I had visited Morocco earlier, in the winter of 2011-2012. Back then we were mostly 4×4 offroading and mountain biking, but the area left me with the idea of returning for some enduro action. I had a chat with my buddies in Vetomies as they were usually up for this kind of stuff. They of course were in and before too long we had a group of nine riders set up. Actually, eight riders and a mechanic, that would not ride all legs, to be precise. The team was mostly familiar faces from Vetomies events, with a few new ones too. A nice group.
I was originally going to organise the trip through my contacts. My plan was to put the bikes into a truck and fly the crew over to meet the bikes in Algeciras, Spain and take the ferry over to Tangiers. The problem was that it would put us in northern Morocco and I wanted to do a tour in the south. Preferably starting from Marrakech. We only had a week so it would have cut the ride short or result in long days on tarmac to get to the good spots.
I had heard that Kari Tiainen, the Finnish enduro legend with seven world championships to his name, ran a safari company out of Spain. He ran a standard circuit from Marrakech to eastern Marrakech, but he warmed up to the idea of doing a southern circuit from Marrakech to Erg Chicaga and then to Essaouira. I liked the idea of the traverse as Essaouira is spectacular and we would still have a day or two to kill in Marrakech. Also, I had done a similar circuit with a 4X4 so I had a vague idea of what was where and how nice the area was.
Day 1, As-salamu alaykum.
We arrived in Marrakech airport on time, having flown from Helsinki via Oslo. Our luggage was loaded on Kari’s support car and the riders piled into a local Mercedes Benz taxi classic and the support car. These cars shuttle people from A to B all over Northern Africa and the Middle East. I find this an amusing testament to the build quality of the 200D, much like the Toyota Hiace van you see all over Nairobi, Kenia.
After a short ride over some piste we arrived in our house for the night, Le Bled de Gre. A fantastic place. Especially when it has eleven dirt bikes on the yard!
The bikes were KTM and Husaberg 350’s. They were new and in good condition. The tyres were worn, but Kari told us they would be for the first two days only, which contained some tarmac sections. We would enter the Sahara desert with fresh tyres.
The evening wound on with the normal frivolities, as everyone was getting their gear sorted. There was a huge bike trailer which would be taken to our final destination in Essaouira tonight. All our non essential gear needed to go on that trailer and we would only have the essentials packed on the support car.
We had a nice dinner prepared by the owner. I had warned everyone, that we would be on a steady diet of tajines, which are not really to my taste. Tonight’s chicken tajine was the first of many. It was nice, but I enjoyed the wine a lot more.
Day 2, MARRAKECH TO OUARZAZATE.
I woke up before dawn and took the opportunity to have a look at the sunrise. It’s a rare treat for us Finns, as we don’t see much sun from November to January. During that time the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all in Northern Finland. So I was more than a little stoked to see the orange glow in the horizon, accompanied by the calls for morning prayer from nearby minarets. I found a very nice spot on the roof to check out the view and shoot some photos.
I was riding a KTM 350 EXC-F, which I had equipped with my Giant Loop Fandango tank bag. I needed the extra room for my cameras. Even though the dirt track only lasted for a couple of kilometers, before a long stretch of tarmac, it was really great to be on the bike. Cruising along a world of sunshine and warmth.
After the tarmac we finally hit gravel and the scenery changed instantly. We were climbing towards the High Atlas, which we would have to cross eventually. People didn’t seem to mind us. Quite the contrary, they would wave to us, smiling. A certain gentleman actually offered us tea, when we accidentally rode on to his front yard, after a wrong turn. There were some mischievous kids throwing rocks at us in the smaller villages, but with body armour it’s not really an issue. I guess kids are the same all over the world.
Day 3, OUARZAZATE TO M’HAMID
We pulled over to a stop at some point. We were enjoying the sunshine and crisp morning when Manolo, our guide, told us to have a look at the ravine just in front of us. There was Kari, doing his thing. He had ridden down a steep water eroded slab in the canyon. He’d stopped in the middle for some photos, before climbing back up. It was pretty impressive.
The road form Agdz to M’Hamid, on the edge of Sahara is impressive. Crossing the last chain of hills before the desert gives sweeping views over the vastness of Sahara. It looks like a maroon coloured giant ocean. The dunes look like frozen waves. It is very impressive. Unfortunately one of our riders had a puncture just before the hills and we lost some time changing the tube. After that we were racing the sunset, with no time for photos.
Day 4, M’Hamid to Sahara bivouac.
This was the day everyone had been waiting for. At least I know I had. We would be venturing into the desert proper and spending the night there in a bivouac. I had done the same trip on a 4×4 earlier and remember it being pretty magical. Now, with the enduros, the ride should be a million times better.
The mechs had spent the best part of the previous night putting new rubber on the bikes, and they were good to go. Before leaving though, I took a group photo of the whole gang outside the hotel.
We started off in high spirits and rode to the oasis town of M’Hamid. It is literally the end of the road. An interesting dusty town, locked in a never ending battle with the desert for space. At some point in time, camel caravans left from here to cross the Sahara to Timbuktu for almost two months. Riding out of town and into the desert, I hoped our visit would be shorter.
