I’m resting up for a day in a dusty town on the edge of the desert called Aoulouz after a somewhat challenging day… my legs are toast and the temperatures here are in the mid to high 30’s still, despite winter being just around the corner… but more of that shortly…
Heading south from Marrakech on the Taroudant road it is just 30km across a gently rising plain to reach the foot of the Atlas. Last time I did it was in December, the air was crystal clear and the mountains were an enticing red-coloured wall capped with snow glittering in the crisp winter sunshine. This time however the peaks were lost in the haze so the ride away from the city was a bit dull, but then most rides out of cities tend to be a bit dull.
Reaching the wall of the Atlas however with the road starting to wind upwards sent my spirit soaring. Mountains are a wonderful thing and no matter how hard the riding there is no place better to be on a bike. It was warm crossing the plain, around 30 degs by 10am, but the mountains fixed that too with a cooling breeze coming down from the snowcapped peak of Mt Toubkal.
It is easy in the first few days of a new journey to put in big miles, after all the legs are fresh and the mind is keen… but so many times I’ve done that and paid the price a few days later, so with that in mind and following the principle of a somewhat more intimate exploration I stopped around lunchtime in the little village of Ouirgane just 65km from Marrakech… a friendly place to enjoy a glass or three of mint tea with the locals in a garden amongst flowers and birdsong. I had been making an effort to learn a few words of Arabic, it makes a huge difference… but up here in the mountains of course the Berber people don’t really use it, there being a number of Berber languages so making do with my somewhat rusty French.
Because of the growth in trekking around Toubkal there are gites all over the valleys here which is handy, wild camp opportunities are not so obvious, the aarea being quite populated… and when you can have a bed, terrific 3-course dinner and breakfast for less than 20 quid it’s hard to resist after a hot, dusty day on a bike.
Wednesday followed very much the same blueprint, cruising on up the valley taking the time to enjoy exploring .. last time I came by these places it was very early in the morning, freezing cold and I was on a mission to get over the Tizi’n Test by the end of the day, so I didn’t stop.
On my map there is a thin grey line, a track, that goes east from Ijoukak, carving right through the heart of the Toubkal massif, it looked like an interesting way to reach the oases of the south east. I reached the turn around mid-afternoon undecided whether to continue till dusk and camp somewhere or stop at a gite in Ijoukak for the night.. Looking at the map I was pretty sure the track would turn into one of those narrow tracks carved into a steep mountainside with not a flat spot to spare, so decided to stop in Ijoukak and tackle the long climb in the cool of the morning with fresh legs. It was a good move, as it turned out there were no camping opportunities I could have reached before dark….
The track turned out to be an incredible day of riding, hard and immensely rewarding. A loose dirt track climbing very steeply for 32km, with huge exposure, carved as it is out of sheer mountainsides. Technical too, very loose and rocky, some sections are only just rideable with a lot of determination and decent bike handling skills, I was pleased that I only had to lay the bike down once…
The climb was relentless with the only traffic being the occasional chap with a donkey – there are a few improbably located villages high in the mountains. It is a cruel climb too with multiple false summits to taunt you and steep hairpins so loose the rear wheel will slip sideways on a pedal stroke and force a foot down followed by a short push to gain traction again. I deflated my tyres as low as I dared, around 20psi.
The wind increased to near gale force as I climbed, frequent dust storms leaving grit in my teeth and gusts strong enough to push the bike sideways in the loose dirt… a little white knuckle at times given the drops.
Absolutely loved it.
I did come across what would have been a wonderful camp spot at about 18km, a mountain spring with a series of terraces and some shade trees, a wonderful splash of emerald against the rock. Put there no doubt by a nearby village. I stopped for a rest instead and to filter some water from the stream. I had set off with 7 litres on board given the heat & relentless climb figured some extra insurance was a good idea.
Eventually reached the summit of the pass after 32km and 5hrs of climbing. I was a little concerned about the descent, if it turned out to be as technical as the climb it had the potential to be punishing, especially given my somewhat fatigued state and the altitude…. I needn’t have worried, the track turned into a wide, hardpack trail that looked as if there was some effort happening to link the remote villages with motorable roads. It was not a super fast descent with the hairpins still being dangerously soft/loose.. but after the climb it was lovely to fly at close to 30km/hr through the stark volcanic landscape.
So a plunge of some 30km, mostly out of the sadddle, back down to the heat of the valley… hard on the wrists and back but with a terrific feeling of accomplishment, after all the map said after the 70km or so of dirt there was only a further 10km on a minor road to reach Aoulouz….
The map was wrong, really quite a lot wrong, unusual for a Reise map… perhaps the track was just a ‘guess’ or, as seems likely there are in fact a multitude of tracks and I was on a different one. I passed a flaking old milestone half buried in the dust that seemed to say ‘Aoulouz 48km’… refusing to believe it I asked the next chap I saw… who confirmed it. The day was getting on and I was tired and out of food and water so figured next place I could stock up I would and then would start looking for somewhere to camp. The next 20km were a cruel series of baking hot climbs and descents, I found no supplies until 30km from Aoulouz, by which time, given the increasingly busy area I gave up on camping and decided I may as well just flog myself all the way to Aoulouz… I grovelled into town just after sunset feeling absolutely buggered. A day that should have been merely a difficult 70km or so turned into a really rather hard one of 120km. Still brilliant fun though, would not have missed that climb for the world and it would not be a good ride if things didn’t go a little awry from time to time.
Aoulouz is a dusty, hot (still 31 degs C at10pm), busy but unremarkable place. I found a room for 3 pounds a night, it will do for a couple of nights while I try and recover a little before moving on. I can de-cake my bike drivetrain of dust, drink tea, look at the map, make plans etc.. all things I have become good at doing by way of passing the time in flyblown out of the way places :-). Am hoping I can find some appetite too, have none… I did yesterday on no more than a couple of chunks of bread and a couple of packets of biscuits.. It was hard work forcing down a tagine before bed… a pile of stewed veg with a few bits of beef buried inside, and a hunk of bread. Might arrive home a bit skinnier…
As an afterthought, wandering around Aoulouz this morning in search of WiFi, it is very easy to misjudge the nature of a place when you arrive feeling absolutely destroyed.. Last night based on the suspicious stares I judged that perhaps it was not an overly friendly place… But this morning it is really and I probably justified the odd stares, I was a mess… Filthy dirty from head to toe, and just the fact of being on a bicycle is probably regarded as a bit odd in itself. I haven’t yet met any other cyclists. I’ll put some pics of the place in next post whenever that might be, stay tuned but don’t hold your breath, connections are few and far between, this is the first I’ve seen since Marrakech. Rather than climb straight back into the mountains, and in the spirit of just making it up as I go I decided I’m going to give myself a couple of easier days on a good road as I head north towards the Draa valley, from where I will climb into the Jebel Sahro via the minor routes. Gonna be really hot. It is forecast to reach 37 degs C today…