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A Hot Lap in the Atlas Mountains

Huseyin Urkmez and Yusuf Ozbek started pedalling in Gibraltar, climbed the Rif Mountains, passed through the Jebel Sharo desert and in the High Atlas Mountains cycled up to the 4,165 m peak of Mt Toubkal.

At the Peak

Jebel (Mt.) Toubkal with the height of 4,165m (13,670 ft) is the highest point in Morocco. There's a traditional route for tourists who come to climbing Toubkal. Arriving at Marrakech by train, visitors take a van to Imlin. The journey then continues on foot to Refuj after loading the luggages to mules. The climb to the peak starts the next morning after a night of resting.

The Istanbul airport officials view our bicycles with suspicion and consign all our camping gear along with anything else not actually screwed down to ordinary luggage, ransacking our painstakingly packed rear racks. The plane touches down at Athens and fills up for Casablanca. The first job is to oil the telephone liberally with dirhem and announce our safe arrival. Then we catch the train through the unpromising looking city and begin to weave our way through a maze of transport connections further hampered by apparent an incomprehension of English. We made the connection for Tangier only by the skin of our teeth.

At midnight 5,000 km from Istanbul we start pedalling and after a short time set up the tent among thick reeds by the roadside.

As it starts to grow dark we stop for tea and are joined by a young guide who tells of a camping place with a wonderful view, shower and breakfast. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, we need little persuasion. The view turns out to be from the flat earthen roof of the house built into a slope on the edge of a precipice. We have yet another of our inevitable macaroni and Liptons tea meals by the light of a full moon and try to remember not to plummet over the precipice until it is time to wake up.

Breakfast at a petrol station cafe, consists of a strange green herbal tea sweet as jam and cheese börek made with foul smelling oil, served with dubious standards of hygiene . We call in at nearby Tangier to try a bit of shopping and ascertain that stock is limited. Even to find our most basic requirements entails checking several stores.


We are in Medina where the houses are like white sugar cubes set in streets so narrow that our loaded bikes pass through with difficulty.

Following a five-hour journey to Tetouan along a road from which villages prefer to distance themselves, we gradually acclimatize ourselves to the heat and the country. Tetouan consists of thousands of white houses reminiscent of Bodrum nestled at the foot of the steep green forested slopes of the Rif Mountains, their peaks disappearing into the clouds. We decide to camp at the nearby Mediterranean resort of Martil and while preparing our meal a purveyor of hash circles us, describes his wares and finally smokes them himself without further insistance - the first of many similar occurances in Morocco.

Morning. We set off for Chefchaouen and start to head up into the clouds on an impossibly steep road when a van stops to offer us a lift. The city centre is milling with strolling groups of flashily dressed men and women with not a factory-rolled cigarette in sight. Even little children try to sell us the pure, no additives product at 10 dirhem a gram. We take refuge in a telephone box as a scuffle breaks out, but it is soon resolved without police intervention. We camp near to the last in a line of excessively luxurious villas protected by high walls, but the silence of night is shattered by gun shot. We lie low.

We are in Medina where the houses are like white sugar cubes set in streets so narrow that our loaded bikes pass through with difficulty. Two roads lead south: Quazzane or Ketama. We point our handlebars towards the former as the latter is apparantly a large "trading centre" of ill- repute.

It is overcast and cool, and we zig-zag three to four hours up pine covered slopes, and finally, pushing our bikes, whizz down the other side in a fraction of the time. We arrive in the spotless city of Meknes having fallen well short of our daily target of 120 km. To make up time we decide to cycle back to Casablanca and catch the train for Marrakech. We pass through villages on the way, shopping, chatting and feeling at home. We make good progress, but the road seems never ending. The train reduces a two-day (250 km) cycle lap to three hours. Marrakech is level and a-whirr with bicycles. Elegantly dressed women and aged Arabs in white robes handle cycles and mopeds with expertise.

We are heading for Tahnaut and one of Africa's highest peaks, Toubkal. The road threads through a landscape of running water and green. We receive a warm welcome from some young Berbers in Tahnaut and decide to leave superfluous luggage with young Lahce, and head off with the bikes for a couple of days. We head first in the direction of Asni in search of camping gear and then follow the river past little waterfalls to Imlin, the last settlement centre before the mountain.

