Off-Road in Eastern Morocco

Part 2

Heading towards Zagora, Another Cyclist!

An off-road adventure through the

Moroccan Sahara

Heading towards Zagora

The 28th of January was the first cycling day of this journey. My first target was Zagora. The city from where I would leave the paved roads to challenge myself on a 220 kilometers long off road desert path – which I wasn’t even sure would be possible to accomplish with a loaded bicycle.

My route to Zagora was a bit less than 500 kilometers long and took me nine days. Like so often something unexpected happened in those first days which changed my plans for the upcoming desert path a little bit, but let’s start with the first cycling days.

The route between Marrakesh and Zagora is definitely worth mentioning. Divided by a huge mountain range called the High Atlas Mountains there’s nothing like a flat route towards the east if you start in Marrakesh. The Tizi n’Tichka pass, the main road towards the east which brings you to 2260 meters above sea level, isn’t only a stunning road, it’s also the gateway from the great Marrakesh Plains to the Sahara desert. Before I started climbing up this road I spent the first two cycling days on some smaller but not less impressive mountain roads a bit south of the Tizi n’Tichka pass.

After I got out of the city traffic of Marrakesh cycling turned out to be more chilled but already really exhausting on the first day. For getting into the mountains I first followed a fairly big and touristic road to Tahnaout. This is where I left the big roads and started my first climb to almost 2000 meters in the High Atlas Mountains. The moment I left the main road in Tahnaout the road changed from perfect surface and not too steep into old tarmac and gravel road. The ascent of the road was totally insane. Having 30 gears on my bike with some really small ones for climbing up mountain roads for hours I was in need of my smallest gear from the first second. Every now and then the road turned out to be so steep that I couldn’t keep myself on the bike. My rear tire lost traction and I couldn’t get out of the saddle, as there was then even less friction on the rear wheel.  Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining.

In fact this first mountain road was one of my favorite ones in Morocco. Basically no traffic, no tourists and not too many humans along the way. Every once in a while a tiny village popped up beside the road. Often they had almost the same colors than the mountains they were built on and sometimes I only recognized them a few hundred meters before I passed through them. Not really used to tourists passing through their villages on this tiny mountain road and especially not on a fully loaded bicycle the people seemed a bit surprised when they spotted me slowly crawling up the road.

It never took long after I passed through a village that I had a bunch of kids following me and believe me, it wasn’t that easy to get rid of them. Trying to be nice to them I couldn’t give them what they asked me for. Candy, money or stuff from my bike. Fun in the beginning it often turned out to be quite stressful and as I was still making my way up the road I couldn’t really go fast enough to escape them.

With only a few hours of sunlight left I arrived on top of this challenging road. It took me way longer than I expected but the views were definitely worth the hassle. A great first cycling day which gave me a good impression on how the next days would turn out. Not long after I arrived at the top of the road I started the descent which brought me back into the great Marrakesh Plains. Also the descent took way longer than I thought it would take. A lot of lose rocks, big potholes and a bumpy surface made this downhill ride a real adventure. It was the first time that I was really in need of my hydraulic rim brakes.

The days were still short at the end of January and when l I finally found a suitable spot to put up my tent it was almost completely dark already. For my first night of camping in Morocco I pitched up my tent about 100 meters away from a fairly busy road in-between two villages. Finding a spot for camping was harder than I thought in this area but it’s definitely possible. With a stunning view out of my tent looking at the High Atlas Mountains rising into the sky it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.

The night was cold but my sleeping bag and liner did a good job. After packing up my stuff and getting back on the road I only cycled for a few kilometers until I arrived in a small village where I stopped at a small cafe beside the road. Still early in the morning I wasn’t the only one sitting beside the road to warm myself up with a cup of sweet Moroccan tee.

I used the time in the café to update my travel report with my experiences of the day before. Normally I do this in the evening before I go to bed but I was already too tired in the last evening to do so. Writing down some of my thoughts and feelings helps me to clear my mind and of course to remember what happened in those days. The book is like someone who listens to you in the evening. Definitely helpful when you travel alone for a longer time. When you sleep at a different place almost every day and experience a lot of stuff day by day it gets hard after a while to keep your mind sorted. Without writing down those things I would definitely get lost in my thoughts and memories after a while.

