West Glos and Forest of Dean enthusiast swaps her Sherco for a Beemer… see where she goes!
Having passed my bike road test just over two years ago this was going to be a big adventure, a trip to Morocco with my boyfriend Ian Thompson. In early October we left Malvern (after an epic tyre changing session) on a dry slightly chilly evening to catch the ferry to Spain.
The English Channel was quite rough but the following morning dawned fine and bright and we crossed the Bay of Biscay arriving in early morning sunshine in Bilbao after two nights on board. We set off to traverse Spain, planning just one night there before crossing over into Morocco. It was cold crossing the Pico’s de Europa with stunning views and our bikes ate up the kilometres.
Due to the inefficiently of my insurance company one of the first jobs was to get bike insurance when we got to Morocco. Are people so badly educated that they think Monaco and Morocco are the same place? Apparently yes, and by the time I had discovered such stupidity it was too late to sort anything else out
The next morning we headed for the port of Algeciras and the temperature was starting to rise. A swift weaving in and out of the touts, return tickets were purchased and we just about made in on to the ferry, the ramp being raised behind us. I removed most of my thermals on board as we sailed past Gibraltar. Before we knew it we were in Ceuta – which although is on the continent of Africa is still Spain and it was a short ride to the Moroccan border. What chaos, people and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, people getting cross, and everyone jostling for position. Lots of signs saying do not use your horn; and yes everyone was!! We pushed through on our bikes, dodged the touts and got the forms to fill in for importing our bikes into Morocco. Ian took them off and came back with them duly completed and we thought we were done and dusted. After a short amount of pushing and dodging we got to the border and were told to get our passports stamped as the official had not done it when he did the bikes. We parked up, Ian went off and I stayed with the bikes.
I waited, watching all life pass through the border, bribes taken, people singled out, people waved through – there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it. Eventually after half an hour Ian returned telling me how he had had trouble as the border official did not believe he was on a motorcycle. But he had his stamp and now it was my turn. I headed to the same booth – ready to do battle, I handed over my passport, my entry paperwork and demanded the stamp was made please (in my best French). It took all of about 15 seconds from start to finish!!! We were away and through the border heading to the coast to spend the first night in Asilah.
The next day dawned fine and we went in search of some insurance. The local insurance broker was definitely not interested and sent us to the next town to AXA International. A chance encounter saw me marched around the corner straight into the office and I purchased the world’s most expensive short term motorcycle insurance. The girls in the office were very impressed we had ridden from England and I was riding a motorbike.
We hit the road again and headed for El Jadida for the night. After breakfast we tried to escape the town. After a futile attempt, we stopped, I took the map and went in search of directions. Entering a public office of some kind I explained where we were trying to get to and what road we wanted. (Speaking French helps so much in these situations). The two gentleman said it was tricky, closed the offices, got in a car and escorted us out of the town to the correct road – an extreme act of kindness. I told them they could just point us in the right direction but they refused, and insisted they guide us!!
One of the scariest parts of the trip was riding around the capital city of Rabat. It was complete chaos, lorries, cars and waggons pulled by donkeys all just pull out in front of you. Ian led the way and I tried to keep up and not get cut off by the traffic – we got out the other side unscathed, but my heart was beating so fast – it was terrifying. Earlier that day we had come across a road accident where a lady had been hit and killed by a truck – which itself was in a very bad way in a ditch. The body was in the middle of the carriageway and covered up. It struck me how little drama there was about it all. A policeman was wandering around, but what a contrast to the flashing lights and road closures of the UK. Death in whatever guise is dealt with in a very “matter of fact” way.
The following morning Ian wanted to search out a piece of sheepskin to go on his seat as it was proving uncomfortable. Wandering around the Medina we eventually found someone sat on a stool covered with sheepskin and expressed an interest. After much debate in Arabic someone rushed off and came back with one. It was too expensive and too big, we further explained what we wanted and again someone appeared with another piece which was perfect. We then had to haggle quite a bit and they drove a very hard bargain. Ian was now the proud owner of the world’s most expensive sheepskin to match my insurance policy. It had obviously been removed from someone’s house!
