Words and photos by Lisa Mansell
A few years ago I booked flights to Marrakesh and planned to go on a mountain bike trip in the Atlas Mountains, however the trip was cancelled so instead, I spent 10 days at a surf and yoga camp (not so bad!) My boyfriend, a recent convert to mountain biking, knew of this scuppered trip and very kindly for Christmas bought me flights to Marrakesh with the intention of going mountain biking.
After a bit of research, we decided to go with Mountain Bike Morocco for 3.5 days of riding in the Atlas Mountains. We were sent a kit list and when searching for weather reports, we found some giving high 30's and others giving -1 so, we really had no idea what to expect!
We decided to save effort and money and hire one of their own bikes after being assured they had suitable bikes to rent. Off we set with no idea what to expect or even if Houssain, our contact, was going to greet us at the airport upon arrival. After standing around in multiple queues we were finally out of departures where we met Houssain. We hopped in our taxi, stopped off to withdraw some money, and continued on a stunning 90-minute journey into the mountains.
We arrived in Imlil on Friday lunchtime and instantly felt relaxed. The town is situated at the base of Mount Toubkal (Africa's second highest peak) and it felt like we had stepped back in time. A number of shops lined the high street with crampons, second-hand clothes and 80's ski's. Donkeys paraded up and down the gravel paths and the call to prayer echoed throughout the valley. Time had really stood still in this town and there was still the romantic idea of travel evident here with only a few tourists mingling with friendly locals.
We were greeted by our guide, Mohammad, and then sat down to have some lunch. Our requests for vegetarian food (we didn't even try to explain that Rik was vegan) had clearly been lost in translation as we were proudly handed a lamb tagine. After picking out the lamb and explaining to Mohammad we were vegetarian, we hoped that it was all vegetables from then on!
We then went to pick out our bikes which were a rather eclectic mix of fairly dated 26" wheeled full suss's. It was tricky to choose between the bike with working brakes, gears that changed smoothly or the tyres that had any tread left. After a test riding a few, I settled for a Focus Super Bud and Rik, a Specialised Stump Jumper. We stocked up on water and loaded our wagon for the weekend, a wonderful bright orange Mercedes van, being driven by Abdul. With our chef (another Mohammad) on board, we were off, but to where we had no idea!
After about a half hour drive we were dropped off at the top of a gravel road where our guide Mohammad informed us we would ride down then go through a village and hit some single track. Not once had we been asked about our riding or fitness ability - I think in their mind, a mountain biker is a pro mountain biker! Well, the gravel road was lovely, passing through a little stream, taking in the views and getting used to the bikes. Then suddenly we took a left down some steps and through a village. It was only then that we hit the single track. I'd like to think of myself as a fairly competent rider but nothing could prepare me for what was to come!
It was the steepest, loosest and narrowest track I'd ever been on. There was very little room for error as if you fell, you would be rolling down a very steep hill. To make matters worse these paths were shared with donkeys who we regularly encountered. I was pretty worried both for myself and for Rik who could probably count on both hands the number of times he'd been mountain biking! After getting a bit flustered and wondering if we were out of our depth, we pulled up at a local's home where he served us mint tea with a ridiculous amount of sugar in and showed us around his garden.
After refuelling on some nuts, we were feeling more energetic and we had a bit more downhill to the village we were to stay in. We arrived in a small town and were given more sweet mint tea and then wandered up through some tiny lanes to our 'gite' where we found Abdul and Mohammad. We were shown the hamman but my last experience of a hamman involved wearing a paper thong and being scrubbed down, so I was a bit sceptical about using one again. Dinner was a very welcomed vegetarian couscous and we got an early night.
The next day, breakfast was served at 8:00 consisting of chapati's, boiled eggs, yoghurt, very salty porridge and the laughing cow cheese (a vegan's dream!). Into our wagon we hopped and off we drove for about 30 minutes up a winding gravel track. Mohammad informed us we would ride down then ride up to have lunch at the top. The longer we drove up, the more I doubted his English translation!