Later in the day I arrived at the N9 road which would lead me through the Atlas Mountains. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to make it over the pass today, so I started climbing up the road really slowly, always looking for a possible spot to set up my camp for the night. The traffic was better than I expected and the steepness of the road was nothing compared to the day before. After stocking up with some vegetables, fruits and bread at one of the many shops beside the road I finished my cycling at around 1200 meters above sea level.

Hidden behind an old sandstone wall I found a great camp spot just about 50 meters beside the road, with a great view towards the great Marrakesh Plains. The only visitor I had was a curious goat that kept visiting me for a while to check if there would be any new fruit and vegetable skins to eat. After watching the sun disappear not much later everything around me turned into a deep red. I went to bed excited about how the next day would turn out. I had a good starting position for conquering the Tizi n’Tichka pass tomorrow without running out of day light.

The route

Another Cyclist!

I got back on the road early the next day to make sure that I wouldn’t end up somewhere on top of the mountain at night. The road surface was ok and I made good progress up the road. Beside a short stop for a coffee and some fresh fruits I didn’t do any stops on my way up to my highest mountain pass so far. The size and surface conditions of the N9 decreased the further I got up into the mountains and it also turned steeper. In several long switchbacks I slowly paddled towards the top. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking and the N9 is a real master stroke of construction. Winding through this dry and rocky mountains I had great fun cycling it.

More and more often I stopped to take pictures and to enjoy the views.  Getting close to the top the N9 turned from an old, narrow and steep road into a new one with two tracks for each direction and instead of winding around smaller peaks the new road went straight though them. Not as interesting as the old part but this new segment made the last kilometers to the top fairly easy to cycle.  The wind was picking up a little bit and the temperatures dropped which made me add another layer of clothes even though I was still going uphill.

Checking the map on my phone I only had one kilometer left to the top when I suddenly spotted something on the side of the road about 100 meters away from me. Getting closer I realized that it was another touring cyclist. Sitting beside his loaded bike at a construction site he seemed like he didn’t know that he was almost on top.

Of course I stopped and asked him how he was doing. After some small talk in the first minutes we figured out the basic information of each other. His name was Carlos and he had grown up in Uruguay. He started travelling a while ago and was now on his first bicycle journey. After spending some time in Marrakesh he finally got started with his cycling three days before. Just like me. He was heading in the same direction so we quickly decided that we could join our routes for a while. I also told him about my idea of the off-road path along the Algerian border and that I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to make it with our kind of setup but it was obvious that he started being curious about this route as well.

I was right with my first thought that he had no idea that he was almost on top of the pass and after telling him he seemed motivated again to finish this last uphill kilometer. I didn’t expect at all to meet another cyclist just on my third day on the road but it was great. Morocco was a new country for both of us, we had really similar thoughts about the style of our travel and even if Carlos’ English wasn’t the best we had more than enough to talk about. We ended up travelling together for almost three weeks before we both continued cycling on our own routes. He also became a part of the off-road path from Zagora to Taouz which is supposed to be the main topic of this book. Trust me we’re slowly getting there.

Just a few minutes later we arrived at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass, 2260 meters above sea level. We didn’t stay long as it was quite cold and some older men beside the road were trying nonstop to sell us shiny stones and fossils from the area. Yeah right – because I felt okay cycling up this road with all my luggage doesn’t mean that I want to stock up with some extra weight in form of shiny stones. I’m just kidding but it still seemed really weird to both of us that they didn’t get it why we wouldn’t like to carry some extra weight.

Checking my map I recognized an interesting looking road leaving the N9 in a few kilometers. Definitely a long detour towards the next town Ouarzazate this small road seemed way more appealing to us than following the main road. And so we did. After a few kilometers of descent we arrived at the start of P1506. Leaving the N9 to the left the decision to cycle this detour quickly turned out to be a jackpot. The P1506 was a mix of unpaved and sealed road just wide enough for one car, which provided us with stunning views of the really dry desert like the east side of the High Atlas Mountains.

