The High Atlas and Beyond

My surroundings changed after leaving Marrakech. I didn’t notice it instantly. A cyclist has to be very alert when negotiating the traffic out of a big city, what leaves little attention for the surroundings. Then, there are are vast palm and olive groves around the city, completely artificial, due to a centuries old underground irrigation system.


I cycled further westwards along a secondary road. To my left, in the distance was the mighty snow capped High Atlas what made for excellent views. Between it and the flat road I was following there was a lot of nothing. The landscape had definitely turned more arid, and mostly it was open, rocky space. Now and then there were shepherds with their sheep and goats, but few other people. What food in particular the animals found there I don’t know, but these guys I guess aren’t beginners. Some patches looked like a plough had gone through. With all the rocks in the soil this looked a bit like a mystery to me, they must have strong donkey around here.


The further I went the more obvious change became to me. It was not only the landscape that had changed. There was change in people. Their skin was darker, and they were more colourfully dressed, especially the women. All heads were covered, either with a straw hat or turban. There was a change in architecture. Farm houses in perfectly geometrical shape, mostly painted pink, and later entire towns of these pink cubic houses. This looked no longer like Arabia, this was Berber as I learned.



The further west I got the lower the mountains to my left, and by about midday there weren’t a lot of snowy caps any more. I had planned three days from Marrakesh over the high Atlas.


I contemplated my route across the High Atlas over breakfast in Imi n’Tanoute. Well, to be fair, the route I had chosen could probably be named the High Atlas for wimps, compared to the mighty passes further east, but it was nevertheless 140 km long, lead over two passes and from what I could tell had an accumulated climb of well over 2000 m vertical. I headed off across a predictably steep road however with marvellous surroundings. First most mountains were red on the bottom and yellow on top, what was soon replaced by an all red landscape. I stopped for photos frequently but thought it would be hard to catch this experience with a camera.




What surprised me was how well the cycling went. One thing I have learned in the past 3500 km is that the surface of the road has a major impact on the forthcoming. The tarmac on this road was especially good. Traffic was very light. On the way up I had just a short break for my second breakfast but otherwise kept going, slowly but steadily. I made good progress on the first downhill stretch. I kept going and going through this amazing red rocky world. There was of course the second uphill. Another road that crossed several times was painfully wrong on my map, so for much of the way it was difficult to locate myself. Hence, I had little idea when the second uphill stretch would begin. Well, I was apparently in the middle of it, when my sugar levels called the shots and I stopped for food.


The shopkeeper told me it would be only 2 km more uphill, and well, it was steep but the truth is one can always cycle another 2 km. It was 3 km, half an hour, but what did this matter? Once I was on top, I had all the way down to the ocean ahead of me. And it was a memorable downhill stretch. As a matter of fact, it was an hour of freewheeling, and another hour of virtual free-wheeling. It was probably the large distance I made in these two hours that convinced me I might make it all the way to Agadir. The sun was low but I went for it. I arrived just after dark, hungry and exhausted but no less happy. After all the most significant mountain range of my trip was behind me. I will most probably miss the scenery, at times, but then, in a way, it was a milestone too.


In terms of the effective climate classification by Kppen and Geiger by having crossed the High Atlas I left what is referred to as the ‘temperate and mesothermal’ or ‘C’ climates and entered the ‘arid and semiarid’ or ‘B’ climates. And while the Christmas storms sweep across Europe I resorted to protecting myself from the elements as well in the form of a hat and sunscreen. My steadily increasing water intake on the road has resulted in an ever growing collection of plastic bottles.


The big seller in Agadir is its long, crescent shaped, fine sandy beach which is sheltered even when the large Atlantic waves crash to the land elsewhere. In what seemed to be a complete absence of western package tourists it was certainly easy to make an excellent deal on accommodation, but life still proved a bit expensive here. After I arrived I thought about cooking my pasta on the balcony, but convenience won and I went to a restaurant. To give anyone who doesn’t know Morocco well an idea. For a two course meal and a tea at a restaurant on the roadside, or in a country town I expect to pay anything between 30 and 50 Dirhams. Prices here are times three. I certainly felt a bit ripped off. Food shopping for two days, what typically contains of two or three flat breads, a bag of pasta, tomato puree three cans of tuna, some tangerines, yoghurt and biscuits rarely sets me back more than 20 Dirhams. I was up to 170 in a shop here, albeit this included the rare treat of two beers. At the time of writing 1 Euro equals about 11.30 Dirhams.


