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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by anydavenow, Oct 20, 2018.
From Bear Grylls to McGyver in a single morning, gotta love that
Well done mate!
I'm comfortable playing many roles badly!
Looking forward to the 500 kms sand crossing- as I am sure is Jim!
As you know I love (reading about others) motorcycling in sand
The difference between dessert and desert is that the latter tends to be an acquired taste!
Over the following three days I squared off my tires along 1,400km of long, straight, windswept road tracing the barren coastline from Agadir to the border town of Barbas where I'd have to face my mounting fears and cross into Mauritania.
Leaving the city, I was struck by obviously foreign beggars at some of the large intersections. Begging isn't common in Morocco at all, and is frowned upon in Arabic culture, so this practice is left to Cameroonian and Nigerian migrants slowly making their way on foot to Europe—usually over the course of years.
This far south the tourism drops off rapidly, and as a result so do the touts and carpet sellers, so interactions with locals become a lot more pleasant and mostly very warm.
Western Sahara is a disputed territory (you will find it referred to as Morocco on any map produced there) and in order to sway the balance of eventual democratic power the Moroccan government has pumped a lot of money into settlement programs to incentivise Moroccans to settle and stay. As a result, the well-constructed road is lined with solar windmills and telecommunications towers as it strings together neat, cookie-cutter towns with Lego-like low-rise apartments—all relatively new.
I still fail to understand what people actually do out here, though.
On the first night out of Agadir I settled on a spectacular spot on the sand cliffs above the pounding sea where the main road had dipped inland just enough to make my camp spot invisible from the road after dark.
In the morning I used some rope installed by fishermen to "abseil" down the cliff and have a look at the view—framed as always with a collage of plastic bottles and other debris.
I got back on the road and made good progress towards the border, trying to stay focused and alert despite long sections of very straight and rather featureless road—but I felt at home in this flat aridness and found the landscape beautiful.
At a fuel stop I met two other riders, Carlos & Carla, on their way from Lisbon to Gineau-Bissau to explore some of West Africa's Portuguese heritage. They were on his & hers 1,200 GSes and Carlos's in particular had clocked up an impressive number of Ks thanks to him owning a BMW-partnered tour company in Lisbon, and having travelled all over Europe and other parts of the world on his bike.
I posed for a photo taken with Carla's fancy SLR, we got chatting, and (a bit like dogs at the local park) after sussing each other out and finding the results mutually acceptable we decided to ride the rest of the way to the border together.
A nice effect of riding with others not as anxiously fixated on the end goal as you is that they tend to stop and smell the roses. Riding with these two forced me to do a bit of sightseeing, which included visiting a museum in Tarfaya dedicated to the life and times of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, famous aviator and author of "The Little Prince".
Carlos and Carla had ridden on ahead while I stocked up on some supplies, but my visit to the museum was short due to my inability to read any of the French exhibits, so I made up some time there.
In Boujdour I opted for the budget campsite on the edge of town—dilapidated but still an overland haunt—while Carlos & Carla found something a bit more to their taste in the town centre. At the camp ground I met a few hardened travellers. A Dutch couple, Willem & Gea and two best mates Thierry & Eric from France.
Willem & Gea were retracing a trip they'd done years before in a Magirus-Deutz truck, which Willem had built into a mobile home, but this time they were in a tiny Suzuki Jimny pulling a little trailer which they slept in. They'd gone from one extreme of the weight spectrum to the other.
Thierry & Eric were just sleeping on a cheap mattress in the back of Thierry's 80 Series Land Cruiser, which he had taken to the ends of the earth on various massive trips with a very basic set-up. They were on their way back from a trip through Mauritania, which Thierry knew like the back of his hand. He gave me a lot of advice about my (potential) desert crossing and all the delights that awaited me in the interior of the Sahara.
I joined Carlos & Carla for a pizza and coke in town and then settled down for the night, huddled against out of the wind against the camp ground wall.
