CHAPTER 5 – PARIS-DAKAR? YOU MUST BE ENGLISH!

 

May 13th – Rest Day, Erg Chebbi

 

Wake up and crane our heads out the window to a palmed oasis, 100 metres from the front of the hotel. A solitary 120 Metre High Sand Dune off in the near distance is the background, and our target after breakfast for a hike. The Algerian border is only 25 kms away, and from the top of the dune we are told you can see into its vast sandy expanses.

 

Oubana, the owner of the hotel is plugging hard for his camel tours during breakfast, as this is where the Berbers here make their real cash. But previous experiences in India have taught me our dromedary friends are heinously uncomfortable and lacking in the necessary charm and social graces required for an amiable 2 day sojourn. Spitting on you and farting loudly are the equivalent of camel small talk, so we suggest this might not be what we are after.

 

The purpose of coming down here on bikes is to ride the desert pistes, rough ever changing tracks of variable quality that connect small settlements to even smaller ones. The prospect of doing a 2 day trip following one of the Paris-Dakar stages is thrown at us which we jump at, but jump right back when told it will cost us 5000 Dirham (500 Euro) for a guide. Knowing how microeconomics works Moroccan style, we hang back, say our budget is tiny and are in no hurry to make a decision.

 

Hiking up the dune is hard work, mainly because of a scalding hot wind that is sandblasting our skin and scorching our lungs when we breathe in. But the views from the top of the dune 1 hour later are just reward… the view across the sand is like looking down on a rippling golden ocean. And like the rocking of the ocean, you can feel the relentless push of the Sahara in the wind, as it continues its march northwards to engulf once fertile lands.

 

As it stands, Algeria and Morocco aren’t exactly the best of mates. In a mutual get stuffed match, borders between the two countries have been closed for the last 15 years, essentially due to a territorial dispute between the two nations. Looking over this, the question that begs to be asked is “Why all the fuss – its only sand!”. But as is with all quarrels on an international scale, there is always a resource motivation, and the resource here is phosphorus. The Western Sahara is choc full of the stuff, and these 2 countries that straddle it are having a tug of war over who gets what.

 

Come back down and the price has magically been lowered to 4000 Dirham. Play the stalling game and have the surreal experience of logging onto the internet from a mud hut on the edge of the Sahara. The world has truly shrunk! But our purpose is to find alternatives to our Algeria travel plan. There has been a distinct lack of ambassadors for this place, and no one has exactly been dragging us into the country, all the while waxing lyrical about its must see attractions. So an alternative ferry route to Tunisia is investigated for when our Moroccan adventure closes.

 

Quick ride into the nearest “town” 20 km away to sarch for other guide options. A fella who could well have been MI5’s contact in Morocco offers to do it for 350 Euro, and so it dawns on us that these Berber guys really know how to make a living! Remember this is a country where the average daily wage is 6 Euro, and there ain’t a hell of a lot of things to go and fritter your cash on in this part of it if you earned any more anyway. The difference between a first home and a bitchin’ pad with all the trimmings here is a concrete floor, and there is a noticeable shortage of pimped out Land Rovers rolling past on 20 inch rims with 6000 Watt Stereos turned up to ‘11’. So what the hell do these guys do with all their cash?!! Maybe the camels have got plasma screens installed in them…who knows, maybe all the sand dunes are just piles of cash with caramel frosting on top.

 

Riding back to camp and the wind is blowing fierce – this is the one that lifts up the Sahara and deposits it on the cars and boulevards of Marseille and Nice. So to keep a straight line we are on a 30 degree lean. Ride back, agree our final price with Oubana for our support and guide vehicle for tomorrow and make preparations for the 2 day trip. 280 km of desert piste, running along the Algerian border with an overnight stay with a nomadic family in a camp settlement.

 

Quickly bolt back up the dunes to watch sunset and catch the amazing shadows cast by the dunes in the light. The Moroccan art that we have seen in the town markets so far has largely been kindergarten tat. Sitting here, it’s almost as if Mother Nature here is embarrassed by this and compensates me by creating such a spectacle.

 

Crash out with a combination of fear, excitement and anticipation. Tomorrow we will riding part of the Paris-Dakar rally and neither of us have had any desert riding experience before.

