Gorges in the south side of the Atlas

Day 5 – 30th of December – Merzouga to Ouarzazte (424km)

The sound of lots of voices outside our room woke me up just past seven, and when I stepped outside I saw a huge group of people looking very cold and attacking the breakfast buffet. Where had they come from? The riad was rather small, there were not near enough rooms for all that people. It turns out that they had spent the night in the desert to see the sunset and the sunrise among the dunes – most riads have a camp set up somewhere in the Erg Chebbi and hosts can choose to spend the night there instead of the riad. After about an hour ride on camels, people have dinner, see the sunset, spend the night in a bereber tent, see the sunrise and go back to the riad for breakfast.

On the way down here we had taken a new road that goes straight through the desert from Erfoud to Merzouga, saving us half an hour and the hassle of crossing Rissani, but at the same time missing out on the town that had been the capital of the country in the 14th century and one of the many recommendations that our host in Errachidia had made – bereber pizza. However, the route to Ouarzazate took us back there, so at least we got a quick tour of the city from the bikes. We missed out on the pizza however, as the only place we found open so early in the morning told us that we would had to wait for almost an hour before we could get one to take away and we had a long day’s ride ahead of us, so we decided to move on.

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The views we found on the road after Rissani more than made up for it, though. The landscape was amazing, the snow covered Atlas mountains were to our right, and all around us was rocky desert with beautiful rock formations and low hills.

When we reached Alnif we turned north on a smaller regional road until we reached Tinghir, and from there we rode up the river Todra and visited the Gorges du Todra. They are a narrow canyon where the road zigzags at the botom along the river, with imposing tall rock walls on both sides. We rode up the river until the canyon opened again, then stopped to see the views and check the route to our next stop – the Gorges du Dades.

img_1777When we took out the map we realised that the road continued up the river, into the mountains and then down again into the Gorges du Dades, which was bound to be a more interesting route than going back down to the national road and then up the Gorges.

img_1775The problem was that we had not counted on that, and we were all low on fuel. If we wanted to take that route we needed to go back to Tinghir to fill up the bikes, which would add well over half an hour to an almost two hour detour, and we were already running against the clock to make it to Ouarzazate before sunset, so we reluctantly decided to go on with the normal route.

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We were starting to feel tired when we turned into the Gorges du Dades, so when we saw a café with a terrace overlooking the rock formations across the river we stopped for a well deserved rest.

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We got back on the main road happy to see that there were only 90km to get to our hotel, but little did we know that they were going to be a hard 90km… We were riding straight into the sunset, and unlike the sunset on our first day, when we were riding across Spain, there were no hills or corners here to hide the sun from time to time, and we were not in the relative safety of a European motorway, so our eyes were exposed to unrelenting torture and we could barely see incoming traffic, potholes or what is worse, pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds and animals on our side of the road. While my bike and Esteve’s had low windscreens, Gerard had recently had a taller one fitted, meaning that he had to look through it, making it all but impossible to see the road. To make matters worse, the road went through lots of towns and villages, further slowing our progress.

Things only got better once the sun set, but that meant that we had barely half an hour of light left to reach the hotel. Luckly, we made it into Ouarzazate just in time, and we were glad to see that getting to the hotel was straightaway – no navigating through heavy traffic or narrow streets.

There was one last problem when the guy at the hotel told us that the ‘parking facilities’ mentioned in the website was an empty lot opposite the building.

img_1805We told him that we did not want to leave the bikes there and in the end they cleared some tables and chairs from the hotel café terrace right by the entrance door and let us park the bikes there, under the reception window and within view of a security camera.

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Crossing the Atlas Mountains

Day 3 – 28th December – Fez to Errachidia (356km)

Most people think that the main drawback of travelling by motorbike in winter is the cold, and they are right, but there is another major factor at play that many forget – the hours of sunlight. While it would have been possible to make the most of the day and go directly from Fez to Merzouga in spring or summer, now we had to stop no later than 5pm because it got dark and temperatures drop very low, so we had to do the journey in two days. Because we wanted to spend most of the following day riding in the desert in Merzouga, we decided to go as far as possible today and then ride for only a couple of hours the following day. So, another early start.

Traffic had been the usual chaos in Fez when we arrived the night before, but today it was rather quiet, even though it was the morning rush hour. We left our palace and headed south through the new part of the city, and after leaving it behind, the road started climbing into the Middle Atlas mountains. We would spend most of the day well above 1,000 metres and, worried about the cold, we had put on several extra layers of warm clothes.

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The next big town was Ifrane, also known as the Moroccan Swirzerland, and it was easy to see why. If you think ‘desert’ when thinking about Morocco, think twice. At over 1,600m above sea level, we found a quaint town with snow and luxurious houses that would not look out of place in the Alps, with a skiing resort past the town.

Past Ifrane, the road took us close to Azrou and then into the foret des Cèdres, a thick forest with a great mountain road where I had a great time and where this amazing country brought us yet another surprise – monkeys! The forest is full of them, and they are a big tourist attraction, together with a tree called Cèdre Gouraud, a cedar over 800 years old.

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As we kept gaining altitude the forest cleared until there were no more trees and a vast expanse of snow opened in front of us. The temperature dropped gradually and reached a minimum 6 degrees Celsius as we rode over the highest point of the day, the Col du Zad, almost 2200 metres above sea level.

img_1590The snow remained part of the landscape until we started losing altitude again and the landscape turned into rocky desert plains on the way to Midelt, where we stopped to have some much needed hot tea before the last leg of the day.

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With the sun already low, we descended to the river Ziz, which we followed past the tunnel du Légionnaire and into the Gorges du Ziz, an amazing canyon that opened into a big reservoir built in 1976 to prevent the flooding of the palm tree plains down along the river.

Just after sunset we reached the outskirts of Errachidia, where we turned off the main road and rode a dirt track to a small group of houses made of mud and straw – we were going to spend the night in one of them, Gite d’Étape Khettara Oasis.

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A group of children, fascinated by the bikes as all children are, pointed us in the way of the house, and a small wooden door opened and man welcomed us into a beautiful inner courtyard. We were allowed to park the bikes inside for the night, and after squeezing the heavy beasts through the door, we unloaded them and were shown our room.

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Before settling down we set about fixing the headlamp in Gerard’s bike, which had stopped working in the morning. Fortunately, I had had the same problem with my V-Strom a few months later and knew how to fix it – it was a faulty ignition switch contact, which needed cleaning and adjusting.

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The owner of the house came shortly after and told us about the region and its history. He had been born in that same house, but after several consecutive years of unforgiving draught, his family had been forced to move to the city and try to make a living there. Fortunately for him, his father insisted that he kept going to school, and he had gone on to obtain a degree in physics. Feeling that he owed something back to his hometown, he had returned and turned his family house into a traditional guesthouse that was part of a network of sustainable tourism establishments in the Ziz river region. They employed local people and used local produce, and reinvested the money in improving water and irrigation facilities to support the local farmers.

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We enjoyed an excellent dinner in front of a fire in the central room of the house and went to bed early, ready for our first desert experience the following morning.