Morocco Part 1: The Rif Mountains (Tangier to Ifrane 05/03/22-12/03/22)

The flight from Malaga to Tangier was the shortest I have ever been on. I’d literally loaded up an episode to watch on my phone after take-off, before noticing city lights out the window as we started our descent. I honestly thought something had gone wrong, and that we’d had to return to Spain for some reason, but no – we were landing on Moroccan soil. The two cities are just really, really close.

A taxi driver was waiting for me in the arrivals lobby with my name on a sign. This is the good life, I thought. I’ve never had a collection from an airport before – I always thought that luxury was reserved for high-flying businessmen. But it was late at night, and I didn’t fancy cycling 15km into town in the dark.

It was a relief to get some fresh air. The flight had been rammed – the first from Malaga to Tangier since Morocco opened its borders the same month. I suspect that most of the families on the plane would normally rely on the ferry crossing, but that was yet to re-open, so plenty of people – like I – were on the plane instead.

We all needed a negative PCR test within the previous 48 hours. A tedious and expensive (€70!) extra piece of administration to deal with in Malaga. Fortunately my result was negative – fairly minimal chances of transmission cycling around in the mountains by yourself – otherwise I’d have found myself in a slightly sticky situation.

As soon as we piled out of the flight, all masks were half-heartedly hanging below the nose (even by airport staff) and social distancing all but disappeared as the Moroccans scrummed towards passport control. After all that, there were very few traces of the pandemic throughout the country aside from the occasional face masks worn by police/officials.

I stayed in a hostel in the old medina, where two nights in a dorm combined cost less than the £15 taxi. It hadn’t occurred to me that you wouldn’t be able to drive into the medina, a maze of narrow alleyways, but the driver helped me carry my box in and find the hostel, once we’d untied it from its precarious spot tied up to the taxi roof.

The hostel wasn’t busy, but there were some other tourists knocking about. I met some guys that had taken the ferry over from Spain with their campervan in October, before the borders closed. They’d been stuck here ever since, waiting and waiting for the ferries to resume. I think political relations between Morocco and Spain have been strained over the refugee surge last year into the Spanish enclave of Cueta, and possibly also some beef around connections with a rebel leader in Western Sahara (at the other side of the country). 

I was lucky that the cancelled ferries were only a small inconvenience to me, but it did give me a boring job to tackle in Tangier – finding a gas canister, having had to drain and chuck my previous one in Malaga before the flight. There was a Decathlon at the edge of town, which I expected to have the canisters, but when I arrived there were none in stock. What commenced was a true wild goose chase, via bric-a-brac shops and DIY homeware stores – it seemed that the screw-top gas canisters didn’t exist anywhere in Tangier (and at this rate, possibly nowhere in Morocco). I eventually gave up and decided to have another go when I reached Fes, where there was another Decathlon. Such a pain the boats were not running. You can literally see Spain from Tangier port, it’s so close!

The first day was a rude awakening, with 1,600m of climbing in just 65km to Tetouan. A kind member of the Couchsurfing community let me stay in his flat in the medina even though he wasn’t around, and I wandered into the new town in the evening in search of some food, settling in an unexciting restaurant for a pizza. The pizza itself was exciting enough – topped with a stressful array of chicken nuggets, prawns and minced beef. Truly bizarre. It’s a good thing I was very hungry, otherwise I’m not sure I could have stomached such a concoction.

I didn’t get away until late in the morning. My absent host hadn’t told me where to leave his key (and I didn’t want to leave the baby kitten in the flat without proper instructions), and by the time I found the medina shopkeeper I could give the keys to it was midday. Finding specific locations/people in a Moroccan medina is not an easy feat, believe me.

I’d plotted an adventurous route in search of dirt roads across the mountains, but it had been a rushed affair before leaving London and I was starting to realise that it was probably an unrealistic amount of cycling in under one month. I was starting almost a week later than planned due to the cancelled ferries, so I opted to follow the main road to Chefchaouen, a beautiful town nestled under the Rif Mountains’ peaks with blue-washed village homes. I had the pleasure of staying with another Couchsurfing host, who took me for a walk around town in the dark. We eventually ended up in a fast food joint. I avoided a pizza, but my new friend ordered a seafood pizza and offered me a couple of slices when he was full up. It was covered in prawns, crabsticks and black olives. I politely declined.

