RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

South from Sidi Ifni

by Lynne Rowbotham


We followed the tarmac southwards out of town past the old airfield on our right and the compound where the Sunday Berber market is held on our left. Just before the road drops to the new port area we stopped to take in the views. Sidi Ifni, which had been a Spanish enclave up until 1969, has a tendency for sea mists, and throughout our five day stay there hadn't been too many opportunities to see far along the coast. Looking now it was plain that there was no road or piste tracking along the coastline. In fact the only way appeared to be a piste that we had just passed. Back-tracking, this was the route we took, always happy to be on a bit of rough stuff but a bit confused. However, this happy feeling was broken for a short while as we cycled through the local rubbish ground. Several small fires were smouldering and we were keen to keep our mouths and nostrils closed for as long as possible yet eyes wide open to ensure a clear way for our tyres. Whoops, yes just missed the dead dog. After the tip the piste divides, left our first try goes towards a quarry not yet in sight, right our second choice and the correct one.

When we could see the route in front of us there appeared to be very little habitation. We did however soon bump into Hammed who invited us to camp on his land and use his water. Had it been later in the day we would have accepted his offer but as it wasn't quite midday and we'd only come a short distance we decided to carry on our way. He was delighted that he could practice his English on us, which was good considering it was two years since he had met any English people. He did confirm that the track went on and on and on but he didn't say where to! We left him to propagate his prickly pears, which he declared were delicious.

It's a pity the morning had to end as the afternoon bought some real pig eared cycling from me. I came off twice. My back wheel seemed to keep slipping - "a poor worker always blames his or her tools". Needless to say Geoff didn't suffer any such problems.

His troubles were me and getting us to our intended destination of Fort Bou-Jerif without a map! The map we had of Morocco ended at Sidi Ifni. We had never intended to go any further south but it had been colder than expected when we had been in the Anti Atlas mountains around Tafroute. It was early January after all! So we had adapted our plans to find a more favourable climate. Save the High Atlas mountains for another trip we thought.

The few pages of the 'Rough Guide' that we did have with us stated you could get to Fort Bou-Jerif by road and then landrover track from Sidi Ifni. The sketched map indicated the part along the coast to Foum Assaka was road. We had to guess at the distances as being about 40km to Foum Assaka and a further 13km inland to Fort Bou-Jerif, which shouldn't really have been difficult.

Geoff kept making us press onward which didn't help my mood, I know I was getting nowhere fast. He was right of course as we were running low on water. We did see some constructions that may have been wells but we weren't tempted to try them. There had been the occasional signpost for Assaka which was reassuring but a few more would have given us more confidence that we were at least still on the right track. Tracks frequently arrived and disappeared without even a scribbled Arabic sign or any sight of their purpose and it was not always certain which was the correct one. It was becoming obvious we weren't going to reach Fort Bou-Jerif that day. We saw a long caravan of camels on the horizon, which seemed to appear and disappear into nowhere. No we weren't so dehydrated that we were hallucinating, but as soon as we saw a little running water we decided to camp. The daylight was fading and we had just clocked up 40km. We had seen a couple of nomadic tents not far back so pitching our tent didn't seem out of place.

We had by now camped wild in Morocco a number of times and had had no problems or hassle, we felt quite safe. Geoff went to collect some water but returned with some brown liquid that had been filtered through a cloth. It didn't look very appetizing. We had iodine drops with us but decided to survive on the inch of clean water we still had in our bottles, feeling sure we would hit a village in the morning. If we had known before setting out what our day would entail we would have filled all our water containers and had a proper stop in the afternoon. That night the sky was filled with stars and just a tiny moon.

We awoke fresh and in good spirits, regardless that there was no nice cup of tea to start the day. One swig of water is all we allowed ourselves. There had been no rain but the outer tent was wet both inside and out. Obviously dew is where the plant life obtains most of its moisture from. Funny how one thinks of the Sahara as a dry and barren area, yet the tent is so wet. Our reckoning this morning was Foum Assaka must be about 50km, not 40km, from Sidi Ifni so hopefully we only had about 10km to go till our stocks would be replenished and our way made clear.

The terrain continued similar to the previous day but with more ups and downs. We soon had a long and steep descent to cross a large and flowing river - the first flowing river in three weeks. We could see a few buildings upstream but by our revised calculation it was too soon. If we didn't came across anywhere else within the next five kilometres we would back track and follow the river inland. Having descended steeply to cross the river we now climbed steeply. Some landrover track this was! But then we saw one - a landrover! Luckily the Berber driver spoke French, as had many Moroccans we had met. We only understand minimal French but with much effort the local was able to convince us that Assaka was about 20km inland, up the river we had recently crossed! It slowly dawned on us that Foum Assaka must mean the mouth of the river Assaka and not the name of a village.

