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.

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The Wanderess and the call of Africa

Day 7 – 1st January – Marrakech (0km)

Not spending the night celebrating the new year in a wild party had its advantages, mainly that it was easy to get up early to go to the airport with Nat. In the taxi, the driver told us that there had been a terrorist attack in a night club in Turkey. Bad news to start the year, and I wondered what 2017 had in store for us.

The airport was very quiet and Nat got through check in and security fast. As soon as she disappeared past the gate I started to feel the usual emptiness that takes over every time I go on alone. This time was different, as I still had company, but for the first time after some years we had decided to buy intercoms to make the long distances more bearable, and we had got used to it very quickly – I was sure the long moments of silence on the bike ahead were going to feel harder.

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I meet the guys in the hotel lobby and Gerard, Esteve and I went out to check a riad we had found nearby while Raluca finished packing. It was supposed to be only a couple of streets away from where we were so that moving all our stuff would be easy and we would avoid parking the bikes somewhere else, but weirdly enough, we got different locations for it. The maps on Booking.com and Maps.me placed it two corners to the east of our riad, heading further into the old town, while Google Maps indicated that it was in the exact opposite direction, near the square where we had parked the bikes. We checked the first location but could not find any place with the name we had booked, Riad Jakoura. We asked the locals, went round and round the given location checking every alley in the medina maze, but could not find it. We even asked in another riad nearby, but they had not heard about it. We tried to call the number on the reservation to ask where they were, but nobody answered.

When it became clear that the location was wrong, we decided to check the other one. This time we had a street name and a number, but when we got there we only found a restaurant that was also announced as riad. The guy there had not heard about a Riad Jakoura, but when he asked us to show him the pictures in Booking.com to see if he recognised the place, we saw that there was a watermark that read Riad Calypso. That one he recognised, and pointed us to a place that was in neither of the locations we had. In the end, we found a small wooden door with the name Calypso on a small sign hanging above it. We knocked several times and after a good while a guy dressed in scruffy dark clothes and with messy dark hair opened the door and gave us a confused look.

Two things were immediately clear – one, he was not Moroccan, although we could not tell where he might be from, and two, he was monumentally hungover.

It took a while to make him understand that we had a reservation there, and once he got it he made us go in and sat behind his desk in a tiny windowless office. He hunched over a laptop that was missing several keys, his face lit by the orange glow coming from an electrical heater next to the laptop, only a few centimetres away from his head, and started clicking away, mumbling to himself, narrowing his eyes and asking me to spell my name several times while he talked to a young girl standing next to him in the semidarkness of the room and who, we deduced, was a new hire he was training.

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Esteve and Gerard were waiting just outside the office, and while I was not having much luck making the guy understand what type of rooms we had booked, Gerard was having much better luck at something altogether different. Right at that moment, standing in the tiny hallway of the riad, he felt ‘the call of Africa’ after six straight days of not going to the toilet, and not wanting to waste the opportunity, he snuck into a toilet he found behind a small door under the stairs and made peace with the world.

By the time he came out, Mr. Hangover had finally found our booking and was ready to show us our rooms. Esteve’s and mine was on the ground floor, in the courtyard, and Gerard and Ralu got one in the first floor, but not the one he originally intended, it seemed – when he opened the door to show Gerard his room he found a guest sleeping. Apparently he had forgot that the room was taken, and after apologising profusely he took Gerard to the right one.

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We let him go back into his dungeon to nurse his hangover by the heater and went to get our staff from the other riad, but not before an unsuspecting Esteve walked into the toilet for a quick piss and ended up almost needing medical attention after finding the aftermath of Gerard’s ‘call of Africa’.

We also had to pay the guys in the square for another night of parking, and when we had done so and checked that the bikes were OK, one of them started asking something in Arabic that I did not understand at first. He was pointing at Gerard’s bike and then at me, and I gathered that he was asking me if it was my bike. I said it was not, and pointed at Gerard. Then the guy produced a bunch of keys from under his djellaba and dangled them in front of him laughing. Gerard had left the keys on the bike the day before! When we went past the bike with the panniers on our way to the other riad, the guy was still laughing.

