413 Miles and Endless Hills

413 Miles and Endless Hills

A Cycle Tour of the Moroccan High Atlas. Overall Distance: 413 Miles. 

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Words and Images by Michael Lindsay

Introduction

In November 2017, I travelled to Morocco to undertake a solo cycle tour through the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains. I enjoyed a stunning 413 mile circular route from Marrakech, through a mixture of verdant river valleys and dry arid landscapes, passed countless Berber villages, completing the route in around 7 1/2 cycling days.

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7/11/16:  Arrive in Marrakech

Flight from Liverpool to Marrakech. Ryanair (3.5 hours)

Food: Lunch, Al Bahja; Dinner, Djemaa El Fna stalls.

Accommodation: Hotel Ali – Marrakech (~ £20 B&B)

I started the trip with an overnight drive from my home in Scotland to Liverpool Airport, arriving at the airport at 4am and checking in. At security my Allen keys were nearly confiscated from my hand luggage, but following the highly unpopular act of requesting my weighty bike box to be returned to check-in – just to put the Allen keys in – I avoided the possibility of arriving in Marrakech with a disassembled bike and no means of assembling it again. On arriving in Marrakech I paid a quick visit to a cash machine to withdraw some Moroccan Dirham with which to pay my hotel transfer. I was shocked to find that it was raining and not very warm as I left the airport.

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I was staying at the Hotel Ali on my first night in Morocco, it’s located right by the Djemaa El Fna square in the heart of the Marrakech Medina (old town). Although the hotel wasn’t the best regarding cleanliness or facilities, it was a very handy place to be based on arriving in Marrakech. They also had a reasonably priced baggage room, and I was able to store my bike box there throughout my trip for 5 dirham (40 pence) a day. After checking in, I headed to Al Bahja for lunch, it is a fairly basic restaurant but decent quality and very cheap with a lamb tagine, coke, olives and flatbread costing £3.30.

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First Tagine

After lunch I returned to the hotel and set about rebuilding my bike. It didn’t take long, but wasn’t entirely seamless as the front fork was jammed out of position after the flight, luckily a bit of force resolved the issue. After rebuilding the bike, I headed up to the hotel roof terrace, I was pleased to find that the rain clouds had cleared completely and Marrakech’s beautiful skyline was glowing pink in the setting sun. Furthermore, the ‘Marrakshi Orchestra’ had taken over the square and their restless beats and sinuous melodies filled the air. It reminded me of ‘No Quarter’, the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant live album part-recorded in Marrakech. I wasn’t aware that the frenetic rhythms found on the album could be heard first-hand each night from Sunset long into the night. I spent a long time soaking up the atmosphere. What a place!

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After photographing the captivating Koutoubia minaret as darkness fell, I visited some of the stalls of the Djemaa el Fna. I wasn’t too keen on the snails in their tasteless savoury broth, but the brochettes (lamb shish kebab) were excellent. Before turning in for the night, I stocked up with some dried fruits and water for the road ahead.

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Koutoubia Mosque

8/11/16: Marrakech to Ouirgane

Day 1: Cycle out of Marrakech: 07:30 – 15:30

– Distance: 44.3 miles. Elevation Gain: 4000 feet. Duration: 4:21:03

Food: Breakfast, Hotel Ali; Lunch, Cafe on right just into Tahnaout; Dinner La Bergerie.

Accommodation: La Bergerie – near Ouirgane (~ £40 Half Board)

I left early, hoping to avoid the chaos of the Marrakech roads. It worked in part, but the route I’d studied on Google Maps turned out to be a little harder to navigate than expected. Travelling through the maze of the medina, battling for position against endless mopeds, taxis, donkeys and horse and carts, I promptly got lost and ended up cycling in circles for some time, until I reached the exterior city wall of the medina. Using the sun for navigation I managed to find my way to the road I required. Needless to say, it was closed due to a huge Climate Change Conference, but I continued on a parallel road until I could rejoin the road on the outskirts of the city. It took two hours for me to exit the city confines on the right road, and really Marrakech isn’t that big!

