Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Bikepacking in Morocco - Toubkal National Park

I went to Morocco in the company of my friend, Robin, with mountain bikes strapped up with gear. We set out from Marrakesh and rode, pushed and stumblefucked our way through a haphazard route through Toubkal National Park. The total distance was a mighty 143.2 km or 88.9 miles. That's a mighty 18 miles a day. Stumblefuckery ain't quick.

Big thanks to Shona from Keep Pedalling for all her encouragement and advice. If you are starting to step out on the bike, they are an awesome starting point.

Some vidya - not remotely in order of actual events.


The better photos are Robin's, as are the photospheres. Turns out phone cameras can be pretty high quality.

The road from Marrakesh. Slightly uphill all the way, just to gently crush you into pulp.

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Whoops.

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My helmet is all by it's self at the bottom of a slope.

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Singletrack trail characteristic of this area.

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There are loads of gravel roads, quick progress, great views, almost no traffic.


Across the valley from Oussertek.


Very cool descent, found here. I confess we walked much of it.

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We stopped in Amskere to help these guys with a broken chain. Unfortunately, it was beyond the resources to hand. Robin forbade any further acts of kindness because he is a hateful man.

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You could see the milky way with the naked eye, unfortunately the camera couldn't quite capture it.

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We stayed in a Gite in Tinerhourhine. It was nice, they served us hella food and tea. Robin got a touch of traveller's sickness and filled the room with fart gas.

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Perfect singletrack, just outside Imsker.

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We camped here, after a seemingly endless climb on meandering gravel roads.



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Restocking water.

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Heading north, somewhere along this valley

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On the road to Lake Ouirgane.


It looks bad, but the rain was pretty temporary.

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On the road into Taghenchoute.

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In Taghenchoute.


Sheltering from midday sun, on the climb to the east of Taghenchoute.


On the road between Agdour and Asni.


Camping in the hills above Asni.


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General notes
This trip was much easier going than I'd originally thought - I was pretty stressed about it, but for no reason. It was surprisingly easy and more importantly, rad.

The local Amazigh (Berber) folk in the national park spoke a reasonable amount of French, but once we veered off the main areas visited by tourists, this diminished significantly. The local language is Central Atlas Tamazight. There are a surprising number of villages, and people seemed friendly, interested and willing to help if necessary. Shops are often not obvious or open, but were specifically opened up for us in very small villages. Kids could be very interested, which was generally endearing but occasionally annoying especially after slogging up a seemingly endless hill.

Drivers are pretty considerate, we were typically given plenty of room on the roads. The roundabouts near Marrakesh seem to be a little more dodgy, the whole 'giving way' concept is a little more fluid than in the UK. We were tentative at first.

Moroccan passport control kinda sucks. It took a couple of hours to get through the first time I went, and about an hour this time. Bring a pen for the landing card because they don't hand them out. Marrakesh airport doesn't appear to have much of a system for retrieving your bike - you've just got to go to the entrance to the convener belt and yell to summon one of the baggage handlers who shove your bike awkwardly through the hole. This process in reversed at check-in, but the person checking you in shoves your bike through onto the conveyor and it gets manhandled through the gap in the wall.

They X-Ray all your luggage before you even enter the airport, so we had to take the wheels off, temporarily package the bikes and put them through the X-Ray scanner then repack them properly in the airport. It was annoying, made more difficult by a language barrier.

Route
Navigation was pretty easy for the most part. We used satellite imagery saved onto our phones - we had a Nexus 6P, and a Motorola Moto G as a back up. We should have saved topography as well, but we did ok with road map and satellite imagery. In general navigation was simple, much of the terrain was high enough you could eyeball the route - and we'd spent some time mapping out numerous paths on Google'my maps' which can be exported as a .kml file. We were optimistic with some of the trails, and if you're looking for ridable singletrack and minimizing pushing/carrying I'd concentrate on the foothills - such as those around Asni.

Spare portable battery packs gave above 5 additional charges although the power didn't run down as quick I'd feared - a charge lasted almost 3 days of use.

Gear/Bikes
Panniers suck. Panniers suck. Panniers suck. Well, for anything rougher than gravel doubletrack at least. Robin's bike handled much better and his lack of excessive crap can't have hurt either. I strapped the panniers down with a webbing strap each, then a third going round both. It helped, but not as much as I'd hoped. I will definitely be using a saddlepack for future trips. Robin's kit was all from Alpkit, except for the framebag, which I made. All seemed to work very well, especially given the cost.

We used tents instead of bivvying - we couldn't be sure of the conditions although I'd be tempted to bivvy + tarp next time. We had no issues with bugs in the mountains, but we were only out for a week - late october til early november.

Instead of faffing with adaptors for stoves, I just bought an MSR multifuel stove. The fuel for this cost about 50p and can be obtained damn near anyway, whereas camping gas can only be purchased from a couple of shops (apparently) in Marrakesh and Imlil. Meths is also an option but I figured the petrol gives the most freedom and reliability. The petrol stove got sooty as all hell which was annoying. It probably about 10x the I used a few weather sites (mostly the Norwegian "yr.no", on the basis that it works surprisingly well for New Zealand) to try and get an idea of conditions, but I didn't find them hugely accurate - they gave significantly a colder forecast for Asni and Imlil than we encountered. They predicted around 5-15°C, when it was probably more like to 10-25°C - I'm guessing the altitude of the weather stations is relatively high.

Bikes were 26" wheeled, with low gears and fat tread. Conditions varied considerably, so I didn't feel stupid for having 2.4" of knobbly rubber. Both 9 speed with a low mountain double chains up front.

Robin's comments
I would have packed lighter sleeping bag (Mountain Hardware Lamina 35), learned more French, gotten maps a bit further out than we did. Maybe a 20t front ring or slightly wider cassette than (I think) 34t. Didn't need to bring 2 batteries in the end. I would also dump 1 of the 3 tubes I brought, my spare pair of cycle shorts, 1 of the t-shirts, and brought zip-offs instead of shorts and trousers. Glad I brought a change of clothes for the plane though. I'd practice packing bike using straps from front rack instead of carrying packing tape. Should have serviced brakes before leaving.

Things we did right: route planning, difficulty, time/length, location, climate/time of year, camping, spares provision, food.

Morocco is Rad. Go There
It was a great trip, aside from a couple of niggles it was about as easy as you could imagine a trip like this to be and I'd encourage touring and bikepacking folks to strongly consider it. And learn the Berber word for 'shop'. (It's Tannahout*....I think). It's actually "Tahanout".