Monthly Archives: April 2014

Agouti and La Vallée Heureuse

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Working East past Agouti and then North towards La Cathedrale provided a complete departure from the Morocco I had already experienced. The comparison with Nepal is fair. The scenery changes quite drastically from deep gorges cut by rivers to rocky roads and high alpine views. At times the road took me up to the snow line. It was everything that I had hoped for. The valleys are green, well cultivated, carefully irrigated and planned. Spring flowers were in abundance everywhere. I felt lucky to have the opportunity to travel through an area that had seen such little change for centuries. It felt like travelling back in time. Once cut off by snow for much of the year the area is now readily accessible by road. Pylons follow its course powering schools, businesses and satellite TVs. The outside world is moving in, building second homes and bringing change..

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Continuing along the R302 to its most Southern point I then had to head a little North and climb towards the junction that led to Azilal. Following the twisting loops I set up camp with a panoramic view of the snow capped massif.

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Aït Bououli into Aït Bougomez

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The Route 302 towards ‘happy valley’ involves increasingly steeper climbs. Initially and after climbing out of Imi-n-Ifri, I was rewarded with a long ride down into the lush Aït Blel valley. However the road wound its way back up..and up towards a high pass. The road became difficult. It appeared newly constructed with high banks, deep water drainage ditches and a helluvah incline. The road surface was made up of loose grey gravel. It was, in effect, impossible to cycle. I pushed my bike slowly up that damn slope through a series of loops that seemed to go on forever until finally I reached the pass. By this time it was getting late and thankfully there was, what appeared to be, an old ruined Kasbah perched on the hill. I camped inside the walls.

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At just below 2000m altitude the night was a little nippy but it was a welcome change from the heat of the plains.
From the pass I dropped down towards Aït Bououli valley. This area provides a staging post for Trekkers tackling the M’Goun Massif. The M’Goun at just over 4000 metres is the fourth highest peak in the High Atlas range. Within the valley I found a traditional home converted to a Gite. I shared a Tajine meal with the family and was shown their carpentry workshop. I took a walk along the river that ran just below the village. It was certainly a very beautiful and relaxing place.

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With a slightly heavier heart I continued my journey deeper into the High Atlas range…

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Demnate and Imi-n-Ifri

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Leaving Marrakech I found myself on the N9 towards the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. My intention was to take the N8 and R210 East towards Demnate but somehow was funnelled amongst the traffic onto the N9. No worries, I thought, I will cut North via a side route. Oddly though my efforts kept swinging me back onto the N9. Initially it was frustrating. Various maps were useless and were less than representative. However it proved to be a good route and took me past farms and villages. Increasingly the road worked its way up into the Atlas and offered wonderful views. Finally I took a turning North towards Sidi Rahal on the R210.

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20140423-220517.jpgThe ride across and down towards Sidi Rahal was quite exhilarating. I camped past the highest point but with great views of the snow capped peaks to the South and the Great Plains to the North. Once at Sidi Rahal I had to make my way East to Demnate. It took some effort to get up to Demnate and the heat made it all the more difficult. As a town Demnate appears unremarkable but provides an important crossroads in each direction. I continued climbing into the pine forests before reaching Imi-n-Ifri and a wonderful Gite.

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Imi-n-Ifri (grottos mouth in Berber) has a natural bridge created by a collapsed cave. It is quite an extraordinary sight and with care it is possible to walk through it.

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I wandered down after dinner and the air was filled with the sound of toads. One jumped close to my feet and in the dark I took a picture.

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The Gite is quite near to the cave and the river continues behind it carving deeply through the rocks.
It was all quite beautiful and unspoilt.

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I stayed two nights at the Gite and enjoyed wonderful hospitality from the owner who was a retired mountain guide. I was in two minds about what to do next. I could take the road over the Atlas to Skoura and recommended by a friend. But I feared the heat in the South for cycling (it had already been unusually hot) and looked instead to traverse the Atlas East towards the Ait Bouguemez Valley and La Cathedral. Finally I opted for the latter. Ait Bouguemez or ‘happy valley’ had only recently become accessable to travellers and I had heard it described as ‘like Nepal’. I decided to ‘do’ the R302.

