We’re pedalling – wow, this is really happening! As we ride clear of Imilchil, climbing steadily towards Lake Tislit on a paved road, the landscape opens up, feeling remote and empty straightaway, with steep, scrubby slopes teetering up to sizeable mountains either side of us. We are in the Haut Atlas Oriental National Park. It isn’t long before we have our first bit of ‘off-road’, a gravelly, muddy and rocky rolling section that is undergoing construction. At the small village of Tassent we cross our first ford, its chilly waters splashing our bare legs. Before long we’re slogging uphill, tyres spinning out on the loose ground, weaving past JCBs and earthmovers, sometimes having to hoist the bikes aloft to get through small gaps between the heavy plant and sheer rock walls. It’s a long haul, and this is only our first day! We stop just off the track, beside some drainage channels, for lunch, listening to the gentle gurgle of the water as we fill up on flatbread, sardines and dates. By now the cloud is clearing to reveal patches of blue. Lush trees adorn the banks of the rivers, contrasting with the barrenness of the open yet mountainous landscape above, wafts of cloud adding drama to the scene. I am reminded of parts of the high Andes in Bolivia.
Up ahead, we almost jump out of our skins when a huge dog charges us at breakneck speed and tries to sink its teeth into our tyres and feet! Later, as we ride into the village of Taghzout, we are promptly swamped by dozens of local kids laughing and shouting “Monsieur!” and “Stylo!” (pen, in French). It’s nice to interact with them as we ride through. The entire area seems pretty poor: the houses are built from red mud bricks and many of the kids are shoeless – it’s a far cry from the glossy hotels of Marrakesh.
As we reach Tasraft village, a couple of kids on mountain bikes (which appear to be from the 1980s) intimate they want us to help fix their steeds. It takes one look to see they have NO BRAKES AT ALL, so sadly our spares wouldn’t even skim the surface of what they need. “Desole,” I say, and Shaun and I mime stopping with our feet instead, doing our best to make a loud skidding noise, which brings shrieks of laughter from the kids. They look at one another, smile and charge off.
We crest the top of the valley and descend into a lush meadow, scattered with happy-looking sheep – the view across the valley is pretty spectacular, and the wide, unexpected spread of greenness spurs us on. It starts to rain so we stop to don waterproofs, at which point Steve notices his chainring bolts have wobbled loose. Before leaving the UK, we’d rebuilt all our bikes with new components, but riding over rocky ground carrying around 50lb of gear, the bikes are being put through the wringer. Luckily, we’ve stopped just in time, before they fell off completely!
After another climb, the descent from the high point is absolutely huge, and enormous fun – we drop almost 3,500ft over the next 5 miles, careering round hairpin bends on a mix of gravel and tarmac. By early afternoon we reach the valley floor and our home for the night, the village of Anergui, stopping to ask for directions to our accommodation at a small, deserted-looking government office denoted by a Moroccan flag. It is out of the village, down by the river. From the far bank, the house manager appears. He motions for us to cross the most precarious-looking of bridges: just two logs with some thin slats of wood on top, but with the whole ‘bridge’ canted slightly and no guard rail to stop us falling into the river below. Nervously, we work our way across, the bridge barely wide enough to fit the bikes, then push up through steep scrub to our gîte to meet the amiable Spanish owner, José.
Our room is bijou, comfy and very cosy, more of a tunnel really, and similar in feel to a mountain refuge. After some traditional Moroccan mint tea, heavily laced with sugar and poured with aplomb from great height into tiny glasses, dinner is another tajine and some Spanish rice soup. We are joined by some friends of José who are using his home as a base to trek the nearby mountains, and we chat in Spanish (Shaun’s speciality), French and a little English as best we can. A lovely calm place with a nice rustic feel.