It was intensely hot by this point and the next 20 miles were over open plains, on a rough road surface with very frayed edges. A few heart stopping moments ensued as lorries overtook, and a few times I bailed out onto the stoney piste alongside the road. The road was climbing gradually, making pedalling frustratingly hard. By the time I reached Tahnaout, it was definitely time for a rest. There was a roundabout on the way into town, and immediately after, a cafe, which I stopped at. I had a pizza that seemed to be highly coveted by the local cat population. This would become a theme of the trip. These cats are technically strays, but are treated with tolerance by locals, unfortunately this has led to them being intolerable to weary cycle tourists. They are harmless except that they will be omni-present throughout almost every meal eaten in Morocco, whining indefatigably at your feet.

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I was soon to encounter another omni-present in Morocco – the ‘faux guide’ or faux ami. These false friends are old, wisened, men with grey beards and long brown robes, conversant in a multitude of languages and to be found nearby to anywhere you had a mind to stop. Shortly after lunch, I came across the weekly market in town and pulled up, planning on taking some photos of proceedings. Instantly, my new friend had determined my nationality and was telling me all about his adventures with Scottish Mountaineer, Hamish Brown – a popular figure in theses parts. Very quickly I was being offered a guided tour of the market – ‘bring your bike’ – was the response to my protests. I hastened to leave and resigned myself to take more care with where I stopped in future.

The road continued to climb, steeper now, and the sun was really starting to affect me. Just before I reached the sign for the high point of the day – Asni (1200m) – I caught my first glimpse of the snow-capped High Atlas. I stopped, and almost before I had my camera out, I had another new friend, this one had climbed Jbel Toubkal (4167m) on many occasions, and just wanted to show me the Berber jewellery he could sell me, for firstly 100 Dirham (£8) and in a final futile attempt 3 Dirham (25 pence). With no mind to carry any more on my bike than I already had, I was not interested, but as I cycled away and did the sums, the desperate attempts to make such a small amount of money left me stunned.

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The descent after Asni was absolutely glorious, and I found myself passing through a beautiful fertile landscape before I reached my accommodation for the night. I had pre-booked this first night on the road, and was delighted with La Bergerie, Berber huts surrounded by stunning gardens. It was nice too to meet fellow travellers at reception, a couple from Bristol travelling up to Imlil by moped. A nice Tagine and my only beer of the trip was very much appreciated.

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9/11/16: Ouirgane to Tizi n’ Test

Day 2: Cycle from near Ouirgane to part of the way up the Tizi n’ Test: 09:30 – 17:00

– Distance: 37.5. Elevation Gain: 6500 feet. Duration: 4:12:25

Food: Breakfast, La Bergerie; Lunch, Ijjoukak; Dinner, Supplies from Ijjoukak.

Accommodation: Wild Camp at 1650m on Tizi n’ Test.

As the road climbed higher and higher, the landscape became more and more barren as I passed several small Berber villages, often situated on rocky precipices, sometimes across precarious rope bridges. The road deteriorated after Ouirgane as I cycled passed a high lake and the road continued parallel to the river. As I passed through villages, there were many people hanging around at the side of the road and children were often on the move, walking or cycling to school and back. Many calls of ‘bonjour’ or ‘ça va’ accompanied my route, and I was pleased to reciprocate.

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It had been a long winding route by the time I reached Ijjoukak and I was concerned that I hadn’t really started climbing the Tizi n’ Test yet. I stopped at a couple of shops on the left hand side of the  main street and picked up some supplies in case I needed to wild camp that night. I then spotted a tour bus leaving a cafe ahead and decided to give it a go. I was provided with a fantastic tagine, beautifully tender lamb, plenty of vegetables, potatoes and olives. It was huge, with two flatbreads and a coke, and cost under £4.

