cycling the atlas mountains in morocco

Cycling in Morocco; crossing the Atlas mountains by bike

A ten day bike trip cycling in Morocco

This blog post about cycling in Morocco shares the story of our ten day bike adventure from Marrakech, across the Atlas mountains to Agadir, along the coast to Essaouira then back to Marrakech.

We traveled in autumn 2012, as far as I can remember. It was the first time I’d cycled in Africa and was to become one of my favourite bike trips.

We enjoyed wonderful hospitality, overcame mechanical failures and airline delays and survived heat stroke in the desert. An action packed cycling adventure in Morocco.

Cycling in Morocco

Flying with our bikes is something we are always reluctant to do. It’s a major hassle to get to the airport, since they are always out of town.

Then the dismantling of the bikes at the airport inevitably means something goes missing.

Not to mention the fact that the bike has to be handed over to the wonderfully mysterious forces of ‘baggage handlers’ hidden in the bowels of the terminal.

For this trip we’d chosen to use the clear plastic bag recommended by Cycle Touring Club. The logic being that the baggage handlers can see that its a bike and therefore handle with care.

So, we flew out to Marrakech full of excitement and hope. We were ready for our latest adventure in a foreign land.

Since we very rarely planned a route in detail, the excitement of not knowing what lay ahead of us was palpable.

Dude, where’s my bike?

EasyJet flight EKGCX6X arrived in Marrakech ahead of time. 6 minutes early in fact, our bikes on however, were not on board.

We were fobbed off by the frazzled ‘Baggage Guy’ and told that the bikes had not made it on to the plane and that they would arrive on the morrow.

There were a dozen other holiday makers without luggage – all of them in the oversize category – all of them pretty cross.

Disheartened we made a plan. No bikes so we couldn’t travel, no tent so we couldn’t sleep, and we needed to be at the airport first thing to collect the bikes.

What to do? Only one thing for it really – we went to Marrakech for the night and feasted on tagine, mint tea and cake!

Next day on the bikes we pedalled away from the hustle and bustle of the Jemaa El Fna towards the huge, splendid, and violent mountains looming before us.

Moustafa of Asni

In the town of Asni in the foothills of the High Atlas, close to Imlil, we met a Berber shepherd by the name of Moustafa.

He offered us food and accommodation for the night in his family home, and we gratefully accepted.

We were shown to the hammam which was a real treat after a decent day in the saddle. Then we sat down to dinner with Moustafa.

The delicious spread included a splendid Berber omelette with fresh bread and olives.

Silver lining

Then out comes the mint tea. And the silver. Then some more mint tea. And more silver. And more tea.

I casually admired the detail of the handiwork on one of the necklaces. I’m buying a necklace and I don’t even know it….

Negotiations were protracted, Moustafa and I could not agree on a price, so we decided to sleep on it, in Moustafas bedroom.

Next morning, keen to make a good start on the day into the mountains I decided that we must agree quickly and offered to swap a mobile phone for the two necklaces I liked.

Finally, we were on our way. Hurrah! Who did the best deal? Who know’s, but it was a fun either way.

Tizi n Test, A Bent Mech And The Moon

Out of Asni and into the mountains we went, pushing up through the High Atlas like two mountain goats.

This is a well-traveled road, busy with ‘grand taxis’ darting from Marrakech to the coast and back.

For this reason the road is dangerous and wits must be razor sharp to avoid an accident since the drivers are somewhat reckless and vehicles overloaded.

Tin Mal and a bent mech

Our early start meant that we made reasonable progress and so paid a brief visit to Tin Mal, a mosque with no minaret, which was closed.

On leaving the ancient mosque site – a minor climb – Adrian’s rear mech found its way into his back wheel bending the mech further still and truly buckling the wheel.

This was not a great situation. Cycling in Morocco had yet to establish itself as a popular pastime. New parts were out of the question.

We were just two days in on the bikes and had a mountain to climb (literally), a desert to cross and a coast to reach.

