From Marrakech (ⵎⵕⵕⴰⴽⵛ) to Taghazout (ⵜⴰⵖⴰⵣⵓⵜ).
We all do things in the spur of the moment from time to time. The following trip to North African Morocco was just that. Following a somewhat difficult period in recent months (perhaps years), I booked 2 relatively cheap flights to Morocco, deliberately choosing different airports to fly in and to fly out of.
Bikepacking had been on my mind for quite some time but apart from shortish day trips with or without family and a couple of weekly trips in flip-flops as a young person, I have not done this before. Nor did I fly with a bike before.
Booking a bicycle on the plane worked out more expensive than transporting myself in this case (around £40 via Easyjet and Ryanair respectively). A huge bicycle box and a limit of 32kg also meant that all additional stuff and equipment could be transported inside, cutting down on the cost of additional luggage. Flights were booked since the start of January, and all that remained to be done was to work and stay on top of life (submitting an essay a week in advance, attending a tutorial the morning of the flying out day, getting my injured knee back in shape and have an important conversation with a good friend about future of my living situation). Yes, taking 7 days out of life in my stage of life does take an effort.
Preparation in my case meant having all of the mentioned chores sorted. It also some google map planning of a rough route (now that it all seemed increasingly more realistic!). Fitting on new tires, fabricating a couple of metal parts so that the front panniers can fit, deciding whether or not to take the tent, doing some shopping in Lidl (Lollipops and Kinder chocolates for the unknown children of the Atlas), and other extraordinary tasks. How easy is it to fold a bike into a bike box? Easy! (That is when you have the actual bike box). How about transporting the bike box with all additional cargo inside 3 flights of stairs, onto a train platform, and a half a mile stretch uphill through the city center onto a bus? Not so easy…
Jemaa el-Fna square and Kutubiyya Mosque just there…
I arrived at Marrakech 10 pm and cycled to my hostel (The only pr- booked accomodation of my trip). Perhaps as typically as can be, the weather just turned cold and wet. I spent 2 nights in Marrakech, endlessly strolling through the streets of its vibrant medina, venturing out somewhere southeast to see the road leading to the Atlas mountains…
The weather forecast however didn’t look promising: I have been discouraged by a number of locals to not heading in the direction of the Altlas. A couple that had returned from a day trip to Quarzazate (by car) said that passing through Atlas was rather a grim experience. It had snowed and rained even in Quarzazate with temperatures just above 0 (This is Sahara right)!
I had a plan B involving cycling west to Essauria and than down the coast to Agadir. Having access to the internet (for now) I looked at the forecast and saw that the weather was to turn for better by Saturday (temperatures to rise to 27C on the coast). Living in Scotland certainly gave me an advantage here: even a glimpse of weather improvement meand all go! All I needed to know is that it will get better at some point: I left Marrakech on Thursday morning and headed direction South-east towards the Atlas mountains.
My plan was to cycle as far as I could get that day, hoping to reach the town of Ouirgane. Long straight stretch of nice tarmac at first, followed by a steep climb making around half of the journey. I only covered a distance of around 40 miles and arrived at Ouirgane at around 7.30 (almost dark) wet and tired (the temperature here was around 8C). I have arrived at the town’s only open cafe and thought I would ask someone where to stay. Apart from the person serving, there was only one customer who had gladly agreed to put me up for the night. What followed next was a mixed experience at first but one to share for sure. The man took me through the dark muddy street somewhere near the mountain lake. He took me inside a local canteen (or similar) with 2 men smoking hashish and a woman who was mopping the floor. I was offered and gladly accepted 3 servings of warm broth of some kind. At that moment, it tasted like the best broth I have ever tasted. When finished eating my “guide” took me to the place where I was to stay overnight.
I was introduced to another man who was happily tucked in his “bed”. I was offered to share a long couch stretching all the length of the room. My host slept by the fire and I had the other side. For 120MAD it was pretty basic to say at least (no breakfast or “western” toilet, shower, or anything else) but I guess it’s what happens if one has no choice (and the host can see that too: leaving no room for negotiations). Visitors at night were a woman Rashida and an enormous local with a meter-long hashish pipe which he smoked for the entire duration of their visit. I have learned some basic Berber, (BISHA- Cheers in Berber and A- ila for family), got complimented on my skill of pouring and foaming mint tea from arm’s length height, and happily retired to bed.
I slept really well and woke up late at around 10 am (my host was still under his heavy triple-layered blanket). The rough plan for Friday was to have a morning swim in the lake, catch the bus at 11 (as far into the valley) and cycle the rest of the route and reach Tizi n’Test pass.
The reality however turned out somewhat different. No swim (the lake was dirty and half empty with lots of snow still on the hills), quite a basic breakfast (tin of sardines from Marrakech (still a couple of loaves of bread left though together with another tin, some dates, and sweets still left as my main source of energy) and no bus. Information coming from various sources (word of mouth- no internet) about the bus heading towards Taroudant was somehow conflicting and by noon I was pretty sure there is no bus. It seemed that the road ahead was indeed closed. After hanging around for a bit I chatted with some local kids (using a mixture of my nonexistent French, and their few words in English, Berber, and Arabic). My bike was ridden by a young boy (who was desperate to get some bike glue to fix his wheel- he was only given some remaining Kinder chocolate purchased in Lidl on Victoria road in Glasgow).
I finally set off and cycled for a bit (stopping multiple times to take some pictures and chatted some more) until I came to a stretch of road that reminded me of a quarry. The road was “blocked” by a piece of rope and guarded by a praying man facing a vast rock wall of the mountain. There were huge boulders in the middle of the road and a number of diggers and other heavy-duty machinery working on the road and on the hill above. As I cycled passed the praying man, a local bus pulled in (van) and I thought: this is my chance to ask! Soon I found myself sharing this vehicle with a number of people including women loudly praying each time we stopped and removed fallen boulders from the road (bicycle on the roof).
