83 miles, 10 mph average31 Jan 11Day 1
Western Sahara

A couple of hundred miles offshore from Tan Tan lie the bodies of countless Europeans topping up their own tans on the islands of the Canaries and yet the towns and provinces of southwest Morocco couldn’t be further removed. Echoes of a Spanish colonial past may contrast with the islands but there the similarities end.
There’s no shortage of sand as the Sahara touches the Atlantic here and stretches eastwards for thousands of miles, briefly interrupted by the Nile and the Red Sea, this belt of desert can be traced all the way to the Himalaya.

Tan Tan does have a certain raffish charm, with its white houses their doors and shutters painted blue – a colour associated with the banishment of evil spirits, although the regular army and police checkpoints seem to take care of any modern day evils. This is after all a military zone, bordering the disputed territory of Western Sahara to the south and antagonists Mauritania and Algeria to the east. The Spanish only left in 1975 and as they closed the door behind them, they encouraged a Moroccan re-colonisation of Western Sahara forcing the native peoples into neighbouring lands from which the Polisario Front still launch sporadic guerrilla attacks. Our arrival at each checkpoint was always greeted with friendliness and delight, the highlight perhaps of a dull day checking papers and goods wagons.

Rolling arid hills passed us by strewn with pebbly rocks and orange sand, but the wind picked up and blew the sand in waves and dust devils across the road sapping our energy. On and on we rode as if stuck on a gerbil wheel to nowhere, getting more and more tired as the day wore on. There’s only one tiny settlement between TanTan and Guelmim so when we spotted a ruined house with a concrete slab in front where we could take a break out of the wind we didn’t hesitate. The afternoon sun made us drowsy and we soon drifted off. I woke to the gentle murmur of a woman’s voice, and sat up startled as the lady of the house had come back from who knows where to find two Englishmen wearing only skin tight shorts fast asleep on her front porch! Perhaps not our best introduction to this strictly Islamic part of the world.

Guelmim has been an important caravanserai on the trade route between sea and Sahara since the 11th century, and even now camels change hands between Saharouis draped in indigo robes. A man’s wealth and status is very much judged by the number and quality of his camels, and no one was looking to take my bike in part exchange. Here, as in most of the developing world, the bicycle barely ranks above two feet in the pecking order. Here, a donkey would give you more street cred. But there are plenty of bicycle repair shops and my gear lever had been showing signs of wear and I’d left it too late to get it fixed before I left home thinking it would be fine, now ten miles into the ride and I was stuck in one gear. Ahmed took a quick look over the vestigial flap of carbon fibre that was now about as much use as a third elbow, dispatched a boy and brewed the tea. Surely there was no hope of finding a compatible part here on the edge of the Sahara whilst at home there was a two week delivery wait. The boy returned with a simple ratchet lever and within minutes the gears were set up and running truer than ever. Total cost including fitting, an inner tube repair and mint tea £3, not a bad deal I thought when Campagnolo wanted more than £200!

102 miles, 10 mph average1 Feb 11Day 2

We headed out early feeling the chill of the desert night and looked up into the stars. On a lonely dirt track with no light pollution we had an uninterrupted view of the heavens, and with the crunch of gravel under tyres the only sound, we knew why travelling by bike brings such fabulous rewards. By mid morning we were experiencing our first taste of the Anti-Atlas, with some sharp climbs repaid with fabulous views that were all the better as we turned off the highway and headed into the back country. Cute villages rendered in pink, nestled in gorges, goats climbing in the argam trees, happy waves and shouts of greeting from villagers and goatherds.

It came as a pleasant surprise how many people greeted us in French, and as I’ve been told I speak French like an Algerian, I found it much easier to communicate here than in France. Another surprising legacy of the French was the abundance of patisseries, selling brioche, croissant and chocolate-au-pan that helped fuel us on our way. Often the marble counter in these shops was adorned with the welcome sight of a vintage espresso machine, but in most cases these had fallen into disrepair and nasty Nescafe was all that was on offer.

At an altitude of 1200m Tafraoute stands in the heart of a stunning valley surrounded by granite of pink and ochre the colours of which are echoed in the dry stone houses of the Ameln tribesmen. It’s a town well established on the tourist trail and for the first time we felt the salesman’s hustle, each offering a visit to a carpet museum or asking to help them learn English with all the potential for the most obvious scam since the emperor tried out his new clothes. Out of the towns though it had been a very different story as although we were naturally objects of some curiosity, everyone kept a polite distance and only cheeky schoolboys would look twice finding it hard to contain their mirth at the sight of a couple of middle-aged Europeans pedalling along.

