Having the feeling of total freedom and enjoying and the life in nature with all the positive and negative things is what I´m looking for
In only seven days I´ll be sitting in a plane heading to South America. I got more or less everything I´ll carry with me sorted and prepared so the last step I´m now waiting for is to leave Germany again. This article is about my thoughts and feelings about this upcoming trip and also an explanation to myself why I´m once again looking forward to push myself to the limits.
To understand why I travel the way I do we first have to look a little bit back. A little bit more than three years ago I had the spontaneous idea to cross Australia by bicycle. Two weeks later everything was set and I started my first long term self sufficient journey. In 39 days I cycled 3050 kilometers from the north to the south of the country and challenged myself harder than ever before. Physically and mentally! This first bicycle tour was a total life changer for me and had a strong influence on my life from there up. This journey showed me what´s possible if you´re really willing to do something and showed me how body strength is closely connected to your mental conditions.
The first weeks and months after I finished my cycling in Australia I couldn´t imagine getting back to a life on the bicycle soon but after I processed all the new impression and things I´ve learned in those 39 days there were no questions that I would get back on the bike.
Since then I spend another 9 months cycling through our world. Three months in 2015 this brought me from Germany all the way through Scandinavia and 6 months this year from Morocco to Romania. In those months I developed many new skills on the road and learned more and more about myself. What I need to be happy, how to be self sufficient and self responsible, how to live a minimalistic life and how to listen to my body and mind.
All things I´m really happy about that I’ve developed them.
Positives and Negatives
But there are not only positive effects of being on the road in a way I do and most of the time these are the things no one is talking about when they tell you about a journey for example in travel reports, documentaries … .
In 2013 I left my home and about one year later I came back to Germany just to realize that everything had changed. No question in the first few days it felt great to be back to see family and friends but faster than I could ever imagine new feelings I couldn´t handle started to grow. More and more I lost the connection to the area I once called my home and I couldn´t define me anymore with the life in Germany.
I created the feeling in me that I wasn´t a part of this society anymore but I couldn´t really explain why I had this feeling. I felt like I had thoughts I couldn´t share with anyone not even with my people I already know my whole life.
I just didn´t care about things anymore which were normal in my life before I left Germany in the first place. The most normal things in our society suddenly seemed weird and wrong to me and I couldn´t accept them anymore. Mass consumption, hate and stressed people everywhere complaining about everything not realizing how fortunate we are to be born in such a country dropped me into a big hole. The only solution I had to escape this hole was to get back on the bike and this is what I did.
Reaching my limits
The three months while being back on the road in 2015 felt good but as soon as I got back to Germany I fell once again in the same hole. What I did? I saved some money and went back on the road in the beginning of this year.
The first three months of this year’s journey I felt great but day by day an old feeling I haven´t had in a while started to grow again. Suddenly I felt the distance between me and the people I left behind in my old life.
I realized how much energy it took me every day to keep rolling and how much I sacrificed to maintain this nomad lifestyle. I still enjoyed being on the road and totally loved the things I experienced in this time but on the other hand side I had to accept that something in myself was asking me to slow down. In three years I haven´t stayed longer in a place than 4 months and I never found back to my old home.
With the feelings that it would be great to find a new place I could call home for a while, not being in need to think about what I´ll do and where I´ll sleep in the next days, weeks and months I kept cycling through eastern Europe but soon everything came to an end.
Learning it the hard way
Already since a while I kept struggling with my physical strength but I continued my journey until I couldn´t hold myself on the bike anymore.
I had so many ideas where this trip could bring me and I ignored the fact that I would be maybe better for me and my health to stop the cycling. The day after I arrived in Romania I woke up with a blasting headache, hallucinations and a stiff neck and I didn´t really got better in the following days. I went to hospital in Timisoara, a nice not too busy town in western Romania, because I couldn´t help myself anymore. I lost control over my body and my mind.
With no real results I left the hospital again and after eight days of rest in the city I gave it a last try to continue this journey. I only made another 100 kilometers in two days before I finally accepted that this tour needed to be stopped. I lost the control of this journey and the only thing I could think about was flying home. Five days later I was back in Germany after I took a train to Bucharest and a flight from there.
Searching for roots
This trip came to an unexpected end and once again I was back in Germany with no plans what to do there. I kept struggling with my health and but I think even more with my mental status for almost a full months until I finally felt a bit better.
I still have no idea what was going on with me but I´m pretty sure that my health issues were more related to my mental problems than I was willing to accept.
After not even a month I decided to leave the country again which was pretty shocking to myself as suddenly all the strong feelings I had about staying somewhere for a while were gone again or at least I couldn´t find a solution for it in Germany and I was too afraid to fall once again in the same hole which I created in the months after my first travel.
Back to Portugal I spend another months living on an old farm in the north of the country with people I already knew from earlier this year. Not looking forward to get back on the bicycle this year I knew that I was in need of something to do for in winter. Not having an idea what to do in Germany in winter I decided to start one last journey with the target to face and overcome the mental issues I had in the last months of cycling this year.
One more try
One last challenge before I want to work towards finding a new home somewhere. This doesn´t mean that I´m finished with exploring our earth in a self sufficient way.
There´re still so many things I want to explore by my own but I realized that my body and mind are asking for more “normal” life and I want to accept that. Finding a place to settle down for a while and finding a compromise between my old a new life without isolating myself completely from society.
I want to use those 4 ½ months in South America to learn again to appreciate the life on the road and I want to find back to the mental strength I was used to in the last years. Having the feeling of total freedom and enjoying and appreciating the life in nature with all the positive and negative things is what I´m once again looking for and I hope that I´ll make good use of my opportunity and luck of being able to start such a journey.
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It’s getting sandy / Day 2-3
An off-road adventure through the
Day 2 – It’s getting sandy / 73.77 km – 10.2 km/h
Do you have alcohol, or something to smoke?’ is not a question you expect someone to ask you in the middle of nowhere and definitely not when you’re about to hit an off road path with your bicycle. But let’s start with breakfast.
