High Atlas and kasbahs
On the green banks of the Oued Dades river near El Kelaa M'Gouna.
On our exploration of Morocco south of the High Atlas, we had originally considered cycling a loop from the Draa Valley village of Tansikht through Risani and Erfoud back to Ouarzazate, but soon realized we wouldn't have enough time to complete it before Kate had to catch her March 18 flight from Marrakech for a quick visit to the U.S. So, not wanting to pass up the Dades and Todra Gorges - "don't miss" destinations, from all the first-hand reports we'd received - we rode the bus from Zagora, near the end of the Draa Valley, back to Ouarzazate. After spending the night in familiar territory again, we started riding eastward along the Dades Valley on what was to be the last cycling leg of our trip through Morocco.
The leafy character of central Ouarzazate quickly reverted to its natural desert quaility as we left town on the well-paved N10 highway, climbing and descending a series of short, steep hills between longer stretches of flat desert terrain. To the south of us as we left Ouarzazate we saw the giant Taorirt Reservoir, and shortly after that the Ouarzazate Royal Golf Club and the other golf mega-resorts that cynics claim suck
View across the river at El Kelaa M'Gouna
One of the stunning views from the terrace of our guesthouse.
up most of the reservoir water that should rightfully be irrigating the fields and palmeraies of the Draa Valley. Due to a late morning start, Skoura, at 42km from Ouarzazate, was to be our destination for the day, but besides a few picturesque kasbahs we found it a tremendously unappealing place to stay, so with the help of a nice westerly tailwind we pushed on another 50km over 1370m Tizi'n'Taddert pass (climbing, fortunately, up the "easy" side) to El-Kelaa M'Gouna. Besides being the "rose capital" of Morocco (though we were too early to see many blooms and we missed the late May Rose Festival), El-Kelaa M'Gouna is also the jumping-off point for treks in the M'Gouna river valley, from where it is possible to cross over to the Dades gorge.
As we approached El-Kelaa M'Gouna we also got closer to the course of the Oued Dades river, and had great vistas to the north of kasbahs and palmeraies with the snow-covered High Atlas mountains in the background. Passing up the "kasbah-style" hotels, we chose a small auberge with a beautiful garden in El-Kelaa M'Gouna just past the bridge at the junction of the M'Gouna and Dades rivers, an area
Springtime in the Dades Gorge
Our timing was perfect to catch the almond trees in bloom all the way up the Dades Valley.
jammed with shops and stalls selling various rose products - eau de rose, creams, soaps, and even jam! Once again, we were the only guests, and the rather dark room was more than made up for by the gracious staff, the large terrace cantilevered out over the river and the delicious tagine for dinner.
In the morning we continued riding east through the town itself, which was much more substantial than we expected, and then 24km farther on to the crossroads town of Balmalne du Dades, where the highway crosses the Dades River as it emerges from the mountains to the north. Having lunch up on the hill in Boulmalne du Dades, it was clear to see the deep rift in the hills cut by the river - somewhere up there, we knew, was the famous Dades Gorge, but exactly what we were in for, cycling-wise, we had no idea.
As it turned out, a wide road with a good surface followed the Dades upstream at a moderate grade, with dramatic views of crumbling adobe villages and kasbahs nestled into the red rock landscape at every turn. Though not yet a "gorge", in these lower reaches the river
Ruined Kasbah, Dades Gorge, Morocco
Part of the view from our room at the Auberge Panoramique.
alternately constricted between narrow cliffs and then widened out into a flat-bottomed valley with verdant green terraces where wheat, peach, and apple trees were being cultivated, with the almond trees in gorgeous pink full bloom. We had targeted an area of the gorge about 32km up from Boulmalne that the Lonely Planet identified as an area with alot of guest houses, but in fact there were auberges and gites of some sort every kilometer or two along the road. Which was a lucky thing, since after I experienced a severe case of post-lunch bonk at about kilometer 15 we were able to pull into the Auberge Panoramique, set into a bend in the road high on the ochre cliffs. True to its name, the hotel gave us panoramic views of a triangular green valley ringed by kasbahs and formed at the junction of the Oued Dades and a smaller river whose cascade sent the soothing sound of rushing water drifting up to the hotel terrace.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon dabbling in the river, walking the dikes between terraced wheat fields and exploring the crumbling kasbah. After a delicious tagine and a great night's sleep, we continued
Ruined kasbah, Dades Gorge
The manmade structures totally disappeared into the fantastic landscape in this area of the gorge.
