Category: Morocco


The dirty side of Morocco

Recovered from our freezing evening in the icebox and keen to find sustenance we headed out of our hotel in Sefrou in search of breakfast. On the main road there was a coffee bar with a handful of locals drinking coffee and reading the paper, so we sat down and asked if they had food. As is often the case, local businesses depend on one another, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see our waiter go next door presumably to order breakfast and to send someone else out to buy bread. Our breakfast of coffee and omelette drenched in olive oil and floating a top was a square piece of white cheese was not delicious but gave us the strength to explore the Medina of Sefrou. Barely a few metres in the town centre and there was the usual sight of rubbish heaped up on the sides of the road.

Rubbish Choked stream

The oued, or stream running through the middle of Sefrou town choked with rubbish

Time and time again it is depressing to see the polluted waterways of towns choked full of rubbish and resembling a rubbish tip more than a brook or stream as it should. Whatever the reason for such polluting whether it’s a lack of waste collection, education, governmental policies or lack of policing, the laziness and utter disrespect for ones very own environment is appalling and disgusting, depressing and aggravating all at once.

Sefou Medina

Entry gate to the Sefrou Medina

Back on Francois and barely 200m down the road and I got a wasp sting right on the middle of my neck on my Adam’s Apple. Pulling over in a rush annoyed from the sting, I got Arja to look if there was a barb left from the sting. Nothing visible to her, I was increasingly irritated and could do nothing but apply a little Benadryl itch relief and keep riding.

We rode past the beautiful High Atlas mountains and through the Gorge du Ziz, illuminated by the evening light they were a stunning deep red. Before the town of Ar-Rachidia and behind some hills we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent on relatively flat ground despite all the rocks. Although there was a distinct lack of vegetation there was a small dried up brook that had some shrubs along it so I went in search of some sticks to make a fire. A little way up the riverbed was a small acacia tree with a dead branch, this along with a few sticks and kindling would make up enough firewood for a small fire. We set up camp as the sun set over the distant mountains. We were alone and the silence was a welcome relief from the traffic noise and the hustle and bustle of town.

Wild Camping

Wild camping on stones north of Errachidia

Piste to the dunes

From our wild camp spot on stones we rode into Errachidia (also spelt Ar-Rachidia) for breakfast of milk coffee and chocolate buns, without chocolate. After our breakfast we went in search of an internet cafe, as indicated by our waiter there was one around the corner, although closed it had free WiFi so we connected to it on our tablet and checked our emails and Pascal tried to order some parts from a BMW dealer in Granada Spain. The email bounced so he sent it again to another address in hope it would make it to the right person. From Ar-Rachidia we continued south to Erfoud and stocked up on water and food for our detour to Merzouga. Out of Erfoud east and across the oued we followed the tarmac road until about halfway to Merzouga when the road ended turning into piste, a mix of dirt and gravel with sand traps every so often. There were multiple tracks going in every direction so we followed the main one towards the dunes in the distance. At the base of the dunes we came across a handful of desert hotels advertising themselves as Berber Auberges. We resolved after a cup of tea with the owner of one to stay the night at Auberge de Berbers, half-pension, beside the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Piste to Merzouga

Heading towards Erg Chebi (sand dunes) and Merzouga near the Algerian Border

For our evening activity we went on a camel (dromedary) ride into the dunes for a sunset view over the plains and towards the High Atlas mountains. The view was splendid but didn’t quite compare to the seclusion of Algeria or the pristine uninterrupted dunes there either.

Erg Chebbi Sunset

Sunset from Erg Chebbi over the High Atlas mountains

On our return down the dunes but before mounting the camel our camel trainer put on the sell bringing out his little bag of treasures, so-called fossil stones carved and polished into different shapes. The souvenirs were all much the same and none of them interested either of us and we were a bit annoyed at the sales pitch, but that is Morocco, a well oiled tourist trap just sitting in wait to take all your money. At the end of our hour wander the camel trainer asked for a tip. I refused his offer seeing nothing in his work that merited a tip of any description.

