I was reluctant to leave the Palmeraie given another difficult night but I really wanted to get back o the road and salvage something from the final few days on the bike.
We decided to follow the main N9 route south, slowly. This was by no means an original or adventurous route but I still felt very weak, despite shaking off the fever. Pushing off and through the streets of Quazazate, my legs had no power. Tom seemed refreshed after a couple of days rest and powered ahead, pushing a big gear.
We stopped for our now customary call to load up on water. The forecast was, simply, hot but we’d allowed ourselves four days to complete this final stretch to Zagora, which was ample even in my depleted state.
What we hadn’t really appreciated was that the N9 negotiated another mountain pass on its route south. Soon after leaving town, the road climbed steadily. Tom disappeared over the rise and I realised how much a struggle the day was going to be. I willed my legs to push, but the muscles starved of glycogen complained. I explored the lower ratios of my Rohloff hub and spun along slowly, keeping below my paltry power threshold.
My inner torment aside, the scenery was fantastic. Dun rocky plains led to shapely peaks, the outlines of some reminded me of favourite hills in Lakeland. Morocco’s Crinkle Crags were a wee bit dryer though, and warmer.
I stopped to take pictures and sip water. My stomach groaned at the meagre offer and my bowels continued their merry dance. I needed to eat properly; otherwise the day would be end abruptly.
The road continued to climb and I spotted Tom overtake a couple of riders ahead. I eventually caught them up, the rider at the back seemingly in greater trouble than I.
I said hello, only to be greeted by a pained expression. I asked the rider at the front whether his friend was OK and it transpired that he’d also been very ill.
Another hour passed and I really started to struggle. I needed calories, whatever the cost. Our supplies were meagre, both now trusting the frequency of cafes and shops on these major routes. Here though, in this difficult terrain, these establishments were sparse. Sod and Murphy were evidently both holding the cards.
One more rise and we saw a sign for a café. Relief. I pulled up outside and slumped over my handlebars. The sun was intense and the shade welcome; the water in my bottles now only good for topping up a bath.
I walked in laboured fashion into the dining room collapsed in the chair. Service was infuriatingly sluggish and Tom, acknowledging my pathetic condition, took matters in hand. Soon we were supplied with bread and omelettes of average quality. It didn’t matter, I ate quickly my body craving something to work on. The food settled well… success!
I took a ‘selfie’ with my compact camera confirming my suspicions that I looked pretty wan… like crap, in fact.
Stocking up with water again followed by a quick reset of Tom’s rear mech and we were back on the road. Here the climb to the pass, the 1600m Tizi n Tinififft began in earnest. The road was cut into a mountain wall ranging around to my left. Tom showed his strength again and set off at an impressive pace. Despite feeling a little sorry for myself, it was good to see him find his rhythm. Early in the trip, he’d tried to emulate my old-man, lower-gear, high-cadence hammer but not found it to his liking. Pushing a higher gear and standing on the pedals seemed to work far better for him.
I found the climb long and hard and the summit brought relief and reward. Views of dry brown hills ranged into the distance while, in the foreground, a deep gorge was reminiscent of canyon country in the States. We peered into the shady depths of the gorge and tried to capture its scale on camera. Tom took a shot of me smiling, somewhat miraculously.
‘You look rather happy in this shot,’ he said later at dinner. ‘Must be because I hadn’t had to shit for five hours,’ I quipped.
We raced down the other side of the pass, headed for Agdz. The guidebook pointed us to a fantastic Kasbah – Casbah Caid Ali – which appeared as another oasis amid very ordinary looking streets. Camper vans were parked amid peaceful palm groves as we pedalled to our room in the historic building. Tucked away in the corner of an elegant, if faded courtyard, our digs were surprisingly cool, aided by the thick walls and tiny windows.
Dinner was taken by the murky swimming pool and a decent tagine followed by delicious watermelon.
