Before the whole Covid thing, Paul Leeson, our web guy and box opener went on a Sideburn Morocco adventure trip.
Originally written for Sideburn Magazine by Paul Leeson
It was dark and miserable back in February 2019 when I saw a shout out from Sideburn on Instagram for a trip to Morocco in conjunction with Moto Aventures. As with a previous Sideburn trip I went on to the Himalayas back in 2016 I signed up immediately with no thought to the trip or risks riding the deserts and dunes of Morocco. Nine months later I finally looked at the itinerary a week before setting off and wondered what the hell I had signed myself up for!.
Our adventure began with Eric, Scott, Solar, Fiete, Mark, James, JT, Geoff ‘Co-Built’ Cain (Sideburn Rep), Grant Martin [SB hooligan racer], Nic and myself being introduced to our KTM 450 motorcycles and given a briefing by John dressed in his fancy birds of paradise jersey. He explained quickly what was to come as well as an explanation about how the ride works with the satNav system they use.
Unique to any trip I have been on, each of us had a satnav programmed with each day. All you had to do is stick to the purple line and be faster than the backup truck. If you come off the purple line?, find it again but make sure the mileage is going down rather than up once you do find it again; otherwise you are going in the wrong directon.
This in turn allowed you to go as fast or as slow as you liked without getting lost (mostly) or pressured into speeds you were uncomfortable with. That said, I was still filled with trepidation as to what was to come.
Dust for breakfast
Day one saw us heading out off-road across the military range and beyond, negotiating and avoiding washouts, crossing dry river beds, fast twisting tracks with loose corners and vast open plains. The pace started fast and from time to time, I got a glance through the dust clouds of the spectacular scenery. A rare glance as washouts and rocks were lying in wait to throw you off.
If you don’t like dust for breakfast get to the front if you are fast enough or do as I did and pull back a little. I decided that trying to keep up with the more experienced guys will most likely result in my death. There is also only so much dust you can eat in a day.
After about 100kms of non-stop riding and a shock to my bones and system at least, we stopped for fuel, a packed lunch and well-earned rest. John then gave us the choice for the afternoon. Hard, medium or easy. I am not sure this was really a choice. We just followed John again and Hard it was!
Following the purple line across vast fast twisting desert tracks and through small villages with kids running out to greet us, we turned across a dried riverbed and we were faced with a switch back rocky, boulder strewn mountain pass stretching above us. As we ascended it reminded me of Happy Valley in Wales, but on steroids.
Negotiating large rocks with each turn requiring focused concentration. We worked our way up the steep climb. Finally making it to the top without incident, except for JT losing his phone and wallet. We took a well earned rest at the top where a Moroccan kid appeared from nowhere and sat and watched us.
I am not sure where he came from but this seems to happen a lot in Morocco even when miles from anywhere from what you can call civilisation. While the main cities can be intimidating, Morocco as a whole is a very friendly place with people coming out (even in the middle of nowhere) to say hello and give you a wave.
After sharing some gum with the kid and waving goodbye we looked at our Garmin and had 60km to go to the hotel. Rolling forward over more rocky terrain and fast-paced trails we were welcomed with spectacular views of the Jbel Saghro mountains (a mini Monument valley) as we descended back down to the valley below and on to N’Kob and our accommodation.
While Hussein, the dedicated mechanic and Moto Aventure guru, worked on the bikes to ensure they were good to go for the morning we settled in for great night of great food and banter.
Fesh-fesh “Fine dusty sand that looks like solid ground but behaves like soft mud.“
After the briefing from John, our final destination was to the first set of dunes of the trip.
Crossing miles of vast open desert plains, sandy river beds and fast twisting tracks to get there, The speed was ramping up and Group A became a distant memory. If I was lucky I could see their distant dust plumes as they shot across the desert plains. Slow and steady wins the race, I told myself but I never did.
We were then faced with fesh-fesh, about 5kms of deep powder sand similar to concrete powder. This was something new entirely. Having never ridden on sand and only with my memory of YouTube videos for guidance, putting your weight back and letting the front wheel do its own thing seemed to work, cornering using the throttle and back wheel to turn. After getting used to the technique, it became great fun.
After surviving the fesh-fesh it was a short spurt onward catching up with the others at our next fuel stop in Remlia, a small village literally in the middle of nowhere. While we rested, our bikes were filled with petrol from plastic bottles by the locals. Health and safety does not apply out here and realising that smoking nearby was probably not a good idea, I edged away.
At this point my energy was sapped. This is nothing like riding the trails in the UK where you are lucky to find one longer than two miles, all at a slow pace avoiding walkers and horses with plenty of tea breaks. 98% of this trip is off-road, fast-paced and there are not many places to stop for tea and cake.
John then gave us the option of the short route to the accommodation or the dune route. 50/50, I made the decision to take on the dunes and I am so glad I did. After a short, rocky road jarring every bone in my body, we crossed a shimmering, blinding white lake bed which got us to the start of the dunes. A brief instruction from John, to sit down, sit back, stop at the top of a dune, never jump the dunes and avoid camel grass like the plague we then all headed into the unknown.