Marrakech

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I cycled over the busy A7 and thought I had entered a rather modern suburb of Marrakech. But it was the town of Tamensourt. I plodded on and finally found Marrakech. Traffic was heavy and like Kathmandu pollution made my eyes water. I found navigating the city quite confusing but once close to the medina I stopped at a cafe to get my bearings. The Hotel Aday is part of a cluster of budget hotels close to the expansive Djemaa El Fna open square. They are not easy to find and in an alleyway between two roads leading South from the square. Hotel Aday lives up to its Rough Guide reputation as a clean well run place and I was quite spoilt with an en suite shower room and window onto the street. Exploring the medina was an adventure. Despite my aversion to commercial centres the colour and diversity of activity is a wonder to behold. With tiny passageways spread in every direction local tradesmen and craftsmen have clustered together in different areas. Although warned of scam artists and hustlers I did not encounter any at all. There are, naturally, salesmen trying to pull customers towards their shops. But it is good natured and the shop displays they have created are quite compelling. I stayed a few nights and wandered for hours. The square is a focus for entertainers and comes alive with lanterns at nightfall. Having read about animal cruelty issues there I personally did not see a single snake or monkey being paraded in the square. Horse drawn carriages provide tours and are lined up between the square and the Qessabin Mosque which dominates the skyline. Cycling around the Medina walls took me past the royal palace and its rose garden. I doubt I even scratched the surface but enjoyed my brief visit to ‘old’ Marrakech.

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Having stocked up on some particularly good freshly ground coffee I headed East for the mountains…

On the road to Marrakech.

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I took the R204 East from Safi towards Marrakech. The weather remained unusually hot. After tea at Brougueda I wandered around the local open market on a plot just out of town. The journey East through flat treeless plains was fairly unremarkable. Finally, and with a few welcome hills changing the landscape, I popped my tent up in a row of stones waiting to be made into a wall on the edge of a field. My route joined the N7 at Oulad Dlim and headed South towards Marrakech. Increasingly the road became hillier and amongst the distant haze I could just make out the snow capped mountains of the Atlas range.

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Oualidia and Safi

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The R301 running along the Atlantic coastline provides wonderful cliff top views of the sea below. Its a good well sealed road and perfect for cycling as it follows the coast South beyond the sprawl of the big cities.
Having left El Jadida I found myself cycling through a big industrial site. Rafts of pipelines stretched above the road which connected a giant tanker dock on the shore with fuel storage tanks further inland. Electric pylons snaked into the distance in every direction. 20140421-095116.jpg
Further along and past some rocky outcrops the road dropped down towards the sea and past a wooded glade. Small fishing boats were beached amongst trees and a few picnickers sat in the shade. I stopped, had a wander up to the waterline and made coffee. Little fishing huts were scattered on the rocks next to the sea.

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I continued my sunny afternoon ride along the coast. It was getting late but felt that with a good push I could make the ‘fashionable’ resort of Oualidia.
It became a little too dark for comfort but could not find anywhere to stop to camp for the night. >20140421-143427.jpgFinally I breezed in past the curved electric blue street lights that mark the main drag into Oualidia. There were brightly lit hotels everywhere. I spotted a car/lorry park with four French camper vans. It was, I was told by a man from Amiens, fine for me to pitch my tent amongst the group. He had a small car on a trailer behind his motor home and suggested I place my bike there. Great. So I set about happily erecting my tent in the dark using a headlamp. But then, with lights flashing, the local gendarmerie pulled in to the car park. It seems they had arrived to move people on. I was told I had to leave and they began knocking on the doors to the camper vans. The man from Amiens was not a happy Gaul. Given the late time I didn’t want to argue and and started to repack my tent. However the Frenchman became quite animated. He was determined, literally, to stand his ground. I cycled back to the entrance and began checking the map for the local camping ground. But then the police drove back out and stopped briefly to apologise. They had spoken to their ‘superior’ and, after all, it was okay for me to camp. Sigh. I went back in and once again pitched my tent. The day was finally over.
The town car park was next to the old Portuguese walls and with a view beyond to the whitewashed beach resort on the coast below. It is, I gather, quite the place for windsurfers. I did not cycle down to take a closer look but continued on through the town towards Safi.

