Days 12-14 Aït Benhaddou citadel and the Tizi n'Tichka pass - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 23, 2019 to December 25, 2019

Days 12-14 Aït Benhaddou citadel and the Tizi n'Tichka pass

Skoura to Marrakech

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Day 11 - Skoura to Aït Benhaddou - 46 miles

Skoura is home to one of Morocco's more well-known kasbahs- Amridil, the landmark that appears on the 50 Dirham note. I cycled right past it after leaving the campsite, but for some reason opted not go inside. Looking back, I wish I had, but I've got a horrible knack of always feeling like I'm in a rush. The flat route to Ouarzazate was another really easy stretch and the scenery was just as spectacular; plains and palm trees flanked by the snowy Atlas mountains. 

Kasbah Amridil just outside my campsite.
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I will never get tired of seeing palm trees and snow-capped mountains in the same view.
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Ouarzazate was a bigger city, one of Morocco's main tourist hubs, and a gateway to the Southern parts of the country. I didn't feel like heading through another town centre, so took a road on the outskirts past the aiport instead. Nipping inside a small corner shop, I topped up with bread, chocolate and water, and couldn't believe how cheap it was. Even for Morocco, this was crazy low. Maybe they just charged me wrong! Just past Ouarzazate, there's a huge film studio I looking forward to visiting, featuring loads of the sets from Kingdom of Heaven, Blackhawk Down, The Mummy, Star Wars, Gladiator etc. It was a big disappointment when the place was closed due to the process of filming another movie. As I was playing on my phone outside the main doors, I heard a voice call out behind me and turned to find another cycle tourer! This was a guy from Germany on a recumbent bike who I got on really well with and we chatted on the roadside for ages. He's doing a similar route to me, just in the opposite direction. Cycling in Morocco attracts a decent amount of attention from the locals anyway, he mused, even more so if you're on something unusual like a recumbent!

I thought this stretch to Ouarzazate might be a bit boring, but the scenery continued to impress.
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A friendly German cycle tourer on a recumbent I met outside the film studios.
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There was only a short stretch to Aït Benhaddou and once again this flew by. As Morocco's most famous landmark crept into view, I could see so many tourists around. Moroccans were all of a sudden massively outnumbered by White and Asian travellers. It's a mystery why this place is so packed with visitors, yet the other touristy places along my route weren't. It was as if people get off the plane, jump in a car to Aït Benhaddou, and then head straight back to the plane. The Ksar (fortified village) itself was even more swarming with people. This was the first time in Morocco I've actually seen people queuing. It was a tough choice- after passing on Kasbah Amridil, I really ought to head inside Aït Benhaddou, but the crowds of tourists put me off. I still would have gone in regardless, but I couldn't push my bike through the windy narrow alleyways and I didn't want to leave it locked up anywhere. This is always one of my biggest issues when cycle touring, missing out on attractions because I'm paranoid about leaving the bike unattended.

Aït Benhaddou. If you zoom in on the photo you can see the long queue of people winding their way to the top of the town's hill.
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Another view of the Ksar, this time framing the photo to exclude the crowds!
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Aït Benhaddou had a wealth of campsites, but I decided to cycle a few miles out of town to find a quieter one. A gravel area at the back of a hotel took my fancy, but later a huge family of Canadians turned up in a minivan along with their loud young children, so it wasn't the quiet evening I was hoping for. 

I much preferred the stray cats to some of the horrible aggressive stray dogs that would bark every hour of the night.
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The camping area behind a hotel. My water bottled leaked inside a pannier and soaked my book annoyingly.
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Day 12 - Aït Benhaddou to Tizi n'Tichka - 43 miles

I was feeling a bit uninterested today, and being so close to Marrakech, it kind of felt like the trip was basically over already. It's hard to explain but because I was right on the home stretch, I had the illogical mentality of just wanting to be in Marrakech as soon as possible without having to go through 2 days of cycling. 

There aren't many options for accomodation at Tizi n'Tichka pass, so my plan was to ask if I could camp in the garden of a restaurant at the summit like a pair of cyclists had done before me. Only 45 miles, but the whole route was uphill... and of course it wasn't a gradual uphill. It was that constant sharp climb followed by a slightly smaller descent, sharp climb followed by a slightly smaller descent all the way. Within 30 minutes, I could tell I wasn't on my game today and could barely manage the climbs without being in a really low gear. 

A brutal series of switchbacks. I was half expecting my chain to snap again with every turn of the pedals.
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The cycle was stunningly beautiful however. Rather than head on the main route over the pass, this quiet narrow road passed through gorges, tiny villages and forests, before joining up near the Tizi n'Tichka summit. On a section of fast downhill, I spotted another cyclist- David from Canada/Netherlands, and pulled over for a chat. Yet another cycle tourer that's heading in the opposite direction to me! These encounters normally put me in a great mood, but this time it didn't last long because I soon hit the final prolonged section of steep uphill and felt really exhausted. This was disappointing as I normally pride myself on having loads of stamina on the bike, but it was probably a combination of not eating that much + not having any rest days. My new tactic was to stare at the road beneath me, so I wouldn't see the long climb ahead, and wouldn't catch any glimpses of the mileage and speed on my cycle computer. 

