Tempting you to Tour

 

This is a the first is a series of three accounts from ex Pro Emma Silversides (you can read about her transition from pro to recreational cyclist here).  She will be telling us about her cycle touring adventures in the hope that she can convince you that mounting a pannier rack, investing in panniers and hitting the open road is worth a try.

 

Touring: the open roads and incredible scenery

 

I know that I am lucky; I am profiting from the long holidays that teaching offers (it’s only right and just that I use the holidays to make up lost hours in saddle during term time).  Last year I managed a credit card tour from Geneva to Nice – a true racers tour as I managed to fit an Axion pannier rack to my carbon bike.  I am terrible at recording my journeys, my best memories are in my head or in a stack of digital images!  Consequently I will not talk about my adventure from Geneva to Nice – a well ridden and perhaps over documented cycle tour route anyway – rather I will tell you about a tour that is a little fresher in my memory from April this year.

 

The journey in question took me and my touring companion on a loop starting and ending in Marrakesh, a major city now accessible by many of the budget airlines and giving access to a country with reasonable weather most of the year.  I had toured in Morocco previously, in December 2002 to be precise, and I found it hard going but a good 50% of that tour was off road.  This time the weather was on our side and we resolved to stay away from the dirt tracks – possible thanks to the luxury of Google Earth!

 

The Garmin has truly revolutionised the touring experience, making it even more accessible than ever before.  That said, you don’t need one to experience touring.  I digress, we set out from Marrakesh under clear blue skies having dumped our bike bags in Riad Laksiba, where we would return six days later.  Navigating our way out of the capital was simple; ride towards the hills and we encountered very little traffic once we were out of the city itself.  The quiet roads winding up into the foothills of the Atlas immediately presented me with a sense of freedom and that unique sense of self-satisfaction – I was experiencing the country in a way that very few others would; cycle touring is truly invigorating in that sense.

 

With 56 very hot miles under the belt and 1700m of climbing we settled in a super hotel overlooking the foothills of the Atlas in Oujikak with priceless views for just a few euros.  The food doesn’t break the bank either.  Once out of the built up tourist areas, hot meals are guaranteed to have been carefully prepared with fresh local grown produce, all served with endless fuelling bread!  The country has advanced hugely since 2002 but out in the rural villages life remains simple, an uplifting experience for any hungry adventurer.

 

Views from the first night’s hotel

Views from the first night’s hotel

 

Day two greeted us with a repeat of the cloudless skies that we had ended day one with and despite climbing up and over the Tizi n’Test pass at 2092m, it remained blisteringly hot all day.  The climb itself offered some stunning views and the only traffic to be seen greeted us with friendly toots and waves of encouragement.  The café at the top of the pass was clearly a pit stop for most of the old trucks and mini buses transporting goods, livestock and people from the northern side of the Atlas to the southern. People crammed into such vehicles alongside sheep and crates of produce were surprisingly not keen on disembarking, only the driver would jump out; perhaps they just wanted to get going again, who could blame them in 30+ degrees and no air-conditioning!  

 

The descent was rough in places with lots of loose stone, thankfully nothing was coming up towards us and vision was rarely limited, so it was possible to feel some ‘cooler’ air as we came off the pass.  After the main winding descent there was a very long straight section where the landscape changed significantly to become much more dessert like, yes, the temperature intensified somewhat too.  We then turned east towards Aoulouz, riding through Domaines d’Oranges with miles of walled groves, likely providers to the countless mobile freshly squeezed juice sellers in Marrakesh’s main square.  The 40km between Aoulouz and Talouine – our final destination – presented an annoying obstacle; roadworks.  A series of diversions were prepared for traffic while the actual road was being rebuilt.  A Moroccan diversion differs somewhat from a British one; vehicles are simply diverted to any existing land to the side of the road, regardless of how rough it is, so it is take your pick but of course the trucks rule!  This meant riding over 3 to 4 mile sections of stony, dusty, rough ground for about 20 miles.  A challenge at the best of times, add in 34 degrees and slow moving HGV’s that force you onto the roughest part of the track, while kicking up gravel and dessert sand and you are riding in a dusty, airless inferno.  The worst section came towards the end with a 10% incline.

 

Towards the end of the roadworks

Towards the end of the roadworks

 

As ever, the ride was rewarded with some stunning accommodation and food.  Talouine is a hotbed for walkers and was teeming with exhausted looking hikers, all slightly overcooked by the exceptional and unexpectedly intense April sun.

