Morocco

28th of November 2018 – 5th of January 2019: 

After it got dark, we arrived in the glaring megacity with our crammed two-wheeled vehicle in Tangier and were surprised due to the liveliness. The broad roads were full of cars, which tried to be a bit more efficient using dangerous passing maneuvers to reach their destination quicker. On the first kilometers to our accommodation, we realized that in Africa the brakes were replaced by the horn. Even after this short ride, we knew that this continent will be a challenge and we will have the adventure we wanted in the last months in Europe.  

After a Moroccan haircut, we walked to the city center of the first city with over a million inhabitants in Africa. On the way, we organized new SIM cards and withdrew Moroccan Dirham at the ATM. Muyi, our friendly Couchsurfing host, showed us the old town, which is called Medina in Northern Africa, which means city in Arabic. We enjoyed the completely new, lively atmosphere and dove into the market life. At a tailor for instance, we fixed the broken sweater of Fabian and at different stalls we tried delicious sweets.  

We said goodbye to Muyi and left Tanger eastwards, while it was raining moderately. Tètouan, our next station, possesses one of the two most important ports of Morocco at the Mediterranean Sea. We recovered from the rainy ride with sweets and Moroccan mint tea, called “Whisky de Berber”. Shortly before Amsa, we reached the Mediterranean Sea, the clouds slowly moved away, and the blue sky appeared. At a viewpoint, we started a conversation with Hassan and his friend. The two locals said we could camp in their garden and in return, they just wanted to talk a bit. While sipping a tea, we realized that they wanted to do business with local “herbs” and we declined nicely.  

We enjoyed breakfast supported by superb sunshine and dried our wet clothes. Before we started our cycling day, Hassan tried to convince us once more to do business with him. This time, he was more emotional and even got angry. Especially, when we emphasized that we did not even think about giving him money for the overnight. With the knowledge, this could be his intention; we specifically asked twice yesterday if he wanted money for his hospitality and he declined clearly. After we left the failed Moroccan businessperson and his curses behind us, we reached the stunning coastal road. Already completely in the Rif Mountain range, the road was following a river deeper and deeper into the mountains. The Rif is part of the Atlas Mountain range and covers more than 350 km from the Mediterranean Sea until the Middle Atlas in the South.  

An imposing gorge, surrounded by high mountains and many small trails followed, which connect the mountain villages with each other. Shortly after, we reached the “Parc National de Talassemtane” and therefore the village Akchour. The park protects the last fir forest in Morocco.  

We asked a teenager to look after our bicycles including the luggage and then walked along the river on a small trail. This trail led us up a steep hill, far above the gorge and soon after we could see the “god’s bridge”. We walked until the nature bridge and found an older man there, who was selling drinks and Hashish. Morocco is the biggest exporter of Hashish worldwide. The hemp plants are cultivated mostly in the Rif Mountains east of Chefchaouen. It is estimated that a million people in Morocco earn their livelihood from the cultivation and disposition.  

According to locals, we were not able to gaze at the bridge from beneath, since the river carries to much water. However, we saw a small, very exposed trail from the bridge down to the river. We did not want to take the same way back and thought it should somehow be possible to get out of the gorge otherwise. In the beginning, the trail was easily accessible, but got more difficult and more exposed quickly. After a longer period of climbing and crossing the river without shoes, we realized that we had to go back the same way or swim downstream in the cold river. 

After we crisscrossed the blue, extremely contorted alleys full of small shops, we left Chefchaouen southwards. The many cork oaks we saw during the first few kilometers do not astonish too much, since they constitute 10% of the Moroccan forest and the northern African country is the third largest exporter of cork worldwide. Quickly, the valley was getting smaller and we followed a river most of the day, which was winding through olive plantations and small villages. As already in Spain, the olive harvest was in full progress in Morocco as well. The difference is that people in Morocco did not use machines and the olives were smashed from the trees with long sticks. On the ground, the olives were collected with large pieces of plastic and later processed into oil in the factory or preserved and then sold.  

 In the last days, we saw many people ploughing their fields only with small tools or with the help of mules. Today, we even saw men and women milling flour with the help of a donkey. In Morocco, the bread is still made in a traditional way in many places. Many times, we have seen self-made ovens which were used by women in smaller villages. 

