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Published: April 21st 2008
Kate up ahead, fighting the wicked headwinds on the ascent
After returning from a fresh 3-month renewal of our Moroccan visas in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, we wanted to spend as little time as possible in Marrakech and get back on the road. Outside of its famous medina, Marrakech is a large Europeanized city of vicious traffic and wicked dust storms, and on the whole held few attractions for us. We had already arranged a flight for Kate to her family gathering in North Carolina and had written off the attempt to retrieve our package of supplies sent from the States by UPS but now apparently marooned in the Customs shed at the Casablanca airport.
We had a vague itinerary planned for the next phase of our trip in the regions south of Marrakech: to explore the Draa Valley as far south as the Sahara dunes, and to visit the famous gorges of the Dades and Todra rivers. Between Marrakech and these destinations, however, stood the snow covered peaks of the High Atlas mountains, not so tall from our Coloradan perspective but still home to the highest peak in North Africa, 4167m high Jebel Toubkal. And to pass through this range we'd have to traverse the highest paved road
Village near Toufliht, Morocco
One of the many villages we passed as we climbed the valleys along N9 highway on the way up the Tichka pass.
in Morocco, the 2260m Tizi'n'Tichka pass.
Our ride over Tichka began with a flat 50km cruise to the small town of Ait Ourir, after which we knew the N9 highway would begin climbing. In Ait Ourir we stayed at the venerable Hotel Coq Hardi and found its elegant rooms, restaurant and riverside location even more appealing and comfortable than its description in the Lonely Planet (too bad the pool hadn't been filled by our visit). But when we got up the next morning for an early start, an ominous wall of gray obscured our view of the mountains beyond the river valley to the south. Though the locals averred that we'd likely encounter rain on our climb up to Taddert, our nominal day's destination, we pressed on with the gentle winding climb through the misty green hills, past small villages and innumerable roadside rock shops hawking "mineraux et fossils" to passing tourists. Eventually the mist evolved into a drizzle and finally, just in time for our lunch stop near the village of Touama, into an authentic rain. We pulled off near the only shelter we could find and, true to the legendary spirit of Berber hospitality, were invited in
Stopping for tea on the way to Toufliht
Mohammed was kind enough to invite us in out of the rain to share tea at his tiny rock shop, Atlas Mineraux Exposition near Touama.
out of the rain with the traditional offer to share tea with Mohammed, the sole proprietor of Atlas Mineraux Exposition. Mohammed told us he makes his living selling geodes, crystals and fossilized pre-Cambrian snails and arthropods that he finds while wandering the hills, and warned us against the brightly-colored geodes stained with iodine and mercurochrome that are sold by some other unscrupulous vendors. The three of us made a simple lunch out of our bread, tuna, cheese, yogurt and cookies, and whiled away several hours drinking tea and waiting for the rain to pass.
Once we got back on the road we were forced, due to the rain delay, to retarget our destination to the tiny village of Toufliht, just past Ait Barka, where we were told that near kilometer 65 we could find a restaurant and auberge appropriate for a night's stay. The road began to climb more precipitously, and a few hours later, as we wound through a section of the highway snaking along the steep hillside, we came within sight of the mud-roofed village of Toufliht and its improbable-looking and eponymously named Auberge, which appeared to be little more than a truckstop hanging off the side
Hamlet near Toufliht, Morocco
Not quite a village, not a kasbah, not a family house - many Berber villages are formed from the accretiion of lots of individual structures sharing common walls.
of the road overlooking the valley. No less improbably in this out-of-the-way locale, our mobile phone began ringing at just that moment, somewhere deep inside Kate's handlebar bag. The caller turned out to be our old acquaintance Ahmed, calling to let us know that he'd managed to extract our UPS package from the clutches of the bureaucrats in Casablanca Customs (using, no doubt, his insider's connections as a senior Air Force officer and former U.S. military attache; the UPS shipping notation eventually read "Released To Military"), and he asked us where we'd like him to send it. Glory be! A quick conversation was all that was necessary to arrange to have it shipped by local package delivery service to Ouarzazate, our next major destination.
