Today is the first time in 2 months that an ever-shifting tug of war, between excitement & terror, has given way entirely. In its wake lies only a quiet anxiety. Why? I’m flying to Morocco tomorrow to go solo on my first ever bikepacking trip, and I’ve never bivvi‘d in my life. To borrow some wisdom from the fantastic storyteller Phil Knight; the accountant in me sees the risk, the entrepreneur sees the opportunity, and so I split the difference and keep moving forward.
I do have to thank Josh Ibbett for his constant nudging towards the rabbit hole over the past few years, and for his endless advice on what I’d find once I jumped into it. After all these years of friendship, you’ve finally become useful.
In addition, just a quick cheers to George Huxford of Apidura, Cal Nicklin at Mason, and Jim & Pete at HUNT. All great peoples. I take solace from their enthusiasm & willingness to endure stupid question after stupid question. Except for Pete, who just wanted to make it perfectly clear that the company would put up absolutely no finances in the event of a ransom or immense medical bills.
I don’t know how long or short this passage of text is going to be. It’s just a train of thought, and my way of documenting the trip for me. The world doesn’t need any more GoPro videos comparing the noise of wind from one country to another. If that sounds like a bit of you, Josh’s YouTube channel is your nirvana. Instead, I’ll fill you in on stuff as I go whenever. It'll flit between present and past tense as I add bits in and edit retrospectively, and please be aware that in the 1 minute it takes you to finish reading one paragraph and beginning the next, I may have ridden 100km and bonked twice in that time. So please forgive any repetition and literary inconsistency.
I’m pretty sure everything is all packed, so I’m at my local (Good Companions, Brighton) tapping this into my phone and staring into a pint. That quiet anxiety isn’t getting any louder, but it’s not dissipating either. It’s just there. But fuck it, whatever I haven’t packed, I’m not going to know about until it’s too late. The rest I’ll figure out on the road.
My head hurts. The kid behind me on this flight is crying his eyes out, which is the cherry on top of this hangover. That pint yesterday was supposed to be the last, and then my girlfriend broke up with me. The pint became the first of a few, then some gin. I don’t remember falling asleep. I can’t work out if that’s the best or the worst-timed breakup possible ahead of going to get lost in a desert. It doesn’t really matter either way right now, I just want off this plane.
The average age of fliers to Morocco seems pretty high relative to other places I’ve travelled. For some context, the guy next to me just buzzed for the stewardess, only to announce his displeasure at the ‘tatty’ state of the magazines tucked into the seat in front of him. I’m just waiting for British Airways to wheel out the in-flight tombola.
17.11 - I’ve been bombarded with sights, sounds and smells. All of which have left a small trace as they’ve passed over me. Sensory overload. Lots of hassling - people keep telling me “you can’t go through there, it’s a mosque” or “this road is closed for restoration”. They then offer their services as tour guides, determined to take the most convoluted route possible to Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Medina where I’m currently sat. One guy even tried to fight me when I refused to pay him - he asked me if I was crazy and I told him I just might be. I’ve learned fairly quickly you have to be a bit forceful, otherwise these guys are gonna have a whale of a time. On the plus side, I did just see a BMX with disc brakes. Also, it’s fucking hot. 30 degrees today.
21.40 - Jemaa el Fna by night. It’s a circus. I don’t know where to look. I thought it was busy earlier, but this is something else. I spent a good amount of time watching a man dancing with a chicken on his head, but otherwise I've just been moving through everything. It's fairly intense. I caved in to the 24th guy telling me he had the best mixed grill in Marrakech... I’ve got good feelings about this one. Fresh OJ all over the place, each going down better than the last.
I didn’t sleep so well. Every door and bathroom tap reverberates through the nooks & crannies of the Riad I’m staying in. Plus, I had a dream that this trip went very south, very quickly. Hopefully not ominous. I’ve noticed I’m writing in really short sentences, and I think it’s because everything seems to be happpening too quickly for me to get a proper measure of. Probably going to be the opposite by the end of the day, as I have a 130km trudge up the valley pass into the Atlas, and plenty of time to soak it all in.
I think it fairly consistently climbs from Marrakech (which sits at about 400m above sea level) up to about 2100m. I'm aiming for Telouet, but I’ll pass through Taddart at 90km along the N9 where I can take refuge if the feeling takes me. Whilst the plan is to do this in 4 days, I’ve got flexibility with the Riad in terms of my return. I’m not racing anything or anyone, I’m just here for the tan. But first, breakfast.
