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The Ultimate Bike Tour of Morocco

From desert camp-outs to palm-grove picnics, a bike caravan through Morocco’s mountains and plains will suit you to a mint tea.

Foum-Zguid oasis

The view from here: the Foum-Zguid oasis.

I’m lost. To get from the hammam to my room at Dar Ahlam, I could have sworn I had to take the winding staircase just past the candlelit arch with the red wool rug. But this is a dead end. Or perhaps I should call it a lively end – the nook’s picture window and plush pomegranate- and saffron-coloured cushions entice me to take a seat. Looking out over the casbah’s 12 gardens, where you’re welcome to cut irises and roses for your bedside table, I wonder whether I should backtrack or forge ahead (whatever direction that is). In this fantasy maze, plonked in the Skoura oasis in southcentral Morocco, you never know what you’ll find up this turret or down that passage.

The cityscape of Ouarzazate

The cityscape of Ouarzazate, the starting point for the bike trip, is dominated by adobe architecture.

It turns out the journey I’ve just embarked on through the North African kingdom with tour operator Butterfield & Robinson is all about finding the magic that’s just around the corner. We’re 10 guests on a week-long adventure that has us travelling by bike and by van or SUV (I nickname our support team the Cara-Van) through Berber villages, over mountain passes in the High Atlas and smaller Anti-Atlas and into Marrakech – by way of the Sahara and a train of camels. Over a breakfast of thick yogurt, scrambled eggs and frangipane after our first sleepover, our guides, Oscar Biedma and Lewis Evans, plot out the day ahead: southeast until we nudge the Algerian border. Soon we’re leaving behind the palm grove of Skoura. As the sun climbs higher, we drive deeper into the Anti-Atlas. The Cara-Van stops for coffee in Tazenakht, where Berber rug sale signs are as common as road signs, before dropping us and our bikes in an arid rockscape, stippled green after overnight showers.

Palm-grove lunches and outlandish landscapes

When you’re biking some 30 to 50 kilometres a day, roadside assistance comes in the form of palm-grove lunches, outlandish landscapes and opportunities to meet traditional and modern-day nomads alike.

“Looking for a date?” says Evans with a wink as he pedals up beside me. An hour into our daily spin cycle, I’ve stopped by a palm grove to let a shepherd usher his flock across the road (it’s a good excuse to catch my breath). “There are 14 commercial date varieties in Morocco,” says Evans. “During the harvest, nomads work for date farmers in return for some land to grow food.” He’s pointing at the butterscotch clusters of the ripe, almost translucent fruit – one of the carbs that fuel the national economy – when a nomad of a different sort catches up with us: a British cyclist on a two-month cross-country trek. We ride together for 45 minutes before our group and our guest from the West are lining up at a makeshift hand-washing station, where a staffer from the Cara-Van offers a bar of soap and pours water from a silver jug. Soon, we’re tucking into a rainbow of salads, bread, wine and beer before parting ways with our new friend.

 Camping in the Sahara

Camping takes on a whole new meaning in the Sahara, where your lantern-lit tent is large enough to house a caravan.

As we get closer to the border, the Cara-Van takes us off-road. We bump along in our vehicles until the crumpled topography flattens out. A pile of rock beside the dirt path turns out to be a route marker for the notoriously rough Paris-Dakar rally that used to pass through here, perhaps inspiring our drivers: They race across what was once the bottom of Iriki Lake into the Sahara. When we get out of the cars and I hit the first sand dune of my life, I can’t stop jumping around, pausing only as we wrap up, Tuareg-style, in cobalt-blue gandouras and chèches. “Has anyone ridden a camel before?” Biedma asks. I shake my head. But there’s no reason to worry: A local mode of transportation since the time of the three wise men, camels sway you gently as they walk, plus my saddle is kitted out with a handlebar. The animals (they’re technically dromedaries) take us into the desert, their soft hooves punching a line across sand that’s been whipped by the wind into a Deep ’n Delicious surface.

the alfresco dining room and dunes by dromedary

The alfresco dining room comes with a canopy of stars and you get to rock along the dunes by dromedary, one of the region’s oldest modes of transportation.

The sun is about to set when, half an hour later, we pace into camp to the high-octane tune of a four-piece Berber band. The musicians’ fez hats bounce as they play their trumpets and drums. We dismount – the camels fold their legs neatly beneath their bodies, so it’s easy to step off – and are shown to our canvas tents, each of which houses a bedroom, lounge area, bathroom and front porch. The live music lures us back out to an alfresco dining room delineated by lanterns and layers of rugs. We line dance across the dunes, feast on lamb and couscous, slow-cooked in clay vessels, and sing and sip so late, we hardly have time to enjoy our not-so-humble abodes. The Maghrebian night is not short on magic. After everyone has gone to bed, I throw on the black djellaba left for me in my tent and slip through the canvas flap, melting into the darkness. The desert receives less than 25 centimetres of rain a year, so you’re pretty much guaranteed clear skies. Tonight is no exception. I shuffle up a dune and lay down on my back. It’s so quiet, you can almost hear the twinkle from above. Two shooting stars chase each other toward the Milky Way. I can’t tell if I’m still awake or if I’m already dreaming.

Stroll in the dessert

Been there, dune that: Even this modern-day caravan involves an old-time bump in the road.

“Yalla yalla!” yells Biedma. We've barely stopped for a sip of water at the top of a pine-studded hill when he nudges us to keep pedalling. “Are you ready to roll?” I’m not; the road ahead is awfully steep and seems to disappear over an edge. While I fidget with my helmet strap, a peloton of the brave drops out of sight; the only option is to follow. I hang on the brakes until my hands can no longer hold tight, and that’s when the fun really starts. Around the bend comes another curve – or another 20 – forming an eight-kilometre vortex of hairpins that has even us stragglers laughing and hollering “Alhamdulillah!”