To compound our good fortune, what had looked like a scruffy truckstop from down the road yielded a surprisingly nice room with a view over the valley, and with a warm welcome from the staff we were eventually ensconced in front of a roaring fire, sipping cold beer and enjoying a nice dinner from the kitchen of the Auberge Toufliht. The next morning we were back on the road, continuing a moderate climb in clammy
Renault "Trophy 4L" rally passing through Taddert, Morocco
A few of the old Renaults full of college students that we watched stream by all day - only 996 to go.
grey weather similar to the previous day's. After the highway flattened and then took a heartbreakingly precipitous drop, we began climbing again in deteriorating conditions, barely regaining our lost altitude as we approached the first half of the two-part hamlet of Taddert, a thin strip of open-air businesses clustered on either side of the N9 that serves as a pit stop for the busses, trucks and tourist SUVs traversing the route between Marrakech and Ouarzazate.
By the time we arrived in Taddert the skies had really opened up again, a sure sign from above that we should stop - at least for lunch - but after finishing our gristly beef tagines the rain had shown only signs of increasing. The locals were fatalistic about the prospects for improvements in the weather (and about the possibility that the river below the town, transformed into a roiling muddy torrent, might wash out the highway) but realistic about warning us not to attempt the Tichka pass, just 16km up the road, even though traffic continued to flow through town and there were no reports of snow at the summit. (The Highway Dept. keeps a rusty contingent of snowplows in Taddert, just in
Auberge des Noyers, Taddert Morocco
Can't believe we stayed two nights here, but any port in a storm...
So we reluctantly presented ourselves at Taddert's only option for accomodation, the dim, dank Auberge de Noyers. While resigned to having to spend a night there, we didn't anticipate that this would be our home for 2 frigid days and nights without heat or hot water during the worst of the ensuing deluge and wind storm. With nothing to do in Taddert but chew through our precious English reading material, we scurried between downpours from restaurant to tea room to rock shop, trying to find any place warm to hang out - hell, ANYPLACE that would even shut their front door to the storm - and trying not to step in mud puddles while dodging the traffic, which continued unabated through the raging storm, including a day-long convoy of 1000 Renault 4Ls full of college students running the 4L Trophy
, a pan-Morrocan charity rally from Paris. When the rain seemed to be clearing the second afternoon we took a hike up the road to have lunch in Taddert #2, the other half of the twin town, and marvelled at the waters of the silted-up river churning like a chocolate milkshake in a blender, but another cloudburst soaked us to
Open-air butcher in Taddert, Morocco
The beef restaurants lining the highway in Taddert specialiize in serving up grilled kefta and kebabs to passing tourists and captive bus passengers.
the bone halfway through our walk back to Taddert 1.
Eventually we warmed up and relaxed into the rhythm of the place, watching the town spring to life as a CTM or Supratours bus stopped to disgorge its passengers and then settling back into a kind of damp fatalism as they departed without buying a headscarf, geode or kilo of kebabs (the town's half-dozen open-air butchers specialize in hacking individual portions off of whole sides of beef, and can grill it up in the time it takes a coachload of tourists to visit the WC.) So when we awoke to blue skies on the 2nd morning we felt like regulars, and a bit wistful, as we packed up the bikes, donned all our layers and departed Taddert. One thing going for us was that, by chance, it was a Sunday - a day of the week we'd previously noted made for slack traffic in Morocco - so on this ride over the pass we'd have only a fraction of the normally heavy volume of big flatbeds and ore trucks to contend with; even the number of busses and tourist SUVs seemed lighter.
Our optimism was shortlived, however, as
Switchbacks on the north side of the Tizi'n'Tichka, Morocco
We got whacked by the headwind on half of these switchbacks, but pushed up by the tailwind on the other half.
we had to focus all our energies keeping the bikes moving up the road in the face of the 35kph gusts screaming out of the mountains. Kate and I silently questioned whether we were going to be able to push through this, figuring (correctly, as it turned out) that the headwind would be much worse at the summit, but hating the alternative of taking the bus or - even worse - waiting for it to abate with another wasted day in Taddert. As we climbed a few kilometers past Taddert 2, however, the road swung around and entered its famous section of switchbacks, and we found that after every other hairpin the helacious headwind became a miraculous tailwind, giving us a significant boost up some of the longest pitches. Most of the grade is actually quite moderate, and we realized it wouldn't have been a particularly tough ride except that the wind never completely let up, and once, near the summit, we actually had to turn around and retreat back into the lee of the mountainside during a really bad blow. During the relative lulls we were able to relax a bit and appreciate the amazing vistas as we looked
Kate at the top of Tizi'n'Tichka, Morocco
At the highest road crossing in Morocco, but it still wasn't quite "all downhill" from here.
back down the green valley through which we'd climbed and the up towards the white-blanketed mountains through which we were to pass, plumes of snow streaming from the highest peaks.