We made our way southwest through the sands. It was great fun, cruising on the soft sand. Very different of course from anything I was used to riding. I had a bit of a scare as the rider in front of me had taken a fall just behind a small dune. I only noted where she had ridden and took a line half a meter left of her track. I didn’t slow down as she hadn’t braked on the top. So I hit the gas, hoping to do a little jump off the small dune. I was already in flight when, to my horror, I saw her pinned under her bike behind the dune. There was nothing else I could do, except for ditch the bike in mid air. It’s not like I had time to think about it or asses the situation. I didn’t, I just reacted and the bike ended up clearing her, before ending up on a sand bank on the left. I ended up hitting soft sand on the right of her bike. I immediately got up to make sure I hadn’t hit her and get the bike off her. She was totally cool about the incident and after a bit of a breather we continued on the trail. It could have ended up in tears, but this time we were lucky.
The terrain changed several times during the ride to the bivouac. From soft sand to packed, dry mud to rocky flat desert. It had everything. Our bivouac was right at the edge of where the big dunes begin. We stopped briefly at the bivouac before continuing to the dunes. Everyone was excited to tackle the climbs. It’s amazing how unforgiving they are. You need to keep up good speed to make it all the way up and get off the gas at exactly the right moment. If you’re early, you won’t make it to the top. You need only to stop short one or two meter from the ridge of the dune and there’s now way up there. You need to roll back down and retry it. Then again, if you brake too late, you’re over the lip. Needless to say, that if you brake much too late, you could end up having a lot of hang time and a rough landing. Some of the dunes can be up to a hundred meters high.
After messing about on the dunes, we rolled back into our camp. We had some lunch and chilled for a moment. The setting was perfect. This bivouac was much nicer than the one I had visited a couple of years back. It wasn’t luxurious as such, but it was very nicely put together in terms of layout and aesthetics. A perfect place to chill out and nurse some blisters.
I don’t think anyone was in a hurry to get back onto the bike and some of us concentrated more on relaxing and Moroccan beer. As for me, I wanted to catch the sunset.
There was probably around half a dozen of us who ventured out just before sunset. I took a line to a dune I had had my eye on earlier. I made it to the top and just enjoyed the view. Everyone out there formed small group on the dunes and before not too long I got company too. It was a truly magical moment, gazing upon the vastness of the desert and watching the shadows get longer. Before too long the sun dipped under the horizon and the shadows were gone, replaced by a glow in the west. It was time to head back to camp and have some dinner.
After dinner we gathered round the camp fire, shared a bottle and just enjoyed the night in the desert. Later during the night, the conversation turned into some pretty dirty jokes. The name of this trip, The Moroccan Black Hole Turkey Tour, pays homage to one particular joke from that night. It was told by Kari and will not be repeated here.
Day 5, Sahara bivouac to Tata.
I woke up before dawn, to catch the sunrise in the desert. I love the solitude of the early morning hikes with nothing but your headlight for company. There’s always a bit of misery involved as the comfortable sleeping bag is quickly getting cold where you left it. Groggily walking on the dunes with the final clutches of sleep fading and the mind becoming aware of its surroundings. It’s all worth it though as the view never fails to inspire. This time was no different.
I hiked for a while and found a spot I liked. A wide gentle slope with no tyre tracks or footprints. A small abandoned hut lay in ruins between nearby dunes. The remains of an old bivouac, soon to be taken by the sands, no doubt. The glow in the eastern horizon was strengthening so I set up my equipment and sat down for the wait. The camp was quiet in the distance, and I had this dune all to myself.
I felt the wind on my face and time seemed to slow down. The world for me only consisted of the desert, and the sun. There was room for nothing else, while I waited for the first piercing rays of light to creep over the horizon. The dull blue shadows of the dune summits crept lower, as the inevitable sunlight washed over the summits in shades of magenta. It would not be long now. Night turned into day.
Hiking back to camp, I stumbled upon a sorry sight. All the waste of the camp had been dumped in a hole in the ground. It had been built for that purpose and no doubt would be covered with earth once it was full. It was equally certain, that the waste would inevitably be unearthed one way or another. It would spread over this beautiful landscape, reminding visitors of the damage we are doing to our planet.
The camp was in full swing once I made it back. Breakfast was served, riders packing their stuff as well as the support car. Some of us had clearly stood too long in the sun.
After all the frivolities, our team geared up and before not too long the thud of the single cylinders filled the dunes. We headed west through the dunes before descending to flatter sandy ground. For some reason, my arms kept getting numb. I must have strapped the armour on too tight. After maybe half an hour we were out of the sand and on the eastern edge of Lake Iriki. There was no water at this time and the surface is smooth. I think everyone had the throttle pinned and we left an impressive dust cloud in our wake. We stopped for a while at the western end as the support car needed more pressure in its tyres now that the sandy stuff was over.
