| Hitting the plains near Ouarzazate we came across bikes -cheap, oversize Chinese made machines that are too heavy. The local kids don't care about weight though. To a kid, a bike is a bike, anywhere. That's the beauty of them.|
It's not your usual way to undertake a bike test, but an understandably common one nonetheless. Reaching forward with leathery, dirt-engrained fingers, the man taps the downtube of my Commencal and smiles with crooked teeth at the resoundingly solid 'ting' that echoes down through its frame. 'Ah, good, good' he says before going on to perform the same quality-assessment on Guillaume's Specialized Enduro and then Mike's Stumpjumper. In a fleeting moment, inside a Marrakech bus station while enveloped by diesel fumes and the noisy revving of overworked engines, the test is complete and my bike is awarded the title of "Strongest Bike in Test", Moroccan style. All from the tapping of an aluminium tube with your finger tips. Oh, if only all bike tests were so simple. Two and a half hours later I'm glad of my bike's accolade when, retrieving our machines from the roof of the bus, we find that a heavy steel ladder has been laid on top of the Strongest Bike In Test for the duration of the bumpy, two hour bus ride. To a Moroccan bus-boy a bike is a bike, no matter how many inches of travel it has. He has little concept of our bikes' 'value' and why should he? It's hard to tell him that your bouncy toy probably costs more than he'll earn in a year.
| Our first night's village represented the last outstretched finger of tourism before we dived headlong into the wilds of the Atlas. It was the last time anyone tried to sell us a carpet until we got back to Marrakech a week later.|
So, day one and my Meta 4's headtube is already showing battle scars, but now isn't the time to get precious about the paintwork on a new bike. Our bus departed two hours late, having loitered in an attempt to fill empty seats, and as we jump off at our chosen mountain pass, dusk has beaten us there. In a cloud of blue smoke the bus pulls away leaving us to our thoughts and the realization that we are alone at 2500 meters on a Moroccan hillside with nothing but our bikes and a Camelbak each. It's a realization that comes tinged with both excitement and anxiety. We set off down the track before us, frenziedly spinning the cranks to cover twenty kilometers while we still have the visibility to ride. Twenty kilometers is the distance that lies between us and a bed in the first village, Telouet. The adventure begins.
| On day two we stumbled across this lad with his donkey. In pigeon French he managed to try to barter a swap, the donkey for a bike. We were tempted, but weren't sure how his father would be if he returned without the family's trusty beast of burden.|
A recent starring role in the marvelous Roam mountain bike DVD has put Morocco squarely on the mountain bike map. The country, with its rugged mountain ranges and alien culture, is a one stop shop for adventure and serious riding possibilities and is accessed by a sub four hour flight from the UK. An Anglophile French friend and Chamonix riding pal, Guillaume, has ridden through Morocco's High Atlas mountains before, meaning that much of mine and Mike's preparation consists of badgering him to tell us what to expect. As we paw over maps, he fields our questions with ambiguous answers. 'We can try this way, but maybe we won't get through' he mumbles, tracing a finger along a dotted line. It is clear that although Guillaume has an idea for a route across, down, round and back over the Atlas mountains, a lot will be down to chance, or as I soon learn, 'Inshallah' (the will of God). Riding 4x4 tracks and sniffing out singletrack wherever we can find it, our XC trip will be a million miles from the freeride jaunt that appears in Roam, but we have a plan at least.
| Our climb up from Toundoute started easy, surrounded by mind blowing scenery. Three hours later it had toughened up to the extent that the scenery had become a sweat-filtered blur.|
We spin into the village of Telouet and pull up at the gite d'etape in darkness. It has been a surreal start to our seven day ride, pedaling onwards into the night with nothing but wilderness ahead. We're left buzzing from the experience as we chew local almonds and sip "Berber Whisky", mint tea so laden with sugar I wonder if my teeth will last the trip. Shown to a comfortable room strewn with colourful rugs and carpets, we set about unpacking our Camelbaks, a task that takes about two minutes: we're traveling light. Originally we hoped to hire a vehicle and driver to transport our luggage from start to finish each day and free us up from the burden of bulky backpacks. Guillaume, unenthusiastic about the idea of a support 4x4, insisted that without a jeep in tow the local welcome is warmer, more sincere and worth every ounce of extra effort it takes to carry a backpack. In the end we had no choice; it soon became apparent that arranging such a vehicle remotely would be beyond our somewhat conservative budgets. In the week prior to departure we pared down the pile of kit, stripping it to the bare essentials. One set of riding gear on the person and a minimal change of clothes, a waterproof and a lightweight sleeping bag on our backs; it's enlightening how little you can live with when your whole focus in life is shifted towards just riding a bike for a week in the middle of nowhere. Ride, eat, sleep and repeat. Simple.
