Cycling Round the Kech and Off-Road in the Atlas Mountains

Cycling Round the Kech and Off-Road in the Atlas Mountains

You would2363 miles of cycling and kayaking would provide enough adventure  to last a few days, weeks or even a month. Not for the Big 5 team. We finished the London to Marrakech Express arriving at La Renaissance Hotel in the dark. A plan was quickly hatched to take the all important finale pictures of the team by the old wall and Mosque near the Grand Square.  The hotel (organised by my mum and dad – thanks folks) was very plush and boasted the highest bar in Marrakech (correct local spelling).

Morning as a rush as Timbo had to catch a flight at 11.30 ish with check-in before. We cycled down to the square for the photo and video shoot and Tim jumped in a taxi with the camera kit.  We fought for space with a large Japanese film crew (and appeared in many of their shots I am sure) as we circled under instruction from Tim for different shots and angles.  With helmet and sunglasses, without, with Buff headwear, with Paramo shirt, without, no show ponies here then!!! (Seriously so many amazing sponsors to thank for kit, all of which has been tested in earnest and almost to destruction!!) 

Photo shoot over we say goodbye to Tim who has done his best to impersonate a paparazzi with his control of the shoot, waving innocent tourists out of the shot. We head back to the hotel to chill and I get on with yesterdays admin.  That done we have agreed to head out for guess what a bike ride. It would not seem quite right to get a tourist bus round the city, given the nature of what we have just completed.

There is a little discussion about cleats or no cleats (no cleats wins) and then helmet or no helmet (I decided at the outset I would make this a habit so helmet wins). We set off down the main strip to the old city wall and then turn right and begin a circumnavigation of the old city wall. The landscape varies massively between new build and developments, to large public gardens, to historic buildings and less salubrious poorer areas. The benefit of our tour is that it is not sanitised and we are part of the whole scene.

We have almost completed our first lap when we turn left and head down the side of the wall with football pitches, plenty are in use with people having fun. We continue and the matches further down the wall have people standing on the old wall watching. Rob alerts me to the fact and that it will make a good picture. I am looking back at the photo opportunity and fail to see the accident looming.

Cycle and kayaking 2,363 miles without a major stack, finishing a mammoth journey unscaved, failing to concentrate and watch the road, wiping out a drunk bloke walking in the road and finding yourself surfing down the tarmac on your elbow, shoulder and head…PRICELESSS (once we realised said old chap was OK). There were mutual apologies and a plenty of laughter through gritted teeth once he had gone. It was a proper wipeout and one a stuntman would have been proud of. No slowing, no need I didn’t see him!

Pride dented and a few bruises and grazes later we set off cycling the remaining segment. I kept chuckling everytime I thought about how comical it was. Glad I wore the helmet. We returned to the hotel, stashed the kit and went to the rooftop pool for a brief swim. A lazy evening ensued with food and an early night. I worked late on the press release to inform the world of our achievement on the 10th Big 5 Expedition and 4623 miles in total in 2 years, 10 expeditions.  In terms of other expeditions it may be small change but in a kayak and canoe that is a long way, twice round Britain, and the cycling alone is about twice the distance from Lands End to John O Groats.

We rise early, eat well and check out as we are planning to stay at a Riad in the old Medina. Now the term and concept of Small World has been well documented over time. Add this one to the list. One of the porters at the hotel, sees the van with kayaking and explains he knows a local rafting company, Splash Rafting Morocco. And they have an operation in Scotland. Just so happens two people I know and have worked with some time back run a rafting company called Splash Rafting, near Aberfeldy. No surely not.  The rest is history, Yes it is Peter Symes and Muzza and the local chap here Andy Robertson might be able to help.

We meet them in the morning and check out the Riad. For a last minute suggestion (nice one Rob) it is amazing. These courtyard centric houses are a quiet oasis and haven located within the hustle and bustle of the Medina. If the Medina is noise and excitement then the Riad is peace and tranquillity. Truly something you should do once in your life. We dump our kit and get back to the van through the maze of streets, Ismael, Splash Rafting’s local man is in the know and we are soon on the road heading for the Atlas Mountains.

Ollie is chomping at the bit. He has been fixated by the Atlas mountains and the thought of some challenging off-road riding. They extend up from the earth’s surface to over 4,000 m and we are heading for the ski area at Oukaimeden

which is a mere 3,000m or so and home to the Berber people.  We drive 60-70 km from Marrakech and up into the mountains. The views are breathtaking at almost every turn. Stopping is a problem with narrow roads and switchbacks, plenty of traffic and locals who want to sell you fossils, crystals and other goods. The road to the mountain is lined with artisans making amazing goods from carpets to pottery to metal work.

