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Published: March 23rd 2008
Cycling in Souss Massa Nationa Park
After our night at the guesthouse, we rode off to find the real town of Massa - and coffee, though not necessarily in that order.
We left Agadir with a sense of impatience to get out of that tourist town and back into the wilder coastal landscapes - not really wild, of course, since wherever you go in this country you are always surrounded by the curious and friendly Moroccan people, who seem able to materialize out of even the most desolate-looking landscapes. Our destinations were the towns of Massa and Sidi R'Bat on the Oued Massa river, which forms the southern edge of Souss-Massa National Park, a haven for overwintering bids and the enthusiasts who watch them. We'd already seen one of the stellar entries in any birder's lifetime list, the rare bald ibis, in Tamri, but we were curious about what constituted a "national park" in Morocco, and at 80 or so kilometers from Agadir, Massa was an appropriate place to stop for the night.
In contrast to the suddenness with which we came upon it from the north, Agadir and its suburbs seemed to sprawl on southward indefinitely, their ugly nether-reaches even spanning the grimy Souss river which theoretically marked the northern park boundary. When this "protected" river turned out to be a muck-filled ditch winding under the highway bridge and through
We stopped on the way south from Agadir at a great restaurant that offered great lamb tagine - ONLY lamb tagine - on its menu.
suburban back alleys, our expectations about the conditions in what the Lonely Planet called "Morocco's most important national park" immediately ratcheted down to a more realistic, 3rd world level; further downward adjustments would soon be forthcoming...
Once we really left the built-up areas, the cycling became reasonably pleasant, though the N1 coastal highway was fairly busy with southbound truck traffic, including open-topped transports filled with kneeling camels; only their heads, bearing those famously placid expressions, emerged above the sides of the trucks, contentedly surveying the passing scenery like family dogs on a Sunday car ride. (We wanted to imagine that they were heading southward to become desert transportation for happy tourists, or to nomad camel markets like the famous one held in Guelmime, but the more probable reality is that they were heading south of town to slaughterhouses where their tough hides can be harvested for sturdy leather handbags and their meat for camel kabobs and tagine d'dromedaire.)
We certainly expected some signage or another to mark the turnoff to "Morocco's most important national park" west of the N1, but the junction of the road to Massa seemed to be distinguished only by a tiny collection of stores
Bread freshly baked tableside
Our lunch order for bread to go with the lamb tagine was immediately fulfilled by the baker working at this traditional wood-fired oven - it just doesn't get any fresher than that!
and cafes, and we would have blown right by it if the mileage shown on our odometers hadn't prompted us to pull off and inquire with the locals. From there it was only a dozen kilometers more to the coast, but we had to fight a stiff headwind and then brave a gauntlet of "guides" in Massa who offered to take us birdwatching, show us guesthouses, etc. We would have been happy to stop right there, but the hassles and apparent lack of any visible hotels - save the sign pointing the way towards Ksar Massa guesthouse (at $327 for a double, way way
outside our budget) caused us to press on, certain we could find somethng cheaper. Five klicks further down the hilly road the pavement finally gave out, more or less in the middle of nowhere - though we were clearly now close to the coastal lagoon on which Souss-Massa's birdwatching centers - and we were faced with another set of "guides", one of whom seemed to speak quite good English. Great!
However, guide-assignment seemed to operate in a round-robin fashion, and the guide least recently employed was chosen for us by his peers, even though he
Breakfast in Souss-Massa
Meals at our guesthouse were served on the terrace overlooking the verdant garden and accompanied by the early-morning melodies of numerous songbirds.
spoke exclusively in French. "Whatever", we thought, as we tried to make it clear to him that our first priority was to find a place to stay, for which intelligence we expected to give him a reasonable tip. The guesthouse he brought us to, another kilometer down a dirt track, turned out to be a rambling private home - originally French-built though now quite down-at-the-heels - which we had half-expected anyway, since the tiny village where it was located looked too small to support any other businesses. But we were shocked when the dour Moroccan woman who lived there offered to put us up for 600dh - $85! - too shocked and desperate at that late hour to bargain her down, and afraid that her place was the only game in town. (To be fair, she did
offer to include dinner and breakfast.) Clearly the fancy Ksar Massa guesthouse had completely skewed the local market for accomodations.
