With the motorcycle to Morocco in 2001
by Thomas Laussermair
This has got to be the most remote place to ever send an email from: I am sitting in Midelt, a small village surrounded by a moonlike desert landscape 250km south of Fes in Morocco. To get here took a long trip from Boca Raton in Florida just 5 days ago...
Thursday, September 20th.
After taking the train from the office to the airport, the Lauda Air flight to Munich was 4 hours late.
Friday, September 21st.
When I arrived Friday afternoon, Frank was already waiting with the new BMW motorbike ready to roll; (he had meticulously prepared everything like a true friend - I owe him a big THANK YOU for all he has done to enable this trip!) Anyway, I literally jumped off the plane onto the bike and we just rode over to the place of the former owner of the bike, which fortunately was just 20km from the Munich airport. We loaded the little bit of gear we decided to take along for our journey and started right away. We had no time to loose, as we needed to catch the auto-train in Strasbourg, which would bring us overnight through France 1000 km closer to Morocco - our final destination. Due to the long delay it was close - after 400 km nonstop Autobahn (some of it through nasty rain) we arrived in Strasbourg just 12 minutes prior to them closing the car loading dock for the train! Good timing...
Saturday, September 22nd.
Saturday morning we got off to a start on the wrong foot, as we slept through our train destination in Narbonne and woke up some 100km further south near the Spanish border. We hectically packed our gear and rushed off the train at the next stop; luckily we waited only 5 minutes or so until we borded a train in the opposite direction for the return trip. All in all we lost maybe 1-2 hours, when we departed Narbonne after breakfast at the train-station. We started through parts of the Pyrenees and crossed into Spain to continue on down South. Unfortunately the weather was rainy, somewhat untypical for this rather dry part of Southern Europe. We arrived in Barcelona and checked out the possibility of another train ride towards the South, but we were unable to get one for that same evening. What followed was some of the worst driving conditions even Frank has ever seen in his 20+ years and 250000+ km of motorcycling: Night-ride on the Spanish Autobahn with very heavy rain. My new gear kept out the worst of the rain and the cold, but I can assure you that it was not pretty... After two hours the rain finally stopped and past midnight after some more dry driving we were tired enough and checked into a hotel in Castellon, in the vicinity of Valencia, Spain. We didn't know it back then, but this turned out to be the last rainy driving of the entire trip, some 7000+ km of dry roads ahead, except for a slight drizzle on the way back again in the Pyrenees...
Sunday, September 23rd.
Next day we continued through Andalusia in the South of Spain, a wonderful countryside. We took a route "off the beaten path" through the mountains. At one point we rode all the way up to the top of a mountain with a castello (chapel). Thanks to our Enduro bikes we had no trouble getting up a dirt track to the top; after the rain it was a magnificent sight and all around quite spectacular. Some more riding brought us to Almeria, where we had a ferry to catch - talk about detailed preparations way ahead of time! Again, Frank, in his usual perfectionism, had left nothing to chance and we just showed them all the paperwork and tickets we needed. It was here that we saw some real offroad bike freaks, heading for the great sand deserts beyond Morocco further down South. Frank and myself delighted in the "war stories" these folks shared about former trips and about all the extreme gear and custom modifications these folks had on their bikes. They looked like rally pilots ready for some big race, compared to them we looked like people heading for a Sunday afternoon coffee cruise ...
Monday, September 24th.