The villages we passed through on this road fitted perfectly into the surrounding scenery and didn’t disturb the atmosphere of this region at all. Still more than 2000 meters above sea level we found ourselves a suitable spot for our camp beside a dry riverbed with a perfect view towards the peaks of the Atlas Mountains which once again turned blood red with the sun disappearing from the Moroccan sky. Exhausted from a long cycling day with a lot of meters in elevation to climb we prepared ourselves for a really cold night as there was not a single cloud in the sky.

We spent the following two days mostly cycling on the P1506 in a slow pace until we arrived in Ouarzazate back on the main road. With only 50 and 30 kilometers of cycling in those two days the road and the scenery around us was just too beautiful to go faster. Passing through stunning valleys on a winding road with almost no traffic and almost no tourists. We couldn’t ask for more. I was amazed about how the people living there were using their limited water resources and how they built their houses in a way inclusive of nature. Some of the villages were carved into the walls of the narrow valleys so they could use the whole area of the riverbed to grow food.

In Ouarzazate we found ourselves a cheap homestay for the night. After five days of cycling days with warm weather over the days, freezing cold nights and a lot of elevation in meters I really felt in need of a shower. In most of the normal accommodations (which aren’t really built for foreigners), the shower is a tiled room with a small stool, a bucket, a cup and a water tap. Simple but efficient. Being as clean afterwards as in a “normal” shower you only use a fraction of the water you use back home. Another advantage, especially after a long cycling day with tired legs is the small stool to sit on while having a shower!

After walking through the city for a bit and having something small for dinner we decided that we wouldn’t stay a second night in Ouarzazate. The city didn’t seem interesting enough to us to spend a rest day here and we both still felt good to continue. There would be only one more climb until Zagora and we estimated that it would take us another two cycling days to get there. This last climb would be followed by a ride through the Draa Valley, a massive palm valley which would lead us all the way to Zagora, the starting point of our off road adventure attempt.

We left Ouarzazate the next morning on the N9 towards the south east and quickly found ourselves in a stone dessert. There was almost nothing beside the road and sharp black stones covered the whole area. Climbing up the N9 once again this time we had to make it up to 1700 meters above sea level. Fairly steep but with great weather conditions and a good mood the climb felt really easy to me. On top the road provided us with breathtaking views towards Agdz a city located in the Draa Valley. A few kilometers wide the valley was completely green which created a crazy contrast with its desert surrounding. A really fun descent later we found ourselves in the middle of a date palm forest.

Like in the small valleys we passed through on the P1506 the surface of the Draa Valley was perfect and completely used for farming. In-between and under the date palms the people living there had everything growing they were in need of. Grains, rice, vegetables and fruits. As amazing as it looked we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be that easy to find a camp spot in this valley.  Our first try was beside a small road leading out of the valley. Immediately after we left this small road to check if we could hide our tents somewhere we started collecting spikes from small bushes on the ground with our tires. But it was not only the spikes which made us not pick this spot for our camp. After a few meters further beside the road we started spotting all kinds of different bones on the ground. From small ribs to huge cow skulls. An animal cemetery or better said the place where the people throw the leftovers away? We didn’t know but for sure we wouldn’t camp here. After a while we also recognized that we had several kids watching us from further up the hill. Finding privacy in Morocco can be hard.

We decided to get back on the N9 to continue our search for a better camp spot but first of all we had to free our tires from all the spikes we collected on our failed camp spot mission.
Our decision to move on was perfectly right as not much later on we found a way better site for our tents. Instead of moving out of the valley, in addition to finding some space for camping we changed our strategy and looked for a place in between the palms. It was clear that all the land inside the valley was someone’s private property so we made really sure that no-one had seen us leaving the road into the palm plantation.