69 miles, 12 mph average2 Feb 11Day 3
The Anti-Atlas Mountains

Quite possibly one of the best rides of my life, clear skies, cool breezes and a view that changed with every crest. The rewards were not without work though as we climbed higher and higher past almond groves and pastures of crocus flowers all the way to Igherm. The Ida Oukensous tribe of Igherm are famous for their guns and daggers, but they all seemed friendly enough, if somewhat incredulous at our appearance, giving us the kind of looks a dog gives a plastic bag caught in a hedge on a windy day.

Arriving just before sunset we headed to the best hotel in town. The only hotel in town, where the rooms were so basic and cold we were glad to have been carrying our sleeping bags (the first time I've ever bivvied-up inside a hotel!), and awoke the next morning to the concrete walls of our tiny, windowless cell streaming with condensation. Dinner the night before however was far from basic, and having not eaten all day we shoved our snouts into the trough of a sizzling tagine of lamb, potato, and vegetables seasoned with mountain herbs with great gusto, ordering a second delicious meal before the first had been eaten. The total bill for the night – about a tenner each.

79 miles, 15 mph average3 Feb 11Day 4

Morocco is often described as a cold country with a hot sun, and what an apt description this was today especially as we’d spent the last two days between 1000 and 2000 meters high, hardly seeing a cloud but always aware of a chill in the air that turned bitter as soon as the sun went down. In sub zero temperatures we breached the 1629m Tizi-Toulimt pass and with a little more warmth in our veins descended past village women swathed in vivid purple robes bearing water to tend their gardens. The sun shone on shepherd Bedouin nomads following their flocks to seasonal pastures in a way of life unchanged for centuries, and within minutes the temperature had soared by twenty degrees.

I’d thought that the previous day’s ride would be hard to beat, but this was a dream, descending gradually all day, through wadis, canyons and magnificent gorges, their red walls of folded rock looking as though Salvador Dali had been painting on contour lines. When we stopped we savoured the silence and solitude. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore, nor were we in Arizona, but maybe Mars?

By the end of the tranquil eighty mile day we had passed just a few tiny villages and seen more camels than cars, before sweeping down to the Tata Palm Grove, and the delightful town with its broad boulevards, clean streets and best of all, a man deep frying fresh doughnuts.

Tata is no more than 30 miles from the Algerian border and is a stopping off point for the Paris – Dakar rally, so it attracts those rather annoying 4x4 Walter Mittys, bouncing along like rhinos on a spacehopper getting some kind of kick out of breaking the desert’s calm, tyres spitting gravel and scaring the life out of herds of goats.

Rest day4 Feb 11Day 5
The North West Sahara

When the desert and mountains meet, the stony land is broken by green oases where shady date palms profuse and the yellow sands are dotted with broad acacia. The history of Morocco is fused with this region, being the birthplace of the great Moroccan dynasties - the Almoravid warriors of the Sahara, and later Arab Saadians who extended an empire from Senegal to Spain. They traded gold, salt and slaves, forging communities as their populations sprang up around the wadis.

Having heard that our planned route was impassable by bike we took a bus tracing a route that within living memory was deemed the edge of the desert, but each year the shifting sands have claimed further territory inland and now the road lies well within the grip of the Sahara.

65 miles, 14 mph average5 Feb 11Day 6
The Draa Valley

The ride along the Draa Valley is one of those almost mythical journeys sought out by adventure cyclists. Ending in the Azlag Gorge, the route is lined with Kasbahs, laid in a ribbon of emerald green palmeraies and orchards contrasting with the mud brick Berber villages and immediate desiccation of the land more than a few meters from the river. The valley has been inhabited since prehistoric times, its fortified Kasbahs being places of refuge from invaders and the cold winter. Tiny tots waved their arms off as we cruised by waving back as if passing out blessings upon the poor, and teenage boys tried to race us on their clapped out bikes in a cacophonous chorus of chirping chains. One keen lad kept up the pace doggedly tailing us for a few miles and after a considerable climb we stopped to take a few pictures only to find that the poor guy had been pursuing us all that way not for the sport but in order to sell us a small basket of dates.

