Where we were? Oh yes, lounging in the bath with a fridge full of cold beer in a breezy apartment in Agadir. Things have changed a bit since then; we’re now in a small town overlooking the sea at the edge of the desert. The electric lights flicker here. Turbaned men sit at their stalls, faces half lit by gas lamps and half obscured by darkness. Goat meat sizzling on charcoal sends drifts of smoke across the streets at night. Hooded and turbaned figures – men and women, northern Arabs and mountain Berbers, blue-turbaned Touaregs and other Sahrawi (desert tribes), the occasional sub-Saharan African or European – exchange long greetings, walk together in the warm evenings or sit under the afternoon shade of a tree and then talk into the night.
We may be a million miles away from Agadir culturally, but geographically, we’re only about three days’ slow cycling away. We weren’t sorry to leave Agadir. Its sad history – the bodies of around 18,000 people were buried under the original city in an earthquake in 1960 – makes its atmosphere slightly eerie: strenuously new (it’s almost a caricature of Morocco’s effort to prove itself modern), and subtly aggressive in a way we haven’t felt anywhere else in Morocco. None of this seems to put off the British hen and stag parties though, and the city’s soul now seems to exist only in its tourist industry.
That was our impression anyway and, to digress, we’ve had this same sense of soullessness from a couple of other places in coastal Morocco, especially around Agadir. If a tiny fishing village has surfing or sunbathing potential, it turns into a sprawl of internet cafes, restaurants and bars. These places feel strangely dislocated from the rest of Morocco and in them, you feel a lot like a walking wallet. Which you are really; extracting dollars from foreigners is the economic foundation of these towns, their raison d’etre, their open secret.
While aesthetically depressing (and environmentally questionable), the growth of these tourist towns is completely understandable; tourists like internet cafes and buying alcohol (and I’m certainly not in a position to moan about either). And Morocco likes tourists; income from tourism is vital to the country’s GDP, and working in tourism helps some people make the leap into Morocco’s new middle class. So everybody wins.
Or most people win. You do wonder about the fishermen, who are stuck very much at the poor end of the rich / poor spectrum, and who are watching the gap between themselves and the Moroccans who come here to work in the tourist industry – or to surf – grow bigger by the year. With fish stocks depleting and the cost of living in their villages presumably skyrocketing, you wonder how long they’ll be able to keep making a living from the sea, and what they’ll do next.
On the other hand, there’s the new problem of depleting tourist stocks. People are worried about the effect of the economic crisis on the ability of the world’s wealthier folk to come here and spend money. But for now, construction sites with billboards advertising luxury tourist complexes keep popping up all along the coastline.
We followed the busy trunking route out of Agadir, experiencing on the same day our first traffic jam and our first oasis (at least it was marked as an oasis on the map – to us it looked a lot like any other spattering of shops and petrol stations). Running out of light, we stopped at several petrol stations and police points to ask whether we could camp. The answer was always: “No, we don’t have facilities for foreigners”. In one petrol station, we finally managed to communicate that the only facilities we needed were a patch of concrete and permission to pitch a tent.
The man who said yes – a petrol pump attendant – watched from a polite distance as we pitched the tent between some parked trucks and then joined us for an evening talking about Berber life in Morocco. About 60% of Morocco’s population is Berber (meaning “free people”), although the Arab culture dominates in politics, economics and in the official language. We asked our companion about the recent resurgence in Berber pride we’d heard about. “Things are getting better,” he said. “Now Berber language is taught in schools and there are Berber programmes on television. But Morocco has a lot of racism. If I go to a city like Rabat where everyone is Arab, I get trouble.”
We cycled on, veering off the main road to go through the Souss Massa National Park, past Sidi Rabat (where Jonah was allegedly regurgitated by the whale) then following the windy coastal road between sprawls of an alien-like red plant (the inspiration for HG Wells’ red weed in War of the Worlds?).
Throughout this route we crossed bone dry river beds; many rivers here have dried up over the past ten years as a result of the climate change southern Morocco is experiencing. Desertification is a major problem and, whether they’re signs of either climate change or rapid urbanisation, the evidence everywhere of formerly farmed land left to turn into shrivelled, dusty scrub was a bit chilling.
After three days, we reached Sidi Ifni, the small town overlooking the sea at the edge of the desert where the butcher pulls his radio out of the socket so he can use his mincing machine, the women’s clothes are more colourful, and people put tables on the pavements wherever they want to sit – all hints of the Africa yet to come for us.
And now comes the tricky bit. We’re one day’s cycle away from Guelmim, known as “the gateway to the Sahara”. While previous cyclists’ reports suggest that boredom is the biggest danger we might face in the Sahara, it’s very exciting to us – and a little bit scary.
Scariest for me is the heat. Even here, it feels searingly hot; heat haze hangs on the road until around six pm. The temperatures further north (in the 40s according to the displays we saw, although we have no idea if they were accurate) now seem blissfully cool in our memories. While Huw seems unaffected (camel-like, even), I’ve taken to pouring water over my head and running into the sea fully clothed every chance I get.
Dawn and dusk are deliciously cool though, and for now, still full of birdsong. So from now on, we’ll be up before dawn and doing most of our pedalling before the heat sets in, waiting out the heat of the day under a bit of shade, preferably a not-too-spiky thorn tree.