The final day to Barbas was much the same as the previous ones—flat, dry, windy and straight, but there was always something interesting to see along the way. Carla had mocked me for sitting on the speed limit the previous day so I made it a mission to keep up with her, which meant staying consistently on 140-150 Km/h. I'm pretty sure she was stopping for photos, too.
I arrived at Hotel Barbas before C&C who'd stopped in Dakhla (a kitesurfing Mecca) for lunch allowing me to blow past them unknowingly in my efforts to keep up. I had a pang of panic at losing them because we'd talked about crossing the border together and using a "fixer" that Carlos had got a number for (and that Willem had also recommended). Without them I'd be crossing alone and without the fixer—my original plan of course but I'd allowed myself to be comforted by the thought of companions.
The hotel was a surreal desert oasis and bustling with people from all walks of life and cultures heading to or from the small but busy border post. There were UN observers, overland travellers, crazy French hitchhikers, refugees, African migrant labourers and Arab businessmen all milling around or watching football in the central courtyard.
I was relieved when my Portuguese pals turned up late in the afternoon and I celebrated with an ice cold coke and a camel tagine which was absolutely delicious.
Loving the trip report, excellent narrative and photo's. You have a unique ability to make us aware of your apprehension before such a big ride - and show the tension inherent in such a ride, well done Dave.
Dude i am loving your report!! and i have the same plan for 2020!! keep it up and safe travels!!
Dave: Great writing and photos! Keep it coming, looking forward to the Congo and Angola sections
Thanks guys, need a bit of inspiration to finish the latest post!
A fellow ADV-er, Andrej, had previously given me the number of a fixer who could help us with border formalities. Carlos and Carla had given up on theirs so we’d made some preliminary contact with mine, called Cheikh, via WhatsApp.
Cheikh could communicate reasonably in English but calls were patchy. The instinct is to text, but you realise quickly why in Africa people rely so heavily on WhatsApp voice messages rather than the written word. Cheikh was quite easily understandable when speaking but he typed purely phonetically—and with an accent—resulting in some amazing prose like this response to my question about how long the crossing might take:
"2awa120minit oktomoro9 h un monie homani moto"
That's "2 hours, 120 minutes. OK, tomorrow 9 in the morning. How many motos?"
So as I rebirthed myself into a disoriented existence the next morning my Mauritanian apprehension was still beating away healthily, though tempered by the fact that I’d have a couple of buddies to accompany me at least as far as Nouadhibou (just across the border). Being in contact with fellow travellers made it feel less like I was the first man preparing for his small step on the moon, and more like a good old adventure.
I still had hanging over me the decision of whether or not to attempt riding the iron ore railway track, but I’d made a deal with myself not to think about it anymore until I got to Nouadhibou.
Through an African overlanders Facebook group I’d been in contact with Maximillian from Munich, who had put up a post asking if anyone was game to attempt the desert crossing with him around the time I’d be there. Although he was in a well prepared Defender he was concerned about a solo excursion. There’s very little information about this track online, and what little advice there was varied from “you’ll be fine” to “don’t even think about it”.
We’d pencilled in teaming up for that part of the trip. Sadly, due to my delays in Spain I’d missed that boat and Maxi had forged ahead and done the crossing with a co-driver.
The two BMWs and I needed to head out early to allow time for what was meant to be a tricky border crossing, and before we left I hurried off a few Facebook messages to Maxi to see if he could offer me any advice about conditions.
It was a short run out the Moroccan side of the formalities on the remaining stub of Western Saharan infrastructure. As we got closer to the action we came up on the tail end of a kilometres-long queue of trucks that we found out had been held up for days due to a strike. Cheikh met us at the pearly gates and guided us to an appropriate parking spot, after which he shepherded us this way and that to the various offices we needed to go to to get our paperwork sorted out.
Although it's a relatively busy border post, and a bottleneck for a lot of commercial road traffic connecting North and West Africa things are conducted at an unhurried pace and we had time to make friends with a few locals, including Senegalese Mohammed and his mates who spoke surprisingly good English and were travelling for "business".
