Days 6-7 Sandstorms and desert wild camping - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 17, 2019 to December 18, 2019

Days 6-7 Sandstorms and desert wild camping

Erfoud to Fezna (via Merzouga)

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Day 5 - Erfoud to desert wildcamp - 39 miles

It rained overnight for the first and only time in Morocco. Hearing the raindrops on my tent at 3am was pretty disheartening because I had really wanted to see the sand dunes in the sun rather than with grey skies. Thankfully the morning was heralded by beautiful weather and there was no sign of last night's rain. Erfoud (or Arfoud? It seemed like it was spelled differently everywhere) was a bigger town that I was expecting and I ended up getting lost a few times trying to find the side road to Merzouga. It's a 30 mile dead-end to the dunes, so it made sense to try to take a different route there and back as a change of scenery. 

Goats and sheep were everywhere in Morocco. No sign of any cows though.
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Just outside of Erfoud, the landscape chaged dramatically once again. The small oases of palm trees were gone, replaced with a desolate plain of blackened rocks and sand. For the first couple of miles, both sides of the road were sadly strewn with rubbish that must have blown across from the town's waste site. It really added to the bleak feel. Another few miles, and a host of signs started to appear, trying to entice travellers into little fossil shops and digs. Earlier in the trip, I'd seen old men in the fields bashing rocks together and having no idea what they were doing. It finally dawned on me that there were smashing the rocks open looking for the trilobite, ammonite and orthoceras fossils that seem so abundant in Southern Morocco. Along this stretch I also saw lots of roaming camels which was another first for me. Looking back through my photos, I have no idea why I don't have any pictures saved of the herds of dromedaries by the roadside.  

First hint that I was heading into camel country.
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I love this sort of scenery. It reminds me of pictures I've seen in sub-saharan Africa.
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It took ages to balance my bike on this rock. Really need to invest in a stand for my future travels!
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Soon the dunes of Erg Chebbi appeared on the horizon and I cycled into the town of Hassilabied. Within seconds, I was flagged down by a guy who tried to sell me a room for the night. He was easily shrugged off, but I'd barely got 50m down the road before getting stopped again. The next chap was offering a room inside his hotel (or riad) for only £5 which is incredibly cheap for my own room in a touristy area. The tourism season hadn't properly started yet, so all the accommodation was mostly empty and you could tell everyone was trying to compete really hard for the valuable handful of travellers. When I got to Merzouga, the situation was the same and everyone wanted to sell me something. I eventually decided to avoid stopping altogether and just calling out a 'no sorry' because the hard sale attempts were getting annoying.

In the town centre there was about 6 or 7 restaurants which I couldn't choose between, so decided to ask a local for a recommendation on where to eat. While the staff were super friendly in the one he picked, the food was too expensive and I had a really bad lemon and chicken tagine. There was almost zero meat on the bone and the roasted lemon was horrible. While I was eating, someone else came up to offer me a room/tour which I wasn't amused with. My go-to excuse was pretending that I already had a campsite booked, because I didn't fancy telling anyone I'd prefer to camp for free in the desert! Merzouga town hadn't been the most enjoyable place to visit, but my mood was lifted when another elderly man approached me. I assumed he was just trying to sell me another tour, but asked where I was from and pointed to a Union Jack badge on his shirt, saying he loved the UK. He then handed me a bunch of oranges with a smile and a thumbs-up which was very kind. 

Erg Chebbi appearing over the blackened rocky ground.
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The dunes just outside Merzouga were saturated with camel and quad bike tours, so I cycled south to one of the quieter villages. Here it was easy to cycle undisturbed along one of the gravel tracks into the desert. Gravel swiftly turned into perfect golden sand and I started to sweat under the effort of dragging my heavy bike through the deep sand. I didn't want to be in view of anyone so continued the backbreaking push higher and higher. It took an hour to hike a mile through the sand, but I found a perfect spot to pitch the tent. No one was around and the only hint of civilisation was the very top of a mosque minaret visible far in the distance. It was an incredible feeling to be sitting alone in the warm sandy desert with just my tent and bike for company, I couldn't take enough photos.

