Guelmim is a rough trading town that straddles the desert and Morocco proper. There is a large market, plenty of contraband tobacco, cheap fuel smuggled up from the south, and heavy military presence.
First task as evening came on was to get the down pipe on my second fuel tank welded back together after it fell off during the shakes. Then we restocked with some food. As it was getting late there was little point in hitting the N1 so we headed for an oasis seven kilometers distance, the same oasis where we had agreed to meet up with Saltman Frank for new years. The Ait Bekou oasis forms part of a chain of watering holes along the foot of the Anti-Atlas mountains and Sahara. It has the effect of creating a thin green line from Guelmim to Akka in the east. There is a rich history to this belt as the meeting place for Caravanserai, those coming up to the Maghreb and those departing back to the desert or even west Africa. Here they can replenish supplies, exchange information on the activities of bandits, wait for more caravans to travel in larger groups. The Ait Bekou oasis has a three hundred year old kasbah that served as the meeting place for the tribal chiefs leading their caravans. Its fortified walls could safeguard the more precious cargo of silver, whilst slaves and salt were stored else where. Springs water the oasis, distributed along small irrigation channels.These can be opened or shut using dry mud so that the small fields behind high mud walls can get watered when needed. Tall date palms keep the oasis cool, whilst olive groves and other fruit trees are planted in peoples gardens. The houses are made of mud mixed with straw, two storeys tall with wooden beams to support the floors. The streets are raised up like dykes above the irrigation canals but still feel protected from the sun through the use of high mud walls.
The kasbah is now a museum founded by the current curators grandfather who amassed an impressive collection of Saharwai artifacts, from goat skin water carriers to camel saddles, jewelery, ornate boxes, Berber pillows, agricultural tools etc. The tour of the museum is short after which we sit in the courtyard under a Saharwi tent sipping mint tea.
In the afternoon we head back to Gelmim to recharge the internet key. Whilst there the three of us grabbed some lunch, delicious chicken tagine, salad, lentils, orange juice for 80 dirham (8 euros). A good meal sets me off for the long drive to Tantan. The meal was only upset by this Moroccan chap that insisted in sitting at our table and kissing Anika. His teeth were reduced to crooked black nails, dangling nerves, protruding from his swollen gums. Unfortunately I allowed the image to linger in my mind as I tucked into my chicken which quite upset my appetite. I suspect the chap is a local loon, who moved on when we gave him no attention.
The N1 is a two lane tarmac road, the highway to the south. It has been heavily used and little maintained so that the edges have been eaten away like piranha bites reducing the available space for when two trucks must pass each other at full speed. Several times I have had to drop my outer tires off the road. Much worse than the trucks are the coaches on steroids that keep to the middle of the road without dropping below 100km an hour. Like high speed train drivers they come past me with a gust of wind.
Whilst driving along the N1 we cross paths with the zebra stripe Toyota of German’s that we encountered on a piste. They flash as they pass us heading towards Guelmim. Given their direction I wonder if they found that piste to Tantan.
Shortly before Tantan and minutes before the bridge over the Draa river (just before the foreboding police checkpoint on the other side of the bridge) is a turning to the right advertising a paying campsite and Kasbah. It had been indicated by the veteran French couple from Plage Blanche that this would make a good stop. The sun was setting as we trundled along a rough piste to reach the campsite. The sky was a dark blue streaked with pink that made the walls of the kasbah glow a evening rose colour. The campsite is an unlikely hotel resort, a seemingly artificial green creation in the desert.
Tapping wells beneath the sand it has become a flourishing oasis. The building is tastefully designed and decorated to resemble the ruined kasbah a stones throw away. Impressive gates lead into a large atrium with a pool. Small windows keep the roasting summer sun out whilst thick walls maintain a cool temperature. The electricity is powered from a noisy generator, the heating is solar. There were several overland Toyotas there and a twelve tonne MAN 4×4, all drawn to the luxury of hot showers, lush vegetation and commanding views from the roof terraces over the Draa valley. One night cost us 80 dirham (8euros) which is expensive when one considers the wide open desert which is all free parking. It is easily justified for the pleasure of showers and company. Parked near us were a Russian couple who come to north Africa every two years for the pistes.
In the morning we explored the old Kasbah. It sits on the next hill along from the hotel. Most of its walls are standing though its first floor has caved in. There are two towers of the sort that can be classically described as square set with a taper at their height with wooden poles protruding out of the walls. The ruin is quite abandoned and will not be there for many years to come, its mud walls collapsing inwards.
Moving on we pass through Tantan and several police checkpoints. For the first time since arriving in Morocco we are requested to pull over at a check point. The officer on duty only wants our fiches (print outs of our passport numbers, vehicle registration details) and wishes us a good time in Morocco.
Heading past Tantan plage (El Oatia) the perilous N1 now hugs the coastline which is unremarkable being flat with cliffs barring our access to the sea. We pass a small coral of campers that include the Austrians and Dutch in their 4×4’s. We picked up a Moroccan hitch hiker, a young chap on his way back to his parents in Laayoune. He is the epitamy of Maroc cool, thick hair combed back over his head, dark sunglasses, black satin shirt under a black blazer with satin lapels, blue Levis jeans hugging his waste with the aid of a large buckled ‘Levi’ belt, finished with brown suede shoes. Our destination is a spot recommended by the veteran French couple, a sulphur spring popular with French motorhomes. It is a delightful spot, beside a lagoon rich in shell fish (and birds) with dunes leading down to the Atlantic. The spring is like a tumbler of tonic water, sweet water in a stone bowl large enough to bath in, with strings of gas bubbles rising to the surface. It is not as strong smelling as Renne les Baines but is a delight none the less. The French here love it, washing in it daily. A local fisherman does the rounds here with his catch each morning and evening. His small head protruding out of an oversized frog-suit. Unfortunately last evening, after taking the orders for fish from the motorhomes, he proceeded to gut and clean his catch in the sulphur pool much to the chagrin of the campers, but he is an obstinate fellow and took no heed of their protestations. A German Samaritan cleaned up the mess after him.
The Moroccan hitch hiker remained with us for the afternoon. I had offered him a glass of rum and coke to wash away the dusty heat which he sipped at, getting progressively more wasted with each drop. He became quite hard work, bubbling away in Arabic quite oblivious to my blank stare, giving me big hugs and no doubt swearing eternal friendship. Feeling very pleased with himself he put on his walkman earphones and began singing away some Arabic pop song. Eventually he went back to the road but not before giving us his number and promising that if we get to Laayoune his mom will cook us the best couscous we have ever had!
There is a little girl here aged three which has taken a delight to Anika and her toys. Her parents are from Britanny and have been on the road since May, first reaching the arctic circle then tacking south east for central Turkey before doubling back to Morocco. They speak very highly of Senegal, having raised our expectations innumerably. Anika is not as patient with her as would please a silent observer.
Next stop is Sidi Akhfennir for our first taste of cheap diesel fuel. There have been several black market petrol stations on the road but for now we carry enough to hold us till Sidi Akhfennir.