IT was a relief to leave the touristic chaos that is Essaouria.
Being in a city, any city, in Morocco means being constantly on your guard as shoddy salesmen and greedy vendors hike up prices on everything from poorly made wares to bottles of milk while the cunning beggars sweep in and clean out the rest.
Every time we left the sanctuary that was our simple riad we mentally prepared ourselves to tackle the restauranteurs, shop owners and “guides” with new and improved scripts we’d rehearsed over breakfast but it just couldn’t stand up to decades of practice by the local operators. You had to hand it to them – they were good!
With Frank the Frenchman in the lead we peddled out of the grimy Essaouria port and struck east for Marrakech along the bustling N1. We were a little worried at how we’d cope for the 180km stretch of arterial bitumen but with few alternatives there was nothing to do but play chicken with the trucks and buses.
After a late start we were hungry just 20km later and so pulled into a tiny ramshackle collection of stalls that served as a building and wheeled up to the most basic of them all for what looked like a cheap lunch. Without asking for the price we ordered two keftas and bread and a drink each. When the bill came the owner had clearly calculated his best “rich foreigner price” and slugged us 160 dirham (16 euros) which is more than I would have paid in Europe.
We left the town in foul moods at our rookie mistake (always ask the price first) and battled the hot headwind on through a collection of rundown villages and treeless landscapes, stopping to buy veggies for dinner and bread for breakfast at what would be the last post before camping.
Liberal laws (at least in this department) make wild camping a dream in Morocco but when the sun looked close to setting and the landscape looked continuously barren we wondered if finally we’d be pushing our luck.
Eventually we spied a half built building just 30 metres back from the dual carriage highway and with few other alternatives we swung off the road and threw up the tents behind it.
It was after a bland meal of couscous and vegetables that our first guests arrived – a couple of locals looking for a hash smoking hideout.
They warned us that camping in this spot was dangerous “there’s wild boars around here” and then finished their joints before taking off.
We felt a little uneasy – it was probably the worst camping spot we’d ever picked – but we nevertheless packed up and went to bed, falling asleep in our tents before 9.30pm. At 11pm the flashing lights arrived.
A police car with three cops had interrupted our blissful slumber and wanted to see our passports and write down all our information (parents, occupation etc).
They spoke mostly French and explained that our camp spot was dangerous (three guesses on who alerted them to our location) and then said they would call “a friend” in the nearest town to see if we could take a room there. We were sweating in our socks worried at the absurd notion of packing down a tent and cycling back 10km in the middle of the night but luckily their friend was fully booked.
The main police spokesman then apologised and asked if we would be ok staying here for the night? We assured them it would be no problem at all and quickly went back to sleep after laughing at our first brush with the Moroccan law.
A shepherd and his herd of goats woke us up the following morning but after a pleasant “Bonjour ca va?” we got on with breakfast and hit the road.
A steady hot wind beat down on us as we peddled out of the city onto the still chaotic dual lane highway. RVs dodged trucks that dodged buses that dodged donkeys and with bicycles being the lowest common denominator we were shoved onto the gravely shoulder almost every minute.
The road stayed mostly flat and the landscape stayed mostly barren and by time the town of Chichaoua came into view we were more than ready for a break.
It seemed as though dusty pink lenses had been painted over my eyes when the first multi level buildings came into view and I wondered at this modern turn of events when the reality sunk in. It seemed a developer had came in to Chichaoua with the grand idea of building some fabulous new apartments but then run out of money. Hundreds of units sat empty and as we cycled further in it was easy to see why. The fancy development gave way to the usual motley of shacks, simple stalls and scruffy donkeys lead by even scruffier merchants.
We stocked up on bread, laughing cow cheese and tuna before retiring to the shade of a nearby (surprisingly nice) park for a lazy lunch where we spent the next hour entertaining curious boys and napping.
The night before the friendly police had told us we’d be best off asking local farmers or even village residents if we could camp near their home and so when the day came to a close we took a punt and peddled up a dusty track that lead to an assortment of rustic farm houses.
Frank found a fluent French speaking occupant who was more than willing to let us camp near his home and half an hour later the modern casanova had bought us a mat and a blanket as well us the promise of a cup of their home made olive oil.
We sat under a tree and swatted the flies while watching nearby baby goats frolic in the dirt in between laughing at Frank and his sandals.
The day before we left Essaouria Frank decided to treat himself to a pair of sandals to cope with cycling in the Moroccan heat.
He forked out 20 euros and received a pair made of “camel leather” and the promise of a 70 year guaranty. We all winced when he mentioned the exorbitant price but tried to console him with the suggestion that maybe they were genuinely good quality.
It was two days later, while seated under the tree at the farm that the rusty buckles snapped. Frank was furious and we were struggling between pity and laughter.
Our new Moroccan friend and his uncle returned with a cup of some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted and we jazzed up our couscous and vegetables for a relaxing dinner under some seriously bright stars.
