For those of you craving cycling adventure, here is a slice of extreme cycling adventure in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, as told by Guest Poster Pete Martin. This account will either inspire you to get out there and embrace the unknown on your bike – or make you decide that your morning commute to downtown is enough adventure already!
Over to Pete!
I meet Hakan, my local fixer, at half past eight in Marrakech in western Morocco. Thankfully we don’t navigate the streets in a minibus this morning. It’s a more nimble taxi for the journey to Imlil, a small village in the Atlas Mountains.
Hakan and the driver chat away in Berber. The Berbers are a pre-Arab culture, dating back to prehistoric times. Whilst the Islamic conquest of North Africa (670 to 742) had a profound effect on the Berbers, their culture and language have been preserved. Their main enterprise has been agriculture in the mountains and valleys, and that continues to this day. It was the Berbers who were the first to trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, bringing goods from beyond the vast desert to North Africa. The Berbers primarily live in Morocco and Algeria – a closed border since 1994 – and they mostly remain in the mountains rather than the cities.
As we drive south from Marrakech, snow peaked mountains are ahead (snow in Africa – it just feels wrong!) The highest peak, Toubkal, is clearly visible. The taxi climbs higher, twisting and turning up the mountain roads. The driver takes the corners as fast as he can.
In Imlil, the day’s activities have already begun. Men with light brown skin are leading donkeys, mules and horses up and down the slope of the village’s narrow and only road. A few hikers in shiny gear prepare for their treks into the mountains. Apart from me there are no other cyclists. We wait at the entrance to the mosque. There is no sign of my guide or anything remotely associated with cycling.
Hakan greets everybody warmly. It is noticeable how tactile they are. The men – there are no women here – greet each other either with strong handshakes or kisses on the cheek. They constantly touch each other during their conversations, maintaining their handshake as they talk, or touching arms or shoulders. Despite his designer leather jacket, Hakan is cold, so we cross the lane to a café. He explains the routes for the next few days, tightly holding his mint tea for warmth. I remind him of my request for no steep hills.
“No problem. Little climb but flat.”
He is called away and so I retrieve a cycling jacket from my rucksack to keep warm. My tea is so sweet. It is made from adding boiling water to fresh spearmint, dried tea leaves, and sugar. Often, like today, the Moroccans add more sugar to the glass of the already saccharine liquid. When pouring the tea, the ritual is to hold the pot high, before splashing the liquid into small glasses. The first glass poured sits for a while before being poured back into the pot to honour the spirit of the tea.
I continue to wait and watch the village in action. A patisserie and a charcuterie stall are opposite. The butcher weighs a slab of beef on a set of scales. The patisserie has a sign for “Pain” on the wall. I know it means bread in French, yet I hope it is not some sort of omen. A white Mercedes van parks in front of the mosque opposite me. It has seen better days and blocks most of the road. There have been no other cars since the taxi left, so nobody seems to care. The animal transportation up and down the hill continues.
A stocky man rides downhill on a smart yellow mountain bike and skids to a halt next to the van. Four other men emerge from the mosque and I watch the warm greetings between Hakan and the new arrivals. I am not invited over to join in. Boxes are carried to the van, and then a second bicycle appears. The group crowd around the machine whilst I continue to wait. Couldn’t all this have been done yesterday? It seems that is not the way in Morocco.
Now Hakan introduces me to the stocky man. He is my cycling guide, Afulay. I restate my instructions to him: “Please no hills, I have a bad knee. Flat is good.”
He nods, “No problem.”
Afulay orders more mint tea and sits down.
“Film ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ filmed here.”
I shrug. I haven’t seen anything apart from the outside of the mosque, the butchery and the bakery opposite and this café.
“Flooded ten years ago.”
Later I find out that he was referring to the devastating flash flood of August 1995, which killed one hundred and fifty people, locals and tourists alike. Afulay takes his glass of mint tea with him and returns to the others.
Again I sit alone with my tea; just waiting. Is this all anybody does in Morocco? Finally they appear ready and I am called over. I am introduced to the driver of the white Mercedes van. His name is Abdul. I can’t believe it. Have they run out of names in Morocco? They laugh too when I tell them that every guide so far has been an Abdul.
Then there is more faffing with bikes. This time they work on Afulay’s, so I chat to Abdul. His English is basic and difficult to understand. I am sure that he tells me he is the cook as well as the driver. I assume it’s a language mistake.
Suddenly we are ready to go. Hakan passes me a helmet. It fits, and so this is it. I’m stiff from waiting around in the cold so I am keen to leave. Hakan stops me and asks if I need any water. Yes, of course, I do! Hakan then tells me water is charged extra and sends Abdul to buy some. I laugh as I think he is joking. The bicycle, my helmet, a guide, a support vehicle, all accommodation, all food – breakfast, dinner and lunch – are included, but not water. I want to go so I surrender again. I’ll deal with it later.