Here in the High Atlas, a few days into the trip, palms, scrub and sand give way to fluorescent-green pine trees, red soil and snow-capped peaks; Toubkal, at 4,167 metres, is the tallest in the kingdom. We go up craggy slopes and down sheltered valleys, up and down, the Cara-Van always ready to bail us out when we hit quad-crushing ascents and to dole out cookies, water and oranges that taste like they’ve been plucked from the Garden of Eden. The heavenly feel (well, if you don’t count those quad-crushing ascents) is distilled at Kasbah Tamadot. A fairy-tale castle, it has a hammam and a gorgeous pool, but it’s the garden I can’t get over. It’s flecked with silvery cacti and pomegranate trees, and roses that fill the air with fragrance. No wonder the common bulbul, a bird with a brown tuque and yellow shorts, loves it here. I imagine that its tsirr-tsirr sound, broadcast from the almond trees, means, “Hey, check out my fabulous backyard!”

Strolling through the oasis of Skoura and Kasbah Tamadot hits a high note in the High Atlas.

Left to right: Strolling through the oasis of Skoura, a stopover on Morocco’s old caravan route; Kasbah Tamadot hits a high note in the High Atlas.

Our bikes aren’t made for the off-road terrain surrounding our little paradise, so we hike into the hills. In the village of Ait Souka, perched above the Imlil Valley, we’re greeted by Houssine Aït Lahcen Ouhmad, a Berber villager who’s lived here most of his life, and a group of kids eager to practise the French they’ve picked up in their single-classroom school. Ouhmad demonstrates how to tie a turban, “to protect you from the sun,” before taking us along donkey trails, over grassy slopes, past rusty gorges and even a saltpan. It’s enough to make anyone thirsty, and back at the adobe village, our host prepares Moroccan mint tea.

“We drink it with sugar, but tourists prefer theirs without. I’ll make you both,” he says and places a large kettle on a gas burner. Sugar cubes the size of donkeys’ teeth, green tea and mint leaves go into teapots. The first steeping is thrown out (too bitter), but after the second steeping, it’s showtime. He lifts the teapot high above his head and aims into a small glass, pouring while lowering and lifting the pot, repeating for each glass without spilling a single drop. “It’s not only for show,” he says. “It’s for mixing the flavours.” The result is a perfect blend of herbs and fresh grass.

Tajine will fuel your engine and Ben Youssef Medersa in Marrakech.

Left to right: This tajine will fuel your engine; striking a pose at Ben Youssef Medersa in Marrakech.

Leaving the Imlil Valley, our route takes us north, toward the plain of Marrakech. But there’s no easy way out of the High Atlas; we start climbing a road that snakes through Moulay Brahim. Named for a Sufi saint, it’s a holy village. All I can think is holy cow as I fight the steep grade. We finally roll onto the Kik Plateau, a patterned carpet dotted with tufts of wool – sheep grazing on spikes of grass that poke through swaths of grey, beige and red rock. In one town, children rush to give us high-fives, and in another the road squeezes so tightly between houses, it’s like passing through a mountain stage in the Tour de France. On the other side, where the road starts going downhill, I stop and crane my neck to watch paragliders floating like confetti through the sky. One by one, they slowly swoop down to Earth. And one by one, we too make our last descent.

Our bikes packed away, the Cara-Van chauffeurs us into Marrakech. The city is a sonic boom of chanting street vendors, klaxons and prayer calls. The closer we get to the medina, the louder it gets, making our hotel, the Riad Farnatchi, seem like a quiet oasis surrounded by a sand storm. I get the impression Biedma and Evans want to shield us from the busyness: After we settle in, they take us to the Jardin Majorelle, restored to its current glory by Yves Saint Laurent. We stroll among cactus plantations that look like sculpture gardens, and along paths that wend past royal-blue and turquoise walls and between yellow and orange planters that splash the greens with the warm hues of a spice market. It’s quiet and bold at the same time, a bit like the Ben Youssef Medersa, once one of the Maghreb’s largest theological universities. The school’s tiled walls erupt in geometric swirls, reflecting the repetition of pattern seen in the Majorelle garden. Marrakech is math made visual, chaos theory put into practice.

Photographs of pieces of life in Morocco

No matter where your tour guides take you – up and down the Atlas mountains, to the dunes of the Sahara, across the Kik Plateau and into Marrakech – Morocco presents a rich palette of colours, flavours, textures and contrasts (snake charmers included).

No wonder we’re getting restless. Ready to kick it up a notch, we follow our guides into the roiling Jemaâ El Fna square, famous for its souks, snake charmers and fortune-tellers. We amble into alleys, fingering babouche slippers, haggling over hammered metal bowls and elbowing our way through a crowd that’s waiting to see monkeys dance. There’s shopping to no end and every end: You can buy spare teeth neatly organized by size on tables, pay a scribe to craft you a letter and quibble about the price for Converse sneakers, Moroccan shag rugs and ceramic tajines.

When our group eventually scatters, I remain in the square, setting out toward the hotel only as the night starts to unfurl its dark-blue veil over Marrakech. I look for the alley by the chameleon shop. (“They make great pets; they’re quiet and they keep your house bug-free,” the vendor told me of the lizards when I passed by earlier in the day.) Instead, I hit a stall hawking barbecued lamb skewers. Following a gaggle of boys chasing a soccer ball, I veer into a cobblestone laneway where women in djellabas, their faces lit by flickering street lights, flow by like mauve, turquoise and coral streaks in a kaleidoscope. It’s a dead end. But I linger to souk up the magic.



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