November 21, 2015
For all of the activity at the border it doesn’t take long for us to feel like we’ve left it all behind. After passing through a few busy streets we leave the caterpillar of traffic and take a right turn up a tight switchback and find ourselves quickly climbing into the hills to the southwest of Beni Ansar.
The towns here quickly remind us of our time in Tunisia – the condition of the streets is wildly varying and many of the walls are camouflaged with the surrounding sand-coloured hills. Here though, the earthy tones are often broken by swaths of bright colours, punctuating the landscape almost in defiance of the dominant tans and greens, and the presence of them immediately lifts our hearts, filling us with excitement. It feels great to be here!
There are short breaks between towns that take us higher into the mountains – we’re at the eastern-most point of the Rif range, one of the dominant mountain groups in Morocco. Perhaps less majestic than the mighty Atlas to the south, these mountains still inspire.
We continue to climb with the road getting more and more narrow as we reach the hills peak; a lone tree greets our arrival while the city and land below us meet the Mediterranean in a view that takes our breath away. Even with the occasional covering of sand, the road here is a lovely ride and our shoulders relax as we begin to feel the country wash over us. Every once in a while, a man emerges from the bushes in the middle of nowhere. Most are selling items from small boxes that double as a stools but one, holding a white container filled with clear liquid, seems quite drunk. His mannerisms are slow, his eyes are a good three seconds behind the movement of his head and, stumbling, he tries to wave us over. We give stopping a pass. Mostly though, their faces sport lovely smiles and a gesture for us join them.
When we share so much of our time on the road with trucks, we enjoy seeing the differences in them from country to country. Tunisia had plenty of small, over-filled trucks that looked ready to topple at a moments notice. White and unadorned, they seem to serve a purely utilitarian purpose and remained free of any artistic input from their owners. Here though, we begin to see evidence of haulers driven by truly creative forces! With paint, stickers and neon-lights beginning to appear in wonderful patterns, the trucks are starting to look more like what we’d expect from India than here. We’re beginning to realize just how different Morocco is from Tunisia.
There’s a relatively new road – the N16 – that runs along Moroccos northern coast and it’s absolutely stunning. As we climb higher into the Rif Mountains, the landscape changes like a chameleon. From rich green hills to deep red cliffs; from hoodoos the size of small mountains to a sudden release into fields of gold. The landscape in Morocco is already winning us over and pushing our border experience far from our thoughts. The views are unfettered by garbage and we often see small crews working to clear the occasional litter-drifts from the roadside.
Another difference from Tunisia is the general lack of interest folks have in us here. We pass person after person with nary a wave nor smile. With Moroccos easy access through the south of Spain, spacemen on fully-loaded bikes are more common here and don’t seem to hold the same mystique as they did in Tunisia. Instead, people simply continue with their days activities and we pass quietly without intrusion. It’s a different experience and creates an immediately different feeling for us. Not bad, not good, just different.
Our days riding is incredibly satisfying. Our spirits are high as we approach the coordinates for Casa Paca, our home for the night. At some point, the GPS begins telling us we’ve arrived, but there’s nothing here except a field. It’s not unusual if we’re to be honest; coordinates provided by folks often provide a general idea of where a place is here. Having ridden a series of switch-backs and deciding we’ve wandered too far, we backtrack to where our GPS thinks our destination should be. There’s a rocky road leading into the hills and, with nothing else in sight, we decide to follow it skyward.
The road is narrow and our panniers often brush the foliage along the trail, while the twin-tracks keep us occupied negotiating ruts and larger rocks. We arrive at a fork in the road, take a steep left and travel about ten meters before reason kicks in; the road ahead is disappearing into rock and brush. We see a man tending his yard and ask directions – he lets us know we should have taken a right instead of a left at the fork. We turn our heavy bikes around on the steep trail and get a running start for the far steeper right-hand line. It’s steep enough that sitting normally could see us flipping backward so up onto the pegs we go.