That night my digestive tract returned to what could be described as normal. I slept well and ate with renewed enthusiasm at breakfast. The previous day had been arduous to say the least, but we had made very good progress considering the terrain. Zagora was another 90km south, a relatively straightforward distance if I’d have been good health.
We bade farewell to our hosts and pedalled into a heat haze, following the simply gorgeous Valee du Draa in the shadow of Kissane’s meringue tops. Tom decided to fire up his GoPro (better late then never!) and captured some touring footage.
Again, locals on this stretch of road were more brazen than folk in the mountains. Again, we remained polite, but the attention became wearing and affected our stops for refreshment. Another unwelcome accompaniment to the day was a strong southerly wind. This sapped our strength and immediately dried our mouths after a draught from our bidons. It was though someone had opened the door to an enormous electric oven and we were pedalling straight for the fan blades.
We found a lonely riad for lunch and were led to a shaded terrace overlooking the valley. It was a delightful spot and we lingered far too long over a rather underwhelming omelette.
Back on the road and back into the wind. Again the crowds called to us and one guy raised his hands, took aim at me and pulled the trigger of an imaginary rifle. I preferred to conclude that his intentions were light hearted.
We drafted local school kids on bikes to escape the wind and then followed each other in shifts. This team effort –for me, a major effort to maintain Tom’s pace – saw us cover some 25km in an hour. The effort had been considerable and we bagged the next shaded spot for a rest and sickly cake saved from the day before.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe the fatigue, but a passing Mercedes Unimog overland camper elicited a lengthy monologue from me about rear suspension lean on Series Land Rovers. I gave up after five minutes in a frail laugh, unable to complete my verbal treatise. Tom, meanwhile, had tuned out of my babble… maybe he dozed off.
Thinking we had found a decent spot to hide and recuperate, our optimism was dented by approaching children. The usual demands commenced so I tried an alternative approach and rolled out my best Northern accent – a lumpen assemblage of West Yorkshire, Mancunian and perhaps a bit of Tyneside.
Much to Tom’s amusement, the children walked off rather glumly and more than a little confused. Mad dogs and Englishmen.
The wind persisted as we pedalled on, mocking our effort. Tom announced that headwinds were worse than climbing and I concurred – at least there was a sense of achievement after the climb.
The kms rolled by and we stopped at a shop for more sugary drinks and cake. Thoughts turned to stopping at a sign for another palmeraie but we were so close to our objective that, psychologically at least, it felt right to carry on… to see it through.
We did and wearily found another oasis amid dusty streets. Camping Auberge Prends Ton Temps (Take Your Time) was a charming, if a wee bit claustrophobic, collection of huts and communal buildings and tents arranged around a small garden.
I was relieved to have finished the riding and keen to regain my strength although sad that this phase of our trip was over. We went out for dinner and toasted our achievement with pizza and pop. Later, we met our energetic host who arranged a trip to the Sahara for us on Sunday.
Saturday, then, was an opportunity to relax and deal with some logistics including cash and the CTM bus ticket back to Marrakech.
Sunday’s excursion was a fabulous end to our trip. We took a 4×4 along pistes and across the dunes to a bivouac where we enjoyed a superb lunch. The desert fascinated me and we walked into the dunes to drink in the atmosphere. I kept on combing the sand with my hands, letting it run through my fingers.
Tom grabbed a guitar at our tent and played with some skill. It proved to be a precursor for evening as we were joined our hosts in a bit of jamming in an impressive music room and the palmeraie. I showcased my limited percussion skills on a set of delightfully tuned bongos, the whole affair lubricated by a spirit derived from dates. Our host assured us that the provenance of the tipple was sound. We sipped it tentatively, but it tasted reassuringly refined rather than some harsh moonshine. We had plenty and I’m pleased to report that we could both still see in the morning, despite the hangovers.
We enjoyed some local folk music played delicately by our host’s brother on lead guitar that had been curiously tuned but sounded fantastic. Just as this musical interlude gathered pace, our hosts disappeared to eat and didn’t return.
We turned in, aware that we had an early start in the morning for our bus back to the city.