our ride up the valley, with short steep ascents and descents relieved by longer sections at moderate grade. At about km 24 we saw the first of the unusual rock formations - dramatic folds and Utah-style hoodoos - that have contributed to the fame of the Dades Gorge, sometimes surrounding the remains of kasbahs whose ruins of crumbling red adobe could scarcely be distinguished from the towers and fins of the natural landforms. At another place we saw a huge volume of water - a major tributary of the Dades - gushing forth directly from a spring high on the side of a hill and surrounded by local villagers taking advantage of the unusually clean water to do their laundry.
True to the guidebook, at about the 32km mark we reached an area with a number of auberges and restaurants that apparently marks the turn-around point for most tourists, but except for a intriguingly hikable side canyon across the river from the La Kasbah de la Vallee hotel, nothing looked particularly compelling. So we pressed on and just a kilometer farther up encountered an amazing set of a half dozen switchbacks that took us 150m up the side of
Switchbacks climbing Dades Gorge
Actually, this climb was the exception to the overall modest grades following the Oued Dades river.
the canyon wall while the river emerged from a narrow, unnavigable crack in the gorge. Beyond the switchbacks we climbed up to have lunch at a dramatic overlook, and the intriguing disappearance of the road into the depths of the cliffs upriver motivated us to continue cycling north until we reached a slot that undoubtedly marked the narrowest point in the entire Dades Gorge. Here the road ran side-by-side with the river - nearly at the waterline, and clearly submerged during flood times - in a canyon that was as narrow as 20m at the bottom but which rose in sheer cliffs at least 150m on either side. With the chocolate-colored torrent rushing past us just a few feet away, we pedaled slowly in the canyon's semi-darkness through the bottom of the quarter-mile long slot, emerging at the other end in front of the hotel Berber de la Montagne. This place got a favorable mention in our guidebook, and we couldn't resist checking in after being offered an impossibly romantic room in our own mini-kasbah tower across the yard from the main hotel.
The next day, we decided to ditch the bikes and hitchike up the remainder of the
Lunchbreak in Dades Gorge
Just up ahead the road threads through the narrowest slot in the gorge.
Dades valley to the end of the paved road at the village of M'Semrir, near the river's source and 25km from our auberge. (While we could theoretically have ridden all the way up over the crest of the High Atlas and back down to the village of Imilchil, we weren't adventurous enough to take on the 60 or so km of unpaved piste at the height of that route.) The hitching was easy, riding with a mix of locals and tourists, but we did catch a short taxi ride up the final switchbacked climb over a low pass to M'Semrir, the only section that would have been tough cycling. On top of the pass we had amazing vistas of the snow-covered Atlas peaks that seemed almost on our own level, nearly close enough to touch, and started us thinking about how we could get UP THERE.
In M'semrir, a small Berber town only lightly touched by tourism, we walked north through the main street until the pavement gave out, finding ourselves at the edge of town looking out through a broad, high valley that could have been Tibet or Iceland for all its unforested barreness. Somewhere nearby was the
Looking upstream into the Dades Gorge
This slot at approx km 36 is the narrowest and most spectacular point on the route up the Dades Gorge.
junction with a piste that could theoretically be taken 40km east over a 2600m pass to get to Tamtatouchte, thereby connecting the Dades and Todra Gorges, but the young villagers we met on the road said that the track was so obscure that even satellite navigation was useless since the passable route changed with every season and even every snowfall; the most reliable method was to use "Berber GPS", ie, hire them to ride along as guides. We had fantasized about tossing our bikes on top of a Land Rover for a spectacular shortcut over to the Todra Gorge, but most responses to our subsequent calls to outfitters were that the track was impassable due to the recent weather - though one or two were willing to try it for $250.
