The Holy City

Day 9 – 3rd January – Kasba Tadla to Moulay Idriss (308km)

We had a short day ahead of us today, so armed with the recommendations from our host we departed early and soon left the main road to ride into the Middle Atlas region through some very nice small roads. Not that the national road had been boring like the previous day, mind you – this time it went through nice green fields, it had more corners and better landscape, making the start of the day a rather nice affair.

When we reached the city of Kenifra we turned right off the national road and started gaining altitude through narrow roads again in the search of our first stop – a lake called Aguelmame Azigza. The open spaces of the green fields turned into cedar forests and there were patches of snow here and there, and even some ice when we stopped at a crossroads to check which way to go.

img_1974 I stopped on the unpaved ground where the road split in two without realizing that there was a sheet of ice right under me, and when I put my right foot down I felt it slip and almost lost balance and dropped the bike. Fortunately, I caught it on time and moved forward a bit out of the frozen ground.

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We found the lake a few kilometres further down a smaller road that turned into a dirt track for the last few hundred metres before the water. It was at the bottom of a shallow valley with a few nomad huts here and there where we heard the sound of sheep. We left the bikes on the road by the forest and walked down to the shore, quickly realising that it had been a good idea not to try to ride the bikes all the way down to the water’s edge, as what looked like dry terrain was in fact very slippery grey clay, so much so that we almost lost footing and fell several times.

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When we came back to the bikes we saw that we had a visitor. A monkey had come out of the trees and was walking around the bikes, probably looking for food. Gerard gave him some dates he had bought in Ouarzazate and when we got back on the bikes we realised that it had sat on all three of them, smearing mud all over the seats. It was a good thing that we had not left gloves, neck warmers or other stuff laying around, or he would have probably stolen it.

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Past the lake, the road became worse, still paved but with a surface so broken and with so many potholes that we had to ride slowly. On one of the worst potholes the front suspension on Gerard’s bike compressed all the way and the front mudguard caught in the crossbar that connects both sides of the crash bars, preventing the suspension from extending again. For a moment of sheer panic, he felt that he had no steering but luckily, he was going very slowly and was able to stop safely. When he was about to get off the bike, the mudguard lip broke free and the suspension extended suddenly, making him lose his balance and almost throwing him and Raluca on the ground.

A few months ago, he had had a crash with that motorbike. It had not been a serious one, but after the bike was repaired he felt some vibrations through the handlebars and had taken it to two different mechanics who had checked the front wheel and found nothing wrong. On the way down to Morocco, however, riding alongside him on long straight stretches of road while was recording some videos, I could clearly see with my naked eye that there was something wrong with the way the wheel turned. When fixing the problem with his headlamp in Errachidia I had looked down the suspension bars from above and I would swear they were slightly bent back. The incident with the mudguard confirmed my suspicions, as it should not touch some crash bars that have been specifically designed for this bike. It was clear that the suspension had bent back slightly but far enough for the mudguard to come dangerously close to the crash bars.

We were only a few kilometres away from our next visit, the Sources de l’Oum-er-Rbia, so we decided to ride on carefully and deal with the problem there.

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The sources are located in a rocky gorge and are actually 47 different sources of water that spring abundantly out of the mountain. 40 of them are fresh water, while the remaining 7 are salty due to minerals in that part of the mountains.

img_2008There was some infrastructure in place for tourists, with small stalls made of straw, but most of them were empty – the place was well away from the main routes and it seemed that it was not the high season to visit. There were a couple of women selling bread and some places that offered a Tajin meal that smelled delicious, but we had had a hearty breakfast and were not going to eat again until reaching our final destination for the day, so we politely refused the insistent offers from our guide, a guy who had insisted on showing us around from the moment we had parked the bikes.

Back where we had parked the bikes we took out our toolkits and set about dismantling Gerard’s mudguard. You are supposed to remove the front wheel to do so in a V-Strom, but with some pushing and pulling it came out easily enough, and he strapped it on top of a pannier for the rest of the trip, furious that neither of his mechanics had realised the problem with his suspension. I was also surprised, as it was a major problem, potentially dangerous and one of the obvious things to check after a front crash… Either both mechanics were grossly incompetent, or together with the insurance expert had decided that the damage was not bad enough to repair and left it that way, which is even worse.

Having checked that the tire was safely clear from the crashbars we rode on through more amazing roads, coming into the Forêt de Cèdres again, this time a bit further to the west than the first time we had crossed it on our way down to Errachidia. At Azrou we turned northwest, rode past Meknes and with the last light of the day reached Moulay Idriss, where we had booked a hotel for the night.

Moulay Idriss is a very important city for Moroccan people, as is considered the place where Islam started in Morocco. It is here where Moulay Idriss I, after whom the city is named, arrived bringing the religion of Islam. As it is considered a holy place, tourists were not allowed to stay after sunset until 2005. In practice this means that there is little offer in terms of accommodation, and the place is totally free of the usual tourist traps that one can find in the medinas in Fez or Marrakech. We had made a reservation in a small hotel and contacted them to ask about parking for the bikes, and when we reached the square where the hotel was supposed to be located there was a man already waiting for us to help us park the bikes. The hotel was in fact on a side street and was accessible by going down a narrow alley with steps, so we were told that the bikes would have to spend the night in the square, which also doubled as the city’s bus and taxi depot. It was a busy place, and there was a guy who would keep watch over the bikes during the night for 50 dirhams, so we were not particularly worried about leaving them there, especially as the place looked a lot safer than Marrakech.