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After Ijjoukak the road really started to climb and soon I reached the Tinmal Mosque on the right hand side. Keen to press on, I persuaded myself I’d see it next time… The late afternoon sun really started to take its toll as I pushed through another village, and ground to a halt halfway up a slope. Hiding in the shadow of a tree I took onboard a rehydration sachet and tried to cool off as best I could. I pressed on, climbing into a yet more barren landscape, finally giving up for the day at 1650m, and looked for somewhere to camp. After a fairly fruitless search I hauled my equipment atop a rocky outcrop and moved enough stones out of the way to put the tent up.

10/11/16: Tizi n’ Test to N10

Day 3: Cycle from 1650m on Tizi n’ Test to N10 passed Aoulouz: 08:30 – 17:10

– Distance: 58.2. Elevation Gain: 2000 feet. Duration: 5:07:58

Food: Breakfast, on road; Lunch; Haute Vue, top of Tizi n’ Test, Dinner, dried fruit.

Accommodation: Wild Camp on N10 passed Aoulouz and Zagora junction.

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Not reaching the top of the Tizi n’ Test the day before left me with a huge day ahead so I was keen to get moving. Annoyingly, I had finished the previous day with a broken gear cable and so my bike required some attention before I continued. Eventually underway I had the final hairpin bends to contend with to reach the Tizi n’ Test pass at 2092m. The views back down the valley and of the villages below were outstanding, and mercifully, as it was still early in the morning, traffic was very light. Finally, around 11am, I reached the southern end of the Tizi n’ Test pass, marked by the Haute Vue Auberge and restaurant. As it was still early, choice was non-existent, but I was prepared a very nice Berber omelette and salad.

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The view south over the Anti-Atlas plains was staggering, with the road draped over the barren landscape below. As I started to descend, the road started to deteriorate badly and I had to take great care to avoid large rocks and potholes. I hadn’t gone far before the rigours of the road caused my cheap camera mount to shear off completely, sending my GoPro hurtling towards the precipice at the edge of the road. Stopping to collect it alerted me to a mountain stream beside the road and I decided it was time to try out my chlorine capsules. 1 capsule would treat 1 litre of water, providing safe drinking water in 2 hours.

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Deciding I might need water before the 2 hours had elapsed, I stopped at the next cafe intending to buy water. I decided to get a coffee too and some biscuits. The very friendly proprietor probably overcharged me, and then insisted on showing me his rooms and campground for my next visit. He then got his friend to take a picture of us together ‘as a souvenir’ and finally showed me into his lair of cheap jewellery. It was a ‘gift’ for me, then ‘gratis’, then ‘very cheap’, then I was asking how much and finally I paid the £2.50 just to expedite my exit. His final salvo included inviting me for dinner when I came back, and reminding me to bring pens and clothes for all the children in his village!

Losing a lot of altitude in a short distance, and on very bad roads, meant I still had a considerable distance on the flat before my next confirmed accommodation. And when I say flat, I mean mainly uphill, into a headwind. As I rolled towards the N10 – the road that would lead me to Ouarzazate – I passed miles of Argan trees, and was bewildered by a true phenomenon of the Atlas – goats climbing trees to eat the Argan nuts. I was so surprised I didn’t stop to take a photo and missed my chance.

As I headed along the N10, school was out, and I found myself in a race against some school children on rather rusty mountain bikes. I won, but only because they’d turned off for home before the finish line. As I passed through Aoulouz the whole town stopped and stared, and it was a long town. I was hoping for somewhere to stay but nowhere presented itself, so I pressed on. Eventually, the rough road surface and headwind took its toll and at 58 miles I decided enough was enough. The terrain was barren and remote but I followed a piste along the side of a dried-up river bed and found an ideal spot for the night. Distant wild dogs howled long into the night but fortunately didn’t venture closer.