I was up early this morning even before the sun appeared on the horizon. With the thoughts about a warm breakfast I assembled my stove and started boiling some water for tea and something special. After filling up my thermos with hot water for tea I used the rest of the water to make a sweet couscous breakfast. Adding some milk powder, cinnamon, dates and raisins this makes a great meal to start a new day. What could be better than starting a day with watching the sunrise while having a cup of chai tee and sweet couscous?
Back on the unsealed N12 peddling the last kilometers until we would finally leave the official roads we got stopped by two guys working on a construction site of the new road parallel to the N12. You already know what their question was. It took us a while to understand what they were looking for as we didn’t expect to be asked for those things at all. After we figured out what this conversation was all about we politely cancelled this meeting and continued cycling. They two guys had been friendly but they still gave me a bad feeling again.
It wasn’t the first time in the last days that something like that happened to us. It once again gave me the feeling that a lot of people were just trying to take advantage of us without being even a little bit interested or not caring at all what we were actually doing and what our kind of travel was about. It wasn’t only me as Carlos had this feeling also. The way quite a few people interacted with us didn’t feel right. Once again I can’t really blame the Moroccan people for doing so getting back to the point how tourism changed their country which I mentioned before, but at the same time they should know that not every foreigner is the same.
The fact that it is way easier to get in contact with someone sitting on a bicycle slowly passing by than someone sitting in a big off road car made it harder for us to avoid encounters like this one. On the other hand this is what bicycle touring is also about. You’re trying not to ignore the things happening around you which also means that you will experience the good and the bad things.
Getting close to midday the wind started picking up speed. Sadly not in our direction, the wind really slowed us down. Hidden behind a big rock beside the road we cooked a noodle soup for lunch.
After 35 kilometers we finally arrived at the beginning of the off road path towards Taouz. Without our GPS maps we would have probably missed the path leaving the road to the right. With not much more than a few car tracks into nowhere it was really easy to miss the entry. The first kilometers of the path lead us along and through a small dry riverbed. So far so good. The surface of the track was bumpy but still good to cycle. Only a few times we had to get off our bikes to push a few meters through a sand pit. Leaving the small path to avoid obstacles wasn’t a good idea. After only a few meters beside the path our tires were full of spikes and it always took a while to get rid of them. Leaving the river bed we arrived in a big open plane area and we could already see a small village in the distance.
It was Oumjrane, the first of the few desert villages on our route. Already in sight it still took quite a while until we got there. More and more there were sand pits slowing us down. With all of the weight on two fairly thin tires most of the time we had no chance to stay on the bike when it was time again to cross one of the sand pits. It either took a lot of energy and concentration to stay on the bike while trying to peddle as strong as possible without steering or it took a lot of energy to push the bike through the deep desert sand.
The moment you slightly moved your front wheel you lost total control of the bike and got stuck. I used 50 mm wide tires on my touring bike which worked great on off road tracks but for these conditions nothing less than a fat bike would have been the right tire choice. With probably less than five percent of the distance covered with sand pits on the route until Oumjrane it still wasn’t that bad and we kept challenging ourselves how far we could cycle through the sand until we would finally lose the balance. Not a single car or motorbike crossed us on the path so far and it felt great to not worry about possible traffic.
It was already quite late when we finally entered Oumjrane. I can’t really tell how big it was but if someone were to ask me I would probably say 100 – 300 people. We stopped at the first person we saw beside the road to ask where we could get water. Pointing somewhere towards a small street to left we found the tiny shop of the village. Not surprising there wasn’t much to buy. Most of the time those small shops don’t only sell food. They sell everything a little bit like a general store and supermarket combined in a tiny version. We both completely filled up our water bottles again plus one extra bottle for preparing the dinner. We also got some small onions and a few tangerines.
Still good to eat it wasn’t hard to tell that most of the fresh food in the shop was already quite old and not the best looking. Why I’m telling you this? All the things we bought in this store in Oumjrane were perfectly good to eat but you would never find them in a supermarket in our countries like this. Not one hundred percent fresh and also not perfect looking this was food which gets thrown out in our supermarkets because almost no-one would pay for it. Once again we had the whole attention of everyone who saw us passing through the village.
One of the guys standing in front of the shop asked us where we were going or at least this is what we thought he was asking. We told him that we were heading for Taouz. They didn’t seem like they would believe us or they just couldn’t imagine why someone would even try that. We didn’t have the language skills to explain to them our motivation and we also didn’t have too much time left until it would get dark.
We got back on our bikes and decided to set up our camp a few kilometers out of Oumjrane. From entering the village our route made a 90 degrees right turn now heading straight towards the east. Directly after we left the village the route turned out to be almost impossible to ride. Instead of having a few patches of sand every once in a while like before it was now the other way. Every once in a while we found a few meters of rideable surface between the sand pits. We didn’t worry about it too much as this would be the problem for tomorrow and not today.
About two kilometer from Oumjrane we found a few trees on the left hand side which would hide us at least a little bit from the road. Slowly pushing my bike through the loose soil I recognized a silent sizzle coming from my front tire. And there it was – my first real flat tire on this bike. Using them for already more than 10.000 kilometers I never had a flat so far. The timing could have been better but I had everything with me to fix this problem. Carlos was happy to be in the role as head chef today while I kept struggling to remove my front tire from the rim. It took me a while but the tire was full with air again before dinner was ready.
After a big portion of rice with lentils I was more than ready to go to bed. This second off road day was great but also demanded a lot of energy. Having a nice and soft surface I decided to not put up my tent for this night. Instead I just used my tarp to create myself some protection from the wind. Laying in my sleeping bag under the tarp I had a long wide view into nowhere. I could spot some bigger sand dunes in the distance glowing in a red colour with the sunset before I finally closed my eyes.