More handshakes all around, and then I follow Afulay out. Incredibly he turns right, up the hill. I am so surprised that I nearly collide with a man and his donkeys on their way down. With no warm-up, I am out of breath already. Then my saddle drops. What were they doing all that time? Afulay stops to help me fix it. He runs the two hundred metres back to the others to get Allen keys and a wrench.
Off we go again. Further up the hill Afulay stops to talk to a few locals and then we go again. A left turn out of the village becomes a steep hill. Then beyond a right bend, an even steeper climb. I need to stop already. Never mind my dodgy knee, I can’t breathe. My seat height is fine but the saddle is not straight and I need to adjust it. We cycle another couple of kilometers ascending the mountainside and I can feel my knee jarring, bone on bone. It is very sore. Embarrassingly I can feel tears coming and my head pounds. This is awful. How can this be so bad so soon? I manage another kilometer or so and stop. Afulay wants to keep going but I don’t. What happened to no hills?
What am I doing here? I’ve actually paid for this. Paid for this pain! I’ve checked so many times about the hills. I’ve also paid extra for it to be a solo tour, so I can dictate the play. I want to pack it in already.
“What happened to flat?” I ask.
Afulay responds, “We have to go up to go flat.”
“I’d rather go down to go flat,” I say. I look at my knee, swollen and purple in colour already. Bloody hell. “How far until we go flat?”
He points ahead. I clarify, “The next village?”
“No, the one after.”
Enough is enough. I instruct him to call Abdul so we can drive to the flat. Abdul is nowhere to be found. I wait at the side of the road and sulk.
In Abdul’s van it is thirty minutes of a twisting and turning steep climb. They haven’t listened to me at all. I must admit that the scenery is spectacular, with snow peaked mountains looming over the browny-green Imlil valley. But would I have noticed it grinding uphill in pain? The van is a mess inside, just as the outside of it suggests it would be. Our bikes plus a spare are in the back, untied, rattling and sliding noisily around as we turn each corner. Other paraphernalia tumbles too with each turn. Afulay and I are squashed in together in the front, holding on to the dashboard.
We arrive at a small remote café. There is a motorbike parked plus a couple of hikers and their guide on their way downhill.
“Now by bike,” Afulay says.
I think he is joking, referring to the motorbike. Afulay insists that it’s flat beyond the next bend and explains that Abdul cannot follow us as it’s a single-track rubble road. It is uphill again for a while, but this time it’s doable. Brown clay villages cling to the rocky sides of the valley, and we cycle through them. The terrain is undulating as I try desperately to keep pace with Afulay as he speeds along. At many corners we ford small streams from the snow melting further up the mountainside.
At one stream women are washing their clothes. Afulay has to swerve to avoid them. He also has to frequently slow down to wait for me. I am not as fast, trying to see what’s around the next bend and to witness the landscape, never mind trying to stay upright on the loose gravel.
At one village a little girl runs alongside us, screaming happily, “Bonjour, bonjour!”
We come to a halt. With all the stopping and starting and the twisting and turning I have no sense of the distance we have gone. I feel ok. My knee is holding up on this section. The landscape is definitely worth a bit of discomfort. A narrow river meanders around a chunk of arable land – a patchwork of greens – below our track midway up the side of the valley. Afulay decides it’s lunchtime. From his rucksack of goodies he makes sardine sandwiches. I attempt to sit on the stony ground, but my knee gives way and my hip is on fire when I crouch down, so I remain standing. We share a bottle of water, probably paid for by me.
There is very little interaction between us, although he is gracious, having made my sandwich and not complaining when I stopped to take photographs. I ask him about the villages and about Berber life, but he offers no information. It takes a long time to find out that he has two daughters. He says that most Berber families have at least four children, so he will do the same. His wife stays home to look after the girls and their animals, while he is a tour guide. Tourism apparently pays much more than farming. He is thirty-one, but could pass for a decade older as he so serious. Every now and again he does lighten up. He also leads donkey tours into the mountains and he tells me that the distance the bicycle does in one day is what the donkey does in four.
On the opposite side of the mountain it looks as if a swarm of giant black ants is moving across the steep rocks. When I look closer it is a herd of mountain goats. Before we continue our ride Afulay has to pray. While I wait I ponder on his stupid answers to my stupid questions. Why do the Berber women collect huge bags of grass? For their goats; but when I ask why they don’t keep the goats near the grass he has no answer. Why are there so many cats in Morocco? For the mice; but why are there so many mice? Why do you pour mint tea from high above the glass? For the bubbles. Like so many things in life, there is no depth; we deal with the symptoms, not the cause.
