Morocco mayhem - Bike Magic

Bike Magic - Mountain Bike News, Videos and Reviews. Keep up with the latest Biking Gear, Events and Trail Guides at BikeMagic.



Morocco mayhem

Exodus guide Sophie shows how it’s done

It’s a wide trail, but its width is made up of interestingly-angled rock slabs, loose boulders and entertainingly washed away bits. Despite all that, it’s possibly the ideal all-skill-level trail. Take it steady and anyone can ride down it. Get more confident and you can pick and choose interesting lines, taking in some little drops and jumps along the way. Get cocky and you can blast it, hoping your bike and reflexes are up to hitting all that stuff quick.

Our group is taking all of these approaches between them. We vary from relative novices to seasoned trailhounds, but everyone’s having a whale of a time down here. It’s the middle of November, but the ground is dry and dusty and we’re all in shorts. One by one (with a couple of two-up duels mixed in with it all) we pop out at the road, all big grins and dust clouds. A quick (very quick) scoot down the road for a mile or so and we hang a right into tonight’s hotel. Down the steps to the terrace, admire the stunning view over the valley below and we’re greeted by a waiter.

Music to our mouths

“How many beers would you like?” he asks. There’s a strong possibility at this point that we actually all killed ourselves down the last descent and ended up in some sort of MTB nirvana made entirely of hot trails and cold beer. But no, this is real life. And, we reflect sipping beer on the terrace watching the sun go down, mighty fine it is too…

Mmmmm, beer

Welcome to Morocco, about the closest bit of Africa to the UK, blessed with year-round sunniness and dryitude (except for very occasional downpours and flash floods), a “road” system made up largely of unmade tracks, a very sizable mountain range, several billion rocks and a remarkable cultural collision between Europe and Africa.

We’re mid-way through a six-day trip with Exodus. The Atlas Descent is a Land Rover-supported circular tour around the Anti-Atlas and High Atlas mountains. You stay in a different hotel most nights, ride most of the way between them and end up descending all the way to the North African coast on the last day. As the name suggests, there’s a lot of descending involved. As the name doesn’t suggest, there’s a lot of climbing involved too. But it’s all optional, really – if you don’t fancy the next bit, hop in a Land Rover, enjoy the view and get back on for the next downhill bit.

Sounds good? You bet it’s good…

Plains, trains and automobiles

Of course, you’ve got to get there first, which means all the usual trials and tribulations involved with packing your bike up and getting it on a plain. You don’t have to take your own bike – Exodus will hire you a perfectly respectable Specialized Rockhopper. Our group was split, and despite most of us not knowing each other we inevitably coalesced thanks to the gravitational attraction of outsize luggage. Exodus use scheduled flights with a 20kg luggage allowance, so you’ll have to pack pretty carefully or practise your sweet-talking to get through with a bike and no excess charges. We arrived in Agadir sometime in the middle of the night, to be met by Sophie the guide, and the drivers and Land Rovers from local company Erg Tours. Bikes on the roof, weary travellers inside, off to the hotel, quick briefing for the following day, zzzzz.


The Atlas Descent trip is cunningly designed to get more challenging as the week progresses, giving everyone the chance to find their feet. No-one gets chucked in at the deep end. Day one kicked off with some poolside bike assembly. Boxes and bags get left in the hotel, while bikes, kit and people get in and on the Land Rovers for the transfer into the Anti Atlas mountains. It’s a leisurely start – we had lunch before getting on the bikes. Lunch is picnic-style, prepared by the drivers and really good – bread, tuna, olives, fruit, all sorts of stuff. And Coke on ice, too.

Our first taste of Moroccan MTBing was several miles of downhill track. Taken at a leisurely pace it doesn’t present too many challenges, but the faster you go the more likely the loose surfaces are to catch you out. We quickly had to get used to riding close to fairly precipitous drops – the tracks tend to be cut in to steep hillsides without much margin for error. Or to coin a phrase, “The run-out looks a bit unforgiving…”

Street ride, Moroccan style

Highlight of the first day was some Moroccan street riding through narrow alleyways between ochre buildings in Berber villages, followed by some trundling about on the blue-painted rocks. Yes, you read that right – Belgian Jean Virame is the man to thank, spending as he did a good part of 1984 brushing 18 tons of paint on to carefully-selected rocks. It’s all looking a bit faded now and could probably do with a fresh coat. Or maybe that’s the Art of it?

