“I had a farm in Arfrikarr.”
As I caught my first glimpse of the distant shoreline of northern Africa, Meryl Streep’s opening line from the film Out of Africa replayed in my head.
Africa, whether it’s Meryl Streep falling in love, Michael Cane getting done in by Zulus, or Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart boating it through the Congo — oh, and yes, the original Dakar rally route — Africa holds a special place in our psyche.
Romantic, exotic, dangerous, unchartered territory — if you’re about to go to Africa and you’re not consumed by excitement then you’re either an African, or probably afraid to leave your house to buy milk.
AFRICA AND THE ATLAS
The trepidation of our group is palpable as we sway back and forth like a group of drunks on the ferry from Tarifa Spain to Tangiers, Morocco.
It’s a journey that I’d already made three days earlier to cap off a Euro vacation treat with my Trouble and Strife (alas in a rented car) for her fortieth. Morocco for her was a must-do trip and the day trip special to Tangiers — offered by the ferry company themselves — seemed to be just the ticket.
Alas, it proved to be a thinly-disguised captive shopping excursion. And I mean thinly-disguised as in faux glasses, bushy eyebrows and a big plastic nose party attire type of disguise.
Being herded by our ‘guide’ from one dingy store to another (the owners of which seem to be somehow related to said guide) through a catacomb of narrow unfamiliar streets packed with beggars and overly keen sellers quickly grew tiresome, and we soon hatched an escape plan. This was not as easy as you would think however, as we were actually tailed and then confronted before finally making good our escape and heading back to the safety of the ferry. Bizarre.
Even though our day in Tangiers almost made the complete circle from being so bad it was actually good, it was that day that now sat uneasy in the pit of my swaying stomach. Could Morocco be one big Tangiers, or is that just the inevitable evolution of a port town, invaded daily by the Euro tourist hoards?
This day was also to be one of the longest — a 430-km dash from our rendezvous in Malaga, Spain to the town of Azrou in the Middle Atlas Mountains — of a 10-day tour.
The route had been devised by Canada’s Patrick Trahan (one of the few Canadians to actual finish the punishing Dakar rally, albeit the South American version) and he was also our guide, with bikes and support supplied by MotoAdvenTours based in Spain.
To cover the required distance and get through customs meant a very early start and a dash to catch the first ferry of the day followed by a two-hour wait in Tangiers to get all the paperwork cleared for the bikes and 11 riders.
Riding through Tangiers turned out to be even more of a challenge than trying to lose our guide in the narrow alleyways a few days before and proved to be a good introduction to adventure riding, even if it was about having to dodge cars and suicidal pedestrians rather than rocks and dunes.
Once out of the city limits it was a morning of highway sprinting to get to the interesting stuff before lunch, where we had our first experience of the standard Moroccan culinary fare, Tajine. It appears that most dishes are cooked this way, basically in a Tajine — which is a clay pot and lid — in which various veggies and meats are added and slow cooked. Delicious.
Lunch stop was also our first encounter with the Moroccan toilet system: basically a hole in the ground that you squat over. Thankfully there was what appeared to be a urinal too, but I was a little confused why they would put a row of taps in it. That quickly became apparent when one of our group got shouted at for pissing in the hand-washing trough. Oh, I see, thus the taps …
This area of Morocco was not at all what I had expected. I’d expected that once away from the coast we’d be in barren lands as we inched away to the Sahara to the south. Instead, it was the polar opposite: rolling hills covered in a lush patchwork quilt of various shades of greens and yellows.
Sadly, this was juxtapositioned with the local towns that looked like half-finished construction sites orbited by garbage-strewn scrubland. Despite this, the locals on the whole seemed friendly and genuinely happy to have us ride through their domain. Almost every child and even a few adults would wave or give the thumbs-up as our convoy of rich westerners blasted by.
As the day drew to a close, we started our slow climb up into the Middle Atlas as barley fields gave way to a carpet of grass and herds of goats. Our guide took us on a brief off-road detour that put us through some of the best views of the Middle Atlas.
It was my first real magical moment in Morocco, and the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach melted away.
