It felt strange to be by myself again after leaving Demnate. One thing I hadn’t mentioned in the previous post is how a guest in a Muslim family is rarely left alone. I knew that for my hosts it would have been rude to do so. There must be something written in the Koran about this. It’s really about time I picked up a copy, if there’s a light paperweight version that is. It was a similar story staying with locals in other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Syria and Libya. In the face of such hospitality all these experiences have left me feeling overwhelmed and indebted. At the same they’ve been complete contrasts to the comparative solitude of my normal life on the road.

The concept of independent travel is a confusing one for many people here. Why anyone would chose to travel away from home without the company of a friend or member of their family, let alone ride a bicycle to South Africa, is hard to comprehend.

These thoughts were occupying my mind as I sat eating a re-heated plate of couscous (I was spoilt with home-cooked food in Demnate) whilst a family at  a nearby able in the restaurant were sharing what looked like a much more appetizing tagine, and from time to time appeared to be making comments about me. They’d probably driven out from Marrakesh for the day to visit what is one of Morocco’s most popular tourist destinations.

In a country with so little rain I didn’t have high expectations for Morocco’s largest waterfalls. In fact I almost didn’t bother with the 16km detour off the main road to reach them. Yet even with the water of the Oued Ouzoud way below its normal level the 110m drop into the red-walled canyon was a sight worth seeing. More impressive was the fact that I could pitch the tent a mere 50 metres away in view of them.

Rather than backtrack the next morning I followed the canyon upstream as a narrow and little-used road climbed between pine trees, then descended into a patchwork plain of brown fields. Now that the harvest of crops is over much of the land here lies dormant, awaiting the onset of winter. Other than the shaking of olive trees and the occasional farmer shouting at his mule as it begrudgingly pulls a plough through hard dry soils there is very little activity at the roadside. Several Moroccans have remarked that March and April are the best months for visiting the country – before the summer heat when the landscape is at its freshest and most colourful. To be here then however would have involved a mid-winter departure from home. The fields may be a  little bleak and monotonous, but when the skies are clear, the daytime temperatures around 20C and the tourist sites generally quiet, I’m all in favour of coming here in December.

Warm clothes are a necessity though. The mornings and nights became increasingly cold as I continued east and began climbing into the High Atlas. I’d wanted to cycle this part of Morocco with Tim, but time had run out and rather than push on south into the desert, thereby leaving the only real mountains I’ll encounter in Africa behind, I decided to detour yet again,  lured by those minor white lines on the map.

Roads that run alongside bodies of water usually make for scenic rides. Against the arid brown slopes the deep blue surface of Bin el-Ouidane reservoir provided just that. It was the only real colour for miles around, although it’s levels looked low – a reminder that water, or lack of it, is becoming an ever more critical issue in this part of the World.

A steep 15km climb took me way above the reservoir the following morning. I was only several kilometres into it when up ahead a familiar face  came free-wheeling down the other way. The shirt was different, but he was still lugging a useless spare tyre on the back of his bike. It was quite a shock to see Ian again, having said goodbye several weeks before in Chefchaouen. That this was a minor road made the encounter even more surprising. He was on his way to Marrakesh and now had a flight booked out of Morocco in January. We chatted at the roadside for a few hours, Ian explaining that after returning to Bangkok in the New Year he would be cycling in Vietnam, China and Japan during 2010. Yet more new roads pedalled in countries he’s visited numerous times.

There was more I wanted to probe behind the purpose of it all. Was it love of new landscapes, meeting people, the fact that staying in one place for too long became boring, or that living any other life than a nomadic one on two-wheels was now, after over a decade and a half, too difficult to imagine or begin? He might have wondered the same thing about my motivations for being on the road. At that moment the view behind was as good an answer for both of us I’m sure.

I considered suggesting he share some of his experiences and photos on the Internet. Yet like other full-timers I thought if he’d wanted to bother with a website or blog he would have done so now. I would have been the first to tell him that they can be time-consuming to maintain.

Later that day I reached the small town of Tagleft. It’s easy to recognise a place that sees few outsiders pass through when the locals regard you with curious and cautionary stares from the roadside. More climbing ensued after a cold night camping in woodlands, and when the paved road ended and the piste began I had the feeling that the local shepherds thought I’d lost my way.  I too thought this when the piste involved walking though a river. Not a single vehicle passed me all day. The trees thinned out above 2000m and what villages there were didn’t exist on my map.

I stopped by a natural spring to fill the water bottles and make my daily sardine sandwiches (there are going to be a lot of these consumed in Africa – lunch could be far less healthy) and was soon called over by an old woman and a teenage boy from a nearby field. It was the first of many invites for tea along this piste track and I was glad to have biscuits, tangerines and a bag full of dates (my new energy food) to offer as some form of gift and exchange.

