Between the 20th century cities of Agadir and Ouarzazate, lies a land steeped in ancient history and tradition. It is a land of rivers, mountains and lush green valleys, shaped and scoured by nature. 400 km long, this journey includes 6,400 metres of climbing to the snow-capped slopes of Toubkal before the descent to Ouarzazate, the desert’s door.
Our adventure began in Agadir. Though actually it started 13 km south in Inezgane – as this is where you will end up when boarding a bus that labels its destination as Agadir. After a night’s sleep in Hotel Hagounia beside the bus stop, we ate a breakfast of croissants and amlou, an almond and argan oil dip.
Taroudant lay 72 km to the east along the Souss valley past orange groves, palm plantations and lush green fields. Along the way, we waved at women on the backs of trucks, replied, ‘bonjour’ to men working in the fields and cycled alongside children going back and forth from school. And we marvelled as goats scrambled in the branches of argan trees, nibbling nuts from which argan oil is made.
“Allahu Akbar…”, the first two words of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, echoed across the valley. I found myself whispering the words as I pedalled along. Five times a day, wherever there was a minaret, a muezzin’s hypnotic voice would broadcast the reminder.
Next morning, with our frame bags stocked with dried fruit and nuts, we turned to face the snow-capped High Atlas range and Ouled Berhil, a town on the valley floor. To get there, 33 km of the 53 km was on piste, with two river crossings to navigate. At this time of year, the days are ten hours long, with sunset at around 5.30pm. Punctures from cactus thorns slowed our progress and despite the kind offer from a man on a moped to join his family for the evening, we pressed on. Darkness had fallen before we made it into town.
On the third day we arrived in Aoulouz; on the fourth, we rested.
From there, we hoped to ride as far as we could. Without knowing the condition of the tracks or even if they existed, overnight plans were uncertain. Maps of the area are notoriously sketchy and villages can have several names. By the time we reached Igli, 52 km along and 1,300 m high, I was tired.
Fatigue must have shown on my face, because a man sitting on a bench opposite said that his friend had a hotel. That night, Dan and I washed together in the public hammam. Normally, these bath houses are segregated spaces; men and women wash separately. But on that evening, the owner of Hotel Baba Jamea, gave us permission to enter after-hours.
Refuelled and refreshed, we headed up through the pine forests, inching closer to the snow with each revolution of the wheel. Shortly before Amsouzart, we met a man named Redouane Bouwizri, who was carrying out humanitarian work in the region. His friend Anass Errihani, a photographer and mountaineer was preparing to summit the 4,167 m Toubkal a few days later. Our goal was to reach Lac d’Ifni at 2,241 m the following day and spend the night by the lake. Anass assured us there would be snow.
The sun shone brightly as we set off from Gîte Himmi Omar. With only 10 km to go, my pace was gentle as I relished the warmth of the mid-December sun. Soon the well-trodden trekker’s path became unrideable and I found myself stuck in a loop of pausing, panting and pushing. By the time we saw the lake’s green water, five hours had passed and the sky darkened. I tramped about in knee-deep snow, as a bitter wind sucked heat from my body. If we’d taken the tent, I’d have stayed. Instead we raced down the rocky path in under an hour and paid Omar 80 dirham (~£6) for dinner and a second night at his gîte.
When morning came, I was ready to go, riding easily for the first few kilometres. The entire trip had been uphill, now there was a descent to look forward to. However, as we turned onto the road for Marrakesh, the wind rushed against us. There is nothing as soul destroying as having to pedal downhill but that’s how it was for the ride to Souk Tidli and the final mountain pass.
I watched the silhouette of a man astride a donkey appear from the valley below as we cycled across the rubble towards the setting sun. He made shooing gestures as we neared, but we carried on. He continued to chase us back but we held our ground.
“Salam alaykum,” we said in unison, the greeting typically used.
It soon became clear that the route we had planned to cross the valley along was not possible and our farmer friend, for that was what he’d become, was saving us a long haul back the way we came. Still on his donkey, laden with baskets of grass and farm implements, he trekked with us towards his village.
As we neared a clearing, two old men wearing tan djellabas stood beside some brush. One set it alight and it burst into flames like the biblical burning bush. They hitched their loose robes to their waists, began to dance and bared their buttocks to the fire. Our friend shouted something that sounded scolding and the merriment stopped. Then he led us beyond his village where he showed us a safe place to camp.
A crowd of children gathered to watch us unpack our bikes and set up camp.
Twilight dimmed to darkness prompting the children to return to their brown, mud-built homes. Alone, we sat in our sleeping bags, eating noodles and soup, listening to the water running in the nearby stream and watching shooting stars. At 1,900 m the temperature drops rapidly and frost glistened on our gear. By morning, our water was frozen solid.
The next day the man with the donkey arrived to make sure we had hot drinks. A woman came to bless us as we packed up our belongings beside the river, Asif Tidili.
Our chosen trail curved and twisted along a gorge, the river winding like a green ribbon below as we climbed again to Tachdirit where we met Layla, President of the regional association for women’s and children’s education. She invited us into her home, where eggs we had brought from the local shop were cooked. After washing our hands over a bowl, with water poured from a silver pitcher, a Berber-style omelette was served on a sizzling earthenware dish. Lunch cost 30 dirham (~£2) and there was no charge for the bread, fresh fruit and mint tea.
We cycled on, passing expanses of abandoned mines and an unfinished football pitch, to spend the night near Iflilte. Then we rode across yellow and pink sands to Aït Benhaddou and the hill-top Kasbah, where Lawrence of Arabia and more recently, Game of Thrones was set.
It had taken ten days to travel to Ouarzazate, and it seemed fitting to travel on through this door to the desert, but that’s a journey for another time.
I get a painfully romantic feeling when cycling in the Kingdom of Morocco. Whether it is the ancient caravan trade routes, wild expanses of emptiness, the hustle and bustle of the souk or its hospitable people, I’m never sure. But it draws me back.
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