FROM Demnat’s rustic outskirts the narrow road wound steadily up towards the oasis of Imni Ifri. It was just a 10km of ascent but by time the lush trees, roaring river and huge stone archways of the tourist hotspot came into view we were sweating, huffing and puffing. In the distance huge snowcapped mountains consumed the horizon and somewhere, weaving between those giants, lay our path through the Atlas.
Imni Ifri looked like a natural haven but it was proof in itself that Morocco, no matter where you are, is essentially the same. Hawkers, “guides” and “helpers” lounged around the site’s main cross roads ready to pounce on tourists with the practised lines of “nice tagine, I make you good price” and “hotel, very nice, very cheap.”
We knew there was a campsite somewhere close by and when we informed one of the oh so helpful hawkers that this was in fact what we were looking for he insisted he knew where it was and to follow him.
Rule number one in Morocco (sadly) is to never trust or believe anyone who approaches you. This guy just served to reiterate that theory. He led us to his friend’s hotel and said we could camp in the garden for 25 dirham per person not including showers.
We could have wild camped for free with the same facilities but the lure of soft flat grass and a nearby table and chairs won us over and we set up for what was to be our last relaxing afternoon before striking south for the High Atlas.
Imni Ifri’s natural archway runs over a roaring, mud coloured river and for the locals its a place steeped in history and romanticism – luring engaged couples and lovers from all over.
We left our “campsite” and took a walk down steep paths to soak up the magic before wandering back to the hotel for a camp stove dinner.
But someone else had the same idea in our absence.
A pair of puppies where nose deep in our tent when we wandered into the garden and as we came closer we saw strewn bags and crumbs across the entire yard. The cheeky pooches had not just eaten two days’ supply of bread and biscuits but torn a whole in the front of our tent in an attempt to extract the goodies.
We were furious. Being overcharged for a patch of grass is one thing, but having their starved pets maul your tent and eat your food is another.
The following morning dawned bright and we left our trimmed patch of yard and made for the village’s only (minuscule) shop to get supplies for the next three days.
Our friend Franck (who had cycled this route just a week earlier) had warned water and food was tough to come by in the mountains and so we were forced to buy water, couscous, vegetables and bread for three days.
Packing extra kilos is bad enough on a good day but hauling an extra six litres of water each up northern Africa’s highest mountain range seemed depressing bordering on suicidal.
For the next three days we would climb steadily over the first of three passes (at a whopping 2200 metres) and as I stood next to the ridiculously loaded up Hercules I asked myself honestly for the first time if I had it in me.
The first half of the day was spent steadily ascending up long winding roads, passing more donkeys than cars while watching the snow capped peaks draw painfully closer.
It was hard, hot work and after three hours I was sick of sitting in “granny” gear and feeling the now dull burn in my thighs.
We’d given ourselves the modest target of cycling a mere 25km but after just 15 I realised the extra load meant it wasn’t modest at all.
Lunch was a basic picnic in a patch of shade just outside a rustic village full of over excitable children and at 2pm we forced ourselves back on the bikes to keep climbing.
For the first time that day patches of snow dotted the roadside and the High Atlas Mountains rose around us.
It was late afternoon when we crawled into yet another tiny Berber village but like the others it boasted little more than a handful of crumbling mud buildings (no shops of any kind), a few men sitting around drinking tea in their dusty djellabas (while nearby woman hauled giant loads of sticks and grains through the fields) and enthusiastic kids. We decided to ask a local if there was a suitable spot to pitch our tent but it became pretty clear they wanted money for their help and with a swarm of children now smothering us we decided to push on and leave this unfriendly spot.
The road out of the establishment kept rising which meant the children didn’t just keep up, but could walk faster than we could peddle. We were tired and frustrated and after a group of them laughed nastily at Birte’s uphill efforts she turned around and yelled “go home!”
“But madam,” one of them said cheekily, “my home is this way”.
We’d hoped to lose the kids before we found a patch of bush to camp but this seemed impossible so after a few kilometres we hauled our bikes off the road and made for a clearing up a short but sharp cliff.
The kids, who had been constantly begging for lollies, pens and paper, suddenly turned into helpful little elves, peeling us off a handful of almonds growing in a nearby bush before offering to carry our bags and bottles up the slope to our “house” for the night.
