Atlas to desert mountain bike holiday, Morocco
A superb mountain bike holiday to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco suitable for mid-level mountain bikers. We ride along Morocco’s dirt roads, taking us from Marrakech to the Tichka Pass in the High Atlas, then southward to the fringes of the Sahara.
£895 - Based on two people sharing
Greentraveller's Top Tip: The wonders of Africa are just a train journey away from the UK. Watch the sun set over the French countryside whilst indulging your culinary senses with a three-course meal and a bottle of Rioja en route to Madrid. The following afternoon onwards to Algeciras as you witness the Spanish countryside morph into a Moorish landscape, then hop onto the ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to the vast continent of Africa.
>> For full details, see: Train and Ferry from London to Marrakesh
Overview of Atlas to Desert Mountain Bike Holiday
This superb mountain bike holiday to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco suitable for mid-level mountain bikers. Morocco is a land of big skies and stark mountain ranges where mud-brick kasbahs appear to rise up out of the desert, sitting in tranquil palm oases and framed by dramatic backdrops of snowcapped mountains. We ride along Morocco’s dirt roads, taking us from Marrakech to the Tichka Pass, the highest in the High Atlas, and then southward, descending along the Draa Valley to the fringes of the Sahara Desert.
The riding is on non-technical hard-pack trails, which are normally in a good condition although they can be rough, covering, on average, about 50km per day. En route we pass through numerous traditional villages, on the way visiting the ancient kasbah of Ait Benhaddou and making plenty of mint tea stops to experience close-up the legendary hospitality that has risen up from the remote outposts of the desert. To keep things varied, we use different styles of accommodation en route, from cosy auberges, traditional family homes, camping under the stars to three-star hotels with pool. In the evening we have the chance to sample Morocco’s cuisine, whilst lunches are normally taken picnic-style, usually in beautifully remote places.
Arrive at Marrakech. Once you have collected your baggage and/or bikes you will be met by one of the Skedaddle guides, who will transport you to our hotel accommodation in the centre of Marrakech. Flights often arrive in the evening, so, once checked-in we head out for a get-together dinner and trip briefing leaving some time to size up the bikes for those who are hiring, or for those who have brought their own, we will assist in re-assembling them.
After an early breakfast, we hop in our Land Cruisers for a scenic transfer to the kasbah of Telouet. It’s a beautiful two and a half hour drive up the Tichka Pass, one of North Africa’s highest paved roads. Once over the top, there’s a further 20 kilometres to the ruined kasbah. Telouet is a photographer’s dream; a crumbling fortress of the Glaoui clan (who were influential during the French protectorate), set in a remote valley overlooking mud villages and fertile gardens. It’s totally uninhabited these days, but it’s a popular spot for storks which nest on its disintegrating ramparts. Here we take a guided tour and take a peak at its once magnificent interior.
After a good look round and picnic lunch we unload the bikes and start pedalling on a tarmac road, just to get the muscles warmed up. We’re at about 1800m above sea level – just enough altitude for the lungs to detect a slight thinness of air, so the first few kilometres (flat, then up and down) might feel a bit tougher than usual! After about 10km we start off-roading down a 32km piste to our destination, Tamdaght, set in a palm oasis near Ait Benhaddou. The piste is no longer a well-kept secret, so you may see the odd 4x4 vehicle, but in biking terms it’s a Moroccan classic. The surface is occasionally very poor and sometimes rocky but there are some fun fast sections too as we descend through numerous mud villages and canyonland scenery to an altitude of 1200m.
Today we make another earlyish start with a post-breakfast tour of the Ksour of Ait Benhaddou. This complex of adobe kasbahs is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still inhabited by a handful of families. It’s probably the best-preserved, and certainly one of the most exotic, villages in the south of Morocco. Ait Benhaddou is film-set spectacular (which explains its appearance in the film “Gladiator”); a cluster of well-preserved kasbahs surrounded by date palms and framed by desolate mountain scenery.
With the tour behind us, we set off for an hour or so in our support vehicles to the start of our 3 day ride through the remote Jebel Sirwa region. With no hotels and few village lodgings available we spend the first night under canvas and the second night in a very basic village house. We begin riding from the one-horse town of Agouim, taking a well-maintained piste westwards into the heart of the Sirwa. The area is occasionally visited by trekking groups, scaling the country’s highest peak (Toubkal) from the south side, but otherwise it’s well off the tourist trail. Today we’re in the northern Sirwa which forms a bridge between the volcanic southern Sirwa and the High Atlas mountains. The piste we take is gently undulating with one significant climb up to our wild campsite. En route we pass through some very remote villages and start to get a flavour for the area, although be prepared for constant changes in character and landscape throughout the three day s we spend here!
