Riding the Atlas Mountains

I was in Morocco to see the Sahara, and a music festival at M’Hamid al Ghislane. That is where the desert nomads gather once a year to play their special music.

I had spare time, a nice new KTM Duke 690, some dodgy secondhand throw-over panniers and a map. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia, without the fancy headgear. After riding across Spain, I caught the ferry to Melilla. Multi cylinder BMW riders festooned with widescreen GPS, Bluetooth headsets, hard luggage and desert-proof underpants looked sympathetically at my small, floppy, paper map-equipped bike as we queued for the on ramp.

Undaunted, I disembarked and headed optimistically south, running parallel to the Algerian border. Straying over the borderline itself seemed a bad idea — it is still studded with minefields following a bitter territorial war some 20 years ago.

The first night saw me arrive at the Auberge Riad at Tougedite. This tiny village nestling in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains had just this one place to stay, with part of the “hotel accommodation” cut cave-like into the side of the hill. My room was functional; dirt floor with carpet, a wooden bench with rugs on it to keep you warm as you slept, and tiny windows cut into the thick blue-washed wall.

The owner — I think his name was Ayoub — heated a welcome shower for me; an oil drum full of water with a wood fire underneath. More hot water? Just throw on some more wood and open the tap a bit more. It was brilliantly reviving after some of the challenging roads the Duke and I had slogged up to get there.

I ate an amazing home cooked tagine (with my hands) while Ayoub, his wife and I (sitting on the floor) discussed the merits of being married. I think this was related to the presence of a heavily tattooed Berber divorcee friend of theirs; she was apparently looking for a husband. I locked the door that night.

When I mentioned I was heading over the Atlas Mountains on my way to the desert, Ayoub warned me of rain, snow and howling winds due to arrive the next day. He suggested I wait a couple of days for some good weather before I set out up the valley to the Tizi-Tiherhouzine (2700m) and Plateau des Lacs (3080m) passes, inshallah. He said it would get worse the higher I got. He said he definitely wouldn’t be going up there tomorrow.

However, I knew better. I had a good bike, that reliable paper map, and a plucky demeanour so what could go wrong? One thing that obviously could, was the road. Ayoub forgot to mention was that it was regularly washed away by the rivers on its way up the pass. It was an interesting ride; the first 80km took about 3 hours in near zero-degree conditions and saw me narrowly miss piling into a snowdrift as I skidded sideways to avoid plunging into a ravine. Over the first 80km, I didn’t see a single other vehicle. The locals had either been talking to Ayoub, or were smarter than I was, obviously.

BIG

The one thing that nobody can prepare you for up in the High Atlas, though, is the vastness and grandeur of its landscapes. Nothing you have ever seen or been told can prepare you for those mountains. It is literally breathtaking; thousand-plus foot deep gorges and snow capped escarpments to take your breath away. Breathtaking, that is, if you have any breath left from the strength of the wind up at 3,000 metres. I stopped once to take an impressive view, and the wind casually blew my bike off its stand. Another time, I checked my speed and saw I was riding at 100kph — and the cloud shadows were overtaking me.

However, I think the most abiding memory of the trip over the spine of the Atlas (apart from those incredible views) was the procedure required to stop for a piss. The previous night Ayoub had related grim stories of travellers dying of dehydration in the mountains, and plied me with lots of sweet tea to prepare me. It had another effect.

As the temperature dropped, and the treacherous roads made me clench everything, piss-stops became more urgent. Every time it was a small torture.

First, I would have to find a stable patch of rubble where I could stop the bike; not always easy with the wind constantly trying to tip it over and ice patches sneakily waiting to let the stand skid sideways. Then I would unglove, hitch up my overjacket, unzip my riding jacket, pull down my overtrousers, unzip my fly, and try to piss. Tricky given the multiple layers of clothing to navigate through, the strength of the wind — and the effect of the intense cold on the size of the old chap. Pissing was, as a result, subject to a very little directional control which didn’t make things any neater.

Then I had to reverse the process and put everything back without freezing, getting soaked or leaving gaps that the rain/sleet could penetrate. All the time keeping an eye on the bike teetering on its stand. I also had to do all this with limited vision; I had to keep my helmet on as taking it off would mean sleet would get in and the visor would immediately mist up making visibility even worse than before.

However, I managed to make it over both the Tizi-Tiherhouzine and the Plateau des Lacs, with the wind thankfully at my back over the very highest parts. Coming down out of the empty high altitude wilderness, past snow-capped mesas like something from the Arizona desert, was utterly surreal. Even more surreal was coming across a very bedraggled man dressed in full length jellabia with a slightly medieval monkish hood — literally in the middle of nowhere.

My Arabic was not good enough to enquire WTF he was doing there in the middle of a sleet-storm, up in some of Africa’s highest mountains, about 35kms from the nearest town. I got the message he would like a lift though.

He sat on the back OK but didn’t seem happy about putting his feet on the pillion pegs, he just hung them down horsey-style. The lack of passenger stability, the howling wind along with his flapping jellabia, and the rutted road all combined to give us an interesting ride to Imchil. Boy did we wobble.

As we descended — and the visibility improved — I could see how dramatically the terrain had changed. Going up from Tougedite the road up to the passes was completely alpine; all fir trees, hairpin bends, steep craggy valleys and rushing rivers. But once over the top the scenery changed. The desert took over.

WINDY

Now it was all massive dry sandstone canyons, windswept mesas and buttes and views as far as my eyesight could cope with — yet no trees or signs of life at all. There were a few clusters of low square houses here and there, but I saw nothing moving.

Then, further on, in the bleakest and most windswept and remote places there would be a man or woman sitting at the side of the road — or maybe a shepherd keeping an eye on a few sheep on a rocky hillside. All were completely alone, wrapped tightly against the bitter cold. Where they came from or how long it took them to get there was a complete mystery.

The road swooped down the valley, getting smoother and more welcoming by the bend. Eventually I squeezed into the Todra Gorge and popped out the other end a few thousand metres below the Tizi-Tiherhouzine into a red, warm, dry, oasis-like climate with waving palm trees and camels at the side of the road. Bizarre, and all within one day’s ride of lush alpine meadows and blizzard-ripped mountaintops. But that’s Morocco.

With the challenges of the passes now behind me, I rode triumphantly into Tinehrir. It was time to relax with a cup of mint tea under the stern gaze of a local berber-turban bloke who helpfully directed me towards the Tazzarine road where, just to complete the contradictory components of the day, camels wandered and desert sand was blowing across the road with milestone posts indicating distances to someplace called Si’id Ifni that was a mere 730km away across stony, arid, burning desert.

I did eventually get to M’Hamid, and heard some music that made my spine tingle. But the journey there was almost as good as the music.

Want to see more photos? Click here.