It was not necessarily by choice that I went to Agadir. I had to get some important documents couriered, and therefore I needed a big city. Two days in the enclave of western tourists, however also bore some advantages. Besides French I could also speak German and English, or a combination of either two, the main course was served after the starter and beer was available in any shop and carrying it out didn’t earn me any strange looks. And the beach is certainly nice.


I left Agadir on the N1, the road on which I will spend most of my remaining time in Morocco. It lead through an uninspiring though surprisingly green area first. Later on there wasn’t much apart from gravel, rocks and scrubs any more. Traffic was heavy and the cycling anything but nice. For the time being there wasn’t a lot of future for me on this road and I turned onto a secondary one towards the coast. Once more there were mountains, and I crossed what I think is technically the Anti Atlas, but compared to the mountains behind me this was rather a non event. The stretch along the coast was extremely beautiful.



There was no need for a break really, but you rarely find yourself at a place as pleasant as Sidi Ifni, so I stayed for two nights. It is an eerily empty outpost of Spanish colonial architecture with a nice beach between the rocks with a constant noise of the mighty Atlantic waves crashing. Certainly consider coming here, if you head for Morocco!!



The route from now on is very predictable. I will enter the Sahara proper in the very near furture and then there is only one road ahead (as said earlier, the N1). If my my bike and I stay healthy and strong and if the trade winds are kind it should take me less than a week for the next 1200 km to the border.


Over the Mid Atlas: Fes to Marrakesh

My map said it was 52 km from Fes to Ifrane. A fairly straight line, about 5 cm long, so there would be not too much meandering, I figured, and the gradient consequently be manageable. The Atlas had to be somewhere else. A fairly short distance for the day however I was curious about this town. If I was early, I could still go further. I left around mid morning after a leisurely breakfast in the cafe. ‘Is this very steep?’ I asked another guest pointing at the chosen road on the map and he answered, ‘Hm, rather up and down’.


I stopped after 30 km in the middle of nowhere when I almost puked. I was dizzy. I decided this break would take as long as necessary and I would take it slowly thereafter. How I would do that wasn’t clear to me, since I was going at the lowest speed possible to maintain a straight line already. Now and then I had noticed my scenic surroundings but for most of the time I was just angry and exhausted. My legs burned. I continued uphill, reached a town. I quickly scanned what was on offer at the shop and opted for chocolate biscuits and a milky drink with strawberry taste assuming those would flood my system with sugar reasonably quickly. Then I continued, kilometre after kilometre at walking speed. Aren’t we fabulous beings? Turning chocolate biscuits into forward motion…


The road flattened out a bit, relatively speaking, for the last 10 km. The sun was low and it got chilly, then properly cold. Normally I would just push it a bit harder to keep warm, but I was beyond that, I was simply too weak to keep warm.


Ifrane is a funny town, but on arrival this mattered little. It was difficult to focus on anything other than warmth, food and rest. Fortunately, in my miserable, and short fused state I quickly found a hotel with a proper heating and an endless stream of hot water. After dinner, when my basic needs were met, I contemplated that passed day. This had been essentially 50 km straight uphill. My GPS receiver told me I was at about 1600 m above sea level, and the map indicated about 400 m for Fes. I had certainly never done a 1200 m difference in altitude climb on a bicycle before, let alone a loaded one.


So far on this trip I have been smart enough, or lucky enough (the two are not always easy to distinguish) to not run into trouble. However that day there was a lesson learned, and if you head off to cycle the Atlas in December, here is a piece of rock solid, road tested advise: Don’t send your gloves home from Genoa!


