A Horse With No Name

The greatest picture I've ever taken

I had not been able to park my bike anywhere near the hostel, which was in a tiny alley off one of the main streets near Jemaa el-Fna, the main square of Marrakesh and the primary night-time congregation of tourists, beggars, thieves and peddlers of anything from fake orange juice to fake jewellery. Instead I had settled for a parking lot some distance away, locking the bike to a palm tree in a corner near a line of shops, shielded from street view by a row of expensive looking cars. A boy of about 15 sat on a chair next to a Land Rover and explained in broken English mixed with French that he was the parking guard, and for the small fee of 25 Dirham (about 3 dollars) he would keep an eye on my bike. All night, he assured me, while pointing at the cooler on the ground next to him with several unmarked bottles of a honey-coloured liquid floating in icy water. I told him I would pay him 10 right now, and another 10 if it was still there in the morning, while gesturing with my hands trying to indicate how little space the bike was occupying next to the cars. He pondered my proposal for a few seconds, then yelled something in Arabic at one of the shopkeepers who was stacking oranges. The man shrugged, and the boy told me "OK. But is for one day".

I searched my pockets for change - I did not want to pull out my wallet full of 50 and 100 Dirham notes in front of this kid - and he took the stack of coins and without counting them, dropped it in the front pocket of his shirt and continued sipping his drink. Carrying my luggage through 500 meters of crowded shopping streets to reach the hostel in the sweltering afternoon heat had been the definite low point of that day and as such I had decided to get up early, beat the crowd, and ride the bike through the shopping street - at times barely 2 meters wide - right up to the hostel to load up and then set off again. I was in luck because even at 7 AM the kitchen was serving croissants and coffee, and at 715 the street was empty except for the odd stray cat. I had asked about the cats a few days ago in Fes. The unbelievably densely populated medinas, or walled old towns, of Tangiers and Fes had been full of cats. “It’s because of Islam”, the hostel clerk had explained. “In Islam, dogs are considered unclean, so people do not keep them as pets and kill the stray ones. But the cats, the cats are welcome. They hunt the rats, and they don’t bark”. I had imagined the endless winding alleys around us with an array of barking dogs in addition to the myriad of merchants, shoppers, children and tourists, then nodded in agreement.

At this early hour the cats were the only sign of life around, sleeping in corners and on canopies. Some sort of garbage collection scheme was evidently in place since the medinas were remarkably clean considering the crazy number of people and animals who lived there, but the smells were not always appealing. I walked back to the parking lot and found the same boy from yesterday, snoozing in his chair. He stirred as I approached and grinned widely, running his hands through his hair. “Good morning mister! You see bike is there!”. As I walked over to inspect it, I noticed the red dust that had covered it since Tangiers was gone and the windshield was distinctly clear of bugs. I looked over and found the kid beaming with pride. “You see, I make wash!”. I chuckled and dug in my pocket, coming up with a 20 Dirham note which he accepted eagerly. "Where do you go today mister?".

"I don’t know"

I rode the bike back to the hostel at a walking pace, trying not to wake up anyone. After mounting the luggage I got dressed and went back to the breakfast buffet for a last sip of coffee. I whipped out my map and showed it to the guy at the desk, and asked if he knew a nice, quiet way to get across the Atlas towards Zagora. He thought for a moment, then gestured with broad strokes. “Go here, by Kasbatadla, and then up the mountains to Imilchil. If you drive fast you can stay the night in Tinghir. If not, maybe you can find somewhere along the way. When you come back, go by Ouarzazate and highway 9. That road is new and has many great views and turns”.

I thanked him and put my cup away, then slowly rode towards the rising sun among the waking city, while shopkeepers lined up their wares and scrubbed the streets in front of their doors. The morning air was cool and the roads empty, and before long I found myself on the motorway to Beni Mellal flanked by endless farmland, the Atlas rising up in the distance to my right. Around 11 I stopped to fuel up near Kasbatadla and purchased what had become the cornerstones of my diet here: bread of the French variety, pre-packaged cheese, olives, and some biscuits. My map only displayed a very coarse road between here and Tinghir with only sporadic towns, and upon questioning the station attendant couldn’t be more specific than "about a six hour drive". Looking at the map this could likely mean anywhere between 200 and 400 kilometres.

The last town before starting the long climb was El Ksiba, and soon after leaving it the road turned from asphalt to packed gravel. Great, I thought, a heavy bike, an inexperienced off-road rider and, looking at the skies, imminent rain. Over the next hour or so I met exactly one other vehicle in a little valley, a heavily laden Mercedes taxi headed the other way. The driver slowed and waved me down, then tried to explain something to me, but since no-one in the car spoke either English or French, I couldn’t do much but nod. Soon after the road rose again, and the trees slowly disappeared and made way for scattered low shrubs in an otherwise Martian landscape. I passed a huge rock formation which was coloured an odd purple-and-green from what I assumed were mineral deposits, and after a long climb I reached what appeared to be the top of the pass, and a long winding valley stretched out before me. No road signs or demarcation of any kind was around, and even on the steepest bits the only thing separating the road from the ravine was a crumbling wall.