For dinner we had a salad of cooked carrots, potatoes, raw cucumber, tomatoes, red onion and black olives covered in a paprika and olive oil dressing. Since it had been quite a while since we had any vegetables or salad, we devoured the entrée leaving only a little room for the chicken tagine that followed. Dubious about chicken from half board hotels in remote locations I started to eat around the chicken but secretly craving meat I tucked into a small piece. It tasted fine, although that’s exactly what I had said the previous times and it wasn’t. I took my chances and decided to live dangerously, and ate all the chicken even though it was a little burnt from the base of the tagine. With dinner down and our tummies happy we headed to our room for a romantic evening by candle light.

Erg Chebbi Dunes

Palm trees on the edge of the Erg Chebbi Dunes

Pains of travelling as a couple

The following day we headed into the town of Merzouga following the dunes until they joined up to the main asphalt road. From Merzouga we headed to Tinejdad and Tinrghir and the gorges of Todra. We spent the night in the newly built maison d’hote called Mogador Ait Idir on the way north from Boulmaine Babes towards the gorges. The host was very warm and welcoming and we had dinner with the family altogether in their living room watching Moroccan television. The room was comfortable although quite cold and the showers were heated by a wood furnace so the hot water took a couple of hours to heat up properly. All the vegetables and produce was either from their garden or sourced locally. I thought to myself that we are definitely in the rustic and self-reliant part of the Atlas here. The owner had a large garage that was mostly unused except for grain storage and served as secure off-street parking for the night.

The gorge of Tinerhir

Just after visiting the gorges of Dades we had an argument about whether to continue and take the dirt track north through the Atlas mountains to Imilchil or not. Arja was right, even if the road was open we wouldn’t make it in one day. She wanted to go around via Skoura and then to Demnate. I was obstinate and knowing our time in Morocco was coming slowly to a close felt that it may be our last opportunity to ride off-road and Arja was standing in the way of that. Of course none of that was true and Arja looking out for our best interests was the sensible one, well until she threatened to smash the video camera and jump from the moving bike.

Boumaine Dades

Oasis village of Boumaine Dades

Just at the very moment I stopped Francois to let Arja off and appease her in order to avoid doing something stupid, another big bike pulled up. It was an American named Jim on a hired F800GS from Marakesh. We got chatting and we exchanged contact details and he took a photo of us before heading off in opposite directions. We made up and agreed that the most sensible route was to ride from Dades to Skoura and over the Atlas mountains to Demnate. It took the best part of what daylight was left arriving in Ouzoud at 17h30 as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. On the way we marked a significant milestone, 80,000kms on the odometer.

80000kms

80000kms – Time to celebrate!

It was an intensely beautiful sunset ride on the sweeping and meandering road towards Ouzoud. By far this road was the most pleasurable that we had ridden in Morocco as there was very little traffic and the road and weather conditions were almost perfect. Without a doubt the benefits well and truly out way the pains of travelling as a couple. Its times like these that make travelling together and being able to share such wonderful experiences that remind us of how lucky we really are.

Landslides

Plenty of landslides all along the road to Demnate through the High Atlas mountains

Mountainscape

Stunning mountain vistas throughout the High Atlas.

After check-in at the Kasbah Auberge  on the hill just before town we unloaded Francois and headed into the centre of Ouzoud to be hounded by the touts for souvenirs, parking, hotels and food. We waited for quite some time before our dinner of meatball tagine arrived and when it did, we were disappointed. It wasn’t anything special but we were hungry so ate and then went back to our accommodation with a grey and white rabbit and our own bungalow by the swimming pool.

Kasbah Delights

The following morning our breakfast by the pool had Arja’s taste buds watering for more. The hot bread and Moroccan crêpe, resembling more an Indian chapatis than a crêpe was hot and delicious, the coffee was even strong, unlike what we had tasted up to now. I guess that is the advantage of having French owners. The day started out dry but overcast, we rode back through the centre of Ouzoud and straight past the cascades without even stopping because we didn’t want to deal with the touts and rather fancied racking up some kilometres before the weather turned as we had a long ride ahead to Fes. Over the middle Atlas we continued on our way north towards Fes.

