Morocco Part 3: The Anti-Atlas (Zagora to Agadir 21/03/22-31/03/22)

I had a full day off in Zagora to let my body recover from the crash. The only problem was that my body wasn’t really recovering. My road rash wasn’t worrying me too much (even if getting changed for bed was uncomfortable), but my knee was really buggered from the crash. 

I was also quite exhausted, having only had one day off in Morocco since I started pedalling out of Tangier. I’d bitten off more than I could chew with my route and the terrain had been tougher going than I’d expected. I’d worked out that by taking a couple of small shortcuts I could still make my flight from Agadir, but only if I rode big days without another pause. 

If I took another day off, I’d need to make up some serious ground. If I did that, I’d need to take a bus somewhere. The most logical section to skip would be the route down into the desert and the dunes of Er Chicaga, but that had been part of the trip that I was most looking forward to: a remote stretch into the edges of the Sahara, with very little in the way of human life.

I was feeling sorry for myself. Thanks to those bloody dogs, I was now going to have to skip the famous dunes. They’re probably the primary destination for tourists who come down here, and there are loads of travel outfits that take visitors out into the Sahara for overnight desert experiences. The hotel I was staying at was one of those outfits. The first evening I’d had tea with the owner and he’d warned me against the route I was hoping to follow. I couldn’t quite work out if he wanted to persuade me to take a return trip with him, or if he was just worried about me riding into the desert. I asked him how much he would charge to get me a lift into the desert, and stay in one of their camps. The answer was a lot. 

I slept on it, and then decided to splash out and take the trip. I deserved a treat, limping around having left half my right arm’s skin on a dirt road in the mountains. By taking a lift I would gain 2 days cycling while resting my leg further, still get to see the dunes, and be able to cycle one of the remote stretches I’d had my eye on.

The following morning I set off with my driver after strapping the bike onto the roof. Suddenly I was travelling in style, which was only right – the tour was probably costing the same that I’d spent in Morocco over the previous fortnight. From Mhamid, the road abruptly ends and you head west on a dirt road. I’d been warned that this stretch would be sandy on the bike, and I can confirm that it is indeed pretty sandy. Much of it would have been rideable with big tyres, but there would also have been lots of pushing. We stopped for a picnic lunch under one of the few trees out in the desert, but the wind was blowing too much for us to sit out long. It would have been an unpleasant bike ride, with sand being blasted into my face by the headwind.

We reached camp in the afternoon, at the foothill of the big dunes. It was far more swanky than I had expected (and I was secretly quite into it), with private semi-permanent tents, solar-electricity and hot showers. Some proper desert luxury!  

The dunes themselves were quite extraordinary, some of them over 50m high. It was a little arduous hiking up them with my dodgy knee – but absolutely worth the ride to them. 

The wind had dropped in the morning. As arranged, my guide drove me the first 15km to the edge of Lake Iriki. Despite the name and the ginormous blue splodge on the map, Iriki isn’t really a lake – it’s been dried up for decades and is just a huge salt flat. Apparently there’s sometimes enough water to make it a temporary wetlands, although that’s hard to imagine.

I bade farewell to my guide, who seemed a little concerned to be leaving me in the middle of nowhere, but I was desperate to be on my bike by myself. The desert is not the same when you are in a 4×4 and I was confident of cycling 70km-ish on this – even with my dodgy knee – across the flats. Sure enough, I’d reached Foum Zguid by the evening.

A note on practicality (you can skip this if you aren’t cycling there yourself!):

Even though I only cycled half of this more remote section, I thought I’d quickly offer some logistics advice on resupplies. Although it’s on the Bikepacking.com’s ‘Route of The Caravans’ route, there isn’t heaps of information on this part online.

