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No.84 Morocco part III – A paradise for touring cyclists

Apr 7, 2019 | Africa, Blog, Morocco

The blokes whom I had the pleasure of listening to on New Year’s Eve, were real musicians. Really remarkable what a positive atmosphere they created and how they appeared to almost play themselves into a state of ecstasy.

Jbel Sarhro, a mountain range that you can reach by bike from Nkob in one day, was my next goal. Instead of cycling the well-known pass over Tizi n’Tazazert, I took the new route towards Bou Skour and Skoura. The route was not marked on any of the maps I had, but Maps.Me showed the track.

Shortly before I started, I was invited again for tea and strengthened myself for the ascent.

After two Scandinavian girls were brutally murdered in the Atlas Mountains in mid-December, the mood in the country and also my attitude was a little lower than usual. Especially because friends and fans contacted me with great concern and often didn’t know that they were more likely to unsettle me than help me.

I still had a very good feeling for the country and really didn’t want to be scared, but I had to push myself a little bit to continue having fun in the isolated areas.

The mountain range ahead of me was quite remote. Except for a few nomads, I didn’t meet anyone on my ride up to the pass, of about 2000m. Rock formations consisting of conglomerate stone decorated the landscape. Really super beautiful.

In order to be able to sleep peacefully, I chose to seek out a campsite near a settlement and found a small valley with 3 houses where I was allowed to pitch my tent surrounded by great rocks.

The nomads were also very shy in this area. However, the children were curious about me coming and looking over my shoulder as I cooked my supper. I like this.

Soon I was on the other side of the mountain and at the end of the day I came into a beautiful valley, but being confronted with cries of “candy, candy” I quickly realized I was back on the tourist trail.

In a sweet little Auberge, I enjoyed accommodation with half board for 10 Euro. Pedaling on the next morning appreciating the superb landscape, on my way to the Dades valley.

I liked the little city of El-Kelaa M’Gouna very much and I stayed for a few nights taking in the colorful and enjoyable atmosphere. Morocco is simply lovely. The people are extremely friendly and also very exhilarating. Normally not at all intrusive, but polite and respectful.

Brushing teeth seems to be a foreign concept among the Moroccans. I have never seen anyone brush their teeth in all this time and not only that, quite a few people have black teeth or none at all.  

Something I find funny is the greetings. You greet each other very extensively with long and always the same sentences. It’s interesting that people talk at the same time.

One person says, “Hello how are you” and instead of the other person answering the question, he also says, “Hello how are you”. It almost seems like memorized prayer and a rattling down of polite phrases.

The little boys kiss the women’s hands. The women shake hands and then kiss their own fingers. Man and woman do not touch each other. The men shake hands normally.

I continued towards the Atlas Mountains. There was no snow yet, but it was really cold at night, so I wanted to see how far I could get.

The landscape was very different here. Barren and more rugged it seemed to me. But exactly according to my taste. The houses lay beautifully in small valleys or perched on rocky slopes. Simply great.

In Bou-Thrarat I was invited by a nice black man. His mother was old and ill, his sister also lived in the house. The two women were happy to have a visitor and greeted me warmly. It is always nice to be so welcomed by the locals even if I am a total stranger to them.

In the village, I was advised by a carpet dealer how to continue cycling. He was worried about me and apologized to me several times for the horrible incident in the mountains. He assured me that the area was full of friendly people and that I had nothing to fear. “We are Berbers, no Arabs”, he added.

The small villages along the way were full of Kasbahs, idyllic and beautiful. But the higher I got, the colder and more barren it was. I spent the night snuggled up in my warm sleeping bag in an Auberge with a super friendly owner who supplied me with Tajiin and Berber omelet.

I always have different phases. Sometimes I want to get lost for weeks all alone in the vastness of the world and only watch the stars, but then I notice again how comfortable I feel among people and how much I need to be among them.  

At that time, I had no particular desire for lonely routes through the mountains. Pitching my tent alone on a mountainside just wasn’t for me at the moment. Watching and being part of life in the small towns and villages appealed to me more and so I left the mountains for the vibrant life in the valleys.

I skipped the famous Dades Gorge to escape the tourist hype, but nested myself in Boumalne-du-Dades for two nights and enjoyed my first Hamam. A warm bath.

