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The Road to Timbuktu

South of the High Atlas the Drâa river cuts through the Jebel Sahro, dragging a green thread of life through the bare red rock. Groves of date palms, lush fields and villages are crammed into this narrow lifeline, and red kasbahs stud the valley, their towers decorated with ancient patterns.

For centuries, caravans have followed the Drâa to its last drop, where it expires in the sand, scorched by the fierce Saharan sun, and have pushed on forward into parched weeks of hostile wastes, and at last, reaching the flowing streams again in Timbuktu, have unloaded their precious cargoes of Stylos and Bonbons.

For centuries the little children, playing in the hillsides above the villages have watched for the clouds of dust and listened for the snorts of camels, then have scampered down to see the traders and their laden camels, excitedly calling out the traditional Berber greetings “Donnez moi un stylo!” (Peace be upon you) and “Donnez moi un bonbon” (And upon you, peace).

We didn’t quite make it as far as Timbuktu. We didn’t even make the 14km between Tamnougallt and Afra, where we’d been told there’s a bridge over the Drâa back to the tarmac road.

In fact we were lost.

We stopped to ask some local women if we were near the bridge. This was a trifle optimistic.

– they didn’t speak French

– we didn’t speak Arabic

– they didn’t speak Arabic either.

“Pont?” we said, trying to do an imitation of a bridge.

– “Agora?” they said.

– “Afra?” we tried.

– “Afra” and pointed down the track. “Donnez moi un stylo.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake don’t start that again” we said, hopelessly. And we turned back.

Meanwhile Brahim had told Mohammed and Mohammed had told Hassan the thrilling tales of the two merchants, (they told us they were from Mars! they DID!!) their panniers bulging with untold exotic treasure (they must have a thousand stylos!) and where before there had been 10 of the little horrors there were now 50, who’d formed themselves into an impenetrable blockade across the track, on the offchance that this event of exquisite rarity might be repeated. Or maybe they knew. (Ha! they fell for the old “bridge at Afra” trick.)

Actually, it was a pretty interesting ride. The villages and kasbahs are ancient looking though the buildings are never that old. They’re made of mud, which gets you that authentic medieval look within a few years and that authentic ruin look after not many more. The designs are unquestionably ancient: the pattern of a walled town, high fortress-like houses huddled together randomly, the narrow alleys between them turning unexpected corners, becoming tunnels and stairways and then a little suntrap of a square. The men wear burnouses, long woollen stripey cloaks with hoods, and the women brilliantly coloured dresses and headscarves. People are friendly, and wave.

We were shown around a village by a self-appointed guide – he took us through the disorienting tortuous warren of pathways to his family’s house, where three stories of narrow, dark rooms lead off a corridor running round the four sides of a light well in the centre. On the ground floor, the women were making bread, flat and round like pizza, and baking it directly on hot coals in a dome-shaped oven. Then he extorted 200D from us. Welcome to Morocco.

The Todra Gorge

Southern Morocco is built on an epic scale – big empty mountain ranges, big empty plains between, numbingly straight roads. Sod cycling, this is motoring heaven. We rattled through the desert in a decrepit Peugeot 205, our only measure of progress the counting down of the kilometre stones, the mountains and plains barely changing, as if it were beneath their dignity.

In Tineghir we stayed at the Hotel Tomboktu, an old kasbah which has been restored and beautifully decorated. It has far reaching views over the town, the palmgroves and the mountains beyond. And a stupendous view of the minaret 100 yards away, its loudspeakers directed accusingly at us. We’d not yet heard of there being a 3am call to prayer, but you learn something new every day.

A road climbs above the Dades gorge in a spectacular series of hairpins guarded by rails approximately 3cm high, and follows the river and its string of villages up the valley high into the mountains, continuing all the way over the Atlas range. This must be a wonderful remote crossing, and indeed it’s used by Exodus for one of their cycle tours, sorry, their ‘biking adventures’. Unfortunately, the adventure of that trip has now been ruined by the road’s having been surfaced, though we don’t know how far the tarmac continues, as we were too lazy to go very far.

The Todra gorge was more the real thing. From Tineghir the road more or less follows the river and its palm groves into an increasingly narrow squeeze of rocks. The road ends at the gorge proper, where vertical red cliffs tower above you. The tour buses come this far, and the tourists in their neat tailored clothes and dainty polished shoes go for a little walk. A rocky track continues on, following the river up. On a rock is painted “Auberge 5km” and it takes us nearly an hour to get there. The enticing vision of a French Country Inn and plates piled high with tasty hot tagines kept us going for that hour. Some chance – the auberge was a Berber tent, serving coca cola.

The track is reasonable for riding and pleasantly quiet. Some trucks use it, but not many. The gorge walls become lower as we go up but there’s no clue as to how long it’ll take us to Tamtatouchte. There are baffling numbers painted on the rocks, counting something.

11372.

11371.

11370.

– What do you suppose those numbers mean?

11369.

– I really have no idea.

11368. 11367.

– No, I don’t know either. Do you suppose we’re nearly there yet?

The valley begins to open out and we find a high plateau surrounded by rusty twisted stratified mountains. And then, a small building announces “Tagine 1 km”. And after this we begin to see Tamtatouchte. It’s strikingly Tibetan looking – long low mud-red enclosures with fringed straw tops to the walls. It’s strikingly Tibetan-feeling temperature-wise too, ie bloody cold. There are a number of basic café-hotels on the edge of the village that cater for the adventure group trade, and the food is good and hot and filling. We had lunch and belted back down to Tineghir’s pretty decent cake shop. And no thanks, we don’t want to visit the women’s market today. No really.

TCM. 2000

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