The Desert's Edge

Feeling energised and inspired after my unexpected adventures in Ifri, I packed up and set off after a fond farewell to Mostafa and his family.

My plan was to ride the 183km to the end of the bitumen at Merzouga—the edge of the real Sahara—and camp there for the night. The next day I'd get cracking on the famous "MS6" route which skirts the Algerian border and was made popular by Chris Scott in his Morocco Overland book.

I was looking forward to satisfying my growing cravings for something a little less paved but I could feel a classic case of sand-anxiety starting to build. No matter how much of it I ride it still seems to get me nervous.

I picked my way along the rest of the river Ziz to Errachidia where I stopped at a kiosk and bumbled my way through an order of supplies for my forthcoming dinner: pre-boiled eggs, "La Vache Qui Rit" cheese, bread and tinned sardines. All of these would come to be staples for many of my self-made meals.

I loved the way the landscape imposed and wove itself into everything, it's colour dominating that of the buildings, clothes and even faces and not the other way around as some of us are used to in our big, modern cities.

The next town was Erfoud, where I took the turn-off towards Merzouga.

I soon started to see the tops of the majestic and massive Saharan dunes towering over the arid, stony landscape I rode through and I detoured off road up onto a ridge to get a better view.

I could see a group of four wheel drives careening across the plains and knew I was close to the desert playground of Merzouga where tricked up vehicles and camel tourists come to revel in the dunes while impoverished locals eke out a living supporting them with accomodation, food, fuel and always in demand mechanical services.

As I closed in on the sandy town I was chased down by a manic tout on a Chinese 125cc bike trying every trick in the book to get me to stop. He honked his horn and made gestures to imply there were all kinds of things wrong with my bike, his turban loosening and blowing in the wind as he bounced up and down through the potholed streets while tailing me.

In an effort to give him the slip I turned down a back lane to cut around a main intersection and found myself in deep, powder-soft sand with my tyres at 37psi and my riding skills still stuck in tourist mode.

As the tout closed in on me, floating effortlessly over the sand, I shouted "la, shukran!"—grateful for the "no, thank you!" Mostafa had taught me to say in Arabic (emphasising that it must be done in a stern tone). The technique to dismiss my pursuer worked, and the ones for riding in sand returned to me. The robed rider on his 125 faded into the distance as I pressed on to the other side of the town to find myself a camp spot, just after the end of the bitumen and behind a small dune.

There's nothing better than spending a quiet, solitary night in a camp site out in the wild and this one didn't disappoint. I even had good enough mobile signal to call my mum after enjoying my dinner of "tagine".

As I popped down on my trusty 3-legged stool to get my riding boots off a realisation came: I'd left my favourite (and lucky) sneakers back in the guest house in Ifri!

I was up early scoffing down my boiled egg and bread for breakfast, raring to go and excited about the couple of days of lonely dirt riding ahead of me. Although I was really a long way from home the terrain felt familiar and welcoming— a reminiscent of the Australian Outback's dirt, rock, sand and redness. The camels even looked the same.

I packed up, dropped my tyre pressures a bit and dove onto the gravel. Merzouga is really the last decently sized town in the southeastern corner of the country, so once you get off the main road it's mostly single-lane gravel or twin-track. The riding was active but easy, and the landscape was spectacular.

As always, I was amazed to find "thriving" settlements in such remote, harsh and relatively inaccessible places. Every once in a while I'd come across a mud-brick "ksar" where a community or family would be giong about their daily lives, the rest of the world oblivious to their existence but in most cases not the other way around.

After a couple of hours I stopped for a photo and an old, white Defender pulled up beside me—the turbaned driver curious and keen. I was still a bit testy about being approached by locals and especially since the previous day's motorcycling salesman had tried to hunt me down, but this guy seemed relatively normal. I wasn't sure if Mohammed (predictably) was pushing anything, and without a shared language communication was tricky and I kept my guard up.

I picked up from him that it wasn't a great idea to head across the dry river delta solo on a big bike, that the fesh-fesh (very fine, powdery sand) in the river beds had claimed many a rider, recently one broken leg and two Africa Twins with burned clutches that he had to aid in recovering. He explained that he was on his way to his auberge (guest house) and that he'd be happy to show me the best way through the riverbed so that I'd avoid getting lost, stuck or injured.

