Last issue, Alun Davies told the tale of how he’d set off to Morocco on a Norton Commando in the late 70s and eventually arrived in 2010. In part 2, we pick up the story as the group of 17 hit the trails through the mountains and deserts of North Africa…
From a high vantage point on a south-facing slope, I looked out over a huge expanse of parched desert landscape bordered by jagged peaks. This was the North Africa of my dreams, a deserted Saharan wilderness seemingly untouched since the dawn of time. As the sun dipped in the west it cast a warm red glow of tranquillity. I considered rolling a cigarette, to help lose myself deeper in the moment… but I couldn’t move my arm, and there was petrol dripping on my nose.
The KTM lying on top of me had pinned both an arm and a leg against the sides of a narrow ditch, comprising steep walls of crumbling earth with the odd rock and crystal poking through; but my luck was in. I still had a clear view, and even by Moroccan standards with a motorcycle crushing my limbs, the vista was sensational.
If you know anything about holes in the ground in this part of North Africa (my knowledge had increased dramatically over the past few days) then you may have guessed that I was entombed in volcanic tufta, which along with frozen arctic tundra is the best-known preservative of dinosaur remains – an appropriate place for an ageing Welshman to crash and burn.
Without leverage to lift the machine, I decided to chill and take advantage of the spectacular horizon until Dylan the Kiwi arrived. At a guess, I reckoned him to be no more than five minutes behind, unless he too was getting up close and familiar with the rocky volcanic soil.
But with a steady drip of petrol joining the party it was time to squirm and shuffle as best I could and try to get out from under the bike. I was at the halfway point of extricating myself when Dylan pulled up and killed his engine. He dismounted slowly, looked around calmly and took stock of the situation.
“That was one hell of a ride, hey Alun.” “Sure was Dylan,” I replied. “I reckon the other guys are at least 15 minutes behind.” “Oh.” “Great view, eh?” “Yeah.”
And so it went on for the next few surreal minutes. Dylan seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was lying trapped under a motorcycle in a narrow slot in the earth with petrol soaking into my clothes and unable to reach my tobacco.
“Er, Dylan, would you give me a hand to lift the bike off me?”
“Sure thing mate, I thought you were resting.”
Desert fever had set in.
After a week riding off-road through the Atlas, anti Atlas, Djebel Sahro and high dunes of the Moroccan Sahara coming across one of your riding buddies pinned to the floor by an upturned bike was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, such occasions had become a fine opportunity to stop, check out the scenery, take a drink, smoke a cigarette, hang out and socialise. Dylan had it mastered.
Our party of 17 had thinned out over the past few days with one casualty being flown home early after a particularly nasty high-speed fall. Others had taken a lift in the Motoaventures support truck and a few more decided to stick with the tarmac. For those left riding the trails, the spills and thrills were becoming more frequent as fatigue increased and concentration levels diminished. But we were close to the finishing line of our ‘Mini Dakar’.
Tonight we’d be kipping a few miles down the trail near the huge vertical walls of the Todra Gorge and tomorrow we’d blast back to Ouarzazate, the gateway town to the Moroccan desert where our adventure had begun and would finally end. And man, we’d had some fun.
Our first day out of Ouarzazate, riding 160kms through the anti Atlas to Agdz, had been easy going, purposefully chosen by our guide to break us in gently. We rode graded roads, hard-packed trails and undulating single-track with the occasional tricky and rocky section to contend with. By the end of the day the lead party was tearing across the flat dusty pistes at speeds approaching 120kph and having a ball, as were the riders taking it easier in the intermediate and slower groups.
Leaving Agdz we’d ascended into the Djebel Sahro where the trails got steeper and narrower and the rocks got bigger and sharper. This section of the trip held special memories for me, as back in the late 1990s I’d spent 10 days hiking and climbing in the Djebel Sahro mountain range with a couple of mates and a pack mule.
