I’ve spent the last three (and a bit) weeks on a long-planned adventure, riding my motorbike to the Sahara Desert. And I’ll admit, that feels as cool to say as some people have told me it sounds to hear!
Naturally, then, in this weekly blog I’ll be sharing a few short snippets about that trip, it seems only right. I mean, you don’t want to hear about my wet kitchen cupboards. Or that I have a Genius Bar appointment booked to have my iPhone camera replaced at the weekend. Or indeed, how much like returning to earth with a bump the last week has felt. I think I’m allowed to concentrate on the one big happy thing this time around.
I Love the Sea but I’m No Sailor
One of the common questions I get asked about riding to the Sahara is “how did you get your bike there” – and the answer to that is actually pretty straightforward. Being based in the UK, I – and the group of Globebusters travellers I was with – made use of a couple of ferries.
First up, we (my use of ‘we’ here refers to my husband, on his R1200GS, and me, on my F650GS), rode down to Portsmouth, where we met up with our Globebusters group before boarding the Brittainy Ferries service across the Bay of Biscay to Santander in northern Spain. This is a two-night crossing, quite a bit longer than the service from Plymouth we used last year when we headed over to explore Portugal by motorbike.
This ferry might have been much newer than that one, but in all honesty, it was horrible; I’ve done the crossing to Spain a number of times and have never enjoyed it. Once my bike was safely secured, I spent most of my time either on the stern deck where there was plenty of fresh air, or in my cabin where I could hide from how the swell made me feel. I could never book a cruise! I wasn’t actually sick, but the weird and unpredictable motion made me feel very woozy.
Spain to Morocco
After three full days riding through Spain, our second ferry crossing was the much shorter two-hour hop from Algeciras in southern Spain, not far from Marbella, over to the massive industrial port of Tanger Med in northern Morocco. That crossing was much more pleasant, although it was still spent outside (once we’d gone through the formalities of immigration at the boat’s one desk) – we could see land the whole time, so we wanted to make the most of the views.
To get home at the end of the trip, we naturally had to tackle the two ferries in reverse order. I was beyond grateful that we docked and left the ferry before a force nine gale hit the route (but not my many hours!) – that would have been even more unpleasant than it already was!
Morocco the Beautiful
Morocco is an absolutely stunning country, and I thoroughly enjoyed riding around it. Our route weaved between built up areas and very rural parts, over mountains and across vast plains, and everything in-between. The roads themselves were as varied as the scenery, with everything including steep mountain passes with technical turns and gravel sections, fast newly tarmacked roads with sweeping bends, and long straight roads where the horizon wobbled in the heat and bright sunshine.
It wasn’t all about the riding; we stayed in some beautiful places. Including Chefchaouen with its blue and white buildings, the Cascades d’Ouzoud, which are the largest waterfalls in Morocco and where our hotel was a bit like staying in Bedrock, Essaouira, a picturesque Portuguese fortified city on the Mediterranean coast, and Merzouga, which is right in the dunes of the Sahara Desert.
We survived the medinas of Fes (or Fez, if you prefer the English) and Marrakesh, explored the real backdrops of Gladiator and Game of Thrones, and saw goats in trees and monkeys on the road. I ate my weight in delicious dates, quickly got very used to everything being super sweet, and drank every strength of Berber tea available. The weather treated us to temperatures between six and 42 degrees Celsius, and the sunrises and sunsets were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Oh, and the police at their checkpoints saluted me as I rode by – apparently, I’m kind of a big deal in Morocco!
My favourite sections of the route were the winding roads with the big views where there was no-one around for miles. That kind of riding is a meditation. Delightful.
I also kind of loved the craziness that was the urban areas. Riding through what at first glance looked like rural villages and towns was often a crazy experience involving sharing the road with overloaded trucks, cars, hundreds of scooters (loaded with several people), donkeys, tuk-tuks, stray cats and dogs, and always loads of children. Nuts.
As I mused on in weekly blog episodes 127 and 128, we did also ride over the Tizi-n-Test pass, and through the area most impacted by September’s terrible earthquake in the High Atlas Mountains. It’s going to take me a while longer to put that experience into words, I may never do so, as while I am quite content we took that route, glad even in some ways, the devastation was a lot to take in and it was a very emotional day. A post for another time.
Into the Dunes
When people ask me what the highlight of the trip was, as if I can easily limit the list of amazing sights and experiences to just one, I’ve been quickly coming back with ‘the desert’. A combination of reaching the dunes of the Sahara being the ‘destination’ of this adventure in many ways, and the quite frankly ridiculously vast, wild and rugged view that completely matched the childlike image in my mind; bright orange sand and bright blue sky.
Not all of the Sahara desert is covered in those orange sand dunes. Before reaching Merzouga, where the dunes really start, we’d spent quite some time riding through the hamada desert (rocky plain) dotted with small sand dunes, which was beautiful in its own right. That’s the kind of desert I’ve experienced before, and I enjoyed feeling like it was just me and my bike in the landscape (with my husband and friend, of course!).
