Christmas On The Piste

It’s easy to lose your sense of time on the piste, and difficult to find time to write. Check the ErgRacing Twitter feed in the right hand side-bar for the latest updates via Wifi or SMS. 

On Christmas morning, we were up to see the sun rising over the riverbed in a deep blue Moroccan sky. The warmth of the golden rays quickly dispelled the humidity that had settled during the night. Eager to head out, we took breakfast and broke camp quickly. 

The track we had chosen was varied. Within 30 minutes we had to navigate through a small swath of dunes. Later, we got a good taste of mud at a river crossing. We picked up part of the trail from the 2012 Rallye du Maroc along the cliffs, and through a narrow rocky pass. The steep winding piste had been thrilling but easy in the Jeep. The descent in the truck took significantly more skill, not to mention nerves of steel.

We managed to pick up and follow part of the rallye roadbook to the oasis where we had picnicked two years ago. The area had recently been flooded and the ground was still soft and muddy. The well where we had drawn water was filled with sand, and we could see they had since installed a pump. Later we learned from the locals that the drought had been severe for two years. The wells had dried up and they had dug deep in search of water. 

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By this time the sun had set, but the ground was too soggy to make camp amongst the palms, so we decided to attempt the remaining 60 km to Merzouga. In addition to reduced visibility, unexpected obstacles make driving the piste risky at night, but we knew the route was relatively easy, and so we made our way cautiously, pulling into Merzouga around 7:30pm 

We took rooms with board at the Hotel Touareg, which has been renovated since our first visit in 2010. The rooms were comfortable, and it’s nice to wash away the sand under a warm shower and catch up on the news in the rest of the world via Wifi, but sometimes the simple comforts of the bivouac are just as enjoyable.

On Friday morning, we took the Scania for a short spin in the big dunes. After so much rain, the sand was hard and carried well. We didn’t have any trouble crossing some of the steep dunes near the edge of the Erg Chebi. Afterwards, we went to a nearby lake where we had been told we could see some pink flamingos. We observed a solitary representative of the flock we had been expecting, although we took some nice photos of the lake with the dunes as a backdrop. Look for them when we publish our photo gallery at the end of the trip.

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By early afternoon, we headed south to Taouz, where we planned to pick up the piste to Zagora. We were anxious to return to Foun Mharech and stay the night at the Auberge Riad Nomad, if possible. 

On the outskirts of town, some local teenagers had gathered at the turn-off to the piste. They told us that the flooding had modified the tracks and that we wouldn’t be able to cross the river in the south, trying to convince us to go another way or take a guide since we “might get lost.” We thanked them for the information about the condition of the route, but explained that this was not our first time overlanding in this part of Morocco. 

We were not alone as we started on our way. Three Belgian MAN camper trucks had also set off along the same route. We stopped to picnic when we thought we were far enough from town to avoid been solicited, but a peddler passing on his mobilette arrived while we were eating and set up all his wares. He didn’t get any reward for his effort.

By early afternoon we were underway again but making slower progress than expected. We decided to take a shortcut and ended up on a dead-end piste in the mountains. Fortunately, we had a good vantage point to study the tracks in the valley below. With a little ingenuity, we managed to go down into a small ravine and follow the riverbed for about a kilometer to pick up the track again. We lost time, but we had come for the challenge. If we hadn’t found our way and had been forced to double-back, we probably wouldn’t have been as proud of ourselves. 

Having taken the northern pass where we had been told we would be able to cross the river, we thought the worst was behind us. Then about 25 km from Foum Mharech we came to an intersection. One piste continued straight while the other turned south. Arrows indicated Foum Mharech in several directions. We didn’t want to tempt fate by going too far south, so we took the piste toward the west. The track crossed two oueds, one after the other. Daylight was fading, and the traces disappeared as we came to the first Oued and realized the extent of the flood.

We picked up tracks again in the broad riverbed, one set seemed to lead south in the direction the water had flowed and the other west. The southern track looked better and we followed it for a little way hoping it would lead us to a good place to cross. After a while, with no obvious signs of crossing, we decided to double-back, worried that the fresh tracks would lead us too far south.

We turned west, but after a few hundred meters the traces of the track disappeared again. We decided to find our own way across as quickly as possible. The sun was setting and we wanted to be on safer ground to drive the last kilometers to Foum Mharech at night.

We didn’t have much trouble finding a good crossing point, but as we headed west in the fading light, we realized the second crossing would be harder. It was quite dark when we came to a line of trees growing along the river bank, which rose abruptly from the riverbed several meters below. 

It was too dark to find a crossing point in the truck. We thought of making camp for the night, but the Auberge was not much farther than 14 km away. After crossing, the route would be straightforward. We took the handheld GPS and went to scout by foot. After a while we found a good place to cross where the bank wasn’t as steep. Following the recorded track in the truck, we easily made our way down into the riverbed. 

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The ground proved too soft to make it out the other side, however, so we drove upstream through the scrub in search of a passage. We soon found ourselves in a thicket and it was almost impossible to find our way out of the labyrinth in the dark. 

We made camp in a small clearing, where the ground was relatively flat. A few lights flickered in the valley not too far away, and we wondered if the Belgian group had also stopped nearby for the night. Although we were in the riverbed, the air seemed less damp than at our first bivouac on the plain to the north of Merzouga. We found enough dead branches to keep warm around the campfire. Finding our way out of the thicket would be easier by daylight.

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