan Western Sahara. The first discounted fuel station is just after you climb out of an inlet and causeway, right by a checkpoint.

Fish & Chips at Afknenir

Pull in for a poisson-frites in Afkhenir, 20 kms from the checkpoint above. For some reason streetside fish restos here are like casinos on the Nevada border. You may think there’ll be loads more down the coastal highway, but there aren’t.
Perhaps the upwelling of nutrients from the cold Canary Current which gets funnelled by the Canaries themselves is more evident on this near-north-facing section of coast before Cape Juby. Or maybe local demand supports the informal shore-casting fishing economy. You’ll see loads of scooterists with rods as well as the crude clifftop shelters where they live.

They’re rebuilding the road

South of Guelmim a new, wider road is being built in stages, sometimes alongside the old one – certainly as far as Layounne. Around the dunes of the windy Khnifiss lagoon past Tan Tan, the roadwork embankments see sand cover the two-lane road – not a good place to meet an oncoming truck while checking your likes.

It’s very windy – day and night

They say March is especially bad, but south of Guelmim where the desert sets in, it’s windy day and night. Normally in the Sahara the wind stops at dusk but In late February a huge Saharan sandstorm (below) made the news when holidaymakers on the Canaries were stranded. On the coast fog (right) is also present, certainly between Guelmim and Tarfaya.
The flat landscape can’t help, plus the whole 3000-mile width of the Sahara has been steadily heated by the rising sun before it reaches the Atlantic. On the move it’s OK but camping would be pretty miserable.

Within a kilometre of the coast the northerly sea breeze can also blow up to 10°C cooler than an easterly from the dry interior just a mile or two inland. But generally, the wind is behind you; on a pushbike (I saw a few), that’s important.
But all this wind is good for the economy: Dakhla has long been a kiters’ resort (below) and there’s a huge installation of wind turbines south of Tarfaya, helping keep the lights on in Laayoune.

The monument at Tah

On the N1 for Laayoune you’ll pass through nondescript Tah with no fuel and barely a cafe and shop to rub together. In the middle of town is a granite monument covered in Arabic inscriptions. It marks the spot where, in November 1975, some 350,000 Moroccan civilians symbolically marched over the then border into Spanish Sahara.

This was the Green March (above left) three co-ordinated and tactical mass demos mobilised by the wily King Hassan in response to rumours of Spain considering handing over its marginal colony to the indigenous Saharawi and Polisario Front. The marches led to the 16-year Western Sahara War which Morocco effectively won by annexing most of the territory (above, right). It’s why the UN still hang out in Western Sahara and why masses of unmapped landmines are still a menace.
Otherwise, not much appears to have happened in Tah since that glorious November day.

Laayoune

Laayoune is the provincial capital and biggest settlement in WS by far, with a prosperous frontier-town vibe to it. At least from what I percieved; the Saharawi shantytowns may not be so rosy and civil disturbances are not uncommon. Riot police lurk on standby in the town centre (below). The UN’s MINURSO mission is based here.
Passing through the city, the transit is not an obvious single main road. Without a satnav, follow signs for the airport, or take the Laayoune bypass (see below).

The Laayoune bypass

At Tarfaya (former Cap Juby) you can turn into the town, head for the shore ath-laybypast the St Exupery museum, his monument, and the 19th-C curiosity of Mackenzie’s Factory). Following the coastal road 90km to Foum El Oued (‘river mouth’) brings you back to the N1 just south of Laayoune city.
It would be nice to report this is a quiet byway passing tranquil beaches, but the wind is ever-present and trucks use this narrow road to avoid Laayoune. Dunes also get bulldozed off the road, especially south where the road gets narrower. I suppose it might be cooler than the inland route and the beached Armas ferry is a site to behold. There’s more here.

The longest fuel range is 162km but may be 250km

This is between Tchika (Imlili) near some big white barchans on the north edge of the Gulf of Cintra and: Bir Gandouz, the last town, 80km from the border. There is nothing at all along this section except the howling wind. However, the Tchika station and the two similarly grubby Atlas Sahara stations to the north near El Agroub (see map right) may be empty.
Stations may get upgraded, but for the moment this means from Dakhla Junction roundabout (two fuel stations) to Bir Gandouz is 252km (via the Tropic of Cancer). I covered that distance northbound and into the wind and go in with a pint left in the tank.

Is Dakhla worth the 90-km round trip?

No so sure, but then I took the cheap hotel thing a bit far in the old town. Next time it might be more fun to check out the kiters’ resorts at the head of the lagoon.
On the other hand, up north, Boujdour was a fun stop for an evening wander.

Plan a break at the Hotel Barbas in Bir Gandouz

Maybe it was just me on the day, but the Hotel Barbas was an oasis in a duststorm. And once inside shimmered into a veritable mirage. We stayed here in 1997 but the place has been transformed to the point of incongruity. They built a two–storey U-shaped bank of rooms around a planted courtyard but then, ingeniously, draped the entire thing in a huge shade-net. Result: a large, cool space where courteous waistcoated waiters flit about at your service. Rooms are good, prices are normal, food is good too and so is the wi-fi. Tourist, traveller or trader, some of the characters that roll through add to the place’s edgy ambience. The south end of Morocco, not the north coast, marks the true border with Africa.
Bir G is an easy day from Boujdour which itself is an easy day from Tan Tan. An early start and you’ll be at the border with RIM within an hour.