It was slightly comical at first with a few of us dropping the bikes, not really knowing what we were doing. It was bloody exhausting picking up the bikes in sand but once we all got to grips with it when you get the momentum it is an amazing feeling carving up and over the dunes, a truly exhilarating experience and one I will never forget.
After a hell of a lot of fun, we then headed to our Bedouin camp for the night but before settling in, we had the opportunity to head out to the dunes again to experience ‘Johnny’s bar with a cold beer at sunset on the highest nearby dune, our high first dune climb. Ending the day in our Bedouin camp with superb food and traditional tam tam we then settled down to watch the star field at night and listen to JT’s snoring.
‘I was expecting an amazing experience, but this was on a different scale. More of a life experience than a bike trip. The INTENSE daily adventure and camaraderie we built over only a week was incredible.’ James O’Connor
Avoid the camel grass!
Slightly relieved at hearing ‘100kms today’ in the briefing we headed out riding fast-paced, sandy and rocky trails towards the red dunes of Erg Chebbi in Merzouga.
Passing camels en route the 100kms flew by. Our group lost the purple line at one point and slightly confused, like lost sheep, we saw the fastest of us, Grant who had ridden an alternative dune route blur past us Dakar style showing us the way with a determined stance and full locked concentration. When we finally all met at the next fuel stop near the hotel, Grant had done the full 100kms off-road including the Dunes in approx. 35 minutes!
After a short stop and refuel, we headed a short 8kms to the jewel of the trip, the red dunes of Erg Chebbi. This saw us resting by the pool with a beer for a couple of hours waiting for the sun to lower before John took us out across the dunes.
After the previous day’s dune introduction we were all way more confident and found ourselves quickly getting to grips with dune riding which lead up to a fantastic adrenaline-fuelled climb of 126 metres up one of the highest dunes to an amazing panoramic view across the desert.
Looking down you suddenly realise what goes up must come down and with trepidation and some guidance we all launched from what seemed like a sheer drop over the over side of the dune. A fear of heights is not your friend here and I imagine if you got this wrong or had no guidance things could go wrong very quickly.
‘Avoid the camel grass!‘ John shouted out on several occasions. Unfortunately, we found out why we should avoid the camel grass after we all carved perfectly up and down a few lower dunes. We looked back and saw that James had misjudged one descent and smacked straight into a hump of camel grass. To cut a long story short this resulted in a broken collarbone and five fractures to his pelvis.
The Moto Aventures team were superb and dealt with the situation with knowledge and calm. Once James was transported out of the dunes on the backup truck, an ambulance was called which took him to a private hospital back in Ouarzazate. A reality check for all of us that off-road motorcycling can catch the best of us out.
‘What followed were the most intense and fun learning on a bike I have ever done and with it massive grins, lots of sweat and a few tumbles! Riding with a fantastic group of guys with no egos, all happy to share advice and experiences made it all the better. The scenery was stunning and riding in the dunes was the biggest highlight for me. Having a beer and watching the sun go down on the top of a 126m dune was just amazing. What a trip!’ Mark Hutton
Solitude – Remember the Purple Line
The day’s distance, 260kms, was announced at the morning briefing and shortly after starting out I started to loose a bit of concentration. I was making stupid mistakes and I also had James’ accident on my mind so I made a decision to pull back, slow right down and play it safe.
On my own and negotiating winding bumpy and sandy trails this led on to rocky river crossings and while not obvious where to cross I had my trusty purple line guiding me. The morning session ended with arduous, long plains filled with rocks and washouts that could buckaroo you off the bike if you got it wrong or lost concentration.
I did not see much of anybody that morning, but I loved the solitude of riding with just the engine and the purple line for company.
The afternoon was a different story and from somewhere or most likely, the hearty tagine lunch, I got my energy back. After filling up with petrol we all set off and enjoyed very fast-paced twisty mountain trails and dried riverbeds heading to Dades Gorge and our bed for the night in a fabulous 4-star hotel with stunning views of the High Atlas mountains.
Towards the finish line
After a great rest we were sadly on our last day and heading back to Ouarzazate but what a day. Heading up tracks over the Atlas Mountains we were presented with stunning views in every direction, leading down to dried river beds and back on to seemingly endless desert plains with powerful sidewinds.
The 225kms seemed to fly by, all the time contemplating the previous four days and what an amazing experience it had been. Exhilarating and sometimes exhausting, for me at least, this was a proper adventure, taking me outside my comfort zone and pushing me to my limits. It is up there with the best road trips I have been on.
What also made this trip so great were the guys on the adventure. Ten of us coming together from the UK, Germany and the USA with various levels of experience, everyone got on and the camaraderie, laughs throughout really made it a fantastic trip in every way.
The guys at Moto Aventures (John, Su, Hussein and Maryam) were superb and looked after us all the way. Never a dull moment from the team and the banter from John, you have to experience for yourself.
If you are think you might lose a bit of weight on this trip, think again. You are fed very well indeed and the accommodation is faultless.
So if you are currently sitting on your sofa as I was, one of the best things you can do is sign up for trips blindly without even considering the risks. I have done this twice now with Sideburn and they are two of the best trips and experiences I have had.
Roll on the next one! Wherever it may be.