It was much cooler than Southern Spain, often cloudy with the occasional drizzle from above. The dirt roads were muddy and wet, with plenty of water running down the sides of the mountains. The biggest surprise to me was how many people there wherever the road led me. The mountain slopes were all farmed, and you could always see a village. Every time I thought I was in an area that may be suitable for wild camping, a person would pop up, strolling down the road or marching a donkey in the direction of the next village.

I found a hotel in Bni Ahmed Charqia, for the grand price of 30 Dirham (£2.35) which must be up there with the cheapest hotels in the world. You didn’t get much for your money – a rock solid bed that wasn’t much more than a plank of wood, a room with a door that didn’t properly close and a filthy communal squat toilet. A shower? No chance! The hotel had dozens of rooms, but it didn’t look like anyone had stayed there in months. The chap who ran the place offered me a room without a working light and a window with missing glass panes, but its own private balcony with the most incredible view across the town. I was not complaining. 

If anyone ever stayed in the hotel, they’d probably be Moroccans travelling through the small town which seemed to be something of a local transit hub. They didn’t really know what to do about checking in a tourist, and after a few phone calls and many photos of my passport circulated on Whatsapp messages, I was eventually collected and escorted to the police station by 2 random guys. The first offered me a cigarette, the second offered his joint. Once again I politely declined.

The riding was hard work, up and down all day. I attracted plenty of attention in the villages, especially with the kids. Most of the time they’d come for a jog alongside the bike as they poured out of school, but in the more remote places they could be a greater nuisance. In one village, with a particularly steep climb through it, a bunch of young boys made the transition from nuisance to proper little shits. They ran up alongside me, shouting, laughing, grabbing my bike and saddle pack before trying to pull me back to slow me down. They began trying to unclip the saddle pack closure, unzip my hip pack and get into the pockets. They were a real headache, and all I could do was cycle up the hill at walking pace with all my might. Was I being bullied by children? It would seem so.

Eventually a car drove up behind me, and I stopped to block them off, motioning at the swarm of kids harassing me. The driver understood, and aggressively revved towards them in short intervals, escorting me up the hill while shouting out the window at the boys. Even he couldn’t exert much authority over them, but we managed to keep them at bay until the road flattened out and I could finally outpace them.

It wasn’t all bad though, and I still had plenty of lovely rural encounters. Just a few hours later I was sat a roadside stall with the chaps pictured below, snacking on their (slightly strange) milk/oat soup and drinking fresh orange juice. Lots of drivers were stopping for a quick bowl before shooting off.  

That evening I reached a much larger town, called Karia Ba Mohamed, but one without a hotel. I’d hoped to camp, but there were people everywhere, I was slightly rattled by the irritating kids, and I figured that if I could find hotels as cheap as the previous night there wasn’t much point. Besides, without a gas stove my dinners wouldn’t be very inspiring. The police station I’d been taken to the previous night was called the Gendarmerie Royale. I figured that they were responsible for registering/dealing with foreigners, so I headed to their HQ in the hope that they could help. After a bit of translating (I really wish I’d brushed up on my French before coming to Morocco), they led me to the back of another police station and said I could camp there. Bingo!

As I drifted off I heard someone cough outside my tent. It was some new policemen asking to see my passport. This was the 5th time someone had taken a picture of it in the last couple of hours. Relentless. 

I said goodnight and started drifting off again, before hearing loud cheers from a cafe on the main street. Then another loud cheer. I checked BBC sport on my phone and saw that the Real Madrid vs PSG Champions League match was in full swing, and Benzema had just just taken his team into a lead. I should have been watching the game! Then another loud cheer as he completed his hat trick and the game finally ended.

