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Morocco Cycle Tour Page 1

I stepped out of the plane and out of my comfort zone into the sunshine at Marrakech airport. I was nervous and unsure of what to expect from the first African country I'd visited.

I wasn't ready for the dusty roads and the skinny donkeys pulling those heavy carts. The unrendered buildings, the traffic chaos and potholes, the flat lands leading to the High Atlas mountains. My only comfort was the reassuring feel of the bike that I was riding. I felt every bit like the naive western tourist that I was.

This was day one of a 17 day cycle tour of the High Altas and Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco, crossing 3 mountain passes and covering over 600 miles.

Day 1 - Marrakech to Tahanaoute (15 miles) 

The High Atlas mountains stretched out in front of us, but we still managed to set off in the wrong direction. After studying the map, drinking some water and looking round awkwardly, we eventually found the right road and took it.

We'd arrived early afternoon in Marrakech to bright sunshine and temperatures in the low 20's. The first day was always meant to be a steady introduction to Morocco and that's exactly what it became. We cycled a total of 15 miles to Tahanaoute and stopped for a coffee. Clueless about accommodation for the night, we asked the 'patron' and he said we'd be welcome to stay at his house. He seemed like a nice guy (which he was), so we took him up on the offer. Bikes were locked in a garage next to his cafe and we were picked up in a people carrier with 5 strangers in it, and driven off down the road. So, within 3 hours of arriving in Morocco, we'd been separated from our bikes and were being introduced to 3 generations of a family of complete strangers.

Our room was, I reckon, the master bedroom; not sure where the patron and his Mrs slept that night. I woke in the night to the sound of a rat scurrying round in the room. I woke Janyis to share my discovery. She listened and eventually pointed out that it was a carrier bag blowing in the wind outside. This was the first of a few paranoid episodes that we shared in our first couple of days in Morocco.

In the morning, the Patron and his wife had prepared breakfast for us and we sat down in a slightly awkward atmosphere of anticipation. I asked Janyis to mention payment for the room. The patron suggested 'trent dirham', I took this as 300 (French is my fifteenth language) and handed over 300 dirham (about £25). Janyis looked distraught (he'd asked for 30), but the patron and his Mrs were elated. We were offered more coffee and 'Laughing Cow' cheese and then invited to the wedding of their daughter. With happiness all around me, I genuinely felt that this was the best £25 I'd ever spent needlessly.

The Cafe Amine in Tahanaoute - the patron (far right) looking very happy with 300 dirham in his back pocket

Day 2 - Tahanaoute to Ouirgane (25 miles)

So, off we went, cycling at a brisk pace towards the High Atlas. It was another beautiful day and my wallet was 300 dirham lighter, so I was pedalling at top speed. The road climbed gently and then more steeply towards Asni, which is where we eventually arrived. Not the prettiest town by any stretch and lined with folk just dying to sell you something, so we cycled straight through and on towards Ouirgane.

By now, the countryside was very pretty and the roads were quiet. My initial nerves were being slowly pacified and I was enjoying the ride. So, we turned up in Ouirgane mid-afternoon and saw the signs for 'bed and breakfast'. This was the first bit of English I'd seen in Morocco, so I headed straight for it. The owner of the hotel only spoke French, but as luck would have it, a guy called Mohammed was there as well and he spoke English. The cost of a room was 250 dirham, which Janyis reckoned was a bit steep, so we decided to go off and think about it.

After a coffee and a chat between ourselves (and Mohammed) we decided to take the room.Not a bad place, with its own little garden and bathroom with shower (freezing). The bikes were put in a shed across from the room. Mohammed was still around and showed us his wares - an assortment of bracelets and caskets, the sort of stuff that I see in Brighton, but never buy. He managed to talk me into buying one of his caskets for 150 dirham, so that he 'could put bread into his children's mouths' and support his grandmother who lived in the mountains. Saw the same caskets a couple of days later for 45 dirham. Told you I was a naive tourist.

That night, Janyis woke me up, convinced that Mohammed was going to nick our bikes, because we'd not bought enough of his jewellry. Paranoid episode number 2.

This valley in Ouirgane has been flooded for a new hydro-electric power plant

Day 3 - Ouirgane to Iguer (35 miles)

The following morning and we're off again. It turns out that Morocco had been deluged with rain until 3 days before we arrived. As you can see from the pic below, things had changed quite dramatically.