Tagine

Moroccan Lamb Tagine

Not knowing the first thing about Fes or having any directions, we kept riding into the traffic and lights until we arrived at what we thought was close to the centre of Fes new town. We were hopelessly lost and we couldn’t find any placemarks and the only hotel we found didn’t have parking and was far too expensive. Luckily my persistence when asking for a discount attracted the attention of a junior consiege who asked if we wanted a cheaper hotel. We said yes and he suggested calling his friend who would show us the hotel. The price sounded right so we accepted, after all one could only try. Drinking a mint tea and chatting in English while we waited for his friend to arrive, Arja was a little uneasy and let me know by worried glances. The freelance tourist guide and translator arrived by a little red taxi and led us to the outskirts of Fes-el-bal. We were uncertain where we would end up, and had no idea where we were going or what was in store, but we felt good about this and to be honest we didn’t have much choice but to trust in someone and he had an honest face. After about 20mins of swerving through heavy traffic we passed through the gate of the Medina and down to a parking spot under a mosque. I went to visit the guesthouse in the medina while Arja waited with Francois and our gear. After about twenty metres down an alley the guide and the owner of the hotel disappeared into a dark passageway. I had to bend and duck through the passage which went for 15m then a left turn and a narrow opening to a dead-end where there was an unmarked wooden door that opened with a creak. Past the door and the restored Dar (family home smaller than a Riad) unveiled all its glory with a magnificent central foyer come courtyard decorated in mosaics and hand crafted wooden shutters. It was beautiful and we were lucky to have the opportunity to find this guesthouse.

The next day our freelance tourist guide and translator arrived for a walking tour through the Medina of Fes, which is a real labyrinth. From the Kairouan mosque to the Tanneries we dodged, trod, twisted, ducked and meandered around the small and unmarked lanes and passages leading from one souk to another. Textiles and tapestries, legumes and leather goods, riads and mosques, Fes certainly has it all.

Fes Tanneries

Fes Tanneries

Riad

Courtyard of the Intercultural Riad in Fes

Rif Rif Rain Rain

We left Fes shortly after breakfast in a light drizzle of rain and the weather only got worse on the way to Chefchouan as we passed over the Rif mountains. If we thought that the weather might clear as we passed to higher altitude then we couldn’t have been more mistaken. The clouds came down to meet us and soon the wet roads turned muddy and extremely slippery, the rainy vision turned to white mist as we ascended into heavy fog. Our warm dry hands gradually soaked by continual rain soon got colder and colder, until my hands, crisped, were grasping to the hand grips frozen solid. The cold penetrated through us and the fog strained our vision and gave us headaches, uncomfortable is an understatement however the need to find a dry and warm place drove us on. The visibility was zero, I literally couldn’t see more than ten metres in front and the fog had obscured my rearview mirrors. The only way I knew we wouldn’t run off the road and hit a tree was because I was following the tail lights of the car in front. What seemed like an eternity of battling the cold and poor visibility was dragged on by the traffic in the towns we passed through, for it was market day. We didn’t even stop for lunch, we rode on towards Chefchoaun at times praying for a break in the dense fog. Finally the weather began to clear and as the fog gradually disappeared so did the headache that came with it. We were now descending towards the valley and even the rain eased somewhat as if to welcome us and let us see the  most remarkable landscape that had until now been hidden from sight.

Our evening was spent wandering around Chefchouan by night under the dim street lights that illuminated the blue washed walls and cobblestone streets of the medina.

Chefchouan by night

Chefchouan by night

Blue Washed

Typical of Chefchouan, blue and white washed stone houses

Leaving Chefchouan wouldn’t have been so bad if our gloves and helmets weren’t soaked through from the day before. To make the gloves more bearable to wear and easier to put on I heated them on the engine for a few minutes whilst we donned on our rain suits. Struggling with the damp gear we finally got on Francois and headed off to Tangier through the miserable weather, which cleared a little and for the last 50 kms from Tetouan to Tangier was fast and pleasant on the new two lane highway.

At Tangier port the prices for the 35min ferry crossing to Tarifa in Spain were very expensive, the first quote for the two of us and Francois was 980MAD. I asked another agent and it was the same so I asked for alternatives, the guy mentioned that Acciona has a boat to Algerciras from the new port for two-thirds of the price to Tarifa, what he failed to mention was that it was 45km from Tangier and our boat would leave in just over an hour. That was too tight in my opinion so when confronted with this new tid-bit of info brought to our attention by the police officers at the entry to Tangier old port, we headed straight back to the agent and asked to have our tickets changed. We had paid 625MAD and the agent asked for and extra 55 Dirhams to change the tickets. Somehow we were still 300 Dirhams less than the original quoted price of 980 for the same passage to Tarifa but I wasn’t about to say anything, then Arja started to kick-up a stink thinking that I was paying a lot more for the tickets to be changed. All I wanted was to grab our passports, tickets and customs form and go as surreptitiously as possible.

