Morocco, A Warm Up for the Tour of Africa

9months since the accident that offset our plans, we begin our trans-Africa adventure with a bang. First, for reasons that cannot be disclosed on a public forum, we decided to hurdle our Tenere and luggage on a van. It was a 2008 VW Transporter, a solid choice, we thought, to ship ourselves fast to our actual point of departure, as we were to take a ferry to Morocco from the Italian port of Livorno. But then strange things started to happen: as we packed our bags to leave in the morning, we realised that my mum had accidentally washed John’s riding jacket with the bike’s papers inside. We managed to get a copy, left late, and then the timing belt of the van broke. With 300km to go before Livorno and the hours dwindling, we switched to the Yamaha and made it onto the boat in the nick of time.

The crossing of the Mediterranean took a couple of very long days, at the end of which we arrived in Morocco.

EU citizens are allowed a 90 days stay in Morocco without a visa. We entered via the newly launched Tanger Med port, where the border formalities are a breeze; its a one-stop-shop, you get your passport stamped, then checked by the gendarmerie, then the duane officer issues for free a Declaration d’admission temporaire de moyens de transport (temporary import permit). For the customs you can apply online. The International Motor Insurance Card (green card) from your country of origin may also cover Morocco, you want to check this with your insurer (that is the case for Romania). Otherwise you can purchase insurance at the border.

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The Moroccan infrastructure is quite developed, with over 1145km of autoroute and good tarred roads even in countryside. Morocco is an offroad paradise, with adrenaline-pumping pistes zig-zagging the ever changing landscape. The gas (essence) is about 1 Euro/liter and widely available at gas stations or at hole-in-the-walls in small villages. There are ATM machines everywhere, but obviously the food stalls are cash only.
Morocco boasts a diverse landscape: wild Atlantic coasts and 4K High Atlas peaks, sterile desert and lush oases, Saharan dunes and mudbrick villages.

We rode through the north (Tanger, Larache) which is feeling the crunch of the real estate bubble, with ghost towns and suburbs that nobody can afford built in the middle of nowhere. We stayed in and around Rabat for a week, waiting for the Mali and Mauritania visas, camping on beaches and getting to know the local way of life. While Rabat has an european feel, the shanty towns that line the coast and the lively fresh food markets are intensely moroccan, so is charming Mahommedia. Soon enough we were picnicking with the locals and dodging overnight invitations with the typical beginner’s paranoia.

East from Rabat we used Meknes as our base camp for a few days to visit Fez, Meknes, the sacred town of Moulay Idriss and the ancient ruins of Volubilis.

The imperial cities of Fez and Meknes

The Medina, (the medieval centre of Fez) has not changed for centuries: a maze of narrow alleys housing hundreds of merchants and craftsmen, stalls with spices, dried fruits and nuts, fish, handmade copper items, carpets and musical instruments. A seat of Arab learning, a Holy City and a place of pilgrimage (when the route to Mecca was obstructed), Fez was a place of considerable importance until recently, being the depot for the caravan trade from the south and east of the African continent. A must see in Fez is the Leather Souq with the oldest leather tannery in the world, Chouwara.

Even if Fez has a more intricate architecture in the beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage Medina, we found that Meknes has a more authentic feel, with few to no tourists and touts and a Medina where people seem to actually live and work (not just for show). Moulay Idriss is a little gem, a fairytale town on top of a mountain among olive tree hills, where life has a slower pace.

The High Atlas.

Later we rode through Casablanca, heading inland. After sleeping in a millet field and after a villager gave us fresh cow milk in the morning, we climbed to the 100m high Ouzoud falls (in full swing at this time of year).

You can pass the touts and faux-guides and ride your bike close to the pools where you can take a cold plunge or enjoy the free spectacle of nature; just take the right gravel road before the bridge for 5-600m.

In the afternoon we stopped again in Azilal for a tagine, then continued on a breathtaking route among peaks ranging from 2K to 4K. The landscape kept changing every hour, from lifeless valleys, to cactus infested walls, from reddish soil and rocky forests to fragrant cedars and green canyons punctuated by magenta wild flowers. When the road appeared to end, we suddenly found ourselves at 2750m altitude, from where 50km of tarmac interrupted by gravel brought in by spring floods led us to Imilchil.

We slept a charmed night at the Gite d’etape run by a Berber family. Aziz has built the beautiful house himself and is a licensed guide. He also has a shop in the village, selling carpets hadmade by his wife, Fatma. After eating some freshly baked bread in the morning, we left behind the Bhutan-like atmosphere of beautifully camouflaged Imilchil behind, heading to Gorges Dades via Agoudal. Enter the most thrilling piste so far: after Agoudal the tarmac turns to gravel, then just traces in the dust.

For 5 km we rode through a riverbed that had erased the piste during the recent floods. Offroading with a heavily loaded bike proved difficult and we took a few tumbles, managing to cover only 100km in more than 4 hours. Apart from the riverbed crossings, the piste is a fun ride, climbing to 2700m then going down in hairpins and thrilling turns, with alternating gravel, rocky patches, sand and dirt. The piste ends with a 30cm deep river crossing, from where the road is all tarmac, interrupted by landslides that are easy to manage.

As if the whole day ride wasn’t enough, we crossed the canyon of Dades back to another famous set of spaghetti-like road.

The public demonstrations cheering the king’s peace oriented decision to promulgate a new constitution (giving more executive power to the elected government) arrived from Meknes where we last seen them in Boulmaine de Dades. We bushcamped outside the town, then left at sunrise to see the place where Sahara begins its deadly and beautiful dominance.