Finally we were in sight of the pass, though not without having been fooled by a false summit and mini-descent a few klicks short of the real thing. As we passed over the top we pulled in for pictures in front of the summit marker and ducked into one of the many empty tea-and-rock-shops for a quick cuppa and a warm-up, and the boys running the place wheeled over a gas heater and cranked it up right in front of our table - a gesture of hospitality that had never occured to anyone in Taddert!
A klick or two past the summit the expected downgrade kicked in, and we had about 4 ecstatic kilometers of descent with glorious views to the southeast before we reached the turnoff to our destination for the day, the town of Telouet. We had to guesstimate Telouet's exact location because, strangely, it didn't appear on our Michelin map, even though it was described by the Lonely Planet as the largest village in the
On the way to Telouet, Morocco
The road off Tichka pass to Telouet is paved, but was somewhat the worse for wear when we rode it after several days of stormy weather.
area and a historic stop on the ancient carvavan routes from Timbuktou to Marrakech. No surprise then that it turned out to be quite a bit farther than our assumed 15 kilometers off the main highway - and not all downhill by any means - but nonetheless we had a nice ride on a nominally paved road, somewhat worse for wear due to the recent storms, through red-dirt canyons dotted with fir trees and across swollen river crossings in country that reminded us immediately of Colorado. As we approached Telouet, it turned out to be a town of significant size, and one where tourism had definitely arrived: we were solicited at least twice on the road outside town by villagers touting for guesthouses.
Which is how we ended up at the Chez Ahmed Auberge d'Telouet, a substantial stone-built guesthouse just spitting distance from the vast, crumbling Glaoui Kasbah, the main focus of interest for tourists visiting Telouet. Our host was Ali, who lit a fire in the dining room to help us warm up and dry our clothes, wet after the day's ride through the tail-end of the storm, and served us a delicious chicken cous cous. After the
Village rooftops, Telouet, Morocco
These rooftops of mud, sticks and plastic sheeting weren't designed for severe winter weather - the day before we arrived a massive hailstorm blew out many roofs.
first good sleep in several nights, we decided that with heat and hot water, good food and interesting things to see in town, we would stay another day in Telouet.
Ali showed us around the adobe-walled village, abuzz with residents repairing the storm damage to their flat roofs built of mud, sticks and plastic sheeting. A substantial fraction of the villagers we saw are the black descendants of slaves brought from Mali through the centuries and seized by the Glaoui pashas as a form of taxation from the passing caravans. Thami Glaoui, the "Lion of the Atlas", was the last in a multi-century dynasty of Glaoui pashas and one of the richest men in Morocco, but he made the mistake of supporting the French against King Mohammed V and the Moroccan independence movement in the 1950s. The locals in Telouet - many of whom carry on the "el Glaoui" surname - claimed that this disloyalty is the reason the government has never sponsored any reconstruction of the old kasbah and its advancing state of decay was obvious that afternoon as we wandered through its crumbling walls, dusty courtyards and the ruins of its once-elegant living quarters decorated with carved
Glaoui Kasbah and the High Atlas, Telouet Morocco
The remains of the palacial fortress/city once occupied by Thami el Glaoui, the "Lion of the Atlas" who held dominion over the whole south of Morocco.
plaster, wood ceilings and zellij tilework. Of course, it's just this picturesque quality of decay that makes it interesting to people like Jonathan and Robert, a couple of profesional artists we met at Chez Ahmed, who dilgently took out their easels each day to capture different views of the kasbah and its surrounding landscape of blooming almond trees and snow-covered mountains.
