– 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
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
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
KM START = 14,016
(Trip = 3,646 )
KM END = 14,701 (Trip
Erg Chebbi > Taouz > Agoult > No Mans Land > Tagounite
> Zagora > Ouarzazate >
Tiz’n Tichka > Marrakesh
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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!).
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…
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.
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.
(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!
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
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
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.
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.
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
– 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.
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
KM START = 14,701
(Trip = 4,331 )
KM END = 14,866 (Trip
Marrakesh > Essaouira
Today is the
day where I realise that either:
we have been
completely spoilt, or
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
– Rest Day, Essaouira