On The Riad - Where to Ride Marrakech
The idea to ride in Marrakech came to me quite by accident. I’d always been interested in the place, ever since I met my future wife back in 1989. She had a travel brochure of Morocco on her bedside table. I’d never really considered going there before, having more of a preference for India and South East Asia. Nevertheless the pictures of deserts, the minarets and the people wearing their traditional jellaba robes were enticing in the extreme and I determined to visit it one day. Well to cut a long story short, we never made it. The trouble was that if you live in Australia and your wife’s family is in Great Britain, it’s very difficult to go that far without visiting them, unless you do it in secret. So we had to do our Moroccan experience by proxy instead. Fortunately, the country has become quite trendy in recent years and there are plenty of ‘Moroccan Style’ books, Moroccan cuisine videos and shops selling the distinctive Moroccan pottery. One man’s loss is another’s gain and while most of us would say that the demise of Angus and Robertson bookstores was a shame, it did have one advantage for me in that our local branch ended up selling all their stock for five dollars apiece. And browsing through the bargains I found a guidebook to Marrakech. “Hmmm…,” I thought. “I’ll get that and maybe next time I go to Europe I can organise myself a few days holiday in Morocco.” So I took it home and began flicking through the pages. Like many cyclists, climbing has a special fascination for me, especially long climbs. I’m a fairly chunky sort of fellow so I’m not the fastest climber around, but I do enjoy it, so when I came across the magic word ‘Pass’ my attention was caught. The page in question was about the Tizi n Test and the Tizi n Tichka passes, Marrakech’s two roads heading south over the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara. The Tizi n Test pass goes between the towns of Taroudant and Ouirgane and reaches 2,092m while the Tizi n Tichka is Morocco’s highest pass, reaching 2,260m. That’s 150 metres higher than the Tourmalet. Searching around on YouTube, I found several videos from motorcyclists who had ridden the passes, but nothing from cyclists. How good would it be then to discover a pair of climbs in such an exotic country, which is still relatively unknown from a cycling point of view? To create an article like this you still need someone to take the photos, and who better than Eamon Fitzpatrick, the photographer who came on the Les Dix Alpes trip last year? Eamon and I met up in London where we spent some time visiting the various Olympic courses before catching a ridiculously early flight out of Gatwick to Marrakech. Even the name ‘Marrakech’ sounds exotic and as the plane made its descent, I felt a sense of excitement looking out over the flat sandy-coloured roofs of the city, with the Atlas Mountains as a backdrop. We landed, collected the baggage, hire car and we were on our way into town. It’s a well-known fact that in many parts of the world one needs to bargain hard for products. Go to Bangkok and you have to negotiate for anything you may want in a market. Indonesia is the same, while in India you have to pay ‘baksheesh’ for everything. Go into a public toilet in Delhi and a hand will come around the door offering to sell you some toilet paper. Marrakech is the same, to a greater and lesser extent. Lesser because in general (the souks, or old city marketplaces, are an exception), you won’t be collared by someone for baksheesh when you’re just walking along. But greater because the people selling you something have a much greater tenacity than anywhere else in the world I’ve ever been. Our first encounter with this came driving from the airport where we were accosted by an old bloke on a motorcycle, “Where you stay? I take you! Follow!” he said. Our hotel was about 15 minutes from the airport and we had a map and while driving in the Marrakech traffic takes a bit of getting used to, we were fine, but unfortunately, stuck. “What do you want to do?” said Eamon. “We could let him get ahead a bit and turn off,” I replied. So we tried it, but unfortunately our shiny hire car was too conspicuous and he soon found us again. “No, no! You go wrong way. I show you!” So we travelled the remaining five minutes, realising that our ruse had actually worked against us, because now he thought we actually needed his help. Reaching our hotel, the Mogador, he pulled up to the driver’s window. “Give me 50 Euro!” he demanded. Fifty Euro? That’s 65 bucks! No way! In the end, we got rid of him for 10 euros and considered it money well spent. We found this sort of thing wasn’t really that common, but you do have to be careful, especially in the souks. There, you only have to touch something to look at it and you’ve entered into a contract to buying it. Asking a price can be fatal, so only ask if you really, really want something. The Hotel Mogador turned out to be a very conveniently located hotel indeed. It was just outside the city walls and importantly had a cashpoint, underground carpark, bakery and a supermarket downstairs. Marrakech has a large number of hotels, but if you do happen to be using this article as a guide, the hotel we stayed in is the Hotel Mogador Marrakech Menara. There are a number of hotels called Mogador but this one is across the road from the bus station, making it easy to find. The supermarket turned out to be the most useful of the above benefits due to the need for bottled water. In the five days Eamon and I spent there I reckon we must have drunk around two-dozen bottles due to the intense heat, which was above 40 degrees each day. Hence the double benefit of having an underground carpark to keep the car cool and easy access to fluids. On the plus side, the intense heat meant that you could do your washing in the bath and it would be dry within an hour. And with Marrakech’s smog leaching into your Lycra, you’ll need to wash your kit regularly. Bags unpacked and bikes built, Eamon and I headed south for the Tizi n Test Pass. Both of the climbs in this article are best reached by car, even though for serious riders, they aren’t really that far away. The summit of the Tizi n Test Pass is 140km from the centre of Marrakech and if you were touring with panniers you could easily spend a day riding up the pass and then down into the town of Tourandant. However I’m not a tourer and I much prefer driving to a suitable spot and riding from there. This was brought home rather quickly because just as we were leaving the city outskirts a huge sandstorm blew up. I’ve never been in a sandstorm and this one was pretty exciting. It raged in straight from the Sahara, darkening the sky and reducing visibility. I wouldn’t have liked to be out on the bike in it, that’s for sure! Twenty minutes later and the sandstorm had gone, though the wind remained and would continue to remain for most of the day. It was the kind of wind that just stops you in your tracks. Interestingly, a sandstorm came every day around 2pm the entire time we were there so I wonder if it could be a seasonal thing? Getting onto the correct road to the Tizi n Test from central Marrakech isn’t too difficult. The road you are looking for is the Route du Barrage, which heads south from the eastern side of the city. You’ll know you’re heading the right way because you’ll pass many places selling earthenware pots. Like many cities, the artisans of Marrakech seem to stick together and this appears to be the ‘pot warehouse’ section. The road forks at Chrifna and you should take the left-hand road. It is a bit easy to drive past as it is only nine kilometres out of the city. However if you think you have missed it, you can continue on another 20km and turn left into the P2010. This is a major turn on the lefthand side and is pretty easy to spot, despite being in the middle of nowhere. Follow this and then turn right when the road ends. If you do get a bit locationally challenged, you’re looking for the town of Tahnaout, which everyone will know.