When we first met our guide, we assumed, from the official National Park patch on his khaki vest and his bulging binoculars, that he was a government park ranger whose services were to be supplied courtesy of the King - i.e., gratis
Flamingos in Souss-Massa National Park
Sighting this flock of Greater Flamingos in the lagoon was the high point of our visit to Souss-Massa.
- like the other bird-guide we'd met up north in Tamri. However, freshly suspicious from our guesthouse debacle, we decided to make it crystal clear that we were NOT interested in paying for guide services, since we were happy to wander the dunes alone and use our own binoculars on whatever birdlife presented itself in the 45 minutes until sunset. At that, he assumed a woebegone expression - he'd patiently waited at the guesthouse while we unpacked and showered - and extracted a crumpled xerox of the "Tarif Schedule" listing "Guide Services" at 120dh/hr for two people ($19!)
Guilt-tripped suckers that we were, but being conservative with our cash since we'd already committed to blowing 600dh for the night's stay, we settled with him for 50dh to show us around the lagoon for a half-hour, during which time we viewed a lot of ordinary-looking water-birds with distinguished-sounding zoological names through his very nice binoculars, and tried to make sense of his whispered French commentary. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the flock of long-legged greater flamingos we saw cavorting in the lagoon, their pinkish coloration accentuated by the setting sun. As for infrastructure, the only thing that marked
The good weather and beaches have made Mirleft a magnet for rich European expatriots.
the gravel trail to the lagoon as a national park was a crumbling gatehouse, some signage enumerating forbidden activities (eg., hunting, duh!) and a newly-built but already abandoned interpretive center. At the far end of the trail we eventually spied the seaside village of Sidi R'Bat, the road to which we'd somehow missed, which looked alot more prosperous and likely to have a choice of accomodations than the nameless village where we'd ended up. Oh well!
After a decent night's sleep book-ended by a very spartan dinner and breakfast (though the geranium-leaf tea in the morning was at least something different) we set out back up the road to Massa to see if there was something there we'd missed and to get some real coffee. It turns out we hadn't seen the "real" town of Massa, which seemed to stretch for miles, and where we probably could
have found a hotel, though not in such proximity to the park. Where our Michelin map showed only a vague skein of unsurfaced roads, the locals indicated that we could ride the entire distance to the oceanside town of Mirleft on good paved roads near the coast without having to detour eastward
Beautiful downtown Mirleft
What you get is actually a little more than what you see: hiidden in there is a WiFi cafe that serves beer!
back to the main N1 highway through Tiznit. This was very good news, and we had spectacular riding with a tailwind through empty - though not unpeopled! - rolling grasslands, past more crumbling and abandoned national park entry gates, until we picked up the secondary highway coming west from Tiznit out to the town of Aglou Beach.
Looking down at Aglou, where we'd planned on stopping for lunch, we saw only a vast collection of white RVs, crammed bumper-to-bumper into dusty campgrounds, with what we could only assume was a strip of overpriced tourist restaurants at the beachside. We therefore determined to give it a pass (our snap judgement about Aglou being subsequently validated by other travellers), even though we didn't have much in the way of lunch supplies or even water. So we ate what we had, sitting in a rocky field overlooking a spectacular beach, our typical lunch of Laughing Cow cheese wedges and tuna forked from a tin (using, as always, our Expedition-Grade Sporks, supplied for this trip courtesy of BrainstormingAlaMode.com
There's quite a range of hills, the final western remnants of the Anti Atlas mountains, that isolate this section of the coast from
Mirleft from the Portuguese kasbah
The crumbling fort on the hilll above Mirleft - built originally to counter the Spanish presence in Sidi Ifni - is a favorite sunset-watching spot for tourists and locals.