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11/11/16: N10 to Taliouine

Day 4: Cycle from N10 to Taliouine: 08:50 – 12:30

– Distance: 16.9. Elevation Gain: 1500 feet. Duration: 2:01:35

Food: Breakfast: Carrefour cafe / restaurant, Taourirte N’lhad; Lunch: Hotel Safran; Dinner, Auberge Souktana

Accommodation: Auberge Souktana, Taliouine (~ £25 Half Board)

It had been a very tough opening three days, having to wild camp two nights running, and not getting sufficient evening nutrition either. Perhaps my plans had been overly ambitious, unsurprisingly, the terrain looked a lot flatter on the map. As I packed up camp and loaded the bike for the day, I realised I had a bent – and very loose – spoke. Luckily, I was carrying a spoke tensioner, so tightened it back up before setting off. I planned on pedalling the remaining 17 miles to Taliouine and having the rest of the day off. Needless to say, what sounded like an easy day, wasn’t. The very rough road and headwind persisted for the first few miles, then the road surface disappeared completely and miles of roadworks left a track covered in pebble-sized stones. The barren desert-scape was spectacular though, so I took regular stops.

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Eventually I reached the small village of Taourirte N’Ihad and decided it was time for food. The Carrefour cafe looked accommodating to visitors so I went there. Another cheap tagine ensued, and it was lovely. Climbing out of town again, I eventually reached Taliouine and continued through to the Auberge Souktana. It was still early in the day, but there was no issue with me moving in, or getting the all-important WiFi passcode.

After settling in, I headed back into town – passing some Souktana-bound cycle tourists en route. I had lunch at Hotel Safran, brochettes and fries, it was time to regain some energy. It was another stunning day and I had a great view of the town and surrounding hills from the Hotel terrace. Back at the Auberge, I was offered Brochettes again, this time with floury potatoes and green beans. It was a great meal. After dinner, I got speaking to the cycle tourists I’d seen earlier, Germans, Peter and Annette. Peter had spent 3 weeks cycling round Scotland in the summer, finishing his route on the north coast at Bettyhill. Where? I asked 5 times before asking him to spell it. Then realising I had heard right, I’d just never heard of it. He’d also cycled in Chile, and Syria, I was impressed.

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12/11/16: Taliouine to Tazenacht

Day 5: Cycle from Taliouine to Tazenacht: 10:00 -16:00

– Distance: 51 miles. Elevation Gain: 3600 feet. Duration: 4:39:08

Food: Breakfast, Auberge Souktana; Lunch, on road; Dinner Bab Sahara.

Accommodation: Bab Sahara, Tazenacht (~ £17 Half Board).

Peter and Annette, who I joined for breakfast, had also cycled from the direction in which I was headed, and therefore were able to tell me that the day’s route should be fine – after the hill at the start. They were certainly right about the hill, it was massive. 19 miles to start the day, rising from 1000m to 1800m in one go. I then crossed a vast plateau, keen to get a move on after the slow progress of the first few days. The headwind persisted, but I was cycling strongly on the flat, barren, terrain, stopping much less often, except where the heat necessitated it. Eventually the road descended sharply, a few bends down passed a village lined with ceramics stalls, and I’d lost all of the height gained. This led me onto another lower plateau, and I had a generally flat 10 miles over open countryside to Tazenacht.

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As I approached this decent-sized town, situated on open plains on a major road junction, I considered the fact that I had no idea where in the town my target Hotel, ‘Bab Sahara’, was. Then I mused that if multiple overlanders and Lonely Planet found it, it might not be too hard to find. Rolling down the main street I spotted a much needed cash machine and pulled over. ‘Bab Sahara’ was next door. Rates were very reasonable, £8.30 for a large room, double that for half board – and I could have Pizza. Tajines and Brochettes had been perfect fuel for cycling, but the change was greatly appreciated. There was football on at the bar too and the crowd grew in anticipation of the later Morocco match. It had been a successful day, and I was pleased to have made good time too.

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13/11/16: Tazenacht to Ouarzazate

Day 6: Cycle from Tazenacht to Ouarzazate (including false start South): 09:30 – 18:00

– Distance: 65.6 miles. Elevation Gain: 3650 feet. Duration: 6:08:31

Food: Breakfast: Bab Sahara, Tazenacht; Lunch: Cafe in Tazenacht across road; Dinner: Petrol Station cafe: Timedline.

