Daves SC trip to the Sahara May 05
I've done quite a bit of touring in my time, including North Cape, most of Europe, and the Eastern US, but this was going to be a bit different. Sixteen days, and 5200 miles on a Nick Sanders Moto-Challenge. There wasn't going to be much time for sightseeing, and it was going to be a challenge.
While sitting at Dover surrounded by BMW GS's and several other big trail bikes, its hard not to wonder if a Victory SC with 4 inches of ground clearance and that painfully low oil cooler is really in the right company. With the Pyrennes, Rif and High Atlas mountain ranges to cross twice and run to the edge of the Sahara, are these, my fellow travellers right ? Do I really need a foot of air below my frame and big knobbly tires? The sight of a Goldwing in the cue is reassuring. Wherever he can go, I can go.
The first couple of days of the journey consists of a very wet cold France, just a blur in my peripheral vision. One of the GS's comes to a messy end, when a wet roundabout and lamp post combine to finish the journey for a young couple . Fortunately they're both ok, but the GS goes home on a truck. Travelling in a large group proves tedious, and by the second day everyone has started to sort into two, threes and sixes of like minded riders.
On the morning of the third day, we are at the foot of the Pyrennes, and its snowing, hard !! After a coffee break, and what turned out to be good local advice, the majority of riders opt to do an end run around the Pyrennes, and head towards San Sabastien on the Atlantic coast. Five of the more adventurous (stupid) decide to give the pass at Viela a try. Two fell off early and decided down was easier than up and retreated, A third rider on a big BMW tourer fell but managed to get things upright again and press on up the ever steepening hill. By lunchtime the Vic and a Kawasaki trailie were parked in the village of Viela just before the tunnel at the top of the pass. I say parked, because the local constabulary had closed the road to vehicles without chains. They were polite but firm in their insistence that we stay put. By this time the road down probably was impassable for a bike, and we found a hotel room for the night. A little while later the big blue Beemer appeared, slightly scratched but safe.
A Victory may not seem to be the ideal bike for riding up a steep hill with four inches of snow on it, but it went surprising well. Apart from a couple of sideways moments, the big lumpy engine gripped the surface well. Wide tyres and a very progressive flow of power proved to be almost perfect for the job.
The next morning things didn't look any better, and the Police confirmed this by not letting us continue up. The road down was now just slushy, so we headed north back to France. The three of us were now an entire day behind the smart people and needed to be south of Granada that night in order to catch up. We headed for the Atlantic along the Autoroute Pyrenne then down towards Madrid and finally up a tortuous mountain road to our hotel near the Mediterreanean coast. The sun came out near Madrid, and we started to warm up for the first time since setting out from home. We rolled in just after dark, and just in time for dinner.
The 838 miles was broken into 110 mile stints thanks to the Vics limited fuel range. I think the other guys actually appreciated the stops even though they could have gone double the distance. The day went surprisingly well despite 14 hours in the saddle. I'll never forget the sight of the setting sun turning the snow on the Sierra Nevada to gold, with the mountains below a deep purple. It wasn't hard to get to sleep, but it was tough to get up before sunrise and head out again.
The morning was sunny, and we were less than an hours ride from the Med. I set out alone, but soon met up with another rider and stopped by a very blue sea to take pictures. The coast road near Malaga was a nightmare of buses and trucks belching diesel fumes. Fortunately this eventually turns into the Mediteranean Autoroute. This is a wide smooth road with great views, only marred by regular toll booths. As was the case all through the journey, we met some others of our group and ended up as six bikes going into Algeciras.
Thanks to some hard negotiation by our fearless leader Nick Sanders, we were on a boat headed south towards Cueta within a couple of hours of arriving at the Pillars of Hercules. We sailed serenely past the Rock of Gibrater headed south to Africa. Less that two hours later you are on the African continent, but still in Spain. Cueta is still a Spanish colony, similar in status to Gibratar/UK. Funny how that never comes up when Spain is moaning about Gib and harassing innocent tourists.
Cueta gives you a gentle and somewhat false introduction to Africa. For all intense and purposes you are still in Europe. Euros still work and you can buy most anything using broken Spanish.
