I’m getting behind with the blogs as the mileage has been very high and the roads not always straight! So this episode should be called, Put more stuff on your pickup, Game of Thrones, dont visit the worlds biggest movie studio, write me a letter and finally……
So leaving Marrakech I travelled the Tizi n Ticha pass, a tarmac festival of sublime corners and vista’s that I struggled to take in. Such is the size and height of the High Atlas Mountains, climbing to 2000m or 7200ft the road was torturous for the Bug but hey I wanted to be on a bike anyway. If Dubless was struggling spare a thought for the many trucks and pickups loaded well beyond their maximum capacity for sure.At the very top was a rest area and as usual I was hounded by touts of tat. “No really I don’t want a life size crystal encrusted model camel”. Travelling on I was heading for Ouarzazate another place on my trip list. On arrival you pass a huge movie studio. Checking up, the internet tells me its the biggest studios in the world and has been the set for Gladiator, James Bond and many more films. It did also warn that the sets were starting to decay in the desert. It was at this point I checked the map to find Ait Benhaddau a world heritage site and film set for Game of Thrones. I had wanted to visit it, I’ve never seen G.O.T but I wanted to say I had been there. Anyway I haven’t because I’d already passed it. So I booked to see the studio. The internet didn’t lie. It is the biggest studio in the world due to the fact its in the biggest desert in the world and nothing more. The tour was on foot and the sets quite run down. It was interesting and worth the £5 entry, but if you have the choice go to Ait Benhaddou.
From left to right. Aladins home, James Bond?????, Gladiator, some building that took 3 months to build for 3 seconds in the film, Egyption tomb. Game of Thrones series 3 but you can’t go closer!!!
I stayed in Ouarzazate that night in a colourfully decorated hotel. I was finding hotels are cheap and offer better rest than a campsite. Next morning I was off again. Stopping to get water in a non descript town I was approached by a smartly dressed local who spoke great English. I was waiting for the ‘sell’, but he engaged in conversation about my trip, my plans and offered some good advice. Then he asked if I could help him write a very short letter in English. I was happy to help and he duly showed me to his home. The place was the typical run down type of building synonymous with the poorer parts. He got a pen and paper and dictated the letter to his friend Paul from France, shouldn’t that be Pierre? Paul works for ‘Medicines Sans Frontieres’ and had been in Morocco helping nomads get medical assistance. Anyway the letter complete we spoke more about his work as jewellery maker. He made me coffee and I was enjoying some propper Berber hospitality. He asked if I was married, for some reason I said yes, because it is expected and to say no is weird apparently. So he wheels out the bracelets and chains he has made for various tv companies who film in the area, and before I know it I am looking at jewellery for my fake wife! Then the selling began and I ended up giving him £5 for the coffee and chat before having to be quite rude to escape. My genuine Berber experience may have been as fake as my wife, but it was momentarily nice.
That night I made Zagora, which in a different version of this story was the start point of some serious off road biking. Many bikers have photos taken with their bikes at a sign indicating ’52 days to Timbuctu’. I chose my hotel and decided the night’s entertainment would be to find the iconic sign, only to find the sign was attached to my hotel less than 20 foot away. The sign dates back to the camel train traders who travelled from Zagora to Timbuctu in order to trade spices for other goods and return to sell them on. I couldn’t get Dubless up the kerb to have a picture taken at the sign.
There was a great thunderstorm that night.
The next day, taking advice from my Berber friend the previous day, I headed for Mhamid the start of the desert as we would consider it, but not before having to send yet another tout off. I really didn’t want a fake, genuine Berber night in the desert. The road again was amazing and I saw my first camel, followed by many more. The desert with its rolling dunes doesn’t just start like a trip to the beach when you turn the corner and there’s the sea, the desert sand encroached inland, slowly tingeing the rock with the fine yellow colour and as the miles click by the sand takes over until you reach Mhamid. Through the dirty tiny village and then the road ends. This was it, over the crest and my journey would begin, well it would on the bike but in Dubless it may well end. I was feeling a bit elated that despite all that had happened I had made it to the actual desert. Seconds away and a 4×4 came round the corner, stopped almost blocking my way. Out jumped two guys dressed in, what I would consider Toureg clothing, brightly coloured djellaba, with head scarves that covered most of their faces. They came to either side of the car. In hurried speach they each explained it was to dangerous to venture further, my car wouldn’t cope, I would get lost, we are close to the Algerian border, this is a training ground for terrorists. In short I needed a guide and a 4×4. Guess what? They had both at a reasonable cost. I looked at them and their impressive knives, not wanting to upset them and I said very quietly “oh fuck off”! and then a little louder and in my best English ” Thank you so much but I’m English and we like a challenge”. I drove round the big black Mercedes and headed for the crest of the hill, watching in the mirror for them to come after me but they didn’t. Just more touts, or maybe they were being genuine. Finally I was in the sand, quite firm under the wheels it was a little like a car park at the beach. Then as I drove on it became more rutted and the sand scraped the bottom of Dubless, occasionally causing him to lose traction. Like a novice child in a swimming pool we were getting out of our depth. The last thing I wanted to do was walk back to Mhamid and seek out those guys to come tow me back. I turned Dubless round and on firmer ground stopped to take a picture. Within seconds there were three snarling dogs making for me. I jumped back in the car and with my little following of snappy dogs, made my way back. So after 17 days, some 10 days late and endless trials. The bike, the engine, the Rav4, the touts, the beggars, the officials, the fixers, had all frustrated my efforts but I had done it. I had driven less than 2 miles in the sands of a real desert. The photograph looks like it could have been taken on any beach in the UK!
The T shirt says “The only impossible journey is the one you never start”.
I was still a long way north of my intended destination but I was running out of time, so I decided to drive across the desert highway.