Issue #036, Trails & Travel -

In the footsteps of the Berber – An unforgettable MTB trip to Morocco

Awakening to the morning prayer call reverberating around the mountains, I wobble to the window where the world is beginning to stir. I’m in Morocco, and my preconceptions are about to be shattered.

The sun is painting the peaks orange whilst puffs of smoke rise from the huts below into the sharp morning air. Suddenly, all falls silent once more. As enthralling and enchanting as Marrakech was with all its hustle and bustle and its deeply ingrained culture, this here was the side of Morocco I’d come to see. My companions for the trip were Eric Porter and Euan Wilson, both of whom have had their fair share of adventures into the unknown. Luckily we had local guide, and soon to be friend, Lahcen at our disposal. He knew the remote routes through the Atlas Mountains like the back of his hand.

Dodging chickens and cats we hit the dirt roads of ‘downtown’ Imlil, where the locals are going about their morning commute and groceries. Just outside of town we meet a couple of local men with their nonchalant mules. We load our bikes and they begin the stern march upwards leaving us to follow their dust cloud and hoof prints. The native Moroccan nomads, called Berbers, may have used mules as transport for both themselves and their belongings, but we find the mules to be just as capable for carrying our bikes. By the time we reach the top the mules have dumped our bikes and are already scrambling back towards Imlil.

The high pass offers us the perfect vantage point over the trail below, a tiny scar in a range of towering ridge lines and textured scree fields. Following in the tracks of the Berbers before us, we cling to the narrow trail cut in the side of the mountain by the passing of feet and hooves, attempting to ignore the drop to oblivion on our right-hand side. Bobbing over fiery red boulders that ping from beneath our wheels, the trail surface changes suddenly to a silver sheen, both grippy and slippery in equal measure. As we drop lower, our surroundings become less lunar and increasingly lush. Thankfully, the trail also becomes less exposed, allowing us to switch our focus from survival to satisfaction. Under the watchful eye of a trio of local youngsters, we pick our way down a rocky staircase before stopping at a mountain refuge where Lahcen begins chatting to the owner. Seconds later, mint tea is being poured from a height. This stuff is like rocket fuel, with a sugar content so high you can feel the enamel stripping off your teeth as you drink it. Bloody good though.

It doesn’t take long for us to discover how warming, hospitable, and generous the locals are.

Passing through terraced farmland, we drop into some urban singletrack through a mountain village, which is even more technical than what we’d ridden previously. With the locals watching on, we soon have a procession of kids chasing us through the alleyways like we are the lead riders in the Tour de France. Quite the contrary in reality. We continue but our path is quickly blocked by some ‘road’ works, or rather road construction. This inaccessible corner of Morocco isn’t going to be inaccessible for too much longer… A shame, at first thought, but then again why shouldn’t local people have the same infrastructure, or at least a slice of that which so many others have? It is human nature after all to evolve and progress in an ever changing world. Food for thought as we hit the more established settlement of Ouirgane for the evening.

Half asleep we roll out from the accommodation and straight into a playground of red earth sculpted by mother nature. Eric is instantly in heaven, cutting and popping wherever he wants on the smooth contours. With the crossing of a lake atop a dam, we transition from the red into the green and a surprisingly rich and fertile environment, something I hadn’t envisaged when travelling here. Surfing between fields of poppies we funnel down narrow gaps in the stone walls which are topped with sharp thorns to keep livestock out. They act as pretty good mountain bike deterrents too. After a unanimous decision to shuttle up the 1000 plus metre climb, we meet up with the trusty support vehicle and load up our bikes. 30 minutes later we are looking at each other in relief as we pass a straggling and fragmenting group of riders suffering at each pedal stroke.

I almost feel bad, for all of 5 seconds, as we power past them. Bodies and bikes sway from side to side as the truck jolts, clawing for traction up the steep ascent. Just as I’m about to nod off the side door is flung open and the sun floods in.

Thankful of the lift, we are thrust right back in amongst the big mountains. Everyone is raring to go after lunch as we begin to crank towards the imposing peaks, darting through dusty farmland singletrack which rises and falls through the terraced fields. Pulling up at a rather dilapidated farmstead, we find two shepherds tucking into their lunch. They immediately engage Lahcen in friendly conversation before offering up a portion of their bread and tea. With a smile and a wave we depart, hitting some beautifully flowing turns that seem somewhat out of place. It was as if they’d been built with two wheels in mind, rather than simply a route for getting from A to B. Our evening’s destination comes into view; a cluster of houses surrounding a mosque nestled between the hills. It’s a satisfying feeling plotting a point-to-point route on a map, staying somewhere new each night as we follow the tracks of the nomadic Berbers before us. It doesn’t take us long to plunge into the maze of tight alleyways where we are ushered through a wooden gate into a walled garden. Oranges cling to the branches, colourful throws cover the surfaces and tagines simmer on the embers. We aren’t exactly roughing it in the mountains.

By now I’m used to the involuntary alarm clock as the early morning prayer call billows from the mosque tower next door. It seems everyone else has had the same idea as me, as we huddle round the breakfast table before first light. On the map we scout out our route back out of the mountains which will eventually take us to the flatter plains that stretch out towards Marrakech. Leaving the orange and red of the village architecture behind us, we settle in for a long day in the saddle, funnelling into a canyon where overhanging cliff tops perilously dangle above us. It almost feels like bandit country, I’m half expecting to round a corner and see a couple of cowboys on horseback careening towards me. Clawing at the pedals and torturing cassettes we switch back and forth through the heart of another village clinging to the mountain side. Eventually the road fizzles out and spits us into a ravine on the surface of Mars.

Rounding each of the valley’s overlapping layers is like turning a page in a book, the plot keeps chopping and changing, only luring us further in. I pull up by a gnarled old tree that twists its way skywards. Gazing back I track Eric and Euan snaking their way across the face; two dots adrift in a vast vista of orange earth and baby blue sky. Threading the eye of the needle through craggy rocks, another seemingly perilously perched village comes into view. We leave the harsh afternoon sun briefly as we drop below the rooftops before diving left and following the course of a dormant river bed that eventually drains us back to the support vehicle once more.

The trip felt both long and short in equal measures. Sauntering through Marrakech’s bustling markets feels like a lifetime ago, but I can still hear the vendor’s yells loud and clear… and the prayer call which I found almost haunting at first, will forever ring in my mind. My lingering impression from the trip, is of a warm, generous, and hospitable nation steeped in a rich culture, where two wheels are the perfect vehicle for total immersion.

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This article is from ENDURO issue #036

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