Our route took us through the rocky desert all the way to the highway N12, just south of Foum Zguid. Our route was barred by military check point. There was no hassle, the officer just asked where we were coming form and where we were going and reported it on radio. Before too long we were clear to pass and took off. We stopped for lunch in the village and refueled.
Leaving Foum Zguid, we were back on tarmac for a while. It was actually not too bad as some of the sections through the desert had been very rocky and some people had dinged their rims. No punctures though, which was pretty amazing considering the terrain.
We turned south, off the tarmac and continued towards the Algerian border. The weather was great but it was very windy. The terrain changed many times and we rode through dunes, dried up rocky rivers, small tracks and sections of rocky desert with no tracks. We even crossed a river. With water I mean.
We had ridden for a long time at good speed and I was starting to feel tired. It had been a long day and we still had ways to go. I think others were feeling a little tired too as people were missing turns and making mistakes in the riding. We had a short stop on dried lake and could see the Algerian border. Not the recommended direction to go to.
In the the end we made it out of the desert and to the beginning of the dirt road to Tata, our destination for the night. We had a slight problem though. Exiting the dirt track spit us right on to a military compound. Looking back I saw signs stating passage to be forbidden. I was the only one who spoke French in the group so it was my job to sort out the diplomacy.
The compound had some serious looking soldiers and their commander, who demanded to see our passports. The only problem was that the passports were in our support vehicle, that had taken another route. Well, this was Africa and usually things seem to sort themselves out if you just play long and play nice. For the commander it was important to show his men who’s boss. For me, it was important to get my team out of there and en route to Tata. He wasn’t happy about the missing passports, so I told him we can have the support car bring the passports over, which could take a while. Or I could write down our names and we could telephone our support crew for the passport numbers, which would be quicker. He smiled and invited me to sit down and write down the names. No passport numbers needed. We sorted out the paperwork after which the commander wanted some pictures of himself on the bikes and with the crew. They ended up being pretty stoked about our dusty crew, riding in from the desert on our thumpers. Good people.
We finally got out of the compound and made our way to Tata. I was beat and had to break out the emergency recovery protein bar. A tajine would have not been enough that night.
Day 6, Tata to Tafraoute.
The day turned into a bit of a stop and go over and over again. The team was plagued with flats. Not only that but the 12 Volt compressor was acting up and we were running out of tubes. While one team was changing the tubes another was fixing punctures. I’ve always found changing tubes a bit of an irritating, if not intimidating, job. It was impressive how short work the pros made out of it. Which reminds me to practice more in the garage.
The scenery was very nice as we rode through the mountains. It did get very cold on the ride towards Tafraoute. I had every piece of equipment on. I thought I was riding light but some of the riders were in mountain bike gloves. I was really happy I brought my neoprene enduro gloves.
Dropping into Tafraoute was strange, like many sections of the ride. We did a long 70 km ride here a couple of years back and I kept recognizing a place here and there. It really is a very nice area. Even Kari and the guides seemed impressed with it, and they’ve been around everywhere.
Day 7, Tafraoute to Agadir.
The morning was chilly and the mechs had been up early to change the engine oils of the bikes. The riding on the cold morning started with another stretch of tarmac. I had my headphones and windproof jacket on for the boring ride towards the north.
This just wasn’t my day. I don’t know why that was the case, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. I just couldn’t seem to get my groove on with the bike. One of the reasons was that we kept stopping every fifteen minutes for some reason. It really broke my rhythm and I found it hard to ease into the ride with the constant stopping and starting.
When I lose my focus, I also lose all interest in photography. This time was no exception, which is a real shame as we rode through some amazing terrain on the ride towards Agadir. Unfortunately all I have to show for the day is a picture of a goat in a tree.
These are the days that come back to haunt me when I browse through the frames I shot. What a waste of beautiful scenery. Anyhow, my foul mood didn’t improve when arriving at the hotel so I decided to get drunk, good and proper. That usually helps. This time was no exception.
Day 8, Agadir to Essaouira.
I woke up into a realization. I had successfully defused the compatibility issue with man, brain and machine. Nursing a very mild hangover, which dissipated after breakfast, I continued north with the rest of the group. The coast was spectacular and after a short stretch of tarmac we were back on dirt. This section ended up being some of the best riding thus far.
We rode through small tracks in the hills and ended up on the the beach. Everyone seemed happy on the sand after some trickier rocky stuff in the hills. We lined up for the mandatory group shot before continuing up the coast.
After the fun and games on the beach we refueled and had yet another tajine in the little road side village of Tamri.
The last section on the beach was spectacular. A small track winding through the coast, perched high above the water. It was partially rocky but mostly sandy dunes. Further up the coast we turned inland for a little exploration of the hills, which treated us with sweeping views over the Atlantic.
As always, everything comes to an end and we finally made it to our last stop, just south of Essaouira. It felt like an abrupt finish and before too long the bikes were stripped of personal gear and hurried into the safety of the walls of our home for the next two days. The evening was spent in good humour, recapping the week of riding and indulging in the characteristic celebrations of Finns.
The next morning the bikes were loaded into a huge trailer, before the fond farewells with our guides and mechanics. It had been a great week. Thanks everyone!
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