Days 0-1 Monkeys, dogs, and culture shock - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 11, 2019 to September 13, 2020

Days 0-1 Monkeys, dogs, and culture shock

Fes to Azrou

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Day 0 - London to Fes

Waking up in my warm bed actually filled me with an initial feeling of dread. I was suddenly incredibly nervous to know that by the end of the day I would be in a different continent, in a country that didn't speak my language, with a completely alien culture to me. My flight wasn't until the evening so I spent most of the day checking over the packing and trying to relax. I would be flying with the notoriously pedantic Ryanair so I was even more on edge than usual that they would find any little thing to try and cause issues during check-in. 

The bike fitted snugly into my dad's car, and I was soon queuing up at Stanstead airport. Despite my concerns, it couldn't have gone smoother, and before long I was waiting in a weird flight gate in a far corner of the airport. Already it felt like an adventure- there were so few other white tourists on the flight with me. There wasn't a boarding bridge for this plane, so we were waiting outside for quite a while and this was absolutely freezing in the UK winter because I was the only person stupid enough to have chosen to wear shorts! Managing to move myself to a seat with a bit more legroom and no one next to me, the next 2.5 hours were spent sporadically drifting in and out of sleep. 

As the plane landed, many of the passengers burst into applause which really took me aback. I'd never seen anything like it before and I'd always assumed things like clapping in a plane or at the cinema were just cringey stereotypes that didn't really exist! 

There wasn't a bridge at Fes either, so we were let back out into the cool night. The airport arrivals was pretty weird because after getting off the plane, there were no marshals or ground staff telling us where to go, it was just a guessing game where to enter the terminal, and evidently most people were as confused as I was because everyone seemed to fan out in different directions. I followed the biggest group of people and made it inside, where the lengthy passport control greeted us. I was hoping for a cool stamp in my passport, but border control guy just wrote a boring 9-digit code in one of my pages instead. I was also given the warning by multiple staff that drones were banned in the country so it's a good job I didn't have one because I'd heard nothing about this prior to flying! 

I was content to try to find a place to sleep at the airport, but this triggered my Mum's 'motherly instincts' and she insisted on paying for a night in a nearby hotel with a pre-booked taxi to take me. Sure enough, there was a guy waiting for me with my name on a placard. We loaded the bike box into his car and he drove the lengthy... 1.1 miles to the hotel! It wasn't even worth booking a taxi at all, that would be easily cycled, but it was a nice gesture from Mum so that I didn't have to worry about assembling a bike at 11:30pm in a foreign airport. The man behind the desk at the hotel didn't speak English, and I was pretty shy with my French on the first day, so the driver stayed to translate. I'm not sure what the tipping etiquette in Morocco is- should I have given him anything for helping with translation and carrying my bags? I've never been a fan of tipping culture in general (unless someone has really gone above and beyond), and this uncertainty would continue with the days to come. The hotel was very westernised in appearance, and I took a quick shower before collapsing into the double bed.   

Fes airport. There was no ground crew or signs telling us where to go so everyone spent a few minutes wandering around aimlessly.
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Day 1 - Fes to Azrou outskirts - 44 miles

Breakfast was included with the hotel, so I forced myself downstairs for the first taste of Moroccan cuisine. The pancake and strange pastry-thing were quite hard to eat and didn't have a lot of taste, but it might have been because I was still a little nervous and lacked much appetite. I blew my tyres up, left the box in the room, and wheeled the heavy bike out the gates into the warmth of the Moroccan day. There were lots of stray dogs lying around the road outside of the hotel and this would be the norm for most of the first few days. 

I love mountains, so there was a rush of excitement when I opened the curtains and saw them dominating the horizon
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There were stray dogs everywhere, but most seemed to be nonchalantly relaxing in the sun
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I hit the first roundabout a few minutes after setting off and instantly forgot which direction to give way to, leaving me temporarily standed in the middle of the road. Even this short distance from the airport, it was like stepping into a completely different world. I cycled past people riding donkeys, endless mosques, comically overloaded trucks, battered classic cars doubling up as taxis, ramshackles huts and roadside stools selling all manner of fruit I've never seen before. There also seemed to be a huge police presence. A branch of Morocco's law enforcement, the Gendarmerie Royale had frequent checkpoints along the busier roads where they would stop vehicles seemingly at random. I greeted them with a 'bonjour monsieur' and was always waved straight through with a smile or nod. 