We set of early the next morning for the long ride down to Tan Tan which was as far south on the Western side as we were heading. We arrived in the dark and it was getting very hot. The recommended hotel had seen better days, but they had a room at £20 for the night and free parking in a barn at the back for the bikes. As grotty as it was the bed was clean. After a shower and washing of our clothes, which would dry overnight easily; we headed out and enjoyed chicken and chips in the main street at a pavement café. Ian could have swapped me for a camel with the local wheeler/dealer, but luckily was too tired to think of that whilst the chap was paying me compliments.
The next morning the big day had arrived, it was time for my first off road experience. To say I was terrified was an understatement. I had read the description of the route and it mentioned that you needed to have been on a spinach diet first – really scary. I was determined to ride like Lois Pryce the adventure bike rider and not Lois Lane!! I turned off the ABS and we set off on the first piste or track. The gravel was a bone shaker and I had to stand up to keep control of Beryl.
After half an hour I was so hot it was unbelievable. My first “off” soon happened – a small patch of loose gravel saw me crash into a bush. It hurt, shocked me and my pride also took a nasty blow. Ian came back, we righted Beryl and it took me a while to get myself sorted and onwards we went. The track came from Chris Scott’s guide book and I was wishing the poor chap all sorts of unmentionable harm. After an hour or so I was starting to get a bit of a handle of things and rode a quite difficult rocky section, various small patches of soft sand, gravel, corrugations, dried up oued(creek) beds and I was actually enjoying a bit of it now. A few more crashes and we then stopped for lunch at a small oasis, stopping at a well to refill our water bottles. Lunch over we had to rejoin the track and getting out of the soft sand was difficult. Too hard for me so Ian rode my bike out and I helped him right his when he lost it too.
The day continued through beautiful scenery and was very varied. I was scared, out of my comfort zone but also enjoying myself. After some calculation with the GPS we decided that we could get to the end of the track and to the town of Assa. We rode part of the old Paris-Dakar rally route on salt flats and that was great going, fourth gear and stood up. It was getting dark by now but we were not far from the tarmac. Riding at night in Africa is not good as you never know when a Donkey or a Camel might wander out into the road. I was exhausted but just kept following Ian’s tail light. We rode up a hill in the pitch dark and I was ecstatic to see the lights of Assa strung out along the horizon. We pulled into the hotel car park and I had to get Ian to put my side stand down as I could not move!! I dragged myself off the bike, a room was secured and we had a very good evening.
The next track was billed as easier but were bumpy and rough and the terrain was not too challenging compared to the day before. Some of the climbs were terrifying though, but I just kept going, yelling at myself to get on with it. Chris Scott mentioned in his guide book “that your radiator will be screaming by the time you get to the top” – he did not mention your girlfriend will be too!! I completed the day without falling off – yeah (thankfully) and we stopped in Tafraoute for the night. Following Ian on the tracks I felt like Wily Coyote chasing the Roadrunner as often all I could see was a ball of dust in the distance.
On the bikes again the next day saw us heading via Tata to Zagora for the long track we were planning to ride. It was a long hot ride, 42 degrees C in one town we went through, with sealed roads that were more like cart tracks – I actually had to stand up they were so rough in places. We got delayed as the road had a lot of deviations onto tracks as it had been washed away and we came across a wedding party which blocked the road too. It was dark when we reached Zagora and secured the last room in a large hotel, after a leisurely breakfast and a morning spent plotting the way points in the GPS we set off for lunch and supplies. About four p.m. we headed off the main road to start the long track we had come to ride. It was hard to get going and find the way, but eventually we were off, every time we hit soft sand I thought I was off too. I rode some hard bits, then fell off again – once as I was coming to a stop through exhaustion!! A shower from a well and a military check point passed. A pep talk from Ian saw me ride a really tricky hill and it became time to stop for the night. It was getting dark and we chose an oued bed as it had some flat rocks. We unpacked, stowed the bikes under the bank below the track and ate our supper. The silence was quite wonderful, all-encompassing and the stars started to come out – layer upon layer upon layer. It was not really dark at all, shooting stars shot across the sky and we started tracking satellites. With no tent and just a sleeping bag, it was not cold as the rocks had held the heat from the day. There were a few mosquitos which were annoying and a small jerboa (nocturnal wild gerbil) tried to steal our bread in the night but we managed to rest and rose at dawn to continue.
Kilometre after kilometre passed, the scenery changed again, and we met more sand. Another well to refill our water bottles and a further military checkpoint. The guard mentioned that they don’t see many women and certainly not many women on motorbikes, it made me feel quite special! He kept apologising for having to record our details and told us that two weeks ago they had had heavy rain and the whole area had flooded and we would not have got through.