Being the gateway to the Sahara, Zagora is today quite a tourist hub, and I couldn’t resist posing like Lawrence of Arabia by the famous sign declaring "Tombuctou 52 jours". Like the man once said, “I love the desert… it’s so clean”

40 miles, 14 mph average6 Feb 11Day 7
Zagora & The Dunes de Tinfou

We pressed on southwards on a rough and dusty road into the toffee coloured desert following the course of the Draa River, its life giving melt-water surging south until it disappears into the sands before flowing underground and remerging near the Atlantic. The Ksar at Tamegroute was established in the 17th century as a great centre of Islamic learning, and by the tomb of its greatest scholar, Mohammed Bou Nasri. The sick voyeur in me had hoped to see the infirm and incapacitated gather in a grim melee looking like a scene by Hieronymus Bosch, but there were just a handful of sad souls sitting in the shade hoping to be cured or at least take a few dirhams from daft tourists such as I am.

Our journey south ended at the Tinfou Dunes that rise above the rocky plain, and are a somewhat disappointing glimpse of the waves of sand, synonymous with the deep desert. A sole white camper van parked by the golden sands took me back to my childhood days by the Cornish seaside, and without a thought I tapped at the window and asked for a 99 cone and a strawberry Mivvy.

65 miles, 13 mph average7 Feb 11Day 8
The Foothills of the Atlas

We retraced our steps by bus and then rode north down into the valley between the Anti-Atlas and High Atlas to Ouarzazate. A former garrison town of the French Foreign Legion, Ouarzazate was founded in 1928 being strategically located at the intersection of the Draa and Dades valleys, but we whipped through in our haste to get a foothold in the mountains before dark.

Ait Benhaddou backs onto a hill of pink sandstone and looks every bit the film set that it has so often been. Movies as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia, Time Bandits, Gladiator and The Mummy have been shot here, but whilst it is now protected by UNESCO and has undergone restoration in parts, tourists are able to explore at will.

Those tourists though have missed a trick, as hidden in the gorges of the River Ounila lie a far more authentic version of the same mud brick Kasbahs and flat roofed houses occupied by people whose way of life has yet to be changed by outside interference. Here parents say to their children ‘Go and play in the road and talk to strangers’. But with every Jeep ‘eco-tour’ comes an element of destruction, and every new satellite dish beams images of European decadence.

An icy catabatic wind blew down on us from the snowy peaks towards which we climbed all day but our lungs were supercharged with the pure mountain oxygen, our legs energised by chunks of cooking chocolate (that tiny shops sell loose at less than a pound per pound) and the incredible views of this lonely Moonscape kept our hearts and minds loving every minute of it.

106 miles, 15 mph average8 Feb 11Day 9
The High Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas is the largest massif in the Atlas chain and the highest in North Africa, In Berber it’s called Idraren Draren (Mountain of Mountains) where those flat-roofed, earthen Berber villages cling tenaciously to the valley sides, while irrigated terraced gardens and walnut groves flourish below. It forms an impregnable barrier 500 miles long and up to 100 miles wide. Impregnable that is but for the 2260m Tizi n Tichka pass road that was built by the French in the 1920’s winding through a land that varies from fertile valleys, through forests of Atlas Cedar, to arid mineral-rich hills, then the bare brown soil of the higher slopes. Upwards we spiralled in a never ending climb as though trapped on Escher’s staircase, passing trains of pack mules, the views becoming ever more dramatic, the temperature ever lower until finally broaching the col.

What came next was a remarkable downhill run through twists, turns, swoops and dives the likes of which I’ve never seen, losing almost a vertical kilometre in height down a crazy helter-skelter and yet finishing just a few miles north of the high point, emerging into a landscape of complete contrast to the barren southern slopes. The road, being the highest in North Africa, is a work of surveying genius and must list as one of the world’s great rides. Much more snow lay on the north face of the range, quenching forests of pine and cactus gardens then lush oleander, aloe vera, broom and eucalyptus on the Colorado-red lower slope.

As well as a physical and meteorological barrier the mountains mark a distinct economical charge, as to the north agriculture is mechanised, literacy rates are higher and those of the north consider themselves far more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than their desert dwelling cousins.

Our day ended in the filthy, industrial wasteland of Demnate’s litter strewn streets. If Jackson Pollock painted townscapes this is what they would probably look like. Noise and chaos reigned, and after a frozen night we were glad to be heading for the hills if only to pump some heat into our blood come morning.