To give or not to give, what to give and how much to give is often an issue in these situations. Is there an expectancy in the mind of the host that by stopping to share tea this comparatively super-rich foreigner will provide some exotic gift, that he usually doesn’t have, from his home country? And if there is no expectancy then does the act of giving create a dependency and an association in the host’s mind with the next foreigner passing through? It’s never an easy one to call, whether you’re receiving a simple cup of tea, a meal or a bed for the night. I’ve probably made the wrong decision, either giving too little, too much or sometimes none at all after my host has refused to accept my offering of a gift or money. The great irony is that those who possess the least are frequently the ones most wanting to give. Later that day I pedalled into another bedraggled village and asked if there was a shop to buy food. Ten minutes later I was sat in a dingy mud-brick room and being force-fed warm bread with fresh butter and fig confiture. An enormous second round loaf was packed in a bag and my protests for them to accept some Dirham were refused.

What is less of a decision process but more of a frustration is dealing with the cries of donnez-moi donnez-moi which sound out at the roadside from children. It was a pleasant surprise that up until this moment I’d encountered very little of such hassle in Morocco (in the rif mountains it was non-existent), but once you join the axis of tourism, which the Dades valley I headed towards after leaving this particular piste is, people (mostly children, but also young adults) consider it common practice to ask for sweets, money, pens, cigarettes, your sunglasses, hat, shoes,  the socks drying on your panniers,  the bike – anything that can be seen or thought of in the period of time they have before you pedal away.

In one village I stopped to ask directions from an elderly man, then leaned the bike up against a mud brick wall to take a photograph. Several children ran over to jump into the photo frame, followed by their friends. Palms quickly turned upwards and a cacophony of calls for bonbons ensued. I decided to reach into my pannier to hand out some dates. By this moment I was smothered with a dozen more hands and ended up having to drag my bike away, almost running over those who decided to stand in the way. I realised the next morning that my bicycle lock, which was attached to one of the rear pannier straps and I knew was there shortly before entering this village, was now missing. It would have given me more satisfaction if they’d actually stolen something useful.

I resolved myself to the fact that this will probably be a common occurrence, the expectancy of a handout that is, throughout many parts of Africa where either tourists or aid-agencies have unknowingly created a sub-culture that probably hinders more than helps African communities to stand on their own two feet.

Said the shepherd seemed offended about this. It was in his hole-in-the-roof red mud brick shelter where I discovered the lock was missing, and that I acted out the behaviour of children in the nearby village  harassing me. He’d seen me bumping my way along another piste track later that afternoon as I was headed up to the Tizi-n Ouano. At 2906 metres this is one of the highest ride-able passes in the Atlas mountains. A few years ago I would have scoffed at the claim that anything below 4000m is high altitude, but I’m not going to find much higher to cycle in Africa. With a little more than an hour left of light in the sky he pointed to the collection of small red-brick buildings that were almost camouflaged against the valley walls. “Dormir ici” Why not I thought.

They were more suitable sleeping quarters for his sheep, and judging by the surface of the floors it looked like they had a free rein over where they rested at night. Having been invited I was hardly going to complain. And over a basic potato and lamb tagine (he seemed less impressed with the remaining macaroni cheese I cooked up for starters) he re-installed my faith in the hospitality of strangers.

I woke the next morning to find the bottom of my sleeping bag had turned white. Snow was falling through the roof. Said was laughing when I found him making bread over an open fire in the next building. He seemed unperturbed and said it would stop. I decided it wasn’t worth waiting to see if he was right.  A couple of hours later I was still pushing the bike up the remainder of the pass as the wheels continually slipped in the snow. Another shepherd, who had been practically invisible until the last minute in his white jellaba, greeted me near the top of the pass. He seemed to be in high spirits, as was I . I wanted to tell him that in the months to come I’d probably be dreaming about having a dose of snow in my day as I cycled through the equatorial heat of Africa.

Even in the reduced visibility the views and descent down the other side were pretty stunning. Wild and windswept craggy slopes led into the Dades valley, the joy of free-wheeling and occasionally sliding only lessened by having to stop every 10 minutes to run on the spot and swing my arms in an effort to restore some feeling into my numbing fingers and toes.

The children were up to their usual palm-outstretched antics as I continued through the bleak and colourless villages of Tilmi and Msemrir. Here the piste ended again, but the landscape became no less dull as I continued to descend alongside the Dades river, passing crumbling Kasbahs and red-walled valley sides. Judging by the number of Auberges, cafes and restaurants this place must be full of tourists at other times of the year.

Out of the mountains I joined the Highway and headed west. Where there were olive trees north of the Atlas I was now passing clusters of palm trees and a desert landscape that will become much more familiar over the next few months. My plan was to reach the city of Ouazarzate, leave the bike and catch a bus up to Rabat. I’d made provisional arrangements to visit a school there, talk about the journey and charity and also collect a Mauritanian visa. But after 9 days of riding a 12-hour bus journey didn’t seem so appealing, particularly with an ankle that was oozing pus when I rode into town here.