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West Glos & Dean Forest
Motor Cycle Club

Celebrating 64 Years of Motor Cycling 1953 - 2017

To Merzouga and Back.

An epic tale of desert adventurers (Words and Photos By Ian Vessey)

Autumn 2002 and Julian suggests an overland trip to the Desert. Hmm. Where's the nearest desert? Morocco, that'll do. Christmas comes and goes, and ferry ticket to Santander are purchased. Well that's all the organising done then, when do we go?

The Plan

The plan (there was a plan?) was to travel across Spain, cross over to Morocco, and investigate some of the trails described in Chris Scott's books. Big trailies were to be used, but after Taffy's practice up the 'Craig' during the Wyegate on his Tiger, I decide that an XT600 would be more suitable, and I'll leave my nice shiny undamaged Tiger in the garage. So there we were, Julian (GS BMW), Taffy (Tiger) and myself (Tenere) ready to go in March 2003.

What else is happening in the world at this time? Oh yes, just a small matter of George "Dubblyer" Bush threatening to kill a few thousand Muslims in Iraq. Shouldn't affect us in Morocco should it? Miles away!

The Journey

Day One: Home to Plymouth

The trip down was fairly boring, except for a small incident where I had to dive into a service area for a pee! Julian and Taff misinterpreted my signals, missed the turn into the services and did a ten mile loop back up the motorway - they thought I'd broken down already! The ferry crossing was smooth, calm, and a bit blurry at night! Still, a midday to midday crossing leaves a nice long morning to sober up and consume a not too brilliant cooked breakfast.

Day Two: Santander - Picos - Palencia

At least Spain is sunny, as we head eagerly towards the Picos mountains. Taff is navigating, and finds some cracking back roads. Pity none of us can read Spanish road signs. 20k up a twisty back road we realise the yellow sign 20k back must have said something like "Road Closed in 20ks" as we were faced with a 30 foot deep ravine inhabited by a large digger, and no possible way around. Slight detour then, but we progressed steadily south towards our first stop in Palencia.

On entering the city, we found plenty of hotel signs. Our instincts told us that the "Hotel Colon" was the one for us, so that's where we went. I can't quite work out what it is about some Spanish cities, loads of space on the plains between, then the cities are a concentration of tall apartment blocks, hotels and offices. This meant the "Hotel Colon" had no parking, so a short trip across town to an underground car park was required. When parking in the motorcycle area, I tried to avoid blocking in the moped in the corner, until my eyes adjusted to the gloom and registered the 4inches of dust. I guess it wasn't going anywhere anyway!

That evening we wandered the town, found some food and came across an anti-war protest, which did make us start to wonder about the trip.

We found a couple of bars as well of course.

Day Three: Palencia - Salamanca - Badajoz

The next day we retrieved our bikes and headed off south again. During this day, I started to realise that the XT was leaking a little more oil than it had been. Quite a lot actually. So a fix was required. I bought 5 litres of the stuff, that should last a while!

Further south we went, through Salamanca where the Spanish round of the Enduro Championship was to be held, and on to Badajoz. A pleasant enough day, but the plan started to slip a little here. The intention was to stay in cheap hotels, but with it being late in the evening, and us all being just a little knackered, we ended up in the Hotel Zurbaran. It wasn't cheap. It did do an excellent breakfast though which allowed us to stock up for the next day's travelling! It was certainly too expensive to eat in, so we trotted off into town. After failing to find a restaurant, we ended up in a Burger King. Fills a gap, doesn't do much else for the body, but fills a gap. We left the Burger king and walked past a couple of restaurants. Doh!. Then we visited a couple of bars before bed.

Day Four: Badajoz - Jeres de los Caballeros - Ubrique - Algeciras

The next day took us south again, around Seville and down some cracking roads, Ubrique and on to Algeciras, the Spanish port facing Gibraltar. We found a hotel right by the docks, so here was the point of no return. George "Dubblyer" Bush had started on Iraq, but we were assured that this would not cause us any bother in Morocco, so ferry tickets were purchased for the next morning. Algeciras is a typical port city, nothing special, few bars which is the main thing. The last bar before bed was a rough old place, full of some tough looking locals, but we were made welcome and didn't feel unsafe.

Day Five: Algeciras - Ceuta - Tetouan - Fez

Next morning we moved onto the docks and got in the queue. No customs here, as the ferry goes to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco. The journey on the Sea Cat takes just under an hour, and there we were, setting foot on the African Continent. A Spanish bit maybe, but Africa all the same.

Moroccan Customs. - Interesting experience.

First thing than happens is that there are many locals hanging around waiting to help you. They insist on it! Best to give in, and for a couple of Euros, you will be assisted through the entry process.

