Words and photos by Dan Milner
It’s a surreal but sombre scene. An old wizened figure in a black hooded cloak reaches out a thin wrinkly hand, asking for payment.
He looks like the Grim Reaper looking for a bribe.
“Pay him!” I say, as Greg picks himself up from the dusty trail, “you cheated death that time!”
I’m not kidding. Playing tag and jostling for front-position had left Greg leading our group of four mates racing into a blind bend, riding way too fast on a trail we didn’t know.
The cavernous, storm eroded ditch that lay in wait around the bend would have eaten Greg alive if he hadn’t lain down his bike in the dirt at the cost of a lot of man skin.
“Pay the reaper,” I say. “You cheated death that time!”
It was then, once we realised the gravity of what could have been, that the Grim Reaper appeared out of nowhere, silently drifting into the scene and adding macabre to the mix.
In reality our Grim Reaper is no incarnation of evil, but a local shepherd dressed in the archetypal Moroccan hooded cloak, or jalaba.
He’s just out tending his flock of brush-munching goats and he’s just one of many seemingly random people who convene on our group during our rides.
Like Mr Reaper they each appear to spring from nowhere, emerging from amidst barren hillsides, from behind rocks or pushing between thorny scrub and surprising us at times.
When our own view is trail blinkered, focused solely on the twists and turns of the singletrack ahead it’s easy to lose sight of what daily life for many locals entails.
And here among the foothills of the mighty Atlas Mountains, wandering a remote hillside to herd goats is one of those local daily chores. In fact we’re more likely to have startled him.
The rugged landscape of this part of Morocco is making us feel remote, but we’re only a stones throw from the Ourika valley, itself a 45-minute drive south of the city of Marrakech.
The Ourika valley delivers the taste of Berber life for day-tripping summer tourists, but despite driving past dozens of memento shops on the way in, our reception locally makes me think that mountain biking is still a small deal here.
It’s certainly no Whistler, Deux Alpes or Surrey Hills, but by the end of the week, to us at least, it will be a mountain bike paradise.
Locals greet us with surprise or a cheery hello or occasionally, as the trails we ride take us farther into neighbouring valleys, a little suspicion too.
Except the kids, who just cheer and laugh and run alongside wildly.
This is my third trip to Morocco. I photographed a snowboard story at the country’s Oukaimeden ski resort a couple of years ago, and in 2006, I mountain biked around some of the High Atlas Mountains for a week mostly on 4×4 tracks or “pistes”, finding food and a bed for the night in the remote villages we came to.
Morocco has breathtaking scenery, friendly locals and more singletrack than I could ride in a lifetime.
On both these previous trips I saw that Morocco is a rich and colourful country with a largely laid back Muslim culture, breathtaking scenery, friendly locals and more singletrack than I could ride in a lifetime.
And now I had the recipe for the ultimate Do-It-Yourself bike adventure —to stay in one mountain village and just ride the trails we spot from the door.
So the village of Aghbalou in the Ourika valley was chosen as our base for a week of railing singletrack.
At only 1050m altitude any snow experience would be limited to a mere glimpse of the distant snow capped 4167m peak of Toubkal. We’d peer at it from the comfort of a sunny terrace while supping another glass of sweet mint tea.
In Morocco the High Atlas Mountains and Toubkal grab the limelight for all things adventurous and manly. But it’s the more densely populated Atlas foothills that boast more trails.
Spreading cobweb-like across hillsides, these trails connect mountain villages to road-accessed towns below and to their weekly markets.
Goat meat is carried down and sacks of flour and couscous are hauled back to the villages by mule, along buff singletrack cleaved into the hillsides by decades of foot traffic.
Our quickly named ‘Grim Reaper trail’, traversing the Assif-n-Taizaza river valley, is just one of such trails.
A budget-airline flight delivers us to Marrakech and a bargained 50 Euro taxi ride, with bike bags swallowed up by the gaping trunks of a couple of 80’s Mercedes saloons, delivers us on to Aghbalou.