Free of drama, we climb the rocky road with the bikes bouncing in every direction and eventually see the beautiful blue walls of our home for the night. Parking the bikes is slightly problematic too – the space is tight and the grades on this mountain-side retreat make for some exciting lean angles. It’s nothing a 2×4 under the kickstand can’t fix but by the time we’re unpacked we’re both knackered! With bags by our feet we meet Joaquin and his wife Nabila who welcome us with wide smiles into their home.
Situated high on the hills to the southeast of Al Hoceima, the B&B has amazing views of the Gulf of Hoceima and the Alboran Sea. Close to the beach below us are Isla de Mar, Isla de Tierra and the fortified Peñón de Alhucemas – three small islands that a bad swimmer could walk to during low tide. Amazingly, these rocks are Spanish territories inhabited by lonely Spanish flags, and were home to an international incident in 2012. After buying seats on a smuggling ship bound for “Spain”, eighty sub-Saharan Africans we’re dumped unceremoniously onto the islands by the traffickers after they technically fulfilled their job (it is Spain, after all).A tense standoff between Spain and Morocco followed before the refugees were moved to the beach and deported to Algeria. The military camp that was established during the stand-off has remained on the beach ever since.
Casa Paca is booked solid the following night so Joaquin has graciously given us the apartment on the lower floor – a room that sleeps six – for the price of a double. After the cramped quarters of the berth on the ferry from the previous night, the room is gigantic and a welcome surprise. The walls of the main hallway are lined with photos of people who’ve visited and many of the pictures are filled with guys next to dual-sport bikes wearing massive smiles. This place has a wonderfully warm energy that instantly has us happy to be here.
We’ve made it in time for dinner and the only thing that perhaps beats the views from our patio table is Joaquin and Nabila’s cooking which is simply wonderful. She prepares a hybrid of European and traditional Moroccan flavours in the most mouth-watering way. We feel spoiled with every bite and a calm contentment fills us as the sun begins to drape it’s golden light over the water. Joaquin sits with us for a while and tells us about the area and his time in Morocco. He tells us of the new road that runs along the north and how unspoilt it is. He explains how it’s mostly uninhabited curbs will slowly populate; starting with a man and a box, which becomes a table, then a lean-to and eventually a simple building for selling wares.
With the light dwindling, we make our way to the room to curl up with a movie when suddenly a giant cockroach lands on the pillow next to me. It’s a shock to see this critter considering how clean our room is but, picking up the pillow, I take our unwanted friend out into the yard and fling him into the nearby field. With the roach-tossing event complete, the comfortable bed quickly settles us into a deep sleep and the stresses of the border disappear leaving only the beauty of this country to fill our dreams.
The next day we plan to take things easy. Nita’s recent heart episodes have us eager to keep everything calm and simple in the hopes that the anticipation of another ferry to Africa was the trigger for her fluttery ticker. Just to keep things exciting, we kick the day off by relocating a few more twitching cockroaches into the yard (little critters are par for the course in North Africa – we don’t mind) and I’ve got a case of the trots – not terrible, but my guts are sore and the sharp pain in my abdomen is begging for a day of quiet. It’s already been an exciting twenty-four hours in Morocco! We spend the day writing and watching movies while also taking advantage of the truly excellent internet access – you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s gone. In the last few weeks the best internet connections haven’t been at hotels but rather in our tent in Spain and right here – high on a cliff in Morocco.
Joaquin’s been out all day getting groceries and organizing the house for the full-load of guests arriving today. It’s a gaggle of ten Spaniards driving from Ceuta – another Spanish exclave to the west. Last year, they booked ahead and didn’t show up leaving our hosts stuck with too much food to use and an empty house – not to mention empty pockets. There’s no deposit here and that means a no-show is costly to this small family-run business.
From the look on Joaquin’s face as we arrive for dinner, there’s some concern of a repeat performance. He’s pacing and looking out from the balcony as the evening grows longer, reassuring us (and our own looks of concern) with a “Don’t worry. Enjoy your food. I’ll do the worrying.” It’s nearly eight by the time the group arrives – no calls and little concern upon their arrival for their host. It’s how it must go at times in this industry and why, when faced with excellent hosts, we go out of our way to show them the appreciation they deserve. The group consists of men and women in their 50’s and 60’s – affluent, conspicuous and rude. We immediately dislike them – a feeling we rarely carry.