1) Fill in a form with your details.
Go to the window where everyone else is hanging around, and push your precious passport through the hole at the bottom of the glass. Watch a hand appear and whisk away your passport.
2) Wait.
3) Wait.
"Stamping" type noises heard somewhere in the back of the office.
4) Wait a bit more.
More noises.
5) Wait.
Eventually a passport is held up at the window, photo showing, for the owner to collect.
6) Wait some more.
At last, claim your own passport.
7) Now fill in another form and go to a port-a-cabin for your vehicle temporary import stamp.
8) Wait.
Put passport and forms through window.
Computer crashes.
9) Wait.
10) Wait.
Computer is back up!
11) Get forms back.
12) Give local chap a couple of Euros. We're in!

The forms were checked twice before we got out of customs, and then we were into Morocco. First thoughts were, "What a lot of Mercs". All taxis appear to be old Mercs, and there were loads of them. Second thought was, "What a tip". The whole place is a bit of a mess. Loads of rubbish. Loads of people. Things didn't improve much as we headed for the Riff mountains, rubbish, people, more mess.

The first major town was Tetouan which is where the World Enduro round was due to be held. We didn't stop there. We didn't want to, it's a dump and just doesn't feel safe, so we headed south into the mountains.

The first time we stopped, within 5 minutes, Julian was being offered a joint by an enterprising local. Julian declined and taffy navigated us away from the main road and through back roads and byways, through some wonderful, but crowded countryside.

At this time, I developed a theory about the behaviour of the local kids, goes like this:

Bunch of kids hear bikes coming, first bike goes by, kids think "It's a bike!"

Kids see second bike go by, kids think "Foreigners on bikes!"

Kids see third bike, kids think "Get the bike" and throw mud, and in one instance an orange!

Guess who was riding at the back most of the time!

Eventually we ended up in Fez. By this time it was late Sunday afternoon, and it appeared that the whole population was out on the streets taking in the warm evening sun. All the touts and kids were also swarming around which induced a small amount of "concern" to us three foreigners. In this situation it was not possible to stop and consult the "lonely planet" for advice, so the plan went astray again here, and we just aimed for "the big hotel on the hill with a large wall around it", which turned out to be the Hotel Merinides.

Expensive. At least it had CNN in english, so we could watch the war and understand what was going on. We didn't eat here either, and we didn't go out into Fez itself either, we were too tired, it was dark, so we scoffed all the snacks at the bar.

Day Six: Fez - Atlas - Merzouga

We had to pass on an offer of a guided trip around Fez the next day as our next destination was the desert. We headed due south over the middle Atlas mountains and down through the Ziz Valley, our first taste of the arid mountain regions of Morocco. By the end of a long day we reached Rissani, the last big town before the Algerian border. In Rissani we were again accosted by touts, all trying to get us to stay at "their" hotel. With supplied directions we headed out of town and reached yet another police roadblock. As obvious foreigners we were never stopped at these roadblocks, always waved past. But at this one, one of the local hotel owners had just had his papers checked. He saw us and immediately rushed over, insisting that we follow him back to his Auberge. We gave in at this point, and followed him home.

As it turned out, the Auberge Amazin was a small newly built Auberge, one of many that stretch in a long line along the edge of the Erg Chebbi, and was an excellent place to stay. The owner and all his family were very friendly and welcoming, served great food, the Auberge was clean and comfortable, and they had beer and wine! The whole area felt safe, we even left the bikes outside with no fear of them being tampered with. After a good traditional meal, with plenty of wine, we sat outside in the peace and quiet watching the sun set over the desert.

Day Seven: Erg Chebbi

The next day we decided that this was good enough to spend another night, so we spent the day exploring the area. A short excursion into the dunes proved that we weren't going to get far riding in the sand, so we went as far south as we could to Taouz, then followed the tracks around the Erg Chebbi, about 120K or so.

Back at the Auberge, after a walk into the dunes, followed by more good grub, we spent the evening with the family entertained by the kids with their drums. I'm not sure how much of this entertainment was traditional, but it was certainly entertaining.

Day Eight: Merzouga - Todra - Imilchil - El Ksiba

Back on the road the next day saw us head north back to Rissani, where we took a left turn and headed west for about 100k, following one of Chris Scott's routes. This then took us north over stoney tracks for many miles through jagged hills towards the Todra Gorge.

Here we hit the tarmac again and a more touristy area. The Gorge itself is a deep narrow gap through walls up to 300m high. Impressive.

The road continued northwards towards Imilchil in the High Atlas mountains. Altitude, with the temperature drop and more moisture saw a return of more vegetation until we were up over 2000m where it became more of a cold desert. Did I mention that? It was bloody cold at 2500m, up above the snowline even in March.

