The majority of Morocco’s roads are well maintained. Some, however, don’t deserve the space they occupy on a 1:1,000,000 scale map.
The road we found ourselves on seven days into a motorcycling epic to North Africa definitely fell into the latter category.
It would begin as a simple dirt road, the locals of Tamtetoucht had told us, a gentle introduction to a track that would progressively become higher, rougher and altogether more difficult. We weren’t to worry though, they added, as the 28-mile stretch to M’Semrir was easily achievable in the five hours before nightfall.
As it turned out, there were two approaches to the mountain pass – the aforementioned dirt road, and another, represented by nothing more than a pencil thin line across the dog-eared paper.
After missing the first turning we took the second, on to a track that can only be described as enduro heaven – all loose gravel, river crossings and steep climbs.
A plateau atop the summit provided a natural break. Behind us stretched the immense expanse of scrubland we had already covered, while a deep gorge presented itself ahead. After an encounter with a pair of nomadic children, we descended into the lunar landscape of the gorge.
My partner Leo was the first to go down. As he led the way through a snowy gully in the rocks, his rear wheel lost traction, throwing itself to one side.
Writing about Morocco just makes me want to go back 🇲🇦🏍 pic.twitter.com/9dnq8MAwfC
— Laura Thomson (@lauramayrafiki) February 24, 2017
He toppled over, becoming trapped under his heavy BMW F800GS. When he had scrabbled from underneath the bike, he discovered that the overworked clutch had melted a hole through his trousers.
Minutes later, I lost momentum atop a boulder. My outstretched foot came up 12 inches short of the floor, and the Africa Twin pitched to the left, smashing into the ground.
By now, darkness had started to set in, and realising the mountain would be both dangerous and impassable at night, we turned back, soon pitching our tent to sit out the freezing 12-plus hours of darkness.
The night was hellishly cold, and we were ill equipped. As the temperature dropped below minus 10, we shivered under lightweight sleeping bags, while the tent – which had only been packed as an afterthought – proved a lifesaver in the inhospitable environment.
At dawn we inspected the damage to our bikes. Leo’s Touratech panniers had fared much better than the Honda’s manufacturer fitted set, which had split open on impact. Only one buckle, and its corresponding hinge were holding the box shut, and duct tape was a necessity to secure it.
179 horses and a donkey 🏍🐴🇲🇦 pic.twitter.com/ASQ5Rs7Wsp
— Laura Thomson (@lauramayrafiki) January 24, 2017
In our filthy, exhausted state it was difficult to imagine that only a week previously we had set sail for the continent, excited, enthusiastic, and most importantly, clean.
Morocco is a mecca for motorcyclists, an unequivocal bucketlist ride for any adventurer. While the terrain may not be not as hospitable as the open-armed locals, it promised an easy introduction to the rugged wilderness of North Africa. All in all, it had appeared to be the ideal destination for two touring rookies.
On our arrival in Caen, early on December 27, we set the TomTom Rider 400 satnav to avoid the toll roads. This sent us though tree-lines boulevards, mountain passes, and dusty, desert-surrounded A-roads as we pushed further south through Spain.
My Honda Africa Twin excelled here, its powerful 1000cc parallel twin cruising comfortably, and the road-biased Dunlop TrailSmart tyres soaking up any road noise and vibrations. Leo’s BMW F800GS, however, proved the opposite. While his Heidenau K60 Scout tyres would prove significantly more capable off-road, they weren’t as smooth as the Honda’s rubbers, and his lack of touring screen made for high helmet noise.
Bordeaux was the first night’s destination – after a detour to take in the famous Le Mans track – Toledo the second, and Gibraltar the third’s. We crossed to Morocco early on the fourth day, taking a ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, a bustling Spanish enclave on the African coast.