The good news is that it’s not as daunting as it looks on the map, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a tough section that requires some proper planning. Between M’hamid and the dunes, the route is sandy double track. Be very cautious if the winds are strong as the airborne sand can really reduce visibility and the tracks aren’t always obvious. There isn’t just one track (thanks to the moving sand) but they mostly go in the same general direction. Make sure you have a compass on your GPS, but with that it would be difficult to get lost. The sandy sections will be tedious, but they never last ages. Don’t bother doing this on anything other than wide tyres unless you are a masochist. 

There are lots of semi-permanent camps along the dunes for tourists. You could probably arrange to stay in one in advance, but I bet they’d all take you if you simply rock up with cash. They have bore water – so you could filter some from there. Regardless, carry as much water as possible. There are occasional signs of civilisation (nomads/random buildings) that might have wells, but there’s also occasional cars so you’re unlikely to be totally stranded.

Along Lac Iriki there’s even a couple of restaurants/auberges (you’ll find them marked on OS Maps), and this section is really easy. Again, there’s multiple tracks but just follow the compass and you’ll be alright. The final third is really tough. I took the rougher piste slightly further north, but I’d suggest following the ‘main one’ that stays on the flat otherwise you won’t see any passing vehicles at all. If there are any 4×4’s making the journey – they’ll be on the flat track further south. You can camp anywhere – but while I was there the wind was really wild, enough to make sleeping tough. Quite doable over two big days.

There was a big market the following morning in Foum Zgid, it happens once a week. I love the occasional village markets in Morocco. People come from all over and you can buy absolutely everything. People are busy with their own shopping (and no one has anything to push to a tourist) so you can explore them without hassle – unlike the urban souks. There are plenty of nomads still in this area, and they all travel in to sell their livestock.

The dirt road to Tissint was a lonely day of riding. I don’t think I saw a soul the entire day, apart from a couple of nomad camps. My leg was never not hurting – but it didn’t seem to be getting worse. In contrast, my road rash was starting to scab up and sort itself out.

There was a police checkpoint in Tissint, where my passport was requested by some polite young policemen. They asked me where I was staying, and I told them I wasn’t sure. ‘In Tissint?’ they asked, and I replied ‘Tata’ – the next town along. They frowned, ‘that is about 70km away’. I told them I knew, and that I’d simply camp when I was tired.

They didn’t like the idea of me wild camping (apparently it was ‘very dangerous’) and said they’d call a local campsite, before passing me the phone to speak to the owner they’d just called. The man on the other end of the line said it cost €30 a night! I hung up, told the police that was ridiculous and that I’d go and camp in the desert.‘You can not do that’ one of them said, but his English was iffy and the intonation rose as if he was asking me a question. ‘Are you asking me, or ordering me?’ I asked, and the answer seemed to be the former. Suddenly they changed their mind (perhaps getting bored of my stubbornness) and said I could continue, so I waved goodbye and set off.

I set up camp a little down the road. The full moon had passed, and finally I saw a proper Sahara display of night time stars. Just before I’d stopped I’d cycled past a sign to the campsite the police had called – it looked like a luxury place. We weren’t far from the Algerian border, which I guess might explain the police/military presence in the last two towns I’d passed.

My original plan was to ride up into the mountains again and join the Atlas Mountain Race route, but I’d run out of time for that, so instead I knocked out quick miles on the main road. The scenery was beautiful, but the relentless headwind that accompanied me every day was energy-sapping.

I even looked for a bus from Tata to skip a couple day’s (boring) riding, but there were none heading towards Tafraoute. Instead I continued west, and pitched up my tent in a small oasis. Just as I was heading into my tent with the last light of the day I saw movement around the edge of the palm trees. Oh great, I thought – who on Earth is hanging out around here. But it wasn’t people, just a herd of camels casually strolling past. I hoped I hadn’t stolen their sleeping area. 

Eventually I reached unavoidable mountains again, which my knee did not enjoy one bit. The climbing was hard work under the hot desert sun. 

