Four days to the beach

After our rest day on Sunday, February 23 in Guelmim, we rode four days to the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s what happened.

Day 24 – Wed Feb 19 – 31 km

Total = 778 km

Up at 6:45 am at the Oasis Palm hotel in Guelmim, packed up and went down for breakfast at 7:30 am. Finished eating and packing, then paid the bill and we were waiting for a cab to go back to the horses at 8:30 am. The cabs were late (for the first time on this trip) and showed up at 9:20 am. Got back to camp where the horses were tacked up. Everyone got ready and we rode off at 11 am.

We rode down the valley toward Guelmim, following a riverbed (of course!) Mostly walking.

Rode past a dam that was being built, then through the actual construction site where the Fask dam project, financed by Qatar, was underway.

We then rode through a bit of barley, where the horses dove for grass, then over a raised road and into a lunch spot at 1:45. The horses did lots of rolling in the tilled dirt.

We left camp at 3:30 and continued down valley onto a vast plain. It felt like we were riding on a dry fluvial fan of a river, and would soon be reaching the sea. The footing was good and we did some trots and canters but it was very windy (anabatic – down valley and at our backs), and a few horses played up, bucking and leaping about. So those riders wanted to walk, which was disappointing for those of us who were having fun cantering. I hope we don’t end up walking all the way to the sea.

We got to our camp spot just outside a village and tied the horses down the hill by the river/oasis that we had been riding alongside. We camped on top in the wind which died down at about 8 pm – typical of sea breezes and valley winds.

Day 25 – Thurs Feb 20 – 42 km

Total = 820 km

I woke up at 7 am to misty fog and a wet tent! Packed up and had breakfast at 8 am. There was granola and buns with fake butter spread, but a much better breakfast offering than we’d had in a while.

Tacked up and got away at 9:30 am leading horses into the oasis to the west. Rode down valley through fields of thyme (or wormwood?), barley, and sheep. The mist burned off at 10:45 am, for a typical hot sunny day. I changed from a fleece jacket and a helmet to a shirt and a sun hat. I hadn’t put sunscreen on and could feel the heat of the sun. Then we crossed a road and continued southwest up a valley. We passed a sheep herder who took his photo with us. His sheep looked thin. Rode through a large herd of camels which were quite thin but had several young ones.

Stopped for lunch after 17 km at 1:15 pm at what looked like a former nomad camp and there were a lot of ticks. Several riders got ticks when they sat down for lunch. After lunch, I went and looked at Farouk and he had 3 ticks on each leg at the coronet and pastern, then a few more up his legs and 5 in his groin. It seemed as though when I picked them off, more appeared. So I took him out into the desert and he got a few more but they were much less prevalent. There was even one under his girth when I reset his tack. Gross. They were industrial strength and lived up to their arachnid genus, scuttling very fast to the nearest heat source.

After lunch we rode up the valley and into another, doing lots of hand-walking due to rocks. Also had a few trots but no canters as several horses were still misbehaving.

We continued southwest over a couple of low passes and eventually into a large valley that leads west. As the sun set (7:45 pm), we rode into camp just east of N1 – the main road north to Goulmim and south to El Oatia. We had donuts for our snack then chips for dinner 🙂 There had been a lot of hand-walking and my feet are tired. It was a good day though.

Dinner was the best yet. Too bad Jude went to bed early and missed it. We had the usual soup (always yummy), then camel!! With veggies and sweet onions, plus fries (chips to most of the riders here). For dessert, we had canned pineapple and chocolate (courtesy of Adrianos). Fantastic.

Day 26 – Fri Feb 21 – 41 km

Total = 861 km

We were up at 7:15 am for breakfast at 8. There was a really cool sunrise with a fingernail moon. I hope the photos turn out. Stellar breakfast with leftover donuts, granola and other cereal, hot chocolate, orange juice, and the usual bread and jam. Tacked up horses and found more ticks – a different kind than the striped legged ones. These were black and a bit smaller but just as fast. Buggers.

There was dew on the tents so we tacked up and then took the tents down. There wasn’t the sea mist that we’d had before, and the wind was from the east – down valley and out to sea, so at our backs, which was nice (although a harbinger of a massive sandstorm, which we didn’t know). We were all in good spirits as this was supposed to be about a 30 km day and our last full day of riding.

We hand-walked across the N1 road and Rosie’s horse spooked then ran off loose, circled around and was caught. Then we got on and rode west into the desert.

We followed the valley and wound through hills to the southwest. The morning went on and on, and eventually, we started down the river valley that would take us to the sea. There was water in the river, which was surprising. A road was being constructed down the valley and we had lunch on river left, across from the side we were traveling. It was windy (still blowing an easterly), and there were more black ticks. Had lunch at 3:30 pm, so left the horses saddled. We’d traveled 28 km.