We made our way to the port after I explained to Arja that it was a good deal and once she had double checked the ticket details we headed towards the departure gate. It was also rushed and quick that we hadn’t the least amount of time to reflect on our past month in North Africa. To be honest it has been very different to what we expected, obviously travelling with our own vehicle has contributed immeasurably to our experiences and where and how we travelled but by and large we have been very fortunate and lucky with the people we encountered and the hospitality we’ve been shown.

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Compared to Algeria, Libya or Egypt, today Morocco is definitely the cheaper and easier adventure alternative. Given the difficulties with obtaining tourist visas recently for Algeria, the troubles in Egypt and civil war in Libya, Morocco will without a doubt gain from the others loss. Morocco is simple, easy and has all the major conveniences of just about any European country. In fact picture yourself in a modern metropolis then add olive skin tones, a dash of colour, dirty it up with some foul smelling rubbish, add sand, camels, medinas full of oriental handicrafts and touts, perfumes and spices et voilà, you have Morocco, a kind of wonderland of North Africa.

Nador Ferry

Pascal on the Almeria to Nador Ferry enjoying sunset over the Mediterranean

Back to the Maghreb

At times it feels like we live on a boat. The combined time thus far on the 8 ferry passages is an astounding 62 hours and we still have another, albeit shorter ferry to return to Spain.

Moroccan customs was quite straight forward at Nador. The tardiness of our arrival at 11:45pm meant there were little or no hawkers to annoy us. With the entry cards filled in I went to the passport control to get my passport stamped, directed by several locals. After that I was instructed to enter a small office in the same building to obtain the ‘carte grise’ or Moroccan registration certificate for Francois. At the desk I told them in all honesty that I didn’t have 3rd party insurance (greencard) that was valid for Morocco, this created a little fuss because the insurance broker was not open after 6pm. We were let into the country without insurance but told either to come back the following morning to the port and purchase the insurance or to purchase it in Nador town. The police office said “Talk to no one else about insurance and just go through customs and leave, no one will trouble you.” He was right, a quick check of our passports and we were out of the port and under the amber street lights heading to Nador town centre where we had booked a hotel for the night.

Under the cloak of darkness we navigated our way with surprising precision to hotel Mediterranee one block from the lake and quite close to the centre of Nador and 10km from the port. The desk clerk agreed to allow us to park Francois in the hotel entry foyer so long as I was up by 6am to move Francois back out onto the street so the owner wouldn’t know. I agreed, and set my alarm and then it was off to bed.

The following morning we had breakfast and after a slow start we left Nador around mid-day. But before setting out I felt that it would be better to have 3rd party insurance so we went looking for the only insurer in Nador that would organise a policy to cover us. Just off Ave Mohammed V on Ave Hassan on the lake side of the road was a blue door leading up to the insurance bureau on the 1st floor. If it wasn’t for a street vendor I may never have found the place. The bureau an agency of BCMA was able to provide the insurance valid for 1 month at an exorbitant cost of ~96Euros! More expensive than the whole of europe for the same period incredibly. Well the lesson here is, get your insurance at home, it’ll definitely work out much cheaper.

Chankar Homestay

From Nador to Taza and in direction of Merhraoua we headed south looking for an adventure (as if we weren’t already on one) and well it came knocking as if per chance. As we ascended the twisting road behind Taza up the Middle Atlas mountains we began to feel like we were back in the Maghreb, with mosques, goats, beggars, potholed roads and children selling tubs full of wild berries completing the picture.

