Arriving at Chris’ on Friday gave us the weekend to do any last minute preparation on the bikes, and fit more suitable tyres, before getting the 7 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Tanger-Med on Monday morning.
Earlier we’d agreed to compromise on the Continental TKC80. As it turned out this was something of a mistake. Firstly the supplier to the garage died, which caused problems with delivery. The price inexplicably rose by about 16€, and the tyres fitted to my bike had sat on a shelf in Spain for a good 5 years, and looked like it too. To top it all off, the mechanic put the rear tyres on the wrong way round (not a huge deal), and then balanced them (???).
With the new tyres fitted we decided to test them out on a short local trail. Sounded like a good idea, however enthusiasm got the better of me and I came careering down a slope far too quickly on far too poor a line, and ended up dropping the bike.
We weren’t on tour yet but the rules still applied. Photo first then help.
Fortunately the xCountry drops well and there was no damage other than pride. It was the first time the bike had been laid down, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Anyone who’s ridden in tough sandy environments before will know what a mess it can cause to the painted areas of bikes. To combat this we masked off and tapped up everything we could. Swing arm, forks, bodywork you name it. It might look a bit ratty but it helps keep the worst of the sand off.
Day one was a long 400km ride Tanger-Med to Midelt. We’d planned plenty of time for this, but there were two things that had the potential to ruin our best laid plans.
One, the ferry that was due to leave at 6 a.m. was rescheduled for 7:30 (great I woke up at 2:30 a.m. for nothing then).
Two, since the UK is so insular, insurers don’t/won’t issue issue green card insurance extensions. Only two companies in the UK would consider it (Aviva, and LV) and both wanted triple my annual premium to take out a policy with them.
I decided to go with Aviva, only to find out that the underwriter had changed their mind and Morocco was too dangerous for them to provide cover for. This meant the increased hassle of buying insurance at the port.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Tanger-Med port was efficient and quick, and we were through customs and out of the port, complete with insurance cover (provided by AXA) within 20 minutes.
Day 1: The road to Midelt
The ride to Midelt was all by road and pretty uneventful. Despite being awake since the early hours of the morning I never really felt tired. Perhaps it was the excitement of being in Morocco for first time.
We stopped off halfway for some chicken skewers, fries and a some Moroccan tea. I popped to the gents (can you call an arabic style toilet a gents?) and came back to be told that the chef had been sitting on my bike. I sat there and stared at the bike for a moment. Hmm that doesn’t look right. WTF?
The xCountry has a usable tank capacity of 9.5l i.e. not enough when touring undeveloped nations. I’d added an Acerbis 5l auxiliary tank to help boost the range to over 300km. It worked well, but sitting there looking at the bike something was wrong.
The auxiliary tank was bolted to a home made 2.5mm aluminium plate, with long M8 bolts running though two tunnels in the centre of the tank. I’d not used washers as the bolts sat inside a steel sleeve and the heads of head of the bolts were far too large for the tank to slip off. Or so I thought.
The 36c heat had caused the tank to expand and slip over the bolt heads. The tank was now hanging off the side of the bike. I don’t know how many miles it have been like that, but it needed sorting.
In true Top Gear style Chris left me to it while he sat down in the shade with a cigarette and a coke. It wasn’t long before I started to draw (unwanted) attention. Fortunately the solution was simple. Strap the tank up good and tight to the mounting plate and seek some large washers once in Midelt or perhaps Merzouga.
We arrived in Midelt to a somewhat luxurious hotel at around 5pm. The perfect time for a well deserved beer.
Day 2: Midelt to Merzouga
Another all road day to get us to the Sahara. The route took us through the Atlas mountains to what’s basically ‘Sahara disneyland’. As we approached Merzouga we both came across something neither of us expected. A combined sandstorm and thunder/rain storm, meant that we wouldn’t be chilling out by the pool that day. Worse still, despite the owner of the hotel enjoying his drink, the hotel itself didn’t stock any alcohol.
Fortunately we had 1l of Southern Comfort with us, and 500ml of Jim Beam.
