We fell down out of the hills into the desert. The road clings to the side of the mountain and every time you turn a bend, the wind tries to blow you off the bike. So, while it’s still a buzz on the descent, you’re happy when you reach the bottom via the conventional route, rather than over the top of a crash barrier.
Then there’s a huge valley which we photographed poorly. It’s hard to capture atmosphere with a camera lens, even harder to capture the sensation of speed and the dry desert wind bashing you from the side. And it’s impossible to capture the effect of all of this on your emotions. The only lens that can truely capture this is the one inside your mind’s eye, where you can relive the experience again and again.
In the middle of this valley is the town of Bouizakarne. From a distance, it looks like something from one of the darker futures envisaged for the human race by science fiction writers. Here we stopped for coffee and a pastry, which were still available because that darker future hasn’t arrived yet.
And then you’re on the road to Guelmim, the gateway to the Sahara. This road is flat, the landscape scrubby, dusty and, just before a town, full of plastic bottles, plastic bags and other things, some of which smell of death. In amongst this, you’ll sometimes see livestock feeding on the scrub or dogs scavenging for leftovers. Invariably, you’ll also see derelict buildings, someone’s old dreams decaying in the cold light of day. Sometimes these buildings aren’t derelict, they’re still home to a shepherd, a family or perhaps a pack of feral dogs, which is when you pedal cautiously and at speed – not an easy combination to master.
The road to Guelmim from Tiznit is dangerous. We came very close to being hit by a truck on this road, within one second to be precise. I saw the truck coming the opposite way ahead of us. Then I saw the truck behind us in the rear view mirror, heard the horn, saw the flashing lights, but I didn’t see the speed. The first I knew of the speed was when we’d dropped off the road onto the dirt beside. We’d just dropped, that second, fallen off the road, both wheels, then the rising noise, simultaneous with our drop, the white nose, the huge wheels, vile exhaust and the draft. It happened in a split second, our wheels and the truck’s wheels.
We stopped. Then silence, a numb, shocked, slightly disbelieving silence. After the event is probably worse because it goes on longer. It sits in your mind, weighing down on your mood, inducing anger, paranoia and fear. It affects the handling of the bike, the speed at which you travel. On a tandem, for the person doing the steering, it’s the burden of responsibilty. For the stoker, the one who can only pedal, it’s the heavy heart from being out of control. All that extra weight makes for slow riding.
But it passes – slower than a speeding truck – but it passes nonetheless. Bit by bit you shake off the weight of the troubled mind and then your speed picks up again. Your mind turns to other things and your legs turn those cranks once again at speed.
We often rate a town by the price we pay for a hotel and Guelmim came out well. 80 Dihram (about £6.50) for a decent room in the centre of town. We often find a cafe with wifi from where we can watch the world go by. Moroccan roundabouts are an event, a circus ring where the acrobats are on wheels and the clowns are behind wheels. Much like everywhere else probably.
It’s possible to get seduced by a name and Tan Tan is one of those names. Like Timbuktu, it seems to belong in songs and novels. But it doesn’t know it and hasn’t really dressed for such an occasion. Tan Tan, as we discovered when we got there that evening, is a tad down at heel and with it’s shoelaces undone, it stumbles across the desert with no clear direction. So we had a day off in Tan Tan Plage instead. A small seaside town, Tan Tan Plage was blustery but friendly and hassle free. The Atlantic Park campsite was still under construction. The toilet didn’t really flush, the shower didn’t work, the water was off in the morning, the wifi was temperamental, but the cash register worked fine.
We were approaching the Western Sahara which Morocco had claimed in the 1970s. A lot of it is uninhabited by humans, but sand, rocks and various hardy plants are well represented. We had a taste of the desert road as we pedalled south from Tan Tan Plage. The road was flat except where they’d bridged the estuary and the wind was mainly behind us. The road surface varied from tolerable to very good and the traffic had reduced massively since Guelmim. The ride to Achfennir was a sigh of relief, the peace and quiet felt almost audible. Morocco is a noisy country but it’s only when the desert turned the volume down that we realised how noisy the rest of the country had been. Out here, you could hear your own sighs of relief, listen to the waves rolling onto the beach and empathise with whoever it was that first said, ‘silence is golden’. Golden like Saharan sand.