Riding in the Atlas Mountains

My second full day at Imlil, Morocco was the day I did a long unicycle ride. My route took me up a mountain pass and into the next valley over, which meant I was finally the only foreigner in sight. Or sometimes even the only person in sight. In the end, my day ended up being a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Authors’s note: you can find more pictures from this ride at the Flickr photo journal here. Trail directions and recommendations are at the bottom of this page. Enjoy!

I’d read stories on the internet about the fabled hospitality of the Berber people. These are tough, proud, mountain people who have lived in these harsh surroundings for centuries, herding goats and sheep and growing crops on cleverly irrigated terraces, but apparently they will almost always welcome you into their homes with a cup of tea. When I heard these stories, I thought that everything on my ride would be sunshine and roses. I would ride a lot, find good single-track, get cool pictures, and get to see what life was like in small, mountain Berber villages.

In the end, I didn’t find any single-track, I got chastised for trying to take a photo of some women herding goats, and I didn’t get to have any tea. That being said, I had a good day and I saw some cool things and learned a lot about riding in the Atlas Mountains. So let me tell you about it.

The route I chose followed paved or gravel roads up the Tamatert pass and into the valley that neighbors Imlil’s valley. The ascent up the pass is pretty rideable, but I hiked it because I’m out of shape and wanted to save my legs for my brakeless descent on the other side. (I’ve been procrastinating on bleeding my brake for about 4 months now.) You pass a few villages going up, but then it’s blissful solitude until you top out the pass into the other valley.

View as the road tops out into the valley directly to the east of Imlil.At the top of the pass, a dirt road forks off to the left and descends in switchbacks down to a Berber village on the west side of the valley. Instead, I followed the road to the right, which leads to the village of Tizi N’Tacheddirt. From this highest point to the village of El Bour, which is a distance of about 25 kilometers, it’s pretty much downhill all the way. Obviously, my quads loved this.

I have no idea why they are here, or how long they have been here. But that’s a normal thing in Morocco, I think.
I never found the name of this village, which is a small village just downhill from Tizi n’Tacheddirt.
Hey look. It’s a picture of my unicycle leaning against something.
You could easily spot the schools due to the bright-colored paint, which stood out so much from the winter-brown surroundings.

It was when I came into my first village in the other valley that I realized that things might not be as idyllic as I’d have hoped. Just before I took that picture of the school, I came across two women ushering a herd of goats down the road. The light was great, and their brightly colored pastel clothing would have made for a great contrast with the neutral goats and wintry surroundings. As soon as I pulled out my phone, however, the lead woman frowned at me and wagged a menacing finger in the air. “No, no” she said, eyebrows low. Chastised, I put my phone away.

I asked my friend Mohamed about this later that evening. It wasn’t just women, because some boys did the exact same thing to me later in the day. Why did they not like pictures? The answer, it seems, is that they don’t like their pictures being put on the internet, on places like Facebook. Mohamed noted that it was worse with the women, because when his family would get together to take pictures his older female relatives refused to take them. Perhaps it’s something to do with modesty and privacy, they don’t like the idea of strangers on the internet seeing their likeness. And, honestly? I can kind of respect that.

This guy didn’t mind me taking his photo.
Since I couldn’t photograph the women from the front, I snuck this one from a girl from behind. If it doesn’t show her face, it’s probably okay, yeah?

Something else that I’d unknowingly assumed was that people would stop seeing me and thinking “Oh! A foreigner! Let’s beg something off of them!”. Obviously in the cities and towns like Marrakech and Imlil I expected to be hassled by street-sellers. It’s part and parcel of the tourist gig. But when women came across me eating lunch and asked for my bread, which I gave, and then didn’t express any thanks but instead just asked for “bon bons”, I realized that the world is not always so nice. I started to question myself when I saw children – did they want to see the unicycle, or where they there to beg me for dirhams or chocolate?

Next to a waterfall and looking out over the terraces.

I have to admit that I let this get to me a little more than I should have. I started to speed up when I came to villages, and I was uncomfortable until I’d ridden through and was out on the open road again. And honestly, this is probably why I never got to have any tea! Every time I came to a village I just wanted to speed through it so no one would ask me for stuff. Ah, well.