the interior. Here we saw the vista change from the rolling grasslands of Souss-Massa to rusty-hued plateaus and hills of hammada, the bare landscape of sandy dirt littered with fist-sized stones that, with the occasional relief of a barrel cactus or a thorn bush, characterizes most of the desert regions of southwestern Morocco. The rivers that only occasionaly flow down from these hills have eroded the friable hammada into deep ravines that repeatedly cleave the coastal bluffs, making steep, hilly riding out of what we thought would be an easy cruise into Mirleft. Fortunately, though, we were the beneficiaries of a stiff tailwind accelerating us down these ravines and then pushing us up the other side, sometimes revealing a mud-brick farmhouse and tiny set of terraced fields as we whizzed across the bottom.
After one final grunt uphill we spun off the highway onto the dusty main street of Mirleft and whipped out the Lonely Planet to check our hotel choices; for once, its caveat that "at first, the place seems uninspiring" was dead-on. After a canvass of the "downtown" accomodations, a collection of very cheap hotels which seemed mostly to be populated by the dreadlocked tourist set, we
Millionaires Row, Mirleft
These houses, mostly with absentee French owners, are built on Mirleft's prime clifside real estate, overlooking the main beach with 180 degree ocean views.
crossed the highway over to an area of town that revealed itself to be a world away from Mirleft's gritty village center. Although there are no physical barriers, "noveau Mirleft" might as well be a gated community, a collection of multi-million-euro homes along the cliffs that overlook the main beach with spectacular sea views, but which are separated from the rest of the town by a vast unbuilt expanse of hammada (we were told that the Berber families who own these tracts are holding out for the highest possible prices before they finally sell out.) With a raft of new homes still under construction, the existing mansions are mostly built in a contemporary French-Moroccan style by vacationing and expatriate French (though some well-to-do Moroccan families appeared to have compounds here as well) and are exquisitely landscaped with elaborate stonework and extensive, meticulously maintained xeriscapes of native succulents and cactii, salvia and lantana.
Normally we would shy away from these exclusive, artificial enclaves, but the options in town were so bleak and the proximity to the beach so compelling that we eventually settled in at the intimate Le Riad de L'Oasis, a converted home at the dustier back edge of
Spanish cathedral, Sidi Ifni
Now converted into a courthouse, this is one example of the great 30's-era Deco architecture that gives Sidi Ifni its Spanish colonial flavor.
"millionaire's row". Rosalyne, a French expatriate, was our gracious hostess at L'Oasis for a few days while I recovered from yet another cold. Even though at 400dh it was a bit beyond our usual budget - midway through our stay we had to replenish our funds by taking the bus south to the nearest cash machine in Sidi Ifni - we compensated for it by walking into town for cheap eats, and even found an unprecedented triple-score: a place with good food that served beer and
had free WiFi - woohoo! We spent our days in Mirleft beachcombing and reading, sunning ourselves on the sheltered rooftop terraces, and trading taveller's tales, politics and gossip with Harry and Verlaina, a retired English couple who were the only other guests. Where Harry played the quiet "straight man", Verlaina was the voluble raconteuse who kept us entertained with her dishy monologues throughout the length of our stay.
I eventually recovered from my cough and sniffles, so we bid au revoir
to L'Oasis and to our sybaritic lifestyle in Mirleft, and moved on down the coast. By this time we'd decided we weren't interested in any heroics like a trans-Saharan trek across Mauretania
View along the corniche, Sidi Ifni
Looking north towards the main surfing area.
and that we'd pretty much reach the point of diminishing returns in southern Morocco once we got to the town of Guelmime, said to be the "gateway to the Sahara." Hey, getting to the "gateway" is close enough for us! And Guelmime being a hilly 90-something kilometers from Mirleft, we decided to break up the ride with a stopover day in Sidi Ifni, which we'd found somewhat intriguing when we'd shuttled there for our ATM errand, and which would enable us to have one last "beach hang" before turning irrevocably inland.