After the night in the plane, in the train and in the hotel, this was a night on a ferry ship. We woke up to the sun shining on the coast of Northern Africa: Melilla, still part of Spain. Here we had some local mechanic fix my back tire, which had somehow caught a small nail in it: It didn't leak air noticably, but we wanted to fix it here before going into more remote areas and having to reduce tire pressure for offroad trails where this small 1 inch long nail could have become a problem. We also filled up our tanks and our wallets, as we didn't know how difficult it might become in the days ahead. After 3km just outside of Melilla we then crossed into Morocco - and were unmistakenly going into a different world; this had to be Africa! We saw hundreds of poor people trying to cross the border with all merchandise imaginable, carrying old refrigerators, chairs, bottles, tires and other goods on their backs across the border. Apparently these people "shop" or rather garbage collect in Spain and try to resell this stuff in Morocco for a small profit. Much of it appeared to be illegal, certainly against some sort of rules and regulations which we couldn't figure out; many a desperado trying to cross the border was chased back by the local police authorities only to try again and again after a few minutes. We ourselves were motioned through a crowd of people going all directions, right next to cars stuck forever in the midst of hundreds of people. The sun was burning down on our hot gear (only tolerable with the wind at highway speeds), we couldn't move an inch, were engulfed in the crowd, people touching our bikes all around, this was definitely different! I rejoiced in a mixture of anxiety, curiosity and astonishment, just watching what unexpected thing would happen next; after all, this was part of the reason we had come here in the first place, the exotic, the unexpected, the different, the world apart! People jumped fences, were scared or chased back by officials, partly beaten back with sticks, it was wild. After waiting an hour or so we could pass with no major problems, except Frank took a photographic picture not knowing this was not permitted next to police stations. Due to some annoying local who made a big stink about it Frank finally had to surrender the film in his camera to the authorities. Luckily he had just put in a new role of film, so while he was a bit upset he eventually couldn't care less...
While the first km immediately following the border were somewhat dirty and desperate (reminded me a bit of Tijuana south of San Diego), the countryside further back in Morocco took on a more friendly demeanour. When we stopped for a drink, however, the locals tried to sell us two bottles of coke and water for a price 10 times the regular one, trying to trick us obvious strangers. We were careful enough not to touch the drinks prior to clarifying with them the basic arithmetic rules and settling on a regular price; this was indicative of all buying and selling being a game of negotiating like in most Arabic countries (I guess). We continued further inland and took a little detour into a National Park - no big deal, but some better-known caves and a street leading up a mountain range of about 5000 feet. This was very similar to Monte Cucco in Italy. When we parked our two bikes on the top after another 5 km of off-road trail we looked around like the day before in Andalusia - magnificent!
These bikes (BMW R1150GS) are a marvelous piece of engineering: You can fly on the Autobahn at speeds of up to 200 km/h but at the same time you can go where only allwheel offroad vehicles can go. They are superbly stable and comfortable and need an absolute minimum of maintenance or repair. We just jump on the bikes everyday and hit the road without ever worrying about our BMW's giving us trouble. (This is not to say that Frank didn't prepare for all sorts of casualties; his decades of experience taught him many lessons and now he carries an array of tools and gadgets which will help us out of almost any trouble short of wrecking the bike!) After listening to the freaks in Almeria's ferry harbor telling us about the maintenance hassles of their bikes we were just happy to have these bikes...
We got down the mountain in a hurry trying to beat sundown to Fes, the cultural and historical center of Morocco. We made it just after dark, with some luck, as several gas stations didn't carry unleaded fuel and we were testing the outer limits of our tanks... Fes is a bustling city of 1 million people, many of them trying to make a living of the tourists heading their way. We also got "intercepted" by a friendly young Moroccon on a dismal motocyclette offering his various services. He was exactly the kind of unofficial city guides the books warn you about - if only we had read that chapter about Fes before... Anyway, this guy Hassan was very friendly and we quickly asked him for the price of his services. After some negotiating we settled for somewhat less, but we didn't mind at all: He guided us to a fabulous restaurant for dinner, brought us via moped escort (an unbelievable shaky vehicle, stinking and more noisy than you can imagine) to a hotel with a backyard garage for our bikes, and arranged for a private citytour the next day.
Tuesday, September 25th.
The historic center of Fes dates back to the 7.th century and is a delight for the western tourist: We saw, listened, tasted, smelled and touched the middle ages. We were shown various sorts of manual labor (knitting, cooking, selling, arts & crafts etc.) done with age-old machines like hundreds of years ago. We also saw an old Koran school as well as several mosques. Finally we were shown the house of a rug & carpet merchant, who offered us delicious mint tee and showed us a series of exquisite rugs - many say Fes produces the finest carpets of all of Morocco! Of course he was desperate to sell us something, but we were equally determined not to load any extra stuff on our bikes.
