Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Part of the Sahara A to Z series
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 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 past 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.
A few photos from the one-week February 2020 tours, showing the new first-day route over the High Atlas, off-road.
Next tours in November.
Part of an Sahara A to Z series
‘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).
I 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.
A 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.
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.
High Atlas village
Another new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.
One of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.
Above the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.
An isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.
Checking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.
1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.
Another photogenic village somewhere.
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
Sunset at the casbah.
Always room for a whaffer thin slice of cake.
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.
How 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.
In 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.
For 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.
The N9 is the main highway crossing the High Atlas between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, topping out about halfway at the 2260-m Tizi n Tichka pass where a superb range of clay souvenirs and vibrantly coloured ‘gems’ are permanently on display. Being the main road, traffic can be relatively heavy and slow, and the hundreds of bends make cycling a bit stressful and overtaking tricky in a vehicle, especially when climbing or away from the recently widened ‘race track’ which uncoils a few kilometres north of Tichka (below). But even on this recently improved section, landslides and subsidence are already taking their toll.
Short of the usual floods and storm damage, both the diversions outlined below are doable in a regular 2WD rental car, on big motorcycles as well as sturdy bicycles.
On the warmer, south side of Tichka, the alternative route (right) via Telouet was well known, even before it became largely sealed a few years ago. It starts just 4km south of the Tichka col, where the final roadworks on the P1506 are nearing completion on the 20km to Telouet with its famous Glaoui kasbah.
From here the P1506 soon drops off a plateau to follow a long, oasis-lined ravine (below) all the way down to the Aït Benhaddou tourist trap, rejoining the N9 10km later at Tazentout, 23km west of Ouarzazate.
On the north side of Tichka, road widening disruption has currently spread down the valley over 17km north of Tadart, the first village below the col. But once you get to Zerkten village, signed and 33km below Tichka by a red and white telecom mast, there’s an easily missed side road to the west. See map above.
As pictured below, it leads steeply 6km up to a 1750-m col to an impressive view 60km southwest to the 4167-m mass of Jebel Toubkal. It’s one of the few points on a sealed road that gives a full view of North Africa’s highest mountain (picture, top of page).
From here the road drops down through apple orchards recalling the Aït Boumengueze valley further east, below the Mgoun massif (MH18. MH19).
It levels out along the Oued Zat at the town of Tighoudine in the Oued Zat valley where, in late November, you’ll detect the strong aroma of olive oil being produced in roadside presses (right).
The side route rejoins the N9 after 35km, just before a green Winxo fuel station on the north side of the road, 46km from Marrakech.
Part of the Sahara A to Z series
High up on the side of a remote High Atlas valley is an engineering marvel – hewn through the cliff face a spiral tunnel manages to curl down through the rock and emerge underneath itself.
I was told about this curiosity in 2012 by the chap at the cozy Chez Moha auberge (right) in Aït Youb while researching the second edition of Morocco Overland. Riding a BMW F650GS, I followed his directions with the usual route-finding issues and then, beyond the last village, hacked up a stony disused track to the 2250-m (7340′) Tagountsa Pass. From the cliff edge I recall the timeless view stretching east up the Plain d’Amane valley towards Rich, pictured below and on p128 in the current book. A short distance later I spun through the tunnel and rolled down a series of switchbacks back to the valley floor and a tasty tajine back at the auberge.
Spiral tunnels have been a long-established solution to constricted route building challenges across mountains. You could even say that your typical complex freeway intersection where the road winds back under itself to change direction tightly is the same thing in flyover form. But you must admit that hacking out any type of tunnel – let alone one where there’s no room to dig out a regular switchback – is an impressive task.
Not for the first time on this website, I’m able to benefit from research of Yves Rohmer (right) on his always fascinating collection of old Saharan curiosities at Saharayro, including the Tagountsa tunnel. Viewed on Google Earth, the big picture is more vividly rendered setting View > Historical Imagery back a few years.
Even then it’s hard to visualise what’s happening until you look at the old plan, right. You can see the anticlockwise descent of the bore and just work out that it starts with a short separate concrete bridge over the lower mouth of the tunnel. The daylight streaming down the gap can be seen in the image repeated on the left (and as a slim shadow in the round inset, above)
Built in 1933 over a period of just three months by some 3000 labourers from local and French regiments, few realise that at this time the French were still fighting to subdue renegade Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco.