The snow-capped Atlas may be the highest mountains in these parts of North Africa but the Sahro is by far the more dramatic with deep, steep-sided valleys, huge rock faces and spectacular volcanic plugs rising out of high desert plateaus – think Monument Valley in the US and you’ve got it.
When I’d hiked across the Sahro things had got serious, at one point we’d run out of water and were low on food. We were close to heat stroke. Without the help, advice and generosity of the Berber nomads who still live in the region things could have got very serious indeed. Like, deadly serious.
There is water in the Sahro, not that you’d know it, and what had taken us 10 days to traverse on foot all those years ago we’d covered in less than a day, and that included a stop at what must be the most remote restaurant in North Africa. It was in the middle of nowhere, so much so I doubt if I could pin point it on a map, I reckon only the Berber-owner, his family and our guide, Jonny Maroc, know of its existence. That said, the traditional food and fried chicken on offer was good enough to ensure I’d go looking for it if I ever passed through the region again.
You can ride or hike for miles, days even, in the Sahro, until you’re convinced that you’re alone in a harsh, lifeless wilderness. But you’re never alone here.
Stop long enough and look close enough and you’ll spot movement somewhere in this vast landscape; shepherds walking the high ridgelines, women collecting firewood in the valleys and children doing what children do when they’re not constrained by an overprotective society.
People live and survive in the Sahro in the same way they’ve done for centuries, living in goat-skin tents, tending their herds and growing small fields of hardy crops where natural springs or manmade wells bring water to the surface.
With the Djebel Sahro behind us we were now heading for the desert, or to be more specific, what most people would consider to be the desert, the high dunes of Erg Chebbi. But first we had 460kms of off-road heaven to contend with and an encounter with fesh fesh.
Having left the mountains behind we were traversing huge wide open plains where the horizon merged seamlessly with the sky. It was here we had our fist chance to ride in soft shifting sand (more about that later), overnight in a beduin bivouac and charge across dry lake beds in scenes that could easily have slipped into a Mad Max movie.
Riding up front with the fast group, the experience of pinning the throttle and charging across the plains was as thrilling and dangerous as anything I’d experienced in my life. The plains were crisscrossed with trails and the trails were dissected by wash outs, some deep enough to cause major heart-in-mouth moments and unexpected ‘big air’ exits.
But the adrenaline surged most and the danger peaked highest when we started hitting the sections of fesh fesh (think talcom powder) at full pelt. If you were at the back, the huge clouds and plumes of ultra-fine dust would cut visibility almost immediately to 5m or so. It was one of those riding moments where the heart and brain are at odds: ‘this is so much fun; I’m going to die’. A crash at the speeds we were travelling would not have been pretty.
Erg Chebbi is one big sandpit alright, some 22kms long and 5kms wide. The ergs – large wind-blown dunes near the town of Merzouga are the highest, with Cathedral Dune topping out at around 150m. They are indeed an impressive sight and a very popular tourist destination with camel and 4×4 trips into the dunes something nearly all visitors to Morocco covert.
I say nearly, because if you’re travelling on a motorcycle capable of taking on the vast expanse of sand then the highlight of the trip is undoubtedly riding in the dunes and planting your bike on the summit crest of the Cathedral. And with tyres deflated and Jonny Maroc barking out orders, off we went for a play in the sandpit.
After 30 or so minutes’ practice in the small dunes (60m is small in Erg Chebbi) we pulled up at the base of Cathedral Dune. It is enormous, and looked far higher than its given 150m and much, much steeper than it appeared from the safety of Merzouga. Sitting at the bottom and knowing that the next move is up, it’s inconceivable that any motorised vehicle without wings and jet engines could reach the summit of this mountain of sand.
To give you an idea of the scale, the gently sloping run up to the base was about 300m long and the main slope just went on, and on, and on. And the higher it got the steeper it became. By the time Jonny Maroc had expertly ridden his KTM to the summit he was nothing more than a tiny spec in the distance. All we had to do was pin the throttle and follow his line remembering to cut the gas at the crucial moment, to bring the bike to rest on the knife-edge summit crest.