After this sensory overwhelming city center we were happy to jump on our bikes again and hit the road. We crossed some mountain range to the South and were finally leaving behind the sparse vegetation which grows close to the Mediterranean Sea; we started to realize that we finally arrived where we were heading for: The Morocco desert. What followed was some of the most spectacular mileage I had ever seen, let alone on the motorbike. Desert landscape flew by comparable to the Death-Valley in California, the Atacama in Chile or maybe the Australian outback. We were hammering down endless straightaways to the horizon with the setting sun to the right painting the surrounding landscape in a warm evening glow. Following Frank into this desert environment at 120 km/h with the dust blowing off to the side looked like a dream which finally came true: We are riding our bikes in the desert of Morocco...
Sofar this is exactly the kind of getaway trip we had been longing for: Remote to the extent that even veteran Frank has not seen it before, remote with only Nomads and sheep herders occasionally visible from the road, remote with mostly arabic street signs, remote with strange culture and curious, mostly friendly people - but not so remote that you couldn't stop to buy some more unleaded fuel with your credit card or dispatch an email from an Internet cafe! (Actually this is a bit of an adventure, as the French Windows and non-standard keyboard take a bit of getting used to...)
The contrasts of this trip sofar have been remarkable, the timetable tight, the vistas and sights spectacular, the "history lesson" in Fes terrific and the actual motorcycle riding fantastic. Sounds like a good trip? You bet! And more is to come in the days ahead, where we are heading further south to some palm oasis in the sand dunes of the northern most stretches of the Sahara and later to the high mountains of the High Atlas...
Wednesday, September 26th.
We continued south from Midelt towards the Sand Dunes of the Tafilalet - an ancient passageway for the Camel caravans through the desert of the Sahara. However, it was not easy to get there in the first place: When we got to the little village of Erfoud, we saw a dozen dirty Land-Rover Jeeps standing by the road; here you literally reach the end of the road. Further south you have to negotiate the "Piste" - French for offroad track. We met a local Moroccon (here from the Berber tribe) - or rather he met us as is always the case in Morocco wherever you decide to stop, some locals for sure will meet you... This guy, Hassan, told us he'd be our guide down to Merzouga, where the Sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi come close to the houses of the local people. We agreed, finished one of our many excellent coffee + coke breaks, and started to follow the Land-Rover with our BMW Enduro Bikes. What would the "Piste" look like? Would I be able to deal with the sand and offroad conditions? (I had never taken the Bike into sand before - with it's close to 300 kg this is a heavy bike and digging it out of the sand certainly is to be avoided.) So we followed the Jeep out of town and soon it departed off the surfaced road onto the Piste: A stretch of several km of open gravel surface, with multiple tracks on it over hundreds of meters apart. To avoid eating the dust of the vehicle in front we spread out and took to the horizon - the Jeep and the two bikes of us all side by side. It was fantastic: Seeing the other vehicles in the glow of the late afternoon sun speed down the sheer endless gravel planes with a big plume of dust behind - an awesome sight! It sure felt like looking at one of those Paris - Dakar Rally spots in TV shot from the helicopter - except we were right in the middle off it all.
My thermometer read 43 Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Some parts of deeper sand called for our full attention, but all in all it was fairly easy to get through. After about 30 km of Piste we saw the Sand Dunes grow ever bigger and finally made it to our destination. We arrived at one of the local houses called Kasbah - these are simple houses built from the red-colored soil of the desert. However, they were decorated nicely inside and provided welcome shelter from the hot desert wind blowing the fine sand into your face, teeth, hair and everywhere else. So we drank a peppermint tea (the locals call it "Whiskey Berbere") and refreshed ourselves in the simple but clean rooms in the middle of the desert. Afterwards we took to the local Nomad trade post for some display of local arts & crafts (mostly rugs). Finally we headed for the sand dunes to see the sunset - very nice against the red sand of dunes up to 100 m high. Later we had dinner at our auberge "Chez-Tizi" - we had the Morocco speciality Tajine, a mix of vegetables and meat served in a smoldering hot pot of clay with a quite characteristic look. Afterwards we sat on the roof of the auberge, listened to the sound of some local drummers and glazed at the stars and the half-moon over the crystal clear night sky over the desert. I came to describe this trip to my friend Frank as a never-ending series of high-lights. This evening at Erg Chebbi was definitely another one of these high-lights. I even took to the dunes late at night in the moon-light and very early in the morning just prior to sunrise again. Some tourists climb atop some camels and ride through the sand dunes guided by a local Berbere. It was an eery sight to see the sun come up over the endless sand dunes to the east and paint everything in a bright orange and red color. A Kodak moment, so to speak...