Repeatedly, we saw many stalls, directly next to the road selling thousands of clay pots. Sometimes, there were several stalls next to each other with the same pots.  

The hills surrounding us got smaller and the landscape flattened more and more. After Ouezzane, we found a nicely located spot to pitch our tent, not far from the road.  

We left the mountains and the landscapes got flat extremely quick. Tractors replaced mules and horses on the huge fields. On the road, we crossed dozens of carriages pulled by horses and filled with fresh vegetables on the way to the local market. On the side of the road, many shepherds with their goats, sheep or cows greeted us friendly. Generally, the locals are enthusiastic about seeing two tourists cycling through their country. Whether truck drivers with a honk or men on the side of the road with a smile. For lunch, we had lamb cutlets, cut from the animal hanging in front of us for the pit master to prepare. When we had to pay, like most of the time, we had to bargain for the price and did not give up; until we had the feeling, the price was right. 

Kenitra and Salé are only worth seeing, if one is looking for an authentic Moroccan town with confusing construction sites, traffic chaos, carriages in the middle of the main road and vegetable vendors where the traffic is supposed to be. In the early afternoon, we reached Rabat. Our host Daoud warmly welcomed us. Together with his cousin, we discovered the Medina and tried various freshly squeezed fruit juices. 

While enjoying the sunshine, we visited the beach in vicinity to the city center and the Kasbah. Kasbah is the Arabic expression used in Maghreb-states for a fortress, which is located inside or outside of a city. In the medina, we roamed through the countless alleys, filled with small shops selling useful and useless things. In addition, we visited the Hassan-Tower, an imposing, unfinished minaret from the 12th century, which belongs to a likewise unfinished mosque. In the evening, our host cooked a Moroccan dish out of nothing and we ate it traditionally with our hands and a lot of bread.  

Rabat is the capital of Morocco since 1956 and inherits the residency of the king and the seat of the government. Next to Fez, Marrakesh and Meknes, Rabat is the fourth imperial city of Morocco. Those cities were in the past all once capitals of the country and therefore magnificent. 

On our last evening in Rabat, we ate with Daoud in the Medina, tried new sweets and talked about the difference in life comparing Morocco and Europe.   

Shortly after we left the capital along the coastal road out of the capital, the landscape got rural and shepherds waved energetically at us when we passed. It was a day of contrasts: A palatial king’s property guarded by dozens of soldiers and on the other side of the road, we saw destitute shepherds with their sheep and goat. In Casablanca, next to the second largest mosque in the World, there were housings in a miserable condition and people in front of them begging. The Hassan-II.-Mosque is the highest minaret and the highest religious building in the World. Building the mosque took six years and the reason was the 60th birthday of the former king Hassan II and offers space for up to 25’000 Muslims.  

Douglas, an American, who works as an English teacher in Casablanca, warmly welcomed us in his apartment in the city center. He offered us a glass of Moroccan wine and we had nice conversations about the live in Morocco and cycle touring.  

Doug showed us a few of the beautiful and most authentic corners of the number one finance center in Morocco and Africa. We especially liked the port on which we saw many fishing boats and anglers presented their catch of the day. Not far from the boats, there were three restaurants, full of locals. After we arrived, all restaurants fought to have us as a guest. There was only one menu available: Freshly grilled sardines, bread and an omelet with shrimps including tea. This all-you-can-eat dish cost around 2.50 Euros. 

After we left the chaotic roads of Casablanca behind us, we soon turned to a side road. A lot of agriculture was visible on all sides and every couple of minutes we saw a carriage that had one or several donkeys pulling it. When we pedaled around 100km, the surroundings changed from a green plain to a sparse hilly landscape. In a small village, we bought some food. Many children who were present gathered quickly around us and screamed fragments of sentences in minimum three languages in our direction.  

After the failed attempt to dry the tent from the dew of the night with the help of the sun, we started our cycling day. We made good progress, like the day before and refueled in a small village. There, we ordered two soft drinks and bread filled with onions, meat and sauce. We were hungry and the food was delicious, so we ordered the same thing again. The owner was impressed and wanted to do a picture together in front of his grill. At the home of Cantal, who we know through the community Warmshowers, we could pitch our tent on the roof of her house and had a beautiful view over the city.  

