A CHILL still stung the air the morning our faithful bus rolled into the southern “resort town” of Agadir. If we were gawked at in Tangier we were stared at with open astonishment by the Moroccan locals clustered around the bus station and it was small surprise why.
With the bleary eyes of the sleep deprived and the pale legs of a gringo we hauled out our five bikes and piles of panniers out of the luggage compartment while heavily covered women surreptitiously stole amazed glances and dirty looking men widely stared in between long draws of their cigarettes.
Agadir seemed to have as much charm as a mule and we quickly stocked up on water, bread, expensive cans of tuna and the only cheese available in the entire country: La Vache Qi Rit (the laughing cow). It’s the kind of cheese you relish as a child (it’s pale, spreadable and has as much flavour as a block of tofu) but for us it would be our only constant option for the next week. For Frank this was particularly difficult and we all took a moment to console the Frenchman before saddling back up to hit the road.
I took a moment to marvel at just how much our lives had changed in a matter of days. We’d gone from set prices and rules to anything goes and a law that favours the cunning and we’d left behind giant supermarkets with hordes of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, sauces, pastas and dairy products to tiny roadside stalls where you scrounge through disorganised shelves to find the basic staples to survive.
For the next month I could kiss goodbye muesli, chocolate (it’s available but costs a small fortune), ground coffee and prosciutto (something we’d grown to love in Spain and Portugal) and instead say hello to a basic flat bread, endless bowls of couscous and oranges.
With scarcely any sleep we had low expectations for our first day back on the road and while we’d all grown close and gotten to know each other over the past few days our initial few kilometres out of Agadir brought the next challenge: cycling in a diverse group.
It took a couple of hours to settle into a rhythm and by then we’d stopped for breakfast on a littered roadside and gawked at the ragged looking shepherds watching over their goat flocks and the dirty pedlars leading miserable and laden donkeys down the main arterial road north.
It’s a travel writing cliche to use the term “a region of contrasts” but with glistening BMWs overtaking clapped out communal blue taxis that looked like the rejects from the Soviet era and French caravans overtaking loaded up mules I couldn’t describe it any other way.
Surprisingly (to all of us except Frank) we made it 50km before the howling winds picked up and the condensation and humidity from the nearby coast turned the landscape into a misty and chilly moor.
The constantly rising and falling road had also taken its toll and so it was at 5pm that we began scrounging about for a good camp spot.
Birte pointed out a nearby deserted stone hut just 100 metres back from the road that she thought could offer some shelter and so we trudged over rocky ground and began clearing a patch to pitch.
That night we celebrated our first day back on the road huddled into the only semi enclosed room of the pile of rocks that was once a house while chowing down rice with vegetables and curry powder by lamplight.
The high humidity meant our tents were all but soaked through the following morning and we scrambled out at 9am for a hurried breakfast of left over flat bread and laughing cow cheese before unenthusiastically jumping back on the bikes.
It was a cruisy ride up and down rolling hills as the road dipped away from the coast offering us our first taste of inland Morocco.
The temperature picked up, the humidity evaporated and the number of roadside donkeys began to rival cars.
By late morning we’d made it to a rustic town and treated ourselves to a cheap as chips coffee (Nescafe only) and yoghurt before perusing the rundown stalls for bread, fruit, vegetables and laughing cow cheese.
A friendly local had warned us that 20km of ascent lay ahead and we hoped he was telling a porky pie as we saddled back up and left the last major town.
Rolling hills quickly turned into just hills and half an hour later a great range appeared ominously before is. We stopped for lunch, chatting to a friendly French woman travelling the country by caravan, before biting the bullet and tackling the climb.
It was hot and gruelling and before too long Frank was a distant speck far up the mountain while the rest of us slogged up what felt like Everest.
With Birte and Frank a little behind Scott and I turned a corner to find a small group of boys milling around the side of the road and within minutes they had run forward, hands outstretched, demanding all number of goods in a mixture of French and Arabic (neither of which we could understand) we shook them off and kept peddling but the fun wasn’t over.
A larger group of boys had lay down, head to toe, as a makeshift barrier and were determined to extract a toll before we passed.
We pushed ruthlessly around them but with Scott slightly ahead one cheeky devil grabbed my handlebar and I began angrily shouting for fear he’d pull me off.
He let go but it was clear the boys wanted the last say. They began hurling stones after us (something we’d been warned of by other cyclists) but lucky for us they had poor aim.
At the top of the climb we all met up and took a breather where we met a sweet young boy on an almost brakeless bicycle who was keen to chat away in a garbled mixture of French and Arabic.
I gave him some water and Birte and Freddie gave him a sweet before we decided to head on down the hill. It was at that moment a swarm of children came hurtling down from the village and we peddled on frantically, grateful for the big downhill.
It was on a roadside orange break that a pair of Moroccans pulled over for a chat and told us of the coastal town Imsouane, about 20km away, with a good campsite.
We were all feeling pretty knackered and so we decided to strike for the village (inspired by thoughts of a hot shower and maybe even a beer if we could get our hands on one).
A smaller road turned off from the main N1 and the narrow bitumen threw us one final hurdle, with steep climbs testing our mettle before we finally reached the top. The view was awe-inspiring – red sandy ground crumbling off a cliff to a sea of mist that would eventually part to reveal the ocean.
We hurtled down to the village and found the campsite (which was full of European camper vans) and threw up our still soggy tents before bolting for the showers.