What is ‘La Gouira’ you see on the road signs?

The ‘Lagouira’ you’ll see listed on some old Atlantic Highway road signs indicates the short-lived Spanish base at La Agüera on the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula opposite today’s Nouadhibou. See map inset below. Effectively it indicates the distance to Nouadhibou which is not always listed.
Abandoned at the turn of this century, today it’s a collection of ruins which are actually in the Polisario Free Zone, a No-Man’s-like band of territory which separates Morocco from Mauritania. Some have managed, but the Mauritanians won’t allow casual visits from the Nouadhibou side.

For Mauritania, see here.

 

‘I’ is for IGN: How they made their Sahara Maps

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series.
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.
See also:
Old Saharan Trade Routes Map
‘V’ is for Vintage Sahara Maps
Sahara – blanks on the map
Maps of the Sahara

Here a fascinating 1960s vintage film (45mins; French) on the work it took IGN to produce their brilliant 1:200,000 scale Sahara maps from thousands of aerial photos, sonar readings and laborious ground surveys.
Loads more in Yves R’s Sahara website and some stills below.

Y is for: Land Yachting, Sahara, 1967

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series.
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set.
See also: 2WD trans-Saharan bicycle

Organised by French ex-army Saharienne, Jean de Boucher, in February 1967 twelve land yachts with pilots from half-a-dozen countries set off on a 2500-km rally from Colomb Bechar (then linked by rail from Oujda on the Mediterranean) to Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast, at times following today’s recently reopened Old Colonial Route via Tindouf. It seems the race element of the rally was abandoned after some 2000km in Zouerate following several DNFs, but some carried on down the coast, cutting across what was then Spanish Sahara (‘PFZ’), on to the beach at Nouamghar and down the beach to Nouakchott. At this time most of Mauritania’s population still lived in the desert as nomads. The rally was supported by a couple Land-Rovers, small planes and surviving French military garrisons with which General de Boucher presumably had good connections.

NG-sailsahara-cover

NG-sailsaharaDPSThe adventure featured in the November 1967 issue of National Geographic magazine (left, right, below). A couple of images are used here; read the full 30-page article scanned on the Extreme Kites website.
There are more reminiscences here by American competitor, Larry P featured on the magazine’s cover.

NG-sailsahara-map

Thanks to Dutch participant, Copijn Bruine Beuk for turning me on to this little-known story and sharing his own pictures of the event (below). Besides hundreds of punctures, as the article recalls, early on Copijn had a close shave with an overhead electricity wire – luckily it wasn’t live. The same happened to a few others who ended up with snapped masts.
cbb-yachtOnce it gets going, a land yacht can hit 60mph or more, but back then brakes added up to little more than a hinged footboard you pressed into the dirt (left), like pressing your feet on the ground to slow an out-of-control pushbike. So you can see why half the field DNF’d. Other hazards included side gusts blowing a land yacht over – February-March were chosen as the time of the strongest northeasterlies.
Note also the twin steering wheels: one to steer the front wheel and the other to adjust the sail’s trim: pressing on the footbrake for all your worth, that’s quite a lot to think about when hurtling towards a steep oued bank or into a small dune field.
Makes desert biking look positively benign!

N is for: Not Riding to Taghia

Part of an occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set

alex-free-solo‘Free Solo’ is a documentary covering Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling, rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, California in 2017 (left). If you’ve seen it you may recall that, among other places, Honnold practised on a hidden cirque of cliffs surrounding the scattered hamlet of Taghia, buried about as deep in Morocco’s High Atlas as you can get. A couple of rudimentary gites cater for visitors but, even among Moroccan know-alls, unless you’re a rock climber you’ll have never heard of Taghia. The only way in is a four-mile mule trek through a canyon from the valley head at the equally obscure outpost of Zuweiat Ahansal, an hour or two’s ride south of Rocher de Mastfrane, better known as the ’Cathedral’ (below).

cathedral.jpg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI rocked up at Zuweiat one lunchtime just as a group of young American climbers were spilling out of a taxi, and continued over the bridge to the edge of the old town. I pulled over for a snack and, unsure of the way and not wanting to blunder on, asked a passing local whether it was possible to ride a bike to Taghia and if yes, which way?

‘Oh no’ said the old man. ‘You can only get there on foot.’

I finished my snack and thought it over. Back by the bridge, I sought a second opinion from some more worldly looking dudes hanging out outside the post office. They were eyeing up the new, North Face-clad arrivals and one spoke good English.

‘Yes, I saw you pass and was going to say, you can’t ride your moto to Taghia.’

It turned out he’d worked on the Honnold doc as well as other National Geographic features and, reading his manner with my finely tuned bullshit detector (which they now hand out free at the border), it didn’t sound like the usual bragging. After that, he switched seamlessly into sales mode, offering lodgings and guides.

