Andy Newton - Morrocan Sahara, April 2005


It had to be England, it was raining! It was not a good start for a month long trip. I rode down to Portsmouth from North Yorkshire on my Yamaha XT600E, it wasn’t the amount of baggage that was the problem, it was the tyres that were bungied on top of the luggage that made the bike have a low speed weave on the wet diesel covered roundabouts, most disconcerting with part worn MT21 tyres. I arrived at Portsmouth and met Shaun my travelling companion on his Honda XR400 and got on the ferry for Bilbao in Northern Spain and we were ready for a night in the bar.

Loaded up before the off and clean.

Once out of the morning rush hour traffic in Bilbao and onto the mostly empty toll road south towards Burgos it was easy cruising, but quite cold. We headed towards the mayhem of the Madrid ring road (although nothing compared with what was to come in Meknes). We negotiated Madrid more easily than expected and south towards Granada. We stayed a quiet night in a fantastic hotel in Tembleque off the main road.

Setting off early we rode down to the Mediterranean coast and picked up the coast road from Motril to Torremolinos and stayed at a campsite. The next day we rode to Algeciras and past the rock of Gibraltar although it was raining so hard that I couldn’t see it through the low cloud!

Algeciras is a working port and therefore not glamorous in any way. However the ferries over the Straits of Gibraltor are cheap and frequent. We rode down the slippery ramp off the boat into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Taking the opportunity to fill the large tanks to the top with cheap low tax fuel.

After visiting the moneychanger who offers a better rate for Dirham on the Spanish side, it was time to take the plunge of crossing the border into Morocco. An hour later clutching the necessary stamps on our documents it was time to be let loose into the Kingdom of Morocco. The first town you ride through on the way to Tetouan is called Fnideq and it’s like Beirut on a bad day, burned out empty buildings, rubbish and rubble everywhere. We headed to the campsite at Martil for the night.

The next morning we rode through Tetouan and across the mountains to Larache to pick up the motorway to Casablanca. The scenery was stunning, changing with every bend in the road. We had a strange and surreal day everything from seeing a man attempting to persuade a cow into the back of a Mercedes van to seeing the King of Morocco's entourage - complete with helicopter gunships. We pushed on to the old Spanish enclave of El Jadida and stayed at an ‘international’ campsite so named so we can have a beer or two!

The next day saw us riding down the Atlantic coast north of Agadir. We saw goats climbing trees to eat the Argan nuts in the mountains, the scenery was fantastic and unspoilt. We rode on to a campsite just outside the walls of the ancient Kasbah town of Tiznit.

Bikes 40km N of Agadir

We left for Tan Tan along an awesome desert road, windy, dusty and very hot. We rode on to see camels grazing at the side of the road then as we approached the northern edge of Tan Tan the gateway to the Western Sahara we saw the famous concrete camels.

Tan Tan kissing camels

We rode onwards to Tan Tan plage for a hotel by a deserted beach, it’s much cooler here with a breeze from the Atlantic. It was here that we changed the tyres for the new MT21’s we had bought with us ready for the desert areas where we would need all the grip we could get in the sand and rock.

The next day after filling up with petrol and water plus reserves of both we attempted the Tan Tan to Assa piste across the desert, we got 35km outside Tan Tan on the road to M’sied and a horrendous sandstorm was blowing. We were down to 40kph on the road in 3rd gear. It got so bad that I could only see 2 metres in front and there was an extremely powerful headwind. We battled on for another 15km's hoping to get through this before turning back but there was no way we could ride off road in this. There was zero visibility, so we decided to head back up the road to Guelmim ready for the next day’s piste - Ait Herbil to Tafraoute in the Anti Atlas. Ourselves and all our gear is covered in fine dust... even inside my dry bag and that is designed for canoeing! On the way to Guelmim another sandstorm hit although nowhere near as bad, so we took refuge in a cafe and had a coke before moving on. The road from Guelmim to Ait Herbel was a fantastic desert road with lots of dust in the air.

