We cycled from Agadir on the coast mostly along the Asif Tifnout river, on the south side of the Atlas from Marrakech. The roads were lined with people traveling to or from the next market town so there was lots of encouragement which is good because otherwise this would be a relentless ride; attritional, mostly into the wind and ever so slightly and slowly up hill. We did this part of the journey over two days which seemed sensible enough although we still managed to overreach with our dawdling loaded pace, ending up cycling long after dark on two occasions looking for a place to stay.
Wild camping outside of the mountains and the national parks here isn't straightforward as so much is either farmed, quarried or lived on and places to stay are very much situated in the large towns - on this road meaning Agadir then Taroudant then Oulad Berhil, each about 60\80 km apart. If we had planned it better we would have either gone very slowly and stayed at each opportunity or we would have left early from Agadir and made it to Oulad Berhil in a day and then assaulted the climb into the mountains after a good night's sleep. We did neither leaving Agadir very late in the day and making it the 80 km to Taroudant with the aid of a local mayor and a taxi after a while of riding in the dark. And similarly the next day reaching Oulad Berhil, very early after a fairly easy 60 km, we kept on, thinking to camp on the mountain ending up 15 km from the top of the Tizi n’Test at 2,300m in the dark again on a car wide dirt road with a cliff face on either side hauling our bikes on top of a truck full of fruit bound for Asni to get us to the top to find some level ground to pitch the tent.
Once we had accessed the mountains, as we did via the slightly hectic but ultimately stunningly beautiful climb up the Tizi n’Test, the High Atlas was all about the scale and the endless gravel roads. There are many gravel tracks that lead to mountain villages that then turn into walking paths or climbs and then back into tracks again. The distances can be deceiving when you look down from above. Your eyes and your brain focus differently, settlements fade into the landscape and roads seem shorter; climbs seem more manageable. In this region you are for the most part at above 1500 meters and either climbing back up or descending from about 2500/3000 meters. A shifting deep gravel surface is a bugger to climb wherever you are. The altitude doesn't help our task and my legs and lungs convince me to get off and walk often. Hauling is faster on these roads for sure. The views however are epic and well worth it. Well worth dragging a bike for as once you are up you can descend, and how great is that. I never got tired of descending these high gravel piste on my bike, a rigid dirt drop mtb, too heavy you would think but seriously the best bike for this kind of adventure, and we built it which is pretty cool too. Judith is a wheel builder and I am a welder and brazer of bike frames for the most part. The bikes we took carried us and our kit in a comfy, agile and sometimes exhilarating fashion without fail, and not once did I worry when it was tossed on top of a truck and lashed down to the roof unceremoniously while being reassured of its safety. Bulletproof right and, as it should be, just great fun, half because of the ride and half because it feels like you don't have to worry about things on a bike like this. My brakes are cable operated - where do you fix a hydro brake out here - tubeless tyres of course but I have a tube so that's ok. There isn't much else that can go wrong that can't be fixed, and that is as important to me as the ride or the landscape; we are self propelled and capable of being self sufficient out here, to an extent, we are still useless westerners, city types etc; from London etc. The riding is tough, rewarding everything you would expect.
The people, dogs and cats, food and the landscape however are what it's all about for me and those things stick in my mind. I love riding but mostly it is only to take me to or through those things in the most fun way possible, not for exercise, not at all, that is a by-product and fitness something of an enabler but I can also just go a little slower and take my time. Bike riding is to take me to an omelette dinner or a great place to sleep the night waking up to stunning views; to cover some amazing miles, it doesn't get better. We were in the high mountains for only a few days climbing and hammering down gravel roads. Just a toe in the water of what is possible around here. There are a good number of places to stay, mountain refuges, staffed auberge type places and of course wild camping is fairly straightforward. After a few days exploring our small area of the Toubkal National Park we descended for a day past mountainsides of prickly pear, apples and lime trees and found ourselves at Asni and the first signs of the Marrakesh tourist experience to come. We had a destination of course but it was almost enough to make us turn around and head back up the mountain.
We stayed just outside Asni, fed and slept and the next day made the push for Marrakech. The last bit of mountainous landscape was pretty spectacular but the roads were becoming busy. The landscape around Asni is a hub for tourists taking mountain bike tours or paragliding from the flat table top mountain, a real contrast to the last few days of hardly seeing anyone and the sparseness of the High Atlas. The roadside calls on this side of the Atlas had changed from shouts of encouragement to shouts of traders and cafe owners. We drafted each other for the last 50 km of straight flat road, slightly down hill, and sped into Marrakech and our airplane home.