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Day 3 – Technical problems / 45.84 km – 7.35 km/h
The night was cold but I slept well under the tarp. We both got up early and had another awesome sweet couscous breakfast before we got back on the road just before 9am. Our target for today was to make it at least to Tafraoute Sidi Ali, the next village on our route. Checking the map on my phone I estimated that it would be a bit more than 40 kilometers to get there. After pushing our bikes the first few hundred meters through sand the track got a little bit better again and we got back on the saddles.
Unfortunately not for long.
Arriving in another wide open area the track started splitting up and turned into one big sandpit with no end in sight. In the first few hours we still tried to cycle as much as possible of the path but after a while we had to admit that it took way more energy to constantly get on and off the bike to try cycling a few meters through the sand instead of just pushing them all the time. With our shoes full of sand pushing our bikes hour by hour it was getting fairly warm this day. With no clouds in the sky and no trees to hide under we had to force ourselves to go on.
We needed more water than expected so it got even more important that we would make it to Tafraoute Sidi Ali in the same day. The sand wasn’t our only problem. The worse the track conditions got the more car tracks we had to follow. Whilst not a problem in itself, it turned out that the plant spikes which so far had only been beside the track, had now made their way on the paths.
My theory for this change was the fact that there was less traffic on each track caused by the many different ways through the sand. Less traffic means better chances for the small thorny plants so survive on the tracks. More and more often we had to stop to free our tires from those nasty things but it didn’t take long until Carlos had the first flat tire of the day. Not even 10 minutes after we patched the tube of the rear tire for the first time it was already flat again. Those thorns turned into a serious problem and stopped us more and more often. While pushing the bikes through the sand the flat tire in the back wasn’t that much of a problem.
We couldn’t go faster than walking speed anyway and the tires barely moved in the sand anyway but when the track would get better again we would need four working tires to go on. We decided to not patch the tire again until we would get back on a better surface without spikes and lucky us this is what happened a while after.
In this time more and more sand dunes appeared to our sides and I finally had the feeling that we had arrived in the Moroccan Sahara. Since we left our camp in the morning we hadn’t seen or met another person on our way, which was great but also showed us that our route definitely was a serious off road trail. A lack of motivation, communication problems between Carlos and myself, more technical problems, running out of water and also starting to be impatient were things we had to avoid from happening.
We could already see Tafraoute Sidi Ali from far away when the surface finally got better again. The loose sand almost disappeared completely and after fixing the rear tire of Carlos’ bike we were finally able to cycle again. There wasn’t a track anymore until the village but we basically couldn’t go wrong. Having the settlement in sight we just had to keep on cycling in the right direction on the surprisingly hard surface of something that seemed to be a salt lake. I can’t say it for sure but the bright white color of the ground with only a thin layer of sand on top seemed similar to salt lakes I’ve seen in Australia. Anyway it was definitely good for cycling and after hours of slowly pushing our bikes through the sand it felt almost like we were flying to Tafraoute Sidi Ali with almost no effort at all. With not much water left this was the first thing we did when we arrived in the village.
In the small shop similar to the one in Oumjrane we were able to fill our bottles again with fresh clean water. Talking to the man in the shop with our hands and a few word of French and Spanish we found out that there was a supply truck coming with fresh food and water every two weeks. Caused by bad weather conditions it can happen that those trucks show up later than planned or even don’t come at all. Tafraoute Sidi Ali was definitely way smaller than Oumjrane but don’t ask me how many people where actually living there. On our way to the shop we passed by a small hotel and a campsite. Wondering what kind of tourism would get there the guy told us that the village was a common stop for “adventure” desert tours. Built for foreigners coming in their off road buggies or motocross bikes. We were happy that we hadn’t met any so far and also couldn’t figure out how often groups like this would get here.
Same plan like the day before we were looking forward to leave the village a little bit behind us before we would check for a good camp site but there was a problem. Just before we were looking to go on two guys on an old motorbike arrived clearly looking for us. I already knew what would happen next. And like I thought those two guys came over to offer us a place in the hotel of their friend. I shouldn’t use the word offer as this isn’t really matching the situation. Forcing us is the word that gets closer to describe this conversation. They didn’t accept a simple “no thank you” and didn’t stop talking to us, ignoring our answers. Common phrases in sales conversations like this are “democratic price”, “special price”, “cheaper for you my friend” and so on. It was pointless to continue this talk and we were also slowly running out of daylight. After a quick “thank you” and “good bye” we started leaving the village towards the east. But sadly this was just the beginning of this problem. Getting out of Tafraoute Sidi Ali to look for a camp spot the two guys started following us on their motorbike. Not wanting them to know where we would stay in the night we continued cycling hoping that they would turn around soon. But they didn’t. It takes a lot to make me angry but this was too much. Not giving a s*** about our decision and privacy even after we told them the third time that we wouldn’t stay in their hotel was way over the acceptable limit I was willing to ignore.
Already a few kilometers out of the village and still followed by those two guys I decided that it was time to make things clear. Being in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception was definitely not the best place to start an argument with two locals but there was no other way to solve this problem. They always kept some distance behind us so I started waving to tell them to come over. We started talking to them in a way more aggressive way than we did before to make it clear that it was more than time to leave us alone. Carlos in Spanish and me in German and English. Every time they tried to argue with us we were throwing new words towards them.
I’m not proud about this whole thing but there was no other way. Even having two guys shouting at them in languages they didn’t understand didn’t make them turn around in the first minutes. People asking you to stay in their hotel was normal in Morocco but to corner and follow them, definitely not. It took another few minutes which seemed really long to me to make it clear that there was nothing they could do to bring us to their hotel. Obviously not happy they finally turned around and left towards where we came from.
What a pain in the a**!
They definitely had ruined our evening. Thinking about if our behavior was right or not we waited a while to make sure they wouldn’t come back. Not looking for more trouble we both knew we would need a hidden place for our tents to make sure they wouldn’t find us camping somewhere if they wanted to. The track got way worse again and cycling was impossible. Checking for possible camp spots we continued dragging our bikes through the sand. Running out of energy for the day we spotted an abandoned looking stone hut a few hundred meters to the right. Maybe we could hide in there. Without the bike I started running to the hut to check it out and yes it was abandoned and seemed like a really good spot for the night. Protected by four transparent walls there was enough space in the inside to put up both tents. The hut didn’t have a roof anymore so there was also enough light coming in.