 

 

May 14th and 15th

 

KM START = 14,016 (Trip = 3,646 )

KM END = 14,701 (Trip =4,331 )

 

Route:  Erg Chebbi > Taouz > Agoult > No Mans Land > Tagounite  > Zagora > Ouarzazate  > Tiz’n Tichka > Marrakesh

 

 

Pierpaolo didn’t sleep a wink last night, sweated like a pig and feels a bit off colour today. Not a good start, but he watches me scoff some breakfast and we head out with our guides – Oubana and Hassan. At least they look the part of this desert adventure, in their flowing robes and wearing the distinctive head gear of the Tuareg.

 

We top our gas up at a local family’s house (1 Olive Oil Jar + 1 Whisky bottle = 6 Litres of Sans Plomb!) giving us a 500 km total range, and follow our guides into the Sahara.

 

The first 30 km is a tarmac road to Taouz, and I’m thinking “we’ve been had like kippers paying for this!”. But then we break off onto a well marked gravel road. 40 kilometres in and I’m thinking “Maybe we could have done this ourselves and it would have felt like more of a challenge”.

 

50 kilometres in, after numerous umarked turnoffs, rapidly rising temperatures and deteriorating piste conditions I am thanking our lucky stars we had the good sense to get guides for this trip. This is a hostile environment, and if something went wrong or we got lost then I doubt either of us would have the skills to get us out in one piece. Route finding is impossible, and following the most prominent 4WD track can often lead you into bigger trouble then following the invisible route etched into the minds of our guides.

 

The 4WD gets a flat tyre, and while we stop to change it, the mushroom phenomenon, as noted by Dr Toni Oberhofer is observed. If you  have read Chapter 1 of this drivel, then you will be aware that Toni Wan-Kenobi is the Jedi knight of all African overland bike travel. One thing he said to us when recalling his experiences on the continent was that even when you think you are in the middle of nowhere and you stop to fix the bike / have a drink / take a pee / whatever, people will spring up out of the earth “like mushrooms” and a gathering will form from nothing. Sure enough, fixing a tyre 30 km from the nearest town, no one in sight… in 2 minutes time a guy comes up to have a look! No one saw which direction he came in from, it really was as if his spore in the ground had suddenly popped up and hey presto, there he was. Unbelievable!

 

60 kilometres in and large swathes of sand come onto the track. Anything deeper than 3 inches is problematic and Pierpaolo, energy levels low and feeling out of sorts is the first to drop the bike. Riding on this stuff is like riding on ice…the bike’s back end shakes around like that of a dancer in a Snoop Dogg video clip, and with no warning the front wheel can get wrestled from your hands and pretty soon your eating the stuff. I drop once, Pierpaolo does 2 more and looks shattered. Go over and help him pick the bike up – he says he needs a rest so takes his jacket off and he’s sweating like a microwave meal. Feeling weak we decide time to take a break and take stock. Conveniently there is a café stop here in the middle of nowhere so we seek the cool of the shade within the mud walls.

 

Pierpaolo’s condition has worsened and his stomach is playing Vesuvius on him. It’s either a fever or a gastro problem, but over the next 15 minutes it’s becoming clear that he won’t be able to take any more of this for the moment. Riding in sand takes 100% strength, 150% concentration and large swabs of luck – if you’re feeling weak then you’ve already lost the battle to keep the bike upright. One thing that the morning has made crystal clear is that any boyhood fantasies we might have entertained of doing the Paris-Dakar one day are pure tosh! 50 km/hour has been bloody tough going and we’ve lost it a few times already…these guys do it for 10 days flat out at 150 km/hour. Super Human Freaks need only apply.

 

Hassan offers to ride Pierpaolo’s bike for him for a while, and we figure this is not a bad option – maybe some time in the 4WD will give him a chance to recover a bit and get back on later. There is a comical scene of Pierpaolo offering his helmet, boots, gloves and jacket to Hassan, but he’s happy in his sneakers and his Turban. Really makes you feel like an “All the gear and no idea” muppet!

 

Handy advice on sand riding is dispensed from our 2 wheeled Tuareg… keep it in first gear, feet down, and leave the “standing on pegs at top whack” lark for the pros - let them have the busted collar bones. It all seems to make sense, but before our next stop there are some truly horrendous 45cm deep stretches, and I eat sand two more times. Helped up each time by Pierpaolo stepping from the 4WD.

 

At the next village 90 minutes on, our guides stop to get their punctured tyre repaired and Pierpaolo and I take a break. By now he is absolutely knackered and is hardly staying upright, so its time to plunder the medical kit for some gastro fixer uppers. Couple of pills, lots of water and a lie down in the shade and I hope to God that this is where it bottoms out and my mate is feeling a lot better very soon. In this tough situation, the locals here are wonderful, and can’t do enough to look after us and do whatever they can to help.

