When cycling in the Anti Atlas area of Morocco, I experienced hunger – athletic hunger, compelling hunger, bikepacking hunger: “My stomach thumped… My legs began to tremble. My blood sugars were dipping and we hadn’t even begun the journey. I was the hungry biker.” Sound familiar?
At 5.30am the muezzin called, his voice building in gradual crescendo from the mosque next door. I got dressed and went onto the roof terrace with a drink of water. Breakfast was not until 8am, so we prepared the bikes. The morning was grey with a few sporadic rain drops. Said assured me it hadn’t rained in the area for two years and it wouldn’t rain. I was not convinced.
For breakfast, there was coffee, bread, jam, honey, triangle cheese (Laughing Cow), butter, yogurt and oranges.
With the wildcat systems packed and the bikes fully loaded we rode into town and continued on our search for alcohol. The owner of a hardware shop finally understood what we wanted and took Dan to the pharmacy. They returned with two green Heineken bottles with labels over the Heineken name. The shopkeeper handed me a small pack of cotton wool – a gift! And then I realised – he thought the alcohol was for cleaning wounds.
My stomach thumped. I felt the beating of an albatross’ wings. I felt the bird fly up into my throat and finally it hung like a dead weight around my neck. My legs began to tremble. My blood sugars were dipping and we hadn’t even begun the journey. I was hungry again. Hunger was my biggest fear.
I stopped at the Dallas Café for coffee and cake. I was scared but excited and totally unready to ride across African mountains. I knew I would never feel ready and began to think about what I was about to do, what I had suggested we do. It was time to go. I could faff no more. The only way was up.
Our goal was to get to Ouled Berhil and spend the night there. It took about two hours of practice to be able to pronounce the name of the town. Like trying to clear you throat just not as vulgar. The route was slightly uphill but flat. The starting altitude 200m above sea level.
We took the tarmac road to begin. Everyone waved and smiled and greeted me with ‘Bonjour Madame. Bon Voyage!’ I felt like a celebrity. Fine drizzly rain fell, but nothing got wet. 20km on we stopped to eat boiled egg sandwiches and sweet mint tea from egg cup sized glasses.
Then we hit the off road section, which the locals call ‘piste’. Across the gravel tracks we rumbled. Through the Souss valley we pedalled. Past argan trees and orange groves, past dry river beds and rubbish we rode. On and on we went and the High Atlas seemed a little bit closer.
Small piles of smooth round and flat rocks loosely defined the edge of paths. I stopped and made a rock sculpture. I reached into my pocket stuffed with Fox’s Glacier Fruits and unwrapped a blackcurrant flavoured sweet. I popped the first of many in my mouth. It helped to combat the dryness and stickiness in my mouth. I sipped water from the bottle which remained cool in the Stem cell.
The maps and the GPS were generally helpful, but the mountains remained as the best landmark. Pale yellow and sand coloured mosques poked up across the valley. The faint cry of the distant muezzins reminding us that time was passing. We rode through the sleepy village of Ida Ou Gailal.
The batteries on the GPS went flat. We made a short ‘U’ turn to find the trail across the sand. We pushed a bit, then cycled where the ground was rocky beneath the sand.
We stopped for a pee and snacked on some dates and nuts, which were now in the same bag and completely indistinguishable from one another. Then I slurped and chomped on a sweet and juicy orange and trundled onwards.
A donkey with two fully packed panniers wandered towards us, as if going home with the groceries. He was all alone. Dan sang, ‘Little donkey, little donkey, on the dusty road…’
Goats and goat herders roamed the valley among the argan trees, occasionally sharing or blocking the path. The sand was so deep in places it was impossible to ride and pushing was slow and energy sapping.
In my mind, I heard the voice of Johnny Cash singing ‘There will be peace in the valley…’ I remembered listening to that song on an 8 track cassette on long drives through Ireland with my family. But that was a long time ago. My mind was drifting, the daylight was fading and we still had at least 10km to go.
We switched on the headlamps and the landscape took on a spooky feel. The temperature fell rapidly and I put on another layer. A man on a motorbike stopped and assured us we would soon be in the village. I had no idea what village, but a village nonetheless.
And then there was a paved road. I was so glad to see the hard surface and so glad to feel the bike move effortlessly. Soon there were dozens of bikes, all going in the opposite direction. None of them had lights but all offered cheerful greetings. When we hit the main road, a Grand Taxi reversed and offered us a lift. We had only 3km to go. We thanked him and waved goodbye.
We rode into town, checked the kindle for places to stay, but all I cared about was dinner. That night, we had exclusive use of a Kasbah, The Riad Hida, a 19th Century Palace. Where else would a celebrity stay or indeed the hungry biker?
We were given a suite, with a complete bathroom. There was a bidet, flush toilet, a shower and fluffy towels. There was a fireplace in our sitting room and plenty of space for the bikes. Strangely there were two single beds!
The dining room was sumptuous and beautifully restored. As we were the only guests, the owner Mohammed Laafissi personally attended and served a delicious meal of soup, lamb tagine (for me) Omelette (for Dan) and a fruit salad. As usual, bread and triangle cheese was placed on the table. We drank water and a large pot of mint tea. The meal deserved a bottle of wine. We deserved a bottle of wine. But, alas, there was no wine.