Days 2-3 Snapped chains and a cold camp above 2000m - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 13, 2019 to December 14, 2019

Days 2-3 Snapped chains and a cold camp above 2000m

Azrou to Midelt

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Day 2 - Azrou to Lac Aguelmame Sidi Ali wildcamp - 36 miles :(

A bad night sleep was definitely not what I wanted, but it was hard to drift off with various weird animal noises echoing through the night. I've got a feeling they were probably donkeys. I struggled to get going, but this was remedied by a steaming hot shower now that the owner had turned on the wood burner in the bathrooms. Azrou was a bigger town that I didn't have much interest in visiting, so it made sense to head onto some tiny roads and cut the whole corner off. A few minutes into the first insanely steep climb, and my chain decided to misbehave with a sudden snap. I couldn't believe that I was less than 50 miles into the tour and I'd already got a snapped chain, something which many people never end up experiencing. It was actually the first time it's ever happened to my bike in over 4000 miles. 

A snapped chain already. The hill was a lot steeper that it looks. Photos never seem to capture road gradient very well.
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Nevertheless, I wheeled the bike to the side of the road and began what was an easy fix... or at least what should've been. On my last tour to New Zealand, my friend's chain had snapped after his freewheel mechanism failed, and it took me so long to fix because I'd been trying to fit an 11-speed link on a 9-speed chain without realising. Today, when I couldn't snap the links together after 5 minutes, I started boiling up with the same anger I had in New Zealand. Sat cross-legged on the verge, I fiddled around with the parts repeatedly, and even tried to manually attach a 'proper' link with my tools from a spare length of chain I had. After 30 minutes of trying different things, I gave up and had some lunch. A couple of cars passed and asked if I needed help in various levels of french and english, but I assured them I would be fine. Eventually a Spanish mountain biker came whizzing down the hill and pulled over for a chat. He could speak really good english so we discussed lots of stuff together while looking at the bike. All of a sudden by chance, I pushed on the pedals to try the link once more and it snapped perfectly into place with such minimal effort! It turns out that I had completely forgotten one of the technical lessons my dad taught me in the past, and was trying to connect the links at the bottom of the chainset instead of the top... just as stupid of a mistake as before, and just as time-consuming.

I carried on up the hill relieved that the problem was fixed without having to limp to the nearest bike shop, but a bit wary that it could happen again. There was a small touristy trailhead up here and I realised I must've missed a turning. I backtracked, but the road that the Maps.me app was showing just wasn't there. A few bulldozers and diggers were halfway up the hillside, so maybe it's a road under construction that had been added to the database by mistake? Either way, I didn't want to go all the way back down, so headed up the meandering rocky track at the trailhead. This was really tough going, but it was completely deserted. I had been waiting for the perfect opportunity to try out my GorillaPod folding tripod so I set it up at the top of the hill while fumbling through the camera options to find video and timer settings. My first cycle up the hill wasn't captured at all because the camera had reverted to photo mode, and the second try just didn't look that impressive at all. It seemed like a lot of effort for a few seconds of video, but I still really want to capture some amazing self-footage like I keep seeing on YouTube. All I need now is the motivation to to keeping stopping for photo breaks.   

Completely deserted (apart from the monkeys) forest tracks for the next hour
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A large picnic area in the middle of nowhere. Maybe this place is a lot more popular in the high tourist season.
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Finally back on the main road, most of the day was already wasted by being lazy at the campsite and failing to fix basic mechanical problems. The scenery started to get really impressive though and I cycled across an exposed plateau with snowy mountains just about visible in the distance. Next came the town of Timahdte and I was really in need of a substantial meal. It took a couple of minutes sat on a bench in the town centre surveying the scene, before I mustered the courage to head into one of the many cafes and order some food. It's a very different culture to the western world- they have food cooking on a grill outside of each cafe, there are no menus or prices, and I had no idea who was staff or not. A guy in plain clothes greeted me french and I stumbled my way through the encounter by replying in broken french too (mixed with a few english words...frenglish?), apologising that I couldn't speak much of the language and trying to ask for a grande Tajine. This is the most well-known local dish in Morocco and I was pleasantly surprised that he seemed to understand my awful french attempt on the first try. I must have still been a bit nervous because I could barely manage the huge portion of bread and chicken Tajine they brought out. My first impression of the dish wasn't amazing, mainly because I've never liked the little amount of chicken you get on a leg bone, so I'll probably order a vegetable one next time. The meal came to the equivilent of £4 which was quite good considering the amount of food I had, as well as a bottle of water and the obligatory pot of Moroccan mint tea which I slowly grew more and more fond of as the tour went on.    

According to the awesome iOverlander app, there was some good oppourtunities to wildcamp by the upcoming lake so that would be where I'd end the day's cycle. There was a short gravel track off the main road down to the shore, but I opted to keep cycling around the edge to find a place even more hidden. The road passed by a shephard's house and 2 angry dogs started running straight at me so I quickly dismounted the bike and shouting at them. My voice kept them at bay, but they would get triggered everytime I tried to get back on the bike. I carried on shouting, this time accompanied by a few stones. That made them take the hint and I was able to find a hidden sandy spot on the north shore of the lake without being harrassed any more. There was another beautiful sunrise, and therefore the opportunity to try out some low-light shots with the tripod this time. I still can't get the hang of the manual settings, or get the damn thing to properly focus in the dark, so I'm stuck taking daylight pictures with the auto function for the time being. 