Once we'd cleared the Moroccan authorities we had to cross "no mans land", which is a strip of territory between the two countries technically under control of the Polisario Front, the rebel liberation movement fighting against Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.
There's literally no road joining the two countries, so you simply travel off road, following in the well-worn tracks of all the vehicles that have meandered their way ahead of you—and with good reason as there are apparently still active land mines about (often hyped to the point of people claiming they've driven through an "active minefield" despite hundreds of people crossing each way and staying in one piece daily).
Carla is not keen on dirt at all but she braved the conditions and made her way across the two or three kilometres of admittedly pretty bumpy stuff while I doubled Cheikh or he walked ahead of us to give directions.
The Mauritanian side was one step up on the culture-shock scale and had the general appearance of an abandoned mining town with rusting vehicles and machinery scattered amongst shabby buildings all fighting the inevitable ageing process being hurried along by the heat and creeping sand.
All in all the crossing was straightforward if slow (and very hot) and it was good to sit down for a warm Coca Cola with our fixer-cum-host at the end of it all.
Despite the roughness of the surface in no-mans-land, beyond the border post lay a decent two-lane road to the port town of Nouadhibou. Town isn't really the right word for it, as it's painfully exploding into being a small city. Wikipedia gives it's population as around 120,000 but I simply don't see how that can be true. It feels like an estimate that's 20 years behind on a 25% compounding growth rate to me.
If you’ve ever wondered where Mercedes Benz sedans go to die a slow, painful death it’s Mauritania. And if you think the plastic in the ocean originated from your local Coles I also have news for you.
Entering the city it felt harsh, chaotic and filthy to me—and not welcoming. As we rode around looking for a hotel a brand new white ute screeched to a halt across our path and three young Chinese guys dressed in black jumped out and ran toward us. The scars and tattoos on their faces had us spooked for a while but it turned out all they wanted was a photo before they jumped back in the ute and raced down the main street leaving a wake of swerving old Mercs and startled donkeys behind them.
After trying some of the limited options (including one exorbitantly priced and overly security conscious hotel for diplomats and businessmen) we found a tranquil paradise on a little peninsula overlooking a lagoon, just out of town.
The hotel had started life as an abandoned sports-fishing centre and was half way through being converted into a small hotel but it had a great vibe, friendly staff and a restaurant serving freshly caught fish.
Over the course of the evening, well-heeled local Arabs and the odd international businessman trickled into the restaurant, some in couples quietly enjoying a romantic stroll on the jetty, others brashly spreading themselves across the restaurant tables and asserting their importance—filling the room with smoke while watching football on the wall-mounted flat-screen while apparently finalising some or other deal.
The class and racial divide that cuts through Mauritanian life began to show itself to us in the little interactions between customers and the hotel staff in this country—the very last in the world to outlaw slavery.
Good to hear that everything went straight forward at the border!! Keep having fun mate :)
Going to try a slightly different format going forward of story followed by captioned images, rather than interspersing them.
Over the next couple of days I inched my way towards the inescapable decision to ride solo into the Saharan desert, guided by nothing but a lonely railway line and the odd imprint left by a four wheel drive.
Despite trying to reason it out I knew that in the end my desire to call it done would overcome my trepidation and even genuine information indicating that I should ride the other way.
I'd messaged Chris Scott via the Horizons Unlimited board for some advice on doing the crossing and he'd warned against doing it solo on a big bike. That was all the warning I needed to rebel against—I simply had to do it.
So it was decided. Over two or three days I'd head east over the sand from Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast to the village of Choum, where I'd find a sealed road running to Atar, the third biggest Mauritanian city and a key stop for the original Paris-Dakar.
After a heartfelt goodbye to my new friends Carlos & Carla as they set off on the bitumen to the capital Nouakchott I scrambled into action getting the bike ready, changing tyres and trying to find enough empty water bottles to carry the 50 litres of fuel and 12 litres of water I'd need to have a hope of making it all the way across.
