My Acerbis 14-litre tank finally arrived from Italy, not as fast as some crash bars from Guang Zhou in just 12 days. So high time for a day of spannering and probable gnashing of teeth. Rally Raid are also sending me their trail wheel wrench with a 24mm ring for the rear and 14mm hex for the front. Rally Raid suggest that from new you may want a full-size socket and tool to undo the axle first time so the hex is another tool to buy – an afternoon wasted locally before I submitted to amazon ‘next day’. But the idea of a recessed hex fastener in the front axle is actually quite clever – I’m sure the AT had one too and car gearboxes have similar drain plugs so there’s no protruding bolt head getting rounded off by rocks.
The other day after swapping the front tyre back to OEM IRC, I wore myself out trying to refit that front wheel axle with the bike perched over on a log. A lip on the axle shaft makes shoving it over to reach the thread on the other fork leg confounding; at least first time. I like to think an upright, stable bike sat on a bike lift will make life easier. Luckily there was one an hour up the road for just 99p. Years ago we’d have laughed at such decadence and just used a milk crate. But when’s the last time you saw one of those?
Acerbis tank Still in the old carb days, Acerbis plastic tanks had a reputation for not always fitting so well – as did much after market gear, tbh. And now in the efi era you have to swap a huge fuel pump assembly with associated hoses and wiring. But it seems Acerbis have upped their game in the 20 years since I fitted a gigantic 37 litre whale to the back of my XR650L (left). With none in the UK, my black-only tank cost me £320 imported from Italy. The finish looked a lot better than I recall, and the complex shape suggests a nod to the precision potential of CAD. Here, J-Mo describes the Acerbis tank job in meticulous detail, including tips and possible traps. Time to follow her lead.
A calibrated refill revealed the tank holds 13.85 litres which is a figure I’ve seen elsewhere. That will do me and at a dependable 85mpg or 30kpl = 415km or 260 miles range.
A slim bike like a 300L doesn’t need engine crash bars – a well spec’d bash plate like the Ad-Tek the seller fitted to mine does the job. But CRF-Ls have a vulnerable rad (like Africa Twin 1000Ls, as I found shortly before D-Day). The 300’s rad sticks way out into the RHS breeze so when you fall it takes the impact via some plastic. I think they’re all like this these days but what a crumby design for a small trail bike! Adventure Spec make a radiator brace (left) which bolts a sturdy frame round the rad and looking again, it’s actually seems OK for £66 and 240g.
What I really wanted were currently unavailable Outback Motortek bars (above right) which protect the rad, not so much the lower engine which a good bashplate does. Looks like they may be back sooner than I thought, but in the meantime I bought some Chinese no-name crash bars (above left; 4.2kg). Tellingly there was no fitted image but they looked similar to the Outbacks, or maybe I just saw what I wanted to see. They’re well made but turns out they fit low and the bashplate would have to go. I may have a rethink, fit them and get a flat sump plate instead.
As it is, unlike an AT etc, a 150-kilo 300L has much less self-destructive mass when it tumbles, So I think 22mm ø tubes at 2mm thick as used by China bars and Outback Moto are a bit OTT. I bet 18mm would do fine, as on the Himalayan’s tank racks (left). But 22 is what we get – possibly because of a shortage of well-braced/spaced mounting points to securely support a thinner structure? That’s how it seems on the China bars. My weldy chum who made my Him’s rear ‘ear racks’ was insufficiently motivated to tackle a complex pipe-bending task for anywhere near direct-from-China, let alone Outback’s prices.
Another reason for wanting tank/rad bars is to carry luggage up front where you can see it and get to it from the seat. That way you dispense with a rear pannier rack so the weight penalty can balance out) and just use a tailpack. ‘Fishform‘ they call this in kayak hull design – ie: more width up front. This way the engine/radiator bars double up as pannier racks. I tried this idea with the AT (above left), and when I got back noticed serial RTW-er Nick Sanders had done the same on his T7 RTW bike (above right). A side benefit with soft bags on tank-side racks is the bags absorb impacts before the rack, leaving the rads asleep in their beds. I do wonder if these low Chinese bars with a wide frame are to mount a pannier may work well after all.
Later I lined the bars up under the engine and it was clear for small panniers the mounting would be way too low and probably drag on corners. Back on ebay they do go.
