MARRAKECH, with its crumbling medina, metropolitan chaos, smelly alleyways and persistent hawkers was like an annoying little brother. For most of the time, while holed up in our basic hostel or walking its dirty streets we just wished it would bugger off and bother someone else but when the time came to leave we realised it had wormed its way into our hearts – like a piece of glass.
We’d found a charming “crepe guy” who sold us coffee and honey crepes for under a euro, we’d made friends with the adorable pregnant house keeper who humbly accepted our winter clothes we were keen to ditch and then put on a huge couscous breakfast for us and most importantly we’d finished all six episodes of Star Wars (it was a first for Birte and I and we unfortunately have to report that we didn’t like the new ones).
On the morning of our departure we dawdled, drank second and then third cups of coffee and gave our new friends huge hugs of farewell before tackling a flat wide road that snaked gently out of the city.
After a fast 20km the chaos of the city was a vague sooty memory but the relief of being in the slightly lush countryside was short lived as rain clouds hovered and a dark storm front sat on the horizon.
At 4pm, with just 50km under our belts, the heavens opened and our first African downpour struck with a vengeance.
It was big fat rain reminiscent of the Scottish highlands and after just 10 minutes I suffered a horrible realisation. My $500 waterproof jacket was no longer waterproof.
I was soaked to the skin and miserably cold as roadsides turned into mudslides and the clouds just thickened.
We bit the bullet.
Cycling in this rain was as as fun as climbing the Alps naked so we veered off the main road in search of a campsite.
It was rich farmlands with barely a free patch of forest in site but after just half a kilometre of mud riding Freddie found the perfect solution.
A local farmer, kitted out in a full length brown djellaba (looking a little like a desert extra in Star Wars) offered up a patch of his front yard and while he only spoke a little French (and no English) he was full of smiles and welcomes.
We threw up our tents and threw in our bags before being invited inside his house for homemade bread, butter and olive oil and steaming hot tea. It was simple honest fare but it tasted sublime and after stuffing ourselves the kind farmer took us for a soggy tour of his farm. His pride and joy was the enormous olive oil production shed and while it looked dirty it smelled fantastic.
Being cold to the bone in what was the lowest temperatures we’d experienced in Morocco yet meant sleep was hard to come by but eventually we dozed off and woke up to glorious sunshine.
Our fabulous host wasn’t going to let us go without breakfast and after we’d packed down the tents he whipped out homemade crepes and olive oil. He refused payment and gave us hearty handshakes before sending us on our way in what was the perfect example of human kindness to start the day.
With the sun out the scenery looked nothing short of spectacular as we peddled on towards Demnat.
For the the first time the rolling hills were carpeted in lush green grass with that earthy Moroccan landscape infused into the mix. The villagers smiled openly, the road stayed fairly flat and smooth and it seemed we were finally seeing the real Morocco.
The main road to Demnat was an easy 50km away but halfway along the route small roads snaked off into the mountains and a large lake and after a quick discussion we decided to explore them.
We turned off onto a narrow track and peddled 10km until we reached a quiet and rustic village where colourfully dressed girls and women smiled shyly and men waved openly.
A few minutes after pulling up a gleaming silver caravan the size of a bus drove up and its French occupants gave us a big wave.
We were almost as stunned as the locals to see this impressive piece of machinery (it looked as though a rock band would step out) but instead it was a retired couple from the east coast (near the Pyrenees) who were also headed to the lake.
They were cheerful and friendly, promising us a beer when we got there, and so we slowly peddled on, up and down scenic hills, before arriving at the lake.
The gleaming tour bus was waiting but so was a convoy of soldiers.
The lake was a military zone and anyone even passing through was stopped for inspection while we were all forced to whip out our passports.
It seemed camping here was out of the question and when we asked they told us we’d have to continue on.
Our new French friends weren’t going to let us go without some of that famous French hospitality however and they pulled us into the impressive interior of their mobile house (it had three televisions, a robot vacuum, a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom) for lunch and drinks.
We greedily tucked into a plate of tomato, onion and olive oil as well as bread, eggs and beer.
Entertainment was in the way of a rugby match on the television between France and England (we were supporting France of course) and we sat back and enjoyed beers, wine and coffee in the plush comfort.
It was around this point that the heavens again opened and the rain beat down with gusto.
The last thing I wanted to do was leave this little slice of mechanical paradise and cycle off into the rain with my soggy “waterproof” jacket but we had no choice.
At just before 6pm we bit the bullet and said our farewells but as we prepared to peddle off into the gloom two smart looking soldiers popped up to say they’d spoken to their captain and that we could camp inside their compound just above the lake.
It was an offer that was too good to refuse and we quickly followed them and pitched on flat soft ground before Birte whipped up a curry on the camp stove.
The following morning we shared a breakfast with our French friends before crossing the lake and beginning what would be the first of many climbs for the day.
We had just 35km left to reach Demnat but the narrow and often crumbling road wound up into the freezing mountains where shepherds tended small flocks, farmers herded heavily laden donkeys and the nearby Atlas mountains revealed their snowcapped peaks. The scenery was jaw dropping but the cycling was nothing short of tough.
Small Berber villages full of laughing children broke up the climbs but while it was a rare glimpse of native Moroccan life each kilometre was a battle.
Two hours later we’d covered just 10 kilometres and by mid afternoon (following some epic gradients to 1400 metres) we were shagged.
Rain clouds were again building and we stopped for a quick lunch of left over bread and yoghurt before tackling the last 10 kilometres to Demnat.
But then our luck changed for the better.
The climbing was over and the road dipped steadily all the way to the small city making for a fast – albeit freezing – last leg.
The temperature was hovering at around seven degrees and with a pass of 2200 metres lying on the road ahead I wondered just how cold it would get before we emerged on the other side.
Demnat is a haphazard mixture of dusty vegetable stalls, crumbling kasbahs and culture thanks to its vibrant Jewish quarter and almost “last post” atmosphere.
Before the weather turned foul we had good intentions of finding a campsite and pitching the tents but our dirty frozen limbs now begged otherwise and Scott I wandered down a small street in search of a cheap hotel.
We found a basic but clean four bedroom abode with an ensuite for about six euros each and quickly hauled our muddy bags upstairs and began the battle of who would get the first hot shower!
The result was no one.
Our promising looking shower head let out a dribble reminiscent of a leaky tap and to add insult to injury there was no hot water.
We were fast learning that a warm shower was a luxury in Morocco but washing via a tap spewing stone cold water was agony.
I washed my hair and body in record time and even steamed up the bathroom with my body heat before pulling on my winter woolies to combat our freezing room.
We were all too shagged to even contemplate a dinner out so we fired up the stove on the room’s floor and whipped up pasta and vegetables before treating ourselves to a “movie night” on the laptop.
The plan was to leave for the Atlas the following day but the cold and rain persisted leaving us cuddled up in our sleeping bags like hibernating bears.
The weather was so foul we stayed another two in the perfect example of forced rest time. We read, drank coffee, ate bread and honey and looked at maps of the road ahead while deep down savouring what was to be our last proper bed rest, shower and R&R until we emerged on the other side of the Atlas Mountains.