After five days spent in Tétouan, mostly using the internet I didn’t use during the past two weeks, and strolling in the nice medina that I started to know quite well, it is time to start the cycling in Morocco, for real. I hoped that by the time I finish my tasks, the bad weather would be gone away. But the forecast is cloudy/rainy for the next three days, every day. It is not terrible rain, but is surely annoying enough to not make the most of the experience of crossing the Rif mountains.
Even though the Hotel Africa of Tétouan and its hosts are very nice, there is nothing keeping me sedentary any longer. The African Cup of Nations (CAN) has started and the cafés are full during the whole afternoon (in fact, almost as usual). All men are lined up on their chairs, like in a classroom, drinking tea in front of the TV. The wet wind blows in the narrow streets of the medina, turning the paths into mud pools at some places, and taking down the tarps in front of shops, used as sunshades. But they now carry their maximum amount of water and are more surprise water bombs than sunshades.
I decide to leave in the grey morning and see what happens. I get out of town under little droplets, make the joke to stop my bike by the pump of the petrol station (it works) to refill my stove fuel bottle, and I am on my way to Chefchaouen.
The normal way to Chefchaouen is the 60 km direct road, the main road. My way is through Oued Laou, a village on the coast, and then back to the Chaouen through a gorge. It is 40 km longer but apparently more beautiful, and obviously also more quiet.
I reach the Mediterranean sea south of Ceuta. It’s a holiday destination for locals as well as Europeans, but I am off season. The weather is actually nice as soon as I reach the sea. Blue sky but strong wind from the land. The coastal road does not follow the coast, not flat, but is doing zig-zags between the villages on the oued (river) and the cliffs over the sea. It is downhill towards the land and uphill towards the sea, so the wind is in the “right” direction.
In Oued Laou, I am halfway through the day and must now go inland, back to the Rif mountains and Chefchaouen. I don’t know if I can make it until there, because it is also where the wind and the rain come from.
I got in Tétouan a little Moroccan flag that I squeezed in the left rear pannier. When it flapping in the wind, not only it makes me more visible on the road, but it also builds a safety perimeter if a car overtakes me too closely.
As I move a few kilometers inland I receive droplets stronger and stronger. I am looking for the food stalls, people selling sandwiches everywhere, but they are not here. I can’t even downgrade my dream of fresh meat to dried cookies as the little road shops of cans and dried stuff are closed, usually between 1 pm and 3 pm.
Finally, I see a sign for a camping-café-restaurant by the road, at the right moment before getting too wet. Unfortunately the lady is going to sleep and can only make tea at a city price. I have then to cook my pasta, while the rain passes.
The rain doesn’t pass and the lady wants to charge me for sheltering under the front of her house. I have yet to see the so widely announced Moroccan hospitality. Anyway, I continue under the light rain in the ascent to the Chaouen. The rain comes and goes but the the sky is darker and darker as I get inside the Rif, leaving me pessimistic about the humidity level inside my socks tonight. As one point, a group of three teenagers walking on the road decides to help me and one of them pushes me until the top of the current slope. It feels like a little moment of happiness, until he is no more pushing but holding, and asking for dollars, euros, cigarettes, whatever …
So I continue lonely under the rain. I am now decently wet and am obliged to arrive to a hotel tonight, as I am really not ready to pitch my tent in the mud and wake up with only wet clothes to put on.
The road must be beautiful for sure. I can imagine the contours of the canyon that I am going through until the origin of the river, but it is cloudy and foggy enough to remove all the pleasure.
I am drenched but happy to reach the crossroads with the main axis to the town. It means I have only 10 km left, but it is getting dark. It is night for the last 5 kilometers, during which I see the lights of Chefchaouen but get closer very slowly, my back aching, in the steep hill. I know I shouldn’t be cycling at night in this area but I need to get to a dry place.
Finally inside the mountain town, I quickly get a hotel near but outside of the medina, complete the routine bargain / fill forms / secure the bike, and go out for a food hunting walk. I had actually only my small pastas since breakfast. I thought I would find food easily by the road so I haven’t pack even a packet of cookies, and now I’m super hungry.
My situation is the same but my mood completely different: my shoes are still buckets of water and my body is still warm from the effort, but now my only goal is to eat everything I see. And that is a much easier and enjoying task than cycling uphill under the rain. Still some vigilance needs to be observed not to walk home with a yogurt expiring last year.
The medina of the Chaouen, so pretty, all blue and white two weeks ago in the sunshine, is now gloomy and deserted. I get the food I need and finally fall asleep dry. The only positive thought I have about this long day is that my bike, that I didn’t clean since its muddy adventure last week, is now half shiny. I am surprised also that this day without a high pass makes actually the biggest elevation gain so far, 2000+ meters, more than the days around the Pyrénées.
On the 25th January, the weather forecasts of the day, both online (more rainfall than yesterday) and local (“if it rains at midnight, it will rain for a week”) are not motivating for cycling.
However, having already stayed a couple of days in Tétouan, I don’t need to rest again in Chefchaouen. People say it’s always this rainy in winter, so I am now fine with the idea that I won’t bring dry memories from the roads of the Rif. From 11 to noon, I see nothing falling out of my window and decide to go. I put on my wet clothes (brrrrr…), plastic bags in the wet shoes (one positive consequence of shops handing out plastic bags for anything, I don’t have to spare them preciously) and departure.
