30 miles, 5,606 ft ascent, 7 hours’ riding. Route map
Accommodation: Gîte near Ichbbakene (owner ‘Si Moh’)
It’s an early start, for this is going to be a big day. After a few miles, we leave tarmac and navigation is initially tricky – back in the UK I’d been forced to use satellite imagery to plan a route through the scrub, because there are no tracks on the maps. We ford a swift 3ft-deep river, bikes whipped by the current as we pass them to one another, then join a rock-strewn doubletrack, which makes for some technical and challenging riding with such weight on the bikes.
After a long couple of hours (though a short distance) we reach the village of Ghougoult and meet our guide, Omar. So much for an unsupported bike ride, guys! To be fair, advice from a British mountain bike guide who’d ridden some of our route was very clear that we’d want mules to carry our gear for today’s effort: over 5,000ft of uninterrupted climbing on singletrack, up steep river gorges and loose scree slopes. To mules that kind of terrain is easy, but in the heat and at altitude with heavy bikes it would be way harder than anything we’d done so far. So I had arranged the mules and a ‘muleteer’ (!) – it all feels quite bizarre to have booked Moroccan mules from the UK over email and for it to actually be happening, but standing in front of us are indeed two mules!
We introduce ourselves – to Omar and the muleteer, not the mules. (OK, I may have said hello to the mules too). With wheels removed, our muleteer strapped our bikes, wheels and bags onto the mules’ fabric saddles. After the trip, a friend back home said she thought the mules would be riding our bikes… she must have been drunk, surely!
Straight away the climb over the Tizi-n-Rughuelt is steep and loose, under a blazing sun. Brief respite comes when the path sneeks into shade in tight gorges, some barely an arm-span across, with sheer rock walls. As we wade through those gorges, we stop to soak our bandanas in the water – the cooling effect on our foreheads feels magical. What an amazing place – proper Indiana Jones stuff!
Omar is a lovely chap, with great English so we can all converse. Our muleteer is also really nice and even calls at his small house, perched high above the gorge, to introduce us to his wife and cheeky, adorable kids. They give us tea, brewed over an open fire. The smoky interior, bare stone walls, mud floor and lack of running water and electricity in their home contrasts dramatically with our pretty luxurious abode last night.
After four hours of climbing, we finally reach the pass. The air is now distinctly thin (at 9,500ft!) and each step is laboured. The wind is now so strong we have to weight loose items down as we take our bikes and gear off the mules. After thanking Omar, our cheery muleteer and the mules (the mules didn’t seem that bothered), we begin the steep descent into the Tessaout valley. The trail is rocky, technical, off-camber and exposed singletrack with steep scree dropping over a thousand feet below – one mistake and the consequences don’t bear thinking about! Luckily the wind drops quite quickly. It is exhilarating, if scary, riding.
After that glorious descent, losing 2,000 vertical feet in a couple of hours, we pull onto the Tessaout valley road and follow Jamal’s scribbled directions to our accommodation. We’d booked it through Jamal because I’d drawn a blank trying to book anything in the UK – this valley is pretty remote. Locals in the few small villages we pass through try their best to point us toward our gîte, though we aren’t totally sure whether it’s ahead or if we’ve already passed it! These last few days, most people we’d met spoke their own Berber dialect, so hand signals were the order of the day.
Eventually we hit traffic, which seems bizarre as we’ve barely seen any vehicles, then we realise why: a stretch of the road has simply fallen off the side of the hill! A JCB is working feverishly to rebuild it but it looks like at least a day’s work we reckon, something confirmed by those in the waiting vehicles – some of whom are sleeping in their cars until it is fixed! The only thing for it is to drop down the steep scree slope to the valley floor… We slide down on our behinds, hanging onto our bikes. And then, walking out from the lone house the other side of the river, is a super-smiley guy waving at us – the owner of our gîte! Phew, we haven’t passed it! His name is Si Moh, and once we’ve forded the 70ft-wide and 3ft-deep fast-flowing river, he beckons us into his home, a mud brick, single storey dwelling on the open flood plain amongst the tussock grass.
Si Moh has other guests: a group of about a dozen through-hikers, travelling complete with guide, cook, porters and mules. I spark up a conversation with the guide who, as I find out when I get home, is a proper mountaineering legend: a 74-year-old German, Siegfried Hupfauer, known as Sigi. He’s climbed with the likes of Sir Chris Bonington and has climbed eight of the 14 mountains in the world over 8000m, including Everest in 1978. He’s a properly great chap and, as we talk, I get preposterously ebullient as we delve into his time with Bonington and mountaineering history of the 70s and 80s – as a kid all I wanted to be was a mountaineer! That night Steve, Shaun and I sleep on the mud floor of Si Moh’s house, with bellies full of his tagine, while Sigi and team sleep in tents nearby. Si Moh is a wonderful host, his almost-toothless grin ever present, and nothing was too much trouble, despite us not having any language in common. A fantastic day!