Ait-Barka: of mud and mountains - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Ait-Barka: of mud and mountains

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THE MUD, wet, syrup mud the colour of untended pigs, came halfway to our hubs. It sprayed itself finger-thick across our bikes and around the back of our bags. It fell into our shoes. The wheels turned into revolving sausages. And, riding slowly, we concentrated on staying upright as cars pushed by - when we'd let them - in both directions.

Crowds had turned out to watch. More probably they were just pedestrians stuck in the same slimy bog as us. But it didn't stop their smiling at the spectacle. We never did find what had happened. A yellow sign announced roadworks, a jam of cars and trucks announced pandemonium, and concerned men holding their gowns to their knees with one hand and using the other hand to wave announced that getting through by bicycle was impossible.

The black mud spread from one edge of the road to the other. It extended the length of a football pitch, churned and rechurned by those who'd driven through before. Their wheels had left shallower channels and those we tried to follow. But the slightest problem brought traffic flow to

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a halt. Balancing a loaded bike at low speed in a street of slime isn't simple and, more often that we'd have chosen, we put foot to ground or gingerly pedalled through a ridge of soft mud to reach the tyre track on the other side. When anything came the other way, we applied the principle of sail before steam and pressed on until it stopped to let us through.

In the middle of this, still not out of Marrakech and not far from the royal golf course, we tried to turn left. So did others. But they were locals and they understood the shouting workmen in their yellow tabards. We didn't. But waving arms and a note of urgency carried the message. Arabic has alarm in even its calmest phrases. We turned round, continued the way we were going and then cut across a dry field in the way the flow of Arabic was urging.

Turning a bike in thick, deep mud is tricky but it can be done on the spot. And it's better than riding another 500m of mud, because that was what waited down this second road. Turning a truck on a narrow, Somme road with traffic behind and more coming the other way, was une autre paire de manches. Enjoying the spectacle but unable to watch for long, we slithered round the other way and headed for the cyclo-cross escape route.

We wiped off the worst and rode on, tyres scraping themselves clean and chips of drying mud spinning off like a glum Catherine wheel. An hour later we stopped at two roadside taps, the sort that exist outside all villages because the ideal of cleanliness is so important in Muslim culture. We were keen to oblige that principle but the taps were dry. A motorist, mistaking our purpose, stopped and made drinking gestures. The kindness of strangers is heart-warming.

It took an hour to get the worst of the mud off our bikes
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It took an hour to scrape dried mud with fingers and sticks. A heap of dusty brown built up beneath our bikes as we worked. We never did get the bikes properly clean. But we cleared the working bits and ground a kilo off the rims and spokes, where weight has the most tiring effect.

We have said goodbye to our group. They came into the street this morning to wave us off and we vanished into the traffic that skirted the brown medina walls. For an hour the traffic was heavy and fast but safe. The countryside turned to the forgettable desert scrub we saw when we left Marrakech for the first time two weeks earlier. The same men we had seen all week were patiently watching roadside sheep. This is clearly, as Steph observed, a country where labour is cheaper than fences.

All morning the road rose steadily but invisibly. It passed through untidy villages where trucks and vans stopped at random, people had conferences in the road, and straggles of beaming, excited children tested the worth of their lessons by shouting as much French as they could manage.

"Bonjour... Ça va?"

There are people shovelling things from river beds all over Morocco. In spring the rivers are dry. But their ferocity in other seasons is obvious from the steep valleys they cut
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Men banged or welded things in fireworks of sparks in small, dark workshops open to the street. In another, a craftsman produced elegant straw or reed shelters, two metres high and roofed with a dome and finished with a single narrow door, like an elegant sentry box. I wanted to get out the camera but this is a culture where people prefer not to be photographed. We noticed that in Morocco a quarter of a century ago and nothing has changed.

Most roadside workshops involved banging and welding. But some were easier to understand
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By late morning we had left these small towns and started the serious climbing. The road rose for 30km with barely a rest. Mostly it dragged on but now and then it reared disappointingly. It was an ill-mannered road. But it passed through fertile fields of Irish-green crops, through olive groves, and then into an explosion of bright red soil pushed into creamy folds of vivid hillside.

The countryside erupted into creamy folds of red earth as we climbed the mountain
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We had planned to reach Taddert, at 97km. But after the slow progress in Marrakech, and then an hour making the bikes acceptable again, we were behind time. We crested the pass at 1 470m and stopped for coffee and then orange juice. Taddert was another 30km and a little higher. Nobody could say with the certainty that only a cyclist knows whether the road now plunged before rising again.

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What they could is that there was an auberge in the next village. That's where we are now, in a double room that costs €10€ a night. The man who runs it has travelled all over Morocco to sell insurance. He is happy now with a quieter life at the top of his mountain. And so are we.

Not glamorous but welcome and only 10€ a night
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