Thursday, September 27th.
Frank had the Piste memorized in his onboard GPS system, so we navigated back the next morning to Erfoud by means of a half docen waypoints on the GPS. At one point Frank got stuck in the deep sand and together with some Nomad children we pulled out the heavy Bike again. It is absolutely astonishing: There does not seem to be a place remote enough in Morocco that whenever you stop there will be some kids or nomads or sheep herders almost immediately. Sometimes this can be rather annoying, as they all want either money, sweets or some other junk stuff. Many of them also want to trade dope (Haschisch), so we had to be decisive in turning them away, more than once. Back in Erfoud we were happy to stay on the paved roads for a little while, as we realized once again that our Bikes are definitely better suited for the surfaced road or at least hard tracks rather than the deep sand. We headed West towards the canyons of Todra and Dades (Gorges de Todra, Gorges de Dades). Absolutely spectacular landscape; some rivers had cut deep canyons into the foothills of the Haut Atlas mountain range. As this is recommended in almost every Morocco guide we didn't want to miss it - and it sure was no disappointment! After a long day of riding we stopped at a friendly local Restaurant / Camping alongside the road into the canyon de Dades. This was clearly off season, so we never had any trouble getting accomodation - or attention... Here we rolled our BMWs directly onto the Patio of the Restaurant and slept right next to the bikes outside under the roof of a big Nomad tent! Amazing.
Friday, September 28th.
The next day we finished the canyon de Dades and continued our West bound journey past the town of Ouarzazate. Here we decided to leave the surfaced roads behind again and took to the 120 km long tracks around Askaoun. Over two passes some 2500 m high (Tizi-n-Melloul, Tizi-n-Tleta) we ran out of daylight and had to pass a night pretty much in the middle of nowhere; however we had plenty of gear for such occasions - so much actually that we already decided to cut the amount of gear and thus baggage weight in half for the next trip! So we just hunkered down behind a wall of some official looking building without much activity in sight. This was certainly one of the more elementary overnight accomodations, no water other than the bottles we carried, much less electricity or anything else for that matter. Water is brought into this remote area with tank trucks - the land is definitely very rough. I was full of awe for the local people who make a living all year long in this harsh environment.
Saturday, September 29th.
When you lay down in the middle of nowhere getting up and going is always easy - there is nothing to keep you there... It took us another 4 hours or so to get beyond the Piste down into the valley and to the better roads again! For now our desire for offroad riding was satisfied.
We reached the south-western most point of our trip just 120 km short of Agadir. We decided to head north again towards the mountains and Marrakesh, rather than spend some days in Agadir on the Atlantic Coast. Frank: "I'll return here with the family one day via airplane for a 1 week beach vacation." Since I know what the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean look like from Florida this was fine with me. What followed had to be some of the most scenic mileage in all of Morocco: The pass Tizi-n-Test puts your driving skills to the test as it winds up and down some 1500 m in a spectacular fashion. We stopped at a wayside cafe with scenic views, so much so that some visitors don't dare sit on the Terrasse due to it's cliff-like dropoff to two sides. Frank and myself relaxed in the afternoon sun and contemplated that this view across the South towards the Anti-Atlas mountain range could match the most spectacular ones in the Suisse Alps. After crossing to the North side we descended into the valley through a fabulous scenery of red, green, brown soil glowing in the late afternoon sun. We stopped some 50 km short of Marakesh in the foothills of the Haut Atlas. It is here that the Jbel Toubkal, Morocco's highest mountain at 4167m rises above the planes to the North.