After an extended period of staring at the bike and tutting we decided that nothing could be done save to bend the mech a bit hoping it wouldn’t break.

Everybody look at the moon

It was late in the day and we sought a camp for the night. Fortunately we happened upon a small river and found a campfire long since abandoned that serveed us perfectly.

We washed, ate and relaxed, thinking on the test that lay ahead.

The big moon peeped an edge over the mountain top beaming light into our tiny camp, the sight of the moon was totally mesmeric and surreal that it was all we could do to stare.

A memorable end to an ominous day cycling in Morocco.

Tizi n Test

Today was the biggy – the climb – Tizi n Test day. Off we went, steadily climbing, gradually covering the k’s, slowly raising our heart rate and height above sea level.

It was a very gentle climb indeed and for that we were grateful – Ade had a limited gear selection to say the least – but what a climb.

Tizi n Test may not be the steepest mountain, but it was certainly the most stunning and dramatic to cycle in Morocco, by a long mile.

Each mountain in the range criss-crossing the next, across a huge valley of gigantic elephant’s feet like a great herd crashing over from the Sahara.

Super Mario Bros

We reached the summit of 2100m just in time for lunch and were lucky enough to break bread with a trio of Italian cyclists crossing Morocco in the opposite direction, back the way we’d come.

Feasting on what was to be the most over-priced yet most-needed meal of the trip we shared stories of the road ahead.

We learned more of the lie of the land; the possible water stops and options for our next meal.

A fond farewell, we exchanged telephone numbers (Mazza is a vinyl buff and intends to visit London the following week) and part with a quick photograph.

We were back on the bikes, flying along the most treacherous and beautiful side of a mountain you could hope to see cycling in Morocco.

Come N’Av A Butchers

Waking in the desert plains with mountains to our right and behind us, we looked ahead to a flat road stretching as far as the eye can see.

Nothing of note but small trees full of goats climbing and eating them.

We set out at a blistering pace (for our bikes and luggage that’s maybe 18kph) headed towards the coast, in particular, Agadir.

We pushed on to the nearest town with lunch on the mind – we were pretty hungry today – bound for the town of Taroudannt.

Rolling into the town after a good stretch of the legs we were keen to settle into some shade, an ice cold coke and a tagine of some kind.

The town however, was a sprawling mass of streets, side streets and alleyways cramped inside a fortress. We got hopelessly lost pretty early on.

Getting lost was a theme of our cycling trip in Morocco.

The Moroccan Frank Butcher

The danger in appearing hesitant upon arrival to a town is that you become a target. An easy target.

An easy target for someone to sell you a rug.

Unthinking we followed the friendly chap on his moped through the busy streets to the main square where we hoped to feast on tagine and kebab and bread.

Our new friend however had another plan, ‘come’n have a butchers’ he said, happily. How could we refuse the Moroccan Frank Butcher?

Off we went into a rug emporium of the highest order; ‘take a seat, have some tea, my wife makes the best tagine… ‘.

The offers were endless.

As was the history lesson of the Berber art of rug making: ‘this pattern is made in the desert using camel hair, this rug has this pattern which gives the rug its magic flying powers…’.

The mans’ voice, deeper than any man I’ve ever met, was almost hypnotic in its rhythm, and doggedly persistent. We had to eat.

We made our excuses, declined to buy a rug since we were CYCLING and a 10m rug might not be the most practical gift idea.

Lost in France

Back on the bikes the day was long and hot and confused.

More than a couple of wrong turns were made and roads that should exist, appeared to have disappeared, which was frustrating to say the least, especially in the heat.

It was nearly 40 degrees.

We were also surrounded by farming so there was little in the way of camping available to us, we stopped for a coffee in a town, picked up some street food and made a decision.

Left, right or straight ahead. We turned right.

