A sometimes comical tale of a three-day mini-adventure…

Somewhere in the Trail Riders Handbook it is written - not sure where - but it is: thou shalt not trail ride alone. It’s something to do with personal safety - you know, if you fall over and can’t get up, (and we’re talking remote locations) then you could be done for. You can understand the logic. That said, I’m hoping there’s a caveat to that rule that reads: however, if you’ve scored a week’s pass off the missus, booked flights to Morocco, got dirt bike hire sorted, got an ambition to see some desert before you die, and are just days away from departure when your riding companion bails, then this rule doesn’t apply.

Yeah, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? Not that the missus was too impressed when she found out. Oh you can try downplaying the situation, telling her it’ll be alright, but women are smarter than you think. And the fact remains that if you’re going into Paris-Dakar territory alone, without the mighty support network of the Dakar organisers (or any support for that matter), then maybe you are taking a bit of a chance. Still, shows the power of dirt biking - or was it just plain stupidity? Either way, there was no question of NOT going.

That I was undertaking such a ride on a Honda XR650R only made the adventure part of the ride all the more real. I had one of these beasts many years ago when writing for Kiwi Rider magazine in New Zealand. I remember it for two reasons. The first was its capability to pull fourth-gear wheelies. Incredible. The second? Hmm, the fact it never liked starting.

Yeah, it was mid-winter over there when I had it, but I’d be stripped to vest and pants, sweating profusely, hanging over the bars with my tongue on the floor - then every two minutes going for another great lunge or two on that long ol’ kickstarter. Days would pass - or at least it felt like it - before it would re-ignite. The wheelies made up for that, but with the current adventure in mind I wasn’t so sure wheelies would make up for anything in the desert.

Anyway, having sorted the whole Moroccan deal in little over a week, having gleaned all that I could from the two websites that said anything at all about the region I was heading into, I simply packed a 20-litre rucksack with keks, T-shirts and toothbrush, climbed into BMW’s awesome two-piece Rallye suit (a Camelbak tucked into its rear pocket), put on some motocross boots, helmet, gloves and goggles then hopped on my CBR600 and made for Heathrow Airport. I didn’t even have a map of where I was heading to - hey you can always ask the way.

Maybe there’s something to be said for naivety - would Marco Polo have set off on his travels in a wee wooden tub if he’d thought through all the possible outcomes? Probably not. No, he’d have stayed home, sat fireside with a copy of RUST and some comforting nibbles. Had he been in my position, though, he might have remembered to charge his mobile phone before he left - and to take a charger.

Night Moves

Arriving in the dead of night at Marrakech Airport probably isn’t the best way to get started. Strange places always feel more dangerous in the dark, don’t they? Getting to the hotel, sat in the back of a completely knackered Fiat 126 taxi, driven by an Arabic-only shouty driver - driving down the middle of the road - was not a pleasant experience. Especially when he didn’t know where the hotel was. Inching down the loneliest unlit roads in the quietest quarter of town, I was convinced I was to be murdered before my adventure had even begun. One hand on the door handle at all times I was ready to run for it as fast as my Alpinestars would allow. I raised Brad, the guy hiring me the XR, on the dying energies of my mobile and by miracle - and in perfect Berber Arabic - he was able to direct shouty driver to the right place.

Brad met me later and introduced me to the local souk, an open market that never seems to close and ensured, in great tradition, that I was molested by one of those bloody monkeys the locals habitually throw at tourists in return for some dirhams (the local currency). Naturally the monkey gave me a damn good scratching. Then peed on the cuts as if to cauterise the wounds. The night was made complete by a great game of hide and seek with a super-sized cockroach in the hotel room.

The following morning I met Brad and he introduced me to the XR650. It was a time-served guide-bike from his tour company - not something, he assured me, he’d rent to his usual clients (he doesn’t, they get new CRF450Xs and the like). The XR had seen the rounds. Devoid of all instruments and with knobblies well past their best, it came as no surprise to me that it wouldn’t start. Before long Brad was down to vest and pants, sweating profusely. I was in the process of eyeing up a newish TT-R250, not as a replacement so much as an upgrade, when the XR suddenly burst into life - announcing the fact, among its other ails, that it was minus a baffle.

‘It’s a useful safety aid,’ hollered Brad over the din, ‘Tells any locals to clear a path.’