Kate and I had hoped to ride a rough piste route normally done by 4x4s from Telouet downstream along the old caravan route to our next destination at the town of Ait Ben Haddou, about 40km away. But up to the last minute on the 2nd morning we were still consulting with locals who knew the route and tour operators who'd recently tried to drive it, and the consensus was that the recent storms had made the route an impassable mud track. So (after a quick trade with Ahmed of Kate's $10 Wal-mart wristwatch for a small carpet) we reluctantly loaded our bikes in a local minibus for the trip back up to the turnoff to Telouet to start an 80km ride the long way around to Ait Ben Haddou on the N9. While we were sad not
Mosque, Telouet Morocco
The houses may be mud, but the mosque is always built of concrete, stucco and tile.
to be able to ride through the backcountry, our disappointment was tempered by the exhilaration of a long downhill run out of the mountains that had barely flattened out by the time we reached our lunch stop in Agouim.
The downhill continued less precipitously, though with a tailwind, as we rode for awhile with a couple of Dutch cyclists all the way past Amerzgane to a poorly signed turnoff from the N9 onto a cross-desert track to Ait Ben Haddou, a shortcut that would theoretically save us 35km according to the route shown by the Michelin map. Our reports that this shortcut was surfaced turned out to be bogus, however, and as we turned off onto a loose dirt track leading across the desert into a line of hills shadowed by a phalanx of approaching thunderclouds, we began to question whether this was going to be a shortcut after all. And as we heard the rumbling of not-so-distant thunder we began to question what consistency of mud might be produced when our dirt track met with the seemingly inevitable downpour.
But vigorous pedalling, astute navigation amongst the unmarked tracks and a trick of the map's geometry combined to
The Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco
It's easy to see why this picturesque visage has been featured in countless motion pictures.
deliver us back onto the pavement at the edge of Ait Ben Haddou in only half an hour, and well ahead of the rain. Ait Ben Haddou is famous for its UNESCO-restored kasbah, one of the most picturesque and best preserved in all of Morocco. Because of its exotic image and close proximity to the film studios in Ouarzazate has served as the location for dozens of movies like "Lawrence of Arabia", "Gladiator" and "Romancing the Stone", becoming a major tourist attraction in the process. From a field of well over a dozen different guesthouses we settled in at the cheap and comfortable Etoile Filante d'Or and had some time before dark to have a look across the river at the kasbah. At this hour its dozens of mudbrick towers and houses climbing up the hillside were framed in appropriately cinematic fashion by a backdrop of steely stormclouds to the east and illuminated by the warm light of the sunset to the west.
We dedicated the following gloriously sunny day to exploring the kasbah and its environs, first scaling the hill to the fortified granary at its summit for panoramic views of the village and surrounding desert and then
Artist in Aiit Ben Haddou, Morocco
This young man whipped out a painting while we watched, using inks made of saffron and indigo which he heat-fixed over a propane flame - then gave it to us for free!
working our way down through the narrow streets. Though alot of the kasbah is now given over to tourist-oriented commercial enterprises (like the young artist who gifted us with a small painting, produced as we watched with indigo and saffron inks and heat-fixed over a propane burner) there is a small permanent population of residents who still live in their ancestral homes. For a small honorarium we toured one of these old houses, a claustrophobic labrynth of adobe rooms and passages whose creaky wooden doors were as likely to reveal goats and sheep as they were human residents. We also got our first tour in all of Morocco of an authentic carpet workshop, with surprisingly well-to-do-looking young women sitting on low wooden benches, methodically tying off and cutting knots of wool thread at a half-dozen looms lining the room.
In the morning we had doffed our shoes and waded through a shallow spot in the river in order to get across to the kasbah. But in the evening we decided to patronize the locals who'd improvised an impromptu industry ferrying tourists by donkey, horse and even camel across the normally dry crossing points, now swollen to human impassability by
Looking down on the kasbah at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco
The view down into the kasbah from the agadir (fortified granary) on top of the hill.
the unusual rains. The resulting tableau, beasts of burden crossing the river with their human cargo, was an echo of ancient times when caravans bearing the exotic riches of sub-Saharan Africa passed this very spot on their way between the great trading centers of Timbucktou and Marrakech. Our ride the following day to Ouarzazate, at the head of the Draa River in the "Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs", would be retracing in reverse the next stage of this historic route.
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