Great British Adventures - By Pete Woodward
In the first of a series of classic adventures in, around and from Great Britain, adventurer Pete Woodward cycles solo from Blighty to the Sahara Desert.
Wobbling along on a heavy bike, I reached the end of our road in Bristol. This was a well-worn path and every day on the way to work I headed left and past the Downs. Today I turned right and headed for Africa.
Stepping out of my front door and setting off to the Sahara Desert solo on a bike was the culmination of several years of bike touring across the UK and Europe and yearning to go further, see more. Exploring new places, travelling from my own front door and seeing landscape and cultures slowly change at the slow speed of a bike is something that excites me.
I had decided on the ride to the mythical Sahara Desert almost as soon as I got the map out. Then followed several months of rain, ice and wind-battered opportunities to toughen up the legs on minitours: Newcastle, the Isle of Wight, Wales and the South Downs Way. Before I knew it, the time had arrived.
As ready as I was going to be, I packed the bike and rode off towards the Channel. Sitting on the harbour in Poole that evening, waiting to embark on the ferry to Cherbourg might have felt like a momentous occasion. As it was, my nerves were shredded from sorting out several punctures and becoming ever more frantic about missing the boat. After a sustained push, I had made it but not by much and it took a bottle of scrumpy to settle the nerves.
As the ferry glided through flat waters, the last of a spectacular summer sunset faded over the Purbeck Hills. The fishing fleet of Cherbourg chugged past in the still morning air as I sat on the quay eating porridge. France is a joy to cycle through with smooth, open roads, beautiful countryside and most importantly, lots of pâtisserie. The undulating roads of northern France took me past Mont-Saint-Michel, through the impressive medieval town of Cholet and inland of La Rochelle. The summer sun beat down, the cornfields swayed in the breeze and the miles ticked away; over the Loire, past chateaus and vineyards on the banks of the Dordogne and devouring the local cheese with baguette in a pine wood near Roquefort.
France slipped by over the course of the first week and I treated myself with bed and breakfast in Lourdes. I savoured the moment watching pilgrims at the Grotto of Massabielle (Grotto of the Apparitions), where in 1858 the virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local woman. The next morning, after a hearty French breakfast, I set out into the Pyrenees. As an avid cycling fan, there
was no way I could pass the mountains by without riding some of the cols made famous by the Tour de France. The spectacular roads of the Col de Soulor, the Col D’Aubisque and the Col de Pourtalet, and the clear mountain views, made the toil worthwhile; roads cut into sheer cliffs, through buttresses of rock and down sweeping valleys. I camped that night high in a valley in the mountains next to a trickling stream.
At more than a mile above sea level the air was cold and I woke early in the morning, freezing. Hitting the road and working hard to generate some heat, I warily eyed two huge dogs sat in the middle of the road but escaped unmolested to cruise through the dilapidated and unmanned border post into Spain.
Climbing out of the frigid shade of the French northern side of the ridge and gliding into the sun-bathed Spanish southern slopes was like slipping into a warm bath. The landscape changed instantly; less green, more brown. Turquoise-green mountain lakes glimmered in baked mountain valleys. By lunchtime, I was out of the mountains and stocking up on provisions while making faltering conversation with a Spanish woman with bright red lipstick. Zaragoza that night was a revelation and the difference with the previous night shivering in a tent could not have been more marked. Zaragoza is a spectacular city on the Ebro river. The capital of north-east Spain’s Aragon region, the city has a spectacular blend of Islamic and Gothic architecture. I gorged on a huge paprika, bean and tomato stew that had a surprise poached egg in the middle.
Spain brought new challenges. Steep mountainous ridges were separated by vast, empty, flat plains with long straight roads. I battled headwinds across the plains where ramshackle huts made from corrugated iron squeaked in the hot wind. Fields of recently decapitated sunflower stalks withered under the scorching sun. There was little sign of life and the villages that I did come across were mostly shuttered up throughout the heat of the day. Conscious of the distance to cover, I pushed on and rode long, hard miles. Villages smelled of the spicy casserole that I had eaten in Zaragoza and one heavily forested mountain valley smelled so strongly of pine resin that it was reminiscent of a sauna.
My shadow, stretched long ahead of me in the morning, slowly swung around to trail behind me in the evening. By late afternoon I was often out of water with gummed-up lips and a crust of salt. Villages often had a communal tap and it was a magical moment to run cool water over my head after a long afternoon slog. One evening in a whitewashed village square in Santiago de Calatrava a small boy nervously approached me. With some animated signing and scrutinising the map, I showed him where I had cycled. With wide eyes, he whistled his appreciation. He asked to try some of the tuna, tomato and pasta in my pan and looked less impressed, before scampering back to his parents to share his story.
That night I camped in one of the many olive groves under a full moon. Into southern Spain, the Moorish influence became increasingly visible through castles and mosques. It was harvest time and teams of migrant workers trudged to the fields in the morning and laboured under a hot sun. The temperature was rising and, in a heatwave for the region, I recorded a temperature of 47°C one afternoon near Cordoba. The road ran out late one afternoon just past Huerta de la Cueva. Too tired to rethink, I kept going and gambled on the gravelly path. I was rewarded with a beautiful ride up a wide, shallow valley. Tired and with weary legs I ground my way up the stunning valley feeling the loneliest I had so far. I scoured the landscape looking for a sheltered spot to unroll my sleeping bag and climb in.