No slumming

If you’re used to bike tours involving a fair degree of roughing it, then the hotels that Exodus use will come as a very agreeable surprise. The first night’s hotel in Tafraoute is arranged around a central courtyard/outdoor bike workshop, with large, comfortable rooms and, yes, a bar. Even though Morocco is a Muslim country, hoteliers are well aware of the attraction of beer for the European tourist…

Need to know

The Atlas Descent trip is run by Exodus several times a year. Full details on the Exodus site.

Morocco is a Muslim country, and most of the bits this trip passes through don’t see all that many tourists. It’s courteous to stay covered up to a degree – no Lycra, no bare shoulders, no crop tops.

It’ll probably be hot, but the tops are exposed and you might get a sudden downpour – take appropriate kit.

Take lots of inner tubes and patches – there’s much in the way of loose pointy rocks and sharp thorniness and we all had several flats.

The unit of currency is the dirham. You can’t import or export dirhams, so you’ll need to change from sterling at the airport. You won’t need all that much – £60-100 should cover drinks and the couple of meals that aren’t included. You’ll need more if you’re going to go bananas in the souks or get yourself a hectare of Tuareg carpet, but in many cases you can just wave the plastic…

The hire bikes are Specialized Rockhoppers with Manitou forks and rim brakes – perfectly up to the job. If you’ve got air shocks, hydraulic discs or stuff like that, bring your own necessaries. You’re unlikely to find a Hope bleed kit or spare pads in the Berber villages.

Average mileage is 45km a day. Which is actually an average kilometreage, isn’t it? About 90% of the trip is off-road in the sense of “not Tarmac” although many of the roughest trails are, in fact, roads.

Get car sick? Sit near a window in the Landies. Don’t like heights? Sit away from a window…

Every time you stop or pass through a village, gaggles of children will appear asking for money, food or pens. It’s a good idea not to give them anything – they don’t actually need any of those things and you’ll end up having to give them all something.

Brush up on your French – it’s widely spoken in all the towns and most of the villages.

Day three is a loop out from Tafraoute and back, with the Land Rovers helping out with the long Tarmac climb into the mountains proper. From the top it’s a 70km loop, kicking off with a descent into a gorge and a load of loose, rocky dry river beds. There’s some stonking downhill, and if you believe in karma you can earn it all back again at the end of the day with a 10km road climb back to the Land Rovers. It’s pretty stout, with granny-ring steepness and about a dozen false summits, plus you’ll inevitably get sucked into a race with someone and probably reach the top minus a lung. You have been warned.

You get to charge back down to the hotel, though. And it’s pretty spectacular – it might be Tarmac but it’s all downhill and passes through terrain that’s sufficiently similar to Mars that we wonder if this isn’t where Beagle 2 ended up by mistake.

Rug with the smooth

That evening it’s into Tafraoute for dinner, a bit of authentic home-cooked Tuareg cuisine. In return for dinner they’ll ask you to admire (and if at all possible, buy) their carpets – don’t be freaked out, they will take no for an answer, eventually. And if you happen to be in the market for a carpet, this is the place to get them – they’re very nice and pretty reasonable money. After dinner we were treated to some amazing drumming amongst the carpets, with the whole family bashing away at a variety of percussive doo-dads. Then it started to get a bit interactive, so don’t forget to pack a sense of rhythm…

It doesn’t take long to get into a trip rhythm. Rise early, breakfast, ride some impressive distance through mighty terrain and isolated villages, arrive at hotel, clean up, dinner, couple of drinks and collapse in the hope of recovering sufficiently for the next day. Thankfully, day four starts with an 18km downhill, which would certainly blow the cobwebs out, had any had the chance to accumulate. It’s one of those “rolling” downhills with short climbs on it that demand that you attack them and keep the speed up, which made for more multi-way duelling, if you can duel with more than two riders. And it’s twisty, too, curving its way down the valley. Having donned windproofs at the top of the trail, by halfway down we were baking and had to take stuff off, seeking shade as we did so.

There’s a bit of Tarmac and a couple of steep climbs before a seriously fast and loose descent into the next valley. Peak District boulder surfers’ll feel right at home, only warmer. There’s a sting in the tail, though – a granny-ring grind back out up a trail that at the time of our trip was in the middle of being resurfaced and featured a hard-baked white surface that did an excellent job of reflecting the scorching sun back up into our faces…

Valley nice indeed

The evening’s stopover was in the ancient walled town of Tiznit. Local attractions include the hammam, or traditional steam bath. The (optional) massage looked alarming and made some interesting cracking noises but those that experienced it said that they felt a lot better for it. Probably worth a try for the equivalent of about a quid.