Less than half an hour along a pleasant coastal road you arrive at Moroccan customs. If I was on my own, this would have been the most southern point of my adventure. Getting thru this maze of bureaucracy requires patience and cash. Helpers immediately descend on you at arrival, and if you haven't played the game before these guys are almost essential. For a small fee, they will direct you to the appropriate windows, customs, immigration, insurance, and police in the right order. None of the windows is labelled and no written clue as to the order required is evident. Failure to get the correct stamps in order results in much wasted cueing and time. Each window checks your various documents and records information laboriously by hand or with an ancient manual typewriter. Don't be fooled into thinking the UK insurance policy you carefully checked for validity in Morocco will work. Without a stamp and form from the little man with the typewriter your staying in Spain. The insurance isn't particularly expensive, but the process will drive you nuts. Any irregularity or missing document won't necessarily stop you getting in, but will take more money and time to sort out. Nick showed his negotiating skills again and got all of us into the country in about four hours. For this particular crossing I'm assured that was a good time. Petty bureaucrats, high temperature and the worst toilets this side of hell make this by far the worst part of the trip.
Tangiers is supposed to better, and individuals are often treated better than groups, as there is much less potential to make money. The entire episode cost less than £50, and gives you an entirely false impression of both the people and the country of Morocco. If his Highness the King of Morocco should happen to be reading this, please sort out this border crossing. It does you country a great dis-service.
When you first escape from the border crossing your already bad impression of the country is reinforced. You are immediately faced with a large dusty open area covered with rubbish, battered cars and hundreds of people. If you don't have to stop here, don't.
The first town you arrive at seems chaotic, but the people are friendly and there are police on every roundabout who will point you in the right direction. The police in general were very good. We were often waved right through junctions at the expense the local drivers. Once clear of this initial madness and into the countryside, you finally get to enjoy your first real miles into Africa.
Our first overnight stop was in Chefchouen, a few hours to the south and in the Rif mountains. The road is bumpy in places and prone to unexpected potholes, goats, donkeys, and children. You need to treat all of these hazards with care as they are all unpredictable and pose a hazard the whole time you are in Morocco. Several road works proved exciting, especially for those with no experience of riding on loose gravel. The weight and big tyre footprint of the Vic proved very useful and I didn't have any really bad moments. There is none of the “warning” miles in advance like you have in the UK. Roadworks just appear and can include small hazards such as the road or a bridge that actually missing or moved.
Chefchouen is situated in a beautiful spot on the side of a mountain. The old part of the town, the Medina, is a maze of blue and white houses with a central square surrounding a single tall pine tree. We were told the blue washes on the houses keeps down the mosquitos. It must work as I never saw one. The streets and alleys are generally clean, and as with most small Moroccan towns it is a safe and relaxing place to be.
Our room for the night was at the Hotel Madrid. It's not five star, but it is quiet, comfortable, and most importantly has European toilets. We were treated to sweet minted tea and biscuits on our arrival. A few Dirams secured a guard, to watch the bikes overnight. There was no fear of theft or vandalism, it was simply to keep the kids from playing on them and possible getting hurt. Our particular guard had a large German Shepard called Leon, the only one I saw on the entire journey. We had a late dinner of Tajin at an open air restaurant in the square and then staggered back to the hotel for a much needed nights sleep. We were woken to a sunny cloudless morning by the sound of cocks crowing and the morning call to prayer.
This is not a trip for the lazy or those who need eight hours sleep. Nick plans his trips on the basis of early starts and long days. The next day was a 450 mile run to Marakesh with the first 300 miles on quite difficult roads. My friend John emphasized the “difficult bit” early on by completely missing a loop in the road, riding through a ditch and out the other side. Only a combination of skill and dumb luck prevented his trip coming to a premature and painful end. I had my scare a few minutes later when I ran wide to miss some loose gravel and nearly became a Mercedes hood ornament. Several other riders had interesting moments on this part of the journey. A Suzuki rider pulled off the road to take pictures of a ruined roman town in the distance. This wasn't a bad idea in theory. Unfortunately there was a steep bank at the edge of the hard surface and he put the wrong foot down. This found only clear air, and it took four guys to drag the bike back up to the road. No harm done!!
The last couple of hours into Marakesh is dead flat, hot, straight and boring. It was good to be able to relax a bit after a long day on tricky roads. Unfortunately this was the calm before the storm.