The Hamam was made up of three rooms. The last room is the hottest. Hot water is provided in buckets and every woman washes with a special rough glove, which I didn’t get for myself. They literally scrub their skin off, at least that’s how it seemed to me.

You leave your panties on, otherwise, you are completely undressed. Of course, the bath is separated by gender. The 2nd room is a bit cooler, while the first one was much too cold for my liking.

Back into the Jbel Sarhro area, I took the well-known path via the Tizi-n’Tazazert pass back to Nkob.

This route obviously hosts a lot of tourists, as the local children asked for sweets continuously. Near the summit, there was a small cute Auberge. A family lives there and provides a room. With Tajiin and campfire, we warmed up to survive the cold night.

Making for a really great evening amidst stars and friendly people.

The gravel road paralleling the Draa valley towards Zagora was super beautiful. Palm trees in combination with barren mountains and deserted Kasbahs. Dreamlike.

I was waved in by a woman and was invited to enjoy dinner with her family. Genders were strictly separated when eating from the common bowl. A male cousin came from Marrakech for a visit and the one woman disappeared for a few minutes then came back in full veil again. There were beans with mutton and also bread.

The guy from Marrakech told me that the men were not allowed to smoke and drink, but they did it secretly anyway. They also cheated. Life in the city could not be compared at all with life here in the country. Also, the number of children is clearly smaller in the city, than in the country.

The women laughed at me all the time. Above all, they made fun of my name. Apparently, Heike sounds very strange in many countries, the name contributes to the amusement of others all over the world.

Of course, the village boss was also informed that I was in town and after a long discussion among themselves, I had to be resettled. I was given shelter in another house, a house that was empty. Why I had no idea.

In Zagora, I went to the campground, because I had arranged to meet 2 Swiss there, whom I already knew from Uzbekistan. The campground wasn’t big but there were a lot of 4×4 camper trucks on the site. So, I was able to enjoy the company of travelers for a few days.

Among these travelers were some who had traveled in Africa for decades. A great place to get information and tell stories at the campfire, even though I looked almost pitiful with my little tent in the middle of these huge vehicles.

My visa was starting to put me under pressure. Since the murder of the two women in the Atlas Mountains, it seemed no longer so easy to get an extension and the police were not willing to give me another 90 days. I had to find a solution because time was running out.

There was still the possibility for me to leave my bike, and make a so-called visa-run to Spain, leaving the country for a short time then re-entering with a new 90-day visa. But I wanted to avoid this.

I cycled a gravel road and ended up staying in the house of a large family. Twelve children lived there under very simple conditions. The big sister, who was already a mother at 17, seemed to run the family. She cooked, nursed, helped the little siblings and served the father dinner when he came home late at night.

On the way to Foum-Zguid, there was a full moon night ahead. I especially love these nights. That evening nature pulled out all it has to provide. Sunset in front of me, moonrise behind me and at the same time I passed a huge herd of dromedaries swaggering in the beautiful light along the road. Great. It couldn’t be better.

The shepherds were on their way with scooters and I cycled at the speed of the dromedaries strolling along. This was sensational and inspired me the whole evening. I continued riding through the lonely night in the bright moonlight for quite a while until I pitched my tent and started cooking.

But I had forgotten something important that evening because when I opened my eyes in the morning, the moon was already 90% full again. And suddenly I remembered, what had happened during the night. I had missed the blood lunar eclipse.

I roared “shit” through the desert, even though I knew no one could hear me, but I howled none the less. I couldn’t have found a better place for the rare sky spectacle. No light pollution, not a single cloud in the sky. And a tent consisting only of mosquito net and thus the best view outside. Perfect. But unfortunately, I had missed it.

Foum-Zguid almost felt like a new country. A large proportion of the inhabitants were black Africans who came to the country many decades ago.

The women sold goods in shops, worked at bank counters or rode bicycles on the streets. Self-confident and walking upright, they populated the streets. A feast for the eyes.

For many years I have been asking myself again and again why in so many parts of the Muslim world men marginalize their own wives so much.

Do they really enjoy going out without a female companion? Is it desirable to only exchange ideas among men and never get influence and ideas or charms from other women than one’s own?

Can a society develop meaningfully in such a way?

I can see how men behave towards me. And it’s not about sex, but they know that they can talk to me like a buddy and are keen on doing so. They also admit that they would like to have more contact with the opposite sex.

