One from the archives. Originally published in TBM years ago.
Got none from the actual enduro, but a few KLX250 photos survive.
Monday morning and no way could I face going to work. I lay curled up like an armadillo with rigor mortis, then spent the day hobbling around like a mugging victim. I had been mugged all right; mugged by my first Welsh enduro.
Two days earlier I’d looked with pride at my bright green KLX250 (the early 1980s one, not the zippy four-valver). Tiny mods set it apart from your run-of-the-mill trailie: Barum knobblies, an axle wrench strapped to the swingarm for speedy wheel changes, bore and stroke Tippexed on the crankcases as required by the ACU, and those rrrrracing numbers. Not a sixteen-year old throttle-wanker’s ’69’ but 1 2 3. Did it mean I was rated hundred and twenty third? Probably, but later that day me and my race-prepped KLX caught the Aberystwyth train.
After no less than eight trail bikes in eighteen fun-filled months of riding all the nearby woods, bomb holes and wasteland to death, I’d quickly tired of congested southeast England’s feeble ’round-and-round-a-field’ so-called enduros. Following months of scanning the ‘Enduro regs available’ in the back of Trials & Motocross News, I took the plunge and entered my first Welsh enduro on my 14-hp mutton-dressed-as-dirtbike.
I knew all about the Big Ones, the Welsh Two Day and the Brecon, events I’d never survive, but here was a likely candidate: Cwm Owen (might have the name mixed up). It wasn’t a British championship round which must mean it’s dead easy – brain-out racers wouldn’t even get out of bed for this one. I sent off for the forms and promptly got my racing number, final instructions (just like Mission Impossible!) and a list of local B&Bs.
Like renting a van, B&Bs were for the pampered elite, so on arriving at Aber late Saturday evening, I bought some Lucozade and a tube of Toffos from a late-night garage and rode out up the A44. Around midnight I figured a roadside plantation was a good place to sleep and, killing the lights, rode down into the forest, unrolled my sleeping bag and pretended to fall asleep.
Next thing I knew I was woken by the din of a rorty stroker tearing past me the on road above. Dying for just a few more minutes of dozing, I turned over – and rolled down the hill. In my weary haste to pass out last night, I’d ended up sleeping on the edge of a pine-clad slope and before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling through the trees trapped in my bag like a rolled-up taco. I fiddled frantically with the drawstring and zip as sky, trees and pine needles spun past. A tree caught my feet and swung me headfirst down the slope like a sledge just as I managed to get my arms out and kick off the bag. A few somersaults and I slithered to a halt against a fence.
Dazed and confused, I staggered back up to the bike, got dressed and 20 minutes later was signing-up for three 20-mile laps in the four-stroke Clubman’s (beginners?) class. In those days monoshockers like KDXs and ITs were beginning to impact the enduro world hitherto ruled by twin-shock chainsaws like Maicos, KTMs and the odd yellow PE, all of which were tearing off up the track at one-minute intervals. With his minute due, it was the turn of lip-chewing One Twenty Three to push his KLX up to the starting line alongside a purposeful XR250. “GO!” shouted the starter with a drop of the hand, and I fair broke off the KLX’s kick-starter to get the holeshot on the XR.
“Take it easy now, watch those ruts…” I warned myself as I neared the first bend where the track swung uphill, “…it’s not a race, it’s an e n d u r o”. An enduro it may have been, but for crap riders like myself it might as well be a race as flat-out was the only way to keep on the pace. Within seconds the XR shot past, never to be seen again leaving me a breathless, rigid-limbed, goggle steaming learner bouncing from rut to rut as I struggled to get the feel of the Kawasaki at ‘racing’ speeds.
Up on the moor top a long boggy section stretched ahead where several bikes had floundered. With no obvious line to left or right, all I could do was drop a gear, roll open the throttle, move back and see how far I’d get. Luckily the KLX’s 14-odd horses couldn’t spin the skin off a baked rice pudding and amazingly I got across and up the far side. With confidence boosted, a few miles later I found myself riding blissfully alone across the hills following the Castrol marker flags. I was doubtless last but who cares, it was this feeling of being truly in the wilds that gave Welsh events their special flavour.