We arrive at the Ski slope (no snow) area and are the only westerners in town which attracts plenty of attention. We make apologies, we are going up the mountain, maybe later and so on. One chap on a Honda C90 type moped indicates a potential route up the valley. We escape the flurry of vendors and set off. The sealed road ends a mile or so later and we are heading up a steep track, at altitude with lots of loose stones, boulders and gravel. In summary lowest gear is only just enough, if you stand on the pedals you lose traction and wheelspin and basically it a case of keep going thighs and lungs burning. The view of spectacular of the mountains with small stone houses clinging to valley sides and erratic flocks of sheep being directed by shepherds.

We cover about 3-4 miles up, blowing and struggling to keep traction, a few sections have to walked. Rob takes a spill stuck in his clips. We are nearing the top with the final climb being wall to wall switchbacks. I get to one hairpin, trap my wheel and then hear a click as my cleat clips in..Shit! I am falling. I of course land on the bruised and grazed side and draw more blood and add to the bruises. I laugh, it is the only sensible course of action, Ollie has his video running as an added bonus.

We make the ridge but not the summit. Staring out across other mountains and ridges and down into the valley with layers of cloud holding station is simply breathtaking and makes the climb worthwhile. What a place. The man on the moped appears as if by magic and more goods and negotiating takes place.  Besides being very friendly people these guys could teach most double glazing people a thing or too about selling. A few deals done with Rob and Ollie he speeds off down the track to see us at the bottom. The descent is a bone shaker all right. Ollie dishes out some lessons in no holds bar descent, no brakes either. In my defence my original set of brake blocks on the bike are next to useless after 2200 miles and I feel a wee bit out of control.

We arrive in the valley and get swarmed by the Berber sales guys who are friendly and have all sort of fossils, , stones, chains and other stuff. They want almost any currency, they start with small items and get you buying and then on more than one occasion raise the stakes with the crown jewels. They are hard negotiators. It is all done with smile and is very friendly, there is also a serious message ‘We need money’. After the money they talk about swapping. By the time we have finished, none of us have a penny in any currency, change in Euros and Pounds has been hovered up! We have a selected of amazing stones and fossils so Christmas is sorted for family. Rob and Ollie have moved from money to trading and Ollie parts with shoes and sunnies whilst Rob swaps T’s and other clothing.

At one point my main cycling top is dished out by Ollie which I have to retrieve in a hurry explaining it is sentimental (if not a little smelly).  Then my wellies and Ollies top get swapped for a huge crystal, bigger than a football.!  Rob is under pressure from the army of sellers and shuts the boot in a hurry. A troubled look comes over his face. Yes he has locked the one set of van keys we have in Africa in the boot. Bollocks.  What then happens is that the sellers become an army of helpers appearing with wire, coat hangers, screwdrivers and other implements.  In summary we gave a 45 minute lesson into the ways of breaking into vehicles (taught by Ollie Jay). Unfortunately all these have been thought of by those clever people at Volkswagen.  I am thinking we are going to be breaking the back window.

Ollie has other ideas and reckons he can prize the boot. It has my vote as parking a van full of kit in the medina with no back window is not a smart move.  Between Olly, myself and several locals we jemmy the boot enough to hook the keys. We have been blessed by the gods for sure.  There are cheers all round. I empty the contents of our food box including soups, teas, coffees and assorted random foods and distribute it to the chaps.  We set off down the valley and witness the most amazing colours on the red rock and sandstone. As so often happens the last day with least expectations can provide so much. On the way back we check out one of the artisans and decide to return the next day to purchase something as a thankyou for my mum and dad.

We eventually arrive back in Marrakech, much later than planned at the Riad. It is fun and games finding the place as between us we remember the twisty turny route but all remember and forget different bits. Now that is teamwork! Andy and Nelly seem unconcerned at our disappearance but in their relaxed style assure us that eventually they would have sent out search parties!  We chill in the Riad briefly before heading out for food together and a well earned beer. Splash Rafting in Morocco have recently been filmed in a CH 4 production to be aired in the Spring, we meet the local TV star and ‘fixer’ for CH4. He is totally enthused by Tubing and Rafting, way to go Andy and Splash.

The night ends too quickly and we retire to the Riad for a rest at the end of an emotional day!