When Paul Armstrong found himself unable to fly, he decided to cycle instead – all the way from Scotland to the Sahara. Vanessa Bonnin reports
|Paul Armstrong in the Ruined Garden Café in Fez - Photo Vanessa Bonnin|
Armstrong, 27, from Alloway in Scotland, is a pilot with the Royal Navy who is equally passionate about cycling as he is flying. In January his entire fleet was grounded after two aircraft crashes and instead of taking off to Thailand with the rest of his squadron he decided to cycle to Morocco.
“I’ve ridden since I was a little kid, bikes are my thing,” Armstrong (no relation to Lance) said. “In the past I’ve done short tours like London to Amsterdam in two days, to the Alps and back, classic Tour de France climbs, that sort of thing, but this time I wanted to do a big tour. I had visited the north of Morocco 15 years ago with my parents but I wanted to see the real Morocco and go to the Sahara.”
But before he could search for “the real Morocco” he had to cycle all the way through Scotland, England, Belgium, France and Spain. On his Spin road bike, with a handmade titanium frame, he took in a few mountain ranges on the way including the Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra de Grazalema.
“I left Scotland in mid-January, and for the first few weeks I was miserable because of the cold,” he said. “I could only take minimal kit on the bike and my SLR camera was my only luxury. Then from Malaga all the way to Larache there were horrendous headwinds, I was only doing an average of nine miles an hour, compared to my normal rate of 18 miles an hour. There was really heavy rain and I was having a miserable time!I also stacked it in Tangier only two miles from the ferry because they seemed to be digging up every road in Tangier at the time and the roads were covered in mud slicks.”
Despite thinking of his squadron in sunny Thailand, Armstrong persevered taking a route down through Morocco that went from Tangier to Larache (where he spent his 27th birthday), Rabat, Casablanca, Safi, Essaouria, Agadir, Tiznit and finally Tan Tan.
“Tan Tan was my most southerly destination but it was about the whole journey for me, not just the destination of the desert, although I really did want to see the sand dunes,” he said. “I baked even though I was using 50+ sunscreen! But it was phenomenal to see. What I was I most happy about was I’d been cycling into a head wind since Tangier – for over 1000kms – and it was pretty soul destroying. So turning around and having a tail wind was fantastic!”
Despite reaching the desert, his journey was far from over and the highlights of his adventure were yet to come.
“After Tan Tan I cycled back to Tiznit and then went inland over the Anti-Atlas to Tafraout,” he said. “These were Alpine-style climbs, really arduous averaging 8-9% inclines over 20 miles and the sun was blisteringly hot, climbing all the way to 2500m. But it was worth it, Tafraout and the whole area was spectacular, indescribable really.”
Armstrong then went from Taroudant to Marrakech, via the Tizi N’Test pass, a route that has been described as the most spectacular in Morocco, reaching a high point of 2092m above sea level.
“I was quite apprehensive about climbing the Tizi N’Test Pass which wasn’t helped by stopping and meeting a Moroccan cyclist working as a waiter at the bottom who said ‘there’s no way you’ll make it in one day’”, he said. "Undeterred however I set off and got to a sign at the start of the climb that said Tizi N’Test 36kms. There was a 7-8% gradient for the entire climb but I did it in 3.5 hours with 6 litres of water and 1.5 litres of Coca-Cola!
"That was my achievement moment, getting to the top of the Tizi N’Test Pass. There’s phenomenal scenery up there and then I set off on the descent into the sunset which was magic.”
After two days well-earned rest in Marrakech, Armstrong continued his Morocco tour through Beni Mellal, Khenifra, Azrou, Meknes and finally Fes, where we meet him – arriving for brunch at the Ruined Garden Café with a helpful local called Youssef.
“My whole experience of Morocco has been that the people are so friendly - Youssef is a good example of that friendliness,” he said. "I’ve almost come to expect it here. Bumping into people and getting chatting. The kids especially, all the kids run after you down the road, waving and holding out their hands to shake. It’s great, puts a smile on your face. With the bike you get to experience the country and the people in a way you wouldn’t in a car or campervan or on a motorbike.”
So what was the highlight of experiencing Morocco by bike?
“The best moment was when I was riding from Azrou to Meknes, I was riding through a 2000m pass in hailstones and strong winds,” he said “I had this car behind me, beeping and beeping, then they pulled alongside me and handed over some chocolate bars! It put a big smile on my face – I was soaked to the skin but that gesture really kept me going.”
And what does this intrepid explorer think of our beloved city, Fes?
“I love Fes, it’s a warren, you walk down side streets and discover new things, it’s one big adventure. I love the sense of discovery. And the tanneries are something else – they didn’t smell as bad as I thought they would!” he said.
Despite the hardships on this journey – his longest by bike so far – Armstrong is determined to try more cycling adventures in the future.
“Oh definitely, to ride in a different culture is amazing and to get to visit the country as well is a fantastic combination.”
Armstrong travelled on from Fes to Chefchaouen, Al Hoceima, Tangier and Malaga before flying home with a slightly heavier load that included the essential Fes purchases – a Moroccan, rug and a leather jacket!