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There are a number of ‘budget’ hotels (detailed in the guides) in a small street next to the entrance to Safi’s medina and close to the seafront. Hotel L’Avenir is the first and situated on the corner with its cafe and restaurant looking directly onto the main road. It perfectly suited my needs and a well chosen recommendation in the ‘Rough Guide’.
Contained with a square mile or two are Safi’s main attractions. The high walled, almost tunnelled, Medina is an extraordinary step back in time and a living, breathing place for its inhabitants. Above the Medina stands a castle or Kechla (now the national ceramic museum) and a Sufi shrine. A railway runs along the coast and separates a partially ruined Portuguese fortress from the main road which leads into a local shopping thoroughfare (Rue D’Rab’t).
For visitors this area of Safi reveals a perfect combination of history and everyday Moroccan life. I picked a good basic (cheap) restaurant off the Rue D’Rab’t for my evening meals. I used an extra days rest from cycling to give myself blisters exploring Safi’s medina and surrounding areas. It boast a Portuguese chapel but personally did not find it so interesting. However the tiny passageway with beautiful doorways and deeply coloured, sometimes florally painted, walls were remarkable. The ceramics souk was interesting but hardly earth shattering. The evenings magically came alive with the throng of people, shops and market traders creating a wonderful view into traditional and modern Moroccan life.

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20140421-154734.jpgI liked Safi and its generous spirit. People were keen to help me wherever I turned. It seemed like a happy place and was a little sad to leave. Marrakech was calling.
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Middle Atlas..

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Brief update.
With the temperature heading in to the thirties during the day progress has become difficult. But am at Imi-n-Ifri close to Denmate.
Updates may be slow to appear as WiFi and connectivity become rare.
A small selection of photos below from the coast at Safi via Marrakech to Imi-n-Ifri.
Options are to head South over the Atlas or East towards Agouti and ‘happy valley’ Both prospects are a little daunting as heat exhaustion has become an issue. Decisions…

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Azemmour to El-Jadida

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I failed to find anywhere great to camp and forced to make my shelter in a deserted crumbling and roofless house. It was a novel place to pitch my tent in a room with a good view of the stars.

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I got a good start the next day. The road began dropping downhill towards a bridge over the Oum er Rbia river. The old walls of the Portuguese fort stand proudly alongside the river which empties within a few miles into the sea. Over the bridge, uphill and quickly into the town, I grabbed a fish filled bun from a food stall opposite an entrance into the medina.
The whitewashed medina was very attractive. It was filled with large colourful murals. There were cats everywhere. An elderly man told me how cats bring luck and fortune to a home. Children returning from school implored me to visit the garden and a woman led me to a large open area by the ramparts overlooking the river.
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Azemmour had a good small town feel and appeared relaxed. It is a little off the usual tourist track but is a very attractive town. This contrasts with the city of El Jadida, another Portuguese hold from the 16th and 17th centuries and now a large Moroccan holiday destination.
I cycled along the extensive beachfront past beach huts and fish restaurants. The town beach iwas filled with teams playing football. I quickly picked my way past, into the walled Medina and then out onto a long walled jetty that provided harbour for a fleet of fishing boats.