Hitching back down from M'semrir was a bit tougher than going up, though our first (unsolicited) ride was in a local schoolbus full of rambunctious adolescents who seemed to think we were the most hilarous people on the planet. Our final hitch - arranged for us by M'Semrir's sympathetic chief of police - was with a old Berber man who for 3 dirham gave us a white-knuckled thrillride,
Our personal Kasbah
This tiny tower at the hotel Berber de la Montagne was just big enough for a double bed and a few candlesticks.
careening around every mountain turn in his tiny rattletrap pickup before dropping us off at the door of our auberge.
After another day spent at Berber de la Montagne, during which we went back up the valley one more time for further explorations, we were packing up the bikes when I noticed that one of the aluminum welds had broken on my finicky Topeak rear rack. Nevertheless, I was able to effect a quick temporary repair with a tie-wrap, adding "Find alumnum welder" to my Marrakech to-do list, and we headed down the road just a few klicks to the hotel La Kasbah de la Vallee. In the late afternoon we forded the river and went for an amazing hike through a 5km-long slot canyon directly across the river from the hotel. Returning in the evening dusk we met up with a shepherd who was driving his herd of goats along a cross-canyon track to his hillside camp with a newborn kid - too young to keep up with the mama goat - tucked under one arm. He had no supplies with him and gratefully swigged water from our bike bottles while we held the tiny bleating goat, no
Horseshoe bend, Oued Dades near M'Semrir
Some of the most spectacular scenery wasn't visible until we traveled upriver to M'Semrir.
bigger than a large housecat, whose racing heartbeat seemed ready to burst out of his chest.
The following morning we had an easy cruise back down the valley to Balmalne du Dades, and after lunch turned east on the N10 again heading for the city of Tineghir, at the foot of the Todra Gorge. After a kickin' 50km run across the barren desert landscape with a 30km/hr tailwind, we pulled into town and checked into the L?Avenir guesthouse, a "backpacker-style" hostel facing onto one of Tineghir's market squares, whose late afternoon scene made for fantastic people-watching.
On the road early the next day, we headed east out of town and up the road towards the Oued Todra river, and immediately got smacked with a big steep climb. But the vendors selling scarves and jewelry at the top of the hill assured us that this was the worst we'd see going up the gorge, and their estimates were proven true as we spun up the gentle grade on a road that closely followed each twist and turn of the river. The scene was also consistent with reports that the Todra Gorge had a higher level of commercialized tourism than
Hitching on the M'Semrir schoolbus
We were happy to provide a few minutes of hilarity for these kids in return for a lift down the rode. Kate was a good sport...
the Dades, perhaps because the narrowest and most spectacular parts of the gorge are relatively close to the N10 highway; unlike the Dades, where we saw only RVs and minibusses, here we were passed by a number of ginormous tour busses on their way up to the turnaround point at the eyesore Yasmina Gorges De Todra Hotel and its scourge of tourist chachtka stalls. (Perhaps because of the greater traffic the Todra road is in much worse shape than the Dades, though the locals attributed the difference to maladministration by a different district government.)
The Todra Gorge is also a popular climbing destination, and we saw parties of tourists as well as experienced climbers roped-in to various bolted routes on the rugged canyon walls. As we cycled even further up the canyon road the river twisted through a rocky streambed of cascades and huge boulders, with the occasional palm tree looking incongrous given our habitual American Southwestern point of reference. From here on through the rest of the canyon the Todra's flow periodically disappeared under the rocks and gravel only to reappear again a half-mile away. While we enjoyed the rugged scenery we both felt that the Todra Gorge
Palmeraies, Todra Gorge
The climb up Todra Gorge through the palmeraies and canyons was, if anything, easier than the Dades.
didn't approach the same level of drama and surprise-at-every-turn that we'd experienced along the Dades river.