While Gerard and Ralu finished taking their stuff into their room I started chatting with our host. I was curious to find out where he was from, as he spoke French fluently but with an English accent, but when I heard him apologise to the guy he had accidentally woken up in English I could not pin his accent.

It turned out that he was a writer and poet from Seattle, where he had lived until he was 21. He then moved to Paris until his mid-thirties, and then to Greece, where he had had a girlfriend. After they split up, he lived in different places along the Mediterranean coast of Spain until his latest novel, called The Wanderess, became a success. Apparently, he had made quite a lot of money out of it and of ‘selling some of his poetry to a pop star’, as he put it, and had thought it was time to make an investment in his future, so he had decided to buy a riad in Marrakech. He had been running it for only 10 months, which explained the change of name (but not the location problems).

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We spent the day in the intoxicating chaos of the medina, buying some souvenirs and enjoying the atmosphere. After so many days of long hours on the bikes it felt great to spend a day on foot just relaxing. We had a kebab in the Jemaa el-Fna square, a coffee and a goffre in one of the roof terraces overlooking the square and headed back to our riad to see the sunset on the rooftop.

img_1922Having seen the state in which we had found our host in the morning, we were pretty sure that this time we would finally be able to get some beer to enjoy on the terrace, and we were not wrong – the riad had some Moroccan beer that tasted like heaven after so many days of abstinence.

The brief description of the riad owner, mr. Payne, does not do his life justice. Check out his biography here.

Tizi n’Tichka and New Year’s Eve in Marrakech

Day 6 – 31st December – Ouarzazate to Marrakech (221km)

Even though the sun was already out by the time we started loading the bikes, the temperature readout on the dashboard was only 4 degrees Celsius. Today was going to be the big day, the last big challenge before we started to ride back home. There were two points during our trip that we considered potentially difficult – crossing the Middle Atlas on the way south to Merzouga, and crossing the High Atlas on the way back up to Marrakech. The first one had posed no problem, we had had good weather and even though we had found snow at the highest points, the roads were clear and temperatures were low but reasonable. This time though we were going even higher, through the famous Tizi n’Tichkaimg-20161231-wa0000 pass. In the last few days I had been sent several pictures and videos of people who were riding in different points of the Atlas mountains and general reports were of snow and cold. The usual image of a winding road against a brown rocky background had been replaced with a white blanket of snow and a thin black line of tarmac zigzagging up the mountains. Even though we had been assured that the road was a main thoroughfare across the Atlas and it was kept clear of snow, we feared that temperatures might be very low, so for the first time in the trip I rolled out the heavy artillery – winter running tights to wear underneath the riding pants, silk socks under thick wool ones, silk gloves under the regular ones and an extra layer under my fleece.

Before attacking the pass we wanted to visit Ait Benhaddou, the famous mud brick fortified city that has featured in countless films.

img_1820It was a beautiful sunny day, and when we parked our bikes and crossed the river to the city entrance the temperature was quite high.

img_1813The first thing we visited was the kasbah, a dark and cold maze of narrow corridors, staircases and rooms, but when we stepped out in the sun and started walking up the city streets all dressed up for the cold we soon regretted our decision to wear so many clothes.

img_1834The visit was worth sweating a bit, though, and we were soon on the bikes again, so we kept them on.

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A couple of days earlier, a friend had recommended a more scenic alternative to get to the Tizi n’Tichka – instead of going back to the main road after visiting Ait Benhaddou there is a small local road that continues past it and goes through several tiny mountain villages before joining the main road just before the pass. With such nice weather we thought we would risk it and take this route.

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We were soon way off the beaten track on a narrow road with no traffic going up a beautiful rocky valley with small mud brick villages appearing here and there. In all of them children came running out to meet us on the road when they heard the roaring of the bikes approach their houses – no matter where you are in the world, all kids are strangely fascinated by these machines. The landscape changed from dusty rocks to dark brown clay as we gained altitude and then the valley opened into a fertile plain where our route turned west and we caught sight of the mountains we were going to cross.