They were literally thrilled to help and kept up a non stop stream of chatter (half French, half Berber) and by time the last bag was up the slope they simply said “au revoir” before scampering down the road.
The problem was all the other kids from the nearby villages had heard the news of some crazy white people camping on the roadside so scarcely a few minutes after the tents were up a host of small children were crowded around to inspect.
We handed them out a lolly each but made them promise to put their wrappers in our garbage bag (a lack of education means Moroccans treat their country like one big rubbish dump) and within minutes the news had spread and each new child who approached for their sweet immediately put the wrapper in the bin.
Despite the initial frustrations it was a heartwarming end to the day and after the last sugar filled child had gone home we ate a basic dinner of couscous and vegetables while soaking up the magnificent mountain scape.
The following morning the children returned to help us carry our bags down the hill and after we we’d loaded up the bikes (which still carried an alarming amount of excess) we gave them some more lollies and immediately struck up granny gear for the climb.
Our legs were burning and the road just wound up even steeper causing us to pause on almost every switchback in an attempt to ease the pain and lower the heart rate.
By now snow was piled up thickly on the side of the road while the bitumen itself had disintegrated into a slushy, narrow crumble of dirt, rocks and mud with the occasional fast flowing river rushing right over it.
We had lunch on a plateau watching battered Moroccan trucks and vans chugging slowly up the steep switch backs to what looked like the distant snowy peak.
It was after lunch, with my legs feeling like planks of wood and the road rising endlessly and steeply around me, that I suffered my lowest ebb.
Every time a car or bus rumbled down in the opposite direction I was forced off the road where I than spent the next few minutes trying desperately to get back on again while the wheels spun in the muddy ascent.
I pushed on in a haze of pain (by this time we were all silently suffering) but after an hour the last switch back was behind me and the peak lay a short rise away.
A small reserve of energy opened up and I sprinted to the top, just behind Freddie and Scott, in a blaze of glory.
At the magnificent 2200 metre peak the grandeur of the high atlas rose around us and in a nearby ditch a handful of Moroccans sat on bags of grain sipping tea.
They looked at our battered but elated faces and handed us keeps of the hot mint drink to celebrate. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more fitting scenario.
Half an hour later we peddled off into our first real down hill stint but I was too swept up in the view, and the relief of my legs to concentrate on what was still a treacherous road.
I was flying down one switchback, looking at the distant mountains, when trouble struck.
Without realising it I’d veered off the road right into a series of huge rocks and within seconds I’d flown off the bike and tumbled close to the rocky edge.
Scott came hurtling down behind me yelling, and fearing the worse, but luckily the worse was just some scrapes, cuts and bruises.
I felt more embarrassed than anything and it was a stern reminder that you can never let your guard down in Morocco.
We’d been promised a downhill run to the next town but by 5pm we were still 10km off reaching it when the road veered heartbreakingly up.
None of us had the energy to face another climb so we pulled into a gravelly patch next to the road and shamelessly pitched our tents.
Half an hour later we were joined by an 18 year old Spanish boy who had thrown the life dice and moved to Morocco in a bid to experience Africa and we spent a fun evening, talking Spanish and English while sharing (you guessed it) couscous and vegetables.
Young Jesus even bought a beer to the motley picnic and we reverently passed it around, taking small, blissful sips.
The climb wasn’t as tough as we’d anticipated the following morning and after an hour of climbing we flew down rough roads to the tiny village of Ait Tamlil for what was our first proper pit stop.
It turned out this High Atlas town was yet another ramshackle mix of crumbling buildings, kids, tea drinking men and hard working women but with the added advantage of a couple of basic food and water stands and even a cafe.
We spent a small fortune on water, bread, couscous and vegetables before treating ourselves to a “coffee” (which tasted like cinnamon, chilli tea with a hint of instant coffee).
The sun was shining and it was a relief to sit down on real chairs and while the smart thing would have been to keep cycling we decided our shagged legs deserved a break.
We decided to cycle as far out of the village as it took to find a camp spot and spend an afternoon relaxing, reading and eating.
There was just one problem.
Somewhere in the dusty village Scott had dropped his bicycle computer and there was no way he was leaving without this prized piece of technology.