Imilchil was another great looking place! Looked like a wild frontier town so we didn't stop there either. We did hit a bit of tarmac on the top somewhere and assumed that was the end of our trail riding for the day. But when it abruptly stopped at the end of a village, the first thought was that we had taken the wrong turn. Trouble was, there had been no other turns for miles! When a truck loaded with people was seen trundling up, we decided that this must be the main drag, so continued for 20-30 miles down a river valley, where the old road had almost completely been washed away. Great fun. It was getting late by this time so as we dropped down through the mountains, through the odd bit of rain, we looked for somewhere to stay.

Entering a small town, we passed a small hotel where a Rambo look-alike, waved us into the courtyard. Looked like we were staying there then! It was a reasonable cheap hotel, the bar of which was packed with a few foreigners and loads of locals happily consuming great quantities of Heineken! Suited us.

Day Nine: El Ksiba - Larache

In the morning we couldn't understand why the restaurant wasn't open yet for breakfast. Seems we were an hour early. We had to adjust our time when going to Spain, but then the clocks had changed, and Moroccan time was different again!

We had a few hours riding around the northern foothills of the Atlas, before turning north again and heading across the plains to Rabat. There we joined the motorway. The locals make good use of this, grazing their sheep and goats on the wide central reservation! By late afternoon it was getting a bit wet, so we turned into Larache (easy remembered name - sexually transmitted disease), where we were again waved into a hotel. The tout who waved us in was an old chap, who seemed happy to sit outside on his deckchair all night, keeping watch over the parked up bikes and cars (for a small donation in the morning of course!).

Here the plan completely fell to pieces. As soon as we got into the freshly decorated room, Taffy decided to go down to the bar to get a beer. Disaster! Dry Hotel! In fact it was almost a dry town. A short walk later into town turned up only one bar. It looked rough and we decided that we weren't desperate enough for a drink to go in! Back in the Hotel room, we discovered that the new paint had been so thoroughly applied, we couldn't shut the window!

Day Ten: Larache - Ceuta - Algiceras - Bollullos-Del-Condado

In the morning we headed back towards Tetouan, but decided that Spain was much preferable to staying even for the Enduro. As it turns out, the Enduro had been cancelled, so it was a good call.

Going back through customs was a bit easier, and there was a sense of relief to get back on the SeaCat.

Back in Spain, now we headed north, back up through Ubrique and the towards Seville. Taff didn't want to go near the city, so he took us on a tour of the flat fenlands south of the city, before giving up and hitting the ring road. We headed through Seville and then westward. Before the Portuguese border we turned off and found a nice comfy Hostel, like a posh truck stop. The bikes were put in the owners cavernous garage and we settled in the bar for some grub and a few beers.

Day Eleven: Bollullos-Del-Condado - Jeres de los Caballeros - Badajoz - Alburquerque - Ciudad Rodrigo

The next morning we were going to start early, but we hadn't reckoned on the mega-efficient shutters. We discovered how good they were at about 9am when I opened one to let some light in to see my watch by, and was blinded by daylight. The journey this day took us due north through pleasant countryside up the Spanish side of the Portuguese border, through Jeres de los Caballeros, Badajoz, Alburquerque, and to the spectacular dam at Alcantara. By evening we reached the old walled city of Ciudad Rodrigo. We couldn't find a hotel room in the old city itself, so ended up a mile out of town. That evening we wandered back into town to see some of the sights, get some food and have a few beers of course.

Day Twelve: Ciudad Rodrigo - Zamora - Riano - Potez

Heading north again took us past another spectacular dam on the Rio Tormes before we turned east towards Zamora, The next part of the route was pretty dismal as the weather closed in and it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Until we started on the road east of Leon that took us into the Picos de Europa. By the time we reached Cisternia for a coffee, the weather had improved as had the stunning scenery. The mountains beckoned and we rose up over another dramatic dam and to the small town of Riano. Here we had to stop to take in the breathtaking views of the encircling mountains. A few miles further on, we rounded a bend and were hit by a wall of hail. The road became a sheet of ice which made navigating the hairpins an interesting experience. Luckily, this didn't last for too long as we were at the highest point, and we soon descended out of the clouds, down the winding mountain road to Potes. A short way past Potes and we arrived at the Hotel Pena Sagra, familiar to many West Glos members on their visits to the Picos.

Food (huge chunks of baked lamb) and beer.

Day Thirteen: Potez - Santander

We were early, and trying to change tickets through the original broker was proving to be troublesome, so we went down to the terminal and changed them on the spot. Taff was bored, so headed the 50 miles or so back to Potes for a spot of trail riding, whilst myself and Julian spent a very lazy day in Santander, drinking coffee and doing a bit of people watching. Not that we stood out at all, in all our gear, grubby MX boots, jackets etc.!

The rest is straight forward, ferry, beer, food, more beer, sleep.

Day Fourteen: Plymouth - Home

Arrived in Plymouth, and rode home.

THE END