Bikepacking Morocco: Dipping My Knards In The Sahara
A three day cycling route, cut to two, through the Sahara, includes sand, camels, a dust storm and eight flat tires.
On a primitive rocky track with a long rocky ridge to my left and boundless desert straight ahead, I focused on finding lines to minimize the jarring effects of embedded stones and corrugation. Fortunately the terrain continuously evolved and offered stretches of smooth piste to break up the monotonous beating. Eventually we stumbled on a nice ribbon of single track carved out by camels and the occasional motorcycle.. The smooth and serpentine gash through the mars rock surface allowed thoughts to wander and contemplation of the people who have trudged these routes for centuries.
The desert culture is mesmerizing in these parts, albeit somewhat exaggerated in the more touristic areas. In several auberges (guesthouses), there are patterned woven wool nomad tents set up in the courtyard for sipping mint tea or leasing for the night, if you are interested in experiencing the ‘true’ nomad life. I get enough time in a tent, so if I opted for a guesthouse, it was time for a bed. We often asked locals if they knew a place to camp. This generally required hand signals to illustrate an ‘A’, for tent, then the universal gesture for sleep, tilting the head sideways and resting it on the hands, palms together. That usually resulted in someone laughingly stating, “Like nomad!?” We may have been moving from place to place with a tent, but, by measure of extremity, we were no comparison to the Berber and Touareg people. These people call the Sahara and Sahel their home and roam the desert, practicing the ancient herding traditions, living and dying by their camel. They are a people who know how to navigate a seemingly endless ocean of rock and sand, only by stars, the sight of insects, and cryptic landmarks. They must be at peace with the presence of nothing, in harmony with the risk that a well 100 kilometers away may be dry, comfortable within a silence which I find overwhelming, and unnerving at times. They have no documents, no address, no place to call home.
We decided to take this route after asking countless locals and hedging our bets with a mountain bike guide, who said, “… well it’s probably doable, but very adventurous.” A dust storm generated by the powerful siroccos and 8 flat tires would indeed add to the adventure that lay before us. The long trek east from Foums Guid, through sandy washes and vast rock gardens, lead us into the flats of the salt lake, Iriki. A dust storm generated by the powerful siroccos begins to diffuse the sun and the light became palpable. Several times we lost the track, of which were are multiple derivations. Then I saw it, maybe. A melding of swirling sand and heat created a mirage. The wind picked up and something stirred several kilometers ahead. We shift our wheels northeast where a stiff tailwind blew us across the flats, led only by the occasional cairn. We found a small village in the hills below the escarpment. There we were able to access water and camp for the night.
The storm picked up even more and dust infiltrated clothing, hair, teeth, eyes, everything. We asked a young man where we could sleep for the night, preferably in some semblance of a solid shelter, not our permeable tent. He offered to lead us to an empty auberge, 4 kilometers south, so we followed. The sweeping winds blew sand across the flats. Visibility deteriorated to a few meters as we pedaled after his puttering moped. It was a flat, scaly place and the crunch of the crust is obscured by the blinding gusts of wind. Gin had another flat tire, and we lost him. Luckily my GPS was still working, so we continued in a bolt straight trajectory after adding some air to her tire. A few minutes later, the ghastly shape of a square mud brick wall appeared only a couple meters in front of us. The building, like most in this region, wass made up of a square courtyard surrounded by rooms that create the periphery of the home. He showed us the dusty corner room where we could camp on the floor, then he left us, in the middle of nowhere, in a dust storm.
We woke the following morning with the wind still howling, although the sun was slightly visible. We weren’t sure what to do. There was no one here to tell us if the storm will get better, or worse. What if we leave and it blows up into something that is truly treacherous? There isn’t another village for 100 extremely difficult kilometers. We finally worked up the nerve to abandon ship after flagging a passing truck that I heard in the distance. The driver told us that there was another building in forty kilometers, with a well. We could make it there.
The wind persisted, and then the nonstop barrage of flat tires began. Gin had 4 more flat tires, and I suddenly get 2, back to back. We ran out of patches and Gin is left tubeless, and not in the good way. It was maddening, 8 flats in 24 hours. Luckily, within minutes we spotted the first and only vehicle we had seen on this northerly track… the track that we had clamored for in a desperate attempt to escape the deep sand that was swallowing our tires on the more southerly route. We flagged down the modified Landrover to find 2 Frenchmen, Jean Pierre and Michele, who generously offered to take us to safety. There wasn’t room for both of us in their truck, so we agreed that they will strap Gin’s bike to the roof and carry her to the oasis twenty kilometers down the “road”. I would pedal on and meet them there. To make a long story shorter, our route was further dismantled when we found the oasis no longer contained an auberge (or, as far as we could see, any resources). Jean Pierre and Michele generously reorganized and made additional room for us in their truck, strapped our bikes to the top, and drove to the small town located in 40 kilometers east. The wind was still sandblasting everything, and the French gentlemen informed us that they are going to stay at a hotel, “Would you like us to take you to the campground?” “No,” we quickly said in unison, “we’ll just follow you.”