Not for the first time today Afulay shouts, “Yellah!” “Let’s go!” And he is off. My hands and hip ache on a crazy downhill run on loose stone. My back tire slips out a few times but I just about hold on. Then we follow a sandy track on the valley side through some tiny villages. Afulay is a long way ahead as I reduce my speed to witness the incredible scenery.
He stops up ahead. Thankfully that section is complete; very enjoyable but also very tricky. The landscape is now a deep red of eroded sandstone. Afulay points out a dark sand football pitch complete with stick goal posts. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Who would play here? I shiver, all of a sudden cold in the shade.
Afulay suddenly yells, “Yellah.” Off we go again.
Just after the next village we descend to ford a stream. Three Berbers sit at the side of the road. Their donkeys wait patiently at the water’s edge. Afulay knows them, and so we stop. One man is couched over a camping stove. He passes mint tea to the two of us. Another man, who is wearing a multi-coloured scarf, says that they are waiting for a group of French tourists and will escort them up into the mountains. When I ask whether they will go with the donkeys, he informs me that they are not donkeys, but mules. Mules, my ass!
Moving again, over the shallow stream, we pass a woman throwing stones at her cow and then we begin to climb again. The terrain is getting worse and my enjoyment from earlier is fading. I read in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth yesterday that we are all trying to find our harmonious place in the world; “To be in accord with the grand symphony that the world is.” This isn’t mine.
In a village, Afulay shouts to turn left but then turns right. It is a tiny rutted lane full of chickens, which leads straight back out to the main track. What was the point of that? At the end of the village he halts and points upwards. He wants me to carry my bike up the steep slope. Maybe there is a café at the top in one of the houses? Maybe we are finished.
“Where to? ” I ask.
“Just up here.” We clamber over rocks, hauling our bikes up, over thick prickly plants. It’s steep. Two little girls, who are playing, stop to wave at us. I am nearly at the entrance to one of the houses. This must be it. One last push. Phew. I look down at the tiny pathway we have just carried our bikes up. Totally insane. The house looks deserted but then a woman in a red robe comes out and hangs up her washing on the roof to dry. She ignores Afulay. Afulay ignores her.
“Yellah, come on.”
I lift my bike again and trudge after him, “What are we doing? Where are we going?”
“Get to the past.” He means the pass; the mountain pass.
I look down and there is a smooth tarmac road on the valley floor, so why are we up here? I can’t lift my bike anymore, so I push it uphill. There are a few corners where there is only enough space for me or the bike, and I have to lift it over crevasses in the mountainside. I stop. What are we doing? This is madness.
Afulay has a big smile, “We cycle now. Yellah.”
I look around in puzzlement – where to? Afulay reads my mind and points to a narrow track that meanders further up the stony mountainside.
“This track is good, we go, yes?”
I want to scream. What a stupid question! I don’t have any choice, even though there is no cycle path. It’s basically a rough trail left by a goat herder.
I try to follow Afulay, but soon I nearly fall off my bike as my back wheel spins out of control trying to grip the loose stones on the ground. I get off and push. I walk my bicycle very carefully.
Afulay switches between cycling and pushing when he thinks it too dangerous. I have given up trying to catch up with him. However, he does wait for me at one bend as two rocks block the way. Did he just cycle over this? I hope his wife has taken out life insurance on him. I lift my bike across and continue pushing my bike up the mountain, slipping occasionally on the gravel and generally feeling pretty pissed off. I will never book a cycling tour again. Maybe I will sell my bike too and never ever cycle again. My knee is deep red in color and swollen again. My calves and thighs are sore from the uphill climb and my shoulders ache from carrying my bike. I haven’t cycled for the best part of an hour. I tell Afulay that this is the worst day I have ever had cycling. I feel a bit rude saying it, but this is dreadful.
We reach the summit. I stop for water. Once I catch my breath, I look at the descent. It’s worse than the ascent. The narrow trail runs sharply downhill and the stones are much looser. Afulay points to tire tracks on some sand between the rocks.
“We cycled here last week”.
Nope, I don’t buy it. I am making tire tracks too, but I am not cycling.
At one point Afulay decides to carry both of our bikes down a particular rocky and steep section. Be a hero, mate! What didn’t they understand when I said no hills? I told Hakan and he agreed; Afulay too, this morning. Why didn’t they listen? It seems I can only find routes by myself. The Elbe and Neckar last year were wonderful, so I wil stick to river routes in the future. It’s impossible for Afulay to carry on with two bikes as the ground is too dangerous, so I get my bike back. We zig zag down some uneven steps and I whack a pedal painfully against the back of my leg. Ouch, ouch, ouch; bloody hell.
We make it down. Afulay hasn’t cycled this part either. Now he has to work out how to cross the river. He lifts his bike up above his head and wades into the river knee-deep, stops and comes back. He has noticed stepping stones made of rocks twenty metres away. He carries his bike across, striding unevenly. He returns to lug my bike across too. Even without hauling a bike, it’s still tricky. My foot slips on the first step and I almost fall backwards. On the other side of the river, there is a stream flowing down into the river and nothing else. So what now? We push our bikes upstream. There is no option but for the bikes and our legs to get soaked.