Accommodation: Carrefour Auberge / Restaurant: Tazentoute (~ £12.50 per night).

Having made good time the previous day – despite the 1800m pass – I was feeling more confident about my onward route. I decided to head to Agdz that day before travelling north to Ouarzazate the next. Travelling South out of Tazenacht I expected to take the first left towards Agdz. However, the road was signed to Ouarzazate, which I was surprised by, but guessed was an eventual destination of the route. The road started nicely on new tarmac through a picturesque gorge, lined with palm trees. After a small village, Tisslit, where a competitive youth football match was underway, the tarmac disappeared and the road turned into a very rough track. The terrain was way too rough for my 28mm, 700c tyres but they battled on manfully. As I considered letting some air out to protect the wheel rims, I ground to a halt at the sight of a mine ahead. A mine was the kind of landmark I needed to determine whether I was actually on the right road or not. There was no mine on the road I was meant to be on, but there was one on a track south to Zagora, had I taken a wrong turn? There was no way to tell. I had gps coordinates from my phone but there were none on the Michelin map I was using to navigate. With no way to accurately determine my location I was forced into my least favourite course of action: backtracking. I had to abort my route to Agdz and head back through Tazenacht and continue on to Ouarzazate that way. I would later discover another couple of tell-tale tracks on the corner of a map insert that showed another route to Ouarzazate existed and I’d headed down a completely different road from the one I was supposed to.

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Off the road near Tisslit

I enjoyed returning to Tazenacht for lunch, despite my ultimately pointless 23 mile scenic ride of the morning. I stopped at the cafe across the road from Bab Sahara and enjoyed some nice Brochettes with the close attention of not only cats, but a new faux ami. I saw this one as I cycled along the main street and thought I might shake him off by cycling passed the cafe then circling back and approaching from the side. It didn’t work and as soon as I propped my bike up, he was there. ‘You are very welcome’ ran his catch phrase, ‘it is your first time in Morocco?’ Thinking that he may lose interest as I ate, I sat down. He instinctively sat at a table within range. I amused myself with the thought that he was maybe buying something… ‘Oh yes Scotland, the people are very friendly. Maybe after you eat we go..’ No thanks I’m already pressed for time.. Eventually he was deep in conversation on his mobile – an important business man perhaps? He left with another ‘You are very welcome’ before returning shortly after with another man with a keen interest in Scotland and ‘a friend from Glasgow who he’d met at his carpet store’. I still wasn’t interested but was lightly entertained.

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After lunch I was faced with a very stiff challenge, 40+ miles, some punishing climbs and the odd stunning descent with distant High Atlas views. Eventually I crossed a high plateau through a verdant river valley with stunning rock formations high overhead. As the sun began to set I was constantly surveying the landscape for camping spots. Several spots would have been perfect, but farmers were still working away or were waiting to be picked up from the roadside – so I kept going. I crossed another pass and the landscape opened up in front of me with a village in the distance. Pressing on into the twilight I reached a small village at 18:00, just as it got dark. I headed for the cafe in a petrol station and asked what they had. Tortillas was the reply so I ordered two. I was highly disappointed to receive two omelettes, especially as I’d also had one for breakfast. After 7 now, it was pitch dark and the chances of locating a wild camping spot were slim, so attaching my lights, I pressed on along a narrow, busy, road. I was mightily relieved when I reached the turn-off to Ait Benhaddou a couple of miles later and found a hotel right on the junction. The place clearly had no other guests so I was concerned about how much it might cost. £12.50 a night? I ended up staying for two nights. The accommodation was very nice, and had huge bright communal areas.

