Stage 8 - Foothills
It’s always a bit difficult to have to leave a comfortable hotel, facing the next three nights in a tent. But…. it’s an adventure tour so they tell us. A somewhat overcast morning, and a quick descent from hotel down into the depths of Fês and then up and out on the far side; almost no traffic for this initial part of the day which made the various twists and turns palatable.
Then onto a dirt hill up and down for a few kms, but all ok. At about 15 km we settle into a long but mostly steady uphill for most of the day; some steeper sections through this village or that, but otherwise not bad at all. It’s bordering on chilly for much of today; almost regretting that I didn’t bother with my cycling jacket to break the wind. Rain in the distance, and threatening grey clouds over the Middle Atlas as we approach, but fortunately no precipitation worth mentioning.
Morocco’s agriculture continues to surprise; initially, and once clear of the city, I’m riding through or by olive groves and flocks of sheep. Guinea Fowl are running along side at a couple of places, peeping their alarms. Then apple trees start to appear with the gains on altitude, ancient gnarled things, but with fresh shoots covered in pink blossoms. At about 900-1000m altitude, vineyards become apparent; later on, confirmation from Omar that we’ve indeed passed through a wine region of Morocco.
Most of this morning’s ride is on really quiet farm roads or tracks, with vehicles only occasionally encountered. In one village, at the top of a relatively steep section, I see half a dozen or so boys (~12-14 year olds?) forming a human chain to block me; some words exchanged as I pass thru but nothing really serious. Just ‘trying it on’ I suppose. Countering this is the much more normal thumbs up, hand waves and friendly beeps of horns. If there’s such a thing as a professional or even amateur ‘tour of Morocco’ I’m sure the crowds would be lining these roads to see real racers flash by; and this terrain would definitely make for a challenging event.
At 43 km we leave the rural solitude and join onto the N-8, good tarmac but virtually no shoulder for the 55+ km to end of the day. Fortunately, most traffic is reasonably courteous, although I don’t imagine there’s a lot of cyclists on these roads. I pass through the town of Imouzzer Kandar at ~1500 m elevation and continue up. Definitely chilly. I don’t dawdle at the lunch stop; the bit of sunshine is transitory.
Another 20 km or so gets me to Ifrane, a ski village if one can believe it. I belatedly join the front group of 10 for coffee and cake. We’re now at 1665 m. This is really a strange place; very substantial houses most having high-pitched roofs of the sort to shed snow, tree-lined streets, lots of police and military about (I understand the Royal Family is a real presence here). I don’t see any snow or the ski lifts themselves, but am assured that this is most definitely a ski village in the season.
Once on the road again, a bit more elevation gain, and then a glorious downhill run through a forest of (I think) mature oaks, then finally out into the valley of Azrou. We’re camping in what can only be described as a castle, or properly speaking, the castle grounds. Admittedly a little bizarre, but there are hot water showers, flush toilets, and sort of a proper kitchen for Mark (TDA chef) to do his thing.
This camp site is at 1430 m; overnight forecast to get down to 2-3°. The little bit of warm stuff that I brought is or was in my permanent bag, packed well away in one of the trucks. Hey, I’m not alone in that regard; Doug (TDA tour leader) takes pity on us shivering fools, and has these bags off-loaded. Those of us in need pull out a bit more clothing for the night and morning. I’m in my tent, in sleeping bag, by the time the evening calls for end of fast ring out about 7:00. Something about that alarm also sets off the region’s dogs; the ensuing raucous chorus of howls, yips, snarls and barks will likely go on through much of the night. I’ve ear plugs at hand.
ps. the day’s photos are mostly rubbish due to a smear on the lens.