Guelmin to ait herbel bikes in the desert

We camped rough 1km west of Ait Herbil in the desert as there was nothing in the village at all apart from fuel station (windy up pump at that!).

We left Ait Herbil for Tafraoute. The track started easy then turned into a gravel piste with stony oued (dry riverbed) crossings after the army checkpoint. Some oued crossings had tennis ball size boulders, quite hard to ride on overloaded motorcycles! We then continued through some palmeries for approx 10km, through little villages, then another palmerie with a guesthouse, then up a very steep pass with fantastic views into the hills. The temperature was cooler up there with stunning views across the Anti Atlas Mountains. This was a very enjoyable ride on the bike with wonderful scenery and the nice clean air. When we hit the tarmac again the road passed through a few small villages, then down a steep stunning descent (20km) into Tafraoute (lovely high altitude town, looked like Colorado, with loads of single standing stones -1100m altitude). We stayed at the campsite on the NW of town.

Tafroute piste

We left Tafraoute campsite for Igherm then to Tata over the mountains off road. The track started off easy then got very rocky climbing up over a Jebel and becoming very narrow with a scary 6 km descent down a very steep windy track with big drop offs at the side, quite scary on a loaded up motorbike! We eventually dropped down into a long wide gorge with palmeries and oueds, then when the tarmac started 30km short of Tata the road crosses a huge plain and then over the Jebel Tabarount and through the gorges with swirling rocks. Awesome. We got to Tata and refuelled for the next day and found a campsite that was once good now slightly decrepit.

Top of the pass to tafroute

The following morning we returned to Igherm on the piste again, then onwards we went NE across stunning Eastern Anti Atlas scenery to Taliouine and a campsite on the outskirts of town, the most expensive we had found so far! However it was the nicest. There was a really good view from the campsite over the town and the old run down fort! There was a new fort next door and it looked like a palace in comparison.

Leaving Taliouine to go to Foum Zguid over a pass on the Jebel Ouiouguen, there were fantastic gorges to ride through on the way. The going was very bumpy with lots of stony oued crossings and a bit of feche feche (very fine dust) particularly around a village around 40km from the end. The last 40km was quite tough as the piste is hardly used by anyone. We stopped for an omelette and a couple of cokes at a cafe in Foum Zguid whilst we waited for the fuel station to open, then stayed at the tourist Auberge on the South side of town, nice and clean and a garage for the bikes as well! Foum Zguid was a very quiet dusty little town that did not seem to have a lot apart from the world’s biggest school, school kids everywhere! Totally disproportionate to its size - strange.

Setting off early we left Foum Zguid for Mhamid. First we had to check in at the Fort to leave passport details as we were so near the Algerian border and its suspected minefield. There was no one at the 1st checkpoint so we just rode through, fantastic piste through stoney Hamada with awesome views of the Jebel Bani all the way to the second fort and checkpoint (Algeria 10km away to SE). We had our passports checked and chatted with the bored soldiers then onwards to Lac Iriki - perfectly flat dried lake bed with wandering camels.

Foum zguid to mhaid piste oued

Foum zguid to mhaid piste dry salt lake

We came across a Spanish V8 4x4 that was overheating. The occupants were looking to get to Zagora.... they were lost and on the wrong piste, also they are not prepared properly in any way for the desert so we decided that they had better follow us to Mhaid and up the road. A further 50km on and the sand started! Sand must be easy with 300hp and 4 wheel drive! We struggled to find our way along the tracks in between the low dunes. It was very hot hard work on the bikes and they were getting thrashed in 1st and second gear just to keep momentum. We covered the last few kms to Mhaid and a well deserved coke or two at the cafe. We camped at a campsite near Oulad Driss on the way to Zagora that had its own private dune.

Sand ate the XT

When we got to the Zagora petrol station to refuel we bumped into the 4x4 Spaniards again, walking down the street, we greeted each other like old friends. The first stop was the famous ‘52 days to Timbuktu by camel’ sign in Zagora which had recently been restored.

