Stayer Gravpacking the High Atlas

Stayer Gravpacking the High Atlas

We cycled from Agadir on the coast mostly along the Asif Tifnout River on the south side of the Atlas  Mountains. The roads were lined with people traveling to or from the next market town so there was lots of encouragement, which is good because otherwise, this would be a relentless ride—attritional, mostly into the wind and ever so slightly and slowly uphill. We did this part of the journey over two days, which seemed sensible enough, although we still managed to overreach with our dawdling, loaded pace and ended up cycling long after dark on two occasions, looking for a place to stay.

We cycled from Agadir, on the coast mostly along the Asif Tifnout River on the south side of the Atlas  Mountains. The roads were lined with people traveling to or from the next market town, so there was lots of encouragement, which is good because otherwise, this would be a relentless ride—attritional, mostly into the wind and ever so slightly and slowly uphill. We did this part of the journey over two days, which seemed sensible enough, although we still managed to overreach with our dawdling, loaded pace and ended up cycling long after dark on two occasions looking for a place to stay.

m15

Wild camping outside of the mountains and national parks isn't straightforward as so much land is allocated to either farming, quarries or homes, and places to stay are very much situated in the large town—towns such as Agadir then Taroudant then Oulad Berhil, each about 60-80 km apart. If we had planned it better, we would have either gone very slowly and stopped overnight at each opportunity, or we would have left early from Agadir and made it to Oulad Berhil in a day and then assaulted the climb into the mountains after a good night's sleep. We did neither, leaving Agadir very late in the day and making it the 80 km to Taroudant with the aid of a local mayor and a taxi after a while spent riding in the dark. Similarly the next day, reaching Oulad Berhil very early after a fairly easy 60 kms, we kept on planning to camp on the mountain.  Instead, we ended up 15 km from the top of the Tizi n’Test at 2,300m in the dark on a car-wide dirt road with a cliff face on either side hauling our bikes on top of a truck full of fruit bound for Asni—all to get us to the top in order to find some level ground to pitch the tent.

m7
m17
m14

Once we had accessed the mountains, as we did via the slightly hectic yet stunningly beautiful climb up the Tizi n’Test, the High Atlas Mountains were all about size and endless gravel roads. There are many gravel tracks that lead to mountain villages, that then turn into walking paths or climbs, then back into tracks again. The distances can be deceiving when you look down from above. Your eyes and your brain focus differently, settlements fade into the landscape and roads seem shorter; climbs seem more manageable. In this region, you are, for the most part, at above 1500 meters and either climbing back up or descending from about 2500/3000 meters. A shifting, deep gravel surface is a bugger to climb wherever you are. The altitude doesn't help our task and my legs and lungs convince me to get off and walk often. Hauling is faster on these roads for sure. The views, however, are epic and well worth it—well worth dragging a bike for as once you are up, you can descend, and how great is that.

I never got tired of descending these high gravel tracks on my bike—a rigid, dirt drop MTB, too heavy you would think, but seriously the best bike for this kind of adventure, and we built it which is pretty cool, too. Judith is a wheel builder and I am a welder and brazer of bike frames.

The bikes we took carried us and our kit in a comfy, agile and sometimes exhilarating fashion without fail, and not once did I worry when it was tossed on top of a truck and lashed down to the roof unceremoniously while being reassured of its safety. Bulletproof, right? And, as it should be, just great fun—half because of the ride and half because it feels like you don't have to worry about things on a bike like this. My brakes are cable operated (where do you fix a hydro brake out here?) tubeless tires, of course, but I have a tube, so that's ok. There isn't much else that can go wrong that can't be fixed, and that is as important to me as the ride or the landscape. We are self-propelled and capable of being self-sufficient out here—even if, to an extent, we are still useless westerners, city types from London, etc. The riding is tough, rewarding everything you would expect.

The people, dogs and cats, food and the landscape, however, are what it's all about, and those are the things that stick in my mind. I love riding, but mostly, it is only to take me to or through those things in the most fun way possible. It's not for exercise, not at all—that is a by-product and fitness something of an enabler—but I can also just go a little slower and take my time. Bike riding is to take me to an omelet dinner or to a great place to sleep and to wake up to stunning views, then to cover some amazing miles. It doesn't get better than that. We were in the high mountains for only a few days of climbing and hammering down gravel roads—just a toe in the water of what is possible around here. There are a good number of places to stay: mountain refuges, staffed auberge-type places and, of course, wild camping is fairly straightforward. After a few days spent exploring our small area of the Toubkal National Park, we descended for a day past mountainsides of prickly pear, apples and lime trees and found ourselves at Asni and the first signs of the Marrakech tourist experience to come. We had a destination to reach, of course, but it was almost enough to make us turn around and head back up the mountain.

m18
m8
m2
m9

We stayed just outside Asni, ate and slept and the next day made the push for Marrakech. The last bit of mountainous landscape was pretty spectacular, but the roads were becoming busy. The landscape around Asni is a hub for tourists taking mountain bike tours or paragliding from the flat, tabletop mountain, a real contrast to the last few days of hardly seeing anyone in the sparseness of the High Atlas. The roadside calls on this side of the Atlas had changed from shouts of encouragement to shouts of traders and cafe owners. We drafted behind each other for the last 50 kms of straight, flat road, slightly downhill, and sped into Marrakech and onto our airplane home.

m12

Words and Photos by Sam and Judith.

Our Journeys, Your Inbox.
Sign up for our far ride newsletter and save 10%.