I am descending until Derdara under the drizzle. From there, towards the south, I avoid the main road to Ouezzane, and skip the one to Ketama, having read enough bad experience of cyclists through this center of hashish production. I have a third option, which is the smaller road going straight south, from Bab Taza and around the Al Wahda dam. I just hope to find somewhere dry to sleep on this small road. There will be only villages, and as I was often told, if there are no hotels or pensions, the people will be kind enough to find me a solution.
I have first to get to Bab Taza, 900 m high. It is after an ascent during which the rain gets stronger again, but I am already wet and have been expecting it anyway. The road has many people standing by and they all salute me with “fuma?”, “quieres algo?” or “hola amigo” for the most polite. A man passing my in a car even does a U-turn to wait for me a bit further para “solo hablar”. Nothing harmful, but in this low season for tourism, I feel I am the only fish on the road and every locals is trying to get me. And wet and cold during an ascent, I am very not likely to stop.
I get a big kefta sandwich in Bab Taza and watch the rain from my wet shoes. The rain won’t stop. I have to convince myself that it rains only on Bab Taza and it will be better from now on, getting further from the mountains.
This works as some 10km further, the scenery gets a warmer touch, not as grey. A few sun rays and rainbows appear.
It is very green. I am going along a river that end in the dam I am aiming for. I can guess the road “of above”, going to Bab Berret (“the gate of the cold”) and Ketama on the edges of the Rif ridge, where the dark clouds stick.
The small road is paved in general, but destroyed on both sides, making it a single lane with potholes in middle.
Nothing much happens until I reach the intersection where I expect the village to be (from Google Maps), where I could ask for sleeping under something. There is no village here, but only 3 policemen controlling the cars. They tell me that Aalalech is 3 km on the smaller path and has only 5 houses. And that there is nowhere for me to sleep (“The closest if Chefchaouen, only 50 km” they say… and is where I come from) and the area is dangerous. I don’t know how accurate it is, but people like to say the roads are dangerous at night. Anyway, the chef policeman remembers that the owner of the petrol station just nearby is a good guy and could sort me out. So here I go back uphill 4 km to the petrol station.
The petrol station is more like a center of life for the valley rather than just a petrol station. It has a big café, a butcher and grill, a garage, a prayer room, loads of 4×4 parked, and is filled with men. Very few are filling their tank, most are watching the football on TV. Most of the cafés screen football, from any of the major European leagues, or National Geographic Abu Dhabi for the few minutes of the day without football. I am told the owner is back soon so I’m waiting and drinking tea. Still wet, but comforted by the idea I’ll have a roof tonight. I watch the rain, I watch a CAN football game, I watch a Bundesliga game, I have 3 teas and finally the owner comes. He’s putting only my bike into a locked storage room and is giving me a couch to share with one of the waiters. The people staying there at the station, open 24/24, are very nice.
We chat again during the morning while waiting for the owner to come with the key of the room where my bike is locked. I got up rather late but it wouldn’t have helped getting up earlier. I have to get used to the African time, things take the time they take, and not expect to be able to build a schedule of full days of efficient cycling.
We talk about the region being touristy until the 80’s, but now the only Spanish and foreigners venturing until Ketama do it for business. According to him the mafias are there too. It’s sad as the road is marked as scenic on the Michelin map.
When I leave around 12, the day is promising, still cloudy but much brighter. I am looking forward to a good cycling day on small roads. I was told I’d pass Beni Ahmed, which is not on my direct road. I have many sources for maps and directions: the Michelin paper map, Google Maps and OpenStreetMap on my phone, and the local people and road signs. And they are rarely agreeing together. I have to get used to kilometrage fantasy as well. I have been warned against a 1600 m pass to Chaouen (which must be after the town, because it doesn’t get higher than 700 m before), announced a village 2 km further on the road (when it was actually 20 km further and not on the same road), among others.
After 5 km on the road, at a place wide enough, a car’s side mirror hits my arm and handlebar. And the car continues driving, with the passenger, head out of the window, watching me, while I get off to check everything is fine. No harm as the car was not going too fast, but still a bad way to start the day. I don’t know if they did it on purpose or not.
The road is then doing little turns uphill to Beni Ahmed, as described by the petrol station people. My maps indicated it 100 km to the west, but there must be many Beni Ahmeds. However they mentioned nothing at this place, quite a big village with many restaurants and even an ATM.
The rule on the winding roads seems to be honking proportionally to the driving speed. Some people know the road very well. The road inside Beni Ahmed is just a mud track.
I am cycling towards the reservoir of Al Wahda dam, inaugurated in 1997, and said to be the largest in Morocco and the second largest in Africa. I won’t be seeing the 2600-meter long dam but only the 123 km2 reservoir. It is then longer than the Millau Viaduct, where I’ve been filmed for a TV magazine that Aurelien caught and uploaded here.
The road is pleasant with the sun, the people seems friendlier and can say hello without wanting to sell me something. The greenery is beautiful and the sunset comes while I am pitching my tent among olive trees. I thought I was alone there but then men showed up from nowhere. Apparently fishermen have a shack just by the shore of the reservoir. I can see the lights of Tafrant across the water and hear the minaret for the evening prayers.