Still angry I also felt relieved that we found a hidden spot for the night. What a day! Awesome desert landscape, perfect weather, at least as much pushing as cycling and once again a not so nice encounter with human beings was more than enough for a single day. Not really motivated to prepare a proper dinner we just had some bread, dates, raisins and chai tee for dinner before it was time to sleep. It took me a while to finally close my eyes as I couldn’t stop thinking about this sad encounter in the evening.
Part 5 – Coming soon!
Preparation and leaving civilization
An off-road adventure through the
Day 0 – Preparation in Zagora
From the first second we arrived in Zagora we knew that we wouldn’t stay more than for one night. Immediately after we arrived in town we had several people following us on their motorbikes trying to sell us camel and desert tours. What they didn’t know was we were about to start a real desert adventure way better than any guided tour can be.
Zagora was our basecamp to plan and adjust our supplies of food and water for the next day. After leaving our bikes in a cheap homestay a bit outside of the city center we went to the center to buy all the stuff we would need in the next days. We knew that there would be at least three tiny villages on our way but we couldn’t tell if we would be able to stock up with food in those settlements. The off road path until we would get back on a normal road is around 220 kilometers long and we estimated that it would take us at least four days to accomplish it.
Adding one extra day we bought food for five days. Couscous, rice, lentils, tomato paste, some veggies, bread and we still had at least one kilo of dates which we picked in the morning. What we couldn’t carry for 5 days was water. This would easily add up to 25 liters of water each which would probably slow us down more than it would help us. We ended up with seven liters of water each. This should be enough for at least one or two days but we knew that we were still depending on stocking up water in the settlements we would pass through.
It had been 9 cycling days and a bit less than 500 kilometers since I’d left Marrakesh and neither of us had taken any rest day since then. Not wanting to stay in Zagora for a second night we decided me do a really short cycling day the next day to give our legs some rest. We also were desperately in need to do some laundry. Zagora is located right next to the Draa River. Before we left Zagora in the morning we planned to wash our clothes in the river.
No doubt I was really excited about the next days but also tried to remind myself to take this route attempt serious. We didn’t have a lot of information about the route and every time we asked someone about this off road path they told us that even special built desert trucks got stuck on this path and that it wouldn’t be good for cycling. If something would go wrong it was really likely that there wouldn’t be someone to help us. Being self-sufficient and self-responsible are the foundations of adventures but they also mean that you put yourself in a certain level of risk to accomplish the journey. Estimating and balancing this risk is the key for a successful completion.
Sitting in a small café beside the main road we tried to rethink all the stuff we would need in the next days and double checked everything. Back in the homestay we started preparing our bikes for the upcoming days. In the last days our bikes went through a lot of dust and sand.
The chains were dry and we both had some weird squeaking noise while changing gears. Removing all the dust and dirt, cleaning and oiling the chains, cleaning the shifting cables and checking the pressure of the tires. Our bikes were ready for the desert path into the unknown so it would be our physical and mental strength and of course the track conditions if this off road adventure would turn out to be a success or not. I was waiting for the upcoming days to happen since I first found out about this route.
It was finally time to conquer the Zagora to Taouz desert path by bicycle!
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Day 1 – Leaving civilization / 24.18 km – 12.0 km/h
We didn’t get up that early this morning. This first day was supposed to be a rest day so everything was easy going in this day. For breakfast we had lentil curry leftovers which we cooked on our homestay balcony the evening before. If we didn’t have any leftovers from the day before our usual breakfast was normally bread, some dates and if a shop was close by a milk drink. After packing our stuff and loading the bikes with the supplies for the next days we left Zagora on the N12 towards the north east.
Shortly after we left the city we crossed the Draa River and stopped beside a construction site along the river to wash our clothes. Like always we had some curious spectators watching what we were doing. I also checked one of my tubes which I’d changed a few days before for holes as it was slowly loosing air. No holes in the tube itself I found out that the valve was the problem. The leaking valve was fixed in seconds. I simply unscrewed it and used some grease to stop the air from leaking through the thread. With all of our wet clothes wrapped all over the bikes we continued cycling on the N12 which soon turned from a paved road into a wide gravel road. With once again perfect cycling weather we couldn’t watch as fast as our clothes were drying in the late winter sun of Morocco.
Beside the old N12 there was already a new huge road in construction. With more or less no traffic at all I was always a bit surprised about how big Morocco is expanding its infrastructure. We would follow the unsealed easy rideable N12 for about 50 kilometers. After that the N12 does a long left turn towards the North West. Shortly before this turn the real off road path towards Taouz leaves the national road to the right. From there we would rely on the GPS feature of our phones to keep on track. According to reports of motorists in one of the forums I was checking for information of this route before I left to Morocco it was easy to get lost as there were several small paths in this region, some of them also leading to the closed border to Algeria.
The worse the route conditions would get the more paths would appear because everyone was looking for their own best way through this desert area. With our limited resources of water the last thing we were looking to do was get lost so we planned to strictly follow the GPS route on our phones to not miss out any of the villages.
But this wasn’t something we had to worry about in the first day because we wouldn’t go as far as where the path would leave the N12 in this day. After a bit more than 20 kilometers of easy riding we decided to start looking for a camp site. It was our rest day and what would be a rest day without resting? Still in the same valley as Zagora we found a good spot on the right hand side of the road. The area was more or less flat with some smaller mountains surrounding us. In a 90 degrees angle to the road we probably cycled another 500 meters off road before we found the perfect camp site beside two smaller trees. Far enough away from the road not to be easily spotted this site provided us with a stunning view in this wide open valley. Carlos had some smaller problems with the shifting of his bike again. Our bikes were already completely covered in dust again and simply cleaning the moving parts of the bike was once again the solution for problem. This was probably not the last time we would need to do that.