Day 3: Merzouga to M’Hamid
We set off early for a full day of grade 5 Dakar piste. Seemingly not early enough though. Although the overnight rain (and it was heavy rain) would help to tame the dreaded fesh fesh (a few km from Taouz), it meant that progress up to that point was slow going.
In most parts the track was in bad shape. The parts that weren’t waterlogged were muddy. Even worse were sections that were seemingly dry, only to turn into ‘quick sand’ once the you’d broken the surface. Treacherous.
The going was so slow was we considered turning back. We had over 250km of piste to cover, and in three hours had barely covered 30km. Neither of us had any camping gear with us, so should we reach the point of no return we’d either be riding in the dark (which isn’t a good thing so close to the Algerian border), or have to sleep next to the bikes.
“Fuck it” we said. “We’re out here on an adventure so lets have one”. And with that we pushed on.
We approached the first three official checkpoints, though it didn’t look anything like official as the officers were wearing jeans and tracksuits, and had only one radio between them. They didn’t like our plans, or the fact that we were so close to the border and told us to turn around. Of course we could have just carried on and ignored them, but then they’d radio to the next checkpoint (a proper checkpoint with military offers and guns) and we’d have to turn back.
Instead we turned around, then took a detour to get passed the original checkpoint and continue on our trail. The detour took a good couple of hours and was brutal. Without a proper piste to ride, we got ever closer to the Algerian border, and had to cover extremely rocky ground, which the 19″ front of the xCountry didn’t much appreciate.
We eventually got back onto the piste were able to follow our GPS track. As we thought the rain had tamed the fesh fesh section a fair bit, but it was still tricky, and both bikes went down, and got stuck. I was unfortunate enough to get mine stuck on a sandy hill (not quite a dune). The two of us struggled in 40c heat to pull it out. Once out I had to ride back down the hill and try again giving the bike full throttle.
Afterwards I was exhausted and needed to a break and drink some more fluids.
Beer in the dessert
We continued another few hours before arriving at an abandoned auberge in the middle of the dessert.
As we stopped to take photos a local appeared from seemingly nowhere and tried to get us to stop for refreshments. “Have you got any beer we asked”, “Yes, beer, we have beer.” Fuck off. A local in the middle of nowhere with beer. “Bullshit” we thought, but we followed him the 500 meters or so to a hotel still under a bit of construction.
At the reception we asked for beer and sure enough a guy came out with three bottles of European beer. He was the owner of the hotel and being Portuguese, enjoyed his beer. In fact he wasn’t happy with the bottles he brought out claiming they tasted a bit flat so went and got us a couple of cans too for free.
As we drank the beers we debated whether or not to call it a day. We’d done most of the hard stuff, it’d taken all day and we were tired. Fortunately we’d built in a couple of free days into the itinerary, so we had the choice of resting for the night and hitting the rest of the trail fresh, or pushing on into the evening.
I think if it hadn’t had been for the beer, and the Portugese guy to chat with, we would have pushed on. Of course if it hadn’t have been for the rain the previous day, we’d have made M’Hamid by now anyway. As it was we decided to stay the night and enjoy the trail the next day.
Hooning around in a 300bhp Landcruiser
The owner of the hotel drank with us, chatted with us and showed us around. He shared his vision of what he’s trying to accomplish there, and we support it. We talked to him about his 4×4 and he was more than happy to take us out into the dunes it. Of course he wasn’t just any hotel owner, and this wasn’t any 4×4. He was a former rally raid driver and this was a 300bhp Landcruiser with trick suspension and everything.
We’d been driving the dunes for about hour when we saw a small convoy of vehicles passing bay. Naturally we drove over to check it out. Randomly, one of the vehicles, a Dacia, no less, decided to try and tackle a small sand dune. As you can imagine this ended in the Dacia getting stuck (what was the driver thinking), and us having to pull him out.
The rest of the evening was spent eating, drinking (he makes a great gin and tonic), and listening to some locals play some instrument. It was a great idea to spend the night there and I’d fully recommend it to anyone passing that way.
