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Riding the hidden Atlas – Fes to Casablanca via Imilchil

There we were, Richard and I with our hitchhikers on the back seat, riding in the middle of somewhere, without the slightest idea where. Low temperatures bit away through my thin gloves as we cruised on the tattered, weather beaten regional road. Surrounded by the most gorgeous palette of scenery we’d seen yet in Morocco, we rode through tiny villages, chased after by messy haired, rosy cheeked, tanned little gremlins on our way through. Goat herds ran alongside us while the herders looked on, waving lazily as we rumbled past on our mud splattered bikes… hang on a minute, let me go back to the beginning before we get to the nicest part of Morocco our group of four had ever seen.

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We got to see alot of cool stuff, Axler and I

 

After a nice cold shower in a storm on route to Fes, I went headfirst into the chaos that is ‘the real morocco’. I can’t say much for the place, the only city in Morocco that I didn’t really enjoy or feel inclined to do so – after being sworn at, compared to Adolf Hitler and chased around the very narrow streets of the UNESCO medina by faux guides, I can’t say most people would be inclined to enjoy such a place either. I spent the majority of my time playing and teaching Durak with my fellow travellers at the hostel. Playing cards is a great way to meet people if you’re a little bored and looking for some good company, which I found in Eve, Emma and Axler.

Preparing to leave Fes two days later without even a backward glance, I lounged on the couch of the rooftop, overlooking the old city, having a lazy conversation with Axler about what she could do for the rest of the week…

And then she said :

‘Dutchie, what are you doing tomorrow?’

‘Leaving, why?’

‘Do you want to do a day tour someplace if I get a helmet?’

‘Fuck it, let’s make an adventure of it, you can ride all the way to Casablanca instead’

And that is how I ended up with a tiny blue eyed, canadian yogi on the back of my bike.

The helmet hunt the following morning was almost tragic. Being a Sunday, no shop was open, not before the time I wanted to leave anyway. Axler, who just wanted a lid so she could hitch a ride to Casablanca, was jumping at every opportunity. First we got offered a helmet that had been dropped at least a thousand times, with a strap that didn’t clip. Then we got offered another helmet with a faulty strap and a good crack down the inside of the shell. Then a tin lid. A blue tin lid. A black tin lid. No, no, no, no. This wasn’t going to do…

Finally, we got hold of a street guard who we followed on his scooter in a shitty little red taxi with nothing that worked except the the engine, to a hidden scooter shop, to look at brand new helmets in boxes. After a dutiful inspection, I gave Axler the nod. We had a road to ride.

Loaded up and ready to hit the road, off we went, thumbs up and all that business. About a half hour out of Fez, a dicey lot of rain turned up on the road to Midelt. Shitty, freezing, biting cold rain. My visor lock had stopped preventing water squeezing down the inside of my visor, so I was stuck riding into the sharp wet pellets without a face guard.

Axler was doing her best to hide behind me as the cold rain pelted us from all sides, using my hood as a face cover. We pulled up in Ifran for a quick coffee to warm up a little before we took on the wet weather again. I assessed Axler – was I going to need to drop her off someplace snug and warm and not wet, or was she built of tougher stuff then wet paper? Time would tell sure enough…

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Plenty of fun to be had around Midelt

Snaking through the cedar forests of Ifran and gaining a brief respite from the pelting rain, we took in the opportunity to soak up the green atmosphere of the timber giants. It wasn’t long before we were out and amongst it all again, raindrops sneaking down the tank onto my balls, making them feel like they were in the clutch of a game of thrones white walker. However, within 10 mins of taking the turn off to Midelt, the rain stopped. Tarmac dried out and warm air gushed towards us as we rode toward the familiar south. Finally the atlas was beginning. Curvy roads took us all the way through the first set of colourful mountains, wild dogs looking on with mild curiosity, and upon hitting the barren red straights of nowhere, we flogged the GS onwards to Midelt.

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Eerie mining towns outside Midelt

The sun brought some warmth with it the following day, the southern air just as warm as it had been the last time I had passed through. Into the the old abandoned mines we went, quite eerie, with only a few locals standing by to sell us some fossils. The dirt road took us out past the old mining roads to red hills and a wonderful view of the atlas building itself up on the edges of the small river at the head of a tiny village on the waters edge. If it hadn’t been for a white van sitting at one of the houses, I would have thought the whole place abandoned. Not a soul stirred there, excluding Axler staring at her reflection,  and me, looking out at the red, dusty feet of the atlas.