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Although I spent little time in El Jadida I preferred the small town feel of Azzemour. I rounded the coast and cycled towards the famous holiday resort of Oualidia. It was some distance and worried a little that , once again, I would have a problem finding somewhere to camp.
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Casablanca

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My first call before Casablanca was on my old friend King Mohammed VI. The weather had taken a turn for the best and thought maybe a round of golf with young ‘Mo’ might be in order. I arrived at the entrance to his beach palace but sadly he had sent his apologies. Apparently he had been called away in a hurry to speak with the US secretary of State. Ah well. Another time. Nice gaff tho.
I stopped on the bike and took a picture. One of Mo’s security guys ran over to me and stopped me moving off on my bike. he wanted to check my phone for the photo. ‘Interdit!’ he said; ‘you understand?’ No…I didn’t….well I did really but we shook hands and I cycled off anyway.

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It was a fair ol’ whack before reaching the city of Mohammedia and with a late start I looked for a place to camp. Luckily I found a wonderful spot by a river and between roads that ran parallel to the coast. Brilliant.
The frogs sang and was awoken by the early birds. I was visited by cows and goats as they slowly shuffled over a shallow crossing by a broken bridge.

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Mohammedia was a little suburban. I had a walk in the park opposite the new railway station. Once past the city I stopped at a truckers cafe for a marvellous Tajine cooked casserole. It tasted great and really hit the spot. Lovely people too.
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Casablanca appeared quite mundane from the coast road. Built fairly recently by the French it has little character but has expanded considerably. Amongst the concrete towers are shabby tenements which serve as home for a large underclass of working class residents.
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The big attraction is the Mosquée Hassan II. Built over the sea with a view to the water beneath it is, at 200 metre tall, the highest structure in Morocco and the tallest minaret in the world. It is a big erection. I could not take my bike too close but left it with one of the guards at the walkway entrance. I was quickly accosted by an elderly Northern English tourist that talked at me for longer than I would have liked and repeatedly explained how he was ‘not impressed at all’ with his hotel or the mosque or the water or…. I made my excuses and gave him the slip. Personally I thought the mosque was fairly impressive. It was a lot more interesting than the rest of Casablanca which appeared to be little else but concrete blocks.

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Just past the lighthouse on the Southern outskirts of Casablanca is a little island (Marabout of Sidi Abderrahmane) now joined by a walkway. Local musicians played on the bridge for visitors. Apparently a visit to it is good for the treatment of people suffering from mental health issues and their relatives.
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Getting off

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Finding the riad in the medina at Rabat was a bit of a trial. But once there I felt I had finally made my move and survived a transplantation into a very different world. The plan initially was to stock up on supplies and have a look around Rabat.. but I had little time for that and even missed breakfast. Being a cheapskate cycling/camping hobo the hotel was a teeny bit more upmarket than I would like. It was an expensive sleep in my books. I imagined a meter running whilst I slept. But once awake the riad looked lovely. The room was well furnished and it felt like I at least had a brief, almost luxurious stay, in quite a beautiful traditionally furnished Moroccan house. Hang the expense.

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Feeling rough (grrrr headache) and barely ready I found myself thrown out from the small passageway of the hotel door into the bustling market. Exciting stuff! With barely room to steer my bike I picked my way between the traders. The busy passageway led to the walkway la Boulevard el Alou filled with shops and stalls. I sat and had a fishy (pilchards?) bun with a peppery sauce before heading back West towards the coast road. I could not resist stopping for a freshly pressed orange juice from a woman in a long black Hijab.

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I arrived out of the medina opposite the walls and main gate of the ancient Kasbah where I had briefly taken shelter the night before. I was tempted to take a little ride inside on my bike.
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Aside from the huge gates at the entrance the Kasbah was not terribly impressive and access did not extend far. Back out on the coast road the weather changed as I rounded the coast beyond the Kasbah. The combination of heavy rain and strong headwind made me take shelter behind some ruins and spray from the sea threatened to rise above me as the waves crashed into the rocks. Typical seaside weather!

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Regardless of the heavy clouds heading inland I was happy, once again, to be back in the saddle and heading South along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Yeah!
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