As an inquisitive traveller and maybe less of a dedicated cyclist I had mixed feelings about my trip to Morocco. It is a relatively inexpensive and attractive option for anyone wanting to visit an exotic location fairly close to Europe. From a cycling point of view the Atlas mountain ranges have a lot to offer for both the on and off road cyclist.
The cities of Agadir or Marrakech make good starting points from which to explore and enjoy some of the most amazing sights and experiences that Morocco has to offer.
Morocco boasts an excellent road network , much of which has been modernised since the 90s and now includes toll expressways providing fast links across the entire country.
My initial plan was to cycle from Rabat to Fes and then South to Errachadia. This would have then taken me to the city of Ouarzazate before crossing the Tizi n’Tichka pass leading to Marrakech. It is a classic and popular route taken by touring cyclists. However, I thank my lucky stars that I chose a different route. These roads are pretty busy and heavily used by trucks, coaches, taxis and buses. The more candid reports from cyclists that have followed that route, including visits to the tourist ‘must see’ gorges, do not always paint a positive picture. Cycling journals posted at the crazyguyonabike website reveal a wide selection of experiences. Chris Scott’s book : Morocco Overland – Route Guide: From the Atlas to the Sahara provides excellent info on routes although written more for adventure motorcyclists than cycle tourists.
Morocco is, in some respects a ‘hard’ place and tourism has created a dependence which can reflect in a poor experience for travellers who may be scammed, harassed and bled dry. Follow the pack along those roads and, unless ‘credit card’ touring or being looked after as part of a ‘package’, you are likely to be be disappointed and, for some, angry and frustrated. The odd great view and occasional unique experience is a poor substitute for the potential beauty and wonderful local people that will be encountered by opting for a road ‘less travelled’. Such routes may not figure so highly in the guidebooks but will provide a greater insight into the daily lives of Moroccan people and will still, with good planning, lead to the extraordinary places and wonderful views that typify Morocco.
Instead of heading East from my starting point in the capital of Rabat, I chose to follow the coast road South as far as Safi. Once past Casablanca (and a large port oil terminal) the road becomes quiet and relaxing with excellent coastal views. I headed inland at Safi to Marrakesh and traversed the High Atlas before finally heading North to Fez. Undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of my trip was the section of the High Atlas from La Vallée Heureuse to La Cathedrale.
Arriving at Rabat-Sale airport I was a little concerned that I may have a problem cycling into the capital on the busy N6 (Route Nationale). The road is open for use by cyclists and, in common with other major roads in Morocco, it has a wide hard shoulder. Rabat itself is fairly cycle friendly and provides cycle lanes, some separated from traffic, along main routes within the city. Sadly there are few cyclists actually using them. Morocco, in a similar fashion to France, is a country where the petrol/diesel motor reigns supreme. The roads are built and geared up to the motorist. There are a large number of mopeds. But rather than walk or cycle any distance many people prefer to make use of shared taxis. The Grand Taxi drivers do good business and their Mercedes saloons are often stuffed to the gills. Alternatively there are minibuses (‘transport mixte’) which carry anyone and anything, often in large quantities, both inside and outside. Sometimes roof racks are used for transporting goats. In rural areas it is the minibuses that are the popular way to cover distances. Alternatively there remains a large number of people who rely on the traditional donkey or horse and cart. I saw many examples of roadkill in Morocco especially snakes. But the most unusual victim I saw was a dead donkey.
Given the variations in driving ability and a European attitude towards speed on the roads I did not feel that safe cycling amongst Moroccan traffic. I felt, at times, like I was taking my life in my hands. I had a large yellow rain cover which I placed over the bag on my rear carrier. This had quite a good effect on some drivers who slowed down and gave me a lot more space when they passed. Don’t kill me.. please!
I cycled through dozens of police traffic checkpoints; many on the edges of towns or cities. The police check drivers documents. Every time I was waved through without question. The police also operate mobile and hand held speed cameras. The speeding issue is reinforced along roads with a widespread poster campaign including pictures of children telling parents to step off the gas and get home safely to their family. I would guess the driver of the Grand Taxi that I took from Ouaouizarht to Beni Mellal did not have children. He drove like a maniac and, without hesitation, overtook cars on blind bends as he threw his overloaded car down the mountain road. That was.. interesting. I was glad I wasn’t cycling on that road.