Coming back to the bog on the next lap, I thought I’d be clever and try a firmer-looking route to the left. I soon realised why no one was going this way; the ground was broken up by treacherous peat troughs and eventually the KLX dropped into one such pit the size of a big bath but handlebar deep. Thirty miles of moorland hammering on a handful of Toffos had already taken its toll, but at times like this you don’t think about how knackered you are or your multitude of aches and pains – you just do what must be done. I heaved the front wheel up to one side of the pit and after much cursing, managed to get the back wheel onto the other side of the trench. Crawling out of the mire and straddling the bike on my tip toes, I was planning to attempt I’m not sure what – some kind of fanciful kick-start wheelie manoeuvre? One foot slipped and I toppled back into the slushy peat soup with a splat.
By the time I’d dragged myself out and got back on course, finishing the second lap was all I could think of as I sagged over onto the bars like a wet sheet. Coming down the hill leading to the starting area I lacked even the wit to ride off the easy drop offs: instead I’d brake hard at the last minute to tip myself over the handlebars again and again while formations of low-flying Maicos on their sixth lap accelerated overhead like scrambled Typhoons.
The third lap was a lonesome fog of agony and repeated prangs at the slightest obstacle until I finally dribbled into the parking area just as everyone was packing up.
“Oh there you are, One Twenty Three” said the nice Welsh lady, ticking me off her list. “We were wondering what happened to you. Is that your bag by the fence?”
“Urg” was all I could manage in response.
I pumped up my tyres and, feeling like I’d been run over by a stampede of yaks who then decided to turn back and ran over me again, I weaved wearily back down to Aberystwyth to find a train strike had just begun.
“London is it? Oh I think Shrewsbury [77 miles away] is the nearest station, but you better hurry mind, last train leaves at 9.21…”
Months later, with bruises healed and KLX long gone, I got a weighty packet in the post. Inside was a bronze medallion centred with an enamelled bike mono-wheeling across the skies. My name was stamped on the back and an accompanying note said “Finisher, Cwm Owen Enduro, 1981”.
Who can fail enjoy watching the likes of Dakar racer Pablo Quintanilla on his 60-hp Honda CRF450 surfing and slicing over the Arabian dunes?
Me? I rode a substantially less potent CRF300 Rally for a couple of hours across the damp, leafy byways of north Surrey to see if it could be a contender for my next travel bike.
The 286cc 300 resembles the previous 250 Rally (and indeed the real desert racer) but loses 4kg, gains LED lights, a slipper clutch, 5mm seat height and 2.7L in the tank. Less weight; more tank: all good. Some young youtuber was thrilled to calculate a 15% power-to-weight gain from the specs, but then admitted actually sitting on the bike would make that figure negligible.
Very light (147kg verified with a near empty tank)
Very good (claimed) mpg
Interesting gearing: low 1st; overdrive 6th
Bigger fuel tank (12.8L = 500km range)
Welded subframe looks chunkier (162kg claimed payload)
IMS only do a 9.5L tank for the 300L (+1.7L) which makes the Rally all the better
For me, the 3hp gain is not a worthwhile improvement *
Lots of plastic to scratch and crack
Tall saddle (but sinks down loads – or was my Xmas better than I thought?)
Suspension probably needs upgrading
Nearly a £grand more than a 300L
More another two hundred quid you can get a 500X
* I have since heard from two owners that they can take a while to loosen up
Pulling away from Dobles my immediate thought was ‘oh dear…’ But of course so much depends on what you’ve been riding lately (me, an AT which barely needs the throttle turning). Reminding myself how to crank the handle and let it rev a bit got the Rally moving, but it wasn’t night and day over my 250 recollections. Just down the road I pushed it briefly up to an indicated 70 (64mph) where it felt OK.
I realised they’ve done a clever thing with the gearing: 1st is very low; ~4mph at tickover, just what is wanted on gnarly trails. Any other time you can easily pull away in 2nd without straining the clutch. And 6th sees the revs drop by 1000rpm – just don’t expect to be able overtake anything much. I’ve not noticed such a gearing spread on a bike before and like the idea.
The bike feels exceedingly light (again compared to the extra 80kg I’m used to). An intimidating lack of mass gives you confidence to throw yourself at pretty much any trail, knowing you can keep it in line and easily pick it up, if needed.