I wanted to reach the foot of the 2 big dunes- a journey that took forever with a heavy bike.
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The only other person I saw in the desert; a man leading his camel train in the distance.
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I couldn't stop taking photos, it felt so surreal.
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Just before sunset a strong westerly wind picked up, and sticking my head out the tent, I realised that you couldn't see very far into the distance any more. Clouds were rolling in and dust was getting swept up obscuring the view. Suddenly the desert didn't seem so idyllic any more! With a sigh, I realised that the big clouds of dust were quickly heading towards my tent so I quickly scrambled into action packing away all the stuff that was outside, covering my bike with a tarpaulin groudsheet and burying the tent pegs deeper into the loose sand. The wind reached a crescendo, and diving into my tent to snack on bread and pringles seemed like the most appealing option. 

Here's a few videos I took before the sandstorm got close. It's a shame the camera doesn't do a very good of catching all the sand and dust in the air. 

After 30 minutes, the sandstorm hadn't subsided at all and the wind was blowing sand underneath my outer tent shell, and subsequently through the mesh holes of my inner tent ventilation flaps. I kept brushing the sand into a corner but it kept pouring in and covering the floor. To make matters worse, the wind was howling into the side of my tent, ripping the pegs out and straining hard on the poles. Pulling on long-sleeve clothes and cycling glasses, I crawled out the tent to have a look at what was happening and had the idea of scooping up sand onto the 3 exposed faces on the tent so the wind couldn't get underneath. This actually worked really well and the constant loud flapping from the loose inner tent was mostly silenced. It was strong wind for a good few hours until around 11pm, when the night calmed and the sky cleared to reveal another beautiful panorama of stars. In the distance you could faintly hear tribal music coming from some of the 'bedouin experience' camps and that was a soothing atmosphere to fall asleep to. 

The whole ordeal was a bit scary to begin with, but being in the Sahara desert while braving a sandstorm in a tent is something I'll never forgot. Easily one of the most memorable days of my life and this sense of freedom where you don't know what could happen is why I love bicycle touring so much!

Digging in the tent to prevent wind and sand rushing up inside my outer layer.
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Day 6 - Desert wilcamp to Fezna Qanats - 52 miles

Desert sunrises are supposed to look amazing so I set my alarm extra early this morning in preparation for a hike around the dunes to take some photos. Last night's sandstorm had completely smoothed over my tyres tracks and footprints, resulting in a nice smooth photogenic dune. There wasn't a hint of wind at all and the skies were clear.

The dunes glowing a deep orange as the morning sun washed over them.
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Trying out some 'artsy' camera angles.
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Hiking up to the highest nearby dune was fun. At around 130m high, it wasn't an easy route upwards through the loose sand, but you could take any route you wanted and sprinting down the side of each successful dune made me feel like a kid at the beach again. I made it to the top just in time and it was amazing to sit back and watch tglowing horizon over the nearby Algerian border. The morning sun turned the sand a fiery orange colour which was a photographer's dream- I feel sorry for the people who only only visit the Erg Chebbi during the day! After crossing another few dunes, I could see the bedouin tourist camps in the distance. The rows of tents in close proximity to each other surrounded by 4x4s isn't something that I'd really enjoy at all. 

Wind-blown ripples in the sand.
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I was able to use my telephoto zoom lens to good effect and check out the inauthentic bedouin camping on the edge of the desert.
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After an awesome session taking photos, it was time for the thing I'd been dreading... hauling the bike back out of the desert. Thankfully the overall gradient was downhill, but you were still climbing up and down the dunes in a constant oscillation. With a last push, I was back onto rocky ground and decided to stop under a lonely tree to give the bike a quick clean. The tarpaulin had worked wonders in keeping the drivechain mostly sand-free, although my front derailleur didn't want to work smoothly so required a few tiny adjustments. 