Swapped our bikes for camels and rode into the Sahara, where we saw 2017 in from the top of a sand dune. Now heading west to Marrakech 🇲🇦 pic.twitter.com/Y2mfKbJJmw
— Laura Thomson (@lauramayrafiki) January 2, 2017
From here, we would be satnav less, as the digital maps only stretched as far as Spain. In its place, we secured an old-fashioned map in its case to Leo’s tank using cable ties.
We took the A6, and then the N16 along the East coast, a twisting ribbon of tarmac clinging to the cliffside. At El Jebha we turned inland, on to a semi-constructed gravel road through the mountains towards Fez.
After a late evening in the historic medina, we set off early the next day, despite our hosts’ insistence that we stay to see the famous Fez market. It was New Years’ Eve, and with plans to reach the Merzouga Desert that afternoon, we had some serious ground to cover through the Moyen Atlas.
The mountains were a border in their own right, dividing European-influenced Morocco with the African side. Wide, sweeping snow-lined roads gave way to narrow tracks across desolate plains – the kind where you can see for dozens of miles ahead. We stopped for lunch at a café, where the owner wasted no time in showing the famous Moroccan hospitality, detailing the best route to take from there.
“You take the piste?” he asked, referring to the plentiful off-road sections through the mountains. Noticing our tyres he laughed. “You do the piste,” he told Leo. “You, not so much,” he added in my direction. The tables had turned. The F800GS excelled in this environment, flying ahead on the rough roads, while I followed tentatively behind.
Arriving in Merzouga by late afternoon, we swapped our motorbikes for camels, riding for two hours into the desert. Here we were to celebrate the New Year in a traditional Berber encampment.
January 1, 2017 was a day like no other. Deflating the tyres, ditching the kit and disabling the bikes’ ABS and TCS we flew into the desert.
Dune bashing has a knack to it, and it took a while to master the peaks and troughs. Suffice to say, we both took a number of tumbles but the bikes coped admirably, despite their road biased set ups.
Having exhausted ourselves in the Sahara, that evening we headed for the Gorges du Todra in Tinghir, where the next morning we would attempt the fateful 28-mile stretch from Tamtetoucht to M’Semrir.
To say the following day marked a turning point in the trip was an understatement. Until then we had reached every planned overnight stop with minimal, if any issues.
Now we were exhausted, hungry and bruised, and the bikes hadn’t fared much better. We’d covered but 100 miles in two days, to Ouarzazate, and were significantly behind schedule. We had less than four days to reach Santander and catch the ferry home.
We had come to Morocco in search of adventure, and had found it, albeit in a much larger scale than ever imagined.
From Ouarzazate we took the N9 north to Rabat, passing through Marrakech as the sun began to set. Despite the beating they had received, the bikes excelled on the twisting road through the Haut Atlas, an established tarmac route at odds with its impoverished surroundings.
In Rabat, our exhaustion became apparent when we mistakenly turned onto a tram tracks, riding past bemused passengers waving from the platforms.
It was an underwhelming 200 miles of motorway that took us back to Ceuta the following day. The monotony was broken only when I understeered at a contra-flow system and clipped a traffic cone with my toe, sending it flying across the (thankfully empty) opposite lane, much to the amusement of the watching workmen.
3,500 miles across Europe and Morocco done ✅ Now for the final 1,000 in comfort ⛴ pic.twitter.com/rsyWRoGKUv
— Laura Thomson (@lauramayrafiki) January 7, 2017
We departed Morocco for Spain that afternoon and pushed to Granada that night. The following day was a depressing motorway dash to Aranda De Duero, before we expended all remaining energy riding through Spain’s northerly mountain range on the final day.
The bikes were filthy and we were exhausted, but when we arrived in Santander we were jubilant. We had covered almost 3,500 miles in 12 days of riding, conquering mountains, deserts and what felt like a million miles of motorway.
It had been an intense introduction to adventure touring, and even more so to Morocco, a beautiful, varied country which offered everything an adventurer rider could ever need.
Our only regret was not having allowed for more time to explore, but with a score to settle on the uncompleted mountain pass, it wouldn’t be long before we found our way back.