We both visited the red city on our last trip through Morocco. When bargaining with the shop owners, we realized that the prices are higher than in the rest of the country and we adjusted our price limit accordingly. Marrakesh is famous for its narrow and colorful Souqs. A Souq represents a commercially used quarter in an Arabic city.  

Djemaa el Fna is the central marketplace in Marrakesh. Besides imposters, snake charmers, artists, musicians, fortunetellers and storyteller one can find culinary specialties from the region as well. The sneaky and sometimes pushy salespersons tried to convince people with different tricks and patter to eat at their restaurant. Especially the fruit juices are omnipresent and one can get a freshly squeezed orange juice for 40 Euro Cents.  

Our host Cantal founded the project Pikala Bikes a couple of years ago, to improve the image of cycling. In the workshop, they offer language courses and education with focus on bikes for local kids. The employees live all together in a beautiful Riad, a traditional Moroccan house with a patio, which was our home for three nights as well.  

The first part of the route after the red city, was rather flat and the road had two lanes excluding a bike lane. Soon, the road got steeper and narrower. The more we pedaled into the direction of the snow-covered mountains, the narrower was the valley. Increasing numbers of older men and women sold fossils and crystals on the side of the road.  

We liked the new scenery a lot and the views to the lowlands were extraordinary. During an intermittent downhill, a long and dusty construction site started. The road quality was miserable and many trucks transported the extracted material away from the site. The goal was to make the mountain pass road wider and partly to renew it completely. On around 1600 m above sea level, we found a flat piece of land and pitched our tent. A bit later, an older man approached us with a motorcycle and introduced himself as the chief of the village. He wanted to guarantee our security, took pictures of our passports and therefore wanted our overnight stay officially registered.  

After a long breakfast, we attacked the last 600 m of climbing to the top of the pass. The summit is located on 2260 meters above sea level and therefore the highest paved mountain pass in Morocco. There, we made fun of the fake fossils that one could buy everywhere. The downhill was rather short and soon the road went up again, since we decided not to take the main road to Ouarzazate. Instead, we took a smaller road that reaches many small villages. The landscape was astonishing and showed many different facets. From sandstone to wide, arid valleys and finally a stunning gorge, our day included it all.  

After sleeping more than ten hours and without breakfast, since we could not buy food on the past day, we started our search for a shop or a restaurant. A few kilometers after the delicious omelets with tea, respectively coffee, we looked at Ait Benhaddou from the distance. The extremely touristy town features buildings made of rammed clay, called Tighremts. Those Tighremts are mostly three-story constructions with corner towers equipped homes of Berber people. Berber belong to an indigenous ethnicity, which live in North African countries. First proof of culture and language date back to the time of Ancient Egypt and therefore Berber exist longer than the Arabs. In Morocco is more than 45% of the population from the Berber tribe and they live mostly in the mountainous part of the country. Religion is less important in comparison to the rest of Moroccans.  

Shortly after, we saw the solar power tower, which belongs to one of the largest solar plants in the World. The location is ideal, since the sun is shining during almost 365 days here in southern Morocco and there is plenty of space. In Ouarzazate, we ate Tacos and hydrated our bodies. The city and the circumjacent region are famous as a filming location of many popular movies like Gladiator, Pope Joan etc. 

After we left the city, the landscapes changed abruptly. Slowly, we gained more distance to the high snow mountains and suddenly a hilly rock desert surrounded us.  

Since we left the High Atlas and entered the Anti-Atlas, the air got much drier. Since then, we try to breathe through our noses more often, to lose less humidity. Probably a good training for the crossing of the Sahara.  

Right after a few hundred meters, a climb of 200m waited for us. From the top, we had a stunning view over the snow-capped peaks in the far distance. In front of us laid the Draa valley containing a river oasis, surrounded by a high mountain chain. The landscape with its thousands of palm trees and the seemingly infinite rock desert around it, appeared surreal to us. 

In the afternoon, we reached Zagora and then pedaled ten more kilometers in the direction of M’hamid, where the river silts up in the desert. At a fork, Kahlid waited for us with his motorcycle and led us to our overnight location. We contacted his brother Imad over Couchsurfing and he offered us to stay in his permaculture farm for a couple of nights. At the farm, Allal who is a Tuareg, warmly welcomed us. Allal cooked dinner for us; we had a nice evening together and slept without a tent under the clay shelter for a change. 