Enjoying the view time was passing by quickly and it was soon time for dinner. In the beginning of February the sunset was fairly early. Most of the time I saw the sunrise and sunset in those first weeks of this tour. Before it was getting dark we collected some fire wood for a small campfire. This was the first camp spot in Morocco were I didn’t feel like I was hiding. With no village and people close by I really felt comfortable in this spot. Sitting around the small fire watching the flames jump around but also the sunset which was so intense this evening it almost seemed purple, I felt the first time in a long time to be surrounded by real nature again. Nature that wasn’t completely changed or destroyed by humans. It was also the evening I finally realized that I was back on the road living the life I was loving so much.
After leaving home to start a new adventure it always takes a while to get back into a traveling mindset. The weeks and months before a new journey is about to start I always think about the future but when I’m finally back on the road and have jumped into my travel mindset I stop doing this. I try to enjoy the current day without thinking too much about the next days. I stop waiting for the weekend because every day is the same. Monday and Sunday are the same when you’re on the road. I get lost in time and worry less about the future. This feeling of being completely free in time is hard to explain if you’ve never felt it yourself but it’s absolutely amazing. It’s something really hard to achieve in a regulated life in society.
For dinner we both had two massive couscous sandwiches with fried onions, garlic, pepper and zucchini. After only 10 days in the country I was already a big fan of the Moroccan bread which was usually a big round flatbread. With a full tummy and recovered legs I felt ready for the upcoming days even though I still didn’t really know what our upcoming route would be like. I only knew that I loved the dry empty desert scenery of eastern Morocco.
Part 4 – Coming soon!
Heading towards Zagora, Another Cyclist!
An off-road adventure through the
Heading towards Zagora
The 28th of January was the first cycling day of this journey. My first target was Zagora. The city from where I would leave the paved roads to challenge myself on a 220 kilometers long off road desert path – which I wasn’t even sure would be possible to accomplish with a loaded bicycle.
My route to Zagora was a bit less than 500 kilometers long and took me nine days. Like so often something unexpected happened in those first days which changed my plans for the upcoming desert path a little bit, but let’s start with the first cycling days.
The route between Marrakesh and Zagora is definitely worth mentioning. Divided by a huge mountain range called the High Atlas Mountains there’s nothing like a flat route towards the east if you start in Marrakesh. The Tizi n’Tichka pass, the main road towards the east which brings you to 2260 meters above sea level, isn’t only a stunning road, it’s also the gateway from the great Marrakesh Plains to the Sahara desert. Before I started climbing up this road I spent the first two cycling days on some smaller but not less impressive mountain roads a bit south of the Tizi n’Tichka pass.
After I got out of the city traffic of Marrakesh cycling turned out to be more chilled but already really exhausting on the first day. For getting into the mountains I first followed a fairly big and touristic road to Tahnaout. This is where I left the big roads and started my first climb to almost 2000 meters in the High Atlas Mountains. The moment I left the main road in Tahnaout the road changed from perfect surface and not too steep into old tarmac and gravel road. The ascent of the road was totally insane. Having 30 gears on my bike with some really small ones for climbing up mountain roads for hours I was in need of my smallest gear from the first second. Every now and then the road turned out to be so steep that I couldn’t keep myself on the bike. My rear tire lost traction and I couldn’t get out of the saddle, as there was then even less friction on the rear wheel. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining.
In fact this first mountain road was one of my favorite ones in Morocco. Basically no traffic, no tourists and not too many humans along the way. Every once in a while a tiny village popped up beside the road. Often they had almost the same colors than the mountains they were built on and sometimes I only recognized them a few hundred meters before I passed through them. Not really used to tourists passing through their villages on this tiny mountain road and especially not on a fully loaded bicycle the people seemed a bit surprised when they spotted me slowly crawling up the road.
It never took long after I passed through a village that I had a bunch of kids following me and believe me, it wasn’t that easy to get rid of them. Trying to be nice to them I couldn’t give them what they asked me for. Candy, money or stuff from my bike. Fun in the beginning it often turned out to be quite stressful and as I was still making my way up the road I couldn’t really go fast enough to escape them.
With only a few hours of sunlight left I arrived on top of this challenging road. It took me way longer than I expected but the views were definitely worth the hassle. A great first cycling day which gave me a good impression on how the next days would turn out. Not long after I arrived at the top of the road I started the descent which brought me back into the great Marrakesh Plains. Also the descent took way longer than I thought it would take. A lot of lose rocks, big potholes and a bumpy surface made this downhill ride a real adventure. It was the first time that I was really in need of my hydraulic rim brakes.
The days were still short at the end of January and when l I finally found a suitable spot to put up my tent it was almost completely dark already. For my first night of camping in Morocco I pitched up my tent about 100 meters away from a fairly busy road in-between two villages. Finding a spot for camping was harder than I thought in this area but it’s definitely possible. With a stunning view out of my tent looking at the High Atlas Mountains rising into the sky it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
The night was cold but my sleeping bag and liner did a good job. After packing up my stuff and getting back on the road I only cycled for a few kilometers until I arrived in a small village where I stopped at a small cafe beside the road. Still early in the morning I wasn’t the only one sitting beside the road to warm myself up with a cup of sweet Moroccan tee.
I used the time in the café to update my travel report with my experiences of the day before. Normally I do this in the evening before I go to bed but I was already too tired in the last evening to do so. Writing down some of my thoughts and feelings helps me to clear my mind and of course to remember what happened in those days. The book is like someone who listens to you in the evening. Definitely helpful when you travel alone for a longer time. When you sleep at a different place almost every day and experience a lot of stuff day by day it gets hard after a while to keep your mind sorted. Without writing down those things I would definitely get lost in my thoughts and memories after a while.
