Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Tag Archives: high atlas
N is for: Not Riding to Taghia
Part of an Sahara A to Z series
‘Free Solo’ is a documentary covering Alex Honnold’s mind-boggling, rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, California in 2017 (left). If you’ve seen it you may recall that, among other places, Honnold practised on a hidden cirque of cliffs surrounding the scattered hamlet of Taghia, buried about as deep in Morocco’s High Atlas as you can get. A couple of rudimentary gites cater for visitors but, even among Moroccan know-alls, unless you’re a rock climber you’ll have never heard of Taghia. The only way in is a four-mile mule trek through a canyon from the valley head at the equally obscure outpost of Zuweiat Ahansal, an hour or two’s ride south of Rocher de Mastfrane, better known as the ’Cathedral’ (below).
I rocked up at Zuweiat one lunchtime just as a group of young American climbers were spilling out of a taxi, and continued over the bridge to the edge of the old town. I pulled over for a snack and, unsure of the way and not wanting to blunder on, asked a passing local whether it was possible to ride a bike to Taghia and if yes, which way?
‘Oh no’ said the old man. ‘You can only get there on foot.’
I finished my snack and thought it over. Back by the bridge, I sought a second opinion from some more worldly looking dudes hanging out outside the post office. They were eyeing up the new, North Face-clad arrivals and one spoke good English.
‘Yes, I saw you pass and was going to say, you can’t ride your moto to Taghia.’
It turned out he’d worked on the Honnold doc as well as other National Geographic features and, reading his manner with my finely tuned bullshit detector (which they now hand out free at the border), it didn’t sound like the usual bragging. After that, he switched seamlessly into sales mode, offering lodgings and guides.
‘Maybe next time’, I said. I genuinely did hope to visit the mysterious valley, but the weather forecast was a bit shaky for the next couple of days. I wanted to get out of the mountains, not stuck in them.
A year or two earlier a bike-riding climber who’d visited Taghia suggested to me that a small bike (like my Himalayan) could probably reach the cirque following the riverside mule path.
While that may be true, I figured just because I could, did I have to – or even, should I? The local guide may merely have been protecting his mule-trekking services, but I like the idea of leaving some of the world’s wild corners unspoiled by the putter of mechanized transport. As I was about to be reminded, there’s plenty to see in Morocco on a bike or in a 4×4, but there are many places in the world which are best reached by less intrusive human-powered transportation. That’s what makes them special.
A Good Day in Morocco
Set off with a mission to join some dots for my spring tour in a couple of weeks.
Mission accomplished. Dots joined.
More about the bike here.
High Atlas village
Another new road from nowhere to nowhere much. I suppose it helps stir up the local gene pool.
One of these days I’m going to watch a youtube doc on how they build mountain roads.
Above the clouds at 2500m or about 8300′ in old money.
An isolated juniper tree that’s managed to dodge the village wood burners.
Checking the link route to Map Junction above Ijoukak.
1970s Transit. One of the only vehicle’s I saw today once off the main roads. The other was a Trannie too.
Another photogenic village somewhere.
Resting outside a village north of Sidi Ouazik, a relocated Reguibat (Saharawi) ends up giving me some meteorites from the Hammada du Tindouf (St Expert mentioned these in WS).
Never knew Saharawi were relocated way up here – 45 families, he said.
I tell him I’m on my way to Reguibat country. About 5 days ride from here to #thedigtree
Sunset at the casbah.
Always room for a whaffer thin slice of cake.
Morocco Overland: Route MH20 + MH21* + MH212 bypass
Updated January 2023
Trans Atlas: MH20
Talat n Yacoub (Ijoukak) > Ouneine basin > Ouaougdimt valley > Aoulouz • 88km
First run April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado
Last run November 2022 – KTM890R
High Atlas crossing parallel to the nearby Tizi n Test which peaks 2200m, steeply climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak (right). You may find the looser parts of this climb a struggle in a 2WD or on a heavy, wide bike, but this was not the case on 2022 in a 4×4. It’s probable that local 2WD vans only do it downhill (northbound) to Ijoukak.