I made good ground getting out of Marrakech, along the seemingly endless 1-2% rise of the N9 road. I’m just 50km into a 500km ride and I’m bowled over by the natural beauty of the place. The lowlands are green and fertile, and instead of trying to make a few Dirham out of me, the kids here just scream “allez allez” as they wave me past, or try to catch up & race me on their shagged Rockhoppers. Gradient has started to pick up, as has the temperature. Stopped off for a Jus d’Orange and a quick navigation check.
14.42 - Dust. Everything is made of dust. The hospitality gets better the more you climb, but you’ve gotta work for it. 92km in with 1500m ascending so far, reckon descent has been no more than 300m. I’m in Taddart, which I’ve spent the last 15 clicks convincing myself I had to reach before having a break. Here, I met Chez Ahmed and his friend Samir, who set the tone for the hospitality I’d come to relish for the rest of the trip. Charming, open, and without pretense.
It’s hard going, bits of the highway just randomly stop being road and become temporary gravel tracks owing to construction taking place on the roads. The government is clearly spending shedloads renovating the road surfaces in various patches. The gravel varies from hardpack clay, right through to stones about a ping pong ball in size. Coming down those categorically does not count as a breather. Legs are tense stood up on the pedals trying to find the smoothest lines. It’s all worth it, this place is mesmerisingly beautiful. If I’ve calculated it right, I’m climbing ~600m in the next 20km up to 2100m, then hopefully a vaguely easy descent to my hometown for the night.
I hit the top of the Col du Tichka at 2260m and was greeted with tumultuous applause from both locals and tourists alike, as if I had solo’d away to victory on the final climb on the queen stage. That was pretty weird, but it certainly didn’t make me feel any worse. Anyway, after a quick photo I dropped down the other side, as it was pretty cold & windy. Soon on the descent I took a left off of the N9 highway for the first time.
Before I set off, Cal at Mason told me he truly fell in love with his bike when he first rode it loaded up. I didn’t get where he was coming from at the time, but it’s amazing. The bike has a surefootedness that I’ve not experience before - it feels completed rooted in its place. This is in stark contrast to how I feel personally, I feel like I'm lost in space. The greener pastures have given way slowly to Mars-like terrain, and no words I can employ will do justice to the grandiosity of this place.
What was ‘mars-like terrain’ soon gave way to a genuine feeling of being on another planet. Everything was red, including the dust hitting my eyes. It was unlike any landscape I’ve ever experienced, and it served as a fitting reward for a long first day. More than once I found myself uttering 'wow' aloud to nobody in particular.
It felt a world away from Marrakech. I met a guy Telouet just now and I’m annoyed to say I didn’t ask his name. He could barely speak any English, but managed to keep say "you're welcome here friend". People here don’t care about your fancy bike or your iPhone, they only seem to care about you and whether or not you'd like some more mint tea.
First night ever bivi’ing tonight and I’m at 1850m. Kinda shitting myself I’m gonna get robbed or eaten by a camel spider, but if the worst happens then I’ll die happy. I will tell you now, this will be hands down the best view I’ve ever woken up to.
131km | 2346m
7.50 - not the best night’s sleep I ever had, but not nearly the worst either. 2 learns from my choice of bivi spot;
- Listen out for ferral dogs BEFORE committing. That fucking guy did not go to sleep
- Find somewhere less rocky. Every time I moved an inch in the night it was inevitably against something sharp.
With the lack of ambient light or other things to do/keep me busy, last night I just lay staring at the stars for hours. Along with the moon, they’re actually so bright that it doesn’t get fully dark. I wouldn’t have needed a torch to go for a walk. Madness. I lay for hours watching distant shooting stars take minutes to cross the sky. It was that breathtaking I even tried to take a picture of the moon with my phone, thinking somehow this time it would work. It didn't.
I also decided last night to add an extra day to the trip - I don’t need to rush back to Marrakech... I didn’t like it there half as much as I do out here. So, today will be just 90km to Agouim, where I’ll find a guest house and have my clothes washed, before sleeping on stuff that isn’t trying to pierce me. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to find an iPhone cable, as mine decided to stop working last night, and my mum is gonna send the cavalry if she doesn’t get her text later.
11.11 - Good roads. Still out on the Telouet road for a while and it’s still super Mars vibes. Mostly descending for first couple of hours so I made good time. Stopped and met Hassan and Ahmed with a young lad who was too shy to give me his name, or to be in the photo.
Saw a dot in the distance. Could it be another cyclist? The only one so far. Marcin from Poland; out for 10 days. Cannondale CX bike with cantis and a tent. Absolute geezer. He was as bemused about me touring with eTap as I was about him thinking canti-lever brakes were an ideal choice for the terrain we were riding. We had a short debate about what time it was, before concluding the one of us was right and the other wrong, and we had no way of finding out who was who. We bid one another farewell and continued in opposite directions.