Regardless, once I adjusted my expectations and settled into the ride, it was pretty fun. I never did find the single-track that I heard about from Freeride Morocco, but I think that’s because they ride the goat tracks down below the villages, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing. So I stuck on the road, and just put the miles behind me.

I think my favorite thing of the Atlas Mountains was the many irrigation channels that fed water from the snowmelt creeks to the many, many crop terraces that lined the walls of the rocky valleys.
I didn’t catch the name of this village either, but it had a really cool vibe. The buildings were built almost a level above the road and practically on top of one another, so when you rode through it felt like you were being swallowed.
It seems the women take the family cows out to the river to drink.
The color of the earth in this brief section reminded me heavily of Moab.

When I finally reached the village of El Bour, it was time to find the trail to cross over the hills and back to Imlil’s valley. Of course, I couldn’t find it. So me and my exhausted legs wandered blindly up a hillside and then bushwhacked down the steep slope on the other side. Unfortunately, the hillside ended in a small cliff, so I had to traverse sideways and came out onto some terraces with cherry trees. I then wandered through the cherry trees, trying to find my way down as quickly as possible (thunder was echoing off the mountains) but also trying not to damage the trees. In the end, I found myself practically inside some poor lady’s house, and I had to apologize and ask for directions down to Imi Oughlad. But I made it!

The last part of the trail required crossing from the east valley back to the valley with Imlil. Theoretically, there was a trail somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I ended up bushwhacking down a steep hillside into terraces and then a lady’s backyard. Whoops.

Once at Imi Oughlad, my plan was to take a taxi back to Imlil, but I caught a ride in a van with three guys heading in that direction. They dropped me off about a kilometer or two outside of Imlil, and I reluctantly trudged/rode my way back to Imlil. But I found my new friend Mohamed in Snack Imlil, so I was able to eat a good meal and enjoy the happy atmosphere of the fun-loving locals.

When I finally made it back to Imlil, I headed to Snack Imlil to have a big dinner and hang out with my new friend Mohamed. It’s not a particularly amazing cafe, but I really loved it because Mohamed and his friends use it as a hang-out place, so there was always people coming and going and greetings and jokes and laughter. It was a perfect way to end my ride.

I finished off the day by hiking with Mohamed up to a viewpoint over Imlil as he pointed out different parts of the village and talked about some of its history. My legs were quite tired by then, but after my good meal and a little rest, it was definitely worth the last little bit to get to learn more about the town. Also, seeing the group of schoolchildren that surrounded Mohamed as he pushed my unicycle up the hill was pretty dang refreshing, too. 🙂

After I finished eating, Mohamed proposed a walk up to a nice viewpoint over Imlil to point out the different villages and talk about what it was like growing up here. Obviously I said yes, though my legs protested the further exertions. Mohamed pushed my unicycle up the hill, and he had a massive crowd in no time. 😉
What I thought was Imlil, and what you see here, is actually three or four different villages. According to Mohamed, the fields in the center of the village didn’t used to be there, but there was a flood that destroyed the houses in the 90s and the buildings were never rebuilt.

Trail directions:

  • From the center of Imlil, cross the bridge west and follow the road up Tamatert pass.
  • Once at the top, keep following the road to the right.
  • After about two kilometers, the road does a hairpin right turn or there is a dirt track that goes straight. I took the dirt track on the advice of a Berber shopkeeper.
  • Follow this road down the valley for kilometers and kilometers. You will pass through several villages.
  • Once you reach El Bour (a GPS device is recommended, otherwise this is a grey village that the road winds through for a good few hundred meters), look uphill for the track to Imi Oughlad. I hope you find it. I didn’t.
  • From Imi Oughlad, catch a taxi back to Imlil or ride back on the road. Or stay in the gite at Imi Oughled. There are many options!

Other notes and recommendations:

  • Download offline Google map and use your GPS to check where you are. Nothing is labeled.
  • When descending after Tizi N’Tacheddirt, there were often goat tracks and other paths down below the road. This could be the single-track that Freeride Morocco talks about.
  • Be prepared for people not to want you to take their picture.
  • Children may ask for dirhams or chocolates. Mohamed says it’s better not to give them any.
  • If you stop and rest in a village, perhaps they will invite you for tea.
  • You should probably get GPS coordinates for the track from El Bour to Imi Oughlad. Doing what I did for that section is not ideal.

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