We were headed up about 30km to the last hotel in the gorge, the Auberge Le Festival, which we found located in a relatively open and sunny section of the canyon on a wide rock shelf above the now dry riverbed. On the outside, Le Festival is a simple structure built of local stone that almost vanishes into the landscape (in fact, their wing of "trogolodyte suites", elegant cave-rooms carved directly into the cliffside, literally do just that) but the elegant finishes inside our comfortable room belied its rustic exterior. Adding to our sense of welcome were the lively conversations in fluent English - the first we'd heard in some weeks - that echoed through the downstairs lobby, and we soon made the acquaintance of Inti and Edwin, experienced world travelers from The Netherlands, and Daniel and Briony, an Aussie couple on an around-the-world lead-in to their volunteer jobs in Kenya. On the downside, I discovered that the same weld on the other side of my Topeak rear rack had given way climbing the rough Todra road, and had to apply the same
Auberge Le Festival, Todra Gorge
This guesthouse blends in so appropriately with the landscape you could easily miss it.
temporary tie-wrap fix I'd used on the other side.
We'd arrived early enough in the afternoon that we still had time to visit Tamtatouchte, the vilage at the end of the paved road, as we'd done in the Dades Gorge to M'semrir, but this time we decided to ride the remaining 20km of moderate grade on our unloaded bikes. There were no surprises like the additional pass to climb in the Dades, except that many sections of the road were under major reconstruction to repair 2-year old summer (!) flood damage. For a small town, Tamtatouchte had a surprising number of auberges, campgrounds, and small hotels - all empty at this time of year - but beyond its status as the literal "end of the beaten track" the Berber town of stone and adobe buildings didn't seem to have much to attract the average tourist - certainly not the charm nor the snowy Atlas mountain views of M'semrir. But, happy to be able to say we'd been there, we had a smoking descent back down the road to Le Festival, where we joined an uproarious candle-lit dinner party already in progress.
Sad that our schedule to return to
Traditional doorway, Tamtatouchte
Despite a number of auberges and campgrounds catering to tourists, Tamtatouchte definitely retains its traditional Berber character.
Marrakech and Kate's flight only left us a single night to stay at Le Festival, we were nevertheless able fit in a vigorous hike in the surrounding hills the next day with Daniel and Briony before packing up the bikes and waving goodbye to our newfound friends at Le Festival. The breezy ride back down Todra Gorge was fabulous, but we'd slightly underestimated the time it would take us to cover the 30km before dark. As if to emphasize our lack of any contingency margin, a swath of the tread on my rear tire (a Specialized Nimbus Armadillo) separated from the cords with a thwap-thwap-thwap when I had to swerve onto the rocky shoulder to avoid an oncoming car in the twilight about 5km from the bottom. (Though rated for 80 lbs, chronic overinflation may have been the culprit.) The subsequent fix with black Gorilla duct tape didn't take too long and worked well enough to get us back to the L?Avenir guesthouse in Tineghir, but riding in the dark with a tire that might complete its decomposition at any moment was a bit of stress that we really didn't need. Kate added "Buy Specialized Nimbus tires" to her North
Berber shepherdess, Todra Gorge
I was so smitten by this young woman who asked for some water that I forgot to get my bike bottle back.
Carolina to-do list.
We managed to drag ourselves out of bed in time for the 7:30AM CTM bus to Marrakech the next morning, and as we rumbled west to Ouarzazate and then back up over the Tizi'n'Tichka pass, over all that ground we'd covered under our own power, we got a nostalgic sense of regret to be on the verge of leaving Morocco - what, forever? Would we ever again glimpse this desert, those mountains, these kasbahs that now seems so familiar? Along the way, the bus made one of its periodic refreshment stops right in front of our old hotel in Taddert, and the "hero's welcome" we got from all the shopkeepers who remembered our soggy 2 day sojourn there really lifted our spirits.
Back in Marrakech it was another mini-homecoming when we returned to the Hotel Toulousaine and had a chance to catch up with all our old buddies. Then the focus turned to our next "project": getting Kate on the next day's flight back to North Carolina for her family gathering. And sometime in the dim future after she returned we had the task of figuring out where in the world we were traveling to
Kate cycling back down Todra Gorge
WE didn't leave quite enough time to appreciate the scenery on our race back down the Todra Gorge.
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