In 2022 the track was rougher as it rolled down to the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose extension eastwards to Igli on (MH21) is now sealed. Keep right at the fork with an illegible sign. At the bottom just before the road joins the road you have to detour around the boundary fence of a new small mine,
Once in the basin carry on SW along the P1735, and at Sidi ali ou Brahim village swing sharp left off the road, cross the stream and follow the Ouaougdimt valley piste 24km SE (not fully shown on most paper maps) to join the MH6 road coming down from Aguim on the N9 Marrakech–Ouarzazate road.
Or, if you’re in a rush or heading towards Taroudant, at Sidi ali ou Brahim carry on 23km south on the ever-bendy P1735 to Sidi Ouaziz (fuel) on the N10. Otherwise, it would be a shame to miss out on the scenic Ouaougdimt valley stage, as it rises onto a terrace high above the valley floor.
Parts of the route are just about legible on paper maps, least badly on the inset ‘High Atlas’ panel on the Michelin. But none show the full Ouaougdimt valley route. It’s all on Google and the OSM/Garmin digitals.
The climb up to the 2200-m Tizi n Oulaoune pass from KM11 starts a steeply but lately has been graded. From the pass the gradient eases off with great views doiwn to the basin while you’ll find the Ouaougdimt valley stage no harder than anything you’ve just done. Carefully ridden, a big bike could manage the loose hairpins; so could a 2WD with clearance, though as always these mountain tracks require concentration. On an MTB it will be a slog if not a push up to the Tizi n Oulaoune, followed by a rough freewheeling reward to the basin and no more huge grades thereafter. Bikes might have more fun following MH21 to the high P1735 road, turning left or right.
Easy enough. We winged it just by studying Google satellite imagery beforehand, jotting down some distances between junctions. That’s now all listed below. Download the MH20kml file.
Half a day will do you.
0km (88) Talat n Yacoub fuel station on the R203 Tizi n Test road. Head north to Ijoukak village.
3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass Houssain’s agreeable mountain lodge.
11 (77) At the fork before a village turn right, drop down over a bridge and carry on. Soon there’s a sign right: ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine? 24km’ (it’s something with ‘O’). The 500m climb to the pass begins. (Ahead, MH21 continues).
19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point with views of Toubkal (4167m) 20km to the northeast. The track now eases off as it descends.
23 (65) Fork with sign (photo above: ‘Map Junction’). East at this fork is a rough track (MH212) which in 9km joins MH21 to Igli (MH21). Keep right (south) to continue descending to the Ouneine basin visible to the west. At a new small mine work your way round the fence to the south. to rejoin the track. Eventually, at a junction around KM35 you join the P1735 road which goes E towards Igli over a 2500-m terrace. This is a spectacular road (MH21).
Meanwhile, the P1735 crosses the Ouneine basin SW and threads through a small pass back into the hills.
54 (34) Sidi ali ou Brahim. The tarmac carries on 22km to Sidi Ouaziz (fuel) on the N10 but you turn sharp left here, drop down to the stream and up the other side. The track is initially a bit eroded and loose as it climbs to the first village, but that’s why they invented suspension. It then eases off as it rises above the valley on a terrace (right) with great views down to the villages below. You could be in the Cevennes or the Pyrenees, but you’re in the High Atlas. It could be worse.
78 (10) Join the tarmac (MH6) by the reservoir. Turn right (west).
83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.
88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.
Trans Atlas: MH21*
* Easily confused with route ‘MH21 Cirque de Jaffar’ in the book, which henceforth will be called MH2.2
Ijoukak > Igli > Askaoun > Taliouine • 170km
Last run: November 2022; KTM 890R
At the ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine’ turn-off (MH20KM11.5) for the steep track up to Tizi n Oulaoune, carry on southeast on tarmac for a few km until it ends at a village (green mark on map abobe). Keep going along an easy piste rising up the valley and past a couple more villages. Just before one village keep right (downwards); sharp back left leads up to who knows where. Your route climbs to meet the end of the MH212 link track close to the Ouneine-Igli tarmac.
Turn left then at the tarmac nearby it’s left up to over 2550m then a long wind down to Igli (hotel/cafe) on the Aquim-Aoulouz road MH6.
