bikepacking africa   bikepacking africaDeserts…… why do they attract us in such a powerful way? If you were born in the 70´s like me (or near) and grew up reading the classics of travel literature or watching “Sandokan” on the T.V, words such as jungle, mountain, poles, or desert are a part of your emotional and intellectual heritage. Places to go physically to watch, touch, smell, hear and feel: to be explored by yourself. In the northwest of the African continent, surrounded by oceans of salt water, rocks and hot sands, extending the Kingdom of Morocco, “Al-Magrib”: the westernmost part of the Arab world. The deep contrast of culture and its geographic variety make it a great destination to be explored by fat bike. bikepacking africa Last October I arrived in Marrakech with my Ursa Major from Chumba Cycles boxed in the hold of the plane. I was still more than a five hour bus ride away through the mountains to Ouarzazate, the gateway to the desert and village where my route started the next day. bikepacking africa I designed a circular route using several ancient trails that are ridden nowadays by fourwheel drive trucks, quads and motorcycles. This came to 1.300 kilometers of off-road route never ridden before by bicycle with the start and the finish in Ouarzazate. I departed from Ouarzazate to Zagora ridding along the Drâa Valley. Zagora is the perfect place for preparing before the crossing to Merzouga, about 300 km far riding along a extremely cool track close to the border with Algerie. Once in Merzouga after having wandered two days in the Erg Chebbi and having ridden a sandy and lonely loop to Rissani with dromedary bones laying out the route, I headed to Alnif, Ikniouen to arrive to Boumalne Dades for the second time crossing the magical Jbel Saghro. From Boumalne I rode to Tinghir and back through the Todra and Dades gorges to arrive again to Boumalne. I spent the last days of my trip wandering from Boumalne to Ouarzazate. Sand, dust and rocks with less than 20% of paved roads. bikepacking africa The wells are angels in the desert, and without them a bicycle trip would be more difficult – slow and arduous if not impossible. Of great depth, some exceeding 30 meters, I found them along my trip spaced not more than 70 kilometers from each other, but I didn’t know their location previously. Because of that I carried 12 liters of water at all times during the days in the south which I refilled each time I reached a well. I had to ration the water to be able to ride several days with no resupply. Of course, you have to use some water purification system. bikepacking africa Despite of the legendary hospitality of Arabs and Berbers I always chose to camp on my own under the stars most of the nights with the sleeping bag and the old bivy. I only utilized “luxury” hotels once per week for charging the batteries of my camera, speaking with my wife and my son, taking a shower and having a hearty dinner. bikepacking africa Sunrise in the oasis. There is wildlife and freshness where it is so easy to imagine an old Arab poet reciting sitting by the stream while the birds chirp and the subtle breeze drags the sounds of a caravan approaching. bikepacking africa The role of women in Morocco, especially in rural areas is centainly complex and difficult to understand for westerners. Resistance to change in a very conservative and traditional society relegates femininity to the privacy of the houses, and condemns women to discrimination and submission. It condemns women to live in the dark. I am deeply grateful to this woman, brave mother of seven children who chose not to hide and to be light for my camera. bikepacking africa bikepacking africa Offers of the locals not just to stay with them at their homes but also for sharing food, drink or advice about the route were constant in my day to day. In this sense, understanding and being understood was a funny challenge due to the language barrier. The official languages in Morocco are Arabic and French, although most of the time Arabic and Berber are the only spoken, especially out of the cities. So, sign language and drawing in my small notebook were my only means of communication while traveling, and it was always a great experience. bikepacking africa You can imagine how hard the life in the Atlas mountains is, paying attention to the skin of this berber girl, no more than 12 years old. Pastoralist with semi nomad life, their time at school is usually brief and theyabandon it before reaching the basics of reading and writing. The school dropout is one of the great problems that the government has to face. bikepacking africa In the heat of the day, people find shelter inside their adobe houses, where several generations often live together. In every small village dozens of children seem to come up from nowhere when I crossed the deserted streets riding the Ursa Major: “un stylo Monsieur, un dirham Monsieur, donne-moi de l’argent…….est-ce una moto? !!!” they shout. Sometimes these gangs can become very…. “persistent” if there is no adult present. bikepacking africa Paved roads were less than 20% on my route, like this cold and beautifull descent to Gorges du Dades at sunrise. Most of the paved kilometers were interesting for the traveller because of the villages and people you find on the route.. Advice for riding your bike in Morocco: 1) Never lower your guard. I was hit and removed from the path by an unscrupulous truck driver in a peaceful morning arriving in Rissani. He never stopped to see how I was. 2) Be careful traveling off road when you come across motorized vehicles – gravels that are thrown can hit you very strong. 