We stopped at a local gasstation and were immediately "intercepted" again by Mohammad, a local Berbere. He offered accomodations and dinner for the night, so we did some of the usual negotiating and quickly agreed, as we had been rather tired from this long day of riding. So Mohammad jumped on the back of my motorcycle and we headed into the outskirts of this little village towards his home: A small group of clay shacks, looking rather simplistic from the outside, to put it mildly... However from the inside, they were clean and nicely decorated with rugs, furniture, postcards and other memorabiliae. You can hardly imagine the curiosity of those local people when we cruised into the 3-4 ft narrow alleys. Little kids opened the doors of their homes and stared into the glare of our H7 halogen lamps. Excited chatter all around. Then we wanted to bring our BMW's into their "courtyard" home; however, the door was too narrow and we had to find another shelter with an iron door to secure the motorcycles overnight. Mohammads two sisters and his mother did some shopping (just in time) to do some cooking (on demand). We finally settled for the night in the family guest room, after enjoying some homemade Tajine. This also revealed some of the arabic family-life, with the women in the house doing all the work and the men in the house doing all the talking, smoking and drinking. These houses are extremely primitive, even the water has to be carried in from a mile away - so there is a lot of work to do. In many ways this trip was also a humbling experience, as almost all of the people you encounter locally don't have or will ever have the means to travel and live like we did in this trip. Of course, we all know in some abstract sense that we are living at the upper end of the wealth distribution over all the 6 billion people on this planet, but seeing it first hand is believing. Another facet of arabic life is the constant trading and pushing to get tourists to buy something. Several "friends" of the family poured into the house to offer local arts & crafts with Mohammad pushing us to bring back souvenirs for our loved ones. After a while, we got the impression that this guy would trade or sell us absolutely anything, including his own sisters - unbelievable! We had been offered scores of camels for our motorcycles in Merzouga, but we were not expecting to be offered "une nuit avec une femme berbere" (a night with a berbere women) ... We were getting somewhat annoyed and had to tell Mohammad in polite, but no uncertain terms that we had made an arrangement for night and dinner, and that was it!
Sunday, September 30th.
Next day we planned some high mountain roads including the ski-station Oukaimeden near the highest mountains in the Haut Atlas. But first we had to detour some 30 miles out to Marrakesh, as there was no unleaded fuel to be found in this neck of the woods and we couldn't risk running out of gas in the high mountains. So we cruised into Marrakesh around noon - what an experience! A very nice city, with generous roads and plazas, lots of busy looking people, traffic controls, all somewhat more civilzed than what we had seen before. At places, big contrasts between the poor and rich, dunkeys and luxury cars, slum-type shacks and huge private mansions, the dense medina (old-town) and the wide-open royal buildings and gardens, and tons of traffic. We filled up our tanks and checked out another contrasting feature of modern Marrakesh: A brandnew McDonalds facility! With prices affordable only to a rich minority, this could have been anywhere in the world, including Miami or Munich.
Back out to the mountains, we experienced another afternoon of superb motorbike riding and sightseeing. The road winds up from Marrakesh (450m) to Oukaimeden (2650m) more than 2000m, it felt a bit like going from Munich right to the alps and right to the top of the Zugspitze. The ski-resort of Oukaimeden had been built recently and is a stark contrast of very poor, primitive living Nomad tribes right next to the super-modern french-style ski-resort and club alpine. Playground for the affluent in the few days of winter and spring when there is enough precipitation to provide a thick enough blanket of snow. We even rode up to some higher spots with the best views around the 3000m mark. Spectacular views all around. I couldn't help but marvel at the contrasts at such a short distance: Here you leave the paved road of the super-modern ski-resort and turn to a dirt road up into a side valley and it feels like you turn the clock back 500 years: People live in primitive clay huts, no water or electricity, no machines, nothing, just Nomads with dunkeys and some basic farming. Riding through such villages on the BMW R1150GS generates a lot of attention - it makes you feel as if the entire village life stops for a few minutes to watch this "intruder" from another future epoche. The wonder and amazement in the eyes of those kids I will never forget!