Of course the Lord loves an optimist, so it wasn’t long before I was saddled up (spare tube and assorted tools in a bag slung over the rear ’guard) and following Brad to the outskirts of town, where he was to let me loose. With the 25-litre Baja tank brimmed, it was kind of all systems go, but before I left… where to find some grub? Ah, problemo. Seems the locals were fasting for Ramadan so no shops were open. Eventually we found a wholesale supermarket where after much negotiation I signed up as retailer and promptly stocked up my new ‘shop’ with six bananas and three litres of water.

Mummy’s Boy

Leaving Brad behind was like cutting ties to mother for the first time. A trifle nerve wracking. I’d conned him out of his last Michelin map, on which we’d marked a probable route with a highlighter and I had this wee telephone-sized GPS on the crossbar that I could barely operate.

The plan was for a three-day ride mostly following the pistes (trails) through the mountainous High Atlas, with a short descent onto the edge of the Sahara for a quick squizz, before again heading for more mountain trails, some of ‘em a good 15,000ft high. We agreed I’d turn my phone on about mid-day and at the end of each day and call him to advise I was not dead yet and with any luck give him an idea on my location (Brad took care not to mention the patchy mobile coverage, while I took care to not admit my phone was set to die at any second - it did eventually keel over at the end of day one).

Destination for day one was Ouarzazate, a desert town some 200km or so south, where his colleague Peter (from Newcastle) would meet me. Not far, but I was planning to use tarmac for little more than 30 odd of that total.

And I have to say that first day went well. Ten minutes down the road I found the turn off the ‘highway’ that I was looking for and headed into the hills. Away along the first track I found an old boy (Mohammed, naturally) riding an ass (the real, half horse-half donkey kind) and was instantly offered a complementary ride on the beast.

Afterwards, restarting the XR, I managing to scare said ass off down the trail (dumping his cargo along the way), so poor ol’ Mohammed had to double-up on the XR as we set off in hasty pursuit. And of course the closer you got to the ass the quicker it ran… Afterwards, despite not speaking a word of each other’s tongue, we exchanged phone numbers. Of course I gave him my real number… I’m still awaiting his call, signalling the arrival of a dozen or so of Mohammed’s relatives looking for a place to stay in Kent.

Further along I came to a fork in the track and of course neither the map nor the GPS recognised it. And naturally I took the wrong track and found myself riding unexpectedly through a mud hut village. The XR must have deafened the locals because hoards of kids ran out and gave chase as I threaded through the embarrassingly narrow pathways. Not entirely sure of the nature of the welcome. I beat my way out the far side of the village, using pathways now barely handlebar-width - only to find all paths and tracks ended there.

Not really wanting to run the gauntlet of a second pass through the village I set off across a churned-up field in the direction of what appeared to be the right track, leading away south. Halfway across the field I figured maybe it was not so much churned as ploughed - and I couldn’t see my less-than-neat new furrow being at all welcomed. And more calamity - on meeting the track I realised the only access to it was up a six-foot near-vertical bank. With no going back, I launched the XR up the bank and cased it on the crest. Nearly falling back (into the possible wrath of the pursuing village kids), a healthy handful of throttle sprung us clear.

Further enjoyment along the way included a nice wee debate with a kid who was hawking tourist gifts at the top of a pass. He wanted me to pay to take my scenic photographs, you know, like he owned the place. I duly obliged but clearly he wanted more dirhams. Never short of pleasantries in such occasions I told him he was being a trifle extortionate. And needless to say he swung a good kick at the XR’s rear knobbly as I swung in earnest on the kickstart. 

Making Friends

Allah be praised, for due payment from me was extracted an hour later. Fracas forgotten, and feeling very much master of my new environment, tooling along the track I was met by a truck on a corner. ‘No worries,’ I thought, ready to throw a quick handlebar drag through the loose sand on the inside. Now Aussies call this super-light bottomless stuff ‘bulldust’ - ride into it and you’re simply down before you knew you were there. So there I was, upside down, the bulldust emptying from my mouth guard into my nostrils and through the foam into my goggles. The XR was upside down too. The truck driver was immensely impressed. And to give him his due he offered to set me upright again. But pride determined that I waved him on. Half an hour later, down to pants and vest, the XR finally restarted.

