Part 6 The Road to Taliouine
“If you really loved me we would get a tandem.”
Dan continued eating his omelette and without looking up, mumbled, “Hmm.” I tore a piece of dry tasteless bread from the round in the plastic basket and said, “I could be at the front you know.” His knife and fork stopped moving and he glanced sideways at me from across the table as he raised a slightly unruly bushy eyebrow. I put the bread in my mouth and did my best to stifle a giggle.
Earlier, back at the auberge, I’d taken the frozen towels from the clothes lines and laid them in the sun to thaw so I could pack them without breaking them. It was getting easier to pack the kit onto the bikes. Everything had at last found its rightful place.
One of the young men from the rooms had a laptop bag slung over his shoulder and was making his way to leave. I asked him if he was going to school and if his family paid for him to stay at the auberge so he could study. He laughed and told me he was a teacher at the college and all the men in the auberge were teachers. He was a French teacher and the big guy was the Physical Education teacher. He explained that they go home to their families at weekends. It suddenly dawned on me the reason they spoke English. These young men were well educated and keen to expand their learning, despite living in less than salubrious conditions. They were dedicated to their profession.
After the bread, tea and omelette breakfast, we rode into the village. A dust cloud filled the street and smoke from a wheelbarrow full of smouldering rubbish choked us. It was Friday, the day for prayers. It wasn’t until I saw the shuttered shops and the empty streets that I realised the significance. We hadn’t yet bought food for the road to Taliouine. How could I have been so stupid? I felt like such an idiot. Even after two days on minimal rations, I didn’t follow my own rule of – Get it when you see it.
The café man was clearing up, so we bought two very stale and out of date sponge fingers. From the shop across the street, we bought the last remaining fruit, three oranges and a single bruised banana, two boiled eggs and two pieces of bread. The ride was along a goudron (tar) road and 60 km in distance. The café man said that we would find nothing to eat between Askaoun and Taliouine.
I locked out the suspension, the Marathon Mondial tyres glided across the relatively smooth surface until it came to cornering. The effects of freeze thaw erosion had turned every corner into a mess of rubble and pot holes forcing me to slow and unlock my suspension.
For 20km we rode the undulating hills. The sun shone in a clear blue sky. There were milestones every 2km though I suppose I should call them kilometrestones. One pickup truck passed by slowing down for a good stare. The occupants gave us approving nods and waves as they drove.
At one point, the road was cut from the rock face. It was a ledge with a sheer drop on the right hand side. Ahead, the road swung sharply to the left. There were no crash barriers or fences or hedges. There was nothing but rock and sky. At first I was mesmerised by the harsh stark beauty, and then I was gripped by terror. I decided to cycle on the left, despite it being the wrong side of the road. I pedalled so close to the face of the mountain I almost dropped into the gully. That section was flat. The putty grey rocks were veined with yellow ochre and rust and gekkos darted into crevices.
A pair of birds soared and circled overhead searching for prey in this seemingly hostile and barren place. We agreed to stop for lunch at 25km but we rode further until there was somewhere suitable to hide from the sun. We chose the ugliest place, no view, not really anything suitable to sit on, simply a place to eat oranges, share a banana and go for a pee. According to the GPS we hadn’t really dropped much in altitude so we knew there was going to be a big drop eventually. Suitably rested, we set off downhill.
Ground squirrels jumped across rocks and scampered across the road. I pedalled up another hill and yelled, “Whoopee!” It was more of a scream “Whooooooooopeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Dan was slightly ahead and stopped dead in his tracks. He thought I was hurt.
My heart was racing and my throat was closing. I felt at one with nature; the beauty; the splendour; and the greatness. The anti-atlas mountains filled my field of vision like a thousand egg trays painted reddish brown. It was one of those truly spiritual moments that I’ve only ever felt when I’ve climbed mountains or during the night on a yacht on the ocean with only the stars and the moon for company. I wanted Dan to hug me and cry with me as we savoured the moment, but he pedalled on. That was the moment that I forgot the hunger, the pain, the desperation and the fear, that was the moment ‘the baby was born’.
It was mostly free wheeling from then on. The only way was down. I stopped to simply sit and enjoy the feeling, to soak up the atmosphere and listen to the silence. I heard a distant rumble and saw dust rise like smoke from a chimney faraway in the mountains. Something big was coming. I wasn’t sure if I should wait until it passed or go before it arrived. I waited and a large truck thundered past.
I used a silk scarf a my to cover my nose and mouth and protect me from the drying wind. In no time, we caught up with the truck driver who waited to make sure we got past safely. We never saw him again. My brake discs must have been glowing. Switchback after switchback, turn after turn and the kilometres ticked away.
We rode through a small town where the people were missing, perhaps they were at prayer. At the end of a long flat plain a rock hill rose like a wall in front of us. It was too steep for me to cycle. I pushed the bike into a headwind until I turned and the wind helped me. It was the first time I’d lost sight of Dan the entire trip. Eventually I caught up, as two packed minibuses approached from Taliouine. We had a break and took a selfie.
The ride was easy after that, gentle slow pedal strokes. We passed beehives painted white and an odd tent as we neared the saffron centre of Morocco. If we’d arrived a month earlier, we’d have seen fields of blue. The November crocus harvest was over.
An old man wearing a djellaba the colour of sand and with a blue scarf covering his head and face pushed his bike towards us. It had taken four hours to get here. I had ridden the longest ride, cycled the highest peak and freewheeled the longest downhill from 2000 m to 1000 m.
In the tented restaurant of Auberge le Safran we sipped saffron tea while waiting for soup. I was dancing in the bathroom when I saw the flush toilet, toilet paper, hot water, hand soap and paper towels.
We examined the huge maps to see where we had been and the terrain we had covered. Shortly after, we booked into the Auberge Souktana opposite the Kasbah.
We sat on the terrace soaking up the late afternoon sunlight when suddenly, I felt dizzy, nauseous, very cold and above all exhausted. Still fully clothed, I climbed into bed. Dan piled blankets on top of me. I had no appetite and no interest in exploring. The elation I’d felt only a few hours earlier had vanished. I just wanted to sleep and let the spring that was coiled tight in my stomach unwind.