Friday, 12 December 2014

Morocco: Erg Chebbi and Merzouga

Given the flooding we decided to spend a couple of days in Merzouga by the Erg Chebbi sand sea before commencing our intended Saharan overland route.  Erg Chebbi is one of two sand seas in Morocco and it is the bigger/higher of the two.  My visual impression was that Erg Chebbi was massive, but you need only look on Google Earth to see that other Saharan sand seas across dangerous borders, such as Algeria, are actually many times the size of Erg Chebbi.  But this fact made exploring Erg Chebbi no less of an adventure and no less of a challenge!

On our first full day in Merzouga we set off to circumnavigate Erg Chebbi.  We also drove up and into the sand quite a way, but I was being very cautious.  I know some tourists come here, either in their own 4wd or a rented one, get too carried away and end up rolling the vehicle.

In the lower half of the photo below you can see tyre tracks - this helps to better appreciate the scale of this pile of sand!

The next few photos tell an interesting story.  I decided to head into the Erg following a set of tracks etched into the sand.....

.... and they ended at this tree.

But it turns out there is a local man who lives in the tree and as you can see in the next few photos he lives quite well.  He gave me a tour of his home.

The next two photos are his living room area.  You can see parts of the tree sticking through the thick wool blanket walls.

And this is the bedroom

We continued our journey and eventually stopped for a picnic here.

One annoyance/peculiarity with Morocco is that just when you think your alone in an isolated spot, someone turns up out of nowhere - usually to sell you something.  The two guys pictured below turned up and set up an impromptu craft stall during our picnic and kept calling us over to buy something.

Beyond the sand are vast rocky plains typical of parts of the Sahara beyond.  Here we are looking back at Erg Chebbi.

From here we continued to the south, where we drove through a couple of abandoned villages.  Though having said that, it turned out that some of the dwellings were actually being inhabited still.

We believe the building left of the car in the photo below was being lived in.

The photo below shows a typical well.

You can see in these photos how wet the ground is from the unusual rains Morocco had been experiencing around this time.  Ordinarily this would all be completely dry, with rain seldom seen in these parts.  As we continued along here we had a mini flash flood caused by a brief heavy downpour and though we were only a very short distance from rejoining the sealed road we ended up in mud part way up the wheels.  Not wanting to get bogged we turned around and returned to Merzouga across the Erg Chebbi.  (Dirt just turns to mud when it gets wet, whereas sand actually gets firmer and easier to drive on after rain).

The photo below shows the riad where we stayed.  It is right at the edge of the sand dunes.

When we returned to our riad the two guys who were our hosts felt inclined to take their landcruiser into the dunes.  I think they ordinarily charge for guided trips, but on this day they just wanted to go for a blast and since I had recovery ropes we went out together for a bit.  The terrain on the way to the dunes was more difficult than it looked - if you go too slow you start to sink in yet if you try to accelerate, rather than speed up you just start to dig down - thus a fine balance needed to be achieved.

The next day was back to a full blue sky and warm sunshine as we prepared to depart from the riad.  This was to be our third attempt to enter the Sahara and commence a two day overland route.  Unfortunately this ultimately failed yet again due to flood waters, however our plan to go high into the sand sea before leaving the area proved successful at least.  In this blog post I'll focus on our expedition up the sand dunes and leave the later part of this day to the next blog.

Stocking up with supplies on the main street in Merzouga before heading back into the sand sea.

Finding a route up and through the sand dunes isn't as easy as it looks from a distance and in practice it turns out to be a bit like a maze.  It also involves quite a bit of walking to the top of sand dunes to check what's on the other side.  You can't just go blasting up and down sand dunes at will, or you may go down something much steeper than you should.  For instance if you fail to plan adequately you could end up inside a bowl shaped sand dune formation that is too steep to climb on all sides - if you do that then that's where you'll stay!  4wding on sand is very different from any other terrain and I don't have that much experience with sand dunes, hence I was being cautious.

As so often happens in Morocco, someone eventually turned up to offer guidance.  Initially I was very reluctant to deal with this 'guide', who happened to be about 18 years old and riding a mountain bike.  I didn't doubt he knew a route through the sands, but I was concerned he wouldn't appreciate what it was like to drive a vehicle in the sands and might lead us somewhere we wouldn't/couldn't follow.  We especially don't like side slopes too much, yet these are unavoidable since you aren't supposed to drive directly over the sand crests - you can get bellied on those.  And it's on too steep side slopes that overzealous 4wd'ers sometimes roll their vehicles.  Eventually I agreed to let him guide us, as I could always choose to stop if it got uncomfortable.  This proved a very good decision, as he did find us a suitable route and was generally very helpful.  This doesn't mean it was all easy though and for one long steep climb I had to keep deflating the tyres before we could get all the way up - we failed 3/4 of the way up that slope about three times before conquering it.  I knew in theory that tyre pressure should do the trick, but trying it myself in practice was illuminating because once I had the tyre pressure right we went straight up it no problem.

We drove well into the dunes, but decided to walk rather than drive to the top of what I believe was the biggest dune at Erg Chebbi - tyre marks indicated it was possible to drive, but I wasn't game to try it and Sylwia wasn't keen either.

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