At the indicated mpg (I managed to bring it back doing 92) you’d have an amazing 500km range. But of course the seat (or your backside) would not last a third of that distance. But that is a £300+ expense spared over the tiny-tanked 300L.
There’s been a lot of online excitement about the full-fat ‘300s’, but while the emperor’s new clothes are sharp, they are verging on translucent. For domestic trail biking I’d be happier with the less damage-prone 300L, especially once it got an IMS tank. The CRF 300 motor is just a stroked 250, so that’s as big as the barrel and crankcase will probably allow. Honda has no other suitable engines apart from the high-maintenance 450 dirt racers, as used in the stillborn 450L. Great for real rallies, not so much for the overland.
I know that my test bike had less than 100 miles on the odo when I returned it to Dobles so needs loosening up, but after this ride I’d sooner settle for a post-2019 250L with an IMS tank plus some other worthwhile mods and save a grand or two. Or maybe I should try one again with a couple of thousand on the clock
More impressions with the photos below.
The ferry may had left TanMed five hours late, but it eased into the small port of Sete a few hours early. The skies were clear and a cold wind was howling down from the north.
I rode out of the hold and joined a mass of cars where a casually dressed guy who looked like a stowaway was nipping about snapping our vax certificates on his mobile. Was that it? I was expecting a harder time from French immigration but there is something to be said for these small ports.
Once clear of the docks I pulled over to wrap up and plug in, returning waves from the couple of other bikers on the boat. My Montana was playing up and not routing, but the free download map still worked so I could wing it.
Years ago when I used to transit France to Marseille for Algeria, I calculated the shortest, fastest, toll-minimising and big-city-avoiding route from the Channel to the Med. The key to this 900km route was the toll-free A75 La Méridienne motorway which snaked over the Massif Central between Clermont Ferrand and Beziers, close to Sete. Usually deserted, the A75 was a scenic way of ticking off big miles for free.
Now, buffeted by icy gusts, I worked my way out of Sete following signs for Clermont-l’Hérault and the A75. If it was freezing down here what would be be like up on the 3000-foot Massif plateau?
I’ve not ridden in France for years and, providing it didn’t snow, I was really looking forward to this ride. I had the gear to keep warm and dry and for me, an unusually fast bike to bat away the miles. Plus I love France and French living, for all the well known reasons.
Helped by the fact I once thad no permanent base in the UK, over the decades I’ve spent many happy months relocating in southern of France during the cheaper off-season. In the winter of 1995 I parked up in a little village called St Guiraud, not far off the A75 just north of Clermont-l’Hérault where, in between hiking and MTB excursions, I wrote Desert Travels. Now 25 years later with the wonder of Google StreetView, I was able to see the house I rented. It’s nice to know it’s still recognisable, but I’ve learned that the thought of revisiting old haunts is usually more satisfying than actually following through.
But I wanted an excuse to linger down in the familiar south for a bit. Ted ‘Jupiter’s Travels‘ Simon’s town of Aspiran was also right on my route to the A75, and as he’s contributed to AMH (below) and I’d met him at various shows and events over the years, it didn’t seem inappropriate to propose I swing by for a cafe au. Before the great plague swept the land, he generously offered his spare rooms as a writers’ retreat, and has a new book out about his pre-Jupiter years.
I pulled up in Aspiran main square but realised I’d not saved Ted’s number like I thought I had (smart phone / dumb user). Other means of retrieving this information failed.
No matter, I had an image of his place (left) in my mind’s eye and it’s a small place. I’ll wander round the old town and use my desert-honed routing-finding ability to nose it out.
Probing promising lanes and cul-de-sac was fun to try but it didn’t work out. In the meantime I learned that Aspiran had some unusual street names: Rue d’Enfer (Hell Road), and the equally jaunty Old Slaughterhouse Road where I take it property values are also a little more moderate.
The streets were deserted, as they always are in these places, so back in the square I popped into the bakery for some hot savouries to see me over the bone-chilling Massif. Even Greggs couldn’t have beaten the prices. She handed me my warmed-up nosh.
‘Merci. Do you know an old Anglais who lives in the town? He is called Ted Simon.’
‘I think I know who you mean but I don’t know where he lives‘ she said. But for all I know she could just as well have been saying ‘That’ll be 4 euros, now bugger off back to your sunlit uplands!’