Evening was descending by the time I reached a place called Ait Benhaddou. A real old Bedouin fortress, made out of mud like so many places in the High Atlas. Made famous for forming a backdrop in the epic Lawrence of Arabia movie, it was truly impressive. Now sporting a damn fine layer of the local soil myself, I certainly drank in some self-gratulatory reverie. A real desert rat, me. I have to admit to being fair knackered at this point. I’d been riding for I didn’t know how long and much of it had been standing on the pegs, watching hawk-like at the trail for the rock, the hole, the slip - whatever - that could turn this dream ride into a nightmare. Which is why when I hit the tarmac again, just 20km short of Ouarzazate I just plain nailed the XR in top, to get there as fast as I could. The bellow was deafening, with no speedo I had no idea how fast flat out was and with no lights (in the gathering darkness) I had no idea I wasn’t about to ride headlong into some stray camel, either. Sixth sense being what it is, I let up about a kilometre short of the town’s periphery and coasted in - only to find a cop (gun belt, tyre ripping nail-strip and all) eyeing me suspiciously as I coasted, almost silenty past his post.

A cool evening was had enjoying an evening feast with a local family in their mud-built house. The daddio was a mechanic with Peter and Brad’s tour company, so there was an easy introduction - but really, could you imagine inviting an unknown guest - unwashed, covered in dust and gawd knows what else, still in his riding kit (sans boots) probably smelling to high heaven - into your house for what is your only proper meal of the day? Great people.

Snakes and Adders

Next day started with a desert excursion. Peter accompanied me for a while and we stopped for a photo. I was standing back, trying to frame a shot when I nearly stood on a snake. Maybe it would have killed me, only it was already dead itself - with what looked suspiciously like a knobbly print through its middle. Well I’ll be darned…

Peter returned to Ouarzazate while I headed across the desert (well, let’s be honest here, the edge of desert) towards yet more of the High Atlas. I stopped again for more desert rat photos and this time I stepped back neatly onto a goat. A desiccated goat. Seemed to me a lot of animals weren’t doing too good a job of staying alive out here. I made a mental note not to join them any time soon.

Ah, then a marvellous thing happened. It rained. Yeah, in the desert. And one of the most amazing experiences overtook me. You see, it would seem that when it rains on these arid parts the soil gives off the most amazing, intoxicating of aromas. This was the sweetest, most exotic, most otherworldly perfume I’ve ever smelt (exceeding even the perfume of a certain Roxanne, way back when). The smell was so intense, so profound I found myself tearing up -
all the hurt, all the love, all the people I treasure and all the people I miss came rushing into my consciousness at once. The experience was bordering on psychedelic.

Heavy wet blobs of rain seeped through my clothes and started wetting my arms and legs, as if in an act of cleansing, while heavy salty blobs of tears soaked the foam of my Scotts. I scooted along in this air of profound emotion until the most razor-like bolt of lightning shot from the dark skies to land somewhere not that far away, in the nothingness of the desert. Suddenly I felt rather tall, tall the way a strip of copper on the top of a high old church spire does, ready to receive 25 million volts. The tears dried up, the head went down, the arse up, and I headed to the mountains, sharpish.

Naturally the storm travelled with me. For a while I found comfort in the beginnings of the mountain trail. Only as it ascended so I realised I was actually getting closer to the storm - via the cloud base. I noticed too that far from being inviting green valleys, the mountains offered little in the way of comfort or security. This was an environment devoid of life. Rocks everywhere, the mountaintops were crowned by toppling serracs, which lay in wait for lightning bolts - an opportunity to send tons upon tons of rock and ice crashing down the slopes onto… the track I was riding. Aw, hell… this is what adventuring alone is truly about. Getting hammered by rain squalls, dodging lightning strikes, skittering along a wetted hardpacked clay track with nothing but rocks to cushion a fall and nothing like rescue looking to come from anywhere.

This is the time you start chanting wee mantras, ‘It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad, it’s BLOODY BAD…’. For two hours it went on like that. I didn’t want to go back, I didn’t want to go forwards, I certainly didn’t want to stay put. So I just carried on riding up and up into this seriously forbidding landscape of mountainous rock. Utterly sh!t-scared.

Riders on the Storm

Curiously the storm eventually passed away unnoticed. My mantra obviously succeeded in externalising all fears and concerns. Still I was a long way into unknown mountains, and judging by the soggy Michelin map and the way the GPS suggested north was south, a seriously long way from the kasbah that would be shelter for the night. I went from scared to anxious.

The track grew seriously rocky to the point it seemed almost unrideable. And then it was. For a landslip had washed away a good 200m of the track - to where, I knew not. Logic said turn back. But logic had little to do with this journey so, like the true off-road god that I am, I rode off-piste down the mountainside into a wadi (dried up riverbed) and then up the other side of the mountainside to regain the trail.