USB power plug I took the chance to fit a USB power plug. You can buy them on ebay pre-wired with a fitting matching a spare switched socket somewhere behind the headlamp. ‘Switched’ means it only powers up with the ignition on. Annoyingly mine turned out to be a USB adaptor fitted into in a cigarette lighter which means another layer of electrical connection to play up, but I suppose the USB plug can be easily inspected changed. No all work or for long I found in March.
First I had to remove my GP Kompozit screen which weighs just under a kilo, fyi. Next, undo a pair of allen-head rubber mounts either side of the headlamp assembly and remove the whole thing. The auxiliary socket is soon located among the black spaghetti and the over-long USB plug lead clicked in.
But to quote the late Haynes ‘assembly is not a reversal of dismantling’. Is it ever? The lower mounts wouldn’t line back up. I assumed the new wiring was in the way and pulled it through but still no luck. Rubber grommet spacer-washers get pulled off as you try and shove the headlamp onto the mounts. Then I enjoyed a bolt dropping down onto the mudguard top. I managed to flick it out and resumed alignment; it did seem like the mudguard top was fouling the cowling – as John Cooper Clarke might have said. I removed the mudguard (loosening might have been adequate) and loosened the top headlamp mounts: that did the trick. It all went together like it should.
Next: will the Garmin charge off the bike once the ignition is on or go into mass storage mode. It did the later when the USB gets in a muddle. Go to Garmin Menu > System and change from Serial to Spanner mode. The Garmin will switch on as normal and a sign that it’s working is a flashing charging battery icon, as below.
My current 300L came with Acerbis handguards so I’ve decided to recycle my trusty old Aussie-made Barkbuster Storms (see ebayuk). Looking back, I realise what a great life of adventure they’ve enjoyed! Proper handguards based around a metal frame clamped to the handlebar are a no brainer. A simple fall over can snap a lever or mount. That’s never happened to me since I’ve been busting the bark.
I bought my set in 2008 for my near-new Yamaha XT660Z to research the first edition of my Morocco Overland guidebook. Turned out I needed them too when I look a piste too far up Jebel Saro (right). The 660Z was also the first bike with which I experimented with DIY tubeless tyre spoked rim sealing. I’ve got better at it since. And the XT was my first bike with efi. What a miracle that proved to on a big single; smooth running at low rpm and over 80mpg possible. Where possible, I’d never go back to a carb bike.
Next bike was another near-new CRF250L I bought in Arizona. Over the years right up to my current 300L, I’ve profited from new owners’ selling on bikes with barely four figures on the clock and at a massive depreciation. The L led me on a fabulous 3200-mile clockwise lap of Southwest USA through northern California, across Nevada, into amazing Utah and back down into AZ via the ‘do-it-before-you-die’ White Rim Trail. Road and/or trail, SWUSA like being in your own road movie, a trip every rider needs to tick off.
The BMW XCountry was one of my periodic breaks from reliably reliable Jap machines. I used it in Morocco on my first Fly & Ride tours which have also got a lot better since. It’s a shame BMW ditched these X bikes. This one had a grand’s worth of Hyperpro suspension – on the road you’d not notice much but off road riding was believing. The X-tank too was an ingenious idea since picked up by Camel tank and an easily replicated DIY job.
Soon after they came out I got myself another near-new, low miler; a Honda CB500X. I barked that up along with adding prototype kit from Rally Raid who also saw potential in the twin and went on to produce a popular line of 500X-ccessories. For years my 500X page was the most viewed on this website. I used the X in Morocco on tours and for researching my Morocco 2 book.
I went back to Arizona and this time got a KLX250 – basically like a CRF250L but for some reason never as fashionable and with better suspension out of the box. Unlike Europe, it was a carb model that ran horribly on low octane back-country fuel. I ticked off another memorable tour of the American Southwest, including a dream visit down to Baja and Mike’s Sky Ranch with Al Jesse of bevel luggage fame. Below, barking along on the amazing WRT in Utah again: ‘the best 100 miles of dirt you’ll ever ride‘ as I wrote in Bike magazine.
On that KLX ride I met a chap on a WR250R near Death Valley. I never fully realised that Yamaha’s WR250R was actually a well-spec’d but expensive trail bike, not a dirt racer like the near-identical looking 250F or 250X which put out 40hp or more and so need regular maintenance. Yamaha imported the R for a few years into the UK but they proved an overpriced dud and by 2016 when I was looking, good ones were hard to find. So I bought one off Hyperpro in Holland just before Brexit confounded the whole import process, did it up and and set off for Morocco, the Dig Tree and edition 3 of the guidebook.