After a lunch stop (possibly around the village of Sour) we climb for several kilometres onto a vast plateau where we choose a suitable spot to pitch camp, with panoramic views (weather permitting) to the dramatic peaks of the High Atlas to our north and the dark tabletop peaks of the Sirwa range to the south. We’re now at about 2100m above sea level so wrap up warm for a chilly night of wilderness camping.
Today we ride straight out from camp, rejoining yesterday’s piste. Riding on the plateau is a joy and we often pass nomads with their flocks of sheep, goats and horses on our route south. Crossing the first village of the day we descend along a dry riverbed which represents the settlement’s “main drag”. Here the buildings are all traditional and bear virtually no evidence of the modern world. Women dress in bright costume and children are intrigued by the arrival of our group of space-age visitors dressed in funny helmets. Here we can stop for a glass or two of mint tea, known ironically as “Berber whisky”, on account of its colour.
All of the villages in this area are inhabited by Berbers, an indigenous race which pre-dates the Arab conquest. Their origins are unknown and their looks can be striking. As in other parts of Morocco visitors are always struck by their superb hospitality and generosity despite their lack of material means.
Moving on, we climb onto another plateau, an area strewn with volcanic boulders and stone houses which are inhabited by nomads at certain times of the year. The scenery is wonderful and at this point we reach the day’s highest point, meaning some great downhill to follow! As we cross the final pass the land changes again and we can see we’ve crossed the north-south mountain divide. Much of the remainder of the ride is downhill through a pleasantly rolling landscape with some fast riding possible along great trails. Arriving at the town of Askaoun we do one final descent to a house in a nearby village where we will enjoy a typical Moroccan home-cooked meal with tea made with saffron, and spend the night in very basic conditions.
Those who still feel energetic can make an early start from the village up a gradual 24km climb (very rough in places). The scenery is wild and volcanic with some rocky passages as well as some smoother undulating tracks. Those craving a rest can take a transfer in our support vehicle up to the top of the pass - the top of one of Morocco's best descents down towards the plains of Ouarzazate. From the top of the pass there's about 35km of jeep track to our finishing point - that's over 30km of descent and just one cheeky 3km climb after our lunch spot around the village of Tachocht, an authentic village perched above a fertile valley of cultivated terraces. In much of Morocco, and even more so in the fertile soils of the Sirwa, the people have made an art form of subsistence farming. Such care is taken in planting and irrigating and here we learn a little about the systems they have been using for centuries.
After our picnic lunch, a quick climb and some more downhill, we transfer out of the Sirwa back to civilisation and the town of Ouarzazate, home of the Moroccan film industry and gateway to the deep south. It’s an hour's drive across strikingly desolate landscapes to our comfortable hotel overlooking the town’s palm groves. Here you can enjoy a hammam, which is a typical Moroccan steam bath, and massage to relax those tired muscles.
After breakfast we take a short transfer along the road to Zagora to the start of the day’s ride. There’s an easy start with a thrilling 8 km descent on a piste which joins the valley of the River Draa, Morocco’s longest river. The Draa has a character all of it’s own, with lush palmeries lining the river and contrasting dramatically with crumbling mud villages and stark angular mountains. Today’s ride is nice, varied and not too taxing with several short climbs and descents as we follow the upper reaches of the river valley and some good picnic spots. Some of the villages along the way are startling, their kasbahs abandoned and disintegrating. Our overnight stop is around the town of Agdz where, depending on the size of the group, we will either stay in a beautifully-renovated kasbah just south of Agdz, or a French-run auberge in the palmery.
Riding out from our hotel after breakfast we continue to explore the Draa Valley as we descend towards Zagora and the fringes of the Sahara desert. The Draa Valley is one giant oasis of date palms, fruit trees and vegetables grown by local families. En route we explore the intriguing passageways and ruined interiors of the extensive Kasbah Tamnougalte which overlooks the anvil-shaped mountain Jebel Kissane, a feature that stays in view for some time as we follow well-surfaced pistes southwards. How far we ride today depends on the group but most groups are happy with calling it a day after 60km! The rolling pistes of the Draa make the kilometres pass fairly easily but you may have to dig in for the last few, particularly as it can be hot in the valley.