We got lost. And there was nowhere to camp. That’s when we met Arhmed. ‘Come, stay my house’…

 

A Family Dinner

A small child screamed, dogs barked, hens clucked, sheep bleated, and a cow jumped over the moon… just kidding, there were no dogs around.

We entered the house of Mr Mohammed Zerouat. His granddaughter was bawling her little eyes out at the sight of the two lycra clad gringos that just walked through her front door.

The baby hid behind her nana.

We were invited to eat said fresh bread and drink mint tea immediately.

Freshly baked hospitality

This evening was the most amazing experience of the trip.

Only minutes before meeting our new friend, Adrian and I were at a loss as to where the heck we were gonna sleep and more than a bit lost, things had reached a new level of ‘what to do?’.

The only thing to ‘do’ in a situation such as this is to take what you can get.

Especially, if that is a friendly young chap speaking broken Berber French, while cycling down a ragged muddy track in the middle of Morocco.

 

Our evening with the Zerouat family was challenging in terms of communication. Yet, it was the most enriching few hours we’ve ever spent on a trip.

This kind family took us into their home for the night.

They fed us, prepared hot water for us to shower, entertained us and gave us much needed shelter for the evening.

The Zerouat family saved our bacon.

We were very lucky to have met Arhmed when we did and will be forever grateful for the generosity of his family.

Mr Zerouat and his bike

After the most filling and tasty breakfast we’d had all week, a quick fix of Mr Zerouat’s bike and lots of hugs and thank you’s, we hit the road, with Arhmed.

Arhmed is only cycling to the main road with us – our own Berber guide to Agadir!

The road to Agadir was interesting in the way that it just doesn’t exist even though it’s clearly marked on the map.

We persevered, finally reaching a village where we scout some lunch. And bananas.

I for one was pretty excited about getting to Agadir, I love the sea and a swim, and figured I’d do both upon arrival.

Upon arrival however, we had more difficult decisions to make. To camp or not to camp?

Press on or enjoy an evening in this new city? No decision can be safely made on an empty stomach though, so we ate. A lot. (burger and chips, can of coke, thanks for asking).

During our late lunch, we enquired with the Dutch proprietor of the availability of cheap digs. He knew loads and even drew us a cheeky little map on a scrap of paper.

This ragged scribble turned out to be far more reliable than the map we were working from.

The road to Essaouira

We found a cheap room for the night. The day had been long and that was reason enough to have a cold beer and a hot shower.

Early the next morning we left the city for Essaouira. It was a two day ride and we felt to do the longer day first.

That night we camped just outside Tamanar. The town offered an easy pace for us to supply our kitchen for the evening.

The cycling along the N1 was relatively bland, the coastal road gave way to an inland motorway that lacked any real charm.

Hot hot heat

In our excitement to reach Essaouira we pushed pretty hard. We left camp in the wee small hours to get a head start on the blistering sun.

After a few kilometres we cut back out to sea. The smaller country road was much more enjoyable than the national highway.

The sea breeze cooled our sweating brows. We cycled long and hard. Neither I nor Adrian were really aware of our fatigue.

We rolled into Essaouira tired and dehydrated. It had been a blistering hot day. We’d pushed past reasonable limits.

Adrian was not feeling good. He curled up in the bed of the hotel room, shivering from heatstroke.

Castles made of sand

I walked down to the beach alone. I felt bad for having insisted on the fast pace. There was no rush to be here and now Adrian was stuck in bed unable to enjoy the charm of the place.

I wrote the blog domain in the sand for a photograph, took a swim in the Atlantic, then sat awhile reading my book.

It’s claimed that Jimi Hendrix wrote ‘Castles made of sand’ at Essaouira.

Our original plan had been to cycle back to Marrakech. The full ride consisting of a ten day loop.

With Adrian still not at 100% we decided the best thing was to take a bus and enjoy an extra day on the coast.

Cycling in Morocco had not disappointed. It had been an epic ride.

We’d enjoyed a full itinerary of local custom, traditional family hospitality and a wild African terrain. This had been an adventure to remember.