Painted Blue Rocks, Hammam and Chez Sabir in Tafraoute and Western Sahara

Following a couple of nights wild camping (scroll down to bullet 4 to read about our spot off road 109) and discovering Kasbah Glaiouine aka ‘Escale Rando (click on the link and scroll down to the bottom to read about it), we were on the hunt for our own escale near Tafraoute. We’d read that the area could get very busy in February-March as it is a very coveted stopover for motorhomers. Indeed, it was. All the campsites – whether outside or inside the city – were full to the brim! Two huge campsites running side by side were looking more like enormous parking sites for a camping and caravanning show rather than picturesque campsites in the Anti Atlas.

Wild camping night by the side of the road 109, passed Igherm en route to Tafraoute.
We actually came back to the first campsite we noticed before entering Tafraoute. Camping LaVallée (click on the link to read our review) in the Ameln valley was the quietest site we had passed; not everybody wanted to walk the 5km, mostly uphill to the city. Cycling it wasn’t a problem for us, au contraire. We would rather stay in peaceful surroundings than in packed environments.

Nice free camping site on the outskirts of Tafraoute. We could have parked there, but we badly needed facilities.

View of our pitch at Camping La Vallée.
Tafraoute is a very vibrant area. Its ochre, red and green landscape shines through in the sunlight. Its curved, almost moulded, rock formations are weird and wonderful. Its honest and generous people have always got a smile on their faces. Every morning I went to the same Boulangerie-Patisserie to buy a fresh loaf of bread – its elderly owner always welcomed me with open arms and a big grin. That tiny gesture made me feel part of the community. It reminded me of our days in Finsbury Park. In the heart of London, N4, we had come to know the owners of our corner shops, cafés and restaurants. Those were little things we missed from our old life.

Artists, poets and novelists have come here for years now. One of them, Belgium-born artist, Jean Vérame came in 1984 and painted some of the huge rocks adorning the landscape surrounding Tafraoute, Les Pierres Bleues. Cycling on the piste leading to the site, Jamie pointed to the bright blue, pink and white dots which could already be seen in the background. Vérame had literally painted the landscape creating a unique ‘PopArtesque’ tableau in the middle of nowhere. How such a free-thinking act could be accepted in Morocco? Would an artist in the UK have been able to paint rock formations in the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales without being arrested and branded in the media as an “act of vandalism”?  This key event probably helped push Tafraoute even more on the tourist map.

En route to Les Pierres Bleues, a view from the road to Tafraoute looking over the Ameln valley, the site of our campsite.

Passing through Tafraoute. A couple of campsites can be seen on the left-hand side nearing the town's exit.

A kilometre further up, the road passes through palmeraies and lovely traditional Moroccan houses.

More modern buildings keep traditional Moroccan style and features too.

A short break.

We may have found a track off the main road...

A quirky house right by the track.

Further up the piste, I left my bike and went up on foot to try and see if there was a suitable terrain to cycle on...

... Unfortunately, it was too rocky. The path worsened as it went up. There was no chance our hybrids bike could make it through.

The view from the top was great though. But, I had to be quick, Jamie was waiting for me!

The left turn from the main road leading to Les Pierres Bleues.

Looking back onto the valley from the turn.

Road / dirt track approaching Les Pierres Bleues.
What was wonderful is that we could touch; hide; climb on the huge painted blobs and mushroom-like formations dotted around an area the size of a football ground. We probably would have been able to add a coat of paint on them too – as do the Moroccan tourist board every year to keep their vibrant colors.

Finally, the famous Pierres Bleues can be seen in the distance!

Just a pile of painted rocks?...

... Or art?

Mushrooms formation...

Building work was going on on one side of the site during our visit. Is the site going to be turned into a big tourist place?!

Ready to cycle back to Camping La Vallée.

Back towards Tafraout.

Some crazy sculptures by the side of the road!

We had both been looking forward to experience a traditional hammam. I had read about different ones in Tafraoute including the public one used by most locals. We checked out the address on the way back from our 40km-cycling ride – our bodies needed some scrubbing, ointments and massaging. The Bain et Douche public baths were on a small narrow back street between residential buildings. An elderly woman and her daughter kindly showed us the way in the end after we had been walking around in circles and been asking a few people.

The next day, we headed to Bain et Douche around 4pm. It was silly; part of me was a little bit worried and sad to leave Jamie on his own.  I hoped he was going to meet some lovely people. Behind the front door, I was walked straight into the smallish reception cum changing room by an elderly lady. Many women, young and old were chatting away whilst getting dressed/undressing depending on whether they’d been or not. The older lady took charge to find me a masseuse whilst I took my clothes off. Most local women and girls wear their underwear or nothing. I wasn’t ready to go full commando in front of strangers and so wore the cosy I had brought with me.

Lead in the other room by the strong and curvy woman in charge of me – a small room with bare walls and mats on the floor – I was slightly apprehensive and nervous. Most women were in pairs with a bucket of hot water each, scrubbing and washing each other’s hairs. Firm, but always polite, she managed to toss and turn me around like a dough. At some point, my whole face was stuck against the side of her breast. No time for prudery. Every inch of my body including armpits and feet got scrubbed in all ways possible. Luckily, scrubbing these didn’t involve me getting into a fit of laughter – I managed to hold it.