Not a bad spot by the lake, but the pegs weren't too keen of the rocky ground. Good job it's a freestanding tent.
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It was a clear night and I kept popping my head out the tent to stargaze. Just like in New Zealand and Australia, the sky was breathtaking with the Milky Way visible overhead. That's one thing I always miss when heading back to England from exotic locations. I'd read a few quick guides on star photography before I came, and while my camera body would be more than up to the task, I haven't got quite a high enough aperture on the lens. It was tempting to try out some shots anyway, but considering it's an pretty advanced technique and I could barely manage the basics, I decided not to bother and instead spent my time eating all the leftover bread I had taken away from today's lunch! 

Another gorgeous looking sky after the sun dipped beneath the mountains.
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Day 3 - Lac Aguelmame Sidi Ali wildcamp to Midelt - 47 miles

Despite the lovely warm days in the Moroccan winter, the nights were much colder and it would frequently drop towards freezing. Lac Aguelmame Sidi Ali was at an elevation of over 2000m which would explain why my tent had frozen over during the night. Already I was higher than I'd ever been on the New Zealand tour. Packing away a wet tent is horrible at the best of times, but it's even more annoying when you have to try to scrape the ice off first. The morning was still freezing as the encircling mountains were blocking the sun, and I decided to set off once it was in view above them. Angry dogs from yesterday sprung into my mind, so I decided to carry on cycling the longer route around the lake instead. This turned out to be a terrible idea, and the track quickly became completely unrideable. A lot of tiring pushing later and I'd barely made any progress, the gravel track to the main road still seemed miles away. A lot of the lake had dried up over the years, leaving behind large swathes of smooth clay-like shoreline. My tyres didn't sink into this stuff, so I decided to take a shortcut and cycle straight along the water's edge. This proved to be a poor choice once again, and my tyres did start sinking in abruptly after a few minutes, splattering the bike and panniers in a thick white mud. 

Freezing cold morning and the sun wasn't in much rush to rise above the mountains.
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Eventually back on the access road, I waved hello to a pair of construction workers having a picnic. They called me over and immediately shared their lunch with me which was a really unexpected show of hospitality. Out came bread, salad, apples and mint tea which was very welcome on the cold morning. They spoke virtually no english and I spoke virtually no french, but we managed to have a small conversation, just about understanding the gist of what each of us was saying in our respective languages. This encounter put me in a great mood and the the beautiful scenery flew by. At the top of one mountain pass, a view of the snow-capped High Atlas opened up spectacularly and the subsequent descent was a joy. This was tarnished slightly by the occasional dog that would sprint into the road barking wildly at me. For some reason there were hundreds of stray dogs on this stretch, and I had no idea which ones would react aggressively so felt on edge around all of them.

The High Atlas dominating the skyline along this descent
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The bottom of the descent marked the end of the Middle Atlas mountain range and I was met with a series of incredibly barren plateaus. The scenery had completely changed from the pine + cedar forests earlier in the day, and now resembled more of a classic middle eastern desert look. The road turned sharply into a headwind and my average speed plummeted. There was a touristy looking cafe in the middle of nowhere and I stopped for some soup, bread and coke to get some energy back. The young guy serving me explained that there was an American couple on bikes that were half a day ahead on the road, but our paths never managed to cross sadly. 

It's hard to believe that I was climbing through pine forest a few hours ago.
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The vegetation had completely vanished after crossing the Middle Atlas.
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With another turn in the road, the headwind subsided and I made some better progress into Midelt which is supposed to be one of Morocco's newest cities and it certainly had a modern feel. It wasn't that late in the day and I would've happily cycled on for many more miles, but there wasn't meant to be campsites (or any accommodation) for so many hours. I'm still a little on edge about wildcamping in a new country, and there wasn't anywhere to hide in this desolate terrain, so I chose to end the day at a small campsite in the centre of Midelt. This was a little more expensive at 50MAD (£4), but it was still a bargain compared to western prices. After pitching up and playing with the cute puppies that lived on the site, I did some research on TripAdvisor and found a small backstreet takeaway that looked promising. My mind settled on shawarma wraps, and was surprised to see such a big portion being brought out with accompanying chips, considering it was only 20 MAD. They were absolutely delicious and were some of the tastiest fast food I've ever had, let alone just in Morocco.

I'm not making as good progress with the mileage as I would like. My head has always been wrapped up with worrying about getting a lot of distance in on cycle tours, and I hadn't managed a day over 50 miles yet. Stupidly, even though I'd had an enjoyable day and found a cheap safe place to stay, the thought of doing less miles that I want always manages to eat away at the back of my mind.

An impressive looking building on the outskirts of Midelt. No idea what it was for, I can't read Arabic or Amazigh!
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The campsite was in the middle of town, but the walled and gated area was reassuring for safety.
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Today's ride: 83 miles (134 km)
Total: 127 miles (204 km)

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