 

45 minutes of this and Pierpaolo is back in the land of the living – not quite up to bike riding capacity yet, but OK to go on. So I continue to follow in the tracks of the guide and start building a bit of confidence through the tricky stuff. Doing some self analysis on riding style I realize I was riding with my head looking down at the sand the whole time. With the notable exception of sky diving, the first law of motion sports is that you will generally go in the direction that your head is pointed. So I try following the guide but looking into the distance and keeping that nasty sand in my peripheral vision. As a result, the riding gets much much easier.

 

I am now no longer hanging on the hollow promises of “There’s no more sand riding today” from our guides. An Arab telling you there’s no more sand in the Sahara today??? My bullshit sensors have been tripped, but the sand no longer sets off the fear alarm.

 

The riding and landscape today has been surprisingly diverse – gravel tracks, deep river beds, fine red clay, dried up salt lakes and endless miles of sand. We cross into No Mans Land between Morocco and Algeria, then check in at a military base (what crime to commit to be posted out here!) and soon we arrive at our settlement for tonight. A couple of mud buildings poking out from the ground like geometric warts, but juxta posed with this simplicity is a whopping big satellite dish propped in the front yard!

 

Pierpaolo has taken some amazing shots from the Land Rover today – like some opening James Bond scene with me in bike kit chasing a turbaned Arab across wide expanses of desert. But he is 100% shattered and takes an early night on the hard earth floor, leaving me watching Al Jazeera and sharing a meal with this nomadic family and our guides. Watching the channel here and 2 reels burn in my mind – 1 of a US tank burning in a place where it probably wasn’t sent an invitation to, and 1 of a meeting somewhere in the Arab world with literally 100’s of ministers of some sort greeting each other in the traditional way of 4 kisses on the cheeks. If everyone gets their introductions, then there wont’t be much time left for the meeting I think to myself.

 

As dinner is served, I am beginning to feel as if someone has strapped me to a jackhammer and left it on for the whole day. 210 kilometres covered – the hardest and most punishing day on a motorbike I have ever endured, but incredibly rewarding. My relationship with the bike today can be likened to one with a lover – on the European roads I have cursed her for being too slow, wanting a bigger sexier and faster companion to spend my time with. I wondered if we had a future after I dropped her the third time today. But at the end of the day, she stuck by me when times were tough – a true Taurean quality that I admire. Which reminds me at some point me to check the star sign of my bike so I can better assess our future compatability together – not tonight.

 

I struggle to keep my eyelids open, but the disproportionate meowing of 3 tiny cats during dinner stops me from snoring in my plate. Plates are taken away and the cats go silent – I figure they have been either fed or strangled! Not that I particularly care - I just hope that tomorrow Pierpaolo will be back on form as I don’t know what to do if he gets any worse, and I want him to enjoy this part of the 2 wheeled adventure.

 

>>>>

 

Wake up early to a chill in the air and the roar of 3 tiny cats meowing through what sounds to be a Led Zeppelinisque stack of Marshall Amps, so I guess they survived at the hands of Oubana last night after all. I have the Joni Mitchell song “Chelsea Morning” in my head – a song so excruciatingly optimistic about greeting the new day you would want to put it on Morrissey’s Ipod in permanent loop . I take it as a good omen for what’s ahead.

 

Pierpaolo is not quite 100% but many shades better than yesterday, so we can at least look forward to riding this final 80km stretch of the Sahara together today. Scoff breakfast (pancakes with melted goats butter and coffee), say goodbye to our hosts and its off again. The riding is wonderful – sand is no problem for us today, and we ride out of the desert and look down into the Draa Valley for our final guided route. The Valley is magnificent, and the final 30km are an absolute delight. In Scandinavian rallying terms they are known as “Yumps”… speedy sections of road with a wonderfully rhythmic undulating surface you can launch off. Big smiles on the dials!!!

 

At Zagora we say goodbye to our guides who have been terrific. We paid a lot of cash for their services, but readily acknowledge that this whole mission would not have continued were it not for them. Thanks guys, and don’t go spend it all at once (well we know you won’t!).