Our destination is Zagora, although the last part of the journey will have to be undertaken in our 4x4s. Zagora is a regional administrative centre which only dates back to French colonial times. From here it’s 52 days by camel to Tombouctou, but there is sandy desert closer!
Today is our desert day (and night). After passing through an ever-changing landscape from High Atlas to desert, today we get our first glimpses of dunes. We have around 70km of tarmac and an hour or so of off-road driving to cover as we head south-west from Zagora. It’s a harsh environment for biking so we normally transfer by vehicle as we make our way via Tagnite to Chgaga. It’s a landscape of dunes and dry lakes, lost oases and lonely acacia trees; an area frequented by Saharan nomads with their caravans of camels. This is the deep south of Morocco and marks the start of the Sahara desert which stretches for a further 1800km or so southwards. Before setting off from Zagora we’ll get the chance to ride the animal synonymous with the desert – the camel (or in this case the single-humped dromedary). There is no more powerful symbol of the desert than this extraordinarily adapted animal. It’s unlikely you’ll make a friend for life as they a re notoriously bad- tempered beasts (and the distance could be a problem too) but they’re fun to ride, at the same time giving you the chance to enjoy the solitude and immensity of your surroundings.
In the afternoon we arrive at the trip’s most southerly point, our desert camp surrounded by dunes and little else. Here we are greeted by our nomad hosts, men of the Sahara with some useful desert bushcraft hints up their sleeves. Here we spend the night in nomad tents with the “Great Bear” lighting up the desert skies, and enjoy a barbecue meal and a camp fire.
After a desert breakfast we set off on our long journey back to Marrakech (7 hours). The best way to put a positive spin on our seven hour journey is that it serves as a sort of a potted review of all of the landscapes we have passed through on our journey from the High Atlas mountains to the Sahara!
Arriving back in Marrakech is a real highlight. Having arrived in the evening at the start of the trip we had little time to explore the Marrakech medina (old town). This is another UNESCO Heritage Site and said to be the second largest medieval complex in the world, after Cairo.
Tonight there should be time to explore the main square – the Djemaa el Fna – to witness one of the world’s most animated nighttime spectacles. At night the square in transformed into a giant open air restaurant with men in white coats serving anything from sheep’s head stew to snails in hot sauce. The rest of the square is dedicated to other forms of entertainment such as snake charmers, story tellers, acrobats and dancers. Later we will enjoy a farewell dinner in a restaurant before exploring what Marrakech has to offer in the way of nightlife.
Transfer to departure point.
We provide everything except a bike (although we are able to hire these, see booking form for details), personal equipment and clothing, including a 4 season sleeping bag for cold camping nights. Berber sleeping mats are provided.
If you are taking your own bike it must be a mountain bike with suspension forks and a minimum of 24 gears. No other type of bike is suitable for this trip. Please contact us if you are unsure whether your bike will be suitable. During the holiday you will be using your bike each day and it is imperative that it is in good mechanical order. If you are not mechanically minded your local bicycle dealer should undertake this service. We will of course be taking a full tool kit and a selection of spares, which we will provide should the need arise. Details of which spares you should take will be included in the Information Pack sent with your booking confirmation.
What the price doesn't include
A) Personal clothing and equipment (including a 4 season sleeping bag).
B) Travel to and from Morocco.
C) Alcoholic drinks.
D) Travel Insurance (available if required, £34).
E) Evening meals/entertainment/city tours in Marrakech.
F) Bar bills, telephone calls, souvenirs, etc.
G) Bike hire (if applicable).
H) Entrance fees to museums.
I) Tips for local guides/drivers/hotel staff
What price includes
- Place to place
- 5 nights hotels / auberges, 1 night family house, 2 camping
- 90% meals provided
- 6 days biking
- 2 days sightseeing / resting
- Fully guided with vehicle support
Plan your journey by train
Marrakech train station
Transfer to meeting point:
Operator collects guests from station
How to get there:
Train from London to Marrakech
Plan your journey by train
Marrakech train station
Transfer to finish point:
Operator drops guests off at station
How to get back:
Train from Marrakech to London