Day 8: Zagora to Bou Rbia

Sunday April 14, 2013, 57 km (35 miles) – Total so far: 706 km (439 miles)

I woke early in the morning hoping to catch the sunrise from the highest of the dunes. Unfortunately I had misjudged what time I thought sunrise would be and the sun was already up by the time I stepped out of the tent, agh! I hadn’t missed it by too long though and I was still within the famous golden hour that exists right after sunrise and just before sunset. A time when the lighting can make for some spectacular photos. So I began a dash to the highest of the dunes in order to make the most of the great lighting that was now surrounding the dunes.

The start of the walk to the highest dune

The cold night air had made the sand nice and cold so there would be no more mad dancing trying to kick the hot sand out of my sandals! I scrambled up the first dune and made my way along several ridges climbing higher and higher to the largest dune in the distance. Despite there being a couple of camps scattered along the outside of the dunes to my east there wasn’t a soul at all up on the dunes, I had them all to myself!

After a nice 15 minute hike I arrived at the top of the highest dune. The view from there was spectacular with all the smaller dunes extending into the distance below me. I relaxed here taking photos in every possible direction. All I could hear up here was the wind and the odd annoying fly buzzing by. But even the odd fly couldn’t ruin the peace up here. The silence and the view combined was a fantastic experience and I lay down here relaxing watching the sun rise higher and higher into the sky. Those few minutes spent relaxing up there with such a fantastic view laid out in front of me was well worth all the effort to get this far out into the desert.

View westwards, dunes as far as I could see
Arriving at the highest of the Erg Chigaga dunes standing at approximately 300m
The strong wind blowing sand off the top of all the dunes
The view of the path back down to the camp

After the most relaxing start to a morning I’ve had in a while I decided to wake myself up a bit by running down some of the steeper dunes at top speed. Soon enough I arrived back in camp, had breakfast eaten and was on the road back to Zagora. We took a quicker route back this time, taking pistes to M’hamid 2 hours away where we then hit tarmac and sped from there all the way back to Zagora. I managed to get a bit of sleep in along the way as I knew I had a tough day of cycling still ahead of me.

Following another jeep through the sandstorm

Back in Zagora, I said a goodbye to the guide, the driver and the camel guy and picked up my bike from the hotel. After stocking up on a lot of food and water I was ready to go. What lay ahead of me was probably the most daunting part of the trip. A 120km cycle from Zagora to Foum Zguid, just under 100km of which would be off road. This route cuts across the northern edge of the Sahara desert through an area with very few inhabitants. Looking at the satellite imagery before I left there were a couple of farms in the first 60km, a village at the 60km mark and then basically nothing at all for another 50km when you reached some small villages outside Foum Zguid.

I ended up leaving Zagora at the hottest part of the day, it was between 35 and 40 degrees going by the thermometers outside the petrol stations here. I had 4 2 litre bottles of water strapped to my bike in various places. I wasn’t sure of the water situation on this route so I packed as much water as the bike would take, even taping some of it to the frame of my bike. With the bike quite a bit heavier than usual I began my long cycle from Zagora to Foum Zguid.

First of all I had 10 easy kilometres of tarmac to cover which led to the small airstrip called Zagora airport. The road was nearly entirely deserted apart from one construction crew and the odd passing jeep. The surface was great and I made sure to enjoy it while it lasted. Sooner than I had hoped I arrived at the end of the road. What lay ahead was around 90km of rough piste across the desert. On a mountain bike something like this would be no issue but on my heavily loaded touring bike with narrow tyres, permanently jammed suspension and weaker wheels it would be a much more difficult task. I just had to hope that my bike would hold up for the crossing.

The short bit of tarmac which brought me as far as the airport
The end of the tarmac and the start of the piste

Only a couple of metres into the piste I heard someone shout at me from underneath a tree to my left. There were two teenagers there beckoning me over. I headed across and they offered me a seat and made up some tea for me. They were two berbers who were out here relaxing in the shade. What they were doing out here in the middle of nowhere I couldn’t find out due to the language barrier. With a nice glass of tea down me I pushed back onto the piste and started my journey across the stony desert.

The piste started off quite wide and luckily for me it was more rocky than sandy meaning that my heavy bike wouldn’t sink. I had to be careful with my line choice as the majority of the piste was rutted to hell! No matter what line choice I made I was still getting shaken to bits but it could have been a lot worse. The shaking was so bad that it was causing the water bottles which I had attached to my bike to become dislodged and smash off the ground every so often. On one of these occasions the lid of the bottle broke open and I had to rush back to salvage what I could. Water was fairly important out here so I couldn’t afford to lose any of it. With the water bottles now securely attached I continued on across the rocky piste.

A view of the horrible washboard surface which was battering the bike
A sand twister crossing the road in front of me

The traffic was very quiet out here, I reckon I was only passed by a vehicle every 20-30 minutes. However there were a couple of small farming hamlets along the way as well as several road construction crews who were working on a new tarmac road which they are hoping will connect Zagora to Foum Zguid in the next few years. Parts of the piste ran right by this lovely smooth tarmac road which would have been lovely to ride. However there were stone barriers lining the width of the tarmac every couple of metres so it was impossible to ride. It was especially cruel having to look at this road when you were struggling along the rutted track beside it!