On a bench opposite the town hall I tucked into my steaming pizza slice while a cat peered up for a hand-out. Then I zipped up, strapped down and braced myself to hit the road.
Soon I was pushing into the headwind barrelling down the A75 as it climbed and curved into the Massif, while the fuel and temperature gauges raced each other to the bottom. The AT’s mpg read-out on the dash got so subterranean I stopped trying to work it out (probably < 50mpg).
Bags either side of the tank may not have been helping the range, but they sure helped keep the wind off my Aerostich AD1s, while the Palmer screen was adjusted out front offering all the aerodynamics of a Landrover. Still, this was a recovery mission so I accepted it would cost what it cost to to get the job done.
Within an hour I was past the snowline at around 1500 feet with the temperature reading a couple of degrees above freezing. I was trying to resist putting my heated jacket on full blast so I’d have something left after dark, but was surprised how tolerable I felt, even without heated grips.
I’d been planning this chilly ride for weeks if not months, and knew my outfit would be crucial. My setup was an thick Icebreaker merino top, the humming Powerlet jacket over that, then a down Mountain Hardwear puffa jacket to fill out the space under my heavy canvas Carhartt jacket.
As usual with heated gear on a bike, it’s not exactly like sitting by a crackling fire on a balmy evening but, recalling my crossing of the Spanish Picos on my XSR a couple of years ago in similar conditions, I was suffering a lot less than expected while not feeling like a sack stuffed with potatoes. Something made a difference, though it may have been no more than low humidity.
I watched the signboard elevations climb: 770m, 888m. Somewhere I was sure the A75 peaked at over 1100m metres. There was a roadhouse there where I recall snowballing with the Mrs one time. [Oh dear, as I feared even that innocent pastime has now become repurposed as vulgar urban slang].
Clouds rolled in and the read-out dropped to 0°C. I knew I had to pitch my stages so that when I stopped I wouldn’t just fall over and shatter into glass, like the Terminator getting drenched with liquid nitrogen.
Hasta la vista. Baby.
Other graphs are available, but according to this one left, freezing point at 120 clicks feels like minus 12°C or 10 Fahrenheits. The elevation was now hovering around 1000m (3300′) and I had to hug myself with my left arm to press the heated wires against my body.
At one point I must have fiddled with the dial or something because turn a jacket off at these temps and you soon feel the difference. Big chill panic set in fast. WTF’s up! Has the fuse blown? Nooooooooo… I felt like a diver whose air supply had been cut off.
I fumbled with the dial and turned it back to ‘6 o’clock’. Ahhhh that’s better, like having warm ketchup poured down your crotch.
I needed fuel but the next aire was that one at the A75’s summit at over 1100m. The thought of all those unheated minutes filling up the bike and paying for it were unbearable. So I set the display to ‘remaining range’, vowed to keep below 120 true, and take decisive action before the range dropped to 50 clicks.
The elevation fell, the temperature inched up to a balmy 5°C and just in time, the lights of a roadhouse lit up the dusk. A few minutes later by the bike, as I was warming my hands around a coffee, a passing motorist chipped in with something like:
‘Bonne courage mon ami. My AT is safely locked up in my heated garage till March at the earliest!’
By Clermont Ferrand I was over the Massif and well below the snowline, but now the setting sun would take the warmth with it. The A71 toll road began here too but still, this was metropolitan France, not Tajikistan. I’d stick at it till 7pm or creeping hypothermia, whichever comes first, then look for a hotel.
When that time came I was getting quite chilled and at another fill-up in the Centre de la France roadhouse, I asked where the nearest hotel was.
‘Bourges chum, around 50km.’
I can manage fifty – 25 minutes on an AT with a refreshed tank.
I pulled off for Bourges and brushed the toll booth pad with my credit card. Who knows what that cost but 550 darn-chilly clicks knocked off, less than 400 to Dieppe, tomorrow.
Another great thing with riding in France are welcoming gas, food & lodging enclaves right by the toll-gate turn-offs, avoiding the need to trudge into the city if you don’t want to. All lit up with shiny neon, the budget hotels shout out their prices and offer discount vouchers for cozy restos within walking distance.