Marakesh is a complete madhouse. The streets are packed with homicidal taxis, donkeys, pedestrians and suicidal moped riders. Like many of Nicks instructions the route to the hotel proved to be more difficult than advertised. Only writing down the name of the Hotel and the square it was on saved me. It's impossible to follow another rider through traffic in this city and I was soon on my own. Several policemen helped in my efforts to reach the destination but in the end I was lost. One good bit of advice I was given, was to ask a kid on a moped and pay him a few dirams to lead you to where you want to go. I picked an enterprising young man who led me on a long and circuitous route through miles of back alleys. This was done to increase the value of his service and fee. Dodging donkeys on a Victory in an alley less that eight feet wide is more exciting than my tired muddled brain wanted to cope with. It turned out, that when I stopped for help was actually on the edge of the square I wanted and only a couple of minutes from the hotel. None the less I arrived safely and ahead of some of my companions. On days like this you have to keep telling yourself that life is all about experiences, good and bad.
The room I had ridden so long and hard to get to, turned be occupied by some of the biggest cockroaches I had ever seen. Apart from the time required to check your boots and kill the ones in the shower in the morning this did not present a major problem. My partner might have had something else to say had she been with me!!
The main square at night is well worth all the miles and aggravation it took to get there. It is a sea people, barbecue smoke, music and vendors of every kind. You can have virtually anything you can imagine barbecued except a burger or a steak. Interesting sausages, seafood, lamb and sheep's heads dominate the menu. This is the place and the time to eat in Morocco. You need to put aside any fears of stomach problems and just dive in. Well cooked food is perfectly safe most of the time. Salads should be avoided if your not sure of the preparation method. The orange juice is the best I've had anywhere.
After a very long and exciting day it was easy to get to sleep even with the clatter of little roach feet on tile all around. I was woken up by a distant call to prayer, only to be bludgeoned to full concieness moments later, by a highly amplified call from the minaret 10 feet away across the alley. After a simple breakfast on the rooftop terrace we met in the now almost deserted square. The smoke and noise of the previous night had been replaced by snake charmers, and people hustling around with their daily lives. Only the orange juice vendors seem to have survived the night. They appear to work 24 hours as I bought a drink from the same guy as the evening before.
Being a big reptile fan I was keen to see the snakes, but was a bit put off by the way they were handled. Cobras and toothless Saharan Vipers were teased to make them act aggressively. If you want to have your picture taken with a snake it's a good idea to settle on a price first. Some of our group paid more than double others. If you don't like snakes stay well clear as your likely to have one dropped around your neck at anytime.
With the lighter traffic in the morning we were able to almost able stay together . Nick shouted “follow me” and then stopped a hundred yards down the road to ask directions. At one point he was weaving through chaotic traffic on his R1 making a call on his mobile. No it's not hands free, and no he doesn't wear a helmet unless he has to. Despite all this we successfully escaped with no injuries or broken bikes. I had a taxi nudge me out of the way with the bumper of his Mercedes, but it wasn't done in a particularly nasty way.
We stopped outside of town to let the group reform and discuss the road ahead. Roads don't come much better than this. The infamous “Chicken Tikka Pass”. This is the highest pass in the high Atlas mountains and one of the main reasons I came to Morocco. Nick warned us, “this was not a very forgiving road”. Long drops, unfenced bends and rock faces were the order of the day.
We rode off in small groups or individually. I was determined to ride at my own pace as this was what I'd been looking forward to for months. The road surface itself was better than I expected and I quickly got into a rhythm. The torque and excellent brakes of the Vic SC were perfect for this kind of ride, and I soon found myself grounding the bike on both sides and running hard corner to corner. After a while you start to forget the rock faces and enormous drops. I stopped to take a few photos, but no where near as many as I would have if the road hadn't been such fun. This was everything I had hoped for, and for me the highlight of the journey, a truly extraordinary experience.
I stopped at the café at the top and was joined by several other riders for a rather bitter coffee. The ride down wasn't as steep and turned out to be quite bumpy. Those big Brembos on the front worked superbly, but on down hill stretches it was important to remember how much mass they had to slow down.
After an hour or so, you arrive in a dusty red valley. The villages of mud and straw houses seem to blend into the surrounding hillsides. A bit further on the scenery flattens out and your on a rocky plain. I was starting to worry about fuel at this point and was pleased to see Dave on his big Kawa with satnav.