After around 20km in I was finding the going very tough. The heat from the sun, the lack of shade out here and the battering I was taking on the road were taking a lot out of me. At one stage the piste turned especially sandy and I was finding it tough to control the bike. Once out of the sand and back on the rocky piste I noticed that my front tyre was deflating. I put the bike over on it’s side and went looking for my pump. Typically though it wasn’t where I thought it was and I had to unpack the majority of the contents of my panniers before I could find it. While doing this I had flies surrounding me and no shade to protect me from the beating sun. I began pumping like mad and after a couple of hundred pumps the bike was good to go again.

I was a bit frustrated with my slow progress and the heat and flies out here so I put my headphones in, put on some heavy rock music and took off pedaling hard along the piste. Looking back, this was incredibly stupid! Within 3km I felt the back wheel lurch off centre and start rubbing against the brakes. There was a big resistance against the back wheel so I had to get off and investigate. It seemed the axle of the bike had snapped in two. This had happened me before on a previous trip at the Croatian/Bosnian border so I knew exactly what it was. The snapped axle meant that the back wheel lurched all over the place and meant that the bike was barely cyclable. Checking my odometer I was only 53km from Zagora. My only hope of getting a lift to Foum Zguid where there might be a mechanic was in the village that existed halfway along the piste. There was no way to improvise as the only way to fix the issue was to replace the axle with a new one. This was all caused due to having a freewheel back axle rather than a freehub. Freewheel axles are really only designed for the road as any intense stress (such as riding a 40kg bike along a rutted piste!) can cause them to snap.

One of the sandier bits of piste
Some of the construction work going on out here

Cursing my luck I got back on the bike and ambled along at a bit over walking speed. Luckily after only a kilometre I saw a quarry in the distance. I walked my bike over and came across a couple of the workers. I asked if there were any vehicles heading to Foum Zguid and they checked around. However they said the next jeep that could take my bike would not be leaving for another 2 days. It seems that the piste is a lot more well traveled between Zagora and Bou-Rbia (the village I was aiming for) than it is between Bou-Rbia and Foum Zguid. The guys I were talking to did however mention that there was a mechanic only a short distance away before the village. One of the men took my bike and started to push it in the direction of the mechanic. I offered to push it but he wouldn’t let me take it back and insisted on pushing it all the way, I guess I must have looked absolutely shattered!

After a few minutes we reached a shed in front of a house where a mechanic was doing some work. I was introduced to the mechanic and it turned out he spoke German. This made communication a lot easier as I had studied German in secondary school. I hadn’t used it in 5 years but it was surprising how much of it came back to me when I needed it! The mechanic said he still had work to do so he couldn’t look at the bike straight away. However he invited me to eat dinner with his family that evening, said that he’d have a look at the bike after that and also invited me to spend the night at his place. Amazed at the generosity I took him up on his offer and was led over to the family home where I met his three sons.

I was invited inside to one of the side rooms of the house and was brought water and biscuits. I relaxed in the cool shade of the room amazed at my good fortune. Several different family members popped in so I was chatting away as best as I could to the granny, various brothers and sons/nephews in the family. After an hour or two the mechanic returned and we were all able to communicate a bit better as he was able to translate from German to Arabic for me. There were around 7 or 8 of us now sitting in the room and it seemed everyone was waiting for dinner to be served up. Soon enough in arrived a giant communal plate. It was piled high with couscous and there was a fork for each of us. What took me by surprise though was what was sitting on top of the mountain of couscous, an animal’s intestine was snaking it’s way along the top of it! The guys laughed as I saw it and explained it was a sheep’s intestine. The mechanic tried to find the real bits of meat to give me as he didn’t think I’d want to try the intestine. But seeing as I was out here and it’s something you don’t usually get to try I decided to give it a go. In the end it was actually surprisingly nice and tasted better than the actual meat! It’s definitely something I would try again.

After the meal we relaxed back drinking tea for a while. Soon enough the mechanic was ready to have a look at the bike. So we brought the wheel inside and began to take it apart. The axle had indeed snapped so it looked like we needed a new one. We headed out to the mechanic’s shed in the dark where he had an old bicycle wheel hanging on the wall. He said it was originally a French decathlon wheel and had been sitting there for 5 years. He brought it back inside and himself and his son began stripping the axle down. It took a good bit of time and a lot of leverage but the axle was stripped and very luckily for me it was the exact same size as my original axle that snapped. He was able to transfer over all the bearings and cones to the new axle and we fitted it back together again. After over an hour of work it was back on and good to go! I really couldn’t believe my luck at how this situation had worked out! Thanks to the incredible generosity of the mechanic and his family the bike was now ready to go for tomorrow, I had a full stomach and I had somewhere to sleep for the night.

Due to the heat we all dragged the cushions and blankets outside to the side of the house and decided to sleep out there. There were seven of us scattered around the side of the house and we soon all drifted off with nothing but the silence of the desert in the background.

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