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Bike Packing Through the High Atlas

Gunther Desmedt

It was excruciatingly hot for most of the day, until the last 15k when we were treated to a wonderful shower of rain… and hail. We sought shelter underneath a hanging rock and enjoyed the relief from the heat. We finally arrived, soaked and covered in dirt, at the refuge at La Cathédrale. The owner asked us where we had come from. “Anergui”, I told him. “Anergui?” he exclaimed, “But there are no tracks there anymore.” The confused owner was right, there’s no road anymore, not even for 4 x 4’s, but on a mountain bike it’s possible to ride there – but it’s not easy. Especially not after the ride we had the day before.

We were on a 550km bike-packing adventure through the High Atlas. We started in Tinerhir, and went through the Gorge du Todra, over 8 days. We crossed the High Atlas from east to west, then went back to the south over the M’goun mountains to Boulmalne de Dadès, our finish.

The views in Morocco are fantastic. Everything seems so desolate, no houses or other buildings. Occasionally we’d see a shepherd surrounded by sheep and donkeys. Around the villages, kids would chase us on foot, their main interest not in us but for cigarettes.

On the third day, we were up early and left the small village of Bou-Zemou and began the very long, but gentle climb into the mountains. We could see remote houses in the distance – these people probably didn’t see tourists that often, let alone bikers.

A narrow cut track (piste coupée) was the only thing that was separating us from our pass and the valley far below. The route down is a 5k track losing 1200m in altitude. The track starts with a steep downhill path. It seemed to have been used before, so we figured we were on the right track. Soon, however, it became impossible to cycle. Plants, branches and large jutting rocks littering the tracked resulted in us changing the plan and continuing on foot. In the extraordinary heat of the day, we quickly tired and our water rations were depleting rapidly.

Despite knowing our destination for the night was not too far off, we were in trouble…

Getting off the mountain was draining us mentally and physically. The descent took a huge a toll on my shoulder and arm, which is held together with titanium nuts and bolts after a riding accident in Belgium earlier in the year, so I took a break, and sat there enjoying the view, and considering my options.

I could seriously use some help, but my three friends were having their own problems so I was pretty stuck.

Plants, branches and large jutting rocks littering the tracked resulted in us changing the plan and continuing on foot. In the extraordinary heat of the day, we quickly tired and our water rations were depleting rapidly.

Should we try it? Is it deep? Will it get worse? … There was only one way to find out. We jumped off of our bikes, stepped into the river, and helped each other out to safely get to the other side of the track.

Gunther is part of the Ex.18:18 team. A small group of Belgian MTB enthusiasts. They participated in almost every long-distance and multiday race in Europe the last decade. Now they have lost their heart to long-distance bike-packing adventures.

Website: www.ex1818.be

Facebook: facebook.com/ex1818
Twitter: @guntherds

Then, out of the blue, an eldery Moroccan lady and her grandson stood in front of me. The young man explained in the little French that he knew that they were going to help us. Incredibly, the young man took my bike and carried it carefully to the river. The cool water was a huge relief as it took us more than 3 hours to travel the 5km off the mountain.

As we continued towards the village, I started talking to the young man. We’d thought there were two options to get to Anergui, but apparently only one was viable. Cycling around the mountain in the “wadi” was not possible because there was still far too much water. “…and the 400m climb is only for mules…”

Later in the day we arrived in a village called Botli, and the family immediately took care of us: water, delicious fresh mint tea, cookies and nuts. The young boy enjoyed practicing his French with us, and we settled down for the night with a plan to continue our trip in the morning. We were exhausted and a little out of our comfort zone, but two hours later we were presented with the best tagine I have ever eaten. We enjoyed this delicious mixture of potatoes, tender chicken, carrots and Moroccan spices under a full moon. We relaxed and enjoyed the hospitality and the unique experience. This was the first village on the road to our destination.

The next day, it was almost noon when we reached Anergui, and again, it was insanely hot. We took a break at the first café we found – the perfect moment to discuss the rest of the day over some sodas and biscuits. We planned to reach Ahançal by the evening although we still had a long way to go. We stayed in the village for a couple more hours to rest and recharge before setting out for La Cathédrale which was apparently only 35km away via a picturesque 4 x 4 track winding it’s way through a deep gorge.

We soon discovered that the water had washed the tracks away. We had a “piste coupée” yesterday, this we considered to be a “piste détruite” (destroyed track). We were asking ourselves: “Should we try it? Is it deep? Will it get worse? …” There was only one way to find out. We jumped off of our bikes, stepped into the river, and helped each other out to safely get to the other side of the track.

This scenario repeated itself several times, but we got something in return. A small, dusty track, surrounded but beautiful flowers and trees, and not a sole to be seen. The track was smooth and fast in places, rocky and technical in others and as we wound our way through the gorge, we all had had to smile at the incredible situation we were in. We had set out looking for adventure and had found it. The cycling, and the trip on the whole, was tough, pushing us mentally and physically, but as for the experience?

The experience was unforgettable.

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