After some deliberation we dropped all the way back down to the river but instead of going upstream we went down to the sea for elevenses. I asked Geoff in jest if there would be a motor home down by the beach. What crazy fool would bring a van along the route we had taken? To our amazement round the corner there was a large French van and two small tents. They hadn't taken our route; they had approached from the south, but had still had a struggle. A little further along there were several landrovers and a group of locals who were hacking up the carcass of a camel. They had had to kill it after it had broken its ankle. Obviously everyone wanted their bit of meat. After sharing mint tea with the other travellers, two French lads and a young Spanish couple, we decided to remain here. This natural white Atlantic beach was just too good to hurry from. What did it matter that we had only travelled 10km - it's quality not quantity.

We got water from the river and treated it with the iodine drops. Having never used them before we didn't appreciate how awful it would taste, coffee made it more bearable but only just. It wasn't the peaceful paradise we had hoped for but pretty damned good. A few natives passed by on donkeys to go fishing. There were some interesting birds to watch by the lagoon we were camped next to and to top it all we were visited by more than fifty camels on their afternoon stroll. What a fantastic sight. They entertained us for over an hour with their antics. Such large animals but so softly trodden. Their faces so friendly and full of character.

Fortunately although curious of the new green mound - our tent - their senses were not stimulated enough to warrant too close an inspection. They munched their way through the prickly green foliage, and stumbled up and down the hillsides. Camels are renowned to be able to drink gallons of water but they can also pee gallons as they showed.

The camels were walking across the sand bar at the end of the lagoon as we set off up river next morning. Back to the junction of the river crossing and along the only route we hadn't previously tackled. It was a good ridable and well used donkey track that eventually sadly became a dry stream bed where it was hard-work pushing our loaded bikes. Arriving at the buildings we had seen the day before a man from the mosque gave us guidance. Keep left then right and then straight on. The views from the hill top by the mosque were extensive and surprisingly green considering that down the small steep footpath and along the gravel track the terrain became dry and canyon like. There was water in the river again, some of the land had been tilled and, with a couple of ruined buildings perched on the tops of hummocks, seemed somehow symbolis, biblical even. We picknicked while taking in the marvellous scene.

Back on the bikes, we knew we couldn't have far to go when an Austrian four wheeled drive vehicle passed us. It was a good job too as Geoff's gear cable broke on the final ascent of the day. Over the brow our final decent was gradual with the impressive Fort Oued Noun, the old French Foreign legion camp, in our sights. Situated next to an oasis it would warrant further investigation once we were settled at Fort Bou.Jerif just a kilometre round the corner.

We had made it. It had taken 65km from Sidi Ifni to Fort Bou-Jerif - not the most direct route but a great mini adventure. We were greeted with something like a hero's welcome, the fact we had come that route on loaded bicycles, the mad English! So when a young couple of Dutch motorcyclists arrived next day having done the same route as ourselves the campsite owners and staff shrugged it off as nothing special because the cyclists arrived yesterday! The camel tajine I ate that night was delicious and well deserved.

Unfortunately as our supplies were near depletion we moved onto Goulimine sooner than we would have liked as the area around Fort Bou.Jerif was ripe with explorable tracks. There was no other reason for us to go to Goulimine other than food. The first 7km is easy ride able track with another good river crossing then 8km of tarmac road though a fertile productive gorge, also enjoyable but the 27km of road across the plain was mundane. Back on the tourist trail, Goulimine "The gateway to the Sahara" has a Saturday camel market attracting bus loads of tourists hoping to see some camels. Apparently nowadays there are hardly any camels at the weekly souk, although we were passed by one on the road into town. It looked so funny as it was tied up in the back of a landrover with only its long neck sticking out of the back. I wonder if this is a weekly trip to see the tourists for this camel as it looked very relaxed. Apart from a lively evening souk Goulimine held little interest for us. The next day we rode the 56km back to Sidi Ifni and the hotel Suerte Loca all on a pleasant quiet road.

Although we had had no map, the road as indicated did not exist, the village turned out to be a river mouth and we had run out of water, we had done a fantastic rough-stuff route and had never once felt unsafe. Only a few short sections of the route required us to walk. The surface had been varied; soft sand, compact dirt, bone-shaking rubble and rocky ruts, but mainly cycleable. We would highly recommend it.