I stand on the dry land of a tarmac road and breathe deeply. What kind of day was that? Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn. Ok, so what did I learn?
There is a derelict building in front of us. Afulay places his bike against a post and bounds up the concrete stairs. I lumber up tiredly. He sits down on a plastic chair. There is actually a small shop on the first floor. One man is behind a counter and two others sit in the sun on an unfinished balcony. Afulay offers me a Coke or a Fanta. I ask for a beer instead. He laughs. I am serious. He explains that there isn’t any. I ask for something to smoke then. He says that not everybody smokes kif in Morocco and hands me a Coke. It’s not what I need right now.
It’s half past four. We now sit and wait for Abdul. Why? What’s he been doing? When he does arrive, there are handshakes with all the men here. (Where are the women?) He asks me how I am. I tell him that it would be my worst ever cycling day except that I didn’t cycle enough for it to count, so it is the worst ever hiking day.
Afulay and Abdul begin to unload the van. My bag comes out and theirs too. The bikes go in, but cooking equipment and a box of groceries come out. Apparently this derelict café is our accommodation for the night. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse.
I am shown to a cold stone room above the shop. Four old mattresses and some thick blankets lie on the floor. This is my room for the night. Afulay and Abdul will share the common room next door. Abdul will cook dinner on a stove in another tiny room that has a stone sink and some running water. I ask about a shower. They don’t know if there is one. They will ask the shopkeeper.
I am cold in my sweaty gear and totally defeated, so I walk back to the road and the last of the sun. I look across at the stream, river and mountain we have just traversed. This was absolutely crazy. A coop full of chickens is at the side of the road and adjacent to it are small baskets of herbs. At least dinner and the seasoning are available.
I do need a shower. There are no towels, so Abdul lends me his small hand towe, and then the café owner directs me to a small room under the concrete stairs. There is a hole in the floor that is the toilet and next to it are two low taps, one for hot water and one for cold water, as well as a small metal bucket. There is no toilet paper or shower gel or even a mirror. He wipes the floor with a dirty mop and now the room is mine. Both the hot tap and the cold tap give only cold water.
I clean myself as much as I possibly can and do the same to my cycling gear. I put them out to dry on the rooftop. Back downstairs Afulay and Abdul converse with a few local men in Berber. This effectively excludes me from any interaction at all. It’s going to be a long, long night – and a cold one too. I also need to be careful what I eat and what I drink, based on the toilet facilities. By half past seven there is no sign of Abdul doing any cooking. I have been here for three hours and I was offered a Nutella sandwich to go with a cup of coffee an hour ago. I refused it on the assumption that we would be having dinner by now.
It’s a terrible day; one of the worst days of my life. It’s so cold that I get under the thick blankets in my room and read. I begin to fall asleep but my stomach is rumbling with hunger. I also want to understand tomorrow’s ride. I don’t want to have another day like today. I go to find Afulay. He and Abdul, with a gang of villagers, are watching television in the café.
“Yes, yes, food. Ten minutes.”
While Abdul cooks, Afulay shows me tomorrow’s route.
“No single track,” he traces a line on an old map, “no big hills.”
Tired, cold, hungry and totally dispirited, I don’t believe a word. Abdul brings me some soup. It’s good, but more importantly it’s hot. I ask what it is but they both say something I don’t understand. However, the beef tagine is delicious. I try to make small talk but it is all one way, so I give up and go to bed.
Thanks to Our Guest Poster, Pete Martin. Author. Journalist. Coach.
Pete writes about transformational journeys. These are physical journeys where he has experienced a transformational or spiritual outcome. A short time ago, he was stuck and never dreamt of doing such journeys. Yet it is the spiritual nature of these trips that has revolutionised him. By telling his tales, he hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams and to find the spiritual and life experiences that will help them transform too. Pete has had two books published – REVOLUTIONS and FANTAFRICA. You can find more information on his website www.petemartin.org.
Pete is a keen cyclist. REVOLUTIONS includes chapters describing his cycling across the UK (the Way of the Roses), the length of the Rhine (from Lake Constance to Rotterdam) and also around Sri Lanka. FANTAFRICA includes stories of his adventures cycling the Cape Coast in South Africa, and cycling the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these articles by Pete Martin
“When the wind blows,” featured in Cycle magazine, the official publication of Cycling UK, and “Drinking beer from a teapot: Day 1 of cycling in Sri Lanka,” which was published in Travellanka magazine. Also, his guest post called On the Trail of the Feather Barons: Cycling from Oudtshoorn to Montagu in South Africa, published on this blog!
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