"No Dirham, no Dirham," Mohammed insisted.

"OK," I sighed, resigned to whatever fate had in store for me.

I putted along behind the white Land Rover as it lumbered its way around the piles of soft, white sand, picking the seemingly random path that made up this season's route through the dry delta. The pace was actually a little slower than I needed it to be to maintain my momentum through the soft stuff, so every now and again I had to wait for Mohammed to put a bit of distance between us and then catch up before I lost him in the maze of dust mounds.

After a few kilometres we popped out on the opposite bank and Mohammed asked me what I thought of the performance of his "Berber GPS". I had to say that although that route through was fine it would've been a bit trickier trying to navigate across by feel, so I was grateful for his ancient technology.

We pulled in momentarily at the tiny outpost of Ramlia, where I gather groups of four-wheel drive, quad and camel tours occasionally pass through bringing enough cash to sustain the tiny community. Ramlia was a bucket list item for me having seen a picture years ago of a dusty 990 S with the "Oasis Ramlia" sign in the background—at the time I thought "I have to go there one day." Finally, here I was.

Not needing any "essence" I was keen to keep moving and Mohammed offered to take me on a detour to a bit of a special lookout that apparently not many know about. We followed a sandy twin-track up between two rocky outcrops and emerged on what looked like an ocean of beautiful red sand. Low, flowing dunes that you could hit flat out on the bike like you were on an enormous rollercoaster.

After a bit of fun in the sand we made our way back to the main twin-track and headed towards the village of Sidi Ali where Mohammed ran the family guest house. Having got to know him a bit better the few times we stopped it was clear that he wasn't out to get me and he was a genuine and switched on guy. It seemed like he had a yearning for a more modern existence and certainly knew what was going on in the world, and that perhaps I represented a connection to the outside for him, but this was his lot.

I'm sure there was an element of marketing to the attention I was getting and I was encouraged to like the Facebook Page for the guesthouse, but that's as far as it went and I was buoyed by that fact (I'm still in touch with Mohammed and we message each other every few weeks.)

I popped into the auberge for lunch and hung out with Mohammed while he showed me his collection of djembe drums and I picked my way through a tough, frozen chicken tagine and washed it down with a couple of remedial cokes.

I was a little weary from the sand work and the heat but a bit of sustenance and a drink had me ready for part two of the track. I was actually quite a bit ahead of where I thought I'd be by that stage, despite the detours. I got back on the road.

At the point closest to the Algerian border I passed a military checkpoint where I had to provide some details and the lonely but friendly officer asked if I mightn't have any whiskey for him in my backpack. All I could offer him was an awkward chat using the (literally) two or three French words I had at my disposal and a few smiles and gestures towards various bits of my bike.

The rest of the afternoon was spent picking my way up and over the lip of the crater of a huge, extinct volcano—not detectable at ground-level other than by the fact that every square inch of ground is covered in dark red rocks. The track was high, rough and rocky but heaps of fun and I was in my element.

As the sun started to hang low I caught up to an 80 series Land Cruiser bouncing along the track through the middle of the crater. The occupants looked a little stressed and were clearly tourists, so I pulled up alongside them to check in.

They were Olivier and Christine, a very nice French couple on the road for just a few weeks' holiday, but although they were pretty experienced in these parts they'd done some damage to the Land Cruiser's power steering over the rocks and were a bit over the track as it was hard going without the power-assist.

I suggested we pull up and make camp together, and they agreed. I rode up ahead to find a suitable spot and look for some firewood. This wasn't an easy task with rocks as far as the eye could see and not a singe tree, but after traipsing across the plain to a dry stream I found below eye level some dead trees that were passable and dragged them back to camp.

We could see a little hut a few hundred metres down the road and soon enough heard the rumble of an engine and saw someone heading towards us. As it got closer the noise the thing made was quite impressive and it turned out to be a huge Polaris ATV in camo with a couple of gendarmes and a dog on top. The gendarmes asked the usual officious questions but once they'd sufficiently flexed their military muscle they assured us that there was "no problem, no problem" and we were more than welcome to camp here. They would keep us safe and if we needed anything they'd be happy to help, especially if we had any whiskey.