As we turned off the main road to do the final nine kms into Ait Benaddou the wind started to get up. The bikes were about 30 degree off vertical in a straight line. We could see blowing sand in the distance and knew immediately, things were going to get worse. When the sand caught up, the road became a blur, made even more difficult by the grit that blew in behind my goggles causing me to squint. If the hotel had been any further I would have had to stop and wait for the wind to drop. Fortunately we arrived just ahead of even stronger winds and were safely inside having a tea during the worst of it. Luckily the following riders were far enough back to miss the severe part of the storm. Over the next few hours everyone arrived safely, all with stories of their adventures crossing the pass. One rider had out braked himself going into a corner and bent a couple of bits on the bike, but both he and the bike were ok. (Name withheld to protect the guilty R1 owner)
Before dinner we did some bike swapping, and I had the opportunity to ride Gail and Bruce's Wing, and Chris's Suzuki SV. Both of them were great bikes in their own way, but I was glad to be on the Vic. Nick rode the BMW tourer and came back baffled how anyone could ride such a thing long distances. This from a guy who rode an R1 around the world with no support team???
Dinner was an excellent Chicken Tajin washed down with wine and beer which appeared from nowhere. In a generally devote Muslim country this was a rare treat, so we didn't ask questions. We were entertained by the waiter and some of his friends on drums. This proved infectious and drums were passed around, resulting in a good evening being had by all. Many retired early to catch up on some badly needed sleep. The rooms were simple but comfortable, and totally bug free.
The morning call to prayer was drowned out by howling winds, but they luckily they weren't picking up any sand. An hour or two later the wind dropped and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
We spent most of the morning on a guided tour of the old part of Ait Benhaddou. This is an amazing town, partly restored by the movie industry as a set. Many well know films were shot here, Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator to name but two. Our guide gave everyone a good laugh when he referred to the star of Gladiator as “Rustly” Crowe. I climbed to the fortress on the top and discovered the day was getting warm. On the way back some of us stopped at the carpet factory and bought rugs. Haggling is the order of the day and most rugs sold for about half the starting price. Thanks to the Moto-Challenge support van we didn't need to worry about carrying our packages back to England.
It was going to be a relatively short run today, only 140 miles. It was a pretty lonely ride through a flat rocky desert. You could still see the High Atlas about twenty miles away on the left side of the road. It was hot, but with only a few small towns to slow you down, the journey was quite comfortable. The only hazard was the occasional herd of donkeys. Fortunately you could see them for miles as the highway was virtually dead straight and almost flat.
We had been warned not to worry about what the Hotel Tombucto in Tinijir looked like from the outside, and this turned out to be good advice. The front view was the sort of site you would go five miles out of your way to avoid in North America or Europe. After walking up a short passage way, your greeted with a pool and the best facilities of the trip so far. The hotel was an old Kasbah only recently converted. A good restaurant and friendly staff made this a very pleasant and relaxing place to stay.
We had an evening excursion up the Todra Gorge. This is a spectacular place with steep rocky walls and a winding road that drops in and out of a dried up river bed. It's well worth the couple of hours it takes to add this to your journey. On the way back we stopped a hotel for mint tea, a perfect end to the day.
That evening I walked into the center of Tinijir to a Berber festival. The Berbers have their own language and traditions, quite different form the Muslims on the other side of the Atlas mountains. At the festival, women in bright costumes were singing onstage and the general atmosphere was happy and relaxed. I was the only European (Canadian actually) face in the crowd but didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable.
The next morning we headed towards the most distant point of the journey, Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara. I rode alone most of the way and then caught up with Kawasaki Dave near Erfoud. There were four Daves on the trip, so we used our bikes as first names. All the road signs around Erfoud were vandalized. This turned out to be part of a local kid conspiracy to raise money. Without signs you have to ask the kids for directions which were willingly given for a small fee. After a few detours we made it out of town and headed for the real Sahara Rumours of a bad road south of Erfoud proved unfounded and we rode on a good hard surface until we reached the side road to the hotel. This last bit was an interesting single lane track through a black rocky desert. A dead camel at the side of the track acted as a reminder that this was not a friendly environment. Merzouga is not a beautiful place. Its sort of a one horse town, and the horse died.
Our hotel, the Sable D'or was run by a French woman, Isabel and her Berber husband Rachid. We were made to feel very welcome, and as Dave and I arrived first we got a room in the hotel. The later arrivals spent the night in a Berber tent outside. This didn't prove to be very popular and resulted in most riders moving on the next day rather than the planned two night stay.
The next morning we headed out as a group for the very end of the road, just past the town of Merzouga. We took photos of the entire team in front of the biggest dunes with camels in the background. Nick did some publicity shots for Moto Challenge and his sponsors. I and a few others took our bikes out on the hard sand at the edge of the dunes. This was great fun even though several riders got seriously stuck.