Like a god? Sorry, not quite. No, I descended the slope first confidently then somewhat panicky as I realised an XR650 is no trials iron. It can pick up momentum, I’ll say that much. Then I manhandled the XR across this boulder-strewn river bed (much larger than it looked from above) inch-by-bloody-inch, before finding I was quite lost as to just where the line was that would take me safely back up to the trail. With typical application of logic, I figured the correct procedure at this point was to charge the slope in a do-or-die scramble, accompanied by a cheerful, top of the lungs ‘faaaaaaaaaaark’ (as you do when you get that shiver up the spine that indicates you may not quite be as successful in this endeavour as you once thought). Heart beating at a real 180bpm I was at last sat back on the trail wondering what the hell I was trying to prove.

Half an hour later as I reached the top of the umpteenth pass (wishing as ever that this one would look down upon a valley with green pastures and a welcoming village or two) I took note that the trail was now almost indistinguishable from the mountainside. There were no vehicle tracks whatsoever, no cairns left by walkie types and definitely no welcoming cafe. And the next valley? Another uninhabited rock garden. It’s at times like these that you study the fuel level in your 25-litre Baja tank, and begin to wonder how long a banana and 30 boiled sweets will sustain you.

Off course, eventually the rocks did give way to softer surrounds and eventually a village was found, up on this high plateau. And to celebrate I gave away all the sweets I had to the local kids - only to then admonish them that they were not to eat them before sunset (it being Ramadan and all). They repaid my kindness by directing me down the wrong trail for my destination. An hour later I came back through their village, offering the same kids a cheery wave, as you must, before setting off along the right trail - at a jaunty clip.

The rest of the day was spent in almost karmic state. The XR purred along in its 108dB way and as it slowly became clear that I really was at last on the right trail and heading for the sanctity of the kasbah for the night, then certainly a wonderful sense of relaxation, of
oneness with the XR and the trail, replaced the day’s anxieties.

Rock the Kasbah

The kasbah was simply fantastic. A kasbah is a walled-residence of some grandeur it seems, with a central courtyard and rooms around. As always, made almost entirely of mud. This one was nestled in the most run down of villages I’ve ever personally witnessed. Unlike the kasbah, the villagers’ mud huts were seriously crumbling, semi-derelict. The women of the village were washing their clothes in a nearby stream. The odd cattle stood here and there, seemingly in a trance within the enclosures of the villagers’ homes. It looked way beyond basic, yet curiously the sounds from the women and the kids were all happy, there was laughter and high spirits everywhere.

That evening as I sat alone on the roof of the kasbah (as its only guest), under an incredible starlit sky, listening to the chatter of the people. From the mosques along the valley, imam broadcast (via tannoy) their final prayers of the day. Their enthusiastic chant-like readings echoed around the valley, adding a very Arabian Knights feel to the experience. Like nothing you could experience anywhere in the western world. Beautiful.

To say the kasbah experience was exotic would be to understate the case. It was profound. And when the following morning the Kasbah owner (a Swiss guy who had come out here to visit, and never returned home) took me on a tour of the village, into the villagers’ huts, where I could personally see the basic living conditions, where I could (with him interpreting), talk to the villagers - to understand that the men all work in the cities, away for weeks at a time, to understand that when a kid breaks his leg playing football then it’s healed by an elder tying two sticks to the damaged leg, nothing more - then it was possible to find a greater understanding. Needless to say I was impressed by their beautiful nature but concerned for their livelihoods.

Kick Off

That morning the big XR resolutely refused to start. There was a sense of flame-out after a third-kick backfire - all set before a good audience. Naturally. I wasn’t concerned - after all I was within the comforting walls of the kasbah, and by now I was really not wanting this adventure to end. I reasoned that, if anything, it was probably the sparkplug that had succumbed. I noticed however, given the Baja tank, that changing the plug was my no means going to be easy - especially given the haphazard and rudimentary contents of the tool pouch I was carrying.

I was in fact relishing the chance to yield the odd spanner, to prove myself properly capable in self-sufficiency before my willing audience. But my host and his small band of local men - who were at that time hand-digging a well - would not have it any other way than that all of us all, or more accurately, all of them, should be involved putting the bike to rights.