Cut the power too soon (even a metre too soon) and it’s a mighty exhausting effort to heave the bike out of the steep sand, turn it to face down, and a ride to the bottom to do it all again. Cut the power too late and it’s flying lessons over the steep side of the crest. In reality, there was nothing difficult or seriously technical about what we were about to do, but Cathedral was intimidating by its sheer size. Off we went; power on, weight back and charge.
The feeling experienced when riding up that huge pile of sand and planting the bike on the crest was as thrilling as anything I’d ever accomplished on two wheels. And we all made it, the full posse of 17 had sat atop the highest dune in Morocco… All we had to do now was get back down.
Is this trip for you?
If you can ride a bike the answer is yes. Our group comprised experienced off- road riders on their third visit to Morocco and novices who’d only passed their tests a few weeks before the trip. Essentially you ride at your own speed and take on only what you feel comfortable with. Our group, as most others do, split into three: fast, intermediate and slow riders.
Alun was on the eight-day Mountain and Desert tour with Motoaventure. You can find all the details you need to know at www.motoaventures.com
Will I see a camel?
You bet! And watch out for those ‘big rocks’ in the desert, they have a habit of moving when you ride anywhere near them. And they smell.
How dangerous is the trip?
There’s no doubting that off-road riding on hard rocky trails can be dangerous and painful, especially if you’re pushing your riding ability to the limit. All the riders on our trip took a few tumbles, some more than others, though only one had injuries that caused him to cut short his trip. The secret is to ride at a pace you can handle.
Paul Thomas from London. A gooner who works for the NHS and a veteran of three trips to Morocco with Motoaventures. EIE, as they say. David and Joan from Andorra. Not sure what they do but they supported Barca and man could they ride. Dylan from New Zealand, now living in Australia. He’s in the legal profession, which was a bit of a surprise as he’s a nice guy.
Bernard the Frenchman who’s big in the chemical industry and can spot a female at 200 miles, blindfolded. Alex the Frenchman who lives in London with his Ducati and works in finance – think I talked him into getting an adventure style bike. Chris the Canadian has a job that involves pulling things apart and getting paid for it. My room-mate and all-round good egg. Chris from the UK, works in finance and convinced eight mates to join him on the trip. Our guide Jonny Maroc’s bank manager loves him.
Big Andy from Brisbane, Australia. Works in finance and was always smiling unless he fell off, which meant not too many grins on the last few days. Dave from the UK, works in finance where he’s known for big hair. Special mention for lending me his Camelback. Thank you sir. Jeff from San Francisco, living in London and working in the legal profession. Also had nice hair. Hutch from the UK who introduced himself by apologising for being a banker. Quite right too. Had no hair.
Nigel the property developer from Somerset and Ali’s dad. Wish my dad had taken me riding in Morocco. Ali the 18-year-old student who’d only just passed his test before the trip. Well done young man, where you taking dad next? And then there was finance man Jamie and property developer Jonny who were both MIA at the time of the photo round-up. Get well soon guys.
In the middle of a huge expanse of furnace-like desert we came across a bunch of guys jogging. They were competing
in the Marathon des Sables, one of the world’s most arduous adventure races.
Stop anywhere in the Moroccan wilderness and within minutes a local will spring up from behind a rock. This is not scientifically proven, nor have I kept detailed accounts or evidence to support this claim, but just try it and see what I mean.
German artist Hansjörg Voth has built three random structures in the desert to the north west of Erfoud. One of which is a 16m tall ‘Stairway to the Stars’
HOW TO RIDE BIG DUNES
Lower the tyre pressure for better traction
Keep the revs high and the power on, to stop that front wheel sinking into the sand
When descending a dune, steer clear of clumps of grass, even a small drop off is enough to bury the front wheel and send you cart-wheeling
Beware approaching the crest of a dune too fast – it’s sure to be near vertical on the other side
When descending a steep dune, sit back and (this is the important part) keep those revs up to stop the front wheel burying itself