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.