Local Kids Selling Wildberries

Local Kids Selling Wildberries

The day was getting late and darkness began to fall a lot sooner than we anticipated. We began scanning around for somewhere to camp. There were a few options but as there were villagers moving their flock of sheep nearby we decided to continue. Not far up the road we came into a small village, called Ain Ouda where we saw a brand new sign saying ‘Gite de Merhraoua’ just off the roadside. No sooner had we stopped, local children ran up to see what we were. Off the bike we asked about the Gite, which is a small house built for local tourism, the children said the owner was coming. Surely enough moments later the owner arrived from across the field to inform us that the Gite was closed and he didn’t have the key. We asked a few more questions. Was there another village with a hotel in the area? Could we camp near the village? The owner said that the nearest hotel was in Taza, back where we came from and that they couldn’t let us camp as they wanted to invite us to stay with them. It was late, we had little or no food, and worst of all it looked like it might just rain, how could we refuse. Evidently we were very thankful and out of a combination of need and politeness we accepted graciously. The local kids didn’t hesitate when I offered them a seat on Francois. The guest room was simple with nothing but a coffee table and some mats on the floor in one corner. This was the only part of the living quarters except the lavatory and entry that we saw. Our host Mr Chankar first served us tea and we sat a talked about his family and his living and the village and politics until his brothers one by one came in to join us after their days work was over. All the conversation was in slow spoken French quite easy for Arja to follow. We were very glad to have a shelter and food for the night and to pass the night with the farmer and his family, it certainly provided insight into how the average family lives in these parts and it isn’t lavishly.

Moroccan Host Family

Our Moroccan host family

From Ain Ouda we continued south over the Jbel Boulblane and in the direction of Douyblane. At Merhraoua we stopped for a drink and to ask for information about the pass Tizi-bou-Zabel at 2400m and whether there was snow or if it was open. We got conflicting information so decided to try anyway and continue to see if the pass is open. On the way there was little or no traffic, only locals on their way to a openair market at 1600m. The Market was quite incredible, full of mountain people who came from far and wide to the gathering to trade produce of various sorts. It was a truly amazing experience as the majority of locals came by foot with their mule or donkey laden with produce. The mountain setting, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and barren ground was right out of a national geographic magazine.

Openair Market

Openair market in the Jebel Mountains of the middle Atlas.

We continued until the fork in the road for the pass which we missed and first headed down the road only realising we missed the turn when the road began to descend faster so we turned back to see if the Tizi-bou-Zabel pass was open. About 500m from the top the road was closed, covered with 50cm of snow, we had no choice but to turn back and follow the road down to Ribat-el-Kheyr then El Menzel and finally Sefou. The scenery of the Jbel Boulblane was reminiscent of the high alpine wilderness of the Himalayas, cold, dry and extremely harsh terrain, incredible that anyone could make a living off the land. It’s not the kind of place where we would want to break down.

In Sefou, tired, cold and hungry we headed straight for the first hotel skipping any tourism, even if it was still early evening. In need of a shower and dry clothes we went about hanging out our wet stuff that we’d washed in Spain but still hadn’t dried. The hotel room was clean but freezing and with no hot water until 7pm and no heating we opted for the warmth of the bed and woollen blankets. A short nap ensued and it was already 8pm, the hot water took a while to come through and thank goodness it did as I was shivering uncontrollably in the icy cold shower. It certainly is a luxury to have a hot shower at any time of day or night and we really did appreciate being warm and clean. So much so that we stayed in our hotel room and cooked dinner ourselves having a quiet night in our icebox with Pascal’s never to be repeated pasta risotto with ‘la vache qui rit’.

Blocked by snow

Where to now? The pass over the Atlas mountains was already closed

Even though our trip has had a rough outline for almost a year now, the detailed planning hasn’t really been possible until just several weeks ago. Why not? Well, if you’ve followed the news in Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East then you’d know that according to reports, the region is in turmoil^. This has made our planning extremely difficult to say the least. Our original plan was to ride the western Mediterranean through Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia then back to Europe via Italy or France. With the closure of borders to Syria and Libya and the cancellation of the ferry service from Alexandria, Egypt to Venice, Italy, this route was made virtually impossible (not to mention that visas for Syria are currently not being issued). The added headache regarding how to return from Egypt to Europe due to the cancellation of the passenger ferry meant that the only other option was to fly back and freight Francois, requiring significant time and paperwork.