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14/11/16: Ouarzazate film studio

Day 7: Return trip from Tazentoute Hotel to Ouarzazate for Atlas Film Studio Tour

– Distance: 20.8 miles. Elevation Gain: 1133 feet. Duration: 1:43:11

Food: Breakfast: Carrefour, Tazentoute; Lunch: Ouarzazate; Dinner: Carrefour, Tazentoute

Accommodation: Carrefour Auberge / Restaurant: Tazentoute

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I reckoned it was now two big days cycle back to Marrakech which allowed me a day off today, then another extra day in Marrakech. As Ouarzazate is the film capital of Morocco I decided to go on a tour of the Atlas Studios Film Corporation, one of two film studio complexes on the outskirts of Ouarzazate. These studios have been created to build on the popularity of Ait Benhaddou, a stunning fortified village – popular as a film location – built up a hillside 9km from where I was staying. Inside the guarded complex, there was also an impressive hotel with lagoon-like swimming pool. The studios themselves were more a compound than an actual studio, with several large scale sets from a variety of films including the Gladiator and The Mummy Returns. Sets have been used to stand-in for amongst others places; Rome, Egypt and Tibet and are built by production companies and left standing in case other productions can use them.

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The Mummy Returns set

It had been an undulating 10 mile cycle into Ouarzazate, and every mile seemed like a waste of energy on what was supposed to be a day off. My other objective for the day was to find a cash machine, but as I pedalled further into Ouarzazate without finding one, I gave up, not wanting to cycle any further than I had to. This decision left me with around £10 to get back to Marrakech, though as I planned to wild camp the next night, I reckoned I should be ok. It did mean that, realistically, I had to get back to Marrakech in two days, which would mean a very long second day.

My dinner at the Auberge was suprisingly good, I was the only person eating, yet the owner quickly rustled me up a delicious chicken, lemon and olive tagine. I had assumed a tagine would take a lot longer to cook.

15/11/16: Ouarzazate to Telouet 

Day 8: Cycle from Ouarzazate to near Telouet on road to Tizi n’ Tichka at 1800m: 09:00 – 16:45

– Distance: 44.5 miles. 6227 feet. Duration: 5:12:07

Food: Breakfast: Carrefour Auberge; Lunch: on road. Dinner: on road.

Accommodation: Wild Camp, forest at 1800m.

The day started with a nice breakfast at the Carrefour Auberge. Flatbreads and a pancake with jam and fresh-pressed orange juice. I set off on my long journey back to Marrakech over the 2000m+ Tizi n’ Tichka pass. I had elected to take the scenic route through the Ounilla valley via Telouet, joining the main Tizi n’ Tichka road at around 2000m. The journey followed a stunning river valley, with a fertile sweep of palm trees cutting through the barren dusty Anti-Atlas landscape.

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After 9km, I reached Ait Benhaddou, but didn’t stop, it was clearly a major tourist centre, and there weren’t any tourists yet this early. I could see the impressive fortified village off to the right, but viewpoints were limited from the main road. Continuing on up a road of variable quality, I passed another stunning Kasbah at Tamedakhte. Passing through another village excited children said hello and I stopped slightly after to take pictures of a village perched on the edge of the river valley, merging with the red cliffs surrounding it. At another village I bought some fruit from a surprised street vendor. I passed a number of Berber farmers on the road, travelling with their donkeys, I greeted one as I went by. Shortly after, I approached a huge rock wall, a fiendish set of hairpin bends took the road up over 150m in a mile. Deciding I’d maybe need some extra energy for the climb ahead, I stopped and had some of the little food I was carrying. A flatbread and some fruit.

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As I ate, the man I’d recently passed slowed his donkey at the side of the road. ‘Du thé’ he shouted. Tea? I was confused, he repeated with something about a cafe at the top of the hill. He wanted me to buy him tea, I guessed. I politely declined, at which point he continued his pitch with something about being sick and having two children. Not understanding seemed the best course of action and he responded by asking if I spoke English. As he didn’t speak English, he seemed to realise his attempts were futile and his final gambit was ‘d’argent’, ‘d’argent’, an outright demand for money. Up until now, most attempts to relieve me of money had usually been in exchange for some sort of undesirable souvenir or other, this was far more blatant. Now with around £8 to see me back to Marrakech, however, I declined.