With kids swarming around us the entire time I found it tough to believe one of the banditos hadn’t swiped it up and sure enough, just 15 minutes later, the kids handed it over. Scott rewarded them with 50 dirhams (about five euros) and while it was realistically a small fee to us I was furious. I hated the idea of paying to get something back that was ours and I felt it just reiterated the message to these villagers that white people were walking cash machines.
I peddled out of the town in a foul huff but 20 minutes later we stumbled across the perfect campsite and my anger all but dissipated.
It was a small pine forest, perched just a stone’s throw from the main road and there was a flat clearing with dappled lighting and plenty of space to just lounge around and relax.
It was so relaxing that we decided to take a day off and ease our aching muscles.
Between siestas, reading and just chatting Scott and I made like the local Berber women and took some washing down to the river before hauling a bladder back for a bush shower.
From our pine forest haven we struck uphill again the next morning, hitting a small way station village for one hell of an expensive tagine and tea (and some basic supplies) before pushing along rolling ascents and descents. It was a tough day mentally thanks to two mountain passes of 2000 metres that lay on the road ahead and we wound up calling it a night after just 30km on a flat piece of grass near a roaring muddy river.
If our final passes were anything like the first we figured it could take a few more days yet to cross the Atlas but by 1pm the next day we’d pushed out our first pass and made it to the foot of the last.
The ascent didn’t seem quite as tough and while the climbs were long it was easy to sit in granny gear and just slowly push out the kilometres.
We had a lazy lunch by the river before gearing up for the final push and by 3.30pm the top lay within an arm’s throw.
With just 500 metres to go all the weariness of the last few days fled and I sprinted to the top for my first non snow capped view in more than 100 kilometres. Below the Atlas dwindled down into dry and stony hills that flattened out into a valley that would eventually become the desert.
For the four of us, the High Atlas Mountains had proved the toughest physical challenge of our lives and the fact that we’d not just survived it but conquered it left a mark for the better.
We flew down the mountain to a bizarre little town that didn’t even register on the (seriously inaccurate) Michelin map and after attempting to find supplies (to no avail) we peddled to the town’s outskirts and set up camp in a rocky plain full of piercing thorns and weird looking spiders.
Our food and water supplies had dwindled to just a bit of couscous and some biscuits but we were too exhausted to care and fell into our tents just after 9pm.
According to the map the oasis town of Skoura (also known as the town of 1000 palm trees) lay just 25km to the south east but it was 50km later that we finally reached its outskirts. The road was flat (we pushed out the 50km in under three hours) but we had each hit the wall and all but collapsed into the plush seats of a restaurant for a celebratory meal just after 2pm.
Franck had given us the name and number of a local who could organise us some cheap accommodation in a nearby kasbah and when we’d found and met the cheerful Mohammed we geared up for the final couple of kilometres down bumpy, dirt tracks to the palmerie.
Skoura is a small and basic town itself but the “1000 palms” that put the town on the map give the region a truly oasis feel and its in this surprisingly lush region outside the centre that most of the accommodation can be found.
We were led to a typical mud kasbah and shown up to a charming and authentic room (with a hot shower) and the owner had scarcely left the keys in our hands before we dived into the bathroom and began the process of removing a weeks worth of sweat, dirt and grime.
As showers rated it certainly made my top 10 and after gorging ourselves (on anything but couscous) we crawled into bed (kicking off the blankets) for a hot night in our little patch of paradise.
It was hard to do anything but sleep, eat and read over the next couple of days and we lapped up civilisation with gusto while planning our next leg.
Mohammed had offered us the chance to spend a night with nomads (a bus ride followed by a four hour hike from Skoura) while learning to make tagine for about five euros each and the opportunity seemed too good to miss.
From there, we planned to hit the business of hub of Ourzazate before taking a detour down to the rolling dunes of the Sahara and then doubling back to check out Ait Ben Haddou (where they filmed the movie Gladiator and Game of Thrones). From the desert we hoped to make our way back north for the final Moroccan leg and while I was excited to head back into western Europe (specifically Italy and its fabulous food and wine) I was already sad to leave Africa.
It had been a challenge, an assault on the senses and a wild adventure in just the four weeks we had been here but rather than leave me exhausted it has just served to pique my interest.
I was glad to be hitting eastern Europe, Central Asia and the middle east but it would have taken little convincing to throw it all to the wind and strike south for Mauritania.