Of note in Moroccan cities and urban areas is that the roadside kerbs are up to a foot high. This certainly affords some degree of protection to pedestrians against cars mounting the pavement. But the height creates a problem for cyclists especially on busy stretches of road where space is limited. Occasionally I found my cycle panniers rubbing against the raised kerb and had to prevent my front wheel being pulled in towards the pavement. It is made worse by the fact that drivers do not always provide enough space when overtaking. The roads are fairly narrow and only just squeeze in two way traffic. This combination of factors makes cycling a little more stressful. But not all drivers are so inconsiderate and some will wait to pass and are careful to give cyclists plenty of room. The issue of too narrow roads also occurs outside of urban areas. The layers of bitumen used for a road can be so thick that it creates a drop at the edge. Frequently there are dirt tracks running alongside roads for the use of donkeys and carts. It is possible to laboriously cycle along the track or move fairy briskly on the tarmac road. But, and this is the problem, it is not easy to move between the two. With a juggernaut flying past too closely, especially with traffic moving in the opposite direction, it becomes difficult to stay on the road. Forced into the dirt track it is then not so easy to get back onto that tarmac without stopping or finding a good edge to ride up. There were, I hate to say, far too many occasions when lorries or buses passed far too closely for comfort. Occasionally coach drivers would overtake and then steer back to their normal position on the road before the rest of their vehicle had time to get past me. Arrrrrrrgh!
Of course the remote mountain roads and tracks in Morocco were perfect. Sometimes damn difficult, but not really any different from anywhere else in the world and part of the course. Decent expeditions tyres that can handle any surface are essential. My (long discontinued) Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres performed without complaint. The Schwalbe Mondial tyres are now the business. Expedition tyres are tediously slow on well sealed roads but personally prefer the one size fits all approach.
One of the biggest factors concerning a cycle touring trip in Morocco is the weather and climate. The country experiences quite different temperatures between the North and South. Climbing into the mountains brings the potential for extreme conditions with major downpours and deep snow. It is, in practical terms, best to avoid the heat of the Summer when temperatures run too high for any kind of outdoors activity during the day. But the weather in Morocco, like elsewhere in the world, has become unpredictable. I had planned to travel the length of the country during March but was delayed by personal commitments. However April proved to be a good month with relatively good temperatures and moderate rainfall. March had seen relentless rainfall in the South much to the chagrin of other touring cyclists. I found that, having reached Marrakech, the temperature had edged up into the mid 30s. This was totally at odds with the climate graphs in the guidebooks. By the end of the month it had crept into the 40s and far too hot for daytime cycling. However the High Atlas provided perfect cycling conditions during April. I shied away from the prospect of dropping South out of the mountains and into the desert. I did not want to cook however attractive the desert and its camels might be. It turned out to be a good decision given the beauty of the central valleys between the snow peaked ranges. Cycling across Morroco’s Northern provinces in late April past fields of spring flowers felt like the hottest days of a balmy British summertime.
In Morocco bicycle maintenance including parts and repairs is generally provided by motor mechanics. There are few dedicated cycle workshops and are lumped in with mopeds and motorcycles. I was fascinated in France how bicycles were repaired and sold in garden centres alongside lawnmowers. I only saw bicycles for sale in Morocco outside toy shops. Thankfully I had no problems with the bike that I could not sort out myself. Pictured below is a rare dedicated cycle repair workshop situated in Rabat’s medina.
I had little problem finding drinking water in Morocco. Many towns and villages had a well or communal tap with fresh potable water. Despite taking a water filtration device I did not use it at all and ensured that I carried enough for a few days supply. Water is, as a rule, usually safe to drink in Morocco. Likewise food is generally of good quality. In this respect Morocco reminded me of Kashmir and where there is a tradition, almost personal obligation, of selling and providing fresh healthy food. However I would still recommend caution in cities especially tourist areas. I certainly suffered (and lost a day) from a nasty bout of ‘Fezzy belly’ in Fes from eating uncooked local food.
On arrival in Rabat I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy paraffin for my stove. As an alternative white spirit is available from DIY shops selling paint. Instead of paraffin I used diesel or ‘gasoil’ for the duration of my trip. It works remarkably well with the multi-fuel MSR dragonfly stove although I had to dismantle it at one point to clean out a lot of black greasy looking gunk from below the fuel jet. I cannot recall seeing a single shop anywhere I visited in Morocco selling camping gear of any kind.
The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guides were useful for finding ‘budget’ (@100Rs) places to stay in cities. Although it isn’t that easy to find places suitable to take a bike especially in older traditional Medina buildings with very narrow stairs and rooms on higher levels. Great places to stay: Safi – Hotel de l’Avenir; Marrakech – Hotel Aday; Zaouia Ahansal – Amzrai Guesthouse (Youssef Jini); Fes – Pension El-Kasbah; Meknes – Maroc Hotel.
Beyond urban areas and into the Atlas mountains I had little problem finding places to camp. However Morocco is quite densely populated and it is difficult to find anywhere, even remote places, without attracting the attention of local people. Wherever you find yourself in Morocco there will be a goat herder keeping watch.