Settat, Morocco - Polarsteps
We have an easy coastal ride out of Rabat; bike lanes, flat land, perfect weather, and keeping the ocean on our right means we can ride straight without anyone turning in front of us. We turn inland and start an easy climb; we were initially going to keep going to Casablanca, but local advice held that it was going to be a chaotic, congested city to cycle in, with little reward in terms of things to do and see; we were fine to skip it (even the movie, we agreed, was a drag), in favour of country back-roads down towards Marrakech.
We've been told a few times that Moroccan guesthouses will generally let you camp near them with access to their facilities for a reduced fee; leaving the coast means leaving the tourist circuit and the campground system, so we aim for a maison d'hôte outside of Ben Slimane, one of very few accommodation options on the map. The grounds end up being landscaped and resort-y, and the guy at the front desk is really crusty, says no to us tenting, and then tries to sell us his most expensive room; when we're ready to walk away, he shows us a cheaper one, and then softens a bit when he finally sees the loaded bikes.
We do a little over a hundred kilometres the next day, for maybe? the first time since we really got into winter daylight hours. It's a day that includes three massive drops into low valleys followed by long, steep climbs back out of them. A short way after the last one some dogs try to chase us, and our yelling them off gets the neighbours' attention, followed by a tea invitation. It's hot in the sun, and we're led into a cool little room with cushions on the floor; the shady break and the sugary mint tea are welcome. We hold a baby named Mohammed, laugh with both of his grandmothers, and are fed a spread of bread, crepes, buns, olive oil and jam. Uncle Omar, who lives part-time in France, comes over from next door to chat in French with us-- we have really minimal common language with the rest of the family.
We hoped to camp somewhere before Settat, either at a not-on-the-map guesthouse, at a business, in someone's yard, or tucked away into the landscape. The road doesn't yield anything; it's lined with private farmland, a lot of gated houses, and no overnight accommodations. We wave back to a lot of friendly well-wishers at the side of the road, but stop a little short of diving in and approaching someone about tenting in their community. This is a big shift for us, from finding unofficial camping in sparsely-populated places-- where the game is finding a safe spot where no one knows where you are-- to finding unofficial camping in densely populated places, where the safety is in many people knowing where you are.
There's a point where we decide to just gun it and ride out the end of the day into the city. It gets dark as we're coming through the outskirts; we put our bright lights on, and then when we actually get into town the main street is well-lit and the lanes and crosswalks are lined with twinkling lights embedded in the pavement. The sidewalks are packed; families are out walking. As far as a night arrival in a city we don't know goes, this one is okay and we're relatively relaxed about it. We do, for the first time, attract the attention of the cops (we've so far avoided picking up a police escort, something that's sometimes been known to happen to cycle tourists here. We go through police checkpoints on the road, sometimes several times a day, holding our breath, but each time we're waved forward with a "Bon voyage"). They pull us over, scan our passports, and take down our travel plans in detail, then one of them escorts us the single block to our hotel, us walking the bikes and him riding his motorcycle down the sidewalk. He gets to the hotel manager first while we're leaning the bikes on a wall; I'm not sure what he says to him, but it feels pretty not-ideal to be showing up with the police.
Hotel Assaha is the cheapest place in town, and at about $12 CAD a night for a room, it's exactly as seedy as we're paying for. We stay two nights to rest off the 100km day. It has no showers, hole-in-the-floor shared bathrooms, no bedsheets (only fuzzy blankets and flannel pillowcases that definitely don't get washed between guests; we sleep in our sleeping bags with our clothes-bags-for-camp-pillows). Our door has been kicked in before, and a piece of wood has been nailed into place to repair the doorframe. Our window looks right down into the busy souk; regardless, it all quiets down at night and the private indoor space is a place to rest. The night we get in Kini goes out into the market and comes back with fresh juice, bread, a vocabulary lesson from the bread ladies, good chocolate and some other treats. There's a cafe with nice espresso across the square from us, and we spend a lot of the next morning there. We don't try to find out what there is to do or see in Settat; we just use the day to catch up, plan for the road ahead, and stock up on groceries for the rest of the ride to Marrakech.
🚲 Bike Jaunt 🚲