I leave our Riad in Marrakesh and walk through narrow alleys aiming for the main square. A square far removed from barren benches, cultural emptiness and banned street musicians. Jemaa el-Fnaa is a legendary place- a busy and vibrant melting pot of colour, music and smells that is almost worth the trip in itself.
“A fantasy vision of North African exotica full of music, storytelling, fortune tellers, snake charmers and full-on thirst for commerce”
I'm fascinated by how little has changed in the ten years that have passed since my last visit. The freshly squeezed orange juice might cost a few cents more but otherwise it's largely unchanged, except for the slightly hipper feel to it all.
But although urban escapades in all their glory have a time and a place, I'm not here to hang out with French hipsters or splurge on home interior. This time Morocco has something else up it’s sleeve and on a clear day its visible from Marrakesh: The Atlas Mountains. The mountain range that cuts right across North Africa, from Morocco, through Algeria over to Tunisia.
The day is still clear and pleasantly warm when we set off towards the mountains. After readying our bikes, we start a steep climb through a village where the adhan, the Islamic call to worship, ads some extra flavour to our sequential pushbiking.
Friendly children from the village accompany us and some insist on helping us out, obviously with hopes of candy or coins. Soon we get our first view of the lower Atlas and its unfolding hills and valleys, dimly veiled in a beautiful haze.
A mellow trail, a mule path, takes us down between fields and through villages but as we approach the village of Tinzert the increasingly technical trail demands our full attention. Since we have no intention of faceplanting a ploughed field lined with muledroppings, we have to ride carefully and pick the right line amidst the furrows.
This is our first taste of what's to come. The villages here are still home to a vibrant Berber culture and many are only connected to the outside world by these mule paths. For centuries these tracks have been trampled by pack animals and they still have a key role in the infrastructure of this mountain community.
The paths will change character throughout the week. Sometimes they are wide, smooth and delicate. Sometimes, perhaps primarily as we approach the villages, they are considerably worn and tricky - incredibly fun if you have the technique, skill and courage to ride them. The mountainous landscape is a display of deep gorges and rocky cliffs. In the midst of it all the ochre villages blend in completely with the natural environment.
Our main base during the coming week is a small lodge near the village of Ouirgane which offers a swimming pool that is as cold as the beer, but the generous dinners, hot showers and open fires are a welcome luxury now that winter is approaching.
The following day we drive uphill for nearly an hour, passing the trekking hub of Imlil to the pass of Tizi n'Tamartert at over 2000 meters altitude. Rising above us is the snow-capped Toubkal massive, crowned by a 4167m peak, North Africa's highest point.
We are now deep in the Atlas Mountains. A blue sky is resting on the mountains and autumn trees glimmer in the sun. Everything blends harmoniously, the houses in the villages the sand and stones.
“We are a mixed bunch; Swedes, Britons, Germans and Australians”
In the lead is our guide Jon Bawn. Perhaps because it’s beyond the harvest season, or perhaps because winter is coming, there are few others on these well-worn and ancient paths. We ride a rough trail that takes us down a deep valley. Sometimes the trail is fairly exposed and the slight risk of falling requires its share of balancing skills.
We have a support jeep that waits for us at road crossings and keeps an eye on us from a distance. Part of me can not help to think that there is something absurd about it. When would you ever have a jeep following when you are biking at home? But I surrender at the first lunch.
We pause at a riverbed outside the village Imsker. Groups of women from the village have gathered by the river to do their laundry, just like time was standing still. While we rest and soak up the sun, our chef Ahmed and our eminent local guide Hamou serve up a hearty buffet. What a blissful luxury to skip those sweaty energy bars and sticky sports drinks and instead indulge in a lunch with fresh vegetables, freshly baked bread and delicious omelette.
When we leave Imsker, the village children gather around us. They cheer, clap and give us high fives. It is the same in almost every village we pass. The huge welcome and the joy we encounter here is truly heart warming and one of many memories to keep.
The Atlas Mountains are named after the Greek Titan Atlas. After a defeat in battle he was first forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders and was later turned into this mountain range. Whether true or not, there is certainly a heavenly feel to this place.
Although every day is packed with adventures and incredible riding, one day in particular will be etched in my mind more than any other. At Amislane we climb up to a mountain pass again of over 2000m. Our bikes sketch lines in the thin layer of newly fallen snow, and soon a technical trail bring us down through a winding valley rich in fruit trees and gardens. Outside the village of Tizgui, we enrol some traditional furry four-legged shuttle experts.
A team of mules and porters help our bikes up and over a mountain pass while we try to keep pace by foot. This is not the most common of sights but here the mules are central to Berber culture, and our bikes weigh only a fraction of what the mules are capable of carrying. I take this as a small consolation. After dropping down through a narrow ravine lined with yellow autumn trees we continue our walk through a rough but gorgeous canyon.
Then the landscape expands. The path is diffuse and the ground is different from previous days. Now it's more like driving off-piste down a giant stable cairn. Here, the risk of falling is non-existent and the brakes get some much needed siesta as we let gravity do its thing. After six hours we recharge with another epic lunch and soon it turns out that we still have the absolute best in front of us, not only for today but for the whole week.
“We reach what is promised to be an epic singletrack of world class quality”
I team up with Lewis, a British rider that matches me in riding style. This kind of magic trail should not be enjoyed alone but shared and ridden in tune. We hold nothing back as we take the lead, racing ahead. It’s a classic singletrack with just the right amount of slope, cutting across the mountain side, steadily downhill for almost 10 km.
However, it’s constantly exposed to the left and if we fall down, we will probably not stop until one of the thorny junipers catches us. But the grip dry, stable and hard surface delivers the best grip during the whole week.
The bushes also contribute to an enhanced speed sensation. It pure pleasure and we get jacked on endorphins and adrenaline. We stop to wait up for the others, turn our heads and gaze out over the rolling hills, now with the knowledge that here in Morocco, these hills harbour trails and endless singletrack possibilities…