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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Smara, Sand and Solitude

In the last post, we were at Tan Tan Plage. Relaxing while we wait for the wind to be in our favour. If you look at statistics, the wind in this region is predominantly from the north. Which, going south, would be great for us. But it never seemed to switch direction. When it died down, we decided it's time to go.

The next morning, bright and early, we pile our stuff on top of a Range Rover. Our aim is to get back to the intersection to the road to Smara. Michèle comments: Philippe had convinced the rest of us to hire a Range Rover taxi for the twenty kilometres back to the turnoff. His argument was that we had already cycled that section of road on our way to Tan Tan Plage (El Ouatia), and knew it to be busy with traffic and uninteresting views. He also said that we needed to experience the modern day equivalent of the camel. We were hesitant, but in the end he convinced us. The first twenty minutes is spent taking dirt roads to avoid the police check point at the entrance of the town. I'm guessing that our driver is not allowed to take tourists or he just doesn't want to give the police their cut. In Morocco, palm greasing seems to be as common as in Quebec.

At the cross roads, a mild confusion changes the direction of the ride back towards Tan Tan. The reason is El Mosem. This is where camel wranglers from all over the country, and neighbouring ones as well, converge for four days of camel races. Unfortunately, it doesn't start for several days. However, there are still camels to check out, as well as our own police escort. But whatever we do or wherever we go, we are always "Welcome".

Michèle comments: We were invited for tea in one of the tents. Soon after we sat down amongst the carpets, cushions and huge framed photo of the king, a police guy drove up on an ATV, parked it in front of the tent and joined us for tea. He kept the engine on his ATV running the whole time. "Batterie faible" (weak battery), was his excuse.

The festival has brought a shit load of kids out for a thrill. As we pass several of them, we receive a shower of rocks. This is the last straw. I set down my bike and explode in a sprint. Something I haven't done in years. For the last six months, my legs have been conditioned to push hard in slow moving circles. The result is total collapse. My legs completely give out and I end up falling forward onto the ground, getting all scratched up in the process. Doubly pissed off after looking like an idiot, I get up and try again. This time it's a little better. I start giving chase down a lane. One kid is carrying a younger one and running in a panic. I'm guessing they didn't expect a foreigner to start running after them. When I catch up to him, the kid is in tears with fear in his eyes. Lucky for him, I can't find it in my heart to deliver the boot in the ass I had been dreaming of. Being irate and thinking illogically, I realize that I can't even remember which ones threw the rocks in the first place. I head back to the bikes to bandage up my scratches.

Too late to start the ride to Smara, we spend one more night in Tan Tan. The hotel is dirty. I try not to touch anything except the clean sheets on my bed.

In the early morning, I can hear someone praying outside our room. The man sounds like he's having an orgasm every time he utters a prayer. A few minutes later, it's all drowned out by the sound of world music. This is how Philippe wakes us up. Today, we manage to leave early. Finally, we are ready to hit the road to Smara.

Heading south, we push against the mild head wind. It's quiet and there is no traffic. Yesterday's rock throwing incident, and my reaction to it, has left me mildly disturbed. I am glad to be in the desert where there is no one. After a few hours, we stop to check out a herd of camels.

Two guys show up and it's "Salaam Alaikum" all around. They don't speak French, English or Spanish. They get their point across that they would like one of our water bottles. You would figure that someone who's lived their whole life in the desert would at least have water with them. We give the guy a bottle and he points to one of the camels. Like a cretin tourist, I volunteer to ride it. Camels are huge and this one is not too happy to be led by its nose via a large piercing.

After a five minute ride, the camel kneels so I can step off. As I do so, it decides to stand back up. Being half way off I have no choice but to bail. The result is a hard fall right on my ass. Being a Brooks user, more ass pain is not what I need. More on that later.

Later that day we get to the one and only town of this ride, Abteh. There is nothing there except another passport control. These officers must be bored out of their skulls. But, because of the contraband gasoline being brought in from Western Sahara, the greasy palm is all worth it. Western Sahara benefits from tax exemptions on gasoline. Probably to entice Moroccans to move down there. Anyway, it doesn't concern us. After the greetings and the smiles we are on our way. Several kilometres down the road, we stop for the night for the best wild camping we've ever done. The spot is about 100 metres from the road, but it looks like no one has even been there. There isn't a speck of garbage. We are out there on our own. There are no billboards displaying what we can and can't do. No camping permit, reservations or fees. No over-motivated university student, out on a summer job, telling us we can't camp here. Just the stars, the open desert and a nasty viper bite if you're not careful. How cool is that. Words can't describe.

In the middle of the night, as I crawl out of the tent to go piss, I look up. A humungous shooting star, so thick that you can almost hear it, travels half way across the sky. It was like witnessing god arch-welding the heavens. I stop for a few seconds and make a wish. May we get back on track and travel across the planet like we planned.

