Archive for morocco

Riding a Harley-Davidson through Morocco – Part 3 of 3

Posted in Harley-Davidson, Road King with tags , , on April 24, 2014 by bleiglass

continued from Part 2

As the ride to Fez did drain a lot of our energy, most were looking forward to a gentle bimble on N roads along the coast back to Ceuta. But it took us 7 hours for the first 150 miles, R509 & P4115, stunning scenery enjoyed at a average of about 20 mph between potholes. In Morocco, there is one simple truth: the nicer the scenery, the worse the roads. It felt like 80 miles of off-road riding, and once more I was impressed how well our Harley-Davidson took the punishment. The leading BMW was clearly in its elements.

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Also on this day 8 my patience as backmarker was tested, but you need to understand how worrying it can be if you are the last rider without a chance to catch up and no friendly rider behind you to help in case of a emergency.

Only few question the value of a backmarker, and these are most often those who try to ride at the front of the peloton. But if you have a bad day, when you left your mojo in the hotel, you are happy not to be alone. I think what kept us going at the back was also the knowledge that we would return into our comfort zone soon, that dinner would be paid for in Euro and not Dirham, in Spain.

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The ride along the coast on the N16 was a dream, if only all of Morocco could have this road quality. It seemed that all roads from and to the northerly tip of Morocco, Spain’s Ceuta, were of high quality, and within 2 hours we covered the remaining 150 miles and were back where we started: the dreadful border crossing.

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Getting out through border controls was as chaotic as getting in, but once you were through the last barbed wire and entered the streets of Ceuta, it seemed a switch was flipped and you rode at Star Trek Warp-speed into a different world. The EU suddenly looked very appealing.

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It was a good choice to spend the last night in Africa on spanish soil, as the few last miles to the ferry to Europe could be done without riding through mayhem. However, it took us the best part of dinner to understand to what time our alarm clocks should be set.

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Be at the ferry at 6:30 menat check-out at 6am. That was easy math, but what time was it now? Morocco (and our heads) were on UK time, in Spain it was 1 hour later. But then all clocks changed to stupid summertime that night, and thats when the confusion started, coupled with the worry that iPhone and iPads may not adjust automatically. To cut it short, we all had our little tricks and hedges and made it in time to leave the African continent – for some after just 4 hours of sleep.

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Sunrise near Gibraltar

3 days later, after spending again 24 hours on a ferry, we were back home in the UK.

Conclusions

At many stages during this trip I said: “Never again”, today I prefer to say: “Never say never again”. It was a exceptional adventure, with a kaleidoscope of emotions, at times extreme for machines, riders and our pillion.

Looking back, we were ill prepared, at stages borderline naive, and luck was clearly on our side more then once. However such a expedition is the only way to learn, to be able to improve. The motto of the Sons of Democracy is: “making it up as we go along”, and that works well if you have the RAC one phone call away, so here some things I would consider next time my ride ventures so deeply into the unknown:

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– consider having a service van following the group. It does not need to be a fully equipped H-D workshop, but have a bit more then just a spanner and duck tape in the tool box. Fuel canisters would add to the riders peace of mind, and of course a fridge with cooled drinks…. and a BBQ, maybe a bed.

– understand the altitudes you visit and local weather patterns

– know exactly where you can get your bike repaired. I regret not having visited Harley-Davidson in Casablanca for a chat, ABC photo and a T-shirt

– if you have to guess about road quality, plan shorter rides (max 250 miles), some free or a half day rides, which would have been nice in Casablanca, and have the discipline to stop more frequently for photos

– do not start nor finish your ride with a 24 hour boat trip between Portsmouth and Spain. It drains your energy, as the only nice part is the excellent 2 hour dinner on the Cap Finistere. Otherwise consider the Eurotunnel, ride to the end of France, stay in nice hotel, and join the seasick sailors at the end of the next day. Below is a calculation showing that it does not cost more and does not take more time. It only adds some time on your motorcycle, and that is why we ride.

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A splinter group of SoD went to Morocco on BMWs they rented in the south of Spain, here a link to their ride report. Gary comes to the conclusion it would be best to fly to Morocco, and rent bikes then and there. A safe option, convenient, saving time and avoiding the border mayhem. This said, I have never flown to Casablanca and sometimes even Heathrow 5 can be a challenge to survive.

While rentals are a great option to explore distant places, riding your own bike has its emotional merits. Within a 3000 mile radius from home, I would feel cheating strapping my bike on a boat or truck, and there has to be good reasons for leaving it at home to enjoy the ride on a rental. But as many of us do not have the time, patience or butt, and the prices for flights are very low, the options offered today to ride at distant destinations are worth exploring.

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In July, I will ride with 5 friends to Nordkapp (N71 10.240 E25 47.032), 5,000 miles in 10 days, and I think with this adventure I may well have reached my personal limit of endurance. This year, I will then have travelled from the southerly latitude of N30 degrees (Ouarzazate) to N71 degrees (Nordkapp), which is above the arctic circle (N66 33” 44’).