98 miles, 14 mph average9 Feb 11Day 10
The Atlas Moyen

Through fields of wheat tended by donkey riding farmers in wide brimmed straw hats looking like Don Quixote in a land conjuring an image of Andalusia a century ago we rode, then climbing through gorges verdant with Aleppo pine to reach the amazing Cascades d’Ouzoud where waters pour down from the top of reddish cliffs to fall into the canyon of Wadi el-Abid 100m below.

The road continued to climb along the rim of the Gorge de l'Oed-el-Abid, almost traffic free and always with exhilarating views. As a child I was always thrilled to take the open top bus and here in the Moyen Atlas they have a slightly tattier version of the same. Imagine standing in a low cage on top of a beat-up, over loaded transit van travelling at break-neck speed on a single track hair pin road, no crash barrier and with a 500m drop to the side!

Our day drew to a close with a climb over the Atlas Moyen just shy of 1000m with the perfect descent the other side, flying down to the plain below with no sharp corners to impede our progress and topping 50mph.

116 miles, 15 mph average10 Feb 11Day 11
The Tadla Plain

After so much climbing the orange and olive groves of the Tadla Plain came as a welcome but short lived respite when we climbed up past the castle at Ras El Ain and through rolling hills clothed in marigolds.

Boujad is a holy town known for its tombs and shrines most notably that of Mohammed ech-Cherki, a saint said to bestow blessings and good luck, thus venerated by the Berber tribes of the region. A rival sultan was so resentful of the saint's power that he razed the town in the 18th century, but it was rebuilt and is to this day inhabited by the saint's direct descendants.

In order to make Meknes the following day we were in a position of needing to ride to the next town big enough to support a hotel, but it was already 3pm and that town was more than 50 miles away. So forwards we pressed over sparse highland, rarely visited by outsiders and where the warm welcomes we’d experienced before were far cooler, more suspicious, making Khenifra in darkness.

88 miles, 15 mph average11 Feb 11Day 12

An early climb took us up to a high plain of rolling pasture and some unexpected pleasant riding with comparatively little traffic for a route to a major city. The imperial city of Meknes lies at the heart of a wealthy agricultural area that has been Morocco's grain store since ancient times, and the medina sits alongside the bustling modern metropolis of almost a million people, so with time to spare we strolled around the narrow sand painted alleys, where men discuss the matters of the day and treated ourselves to a night in an authentic riad whose rooms were arranged around a courtyard decorated with beautiful mosaics. Meknes remains unspoiled by tourism and we walked the streets without being harassed in the same way as happens in Fez and Marrakech, seeing weavers at work, and catching a glimpse of the Dickensian life of the man who stokes the fire that heats in water in one of the city's many hammams.

Meknes saw its golden age as the imperial capital of Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century when he constructed ramparts around gardens, monumental gates and mosques, giving Meknes its nickname of "City of the Hundred Minarets". He also installed a large prison to
house Christian sailors captured on the sea. El-Mansour was one such Christian visitor who converted to Islam (probably to avoid execution). He was a talented architect who was put to work on many of the construction projects of the day including the famous Bab-Mansour gate. His luck didn’t last though as when the sultan examined the gate, he asked the architect if he thought he could do any better. El-Mansour misunderstood the question to mean, did he want any more work, whilst the sultan had meant that this, his finest work, should only be for himself. Enraged, the sultan had him decapitated on the spot.

Another who fell from grace was Sidi (saint) Mohamed Ben Aissa, who having been expelled from the city, fled with his followers to the desert, where, famished they had to live on whatever they could find. Legend has it that cobras formed part of their diet and that members of the Aissaoua brotherhood are immune to their venom, and are known to perform rituals involving orgies of self-mutilation and biting snakes whilst in a trance. The best of the modern-day snake charmers who like to charm open tourist's wallets, are said to be descendents of this tribe.

92 miles, 14 mph average12 Feb 11Day 13

When Mauretania was annexed by Claudius, the Romans promoted Volubilis to the status of free town and for two centuries, the city flourished as one of the farthest west outposts of empire. All the hallmarks of Rome are here. There are spacious roads, public monuments, temples, thermal baths, the Forum, the Basilica, the Capitol, and what no self respecting Roman city would be without; the Triumphal Arch. It's stately homes had pools and marvellous mosaics, there were numerous bakeries, and about a hundred oil presses attesting to the thriving economy of the region.