After a good feed still wearing all my gear, back in the room it took hours online to book the ferry needed to fill out the UK Passenger Locator Form needed to book the newly required Day 2 PCR test needed to get let on the boat.
At one point the online data trail dried up: FFS, why is my test booking number not being accepted for the PLF? I emailed the test booking place (there are so many scammy looking ones to choose from) and got an auto FAQ reply explaining where to find the magic number so as to regain entry into the kingdom.
And this was just one European border. Imagine trying to cross Africa or Asia? Welcome to post-Covid Travel World.
Next day’s ride to Dieppe was as easy and dreary as expected. In winter, northern France can look as grim as southern France is pretty. Murky, mist-bound prairies (actually a French word) span the drab horizon broken by skeletal woodlands and villages splattered by the mud and grime of passing HGVs.
It was fun to try an AT but it’s not a keeper. Mulling away the miles, I’ve been wondering what next, and a CRF 300 Rally was near the top of the list. It would be great for effortlessly exploring more tracks in Morocco and general European TET-ery, but imagine banging out this ride on one? Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s still a 286cc, despite the snazzy Dakar livery. Loath though I am to admit it, a less flashy CB500X, especially the post 2019 with a 19-inch front wheel, ticks the boxes. And in the UK the latest 2022 CB-X costs just £250 more than a 300 Rally. A test ride should reveal all.
On my optimised Channel-to-Med route, Rouen on the Seine is the only big city to ride through, but the transit is well signed. Just north of here is Dieppe, a minor port, miles from the surge of desperate migrants trying to reach the UK in inflatables. This has its benefits with immigration; a little more amateur and flirty. It was a wet and windy Tuesday evening and I’m the only bike among a handful of second-home SUVers and campervans.
‘You have come from Morocco, you say?’
‘Did you buy anything there?’ Aye, aye, she’s onto me.
‘Not really; some cheese, some chocolate.’ I pass her that one for free.
‘Chocolate, eh? You know they make hashish in Morocco?’
‘You have some hashish with you?’
‘Course not. Have a look.’ I open my arms in invitation. I hold back from telling her that in the UK these days, most weed comes from hydroponic suburban hothouses.
‘Do you smoke le hashish?’ she said with a cheeky grin. Jeez, this interrogation is getting intense!
‘What sort of question is that?!’ I smiled back with mock indignation.
‘OK. Allez-y. Bonne route.’
Even in my most delirious sinsemilla reveries, I’d never pull off such a playful encounter with a lumpen UK immigration plod. When I first started travelling I used to think Customs people were secret agents trained by MI6. Maybe I’d seen too many Bond movies.
In the remnants of Storm Arden, the first Arctic blow of the winter, the half empty ferry tosses and turns across the Channel. Newhaven immigration is a piece of cake and leaving town, I manage to blunder onto one of the few main roads in the Southeast I didn’t recognise; the A275. Unused to the windy, wet backroads in the dark, I can’t get a handle on the big AT and ride like a lemon. Eventually I pop out at Forest Row on the Sussex border, back on terra cognita.
As sixteen year-old, probably my very first motorcycle adventure out of my neighbourhood was gunning my Honda SS50 the 32.3 miles overland from South London to Harrison’s Rocks, the Southeast’s lame excuse for rock climbing near Groombridge, east of Forest Row.
And coming over the Caterham bypass into the edge of built-up London, I always fondly recall bombing down to the roundabout on my new 900SS just two years after the moped, the Conti pipes crackling away on the over-run like fireworks. Over forty years and fifty bikes later the big question is: what next and where next?
After hurriedly leaving my damaged AT in Morocco back in March 2020, in October 2021 I finally managed to fly down, fix it up and go for a little ride, before flying back home. The plan was then to fly back in early November, do a tour with a group, then ride the Honda back home before it got too wintery.
With the current twist in the Covid shitshow it’s hard to keep track, but mid-October 2021 the UK was doing badly in the pestilence league. Hold your nerve they said; it’s a cunning plan to get the UK’s spike in early to avoid a big winter spike when there would be a spike anyway. Well, we’re getting a big spike alright – today it’s getting on for three times the October number, though hopefully without the drastic consequences of last winter.
