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Atlas Descent

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It feels like the middle of nowhere. We stop shortly after the main roads, the R105 and the R106 converge looking down on the village of Idikl at an abandoned building. Here our Exodus Travels guides set up the bikes and prepare a bite to eat. I ask Khalid, one of our drivers what the sign on the gate we’re stepping over says, and he replies, with a chuckle, “no trespassing.” The views are breathtaking, 360 panoramas of jagged red rock mountains as far as the eye can see. We’re deep in the Anti-Atlas mountains, Morocco’s lesser range in terms of altitude though certainly not beauty.

Morocco is a mostly mountainous country and an eclectic mix of Berber and Arab cultures, customs and languages, with a little French thrown in. The Arabization of North Africa took place over the seventh and eight centuries, though the original Berber culture remains strongly rooted here. The number of Amazigh (or Berber) dialects spoken is so numerous, particularly in the countryside, that it is common to default to Arabic simply to be understood.

Abderahim, who I came to call Abdel, leads the way up to a rock strewn track which resembles a road in some places, and a dry river bed in others. My new friend Patrick  and I bomb the rocky descent on hardtail mountain bikes bouncing along in perfect weather with views that make it seem like we’re riding on another planet. Where the Martian landscape flattens out, the road forks and we wait for our group among some scrub brush. An animated goat herder is tickled to see visitors in a place so remote and more than happy to strike up a conversation with Patrick and I in French. In a sing-song voice he tells us about his Berber roots and reveals that he’s looking for a wife, and he has like fifty-four goats, if anyone is interested.

We cut off the road and through the center of the small village of Agerd Oudad. The pace of the Berber countryside is slow, and hardly anyone stirs, aside from the muezzin whose melodic call to prayer echoes off the town walls. A sandy track cutting through a few palm trees leads to one of the strangest desert sights one will find in Morocco or anywhere. In 1984 the Belgian artist Jean Vérame decided that this beautiful desert and pink granite boulders literally needed a new coat of paint. Vérame splashed nineteen tons of blue and pink spray paint over a bunch of the already beautiful pink granite as a birthday gift to his wife. I don’t get it personally, but what do I know?

From the site of Vérame’s vandalism we pedal towards the charming oasis town of Tafraout. The riverbeds are dry as we pass alongside them, but the presence of lush palm trees and flowering oleander mean the underground aquifers are in good stead. A group of boys are playing soccer on a pitch of pure sand and dust at a local school, and a woman on a donkey passes us in the other direction. Cycling in Morocco is proof that a bicycle can transport you across cultures and if you head in the right direction, maybe you can even go back in time.

At the hotel bar my new buddy and bartender Hassan pours me a local beer. He explains that times have been tough in the Ameln Valley. The Moroccan economy relies heavily on tourism, this area is a hotbed for European rock climbers, and COVID has made a challenging life in the Anti-Atlas even more so. Though the valley is home to the treasured Argan trees, producing one of the world’s most sought after oils; the production of all agriculture, argan, almonds and olives has been challenging. An intense drought has gripped the Souss-Massa region with no significant rainfall for over a year, Hassan though is optimistic about this week’s forecast. “It is not the weather you want, but it is the weather we need,” he says as he tops off my beer.

The valley of Aït Mansour is home to a number of gorges that extend from the western slopes of the Anti-Atlas. Descending single track and gravel roads through clusters of stone and earth homes, this is the Moroccan countryside, and it is intensely remote and rugged. The people making a life in these mountains are strong and determined, and they always have been. When the Islamic kingdom known as the Umayyad Dynasty invaded North Africa, they moved west from Egypt towards what was known at the time as the Maghred, a territory comprising modern day Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In the Berber people of this region they met their greatest resistance, including a successful revolt that set the Dynasty back in AD 740. The group of people we refer to as the Berbers call themselves Amazigh, which means “free men.” While they readily embraced the Islamic faith, they were not going to roll over for their conquerors. To this day Morocco remains deeply Berber, particularly in these rugged mountains.