Finally, I stumbled on a large farmhouse where I could hear voices and headed over to ask if I could camp in the field. A tall man in his mid-20s padded around to the front of the house dripping in his swimming shorts. After some faltering conversation, he agreed that I could camp and pointed to an area of scrubby ground near a hedge. I was immersed in setting up the tent with my thoughts on being horizontal as soon as possible when Miguel reappeared with friends, mostly women, offering a beer. I had stumbled across a mixed hen party and things were looking up!
My Spanish is very limited and it took some interesting charades to explain to Isabella that I wasn’t the stripper. With that confusion cleared up, we partied until the early hours and I demolished the Mexican buffet. A central open square to the farmhouse was watched over by the huge skull of a bull, with magnificent horns, and we danced under the stars.
The next morning, I was awoken by the tinkle of dozens of tiny bells as a herd of goats was driven past my front door by a cheerful teenage shepherd. Having seen the glorious morning light, I set out on the last push towards the most southern point in Spain, Tarifa. It was a Sunday and there were lots of club cyclists out enjoying the lovely roads of the parque natural de la Sierra de Grazalema.
The Rock of Gibraltar heralded my first sight of the sea and I swept along the coast. The strong winds funnelling through the strait have turned Tarifa into a wind and kite-surfing mecca and the cobbled streets of the old town were interspersed with surf shops. I treated myself to a steak and enjoyed the view of Africa from the harbour wall.
Tangier appeared from the water as a sprawl of white buildings bristling with aerials but as soon as I was cycling up narrow streets, its charm was apparent. I dumped the bike at the cheapest hotel I could find and headed out to explore the medina. Life oozed from all corners of the souk with sellers of goods of all kinds piled together in narrow alleys. Sat outside a café, I enjoyed a sugary mint tea and chatted to Mohammed about my plans. He was sure that riding alone into the desert was a bad idea. As I left, he hollered, “You’re in Africa now, man!”
Woken by the call to prayer the next morning, I set off along the coast and was very conscious about being on a new continent. Mohammed’s warnings had found a crack in my confidence and I was wondering how safe I was. However, cycling past roadside hawkers of huge yellow melons, wearing wide grins and enjoying life, I began to feel at ease. The coast was a disappointment, though – Asilah and Larache empty and uncared for; peeling paint and flying plastic bags. I turned inland.
I had read about Ouezzane before I left and remembered the warnings about it being the cannabis-producing capital of Morocco. Without many other options, I decided to risk it and rode along dusty roads scanning the hillsides for weed. Cycling straight into the town centre, I stopped in the bustle.
While I was trying to figure out which way to turn, Ahmed greeted me like a long-lost friend, installed me at his friends’ basic hotel and took me to meet his family at the local café. It was Ramadan and so we waited for the sun to set. The eerie call from the mosque echoed around the town signalling that the day was over, and we shared a meal of boiled eggs with curry powder, pitta and glasses of milk and orange juice. Ahmed explained that he is an artisan, making wooden ornaments for the markets around Morocco. His family looked on, slightly bemused by the smelly cyclist that he had found, while I kept an eye on the door for any passing drug barons.
Another long day in the saddle and I rolled into Fez, with directions being shouted from a passenger hanging onto a moped alongside me. Fez is an ancient market town known as Morocco’s cultural capital. Rolling into the incredible souk felt like cycling back in time. The narrow streets were in places completely built over, creating tunnels. Shafts of sunlight burst through the gaps and filtered into the smoky streets. Crowds surged around the lanes, closing out their business in the vibrant mix of cooking smoke, sparkling jewellery and pungent leather. For the brave, there was the option of open-air dentistry. Donkeys pulled carts of wrinkly vegetables through the crowds. I ordered a tagine and received a huge juicy hunk of meat on a bed of couscous. It was so good that I ordered a second and instantly became a local celebrity.
I crept out of the hostel in the morning and left the money for the room next to the owner, who was asleep at his desk and missing the football highlights on the television. Out of Fez, the road started to climb again, this time into the Atlas Mountains; grey skies, dark-brown rock and valleys littered with rubble. The landscape could have been Martian. The rain came before the top and I toiled over countless passes not marked on my map. Two days later, with the cloud beginning to break, colour returning and the road losing altitude, I sped past a huge mountain lake where thousands of bright pink flamingos chattered and squawked. At the top of the last pass, a lorry full of squaddies had told me that the famous Marathon des Sables was based from Erfoud on the plain below and as I descended into the Sahara, the heat built to the low 40s.
The landscape became flat, dusty and gravelly. With the mountains quickly receding behind me, it appeared that the world was flat to all horizons, but this was deceiving. Rivers ran in deep, steep valleys which were difficult to see before reaching the lip. They would appear suddenly and were densely packed with greenery. Kasbahs sat in the valleys, looking like huge ornate sandcastles made from layered dirt and stone. Berber nomads based in black tents by the roadside offered dinosaur fossils for which the area is famous.
I passed straight through Erfoud, where the road ran out and herds of camels roamed the land. I was headed towards Merzouga on the hard-baked gravelly mud and steering on a compass bearing. The heat bore down and the ground, hard and bumpy, rattled the bike to pieces. The water ran out and I fought to keep the panic down. Feeling rather more exposed than I would have liked, riding in the Sahara on my own with no water, I trusted in my compass and eventually a collection of buildings solidified from the heat haze. This was Merzouga and the famous sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. An hour later, I was relaxing in a baked mud hostel drinking mint tea and wondering at an incredible ride. The dunes rose like smooth hills beyond the town and rippled for as far as the eye could see. Bristol felt a long way away.
Four days later, I rolled into Marrakech having ridden through flash floods, topped the incredible Tizi n’Tichka pass in the High Atlas Mountains and slept in a rat-infested gite in the mountain village of Taddart Izdar. An unforgettable adventure.