As I mentioned before, Ifrane is a funny town. It was purpose built by the French to resemble an alpine resort town. It is tidy, modern, and orderly with red roofed houses, flower beds, parks complete with an artificial lake all kept impeccably tidy. There is a skiing area nearby too. It really doesn’t look like north Africa at all, and to me felt a bit homely.



I left the next day for a short downhill ride through the cedar forrest to Azrou. The town has nice views but is otherwise unremarkable. Nevertheless I stayed for two nights, glued to the bowl.



An absolutely beautiful stretch followed to Khenifra, still an up and down ride however noticeably more down than up. Albeit it was always well below freezing over night by day the weather was about perfect for cycling and now and then some lycra laden guys on road bikes whizzed by. I certainly wasn’t the only cyclist around.




Not long after Khenifra the road flattened considerably and for the first time in a month I had made a daily progress of more than 120 km. Overall it had taken me six days for the stretch from Fes to Marrakesh. I could have had this faster however I stuck to a fairly luxury way of travel. Over night temperatures dropped to well below freezing, and there was always a layer of hoar frost in the mornings so I went from one town with accommodation to the next.


Looking is free, Make me happy and come into my shop for a minute… It doesn’t take long after entering the Medina in Marrakesh until shopkeepers or touts distract the attention of a blue eyed foreigner. I spent three days exploring the colourful souks and the cabinet of curiosity of characters trying to befriend the western traveller. I opted for a Riad, a town house to stay, what is a little expensive but a very nice experience. Town houses have a courtyard, and most or all of the windows, balconies and decoration is to the inside. This is where one can see all the tiled walls and mosaics, while from the streets and alleyways the residential areas in the Medinas are rather featureless.


It is an interesting city however I have to admit the hassle isn’t my cup of tea and I am looking forward to jump back in the saddle and head for the coast. My original plan was to cross the High Atlas. However after the cold nights in the Mid Atlas I decided otherwise. It is all snowy and I am not equipped for this type of weather. Technically of course I have to cross it in one way or another however I will continue westwards first and cross over at a low elevation.



The Road to Fes and Stuck in the Capital

I wanted to post this earlier since for a few days I had all the idle time I could ever wish for as well as an excellent internet connection. However on my trip to Rabat I forgot to bring that cable to connect the camera, so it would have been without photos, and I decided it would have to wait.


I did not stay in Chefchauen for more than a night. Perhaps I should have. It is a pretty little town well worth exploring. However there were more mountains for me ahead on the way to Fez and I was anxious to keep going. The roads remained steep and my daily progress anywhere between 60 and 80 km. The fields around me were barren and brown awaiting the winter. Only the olive harvest looked to be in full steam and sometimes when I was overtaken by a large truck loaded with tons of olives I wondered what mankind would do with such masses.


It took me three days to Fez. The first day was further along the main road, however the traffic became lighter. Then I turned on to a secondary road which for the most part saw very little traffic. Given the recent elections I ran into campaigners now and then. Some of them had great fun putting their fliers up on my bike, before, of course removing those of their competitors. I found it funny as well, however I made sure those fliers were gone before I reached the next town. What did I know what a party was about? And then, imagine a Moroccan guy cycling Europe with a bike full of propaganda of, say, one of the xenophobic parties and having no clue about it…




On the way to Ouazzane I encountered a teenage boy on a road bike. He followed me for some time, then, caught up and cycled next to me for some time, apparently not the least bit bothered by the motorists. Then he started to race me on the uphills, won each single time and waited for me on the downhills. Unfortunately our talking didn’t go anywhere since we could not even find a few words in a mutual language, but he smiled a lot and waved me off when after about 30 km our ways parted at an intersection outside of town.


At an unsigned intersection a man directed me onto a gravel road claiming this was a shortcut. It quickly became very bad and after about a kilometre I stopped to ask about this road once more since it was way too difficult to cycle and I wasn’t sure whether I would prefer to turn around and go the long way. A campaigner for the election who spoke quite good English assured me that the road would improve after another kilometre, then took me to a nearby farm where I was fed with bread and olive oil, followed by the obligatory mint tea. During my meal in the sun I watched the oil pressed out of the olives by a large donkey driven press.


