Pedalling towards the foot of the Col du Tichka through the high Atlas was heaven after our night on the roof. The air was fresh and we travelled slowly, a fair distance apart, enjoying some personal time with the mountains.
We gazed down upon houses near Taddert sitting in a tightly hewn valley where the adobe-walled homes made economical use of dusty terraces. On the road, restaurant owners beckoned us to stop but we were full from our excellent entrée to the day.
We reached what looked to be the foot of the climb, ate oranges and discussed the toil ahead. The road snaked across a mountain wall ahead of us and much was hard to trace although occasionally the sun caught a car windscreen and the glint betrayed the precipitous lie of our route.
I felt animated by the climb… a childlike excitement felt on Christmas morning. Sure, I have plenty of climbs in the Pennines back home, but nothing compared to this: 20km of delightful suffering amid towering peaks to a summit pass of some 2,200 metres.
Stocking up with water again, we hit the hairpins and settled into our respective rhythms – my cadence fast as always, spinning my way slowly to the heavens. Drivers on the twisting mountain route were considerate in the main, and many were encouraging. Horns were honked, and clapping was accompanied by cries of ‘Allez Allez Allez!’
Lining the route were lookouts and the lookouts were lined with hawkers. I stopped to take in the scene… the road was a sinuous ribbon of tarmac clinging to the dusty slopes way below me. I just had time to take a photograph of sorts before the hard sell started. I was in no mood for haggling and pressed on to a thankfully deserted lay-by where I waited for Tom and searched for anything sugary in my panniers.
The road climbed for a little longer and then, somewhat incongruously, descended briefly past a very inviting looking cafe. Beyond was a lush high meadow. This would have been a superb place to camp although it was far too early in the day. Mountain streams glistened in the sunlight and Moroccan families picnicked and played football at 2000m. Above, shepherds tended to their scrawny flocks and made tea in the shade. Litter, the product of thoughtless motorists both here and at home, only marred the scene.
This brief respite soon passed and the final throes of the climb kicked in. The road reared up to the pass and I gained the summit to applause from a crowd clustered around tourist shops. The most enthusiastic greeting came from a shop owner who was desperate to show me his wares. Food was the priority, however, although we’d have some fun and games with him later.
I grabbed my camera to capture Tom completing his climb. A coach ruined the moment somewhat and we quickly repaired to the ‘Cafe du Tichka’ to fuel depleted stores. We shook hands on a job well done, ordered and waited… and waited.
Our waiter returned three times to check we actually wanted two tagines and Tom grew increasingly impatient. I would encounter this response again on the trip. When Tom is hungry he needs to eat… quickly. Otherwise, an alternate Tom materialises, a kind of comically short-tempered grouch. As idiosyncrasies go, it’s not a bad one and probably not as irritating as mine – but more of them later.
At last, the food arrived and Tom’s mood became a little more temperate, although he did manage a brief moan about the quantity of bones in his chicken stew compared to mine.
We approached the monument marking the summit for the obligatory pictures and swapped cameras with a Swiss (we thought) pair of cyclists to capture each other’s success. Our fellow velo had a little trouble with the camera on Tom’s I-Phone, holding the black rectangle in a purposeful manner to capture the shot only to then gesture to us with a shrug. I shared his frustration as using an I-Phone for photography has the all the ergonomic appeal of a used bar of soap. It later transpired that he had taken 11 shots of us.
Before leaving, we visited the shop owned by my enthusiastic friend. We were presented with the usual array of impressive fossils and not-so impressive figurines. We were keen on two … and Tom’s impressive haggling technique kicked in. This prompted hilarious responses from our shopkeeper who raised his finger to his lips and shushed Tom whenever he issued another optimistic offer. He turned his attention to me… ‘You are my friend… him (gesturing at my companion) Noooo!’
Carry on Haggling continued and we emerged with a deal. Tom’s persistence was impressive and I felt I needed to raise my game before the souks of Marrakech.
We pushed off and started what we hoped would be a long descent. At the junction to the road to Telouet a group of lounging men urged us to turn off the main route. I knew people who had taken this route (P1506) and, despite our reservations about the security of Tom’s rack on unmade roads, we followed their advice… sound advice it proved to be too.
The road, a mixture of dirt and paved sections, cut a beautiful course through lovely country. It followed a charming valley or oued. Cultivated plots were an agreeable counterpoint to the barren yet handsome hills above. It reminded me a little of the dry foothills of California before you hit the honey pots of the High Sierra. It was quite a contrast the to Haute Atlas we’d experienced that morning, albeit from a major road.
Traffic was considerably lighter on this route and more of the 4×4 variety. Sadly the poorer quality road did not correlate with careful motoring as the occupants thundered by sporting blank sun-glassed expressions.
Further along the valley and a dry wind tumbled off distant peaks surrounding us, kicking up dust that stung my eyes. It pointed a climatic harshness that demanded respect.
Soon the brown walls of Telouet’s impressive Kasbah appeared on the horizon. We were headed for a campsite so pressed on through the main drag to be presented with a drab plot that only seemed suited to campervans. Retracing our steps we found a beautiful auberge and secured another bargain full board deal, the bikes bagging a prime spot in a rather grand dining hall.
Our impressive digs provided an opportunity for me to do some washing while I showered, hanging the clothes on Tom’s elastic washing line between two chairs on a huge terrace. The wind had now gathered pace and camping didn’t seem such an attractive proposition after all.
Washed and refreshed, we wandered over the road to a large Berber tent for food and to be sidetracked by a small shop where the owner promised Premier League football. Although a considerable yawn for me, this had particular resonance for Tom given his affinity for Liverpool FC and their (then) title hopes.
We entered the shop and took our places among the locals. The owner fiddled with the remote for the satellite box and found a station in English… another lovely gesture, although having the English commentary didn’t really shed any further light on the action for me. Although not being conversant in the internationally unifying language of football, it felt comforting to sit with these folk, sipping a(nother) sickly orange Fanta and just spending the moment.
That night I slept like a stone, only waking once to hear the wind angrily announcing its presence, hissing and whining through gaps in brickwork and testing the hinges of doors left ajar.
A Dutch couple at breakfast painted a very appealing picture of the route ahead and I was eager to get on the road. Their description was apt. Much of the morning was spent on my favoured dirt and I spent a couple of very contented hours hammering down gravel roads seeking the best line amid wonderfully barren scenery. It was perfect cycle touring.
Back on pavement and we found the Swiss cyclists again, who too had spent the night in Telouet. The taller of the duo had not looked particularly enamoured with his trip at the Col and we were greeted with his glum expression again. It later transpired that Morocco was his first foray into bike touring and we both felt it would be his last.
Here the road cut a series of alarming switchbacks before tumbling into a pretty village where eager children were in the market for high fives. Tom and I obliged to their evident delight.
We followed the left hand lip of a valley, the floor a deep green where the parched soil had been given purpose through irrigation. Rock caves were carved into the valley wall and we stopped to admire them from afar.
The terrain, the beautiful road, and the superb weather made me sigh with delight… the variables had aligned and resolved to a perfect day to be riding. The lighter travelled road again bringing the greater reward.
We stopped for lunch at a rather grand auberge before pressing on through Tabourahte – too touristy for our taste – and back to the main road. The traffic was an unwelcome accompaniment although the climb over a minor ‘tizi’ delivered a fantastic view back to the Atlas and our accomplishments to date.
We soon saw Quazazate, our destination for the day and were a little alarmed by its evident scale. The home of Morocco’s film industry, Quazazate is proud of this connection and sports a large clapperboard on the outskirts of town.
We cycled along an impressive boulevard in search of pizza and some digs for the night…