As I prepared some of the few and colorful members of staff and guests would come and interrogate me gently and supportively. I donated my original set of hardly-worn-in Mitas tyres to the chef/groundskeeper. He was really chuffed and will no doubt subsequently got a good price for them down at the local market.
A guest, Christine, a nurse from France, had her local friend (I gathered one with benefits) Salem talk me through the journey, which he knew of but had not completed himself. He also offered to be a local point of contact for my Spot tracker should anything go awry, which reassured me as I knew there would be absolutely nothing anyone from home (authorities or otherwise) would be able to do to assist me should anything go wrong.
I'd also heard from Maxi who'd successfully completed the trek with a friend in the Defender, and he felt that it was doable for me on the bike (though he'd never ridden one, let alone in sand, and we all know how different it is for a 1x2 as compared to a 4x4 vehicle).
With the decision made a calm of sorts descended. Anxiety was replaced with nervous excitement and anticipation. I was starting a challenge-within-a-challenge I'd dreamed of doing ever since I'd stumbled across the idea a few years ago. For many, crossing the Simpson Desert in Australia is the ultimate test and this felt like my Saharan equivalent, complete with the chance to visit the Mauritanian version of Uluru—Ben Amera—which ranks second in the world for height after its Australian cousin.
On departure day I set of early and in good spirits. The weather was in my favour: clear, cool and sunny. The lodge being a little out of town, I rode past the dry lagoon towards Noaudhibou and stopped to take a photo of the encroaching urbanisation on the edge of the muddy flats. I saw turbanned man on a bicycle that I'd ridden past turn around and excitedly pedal towards me. "Here we go," I thought, anticipating the impending North African sales pitch, and I tried unsuccesfully to pack my camera up in time to escape the transaction.
The cyclist, Mohammed, turned out not to have anything to sell as far as I could immediately tell but he was very keen to find out who I was and what the hell I was doing there on this huge motorcycle. His English was excellent and I gathered that he was in the area on holidays but normally lived in the capital.
After listening intently to my elevator pitch he told me of his boyhood dream to fly a plane, which he had never let die—in fact he now held his pilot's license and owned a Cessna.
It took me a little time to process the statement and re-stereotype him from bothersome tout to inspiring millionnaire (it turned out he was the director of the country's largest bank). While I attempted to do this (and keep up with the intense pace of his conversation) Mohammed convinced me to share my number with him and also take down the number of his brother in Atar, who he insisted I stay with when I arrived. By this stage I'd learned to agree now and avoid later, so I took the details and we said our goodbyes—Mohammed insisting that I take a photograph to remember him by.
I swung back through Nouadhibou central and picked my way happily through the chaos, stopping to get some supplies. The journey starts on the main road linking the border with Nouakchott, initially running alongside the iron ore railway.
As the road starts to veer south, you ignore it purposefully and dive straight into it on a rough track of deep sand that takes you through a collection of shacks and spits you out on to a sandy plateau overlooking the nothingness of the desert ahead. To the horizon all you see is low mounds of sand, dusted with rock, and the thin black line of the railway disappearing into the haze.
I made my way down the plateau, and for quite a few kilometres saw no sign that other vehicles had been the same way recently. The railway track, and a rough GPS plot I'd been sent by Maxi were the only signs I had that I was heading safely in the right direction. Of course all I really needed to do was head East until I hit the road heading South from Choum, but I was keen to stay as close to the railway line as possible so I could potentially flag down a train should anything really bad happen.
It took some time but I got used to managing the weight of the overloaded bike in the sand. Thankfully it started off fairly flat and there were hard-packed sections between the clumps of tuft-like dunes where I could catch a break and evaluate my progress.