As you can see on Yves pages, the engineers, sapeurs and legionnaires passed their spare time commemorating their achievement by engraving regimental emblems in and around the structure. I was told the motivation for all this effort was to enable a secure, high transit of the valley, so avoiding protracted Berber ambushes at the narrow Imiter Gorge (left; ~KM70) with it’s Mesa Verde-like dwellings.
The same crew probably built the better known 62-metre Tunnel de Legionnaires five years earlier at Foum Zabel now on the main N13 highway north of Errachidia. A plaque there boldly states:
“The mountain barred the way.
Nonetheless the order was given to pass…
The Legion executed it.”
The Tagountsa tunnel the Legion helped build is at KM102 on Route MH13 in the book, though if you reverse the route it’s only a 10-km off-road drive off the Rich road just east of Amellago, turning north onto the dirt at KM113. Depending on storm damage, an ordinary car or a big bike should manage it, but note that you’ll be negotiating all those hairpins on the Google image above. From the west side (as Route MH13 describes the loop) it was a rougher and slightly more complicated ride on the BMW up to the pass.
Perhaps because trains can’t negotiate hairpins or climb very steep grades, it seems that spiral or helicoidal tunnels have been a much more common feature on mountain railways than roads, particularly in the Rockies.
Norway’s Drammen Spiral (left), some 50km southwest of Oslo is a notable example, dug we’re told, as an alternative to disfiguring effects of open quarrying on the landscape back in the 1950s while at the same time producing a revenue-producing tourist attraction in the process.
Talat n Yacoub (Ijoukak) > Ouneine basin > Ouaougdimt valley > Aoulouz • 88km
April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado
Updated April 2019; Enfield Himalayan
Updated February 2020; BMW Sertao
Another High Atlas crossing to try alongside MH19 (also an online addition to the guidebook). This one only rises to 2200m, initially steeply climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak (below right). Initially, you may find the looser parts of this climb a struggle in a 2WD or on a heavy bike. It’s probable that local 2WD vans only do it northbound to Ijoukak.
From the pass the incline abates and the track smoothes out as it rolls down towards the villages of the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose extension eastwards to Igli (Iguidi) on MH6 is now sealed (above).
You carry on SW along the P1735, and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join the MH6 road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road.
If you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the ever-bendy P1735 to Sidi Ouaziz on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.
Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google, Olaf and the OSM digitals.
The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune pass from KM11 is a little steep and loose and about as hard as it gets, but we saw local 125s two-up and minivans, albeit heading the other way (ie: descending). From the pass, the gradient eases off while you’ll find the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by your freewheeling reward and no more steep grades.
Easy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download the MH20kml file.
Half a day will do you.
0km (88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak.
3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass a nice-looking auberge.
11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins.
19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point. The track now eases off as it descends. (Photo, bottom of the page.)
23 (65) Fork with sign (photo below: ‘Map Junction’). East at this fork is a rough track which in 9km joins the new road to Igli as mentioned above. Keep right (south) to continue descending to the villages in the Ouneine basin visible to the west. Eventually, at a junction around KM35 you join the new extension of the P1735 which goes E towards Igli over a 2500-m terrace. This is a spectacular road (left).
Meanwhile, the P1735 crosses the Ouneine basin SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.
54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. The tarmac carries on 22km to Sidi Ouaziz (fuel) on the N10 but you turn sharp left, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is initially a bit eroded and loose as it climbs to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.
78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir.
83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.
88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.
Trans Atlas: MH21
Ijoukak > Igli > Askaoun > Taliouine • 170km
April 2019; Enfield Himalayan
Updated February 2020; BMW Sertao
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23, a rough but Transit-able track goes east 9km to join the new Igli road; see map right. The new road soon rises to over 2550m or 8300 feet and is now all sealed and descends spectacularly down to Igli (Iguidi; KM70) on MH6.
From here carry on south. Above the reservoir, I don’t think the 5-km short cut as shown on Google (right) exists. There is a river bed to cross, which may be possible. So carry on with the red arrows for a couple of clicks, cross the river below the dam wall and head up to Askaoun (KM120) then down to Taliouine.
Total 170KM, fuel to fuel.
We did this in February 2020 twice with a lunch in Iguidi. A great ride with a dizzying number of bends in one day.