Back up into the High Atlas for a final time. There were a good amount of wildcamp opportunities but I wanted to make it to the top.
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There weren't many cars on this side route at all compared the busier main road.
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I finally chugged my way to the point where this road meets the main road and was instantly approached by a Moroccan guy trying to sell some crystal for such a low price that I'm sure confirmed it was fake. After the tiring climb I responded 'non désolé' in a bit of a grumpy tone, but to be honest, even if the crystal was fake, it looked quite impressive and I might've been tempted by the cheap 20 Dirham price tag on a better day. Turns out this wasn't the top of the pass and I still had another mile or so to climb. The contruction crews 'repairing' the road had made a complete mess and it was a free-for-all of dust and gravel.

The cafe was completely deserted but I ordered a tasty chicken brochettes meal and asked if I could camp nearby. They said I was welcome to camp in the adjoining garden, so pitched up my tent on a patch of grass which was a nice change from sharp rocks. 

You can just about make out the cafe in the middle-left. It promised to be another cold night at this altitude.
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Day 13 - Tizi n'Tichka to Marrakech - 64 miles 

I had the worst night sleep of the whole trip which was a shame because it was Christmas Day! A combination of the cold temperature and the bloody dogs barking all night meant I saw almost every hour on the clock. My thin sleeping mat provides virtually no warmth or padding so that's first on my list of things to replace for any future trips. 

The first 20 miles were a complete breeze, I barely had to turn the pedals at all on the cruise downhill. Then came a long climb which I hadn't been expecting as the road wound its way over the final mountain of the High Atlas. At the top, I was well rewarded with some fantastic views. The landscape had completely changed this side of the pass- dusty barren slopes replaced with lush fertile valleys. It was hard to capture them on camera, but some areas reminded me of SE Asia with the red-tinted mud and thick vegetation. Another easy 20 mile downhill passed and the road soon flattened out as it reached the towns near Marrekech. Conditions were still great for cycling, but I was trying to rush too much and starting to ache once again which wasn't reassuring. The cafe on the pass had been closed when I left, so I hadn't eaten anything today, and went to the first food place I spotted. It was a pretty dodgy looking cafe and the staff barely understood my French, but I got another load of brochettes + bread at last. At the start of the trip, I would've been very hesitant, but it was great to see how my inhibitions had been getting better and better throughout the journey.

There was a huge police presence on the roads around here and it felt like something serious was going on. Literally every couple of hundred metres there would be someone in uniform on either side watching the road. As I turned a corner, some policemen frantically ushered people off the road and a horde of police cars whizzed past. I never did found out what had happened or if they were persuing someone.

It felt like a completely different country in this area.
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Incredibly verdent gorge cutting through the landscape.
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A familiar Mediterranean landscape as I neared the main road to Marrakech.
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Upon arriving at a junction on the edge of Marrakech's Medina, it felt like all hell had broken loose. 4 or 5 directions of traffic all merging into each other in the midst of a market that was spilling out into the road; motorbikes, donkeys, chickens and trucks, all in a battle to claim that last inch of space. Road laws didn't seem to exist. Traffic lights may as well have been Christmas decorations, pedestrians forced they way across multiple lanes of traffic, and drivers' horns seem permanently stuck on. There was a certain thrill to the scene and I started to enjoy the madness. It reminded me of the crazy-Italian-driver roads on the outskirts of Verona, only cranked up to 10. I was aiming for the main square but finding this wasn't an easy task. The Medina was a labyrinth of narrow alleys that didn't seem wide enough for the crowds of people, let alone pushcarts and motorbikes. I kept having to stop to check my phone directions on every corner. 

Eventually I reached to the door of my hotel, which was just off the square. I had decided to get a private room in a hotel instead of a hostel dorm for a few reasons: 1) my clothes (and shoes especially) hadn't been washed for ages and now stank, so I didn't want to inflict that on other people. 2) I had so many bags as it was, that it would be a pain to store in the typically tiny dorms I'd seen in photos online. 3) The hotel was good value anyway and the cheapest private room I'd found in the whole of Marrakech on TripAdvisor. 4) To be honest, I didn't really feel like socialising much (which I always feel obliged to do in a dorm) considering my trip was right at the end. In a more remote place, I'd take a dorm in a heartbeat to meet other Westerners, but Marrakech was a hugely popular tourist destination anyway.

After a much-needed shower, I wasted no time in heading to the nearest cycle shop to enquire about bike boxes. To my surprise, they all spoke perfect English and had a selection of boxes waiting out the back which I paid the £6 for. That couldn't have gone easier which was awesome because it's the thing I hate most about flying back from cities. The rest of Marrakech's roads seemed really chaotic too and a few Gendarmerie officers were futilely trying to direct traffic at the junctions. I'm still amazed that their aren't constant accidents- I only saw one low-speed collision between a motorbike and a cargo motor-tricycle.

Being a Muslim country, Christmas is virtually non-existent here. The only slight hint I had that it's Christmas Day was a taxi driver wearing a santa hat, and a very sad-looking lone decrepit Christmas tree in one of the supermarkets. 

My hotel for the short stay in Marrakech. I love being able to bring my bike straight into the room.
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Today's ride: 153 miles (246 km)
Total: 750 miles (1,207 km)

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