Not too far away from the road we found a nice patch of hard sand where we could put up our tents. With less than half an hour of sunlight left we decided to prepare food first. Pitching up my tent in the dark is something I normally attempt to avoid but sometimes it’s better to wait for the night until you build up your camp. Less light means a smaller chance that someone spots you. Not having the best site to camp also means that it could be smart to have an early start as well. And so we did. The next day I was up before sunrise to make sure that I had everything packed and ready to go before the new day would start.

Though a little bit in a rush we still spent some time on something we realized in our tents the night before. Every once in a while we heard dates falling down from the palms straight on to our tents. What can be better than awesome cycling snacks falling down from the sky right into your hands? Before we left we took a plastic bag and quickly collected some good looking dates. After a few minutes we already had a half bag full of free energy. A great start into a new day!

Well not really. Only a few minutes back on the road Carlos realized that his tire in the back was running flat. So we stopped not more than a kilometer away from where we started. Carlos fixed his tire while I updated my tour journal which I once again skipped the evening before. It didn’t take long to fix the tire and we were soon back on the road with four tires full of air.

Instead of following the N9 until Zagora we switched over to the other side of the valley and continued on a way smaller unsealed road with almost no traffic. We were already used to the fact that every time we passed through a village a bunch of kids would follow us for a while. This fascination got even “worse” in the evenings when all the kids were playing on the streets. Not knowing what they were saying beside the more common request for candy, money or even cigarettes and alcohol from the older ones we didn’t really know how to handle these situations. The best we could do was to keep smiling like always and continue cycling.

It wasn’t the first time that in situations like this a whole village starts staring at you from the first second they can see you. Back in 2014 I travelled a few weeks through Java Indonesia. Every time we stopped in a smaller town or village far away from the few touristic spots of the island we had the attention of everybody. The people often just seemed curious about what we were doing in their village and kept watching us, even if we just ate something beside the road like all the others. Often people came over and politely asked us if they could take a picture with us. Having the attention of so many people can be weird and stressful especially if you don’t feel comfortable with having too many people surrounding you like me. I didn’t really like this attention but I accepted it and was happy that I could make some people smile with some simple communication or even with a new profile picture for Facebook. I told myself that I would probably react in the same way if I was in their situation.

Nonetheless there was a difference between the people in Indonesia and the ones in Morocco. In Indonesia most of the time I had a feeling of respect from both parties. I gave my best to include myself as well as possible in their culture and life and to give them the feeling that we are equal and don’t want to be treated different even if I look different and come from a different part of our world. In response to that the Indonesians approached me with respect as well and seemed to accept me in their country.  This was the part I was missing a bit in Morocco. Don’t generalize this to all Moroccan people but I often felt a lack of respect for each other.

It’s hard to compare Java with Morocco but they also have something really big in common. The religion. The Muslim religion is dominating in both places with more than 90 percent. So what made the difference for me if it wasn’t the religion? I don’t really know it but I’m convinced that the wrong tourism of foreigners in Morocco is taking a big place in this matter. Tourism in Morocco more than doubled in the last ten years and they learned how to make money with the tourists. They also learned how to talk and interact with them and experienced how the majority of the foreigners treat them and their culture, and what they have to do to attract them. And now imagine us travelling through their country in a whole different way than most people do.

We weren’t looking to sleep in hotels, no souvenirs, no fancy restaurants and we weren’t interested in camel or off road truck tours. They couldn’t understand that we were looking to travel in a self-sufficient way without spending money for luxury, even if we could afford it. No doubt we made it hard for them to interact with us because we weren’t like the average tourists they know. I hope you understand what I’m trying to explain about how I often felt in Morocco but let’s go on.

Getting close to Zagora the Draa Valley slowly opened up and we left the date palm forest behind us. The last few kilometers we followed a dusty track with a new road in construction beside it. In a regular interval, big construction trucks overtook us which made us eat dust every few minutes. Covered with a layer of desert sand we arrived not much later in Zagora, the city from where we would leave the sealed roads to continue our journey on an unsure path through the Moroccan desert.

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