Words & Photography Carlos Blanchard
I hear the first small notes of a captivating tune. Guitars, drums, clapping hands… is it the blues? Sounds like the blues at least, feels like it too. These are my first thoughts the moment the driver turns on his radio and puts the volume up high.
“What is this?” I ask. “Tuareg music,” he answers. The conversation doesn’t go on too long – his English is not the best, quite broken at times. But communication always gets through, one way or another, when the language barrier comes. This time, the music is building a bridge. I try to remember the name of a musician I once heard who played exactly this kind of music, but the name does not come. I let myself sink into the surrounding rhythms.
While he waves his hands to show his excitement about the music filling the car, I dig myself deeper and deeper in the soft seat, trying to digest the different sounds the radio is throwing at us. It’s so overwhelming. I’m just hoping that the drive to our hotel today is really long. I want to enjoy this moment, probably the only one in each day when we are more or less relaxed, where we have some time to think about our day, what we will see and do here. The music is for me the greatest way to dress up all these thoughts that come to my head, right here, right now, in Morocco. Its roots are so close to the feelings of the people here, their fears and hopes. It goes far back in the generations, and its tradition grows in value every time. Its meaning I will never really understand, but it’s surely captivating.
We landed in this place just a few days ago, but this feels like one of those times in which the hours, the minutes and seconds passing seem to be getting a different meaning, going in a different speed or direction. I don’t really know, but it certainly feels like a long while since our arrival.
The warm welcome provided by our local contacts did help set things up the right way. We jumped straight into classic Moroccan culture from the start, right here in the iconic Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh. This square has been the same for generations, a meeting point for the local people, the storytellers, snake charmers, the acrobats, dancers, medicine men, and all kinds of entertainers, all spreading their words and sounds onto the warm air. And as the day starts to fade, leaving slowly to make way for the clear night, the square gets more and more packed. Small circles of people gather tightly as if they do not have enough space to share, excited simply about the words the storyteller is throwing at them, anxious to listen, and wary when someone strange gets too close or takes a photo of them.
On the other side, the tourist side of things, this square will simply try to trick you out of your money as many times as you can count. But this is something we will get to see and learn ourselves too…
The next morning, the heated air from last night refuses to leave the city and won’t let in any fresh air for the start of a new day that will probably end up the same way. But not for us; it’s time to move. Leaving behind the musical sounds from the night, the storytellers and snake charmers, tourist attractions and markets, we quickly face the real surroundings we came here to see and ride. The Atlas Mountains surface relatively fast as we leave the city. Heading east from Marrakesh, our excitement grows as we approach steeper terrain. The wave of questions and doubts warm us up inside the car in contrast to the fresh wind coming through the windows. My thoughts go round and round, and even though we try to ask some things of our driver, answers are sparse. Luckily music takes over and we enjoy the landscape while listening to the songs of the Tuaregs.
Sometimes the feeling of not knowing where you’re going can be confusing, and I think we all feel a bit like that. It’s hard to imagine how things are going to be – the canvas of the week ahead is completely blank, but we expect to draw on it all kind of pictures from the different landscapes to capture the variety of colours and smells. We can’t wait to get on our bikes and start painting our memories of this vast and unique terrain.
Bouncing along inside the car we gain some altitude and lose the paved road behind us, trying to communicate with our driver again to get a clearer idea of where we are heading. “Five minutes!” he will answer. “Over that mountain,” could be another answer. Either way, we are far from the city, not from civilisation, but definitely entering other territory. The unloading ritual gets underway with the usual excitement from the group. As on our first day, it’s hard to focus on setting up our bikes distracted by the surrounding landscape. We are, for now, up on what looks like a plateau, calm and lonely – this place does not seem to see many people besides the locals. We load some vital food and water ; it will be long hours till we see our shuttle cars again.