| Even the jeep tracks in Morocco make fun riding. Mike and Guillaume put the hammer down on one of our rockier sections.|
Our sleep is broken by the enigmatic early morning call to prayer, the unmistakable sound that punctuates trips to any Muslim country. We follow breakfast by wandering through the market, weaving between piles of vegetables and stepping over occasional discarded severed goats' hooves to stock up on dried fruit for the day's ride ahead of us. Above our heads it looks like a storm may be brewing, but no one can tell us if it will rain. The weather forecast here is "Inshallah". We skirt a river and pass ancient ruins of Casbahs before descending into and then climbing back out of a canyon. As we scour the horizon we can see distant silhouettes ambling across the deserted landscape, appearing out of nowhere and making their way through inhospitable, treeless terrain to the market. The track is fast and rutted meaning there is plenty to play on along the way and we become so engrossed in the fun that we almost collide headlong into a convoy of jeeps that are rumbling across Morocco, a sign of the boom in 4x4 excursions here. We pull up to let the dusty cars pass, glad that we're not one of the faces experiencing Morocco from behind grimy glass. Thankfully they will be pretty much the only traffic we come across in seven days of riding, give or take a few dozen mules.
| As we crossed our highest pass of the whole trip, we rolled into a 900m descent, right into the heart of some of the most incredible dune formations we had ever seen.|
The track becomes loose and rocky as we skitter down between brick red mountains toward a verdant green valley floor. Just as our energy levels need that all important dried fruit top up, we spin past a tea house and need no encouragement to stop. The place is humble and basic, but welcoming and in a moment we are lavished with pots of tea, huge wheels of unleavened bread, honey and almonds. Although Arabic is the national language in Morocco, French is spoken widely and we manage to communicate easily with our Berber hosts. In another couple of days riding, deeper among the mountains, French would disappear completely and our communication skills would be reduced to wild gesticulations and artful mime in failing attempts to communicate the alien concept of a vegetarian diet. That evening it becomes clear that we will have to amend our original route; we seem to have lost a day despite having put over sixty kilometers of dirt under our tyres. Over a plate of Tajine in Ait Benhaddou we are forced to make some decisions and pulling out the maps again we try to work out how we can shorten the route. It's possible: there is a trail over a 2700 meter pass with villages on each side. 'A bit of uphill never hurt anyone' we decide, giving us an excuse to order a second helping of stew. Our map is dotted with such villages, most just a huddle of red mud houses camouflaged among their red earth surroundings. Not knowing how far we'll get each day means making the assumption that we'll find a gite in whichever village we stop. It's a risky assumption, but one that holds true. We're never forced to sleep out for the night, but we've armed ourselves with foil survival blankets just in case. Following dashes of red paint on rocks that we assume to mark the 'main' track toward the city of Ouarzazate, we spin thirty kilometers of gentle downhill across dry riverbeds and along fast undulating track, all through a stunning desert landscape. Even in November the heat is rising and our surroundings, though captivating are not somewhere we want to get caught; we periodically check the GPS to make sure of our course. From Ouarzazate our revised route now includes fifty kilometers of knobbly scrubbing asphalt. We commandeer a taxi, barter a fare and realize that getting three bikes on one roof might pose a logistical challenge. We have it seems, underestimated the skills of the Moroccan taxi driver whose solution is to stand all three bikes upright on the car's roof and then lash them down, trusting Allah to keep them safe. And Allah does well: all three are still on top when we arrive at Skoura to ride back into the mountains. Casting long shadows we tumble into Toundoute, a village nestling among the Atlas foothills.
