Sahara by Fat Bike: The ups and downs of the homeward leg - Bike Magic

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Sahara by Fat Bike: The ups and downs of the homeward leg

Our keen Fat Bike duo of Harpham and Bebbington are now back on UK soil (Richard just called in from the roadside somewhere near a ferry!) but in this update from the journey over the High Atlas and to the Sahara and back, Richard takes us right back into the moment. 

Think you’ve got a sense of adventure? These two sure do and they know full well that there’s nothing a good cup of mint tea can’t fix…

Find part 2 here and part 1 here.

Over to Richard:


Words: Richard Harpham
Photos: Richard Harpham and James Bebbington

We rest easy in the hotel Azoul House, in Ouarzazate in good spirits as we prepare to cycle back over the High Atlas Mountain Range.  We have found the Hotels useful for wi-fi as we share our adventure to the world and also at not much more than £10 per night each are a steal.  Despite the obvious attraction of such credit card camping we do still want to camp out. We head back on the road towards the mountains feeling pleased to have time to enjoy short sections of off-road riding when we feel like it.

Leaving Ouarzazate we pass the film studios again before we are on long winding roads set against the backdrop of large snow covered mountains in the distance.  We spend some time heading off-road to ride the piste. There are so many places you can ride over dips and bumps like an ever changing ‘pump track’. We grab more photos and in one place just before the desert sandy ridges turn from yellow to red we stop and climb up some steep wadi’s and ridges to fly down the descents. The sandy rock is loose and makes for interesting riding.

Further on we spot a herd of sheep and goats being moved along a riverbank and again head off-road. This time we end up crossing the stream and riding up and down, having plenty of laughs along the way. Our riding is still punctuated by the occasional mint tea and Jus D’Orange as it remains dry and arid. Slowly we start climbing into the foothills. We meet a French couple on bikes heading the other way. They are hard-core, and have just trekked over the mountains following the highest peak. This was not ride-able so they carried and used donkeys with porters to follow tracks through the mountains. I’m bemused by their lack of helmets and also she is cycling in flip-flops!

We are heading back to the lovely Auberge, a B&B managed by the Berber family in a small village. It held a special place in our journey as somewhere so beautiful and peaceful. We decide to stop for something to eat and drink there. Eventually we arrive after about 35 miles of slow climbing. We are greeted like family and order some food. It is so tranquil that we soon realize we are not leaving and will spend the night there. It is an easy decision.

A Dutch family is also staying and we enjoy a vegetable tagine in the family room.  Sleep is the most settled of our journey and perhaps for both of us in a very long time. Morning comes and we are sorry to leave but also looking forward to camping in the mountains and that sense of freedom to stop anywhere we like the look of. As we climb we are passed by lots of the Renault 4 rally heading back to Marrakech. We are hooted and cheered up the mountain roads to the pass. Arriving back at Col De Tichka the weather has changed and it is icy cold winds and rolling clouds overhead.

As we look down from the highest pass we see patches of snow that have fallen since we were here last. After our tea stop we head down, buffeted by the cold winds with freezing cold hands. It is brutal. We pass our previous wild camping spot and plough on searching for a place that captures our imagination. We drop over another small pass and begin to descend and spot a small linked gully that seems suitable for the night. We walk and cycle up to scout it out and head to the top of the gully and find the ridgeline. The view the other side is perhaps 1000m near-vertical drop into other valleys and ridge lines. It is stunning and we decide to camp here at about 2150m altitude.

We pitch the tent in the cold mountain air and agree to light a small fire as dusk approaches. The clouds look pretty ominous but we feel in good spirits. We eat the Be-Well Expedition rations and then get a coffee brew on whilst Pringle lights the fire. The mountain is pretty barren so we only find small pieces of wood, twigs and roots to burn but it is enough. The fire provides a hub of activity and we retreat to the tent, as the air grows colder. The wind is also picking up.