We pick the Dar Ikalimo gite as our accommodation, and haul our bike bags across one of the sketchiest looking swingbridges I’ve ever seen: a series of old cargo pallets wired together and suspended above a boiling river tinged red with silt.
At the gite we order up the first of the endless stews, or tagines, that will flavour our week and pour over an inappropriately scaled 1:100,000 map of the area, calculating and miscalculating possible rides.
As the nuclear-hot tagine finally cools enough to eat, we ultimately decide that the best way to discover what lies outside is to just go out and ride.
A beautifully clear November morning greets our first ride and we spin through the village and turn off towards Oukaimeden.
After five minutes we peel away from the asphalt and begin a gentle climb up a piste that parallels the road.
The map we have is almost redundant; we have tomorrow’s ride worked out already.
Its mellow gradient makes for an easy way to gain elevation, and before long we’re high up a hillside gazing across the Taizaza river valley.
Opposite us sit a handful of villages, the adobe mud of the houses making them tricky to pick out from the surrounding mountainside, but strung between the villages are ribbons of easy to spot trails.
Some traverse, some climb towards a vast high plateau and some descend to the river and road at the valley floor. The map we have is almost redundant; we have tomorrow’s ride worked out already.
Meanwhile on our side of the valley we’ve already peered down a handful of trails that drop invitingly towards the valley bottom. All we have to do is pick a trail to roll into.
Adventure is all about the unknown. Sometimes the unknown bites you in the ass, but mostly if you approach adventure with the right frame of mind, it dishes out endless rewards.
The key is to know that it’s a balancing act, that with the smooth will come a little rough, but it’s a balancing act that’s worth trying.
We have no idea what our chosen trail has in store for us, but we’re willing to find out.
Greg, Jez, Mike and myself are all competent enough riders, and not shy of a walk or two if needed either, and it’s obvious where this trail goes: to a string of villages on our side of the river.
The trail will, we reason, eventually connect to another we’ve spotted along the valley bottom that in turn will empty us out on the road again. That’s how it works here: every trail has reason to exist, every one has to go somewhere.
We drop into a flowing singletrack that leads us to cactus-lined paths through higgledy-piggledy villages.
We pedal between buildings and doorways haemorrhage kids that enthusiastically give chase along the trail.
As we roll through the last village a local calls out to us from his rooftop before hurrying down to meet us as we pass his door.
If it was England he’d no doubt be complaining about us riding on the pavement before calling the cops, but here, this stranger spontaneously invites us into his home to offer us mint tea and almonds. We accept graciously.
It’s late afternoon when we return to our gite and we’re all grinning widely.
Our first self-guided day has delivered on all counts –the riding, the culture, the whole Morocco experience.
We sit back, enjoying the final rays of sunshine before the chill of November night draws in, and drink the only thing on offer –sweet mint tea, again.
Tomorrow we’ll tick off some of the trails we spotted on the other side of the valley.
With trails so easy to spot, our map is nigh on redundant, but having it does at least make us look like we know what we’re doing.
As I said, adventure sometimes kicks you in the ass. To reach our chosen ride next day we start with a steep climb and a 30-minute hike-a-bike up the valley side.
All good so far: no tantrums, no tears. We pedal into our traverse excited to be riding another fresh trail again.
For us this is what mountain biking is really about, tackling whatever the trail dishes out, testing skills and nerve and well, just having a ball.
Under darkening skies we skim across rock gardens and pump the undulations of a natural flow trail, spiky shrubs snatching at our ankles. And then the Grim Reaper appears.
Falling off is nothing new to any of us, but the consequences of Greg disappearing face-first into the storm ravaged creek out on a wild Moroccan mountainside is quite sobering.
Adventure sometimes kicks you in the ass
We decide to calm it down a little, at least until we have a better grasp on what kind of surprises these trails have up their red-dusty sleeves. And I’m glad we do.
As we begin the descent to the valley floor we roll into the most technical section of trail we ride all week – a series of jagged natural steps through the village of Taourirt Izammer.
