The cyclist's aching muscles meet nature's bare bones crossing Morocco's Anti-Atlas mountain range.
Climing the Anti-Atlas mountain range
Whizzing past almond orchards and stone terraces, I rounded the final hairpin bend and let momentum pull me towards Tafraoute, an ochre-coloured settlement tucked inside a valley of the Anti-Atlas mountains. I'd been descending deserted roads higher in the range for ten miles but here it was market day and there were locals heading home to the satellite villages. Vans and pick-up trucks crammed with passengers chugged up the hill towards me, their roofracks loaded to the hilt with sacks of vegetables, chicken cages and the odd carpet – four people in the front, six in the back, three hanging off the tailgate. Swerving out of their way, I narrowly avoided skidding in the loose gravel at the roadside, steering through a fog of diesel fumes as they passed.
The rugged Anti-Atlas is the oldest mountain range in Morocco, formed some 300 million years ago when the tectonic plates that would eventually become Africa and America collided. Once higher than the Himalayas, the Anti-Atlas have eroded over the millennia to the point that they are now lower than the more recently formed High Atlas range that runs almost parallel, just to the north.
The elements, coupled with volcanic activity, have shaped them into a landscape perfect for cyclists – in both the visual and muscleenhancing senses: there is a huge network of long, empty roads and unpaved dirt tracks or 'pistes'. You pass through deep gorges scarred with fissures and striations, and pass towering, wind-smoothed boulders. Enormous escarpments, high arid mountain plateaux and low rounded hills appear out of vast desert plain.
The cycling is not always easy but it's never boring: flat roads meander along the floors of dramatic gorges; a gently undulating route might follow the spine of a high ridge; and long sweeping descents with the wind in your hair turn quickly into winding climbs as you negotiate switchback after switchback.
To get the most out of this corner of Morocco, all but the most advanced of navigators will need a local guide – the Anti-Atlas is no place to get lost.
Tafraoute used to be a French garrison town. Our base there was set amid dusty pink mountains, bizarrely shaped rocky outcrops and lush palm groves. It's a laid-back, convivial place, and I could imagine it would be pleasant to kick back here for a day or so, strolling the traditional streets and nosing around the small markets and craft shops. It was not to be.
'Switch on your suspension, and make sure your water bottles are full. We're going off-road for the next six miles and the Land Rovers won't be following us.' Mohammed, our guide, was signalling ahead across a barren plain that shimmered with heat haze. Until now, we'd enjoyed the reassurance that Abdul, Habdul and Big Mohammed – driving Land Rovers with extra water, lunch, spare clothes and bike tools – were never far away if we needed them.
Leaving the shade of the large argan tree where we'd stopped for lunch, we braced ourselves for the desert. Large loose stones kicked my wheels unpredictably in different directions; I felt like I'd lost all coordination, drunk with the heat of the relentless afternoon sun. The going was slow. Eventually, the rocks became too big for our wheels, so we got off and pushed. Stopping for a swig of water, I gazed at the plain ahead, which extended to the foot of the distant mountains. On a large rock, the solitary figure of a Berber goatherd sat and gawped at us: tourists in shiny Lycra clothes and helmets, pushing our bikes instead of riding them.
Painted rocks and empty roads
A little further on, a handful of tourist cars appeared from nowhere, parked up near the Painted Rocks: in 1984, Belgian artist Jean Vérame took six months, 18 tonnes of paint and a team of Moroccan firemen and their hoses to cover these giant granite boulders in blue, turquoise, red and purple paint. Though faded after a quarter of a century of exposure to intense UV, they are still a strange and arresting sight – especially after you’ve been pedalling across the rubble for hours.
Each day we made sorties out of Tafraoute into new landscapes. On one morning, we climbed slowly through the Ameln Valley towards the mighty peak of the 2,359-metre Djebel el Kest. The valley’s many traditional Berber villages and almond terraces shored up against sheer stone walls were now interspersed with painted villas fortified with imposing gates, turreted walls and security systems, the holiday homes of successful businessmen who’ve made their money in the cities.
Then came a gorgeous long descent. As we sped along the empty road from the village of Tleta Tazrite to Aït Mansour, the road twisted and plunged, clinging to the gorge’s steep sides before unfurling along its bottom. In the space of about half an hour, we were transported from barren mountain roads to green, wellwatered palm groves. After splashing through a shallow ford, we sat beside the river, eating satsumas beneath rustling leaves. Further down we passed into a Travel parched orange canyon and a stony piste beside a dried-out riverbed, the mountains’ vertical strata a vivid reminder of the seismic forces that shaped the land.
Finally, a break from the bike. Transferring by vehicle to Immouzer (waterfall) des Ida Outanane in the High Atlas, we spent a night in the Hotel des Cascades, where lush gardens tumble down to the ‘waterfall’ – now run dry due to years of drought. After a fish tagine and a cosy evening round a log fire, we were on the road again – for the final thrilling 18-mile descent towards the Atlantic coast.
Then, paradise. Paradise Valley, that is. This area of sublime natural beauty was a hangout on the Moroccan hippie trail in the 1960s and ’70s. We flew past pine trees, a whitewashed mosque, jagged escarpments and cafés with panoramic terraces, down to the bottom of a tight gorge, where a clear blue river ran over time-smoothed yellow stone.
The hard part over, it was time for a ritualistic scrubdown at a hammam in Agadir to banish every last trace of dust and chain grease. Lying on the warm tiled floor in a steamy room full of naked women, I winced while a large, pink bra-ed Moroccan lady rubbed every inch of my body with a coarse black kissa glove. After a week of seeing veiled women watching us curiously from a distance, we were finally mixing.
The climbs were tough, but the scenes flashing by in the Anti-Atlas were always stirring and being powered by your own energy through the bare-bones of the planet was exhilarating. An invigorating massage – pleasure bordering on pain – was the right way to end this particular adventure.
Agadir is the closest international airport to Tafraoute, which is about three hours drive away. There is one bus a day from Agadir to Tafraoute, via Aït Baha. London Heathrow to Agadir via Casablanca (4hrs) from £376.30 includes all taxes (www.royalairmaroc.com).
Explore Worldwide’s (www.explore.co.uk) new Anti-Atlas Adventure tour (from £645, excluding airfares) includes seven nights’ B&B accommodation, provision and maintenance of mountainbikes, two local guides, and three local support drivers.
Michelin Map 959 (1:1,000,000) – good for route planning rather than micro-navigation. Larger scale maps of Morocco are harder to get hold of, as they’re produced by the army. ‘Lords of the Atlas’ by Gavin Maxwell is a fascinating account of the staunchly independent Berber tribesmen, whose traditions have kept the Atlas culturally removed from the rest of Morocco.
When to go
Cycling in Morocco is best in early spring or late autumn, when the days are warm with clear skies and cool breezes. Summer is unbearably hot and winter subject to snowfall at any time.
Am I up to it?
A good level of fitness is needed for this trip, especially for some of the climbs. Do a few long hill climbs before you go. Padded cycling shorts are highly recommended, as well as warm clothes for the evenings.
More like this
With a mountain bike, any legal terrain is your oyster. Notable areas to target are the south-western USA, with its iconic desert slickrock (particularly Moab); and the Alps, where many resorts continue to run lifts in the summer. Morzine is one noted resort. Closer to home, Devon boasts rolling hills, stunning scenery and campsites for a bargain biking break.
Time Out's 'Morocco' guidebook provides invaluable information on the perfect places to stay, eat & explore in Morocco. Available at www.timeout.shop for the discounted price of £9.74.