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Shenanigans on one of the many interesting bridges we crossed

From the extinct mines we headed for Er-rich. A lovely ride entailed, slightly up and slightly down as we entered the bigger parts of the Atlas. Great sweeping valleys spread out in ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ colours, with faded pastels of greens, oranges and browns fading off in the distance.  Er-rich was on us before we knew it, our underestimated little town. Authentic Morocco (definetly more authentic then Fes anyway) was all around us.

It seemed empty at first, but as soon we reached the souk – Wow! It was action packed, people selling everything from rags to rafters! Riding through the outskirts of the markets, I took a wrong turn and asked a police officer (ever so nicely) if he could show us the way out. Obligingly, he drove ahead of us and led us out of the busy, confusing market streets and got us on the road to Imilchil and the door to the most beautiful parts of the atlas I’ve ever witnessed.

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Valleys on route to Er-Rich

Every single town we passed though could probably have been put on the UNESCO list. I mean, you know those photos you see in national geographic of world cultures? This was that. Men in long flowing yellow gilabas, burnt crusty brown from the hot African sun, turbans on their heads as they slowly wandered by, or lay on the side of the road, propped up on an elbow chatting to their friend/s about life’s mysteries.

The towns themselves were built on the ruins of previous kasbahs. Houses were built on the old crumbling walls of the ancient building leftovers. Wasting a good wall wasn’t a preferred option, with communities living on so little. I found it increasingly harder to stop anywhere near a village – tiny children and young women held out hands asking for anything to help them by, and I had nothing to give these poor, beautiful young people. It was also a hindrance to stop any place, because as soon as we did, we were instantly surrounded by local fans of the amusing adventurers dropping by to say hello, and we’d spend so long trying to leave that it just became a hold up.

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Axler’s fan club

Shortly thereafter, we did stop for a breather in a much quieter bridge crossing and befriended some young lads from the local town. Evidently wrapped up in Axler, they came bearing fresh lavender flowers from the fields by the side of the river we had stopped on. Offering them to her to smell, they grinned cheekily and posed for a few photos with the blue-eyed Canadian by the side of a dried brown riverbed. I think Axler had fans chasing her through every village, from young to old! – but secretly I think it was the bearded guy at the handlebars that stole the show!

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The scenery really opened between Er-Rich and Imilchil

Imilchil seemed like it was never going to appear. I was sure the last four signs had all said ‘Imilchil – 25km’ on them, but I had passed the last one a half hour back, so where the hell were we? Skeptical of the Moroccan system of guessing distances,  I confirmed with my co-pilot that she had also seen these signs and they hadnt been  a figment of my imagination. Well that was a relief. I wasn’t imagining things. On and on we droned until I saw the familiar look of the mysterious middle atlas, strewn about in round lumps, streaked with waxy yellows and browns. Before long we rolled into town, a little tired but blown away by the great riding, right up the guts of the middle atlas mountain range.

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My two favourite things

We hadn’t really suspected what was in store for us over the next lot of kilometres. We left Imilchil late that morning, heading west over a road that looked nice on the map. Winging it is always usually my plan, and usually tends to reap the biggest rewards – and rewarded we were. Within 15 minutes ride to the west, the atlas grew into some pretty crazy looking rock formations, looking like the streaky spine of a huge stegosaurus. The road was interesting as well, washed off in parts, heavily potholed and torn up, especially in the sweet switchbacks, but fun riding all the same. We met a bloke from the Netherlands cycling around Morocco who appeared out of the blue, and of course, our awesome riding duo of Richard and Carmen, on a GS800. Pulled up a signpost and looking at a map, I rolled to a halt and asked them where they were off to. Turned out they were heading to Ouzoud as well. So off we went, crossing the river at the intersection of the regional and state road, into the deep atlas.

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My little GS had a new bigger friend to flirt with for a few days

So this part of the story takes us back to the beginning so let me refresh you -There we were, Richard and I with our hitchhikers on the back, riding in the middle of somewhere, without the slightest idea where. Low temperatures bit away through my thin gloves as we cruised on the tattered, weather beaten regional road. Surrounded by the most gorgeous palette of scenery we’d seen yet in Morocco, we rode through tiny villages, chased after by tanned little gremlins on our way through. Goat herds ran alongside us while the herders looked on, waving lazily as we rumbled past on our mud splattered bmw’s.

