Titus - Mission Morocco - Guy's Blog7 November 2022
Marrakesh to the mountains
120km - 2440m
Starting a tour with the longest, toughest day was always a risk, especially with photography and inevitable first-day faff. That didn’t stop it from being an awesome introduction to Moroccan gravel riding and the incredible hospitality and helpfulness of the people.
The sun rising over Marrakesh made for a spectacular early breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop terrace. We rolled out through the market centre and narrow streets of the ‘souk’ before the busy stalls set up to sell everything from spices to stunning rugs and tourist tat. Despite being only a 3-4 hours flight time from the UK North Africa is clearly a totally different world with smells, colours and sounds to match. The crazy-looking traffic was a lot more rider respectful than we expected, but we were certainly glad of big tyres as we bounced over cobbles and potholes to the edge of the city.
Even with a population of nearly 4 million, we were out of Marrakesh in just a few minutes, quickly turning from a main road with posh villas onto back roads and then gravel. Making rapid progress joining the dots between tiny villages and sparse fields as we headed towards the hills. We stopped to pick up snacks from roadside bakeries and even had a bike swap with some local kids as we stopped to check the GPS in a maze of identical-looking dusty tracks and mud brick buildings. Rolling into the town of Air Ourir, horse-drawn coaches mixed with cars and vans of all ages and levels of dereliction but it seems like most of the population are buzzing around on ‘Dokker’ Honda knockoff mopeds. That meant leaving town and the thick smell of two-stroke behind was a definite bonus even if it meant a gentle road climb alongside a wooded Royal park. The first of many tagines, chatting to an ancient old lad on a donkey and stocking up on exotic snacks means it’s mid-afternoon before we climb away from our lunch stop at Touama. The scenery is stunning too which means more photostops to capture the twisting roads and gravel tracks of the foothills. Traffic is sparse and mostly moped or four-legged, but an entire junior football game abandon their high-altitude pitch and chase us into the next village laughing and hollering at the strangers in their midst. It’s the same curious, coy smiles or hoots of laughter and ‘bonjour’ that have greeted us all day from the kids. Even ancient pensioners are waving and enquiring “Ca va?” politely as we pass.
By the time we’re deep into the proper mountains and passing the bulldozers and drivers that are widening and smoothing the gradually graded tracks, the sun is getting low in the sky though.
Mick and Ryan on the Adventure MTB’s with their slower, fatter 29er tyres are feeling far from fresh after the early road sections, and they’ve been out of water for over an hour too. Ominous signs when we still have 40km to go, over 20km of which is a high altitude pass climb and descent Simon has never done but has been described as ‘tricky’. That becomes more of an issue when it turns out our support driver Jamal has had an issue with his 4x4 and a pickup is out of the question.
That puts us in a seemingly awkward situation at a junction above a ragged river ravine. In one direction the beast climb with no sign of civilisation of salvation for at least 10km of climbing or another village that we can actually see but which is a diversion of the route. While we’re starting to panic Simon seems totally calm as we head up towards the village in hope of finding some transport. Sure enough, his faith in Moroccan helpfulness is well proven and we’re soon piling into an ancient Transit van behind a driver who’s happy to earn some unexpected cash taking us as far up the pass as possible.
It’s a lesson in how quickly proper mountain conditions can catch you out though as we’re soon staring through the windscreen into the pitch dark as our bikes shift and slide under the rooftop netting and the wooden benches inside rock and swap around as we bump and grind over rocks and through streams. Over half an hour later we finally lurch into the last village in the valley, where our arrival causes a laughing riot of curiosity amongst the locals. Thankfully we’re not shivering long in our emergency layers before phone translation with Jamal and the village prefect results in another repaying of Simon’s faith in Moroccan hospitality and we’re huddled under blankets in brightly painted lounge trying to piece together conversations in a mix of French-ish and English-ish. Exuberantly poured sweet mint tea and a huge steaming chicken tagine fuel show and tell sessions with phones and pictures of family as we try and get to know our hosts and saviours. It’s when one villager explains that they call the prefect ‘Micccckey Rooooooney’ and we agree there’s a definite likeness that the whole room erupts in happy laughter though and now what seemed a seriously sketchy situation a couple of hours ago has now turned into a life memory for all of us.
It’s certainly been a memorable first day in Morocco and a source of many valuable lessons for the rest of the week, but now it’s time to get our heads down and recharge our batteries before tackling the second half of the beast climb after breakfast.