 

Riding through the Draa Valley is terrific – Grand Canyon type landscapes, with the buildings sprouting out organically from the earth at each of the towns. Then it dawns on me that the landscape resembles a game of Giant Tetris…normal buildings the horizontal lines, and the minarets (towers) of the mosques that scatter here and there the vertical lines. Or maybe it was just the goat butter I had with the pancakes…

 

Our target today is the town of Ouarzazate – the junction of the Draa and Dades valleys. But specifically we are shooting for a bikers home recommended to me by that chap on the Newhaven ferry 2 weeks ago. After the final Oasis of the valley we get to the home on the outskirts of town, but our host (Dutch) has gone out with a group and wont be back for a few days….Damn!!! So we ride into the very unimpressive town, stop at a cafe and figure out what to do.

Continuing on the “Mad dogs and Englishmen” theme in Chapter 4, 2 brothers on a big Enduro KTM and Beemer stop in and chat to us “cos they saw the UK Plates” on our bikes. Top lads from Kettering, and we marvel at their minimalist approach – 10 days in Morocco each with just a 20 litre backpack and 5 Litre plastic jerry can strapped to their bike. Day 6 for them and I am amazed they don’t smell like a badger’s arse, but after 3 days of no hot showers and desert filth encrusted on us, we are probably not exuding the subtle undertones of Calvin Klein fragrances ourselves.

 

Ouarzazate (pronounced Waa-za-zart) is redubbed “Whereitsnotat” and we make the choice to push onto Marrakesh for the night. Should be easy as the signpost said only 200km. Signpost didn’t mention we would be crossing the High Atlas! Crossing the Tizi n Tichka pass is stunning though – the road affords some amazing views up, down and all around the valley – but many of the corners are blind so its easy on the gas for us. A trio of French Enduro riders pass us Super motard style on one of the corners, and within a few more turns they are nowhere in my 600 metre visibility range. Nutters!

 

The going is slower than expected and approaching the highest point, rain starts to bullet down on us. At the pass there is a restaurant where we take shelter and lunch. Once inside, the hotel seems to be the one from “The Shining”, where your only company in winter would be the snowcapped mountains. Definitely no need to hang around, so we head out when it’s almost dry and continue our push to Marrakesh.

 

Marrakesh for us is the great unknown…we’ve heard about it in song lyrics and have some awareness of its past as a European hippy mecca, but that’s about where it ends. The sun is dropping over it as we ride towards, and a psychedelic sunset of purple and orange hues follows. It already looks interesting from 15 kilometres off.

 

We have no hotel booked or sense of direction, and a quick ring around declares that all the ones in our guide are “Complet”. So going against our gut instinct we resign ourselves to the services of a tout just so we can dump the bikes and grab a bed.

 

The next 30 minutes are exceptional – being led by 2 guys on a moped through the walled part of the city – driving through markets, brushing past donkeys and carts, scraping our handlebars as we follow our touts through anorexic crooked alleyways. But the touts deliver the goods, and find us a wonderful riad at a good price and secure parking for the bikes. We are truly thankful for their help, and feel already that Marrakesh has a different vibe to the other Moroccan cities we have visited so far.

 

Quick wash and its down to the square to look around and grab something to eat. When you enter Djemaa el-Fna you finally realize what all the fuss over this city is about…a massive open area, jam packed with snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, juice sellers, food hawkers, and everyone is in party mode. If the cities of the world were family relations, then Zurich is your straight laced Uncle George, the accountant. Perth is Cousin Pete, a decent surfer who likes the outdoors. Marrakesh is your wild aunt who ran off age 17, joined the circus, dropped acid and slept with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The city is pulsing, alive and confident, and unlike Fes we get the feeling that if the tourists stopped coming and slinked out the back door, the city wouldn’t really notice as it was too busy having a good time. A rest day here seems like an excellent idea.

 

May 16th – Rest Day, Marrakesh

 

What a luxury to have a night in a decent bed! Normally I would have felt that I had betrayed my backpacker roots staying in a plush place like this, but we justify ourselves coming to this riad in Marrakesh due to our desert ordeal and lack of hot water for 3 days.

 

After breakfast at the hotel it’s off to Hammam number 3 for the Works. Wash? Absolutely! Shower? Yes please. Hammam? Yep, we’ll take some of that. Massage? Why not, bring it on. The inside of the Hammam El-Bacha is fantastic – an enormous domed roof, like a mosque, and they didn’t go stingy with the marble when building it. A collection of mopeds are parked in the central entrance hall, and we wonder if our bikes could get a wash here too!