Heading out of Ouirgane with those amazing peaks approaching

We stopped on a quiet, deserted part of the road for a coffee and bite to eat. Within seconds we heard shouting in the hills and saw kids running down at top speed. This was something we'd witness lots of - you're never alone for long in Morocco. The main reason for the excitement is that you'll be carrying pens (stylo) for them. In the unlikely event that you haven't got a pannier full of pens, they'll ask for bonbons. If you don't have any sweets they will, at a push, settle for hard cash (d'argent). The requests are consistent in every single village and made us wonder how this bizarre business came about. We found out from some English folk in a camper that well-meaning tourists used to bring loads of pens and sweets and throw them out of their windows for the kids as they travelled through the country. The tradition has changed but no one's told the locals, it seems.

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Morocco Cycle Tour 2009


If you fail on all three counts  - no pens, no sweets and no cash - there's only one option left, and that's hassle. This ranges from tugging on the panniers to slow you down, to throwing stones at you and the bike. So, me and Janyis would like to say a heart-felt thankyou to all those well meaning tourists with their gifts who made our trip through the Moroccan countryside so much more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

We did a reasonably healthy 35 miles of (mainly) climbing, before we decided to find a bed for the night.  We arrived in Iguer, which we didn't know at the time, is the last village before the top of the TIzi n Test pass, so just as well that we stopped. There's no hotel but we asked at the cafe and the owner had a small room which we could have for 100 dirham (about £8.50). This was the least we'd paid for a room so far, but they say you get what you pay for... no water, no toilet, no electricity..., but we did get 2 free candles in with the price.

The room at the Berber village of Iguer

This was the skankiest room we stayed in. I heard rats again during the night, (paranoid episode number 3). We'd laid our thermarests on top of the mattress and had to sleep away from the end of the bed, because one of the legs was bent and looked ready to snap. We had to pee in a coke bottle, but despite all of this, we blew out the candles and slept the night away.

Day 4 - Iguer to Taroudannt (70 miles)

Above the snowline approaching the top of the Tizi n Test

We got up early and headed off. The bright sunshine felt even brighter after our night in that room. We stopped and had a bite to eat outside the village and then pressed on. The next 3 hours were a non-stop climb, but these things are always easier in the morning before it gets too hot. Infact, this morning's climb was fantastic. The views were incredible and we were just feeling good. It was also Valentine's Day and Janyis had bought me a little cake. I'd completely forgotten to get her anything, although in the pic above, just to the right of me in the snow, someone had drawn a heart in the snow and written 'I love u', so I told her it was me. Not convinced she believed me....

When we reached the top of the Tizi n Test around lunchtime, we got a round of applause from the owner of the Belle Vue Cafe, where we had a coffee and Berber omelette, whilst sitting comfortably in our smugness and self-congratulation. There's no feeling quite like it.

Over the other side of the pass, we could see the Tizi n Test winding its way back down the mountains to the Souss valley and the road to Taroudannt. The view can only be described as breathtaking.

Me surveying the mountain range we'd just conquered. All in a morning's work

And then we descended. Not sure how many miles we freewheeled, but it was plenty. The Tizi n Test is 2100 metres above sea level and we dropped most of those metres back down to the Souss plains. Impossible to describe the feeling, watching the landscape and foliage change, knowing you've earned every metre of that descent and just the buzz of a freefall out of a mountain range.

The great thing with the Tizi n Test is that it's a narrow, winding and very precarious road with sheer drops, so it attracts very little in the way of motorised vehicles, so our descent was virtually uninterrupted.

The Tizi n Test descent to the Souss Valley

And then we were in the Souss valley which carried on descending gradually. We were also blessed with a gentle tailwind pushing us towards Taroudannt. We were there by late afternoon, still congratulating ourselves on the whole experience. Temperatures in the valley reached 38 degrees celcius.

We used the Lonely Planet for the first time in Taroudannt to find the Hotel Taroudannt. 200 dirham per night and very nice.

Day 5 - Taroudannt

A day off. We spent the day wandering round Taroudannt, drinking coffee, eating dates, olives, avocado and bread and enjoying our first Moroccan city. As luck would have it they had some genuine 'Ray Dan' (not a spelling mistake) on offer at the never to repeated price of 25 dirham - a few pence over 2 quid. How could I resist.

The street outside the Hotel Taroudannt

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