As a female visitor, I earn respect. Aren’t the women interested in initiating a change and don’t they want to be treated like me?

With the new global networks, change is certainly unstoppable, but there is still a long way to go before women have earned their place in society. Even in the Western world, there are still deficits, although we are many decades ahead.

By the way, just a personal thought, we have already overstepped the mark in a number of points. In our Western society today, manhood is no longer a piece of cake.

Of course, I can speak well, because I grew up differently and was able to experience education and equality from an early age.

Despite everything, I have to say that I am surprised because women are the ones who raise their children. They are the ones who put the girls second and educate the boys to be macho.

If I myself have suffered as a woman, how can I, as a mother, pass exactly that on to my child? Because I believe it is the right thing to do? Because everyone does it that way? Herd instinct?

It is often true that children who have been beaten, when it’s their turn will also beat their children, but there are also many examples that claim the opposite.

Can I even compare one world with the other and is it really just religion that is the main influence?

When a German took off all his clothes at the campground I was in and didn’t seem to think anything of it, I immediately realized what kind of world I come from. Germans are, at least in this one regard, very easy going. US-Americans or Australians are far more prudish, they would never do that.

I find the easiness between sexes, as I know it from Germany a huge plus for my own society.

I had a conversation with a German couple who were traveling with their camper. He said that he would not tolerate the veiling of Muslim women on the streets in Germany, whereupon I only said: “Why can’t everyone simply live the way they want?

Why are people so intolerant always thinking we have to criticize others? Just like I just did myself. Everything that is unfamiliar, we see as strange or funny and that haunts me again and again as a traveler.

Because I’m strange to almost everyone I meet. Even for the other travelers, I’m the hardcore woman I don’t want to be, but I’m put in this box.

This was exactly the case at this campsite in Foum-Zguid, where there were travelers who didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I live a life that is probably too extreme for many. 

In Foum-Zguid I stayed much longer than planned because I had caught a cold, which just didn’t want to get better. So, my visa became a growing problem.

I continued on a gravel road. Beautiful landscape but nothing spectacular. In one place I was greeted very strangely. The people were different here. But I found a place where I could sleep.

In an old Kasbah, in winding alleys, there was a family father working in Italy who took me in. He lived in a cave-like flat because there was no daylight in the lower apartment. At night we went to his parents for dinner and I got probably the best Tajiin I had ever eaten.

In Zagora, I had been sent to Foum-Zguid to extend my visa and in Foum-Zguid to Tata.

Tata itself was a great place. Also, here there is a strong influence of the black population. Great pubs, nice people and everything very colorful.

I talked to the police chief for about 2 hours, pressing him to give me an extension until it seemed he might kick me out of the door because his patience was at an end. But so was mine.

He said goodbye to me with the words that I should simply go to a police station one day before my visa expired and say that I would arrive with an expired visa at the border in Mauritania. They will simply let them know.

“That will be all right, no problem”, he said.

But actually, this wasn’t comforting or convincing to me.

Shortly after Tata, I met Laurent. A Frenchman cycling for an aid organization. A nice guy, with whom I had already texted. He seemed to have heard a lot about me. From Tuly, the Mexican lady in Baja California, where I stayed for some time, and from Biciclown, the long-term cyclist I visited in Spain.

We talked and talked and made ourselves comfortable around the campfire. Laurent has about three times as much luggage and takes forever in the morning until he has packed up.

He is a good cook and when he had an omelet in the pan in the evening, I was very impressed. But I wouldn’t want to carry all the stuff he had as cooking utensils. I much prefer my one-pot style on the fire.

We cycled about 20 km together and then separated because we had different interests.

On the way to Tafraoute, I came into a completely new landscape. The people were also different. Arabs no more Berbers. The women dressed very differently also.

The almond trees blossomed and spring spread. The valleys were beautiful and the marble-like rock formations reminded me of the Devils Marbles in Australia.

I was given an almond dip by an old woman. A kind of peanut butter, but made from almonds. Super delicious. People all of a sudden drank milk in this part of the country. Hot milk with sugar.

On the camping site in Tafraoute, I camped with Germans. One of whom worked at ZDF, a German TV broadcast station, but we didn’t know each other. For those of you who don’t know, I worked for ZDF as a camerawoman for many years.