A 135-kilo WR-R makes the same power if not a bit more than my current 300L, but it’s located up in the stratosphere beyond 10,000rpm. As a result the bike didn’t work on well the road and left me with a back ache for months after. As a result I decided to suspend my search for the 250 unicorn. Back home I bought a smashed up XSR700 with the creamy CP2 lump. I repaired it, jacked it up a bit and added the usual protection, including my trusty busteros, now on their 7th outing. I still wish Yamaha would make a more serious 19/17 scrambler using their brilliant CP2 motor.
Next, I got some pals together on a supported tour to Algeria where I rode a lot in the 1980s. The tour finally gave me an excuse to buy an XR400, the all-time classic trail bike from the mid-1990s which was always too skimpy of subframe to make a serious travel bike. Sadly mine turned out to be skimpy of piston rings too and began guzzling oil, but was a joy to ride in the sands of the Grand Sud. The old Barks were needed, navigating through the tussocky oueds.
The Himalayan came out and following teething problems it looked like it was worth a punt; a low saddled trail donkey that was perfect in Morocco, if not so much the getting there. We tried to reach the fabled Dig Tree again, but tyre problems saw to that. Still, at least my mate got a nice cover shot of the Bark-clad Him for the current edition of AMH.
For the kind of riding I like to do I’m not a fan of giant ‘adv’ bikes but many are, so I thought I’d take the popular Africa Twin down to Mauritania in search of manageable pistes. ‘Hotel Sahara’ I called that trip, and the outbreak of Covid 19 put an early end to it, close to the Mauritanian border. I raced back north before Morocco locked down, but punctured the engine and had to dump the bike and fly out on the last plane. Corona went on longer than we guessed, and it took me a year and a half to recover the AT from Morocco.
Back in London the Barks were removed for next time just before they pinched my AT. Now I feel they’ve paid for themselves many times over so it’s time to let them go. There’s easily another 15 years of protection left in them. Who ya gonna call? Bark Busters!
Returned to stock gearing (now ticks over @ 4mph in 1st)
Rally Raid suspension
Tall bars and other functional accessories fitted by seller
Thinned out seat
Swingarm chain alignment marks
Annoying white rpm warning light
Mitas trials tyres on the road
Pathetic tool kit
After replacing the front sprocket with the stock 14T and leaving the oversized rear for later, I set off for a 100-mile ride to Dorset. Had I looked properly I’d have realised the rear was actually a massive 45T not 42, as the seller claimed. Stock is 40T so that explained why I seemed to be belting along at 70mph+ along the A3 and M27, but cars were still passing me stuck in the slow lane.
The 300L is so light it initially feels skittish; I wouldn’t fancy it in strong crosswinds. But the proper screen (and my Mosko jacket) helped hold back some heavy showers and the thinned-down seat (from Peak?) had just about 100 miles of padding left in it. Talking of seat comfort and convenience, I reflexively removed the 1970s relic seat strap. Did Soichiro Honda impose some edict that they shall be fitted to trail bikes in perpetuity? The other thing I did was saw open the rear seat bracket so that removing the seat means just loosening the two frame/rack bolts either side, not removing them altogether with washers and spacers tumbling into the gravel. Fyi my lowered seat height with the stock rear IRC tyre refitted is 34.5″ or 87.6cm which is nearly an inch lower than Honda’s specs at 880cm.
I’d never heard off the annoying white light in the console which starts flashing ever faster as you pass 7000rpm. The red line is another 3500rpm away, so what’s the point of it? To warn you to change gear or you’re going too fast? Whatever, it seems it can be adjusted up the rev scale and out of the way (left).
I’m not so keen on the ET 01 and 05 Mitas trials tyres either. The seller fitted them for the LET. I’m sure once aired down the grip is amazing in UK mud, but the soft, square knobs squidge about at fast road speeds.
With the gearing still lower than stock, I have to assume that the speedo was over-reading even more than normal, but on the open road it did feel like the L held up well against what I recall of my Himalayan, and is definitely much better at speed than my WR250 with similar power and weight. And, contrary to my impression of riding a near-new 300 Rally last year, there’s definitely a tad more poke than my old 250L. A few 300L owners have told me the bike loosens up substantially once past 1000 miles, which I did somewhere around Southampton.