In the morning for a change we load our gear, bicycles and all onto a miyol (mule) and set off on a five to six-hour walk to Refuj at 2,180 m undaunted after a good breakfast and good night's sleep. After the village of Aremo, the road shrivels to an extremely narrow and dangerous track covered in giant round stones. Our guide Lahsin drives us on up the never ending steep slope praising us for being a little faster than European women but still too slow to be able to reach the peak. After six hours steady climb with only one brief stop we arrived in Refuj, the final camp before the peak. There are 10-20 tents of varying size and a hut with an upper section reserved for women.

A wrong choice means a night on the mountain.

After breakfast we start pedalling up the incredibly steep track until - as the altitude increases and oxygen decreases - our lightweight Kestle bikes start weighing as heavy as motorcycles. The sun is above the high peak before us, and the moment it disappears the air freezes. We put up the tent in record time and dive in. The night is pitch black, and a violent wind threatens to shred our tent and leave us exposed in summer sleeping bags on one of Africa's highest peaks. We shiver till dawn, watch the sun rise and inspect the tent for damage but find none. If we had known we could have shivered in comfort. We circle our 25 square meter site at 4,165 m on our bicycles and begin the descent which, being slippery, is even more dangerous than the ascent. In Refuj we are chastized by Lahsin for being late and keeping him and the mule from their breakfast. Too exhausted to react we tell him to go. Man and mule disappear from the horizon in ten minutes.

 

We set off in an hour or so stopping frequently to rest and hoping our memories will guide us in the right direction. At the one and only shop between Aremo and Imlin the path forks and the sun begins to set. A wrong choice means a night on the mountain and the tent and sleeping bags are with miyol. Thanks to miyol and his kind we are able to select the right path by following the trail of dung.


We shiver till dawn, watch the sun rise and inspect the tent for damage but find none.

In Aremo we are met by a search party consisting of our concerned guide together with eight other men. The next day leads us up another steep track to the Tamselt falls which drop 100 m with spectacular strength, especially in spring. Hüseyin decides to attempt to cycle down but the precipitous conditions are too dangerous, and once again the wretched Kestle is loaded onto miyol. 150m below the waterfall is another smaller waterfall, ending in a pool of numbingly cold water. Back on the roof terrace our adventure in the High Atlas Mountains is over, but after two days' rigorous walking we settle in our tent in sweet anticipation of further pedalling.

The next phase is the Jebel Saharo desert. The sun beats down mercilessly on the treeless landscape and low terra cotta villages resembling sandcastles. We spend the night at "Quarzazete Camping" in Quarzazete and undergo an ecstatic cleansing ritual in the comfortable, palm covered site.


When our water reserves are half finished we are forced to make the decision to turn back.

In a cafe we befriend a teacher from Imesin in the Dades Valley which lies to the north of the Jebel Saharo. Ahmad invites us to his hostel, serves us that familiar heavy sweet tea and explains some of the mysteries of Morocco to us. Our first question: Why are there no dogs? And secondly: Why are people polite and respectful almost to the point of ignoring us? "If a Berber puts a dog in front of his house it is taken to mean that he doesn't want any visitors. It also means there are no wild animals to threaten the flocks in the Atlas. Why feed one extra mouth?" "Tourism creates about 3,000 jobs. A family consists of five people on average so that means about 15,000 mouths are fed, a substantial number in a relatively poor country. King Hasan II gave a directive to treat tourists well, and to ensure conformity assembled a special police force to punish offenders. If you feel you have been overcharged by a taxi driver the mere mention of the police precludes the necessity for calling them."

We head for Zagora in Jebel Saharo under oppressive heat. The most important consideration is water, but not a house is in sight. The asphalt road has given way to fine sand which slows the pace. From now on we are no longer concerned with how many kilometers remain but how much water, and calculate that we need at least 40 litres to reach Zagora. When our water reserves are half finished we are forced to make the decision to turn back. We struggle back to the asphalt at Quarzazete-El Rachidia and collapse, accepting water in a filthy container brought to us by children. Come what may we'll solve the problem in Istanbul in a couple of days. At midnight we reach Taroudant and camp.

We feel like 9-5 robots on the boring return journey to Agadir: pack the tent, pedal for 10 hours, put up the tent, sleep. In Agadir we camp on a site by the Atlantic Ocean with everything except our sleeping bags and mats loaded onto the bikes ready for the 25 kilometer early morning trip to the airport. We sleep under the stars. Farewell Moroccan sky.

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