After 13 hours of travelling, the hotel couldn’t come soon enough. Despite having had its heyday back 1973, it was clean, we managed to find some beer, the food was fine and the bed quickly took me into the unconscious world.
THROUGH THE MIDDLE AND HIGH ATLAS TO MERZOUGA
This day we headed farther south, destination Merzouga and the Sahara proper, close to the Algerian border. But first there was more lushness in the Middle Atlas as we traversed a forest of giant cedars, which turned back into farmland and then eventually the more arid edges of the desert, replete with the snow-capped High Atlas in the distance.
The Moroccan towns may not have been the most inspiring but the landscape most definitely was.
As with any desert, there’s swaths of flat that leave time for your mind to wander, but this area also has some spectacular oases – not merely a few palm trees around a well or pond, but in some cases, whole valleys full of life. Huge green swaths in an otherwise barren land of rock and sand.
We stopped to visit one of the smaller oases and were immediately swarmed by people claiming to be our friends (always a bad sign) with a dogged determination to get us to go into their shops as if their very existence depended on it. It was frustrating, as all I wanted to do was get back in the saddle and head towards the peace of the open desert.
By 5 p.m. we were all getting a little tired, but the day’s adventure was only just beginning as we veered off the pavement and into the Sahara’s hard-packed (with occasional soft sand to keep you puckered) domain. It was wide-open country, and the setting sun splashed a soft light over everything. Not a bad intro to the desert.
The hotel was just perfect with traditional architecture, a central outdoor pool and most importantly, cold beer. Morocco was getting better by the day.
FOLLOWING THE DRAA TO ZAGORA
I awoke to bright sunshine, singing birds and the chatter of Arabic in the courtyard below. Today was going to be a lot of paved desert road as we headed to the Draa Valley – a collection of oases that make up the biggest palmery in Morocco.
The morning was spent getting across desert, but it was hilly enough to break up the monotony. For the afternoon we headed off-road again, and along a narrow rocky trail that hopped from one mud-constructed village to the next.
Some were abandoned half-ruins. These remains are literally melted down, after being abandoned to the action of the rare rainfalls, to reduce them back into the ground from whence they came. It was a little spooky, but it was good to be in an area that was off the beaten track, where we were less likely to be swarmed by vendors at each stop.
But it came with a price as the road got progressively rougher and a couple of the bikes went down in the rocks.
No injuries (save for a broken mirror), but it eventually got too tough to pass and we diverted back to the paved road to get to our hotel.
It was another winner, but I was already starting to feel some accumulation of fatigue and this was only day three … and tomorrow would be the big off-road day.
A DAY IN THE DIRT AND A NIGHT IN A BIVOUAC
One hundred kilometres doesn’t sound like a very long day, but it was wisely planned as it was all pretty much all off-road. Almost from the start we were collectively pulling big and little GSs through deep sand.
Though most people think of a deserts as just sand, they’re usually made of pretty hard-packed dirt scattered with various-sized rocks, and the Sahara here was no different. However, the sand was present in patches and to get across it without falling you had to obey one law – keep momentum! In other words you needed some speed.
Slowing down is a natural reaction, but it loads your front wheel, which in turn is leads to a merry dance in the fickle sand until you either grind to a painful stop (the pain is trying to get going again) or go arse over tits over the bars.
As a result, I tended to hit the brakes when I saw a patch coming and then sat back and accelerated through it, keeping the front light so that it didn’t dig in and twist up on me. It might not have been the most graceful technique, but it was one that kept me as comfortable as could be under the circumstances.
I thought I was doing well at about 70 km/h, until Patrick stopped me and angrily asked if I wanted to end up in a hospital. This took me back a little, so I listened to what he has to say (“Keep it down to 20-30 km/h!”), tried it, and then compromised on 50 km/h to keep the 1200GS’s wheel a little lighter and the speed down … ish.
The area is a Mecca for off-road tourism and you come across many 4×4 vehicles plastered in Dakar rally stickers while the tourists inside play adventurer. Inexplicably, it also has its share of beggars.
