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Morocco; challenges for cycle-tourists
By CLIVE VAN LINT and LIZ LAWSON
Morocco is a kiln that bakes houses with no outline, and the geological striations produce outlines with no houses: in the distorting heat it's like cycling through a mirage. Stop for a while and black figures break away from the background and move swiftly across the countryside until you are surrounded by probing hands and secret whispers. Through villages they lope easily alongside the bike talking all the while, stop and they scatter. Sleight of hand, sleight of mind: nothing is safe. With a yell they break away, one clutching the bag snatched from a pannier. In Imariden, high in the Anti Atlas Mountains, a ten year old Berber now owns The Rough Guide to Morocco, The Valley of the Assassins by Freya Stark, and a postcard addressed to Aunt Maude in Redruth.
Higher still, the villages are indescribably ramshackle and poor. Women plough the rubble, a donkey pulling a share the size of a spade, into strips the length of a living room. Headway is hard won, and lgherm, an impossible target still forty kilometres away. There is no town nearer, and the villages are full of thieves. The mountainside is harsh and barren, quite impossible to camp in. Perhaps the road will drop long enough to give us a chance. It doesn't, but a cement lorry stops and the bikes are flung on top of the sacks.
One and a half hours later we are outside the ornamental gateway to Igherm, a few hundred yards downwind of the army roadblock, stuffing stones under the wheels of the truck to keep it chocked whilst we unload.
Symbols on the map describe the route to Tafraoute as unusable. The alternative is a dangerous 350 kilometre trek along the north edge of the Sahara on a road that is still killing people with anti-personnel mines (several contestants were blown up on the Dakar Rally that very week, we learned later). We take a room in this cold cheerless town, and worry.
There's plenty to be anxious about, so the immediate possibility of bed bugs is just a diversion. Tafraoute was always the gateway of choice, for few towns have roads that converge, most just pass through; but we are cut off from it by a hundred kilometres of mountain trail. To backtrack would be an odious solution, or we can buy our way out; taxi, truck, helicopter: whatever - it's failure. A quick flick of the lights: the dots on the ceiling haven't moved: probably not bugs.
Next morning we set off to examine the piste. Without any discussion or comment, we cycled upon the roof of the Anti Atlas mountain range. The air is cool with flecks of rain. By eleven o'clock the sun warms the brown hillside. Groups of small birds flying in short gasps are the only signs of life, and the silence is intense.
There are few smooth patches in the rocky piste surface, it's like cycling on builders rubble. Occasionally the stratification surfaces amongst the splintered flint nodules, ribbing the track, and the bikes bump and skid uncertainly. After sixteen kilometres a small valley produces a hamlet, farming at subsistence level. In the dim store, an old man arranges some crates and sacks to sit on whilst he crouches over the kettle making tea.
A young woman, heavily pregnant, pushes into the space and makes a noisy purchase of a donkey bridle and two triangles of processed cheese. She doesn't pass up the opportunity to ask Liz for her jumper, then the bum bag. From us, the old man wanted double the sum of the addition in front of him. Nobody expressed any curiosity about our mission, or concern for our welfare; the most charitable explanation for this must be that we were totally alien without any common reference point. Under these circumstances, the best cultural strategy is to politely say yes, and no, until the problem goes away.
An occasional descent from the rocky grandeur took us through muddy villages, and the insidious paws of children feeling for a chink in the armour through which to carry away a prize. Then ragged crests of rock and fallen boulders, stained precipices, and adits oozing bright green and blue where minerals were once worked, then abandoned. Not quite; a few squatters, scavenging for crystal amongst the rusty pebbles, hurl discarded stones at strangers. And now down to a road sign built of cement block, rendered and whitewashed; good enough for a motorway, it's seven feet high and twelve feet long with the place names written in freehand Arabic and Roman: through Ait-abdelah to Tafraoute, 76 kilometres to go. It's also good enough for a bit of shade in which to eat lunch of bread and bananas.
On other occasions we enjoyed the local dish, Tajine which always gave a boost to our spirits. Ultimately, the Moroccan cuisine folds down to tajine; cous-cous is for people who like sand in their food, and all the rest is quasi-French tourist fodder. The tajine can come across like Lancashire hot-pot, if that's the way you're feeling; but every once in a while a spiced, saffron chicken with peppers, potatoes, always carrots, lashed with fresh coriander, burnt to its base and soaked up with crunchy bread can do more for the soul than high octane rum has ever done.
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