Speed would not be your friend here. We’re just about feeling smug about our explorations so far when suddenly the heavens open.
The dark sky unleashes a biblical downpour and within minutes we are all soaked through. We limp back to our hotel to nurse wounds, reflect on Mr Reaper’s appearance and drink more mint tea.
By next morning the rain has long gone and under a warm sun, we pedal back up our 4×4 piste with the ambition of dropping into the next valley, towards an area of spectacular red cliffs and rolling red outcrops that look like fun riding.
Another flowing singletrack descent, so immaculately shaped it would challenge any trail builder’s best efforts, rolls effortlessly until we hit red.
On any other day the rolling Mars-red formations we’ve spotted two days earlier would score a ten on any riders’ bucket list, but we discover our red outcrops are clay and the rain has left them slick as ice.
In fact we struggle to even stay upright as we point front wheels down the steep goat trails that crisscross the outcrops. Our playing is short-lived before we’re forced to retreat to a nearby village inhabited by cheeky kids and their shy mothers.
From here we face a long push up a very slippery clay lined trail out. Our exit takes us two hours. My ass has been kicked.
We spend four days exploring the hillsides surrounding Aghbalou, climbing to lofty outlooks and finding hidden gems of singletrack.
We score 700m, hour-long descents down rhythmically meandering trails. And we finish every day with more mint tea and another tagine.
He claims he has “one of the best day’s we’ll ever ride” ahead of us.
We’ve had our asses kicked a couple of times, and despite the rewards of our DIY efforts I know there are a lot more trails, views and experiences we’ll never find on our own.
We make the decision to pull in a guide for our last day.
Jean-Pierre Alain turns up in a 7-seater 4×4 complete with bike rack and local driver. A Swiss national living in Morocco for years he knows more than most about where to ride here.
As we load bikes he claims he has “one of the best day’s we’ll ever ride” ahead of us. I briefly consider my 30 years of mountain biking and nod politely, knowing he’s going to have to go some to justify his claim.
His driver drops us at the 1800m Tassaft-n-Tizi pass on the other side of the Oukaimeden ski resort, outside one of the most remote-feeling roadside cafés I’ve ever seen –an adobe mud hut panelled with, and seemingly held together by, old Coca-Cola signs. I’m already feeling humbled; it’s already been worth hiring a guide.
I’m studying a beaten-up, old moped relic of the 1980s and admiring the resourcefulness of locals to keep things working long after we would have resigned them to the scrap heap in the west, when I hear Pierre-Alain.
“This way!” he shouts, diving into a trail to the side of the café. It’s the kind of trail we’d never have found on our own and one that almost definitely isn’t marked on our map.
The singletrack hairpins its way down through dense conifer forest, and for the first time in a week we pinball over roots and dig tyres into loamy corners. It’s quite unlike the trails we’ve found so far.
For the next five hours Pierre-Alain proudly shares his backyard with us, leading us across open mountainsides and through villages so remote that we’d have taken weeks to find them on our own.
We pump through dry riverbeds and pull punter airs over endless rollers as the pace quickens, until finally sweaty and tired, we emerge into the town of Ourika.
It’s clear from the smiles cracking our dust-caked faces that the day has provided a great flipside to he hard-earned rewards of our DIY focussed trip. Amidst the bedlam, chaos and bustle of a Moroccan market town we sit at a roadside café and drink, well you guessed it, mint tea.
My teeth are now coated in a grimy mix of sugar and grit, Greg’s knee is shimmering in a surge of post graze skin growth and our bikes look like they have just smashed a year’s worth of trails in five days.
It’s been an emotional mix of experiences.
Our DIY ethos delivered as hoped, and we sold ourselves out for what really was one of the best day’s riding we’ve ever had.
We’ve been soaked through by rain, we’ve pushed bikes up impossibly steep climbs and we have descended world-class trails in Morocco. And we met the Grim Reaper.
Now that’s what adventure is about. Isn’t it?