A morning's rolling ride brought us into Sidi Ifni just in time for lunch at the Cafe Nomad, and as we pulled our bikes up to the sidewalk tables we felt like instant celebrities as we were greeted by the staff and by Jean-Pierre and Sophia, a couple of Florentine art restorers scouting for real estate in Sidi Ifni who we'd met on our previous visit. After devouring an order of Cafe Nomad's unique take on chicken tagine (infused in this version with fresh
lemon), we checked into the comfortably funky Hotel Suerte Loco, a modest inn catering to surfers that featured terraces overlooking the corniche as well
The dinner tab as artwork
Our hosts at the Cafe Nomad in Sidi Ifni embellished our billl for dinner with an original drawing depicting us cycling through the desert past cactus and camels.
as a decent restaurant of its own. The hotel's Spanish name is a reflection of Sidi Ifni's history as one of Spain's longest-held military outposts in Morocco, evidenced by the inactive airfield and the ruins of an elaborate naval port south of town that was finally abandoned when Spain ceded this enclave back to Morocco in 1969. The original cathedral - now repurposed as a courthouse - the crumbling consulate, lighthouse and numerous other 30's-era Art Deco buildings reinforced the Spanish colonial flavor of the town so much more vividly than, say, modern-day Casablanca, that we half-expected to see Humphrey Bogart emerge from one of the cafes on the main square.
As has happened so often on this trip, one day turned into two in Sidi Ifni as we began to regret how much time we'd "frittered away" in Mirleft when this place was really so much more interesting in its own right. True, it was somewhat mobbed by the French camping-car crowd, and some sections of the beach were filthy, but the other long swath of deserted beach, the period architecture, and intriguing spectacles like the nightly convocation of strollers and families on the abandoned airfield, made it
All vehicles yield to sheep
Shepherds asserting their ancestral right-of-way on the road from Sidi Ifni to Guelmime.
a compelling place to visit. And of course we had one last meal at the Cafe Nomad, where the delicious food and charming staff - who presented us with our dinner tab in the form of an original artwork illustrating our bike trip - made it one of the highlights of our stay in Sidi Ifni.
As we cycled out of Sidi Ifni we said goodbye to the Atlantic, whose proximity had been a cool comfort to us all the way since Rabat, and turned inland toward Guelmime. We were glad we'd broken up the stretch from Mirleft into two rides as we were immediately hit with a stiff headwind and began a series of steep climbs and descents - dutifully notated on the Michelin map by little chevrons - with a net gain in elevation that was to take us up and over the coastal range separating the ocean from the flat hammada of the Sahara. By mid-afternoon our progress on the two-lane highway was slowed not only by the wind but by herds of goats being driven down the road to fresh watering holes, and we pulled over for our lunch break to watch the traffic jams
Kate and camels on the way to Guelmime
Kate always gets happy when she spots chameaux along the way.
that developed while successive waves of shepherds asserted their right-of-way over the cars, trucks and RVs that were forced to line up behind their flocks.
Eventually we crested over the summit of the final grade - marked most notably, to Kate's delight, by a large herd of grazing camels - and headed down towards Guelmime, sometimes pushed, but more often pushing against the desert wind. As the valley opened up towards the end of the descent we saw only a dusty haze ahead of us where we should have seen the city of Guelmine. It took nearly an hour of hard pedaling through the hot, blowing dust to cover the final flat 10km into Guelmine, and it permanently dispelled any residual sense of romance we might have been harboring about a possible "trans-Sahara cycling adventure".
Our plan in Guelmime was to spend the night and get on the bus to Marrakech the next day, but we found we still had time to get on that evening's overnight bus, so after a quick dinner and showers in a nearby hotel that agreed to an hour's room rental - surely, faced wth our grubby condition, they weren't thinking that?
Out of the hills into the Sahara
Somewhere out there in the dust is the city of Guelmime.
we made our way over to the bus station and for just a couple hundred dirham found ourselves in two comfy seats on the Marrakech Express (Bus) - due to arrive in that fabled city at the distinctly unromantic hour of 3:30AM...
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