Dessert was a couple of bananas given to us for free by a beautifully friendly shop keeper earlier that day.
It was hard not to marvel at just how diverse Morocco could be – incredibly hard work one day, and astonishingly generous and welcoming the next.
After an awesome sleep we woke up and scoffed down some breakfast before meeting the father of our Moroccan host. This kind and eternally smiling old man had arrived to say hello with a baby goat in each arm. We spent the next half hour oohing and ahhing (ok that was me) before he proudly took us for a tour of the goat pens.
Wanting nothing more than a shake of the hand our hosts fared us well just after 10am and we took off for the last 60km stretch to Marrakech.
It had only been a couple of days since my last shower but I felt dirty, grimy and sweaty and with the promise of a proper toilet and a basin waiting at the end of it we pushed the peddles with gusto.
Lunch was some bread in a handful of trees off the side of the road (with just 25km left to go) and the afternoon was miraculously spent peddling on a cyclist lane.
We powered down the strip (which began just outside of Loudaya) reaching the outskirts of one of Morocco’s biggest cities in record time.
In an instant rustic roadside stalls gave way to gleaning high rises and old earthen houses gave way to fancy apartments.
The cycle lane remained but soon we were sharing it with scooters, donkeys and old men pulling grass laden carts and the whole thing just seemed absurd.
At a cafe with wifi close to the city we indulged in a fruit smoothy (and a blissful bathroom visit) while looking up cheap accommodation options for the next few nights.
Unfortunately Marrakech has a reputation for being pricey and even the most basic hostels fuelled the stereotype.
The best we could find was a three-bed room for eight euros each and so we saddled back up and braved the last couple of kilometres into complete insanity.
I’m still not sure how Marrakech doesn’t make global news every day for traffic fatalities with cars, trucks, tuk tuks and donkeys running the gauntlet in Morocco’s answer to Fight Club.
We managed to reach the medina in one piece but it’s there that the going just got tougher.
Every medina is a maze of tiny narrow streets, dead ends and shoddy guides and with most alley ways having no name at all your navigation technique involves closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
An hour later we reached our tiny little riad/hostel were the suspicious looking owner agreed to give us a room and a spot for our bikes.
The water was all but stone cold in the shower but I was thrilled to wash the grime from my body and later on even more thrilled to hook into a cheap chicken sandwich.
Our German cycling friends Freddie and Birte were due to arrive with their friend Lena by bus the following evening so after a day of little more than eating and napping we wandered out beyond the medina to intercept them before they could get lost in the chaos.
The next day our plans began to change and wobble slightly.
Lena had decided to perhaps extend her stay and hire a bike (joining us for what would be the toughest leg over the Atlas Mountains) and shortly after Freddie (aka, patient zero) began to infect the group with a nasty cold.
Birte got sick, Scott got snotty and I turned into a giant mucus factory while Frank alone seemed a picture of health.
Frank was also suffering from cabin fever and keen to hit the road again so while we deliberated over our route he decided to break away from the pack and continue on alone.
It would be sad to say goodbye to him but by this point we were all such giant snot zombies it was hard to do more than grunt farewell.
On Sunday morning there were again five, minus a Frenchman and plus a German woman, but we were still no closer to deciding on a route. Just an hour later however, we got a pretty awesome distraction. Jerome from New Zealand offered to trim our tresses.
The nomad hairstylist (hairgypsy365.com) was cruising around the globe with his scissors, cape and clippers as part of a mission to raise funds for Homes for Habitat and specifically new houses in his home city of Christchurch, which was devastated by a huge earthquake just a couple of years ago.
We each took a turn to get a trim with a view from the rooftop terrace while marvelling at the sheer strangeness of the situation. Weird or not it was my first cut in eight months and Jerome was a pro (he even had the salon chitchat down pat) and I was soon in awe of this gypsy hairstylist and his amazing attitude towards life.
After the haircutting intervention it was back to route planning. Scott had his heart set on climbing the Atlas, I had my heart set on seeing sand dunes and the Germans had their hearts set on avoiding the snowfall promised at the peaks of our preferred route.
Then Lena bit the bullet and took a bus/ferry/train/bus back to Berlin.
And there were four.
It’s now five days after we arrived in Marrakech and while we’re still slightly coughing snotty monsters tomorrow is D Day. The panniers are semi packed, our bellies are slightly bigger from 30 cent honey and butter crepes (thanks to a local cafe owner) and we’re stocked up on couscous, oil, baby wipes, pasta and laughing cow to survive the next week.
The final route decisions are still being deliberated on but the vague plan is to strike into the heart of the High Atlas and tackle a 2300 metre (snow capped) pass before descending into the wild desert town of Ouarzazate.
It will be our highest pass yet under the toughest conditions (there’s few villages extreme temperatures and hordes of stone throwing children) but with “real” Morocco lying on the other side it’s an adventure we’re happy to tackle.