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.
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.