Nevertheless, in response to the UK’s October numbers, Morocco suspended all UK flights so my tour had to be cancelled. Flying in via Spain or France was not a foolproof dodge: people tried that last year and got caught. Plus now, every extra country adds Covid paperwork complications. In the meantime, I still had to get my AT out of Morocco before the end of 2021, otherwise the Customs would turn the bike into a pumpkin.
By early November I’d heard of a Brit flying to Morocco via Portugal with no problems (which of course makes you question the point of the flight ban). So the Mrs and I got our heads round French Covid regs, took a train down to Marseille and rented a cabin in the hills for a few days – a pleasant Provençal interlude. It was great to be back in southern France.
Meanwhile, an old mate was passing out of the Med on the way to the Canaries and beyond in his refurbished catamaran which he’d picked up cheap.
‘Andy, pick me and the bike up off a Moroccan beach and drop us in Spain. We can do it in a day.’
‘No can do señor. Private boats are banned from mooring in Moroccan waters at the moment. We could do it in Mauritania?’
Mauritania? Who’d want to go there? Oh, me about 20 months ago. But from Morocco that border was still closed.
While in France I needed to track down a PCR lab to obtain a <48-hour negative result before flying from Marseille to Marrakech. One break in this paperwork chain and the whole plan crumbles. It’s only money and rebookings and inconvenience of course, but it’s still frustrating and stressful. One day we’ll all get used to these post-Covid measures, but like Carnets or visas for West Africa, it’s one hurdle after another and can take over the trip.
That night my resultat: négatif pinged on the mobile and by the next afternoon the Mrs was on a Paris-bound TGV and I was settling into my usual Marrakech hotel.
It was Tuesday. My ferry was on Saturday at 5pm – just a day’s drive to the north before a 40-hour marathon to Sete, in France. [There have been no ferries to Spain since Covid broke in March 2020.]
But first I had to track down a Customs office in Marrakech and get my long expired TVIP renewed. I could easily imagine the scenario:
‘Oh no no no. We can’t do this here, you fool!
You have to go to Casablanca to request a pre-appointment voucher application form. But they’re closed till next week.’
I found the place not far away in a side street with the familiar blue and grey livery of the Bureau des Douanes.
I walk in, he pulls his mask up. So do I. It’s the law.
A minute passes.
‘You can go in now.’
Another sixty seconds later I walk out with a printed-off renewal notice set to expire December 31, 2021. Result!
I walked over to Loc Rentals and we talk about the whole darn situation, bikes and what not. They tell me their 850-GSs have been surprisingly unreliable t th point of getting ditched, while the 750GS version I rode a couple of years ago has been fine. In the last two weeks a bunch of my spring 2022 tours have filled up. I keep a fairly low profile so never know quite how this happens, but people are clearly gagging to get away on a mini adventure.
Still caked in Western Saharan dust, my Africa Twin is perched on the ramp down in the basement workshop, poised like Thunderbird 2, ready for lift-off.
Meanwhile, I’d got it into my head that I needed another PCR test to be allowed on the ferry. That was the case on leaving Morocco a few months ago; a UK stipulation. I find a walk-in lab nearby, but asking around online and reading between the lines on the Italian GNV ferry website, it seems my Covid vax proof should be enough for France (but not for Italy), as present regs stand..
I decide to leave Marrakech on Friday and return to the Hotel Sahara in Asilah. That gave me some elbow room for cock-ups and left just an hour’s ride to the port next morning.
Good decision, it turned out.
But not good enough.
At this point I was checking the HUBB Morocco forum regularly. Thursday evening someone posted that all planes and boats to France would be suspended from tomorrow night, 23.59.
This wasn’t a total border shutdown (that would happen three days later), just France following in line with the UK rule, so all was not lost. The Italian GNV ferry also served Barcelona and Genoa, so there was a hope it would simply re-route to either port, about the same distance to the UK, give or take a couple of mountain ranges. GNV’s website and twitter said nothing new, and a helpline woman said ‘see the website’.
It left the question: do I ride the 600km to TanMed port tomorrow only to be told next day’s boat was off? That would mean riding back to Marrakech, re-stashing the bike at Loc and joining the scrum at Marrakech airport to grab a flight to anywhere that was still on the list, and from there find a way on to the UK.
Leaving the bike with its expiring TVIP was the least of my problems. The Moroccans had extended it before; they’d probably do it again (in December 2021 they did, for another 6 months).
