Casablanca to Essaouira - Richard Harpham

Date: Tuesday September 10, 2019 at 4:08pm

The early part of 2019 saw me head to Morocco to extend my London to Marrakech trail further South cycling from Casablanca to Essaouira.  It would also join up my Casa – Marrakech, Marrakech to Essaouria ride in a giant triangle.  I was joined by my Moroccan friend and brother Mohammed, a school teacher from Bengre. I first met Mohammed, a teacher, on the London to Marrakech journey. He was riding my late dad’s old mountain bike and I was on a Surly ‘Ice Cream Truck’ with some sharing and swapping on route. 

We caught the bus to Cassa after catching up at Albakech House and assembling my bike as well as sorting out kit. Finding budget accommodation that allowed our trusty steeds to reside alongside us proved tricky. We cycled through the old city, now at night and eventually after a few dead ends found somewhere for £12. Basic but would fit the budget and bill.

     

Our plan was simple, keep the Atlantic Ocean on our right and cycle South until time was up.  The mornings were chilly as it was January and layers were essential until the warm sunny rays broke through and warmed our days.  The first morning we cycled to Hassain II Mosque and took the obligatory tourist shots of our bikes and us on tour. It was cold and I was pretty glad I had Bamboo Clothing layers and then Paramo over jackets, these have been with me from the Sahara to minus 70 in the Yukon. They are a trusted part of the team.

Our route changed from lagoons and the agriculture of the Atlantic Coast to high cliffs and rugged features as we headed South. We passed some seriously big industrial ports with smoke belching, which left us feeling sad at our demands on the planet.  Night time antics were amusing trying to avoid detection to wild camp. We persuaded a guardian (local night security) to let us wild camp in a deserted holiday chalet complex. It was Mohammed’s first night camping and he was rewarded with light rain. Our route took in many stunning fishing and Atlantic towns including El Jidad, Sidi Abed and Oualidida.  Safi South is the surfing capital of Morocco with some epic waves and locations attracting tourists from around the world.  

One particular night we struggled with local farmers and small rural communities being curious as to the travellers in their midst. We spotted a small road leading into the dunes by the beach and headed for an odd-looking complex overlooking the Atlantic Surf. The guardian didn’t want to take responsibility for us but did offer us the rough ground next to their boundary wall. We had borrowed a plastic sheet from a street food vendor on the road (promising to return it the next day) and used that as a tarp over our bivi bags with rocks holding it in place on the wall.  Our best laid plans were disrupted in the night when heavy winds resulted in us being showered in said rocks.  It was a real Darwin awards moment but luckily no permeant damage done!

   

The adventure was about to take a dramatic turn as we approached the end of our challenge.  We sat at a roadside hostelry grabbing a vegetable egg dish with fresh peas picked from the adjacent wall garden. A horse and cart descended the hill and moved off the road as a coach passed with the customary toot to give room. The cartwheel clipped the edge of a wadi (ravine) and in horrific slow motion started to tumble. The heavy cart pulled the horse and passengers into the top of the wadi.

We watched in shock and horror as the cart, horse and passengers disappeared from view.  Time seemed to stand still before we sprang into action. Locals were running to help as we sprinted from the café roof top across the road. The two passengers had managed perfect tuck and roll stunt man like sketches and were unharmed whilst the horse was pinned under the cart 2m below the road, only saved by the cart being wedged at the top of the wadi.

Back to the bike at a sprint I grabbed my trusty Leatherman and a strap and went to help. The lead passenger was whispering to the horse to keep it calm. I passed my knife to cut loose the harnesses and miraculously he managed to slide the horse out. He followed a track and brought the horse showing cuts but no breakages back to the road via a goat track.  The group of bystanders seemed keen to disperse and I was sure if we put our backs into it, we could haul the heavy duty out up 2m and out of the wadi. Mohammed translated and five minutes later the cart was back on the road.

As a horse person I was keen to ensure that the horse was rested for a few days and offered to pay for its keep. Mohammed translated and the last we saw was the man walking in front of the cart with the horse on light duties.  Our superhero work was not done as we cycled up and down the rolling hills of the coastline we came across a tortoise crossing the road. Under-pants on the outside we also saved the little fellow or dame!! Brownie points fully charged we pedalled on searching for a fire to dowse or giant boulders to lift!!

One of the great things about human powered adventures is time to reflect and detox from the rigours of modern life. This journey was no exception and we were continually blessed with the kindness of strangers. We were flagged down by a fruit and veg stall owner called Abdullah for Thé a Menthe (mint tea) and relaxed on his comfy hay bales. Our night routine of wild camping was forever tricky if we were passing small towns as we, inevitably, attracted attention.

       

One such event happened in sleepy seaside town of Bebouzza which reminded me of a Victorian seaside destination. We kept a low profile and after much searching found a small greenhouse like structure and made camp. By the time I was in my sleeping bag and boxers the guardian appeared and was clearly worried about the white tourist, Moroccan teacher and general look of vagrancy. We explained our case, badly it seems, as he returned with the police. They were equally concerned for our safety and insisted we leave and follow them in police convoy to a ‘safe house’!   This was my second police escort (first one in Holland) and my first safe house.

After our temporary incarceration and my passport details being taken, we were slightly more cautious the next night. Fortunately for us the chef, Khalid, at a local beachside café offered to put us up for the night, he was house sitting a giant villa. Winner! He then offered to cook us a tagine whilst he was working, things kept getting better.

Arriving in Essauoira was a real high with the dual bonus of finishing a fantastic journey rich in culture, history and a little graft but also joining up my previous adventures. Essauoira to me conjures happy memories of incredible sardines straight of the boats, ancient city walls with ramparts and secret passages and a hippy like vibe.  We did our little tradition of dipping our tyres in the water to signal the end of another incredible trip.  One of the incredible ‘penny drop’ moments of the trip was chatting to Mohammed and realising he had covered over 100,000 kms cycling to work and back as a teacher. Incredible effort.

Hopefully you’ve been inspired to get on your bike and better still make it a fat bike.  Find your local hire centre or demo a Surly.  Happy trails.

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