Once paid 65Dirhams (13 Dirhams for entrance + 2 Dirhams for black soap + 40Dirhams for scrub+massage + 10Dirhams for tip) and got dressed, I joined Jamie at a cafe in the centre. He had been there for quite a while. Unfortunately, nobody took charge of him as the women had done for me. I felt sad that he didn’t have the chance to have a similar experience as I had. I would say though that the experience’s not for everybody’s taste and the faint hearted. Le Bain et Douche in Tafraoute is not the place for a relaxing and luxurious experience, but more for an authentic one.

"Bain et Douche", Tafraout's hammam entrance.

Hard to find, it is really tucked in the rubbles of the back streets.

We decided to stay out and discover ‘Chez Sabir’ (click on the link to read a Guardian article mentioning it) – a little restaurant Jamie and I had read about on different platforms (he’d read about it on Wikitravels and trip advisor, I had checked it out in our Lonely Planet guide of Morocco).  Strolling the souq (market) and drinking mint teas had all been worth it. Came 7.30pm, walking down the tiny narrow alleyway from the main road, we were greeted by Sabir himself. Chez Sabir was like stepping into a traditional Moroccan home. Nicely decorated with traditional and intricate upholstery, rugs and cushions, it was cosy. Sabir, our host for the evening, made us feel at home. Whilst we told him a little bit about our travels and our journey through the mountains and dunes of Morocco, he shared his passion for Tafraoute and local Moroccan food. The food was exquisite and the evening excellent. We couldn’t have asked for more.

Chez Sabir's restaurant main room.

Our beautiful tagine!

Our famous host, Sabir with Jamie at the entrance of his restaurant.

Time to finally head to Western Sahara! We read a lot about it and what has now been decades of dispute regarding its ownership. In brief it should be its own country, but Morocco believes it is its own territory. Whatever talks and actions the UN have tried, Moroccan flags are flying high all across the region. Pictures of the King, Mohammed VI adorn city’s entrances, public buildings and shops. The government’s invested in new infrastructure, road management, city planning to ensure and maybe re-affirm to UN ambassadors their ownership of the land.

From a blind eye entering Western Sahara, one would believe it is still Morocco. The only thing different is the police stops at every towns entrances & exit which could raise suspicion about whether there is a problem in the area. Once we went through our first check, we knew what to do for the next ones. Smiling and greeting in Arabic always seemed to relax the atmosphere. Being French helped too as we ended up having nice chats with some of the policemen. We realised pretty quickly that everything was done by hand; that’s why each stop could take up to 15/20 minutes. There is no communications between policemen either – so the check at the entrance of a city lasts as long as at the exit. I did wonder where they were keeping all these manual records... What a waste of time and space!

We wanted to discover the Sahara inland, not just through the cost. There weren’t many choices – one main road only goes through the middle of the desert: R101 to Smara. The only route possible to go further South is to go back to the coast to Laayoune. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do a loop; to go South, we had to go back the same way. We decided to explore it as far down as Boujdour – we both liked the sound of it really.

Road 101 to Smara was worth it. It was dry, vast and empty all the way. Its peacefulness only perturbed by a few camels. Although a short crossing, we went through it in a day and half, we loved and enjoyed the ride. There are not many places you’d say that camping by the side of the road would be beautiful and majestic. Well, here it was!

On the N1, we come across a hordes of camels with baby ones too!

Not much going on en route to Western Sahara, just vast landscapes.

Our lunch spot.

Setting camp for the night on Road 101 (98km to Smara). Read our short review of Western Saharan wild camping spots.

Nothing for miles.

Came across this abandoned campsite along the road 101 to Smara.

Looked quite grand and intriguing!

It looks like it even had a restaurant/auberge in its heyday.

A list of books about the desert and Western Sahara is marked on this bit of wall.

A road sign you don't see often in Europe...

One of the small police stations in Western Sahara. This one was at the entrance of Smara.

The grand boulevard/avenue to Smara city centre.

Main strip along the city centre adorned with cafes and bars.

Time for a coffee!

Luckily we'd managed to park the van not too far away so we could keep an eye on it.

Example of pro-Moroccan propaganda in Western Sahara - a poster of King Mohammed VI of Morocco is displayed next to Smara's army base.

Our wild camping spot 30km to Laayoune. (Click on the link to read a short review of our Western Saharan camping spots)

Driving on N5 towards Laayoune, Western Sahara.

A dried river bed just before Laayoune.

Many garages and trucks in Laayoune.

Driving passed a cycling competition as we leave the city.

So much sand!
Boujdour has got such a lovely sounding name to it. Unfortunately, the town doesn’t live up to it. It felt en suspens; what had probably been a nice seafront / promenade in its heyday, had lost much of its glory. Only a few of the buildings still up seemed left in semi-abandon. The football pitch and park didn’t seem to have been used for years. Our municipal campsite was in good need of TLC. Nice art deco apartments weren’t used.

Another example of a grand boulevard coming to Boujdour, Western Sahara.

And the many Moroccan flags making people believe they are still in Morocco.

Boujdour's municipal campsite. It looks nice on picture, but the facilities needed great repair and no hot water!

The campsite's entrance.

The campsite's on a road leading to the seafront.

A long sandy beach going for miles.

Some of the graffitis along the seafront.

A deserted football pitch.

Walking back towards Boujdour's town centre.

A nice mural by a bus stop.

More flags can be seen near the main square... Moroccan propaganda.

In hindsight it probably wasn’t worth driving all the day down to Boujdour unless we’d decided to go all the way down to Mauritania and Senegal. It was a long detour via many police checks to discover a part of Western Sahara that was miles apart from the one along R101.

Let’s go back to Morocco and make our way up along the Atlantic coast. We were both dreading it a little bit – were we swapping desert, gorges and mountains for high rises and resorts?