I didn't ride 2500 miles to the real desert only to turn around 12 hours later and start back. After some negotiation I was able to arrange an overnight excursion into the big dunes by camel. Two of the more adventurous riders agreed to travel with me, and we set off in the early evening to see what the Sahara was really like. Our guide Mohammed led the three camels on foot and we headed into the alien world of golden sand. Anyone who thinks their bike is uncomfortable should try three hours on a camel! These weren't the regular tourist beasts with nice comfy saddles. They were traditional working animals, and you rode sitting on your bedding for the night, which consisted of a straw mattress and rough wool blanket. We edged cautiously along the crests and valleys of the dunes, often with sizeable drops off both sides. The camels appear to be able to go anywhere but can be difficult to stay on during steep descents. Hanging on to a rope looped round the animals tail is the only thing preventing you from being pitched over the beasts head.
Just when the novelty of playing camel jockey started to wear off we arrived at our camp deep in a valley set amongst enormous dunes. Two black Berber tents were to be our accommodation, and Mohammed quickly got some water boiling for tea. The camels were left loose to graze on the very sparse vegetation that could be found between the dunes. We ate rather better with an excellent Tajin prepared by our host. This was eaten Berber style with loaves of fresh bread broken up in a communal pot. We sat on the floor of the tent and talked to Mohammed about his family and life for several hours. He only spoke Berber and French but when it comes to family it seems possible to overcome the language barrier.
After dinner we struggled to the top of the nearest big dune to watch and photograph the sunset. I was worth the effort as the “Golden Dunes” lived up to their name, especially in the final minutes of daylight. Amazingly we were joined by two little Berber girls who appeared from nowhere to try and sell us home made animal models. It's virtually impossible to get away from young entrepreneurs in Morocco.
As the sun went down, the temperature followed. Bright moonlight turned the dunes a dark blue and made wandering around safe and easy. In the middle of the night, cold and several cups of sweet tea conspired to get me out of the tent. I was greeted by a now moonless sky, and the clearest, brightest, Milky Way I'd ever seen. It formed a clear band across the heavens. This was why I came to the desert, and I was not disappointed. Despite being seriously underdressed for the occasion, I sat on a small dune to contemplate the universe for a little while. My thoughts were only interrupted by the occasion grumbling of a nearby camel stomach.
Next morning we rose early and climbed the big dune to watch the sunrise. As the pre-dawn moved into daylight the dunes went through every shade of blue, to purple, to red and finally back to their day time gold. In the distance there was a dune many times higher than ours. As the sun rose, the shadows raced up the dune at a speed clearly visible to those who took the time to watch.
After a morning cup of mint tea, we broke camp and reloaded the camels. Mine was named after, that well know Berber legend “Jimi Hendix”. His buddy “Bob Marley” provided my mate John's transportation. The ride back went quietly, only interrupted by Mohammed pointing out some scorpion tracks in the sand. This was surprising as he had said there weren't any the night before, as we climbed into our very dark tent. As we rode back into Merzouga, we were reminded how bumpy a camel rides on a hard surface. Six hours on a camel preceded by 2500 miles on a bike can be quite tough on the softer parts of your anatomy. It was still quite early in the morning when we arrived back at Sable D'or. After paying our respects to Isabel and Rachid it was time to play catch up, as our friends were now a day ahead. There were a few final photos, including one of Rachid sitting on my bike. The sight of this proud Berber man of the desert on my trusty Vic was one of the best images of my holiday.
A few hours north of Merzouga we rode into the Ziz Gorge. This is a place of stunning views and its well worth stopping for awhile. We didn't as it was still a long way to Fez. The rest of our team had spent a very enjoyable night here.
As we climbed back into the Atlas Mountains, the views were stunning. At one point the panorama to our right closely resembled the Grand Canyon. The road wasn't as challenging as “Chicken Tikka”, but great fun to ride. At one point I swapped bikes with John and rode his Suzuki tralie for awhile. I chose the spot to switch bikes based on a relatively straight clear road ahead. My 700lb beast was as far from John's riding experience as you can get, and I didn't want to make his first few miles too exciting. Unfortunately within minutes we were on a tight twisting descent on an oily road into a valley, with nowhere safe to stop. I watched the mirrors nervously, half expecting a very big yellow motorcycle to come sliding past me. Fortunately John took to the bike very well and didn't have any bad moments (not that he'd admit). He was converted and now rides a cruiser. It's not a Vic yet, but I'm working on him.