‘Last boat out of Saigon’
I woke up Friday morning to some good news. The Moroccans had relented and extended the deadline till Sunday! Saturday’s ferry would be the ‘last boat out of Saigon’ for a while, much like my last flight back in March 2020.
So by noon I was barrelling up the deserted A3 autoroute north of Marrakech with an easy 500 clicks to Asilah.
As I neared the coast I tracked the path of showers running up from the southwest, hoping we’d not converge. My heavy canvas Carhartt coat wasn’t really made for that, more for Montana blizzards. I slipped behind most of them but caught one short downpour. In the 120-kph breeze I dried off soon enough.
By late afternoon I’m back at the Hotel Sahara where this sorry saga began some 6000kms and 600 days ago. I’m the only one staying but at only 9 quid and far from a dump, this must be one of the best deals around.
Assuming I get on the boat tomorrow, there were still a number of hurdles to jump, not least a 1000-km ride across France. I didn’t want to check the weather – que sera, sera. Either it’ll be tolerable with the gear I gave or it won’t be.
I used to do that winter ride a lot in the 1980s, Marseille-bound for Algeria. Only now I have the combined miracles of a Powerlet heated jacket, a windshield and a protective film of late middle-aged blubber. Plus a meaty CRF1000L that can punch through the windchill at 120kph with one leg in the air.
It was just an hour to the port so I took it easy Saturday morning until a text from GNV ferries pinged while I was having breakfast at the Cafe Sahara.
Attention all passengers
• Make sure you turn up with ALL PCR/Vaccination documentation or you will not be allowed aboard
• Check-in closes promptly at midday
Shite, I’d better get a move on. The mention of PCR set the nerves a-jangling again until I realised the forward slash meant ‘PCR or…’ not ‘PCR and…’.
I stuffed in my croissant, knocked back my coffee, and then had the usual dance to get someone to wake up and let my AT out of the garage.
I rolled off the autoroute and into Tangier Mediterranean (‘TanMed’) port an hour later. This is a huge, Alcatraz-like facility 50kms east of Tangiers city, where labyrinthine causeways and ramps lead down to the quays. Sub-Saharan migrants who periodically assail the barbed fences of nearby Ceuta don’t waste their time here; it’ll end up with a stiff beating from the cops who patrol the 20-foot fence.
In the port, the first hurdle is to turn an internet-printed ‘ticket’ into fungible ‘GTF Out of Jail’ vouchers at the GNV counter. But first, you need to get past matey who’s taking photos of PCR/Vaccination papers. Except he’s wandered off for a fag. In the meantime at the GNV counter, a Remonstrating Man is having it out with the unfortunate behind the glass.
‘But I bought this ticket off ferryticketscam.com!’
‘Sorry sir, you’re ticket is not valid. Please move along. Next!’
Remo Man won’t budge; security are called and he moves aside to remonstrate with them instead.
‘Look, I bought it off ferryticketscam.com! It cost me 550 euros!’
‘Sorry sir…. we literally could not give an actual toss.’
In the meantime, the stalled queue is getting antsy, including me. It’s not helped by people joining the line from both ends or squeezing in with a nod and a wink. Half an hour later I’m there and snatch my handful of tickets and vouchers. I ride on to the Police for an exit stamp. He puts my passport into a reader, then mentions I need to get some piece of paper from Customs. Yea, yea.
Customs is a bit slow as my new TVIP print-out needs approval from the boss, but with that done, I slip past the long queue to the giant x-ray machine: a huge metal frame on rails and with cables as thick as your arm, that’s pushed back and forth by a lorry with a bank of screens inside.
On a bike, I’m invited to the front. Protocol-wise, it’s exceedingly un-English but no one minds at all.
Try it at home and ‘Oi, biker – wot you effing playing at?!’
This is why we like bike-friendly continental living.
We’re told to step away from our vehicles to limit radiation. Are they looking for explosives, stowaways, or just hashish which is cultivated openly on the slopes of the Rif mountains a 100kms south of here? Who knows, but next up an Alsatian gives us all a darn good sniffing. Moroccan wheeler-dealers in beaten-up vans full of whatever sells in Europe unload every last box and bag with resignation. Foreign tourists, and especially bikers, are hardly ever searched.