GPS: N 30 38 433 W 04 45 040
Day 4: Merzouga to M’Hamid – Part two
We’d covered just over 100km the previous day, and finished in time to have some fun at Kasbah Marabout. We were now well rested and ready to tackle the rest of the trail to M’Hamid. Fortunately the rain had stayed away and the searing heat had dried up any remaining wet spots. I hoped we’d make good progress.
With a 155km of piste to go though, it still wasn’t going to be a short day. It was made longer by the fact that Chris Garmin 62 had failed, and he gets quite anxious if he’s not sure exactly where he’s headed.
My GPS was an old Garmin Quest, which was still working, but wasn’t as detailed as the 62, and was a little more fast and loose with the way in which it drew the tracks.
We ended up some way off track, though still in the right direction, it meant we took the rocky route to M’Hamid, instead of the easier sandy route. This was more to my detriment, as I was not comfortable on surfaces with large rocks and boulders the size of American footballs. In that regard the 21″ front wheel of the Sertao helped, and he plusher (softer) front suspension. At no point did the xCountry front suspension bottom out. Instead it hopped unconvincingly from rock to rock. It meant slow progress.
The hotel in M’Hamid was more luxurious than the one in Midelt a couple of days ago. The room and bathroom was huge, and I had my own sun terrace. The highlight of the complex though (which was laid out like a university campus) was the pool.
Since we arrived quite early in the afternoon we had plenty of time to play with. After eating lunch and getting cleaned up we ventured into the town/village.
Day 5: M’Hamid to Zagora
Originally this journey was scheduled to be road based, but being only 100km we thought we’d do a piste and still have plenty of time. The piste we chose was found on Wikiloc and isn’t present on the OSM Topo, or Olaf maps of Morocco.
It was probably the most technical piste of the whole trip and both bikes to struggled to a certain degree. The first part of the piste was great fun, riding through sand and little fesh fesh in between dunes, but it soon turned rocky. This time the obstacles were more like soccer balls and were combined with steep ascents and descents. I got the xCountry stuck once, and dropped it twice on this piste.
All that being said, the piste offered some of the most fantastic views in the region, and was well worth doing. Just be prepared.
We arrived in Zagora about 4pm, and went straight to Garage Sahara Zagora. Chris was eager to clean 3 days of tough piste from his bike, and I was keen to assess the damage to my home-made axillary tank mount. The heat on the first day had seen the tank expand past it’s retaining screws. It had been just tied on since then, but now the aluminium mount itself had snapped. The boys at the garage set work on making up a new one from steel.
I continued to assess the damage. I’d lost my Wunderlich fender extender, and along with it one of the bolts securing the front fender. Surprisingly the fender stayed on without the rear bolt, but had been rattling around. The worst part was that it fouled the upper fork tubes, leaving scoring on the front of them.
I instructed one of the workers to take care of the fender, and inadvertently convinced him to give the bike the a wash, which he did. The bike wasn’t really much cleaner, but the loose dirt at least had been removed.
That evening we went out for dinner with the owner of the garage and enjoyed a kilo meat. He had to go back to work but organised a lift for us to a hotel that sold beer. At the time I wasn’t feeling great but just put it down to riding a tough trail in the heat and being a little dehydrated.
As we arrived at the hotel bar a sheik (obviously no that religious) opened up conversation and said he’d buy our next round over in the hotel function room, but first he had to get something from his car. As we left the bar we could clearly see he was totally wasted. “Fromage fromage” he cried as he ruffled around in his car and pulled out this rank block of camel cheese.
After the first beer I was feeling worse, and decided to go outside and get some air. Shortly afterwards Chris left an headed back to our hotel. To our surprise the hotel was locked up apart from a small sidedoor that led into a lounge. As we entered we heard someone stir. It turned out that the owner and few others were sleeping in there. We wished them good night and went to bed.
That night I woke up feeling sick, and sure enough threw up at memories of the Bereber omelette I ate in M’Hamid.