Cycling in the Anti Atlas Mountains of Morocco, we unloaded our bikepacking gear and went on a day trip to the Blue Rocks near Tafraoute and found carpets, camels, goats and sharp rocks.
I recognised him at once. The man who’d stopped me at the roundabout when I first drove into Tafraoute in 2011. He wore the same outfit, brown djelaba and berber style turban today as he did back then. He didn’t recognise me, or he might have remembered how pissed off I was when he blocked my path because I rejected his invitation to visit his brother’s carpet shop. It was the severe turn in his eye that I would never forget. I wasn’t quite sure where he was looking or who he was talking to, one eye looked left, the other right.
This time, I’d arrived in Tafraoute with my bicycle, not that I’d ridden there. No. I’d taken my bike on a bus from Tiznit. Our trip was nearing an end and we’d spent too long on the road to Timbuktu. I’d enjoyed hiking in the Ameln valley on my previous trip to Tafraoute so I insisted on coming back. We would see a lot more by bike.
Tafraoute was ‘discovered’ in the 60’s by the hippy set, nowadays, rock climbers from all corners of the globe are drawn to sheer walls of granite. Hippies still hang out here and some look as if they never left.
Arriving late December, we struggled to find accommodation. Our first choice was fully booked so the owner, a young woman, mounted her bike and took us to her friend’s hotel. Initially, I rejected it, thinking I’d find better but I ended up coming back and taking it gladly. You can see below, the view from the hotel.
Not much had changed, tiny shops and stalls selling babouches (hand made leather slippers in red or yellow), crystals, fossils and spurious herbs which would give a man an erection to be proud of (demonstrated charades style), and another which would make a woman’s pussy tight (again demonstrated by way of a closed fist and finger). Useless objects made from used oil cans, plus lanterns, thick woollen blankets, cheap acrylic hats and beautiful leather satchels surrounded cones of aromatic spices.
We removed all packs from the bikes and went on a ride, the Ameln valley lay to the north, and we headed south towards Napoleon’s Hat and the painted rocks. We no longer looked like bike tourers, more like tourists that had rented bikes. The owner of ‘The Best Carpet Shop in Tafraoute’ spoke to us in English. He asked us to visit his shop. Handsome, with a well groomed beard and dressed in white, he told us that he could ship a carpet to England – Liverpool, London, Birmingham or Manchester. We told him we had a carpet at home already. A magic one at that and showed him this picture that I keep in my wallet, just to prove how special it is. I didn’t in truth, because I took this today in preparation for my next trip to a carpet selling country.
‘I have a special carpet for you. I can trade bike parts. You have spare chain? Brakes?’ So much for thinking we looked like we hired a bike, he already knew these were our bikes. He owned the bike rental shop. Dan and I told him we only had enough spares for ourselves, which was true and we certainly weren’t lugging around spare chains.
We carried on and passed this curious garden.
Not far out of town, I saw a herd of goats. I willed them to be in the trees. And sure enough, they were. Dozens of them clambering among branches and munching on sweet argan nuts. I moved in for my most longed for photo shoot in Morocco.
Despite careful observation, I never found Napoleon’s Hat. Mainly because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, and also because Moroccans seem to be stoned when they name some of these rocks, such as the mountain with the lion’s face (You’d need to have a vivid imagination to see a lion) but I knew I could identify a blue rock when I saw one.
Do you think this might be the hat of Napoleon?
Belgian artist Jean Verame and a team of Moroccan firemen hosed eighteen tons of paint over some rocks in 1984. Over time, the colour faded so locals have been brightening up the work and putting their own interpretations on it. It’s interesting to look at photos on the web which show the change over time.
We turned off the road and onto a track which led to a granite quarry. Slabs and hunks of sparkling rock destined for life as a tombstone or chic kitchen worktop. We were following the GPS position in the ‘as the crow flies’ direction which led us to a cliff top where we saw blue and pink boulders scattered in the valley below. No one mentioned anything about pink rocks! Was this a demonstration of equality? Blue for boys and pink for girls?
We walked to the edge of the ledge trying to figure out a safe route, or decide if we would have to try another way. The bikes were as light as air now that we weren’t carrying gear and we were as fit as fiddles after two weeks of pedalling.
‘Is that a camel?’
I don’t know why I needed to ask, because a camel is a pretty distinctive looking animal, especially when it’s about ten metres away. If a camel could get up, we could get down.
That’s when Dan discovered how sharp unpolished granite is.
‘I’m OK,’ he said, when I asked how he was.
‘Aye, sure you are.’
I squirted copious amounts of water to clean the blood away and assess the damage and picked out some grit.
‘There now, you’ll be better before you’re married.’
He gave me a quizzical look. ‘It’s what my dad used to tell me when I got a wee scrape.’ I had rocks to view.
Dan laughed off his injury and said he was fine.
‘You have time for looking at my carpets now?’