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Riding a Harley-Davidson through Morocco – Part 2 of 3

Posted in Harley-Davidson, Road King with tags , , on April 23, 2014 by bleiglass

continued form Part 1

It is not normal to ride with a Harley-Davidson through Morocco, it is special. While none of the H-D CEO’s during Harley’s 110 year history had Morocco’s infrastructure in mind when designing their Milwaukee metal, these overweight V2’s are so robust that its a special experience to navigate them through Morocco.

We were 9 bikes, 7 Harley-Davidson, a BMW and a Triumph, and only 2 bikes had minor technical problems, the BMW battery was flat one morning, and the bone crushing roads won over the left rear mirror of the Triumph. We saw many heavy motorcycle groups looking for the same adventure as we did, none had a Harley-Davidson with them. BMW and Triumph are the safe but boring bikes of choice, I say boring because they are the safer bet, and they sound like washing machines.

One essential item the other groups had, and I may not go back to Morocco without it, was the luxury of a service vehicle following in safe distance. Not only would a mechanic jump out of the truck to replace your flat tyre, but he would also have a cold drink for you while you waited.

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We encountered really bad roads, and rode through numerous riverbeds, as donkeys do not need bridges. You constantly ask yourself the question: what do you do if you now have a ruptured tyre or broken drivebelt. Your options are very limited if you do not get it fixed yourself, and the chances are high that due to a puncture you end up in a 8 seater Benz taxi, flying home and never see your bike again.

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Day 6 was my Ride Captain day, and the honour was to lead the group from Casablanca to Ouarzazate. Using no motorways and few N roads, we quickly immersed into the real Morocco. Casablanca was a big city with crazy traffic, but if you feel comfortable to ride in Paris, Tokyo or Rome, its not traumatic, and my fellow riders followed my advise: stay very close together, move like one unit. 9 bikes bundled together are smaller then a big lorry, and cars do not drive into lorries just because they are long. Cars push and squeeze in-between bikes if they feel they have the space, but if you do not provide such space and ride with your mates as one confident unit, you have a chance to get out. Safety in numbers, nature shows it to us every day. Remember: in the traffic of big cities, no prisoners are taken.

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The sound of a Harley-Davidson, tuned to perfection by Vance & Hines pipes, has for some only one meaning: Born in the USA. And in a deeply islamic country like Morocco, that is not always the right tune to play.

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Leaving Casablanca we had a wannabe suicide bomber walking to us through the traffic, shouting insults and waving his fist in our direction, making it clear he did not approve of our presence. Bystanders looked indifferent, and we would have had a mob of hundreds following us should we have reacted in any way more threatening. So we sat there, listening with indifferent expression to our iPod and waited eagerly for the red light to turn green, always ready to jump the red light should that fanatic get a step closer.

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When riding through towns and market places, many bystanders waved at us, kids encouraged us the rev up the engine, but you were never sure which one shouted: “Welcome to my town” and which one wished us “Death to the infidel”. This uneasy feeling was often present, and was compounded when small children smiled while throwing little stones at us.

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When approaching some small villages, just dozens of houses next to a single straight road, you could see the inhabitants hearing our approach, turning their heads and children moving out of their houses towards the street in big numbers. You knew you had to keep going, as stopping would have engulfed you in the crowds with a equal amount of jewellery sales, begging, well-wishing, touching and cursing. It felt like you had to maintain a kind of Air Supremacy through noise and velocity, while at the same time you questioned yourself for watching too many Hollywood movies and were most likely just trapped between cultures in a constant misunderstanding.

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I was lucky on my Day 6, we left early and reached the magnificent roads up to the 2,260m high Tizi n Tichka pass mid afternoon. It was a dry, mild and fantastic ride on twisted roads, where I started to feel real love for my H-D Road King, allowing me to chase her up and down the never ending mountain roads as I never did before. We reached Ouarzazate shortly before sundown.

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I say lucky as the next day we left a tad late for a longer 380+ mile ride to Fez. The magnificent ride through the Gorges du Dadès and up the R703 was bought at a high price, as we were back on the N13 far too late. We were 120 miles away from our destination in Fez, when the snow started to fall at 1,750m altitude near Azrou. It turned dark and suddenly felt like you were in the middle of a freezing blizzard. As backmarker I could just see the red rear light of the rider in front of me, but that was it. A few miles later we reassembled and discussed our options.

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Basically we split into 3 fractions: those wanting to wait in a foetal position behind a tree for the sun to shine again, those who wanted to buy the next hotel, rearrange the furniture and fly in minibars, and those who wanted to continue what we came to do, riding to Fez. With my French – thanks again for my parents to have forced me to mastered it – I could learn from the helpful locals that once we go below 1,300 meters altitude, the snow would turn into light rain, and that would be in about 12 miles north. As our real estate investors could not find a suitable hotel to buy during these 12 miles, we made it late but safe and in one group to Fez. The locals were right.

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We learned it the hard way to appreciate one information from our Garmins: the altitude. Just because you are in Africa and more south then you ever were on your bike, doesn’t mean it doesn’t snow at altitudes in March.