You can stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, sit down for a break, and within minutes up pops a camel herder with their hands out, asking for Dirham. I know I should walk a mile in their shoes, but the begging was just incessant.
I’m guessing most tourists will give them something, so for a camel herder in the middle of the Sahara, there can be a lot to be gained from at least asking.
But just when I thought that I had this riding sussed we dropped into a dry oued (river bed) that was the only route through. It was only about a kilometre or two long, but it was comprised almost entirely of very soft sand.
With 11 riders to get through the oued, riders were dropping like flies, and progress meant hopping from one hard patch (look for rocks on the surface) to the next, getting off and then going back to help the casualties get up and going again. Usually just to repeat it five seconds later.
One of our group had forgotten their vertigo medicine and was having trouble standing up, never mind riding a GS Adventure through soft sand in 35-degree heat. But like the Energizer Bunny, he just kept going and going, and with the help of Pauly (a stocky and dependable ex-rugby-playing Newfoundlander who rode at the back to help pick up the fallen) we eventually got out of the oued and onto firmer ground.
Relief also came with an edge of complacency, as there were still many more patches of soft sand to run afoul of. Doug, another Newfoundlander, took the prize for the most spectacular crash when he hit a patch of sand at the bottom of the hill and sailed somewhat ungracefully over the bars (to great roars of laughter from the bystanders), only to be body-slammed by his 800GS that followed him over in slow motion.
That stopped us all laughing pretty quick and when he didn’t move we all rushed down the hill to check that he was not dead. He wasn’t, but it took him a while to get up, making me realize that if there’s one place where you really don’t want to need an ambulance, it’s here.
What we did need though was a nice cold beer and that was supplied courtesy of our accommodation for the night – a Saharan bivouac. You may not know what a bivouac is (I didn’t – it’s apparently an encampment of improvised shelters) but it is a perfect way to really feel that you’re somewhere special – and we really were.
I’m guessing most bivouacs are a little more improvised than ours, but I’m more than happy to find that our concrete-walled, carpet-draped hut came with a comfy bed and en-suite restaurant/bar. And right next to a bloody huge dune too, just for a little more atmosphere.
As was becoming the norm, I was exhausted by dinner time and even the clatter of metal objects and the beat of drums of the hotel staff around the night fire couldn’t keep me awake for long.
Besides, tomorrow would be another full day with more off-road riding… and a certain incident with a GS front wheel that would eventually put a dent in my Moroccan experience …
Catch Part 2 next week where ‘Arris takes the big GS into it’s unhappy place.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
Actually you misunderstood the stop sign. If you notice the fake dots, somebody change it so that it says “Wake up” in arabic instead of “Stop” because nobody stops at stop signs.
Woo Hoo, I am infamous. Ribs are almost healed! Great write up Rob, and great meeting you. I hope we can ride together again some day. I can show you how I crash in water.
My wife (sorry, trouble and strife) and I were in Morocco last year (Rabat, Fez, Meknes, Casablanca) travelling mostly by train. We were in a few of the medinas – those very busy, noisy, smelly, arabic markets, and quickly learned how to navigate without being constantly accosted. It helps if you know some french and get over the habit of walking into a shop to browse or linger on a whim – if you do, its a very obvious invitation for the vender. After a day or so, it is not so intimidating. We had a great time!
Great trip report! I travelled though many of the same places in ’98 and it looks like nothing has changed at all. The trip out into the Sahara was definitely a highlight and something I recommend to anyone with the travel bug. Being able to read at night by brilliant starlight is incredible. The region south of the Atlas Mtns is mostly Berbers, a much friendlier and less aggressive culture than the people to the north. This is a great area to travel around – many scenes in the movie Gladiator were filmed in the Ouarzazate region. Good food, great art, beautiful scenery… and highly accessible from Spain.
Hmmm….beggars, heat, and soft sand.
I think I’ll vist my wife’s relatives in Rhode Is. instead.
ignorant. You probably can’t afford to go on an international trip. Stick to Rhode Island.
hey Vibrator, I’ve been on enough international trips to last me a lifetime. I’m allowed an OPINION. Twit.
Great pictures and narrative. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. Thanks for the Moroccan pointers.