Heading down to our room, we drown out the noise of the group with our headphones and watch a movie in bed. Eventually a quiet envelopes the house and all that can be heard is the song of a million crickets outside the windows.
The next morning we meet the day with excitement for the ride ahead. Our destination for the night is Chefchaouen whose beauty and relaxed atmosphere has been recounted to us by everyone we’ve met who’s visited Morocco. Our plan involves a longer day of riding but well within our comfort zone and our confidence in riding North Africa and it’s unpredictable roads has us feeling well prepared. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the day to go sideways…
After easily navigating the brutish road out of the cliffs of Casa Paca, we head back onto the tight switchbacks up the hills to the west. About six turns in while negotiating a high-banked right-hander, I roll of the throttle and, before I know it, I’m on my back watching the bike slide uphill towards a verge that will indelicately deliver it to the road below. Luckily, the bike stops with feet to spare and in an instant I’m back to my feet. My helmet is filled with Nita’s voice asking if I’m okay. A quick pat down of my vitals confirms that I am, and I’m suddenly overwhelmed by a moment of euphoria! While Nita finds a spot to pull over I somehow manage to lift my fully-loaded bike while she makes her way to me.
The crash was sudden and, fortunately, soft; a low-side that probably wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t fighting the sharp pains in my stomach. It’s a lapse of concentration – a rookie mistake that even veteran miles can bring. There’s not a lot of roadside self-abuse over the incident, instead there’s a quick check of my body followed quickly by a check of the bike. Other than some worn sliders, everything seems fine and we enjoy a quick laugh about it before wasting no time getting back on the bikes. As I start up the Moose, I can’t help but feel some amazement at how far the bike travelled uphill!
At the top of the hill we stop for gas and check all the vitals again. If we had known how the day was going to turn out, we’d have surely have seen this as a sign to stop. Ah, hindsight.
It’s not long before our route detours from decent pavement into narrow lanes of increasingly decrepit tarmac. We begin winding our way into the Rif Mountain range whose views are some of the most stunning we’ve seen. The day is slightly overcast and fingers of light reach down into a valley that’s getting further and further from us with every turn. At first, there’s an excitement at the amazing landscape we’re being rewarded with for our efforts, but after an hour or so the concentration required to not fall from the sheer drops along the pass has left our helmets silent. Our ETA for Chefchaouen continues to move further away and soon any remnants of a once decent road are mostly gone.
Recent landslides have left long portions of the road partially impassable and, in some spots, simply missing. As we round one corner we can see the road has slipped into the valley far, far below. All that’s left is a narrow band of dirt about two meters wide and a sheer drop straight down to our left. About 7oo ft if I use the Calgary Tower as a gauge. Now some would think that a soft dirt track twice the width of our bike is plenty, but I can assure you: two meters is not enough to feel secure in our decision to cross. But we do. And we make it.
But there’s a cost to our success; Nita’s heart and it’s horribly ill-timed Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome has decided that here – high on this mountain pass – is the time to demonstrate it’s debilitating power. On a rare patch of tarmac, we find a flat spot to park the bikes and when Nita’s helmet comes off I know instantly that we’re in trouble. She’s pale but calm, which is key when it comes to trying to ease the tachycardia that runs rampant while her heart desperately tries to figure out a firing order than makes sense.
Pulling off an Ortlieb bag, she lays down in the dirt along the side of the road while I pull the bikes into a place where the occasional 4×4 can get by without running her over. Just like Spain, nothing works to stop her hearts fit; rolling onto her side she tries to sleep in the hopes of calming it.
For the first time since we started our journey, I mutter the words “It’s over. We’re done.” I mean it.
