Morocco Part 2: From The High Atlas into Desert (Ifrane to Zagora 13/03/22-20/03/22)

The landscape really started to change heading further towards the mountains from Ifrane. Orchards and farmland were replaced by dense cedar forests under low grey clouds.

The roadside company was changing too. I saw something rustling in the trees, and then a macaque suddenly popped out. Slowly more appeared, and before long there was a trope grazing on the exposed land between the road and treeline.

For the first time in Morocco there really wasn’t a lot of human activity going on. I also noticed a different type of traffic – there were fancier cars, and the paved roads were in good condition despite not really going anywhere important. Domestic tourists were up road tripping in the national park and driving the ‘ Route Touristique Des Cèdres’ that I was now cycling. 

At one point I popped out at a junction, to find a picnic/rest area filled with people. There were police/park authorities keeping watch on things, tourists feeding monkeys, vendors selling coffee out the back of their car and locals selling souvenirs. I was in Berber country now, and it was their craftwork on sale out of small kiosks. I ordered a coffee and sat down at a picnic bench, read my book and sliced up an orange. A big monkey suddenly jumped up on my table, lunged towards me and I flinched backwards. It wasn’t coming for me, grabbing the other half of my orange, which it quickly dashed up a tree with. The monkey ate it, almost taunting me, while the police laughed at my shock. I should have known better.

As I was leaving, a man with a camera waved me over. He was filming for a national TV channel, taking a shot as a bunch of motorbikes left the rest area. The language barrier was fiddly, so I’m not really sure what it was for – but soon I had the camera in my face while I explained (as scripted) who I was, what I was up to on my bike and why the national park was so beautiful. Apparently I’ll have ended up on Moroccan TV (but God knows where).

The national park was beautiful, but it would have been far more beautiful if there wasn’t rubbish everywhere. Even as I cycled off into the forest, there were still traces of plastic trash all over the place. It’s a pity the Moroccans don’t treat the landscape with a little more respect.

That night I stopped at Oum Rabia, near the source of the river where a waterfall quickly descends through rickety cafe-lined rocks. It could have been Utah, had it not been for the ramshackle stalls. I stayed in a gites d’etape hotel. Now that I was in more visited areas heading south, it seemed that finding accommodation would be easier. I tried to stay inside a bit more – it was freezing cold, the nights were long and the accommodation was cheap. I paid £11.50 for a night’s sleep, an almost-warm shower, chicken tagine for dinner and breakfast all included. Not a bad deal.

As I continued through less-populated areas, I noticed more and more locals hanging out in random spots by the side of the road. A couple of times people flagged me down, but I didn’t stop – usually because I was heading downhill, but partly because a lot of these interactions in Morocco were more likely to be an optimistic sale than a friendly introduction. Despite this, I couldn’t see them selling anything apart from the occasional box of eggs. 

Often it was kids with their mother, and at one point I saw them flag a car down. It was only then that I realised they were begging, and only now that I realised the kids shouting ‘stylo’ were actually asking for pens (in French), assuming that all foreigners speak some French. (Which isn’t silly to assume here). It was noticeably poorer up here, and the cars driving by were often wealthier domestic tourists out sightseeing. It was an odd thing to witness.

I had a bad stomach, which was inevitably going to happen at some point. After a long day riding I finally reached Boumia, a slightly godforsaken town up on a plateau in the mountains. I was now up at 1,500m having hit 2,000m on a pass earlier in the day. Thanks to the diarrhoea, I had an extra reason to stay inside. I found another dirt cheap hotel, but it was nothing more than a bed in a concrete box. Sadly the communal toilet was a walk along a long corridor, down some stairs, across a courtyard and into a small room with a couple of holes in the floor. I went out and bought some imodium, hoping that I wouldn’t need to step outside during the night. It was going to drop below freezing and snow was forecast. The pills cost the same as the night’s accommodation – £2.30.

I liked Boumia. It was an unattractive town, home to around 10,000 people, blasted by strong winds through a tough winter. I went for a walk in search of food and gloves (having only packed a summer-cycling wardrobe), and found the functional-streets enticing. This was not a touristy town at all, and yet it is perched between some extraordinary mountains. It reminded me of places in Central Asia and China in winter, at high-altitude in incredible snowy locations where it felt like weeks would go past without me being able to properly warm up.