The temperature had dropped significantly on the way up; a slow trickle of rain started to come down and the dark skies gave the scene an ominous feel. The way down proved interesting with the road slippery from the rain, and the curves lined with loose gravel. The bike was doing great however the mostly road-oriented tires I had on it weren’t really suited for this sort of thing, and I had to skirt the turns carefully. My luck finally ran out in one of the steeper hairpins. I rolled into the right-hand curve sharply, trying to avoid a pile of gravel in the middle of it. The bike lurched forward under gravity and I saw the low wall approaching fast, and instinctively braked. My front wheel bit into the gravel hard but on this steep decline the rear had no weight on it and skidded out from under me. As the whole machine slid sideways I somehow managed to keep it upright, coming to a stop with a loud metal-on-rock clank, while the engine stalled. My heart was racing, my visor clouded by raindrops and fog. Just half a meter away was a huge drop onto a rockslide, and I had no illusions about my survival chances had I managed to launch myself over the edge. The jerry can and crash bars had prevented my left leg from being crushed against the wall, but the bike had hit it with such force that a bunch of stones had come loose, and it took me several tries before I managed to dislodge myself by carefully leaning the bike a little to the right and powering away.

No sooner had my nerves calmed or I reached a fork in the road. One sign pointed back up the pass to El Ksiba but none of the other names even appeared on my map. The sky overhead remained murky, but the rain had ceased, and I decided to have some lunch on the spot. Walking up the left fork with my compass in one hand and some olives in the other I found that it led north-east into a sharp curve after which the gravel path deteriorated into loose sand and small pebbles, which settled the whole thing quickly. The right fork proceeded south-ish alongside a little stream into a slowly opening valley but there was still no sign of human activity anywhere, low shrubs and the odd bird being the only living things around. I started down the right track and soon came upon some goat herders in dark robes watching over a flock on the mountain slopes. They turned to watch the road as I passed and one of them waved a stick at me, to which I replied by throwing up a hasty peace sign, as I had seen truck drivers do when I passed them on the highway between Rabat and Casablanca. The dark clouds eventually stopped chasing me and shortly after passing a few more hairpins with an "Imilchil - 10km" sign at the bottom I rode past some low buildings around a little lake, the first real sign of civilization since I passed that taxi so many miles ago. Only minutes later I came across a family on a donkey, the man leading the animal by a short leash while his wife and two children rode on it. They paused and looked over curiously, and I waved at them, prompting enthusiastic cries from the children.

The town of Imilchil wasn’t much to speak of, consisting of low houses and compounds built in red and grey brick, many of them seemingly unfinished and still under construction, surrounded by piles of bricks and rebar. I stopped to ask for directions and an elderly shopkeeper assured me in French that I was on the right way to Tinghir, if I kept going straight at the next junction. The road southwards sloped down gently and after some time the valley widened to reveal an occasional village surrounded by farmland. Throughout these villages were groups of children playing at the roadside or lounging in compounds, and as I rolled past they invariably ran out to the road, holding out their hands as if trying to high-five me.

Just as I was trying to convince myself to stop for a drink I noticed a girl sitting on a rock in the middle of the oasis, hands folded in her lap, apparently resting. Her bright dress contrasted beautifully with the green fields around her. I slowed down and turned on my blinker, which made me feel a bit silly since there was no traffic within miles to even take note. I flipped open my helmet and waved at her, and she gestured back in silence. Taking out my camera I realized I didn’t really know how to ask this in French, or whether she even spoke any French at all, so I just held it up and pointed at it questioningly. She smiled and shrugged, placing her hands back in her lap. An island of colour within a green oasis, she sat there smiling quietly while I fidgeted with the camera. I waved at her once more to no reply, then set off again, concerned about getting to Tinghir before nightfall. Progress on the way to Imilchil had been slow because of the abysmal condition of the road, and so I wanted to press on and make sure I had a reasonable place to sleep after such a long day.

Leaving the highest mountain peaks behind me and slowly making my way down south the bike eventually reminded me that I had indeed been going for a long time. Losing power and slowing down, it indicated that it was time to hit the reserve. After more than half an hour during which my anxiety about finding some gas steadily grew, I rode into the hamlet of Ait Hani. Like the many villages before it, it consisted of low houses and dusty compounds contrasted with a wide strip of green farmland along the river. The road snaked through the town centre and I stopped at a little vehicle shop, "Garage Reparation Chez Moha" painted in thin blue letters above the door. The shop shared a canopy with the café next door and men wearing pale pink robes and hats sat at little tables drinking tea and peered at me quizzically. Moha turned out to be a jovial guy in his thirties wearing what once was a fluorescent coverall now stained with grease, and his eyes went wide with joy when he saw the packed bike out front. We spoke enough French between us for a little conversation, and when I asked for gas, he gestured me to follow him inside. An oil barrel smelling of gasoline and grease stood in the corner and a large copper jug hung on a nail above it. He dipped the entire jug in the barrel and handed me a large plastic funnel. After carefully emptying it in the gas tank he held up his hand, "Cinq litres!", then went back for more. When the tank was full, he took a rag from his pocket and carefully wiped it down, then went inside, put the jug away, and brought out a calculator to work out how much I owed him. All the while we were being watched by a small crowd of children, as fascinated by the bike as Moha himself was, grinning like a madman as I paid for my gas.