| Once out of Ouarzazate we had the pleasure of recrossing the plateau to the south of the atlas -an easy spin- before starting what would inevitably be the mother of all climbs back up into the mountain, and over our 2700m pass next day.|
Behind us is desert, and in front the majestic snowy peaks of high mountains. At the village entrance is an uninspiring looking gite, but day three weariness persuades us to pedal by in search of something slightly more salubrious. Berber Arabic is replacing French as the language spoken but as we sip on another cup of sugar solution disguised as tea, we can decipher enough to know that there is only one hostel in town. Tired and with darkness closing in we U turn and head back to the gite we already passed. I should of course know better than to judge a book by its cover, or a gite by the state of its rendering. Inside we find a comfortable room festooned with blankets and rugs and a tray of tea and the almonds laid out to greet us. A tumble of kids, eight of them, ranging from two to fourteen in age, hover at a safe distance, keeping a wary eye on us until summoning up enough courage to come closer. They're adorable of course and by the end of the evening are sitting on our laps and teaching us Berber while we help the oldest son with his French homework. Over dinner we learn the ins and outs of mud house construction and the reasoning behind having so many kids (in a country with no state pension, caring offspring are the way to survive old age). The magical night we spend in this hostel is one I'll never forget. We have a big day ahead of us including the 2700 meter pass, and set off early next morning, accompanied by the oldest son on his way to school. His bike is clanking but thanks to Guillaume's chain lube, no longer squeaking. The boy's bike is tired, the gears gave up long ago and there's a serious wobble in the back wheel, but he loves it. It's the state of all the bikes we see during our trip: overused and minimally maintained. For many villagers, the bike or the mule are the only forms of affordable independent transport and both are heavily used. On our last day a guy in a Jalaba, the archetypal, long hooded cloak, will overtake us on a creaking bike that has definitely seen better days. From the back of the evolving peloton, Mike and I will watch him reel in Guillaume and then take him at the pass to claim the polkadot jersey. His bike will be rattling and his chain rusty, while ours will sport navigation devices that are updated every five minutes by satellites. At times during our week, the feeling of 'us and them' is overwhelming, but despite the differences in lifestyle, religion and customs, our bikes repeatedly forge ties with many people we meet. They are the equivalent of carrying a cricket bat around Pakistan. The climb up the pass is spread over forty kilometers and will take us all day to conquer. For most of the day we follow a stunning V shaped valley, carved out over millenia by a river that now flows far below us. The valley is typical of the Atlas, a mountain range that has not been scooped out by glaciation and the hillsides around us radiate shades of red and brown and green.
| Out in the open it's easy to spot the trail. Once we entered a village, no matter how small we were at the mercy of our sense of direction to get us through the maze of alleyways. It didn't always work, needing some backtracking to the astonishment of local goat herders at times.|
At the last village before the final push our arrival is greeted by running kids all shouting the now familiar phrase "Donnez moi un stylo!" Enchanting as it is, after four days of it I curse the person who passed through Morocco handing out pens as gifts. Within minutes we are almost mobbed by the running youngsters, all keen and keeping pace with us. Their enthusiasm is energizing, but two thirds of the way up an enormous climb is not the place you want young hands grabbing your seatpost and yanking on your brake levers. Trying to out run them nearly kills us and we are forced to pull up for a rest once out of sight of the underage mob. No sooner have we stopped than we are passed in the other direction by three teenage girls each bent double carrying bundles of firewood that are over twice their size. They stop and stare, giggling at the sweating helmeted freaks that are trying to ride bikes over their pass, before ambling down toward the village and back out of our lives. Half an hour later I realize the source of their mirth. They knew what lay ahead. The climb becomes loose and grinds away at my patience, forcing a dismount here and there. For another hour we sweat our way upwards, marveling at incredible cobalt blue rocks that dot the landscape, but inwardly wishing the climb was over. The view that opens up at the pass is mind blowing; a wall of rugged mountains is dissected by a swathe of rolling red dunes, making it look like the mountainside has been sliced open and its guts have spilled out in a tumbling heap. The colors are incredible, but the chill of cooling sweat persuades us not to loiter.
| Riding through the villages of the Atlas mountains means always having an audience, even if the audience is shy. Bikes are rare here, sights of bikes like Guillaume's Enduro even rarer.|
The reward for our labor is a 600 meter downhill. We attack it with vigor, snaking down bits of singletrack on the way and in a fraction of the time it took to climb the pass we find ourselves pulling up to a halt in Amziri, listed in our guidebook as the most remote village in the High Atlas. Through the enveloping dusk we meander among the locals, all dressed in colorful embroidered dresses and headwear, before locating the solitary gite. It's the most basic place we've ever had the dubious pleasure in staying in, period. The bathroom resembles a 1980's Turkish prison cell, and for once I'm glad of the absence of electric light in the room. Berber dialect is the only language spoken here and over candlelight my companions dine on sinuousy meat while I stave of my vegetarian hunger with biscuits. It's a character building experience. The evening is short, the climb has seen to that, and for that I'm not unhappy. Tomorrow is a new day, another ride with a different set of challenges and rewards. When plans come together it can be a rewarding feeling. When they fall at a hurdle it can be a mental and physical challenge. Setting out on a trip like this takes certain courage: the courage to leave behind the comforts of home, to leave the security of knowing what's coming next, but the rewards are immense. The very next day we would find our planned sixty kilometers of twisting singletrack reduced to fifteen kilometers of hard slog and repeated river crossings, the trail having been washed away by the previous week's flooding. It's a day of hard earned dried fruit stops, but one that terminates in a comfy bed in a village of friendly people and excitable kids. Guillaume was right; all we needed was a bike and a backpack. In exchange, our reward was an insight into a different world, one that we got to ride our bikes up, down and through, and even rail a few berms along the way.
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