When I woke up, the snow had finally arrived. It was falling slowly as I left town, but the damage was already done and the landscape was totally white. I followed the main road towards Imilchil all morning, where the passing traffic had cleared the snow. I’d wanted to take a dirt piste to shortcut through the mountains, but I’d have gotten lost within minutes visibility was so poor, so I opted to stay on tarmac.

I passed a police checkpoint, where some poor officers were standing in the snow checking vehicles, smartly dressed with bright blue surgical masks donned. Of course, I was asked for my passport. They asked the usual questions (including the Moroccan favourite ‘what is your profession?’) and checked where I was heading to. ‘Be careful’ they said as I left. For once, that was probably reasonable advice.

I couldn’t believe the weather. This was so far from what I’d expected to encounter in Morocco. Part of me loved it. Part of me was rather nervous.

In the early afternoon the clouds lifted, just as I was reaching another dirt road I’d marked on the map. It would save me about 20km, over a short distance. I decided to go for it, and veered off onto fresh powder snow. It looked like no one had travelled along this today. It was magic, a little blue sky appeared and suddenly the sun poked through. Now that I could see properly, it was clear where the flat road was, and the rougher terrain that lined it. With my large tyres, it was possible to ride even though a few inches had fallen.

Of course, the road then became a track (which wasn’t quite as easy to navigate) and soon I was pushing my bike through deeper snow. By the time I eventually rejoined the main road, my shortcut had definitely cost me more time. I had a decision to make. My plan had been to push on past the last villages, and get as close to the biggest past of the trip (up at 3,000m). But it was snowing again and I didn’t think camping was particularly wise in these conditions. 

I decided to cut my day short at another auberge (very similar to the gites d’etapes), an even more rustic family home. I was getting very used to being the only guest in these places, but to my surprise, there was another tourist staying. A german chap who was out hiking in the mountains with a Moroccan guide and the auberge owner. We had dinner together when they got back (tagine, of course) and discussed the conditions. The news was bad for me – they were convinced that the dirt road ‘Col du Ouano’ I was aiming for to cross the High Atlas would be unpassable. More snow was forecast for the next couple of days. They made a couple of calls, and it seemed whoever they spoke to confirmed this hesitancy. In fact, on some of the advice the other guests decided that even the tarmac road to Imilchil would be impossible to pass in a two-wheel drive. They suggested I avoid trying it. The problem was, if I couldn’t get over the mountains here, I was looking for a huge multi-day detour to get over a lower pass. I was on a tight schedule, and I simply didn’t have time for that. 

They returned the way they had come in the morning, but I decided to crack on as planned. It had snowed more overnight, but the road was still rideable. I stayed on the paved road, and aimed for the 2,600m ‘Tizi n’ Inouzane’ to get me over the first essential pass. The weather wasn’t ideal, but the road was clear – even at the top – and I made it over without too much difficulty. I pushed on to Agoudal, the last village before Col du Ouano and stayed in another freezing cold auberge.

From here I was less worried about snow blocking the mountains. I had the option of the main road descending into Todra Gorge, or my dirt alternative for one last big climb. There was no more proper snow overnight, so I went for the big one – it was only about 25km to the top, up at almost 3,000m.

To begin with, the road was fine. The dirt was compact, snow-free and some sections had recently been re-graded. It looked like they were redoing the road, and before long I passed a construction base where some larger vehicles were parked. A security guard (and by that I mean some poor sod from the village with the lonely job of sitting by himself in a container watching the machines and passing the time with a crackly radio) waved me over and offered a cup of tea. I was trying to be better at slowing down and so I accepted this chap’s invitation.

He told me that construction had been stopped for a few days because the weather had been so bad. It was quite impressive that he spoke a little English – many of the people here are amazingly multi-lingual. He’d have spoken his Berber dialect (of which I think there are 3 major ones in Morocco) and Arabic. Many Moroccans, like this guy, also spoke some French and/or English. We shared a cup of tea, and made the usual small talk in broken English.

He asked if I wanted food, but I said I needed to get on with this mountain. As I was leaving he said a word I didn’t catch beginning with ‘p’ and pointed to my crotch. ‘Pardon?’ I asked, wondering if there was something on my leg. He repeated it, and this time there was no mistake. ‘Penis’, he said, followed by ‘I want’. My eyes bulged and I pretended not to understand. Being the good Brit that I am, I politely thanked him for the tea, shook my head at whatever was being offered (he was now pointing to his mouth) and exited as quickly as I could. A couple of minutes ago he’d been telling me about his wife and children. Blimey. 

I was back on the road quickly. At 2,500m – that’s the highest altitude I’ve ever been propositioned. Probably the coldest, too. 