The hotel in Fez provided a very welcome relief from cockroaches and tents. This was the best accommodation of the trip, and the timing couldn't be better. Nick arranged a fleet of taxi to take us the 10 minute ride to the Medina. All Fez taxis are aged Peugeot 106's with no apparent shock absorbers or brakes. As it turned out brakes weren't that important as our driver swerved through the traffic and drove down the wrong side of the road anytime the need to stop or slow down presented itself. In the 5000+ miles of my trip, this10 minutes was by far the most dangerous.
On arriving at the gates of the Souk and escaping from our tiny red “Death Car” we immediately picked up a guide. This is almost essential as there are over a 1000 alleyways in this part of the city and getting lost is inevitable. This I managed to prove the next morning. The Medina at Fez is probably the finest example of a medieval city anywhere in the world. Not only is the architecture original, but life and business have gone on virtually unchanged in a thousand years. The narrow alleyways are often dedicated to a specific trade. Bakers, tinsmiths, carpenters, leather workers, tanners all have their own tiny enclaves within the maze of streets.
The tannery is the most famous of these and it has been in continuous operation for many centuries. The ancient stone vats appear like a giant paintbox from the balconies of the leather shops above. The smell is quite staggering at first. The first part of the tanning process involves soaking the skins in a combination of urine and birds droppings!! The dye vats are mainly reds, browns and yellows. Men dressed only in loincloths spend their entire working lives up to their knees in these tanks. Health and Safety isn't a priority in Fez. Any hint of interest in a potential purchase results in a hard sell approach from the merchants, but you can walk away.
We were warned to keep our wallets safe as the Medina is very busy and you are always shoulder to shoulder with a potential pickpocket. As it was everywhere in Morocco there is strong police presence, and we never felt unsafe. Every police officer I spoke to was very helpful and polite. Even a loud motorcycle didn't seem to change their ever pleasant demeanour. How many of us can say that about our local law enforcement agency?
While in the Medina we visited a Fez equivalent of the local Chemist (Drug store for my North American friends). This is an amazing experience as they sell everything from herbs and medicines to cosmetics. The musky odour of scented oils is combined various herbs and teas. Things like saffron can be had for a fraction or the normal supermarket price. A Moroccan version of Viagra is available to the daring or desperate at knock down prices. Several of the guys tried this but I haven't heard any feedback on the effects as they were travelling alone.
After a good dinner and decent nights sleep, most of the group headed off to Chefchouen and a few of us went back to the Medina for some shopping. I tried to guide this group but got hopelessly lost. One of those friendly policemen got us back to the tannery. I think he got a back hander from the shop owner, but we all have to live, and he did us a great service. The weather was brighter, making all the colours more vibrant than the evening before. My two friends both found gifts for the family back home. I was already packed pretty tight on the bike, and as the support van was now ahead of us I steered clear of another carpet.
On getting back to the hotel and collecting the bikes, we found they had been thoroughly washed. I wasn't to happy about this as my bike was supposed to be at a show the week after I got back, and I wanted it to look like it had been to Africa. Still, you can fault the hospitality.
The ride north took us into the Rif Mountains. All the guide books warn you off this area as it is the domain of the “Hash Bandits”. They tell you this is the primary pot growing area of Morocco, and the locals are liable to sell their product by force. This proved to be a bit overstated. We personally had no problems and in six years of Moto Challenge runs to this area there have been no incidents. None the less, just the sight of a group of men at the side of the road still got the pulse rate up.
We stuck to the main road and enjoyed the run through gentle rolling hills with just the occasional section of narrow rough road. Over taking overloaded buses with penned sheep on the roof was sometimes interesting. In most cases the locals will make it easy to get past. We did have a couple of drivers make life difficult, but this was rare. Some of the riders ahead of us decided to give their GS's a work out and headed up some seriously secondary roads. These proved to be the most difficult of the trip, and were at times quite dangerous. Amazingly Bruce and Gail on their Goldwing were amongst this group. I don't think they would do it again, but it's one of those mad things you have to do once.
