Sunday, 18 January 2015

Donkeys on the Piste in Morocco

Many camels but not always where you'd expect.

We booked some flights to Morocco early last year and planned a loose itinerary based around heading South to the warmth of the desert. After a night in our favourite riad in Marrakech (where we leave our bike bags) we took the 6 hour bus journey to Tiznit, stayed a night amongst the Euro camper vans. Tiznit's a good place to start as it's situated close to the coast if you wanted to head south for deserted beaches or inland as we choose to the mountains, namely Tafraoute on the edge of the Anti Atlas. 
It seemed like the start of a long day as we headed up and up towards Tafraoute. Even though it's the main road up into the hills we were passed by very few vehicles as we sweated our way east. It's basically one big up to the pass and then a roll of 'little' ups and downs all the way to town. And it was a long day as we arrived in the dark and found the small campsite complete with cute dog. As seems to be the way of things down there we were hugely outnumbered by French and German campervans around our little tent. The plan was to take a day to look around and we took a trip out to the blue rocks about 3k out of town. That also meant we could make sure of our route out of town for the next morning.

Enjoying the quiet evening desert.

Blue rocks painted by Belgian artist Jean Veran in the 80's

The next day we had a long day of piste roads ahead of us so an early start was decided on. Dragging ourselves out of warm sleeping bags to pack up the tent was very hard especially when it was below freezing. The days are very warm, around 30 degrees in the sunshine but once that sun begins to drop the temps do too and at 5:30am it's pretty damn chilly south of the Atlas. We had most of our clothes on as we headed out of town that morning, first on road and then dirt.

The piste road starts here.

This day was one of the highlights of the trip, a very cold and dark start on road for a good few kilometres, up and over the Tizi ou Manouz pass until we reached Izerbi, then we turned left and hit the good stuff- the piste! A steady climb through the heat of midday past dry riverbeds and lunar landscapes eventually led to a great view into the surrounding gorges (time for a brew and admire the surrounds) before a bit more climbing and a 5k switchback descent down into the palmeries surrounding Igmir. Once we'd broken out through these we followed the dirt road which crisscrossed (and sometimes involved riding in) a huge riverbed between the huge valley sides.

Travellin Trolls.

Riverbed road.

Another couple of hours of 'riverbed road' riding and we eventually crossed our final bridge and hit tarmac, after quite a few hours of rough stuff this was much appreciated by my backside at least! A final push of 'rolling roads' and we arrived at our campsite for the night Auberge Borj Biramane. An amazing place run by French brothers who fed us (lots), plus it was a good place to swop info with other people travelling in the area (including the man who had cycled from Belgium with his labrador in a trailer!).

The next few days involved lots of riding on and off the desert highway, this route follows the edge of the desert and is not too far away from the Algerian border in places so we had many police checkpoints to go through. These were easy enough and often a good place to check on the state of the roads to come. We learnt that most of the bridges on the piste roads had been washed away a few weeks previously when the area had a years rainfall in two days, this meant walking the bikes over many dry riverbeds.

Another washed out bridge.

Desert campsite.

After a couple of nights of wildcamping in the desert and waking to an icy tent we arrived in Foum Ziguid, a small town and crossing point on the edge of two desert piste roads. One road crossing a large basin surrounded by mountains to Zagora or the southern route crossing the salt pan to M'Hamid. After a replenishment stop and lunch in Foum we set off for the basin route to Zagora. After an initial bit of climbing the road turned right and then was straight-ish - for about 130km. This turned out to be the busiest piste road we used as the Race Africa (previously the Paris Dakar) support crews where trucking along it to their next bivouac while the motos, trucks and buggies crashed over the dunes further South.

That sign.
We took an enforced rest day in Zagora after eating some dodgy rice, it was definitely a return to civilisation as we declined the many offers of camel treks and visits to the desert. It did however have a good patisserie just off the main street with fresh brioche and ice cream, just what the doctor ordered! A return to the road saw a gentle days cruising up the Draa Valley, it looked very lush after the previous months rain. This river doesn't usually exist (well not in the last 18 years we were told), the dam in Ouarzazate had recently been opened to stop it being overwhelmed from the heavy dump of snow that lay on the mountains above.

Very occasional river.

As we continued along the valley we passed the many kasbahs and palmeries it's famous for along with dozens of people selling fresh dates and almonds - perfect riding food. 
Our destination for the evening was the town of Agdz perfectly situated halfway to Ouarzazate. That evening we camped in the palmerie that belonged to the Kasbah Caid Ali and spent part of the evening exploring the deserted buildings. 

Sunset over the palmeries.

Intriguing doorways.

We rolled out next morning to start the long climb over the Tiz-n-Tinififft pass. As we climbed higher we were afforded amazing views over the Draa valley and beyond. Truck drivers leaned out of their windows to shout 'bon courage' and we knew there was more climbing to come. 

Quite a climb between Agdz and Ouarzazate 

Soon the road became the inevitable run of hairpins and switchbacks as it wound it's way round the top of gorges and past herds of goats teetering on the edges. 


Eventually we reached the top, had a well earned snack stop and put an extra layer on before making the most of the fast descent (and top speed of the trip) down to the valley.  From here it was a 'rolling' road past more kasbahs and palmeries before eventually becoming more built up as we reached the outskirts of Ouarzazate. Our plan had initially been to ride a piste road from here to the other side of the Atlas mountains but due to the heavy snow this had been blocked and was impassable in places. So we took the easy option and threw the bikes on a bus back to Marrakech (having rode the route over 
 Tizi-n-Tchika before).

We had a final day in Marrakech for repacking bikes and a few hours of getting lost in it's back streets before heading home. 

Exploring Marrakech

Stats and Kit List.
So we did a little under 1000km- probably 50/50 piste/road.

Bikes- 2 x Surly trolls, 1 Rohloff, 1 geared and no mechanicals!
SP Dynamo hubs for lighting and charging.
1 x Plug USB charger (works for charging an iPad)
Tubus stainless racks.
Ortleib panniers and bar bag.
North Face Fat Frog tent.
PHD Minimus sleeping bags.
3/4 Thermarest sleeping mats.
1 x Vargo Ti wood stove.
1 x MSR multifuel stove.
Ti pan set and thermal mugs.
Normal assortment of clothes.

Reference material.Michelin Morocco map.
Open source street mapping for Morocco- includes some piste routes.
Morocco Overland by Chris Scott- invaluable for off road route advice.
Rough Guide Morocco.