This place can take your breath away. The perfect balance between all the different terrain; the huge layers of different stones, linked only by the endless lines of trails. Old animal tracks, paths that connect villages and entire valleys to the outside world. All put together to create an amazing, but tricky, network, for us mountain bikers to enjoy. Not only the landscape, but the colours – the stone is painted in tones you didn’t even think existed or could match together. Bigger forces have carved these areas for thousands of years and although the trails we ride are as old as the locals can remember, we are just looking at the founding earth underneath it all. The emptiness and calmness contrasts with the excitement surrounding the villages we pass by or approach. ‘Run kids, run!’ could be shouted every time we enter a village. We are followed by a loudly screaming group of excited kids who appear out of every corner. We’re not hard to spot with our bright clothes and loud bikes, but the huge joy the kids welcome us with is a different thing, screaming and showing their excitement from the other side of the valley, other times, jumping on our bikes and riding as long as they can until they fall off.
We often stop for lunch in some of these remote villages. We know our local guide Hisham has a plan for each day, where we will go, and where we will stop. We’re always welcomed in by the local families high up in the mountains. A pure flavour surrounds every room we enter in each of those houses. These families give us their space and food and open their arms to the traveller, giving refuge from the hard midday sun. Fresh inside these thick white walls, we rest and enjoy local couscous and warm tea. Sometimes we will need to carry on to the trail exiting the village, old paths made by the locals and their animals, with many crossings – it’s easy to get lost in these areas, especially in the lower places. Other times, the daily midday stop will bring us to an arduous hike up to a high mountain pass helped out by a group of local farmers and their donkeys.
Every day we chase the last light on the high parts of the trails, while still trying to enjoy a calm moment for ourselves.
We try to explain and share with them our excitement from the day. Their broken English doesn’t seem to be a problem – in an unspoken way, they seem to know what we are talking about and how we feel. They just laugh while loading the bikes in the cars. And once again, happy and relaxed as we can be, we set off to our next destination, a jumbled mix of chaos usually in the middle of nowhere, or perhaps mountain huts located in higher villages or cosy luxurious hotels… all with typical Moroccan hospitality. So many different little houses, rooms, balconies… all hidden between big trees of different kinds, their fruits, hanging, waiting to be eaten, spreading their flavours into the slowly closing air of the evening.
The solitude some of the people live in here is impressive. We have driven for long hours into deep valleys. Pedalled and hiked to cross mountain passes, but with the high expectation of a reward on the other side and the joy of riding in this amazing terrain. But we forget sometimes that people live here, grow up here, coexist with each other, with the harsh environment, and push through the difficult living conditions. We are just passengers, fast and colourful on board our expensive machines. We shouldn’t forget where we are, who these people are and what they do. What we can mean to them we can only guess. Probably we look to them like we’re from another world.
The other world.
We vow to make a bigger effort to think about what these people, this place, can mean to us, can teach us. I don’t know if we all succeed, either in our quiet moments during our trip, or back in our heated comfortable places. Some of us might just be thinking about the next adventure. Focused only in pushing forward in the hunger for exploration or personal progression. Or maybe we’re just stressed due to tight work schedules… who knows? Others of our number try to take as much for themselves from the people and places they’ve got to know and see. Here in Morocco there have been people who have come to push the limits, as our local guide Hisham tells us one day.
“You see that mountain over there?” he asked, while pointing far away from the plateau we are pedalling through. “Fabien Barel did some lines there while filming for the New World Disorder series.” Others might come to do the total opposite – to escape from the outside world in luxurious hotels in the middle of the Atlas Mountains, or even get together with local people to live and experience life from their side.
Us, we are just like small grains of sand, passing by, never standing still due to the constant winds. Those winds blow us across from our modern world. A world that is simply getting too complicated. A world that I think we are learning to not appreciate. Our new generations grow up, fully immersed in other values, more or less necessary, but most of the time far away from reality. The reality of, for example, the people hidden away from this world in the middle of the Atlas Mountains, enjoying the life they were given, with its traditions grounded in their blood for generations. Their instincts will tell them to continue, they are not contaminated at all. They also push the limits. You only need to see where and how they live, what they are able to grow, and the human beings that they come to be, learning from their predecessors, and teaching it forward. These are the things we came here to see, and to learn to appreciate. Us, small particles of sand in the wind, should try to touch down from time to time, in order to not forget the people we meet, these places we get to see.
That way we will not only be able to get together again and come back to such adventures, but we will make our own world a much better place to be in.
Morocco Blues it is, and Bombino is the name of the artist I was trying to remember…
Mountain Bike Guide Andreas Tonelli
Triberg Bike Trips // Maroc Nature