Our backup route would take us to the western side of the Mediterranean, including Morocco and Tunisia. Less than two months ago we didn’t even begin to consider Algeria as an option. At first we thought it would be imppossible as no one we knew had travelled through Algeria in over a decade. Then when we realised it might be possible, we found out that there were almost no ferries running from Algeria outside of the peak summer season to mainland Europe, and what with the border between Algeria and Morocco being closed for the past 30+ years, we were short on time and solutions. Persistence and a lot of research has paid off; we are now almost set for Algeria, just waiting nervously for confirmation of our visas.

New route through North Africa

Route around the Mediterranean Sea

Route around the Mediterranean Sea

Visas

One of the least well known countries in North Africa would have to be Algeria. Having only recently come out of a 20 year long civil war and still not entirely open to tourism, it is no wonder why Algeria struggles to attract attention when it is overshadowed by Morocco to the west and Tunisia to the east as favoured tourist destinations by Europeans for decades. So why do we want to go? Well the answer is easy, because we want an adventure of course! But truly, we don’t know much about Algeria, it’s not even on the tourist map and the only people we know that have been to Algeria were there more than a decade ago. So given it’s not a tourist destination, it’s also not the easiest of places to self-drive with our own vehicle, and so wisely we have enlisted the help of a recommended travel agency based in Southern Algeria to accompany us and provide us with vital local knowledge and expertise. The visa requirements for Algeria are quite strict and without the support of an accredited travel agency, we would need to obtain a certificate of accommodation (Certificat d’hebergement) for every night we are in Algeria, we would also have needed a letter of invitation (Lettre d’Invitation) to accompany our visa applications. This still doesn’t guarantee that we would be issued with visas, so we went with the Travel Agency in order to have some credibility for our visa applications ensuring they would be taken seriously.

As of today, Arja has received her visa, however I am still waiting for mine. It’s only 4 days until we leave and I am pretty anxious about getting my passport back. The visa, and my passport, is still with the Algerian Consulate here in Geneva and is the missing link in our North African adventure and without it, we will have put off a lot of planning and to prepare a plan C, just in case. Now that we are so close and it looks like we will be going through Algeria,  it is very exciting and I have butterflies in my stomach and I can’t sleep at night. Who would’ve thought that a little piece of paper could put us on such a knife’s edge.

As for the other countries, Tunisia and Morocco there is not need for a visa, so that makes it a lot simpler. Although that said, the day after we arrive in Tunis, there will be elections and judging by previous unrest resulting in strict curfews these elections may prove to be more than just a nuisance.

Equipment & Preparation

We are essentially undertaking an expedition into the Sahara and like any adventure into remote arid desert regions respect for our environment is paramount to our success and also to our survival. We have made several, albeit small but important changes, to ensure we are adapted to the climate and conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains. The temperatures are likely to fall below 0° degrees Celsius at night and may range up to or even above 30° during the day. Water and carrying enough has always been a difficultly especially when we are already fully laden and packed to the brim. The addition of tank panniers at the front of the bike will help with carrying extra supplies and water, if Arja doesn’t fill them with baklava and other sugery sweets behind my back! We will need to change to desert going tyres and regularly check our air filter to ensure it is clean. All of which will count when we’re lost knee deep in Saharan Quicksand.

We’ve done it before, so why the anxiety?

Well it’s simple, each trip is different, our trusty stead is not new any more, he has clocked up over 70,000kms and with recent issues† we are still a bit apprehensive about Francois’ mechanical and electrical state. We are also going through some very troubled regions. Together with the unpredictable nature of motorcycle travel, and our limited window of leave, we are trying to fit in a lot in a short amount of time. But most of all I can’t leave without my passport that is still with the Algerian Consulate in Geneva, pending issue of my tourist visa!!

Footnotes

^ The following are sample reports of turmoil in the regions from Europe, to the Middle-East and North Africa; Arab Spring, Greek Riots, Spanish Protests, Libyan Civil War, Egyptian Revolt – Mubarak, Syrian Revolution, Tunisian Reform.

† Fuel Pump Controller failed for the second time, closely followed by the battery and the ABS unit. We also had to replace the rear brake disc that was out of spec. During the ABS unit replacement, the BMW dealer also performed two recalls on Francois. All in all we should be set, but it’s never a certainty. Of course, having all these issues happen whilst at home are so much better than on the road leaving us stranded.

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