Just south of Chefchouen we rejoined the route we had used to get to Marakesh the week before. Glorious scenery and a good road made these last few miles back to the Hotel Madrid very enjoyable. Chefchouen now qualified as familiar territory which made wandering around the town even better than before. Being high in the Rif mountains you don't expect to run into that many fellow countrymen (Brits in this case). This made the sight of a dozen Bristol cars outside the town's best hotel even more amazing. These beautiful old cars were between 30 and 50 years old and had been driven nearly 2000 miles by their even older owners. I think this is where the saying “Mad dogs and Englishmen” comes from.
As this was our last evening in Morocco it was time for a good meal and some last minute gift purchases. Both these are easily found in this relaxed and pleasant city.
The ride back to Cueta was relatively quick and easy. By this time we were all “old hands” at riding in Morocco and those northern towns proved much easier to navigate than they were 10 days before. Customs, unfortunately was about the same. One unlucky individual had lost his passport. A bribe will get you around virtually any bureaucratic problem, except this one. He had to get back on his bike and race to Tangiers (several hours away) to acquire some papers from the British Consul. Amazingly, he caught the next boat and caught up with the rest of us by the end of the day.
After a relaxed and smooth crossing to Algeciras it was time to get on the road to our first destination back in Europe, Rhonda. There are two logical routes to Rhonda. The easiest is east along the coastal autoroute and then north into the mountains. I had done this by car and opted for the direct route which is all mountain riding. This turned out to be a great decision as most of the road had just been resurfaced and it was a bikers paradise. Whether your on a sports bike or a cruiser, riding doesn't get better than this. The race track like surface, light traffic and unbelievable scenery made this a truly unforgettable experience. The SC was in its element here, with only ground clearance getting in the way of the enjoyment. This did improve as the day went on with both the footrests and frame slowly being ground away.
Rhonda is one of the more interesting towns in Southern Spain. An amazing bridge spans a massive gorge that runs right through the middle of the town. It also has one of the oldest Bull Rings in Spain. With plenty of excellent restaurants it wasn't hard to find a good meal. Rhonda is totally devoid of the south coast tourist nightmares. No English Pubs, no chip shops, no Brits or Germans in ugly shorts. It's the place the Spanish go for a holiday.
The next day was going to be a long one, and most people got on the road early. Our bed for the night was about 500 miles away and on the opposite side of Spain in the foothills of the Pyrennes.
The true story
My day was going really well for the first couple of hours. Just outside Granada on a long downhill stretch, the bike went on to one cylinder. Everything that could be checked at the roadside was checked and the conclusion was a valve stuck open. The support van arrived and offered to load me up, but I wasn't quite ready to end my holiday here. The bike seemed to run well on one cylinder, so with a 1000 miles to go I opted to ride home. I should point out this was against the advise of my Victory dealer and Polaris UK who both spoke to me by mobile (cell phone). I disconnect the rear fuel injector to avoid dumping fuel into the dead pot and set off northward. My cruising speed was limited to about 65 but the engine was still smooth and quiet. My fuel consumption actually improved, adding about twenty miles between stops.
John stuck with me most of the day, but I felt guilty about spoiling his ride and suggested he go on alone. I also lost the support van in a town about 50 miles from my destination. After over 12 hours in the saddle, without my winter gloves and out of mobile range, I found myself lost and cold in the foothills of the Pyrennes. When I finally sorted out my exact location, I had overshot and needed to run south for awhile. This turned out to be a single track road through some serious mountains. Every now and then my lights illuminated the hills on the opposite side of a valley, giving a hint there might be some big drops off the side of this goat track.
Just before midnight after 16 hours on the bike, I arrived at the hotel. I was met by the ever thoughtful Gail and Bruce who had stayed up to make sure I arrived safely and got some food. They had arranged a meal of meats, cheese and bread, for which I am eternally grateful. Amazingly I arrived ahead of the support van which had stopped for a nice hot meal several hours before. The hotel was beautiful, but I didn't see much. Sleep came easy but it wasn't for long as we had an early start and a long run planned for the next day.
The next morning we headed north up the same mountain track I had come in on the previous night. If I had seen the cliffs and drops on my way in I would have been going a lot slower. The condition of the road actually made it possible for me to keep up with the group until we reached the highway. After that I continued alone. My mighty 750cc single ran flawlessly, if a little slow up hills. As the grade steepened towards the tunnel at Viela I was down to about 45 in third, but the engine continued to run well and stayed quiet.