16.05 - Sat in my room at Hotel Atlas in Agouim, pretty tired. First thing to sort after arranging the room was an iPhone cable. Was easy enough, except I got back to the hotel and it didn’t work. Marched back over to find out he had some others which did work, funnily enough they cost a bit more. What that did prompt was a quick reassessment of physical cash, as not even Marrakech accepts card, so out here there’s no chance. Could do with more. To the cashpoint...?
Went to the only vaguely financial-esque looking shop front (Western Union signs all over the gaff) and was promptly informed that the nearest ATMs are in Ouzarzate or Marrakech. Ouzarzate is 80km back down the road I just rode 60km up, and Marrakech is 120km and would involve going back over the Col du Tichka.
I don’t fancy either, so I’m gonna truck on and try to make the money I’ve got work. After paying 150 Dirhams for my stay here tonight (about £12), I’ve only got 325 left. I reckon I can make it work, just means getting the Clif Bars out. I’ve got my credit card with me if I need it, assuming I ever find somewhere that isn’t cash-only.
It took a while before I realised the stench in my hotel room was me, so had a (lovely) shower. The water burned my neck, kindly drawing attention to the fact I’ve not put any sunscreen on it whatsoever after 2 days & 230km in 28 degrees blazing sunshine. Twat.
Wanted to buy some casual shorts as I forgot to pack any (so the only 1 pair of anything that covers my manhood is the single pair of bibs I’ve brought with me) - alas my 325 dirhams won’t stretch to such a luxury. This is quite annoying as I’ve just showered with them on, so they’ll take an age to dry. Trapped in the room by my own nudity.
19.03 - still not done much. Did some reading. Lots of thinking about cash situation and how to ration it. The additional day I gifted myself isn’t gonna happen. The plan originally for tomorrow was 180km with 2200m, 1500 of which are accounted for by the last 60km. The reward was to be a nicer hotel I scouted online, as it’s right on the peak of Tizi n’Tezt at 2100m, but I can’t afford that and I don’t really wanna bivi that high. Even the ‘nicer hotel’ is cash only. I’ll make a call on the road. Most likely cut that last climb short and take shelter.
My fucking left ear is sunburnt, and tomorrow the first 120km of the route is east to west. Bollocks.
98.1km | 1000m
Straight out of bed I had some biscuits & yoghurt and just got going. I’d climbed 1000m by 35km, and was wishing for every crest to be the last summit before heading back down the valley. After about 8-9 little peaks proving not to be the last, moral was starting to dip. I was hanging around 2100m for ages, and starting to regret the decision to leave a proper breakfast.
Then, after about 40km, it started to dip. Finally. What greeted me was just incredible. Hours upon hours of gradual descent down a sinuous valley road. Butterflies seemed to gravitate towards me and the bike, and I think I killed quite a few as they bounced off my wheels at 60kmh, but otherwise it was a lovely time to be on a bike. As I rolled through villages on the way down, more kids (and adults) rushed to the roadside, happy to see me. Plenty of high-fives, and some more racing against those lucky enough to have their own bikes. At some point I lost my jazzy slippers & the remaining biccies from breakfast on a descent. It really didn't feel like much of a big deal tbh.
About 60km in, all I’d had was a Clif bar and some shot blocks, but none of the villages were big enough to have any cafes. I stopped just past a village at a restaurant, but the guy sitting outside said it was closed. Before I could set off again, he stopped me and quickly hurried around the corner. After lots of yelling between what seemed like 10 people, I was ushered into someones home to see their kitchen, and then showed to a bench and brought an omelette, some bread and some mint tea. The language barrier stopped much conversation, but I told the 2 men sat with me (Omar & Aissa) where I’d been and where I was going. After forcing the whole lot down, I asked how much and was told nothing. I tried to leave some money on the table but they forced it back into my hand. They had just cooked for me from their home, and wanted nothing in return. It summed up the hospitality & good nature of the people out here. After a couple of photos, I was on my way. I’m about halfway back down the valley now, with another 40km of descending left. It’s blissful. Moral is fucking sky high.
The 100km ish of general descending was magical. I didn't stop to write about much as I was too keen to just push on. It was a fantastic few hours of my life floating down towards the valley floor.
18.29 - found my bivi spot. It’s not as far up Tizi n’Test as I’d like (I’m at about 800m) which means the hardest climbing of the trip straight out of bed. I don’t care though, I’m shagged. 160km done today and I have the same again tomorrow to get back to Marrakech. The last 40km or so have been in a dead straight, dead flat line.