The Moroccans love football. There are cafes everywhere – even in the smallest villages, which is great for my cycling as a ‘cafe noir’ caffeine fix only costs around 50p. I guess we have the French to thank for that culture. At all those cafes the chairs are centred around the TV, with chairs facing either outwards towards the street or the screen (and never around the table as if you were going to chat to your friends). There are two choices: people watch, or watch football. There always seems to be game on, but one thing you’ll never see at a Moroccan cafe is a woman present.

It was a short day to Fes, the third largest city in Morocco. I stayed in a hostel at the very edge of the medina, which meant that I could easily find it and it wouldn’t be a headache to walk a bike into the maze of alleyways. Fes medina was too much for me. Absolutely huge, heaving, and incredibly easy to get lost in. I quite like the idea of strolling around a market aimlessly, perusing small shops and witnessing the hustle of Moroccan souk life, but the locals don’t exactly make it easy for you. Walking around the medina is a relentless hard sell, with someone trying to get your attention every 2 minutes. Everyone is being friendly: ‘where are you from’, ‘are you lost’, ‘is it your first time in Fes’, but they all have an agenda. ‘Why don’t you come and see my shop? I’ll try and seduce you over a cup of tea and bully you into making a purchase with every trick in the book’.

OK, that’s not quite what they say. But it’s what they mean. It’s a pity, because it makes it impossible to simply stroll about slowly with the intention of just looking around. I have no desire to take a camera out in a Moroccan medina – hence the lack of market pics.

Fortunately I had other shopping errands to run – because I really needed to find a gas canister or camping would be miserable in Morocco. Sadly Decathlon was a dead-end once again, after another 20km round trip to the edge of town. These outlets were the only proper camping shops that seemed likely to have any, but in the afternoon I met a chap who took me to a random shop selling second-hand bits and bobs that might have a lead. We were led to another very odd shop selling everything from foldable chairs to roller blades, in the hope of simply sourcing a new small stove compatible with the cylinder Campingaz canisters that you can easily find here. When we arrived (and waited around a while for the shop owner to turn up) I was pleasantly surprised to find a used canister compatible with my stove. A strange thing to sell second-hand, but it felt like there was plenty of gas inside so I bought it for £1.50. I’d have paid plenty more.

If I could go back in time to when I first started bike touring – I’d tell myself to buy a versatile camp stove that burns fuel. It would be better for the environment, and would have saved me plenty of headaches around the world – and also the time I wasted searching for gas in Morocco.

Around Fes the landscape had started to change. The mountains had faded into hills, and the land was farmed on a larger scale, with proper machinery. It was a long, gentle climb towards the Atlas mountains, and before long I was above 1,000m – higher than I had been on any of the mountain roads further north.

I stopped for lunch in Imouzzer Kandar. The town was unlike anything I’d seen in Morocco so far. The architecture looked more European than North African, with hotels in French signs along neat, orderly roads. Areas in Fes’ suburbs had had some colonial aesthetic, but this was something else. 

By the time I reached Ifrane it felt like I was in a different country. I’d have believed you if you said I was in the Swiss Alps (perhaps without the mosques). It turns out that the French purpose-built this as a resort town in the early 20th century, as a high-altitude getaway for some respite from the heat in summer months. 

I stayed in a family’s spare room on, who invited me to have dinner with them. Harira stew was served with msemen bread – a combo that was becoming a staple for me in Morocco. They had the news on TV, and when the weather segment came on there was an unmistakable snow animation floating across the area. The young daughter asked if there was a chance school might get cancelled if the weather became bad – seems a ‘snow day’ might be a thing everywhere that doesn’t get snow regularly. 

Apparently they’ve had a really dry few months across Morocco this winter. After not having any snow in the High Atlas, it seemed just my luck that some might arrive just as I was making my crossing. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might snow in the mountains – when I think of Morocco it’s usually heat and desert that comes to mind. I certainly hadn’t packed any proper winter clothes…

That’s probably a good place to wrap up the first Moroccan instalment.  

Spoiler alert: The snow did come. A lot of it

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