Back down we made it to Marrakesh just prior to sunset - spectacular. The wall surrounding the old town had a reddish glow in the evening sun with the shadows of our motorbikes cast against them (another one of the many Kodak moments). We got to the city center and were engulfed by a bewildering maze of traffic in all directions, on all types of vehicles, with all (un)imaginable sounds and smells eminating from it. Next to the Koutubia, the city's largest Mosque tower, is a central place with many roads concentrically leading up to it. We parked our bikes on the pavement next to a bar with a hundred or so curious onlookers, all men, not a single woman - constant reminders we are in an islamic/arabic country. By design, our cloths were ideally suited to keep out the cold of the french alps or the rain of the spanish pyrenees or to protect against a would-be fall at highway speeds, but they could not keep us cool anytime we stopped, much less in the Morocco heat. So we sweated under our boots, cloths, gloves and helmets. Frank checked a nearby hotel for accomodations, while I just sat there on the bike, facing the stares of hundreds, if not thousands of passing Marrakesh citizens. They must have been somewhat more used to modern cars and bikes, but our two nearly identical high-tech motorcycles caused a stir whereever we parked. In just that moment the loudspeakers of the Koutubia went off like sirens shouting out the "Allah-u-Akbar" (God is great) calling Muslims to the prayers. I thought again: This is Morocco, this is different.
Frank organized a very nice hotel room directly facing this central plaza, with windows from room and shower directly down to the traffic and the action. So while we washed off the dust and sweat of the last couple of days, we watched in awe the dozens of buses, hundreds of cars, mopeds and dunkeys, thousands of people as they tried to cross the plaza and make it to their destinations. A scene as exotic as in some classic arabic adventure movie. We finally went for a walk and joined the fray, while our BMWs were safely parked in the "garage", a wintergarden-type add-on shack to the hotel with some steel, glass and cartons designed to keep unwanted visitors outside and euqally unwanted garbage and clutter inside. Like so many times, our bikes barely fit in there, but once inside, the setup gave us confidence that nobody would ever expect to find them in there much less be able to remove them without causing a major arousal. We came to the famous "place of the beheaded", another central plaza which had been used in the middle ages to behead criminals or other victims of the then ruling class. Nowadays this place is turned into a bustling center of arts & crafts, with (con)artists and food courts as well as a nearby "souk" (fleamarket). Just unbelievable: It's everybit as tightly packed as on the Munich Oktoberfest on a good day, except with the arabic crowd being as pushy as they are, you can't walk ten yards without constantly being motioned in for a drink, dinner or other things on sale. We finally sat down for some local food, served right off the hot coals directly in front of us.
Just this one day alone had so many diverse experiences, from the local family to the remote ski-resort in the mountains down to the bustling city of Marrakesh, this trip indeed turned out to be a never-ending stream of high-lights...
Monday, October 1st.
By contrast, the next day featured a less dramatic route from Marrakesh back to the NorthEast to Fes, demanding only in terms of the many hours on the bike (about 500km). In the afternoon we departed from the main road in Khénifra to follow a small rural road over the nearby hills, marked in our maps as scenic road. That it definitely was, with the mellow landscape reminding us of Portugal with rolling hills, sandy-white soil and regularly planted olive trees. It was here in the late afternoon sun that we stopped and just laid down for 1-2 hour, to rest & sleep, to dry out the cloths we had hand-washed in the Marrakesh hotel room and to talk about our future in our professional and family lifes. What a great time we had there in this field with the immaculate clear blue sky and the warm evening sun!