It was a rustic stall with a hose for a shower head but hot water was spewing out and I all but sighed at the pleasure of washing the dusty grime out of my skin.
Mere metres away an English woman was muttering her disapproval at the primitive facilities.
We cooked up couscous and vegetables relishing the ease of preparing a meal when 10 hands are helping and dove into our tents just after 10pm.
Sunshine peaked through the misty coastal headland the following day and when our efforts to find the owner to pay for our night ended unsuccessfully we peddled out (feeling a little guilty) before treating ourselves to breakfast at a nearby cafe.
Eggs, bread, coffee and homemade peanut paste (costing just two euros each) revitalised our sagging energy levels but with a gruelling climb taking up the first 20km of the day they were quickly depleted again.
The small coastal road was nevertheless spectacular and we weaved our way up all but deserted passes before striking our biggest yet.
Once again the group was split up and as I rounded a steep corner leading to a small village I found Frank. He was surrounded by a gaggle of rustic school children who were enthusiastically shaking his hand and trying to grab loose items off his bike and as soon as they spied me they sprinted forwards and almost knocked me to the ground in their excitement.
I shook all of their hands twice (one boy came back for thirds) and when Scott, Birte and Freddie came around the corner the process was repeated.
It’s a sad fact that these seemingly innocent exchanges are always followed by some form of begging and within minutes the boys began gesturing for food, pens and even the clothes tied to the back of our bikes.
We decided to push on but pushing on up a bloody steep hill is laughably impossible.
It was ok for Freddie, Frank and Scott (who quickly began ascending) but for Birte and I (who were cycling at the children’s walking pace) the harassment continued.
At one point the boys completely surrounded my bike, pushing me off, and when I got angry enough to shout they only huddled in closer.
Others were rudely grabbing Birte’s backside and asking where her headscarf was while I was pushing them off my handlebars and struggling to stay upright.
It soon felt harder than usual and I realised the cheeky sods were pushing down on my mudguard. We finally reached the top, grouching at the men for deserting us, and ascended as quickly as possible.
It was at the bottom that I realised the boys had torn all the country flag stickers off my back mudguard – no big loss but a rude gesture non the less.
The plan was again to wild camp and after a tough afternoon of more climbing we again began scrounging for a suitable spot.
There’s a popular saying among bike tourers that “you’re never really alone in Morocco” and we soon gave up on complete solidarity, pulling off the road next to a man and his donkeys in search of a quiet patch.
A sparse hilltop that was hidden from the road provided what we thought was a suitable spot but after a while we realised the thousands of twigs covering the ground (that had fallen from surrounding olive trees) were as spiky as thorns and tougher than nails.
Frank and I both had completely flat front tyres.
From our secluded camping spot (Birte was the only one to get interrupted by a shepherd while visiting the bush loo) Essaouira lay a mere 58km away and this was to be the destination of our first leg and the place we’d replenish our energy levels and plan the next few days.
The German couple were waiting on a friend who was set to meet them at the touristy town and with our next leg a little vague on the details we loosely decided to leave them after a couple of days and cycle with Frank to Marrakech (200km to the east). From there we hoped we would all meet up again before tackling the Atlas Mountains and making for the Sahara but with Freddie and Birte’s friend sketchy on her own arrival time we left it in the hands of our future selves.
It was a relief to have a day off awaiting us but the last 58km was still tough.
The weather dial had been cranked to “bloody hot” and before we’d even hit the bitumen we were sweating and red in the face.
Morocco is a conservative Islamic country where women wear head scarves and are all but covered head to toe and while Birte and I had largely tried to respect these customs (minus the headscarves) the sudden heat wave made it all but impossible.
I just couldn’t face wearing a long sleeved merino shirt and I boldly threw on a t-shirt and three quarter pants before declaring “I won’t die of heat exhaustion to appease some conservative old goat”. My rant was apparently baseless as the rustic country villages disappeared, replaced by bigger towns and liberal tourists.
Pasty white girls in skimpy sundresses stood out like sore thumbs but nevertheless earned little more than a glare and while it seemed insensitive it was a sign Morocco was becoming more and more westernised.
If you took a snapshot of Essaouira’s touristic seafront it could slide in seamlessly to any Spanish coastal city with perfectly even cement, ceramic features and hordes of surfer types mixed between glamorous European tourists.
The only thing to scream Morocco was the camels trundling along the beach (they were there for the tourists of course) and the whole thing looked perverse after our last couple of days traversing mountains and Berber villages.
We planned to hit the town’s only campsite but the tiny cement parking lot was chock full of camper vans so we trundled into the chaos of the medina in search of a cheap hostel.
A Moroccan “businessman” pounced on us mere metres into the medina and insisted we check out his “very cheap” road (a traditional house).
After some serious negotiating he offered us the entire thing (with two bedrooms and a couch for Frank) for 60 dirhams each (about six euros) and while it was a little shabby and appeared to only have a couple of working light bulbs we bit the bullet and took it.
We were too exhausted to do little more than stash our bikes on the ground floor, throw on some deodorant and wander out in search of dinner.
We found a pleasant eatery (with a female hostess) and enthusiastically tucked into colourful and flavoursome Harira (traditional Moroccan soup that tastes a little like minestrone) and steaming piles of couscous with chicken, vegetables and lamb.
From Essaouira the plan is to cycle inland to Marrakech and then tackle the Atlas mountains, featuring passes of over 2000 metres and dramatic gorges and valleys you see plastered on the front of guide books. Aside from some slightly upset stomachs and nasty insect bites we feel ready for action.