Sandy’s holiday memories from her Morocco Atlas to Desert Mountain Bike Holiday with us
Back home in Cape Town one week on from the end of the tour I find I am missing my roommate! Jo was a jolly and lovely woman with whom I shared Callas, Single malt and much laughter. Such is the companionship of the road. Sorting the photographs and contemplating this report and to whom it would be sent called to mind the many special people I have met on many cycle tours over the past decade.
Both Fellow cyclists, some of whom remain friends, and the local people who will live on in my memory. Abdullah our jovial cook who delighted in splashing water in our faces during the hand washing ceremony prior to his wonderful lunches and the un-named boy whose face lit up with delight at learning to transfer string and love between our hands in the ritual of cats cradle. Arriving a few days ahead of the group I was able to explore Marakech quite thoroughly on foot. From my beautiful and comfortable Riad (family home/hotel) in the Medina (Medieval walled town) I set out along narrow cobbled ally-ways, through many arches to souks, local markets and secret squares. Somehow, at the end of each footsore day I was able to negotiate my way through this labyrinthine maze back to my cool and quiet sanctuary. The experience gave an interesting insight into the lives of the inhabitants. Behind the tall walls with their often elaborate and heavy doors lie cool, dark interiors, leafy courtyards alive with the sound of birdsong and tinkling water from cooling fountains and delicately perfumed with bowls of roses and living orange blossom. On the street all is noise, dust and bustle. The cry’s of vendors, smells of spices and sweat, colours of babouches (Moroccan slippers) and carpets; heat of sun, foundry and tajine (slow cooking ceramic pot) fire combine in a cacophony of the business of life. And a life of business unfolds as ancient tools, methods and skills are applied in hidden courtyards where tradesmen fashion lanterns and tea pots, turn wooden handles on foot lathes and weave elaborate patterns on hand looms. Fabrics are died, leather is tooled and hammered, wood is carved, pots are thrown and necklaces strung. The fruits of this creative crafting are piled high and plied to passing care-less tourists for crusts and crumbs. But venture out in the small hours and all the activity has ceased, the ally-ways are given over to skulking cats, peeling plaster and the dull brown metal of battened hatches. The trades-folk have retreated behind those tall walls to the quiet and sanctuary of their orange-blossomed courtyards or Zellij tiled mosques.
Set at the boundary of the Medina adjacent to the ramparts and the Avenue Mohammed V is an ultra modern concept embodied in the – Cyber Park where touch screens mounted on shaded pedestals allow the public free access to high tech, cheek by jowl with one hundred old olive trees. A few steps further down this broad boulevard and through the Bab (gate) Nkob you are back in the present with high rise office and apartment blocks and the golden arches of – MacArab as corporate America tries its hand at global integration.
Moving out of the Medina to a modern hotel in the Gueliz (French quarter from the era of the protectorate) it is time to meet the group and assemble the bike in readiness for the tour.
We headed off by vehicle up the Tizi-n Tichka pass, the highest paved road in the country, into the Atlas Mountains and the start of seven days of off road riding. The distances were 40 “ 60k per day, which is nothing if doing road biking but quite a lot off road. The fifteen strong group was mostly in their late twenties and early thirties and very competent. Having said that, all except three were to take at least one tumble during the week. For the most part these resulted in nothing more than cuts and bruises and dented dignity! Martin was less fortunate with a broken hand on day one. Rather than throwing his toys and sulking, as I am sure I would have done, Martin became the legend of the tour as he walked huge distances over the mountains and desert every day always with a ready smile and a wave. About that wave! He had been instructed by the medic to keep the limb elevated and mobile as much as possible so one was never quite sure if the raised finger wiggling was a greeting or the fulfilment of physiotherapeutic exercise.
Chris held the record for the greatest number of punctures, which was just about the only way to unseat this indomitable Kiwi. The route was mostly jeep track/4 x 4 trail with surfaces varying from rocky to loose sand and gravel, riverbeds and a couple of river crossings. There were plenty of climbs and descents and some opportunities for diversions onto single track. These were not the custom built single tracks that we experience in Jonkershoek, Tokai and Lebanon but were probably in fact, goat paths.
A fair amount of this was undertaken at altitudes around 2000m. The weather was good cycling weather, no rain and not usually too hot or cold. We did experience some wind but nothing to compare with a good old Cape Town South-Easter. I think that the difference between this off road ride and the cycle tours that I have done up until now is that the emphasis was much more on the bike than on the touring aspect of the holiday. Although I found it quite tough the comfort of the back-up vehicles, Charlie and Karim’s supportive company and my determination to take it at my own pace made it doable.
If you think that an Englishman’s home is his castle you have obviously not visited Morocco. The Kasbahs (fortified houses) and Ksours (fortified villages), earth-toned edifices rising, castellated, two and three stories above their landscape, are Castilian indeed. Echoes of Southern Spain abound and not just from the minaret of Koutoubia, model for Seville’s Giralda. Telouet with its Andalucia style rooms, engraved stuccowork, colourful zellij tiles and intricately painted cedar ceilings and doors is palatial. Latterly home to Al-Thamil el-Glaoui, pasha of Marakech, it fell into disrepair after the Pasha’s family was exiled in 1956. The pasha had inadvisably switched his loyalty from the Sultan to France in 1912 thus incurring the Sultan’s wrath.
However the decline of most of the other Kasbahs and Ksours has been for much more prosaic reasons of economy. The Ksour at Ait Benhaddou, which was at its prime when it straddled the salt route between Marakech and Timbuctu, is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as a film set. It was featured in -Gladiators and there was a film crew active the day we visited the site. Others like Tamnougalte are living museums offering conducted tours and many have been converted into boutique hotels, we stayed in four of these. Constructed round a central courtyard from mud bricks or a mud and straw compound (pise), they feature cool high ceilinged interiors and a maze of interleading rooms, stairwells and towers. The external walls are often elaborately decorated and their earth tones glow spectacularly at dawn and dusk.
Ouzazate is the Hollywood of Morocco. Driving into town along the main thoroughfare you pass a 1950’s American gas station and a set that could have been used for -Antony and Cleopatra. While touring the Tamnougalte Kasbah we were introduced to a teenaged boy who, it was alleged, played a leading role in -Babel. He was apparently rewarded with US$10,000 for his part! Cheap, skilled labour and reliable weather are key ingredients to success in the international movie making business, as Cape Town discovered to its cost when it priced itself out of this market.
Ignore the Mosques in the villages along the Draa Vally and the scene is positively Biblical. The building materials, irrigation and agricultural methods, the dress, the cooking utensils and the livestock could all have been plucked from an earlier millennium.
Beyond Zagora the desert begins. Vegetation thins, the surface water is that of mirages and large stone cairns mark the rout of the Paris “ Dakar rally. Herds of dromedaries, single humped camels, gather at wells or are driven from place to place. Ships of the desert, sailing a mirage sea. The dunes rise soft and golden in the late afternoon haze. Ridge patterned sand rising to a pristine knife-edge awaiting the violation of eager adventurers, scaling the flanks to surmount the virgin crest. Tomorrow their ravages will be swept away by the desert wind, their virginity re-worked for new conquistadors. Who, like us, will follow their conquest astride the peak sighing satisfaction to a Saharan sunset.
Such is this tiny corner of this country of contrasts. From High Atlas to Sahara desert, from biblical times to the digital age and burka to blue jeans, it is all here.