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
I’m parked up below the ramparts of the Saghro massif, just over the road from an old French-era fort where they filmed one of those ‘SAS: Are You Tough Enough?’ shows. Up in the hills, new-to-me tracks wait to be logged, but by the time I get rolling I realise I’ve left it way too late to do what needed doing before dark. I nose up a new track just to check it’s there, and up another new road over the jebel, but going for a there-and-back excursion seems silly.
Heading back to the hotel in the late afternoon heat, huge dust devils spin menacingly by the roadside. There must be some way of doing something new and saving the day. Yes: cross the ridge and ride Route MS1 out through Tafetchna and into the stony desert, then come back up the little-used east bank of the Draa river on a new backroad. I haven’t done MS1 for years and as elsewhere, tarmac has seeped up from the south and shortened the off-roading.
It’s only about 12km through the shallow gorge, but as always, it’s miles more engaging to be on the dirt and follow the track weaving through to the other side. In the shallow gorge, an abandoned track leads over the riverbed and back north, but I’ve never managed to make the link. One for next time on something lighter.
As more and more pistes in southern Morocco get sealed, obscure trails become Tois or ‘tracks of interest’, but because they’re largely unused and unmaintained, they’re rougher and slower going. It’s a bit like mountaineering in the second half of the 20th century; once all the highest peaks had been knocked off, climbers had to start looking for harder ‘north face’ routes.
Once through the gorge, up ahead I remember the water tower landmark visible at the village of Touna Niaaraben where the asphalt now runs to the N9 over the stony plain.
Back on the bitumen, I nip down to Zagora for some fuel: the AT has peaked at 63mpg (52 US) on a mixture and 2nd and 3rd gear tracks and 120-kph road stages.
I then turn back up the Draa backroad – an east-side alternative to the main N9 but it turns out to be nothing special. On the edge of a village I pull over by a ditch alongside some shady palms for a snack, then get back to the hotel pleased I’ve done something new today. Tomorrow I’d need to crack on.
A few weeks ago a Moroccan geologist got in touch. He’d spent the summer in the mineral-rich massif of Saghro on his Himalayan and told me of a couple of new tracks traversing the ranges. I traced one 100-km crossing from Nekob on Google sat – for me the most reliable way to find new routes online because unlike maps, WYS is WYG. Once over on the north side, I could turn east via the new Kelaa bypass and finish off by closing the loop via the classic Saghro route over the newly sealed, 2316-metre Tazazart Pass (MH4) back to Nekob. An action-packed 400+ km day of discoveries lay ahead.
At the fuel station west of Nekob I remember to reset my Montana correctly, then set off to see what I might find. Not far out of town, three dump trucks roll in which suggests the piste will be better than average and may well have been built for- or by the mining outfit. Once I pass through a small gorge and the ascent starts, there’s only one semi-deserted hamlet for 90km; not enough reason a track might get built or improved.
Soon, the distinctive Saghro vistas rise around me, a little different from any other range in the Atlas mountains complex. Buttes and spires jut abruptly from the dust and rubble, recalling Algeria’s Hoggar. It’s no place to be a lettuce. Through it all the smooth, wide piste swings around the heads of chasms and across the arid valleys.
It’s not all plain sailing. As the twin rear axles of the heavy trucks scrub round the most acute switchbacks, the tyres grind the sand and gravel into a fine powder which I just can’t get to grips with on the Africa Twin. And that’s with a Motoz knobbly on the front. I’m definitely struggling to find my off-roading mojo today. I put it down to the heat and the weight of the machine, plus riding alone on an unfamiliar track. After KM3 out of Nekob I didn’t pass any other vehicle.
Soon I reach the junction where the much gnarlier and even more dramatic MH14 and MH15 routes come up from the south. I last came this way on the little WR250R in 2017. A great bike for those sort of pistes, but less of a high-speed highway sofa. The zen-like search for the Middle Way continues.
I pass the 2100-metre high point above the basin with Tagmout village and the new copper and gold mine – which explains why this track got built or improved. Tagmout may have been big enough to justify a mosque once. Now it’s just half-a-dozen scattered dwellings with adjacent gardens drawing on the groundwater of the basin’s dry river course.
I ride out of the Tagmout basin (there are a couple of left turns to get right, here), back up over a pass that leads westwards to the winding piste, a lovely trail curving through the scrub and rock at over 1500 metres.
Apart from those tricky hairpins.
Within an hour the track drops towards Bou Skour and the high mountain drama is over. A couple of forks guide me around the old Bou Skour mine, past the village of Sidi Flah on the Oued Dades, and finally down into Skoura itself on the N10.
I pull into the roadhouse for an omelette salad and a litre of yoghurt drink. While I’m waiting, before I forget I jot down the route’s twists and turns on the handy paper tablecloth.
I whizz along the new Kelaa bypass (left) in 30 minutes; handy to know for next time. They really must have asphalt and roadbuilders to spare if they’re starting to build bypasses in southern Morocco, although it’s true the section of the N10 between Kelaa and Dades is a near-continuous built-up stretch with attendant distractions. We used to come back this way on my tours after crossing Jebel Saghro via MH4, but the mildly more aggrressive driving on the N10 added with the sun setting straight in our faces on the way to Ouarzazate was not a safe way to end the day.
Back to now, soon after Dades, I turn back south into the Saghro massif and climb up to near Iknioun, then take the newly built spur over the 2300-m Tin Tazazert back down to Nekob. What used to take the gasping XR250 Tornados half a day now takes the AT just 35 minutes of asphalt and Armco.