I followed a gorgeous road through Aït Mansour Gorges, now on a small section of the Atlas Mountain Race route, and made another camp tucked away amongst the palm trees of an oasis. Morocco had finally delivered some perfect camping spots towards the end – trees to shelter from the desert wind, pleasant temperatures for sleeping around 10C and amazing star skies.

In the morning I made my usual breakfast of porridge, but it took an unusual amount of time to boil. It seemed my second-hand gas canister was finally running out, so my last couple of campsite mornings would be coffee-less (an idea that scares me). My floor mat was also punctured, which was also a pain.

I plotted my final days towards Agadir. If I camped the next 2 nights, I could arrive by lunchtime on the third day. That would give me a full day to tackle the most boring ‘final boss’ of an overseas bikepacking trip: sourcing a bike box for the onward flight. Nothing had been simple in Morocco, and I was nervous about finding something in such a short amount of time. 

There and then I decided I was done with cycling. My days of obsessing over ‘cycling every metre’ are long gone. I would easily make it, but I didn’t want to stress over the box hunt and besides – my knee was still causing me a lot of discomfort. I would ride half a day to Tafraoute, find a hotel and then bus to Agadir. Sorted.

And that’s exactly what I did. On the way to Tafraoute, I paused to take some proper bike portraits. I carefully balanced my Marin against a rock, stepped into position, grabbed the shot and then watched as the wind blew it over. My rear brake lever hit the ground and bent into a right angle. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t snapped. I took it as another sign that it was the right time to stop cycling.

After a night’s sleep in Tafraoute I took the morning bus to Agadir. It was due to depart at 8am, and I’d arrived at 7.30am as advised by the ticket desk staff member. It looked like I’d be the only one on board, as I was the only one waiting. At 8am, the driver still hadn’t turned up and I was starting to get worried. I crossed the road to ask a shop-keeper what the time was. The clocks had changed, but my phone hadn’t automatically updated.

As the clocks in Britain went forward an hour when we transitioned into BST, the Moroccon clocks went back an hour to cater for Ramadan which would begin next week. The clocks only change here for fasting, and the rest of the time they’re on daylight saving time – so dates vary every year. Far too confusing for me. I’d essentially swapped the time difference with the UK.

After a few hours driving down to the coast, we arrived in Agadir and I treated myself to a stay in a proper classy hotel.

There was only one thing on my mind: finding a bike box for the flight home. I started with Decathlon, the only ‘proper’ bike shop in town. As usual, it was a 10km schlep across town – and when I arrived, there were no boxes. I asked if they were likely to get a delivery in the next day or two, and got a shrug for a response. ‘Maybe… you can check the bins out back. If we get any, that’s where we put the cardboard’.

The staff marked another bike shop in town on the map for me, and I headed there as my next stop. No luck – they received bikes in plastic bags, as they were never new. I went to another, and got the same reply. Finally another, which looked even less promising, but the owner said he had one in his garage. If I came back the following day at 11am he’d have it ready for me. Fantastic.

I met up with a guy from Couchsurfing that evening, who invited me to watch the World Cup qualifier between Morocco and Congo. We met up in the Moroccon equivalent of the pub: a cafe. It was like all Moroccan cafes, full of men drinking coffee or tea. For the first half the waiter was incredibly busy as everyone ordered their drinks, but there’s only so many teas you can drink in a row and so by the second half he could relax and watch Morocco cruise to an easy win.

The next day I was back at the bike shop at 11am. The owner pointed to the box across the road. To my dismay, it was literally just a pile of random big cardboard boxes. Fuck. It seemed I would have to resort to my least desirable option: build a box. I selected a couple of boxes and said thanks (even though I wasn’t thankful at all for the time wasted). The cheeky bugger wanted money for it too! Any fridge/TV shop would have a big box they are chucking to give away for free. I’ve never paid for a bike box, let alone some random rubbish. They offered to help me build a box, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t a complete mug, and so I coughed up the 20MAD and brought my bike over so they could help build something. To be fair, they did a better job than I would have – but the box was still a joke.