Later in the day I arrived at the N9 road which would lead me through the Atlas Mountains. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to make it over the pass today, so I started climbing up the road really slowly, always looking for a possible spot to set up my camp for the night. The traffic was better than I expected and the steepness of the road was nothing compared to the day before. After stocking up with some vegetables, fruits and bread at one of the many shops beside the road I finished my cycling at around 1200 meters above sea level.
Hidden behind an old sandstone wall I found a great camp spot just about 50 meters beside the road, with a great view towards the great Marrakesh Plains. The only visitor I had was a curious goat that kept visiting me for a while to check if there would be any new fruit and vegetable skins to eat. After watching the sun disappear not much later everything around me turned into a deep red. I went to bed excited about how the next day would turn out. I had a good starting position for conquering the Tizi n’Tichka pass tomorrow without running out of day light.
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I got back on the road early the next day to make sure that I wouldn’t end up somewhere on top of the mountain at night. The road surface was ok and I made good progress up the road. Beside a short stop for a coffee and some fresh fruits I didn’t do any stops on my way up to my highest mountain pass so far. The size and surface conditions of the N9 decreased the further I got up into the mountains and it also turned steeper. In several long switchbacks I slowly paddled towards the top. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking and the N9 is a real master stroke of construction. Winding through this dry and rocky mountains I had great fun cycling it.
More and more often I stopped to take pictures and to enjoy the views. Getting close to the top the N9 turned from an old, narrow and steep road into a new one with two tracks for each direction and instead of winding around smaller peaks the new road went straight though them. Not as interesting as the old part but this new segment made the last kilometers to the top fairly easy to cycle. The wind was picking up a little bit and the temperatures dropped which made me add another layer of clothes even though I was still going uphill.
Checking the map on my phone I only had one kilometer left to the top when I suddenly spotted something on the side of the road about 100 meters away from me. Getting closer I realized that it was another touring cyclist. Sitting beside his loaded bike at a construction site he seemed like he didn’t know that he was almost on top.
Of course I stopped and asked him how he was doing. After some small talk in the first minutes we figured out the basic information of each other. His name was Carlos and he had grown up in Uruguay. He started travelling a while ago and was now on his first bicycle journey. After spending some time in Marrakesh he finally got started with his cycling three days before. Just like me. He was heading in the same direction so we quickly decided that we could join our routes for a while. I also told him about my idea of the off-road path along the Algerian border and that I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to make it with our kind of setup but it was obvious that he started being curious about this route as well.
I was right with my first thought that he had no idea that he was almost on top of the pass and after telling him he seemed motivated again to finish this last uphill kilometer. I didn’t expect at all to meet another cyclist just on my third day on the road but it was great. Morocco was a new country for both of us, we had really similar thoughts about the style of our travel and even if Carlos’ English wasn’t the best we had more than enough to talk about. We ended up travelling together for almost three weeks before we both continued cycling on our own routes. He also became a part of the off-road path from Zagora to Taouz which is supposed to be the main topic of this book. Trust me we’re slowly getting there.
Just a few minutes later we arrived at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass, 2260 meters above sea level. We didn’t stay long as it was quite cold and some older men beside the road were trying nonstop to sell us shiny stones and fossils from the area. Yeah right – because I felt okay cycling up this road with all my luggage doesn’t mean that I want to stock up with some extra weight in form of shiny stones. I’m just kidding but it still seemed really weird to both of us that they didn’t get it why we wouldn’t like to carry some extra weight.
Checking my map I recognized an interesting looking road leaving the N9 in a few kilometers. Definitely a long detour towards the next town Ouarzazate this small road seemed way more appealing to us than following the main road. And so we did. After a few kilometers of descent we arrived at the start of P1506. Leaving the N9 to the left the decision to cycle this detour quickly turned out to be a jackpot. The P1506 was a mix of unpaved and sealed road just wide enough for one car, which provided us with stunning views of the really dry desert like the east side of the High Atlas Mountains.
The villages we passed through on this road fitted perfectly into the surrounding scenery and didn’t disturb the atmosphere of this region at all. Still more than 2000 meters above sea level we found ourselves a suitable spot for our camp beside a dry riverbed with a perfect view towards the peaks of the Atlas Mountains which once again turned blood red with the sun disappearing from the Moroccan sky. Exhausted from a long cycling day with a lot of meters in elevation to climb we prepared ourselves for a really cold night as there was not a single cloud in the sky.
We spent the following two days mostly cycling on the P1506 in a slow pace until we arrived in Ouarzazate back on the main road. With only 50 and 30 kilometers of cycling in those two days the road and the scenery around us was just too beautiful to go faster. Passing through stunning valleys on a winding road with almost no traffic and almost no tourists. We couldn’t ask for more. I was amazed about how the people living there were using their limited water resources and how they built their houses in a way inclusive of nature. Some of the villages were carved into the walls of the narrow valleys so they could use the whole area of the riverbed to grow food.
In Ouarzazate we found ourselves a cheap homestay for the night. After five days of cycling days with warm weather over the days, freezing cold nights and a lot of elevation in meters I really felt in need of a shower. In most of the normal accommodations (which aren’t really built for foreigners), the shower is a tiled room with a small stool, a bucket, a cup and a water tap. Simple but efficient. Being as clean afterwards as in a “normal” shower you only use a fraction of the water you use back home. Another advantage, especially after a long cycling day with tired legs is the small stool to sit on while having a shower!
After walking through the city for a bit and having something small for dinner we decided that we wouldn’t stay a second night in Ouarzazate. The city didn’t seem interesting enough to us to spend a rest day here and we both still felt good to continue. There would be only one more climb until Zagora and we estimated that it would take us another two cycling days to get there. This last climb would be followed by a ride through the Draa Valley, a massive palm valley which would lead us all the way to Zagora, the starting point of our off road adventure attempt.