So what went wrong? By the third century, parts of the city were dominated by Christians, who were regarded as being as evil as the Jews by the pre-Islamic Arabs, the Berber tribesmen got along with no one and the Romans themselves had enough problems at home. The city became a shadow of its former glory and by the seventeenth century our friend Sultan Moulay Ismail decided to pillage all the best stone to help build Meknes twenty miles up the road.

Whilst Meknes is the youngest of the imperial cities of Morocco, Fes is the oldest, but to avoid the heavy traffic we decided to give Fez and its paintbox tanneries a miss. Quite possibly the worst job in the world involves standing in vat of tanning solution (made from the bark of pomegranate and mimosa but producing a vile pervading stench) in the midday sun, and beating a heavy camel hide until all trace of hair and flesh is removed. From the hide that is, not the tanner.

Our revised route took us deep into the hills and valleys of the Rif, bursting with crops of peas, broad beans, carrots and fennel and past extraordinary mud hut villages. We were heading for a lake besides which, we had been assured was a good hotel, but when we arrived well after sunset, we found that the entire town had vanished under the rising waters several years ago following the damming of the lake, and with it our hopes of a bed for the night.

50 miles, 13 mph average13 Feb 11Day 14
The Rif

A misty start added an air of mystery to the landscape of olive groves and fig plantations and it wasn’t difficult to see a difference in the people of the foothills of the Rif. These paler skinned Berber speaking inhabitants proudly guard their traditions and independence, resisting occupations from Portuguese, French and Spanish in turn. Their reaction to two-wheeled invaders though was one as hospitable as any that we had found elsewhere in this friendly country.

The Rif is known for its beautiful and atmospheric medinas, set against a backdrop of high mountains, capes and gorges. The blue and white town of Chefchaouen has an almost fairy tale ambience and is the very archetype, nestling in the hollow between two mountains. It’s a holy town of eight mosques, but it has a secret. Street vendors push their famous mountain honey, so good that General Franco used to have his personal supply airlifted to Spain, but those wild bees also help to pollinate a certain herb that you're not allowed to bring home. They call it kif and it’s (ahem!) 'medicinal' use goes back over the centuries. Sit still in Chefchaouen for a few minutes and if you haven’t already caught a whiff of an intoxicating aroma familiar from your student days, someone will sidle up and offer you a small round ball of the stuff for a couple of quid.

94 miles, 16 mph average14 Feb 11Day 15
Spanish Soil

As we moved into the far north of Morocco, we’d noticed that Moroccans would address us in Spanish instead of the French to which we’d become accustomed and at the most northerly tip sits a tiny exclave of Spain. After Morocco gained independence from Spain, Ceuta was retained as an economic and military stronghold, but the territory is still hotly disputed – the Moroccans even call it by the different name of Sebta.

The change experienced on crossing the castille’s moat could not have been more pronounced, far more so than the transition from Spain to Gibraltar I thought. Catholic churches replaced mosques, Euros replaced Dirhams (with subsequently inflated prices) and burger buns superseded couscous.

Our time in Morocco coincided with the revolutions against dictatorial governments in neighbouring Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In every café, faces were glued to TV screens as Al Jazeera sent out round the clock updates, and whilst the people were glad that their Arabic brethren were gaining new freedoms, there was widespread concern that the instability might spread.

26 miles, 10 mph average15 Feb 11Day 16

Although you can see Europe from the northern slopes of the Rif, it’s a world away. Not so Tangier. Sitting as gatekeeper to the Med, a faded libertine now, its always been cosmopolitan, and today its as much French as it is Spanish as it is African.

We fought our way there over the Pillars of Hercules that guard the Straits of Gibraltar, through torrential rain and a howling gale that had us standing on the pedals in the lowest gear even when running downhill. We sought in vain for the Café Hafa where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came to smoke hashish, and the indolent air still lingers among the locals who hang out here to enjoy the view and a game of backgammon. A friend of the Beatles (his picture is on the cover of Sgt Pepper), William Burroughs fled here after he shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of 'William Tell' and it is thought that it was here that the writer's alcoholism and drug addiction deepened, yet he wrote much of his celebrated work including The Naked Lunch during this time.

And so, wet through and considerably more sober than Burroughs, and a little less rock than roll we waited for a ferry to Gibraltar delayed by the weather, and came to journey’s end.

Cycling through this ever changing land had been unforgettable, its warm climate and warmer people a delight, and so ‘inshallah’ I’ll return again one day to manifique Morocco.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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