I borrowed a rake from Olivier and Christine and cleared some rocks away to be able to pitch my tent—quite a job and I envied their rooftop version on this occasion. Once I'd set up they spoiled me with a delicious meal and even some wine, making me envy their four-wheeled set-up even more! It was great chatting to them and finding out about Olivier's years as a rally mechanic. He now owned an 1190 and had done plenty of riding in Morocco.

The following morning, I woke to the stirring of my French companions on what was a crisp, clear morning on the rocky plain.

After sharing a quick coffee we started packing up our respective camps and getting ready to set off. The coffee was quite strong, as was the corresponding laxative effect, which left me in a rather awkward situation with not a single tree or other modesty aid within visible range of my tent.

I won't reveal too much about the approach I developed to relieve myself, but suffice to say it was a significant reminder that there's a solution to every problem given enough time and not enough choices. One's own ingenuity never ceases to surprise you on a trip like this and it's always important to remember that you can't solve all problems in advance from the comfort of your frontal cortex. Once you're faced with a situation on the ground (no pun intended) it's amazing what you can come up with. Definitely one of my proudest poos.

Olivier and Christine set off a few minutes before me while I fiddled with my gear, not yet having achieved peak packing performance. The Landcruiser was well on its way to the horizon by the time I fired up the bike and started picking my way through the rocks back to the main track. A loud clang suddenly emanated from the bash plate and the bike went completely dead. The starter button did bugger all—something serious was wrong.

Still glowing from my Bear Grylls-esque achievements earlier that morning I managed to suppress the panic and started approaching the problem methodically. I had my suspicions and they proved to be correct. A rock had broken the side-stand switch off. I got my tools out and got to work trying to sort it. I had neglected to fit a bypass for it before shipping the bike out (one of those things that simply didn't make the deadline) but I was carrying a couple of resistors and a vague memory of how to "trick" the system into thinking the magnet was in range of the dwell switch.

Luckily this proved to be unnecessary and I found the magnet on the ground near where I'd hit the rock. I was able to zip-tie and heat shrink the remains of the magnet to the switch, and stuff the little bundle down under the bash-plate. It's still like that and will probably remain there until the day either me or the bike go to that big KTM shop in the sky.

The gendarmes had got wind there was a problem and one of them had spent about 10 minutes walking up to see if he could help but by the time he got to me I was all sorted and ready to go. I still didn't have any whiskey for him, unfortunately.

I enjoyed the last blast out towards Zagora, riding through an incredible expanse of irrigated groves, dotted with villages, in a large river delta. By the time I hit the bitumen again there was a bone-chilling wind. I later discovered there had been heavy snow in Ifrane, and the roads in and out of the mountain town where I'd passed only days before were completely closed off.

I felt sorry for my poor nomad friends exposed up on the plain, and the locals I saw huddled over on their scooters or donkeys. Despite it being a sunny day the air was very icy.

I stopped along the way for my usual bread and cheese lunch to find that my Laughing Cows weren't so happy any more, so I pressed on and opted for a late lunch in a little cafe in a town just out of Agadir.

Approaching Agadir things started to get more and more developed and modern. I noticed more female drivers, and in nicer cars, modern architecture and less of the harsh, rural Moroccan wildness that I'd seen over the previous few days. The city has an interesting history, having been destroyed in an earthquake in the 60s, where up to 15,000 people are said to have died. Since then it appears to have surged ahead with many modern buildings and infrastructure having been built. Make no mistake, it still has the elements of a shabby city in a developing country, but it wouldn't be that out of place somewhere along the cost in France or Spain.

I'd booked myself into the Ibis Budget Hotel, mainly as I'd used it as the address to have my tyres sent to from Motos Ortiz in Marbella some weeks back, but that justification became secondary once I walked into my cosy if bland little room and spotted a nice, clean, white sheet.

The delight induced by the sheet was surpassed only by the enjoyment of a hot, strong and very badly needed shower—though I must say that it's amazing what you can get done with two wet-wipes. After verifying that my big parcel had arrived with the awkward, French-speaking female robot at reception I collapsed happily on my slightly concave mattress, relatively safe in the knowledge that I'd be undisturbed by bedbugs.

© David Baskind · 2022