Late into the night, we enjoyed the common campfire. Unfortunately, I had to leave the next morning to get to Guelmim. The place where I was supposed to get my visa extended. I rode through hilly landscapes but it was mostly downhill, dropping to the sea.

Guelmim was probably the biggest city that I had visited in the whole time in Morocco. All other important cities I had bypassed successfully.

The temperatures rose and the city didn’t make a really exciting impression when I arrived there in the dark.

In front of a hotel sat 3 men. One of them approached me speaking fluent English, the others spoke Spanish to each other. My impression was that these men were men of influence and through this chance meeting, my quest for an extension might just have gotten easier.

Mohammed the English speaker knew half the city. Had a policeman and a doctor as a friend. He talked to dozens of people on the phone and then said we needed a certificate from his doctor buddy.

His police friend suddenly showed up and the men had already arranged everything for me. I was to wait for them here tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock with 2 passport photos.

No worries.   

39 Comments

  1. Always a pleasure reading about your new adventures and seeing things through your eyes.
    To experience the world the way you have is something many people dream of. Life’s has its obligations and limited time for most, limited vacation time and bills. Arrgh!
    But Heike, I must say… you’re living life the way it’s supposed to be experienced.
    Memories, friends of all races, culture experiences and scenery like no other which never seems to end.
    Amazing stories as always and thanks for sharing your experiences with the world :))

    Dave ( Ont.Canada)

    Reply
    • Appreciate your lovely comment Dave – best greetings to Canada
      Heike

      Reply
    • A great account of Morocco, good that you avoided the big Cities! I am envious, as I used to cycle a lot, but now my knees and back are too old, grrr, so enjoy while you can!!
      Great pictures, you have a gritty style, and high saturated images work well for Morocco, I like the slow shutter speeds that give movement.
      Good luck and take care in Black Africa
      TonyG

      Reply
      • Thanks very much Tony – yes I love it colorful – some people might think they are too vivid – who knows 🙂

        Best greetings Heike

  2. Hello Heike
    What beautiful photos. I have been to Morocco twice once about 40 years ago with my husband and we travelled around by public bus. We loved it even though we were a bit of a novelty bussing with the locals. The second visit was in 2012 when we arrived in Rabat on our own sailboat on our way around the world from New Zealand. Once again we loved it. You have seen so much more of Morocco I wish we had thought of cycling when we were younger. Your experiences are very special it’s so great to travel independently and meet local people. As you say those of us who do have a more open view,enjoyment and tolerance of many different cultures. Unfortunately in NZ it has taken a terrible terrorist attack for many people to find out more about people of different cultures who live in our country.
    Keep safe and keep those beautiful photos coming.
    Jean

    Reply
    • Thank you Jean! You know we can’t do it all!
      I bet sailing was a special way of traveling too!
      I get seasick quite easily and I am not sure if I would be able to survive the boredom on the ocean for many weeks – but this might be just my wrong perception?
      I guess it is a bit like being in the desert – either you love it or you don’t 😉
      Isn’t it also a bit scary?
      Best greetings and sorry for the very late reply!
      Cheers Heike

      Reply
  3. Great photos as usual, and a nice read. Finally, I got to know one of the reasons why your pictures are so outstanding 🙂 but there’s more to it than experience and education. At 70, I’m not too old for bike touring, as I cycle a lot, it’s my young family that keeps me at home.
    Keep on enjoying. I’m always happy when I see the email notification of a new report.
    Greetings and best wishes from ??, Erich

    Reply
    • That is great to hear Erich – keep staying healthy and go out as often as you can – so beautiful no matter where you go!
      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  4. Lovely colorful pictures of this wonderful country you traveled. Nice to see how people live, the food, and their customs 🙂
    You are one beautiful soul <3
    Thanks for sharing!
    Bob DeLoyd

    Reply
  5. Heike, what a superb blog post. Keep going back, taking a second, third and forth look and probably more. So interesting to see a country in such detail. Can’t thank you enough. Might have convinced me to make Morocco my next tour destination.
    Cheers

    Reply
    • Hi Ronald…..thanks for being one of my biggest fans!
      Best of luck for you….and happy riding Heike

      Reply
  6. I love your stories and pictures.

    Reply
  7. You wrote very good about all your experiences! It is lovely to read it. It seems that I have been there by myself. Great!!!
    And very very photo’s!