3) If you decide to ride at night, note that many Moroccans drive with the lights off, so you will not see then until the last moment. For the same reason, never camp near the route. bikepacking africa Always is a good moment to take a break on the route for chatting with locals and take a tea, sometimes with a bit of bread, oil and honey. Very sweet and with strong taste of mint, “Wisky berber” is a deeply rooted tradition in all the country, to the point of being considered impolite to refuse the invitation. bikepacking africa Religion, the Islam, is always present in the day to day of Morocco. The deep voice of the “muecines” calling to prayer from minarets five times a day is the soundtrack of the country in rural area. bikepacking africa bikepacking africa Ancient routes, learned from generation to generation, coexist today with modern technology and the tourist business. A prosperous businessman in Merzouga offered me some dromedaries and even a woman in exchange for the Ursa Major!! bikepacking africa bikepacking africa bikepacking africa Since 2014 when I visited the headquarters of Chumba Cycles in Austin, Texas (US) and I had the opportunity to test the latest prototype of the Ursa Major, I knew that this strong but agile frame would be the perfect basis for my exploration bike. Who have would told me then that one year later I would be traveling through Morocco with another prototype of the incredible Ursa Major, but this time with a titanium frame and as member of the Chumba riders team: a true honor and a great responsibility. Due to the neutral geometry of the frame, you can not only mount 5 inches tires but also choose the behaviour of the bike according to the fork you install and what you need from the bike at that time. So, you can change the headtube angle from the very nice balance of 69 degrees with a rigid fork (great for bikepacking, technical climbing, spent hours in the saddle) to the slacker 68 degrees which gives a 100 mm suspension fork for an aggressive play in the trails. You can also modify the wheelbase for maximizing traction or buoyancy thanks to the sliding dropouts. The frame was designed for a 1x drivetrain so this “simple,” light and efficient configuration makes the bike fly in any condition of the trail, allowing me to ride stages over 120 kilometers even fully loaded, in total comfort. But perhaps the most obvious feature that makes this bike perfect for riding into the wild is its very low top tube for a great standover height. In this way, you can ride with no fear for your….. security, over very broken terrain like dry riverbeds and rocky coastlines or in very soft conditions of sand or snow. bikepacking africa bikepacking africa Coming back to the mountains after traveling along the hot and never-ending southern plains was a feeling like being at home. I reached the highest point of the route (near 2.700 mtrs) in some anonymous place after Todra Gorges, ridding along lonely, rocky and winding paths. The Jebel Saghro are extreme mountains: very dry and they are really cold in winter and hot in summer. In spite of this, they are the seasonal home for semi-nomadic herders of sheep, goats and dromedaries. Mercury went down below zero at night, so wearing the right equipment for a large temperature range (more than 40 degrees) and knowing how to combine the different layers was critical for this trip. bikepacking africa When matters become serious and you begin to find dead cows and dromedary bones along your route, you are grateful for riding a bike with the best equipment who begins where others end. One more year I´d like to congratulate Wanderlust gear about the high quality of their super tough bags. With a pair of Rattlesnake stem bags and the Divide frame bag I was able to carry enough food for five days without refueling. Also, I´d like to say thanks for their support and for their experienced advice to Pepe Martínez Camara, co-owner with Elvira Rodríguez of Slowtraffic: the coolest bike garage in Madrid: if you live in Spain and you like to travel by bicycle, this is your place. bikepacking africa bikepacking africa Although there are thousands of bicycles in Morocco, they are only used for small displacements between villages or in the inner of the cities. Not for travelling in demanding conditions. Most of these old bikes that arrived from Europe in better or worse condition continue providing a great service every day to the students, the businessmen, and the citizens, but if you want to travel by bike along the great south or through the mountain ranges, you will require something more than a simple mountain bike. It is no country for skinny tires. You have to be prepared for the worst, so go fat, as fat as you can, and carry the necessary spare parts for your bike. bikepacking africa bikepacking africa bikepacking africa The post-apocalyptic pollution of its chaotic streets, the dancers and the snake charmers from Jamma el Fna Square, the orgy of odors in the suks, the bustle in the streets, the relentless harassment of vendors…. I could not imagine a better way to finish my trip than to do it in the Medina of Marrakech (the old town). I had booked a room somewhere in that huge labyrinth, so the best way to reach it was to hire the services of a man with a small trolley for portaging the packed Ursa and serve me as guide. I found the Riad after almost an hour. The next day heading back to Europe from Menara airport I had a clear view from the window of the plane with the city at my feet: I will come back someday for riding again with my fat Ursa Major and the great solitudes of Morocco.