On we went and met more sand, I started to come unstuck more often. I managed to get my foot wedged under the fuel cap on one off and Ian had to come back and rescue me. We stopped for coffee at small Auberge in the middle of nowhere and I was not thrilled to be told the route got very difficult from there onwards. I kept telling myself that every metre was another metre nearer the end. I managed to fall off again in some soft sand near to another Auberge where we had lunch. The locals saw and as they all have mobile phones they had a plan for later forming which will become apparent.
The going became very tricky, although the hard packed rock strewn sections were not too bad, I kept telling myself what to do and to “get on with it”. A few more offs saw me really damage my shin (cracked the bone) and although it hurt the adrenaline let me get back on. I thought it was really hard and then it got difficult!!! I could not manage in the deeper soft sand, so Ian had to walk back and ride my bike through the difficult sections. I climbed off once and twisted my knee in the soft sand which really hurt, and then I knew I was not going to be able to continue. We heard a Land Rover approaching, word had got out and their timing was superb. It stopped with two Moroccans in it – their opening words were “Do you speak any French?” “Yes”, I said and so it began. “It is impossible” they said “to ride a bike through here, we’ll take you to the tarmac”. After much haggling they agreed to take my bike, the luggage and me; Ian would follow as he was managing. Beryl was secured I climbed into the middle of the truck cab with Hassan and Mohammed. There was a terrible smell of hot sweaty bodies and feet, oh dear; it was actually me!! They were very entertaining speaking to me in French and then shouting at one another in Arabic, they waited every now and then for Ian to catch up telling me: “il arrive”. Ian kept following us, riding amazingly well, I was so envious of his abilities; I could see him in the rear view mirror. The rest of the route was very hard and I would have really struggled to do it with my current skill level. It would have meant another night in the desert, some parts I could have ridden, other bits – no chance!
Eventually we reached tarmac, unloaded the bike, and scraped all of our cash together, paid the guys and they left. We headed to Merzouga where we arrived in the dark and set about trying to find a cashpoint. There were lots of touts and eventually we discovered there was no cashpoint, so we needed a hotel that accepted credit cards. One chap said he could take us to one, we told him we had no cash and could not pay him, he said “never mind” – rammed his turban on his head, hitched up his robes and set off on his moped with us in pursuit. After ten minutes we arrived at the hotel, confirmed they had a room, took credit cards and thanked our guide, another genuine helpful person who was very kind to us. We had a really good dinner and woke the next morning to amazing views of the dunes and camels. My whole left shin was now quite black and blue in places, I had a lot of other bruises too, but had survived!
Soon it was time to head north towards the Atlas Mountains. Whilst stopping to check tyre pressures one lad tried to help and move my bike; he could not manage it when I could and I expect he is still being ribbed over it. “The woman could do it and you couldn’t” his mates were laughing a lot at his expense. We decided to “go for it” and try and get to the coast by nightfall, it was a relief to get off the bike when we did.
Two days later we headed to the border, this was scary as there were very high winds on the Autoroute and Ian had the bike move out from under him once, which scared him (so it must have been scary then)! We eventually arrived at the border chaos, there was much pushing and shoving, and we got to the front, filled in the forms, had our passports stamped, exported the bikes and were away into Spain. When we had filled up earlier I had not locked my second fuel cap properly and someone had stolen it – annoying, but not the end of the world. We queued for the ferry and without much ado were back on the European mainland. A quick blast north and we stopped for the night when it got dark and also cold. We set off for Bilbao to catch our ferry and made very good progress. Arriving back in Portsmouth it was still warm and sunny, I changed the clothes I was wearing as I did not need all of my cold weather gear and we rode towards Malvern.
Just before six o’clock saw us at the end of the trip, 3801 miles covered in three weeks. No mechanical breakdowns, no punctures, two lost indicator lenses, a DIN accessory plug that fell apart and a stolen fuel cap was the extent of the bike damage. The cartilage in my left knee is another matter, but the bruises soon faded, and a burn healed without incident. I still can’t believe I actually did it, it was awesome, definitely the adventure of a lifetime. – Georgina Mason (SSDT Observer & WG&DF MCC member)
Copyright & Photos: Georgina Mason – Trials Guru 2014.