As pretty as the descent to the river, Oued Tamanart is, the climb from the village of Aït Mansour through the palm groves of Affelah Inrir astounds. As the road drops to the right a valley filled with deep green contrasts against the red and pink granite of the gorge. There are moments where the palms extend across the entire gorge creating a canopy that nearly feels tropical.  The  village of Gdrout stands sentry where the road rises above the palms. The ancient village, like most found here in the Anti-Atlas, is made of compacted clay and gravel. 

A surprise snowfall in the mountains and a heavy rain in the valley sends us to the village of Oumesnat to see Mustapha. We are his first guests in two years. He has maintained his family’s traditional Berber home and welcomes guests for tea, or lunch or in our case both. My guide Hicham takes us through a traditional Moroccan tea ceremony as lunch is served. The tea, made from wild mint and absinthium (wormwood) goes through a process of rinsing, aerating, and mixing as well as what appears as somewhat random pouring back and forth between silver kettles until it’s perfect, and only Hicham seems to know when that is. A proper Moroccan tea must contain bubbles, Hicham tells me and those are attained by pouring it from a ridiculous height into a rather small glass. He doesn’t spill a drop.

As the tea pours forth from the kettle and the sky dumps rain Mustapha grabs what looks like a banjo and begins plucking and belting out a song in Berber, soon our guides all join in. I can’t tell you what the words mean but it feels like a celebration and our guides all seem to know the songs by heart, Abdel bangs along on a drum, the pace of the rain, the first here in over a year seems to increase with the music.

In the center of town around Tafraoute’s souk the rain running into the streets has buoyed everyone’s spirits. I make my way down a few side streets near the souk to a non-descript glazed door. Through these doors is Tafraoute’s Old Hamam. The cavernous two room hammam drips with steam and condensation as a spring flows in a corner, I take two buckets of hot water and prepare to douse myself and then utilize the aggressive loofah glove and black soap I was given when I checked in. However Hicham wants to make sure that I get the full Moroccan hammam experience. A man I later learn is called Hussein approaches me and makes a few hand gestures that basically translate to, “get on the ground.” He then proceeds to flip me over and I have to imagine takes five or six layers of skin off my body in a few thorough maulings, and a complimentary back cracking there on the tile floor.  In the other room I can hear one of my riding mates Rob’s muffled wailing as he gets the same treatment; poor guy is covered in road rash. We emerge much cleaner and richer for the cultural experience, plus our skin is absolutely glowing.

On our last day of riding we headed out of the town of Imouzzer in the High Atlas towards the coast. A series of switchbacks takes us above the Tiqqi Gorge we rode through the previous day. It’s all downhill from here. Thirty kilometers of descent to the beach town of Aghroud and its rainbow colored buildings. We don’t pass so much as a village all the way down, though there is a mother camel and her calf to navigate as the pair take up as much of the road as they want. Our Atlas Descent ends with a dip in the Atlantic, hugs all around and a reflection on a week well spent.

Morocco has become a popular destination for travel, in particular Marrakesh. The bustling city exploding with color and sounds of market place haggling, mazes of alleyways in the medina and luxury hamams. Yet I feel spoiled here in the countryside with local guides who grew up in these mountains and valleys. It’s here one finds a Morocco many won’t have the pleasure to experience. Goat tagine and a local beer, navigating a haircut in the medina of Tiznit using only hand gestures and an unforgettable hamam experience with the pugnacious Hussein. I’ve passed countless remote villages of friendly, curious, Berber families. Many of them coming out to get a look at these strange people riding up and down the steep mountainsides they call home. As I say goodbye to my Exodus guides Hicham and Adbel I mention my hope to return someday, “Inshallah” Hicham replies with a broad smile. Inshallah indeed.

You can go riding in Morocco, or nearly anywhere in the world with Exodus Travels.