From here carry on south then west down the valley and turn left at a sign to cross below the dam wall (roadworks in 2022) and wins your way up to up to Askaoun (KM120) then down to Taliouine.
Total 170KM, fuel to fuel.
I did versions of this route three times in November 2022 with a lunch in Igli. A great ride with a dizzying number of bends in one day.
MH212 link track • 9km
November 2022 • KTM890R
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23, a rough but Transit-able track runs east 9km to join the Igli road; see map right.
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at MH20KM23, a rough but just about Transit-able track runs east 9km to join MH21; see map above. Go this way if you want to do MH21 with the tougher steep climb of MH20.
MH19 – a new High Atlas crossing
Over the years there was talk of a High Atlas crossing in 100-km span between the MH12 Demnate backroad (above) and MH1 via Agoudal. The 4000-m ridge of the Mgoun massif separated them.
There are trekking trails which probably could be threaded together on a light bike, but now Moroccan road builders have completed what I’ve dubbed ‘MH19‘, a route usable in any vehicle as long as conditions allow. I heard about it too late to describe fully in the 2017 edition, although it is mapped on page 110 (below left).
I got to ride the route on a 250 just as the book was published in October 2017, and again about a month later southbound in a 4×4. Like many Morocco routes it’s a straightforward drive once you find the start points, doable without much of a description or GPS.
Northbound, all you need to know is:
1. Fork right, off the road at the top end of Alemdoun village for the old route through the gorge, or stay on the tarmac over the pass. Southbound, just east of Tabant turn right (south) over the ford for the easy 17-km climb to the Ait Imi pass.
2. Have a 200km fuel range.
Elevation profiles show the road climbing steeply from the south up to the Aït Hamad pass, but the gradient on the entire route is never extreme, and as long as the surface remains smooth, the route is doable in a regular car or a fully loaded big adv bike.
It took us 3 hours to ride the 80-km of piste from Alemdoun to Tabant, and about the same southbound in a 4×4.
At Amelgag we chose the gorge route (right) instead of the new climb over the pass, a great diversion (and the original route) which is still used by local Merc taxivans. Coming north, turn off right at the bend as you enter Amejgag village and wind your way north through the village to the gorge.
‘MH19’ links the book’s two Jebel Sarhro west routes, MH14 and 15 which end near Kelaa, with routes MH16, 17 and 18 in the Aït Bouguemaze valley on the north slopes of the High Atlas.
The route passes Alemdoun (cafes, fuel at the shop if you ask). On the way you’ll pass many Rose Valley auberges in the villages. At the start of Alemdoun keep on the bypass west of the village for Amejgag. Here on as bend, the original piste splits right (north) for the Amejgag Gorge and the river to join up in the Ameskar valley in about 10km. Most local traffic uses this narrow route.
Otherwise, the new route takes you up over a 2350-m ‘Amejgag Pass‘ (KM50) before dropping down to Ameskar and joining the gorge route (KM56). Now the steep climb begins to the 3042-metre Tizi n’Ait Hamad (~KM65). From the top of this pass (left; telecom tower; bloke in a hut) Jebel Mgoun summit (4071m; second only to Toubkal) is a 16km walk to the west. This was the rougher part of the crossing, but still smooth enough to be doable in a 2WD or a heavy bike.
You descend from the Ait Hamad (above), climb an intermediate pass then descend into the valley of the Mgoun river, bypassing some remote villages of El Mrabitine. This descent is on a broader, metalled road, which should be sealed by now. You cross the Mgoun stream (KM83) and climb less steeply to the Tizi n’Aït Imi (2898m; ~KM98). At the top Aït Bouguemaze valley lies 20km below.
Busy Tabant village (KM117) has shops and basic bap cafes before you join MH18 (if heading west). As the whole area is popular with trekkers, there are several auberges hereabouts.
There is a small Total just west of the Rose roundabout in Kella; the point where you turn north off the N10. At the Aït Bouguemaze end, the nearest fuel is either Azilal, 79km to the north via MH17 – a fabulous drop from the pine forests. Or stay on MH18 west to Demnate; 83km – about 90 mins of near-constant bends.
Total fuel-to-fuel distance from Kelaa to either is around 200km, but there is drum fuel at the shop at the top end of Alemdoun.