Zagora 52 days to timbuktu sign restored

Then off we went on the Zagora to Foum Zguid piste. The 1st 30kms was difficult to work out where the track actually was as there were that many. We navigate with the GPS’s. When going past a little building a local girl ran over towards me and insisted on jumping in front of me which ever way I try to avoid her. I just missed clipping her with the pannier, then she jumped in front of Shaun!

Baby camel on zagora to foum zguid piste

We carried on along the piste and it started to get very hot, we got within 5km of Foum Zguid and we chatted to 3 Spanish bikers; a mint KTM 640 Adventure, a well crashed Yamaha WR450 and a gaffa taped up/well crashed old Yamaha XT660. At the fuel station at Foum Zguid we talked to some Belgian 4x4 lads with 6 vehicles. They could not believe that we had ridden from the UK as well! They had put their 4x4’s on the Motor Rail in Belgium to Malaga and had flown down. We stayed at the same Auberge in Foum Zguid.

We left Foum Zguid for Ouarzazate via Ait Benhaddou Kasbah (used in the films ‘The Mummy’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’).

Ait benido

The Tarmac ended just past here and we rode on up the narrow and dangerous piste to Telouet. The scenery was stunning and the piste technical, a few km’s before Telouet the crumbling tarmac started again. Telouet was the seat of the Glauoli tribe’s power over the Saharan trade caravans for over 200 years, Teloulet was a bit disappointing really, as it was decaying and not up to the reputation of the era! There were lots of tourists and trinket sellers here! We carried on up the tarmac road that came out to the south of the Tizi n Tichka Pass (2260m). We rode up to the pass but it was very cold and raining. We took a few photos then shot off before the gem and rock sellers were on their way. We went back on the main road to the Ouarzazate campsite.

On leaving the Ouarzazate campsite we then rode down the road to Nekob about 140km, passing an overturned fuel tanker leaking fuel all over the road. The ZIZ fuel station on the western side of Nekob was closed as it had run dry (maybe it was their fuel all over the road?). We bought fuel from a drum in the butchers - I couldn’t work out the logic either! We only bought 5 litres just enough to top the tanks up. We set off on the piste to Tinehir, which was excellent at first then turned very rocky. We started the ascent of the Tizi n Tazazert Pass (2200m) but had to wait as 17 UK Landrovers were coming down the descent. They thought our expedition was awesome when they found out that we had ridden from the UK on motorbikes with no back up! We stopped off at the Tizi n Tazazert pass 'cafe/auberge' which was really a collection of falling down stone huts!

Tizi n tazert pass

We pressed on to the village where the Boumaine De Dades piste joined (done this one in the past). A brilliant smooth descent, exactly as I remembered it from last time! All the way down to the high desert plain south of Tinehir it was hairpin descents that switched from smooth to rocky, just to keep you on your toes, awesome! The Jebel Sarhro would take some beating. We rode through Tinehir then went up to the Todra Gorge, we stopped at a cafe in the gorge entrance and about 10 UK bikes came past, We stayed at Au Soliel Hotel & Campsite in between the gorge and Tinehir. I ended up giving GPS lessons to some French 4x4 campers! Why have they got them if they don’t know how to use them?

The following morning as we were fuelling up at the petrol station, we saw the same English bikers again, it turned out they were on Nick Saunder’s Moto Challenge of Sahara. They were heading to Erfoud that day. 10km later just before we headed off the tarmac an R1 came up behind us fast, it was Nick Saunders himself! He slowed down, came along side and waved to us then he shot off. It was a relatively fast/smooth piste all way to Alnif across the Jebel Ougnat. We came back the same way to Tinehir and then went all the way through the Todra gorge after first riding through the river to the café for lunch and laughed at the French tourists looking aghast at the bikes parked up dripping dry!

