Hollywood, Cycling The Atlas Mountains & The Route To Marrakesh


Orson Welles, Peter O’Toole, Russel Crowe and Harrison Ford. What do they have in common with the participants of the 2024 Morocco: Kingdom of the West Cycling Tour? I imagine most of you have absolutely no idea.

A glorious few days of cycling took us from the towering sand dunes of Merzouga, through Alnif, a town where you could pick up an infinite number of trilobites scraped from the ancient canyon walls around town, to a couple of wonderful, or should I say stunning, gorges – Todra and Dades. The route connecting these sights, described by one cyclist as an epic ride, was a result of  our excellent scouting team of Sharita and Britney. It passed through the Skoura Oasis, described by my guide book as “an extraordinary sight – a very extensive, very dense palmary, with an incredibly perplexing network of tracks winding across fords and through palms”, and continued on to the location of our scheduled rest day, Ait Benhaddou.

Ait Benhaddou

Though it is popular with Hollywood myth makers, that is not why Ait Benhaddou has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has its origin at least a millennia ago as a important spot on the trans–Saharan trade route and it is its elaborate ksar, a tribal stronghold of narrow alleyways and towers that overlooks the area for miles around, that makes it unique and a recipient of the UNESCO stamp of approval, with all the subsequent benefits and detriments, including thousands of tourists. As much as the locals like the UNESCO designation, it is the intricate ksar that attracts the Hollywood tribe and its millions of followers. The place has been the location for dozens of films and television productions, including Lawrence of Arabia, Orson Welles’ Sodom and Gomorrah, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth and, more currently, Russel Crowe’s movie, Gladiator, and the series, Game of Thrones. But it is not just Ait Benhaddou.

On the way here, about 35 km from Ait Benhaddou, we cycled through a modern town, Ouarzazate, which unlike Ait Benhaddou has its origin in the 1920’s as a French Foreign Legion garrison. There were no signs there of legionaries, however, the town does have a couple of large film studios, like Atlas Films. Like its neighbourly UNESCO community, it also has a ‘few’ film credits of its own, such as ABC’s Cleopatra, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and The Jewel of Nile. So what do the Hollywood stars and we common cyclists have in common?

I would guess that we all come here because we are attracted by what we see and what the scenery and the culture bring out in us when we are here. It could be the mountains and the arid land, it could be the fertile oasis, it could be the Berber culture and traditions or it could simply be that the total environment draws out the best from us. In a series, Reflections On Cycling the World, which I wrote six years ago, my first piece quotes the British Explorer Wilfred Thesiger who was the first European to traverse the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula. He wrote that “the harder the life, the finer the type.”. Perhaps it is the hard life and its surroundings that attracts us and gives us magic in return.


Morocco: Kingdom of the West

Join us on this mystical cycling odyssey through Morocco – The Kingdom of the West. It is a country of mountains and beaches, souks and mosques...


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