Giving the man a head start on the hairpins, his donkey ground to a halt on the first section. It looked like it’d take him a while on the climb. Eventually I set off up, spinning my lowest gear endlessly as steep straight switched to steeper bend. Passing a truck, on its way down, with brakes squealing, I continued up and eventually flew passed the donkey, relieved to avoid any further demands. Breaking over the top of the hill I discovered the river was now in a deep gorge off to the side of the road and I was travelling through an even more barren landscape.

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Reaching a distinct dogleg in the road, a long stretch of roadworks marked the section of the route that I’d read featured the worst road surface: it still did. A couple of Dutch cycle-tourists were able to tell me that the worst of the road only lasted a few kilometres. Finally, reaching Telouet after a hard day of climbing the town square was empty, except for the various stall traders surrounding the main square, none looked too welcoming so I made for the first shop I saw. They had no bread so I ended up with a jar of strawberry jam and some biscuits, the man here wasn’t too friendly either. Pushing on passed Telouet I wanted to gain as much altitude as possible to make things easier for the next day, what would be my final day cycling back to Marrakech. On a bumpy road, the jam promptly jumped out of my pannier, bursting open on the ground. The tireder I got, the more irritable I was becoming and the more frustrated I was that I hadn’t reach the main Tizi n Tichka highway yet, and was still nowhere near the 2260m summit. Eventually as I pedalled round another corner and saw the road ramp up ahead of me, I opted to call it a day, I was at roughly 1800m altitude. I quickly dragged my equipment off the road and up a dry river bed to a clearing in a forest. The biscuits and remaining quarter jar of jam were all I could muster for dinner but were better than nothing. It quickly went dark and I was kept awake for a long time by a wild dog howling a little too close to the tent.

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16/11/16: Telouet to Marrakech 

Day 9: Cycle from 1800m below Tizi n’ Tichka summit to Marrakech: 07:50 – 15:30.

– Distance: 74.5 miles. 2200 feet. Duration: 5:53:25

Food: Breakfast: Cafe, Tizi n’ Test summit; Lunch: on road; Dinner: Riad Omar, Marrakech.

Accommodation: Riad Omar: Marrakech (~ £20 B&B)

Surprised to awake with frost on the tent, I was keen to press on, knowing I would have a long day ahead of me. I only had a little fruit to sustain me through the 500m ascent to the Tizi n’ Tichka summit. Setting off the gradient was punishing and it didn’t let up, I was slumped over my handlebars, spinning the pedals with all my remaining energy. Ahead the road meandered through the landscape, I still had no idea when I would encounter the main highway – my only hope for a kinder gradient. Eventually I ground to a halt, desperate to escape the fierce glare of the sun and stock up on energy. I ate all of my remaining food, two small bananas and an orange, hopefully it would be enough. As I sat by the road, the first car passed me that day. I watched as it switched back up a steep slope ahead, on a road that had been invisible to me until this point. It pulled up at a junction higher up, it looked manageable and only 10 minutes further along the road. What a relief when I reached the junction and instantly the road flattened out, the hardest part of the route was behind me. as I covered the last couple of kilometres to the Col I received lots of waves from surprised looking drivers. My thoughts mirrored theirs, how did I get up here with a laden touring bike! The cafe at the summit was closed but was opened for me by a nearby shopkeeper so I stocked up on coke and muffins.

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I still had 70 miles to go but it seemed possible when a guide at the top told me it was ‘all downhill to Marrakech’. Starting down from the top the roads were amazing, and I flew down hundreds of metres on beautiful newly-laid tarmac. I was losing altitude very quickly and I was soon concerned that I seemed to be losing altitude a lot quicker than I was gaining distance, perhaps cycling 70 miles was still going to be a long way even if it was mainly downhill. The landscape seemed to be fluctuating between the High Atlas grey and the Anti Atlas red rock but also covered in greenery. I was keen to press on and I was going as fast as I could, treating every ascent like it didn’t exist. I stopped at the side of the road and spoke to a pair of German cycle tourists on their way out to Zagora and the desert. They looked sceptical when I said I was hoping to make it back to Marrakech that day, but said that there was really only one hill ahead. Soon I came to that hill and I couldn’t ignore it, the road seemed to climb up and up over the shoulder of a hill ahead. It was a hard climb and very unwelcome considering the ‘all downhill’ remark earlier in the day.