Having gained and lost 1700m during day two, day three was slightly less eventful.  An 800m height gain into a headwind took us further east to Tazenacht, which is a bustling town offering a mix of attempted tourist hotels drowned out by a native demand for cheap transit accommodation.  The actual day’s riding was completed in arid rolling terrain and was probably the quietest in terms of seeing other forms of transportation.  The wind wore me down that day and the feeling of tiredness was somewhat overwhelming.  If I am hones, I wasn’t inspired by Tazenacht, though it served its purpose well; a refuel and a restful night ready for the route back over the mountains.

 

Despite turning north at the start of day four the wind was relentlessly on our heads again and it was a nagging hot wind that whisked up the dusty dessert earth to mix with the salty sweat.  Progress was slow, especially given that our first 30k were uphill, the descent was gusty and focusing on holding the bike distracted me at times from the scenery which was a vast open moonscape, broken only by a feeble attempt of a river.

 

Rolling, lifeless moonscape

Rolling, lifeless moonscape

 

Life was to be found at Ait Zinib, an intersection favoured by truckers and travellers at the foot of the climb back over the Atlas to Marrakesh, we reached this after an arduous 45 miles of riding.  An aspiring tree lined avenue with a strip of open market stalls and street sellers providing nourishment for any hungry passing travellers, including ourselves and it was dirt cheap Moroccan food at its best!  From here we had planned to go to Ouarzazate but stopped short at the Carrefour that lead to Ait Ben Haddou.  The accommodation here was luxurious but still a fraction of what you would pay in Europe.  Having dumped the panniers we pottered out to the main tourist attraction south of the Atlas; Ait Ben Haddou.  We rode through this place back in 2002 and not much has changed, there are still hordes of tourists stepping out of air conditioned coaches into the sweltering dessert heat for guided tours of the fortified city that has provided the backdrop to films such as Gladiator and The Mummy, and more recently parts of Game of Thrones.  Just as in 2002 I didn’t have any great desire to stop there long; give me a bike and a road off the beaten track over the hustle and bustle of commercialised tourism any day.

 

Saddle mounted camels a give away of imminent tourism

Saddle mounted camels are a give away of imminent tourism

 

Day 5 was one of climbing, all the way up to the Tizi n’Ticha pass at 2100m! This is the main road used by most trucks, coaches and mini buses wishing to cross the Atlas range from Marrakesh.  However, we were not disturbed by many passing vehicles in either direction for much of the climb.  The gradient was gentle, following the river for some time and passing through several villages.  One of the villages was a hive of activity and tempted us with freshly baked bread; this was transported further up the climb for a quiet picnic overlooking the women folk of the next village washing carpets in a stream.  I found the simplicity of life away from the tourist cities once again quite stirring.

 

Once over the pass we were faced again with significant road works, clearly the increased traffic has taken its toll on the main pass.

 

A fun decent marred somewhat by construction traffic

A fun decent marred somewhat by construction traffic

 

We descended into Tadderte relatively quickly and were intrigued to see how the village had changed.  This was our first stop back in 2002, back then only a small hovel of a room with no lighting and a toilet in the ground was on offer.  This time we found a hostel funded by the village association which offered the luxury of lighting, a warm shower and clean sheets.  The village is small but one of the only ones on the pass, so passing trade is their income.  Locals have clearly recognised the growing demands of tourism and made a good investment.  The inhabitants were hospitable and keen to learn about us as well as share their life experiences and knowledge.  Meeting such people is one of the most fascinating elements of touring off the beaten track.

 

The last day was virtually all descending, well all but 5km with a 400m height gain.  As we approached Marrakesh the heat became almost unbearable, almost suffocating.  Reading from the Garmin’s file we set off at 67⁰F and ended up at 102⁰F. In just three hours we had covered the last 58 miles of our touring adventure and arrived safely back at the Riad to a welcome foot bath.

 

We were extremely fortunate with the weather since that afternoon the storm clouds build and the rain came down!

 

Storm clouds gathering over Marrakesh

Storm clouds gathering over Marrakesh

 

Next time I write I will tell you about a tour in England – something that is not so daunting for the first time tourer but certainly offering just as much reward and challenge as Northern Africa.

 

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