I carried it back to my hotel, and couldn’t help but feel stressed about the flight. Airline staff normally do a good job of damaging normal boxes, let alone ramshackle DIY creations. I decided to take the bus back to Decathlon, just in case they happened to have something. When I finally got to the big bins out back, I couldn’t believe my eyes – 2 large bike boxes were poking out of the skip. Hallelujah!

I took the box back home in a cab (persuading one to take me with that was a challenge in itself) and repackaged the bike. I took the cardboard scraps to the local souk in search of a bin for them, where some stall owners told me to give it to an old homeless man who looked chuffed to have something fresh to sit on.

I walked into town, feeling victorious. Agadir is a funny place, very resort-y in comparison to anywhere else I’d been in Morocco. I can’t say I fell in love with it. They were redoing almost every street sidewalk, so the entire town felt like a building site. One thing that was different to the rest of Morocco, was the bars that lined the beach serving alcohol in broad daylight.

It was the first time I’d seen any alcohol for sale in Morocco. It’s not that you can’t get booze in the bigger towns, but you do have to go out of your way to find it. I sat down and had a celebratory pint. My first drop of alcohol in a month. My God it was delicious.

My last errand was to get a haircut, so that I didn’t arrive back in London looking completely homeless. It would be far cheaper to get one here in Morocco, and I imagined they’d do a good fade. There are barbers everywhere in Morocco, even in tiny villages and random spots like petrol stations. My new friend from Couchsurfing took me to his friends’ salon, and he sorted my hair in about 10 minutes. Then he spent 20 minutes on my beard. I thought we were all done, but then he marched me over to get my hair washed, before blow drying in it, adding hair spray and an assortment of gel. I don’t think I’ve put any product in my hair since I was a teenager.

Then things got weird. He started combing my hair back, before using a special comb to separate the strands into strips. He spent ages carefully working the stripes into a neat pattern across my scalp. It took an eternity. Finally he looked happy with his work of art, stepping back to admire the final product before tilting my head up and revealing the atrocity. I did my best to fake delight, relieved that it was just the styling (rather than the cutting) that was in poor taste. He didn’t want any money, but I insisted on handing him some notes.

It was a funny end to a funny month. There’s never a dull moment in Morocco, that’s for sure. It’s not always an easy ride, but it’s worth the work.

What an incredible array of landscapes. To have gone from snow at 3,000m down to nearly 30C in the Sahara was quite a remarkable contrast, and there was no shortage of ‘hairs up on the back of your neck’ views along the way.

The culture shock was a surprise to me at the beginning of the ride, but it occured to me that the last time I rode solo outside of Europe (or an English-speaking country) was in Timor-Leste – way back in 2016. Quite a while ago now!

And the Moroccans can be full on. At times, zero chill at all. But that’s what makes it fun. The problem I found with the people was that they were so hot and cold. The annoying salesmen were unbelievably irritating, and because it is a haggling culture there’s never really a ‘wrong’ price – so I often felt people were trying to squeeze extra money out of me at every opportunity. This was unmistakable in some of the touristy places, where prices that had been consistent access the country suddenly jumped if you didn’t carefully check them in advance.

On the flipside, the people that were nice (and they were the majority) were unbelievably pleasant. Selfless, generous and super hospitable. Even if I met people who were a pain in the arse, I certainly never felt unsafe.

After a month in the country, I was happy to go home. But I can’t help but wonder what the road leading south into Western Sahara is like…


2 thoughts on “Morocco Part 3: The Anti-Atlas (Zagora to Agadir 21/03/22-31/03/22)

  1. I read all of your passages about your trip across Morocco from Tangier to Agadir. It was wonderful to have made me live your experience by your infinite detailed descriptions of all the places you passed by and people you have met . I hope you continue the journey to the western Sahara and let us know how it would look like or the impact it will leave on your discoveries

    Like

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