22 Comments

  1. mikeetheviking

    I will give you 2 teenagers and my next child for your Ursa Major….

  2. How did you carry the 12 L of water on the bike ?

    • Hi ALY, how are you?

      Its very easy to storage up to 15 liters or a bit more in the bike.

      I carried 8 bottles (most of the time six 1,5 litter bottles and two 2 liters bottles) in adition to the 750 ml bike bottle in the handlebar with the water purification system.

      In the homemade white bags of the front rack I carried sometimes 2 x 2 liter bottles, sometimes 2 x 1,5 l.
      In the bottle cage of the down tube: 1,5 l, sometimes 1 l.
      Inside the handlebar bag 3 x 1,5 l
      Outside the handlebar bag 3x 1,5 l (sometimes 2 x 1,5 and one of 1 liter)

      If necessay I could have carried two more bottles in the side pockets of the handlebar bag,

      I replaced the bottles whenever it was possible, because I think plastic bottles degrade fast with the sun.

      If you need any photo or more information, let me know.

      Cheers

  3. Berten De Canne

    Ola Roberto,
    Let me know when you’re up for your next Morroco adventure.
    If you fancy a Spanish-Belgian trip, let me know.
    Mucha suerte. ☺
    Berten

    • Hi Berten,

      I dont know when (new proyect on my mind far from África for next november) but I know I will return someday to hit the dust in Morocco.

      Perhaps a small and INTERNATIONAL group of riders (no more than five comrades with cameras and from different countries) could be a funny, rewarding and interesting proyect for exploring by bike the kingdom.

      Thanks for your offer and stay in touch, right?

      Roberto

  4. Hey Roberto, what kind of handlebar bag is that? Thanks!

  5. hey roberto, first of all well done and secondly i wanted to know if the fat tires make it harder riding the bike and are there any disadvantages?

    • Hi Youssef, thanks for yor compliment.

      About your second question perhaps the allterrain bikes (aka fatbikes) are a bit slower than conventional mountain bikes. I say “perhaps” because this is not always the case, and it depends on several factors, especially: terrain, tire preasure and tire tread patterns.

      As advice, ride the better wheels you can ((lightest but strongest) and go tubeless.

      As reference for you, I can ride the Ursa Major fully loaded over 25 km/h in tracks or to ride more than 120 km per day with no problem at all.

      The only disadvantage for riding 4.8″ tires in remote places with extreme terrain conditions (sharpy rocks) it was time ago to cut a tire. They were not strong enough, so you have to carry several spare parts, but it´s a old problem.

      Once again, Maxxis has developed a lightweight but extremely resistant tires 4.8 wide, the classic Minion but in fat versión: 120 tpi with EXO protection. Super touch !!!

      So nowaday, as personal choice, the 4.8-inch tires only have advantages.

      You will love the Maxxis Minion FBR and FBF: comfort , strength, efficiency, speed, durability…

      Let me know if you have any question.

      Cheers !!!

  6. Hola Roberto,

    Thanks for the inspiring writing and pics!
    We (my partner and I) are going to South Morocco for 2 week bikepacking trip on the 2nd of April. Unfortunately our route has a lot more of paved miles, tho. Did you ride the desert strech between Foum Zguid and M’Hammid?
    Gracias

    • Hola Ángel, how are you?

      I rode from Zagora to the east so I dont know personally how the route from M´Hammid to Foum Zguid is.

      In the map it seems about 150 km with sand enough for thinking about wide tires.
      What bikes do you ride?.

      About wells on the route I have not any information, but anyway you can carry all the water you will need for that distance.

      This man from Zagora can give you information any about the route: Abdellah Boughenbour (https://www.facebook.com/abdellah.boughenbour)

      Thanks for your compliment and good luck !!!

      Roberto

      • Angel Vila

        Hola Roberto,
        Muchas gracias por responder,
        Nuestras bicis tienen cubiertas de 2.35″ y 2.4″.
        Teníamos pensado cargar 8 litros de agua cada uno para ese tramo.
        Gracias por el contacto de Zagora.
        Un saludo!

  7. Hi Roberto,

    Great write up, im looking for routes for a couple of month Moroccan trip this winter, doing mixed mountain and desert trail, riding a 29+, do you have a gpx file or map of route on line anywhere? Any advice you can spare would be greatly appreciated.

    Jules

  8. Hi Jules, how are you?

    Thanks for the complimente.

    Of course, send me a message with your mail to zapata1973@hotmail.com and I will send you some info, my own tracks, advices…..

    Cheers,

    Roberto

  9. Matt Allen

    Roberto,
    this looks like it was an amazing adventure, you took great pictures. May i use a few for a project I am working on in my Global Marketing class here at the Alaska Pacific University? I’m making a marketing plan for a fictional fatbike company marketing it to different parts of the world.

    Thanks,
    -Matt

    • Hi Matt, how are you?

      sorry for the delay but we were in a fatbike bikepacking family trip until yesterday so I have seen your message right now.
      Yes, for sure, it will be a true honor Sir, and if you need more photos I can send you them but let me one or two days for asking to Chumba Cycles, Wanderlust Gear and Slowtraffic if there is no problem, right?. I think your proposal will be nice for them also but let me a couple of days for consulting.

      All the best,

      Roberto

    • Matt,

      How are you?. After having consulted, you can use any of my photos for your proyect but please, dont use them for profit.

      Good luck with the job and have a nice day !!!

      Roberto

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