Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
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.
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.
Updated December 2021
Trans Atlas: MH20
Talat n Yacoub (Ijoukak) > Ouneine basin > Ouaougdimt valley > Aoulouz • 88km
April 2018 – BMW G310GS, Honda XR250 Tornado
April 2019 – Enfield Himalayan
February 2020 – BMW Sertao
October 2021 – Africa Twin (new bypass track)
Another High Atlas crossing to try alongside MH19 (also an online addition to the guidebook). This one only rises to 2200m, steeply climbing some 500m in 8km after leaving the road SE of Ijoukak (right). Initially, you may find the looser parts of this climb a struggle in a 2WD or on a heavy, wide bike. It’s probable that local 2WD vans only do it northbound (downhill) to Ijoukak.
From the pass the incline abates and the track smoothes out as it rolls down towards the villages of the Ouneine basin and the P1735 whose extension eastwards to Igli (Iguidi) on MH6 is now sealed (above).
You 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.
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 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 little steep and loose and about as hard as it gets, but we saw local 125s two-up and minivans, albeit heading the other way (ie: descending). From the pass, the gradient eases off 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 your freewheeling reward and no more steep grades.
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.
3 (85) Pass through Ijoukak, cross the bridge and turn right up the side road. Soon you’ll pass a nice-looking auberge.
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.
19 (69) Tizi n Oulaoune 2200-m high point. The track now eases off as it descends. (Photo, bottom of the page.)
23 (65) Fork with sign (photo below: ‘Map Junction’). East at this fork is a rough track which in 9km joins the new road to Igli as mentioned above (MH21). Keep right (south) to continue descending to the villages in the Ouneine basin visible to the west. Eventually, at a junction around KM35 you join the new extension of the P1735 which goes E towards Igli over a 2500-m terrace. This is a spectacular road (left).
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, 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.
83 (5) Roundabout on the N10.
88 Aoulouz fuel station/s.
Trans Atlas: MH21
Ijoukak > Igli > Askaoun > Taliouine • 170km
April 2019; Enfield Himalayan
Updated October 2021; Honda Africa Twin
At the old ‘Afra’ sign at KM23, a rough but Transit-able track runs east 9km to join the Igli road; see map right. The new road soon rises to over 2550m or 8300 feet and is now all sealed and descends spectacularly down to Igli on MH6. From here carry on southwest.
Above the Moktar Soussi reservoir, in October 2021 I tried to follow the 5-km short cut as shown on Google (above right in blue and below in red) over the Asif Tifnoute, but I’m pretty sure it does not exist. I did manage to get close enough to scramble up to the track on the south bank of the Asif.
Like many reservoirs hereabouts, the level has been low for years, way below what some maps show. I reached a promising new wide track alongside the reservoir’s northeastern shore (yellow, above) and which led to the sandy Asif Tifnoute alongside some parked-up diggers.
One formed track crossed the riverbed’s former mouth but was blocked by a mound of pushed-up dirt just above the sandy south bank. Scooters had squeezed past then crossed fields on the now exposed lakebed; the Google track (red above) was very close but out of sight up the hillside. If you can get up that sandy bank and over the fields, the green dots will probably link up to the village and the ford for the road up to Askaoun. But it was late and hot and I didn’t want to risk getting bogged on my heavy AT.
Other tracks got close to where the southside track was visible; a 50-m scramble on foot up a couple of banks (above). But once on the track it was clear it was only used by mopeds and donkeys. That meant it was unlikely there’s any regularly used crossing of the Oued Tifnoute further upstream, so I left it at that.
So carry on along the tarmac route shown in blue above, cross the river below the dam wall and head up to Askaoun (KM120) then down to Taliouine.
Total 170KM, fuel to fuel.
We did this in February 2020 twice with a lunch in Igli. A great ride with a dizzying number of bends in one day.
MH212 Bypass • 12km
October 2021 • Honda Africa Twin
At the ‘Ouadouz/Ouneine’ turn-off (MH20KM11.5), carry on southeast along the tarmac for a few km until it ends at a village (green mark on map below). Keep going along an easy piste up the valley and past a couple more villages, as it climbs to meet the end of the MH21 link track close to the Ouneine-Igli tarmac.
At the tarmac it’s right and mostly down to Ouneine, or up to over 2550m then down to Igli on the Aquim-Aoulouz road.
This new track cuts 20km off the 170km fuel-to-fuel distance of MH21 and is much easier than the steep climb up to Tizi n Oulaoune; anything can manage it.
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.