That all took two hours but I’ve reached the next level. I’ve taken my redpill and am ready for Extraction so I ride down to the queue assembled in front of the huge brick of a ferry.
I eye up other overlandy vehicles: a tasty 4×4 Pinzgauer from the 1970s or 80s done up in Tibetan prayer flags, and a huge quarter-million euro M.A.N camper that’s probably better inside than our London flat.
Another two hours pass then barriers get shifted and engines fire up. I’m invited to the front again and prepare to part with Moroccan soil and ride up the Ramp of Salvation to reach the final level of the Ferry Matrix Game.
But first another passport and ticket check, just in case I parachuted into the port with no one noticing.
‘Where is the passport exit stamp?’
‘I dunno, it’s there somewhere. Let’s have a look.’
It’s hard to read one faint, overlapping stamp from another. I’ve amassed loads over the years. Tuesday’s airport entry is there alright, but I can’t see today’s exit stamp.
He takes it up the chain of command and various cops get on their radios.
Bloke in hat: ‘Where is the police exit stamp?’
‘I dunno. Just give me a scribble and let me on anyway.’
They jabber into their radios and phones.
‘My friend. You must ride back and get the stamp. Don’t worry, it will take 5 minutes.’
FF’s Sake! I can’t face slipping back into Liquefaction. Hours ago immigration cop in his booth had one job: take passport, check computer database, stamp it and hand back.
OK, I suppose that’s four jobs, not including breathing, blinking and rearranging his bollocks.
I ride back, go the wrong way, get stopped, explain myself, radio calls, squeeze through barriers, get sent back, go the other way, ask a cop, he shrugs. Ask another.
‘Why did you not get the exit stamp?’
‘I don’t know, do I!? I handed him my passport, he did his thing and gave it back.
How could I proceed without it?’
This will the Last Ferry for months so I’m careful to lay on just enough indignation without becoming another Remonstrating Man. They take my passport. It checks out on the computer. I get stamped but make sure to see exactly what page it’s on. Then I bomb back, jumping the queues at the Customs, the x-ray machine, and the sniffer dogs, expecting whistles to blow and sirens to sound.
Back at the ramp I’m allowed to ride aboard, park by the few other bikes and load the tail bag up with all the mission-critical things I can’t afford to get pilfered. The Italian and Filipino crew direct me to my cabin where I spread out enough boarding cards to start a small casino.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph on a wee donkey, does it have to be this hard?
The 5pm departure comes and goes and the sun sets over the Atlantic but there are no promising throbs from the engine room. I’ve been on enough long, overnight Med ferries to know they never, ever leave on time.
7pm and down on the loading ramp another Man surrounded by hi-viz crew, indifferent cops and insistent GNV admin is Remonstrating like his life depends on it. Arms gesticulate aggressively. Voices are raised. Some shoving occurs.
He’s as mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take this anymore.
9pm. Another 100 cars and vans show up ride up the ramp. Maybe GNV is making the most of last-minute ticket sales. Who knows when this service will start running again. By tomorrow night all Moroccan borders will shut in response to the growing Omicron threat.
At 10pm, ten hours after check-in closed and five hours late, there’s a rumble and a judder from far below. The M/N Excellent pulls back from the bumpers and glides in between the breakwaters. This is the same confidentiality named Excellent that came in a bit hot at Barcelona port a couple of years back. Some muppet forgot the ABS was switched off after a spot of off-roading.
For me the immense feeling of relief when a ferry leaves a North African port has become embedded deep in my brain’s maritime lobe. After so many North African scrapes over the decades, not least this one, you feel like yelling back at the shore
‘Come and get me now, you bastards!
(And no, I don’t care if this boat rams into a Balearic island and sinks, but thanks for asking).’
Meanwhile, aboard the Excellent every 30 minutes the tannoy chimes up in three languages to tell you to wear a mask, it’s the law. Most Moroccans ignore this instruction, maybe because Morocco never got hit as hard as northern Italy did last year. Or maybe they have no reason to trust authority.
As long as you score a cabin to yourself, I love these long ferry crossings; when they’re not ramming quays, these modern ships ride the seas like a K1600 GTL with the platinum ESA package. ///delighted.ferrying.northbound
Part 4 shortly