In the morning, it's more world music at 6 am. It's breakfast and go. After cycling several hours, we arrive at a series of six gas stations. All of them within six kilometres. This is where the bootleg gas is coming from. And yes, there is another passport check. But before we hit that, we stop at the first station because there is a restaurant. We eat and then it's time for a nap. Because of all the garbage, there is a staggering amount of flies. This makes it hard to sleep out in the open.

Max is not his cheery self. Stomach problems. We decide that it's best to spend the night at the gas station. There are rooms at the back for the employees. One of them is vacant. Max, Michèle and I shack up in the empty room while Philippe stays with one of the employees.

In the morning it's more world music. But this time there is an extra treat. Philippe hands us each a bottle of hot water for an improvised shower. Still pitch dark, we hurry to get it done. We don't want to confuse the staff by letting them see us naked.

Michèle comments: That shower under the stars was one of my favourite moments of the ride to Smara. I called it "one point five litres of heaven". Another favourite moment was watching the sunrise from our desert wild camping spot while sipping a cup of coffee. The guys had left to scramble up the rocks for a better view. I was alone. Me, the desert, the sun, and coffee. Fabulous.

After coffee we pedal 2 kilometres to the next passport control. When we pull up to the small shelter, there's no one there to greet us. A few minutes later, an officer stumbles out, adjusting his cap and uniform. His face tells a tale of deep slumber, which we interrupted. Now the poor guy has to copy information from four passports. That's OK, looks like there is a lot of time to sleep around here.

20 kilometres farther, there's another gas station. This time there's really nothing there except one dog and a guy smoking. You can't even get gas. We don't stay very long and when we head out, I leave behind some of the contraband cigarettes we obtained in Guelmim. We were told by a merchant that we would need cigarettes to trade for food when we got to the Sahara. Normally, this would set off warning bells in my head, but this guy was very educated and spoke 5 or 6 languages. We talked with him for quite a while and he managed to get through our warning system. Conclusion, we bought a carton of cigarettes for twice what it is worth. On top of it, nobody even wants these damn cigarettes because they're crap! The final result is that Philippe started smoking again and I now crave a drink so that I can social smoke. Hence the saloon experience in Guelmim (see previous post).

It's back to the open desert. The road is really great because there is no traffic.

Around lunch time, we get to a relay station where we are greeted by army guys with nothing to do. They invite us to chill out and set up a lounge area for us. As we prepare our lunch, they tell us all they do is sleep and drink tea. At some point, one of them shows us an unexploded tank shell. Philippe looks nervous. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed. This tank shell is a reminder that we are in a politically unstable area. The guy reassures us that it's not active. A little uneasy, I ask him if the area is mined. Apparently, Western Sahara has a large number of unexploded mines. Don't want to step on one of those while I run to the desert with urgent bowel problems. Again, he reassures me that there is none in this area.

Michèle comments: This experience stands out for me as one encounter in Morocco when we didn't feel like someone wanted something from us. The military guys were generous without a condition attached. They even gave us gifts for the road: onions, carrots, cans of sardines, and a steel drinking mug.

After trying to nap with the flies again, it's back to the road. We pass through some amazing desert scenery which many people would call boring. Flat sand fields as far as the eye can see. The emptiness is euphoric. Off in the distance, the horizon blends with mirages, giving a sensation that there is a sheer drop off. The horizon no longer looks straight. You get the illusion that it is coming and going just like a wave in the ocean. With a tail wind, we fly down the endless straight away. The dashed lines on the road looking like a giant ticker tape.

At the end of the day, 102 kilometres later, it's another routine passport control. Half an hour after that, we arrive in Smara having done some of the best cycling I've even experienced. From the solitude and emptiness, we fall back into our freak show persona. Being a non touristic town, we get the usual annoyances which I've complained enough about.

Smara is where the fellowship broke. Philippe announces that he will be taking the bus to rejoin his family in Senegal. Max will be staying one more day. Then, he will cycle back to Guelmim and head west. This was really a treat for us. The first time we've cycled with other people during this trip. There was a real feeling of team work. Now, we are back on our own. Both functioning as one unit, we already feel the solitude. Michèle comments: The fellowship broke and with it some of our spirit. We'll miss you, Philippe and Max!

To be continued...


  1. dis donc Benoit tu deviens un poete ! chouette post !


  2. C'est magnifique de vous lire et de regarder vos photos.
    Daria qui vous suit (rentrée à Mtl d'Australie)

  3. Salut Seb.
    Hey oui. Quand on est dans le désert on a toujours un petit prince à nos côtés. Ou, on chante une chanson nul à chier des années quatrevingt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mkzw7Wop9pU

  4. wow quelle chanson...!!! je connaissais pas, je suis trop jeune ! :-)