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Some pretty loose views on these fun roads!

We could not have picked a more beautiful route to Ouzoud, the colour was astronomically amazing. Fantastically rich greens melded in with oranges that were riper then the world’s most perfect peach. Ochre reds seemed to almost glow with serenity out of the base of the surrounding atlas mountains. Valley, pass, valley, pass, up, down, up, down… right into the heart of the most basic of earthy brown villages, at times it felt like we were squeezing through in the strangest places on that rural ‘road’. This was national geographic at it’s finest, and without doubt, my favourite memory of Morocco, more then either riding Tafroute or climbing Mount Toubkal. Too good to stop and look at the scenery through a camera lens.

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Atlas everywhere!

As we came out of the next low section after a set of switchbacks, we stopped to fill up at a gas station in a little town called …. Richard was running low, bu as usual, murphys law getting in the way, there was no fuel there. Well, fingers crossed we’d make it to the next place, Ouaouizeght, which was right on the great dam of Bin El Ouidane. Onwards with the journey, we got caught in a white cloudy fog, not seeing much more then tarmac. In and out of the fog we went, passing by horse and carts, cows being led back to pastures, more goats, donkeys overloaded with wheat and the occasional heavy laden mitsubishi truck. Finally, out of the fog and heading downhill, out came the lake behind Bin El Ouidane.

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Finally out of the fog

After a mash down of vegetarian pizzas and panache, the rain started spitting and time was leaving us for dead. Sun moving down quick and the sky darkening overhead, after a brief stop to admire the great dam, we made tracks to Ouzoud. Just as we started the last section of hills after the great dam Bin El Ouidane, heavy fog combined with light hail and then cold, cold rain, we slowed up for the twenty kilometres to Agoudal. It definetly sucked not being able to see much more then a few metres ahead. Anyhow, eventually we got to our crappy roadside hotel on top of a service station, hung up our sodden gear in the hope it would dry and hit the hay.

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Bin El Ouidane

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Our target – Ouzoud Cascade

Scoring sunshine in the morning, we all sipped sugary mint tea in our stinky wet gear, before riding off for Ouzoud, the home of waterfalls and monkeys. Leaving our fabulous roadside hotel, we arrived in Ouzoud after a short ride through the green lined roads, and went for a wander into the the small orange canyon. The faint thrum of a heaving waterfall grew louder as we wandered along the path, and sure enough we were right on the waterfall within minutes. More impressive in both scenery and sound then the Akchour cascades (cleaner too!), the white water cascaded into the muddy pool as miniscule drops ricocheted, cooling bystanders in the warm sun. We settled down for a cheap meal (at this point, everyone’s bartering skills were professional at the very least) at one of the restaurants tucked into the side of the mountain, with a great view of the falls.

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Ouzoud – we made it!

Waving goodbye to our monkey friends after feeding them a few spare peanuts, and watching Carmen be climbed over by our smaller relatives, our quad crew also did the great goodbye, Axler and I to Casablanca, Richard and Carmen to Marrakech. It was real nice having another rider as company for a few days, and it sucked a little to be parting ways, but with these things you can never tell. The world is small and crossing paths by chance is more common and has a higher probability then one thinks.

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Pastels painted a nice scene

One last part of the ride out of Ouzoud was through yet another, crappy, potholed, mostly non existent road, with interestingly deep heavy gravel patches. A bloke on his scooter absolutely shamed me, passing me by on an uphill climb through a few kilometres of heavy duty loose gravel road. Soon enough we were up high again, surveying the reaches of the mountains of the pastel coloured lands below, Vinnie Van Gogh probably would have had a ball here with all the amazing colours to gawk at.

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Axler and the Bridge crossing

Following switchbacks on the way down, which were mostly just muddy dirt, I found tarmac again and a bridge with loose steel sheeting which needed a good looking over before we crossed. A few sheets had been shaken free of each other by heavier traffic, and there were gaping holes looking down to the river below. Parts of the strangely sharp steel were bent up in such a way, it would have detrimental to my tires to ride over them. All this in mind, we crossed over without a hiccup and made our way through the colourful fields before chasing after the highway home to Casablanca.

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Roads were meant to be ridden

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