‘Maybe next time’, I said. I genuinely did hope to visit the mysterious valley, but the weather forecast was a bit shaky for the next couple of days. I wanted to get out of the mountains, not stuck in them.

zuhanaA year or two earlier a bike-riding climber who’d visited Taghia suggested to me that a small bike (like my Himalayan) could probably reach the cirque following the riverside mule path.

While that may be true, I figured just because I could, did I have to – or even, should I? The local guide may merely have been protecting his mule-trekking services, but I like the idea of leaving some of the world’s wild corners unspoiled by the putter of mechanized transport. As I was about to be reminded, there’s plenty to see in Morocco on a bike or in a 4×4, but there are many places in the world which are best reached by less intrusive human-powered transportation. That’s what makes them special.

A Good Day in Morocco

Set off with a mission to join some dots for my spring tour in a couple of weeks.
Mission accomplished. Dots joined.
More about the bike here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHigh Atlas village

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbove the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChecking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother photogenic village somewhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Resting outside a village north of Sidi Ouazik, a relocated Reguibat (Saharawi) ends up giving me some meteorites from the Hammada du Tindouf (St Expert mentioned these in WS).
Never knew Saharawi were relocated way up here – 45 families, he said.
I tell him I’m on my way to Reguibat country. About 5 days ride from here to #thedigtree

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunset at the casbah.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlways room for a whaffer thin slice of cake.

How to be safe in Morocco

Like most people, I am shocked by the brutal murders of the two Scandinavian women camping in the High Atlas this week. Sadly it is another attack being attributed to young men seeking to show solidarity with violent Islamist causes.
One assumes the two women were stalked by the perpetrators from Marrakech, and so the attack might as well have happened anywhere once an opportunity presented itself.
Morocco has been largely free of the types of the attacks which have become commonplace in western Europe in recent years, and yet tourists who’ve long been targets elsewhere in North Africa and the Sahara, are thick on the ground in all the usual places because they feel safe. The last reported terrorist attacks were a bomb targeting tourists in Marrakech in April 2011 and a bigger wave of bombings in Casablanca way back in 2003, mostly aimed at Jewish interests. Unlike the rest of the Sahara, to date no tourist has ever been kidnapped in Morocco.

firstimeHow to be safe in Morocco
As a tourist, maintaining your safety in Moroccan cities is no different to any other unfamiliar place. Hustlers are common in certain areas; traffic appears chaotic and driving erratic; pickpockets exist, cheap hotels may feel insecure and mountain roads are not velvet-smooth Alpine super highways. All these have long been far greater threats to visitors in Morocco than Islamist violence.
Being a Muslim country does give Morocco an edge to those unfamiliar with Islamic culture, particularly women, but the Islam practised here is a lot milder than that found in Saudi or Iran. Read the blue box, left, extracted from by Morocco guidebook published in 2017. Also read the sensible guidelines given on the British FCO website, to give one example. They spell out all how to avoid or be aware of the most common risks.

toubkaIn a crime sense, the popular hiking area below Mt Toubkal (right) where the women were murdered is not dangerous compared to a big Moroccan city. It is probably its popularity and proximity to Marrakech which made it an easy, adventurous destination.
Occasional unnerving but actually harmless encounters over the years have long led me to advise the following: when wild camping, do so unseen and completely out of sight if possible, and if not then camp close to or in a settlement. This way either everyone knows you’re there or no one does. I give similar advice in both my global overlanding books and act like this anywhere in the world, just for peace of mind.
In Morocco many have found undisturbed wild camping can be quite hard to achieve. Even in the desert, travellers commonly report someone popping up out of nowhere, usually a curious nomad or villager, or sometimes police checking up on you. It should be understood that in North Africa and the Sahara, camping alone in the middle of nowhere away from other people is regarded by locals as suspicious or odd.
m17-P1210574For us Euro-tourists camping has long been regarded as a money-saving adventure, but because hotels and auberges can be so numerous and inexpensive in southern Morocco (from <€10), I’ve long preferred the comfort and security they offer to all the clobber and faffing required with camping, especially if not travelling in a spacious car, or when travelling in the cool season when mountain nights get chilly and drag on for 12 hours. In a cozy auberge you get to meet local people or fellow travellers, eat well, rest properly and recharge your gadgets.

Another practise desert travellers like me have adopted since the deep Sahara became FUBAR’d, is not to share detailed travel plans with strangers or online, especially on publicly readable social media. I don’t do Facebook or Whatsapp, but by all means keep friends and family in a closed group appraised of your movements. In Morocco the reach of the mobile network is far greater than you’d expect, not least in remote rural areas where locals depends on it. A local SIM card costs from €2 which includes €2 of credit. You may need the vendor’s help in setting it up.

No one could have anticipated the appalling murders in the High Atlas any more than crossing a bridge in London, backpacking in New Zealand, visiting a market in Strasburg, attending a Baltic island retreat or a school or place of worship in the US. Morocco remains one of the few countries in North Africa where tourism continues to thrive despite anxieties about ‘Muslim countries’. It helps sustain the local economy, particularly in rural areas where the true level of poverty is much greater than it looks. Don’t let this tragic event unsettle your plans to visit a wonderful country, any more than any of the other places listed above.

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