We left Ouarzazate the next morning on the N9 towards the south east and quickly found ourselves in a stone dessert. There was almost nothing beside the road and sharp black stones covered the whole area. Climbing up the N9 once again this time we had to make it up to 1700 meters above sea level. Fairly steep but with great weather conditions and a good mood the climb felt really easy to me. On top the road provided us with breathtaking views towards Agdz a city located in the Draa Valley. A few kilometers wide the valley was completely green which created a crazy contrast with its desert surrounding. A really fun descent later we found ourselves in the middle of a date palm forest.
Like in the small valleys we passed through on the P1506 the surface of the Draa Valley was perfect and completely used for farming. In-between and under the date palms the people living there had everything growing they were in need of. Grains, rice, vegetables and fruits. As amazing as it looked we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be that easy to find a camp spot in this valley. Our first try was beside a small road leading out of the valley. Immediately after we left this small road to check if we could hide our tents somewhere we started collecting spikes from small bushes on the ground with our tires. But it was not only the spikes which made us not pick this spot for our camp. After a few meters further beside the road we started spotting all kinds of different bones on the ground. From small ribs to huge cow skulls. An animal cemetery or better said the place where the people throw the leftovers away? We didn’t know but for sure we wouldn’t camp here. After a while we also recognized that we had several kids watching us from further up the hill. Finding privacy in Morocco can be hard.
We decided to get back on the N9 to continue our search for a better camp spot but first of all we had to free our tires from all the spikes we collected on our failed camp spot mission.
Our decision to move on was perfectly right as not much later on we found a way better site for our tents. Instead of moving out of the valley, in addition to finding some space for camping we changed our strategy and looked for a place in between the palms. It was clear that all the land inside the valley was someone’s private property so we made really sure that no-one had seen us leaving the road into the palm plantation.
Not too far away from the road we found a nice patch of hard sand where we could put up our tents. With less than half an hour of sunlight left we decided to prepare food first. Pitching up my tent in the dark is something I normally attempt to avoid but sometimes it’s better to wait for the night until you build up your camp. Less light means a smaller chance that someone spots you. Not having the best site to camp also means that it could be smart to have an early start as well. And so we did. The next day I was up before sunrise to make sure that I had everything packed and ready to go before the new day would start.
Though a little bit in a rush we still spent some time on something we realized in our tents the night before. Every once in a while we heard dates falling down from the palms straight on to our tents. What can be better than awesome cycling snacks falling down from the sky right into your hands? Before we left we took a plastic bag and quickly collected some good looking dates. After a few minutes we already had a half bag full of free energy. A great start into a new day!
Well not really. Only a few minutes back on the road Carlos realized that his tire in the back was running flat. So we stopped not more than a kilometer away from where we started. Carlos fixed his tire while I updated my tour journal which I once again skipped the evening before. It didn’t take long to fix the tire and we were soon back on the road with four tires full of air.
Instead of following the N9 until Zagora we switched over to the other side of the valley and continued on a way smaller unsealed road with almost no traffic. We were already used to the fact that every time we passed through a village a bunch of kids would follow us for a while. This fascination got even “worse” in the evenings when all the kids were playing on the streets. Not knowing what they were saying beside the more common request for candy, money or even cigarettes and alcohol from the older ones we didn’t really know how to handle these situations. The best we could do was to keep smiling like always and continue cycling.
It wasn’t the first time that in situations like this a whole village starts staring at you from the first second they can see you. Back in 2014 I travelled a few weeks through Java Indonesia. Every time we stopped in a smaller town or village far away from the few touristic spots of the island we had the attention of everybody. The people often just seemed curious about what we were doing in their village and kept watching us, even if we just ate something beside the road like all the others. Often people came over and politely asked us if they could take a picture with us. Having the attention of so many people can be weird and stressful especially if you don’t feel comfortable with having too many people surrounding you like me. I didn’t really like this attention but I accepted it and was happy that I could make some people smile with some simple communication or even with a new profile picture for Facebook. I told myself that I would probably react in the same way if I was in their situation.
Nonetheless there was a difference between the people in Indonesia and the ones in Morocco. In Indonesia most of the time I had a feeling of respect from both parties. I gave my best to include myself as well as possible in their culture and life and to give them the feeling that we are equal and don’t want to be treated different even if I look different and come from a different part of our world. In response to that the Indonesians approached me with respect as well and seemed to accept me in their country. This was the part I was missing a bit in Morocco. Don’t generalize this to all Moroccan people but I often felt a lack of respect for each other.
It’s hard to compare Java with Morocco but they also have something really big in common. The religion. The Muslim religion is dominating in both places with more than 90 percent. So what made the difference for me if it wasn’t the religion? I don’t really know it but I’m convinced that the wrong tourism of foreigners in Morocco is taking a big place in this matter. Tourism in Morocco more than doubled in the last ten years and they learned how to make money with the tourists. They also learned how to talk and interact with them and experienced how the majority of the foreigners treat them and their culture, and what they have to do to attract them. And now imagine us travelling through their country in a whole different way than most people do.
We weren’t looking to sleep in hotels, no souvenirs, no fancy restaurants and we weren’t interested in camel or off road truck tours. They couldn’t understand that we were looking to travel in a self-sufficient way without spending money for luxury, even if we could afford it. No doubt we made it hard for them to interact with us because we weren’t like the average tourists they know. I hope you understand what I’m trying to explain about how I often felt in Morocco but let’s go on.
Getting close to Zagora the Draa Valley slowly opened up and we left the date palm forest behind us. The last few kilometers we followed a dusty track with a new road in construction beside it. In a regular interval, big construction trucks overtook us which made us eat dust every few minutes. Covered with a layer of desert sand we arrived not much later in Zagora, the city from where we would leave the sealed roads to continue our journey on an unsure path through the Moroccan desert.
Part 3 – Coming soon!
The route, Introduction and the first days
An off-road adventure through the
Before I flew to Morocco to start my third long term bicycle tour in which I ended up cycling through ten countries, all the way from Marrakesh in Morocco to Bucharest in Romania, I checked the online maps of the country for remote and non-touristic routes to cycle.
