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. Continuing south you’ll find yourself heading into spectacular brown mountains. The winding road before the town of Asni is a sparse and moon-like landscape, but as you head further south you’ll find more contrasts. One minute you’ll be going through a lush valley with a babbling river lined with fruit trees. Then go round a corner and you’ll find yourself in semi desert with brown hills stretching up on either side. I mentioned touring earlier and this would be an excellent place to do it. While the altitude does climb, it does so gradually and you’ll often find yourself riding through valleys from village to village. The Moroccans in this part of the country seem to enjoy sitting on the walls that line the road to watch the world go by, so you’ll have no lack of company on the way. If however like me, you’re wanting to park the car somewhere and just ride, then you have some good options. The towns of Toug el Kheir and Tazalt are good choices as these are where the serious climbing begins. The first will leave you with a 53km ride to the summit, while the second is 35km, pretty much all uphill. Alternatively, you could cross the pass and continue to the Café Imdress and ride back. That way you get an exhilarating downhill to get the muscles working before the arduous climb, and arduous it is. The thing that struck me most about the pass itself, was that a) it’s fairly difficult and b), that it’s really in the middle of nowhere. You pass through a number of hamlets on the way, but once onto the long climb proper, there’s hardly a building to be seen, yet the scenery is spectacular. And when you’ve reached the top, you have the satisfying knowledge that there’s very little between you and the Sahara.
Tizi n Tichka
The Tizi n Tichka Pass is a different animal altogether. Not only is it the higher of the two passes, it’s also the quickest over the mountains and consequently has more traffic. However, the traffic is nothing like you’d see in Europe, or even on the major highways here in Australia. It’s mainly trucks heading to and from the South, with the occasional bus and personal car. And there isn’t that many of them either. Additionally, cyclists are so rare that drivers see them a long way off and if anything, actively encourage you. Morocco being an ex-French colony means that many of the inhabitants are familiar with the Tour de France. The fact that you’re in Lycra means they probably think you’re one of the European pros! Tizi n Tichka differs in two more ways from the Tizi n Test. Firstly the condition of the road is far, far better than the Tizi n Test which is fairly potholed. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Tizi n Tichka is a much longer and more spectacular climb. Instead of riding through flat lands and having a steep climb at the end, this ride climbs for many, many kilometres. The landscape is much more sandy and less wooded than the Tizi n Test, making for a more desert-like feel. It’s not like the Tour of Qatar, but it’s certainly what you’d call ‘arid’. When you reach the last 20-ish kilometres you will be riding through the most wonderful, Mont Ventoux-type scenery with miles of mountains rolling away to the horizon. But unlike Ventoux, Tizi n Tichka actually has some vegetation. In amongst the red rocks you’ll find a type of spiky bush. But there are also some areas where the misty air allows grass to grow. Just over the other side is a café and pizza bar called the Assanfou, with outdoor dining and large shady trees, that gets busy on weekends. This area is a little bit popular with hiking groups because of the vast scenery and easy access. Adding to the exoticism are the roadside stalls all the way to the summit that sell local ceramics, fossils and thunder eggs. The stalls are little huts, usually perched right on the edge of the cliff. They appear unattended, but the locals have a well-trained ear for the sound of footsteps and will soon appear. The guidebooks will tell you that it’s cheaper to buy back in Marrakech, but I found the people up here friendlier and easier to deal with. Perhaps it’s the location. If you spend every day sitting and looking at vast mountains, you’d have to gain some peace of mind. To get to the Tizi n Tichka Pass you take a different road out of Marrakech. The easiest way is to head to the north wall of the old city and get onto the Route de Janvier heading east. This is also the N8 and after a large roundabout becomes the Route de Fes. Go along this for a little way until you hit another roundabout and then turn right into the N9. Tizi n Tichka is about 90km away. Again, you could drive all the way to the top, parking at the Café Assanfou or if you want to park and ride up, the two towns of Taddert Isdar or Taddert Oufella would be your best choices.
Marrakech Traffic Chasing
With one day left in Marrakech, Eamon and I decided to do some exploring by bike. Traffic in Marrakech is certainly of the every man for himself variety, or at least it may seem so, but it really doesn’t take very long to get used to it. With vehicles zooming about all over the place it actually seems that people take much more care not to hit anyone. I found the best strategy was to simply ride at a pretty fast pace and you’ll be able to keep up with a lot of the traffic. Many people ride around on very small cc motorbikes that don’t have much speed. In some cases you can overtake them fairly easily. One particular drawback though is the amount of pollution, which is huge. There doesn’t appear to be any form of exhaust control in Morocco, particularly from buses or anything with a diesel engine. Add the thousands of motorbikes and you can imagine the air quality. As I said before, each day we were there was above 40 degrees so the conditions were fairly challenging, but that said there are few things as exciting as riding around the ancient walls of Marrakech as fast as you can. Riding through Marrakech as fast as you canthere are three landmarks that you need to know. The first is the wall, which surrounds the old city. Made of pink stone, it looks like battlements, but is more decorative than defensive. It is a pretty easy guide, but you can on occasion think you’ve lost it as it takes a sharp turn, when you haven’t, particularly on the eastern side. If this happens, retrace your steps until you find it again and enter the old city through one of the many gates and follow it till you’re ready to come outside again. The other two landmarks are the Koutouba Mosque and the Jamaa-el-Fnaa Square. The first is a beautiful 69-metre tower that can be viewed from miles around, handy when you’re out riding. And if you can’t see it, anybody will be able to point you towards it as it is the largest mosque in all Marrakech. Jamaa-el-Fna is the main square that you will have seen on the telly, most famously perhaps, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. During the day it’s pretty tame, but as night falls it fills with musicians, storytellers, jugglers, and then food stalls. It’s a fascinating place, but go easy with your camera. People are here to make money from tourists and a person with a camera is considered fair game. On the eastern side of the main square is a row of cafes with balconies overlooking the action. I definitely recommend you get to one of these just before sunset and watch the square fill up. Jamaa-el-Fna connects to many of the more interesting alleyways and souks. These get pretty crowded. You can ride them during the daytime, but at night it’s walking only. You really feel as if you’ve stepped into the Arabian Nights, with silks, rugs, brass pots and all sorts of exotic wares. It’s a wonderful place to just wander around, however it can be an easy place to lose your bearings and there are plenty of people ready to earn a little cash by ‘escorting’ you out of the souks. If you always remember where Jamaa-el-Fna is, you’ll be right. Marrakech wouldn’t be on many people’s cycling to-do lists, but it should be. Fabulously exotic, it has two passes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tour as well as some fine riding in the city itself. If you’re looking for a destination that’s a little left-of-centre, then step back in time into Marrakech. You’ll never forget it. Photos by Eamon Fitzpatrick and Simon Hayes