Keeping the speed up was imperative, which was challenging when working around sand mounds, the odd clump of vegatation or wheel ruts that had been formed where separately wandering four wheel drive tracks suddenly converged to go around a large dune. I found that anything below about 75km/h was asking for trouble and that made it really difficult to control the front-end. Above that speed and the bike would "aquaplane" fairly well over the sand, but it obviously still required very active management.
After a few hours I got into a rhythm and my confidence built: I was doing it! I felt "in the zone". Although I was working up a sweat the riding was flowing and I was keeping the bike under control, letting it move and wriggle below me as it ploughed through the low, choppy dunes.
I had a few close calls coming over low crests that dropped away fast over the edge and rose up again very quickly, causing me to hit the returning face very hard (like a big ditch). Thankfully the sand was soft enough to give under the force and although it would knock me off balance there was usually enough breathing room around me to run wide of my planned course and then get back in control.
As I rode I occasionally saw—unbelievably—signs of life out there in that most remote of places. It's unthinkable to find people inhabiting conditions that rocks would barely survive in, but there they were. The odd collection of shacks huddled together near the railway line, a lone, robed man trapsing along the horizon, or a woman and child sitting cross-legged in the sand waiting for someone or something to be deposited by the passing train, where people would sit atop the raw iron ore in the open hoppers.
Well into the first day I looked up momentarily from the sandy task ahead of me and was startled by a maroon Prado careening across a flat plain towards me. Its jaunty path had me picturing armed militants hanging out of the windows screaming "death to infidels!" but it turned out to be a driven by a well-spoken Englishman in a colourful, knit cardigan and pork pie hat who pulled up to enquire as to whether I may have spotted his companions, who he'd been separated form.
The driver, Mark, was travelling in a convoy with two other vehicles. One driven by his son, Eric, and the other a Swedish friend, Jens. Somehow they'd become separated and Mark no longer knew whether he was in front of or behind Eric. I hadn't seen any other vehicles but agreed to ride ahead and if I came across them to let them know that Mark was going to head back a few kilometres and then return, and that they should wait for him.
When I did come across the next vehicle it was clear that any instruction to wait would be redundant as it (a dark green Hilux Surf) was properly stuck in the sand. Working on the problem at hand were two gentlemen of African appearance, and one of very un-African appearance (wearing large Dolce & Gabbana knock-off sunglasses) standing around taking photos while the other two dug.
"Are you Eric?" I enquired. "No," he replied.
"Do you know someone called Eric?"
"OK, um... is he with you?"
Despite getting off to a rough start we eventually figured it out and I was sent off to chase down Eric who was in a second, sky blue Surf. With a mission to accomplish, and completely forgetting about my limited fuel supply, I fanged it across what was now flat, open country ocassionally interuppted by long, low-lying dunes and caught up with Eric in no time at all.
"Are you Eric?" I enquired. "Yeah, mate! You Aussie?" he replied.
Mid-twenties Eric had a West Australian mum to go with (briefly, it seemed) his English dad and although he lived in England had grown up in WA. We swapped back-stories and spun our vehicles around to go and regroup with Jens and (hopefully) Mark.
Back at the digging site I learned that one of the African assisters was Abou, the group's local fixer and full-time mechanic. The other was a desert resident who happened to be there when they got stuck (again, unbelievably) and was being endowed with a few Mauritanian Ouguiya for his labour by Jens, who I would learn had no discomfort about such transactions.
We got the Hilux out of the sand using an old, steel railway sleeper as a sand latter and I decided to stay in convoy with the group, highly pleased with my efforts to get this far on my own, but happy to take the reassurance of travelling in convoy and secretly hoping to be included in what seemed like one hell of a boys' adventure.
I learned that the group was running three cheaply-bought English vehicles from the UK to Mali, where they planned to cross through a fairly remote and not-so-stringent border post and on-sell the vehicles at a profit to a local contact. If it all worked out, the profit from the sale would effectively fund their shoe-string holiday budget and cover the flights home. If it didn't the vehicles would be abandoned and the holiday would be a little more expensive.