After we looked at the land of the farm and washed our clothes with water from a self-built well, Kahlid drove us to Tamegroute. The three of us on a motorbike was everything but comfortable, but we enjoyed the change and the starring glances of the children on the roadside. In Tamegroute, we had to change the Café several times to update our blog, since the internet was too slow or the Siesta started. In the evening, we visited a traditional Hamman with Allel. A very interesting experience. People wash themselves with soap, relax and scrub each other with a rough piece of cloth to remove old skin layers. On the way back, we were hold back by the police for a while. They made sure that we were in safe hands. Because of the tragic death of two tourists in Morocco a few days ago, the police tried to make sure that tourists were safe. 

We said goodbye to Allel and wished him all the best for his future, because “Inshallah” (if it is God’s will), we will meet again. After we bought some provisions, we left the “door to the desert” and proceeded on the road N12. This road leads all the way to the Atlantic coast, which is more than 500 kilometers away. We cycled through a valley surrounded by relatively steep mountains. Repeatedly, we saw shepherds with goats, sheep and even dromedary camels. Dromedary camels possess one hump and belong to the family of the camels, as the two-humped camel.  

The first village with a restaurant appeared 100 kilometers after Zagora. There, we ate two lentil soups each with a lot of bread. The moonshine helped us to look for a convenient camp spot.  

Earlier than other days, we left camp and searched for water. In the previous evening, we forgot to fill our bottles. However, we found water quickly at a container of a construction site. The nice Moroccan offered us besides water, dates, mandarins and tea. Afterwards, the landscape got hillier and we had a nice view into a gorge with an exceptionally water-bearing river.  

During the previous evening, we threated ourselves with a movie night. Whereas the wind was getting stronger and shook the tent. The night was therefore loud and we did not recover well. In the morning, the wind was still strong and taking down the tent was rather difficult. Luckily, we had the strong wind in our backs and profited almost the whole day from it. At the peak, we reached speeds more than 50km/h on a flat road. During lunch, we realized that the dates we bought previously, served as a home to all kinds of animals and we thought they are uneatable. The Moroccans, who watched us, instructed us and said this was not a problem.  

After an unhealthy dinner in Guelmim, we searched for a campground for the night. Unfortunately, all of them were out of town and we had to cycle another 20km. There, our speedometer showed more than 158km. New Record! 

In the late evening, Lukas and Christine reached the campground. We know them from France, where we met them on the Dune du Pilat and enjoyed a nice evening together.  

After an extensive breakfast, we bought food for our Christmas meal in a large shopping center. Additionally, we bought some Moroccan beers on the black market and transported everything back in the VW bus of the German couple. After installing the grill, we organized charcoal in a small shop as well. Some misunderstandings and a couple of hand gestures later, the owner of the shop knew what we wanted to buy and showed us his storage. The price was set on 14 Dirham for 2kg. We gave him 20 Dirhams and got 1 back. Our confused faces caused the Moroccan to take out his calculator and type the following: 280-400 = -120. Then he apologized and gave us another 5 Dirham. How this calculation with negative numbers helped him solve the problem or if it was only a show, only the clever salesperson knows.  

When we finished our splendid breakfast together with Lukas and Christine, we said goodbye in the hope to meet them again in the Sahara or even Senegal. They started a 2-day off road trip and we entered the only asphalt road in the direction of the Western Sahara. The first part of the day was rather flat and we followed an endless construction site that was on the side of the road. The road was busy with lots of heavy loaded trucks. Each time one of the colossi passed us from the other side; it felt like we drove into an imaginary wall.  

After we left the small town, we met a Moroccan cyclist. He apologized for not meeting us earlier, since he wanted to offer his home to us for one night.  

We reached the Atlantic again, which we have not seen since Casablanca. The road led us along the coast and many anglers positioned their fishing poles from the cliffs into the foaming sea. Several times, we crossed lagoons created through a river. These beautiful zones are the homes of many birds and plants. 