Looking back on my trail of footsteps through the dunes.
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The cycle back through Merzouga was a lot easier than when I'd arrived as I wasn't subject to a torrent of roadside sales pitches. This was supposed to be the main road between Erfoud and Merzouga, and I was expecting a steady stream of 4x4s and campervans but there was nothing like that. A car would pass by ever 5 minutes if that. This made the next 20 miles a very quiet cycle, and it got even quieter when I turned off the 'main' route onto a single lane backroad as a shortcut back to Erfoud. Here my route headed NW and I was met with another wall of headwind. It was really annoying to have headwind on the long cycle south, and then have the direction change almost 180 degrees overnight to point straight into my face again.

I only saw 1 car and 1 bicycle on this quiet 15 mile stretch back into Erfoud.
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On the road from Erfoud to Tinejdad, my apps didn't show any accomodation, with the exception of a spot 5 miles on from Jorf. The town of Jorf itself seemed like a really run-down place, easily the worst of all the larger towns I've cycled through so far. Weirdly, although the road was perfectly smooth either side of Jorf, the entire stretch through the town was just a potholed dirt road mess. I'm sure the place was completely fine but it gave me a bit of a sketchy feeling compared anywhere I've been so far. I was making horrible progress weaving around cars through the mud, when a guy of about 18 stopped to talk to me. I wasn't really in the mood for a chat because I wanted to cycle through as quick as possible, but he seemed friendly enough and looked like he just wanted to practise his English. We walked together through the rest of the dirty streets and he asked me if I wanted to stay at his family's house, but I politely declined. After saying goodbye, I raced his friend through the rest of the town centre and it was quite an even contest- me on the heavy cumbersome touring bike vs him on the rattly old bike with broken gears! 

On the last stretch of the day, I cycled past loads of younger schoolkids and did the generic high-five routine, but after passing one group I heard a clatter on the road behind me and realised they'd thrown stones at me. I've read about things like this before in Morocco, but it seems to be a much rarer occurance nowadays. Another group of kids on bikes pulled out on front of me so I pulled to a stop and tried to chat. They spoke no English so it was a futile effort but it was clear from one kid's frantic gestures that he wanted me to give him my cycle computer. They were young enough that I wasn't in any danger, but it was a bit uncomfortable to be surrounded, and I pushed past them to quickly cycle off. The final encounter was with a happy smiling child who held his hand out innocently for a high-five. At the last second before we made contact, his demeanour turned and he pulled his hand away, shouting something angry in Arabic that is probably best left to the imagination. The combination of the sketchy run-down town and annoying kids meant I was a bit on edge and looking forward to stopping for the night.     

A lonely ruined kasbah and a perfect cloudless sky.
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Eventually I reached the place where I'd try to camp, a series of 3 or 4 huts where guides could show tourists the underground canals nearby. I wasn't sure which one to pick, but one guy called me over so that made up my mind for me. He was about my age and spoke good English so I asked him if I could camp in the vicinity. The answer of 'maybe' seemed a bit weird and he appeared more intent on showing me the canals instead. There didn't seem like anyone else around so I warily left my bike against the hut and followed him down into the darkness. The underground canal systems, or Qanats are a really impressive hand-dug deep irrigation system stretching for miles under the plains. Looking back, I wish I'd spent longer underground exploring the now-dry passageways, but I was paranoid about leaving my bike unattended considering my previous one was stolen on my cycle trip to Australia. It was a bit of an awkward scenario because I wasn't sure whether to pay for this really brief 'tour' or not. When we surfaced, I asked again if I could camp and he agreed this time, telling me it was the equivalent of £5 and I could use the toilet for free. While I was pitching up behind one of the Qanat mounds, we ended up chatting and he seemed a lot friendlier now, offering to fetch me some bread and water from the town, as well as his portable battery pack to use. He mentioned that 2 other American cycle travellers had stayed here in the past which put me at ease quite a bit.

Camping on the rock-hard ground alongside the well shafts of the Qanat underground canals.
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Today's ride: 91 miles (146 km)
Total: 347 miles (558 km)

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