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There seemed to be a lot less snow than we had anticipated, and the temperatures remained reassuringly warm as we kept climbing. Soon we started to see pine trees by the side of the road and there was also snow here and there, but it was clear that most of what we had seen in pictures from a few weeks earlier had melted away.

img_1894We were very close to the main road now, and a thought crossed my mind – this was a very small road, and I was sure it was not cleared of snow as regularly as the main road to the pass. All it would take at this point was some snow across the road, say 20 or 30 metres, to make us have to go all the way back to Ait Benhaddou and up the national road, losing several precious hours.

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Fortunately, we met the main road without any further incident and soon we were at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka.

img_1885We had been very lucky and enjoyed great weather and some of the best views of our trip. It was now time to face the following adventure – the infamous traffic of Marrakech, a daunting prospect that was not made any easier by the fact that our hotel was in the old city, a maze of narrow streets infested with suicidal scooter riders.

After a long ride down the other side of the Atlas range with a short stop to remove several layers of clothes we reached the outskirts of the city. At first the traffic was reasonable – seen for the first time it might have appeared chaotic and dangerous, but there was a kind of order in the chaos, with scooters, pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses and taxis all moving within millimetres of one another but miraculously avoiding touching.

We reached one of the doors in the wall around the all city and things got a lot more interesting here. The GPS sent us down a narrow alley with lots of people and scooters, and our bikes felt like lumbering elephants inching ahead among a blur of movement. We reached a small square full of parked cars and pulled aside for a moment to locate our riad.

We were relieved to see that it was just around the corner, but not so happy when, having unloaded the bikes we asked where we could park them and they said that they had no private parking. We did not want to leave them out in the street in such a chaotic place, so after a lot of arguing the guy in the hotel told us to follow a friend of his who had another riad with a courtyard that was accessible from the street and who agreed to let us park the bikes inside. We went into an even narrower street and he opened a small wooden door and gestured me to take the bike through it. It was clearly too narrow for the handlebars, and there was a high step down into it, so when I tried to put the wheel in first and then twist the bars to get one side in and then the other, the only thing I managed to do was to get stuck. The man had to pushed me back out, while two more guys pulled from behind to take the bike out in the alley again. It was impossible to park the bikes there, and the only alternative was to park them in the square, where we had to pay 50 dirhams and some guys would keep an eye on them all night. The security guard from the riad who had been helping us far swore that the bikes would be safe, and the guys in the square showed us that there were a couple of big motorbikes under some blankets parked between some dusty scooters, so in the end we agreed to leave them there.

The second disappointment with the riad came when we told them that we had decided to spend an extra night there to have time to visit the city after Nat had taken her flight back home and they showed no interest whatsoever in extending our stay. ‘Check whether there are available rooms on Booking.com’, the guy said. We were tired after a long day on the road and trying to find a place for the bikes, so we decided to have a shower, get changed and then look up alternatives online to spend that extra night. After we agreed on a couple of places that looked good we went out to find a place to have dinner and visit the medina.

If the streets leading to the riad had seemed chaotic, going deeper into the medina was even worse. The streets were narrower, there were thousands of small stalls selling all kinds of stuff to tourists, each of them with an over eager guy trying to get people into his by singing ‘amigo amigo’ or the equivalent in any language they needed, while all the time locals on scooters zoomed past, rendering the air unbreathable. We found a quiet restaurant and had an early dinner before heading to the main square to see if there were going to be any special celebrations for the new year, but found that the party was in the new part of the city, not here. We wanted to hang around until midnight and celebrate out in the streets, but as the time went by the stalls closed and the streets emptied, and we were feeling cold and tired, so we decided to get back to our hotel and welcome the New Year there.

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The medina was deserted now, and there was an eerie atmosphere in its narrow streets. It was impossible to identify any reference points to find our way back to the riad now that the shops had closed and all metal doors looked the same. To add to our confusion, some streets closed, which meant that we had to take long detours just to get to the other side of a wooden gate. We managed to get out in the end, though, and reached our hotel in time to hear the midnight bells of the Big Ben on TV, but we had no champagne to toast the new year. It is complicated to celebrate these things in a Muslim country…