Progress was going well thanks to the complete lack of wind, until I hit the first of the hills which I hadn't been expecting so soon. This climb was midway through construction work, and long sections were on uneven dirt, even though this was one of the main roads out of Fes. Here I encountered my first taste of the terrible Moroccan drivers. The people were lovely until they get behind the wheel of a vehicle and then everyone turns into a horrible impatient moron who would rather run you off the road than wait 5 seconds. The country seems to have a constant overtaking culture thanks to the vastly varied speed of vehicles on the roads, and there were a few times where a truck would overtake another truck just as it drove past opposite, forcing me to dive off the road into the verge. No one seems to understand the concept of giving me space either, and virtually every car overtook with little room to spare, even when the other side of the road was completely empty. As you can imagine, this crazy behaviour was exacerbated on a narrow section where there are no road markers, crater-like potholes to dodge, and clouds of dust being kicked up!

I was starving by the time I'd made it to the top of these couple of climbs, and planned to stop for food in the first town, Imouzzar Kandar. Cycling through was actually quite imtimidating, and it felt like every eye was watching me. A couple of guys must've seen me looking around inquisitively and rushed over, calling out in a garbled mix of french and arabic that I didn't understand. One budding entrepreneur even come up to me at a junction with a roll of carpet to sell. I just pointed to the bike and give my best 'what am I supposed to do with that!?' shrug which seemed to work. All too quickly, I was out the other side of the town, and I decided to stop at the next one instead. This was probably the only bit of culture shock that made me feel nervous all trip, and I quickly got used to the chaos of Moroccan towns.

A park in Ifrane to rest my aching legs. This could have been a view from England!
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It was another steady uphill to the next food opportunity, and my legs were screaming by the time I rolled into Ifrane a few hours later. This place had a strangely European feeling, and I later found out that it was nicknamed 'Africa's little Switzerland' thanks to all the alpine architecture. There was a park on the outskirts with an inviting bench and I collapsed onto it for 30 minutes, nursing aching thighs. It had been almost 5 months since I last cycled properly- all the uphill wasn't the easiest way to ease myself back in and my body was letting me know. Ifrane was a very touristy place and it was a good chance to stock up with money and food while I got used to the country. Next came the challenge of sorting out a Moroccan SIM card. This is an annoyingly complex procedure which started with having to give my passport details at the Maroc Telecom shop. That sorted out the card, but for whatever bizarre reason they don't sell data packages there, so I had to head to a grocery shop and ask to buy a refill code. Of course I had no idea how to activate the code because I couldn't read the arabic on the back. A local Spanish-Moroccan guy who spoke a bit of english noticed me looking perplexed and came over to help. Apparently you had to call a number, press the corresponding digit for Morocco, enter the refill code, and finally add #3 at the end for good measure. He also recommended a place to wild camp in a nearby forest, but not before trying to sell me a cheap room in the town for the night which I politely declined. 

Ifrane, known as Africa's 'Little Switzerland' thanks to the bizarre presence of alpine architecture that you won't find anywhere else in Morocco
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Taking a quiet road out of Ifrane towards the forests, I caught my first sight of the Barbary Macaques lounging around in the trees. It was really cool to see a relatively exotic animals like monkeys on my first day here. Eventually I got to the spot he'd recommended and I could just about make out that it was some sort of overnight recreational area in french. I headed down the steep rocky path which emerged into a maze of tracks. At the end of each one seemed to be a hut which I wasn't sure if they were occupied or not. When I got closer, a pair of dogs ran up and angrily started barking so I quickly retreated. There were a few spots that were hidden from the huts and the track, but I could hear human activity in the forest so decided to just head to a nearby campsite and have peace of mind for my first night here.

Spotting barbary macaques among the trees. These guys are the same species that inhabit the rock at Gibraltar.
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The daylight hours are quiet short in the Moroccan winter, and by 6pm it was already getting dark. I continued on with my lights, and at the top of one hill, I was greeted to the most spectacular sunset view I've ever seen (which is saying something!). The low cloud had parted on the horizon which cast a magical glow over the rolling hills in the distance, colouring them in shades of purple and peach. I quickly fumbled to get my camera out of a pannier, but I've only had the thing for a week and couldn't get it to focus properly in the low light. There wasn't any time to get the mini-tripod out, so I had to make do with a low-resolution photo from my iPhone instead. A few miles later Camping Amazigh appeared, and I struck lucky because the owner just happened to be walking outside the entrance. I asked the price and was told 27 Moroccan dirhams (MAD) which works out at £2.16. Unbelievably good value for a toilet + hot shower, and that sure beats staying in the dodgy forest!  

I crested a hill to find the most spectacular sunset I've seen. Unfortunately I haven't got the hang of using my new camera in low-light without a tripod, so this was the best resolution I could get.
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Today's ride: 44 miles (71 km)
Total: 44 miles (71 km)

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