 

Our masseur takes us into the main hot room, and we lie down on the heated marble floor for about 20 minutes, just to loosen up our limbs. What then proceeds is something I would market under the name of “Combat Yoga”, as the masseur clambers and wrestles with our limbs in various ways, so that joints are liberated from sockets, tendons from flesh. Its painful stuff, and I feel a bit like the lawnmower that’s been sitting out in the back shed for 20 years at the hands of a DIY Dad. Maybe this could also be called “Guantanamo Pilates” to circumvent those pesky fine print details of the Geneva Convention:

 

“Did you torture your prisoners, President Bush?”

 

“No your honour. In fact their physical wellbeing was our top priority. Our specialist instructors led the inmates in truth gathering….errrr…..I mean Pilates classes each day. Yes….. that’s right, Pilates classes…”

 

But the end result is one of wellbeing, and our desert crust is the next thing to be attended to. Suffice to say we were minging, but left the place clean, scrubbed and ready to be welcomed back into the fold of humanity once again.

 

Pretty uneventful rest of the day – bumbled around the square, went to a lake pavilion set in a massive grove of olive trees, then came back for dinner in the square. Marrakesh is truly magnificent, and a city which is now justifiably a weekend destination for European travellers. It was fun riding 4,300 km to get here, but I’d happily pay 17.99 GBP plus all applicable taxes and surcharges to come here via SleazyJet.

 

 

May 17th

 

KM START = 14,701 (Trip = 4,331 )

KM END = 14,866 (Trip =4,496 )

 

Route:  Marrakesh > Essaouira

 

Today is the day where I realise that either:

 

a)      we have been completely spoilt, or

b)      my tank of geographic superlatives has run dry after only 2 weeks.

 

The ride from Marrakesh to the Atlantic Coast is truly forgettable for me, but Pierpaolo is impressed by the vast expanses of nothing. Having been to Milton Keynes, there’s nothing new in it for me.

 

Riding through the Arizona type landscape, and overheating is becoming a problem. Not for the bikes but for us – its 38 degrees today and until we get to the coast, there is no cooling breeze around to provide respite. So I come to patent my new motorcyle air conditioning technique.

 

With the pants, jacket, gloves and helmet all on, this getup can get damn hot. But if I open the jacket zip and sleeves a bit, then I can start to get a bit of airflow happening around me. At 100km/h, this can have a cooling effect, but the problem is that it is only reaching the chest. The solution to getting an all round cooling effect is going through a series of Madonna-esque Vogue poses.

 

Le Tigre is a good one for cooling the back – With left hand pointing forward on my handlebars, and arching my back forward, the air flowing to my chest and through my sleeve can now freely flow across my inner contours, and the 2 streams actually congregate on the left side of my back. The uninhbited airflow creates a cooling effect across the regions it traverses. To cool the right side of my body, it’s a simple switch in the hand position (right hand pointing forward, slight jink in back position), but if you have watched Zoolander too many times then, like me, you will want to do this mimicking a crawling motion and pout the lips a little for an imaginery camera.

 

The trouble with riding with an open jacket is that the faster you go, the more it puffs up. Anything above 70 km/h and you begin to look like a flying 2 wheeled colostomy bag; Not to mention the air braking effect. Ride with a partially closed jacket, and your stomach can reach boiling point. It was out of this conundrum that The Hassellhoff was born.

 

Sitting bolt upright on the motorcyle, open your jacket zipper approximately 3 inches from the collar. Air will begin to flow freely around the chest area. Stage 2 then involves taking a big breath and sucking your guts in, just like David Hassellhoff did in approxinmately 400 episodes of Baywatch. Not only does your stomach start to get cooled, but the free flowing air will make it down to your nether regions as well! This is the bonus move, and is sure to bring me fame and fortune in the long distance motorcycling world.

 

20 km out of Essaouira and this advancement in rider cooling technology is no longer required. A strong chill wind is blowing from the Atlantic, and the kite surfers and wind surfers on the town’s beach are making good use of it. Given that neither of us kite or wind surf, we think we may have picked a dud place to stop for the night. But a trip to the port by the medina reveals a charming, if well touristed, ex Portuguese fishing village. We are content to chill out for a day or two, sampling the catch of the day in any of the small stalls along the waterfront.

 

 

May 18th – Rest Day, Essaouira

 

A rest day that does exactly what it says on the tin – bugger all!!! Lovely.