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At this point on our journey it had become obvious that the country is not prepared for the winter. The houses are designed for a climate that is very hot most of the year, so the windows don’t adjust, there are big open spaces, curtains instead of doors in many places, no heating and barely adequate hot water facilities. At least this hotel had a functioning heat pump in the rooms, but the shower was the same cold affair as in most places so far.

It was already dark, but we still had time to visit the market and the medina before having dinner and, like the day before in Kasba Tadla, found them to be authentic and enjoyable, with no other foreigners around, no souvenir shops and nobody harassing us to buy things.

Ouzud waterfalls and the lone rider

Day 8 – 2nd January – Marrakech to Kasba Tadla (276km)

After the Marrakech experience, we had decided that it would be best to avoid big cities, so instead of spending the next night in Beni-Mellal we found a riad in a small town called Kasba Tadla, 30km further north. Even so, we had a shorter ride today, so for the first time on the trip we were going to stop along the way to visit something instead of just seeing the country from the motorbikes.

We left the narrow streets of the old town in close formation and dived into early morning traffic without having breakfast, as it was not included and our bohemian writer wanted to charge way too much for it. As I joined the main avenue leaving the city the two other bikes fell a few cars behind me as they entered one of the roundabouts, so when I saw a petrol station a bit further ahead I pulled up, waited until I saw Gerard’s headlights and rode to the pumps. When I got off the bike I saw that Esteve was not there. I asked Gerard and he said the he had just him right behind a moment ago. We waited a bit, but it seemed that he might have not seen us and gone on. I went up ahead but did not see him, and he had not turned up at the petrol station, where Gerard had been waiting so, just in case, we went back to the last roundabout to make sure nothing had happened.

It was clear that he was ahead of us, so he was bound to stop when he saw he was riding alone. We decided to go on to the intersection where we were going to leave the national road to start our scenic route, about 7 kilometres out of Marrakech.

He was not there either and, while we were debating what to do, we got an SMS from him, saying that he was fine and that we would meet at the Ouzud waterfalls, halfway to Kasba Tadla.

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We found him standing by the side of the road, looking happy to have enjoyed a whole morning of riding with the road all to himself, leaning against his bike and listening to a guy telling him about two houses, his wife and how he used one for himself and kept the wife in the other.

We reached the waterfalls quite fast, and started the usual ritual in tourist sites – have people pointing you into car parks, choosing one, paying the guy who said he was going to take care of your bike, say no to a few more guys offering to show you around, find the way to what you want to see and go.

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Despite the 2-hour tours offered by the locals, the waterfalls were five minutes away from the car park. I had been expecting to find them at the end of a narrow gorge, but in fact the footpath led instead to the top of the waterfall, and the gorge was at our feet. There were three different waterfalls pouring water into the river below, and by the looks of the terrain, there might be quite a few more when it rains. We walked around the top of the waterfall to get a different perspective and then back to the car park to continue our journey.

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It had felt nice to stretch our legs for a while, even if it was in motorbike clothes, and now the road was nice and the day was warm, so we had a good time on our way back to the national road. We still rode on very small roads for a good while, including climbing a series of tight hairpins on a road that was not even on our paper maps.

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Things changed when we got back on the national road, though, and despite only having a relatively short short distance to our destination, the traffic was heavy and the road monotonous, so we were really looking forward to the end of the day. The road had other intentions for us, though, and before Kasba Tadla we still had to cross Beni Mellal. Maybe it was because we were already feeling tired, but crossing this city felt longer than any other, and we were especially glad to reach our destination.

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Kasba Tadla looked small and friendly, there was little traffic and we found our riad straightaway. I liked the place, and after Marrakech, I really appreciated the friendliness of our host. We parked the bikes inside the riad, unpacked, had a shower and since we still had a couple of ours of sunlight (a first this trip) we went out to explore the city.

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It was immediately clear that we were not in a touristy place, and it was a welcome change after the big city. This was the Morocco we had found in Errachidia, a real taste of the country. We went to the market and it was the complete opposite of Marrakech – it was a small place, with locals going about their business and doing their shopping, and no one was trying to sell us anything.

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In fact, we were the tourist attraction there, everybody had eyes on us. I saw a small shop that sold accessories for the scooters and mopeds that are seen everywhere around the country, and went to try to find a country sticker for the motorbike. The boy behind the counter did not speak French, English or Spanish, but after some pointing and gesturing he understood and produced a sticker from behind the counter. It was a lot nicer than the glittery ones that I had found the day before and that seemed to be the only option available in the whole of Marrakech and shaped like a waving flag, so it would fit nicely in a gap between Bulgaria and Kosovo that was too small for a regular one. Gerard and Ralu had been wanting to get some spices for a while, and they found a greengrocer who had been living in Spain and who told them about the different types.

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Back in our riad, we had dinner and got some tips about things to visit the following day from our host, who also had beer.