Today, the police stopped us for the first time, to register our whereabouts and to make a copy of our passports for the record. The third police control wanted to know where we spend the night and we told them in Tarfaya. This town was more than 100 km away and the police officers believed us only after we said how fast we apparently cycle and could cover the distance easily in three hours. After enjoying a delicious fish for dinner, police officers probably saw us leaving the town and a bit later, some person on a motorbike asked us where we want to stay. This civilian, which sent by the police, believed our lie as well and left us alone after a while. A bit later, we found a nice place behind a sand dune.  

Unfortunately, our sleeping place was not as hidden as we thought and suddenly the police «knocked». «Gendarmerie», shouted the police officers into the night sky. After a short conversation and the confirmation that we are the two Swiss cyclists and plan to leave in the morning, the police left again. A few minutes later, the car came back and this time, the young, English-speaking officers tried to convince us to sleep in a hotel. We stood pat and did not accept the argument, that it is dangerous in the Sahara and there are terrorists everywhere. After discussing quarter of an hour, the nervous police officers left without any words and let us alone.  

Reaching the coast again, we pedaled into a waft of mist, which swallowed the sun properly and reduced our sight to a minimum. In Tarfaya, the Gendarmerie waited already for us and welcomed us warmly in Morocco, as if they did not know of anything that happened the evening before. After a short interview, we ate a warm meal and filled our water reserves. At the exit of the city, the same police car waited for us and gradually followed us for the next hour. Suddenly, they were out of sight and we enjoyed the newly gained freedom.  

In Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, we ate breakfast and observed the countless military personnel walking around in the city. When we left the city, we had to cycle around the sand drifts on the road, since dunes piled up as high as a house next to the road. During the third police control of the day, we exchanged a copy of our passports with a liter of drinking water, a rather fair deal. Shortly after, we pedaled over the longest conveyer belt of the World, which transports phosphate across 100 km to the coast.  

To prevent another visit from the police, we pitched our tent behind an antenna system. We hardly installed the tent and suddenly a man was standing next to us. He was the friendly guard over the antennas and just wondered who was spending the night here. Relieved, we ate dinner and relaxed in the tent. Around 10 pm, the same officers who were at the checkpoint 5 km before found us after all. We told the officers back at the checkpoint that we plan to sleep in an accommodation in the next town. During the heated discussion around our tent, we kept stubborn and after a while, they left our territory for the night.  

Since we reached the desert, we are surprised that our tent is always extremely wet in the mornings from the dew. For this reason, we attempt to dry the tent always before the departure and mostly succeed. The wind was considerate towards us, dried our tent quickly, and accelerated us with our bikes until Boujdour. There, we bought breakfast and food for the next three days, since only small restaurants and shops followed for the next 350 km until Dahkla. Since Laayoune, traffic halved, but the remaining trucks, motorbikes and cars honk even more energetically when they spot us. In general, the reaction of the passing vehicles is completely different than in Europe. Most of the trucks honk or even gave us a bottle of cold water, which was an ideal refreshment. Unfortunately, not one car or trailer with European number plates stopped, which reminded us of the reserved mentality back home.  

On the stunning steep coast, we found a place for the night next to a local angler, who lives part of his life in a tent. Very excited about the unexpected visitors, he invited us for dinner and tea. Despite maximal language barriers, we had an amusing evening and enjoyed the change.  

The night sky in the Sahara was unbelievable! One can see the whole milky way, since there is no light pollution far and wide. When there was full moon, we did not even need a torch to go to the toilet during the night. 

After the obligatory tea with our neighbor, which we could not refuse, we gave him a goodbye present in form of a lighter and started cycling into the strong wind. Unfortunately, the wind was exceptionally not helping from behind but rather making it harder from all other directions. The road construction that started on the last part of yesterday’s road accompanied us for the next 65 km and gave us a good shake.  

Since a long time, we have not seen any other touring cyclists and asked ourselves where they all are. This changed today! After about 40 km, we caught up to David, a Spaniard who is on his way to South Africa as well. The rest of the day, we cycled together. On the way to Dakhla, we took a break at a fuel station and met Jorge, an American who is on his way to the South as well. In Dahkla, we took together with David a room and enjoyed the first shower in a week. We could not even remember when we had our last bed. Finally, we met another Swiss called Jörg, who is cycling around Africa and a Frenchman, as well as a Belgian travelling by bike.  