I got dropped off in the village of Tlat N’Yaakoub where I met a young man who bought me a coffee and helped me to talk to a local garage, finally helping me to find that missing washer fixing my bicycle (I had been cycling all this time with my bike break pushing against the wheel, slowing me down considerably). I had “cheated” a distance of around 30 km by taking the bus between Barrage Ouirgane, and Tlat N’Yaakoub. Perhaps just as well with the bus’s roof providing at last some form of protection in case of a rock fall).
After this, there was only one way to go: steep ascent towards Tizi n’Test pass lying at an altitude of 2100m above sea level. Just as I sat on my way, a french cyclist on a single-speed bicycle zoomed passed me. As I learned later, he was part of a 3rd edition of the race GravelMan Marrakech.
Because I set off very late this day, I found myself climbing the hill right into the sunset. The climb was long and steep. It really was. The landscape had changed dramatically: from low altitude hills and hanging clouds to snow-covered hills and spectacular views around every corner. At around 7. 30 I thought this is it, I will now put my tent into use and pitch at this flat space covered in snow. After consulting my offline Google maps and having some sugar I decided to push on… (only about 10 miles of steep twists and turns!)
As I learned later, the battery was to power the light in a house which provided me with my shelter that night. As the night before, I had no ground to stand on when it came to negotiating the price of my accommodation. I gladly accepted whatever was on offer. I was thereafter treated with the warmest welcomes by a group of men who were there to clear the road from knee-deep snow (heavy snowfall on the previous night). I don’t eat much meat these days but tucking in with my bare hands into a huge dish of freshly cooked goat tagine and hand-torn pieces of fresh bread was not to be rejected. I shared laughter, hand signals, and stories until late at night. I even took a night walk and talked to the “Patron” of the nearing village about the constellation of Orion. It was truly magic.
I slept in my own room which was cold and dark but it was dry! I woke up to a pure Scorcher of a day, running up the nearing hill to take some pictures of this amazing scenery, and realised that Tizi n’Test pass is only about ½ mile away.
I hopped on my bike and stopped for a fresh Café au lait at the restaurant at the very summit of Tizi n’Test. The barman informed me that the wifi was down but I got overheard by a man who offered to share internet tethering it from his phone… How kind I thought, I can make contact with the base! (It’s only been 3 days since I spoke to my family but given the circumstances, I thought its best to give an update on my whereabouts).
At the next turn of the road lay the “famous” blue bus I had been admiring when looking up this place when home. Her, the very same man who offered to share his internet with me earlier, invited me to share once more a dish (even bigger) of goat tagine. I shared it with a group of teachers and educators from the Souss-Massa region. When leaving, I was given a huge bag of fruit to take away. The fruit served me as a bartering item when talking to people until the rest of my time in Morocco (I had my last orange from here on the airplane on my way home).
The next part of the journey was to descend and reach at least the town of Taroudant. The descent was a real treat, again offering spectacular views all the way down and behind every corner. Out of this world.
“I covered a distance of 56 miles in just over 3 hours and descended vertically 5915 feet (1.8 km), almost burning my brake pads! (The temperature had changed from just above 0 to around 25C too)”.
The next part of the journey was to descend and reach at least the town of Taroudant. The descent was a real treat, again offering spectacular views all the way down and behind every corner. Out of this world. I covered a distance of 56 miles in just over 3 hours and descended vertically 5915 feet (1.8 km), almost burning my brake pads! (The temperature had changed from just above 0 to around 25C too). Similarly, when heading toward Atlas, around ⅔ of the track was on a main road covered in smooth tarmac. It was lond and straight with almost no shoulder. I deployed my flashlight and hi-viz waste marking just in case. One important thing to mention if anyone is planning this route: this road was slowly declining the majority of the way to Taroudant so doing it in the opposite direction would most likely be quite a painful experience.
Although I heard that Taroudant is worth visiting, my vision of the warm coast was stronger. I arrived at a bus station and the last bus to Agadir was about to depart. I took the decision and hopped onto the bus (55 miles to go).
Agadirs’ busy center coast promenade was filled with street artists and people enjoying their Saturday evenings. I cycled on, through some truly derelict places with haps of street dogs before arriving at what seemed like a decent-looking Banana beach in the town of Tamraght. It was a rough sleep but I woke up to a sunny day, looking at local children playing in the sand. I sat on a bike and cycled on further north before arriving at the town of Taghazout. This was the place I thought. After spending some time looking for a hostel I finally had my own bed. I took a shower and changed into my second and last T-shirt.
It was all a treat after that. The hostel cost 100 DAM a night and for a discounted fee of 80 DHA including surf and all the gear. I have never surfed before so why not? I loved it, even caught a wave here and there (not standing!). I spend 2 nights in Taghazout, doing the usual: connecting with people of all walks of life, taking some photographs, eating some food, and resting.
On my last day, I cycled some 21 miles (34km) in search of a bicycle box. I contacted Decathlon (to my surprise, yes there is one in Agadir!) when back home and when in Morocco to secure by box but without any success (long story). I have been treated more like an unwanted visitor rather than a customer and it took a bit of persuasion (walking into the back) to get a couple of big boxes from a skip. These weren’t bicycle boxes so I had to improvise on th side of a hot and dusty road. I was in and out of Carrefour buying some more tape securing my box… Finally getting a “Grand taxi” dropping me at the airport (for a whopping 300 DAM!).