But once we reached the desert proper, my view-loving-mind was utterly blown. I loved it. It was big, bright, vast, empty, wild, stark, and all the other things I like in a vista.
Under the Stars
My outdoorsy self relished the opportunity to spend the night in a Berber-style camp somewhere in the middle of the dunes. Not only did we feel the heat of the desert off the bikes and get to eat tagine family style, but stopping overnight provided me with the best view of the stars I’ve ever had, and the most spectacular sunrise spent wandering in the sand. Honestly, it was everything I had hoped for, and more.
I’m not going to claim I rode my bike in the dunes, because I didn’t. Sand is scary! We did head off to get some photos pretty close to them on our day off in Merzouga (after our night in the tent), which might look like we were even more adventurous than we were in reality – but that’s Instagram vs reality so I’m sure you’ll forgive me.
There and Nearly Back
The advertised intention, the thing I told people when they asked me where I was going this time, was to ride my bike to the Sahara desert and back. The act of going on an overland adventure from and to my own front door was part of the fun for me. Just me and my bike and the open road, as it were.
Alas, adventures have a habit of throwing curve balls at you, and this one certainly lived up to that adage. I did ride my bike to the desert, and back up Morocco as far as Tangier. But that’s where my ride ended.
Our daily routine was to fill up with fuel at the end of each ride, close to our overnight stop, so that we could start each morning without having to worry about petrol. On day 17, the final day in Morocco, we rode 220-miles from Azrou to Tangier, via the rather spectacular UNESCO listed Berber-Roman ruins of Volubilis.
As per our routine, we stopped at a fuel station on the outskirts of Tangier, with around ten miles left to go. I filled up as normal, but when it came to tackle the craziness of the city traffic (and oh, was it crazy!), my bike wouldn’t start. Nothing.
There’d been no sign of my bike having any issues, it just refused to get going. We bump started it on the petrol forecourt (I helped push – shame there’s no photographic evidence!) and I managed to ride it the last ten miles, before the bike cut out as I pulled into the hotel car park. The battery was completely dead.
With the help of some very knowledgeable members of the Globebusters team, we had a good tinker, and diagnosed an electrical fault – likely the regulator rectifier or alternator, neither of which we were going to be able to replace that evening. Simon, one of the team, went on a mission with our Moroccan fixer Mohammed to buy a battery charger to see if we could at least get me to the port and across the border, and while he admitted to having a blast tearing around Tangier visiting auto shops, he came back empty handed.
My bike was loaded into to the support van (thanks Pete, Craig and Mohammed), and that’s where it stayed for the rest of the trip, devoid of life. I missed four days riding, which was quite sad for me. I need to remember that I did do the whole Morocco trip, ticked off my bucket list night in the desert, and Spain isn’t far away to go back and ride some of those roads another time. And in all honesty, it was really great to spend time with Pete, our Globebusters support driver – what an interesting guy he is..
I’ll tell the full story of what happens when you break down in Morocco and need to bring a motorbike through Spain back to the UK in a van another time (thanks Brexit). It was certainly an interesting journey home.
What Next for my Trusted Blue Steed?
My bike is running again (it was the alternator, which we’ve replaced), and will be fine for future adventures. But now there’s a big question mark over whether it’s time for me to move on and get over the sentimental attachment I have to this old machine.
Do I pour (more) time and money into my well-loved but now potentially unreliable F650GS, the bike I’ve done all my big trips on including Zartusacan, Iceland and many others. Or, do I treat myself to an upgrade ready for the next ten years of overland adventures, wherever they may be?
Decisions, decisions. I mean, the bike is nearly 15 years old, has done over 55,000 miles, and maybe just needs to enter retirement. Remember the wheels?!
If I do get a new bike, do I go for the obvious new version of the same – the BMW F750GS? Alternatively, do I go on the hunt for a Triumph 900 GT Low, or do I do something marginally silly like buy a Scrambler?! I’ve been mulling that over for a week or so and it’s so hard to decide what to do. In an ideal world I’d have a garage big enough to do both – keep the GS and buy something newer. I don’t want much, do I?!
I guess you’ll have to come back next week to see what I decide.
See You Next Time!
There are lots more to- and from- the Sahara Desert stories to tell you, it was a very full three weeks away. I’ve started to tell my Morocco story over on Instagram, so do head over there to follow along with my day-by-day account of the trip. I’ll certainly follow up with some blog posts here, but you know how long it takes me to get my adventure journals written – I’ll be finishing my Cotswold Way series first, and I owe you two or three review posts this autumn, too (I’ve got THREE pairs of shoes to tell you about!!).
In the meantime, I’ll remind you of a couple of recent posts you may have missed – my Currently Loving for September features some of my favourite things, and my Cotswold Way Day 6 post is all about our last day hiking into Bath. And maybe you can get a head start thinking about my upcoming One Hour Outside November Challenge invitation?
Buy Me a Cuppa?
If you enjoyed this weekly blog episode and fancy supporting me and my mini adventures this year, you can “buy me a coffee” for £3 (well, a cup of tea, if that’s okay?). Head over to Ko-fi to find out more. Thank you.