First glimpse of Sahara

You can see the mighty sand dunes in two places in Morocco: the golden ones of M’Hamid or the psychedelic pink Erg Chebbi in Merzouga, which is where we arrived in a blazing hot weather. A weird afternoon rain in the Sahara and a pool plunge later, we woke up to see the sun rising behind the glistening foot-trace swallowing mirage that is Erg Chebbi, a dune 160m high, bordered by the village of Hassi Labied.

The beauty of the desert is magical, and we left the second day still reveling in it. As a technical problem that has been aggravating for a while become urgent, we rushed the 400km through desertificated Draa Valley from Merzouga to Ouarzazate, where after a few days and with the help of Peter at BikersHome, we managed to change our defective chain.

Crazy, hot, awesome Marrakech

It’s instant love or hate, this city, and after days of solitude it felt like a punch in the face. It shook us up. To explore it, we left our bike in the parking behind the Koutoubia mosque, then dove into the UNESCO World Heritage show that is Djemma el-Fna, with its storytellers, musicians, artisans and food stalls selling Michelin star worthy plates of tangia, sheep brain and seafood. The next day visit to Ali Ben Youssef medersa was followed by a protein load in Mechoui Alley, then a cool walk in the Jardin Majorelle.

Our good luck runs out in in Essaouira

At 5pm when we exit Marrakech, the roadside thermometer read 53 degrees Celsius, but 200 km further, in the wind capital of Africa, we felt chilly at 22. But some incident made so that we didn’t stay long to enjoy the white and blue spanish influenced colonial architecture of the medina.

Our GPS got stollen in the fish market, only to be retrieved later against a 30 Euro ransom. Looked like Essaouira didn’t want us to linger. So we ate quickly our delicious sardines, fresh fish and squid grilled at the public grillades de poisson (with possibly the best bread in Morocco), then camped some 200km later, near Agadir.

Southern Morocco and Western Sahara

South of this package tourism oriented town, we rode a 3 day marathon through Western Sahara province, ending up in Dakhla. Along the almost featureless landscape we bushcamped on nice beaches, like this one near Sidi Ifni

Or at the foot of this golden dune near Tarfaya, where we slept with the usual music of dunes being combed by the Saharan wind.

What about the Western Sahara people? Well, we struggled to grasp the soul of this rugged, inhospitable region, so rich in natural resources (phosphate, fish abundant waters and oil), and where the traditionally nomadic Saharawi herders are either tent-dwellers or aliens in towns that resemble M.A.S.H. movie sets.

After a month in Morocco where we rode over 6000km, the motorbike is still in great shape. We experienced no technical issues, except for the chain problem. We took a few low-speed falls due to deep sandy patches and rocky pistes, the battery was drained two times while charging our laptop with the engine off and we had to send home a few spares and personal stuff in order to lose some 6,5 kg off the bike (which do make a sizable difference). So our first advice (not that is a huge novelty) is pack light, cause every gram counts.

People in Morocco are friendly, sometimes aggressively trying to sell you something or guide you, are not easy to trust, which is a shame, because up in the mountains you will meet genuinely sweet villagers and generous men. Moroccans nurture close family ties and friendships, and we witnessed how they warmly greet each other for minutes. The caffe culture is a big deal here, with solo men filling up terraces from morning to dawn, at a chat over coffee with friends. Women are harder to meet, but they are highly educated and almost all speak fluent French. Some Arab and Berber will come a long way here; in Merzouga area English is largely spoken and understood. We bought a Meditel modem for Internet, but discovered that IAM has a better 3G coverage, so we suggest you get that one instead.

Kitesurfing in Dakhla Peninsula – a clip dedicated to Christian Beros

Food is a reason to be here in itself. Produce is mostly organic and very regional: in Fez you have the famous fassi cousine with treats like b’sara (a soup made of fava beans served with a fragrant garlic olive oil), pigeon pastilla (a pastry spiced with cinnamon) and very spicy and hot sausage made of mutton and offal; in Meknes you can eat the freshest figs and delicious flat bread with thin crust and cumin spiced crumble; pure eucalyptus, almond or cactus honey is produced high in the Atlas; in Erfoud you will eat the best dates with the extraordinary sweet and creamy Medjool reigning supreme; Marrakech is home to sheep meat and offal delicacies like tangia (mutton or beef cooked slowly with cumin, ras-el-hanout, preserved lemons and olives in a dough-sealed clay pot), sheep brains and tongue and mechoui (whole sheep baked with spices in a vertical clay oven); the freshest fish is in Essaouira and other coastal cities – here you can follow our example, and buy your fish from the fihermen, then have it cooked for 5Dh/plate at the public grill, next to the market; in the Banana Village just before Agadir you can taste the local varieties of banana and suculent cactus fruits.

Figues de Barbarie – snacking on the side of the road on juicy cactus fruits

All over the country you can find tasty veggies, mutton and beef kafta, gorgeous watermelons and melons, dried fruits and nuts, along with top quality spices like saffron, paprika, cumin and ras-el-hanout. The breakfast is usually bread with the best local olive oil or served with honey sweetened leben (local yoghurt), or couscous with cold sourmilk from streetside vendors. Bread is sold freshly baked along moroccan pancakes, which in Fez have a sweet spongy texture. At lunch people usually eat a tagine (a typical stew of meat or fish, slowly cooked on charcoal in a signature clay pot). Dinner is protein based: kafta or harira (bean soup with aromatic herbs, which in Agadir is served with a local twist – with dates, a boiled egg and a piece of hard caramel). Other signature Morocco treats available countrywide are freshly squeezed orange juice and green/black tea perfumed with fresh mint (called whiskey marocain). Tap water is safe to drink and wild camping is possible in most unmarked places, even if locals may try to discourage you from doing so.

Also, it will be difficult to leave the country without buying some good quality shit. 😉