Route planning with a good map is one of the most enjoyable aspects of life on the road. Take two cities,  Fez and Marrakesh as an example. Linking the two will be a clear red line. This is the highway – the quickest, easiest and most convenient road on which to travel. It’s also likely to be the busiest, most dangerous and least enjoyable one to ride a bicycle on. Yellow lines, the secondary roads, are better. The real adventure however is often to be found on the minor roads – the narrow white lines that wiggle their way between small villages. The road surface might be broken, the local people will assume you’ve lost your way and the journey will take much longer, but this is why you’re travelling on a bicycle – exploring the parts of a country that tour buses and motorised traffic leave behind.

It was with this mind-set that Tim and I rode out of Fez towards the Mid-Atlas mountains. Time unfortunately was running short. Tim had to be in Marrakesh in under a week. The distance, 460km, was easily possible had we chosen the highway. Instead we journeyed to the opposite end of the map legend, following a road that clearly didn’t exist.

The adventure really began a few days out of Fez.  By this time we’d climbed up through cool Cedar forests onto a barren and windswept moorland south from the town of Ifrane. With its red-roofed chalet houses this incongruity  in the landscape appears like a part of Switzerland relocated to north Africa. Up at 1600m the air is cool at this time of year and the fields harvested and bleak.

Several hundred more metres in altitude took us to Timahdite, a dusty outpost and the last town before leaving the highway. Tim by this stage had lost his appetite and was getting through a roll of toilet paper a day. “Must have been the half chicken and chips you had yesterday” I remarked. I surprisingly had no stomach problems.

A small road behind a police check-post marked our turnoff from the highway. “Is this the road to…” I searched along the white line and realised there was no marked settlement along our route until Khenifra, 100km away and back on the Fez-Marrakesh highway. The policeman didn’t know, but suspected it must be.

We pedalled into a strong headwind on a deteriorating road surface. Surrounding us was an open grassy moorland dotted with flocks of sheep and isolated houses. About 7% of Morocco’s 33 million population live on little more than $1 per day. The communities out here, where power lines don’t exist and access to fresh water means riding a mule to the nearest well, looked like they would be part of that demographic.

Tim’s lack of energy and the discovery that my camera tripod was missing from the bike meant we made little progress that day. It hadn’t been stolen, but must have fallen off the pannier where I usually strap it on.  I dumped the rest of the gear with Tim and raced back frantically hoping to find it on the roadside. Nothing. Admittedly I haven’t used it in weeks and it’s been something of a dead weight on the bike, but I was still angry with myself. Having a tripod, particularly when touring alone,  is a necessary part of my equipment.

The road continued to deteriorate and towards the end of the day we were reduced to pushing the bikes for much of the way over a steep rocky pass. The fact that there had not been one car or vehicle passing all afternoon suggested that we had in fact come the wrong way. We found ourselves in another Cedar forest when the sun disappeared – huge ancient beasts standing majestically in a landscape that felt far far away from modern life. We stopped to admire the surroundings – utter silence until the branches shook and a troupe of Barbary apes began swinging between the trees.

The road surface improved and then deteriorated again the following day.  Shepherds pointed us in the direction of Khenifra, gesturing for a cigarette in exchange, and it was frustrating to not be able to communicate more than the very basics with those we stopped to ask.

We already knew that arriving in Marrakesh in time for Tim’s flight was an impossibility. When we emerged from the cool clear mountain air back into the arid heat it was time to start thinking about taking a bus. After nearly 5000km on the road, plus a few boat rides, I was breaking the continuous line that I’d pedalled since leaving home in August.  I contemplated leaving the bike in the town of Zaech Cheikh, 250km out of Marrakesh where we later took a bus, and returning to it, but one look at the place made me realise it was a better option to transport it with me to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh itself deserves another post. Tim flew home a few days ago so I’m on the look-out for another cycling partner. I’m staying here for a week, soaking up the sights and souks before heading into the High Atlas Mountians. I also need to make a trip to Rabat to collect a Mauritanian visa.  There’s clearly some mileage to go yet in this country. If anyone has recommendations or friends in the south of Morocco  I’d love to hear from you. Support for the Against Malaria Foundation is also greatly appreciated.