Left our lunch spot at 4:30 pm and started down the river valley but the road curved right, away from the river and Abdel wasn’t sure we could get down the river, so he talked to a passing driver who told him the river valley was impassable due to a canyon, and gave him alternate directions. So we followed the road north, and through a village with no people, where prickly pear cactus was growing. Then we continued up a hill and bailed off the road onto a track that went west. Rode up a hill, over a pass and continued northwest. Then we hand-walked 3 sides of a square before getting to camp. We all did a lot of hand-walking (about 8 km?) and got pretty tired. The horses were tired, too.

But the sunset was beautiful and it was neat to look west and southwest and see all the rolling hills. We kept thinking we’d go over a hill and see the sea but all we could see in the distance was sandy blue air. It may or may not have been the sea.

We got to camp as the sun set (about 7:45), untacked, watered, put up tents and had snacks. Then we all wrote a note to thank the crew for their hard work on this trip and Susan collected cash and gifts for Abdel and the crew. We’re not totally sure what the plan is for tomorrow, but it includes riding to the beach, riding along the beach, having photos and video taken by Amanda, untacking, giving the crew the collected gifts, saying goodbyes and being driven by minivan to Agadir for tea (?) at Abdel’s. We’ll see what transpires…

Day 27 – Sat Feb 22 – 14 km

Total = approximately 875 km

We were all kept awake much of the night due to howling wind and sand flapping the fly and blowing our tents flat.

Got up at 6:30 am – the wind wasn’t as bad outside but the sand and silt blowing in it made it impossible to see without sunglasses on. You simply couldn’t open your eyes. It was a genuine sandstorm, which we hadn’t experienced on the trip. Mother Nature was saving it for our last day, I guess.

The horses probably had a rough night. Farouk’s straw was blown away and not many of them wanted to drink, as the water was blowing out of the bucket.

We manhandled all the tents into submission by taking them into the large canvas eating tent (which had partially blown over).

We got some respite at breakfast, then I helped Antje and David measure a couple of horses for their nutrition study.

We all tacked up using 3 people as the saddle pads wouldn’t stay on the horses. There was sand in everything.

I pulled 11 ticks off Farouk – little tiny ones in weird places like behind his ears, on his big hindquarter muscles, on his neck, down his legs, plus the black ones and striped leg ones. There were more around his hind end but he didn’t want me messing with them.

Then we started out on our last day of riding on this trip – heading for the beach and hopefully, a last gallop. Walked downhill toward the road and most riders got on their horses there. Crossed the (paved) road and continued west through the hills. The wind was at our backs and increased and decreased depending on whether we were protected by a hillside or not. It was pretty strong though.

Followed a gully to the road then along the north side of the road and across a flat for a few more hills. Through the last hills and onto a great flat which felt like a beach. The wind was very strong at our backs, pushing the horses along, and flying sand and silt prevented visibility beyond about 30 metres. Looking up and down the line of horses, you couldn’t see both Abdel at the front and the last riders – they disappeared into the sandstorm. There was nothing to see except blowing sand and there was no way to talk. Everyone was keeping their mouths closed to prevent mouthfuls of sand, plus the shrieking wind was too loud. It was like being inside a vacuum cleaner.

We rode across the plain, alongside a gravel road and across several vehicle tracks then up a slope toward a few houses and their fenced gardens. We turned south (left) at the buildings and looking west could see crashing waves on a sand beach below, about 200 m away. We’d reached the beach (sort of) after 800+ kms!

We rode south along an abrupt escarpment about 60 m above the beach and across the howling wind. Several riders were concerned they would be blown over the cliff edge as the wind was so strong. Wind, silt and sandblasted our left side, swaying and staggering the horses, and rolling fist-sized rocks along the ground.

Continuing south along the escarpment, Abdel was looking for a way down onto the beach, and the road where the trucks were waiting for us.

Eventually, the trucks appeared on the beach below, and we followed a winding road southwest down onto the beach immediately adjacent to a breakwater that was holding back a river. Abdel rode past the trucks and west toward what should be the beach and waves. But after riding over a few berms, he stopped and circled back. There was water on the sand to our north, plus the breakwater to the south, and with less than 30 m visibility it seemed possible that we could ride toward the sea and become stranded by the rising tide.

It was the end of our journey. Riders hopped off, hugged, said congratulations and we returned to the trucks. Horses were tied to stakes in the ground, untacked and riders’ bags were loaded into a minivan that would take us to Agadir. The wind and sand was horrendous, sandpapering our faces, embedding sand and silt into the horse’s coats, and becoming lodged in every nook of our bags – to be discovered days later in countries around the world.

Group and individual photos were collected, with a few cameras rendered useless by the flying grit. Riders said goodbye to their horses and the crew and piled into the minivan to drive back to Agadir. The crew was left to pack up and load the horses into two trucks for their journey back to Marrakech and Skoura for a well-deserved week-long break.

875 km across Morocco and through a roaring sandstorm, which stymied efforts to dip our toes in the sea and gallop along the beach. What a trip.

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