On the plateau below is a small village whose surrounding hills are sparsely populated. A couple of kids have made their way up to see what we’re doing and the initial playful curiosity is replaced with concern when they see Nita laying on the ground. With frequent glances, they share a whisper before returning to chasing one another up and down the road. It’s not long before adults start to emerge from their homes to ask if Nita needs help while pointing to a building in the valley far below. “Doctor” is the only word we seem to share. I try my best to explain that a doctor isn’t needed – she’s had it since childhood – she’ll be fine – she just needs quiet. But, suddenly, along this pass on top of the Rif Mountains, quiet becomes increasingly rare.
Having understood that Nita’s heart is the problem, one man leaves and returns forty minutes later with a bag full of various heart pills. It’s a generous offer that we simply can’t accept when we have no idea what these pills are. He’s got a kind face, but at this moment he thinks we’re crazy for not taking him up on his offer. As he leaves, I notice that we’ve attracted quite a crowd along the ridge above us and a quick check of the watch reveals that we’ve been here for two hours.
A new man stops and offers us a place to stay for night – an option we don’t really want to entertain yet. We share no common language and try to explain that Nita simply needs to rest – but he’s insistent. If not the house, then the doctor? If not the doctor, then the house? And so it goes for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, every time Nita’s heart is nearly under control someone else arrives and the subsequent effort to communicate kicks it back into high-gear – not that we’re complaining. Having people coming to help keeps our spirits up (slightly) and the knowledge that we may be able to find a place to stay tonight is a relief.
For two and a half hours we stay roadside hoping for Nita’s heart to ease but it’s getting late enough that making Chefchaouen on roads like this is now out of the question. We’re a mere 10km from a more substantial road but even that seems unlikely. We now have two offers for a place to stay for the night: The man we can’t communicate with and a group of three men who have a fourth man on the phone named Omar.
Handing me the phone, I’m relieved to hear English on the other end of the line. “My friend. You need doctor? I have brother, he gets doctor?” I explain that we don’t need a doctor, just a place to stay for the night. “My friend, I have house. You’re welcome. My sister and family are there now.” Talking with Nita, we agree to spend the night at Omar’s house since our options have become fairly limited. As Nita begins to collect herself, the spectators clear and, having had a couple of hours on her back, she feels that she may be able to ride her bike 5km to our room for the night. It’s a bad idea.
The three men jump into their car and begin negotiating the remaining tight turns while we follow. Through three more washed out sections we muster enough energy to navigate the missing sections of road with frightening drops to our left. Rounding one corner the tarmac seems to be far better than the anything we’ve seen in hundreds of kilometres. Our hearts swell and, for a moment, Nita suggests that she feels good enough to keep going along the road to Chefchaouen – still over a hundred kilometres away.
We consider the option to continue for a little while until we come to a place where there’s no road at all. Nothing. Nada. Washed away with the rains, the gap is literally deep enough to use a VW Microbus as a bridge and not wide enough to properly set up our exit on the other side. Slabs of old road have created a steep entrance into the dirt that starts with a drop of about two feet before we have to point the bikes up an impromptu dirt ramp that climbs two-thirds of the way up the other side.
We let the car go first; he’s does this section daily and I want to see how he manages. Point the front toward the mountain, drop in, hit the gas, sharp turn at the last minute toward the cliff, cloud of… damn. As difficult as this obstacle is, the worst part remains lingering in the air long after the car breeches the other side. What looks like a ramp on the far side is actually a fine, talcum powder-like dirt thats a total nightmare. I drop in following the cars line, hit the fesh-fesh, disappear into a cloud of dust, and grab a mitt-full of throttle; the bike jerks and pulls me over the ridge onto the road – handlebars protesting the entire way.
I tell Nita I’ll do it for her bike but it’s too late – she’s already in the pit. In my mirror she looks strong and, for a moment, it looks like she’s going to make it. As she hits the powder her front wheel pops high into the air and begins to drop sideways towards the edge of the road. Everyone is running to her bike – her leg is pinned and her body is hanging awkwardly into the irrigation ditch – she’s struggling to push the bike off of her and, with one of the guys pulling on the opposite side, I jump into the ditch to push the bike off of her.
