It must have been 2am when DJ FX and MC Yabba called it a night. I did manage to sleep during their extended mega-mix, but it was slumber filled with beats (international).
We both awoke with what campers will understand as ‘tent face’… hefty baggage under the eyes and frowns. Coffee needed, and lots of it please.
Our leisurely breakfast by the pool set a tone for the trip. There was an intention of sorts to start early and enjoy the best part of the day for riding, but our resolve weakened in the face of café au lait, juice, pancakes, pastries, bread and jam.
Eventually, the bikes were packed and we pushed off slowly into the foothills of the Atlas. It was already warm and I drank little-and-often from the bidon perched helpfully on my handlebars thanks to a £3 bracket I’d bought on a whim before departure.
We soon stopped at a seemingly pleasant roadside café to re-supply and were duly ripped off before the owner insisted on showing us the premises’ terrace. The view was spectacular, marred only by the primate chained to the railings. This unfortunate beast was called Suzanne. We made our excuses and left.
The road snaked through forested hills and climbed steadily. The riding was a pleasure, the road now quieter beyond the reaches of the city. Nevertheless, it was a fairly tough introduction to the pleasures of touring by bike for Tom, a situation not helped by his bike issues.
Riding a full suspension machine, Tom’s luggage carrying options were limited. With little room for a frame bag, he’d eventually settled on a Thule rear carrier ferrying Ortlieb panniers. With just enough heel clearance, this seemed like a good solution. However, while the Thule provides a firm platform for drybags lashed on top of the rack, the two plastic side frames for traditional panniers flexed under load and required constant attention and tightening. Their security raised concerns about any off road ambitions we might have on this trip.
Added to this, something was rubbing on the rear tyre… a problem that would have had me shouting at the trees. I searched high and low for the source without seeing the bleeding obvious. Only later did I notice that the end of the shifter cable for the front derailleur was rubbing on the tyre in certain gears. A bend of the wire sorted the problem.
We found a spot for lunch, unremarkable in many respects save for welcome shade from the early afternoon sun. Oranges, biscuits and water were on the menu, saving the bread, jam and 1kg of sugar (don’t ask) we’d acquired en route for later. We chatted for an hour maybe, neither that keen to step out into the fierce sun again.
The lengthy break underlined an important and welcome contrast to my usual solitary pedalling. Normally, my breaks at the roadside would last minutes. Here, the company offered enjoyable distraction, an opportunity to explore a range of topics that may or may not swim around in my head when alone. Significantly, Tom would challenge my thinking on these matters – family, work, friends, English cricket coaches, rear suspension configuration on Series Land Rovers. (OK, I think he gave up on the last one and I blame the heat).
Back on the road and we confronted the main challenge of cycling on major routes in Morocco. In general, drivers were considerate. A blast of the horn of a vehicle approaching from behind provided ample warning of its presence and most drivers gave room when passing. Some, though, expected you to pull over. I did this on occasion, but grew weary of it when climbing. And if a car was coming in the opposite direction when overtaking occured, a wing mirror could be brushing your backside.
Both Tom and I were forced off the road at times during these manoeuvres. After a couple of days it prompted the slow headshake I favour when riding on UK roads. After a week, arm waving and French expletives took over.
A long climb and delightful descent led us to narrow river valley. Riparian fields irrigated by the stream cut a stark contrast to the brown, stony slopes towering above. With the sun dipping and the shadows lengthening, I started looking for camping spots. This proved fruitless. Much of the flat ground was cultivated and we needed a track to turn down in order to hide.
A few kms along the road, a small cluster of cafes and shops appeared with a village clinging to the slopes above. Perhaps we could camp here, I thought. We stopped for food to mull it over.
Our host, a lithe fellow with alert eyes, spoke good English. We ordered tagine. Consulting the map, I asked where we were. ‘Five kilometres from Taddert,’ came the reply. Not off the grid, then, but the cartographers evidently didn’t feel the settlement warranted a mention.
Noting our weary expressions, our host then offered his roof for the night and breakfast. A Berber canopy was rigged on the dusty terrace and it looked inviting. We, or maybe it was just me, accepted the offer with breathless gratitude.
Now relaxed, our dinner arrived, the earthenware pots bubbling. This mutton dish was the best of our trip. Full of fresh vegetables and tender meat, the real star was the spicing – a skilful blend by a cook who patently understood flavours. Mint tea or ‘Berber Whisky’ accompanied our meal. This too was the best we tasted, the glass stuffed with mint leaves steeped in boiling water and just the right amount of sugar. We did rounds.
Later, after clearing our bedroom, I lay in my sleeping bag watching the night sky fill with stars and satellites. I was content. The road might have been noisy at times during the night, but I enjoyed our cowboy camp. Downstairs, our bikes securely locked away, a dog and guardsman watched over our improvised digs, and us, all night.
The morning had a distinct, and welcome, chill. We were in the mountains after all and I breakfasted in my down vest. Our host asked us what we would like and we shrugged. ‘Berber omelettes?’ he ventured. Damn straight.
The versatile tagine was employed again and two omelettes arrived with bread, jam and honey. The omelette proved that last night had been no fluke. Flavours were skilfully balanced once more. It was truly delicious. Excellent coffee completed our meal.
We packed and were reluctant to leave. I paid, tipped our host and, perhaps a little self consciously, shook his hand before touching my heart – a gesture of respect we’d seen some Moroccans offer to us. He smiled broadly and replied in kind.
‘Until the next time,’ he said.