The tent bears the heritage and pedigree in its name, Vango Force 10. As a storm kicks in the tent requires all its determination and strength to repel the buffeting winds. The tent is pushed and pulled by rampaging winds all night and it is not the best nights sleep to say the least. In the morning it is still twitching and dancing in the strong winds only now rain has joined the party! We realize we need to get out of there and start riding but is not a pleasant thought. It is now bitterly cold and as we exit the tent it is clear it is not rain but snow and sleet that greets us.

The few minutes it takes to pack the tent and bikes is enough to bring about teeth chattering and uncontrollable shivering. Our hands are almost unusable protected only by thin cycling mitts in the howling sleet and snow. It is painful and we force ourselves to keep moving. We need to get off this mountain.  Cycling down the mountain pass is equally unpleasant as we are cold and wet from the elements. Our hands and feet are like blocks of ice and barely work. It is a battle of wills against the elements and put simply we don’t have a choice. Finally we have descended below the clouds, sleet and rain and are at about 1600m. All the normal Berber cafes are closed but eventually we bundle our way into one at the bottom of the winding pass, shivering and shaking.

The process of warming up is a painful one and it takes nearly an hour to regain feeling in our fingers. The Berber hosts are great and bring a bowl of hot water to warm our hands and (of course) plenty of tea. We are finally ready to head back out. It is still cold and we cycle wearing various layers of Paramo down and other kit. We enjoy about 30 miles of descending and are impressed with ourselves that we climbed all of this. Eventually at below 1000metres we are able to reduce our clothing and begin to feel warmer.

We finally leave the valleys and ridges of the mountains and foothills and can see the wide gradual plane leading to Marrakech. We have decided to head left on some different roads and to track across to the Ourika Valley for the last few days. We are out of money and make a detour into a local town to find the one bank. Our bikes are yet again a massive source of interest and finger pointing for the locals. We find the bank and a struggle with money. On inserting our cards the screen goes blank. A friendly local ‘in the know’ presses a button on the left hand side and the screen fires back to life and demands a pin. Relieved we withdraw some money and immediately feel back in control.

We skirt along the bottom of an escarpment towards the Ourika valley for about 15 miles or so passing numerous villages, people tending crops and sheep and donkeys carrying heavy loads. This is a rural heartland and agricultural area and it is a lush green. We are tired from the day’s exertions mostly from the cold energy sapping start but still managed 63miles or so. We stop for some food to refuel the engines as sundown approaches. This connecting road is still full of local people coming to and from work and plenty of donkeys, carts and other agricultural items of interest… We head onwards towards Douar Ouriki feeling the effects of the day and in particular the cold start.

As we arrive it is under the cover of darkness. Our Exposure Lights are back on keeping us safe as we head through another bustling down with people stepping out of shadows, motos, cars swerving and plenty of noise. It is amazing how unsettling it can become when you don’t know a place, it’s dark and you are not sure where to spend the night. The camping option will require us to head up into the mountains or out of the urban sprawl. Finally we find a basic hotel, which serves us well for the night. Panic over.

Riding Up Into The Ourika Valley

The next day comes quickly and we awake in good spirits with a fluid plan, head into the mountains and see where we end up. That sense of freedom is truly invigorating. Our legs start cranking round for the final day of uphill, knowing that when we turn and head to Marrakech it is pretty much downhill all the way.  Heading up the valley it is decorated by Berber shops and artisans and we stop to admire the sculptures in one location. We are greeted by the artist Abdul, who has a real soulful twinkle in his eye. Within the space of two minutes we are offered a place to stay for the night and our fluid plans are now set in concrete.

Abdul has a restored classic VW surf bus so we simply need to be back at the gallery/workshop by 5.30 to get a lift to his place. We press on climbing in elevation back over the 1000metre mark and on upwards. The valley is totally stunning with twisting roads, small communities, Camels for tourist rides and accordingly we are plagued by tourist cars and buses following us. We decide to stop adjacent the mountain river for some lunch and make the fatal error of not checking the price before ordering and pay the tourist rate. It is like lunch with Dick Turpin and we are robbed leaving us with a sense of outrage at our most expensive meal yet.