The N10 would be a shit road to ride on even without a headwind. On the plus side, those 160km have cost me about £3 - some economy that. This means a big breakfast at the top of the mountain tomorrow. All that lies between me and that is 27km and 1300m climbing.
My body feels properly tired for the first time. I’m hoping it means a good nights sleep. It’s only 7.40pm and I’m on my way.
This much time alone does have an effect on the way you think about things and rationalise... The main thing on my mind right now is whether it’s worth spending £24 on data to listen to Twist Em Out by Dillinja on YouTube.
Sleeping under a tree this time, it looks like the sort of tree I’d imagine camel spiders live in.
159km | 1700m ish
10.47 - I’m nearly at the top of Tizi n’Test. Bout 6km away. I’ve travelled 18km in 2 hours on nothing but (you guessed it) a cliff bar + more shot blocks for breakfast. I’m absolutely swinging. I’m grateful for the steady gradient... if today was similar to yesterday morning I’d feel even worse.
It’s crazy just how effective sugar is when your body has nothing else. I stopped at a shop that only had fizzy tropical juice (that’s literally all the guy sold) and I downed half a litre. The next few clicks rolled by effortlessly, before I put my chain back in its rightful place at the top of the cassette and went back to grovelling.
I’m sat on the terrace of a little restaurant awaiting an omelette. She said Berber style which I think means it has olives in it. I absolutely detest olives, but I’m gonna eat every last one.
The food worked, and I eventually flopped over the that last 6km of the pass. The first half is basically all Puig Major but a bit steeper, silky roads and armco barriers. Then it all gets a bit looser and the barriers become few and far between. Down the other side was an amazing descent - the best of the trip. Dead smooth, open flowing corners. As today was the last day, I decided to just strap my bivi to the top of my saddle bag in place of the lost slippers. It meant the bar bag was small enough for me to use the drops for the first time on the trip. Completely stoked on that… About 70k of almost constant downhill ensued, and after what felt like days to get to the top of that first climb, within a couple of hours I was 60k out of Marrakech. One last rise, and then 45km of false flat downhill with a tailwind.
Marrakech surged to greet me, but I didn’t have the energy to match it. I swung by the square to grab an ice cream, before easing my way back to my Riad, where i immediately jumped in the (wonderfully freezing) pool. I remembered to empty my pockets, but I didn’t get as far as taking off my shoes. The water was so cold that it winded me.
The next couple of days flew by. I spent most of the next day in bed, before treating myself to a dinner that didn't give me change from a fiver for the first time. It was at some fancy place called L’Addresse (I say fancy, 3 courses + drink + coffee after was £31). My waiter was called Tajdin, and his moustache would make Gosse van der Meer weep with joy.
The enormity of it all will take a while to process, and I’m just finishing this off at the airport. Bodily tired but mentally energised. What a buzz. If you're on the fence about whether or not to take a full-bodied leap into the unknown, then just fucking do it. Don't hang about. You might even come back alive.
Sorry you won’t get any of that time back you just spent reading this. I could've written twice the amount that I have, and it still wouldn't have scratched the surface of the significance and life-changing nature of that trip.
Thanks for reading,
THINGS I FLUKED
I’ve only got 2x 500ml bidons, which was a bit worrying at first. I decided against it as I never drink as much as I should anyway. Turned out to be a completely flukey decent call - I’ve not been more than 20-30km without somewhere I could get bottled water for pennies. But remember to plan it ahead a bit - I still got caught out once and it was a long couple of hours.
I’ll always now try to end a trip with a lot of descending. It’s a good pickup when you’re mullered
The Mason Definition is an amazing bike.
The Panaracer GravelKing 32s were, other than the wheels (30 Carbon Gravel Disc), the only change I made to the bike I ride in the UK. Can’t think of any tyres I’ve ridden before that would have suited more.
Going alone made it more interactive - I didn’t realise how much more likely you are to meet and chat to people when you’re riding about by yourself
THINGS I DIDNT
Forgot to pack shorts on the bike (I had them at the Riad before and after). Truly annoying mistake
Didn’t anticipate how pointless a debit or credit card was, didn’t take enough cash as a result
Forgot to put any sun cream on my neck for first 2 days. Literally none
Old Huxy bloody told me about the joy of talcon powder, and I regret not heeding that advice
Vary up your gels/bars/whatever. Invariably I only use these when I’m shagged, so having the same flavours over and over made those times worse
Didn’t really plan when I was going to eat. When it’s as remote as this place, don’t assume every village will have a cafe or restaurant
PLEASE NOTE, all opinions are my own and not that of HUNT. Please don’t infer any actual advice on how to do this stuff from me. For all other issues, see a doctor. All swearwords are my own.