Abou, a Nouakchott resident and an old friend to Jens, had his own little mechanic's business in the city. When opportunities arose to be part of one of Jens's harebrained trips he'd down tools, shut up shop, turn off his mobile and get ready for a wild ride. If he could keep the vehicles running and find the right local contacts to set up the sale he got his share of the profits and a break from his nagging customers (and possibly wife).
With the reassurance of three support vehicles behind me I could have a bit of fun, and of course I needed to maintain a higher speed than the cars to make the sand bearable. Every few kilometres I'd pull up for a break and wait for them to catch up. After doing this a few times I found myself waiting for an unnervingly long time on one stop. I ruminated for a few minutes and decided to double back.
I found Eric in a similar spot a couple of kilometres behind me and we agreed to go in search of the others. Lo and behold we found Jens's Surf stuck in the sand again, but this time things were a little more dire. The right front wheel bearing had siezed and detroyed the hub—the resistance from this would explain why he found himself stuck previously (and he'd also mentioned the motor running hot). The wheel was hanging off at a painful angle and Abou got to work inspecting the damage.
Though About had the skills they didn't have all the tools so I lent them some from my kit allowing Abou to complete the job of removing the hub (while Jens worked on his sunburn). Once we had it off it was agreed that the vehicle would be left in the desert, for better or worse, and someone would have to return to get it once a replacement hub was sourced. The planning was left for later, luggage (including the railway sleeper) and passengers consolidated to the remaining two vehicles, and we were off again.
We kept moving for a few more hours as the sun made its way steadily to the western horizon and the dunes became larger, harder and smoother. Mark had his eye on a distant outcrop to camp next to, so I followed the Prado's brake lights over the rolling sand hills to our designated home for the night. We set up camp, me with my overly-organised, high-tech gear and the others with a haphazard collection of junk-sale items that Mark had gathered together last-minute from one deceased estate or another.
Luckily I'd bought enough pasta to go around and once a few stray tins of fish were added we cooked up a satsfying if unconventional dish, enjoying a few good laughs under the stars and under the influence of some smuggled, cheap wine that had appeared from one of the cars (much to Abou's delight).
I slept well that night, woken occassionally by the deep rumble of a far-off convoy of 6x6 trucks smuggling some or other commodity through the desert at night.
A visualisation of the track from Nouadhibou to Atar
Changing my tyres prematurely in the heat of the Saharan sun
Filling up the long range tanks
Taking selfies with cashed-up Moroccans
Some helpful notes scribbled down for me by Salem
Enjoying my last sunset over the littered lagoon
Picking up supplies in Nouadhibou
Street scene featuring the ubiquitous Benz
Meeting Mohammed near the lake
The fateful photo
Heading into the desert
Typical desert shack found now and then along the way—no signs of life, but there once was
I've got the feelin' that somethin' ain't right...
A grave sign
Feeling quite at home
The blown hub
A campsite for sore eyes
New mates, old mates
Some snippets from my GoPro from the first day. I really captured so little of the tough stuff unfortunately as I was totally focused on the riding.
What a terrific story. Thanks for the update anydavenow. No pressure but looking forward to the next instalment.
I'm in!!! I have loved reading your RR so far and am looking forward to following your trip. I am heading the same way next may and already have got some great information from it. Would you mind if I pm'd you for a bit more information from time to time, like the details of your fixer for the Mauritanian border.
Good luck and safe travels
I’m already jealous! You’ll have the trip or a lifetime.
For what it’s worth you can probably do that border fine without a fixer but with my lack of experience or French I was grateful for a softer introduction.
Unlike at some other borders (stay tuned) it seems to be a genuine translation/administration service rather than a proxy for palm-greasing.
Feel free to PM anytime.
Spent a couple of weeks in Morrocco this year. I wish I was on a bike, but was in a rental car. Really enjoying your report!
Cheers Dave, reading your RR is getting me really excited for my trip and I've still got 7 months to wait!
Looking forward to your next installment