Arriving with one bar on the fuel gauge, I filled up in Dorset with 5.7 litres at 110 miles on the odo. That means there was over 2 litres or 40+ miles in the tank which seems unlikely over that distance. An average of 90mpg was shown on the console but I think the gearing may have messed with the odo reading. We shall see.
A couple of days later I refitted the stock 40T rear sprocket and IRC rear tyre. With a thick Michelin tube, the 4.00×18 Mitas weighed 6.9kg, while the IRC and a cheap tube were only 6kg – not a huge difference. And amazingly, both tyres and tubes were heavier than the back wheel, now at 5.3kg with a 40T sprocket. The near-new Regina chain fitted for the seller’s very low 13/45 gearing was now a link too long and I’d left my chain breaker in London (I knew this would happen…). The OEM chain supplied loose was missing the joining link, plus I’m not sure I want to bother with it, even as a burner. I soon learned that you can’t bash out chain pins with a hammer and punch like you can on a pushbike; some serious force is needed, or YouTube suggested grinding off the end of the pin then prising the plate off. I don’t have a grinder either and a hacksaw didn’t work but luckily the Gear Box Bike Shop in nearby Poole was open on coronation Sunday and zipped off a link for a fiver.
While readjusting the cleaned-up chain, I took a moment to lament the passing of footproof snail cam adjusters, I bet there’s a way of retro fitting them to fiddly lock-nut adjusters. And is it me, or is the swingarm alignment marker maddeningly on the wrong, underside of the axle? I can’t bend like I used to could so had to lie flat on the ground, which means getting all the way up again. One… two… three… Ooof!
I checked the spring rate on the Rally Raid Stage 1 shock. On top of the spring was marked a surprising and reassuringly firm 100nm which is what it feels like. No wonder the seller found the 300 a bit tippy and decided to sell. I’m tempted to splash out another 200 quid on an HPA (above right) which seems to be a special order from Rally Raid, but am told it may need a change of spring. We shall see.
The bike’s tool kit sits in a space-wasting plastic box. I’m sure someone could fabricate a more functional replacement or even a 2-litre fuel cell in its place. Once opened I’m even more disappointed than expected: a single fat 14/17 open spanner and a pair of allens, enough to remove the mirrors, seat and side panels. Rally Raid make a nifty combo wrench (left) which does both wheels for under 30 quid, but it’s not in stock. Once I have that alongside my trusty Motion Pro Trail Toolkit with an added 8mm socket and a couple of allens I’ll be good to go.
Now back on stock gearing and rear tyre, I set off across the Dorset heathland to verify the odo against a GPS, while assuming the speedo will indicate the usual mandated 8% over. Speedo accuracy isn’t so important to me, but on a travel bike you want to trust the bike’s odo which are somehow engineeringly unlinked to the exaggerated speedo reading and often manage to be nearly spot on. Result: over 10 GPS miles the 300’s odo indicated 10.15, so odo is 1.5% over. I can live with that. Also, riding along at tickover in first, the speedo indicated 3-4mph which is about as slow as I can balance sat down, and just as it should be for low speed control for do-it-all trail biking. I really wonder why the seller lowered the gearing so much – he rode the Lands End Trial, not the SSDT. I remember my XT660Z did an annoying 8mph at tickover as do many bikes. Way too high for tricking along or not fragging the clutch on walking-pace climbs. As I mentioned in my quick ride on a 300 Rally last year, the 300s do seem to have ‘Goldilocks’ gearing: low 1st matched with an overdrive 6th. Other good things I noted. Even though the seller was shorter than me, the Renthal bars he fitted are, for once, just right for me when standing. They don’t look that tall so I think this must be innate to the bike’s design. What a relief not to get bogged down in the usual risers and re-routed cables, even if I might have prefered brace-free FatBar.
Out of interest and with the luxury of a flat, garage floor for the first time in my biking life, I decided to do the bathroom scales trick and weigh the bike, one wheel at a time. Result: with an added rack, bashplate, screen, frame protectors, Rally Raid suspension, barks, tail tidy, and a full tank (‘kerb weight’), my 300L weighed in at 146kg. It feels like it too and if you deduct say, 4 kilos for the listed accessories (some of which – bars, shock tail tidy – save weight over stock), that matches up well with Honda’s 142kg kerb weight claim. Next jobs: get that weight up!
• Acerbis 14-litre tank • Chinese radiator crash bars • USB power take-off • Cool Cover • Refit front OEM tyre ª Go somewhere good
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. Bugger!
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