My first expected night of wild camping did not turn out. About an hour before sunset I started looking out for a good spot but there was none. Maybe a seasoned camper would have seen one, but for me the whole area looked very visible from the road and it was nothing but muddy fields. I asked a farmer whether he would let me pitch up the tent on his land behind a house, which looked dry and invisible enough. I wasn’t sure whether he declined or just didn’t understand what I wanted but I moved on anyway. As it got darker I saw what looked like a fairly big town in the distance so I hoped I would find accommodation there. As it turned out there was none. A young man invited me to stay at his house however I would have to share with two little kids, which I declined, rather for the kids than for me. He took me to the gendarmerie. They let me pitch up the tent next to a rather busy road just behind the house in view of the guard. One of the gendarms later brought me a desperately needed blanket and some food. One of the neighbours dogs wasn’t happy with my presence though and albeit it stayed on the property there was barking until late in the night.


A rough night is good for an early start. I rolled into Fes already in the afternoon after another day of challenging uphills and exhilarating downhill stretches. I left my bike with a guy running a secure parking and headed for Rabat the next morning.


This was when I started to screw things up a bit. I wanted to be at the Mauritanian embassy first thing on Monday morning so I planned to spend the night before in the capital. Only when I got on the train it appeared to me that I had thought it was Sunday when it was only Saturday. Dammit. I regarded this side tripe as a necessity rather than pleasure so I was not particularly keen on staying for longer than necessary.


However, as so often, you get a lot more than you expect and I liked Rabat instantly. After my arrival I bought a takeaway sandwich and some biscuits for an early dinner and was searching for a nice place to sit down and eat when I found a promenade along the river. It had a nice view onto the Kasba and was busy with the likes of courting couples, dads flying kites with their kids, and teenagers performing stunts on rollerskates. There was certainly a bit of this Sunday afternoon in Hyde park vibe to it. And given it is right on the coast the warm evening was certainly a bonus.


Sightseeing on Sunday didn’t disappoint either. I guess, for a big city in Morocco, Casablanca is the one to head for, but I found it not only beautiful. It certainly has that big city feeling about it as well, when you can just blend in as you are without causing any attention.




I was at the Mauritanian Embassy at 9.00 hours sharp only to learn that it was closed for Fete Nationale. So I moved on to the Austrian embassy where I filled out the registration form. Then I spent most of the afternoon in the cafes. I like the cafes in Morocco. All of them have a terrace and I can sit there for hours sipping coffee or mint tea and watch the world go by. And quite a few have WiFi as well. Wherever I went for a second or third time I was known by the waiters and what appeared to be regular guests. Tuesday morning I arrived at the embassy a bit earlier and secured a good place in the queue, which in no time expanded to about 100 people or more, most of them Europeans. At least, I wouldn’t be the only overlander I thought. The visa department was really a hole in the wall place where you first pick up the form, fill it out while standing in the queue, then be questioned through the glass front by the only official. Finally you are given a number to present when picking it up the next afternoon. Easy. There was enough time left for another trip to my embassy to drop the copies of all my documents. Further more I had a meeting with the consul and the police attache to talk about concerns on the road ahead.


I came back to Fes on Thursday afternoon. Friday morning I had a few things to sort out still, and spent the large rest of the day sightseeing. Fes is one of the imperial cities. The royal palace was probably the most impressive sight for me, I was certainly taken by all the gold and the mosaics. The Medina is large and full of beautiful old buildings. Many of them however are in bad repair. Like in other places there is a lot of effort to rebuild this part of town, and construction work all over the place. Perhaps in a few years this place will be all shiny and refurbished. I learned it is the crafts city where many of the things sold in the souks of Marrakech are produced. Particularly the tannery is popular with tourists. Here one can watch the whole process from the hides to the handbags, which from the looks of it hasn’t changed a lot since medieval times. I certainly have not seen everything I should have but after almost a week without cycling I was anxious to get back in the saddle.




I am typing this already in the Atlas, in a funny town named Ifrane, with cramps in my legs and shivering when I even think about outside. There will be more about this in the next post.