Day five, and it’s back to where we left off the previous day kicking off with a blast down the steep climb that we’d endured. And scarily fast it turned out to be. Fortunately it was nearly as wide as the M4 so there was little danger of shooting over the edge. It’s a relatively short day at 45km of upping and downing. The early part is classic bleak, open Anti-Atlas, moving into a selection of climbs and accompanying descents. There’s a couple of distinctly stout climbs en route, with the last one of the day being particularly brutal – 2km, dead straight, in the hottest part of the day, marginal grip… Those Cokes on ice have never been so welcome.


From the top was a gentle descent to the Landies and a transfer to Taroudannt. Exodus’s trip notes describe Taroudannt as a “mini Marrakech”. We only know Marrakech by reputation, but we’re willing to believe Exodus – Taroudannt’s centre is made up of a pair of huge covered markets, or souks, selling everything from silver to glass to fruit, herbs, spices and, well, everything. You can take a guided tour or just mooch about under your own steam. It’s an energetic place, and we whiled away a fair time just marvelling at how everyone manages to drive in all directions at once without hitting anyone else.

Laden Landies

Dinner was on a restaurant terrace overlooking the town square. By this time there was something of a group camaraderie going, with much telling of tall tales. Dinner was as good as we’d become accustomed to, and on this occasion something of an epic with an apparently endless succession of courses. Suits us…

For the last two days we transferred out of the Anti-Atlas into the High Atlas. Gone were the rock formations, gorges and moonscapes and in come valleys, trees and remote villages. In riding terms, this was probably our favourite day of the trip. A long but steady first climb took us to an amazing view over a switchback trail towards distant villages. It turned out to be every bit as good as it looked, too, particularly as it segued neatly into some through-village singletrack and a super-fast, rocky and loose blast into the valley bottom and lunch.

After lunch it was uphill again, which made us wish that we hadn’t eaten quite as much. Live and learn…

Yes, it’s the top

The best was yet to come, though. From the summit (which turned out actually to be another climb away…) there’s a bit of a traverse and then the trail gradually dips. You might not describe it as a downhill – you’ve got to pedal to keep the speed up. But it’s that kind of almost effortless pedalling that lets you put the pedals to the metal and wind up some serious speed. And with speed comes challenge, with drops and ruts that wouldn’t trouble you at a reduced pace taking on a new sizability. Sound familiar? Yes, this is where we came in…

Last one to the beach…

The final day was a true classic. Starting from the hotel high above the cascades, it’s 70km to the ocean. And whichever way you look at it, the foothills of the High Atlas to sea level has to be, on average, a descent. So it proved to be, with a chilly Tarmac drop into the shaded valley to the base of the cascades. They’d be very impressive with water flowing over them – they’re still pretty remarkable bone dry. The Tarmac leads in to dirt and then to a couple of stretches of singletrack. There’s not much singletrack on the trip but what there is is pretty special.

Rock and roll

What goes down must come up and the next climb was distinctly sizable. It was made all the more entertaining by everyone applying nearly a week’s worth of new climbing prowess to it and producing little races all the way up. Everyone won a prize, though – there was a café at the top serving refreshing mint tea and impressive views. And from there it was pretty much downhill all the way to the sea, with only a couple of puncture alleys, some villages and the odd dog to negotiate, with a flat bit at the end for everyone to play roadies along and try and out-sprint each other to the beach. And, in some cases, straight into the sea. Journey’s end…

Atlas Descent is pretty hard work. There’s enough climbing in it for Sophie to receive some good-natured ribbing when she described trails as “undulating”, and someone coined “Moroccan descent” as a new term for long, loose, hot climb. The starts are early, the days are long and you probably won’t find yourself with endless energy to expend in the evening – if you’re a party animal this might not be for you. But every day is a cracking ride, you get some real group camaraderie, see some amazing scenery and get a proper sense of adventure that days of Alpine shuttling just doesn’t give you. If you like your rides big and you fancy experiencing a bit of culture, give it a try…

That’s all, folks

Thanks to…

Exodus (0870 240 5550; for sorting everything out.

Sophie and the drivers for guiding, driving, lunch and all the rest of it. Excellent work.

Alex, James, Hamish, Allan, Nick, John, Neil, Geoff, Chris, Louise, Tom, Roger, Kate, Heather and Janet for being great company.

Marin for letting us take their shiny new bike to another continent…


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.