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click on thumbnail for full photo galleries

to be continued
In Part 3: the ride back into our comfort zone and lessons learned.

 

 

Riding a Harley-Davidson through Morocco – Part 1 of 3

Posted in Harley-Davidson, Road King with tags , , , on April 22, 2014 by bleiglass

I am just back from a 3,000 mile ride during the last week of March 2014 to Morocco, and I needed some distance to find appropriate attributes to this adventure. “Great” or “Fantastic” would be too easy or modest, and a “once in a lifetime experience” should stay reserved for the birth of my son 30 years ago.

This ride to Morocco was “extreme”, “exceptional” and “surprising” on many levels.

I am not the biggest fan of surprises, and the 1,350 miles inside Morocco offered surprises beyond my expectations. The most positive surprise was the landscape, and its variety. From deep “Instagram’ colours of green fields and blue seas, to “Star Wars” red sandstones, deep brown gorges and vast “Laurence of Arabia” expanses, Morocco really surprised me with its natural beauty, and I regret to have run out of memory cards for the GoPro midway. Riding in a group of 9 motorcycles, you can not stop at each corner to get your proper camera out, and should I visit Morocco again, I will be better prepared.

It took us 4 days from the UK to the south of Spain, 24 hours of which were spend in a ferry struggling through gale force winds in the Bay of Biscaya.

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Crossing to Africa – Straight of Gibraltar

On Day 5 we rode from Algeciras in Spain to Casablanca, proper Morocco. After a short ferry crossing to Africa, we knew some form of chaos would greet us at the Moroccan border, and we prepared all papers weeks in advance, following advise from numerous trip reports on the internet.

But its was not chaos what greeted us, it was pure mayhem. Outside and inside the border control area hundreds of locals literally fight for you to select them as your private “handlers”, or guide through the system. Throughout these 2 hours you are in constant fear never to see your passport again, while you are willing to pay more and more Euro’s for this traumatic episode just to end. As I speak French, I was lucky to be able to have a more detailed discussion with my handler, who managed to keep me away from panic attacks and positioned me in the right spots in the right long queues in front of the right uniformed officials. Yes, plural: queues, officials, each check and stamp and re-check is performed by a different angry looking border guard. Those who thought they can beat the system without handler learned it the hard way, standing at the wrong spot, in the wrong queue in front of the wrong official.

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Finally in Morocco

Thinking of it, the “handlers” are kind of officials without uniform. They are tolerated, maybe invited by the border guards inside their working space, and I would not be surprised if these officials receive some cash for allowing the “handlers” the properly prepare the papers of this horde of crazy tourists, and put them in the right queue in front of the right official. Everybody wins, and at the end you are actually in Morocco, with just 5-10 Euros less in your pocket. Consider crossing into Morocco like buying a house. The Moroccan “handler” is your solicitor, helping you for a fee to sign the right papers.

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Near Tangier

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After the ferry crossing and border mayhem its close to lunchtime before you are in, and you have 270 miles ahead of you to then find your hotel in Casablanca, the biggest city of Morocco with a metropolitan population of nearly 5 million. No scenic coastal roads today, its a straight dash to Casablanca on a surprisingly good motorway, where one could get a first contact with local traffic its motor vehicles which were able to pass their last UK-style MOT test decades ago. During my 4 days in Morocco I saw numerous Renault 4CV my mother drove in the 60s, and the white Benz 190D my uncle had 25 years ago. Good cars, they still run in Morocco. It felt like Morocco is the graveyard of every Benz sold in Europe, once these 5 seater cars are considered unsafe for our roads the end up as 8 seater taxi here. And its not just passenger cars, its trucks, buses and vans. And if the engine is broken beyond repair, a donkey will pull it.

DCIM102GOPROGood roads – just here…

Finding your route in Morocco was not as easy as I hoped. One unexpected issue was that road numbers like N8 or N13 are rarely shown on signs, and I quickly gave up to find the label P3625. While larger cities are written in our roman alphabet, once you move into more rural areas readable road signs become rare.

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Near Rabatt

The standard Garmin Zumo 660 sold in the UK has all maps of Europe, but not the map of Morocco. I knew this, and decided against buying the electronic map for the price of maybe 7 donkeys or 69 chicken. I elected to treat Morocco like a ocean of water, with me sailing my Harley from waypoint to waypoint – in a theoretical straight line. I stored all our hotels and relevant junctions in my Garmin, and from then on all I had to do is follow the arrow, like a compass showing the true course.

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Diving into Casablanca

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On each of our 9 days we had a different Ride Captain leading us, while towards the end of each day in Morocco my Garmin compass guided us to the front door of the hotel. It worked perfectly, even in Casablanca, although we had to realise it was the wrong IBIS we reached. A taxi then lead us the final mile to the correct IBIS hotel… ups.

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All pictures from Day 5 can be found here:

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click on image

to be continued
In Part 2: the ride to Ouarzazate and the blizzard of Azrou