We ride on and find one of many river crossings and stop for some more play and off-road riding. Pringle rides through the river and his waterproof Teva shoes are filled from the top when he is forced to put a foot down by a large boulder. We stop further up the valley to empty his shoes, which are now waterproof in the wrong way with water sloshing heel to toe.

The final few miles of the valley climb provide beautiful scenery with the valley and gorge walls on either side a the mountain ridge ahead covered in crisp white snow. We eventually turn at about 1300m and fly down the valley road towards Abdul’s. During the trip I have worn my brake pads down so stopping is a new challenge! We stop to film and capture pictures on the descent. We stop by the camels again and our cries of “no money!” are greeted by offers to swap crystals, jewelry and even a camel for our watches, bikes, cameras and pretty much any such item in our inventory. We have had great banter with the Berbers throughout our travels and this is no exception. They truly seem to appreciate our endeavors and story.

We arrive back at Abdul’s and are treated to some coffee and enjoy some down time while he finishes work. We pile the bikes and kit into his “V Dub” and head back up the valley to his house. The night proceeds to be an amusing event with stories of travel, adventure and jokes, as we become good friends. Abdul shows us pictures of his travels, art and the 7-month project to restore the van. The boy has some skills and a wicked sense of humour. He has also travelled by bike, on foot and hitch hiked through Spain, France, Mali, Ghana and we swap stories and agree that a future road trip or surf trip would be a good plan.

We all sleep well and in the morning get treated to a Moroccan breakfast of tasty vegetable soup and beans. We then accompany Abdul to the Souk (or market) to do his weekly shopping and then back to his gallery. Both Abdul and his colleague then have a go riding the Fat Bikes and we say our goodbyes before pedaling down the valley for the final time. Marrakech or bust.

Final stages

The last little bit of our adventure by bike is only 25 miles and it literally flies by. We are both amazed how much we have crammed into just two weeks, so many amazing people, places, challenges, mountains, desert, valleys and a few miles… Our decision to capture the story well and balance the mileage with taking pictures, video and riding off road has been the right one. We head for the Medina and grab the obvious final picture of us two looking like Laurel and Hardy at the mosque. This was the same location I finished an earlier adventure, London to Marrakech by kayak and bike in 2010, which made it feel even more special.

We will provide a final epilogue of the trip in the next few days reflecting on the variety of our experiences, challenging moments and why it was such a joy to do this trip.

Thanks for reading.

Richard Harpham

About Cycling the Sahara

James Bebbington (kayaking world Champion) and Richard Harpham (adventurer) wanted a new year’s resolution with a difference, to cycle a fair chunk of the Sahara desert.  In February 2013 the pair of accomplished kayakers will take to Salsa Fat Bikes and cycle over 1000 miles of the Northern Sahara. Their route will see them cycle over the Atlas Mountains, the Anti Atlas mountains, and then follow the Northern East edge of the Sahara desert.  Their adventure will see them start and finish in the historic Medina of Marrakech.

Richard has a passion for adventure and has kayaked the English Channel 3 times, kayaked 1000 miles of the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Glacier Bay Alaska, canoed the Yukon and also completed London to Marrakech by bike and kayak, almost 2400 miles.  His most recent adventure saw him sea kayak over 500 miles with fellow adventurer Glenn Charles from Niagara Falls to the Statue of Liberty, NYC which engaged thousands of people across New York State. He was also the manager of the Ghana Ski Team  at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010 and co founded to raise aspiration in young people.  Already Inspired Life has helped over 13,000 young people and was awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark. 

James Bebbington is the current world champion in freestyle kayaking and a former World Cup Champion.  James has been a kayaker since the age of 10 and is now also a professional film maker who has a thirst for pushing the human body to its full potential.  For James cycling has always been a means of cross training for his competitions but the recent Tour De France has reinvigorated his desire to challenge himself on a bike.

The pair aim to raise money for SportsAid, who help fund emerging talent in sport, as part of giving something back. They will be documenting their journey and adventures by bike on film using state of the art cameras to capture the action and scenery.


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