The downhill was fantastic once we'd lowered our seats and let out lots of air from the tyres. We bounced down rocky single-track and skidded down steep, gravel chutes. We reached a village and breathed a sigh of relief that we'd made it down in one piece. The translation was correct and we were now off on a 6-mile uphill climb. I just kept thinking in my head what good training it was and even better that my brake pads were rubbing - resistance training! We arrived at the top where we had been dropped off and Abdul and Mohammad had prepared the most incredible feast for us of delicious brightly coloured salad.
The afternoon consisted of a winding gravel road with incredible views. The contrast of colours in the mountains was just breathtaking; bright red clay on one side, lush green vegetation on another and big rockslides all around. We then hit a very rocky track that kind of just stopped. We had to carry our bikes down a very steep cliff face and then we hit the river bed that we were supposed to ride along. We were on and off the bikes, going from one side of the river to another until we eventually found a path.
This was a lovely trail through lush vegetation and for the first time, Mohammad stopped at a tricky point to tell us to get off. Last year one of his clients had misjudged the rocky drop and ended up flying off the cliff and breaking an arm and a leg. He didn't want that happening again so asked us to get off our bikes and carry them down - as if I needed prompting! We arrived at the next village to find there was a slight problem with our gite - no bed and no shower. However as we tucked into popcorn, chocolate biscuits and mint tea, our guides managed to make us up a bed. Still scarred by my previous hamman experience, I opted for a baby wipe shower and Rik, a dunk in the river. Dinner was a lovely pile of vegetables, rice and chips and again we passed out exhausted very early!
On day three, our original guide Mohammad had to leave to tend to his sick grandmother and was replaced by a very smiley Alid who seemed to speak slightly better English, but it turned out he only repeated anything we said! As we rode down a gravel road surrounded by bright red rock we felt a real sense of being in Africa. We arrived at a big damn in which water was stored to serve the city of Marrakesh. As we went over the barrage there seemed absolutely no sign of any path to ride on apart from a tiny scar along a huge cliff. We couldn't possibly be going there . . . but yeah, we were!
This path really had no room for error. I had to stop multiple times to catch my breath and reassess the situation. Looking back, it was incredible but one thing I didn't do was look down! We then wound through villages down to our lunch spot in a dried river bed under a half-built bridge. When I asked Alid if they were going to finish the bridge he informed me that he, in fact, was going to finish it. My doubts of his English were starting to be confirmed. I think it was best to take what he said with a pinch of salt!
Another lovely rainbow coloured lunch of salad, tagine and pasta was just what we needed for the afternoon ahead. It was the hottest day by far and that afternoon we were treated to yet more uphill, but this time on tarmac roads. We then found some single-track which wound us through a village down into a valley. It was then we saw Alid look over and realise we were in the wrong place! A long climb awaited and I was pooped, to say the least. Our gite for the night was a lovely building with colourful murals. No sign of a shower though so we braced the hamman. Fortunately, there wasn't a paper thong in sight and no one offered to scrub me down. It was just a hot room with a few taps and buckets to wash with.
Alid informed us we could either do a really long ride or drive 6 hours back to Imlil. We couldn't quite believe we were 6 hours drive away but maybe he needed to stop and finish building that bridge! We decided to drive back to Imlil in the morning, hoping that we could ride in the afternoon. The drive was surprisingly not 6 hours, more like an hour and a half!
We were really enjoying sitting on the terrace of our gite in the sun but we plucked up the energy to get back in our bike gear, and it was 100% worth it! It was a bit of a climb but we knew our efforts would be rewarded. We were riding in the foothills of Toubkal and it was constantly towering over us providing the perfect backdrop. We rode through towns testing out our urban riding style, tackling steps and manoeuvring around rubble, donkeys and locals. A final big climb and then single-track all the way back down to the village.
The cost of the trip was approximately £340 for all guiding, transport, food, accommodation and a well-deserved tip. The guides and support team went above and beyond to make the trip so memorable. The riding was really challenging - no nicely carved out trails, all raw mountain tracks that really pushed my ability and fear factor. I could not recommend this trip enough as even if some parts are tricky, you can just hop off and marvel at the incredible scenery! On reflection, would we take our own bikes? Actually, we probably wouldn't - not sure they'd arrive back in one piece!
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