A couple of short facts about Western Sahara and its history: 

During the Spanish colonial period (1916-1958) Western Sahara belonged to the Spanish protectorate Southern-Morocco.  

The Western Sahara conflict started in 1973 and is an ongoing conflict between the Polisario front and the kingdom of Morocco. Today, the dispute is dominated by unarmed civil campaigns of the Polisario front and their self-proclaimed state Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  

350’000 people joined the Green March and pitched their tents nearby Tarfaya. This march happened in 1975 and organized by the state of Morocco in relation to the Western Sahara conflict. The aim of the mostly unarmed participants was the surrender of the Spanish Sahara colony to Morocco, which defines the area of the Western Sahara today.  

Wide areas of the Western Sahara are economically unexploited and the road network is thin. The main branches of economy are the oasis economy, wind energy, fishery and the extraction of natural resources (mostly phosphate). The resource of phosphate is one of the largest and explains together with expected gas and oil resources on the coast, the large interest of many parties in this desert territory.  

The western part occupied by Morocco is strongly subsidized and developed in comparison to the not occupied region in the east. Those areas in the east, as well as the refugee camps in Algeria are mostly dependent on international support. The eastern part of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario and called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Algeria administrates and finances the Polisario almost completely. In the border area of the two parties, there is a three-meter high and 2’700 km long sand-rock wall. The wall and its surroundings are equipped with bunkers, fences and land mines. The minefield along the structure is the longest continuous minefield in the World. Those mines are in the most southern part of the Western Sahara on the border with Mauritania on the territory of the Sahrawi Democratic Republic. This region is the next chapter of our trip in the next days and we are excited to see this border area.  

Like David and two other touring cyclist the day before, we left the city in the desert in the afternoon and cycled approximately 30 km against strong head wind out of Dakhla. We pedaled to a parking place filled with European tourists and set up camp for the night. Many older Europeans with caravans and especially kite surfers spend the winter months on this free parking. We had interesting conversations and felt like we were on a campsite in the middle of Europe. 

The first sign along the road in the direction of the Mauritanian border showed us that we still had a long way to go, until we crossed the Sahara Desert. There were still 1’500 kilometers to cycle until the Senegalese capital of Dakar. A little further, we passed the Tropic of Cancer, which means that there were 2609 km until the equator and that we were in the tropics from now on.  

Yet again, we had strong wind. Therefore, we had to put our hands immediately back on the handlebar, after we waved at the truck drivers, before the gust whiffed us from the road. We stopped at a café and met a group of Frenchman, who drive with their motorbikes to Senegal. We had nice conversations and they even invited us for a beverage. Shortly after, the owner of the restaurant offered us tortillas and some drinks, which we accepted gratefully.  

Just after Guerguerat, we reached the Moroccan border post and the officers checked our passports five times in total, before we got the exit stamp. Between this border post and the Mauritanian side lay a few kilometers of no-man’s-land occupied by the Polisario and is therefore part of the Democratic Republic of Sahara. Unfortunately, there is no road connecting the two countries. Several sandy off-road tracks, which somehow lead to the other side and apparently there are still land mines everywhere. We fought through the difficult terrain and were surprised of the amount of rubbish, old cars and other junk that was lying around. After a few minutes, we saw the Mauritanian flag and therefore the border to the second country in Africa. 

In general, the qualitatively good roads in Morocco and in the Sahara surprised us. In a few years, when the road construction will be finished, one can drive on a wide highway all the way to Mauritania. 

Since not everyone in the countryside of Morocco speaks French or English, we recorded an audio tape in Arabic, which explains our trip. Like that, we can explain our trip even to locals who cannot read or write.  

In Morocco, we met many touring cyclists. Amongst others, we met two Swiss in Marrakech, two Englishmen in the Atlas Mountains and another Brit in the Anti-Atlas. It is always interesting to talk to other touring cyclists.  

Morocco counts as a country for Africa newbies and offers everything a touring cyclist wants. Cheap, delicious and local meals as a start. Colorful, lively and especially diverse markets, where one can practice the bargaining skills for the following countries. The landscapes in Morocco were the highlight from our journey and we are already looking forward for what Mauritania has to offer.

–> Forward to Mauritania

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