The next day we left we left Tinehir for Midelt on the road. An easy day, we found a lovely Auberge (1750m) to camp at on the way to the awesome Cirque de Jaffar! My tent was surrounded by the smell of wild mint. The bikes looked like real veterans of serious desert travel now! Covered in dust. It was a cold night at this altitude.

We left the Auberge and did a difficult route to the Cirque de Jaffar on a very narrow track with big drop offs – more like a goat track. This was hard work on overloaded bikes with full fuel tanks and water; it also didn’t help when a shepard jumped in front of us begging. We had to keep going as the terrain was so rough, we nearly knocked him down! We then went through the Jaffar gorge – there had been a lot of rock falls and two winter’s worth of rubble dumped by the river in the gorge from the last time I did this route. This was getting very hard work and it was like a scene from the TV programme Kick Start! We finally got to the other end of the gorge and met 3 lads on BMW’s as we were on the way back to Midelt. They were going to attempt the gorge but we warned them off saying it was very difficult, but to have a look anyway! They gave us a wave later when they rode past the petrol station/cafe where we were having a well deserved drink, so they didn’t attempt the gorge after all. We rode North and went over the High Atlas Pass of ‘Col du Zad’ (2178m) which looked like Scotland and was very cold. We then dropped down to Meknes where on the outskirts we had to wait for the King again! It was then we had to negotiate the Beirut Taxi Grand Prix insanity of Meknes, a nightmare! We got lost several times and couldn’t find the campsite so we rode north until we found a Hotel at the side of the road 100km north of the Old Roman City of Volblius.

We set off from the Rif Hotel towards the Spanish enclave of Ceuta to catch a ferry back to mainland Europe. It was an easy morning’s ride through beautiful mountain scenery like the Italian Dolomites to Tetouan, then up to Ceuta and through the border with no problems and into the Spanish enclave. The sniffer dog at Ceuta port burnt his nose on my hot exhaust pipe! We got on the ferry and said our goodbyes to Africa.

Gibraltor from Ceuta ferry

We stayed at the Torremolinos campsite again and had a well deserved lie in and checked over the bikes. The following day mine needed only 1 click on the chain adjustment (that’s only 2 adjustments in 5000 miles including off road - awesome), oil level check – it had not used a drop and still didn’t look black – awesome stuff fully synthetic oil! I fitted the new air filter that I brought with me - considering the sandstorm it wasn’t too dirty really! Then we went down to the sea front for lunch and a coke!

We left Torremolinos campsite mid morning and had a steady ride past Malaga then turned inland to cut the corner towards Granada and the fantastic backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We then rode up into the Sierra De Andujar Mountains and stayed at an empty and tidy campsite south of Cardena. It was a relaxing day as there were no big targets to achieve, just to reach Bilbao within a few days - easy.

The next morning we headed off across plains in an anticlockwise circumnavigation of Madrid to Villacastin 40km short of Segovia, then rode to North of Soria, to a hotel on the Logrono road. We rode with a French guy on a Triumph 900 Trophy for a while.

We stayed at the services hotel on the Autoroute, ready for an easy run into Bilbao in time for the ferry.

In the queue for the ferry at Bilbao, we talked to the Landrover guys we saw on Tizi n Tazazert pass, it turned out that they had prepared the 4x4’s for the ‘Long Way Round’. We spent a night in the bar on the ferry.

We got off the ferry at 5.30pm and I thrash up to North Yorkshire mostly avoiding the rain until 50 km’s from home. Welcome to England!

Shaun and I had a fantastic adventure that covered 6000 miles, which included piste in the Sahara desert and Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I would recommend this type of trip to anyone who has a large trail bike and is independently minded. As long as you are flexible and careful you can have a great trip with an element of planning and preparation. Morocco is a cheap and safe country to visit that has huge possibilities for adventurous itineries. In the North you will get an element of ‘hassle’ but further south this does ease. One note of caution though; The Moroccan Police have recently received radar guns as toys so be careful with the speed (speaking from experience!).


Text, map and photos © Andy Newton 2005

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