We first came this way in the late 1990s in the Land Cruiser (left), looking for routes for my Sahara Overland book at a time when so much of this part of Morocco was only linked by rough tracks.
Back down in Nekob, I get a young chappy on a pushbike to do me a selfie in front of the mural. All that remains is to bomb back to Tamnougalte, back to Marrakech next day and fly out the day after.
The plan was to come back for the Honda after leading a tour in early November, but rising Covid numbers in the UK (as well as DE and NL) saw Morocco suspend flights. Mass cancellations all round.
So the Af’Twin is stuck again in Morocco, but at least I know it’s running well. By the time it gets back I’ll need to retrain it on how to ride on the right.
C’est la vie.
Everyone remembers where they were in March 2020. Me, I was hurrying back from the Mauritanian border ahead of a nationwide transport shutdown when debris on the road punched a hole through my Africa Twin’s sump (left) as the Corona tsunami crashed into Morocco.
With two days to get out or be trapped for months (as some were), what might have been a fairly easy roadside bodge with putty, dragged on for well over a year as my attempts to fly back to Morocco stalled. Read that story here.
By October 2021 travel impediments cleared and travel confidence rose, so I flew out to 41°C Marrakech with a new battery and oil pan. Amazingly, the stock lithium battery took a slow charge and lit up the dash just like it should. Even the tyres (the rear an MYO tubeless) weren’t totally flat and the chain was in good shape.
With these vitals established, I replaced the sump, oiled the motor and – with Hail Mary on redial – pressed the Button of Destiny. She fired right up to a steady tickover with no clattering or error codes!
Nice one, Honda.
Actually, the ‘MIL’ icon did light up on a test ride, but I wasn’t too bothered as those things can come on if your shoe lace is undone. It did remind me to check the coolant level which I did and it went away.
Next day I packed up and headed south to pre-run my Fly & Ride tour route ahead of November’s group. Even though it’s first year had been at Honda’s off-road centre in Wales, I’d only ever ridden the AT on the road so it would be a chance to actually discover how it handled the dirt.
Having not ridden in a year and a half, once swinging into the High Atlas’ bends, the creeping front Motoz Tractionator Adv knobbly took some adjusting to. I’ve had tyres like this before, though not on such a big and powerful bike, so I kept things smooth and gentle as I got accustomed to the feel. As so often happens, a day or so later odd felt normal: the very nub of the human condition.
Heading south without a group I was free to divert up a series of switchbacks climbing a hillside, just to see where they went. I didn’t think twice about it and the AT took to the gravel like the giant trail bike it is. I sometimes feel the trail bike layout and riding position is embedded in my muscle memory so then when I’m doing it everything feels fine.
I free-wheeled back down passing a few MTB-ing Marrakshis and near Ijoukak popped in to see one of my tour hosts, Houssain, who told me of a new track over the High Atlas which reached a high col further down my route but bypassed an initially gnarly climb. On the AT I was happy to dodge that particular ascent which anyway, was never a great start to my tour’s off-roading.
It joined up near the newish road which climbs up to over 8200 feet (2500m+) before dropping down the far side of the Atlas. A great way of breaking into the hills
After a tasty feed in Igli, down the valley I decided to check out a way across a river bed feeding a drying reservoir which I’ve been wondering about for years. But that soon proved to be beyond the limit of me and AT, and without going cross-country, the link suggested on Google Maps probably wasn’t there.
I scooted on along the highway over to Taliouine for the night, appreciating the effortlessness with which the big Honda knocked out these flat, main road stages. That was two tour days ticked off in one, and in the heat it was enough adventuring. Time for a brew.
Next day I headed into the Anti Atlas, following the new road east out of Agadir Melloul (MA13) to swing by a homestay in the oasis of Assaragh and see if they were still up for it. They were, so after another chai, I said I’d see them in a month.
From here it was down the ‘waterfall’ into the Aguinan valley (MA13), always an impressive descent.
Then out through the cool serpentine canyons and into the baking desert. That’s Jebel Timouka on the horizon below – an abandoned piste and no place for an AT.
Far south and at a much lower elevation, I knew it would be cooking down on the desert floor, so the best thing was to keep moving. As long as you remember what you’re riding and where you are [heavy bike; middle of nowhere], the AT zipped along the desert trails well enough. I very much doubt I’ve ever used more than half of the 88hp in all the time I’ve owned it. Topping up in Taliouine from the same servo guy who’s been there for years had returned 60mpg (21kpl; 50 US). I don’t think it will get much better than that; one of the juiciest bikes I’ve had for years.
One benefit of a high-end Adv is you get quality – or at least, adjustable – suspension. Up to a point that means you can get by with tyres left at road pressures and let the springs absorb the shocks. And the knobbly front Motoz lead the way with a reassuring bite.
It’s only and hour or two but this is a desolate stage and the thought of having a flat on my still-tubed front was not appealing. I stop off on a ford a schnik-schnak and a cool down.
Once back on the asphalt the Palmer screen is working too well and I can bear it no longer. I stand up into the breeze to decompress the backside and generally air the heck off.
I get to my usual roadhouse where the tour 310GSs often arrive on fumes, but the coffee machine has packed up and there is no fresh OJ. Quelle horreur! So all that remains is a late-afternoon, 100-click ride ride back out of the desert and over to Tamnougalte where I’ll spend a couple of days to explore some new tracks.
The pool looks tempting.
All the veggies come from the adjacent garden irrigated by the nearby Oued Draa. And they taste like it too. Potatoes with actual potato flavour. Remember them?
A cool dawn. I should have got out there but fancied a day off – this heat really wears you down. There’s no wifi so I get absorbed into my interesting book.