Reading some reports about old routes of the rally Dakar, which passed through Morocco in the past, I got stuck with one specific route. Located in Eastern Morocco I found some information about a remote 220 kilometers long, off-road path along the Algerian border all the way from Zagora to Taouz. With only a few villages along the path and no real information about the track conditions I wasn’t really sure if this path would be possible to cycle. According to the satellite pictures this route would lead me right through the hearth of the Moroccan desert. Trying to research more about the track I only ever ended up in online forums for off-road motor biking. I wasn’t really surprised that I couldn’t find a single report about someone doing it by bicycle. Checking for the weather in this area I quickly found out that the only time this track would maybe be possible to cycle was winter. Good for me as my flight to Marrakesh was in the end of January!
Leaving the roads of Eastern Morocco to follow an uncertain path along the border of Algeria in summer would be impossible. The weather records of the last year already showed temperatures reaching 30 degrees and more in the beginning of February, the only time I could possibly try to cycle this path.
I estimated that it would take me three to six days to accomplish this route. Carrying food for six days and more isn’t that much of a problem when you travel with a bicycle. You can easily carry a few packs of rice, pasta, couscous or lentils for dinner, oats and milk powder for breakfast, and bread, nuts and other stuff for lunch. Stocking up with the right amount of water is the thing you should be aware of. Estimating how much water you need can be hard, especially if you don’t know how warm it will be, how much energy it will take to make progress on the route and how long it will take to arrive to the next place where you can stock up your resources again. Brutal hot weather and long distances between water tanks made me carry up to 25 liters of water on my first bicycle tour in Australia back in 2013.
Still not really sure if it would be a good idea to give this route a try but also with quite a bit of excitement I saved all the route information I could find on my phone. Sometimes you have to take a risk to create a new adventure. Leaving the comfort zone and maybe challenging your physical and mental limits are the things that it takes to start a journey into the unknown. Journeys and days like this are hard to predict, not always fun and will leave you with possible problems on your own. In the same time those are the days in which you learn the most about yourself! Having full responsibility about your actions, knowing no one will be there if you’re in need of help is something we don’t have in a socially controlled environment back home. I think this is one of the reasons that makes it so interesting for a lot of people to start an adventure into the unknown.
On the 26th of January 2016 it was once again time for me to leave Germany. With all my gear sorted and packed I was sitting in a plane towards Morocco. With no time limit and almost no route planning I was on my way to start my third long-term bicycle tour. Not knowing when I would come back and where I would end up made it way harder for me to say good bye to family and friends this time.
Arriving in Morocco
I had the luck that I found someone who was happy to host me for my first nights in Morocco. After I received my bike and all the other gear at the special luggage claim in the Airport of Marrakesh it was time for me to figure out how I would get towards the city center, where I would meet Mehdi and Ayoub, two guys from Casablanca who invited me to their home in the hearth of Marrakesh.
With more luggage than I was able to carry, including the massive bicycle carton I ended up blocking the whole rear entrance of a crowded bus which was making slow progress towards the city center. Ayoub told me that they would pick me up at a certain bus stop which I had written down on a small paper. I asked the bus driver to let me know when it would be time for me to leave the bus. This whole situation was more stressful as it may sound as I had no idea where I was going. I couldn’t call Mehdi or Ayoub, there were so many people in the bus, and at every bus stop and I wasn’t sure if the bus driver had it right.
I was more than happy that everything turned out well. I jumped out of the bus on the right spot and Mehdi and Ayoub were already waiting for me. We carried all my stuff for the next weeks and months to their place. After unpacking and checking if my bike survived the flight without any damage we went to a small square in the city to have something for dinner. Everything was good. Nothing was damaged, nothing got lost, I found my hosts and we enjoyed a good meal and ended up having a long talk before we went to bed.
What a great start!
I started the next day setting up my bike and trying to figure out my route out of the city. After visiting some of the main “attractions” of Marrakesh I decided that I would leave the city already the next morning. To put it bluntly, the city changed a lot towards tourism, and not in a good way. Besides the countless number of tourists coming over to Marrakesh to have a nice oriental holiday experience while ignoring the unmissable effects of their all-inclusive “adventures” it was impossible to walk somewhere without someone trying to sell you something. Monkeys in chains, snakes to put around your neck and many other cruelties just because of foreigners paying for an unusual holiday picture.
I knew about these things going on there before I got to Morocco but it doesn’t make it less shocking and frustrating for me every time I see something like that. It’s a worldwide problem. No matter where you go you will always find people on holiday who just don’t give a **** about the country, people, culture and animals, in order to have a “perfect” holiday. To make matters worse, one of the first things I experienced on the roads of Marrakesh was a group of 4 German tourists loudly complaining that they couldn’t find a shop to buy alcohol.
Just think about it!
You can find a more detailed article about my feelings and thoughts within my time in Morocco over here.
With the help of Mehdi and Ayoub I went to a few shops which are just an open room right next to the road most of the time in Morocco. I went in to stock up with food, water and some herbs. You won’t find price labels in these shops. It’s normal to negotiate about prices and there’s often a different price for tourists. This is why I created this list to give you an idea about the basic cost of things in Morocco without getting ripped off.
Price list (in Moroccan Dirham / February 2016)
- Bottled water: 1,5 liters = 5-6 Dh / 5 liters = 10-12 Dh
• Bread (depending on the size) = 1-3 Dh
• Egg = 1 Dh
• Tangerines/kg = 5 Dh
• Lentils/kg = 12 Dh
• Rice/kg = 10 Dh
• Pasta/kg = 12 Dh
• Peanuts/kg = 24 Dh
- Pressed dates/kg = 6 Dh
• Tomato paste = 2-4 Dh
• Milk drink „Mixy“ (500 ml) = 5 Dh
• A coffee = 5-10 Dh
• Tea: a single cup = 1-3 Dh / a pot = 5-10 Dh
• Crepe with Cheese or Chocolate = 2-5 Dh
• Tajine (per person) = 15-30 Dh
• Cheap hotel/campsite = 30-60 Dh