I suspect not one of us figured it would be anything more serious than the plug and so there was something of a tussle as we all tried to impress the others with our mechanical aptitude. It was in all eventualities more polite to sit back and let the team do their thing. And sure enough it was a sandal-adorned foot that eventually swung the XR back into life. I have to add, mind, that in the jubilant rush to replace the tank, the radiator shrouds and such, the throttle cable got wrongly routed - which necessitated another almost full strip down before finally the XR was ready for another day on the trails.

That third, final day’s ride was fantastic. Now in a very relaxed state of mind I headed off for a ride that would take me to the highest point in my adventure (speaking in altitude here). The early riding was as ever stunning, and I rode along feeling happy and with a sense of optimism for a safe outcome. And naturally soon enough I found myself again high in the mountains and again on the wrong trail. Quite which one was the right trail was anyone’s guess. Only there was only me there to guess. There was much backtracking and retrying before one trail simply felt right. I had no idea whether it would prove right, but by now I was ready to go with instinct.

I rounded one corner to find a mule trail coming my way. Six old boys on what looked like six old mules, carrying wicker baskets full of produce, were making their way up the valley. I killed the motor and allowed them to pass in my silence. The old boys were keen in their discussions, only giving me a cursory nod and continued on up the valley. I marvelled in their apparent happiness. They’d clearly been to a souk, topped up on provisions and were now returning to their villages to distribute the goods. The pace of life, the camaraderie, and the way these old boys were obviously still very much a part of serving their community - you couldn’t help but admire it.

After seeing the old boys I removed my goggles for good, enduring streaming eyes for the benefit of at least being able to have eye-to-eye contact with anyone I met. I’d never really hurried along but now I travelled even slower.

As I found myself descending into what was a huge valley floor, one totally locked-in by high mountains on all sides, I encountered a wonderful sense of well-being coming upon me. On the valley floor I could see three small communities and at one of them clearly a souk was in progress. You could see mules, horses and asses steadily clip-clopping this way and that, sometimes ridden, sometimes being driven in teams. No vehicles though. I rode along that valley cheerfully smiling and greeting anyone within earshot and found a positive response from all. Mindful that after the delayed start, that the day was getting long and there were clearly more mountains to cross I rode on.

Mountain Tops

The ride was stupendous. Unlike the previous days, this one didn’t feel too technical, although at one point up on the highest mountain it was clear to me that to ride off the edge of the trail was to ride into oblivion. But by now I felt safe with the XR and my own abilities. I was laughing too when later, with dusk coming down at a fair old rate, I found myself still high in the mountains. I had no sense of concern, but then I could see the flat lands that led back to Marrakech weren’t so far off now. I found too that I was reluctant to leave the mountains. I was trying to find reasons to stay, but even deliberately making wrong turns wasn’t helping, it was clear that from here all trails led to the Red City.

Finally, on proper roads and leaving the mountains I encountered a tourist coach within a village. It struck me these were the first westerners I’d seen for three days (aside from Peter and the Swiss owner of the kasbah). And naturally, being by now an elitist adventure trail rider I was not that happy to see them. I found something repulsive in the way that they poured from the coach, pointing, photographing and quite simply looking so out of context in the
environment (as if I didn’t). I could imagine the locals not particularly liking them either. Where the natives naturally looked ‘at one’ with the place, all seemingly with a strong connection with the land, these air-conditioned bus dwellers seemed to have little connection with anything other than the video camcorders in their hands.

Riding into Marrakech, I despised the city too. The west side of which was being obliterated in a wash of international hotels - Vegas-like with neon signs glowing in the dark. New money meant new cars, meant coffee bars, meant idle time. So pulling a few wheelies seemed as good a way as ever to rebel. Where I was embarrassed by the XR’s noise on the trails, here I warmed to its effrontery.

Back at the hotel again, a scuttling cockroach now passed as a non-event. The following morning, being driven to the airport by a support truck driver to the Dakar Rally again left me non-plussed.

I boarded the plane, flew into Heathrow and - still in my Rallye suit and motocross kit, now caked in Moroccan mud - joined the evening rush hour traffic on the M25. I was heading home to my family, to my wee son. Lots of joy there. But spiritually where was I? I was longing for those mountains, those wonderful people. Even longing for the person I had briefly become. So often scared and cautious, yet attuned to his surrounds. Now I was a drone, slightly theatrically dressed, heading eastbound between junctions nine and eight. Morocco was behind me, already but a memory.

Yep, curious thing, this adventure travel lark…

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