The two other men pick Nita up and quickly carry her – running – to the car. She’s fine but definitely shaken. I’m amazed her leg isn’t broken. The impact of her crash is enough to bend her crash-bar almost all the way to the plastic – no small feat. After making sure she’s alright, I get her bike up and find (amazingly) pretty minimal damage. I ride it out of the pit and park it roadside so I can rejoin Nita and see how she’s doing.
She’s spent – emotionally and physically. The day has taken a huge toll and I can see the exhaustion in every part of her. We leave her bike roadside with one of the three men acting as guardian while I ride behind the car. There aren’t any other deep pits but the last few kilometres wind themselves high into the mountains along a narrow dirt track. With one last tight right-hander and a steep climb we arrive at the house we’ll be staying in for the night. There are a number of women and children who greet us as we arrive and, admittedly, their presence alleviates some of the trepidation we’re both naturally feeling.
With a sense of relief, I hop back into the car with the two men to repeat the process on Nita’s bike. On our trip down to meet their stranded friend, the two men can’t stop laughing at the sight of my 6’3” frame stuffed into the front seat of their tiny car wearing full-gear – including my helmet. The laugh is a welcome relief from the days events and by the time we’re at the bike, my heart is slightly less heavy.
By the time I return, Nita’s already set up in an unfinished cinder-block room – laying on the long, decorative benches that run the length of the walls, being spoon-fed a meal of chicken stew, msemen (a dense Moroccan flatbread), honey and some homemade cookies. She’s being tended to by a beautiful woman named Fatma who, we discover, is Omar’s only unmarried sister. The three men who’ve brought us here say their goodbyes and disappear in a cloud of dust down the long dirt road. Bilay, Omar’s twenty year old nephew, is the only person here who speaks a very small amount of French – otherwise all communication is gestures and pantomime!
Fatma and Bilay aren’t the only ones here; theres also his grandmother, three other sisters, their two daughters and a couple of young boys running in and out. Everyone is standing in the hallways and there’s a real sense of concern mixed with curiosity for their unexpected visitors. After a seemingly endless train of plates have made their way into the room, Nita begins to fade into sleep leaving plenty of awkward silences filling the room. Bilay, asks if I’d like to go for a walk and while getting out may give Nita enough space to sleep soundly, in all honesty I could sleep too. Seeing her eye’s closing I head for the door with my new friend.
It’s more a scramble than a walk, really. Bilay is leading me up a steep grade and over boulders that reveal a lush green field toward the top of the mountain. We’re heading toward a rocky outcropping and the views are reminding me of why I used to love hiking. Looking down by my foot, I see something that doesn’t immediately register; a plant I faintly recognize. Suddenly, it dawns on me that we’re walking through a field of marijuana. Turning to see the surprise in my face, Bilay starts laughing and, imitating a long drag from a joint, yells “Hashish!! Hashish!!”
There’s none of the careful, sterile cultivation you read about in suburban Canadian basements – Bilay steps on about twenty plants during his quest to summit the mountain. His lack of concern for crushing what would be a bumper crop in BC, makes me initially think that these are simply a naturally occurring by-product here – perhaps drift-seeds from somewhere else – an idea which is, of course, completely wrong. In reality, we’ve been taken in by a beautifully kind family of hashish farmers.
We finally reach the outcropping of rock and sit with our feet dangling over the cliffs of an unimaginably beautiful landscape. “All of the green is hashish.” My French isn’t great but the message is clear: the incredibly lush hillsides that stretch in all directions are actually covered in marijuana plants. It’s unbelievable. I ask Bilay if it’s legal to grow pot here – a question that has him looking at me like I’m crazy. The region is semi-autonomous and while not technically legal, hashish production is taxed by the government and otherwise left uncontrolled. The fierce fighting abilities of the Berbers during the Rif wars early in the century have left a lasting impression – even in the wake of terrible losses.
A fog begins to curl it’s fingers over our cliff and the temperature takes a palpable tumble. We stay, sitting almost silent, watching the clouds move into the valley below, slowly filling the green with white until no trace of it exists. Our spot now sits above the clouds and every direction becomes a mystery. Nothing about this journey seems certain any more.