    Reply
  8. Beautiful photography as ever, Heike.
    A pleasure to see.

    Reply
  9. What a lovely read. Thank you for sharing your views with such honesty and grace.

    I’m a cyclist from India, and barring the considerable visa troubles, I will be cycling in Morocco in a few months!

    Reply
    • Hi Pritam, I bet it will be not as easy for you as it was for me – sorry – I hope you can get your visa.
      Best greetings to incredible India…..
      Cheers and thanks for your lovely compliments Heike

      Reply
  10. Super nice, very inspiring. I’d like to start to Africa next spring. I biked with Laurent a few days in Baja, Mexico, and saw him again in Tuly’s house… Follow him as well ! Thanks to you to share your trip !

    Reply
    • Hi Nathalie, thanks….yes Laurent is a nice guy – we are still in contact!
      Happy riding Heike

      Reply
  11. Just this – safe journey!
    Awesome travelog, photos no 1!

    Reply
    • Thank you – appreciate your lovely comment!
      Cheers Heike

      Reply
  12. Heike, This blog is really good. As always the pictures are amazing. You have a real talent.
    I think you are the top nomad traveling as you do from place to place always looking for something new.
    I agree with you that it does not make sense for people to disagree or not give every individual the same attention. We are all made in God’s image, the same regardless what we look like, what our gender is or where we came from. If only everyone would love one another it would be a great experience wherever we go.
    Keep in going. Stay safe and enjoy the life you have chosen. As always I’ll keep you in my prayers.

    Reply
    • Thank you very much Rick for your lovely comment!
      And yes I couldn’t agree more – we are all the same – therefore we should all treat each other the same way!
      Hugs from far away…..Heike

      Reply
  13. The people we meet (you included) change us and with an open mind we question and try to understand. The world is big and culturally rich.. we have so much to learn … Each situation opens our mind further. So often we are quick to judge – it is beautiful to read that you do not!! Thank you

    Reply
    • Hi Karen, thanks for your kind words!
      I am far away from being perfect – but the longer I am on the road, the more I am trying to understand – even if this can be very hard sometimes.
      All the best and I appreciate your thoughts…..Heike

      Reply
  14. Great pictures and stories to go. I agree that we should not put down other cultures for following traditions we don’t understand, but sometimes feel sad for what the woman have to put up with, even today in the west where things should be totally equal, we are still far from it. Wish I was there seeing what you are seeing. I want to do a tour again but not sure what to do with all the stuff I accumulated as I don’t have a place to store my vehicle and two small trailers like I did for my last tour. The farmer that let me store stuff at his farm has passed away and I don’t know anybody else that would help.
    Hope all goes well with your visa and look forward to hearing about your future experiences.

    Reply
    • Hi Rob – yes we still have a long way to go!

      Sorry to hear about your difficulties….can’t you sell most of it? Storage room?

      Tailwinds Heike

      Reply
  15. Lovely work Heike! I cycled there about 20 years ago and your site has encouraged me to make a re-visit.
    Happy Trails ?

    Reply
    • Say hello from me when you are there……best greetings Heike

      Reply
  16. Heike, you are amazing, and no amount of superlatives can do you justice. I’m thrilled to follow your adventures and see the great art of your photography and read your blog. Please stay safe.

    Reply
  17. Heike – another superb blog post ! Thank you for your amazing attitude as well

    Reply
  18. great report and I’m glad you’re enjoying your stay in my country , i just wanted to say that south east Morocco (Tata , Zagora , Foum Zguid ..) had been settled by black Moroccans for centuries , for example in the sixteenth century a Moroccan sultan had an army recruited exclusively from black Moroccans
    thanks and keep pedalling.

    Reply
  19. hi again I just want to point that Tafraoute and the surrending region are inhabited by berbers called chleuhs and berbers are a diverse group , to encounters arabs you need to go south to guelmim or north Marrakech and Essaouira and even these cities have a big berber population

    Reply
    • Thanks very much Hamoudi for your insides!
      I stayed with two families around Tafraoute and they had told me they were Arabs – but neighbours were Berber.
      I was also told that Berber isn’t the right expression and locals don’t really like to hear this word. But on the other hand they were always introducing them as being Berber.
      Yes I loved your country!
      Best greetings Heike

      Reply

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