Had I known how tough the day would be I’d never have stopped in the first place. It was the climb from hell…

I’m not sure if it is always like this, or if it is because of the melting snow or the road work vehicles – but the clay surface was a sticky nightmare. After a while, my tyres were caked in a layer of mud that was stuck tight. Soon it was clogging up my frame and the components. I’d try and scrape it off with a tent peg, but that was hard work and then within a couple hundred metres I was brought back to a standstill again.

In all my years of cycling I’ve never experienced a road surface like this. It was almost impossible to make any progress.

I remember a couple of years ago following the Tour Divide, when all the fastest riders were brought to a standstill for multiple days because a mountain climb was too muddy. At the time, I couldn’t believe such hardy athletes were giving up because of mud, but now I got it. I wanted to turn around, but at the same time I was about halfway to the top. 

Had I seen a car I’d have asked for a lift, but there were none all day. I was starting to run out of energy, nothing I tried to ease the situation helped. If I went off the dirt road it was still just as muddy. The mud made the bike too heavy to lift off the ground. If I pushed, my feet would either get stuck or slip in the mud. I’d lost my tent peg for scraping, and had resorted to taking off my bags to start carrying them ahead to an easier section to lighten the bike. 

Just then two vans came down in the opposite direction and stopped to check up on me. I was ready to give up and get a lift back the way I’d come, but they were both loaded up to the brim. One of the drivers suggested that the road over the mountain was just as bad, before heading to the back of his van and opening the door. I thought I was being offered a ride, but it was clear the vehicle was completely rammed full. He emerged again and handed me a metal trowel to scrape the bike with. It was far more handy than the peg I’d now lost. I thought I was being loaned it for a quick scrape, but he promptly hopped back in the car and they sped off.

I pushed on once I’d properly de-gunked my bike. Now that I’d removed most of the clay, my bike weighed half as much. I had a new tactic: cycle/push as far as possible (usually not very far at all) and then take a few minutes to scrape mud off before continuing. It was tedious, but the technique worked. Thank God the weather was OK.

After about 8 hours from the start I finally reached the top. What a crazy day – one of the hardest I’ve had on a bike. Light was fading and there was a small hut at the top that I considered camping in, but I just wanted to get down. My bike was hardly working from all the mud. The chain wouldn’t stay on when I tried to pedal, but I limped down into the valley.

It was the only time in Morocco I cycled into the dark. I was now in Dades Valley – the road was paved and I was desperate to find a room for the night. I was literally covered in mud from head to toe, having resorted to using my frozen hands to pull mud off components.

I eventually found somewhere, and in the morning I spent some time trying to sort my bike. It was making all kinds of uncomfortable noises, but I was rolling and it was a straightforward day through the valley.

When I reached the end, the landscape suddenly opened up. There was no mistaking it – I was in the desert. I’d made it. I was back in a t-shirt with suncream on. The snowy mountains could be demoted to an unpleasant memory and the muddy, ripped up new winter gloves could go in the bin just a few days after purchase.

I stopped at an official campsite near Kalaat M’Gouna. I could have camped anywhere – the weather was nice and the land was sparse – but I needed to find some wifi, having locked myself out of my mobile banking app. It was a strange spot, perched on the top of a hill, clearly made with campervans in mind rather than tents. The young lad working there told me that normally there are loads of campervans and RV’s being driven around Morocco by tourists, but they’ve been few and far inbetween since the covid-outbreak and ferries not running from Europe. In fact, I saw just one RV the whole time I was in Morocco. A lot of industry in this country comes from tourism, and they’ll have had an awful time the last couple of years.

He was clearly excited to have an actual guest staying, and invited me to go down to the village to have dinner with his family. It was a special occasion – the imam from the local mosque was coming over for dinner. He rotates through the various village families’ homes throughout the week. Sounds like an alright life. 

I was starving after a long day cycling, but we didn’t eat until about 11pm, by which point I genuinely thought I may pass out. The father (who owned the campsite) gave me a djellaba to wear over my clothes. These are the traditional hooded robes that Moroccan men wear up and down the country. I think he might have been embarrassed by how muddy my clothes were, still caked from the mountain episode, but I didn’t have any other options having only bought one pair of trousers with me.

First, we drank tea when everyone arrived. As is the norm in Morocco, it was poured from a ridiculous height, left to brew for a minute, poured out, back in, out in, over and over. A big bowl of salted nuts, and a separate pile of sweet wafers were passed around as a snack. 