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Another swift downhill followed onto plains on the other side of the hill, at this point I stopped to buy some provisions, mainly some packeted pastries of some description. Having finished the sale the shopkeeper then attempted the ‘I show you this’ cheap jewellery routine. Non merci, I responded firmly, I’d had quite enough of this behaviour by now. The road undulated for some time, but was very scenic and eventually flattened out, passing through some long built up towns on good road. I just kept pedalling, mile after mile, no signs to hint at how far I still had to go. It was very hot, but now I felt that I could make it back to Marrakech if I just kept pedalling. I ground to a halt after miles of roadworks and took on board some final energy, I knew it couldn’t be too far now.

Eventually I reached a roundabout signalling 9 km to go to the Marrakech Medina, the road was narrow with ragged edges but I knew I’d be finished soon. Reaching Marrakech I promptly got lost again and ended up cycling in all sorts of directions through the medina. Finally, I found a sequence of corners I remembered from when I was lost on day one, and knew I was on the right track. At last the Koutoubia minaret came into view, I was almost done. I arrived back at Hotel Ali a day early and Mariam at the reception was surprised to see me and apologised that they were fully booked that night. She was a great help, booking me into Riad Omar just round the corner and ensuring I’d get the cheaper rate I would have had at Hotel Ali. It was a nicer hotel too, but the set menu I had there that night was overpriced, even though the view of the Minaret from the rooftop restaurant was fantastic.

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17/11/16: Marrakech 

Food: Breakfast: Riad Omar; Lunch: Cafe 16; Dinner: Oscar Progres.

Accommodation: Hotel Ali: Marrakech (~ £20 B&B).

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Riad Omar rooftop restaurant view

My last day in Morocco and I was relieved not to have to cycle anywhere. I breakfasted on the Riad Omar roof terrace, then packed and rolled back over to Hotel Ali. I was pleased to find Mariam had given me a room with a balcony, it looked perfect for disassembling the bike. Before I could pack the bike, though, I needed duct tape to replace some that I’d been forced to sacrifice in the airport on the way, so I headed along Avenue Mohammed VI to the Ville Nouveau. I lunched at the upmarket bar, Cafe 16, enjoying a burger and a sundae. After lunch, I walked in circles around the area hoping to find a hardware store – with ever increasing desperation. Just as I was about to give up, an Artist in the local indoor market ushered me into his stall. I told him I was looking for tape and he very kindly helped me, using google translate to work out what I was after and then guiding me down a side street a few blocks away, telling me of his Dutch ex-girlfriend en route. When I offered him money for helping me he refused it, I was extremely grateful, and humbled by his act. Duct tape in hand, I rushed back to the hotel, keen to get started on disassembling the bike. After packaging up my bike in the sweltering heat, I enjoyed my final Brochettes of the trip at Oscar Progrés, just round the corner from the hotel.

18/11/16: Marrakech to home

Flight from Marrakech to Liverpool

I had an early flight back to Liverpool so got up early and had a quick breakfast at the hotel before my transfer picked me up. I’d had a great trip through some wonderful landscapes, cycling over some extremely challenging terrain. The people were generally friendly and helpful, and children in particular were always excited to see me. Of course, not being wholly unobtrusive, I did attract some unwanted attention at times, and this became a little wearing over several days of solo travel. Perversely, after the shopping experiences I’d had, the thought of a supermarket self-scan machine seemed appealing!

On the way to the airport, the taxi driver remarked that I’d be back. At the time I wasn’t so sure, but as time passes, the appeal of Morocco strengthens. Perhaps I’ll return one day to cycle out to the Sahara, or climb the High Atlas’ crowning jewel, Jbel Toubkal. As a travel destination, Morocco has an unbeatable mixture of culture and landscape.

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