The Viela tunnel is an evil place for a bike, especially one you think might stop at any minute. Its narrow, dark, slippery and the diesel fumes are horrendous. If you combine this with no safe stopping places it becomes a very bad experience. It was never happier to see daylight at the opposite end. With 30 miles of downhill riding at a respectable ahead, all was right with the world. I was on my own again, but the bike still seemed to be happy. I stopped at the first Macdonalds in France and had a well earned quarter pounder with cheese. I still had a long way to go but the mountains were behind me and I finally succeeded in crossing the Pyrennes, all be it slowly.
Our hotel that night was an excellent converted farmstead about fours hours north of the Spanish border. By riding almost continuously all day I arrived about the same time s the majority of our group. The restaurant was expensive but well worth the extra few euros.
The next morning we headed north for our last full day on the continent. The bike had already done 600 miles on one pot without any sign of distress, and I set out full of confidence it would get me home. Unfortunately this was not to be. Just south of Paris there was a rattle from the motor. I pulled in the clutch within seconds, but the motor stopped and I coasted to a halt at the side of a busy Autoroute. I was at the edge of a construction zone and pushed the bike a few yards and parked it behind a warning sign. The engine wouldn't spin on the starter and made crunching noises when I tried to push it in gear. It was dead.
There are two groups I have to thank for their help on that day. First were the French Motorway Patrol men, who not only parked their vehicle behind me to protect the bike, but stayed to help load it into the van. The second are Roger and Elspeth in the support van. I was two hours behind them at this point, and they had to add nearly 4 hours to their journey to retrieve me.
The rest of the day is just a blur. I slept on the floor of the van for a while and missed Paris. We spent our last night at a place near Liege. It consisted of a hostel, converted railway station, and old sleeper carriages. We had an excellent final dinner together, with Nick handing out some momentoes of our journey.
In the morning we headed to Dunkirk, and by noon the white cliffs of Dover came into view. Everyone was quite quiet on the boat. We were all tired, and a bit sad this amazing adventure was over. With some further help from Elspeth I managed to get the bike home by about 8:00 pm.
This was not a holiday that would suit everyone. Nick Saunders takes the “Challenge” part of his trips very seriously. Most of the days are long and the starts are early. The roads varied from excellent to virtually impassable. The hotels rated about the same. Nick works on the basis that if it's too easy it wouldn't be an adventure, and he's right. If your style of riding is a gentle amble through the country side, doing a couple of hundred miles a day, don't bother calling Nick. On the other hand, if you want a 16 day adrenalin rush Nick is your man.
Apart from the minor technical hitch at the end of this adventure, I enjoyed every minute. The people of Morocco are friendly and helpful. With the countries wide variety of scenery and cultures every turn can be an entirely new experience. Would I do it again? Yes, but I will take the ferry directly to Spain. Four days of travelling at speed on French Autoroutes doesn't add to the holiday and uses up time that would be better spent in Morocco. Nick has realized this and now offers a fly-ride which involves shipping the bike to Malaga, only a few hours from Algeciras. An excellent alternative.
Is a Vic suitable for this sort of adventure? Perfectly. The keys to a trip like this are, comfort, brakes, and torque. My SC has all of these and is actually better suited to this particular trip than the big trail bikes like the GS. They only have two advantages over the Vic, fuel range and ground clearance. As this trip was entirely “on road” the ground clearance was irrelevant. Fuel is readily available in Morocco making 250 mile fuel ranges un-necessary. Why ride a tall awkward beast on knobbly tires when you can sit in comfort with top quality road tires. Do you really want to be able to ride 250 miles non-stop?
If you enjoy riding and have a sense of adventure, go to Morocco. If your a bit of an adrenalin junkie do it with Moto-Challenge. Nick Saunders is as mad as a Hatter, but he will take you on a trip you will never forget.
Thanks to Nick, Roger and Elspeth of Moto-Challenge and all my fellow travellers, particularly Bruce and Gail, John W and Kawasaki Dave. Also to Gil, Jude and Clive at Thunder Road for their help with the bike.
It appears the original fault was a broken valve spring on the rear cylinder. Had I stopped on the good advice of Polaris UK and Thunder Road the damage would have been minimal. The bike ran perfectly for over 800 miles and crossed the Pyrennes successfully. The cause of its eventual demise seems to have been the collets shaking loose allowing the valve to drop into the engine. The result of this was mechanical carnage. The moral story is “listen to the good advise of your dealer”.
Written by David Tinker Dec 05
Link to Photos
Return to top of the page