Just as my stomach started to groan out loud, a large kouraine was served up. A mega tagine pot lid was lifted to reveal a stew with cow feet, chickpeas and potatoes in a rich pile. We dived in, split across two tables. A kid was made to march around with a small bowl for us to wash our hands, and everyone tucked in, scooping out bits of vegetable with bread for spoons and ripping meat off the bone with their hands. It was a sticky, messy meal. 

After a couple of intervals to sing (some religious songs/poems, I think) the kid was back with a bowl to pour water over our hands before dessert was served. In Morocco, meals seem to always be followed with fruit and this occasion was no different. I’ve never seen a bunch of grown men devour a huge platter of bananas, apples and oranges in such fashion.

In the morning I took some time to source a hose at the campsite, properly clean the mud off my bike and swap out the brake pads which were now completely finished. It was hot, so I loaded up with plenty of water for a lonely stretch into the next bunch of mountains. 

This is the Morocco I’d been looking for. Dry, arrid brown mountains under clear blue skies. It was very ‘Atlas Mountain Race’ – I loved it. Only the occasional motorbike for company on the dirt roads, and tiny oasis lining the occasional stream which was never more than a trickle.

I even bumped into some other cyclists! The only bike tourers I met on this trip. I’d now joined Bikepacking.com’s ‘Route of the Caravans’ trail, and these Polish blokes were doing that route in reverse.

After passing a small oasis village where I found some water, I began a challenging climb before the big descent on the other side. I love these downhills – the gravel isn’t too loose, so you can really let rip. Just as I was flying down the other side, two raging dogs appeared out of nowhere and hurled themselves towards me. I’d been going too fast to see them. The next moments happened very quickly, but I must have slammed my brakes as they dived out at me, lost control of my tyres on the gravel and binned it. I was probably zooming at least 40mph, so I skidded a good way on that surface.

When I stopped the first thing was to stand up and check on those dogs. The little shits. They were still snarling, but just acting like all angry sheepdogs. They won’t bite if you are not moving, and eventually they got bored of snarling. My bike was OK – a few holes on the bags, handlebars and seat twisted but not broken. I was in a worse state. Rips on my cycling mitts, shorts and t-shirt,  and nasty road rash spread across my arm, shoulder and leg. Exposed skin, but just rash rather than proper bleeding and an impressive amount of dirt massaged into my flesh.

I got back on the bike as fast as possible. For a while the adrenaline had me convinced that it was nothing major, but the pain quickly grew. I had two problems: The first was the road rash on my arm, which burned in the wind and stung like hell. Every bump in the road (of which there were many) stung as I moved forward. The second problem was my knee, which had been smacked on impact. There wasn’t much skin taken off the cap, but it hurt to bend (a movement which is quite essential while riding a bike). 

I forced another couple hours of cycling before stopping to camp. It was difficult to pitch my tent – all movements were now uncomfortable – and it was an awkward night’s sleep. I still hadn’t seen a single car pass since the accident.

After an uncomfortable night’s sleep, the pain was even worse in the morning. I winced on every rocky section as my arm took the vibrations, and my knee was taking a long time to loosen up.

It was a pity, because the riding was sensational with scenery that was simply out-of-this-world.

I dropped down to the next oasis and made the decision to stay on the main road. It was much easier to cycle on flat tarmac, and it was a straightforward ride moving south. There were villages lining the road again, and to my surprise there was even a bike path! Even more surprising was seeing plenty of locals moving around on two wheels down the road with me.

I must have looked a sight, because every time I stopped people threw looks at my bloody arm. In one cafe the owner gave me some weird gel to cover the wounds with, and an English-speaking local asked if I wanted him to take me to the nearest hospital. I declined but kept moving (my eyes were now set on a big day to hopefully reach the larger town of Zagora), but as I pedalled on I began to wonder if I should get things looked at properly.

By the time I’d eventually reached Zagora (probably shouldn’t have cycled 100km in that state), I’d decided to get a room for a couple of nights and have a day to rest. My body needed a moment to heal. I must have been worried, because I even ventured to the town hospital to get checked out. The staff were lovely, cleaned my wounds properly and got all the grit out. The doctor asked me if I would be able to clean and change bandages daily, to which I said ‘unlikely’, so he prescribed me with antibiotics to take instead.

Civilisation couldn’t have come at a better time. Nothing in Morocco was particularly straightforward, it seemed. 

And that’s probably a good place to wrap up this chapter… 


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