A Day in the Life of Cycle tourist
Telout to Ait Benhaddou – Cycling The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Dave Hill is a regular rider with the Mold Section of Chester & North Wales CTC. He believes there is no better way of discovering the heart and soul of a foreign country than by travelling by bicycle. He tells us here of just one day's adventure...
The previous day had been a shocker! 8 hours of rain, sleet or snow and roadside icicles on the serious climb of the Tizi n Tischka at 2,200m. This type of weather in mid-April is not the norm, and rarely used snow ploughs were travelling up and down the pass that morning, clearing slush. Every item of clothing carried, save the swimming trunks, had been needed on the descent from the top.
Telout was another matter: in the rain shadow all was bright, cheery and spring-like with a distinct chill in the clear Moroccan alpine air and the high snowy ridges of Mount Toubkal ringing the horizon.
I was up early at the Telout hotel, where, laden with blankets, a warm night’s sleep made for a good recovery. Shorts on, it was still seriously cold as the sun shouldered the ridge and slowly illuminated the stark, brown landscape with its deep green streak of cultivation in front. The sun moved to light the towering and crumbling Gluoui Kasbah in front. Hard to believe that 50 years ago despots had ruled these valleys, incarcerating hundreds in the grim dungeons. It was said that when the empire fell, 200 of the harem were left wandering the streets of Telout with no idea how to get by. Some were surely employed in carpet making – or was that just a story to help sell carpets to the few tourists? Allegedly the tour companies didn’t come this way any longer and times were hard.
Breakfast in the arctic lounge – no wood burning in the stove this morning – was a lavish meal of greasy pancakes and honey with double rations of milky coffee. Legs greased up with factor 30 for the likely UV damage, saddle bag and spare tyre toe strapped to the rack and we were off on the 51km route into the remote Atlas foothills.
The initial climb was altitudinously breathless as we were still at near 2000m. The azure sky highlighted broad swathes of snow resplendent on the higher peaks and we climbed into red-brown barrenness with occasional thorn trees for relief. We dropped down to a 6 inch deep ford with gravel bottom – just the thing to wet everyone’s shoes or my socks. The wearing of Shimano sandals had not been a good idea up until now, and the cold necessitated socks in sandals (how uncool!). The temperature throughout the day would rise steadily, perhaps reaching a balmy 20°C or so by early afternoon
Ochre towers of shale lined the next climb and tarmac became intermittent at each mud slide. Puff, pant, and at the top at last. Turn round and a superb photo opportunity of the last of the group in a picture book landscape was taken, before the swooping descent down to a dry wadi, tinted like one of those sand ornaments from the Isle of Wight, and to the end of the tarmac and the beginning of piste. More slathering on of sun cream and removal of tops as the real work was to start here on.
The beaten earth track wound its way through a maze of medieval mud walls of towering fortified granaries. This was a ‘dirham’ town. John and I had a game trying to predict whether the local kids would be asking for dirhams, stylos or bonbons as we passed. Sometimes the shouts were intimidating, and sometimes, though rarely, missiles would be thrown towards us. A kid asked for biscuits, just to upset the system.
The irrigation in the valley is a superb achievement and, where used correctly, large stands of wheat or barley, lined with fig and almond trees and the occasional date palm just bursting into blossom, carpeted the valley floor. Frogs chirruped satisfyingly and birds whizzed through or squabbled noisily in trees – mainly drab sparrows but occasionally something more exotic such as a flash of ultramarine from a roller or a handsome, dusky wheatear on the wing. A dusty rock squirrel scuttled out of the way too. Piste became rough and stony in parts with progress slow – no traffic but some technical stuff for us on touring bikes. Sadly Jim’s Bike Friday had a catastrophic failure here, with the rear stay snapping, and a lift was taken to the next stop.
One settlement on the opposite bank showed off the Moroccan equivalent of stone-cladding, with a whitewashed façade where all other buildings were in the brilliant, organic red of the surrounding soils. Tony and I both liked the little mosque somehow squeezed between two gigantic mud-walled compounds – it looked almost like Lego painted turquoise! One sandy and dusty settlement seemed to consist mainly of flat soil threshing floors – this valley must be quite productive in its way
Shepherds with large flocks of sheep, cream and brown, or donkey-mounted locals nodded ‘bonjour’. The route tumbled steadily downwards, winding across the silty grey river more than once. A deeper ford at last proved that sandals were a benefit, with feet drying quickly while others faffed with socks on and off. Some sandy adventures on piste led eventually to an outpost of civilisation, where a ramshackle café’s Berber omelettes were slow in coming owing to the fact that only a single gas burner was in use.
After lunch, the track climbed steadily to some radio masts and an escape from the closed-in valley. The switchback descent was not very rideable to my liking, and a 20 minute stroll later, through a strip of village and a concrete-lined ford, finally brought us back to hard top near a rather touristy Kasbah, replete with camels. Earlier we had met JCBs and earthmovers making steady progress at widening the piste – it will not be long before a surfaced road is driven through here, bringing the benefits of the 21st century to its inhabitants but perhaps lessening any future off road adventure by bike.
The final 10km was a rolling tail chase along smooth tarmac to the coach park haven of Ait Benhaddou, where films such as Gladiator had been made on location – all yuckily touristy for my taste. Some tried the very cold swimming pool, others went off in a fruitless search for beer. We went for a stroll, wading in the river and climbing up through stalls of tourist-tat to the Kasbah at the top of the hill for a leisurely look round.
A fabulous day, mostly off road in a superb, interesting and remote valley. It had been a day to remember. (Diary note: must write this one up…)