Like so often, we underestimated the remaining driving time and got into the darkness way before reaching Fes. With the clear night sky and excellent visibility it was a delight to return to Fes. We could see the city from some 50km away and dropping from the hills more than 1200m down to the city. Frank described the last 1/2 hour guided by his onboard GPS as the "landing approach" to Fes. Now that we already knew where to go and what to expect it was a lot easier for us. Again, the GPS guided us right back to the same hotel we had used a week ago. Later that evening we went by taxi to the medina and had dinner on a terrace spectacularly overlooking the old town. With some arabic music and folklore we enjoyed the first bottle of wine in 10 days with an exquisite multiple-coarse menu offering the finest of the local cuisine. Even though our stay in Morocco was drawing to a close with this last evening, we were in very good mood, as sofar everything had worked perfectly and we were totally satisfied with the trip.
Tuesday, October 2nd.
On the last day in Morocco we returned to Melilla via the northern-most mountain range in Morocco, the "Rif Rif". This is an area which is described in all travel guides. It is of spectacular scenic beauty; the road winds over the hills for about 250km in constant turns and up-&-downs - Motorcycle-heaven! However, the area is full of drug-dealers, who will shy away from nothing to sell their stuff to tourists: They will follow you by car, immediately harass you when you stop and make their intentions very clear wherever you turn. We were cautious, then anxious, finally really concerned about making it through. We dared not to stop anywhere for pictures or to rest for drinks. The worst were the little villages, were you had to stop-&-go in slow motion due to all the traffic and madness going on alongside the main road through the village. Hundreds of people would single you out as a tourist and victimize you with their fare, making unmistakable gestures of smoking, money or even injecting needles. Occasionally they would even touch us on the bikes, which caused our utmost attention, if not adrenaline. We did not want to get sucked into any drug-issues. Travel guides tell enough horror stories for everyone to want to avoid this area, but I guess we took a calculated risk and were certainly rewarded with some of the finest motorcycle-riding ever. Finally we reached the Mediterranean coast and stopped for gas and our usual coke + coffee + water fix (Morocco has excellent coffee). We had one more pass to cross from Al Hoceima back to Melilla, and the weather greeted us with the absolute finest evening sun and sky you will ever see on this planet. The air was so dry and clean, the sight so crystal-clear, the sun so warm and peaceful, the mountain ranges disappearing into the horizon in all shades of dark-gray and blue - it was unbelievable. The quintessential Kodak moment!
It seemed Morocco had saved the best for last. With the sun in our back heading east we raced our own shadows growing out 100 feet in front of us with the sun blending in from both rearview mirrors. Then, in the final hour or so we came through several villages alongside the road leading up to Nador and Melilla. In a striking contrast to the crystal-clear sight of the last pass, these village-centers offered a cloud of dusty, stinking blue-black exhausts of diesel and oil, with all the locals crossing the streets, unloading trucks, ferrying massive loads by dunkeys or truck back & forth, the road more a bazar than a means to get from here to there. We could hardly open the visors of our helmets, as the dusty and polluted air would irritate our eyes immediately. It was sheer unbelievable that the locals would hang out in such a dirty place and spend their entire evenings, all the more surprising after the super-clean mountain scenery we had come across just 1 hour away from there! We were happy to not having to stop and just get away until we finally reached the border back to Melilla, Spain. Would there be any problem of re-entering to Europe? As it turned out, Frank had a nice chat with the officials - one of them actually spoke some German and, of course, they all marvelled at our bikes - while I waited for our paperwork to be processed. One of the officials didn't know what to make of my Austrian passport - apparently he had no clue where that country was and he had to doublecheck with his peers before he would let us pass. But before we knew it, we were rolling out to the city streets of Melilla. And with that, we could feel some apprehensions drop off our shoulders: We had made it back safely in and out of Morocco. Not a scratch on our bikes, nothing lost or stolen, nothing hurt or sick, just fabolous. Again, we filed into a promising looking restaurant for dinner and just marvelled at all we had seen in the past week or so. At midnight, the local barkeeper closed his shop and when we asked him for a camping place, he offered to escort us there on his little moped. So we drove up to a place on a cliff overlooking the harbour; it looked like a combination of a military camp, tourist attraction and campground. It was clearly off-season, with practically nobody there, but the guard would let us in after a short, friendly chat at the gate. We had a shower and bathroom designed for hundreds of campers all to ourselves, which added the unexpected comfort of a clean night after a midnight shower.
Wednesday, October 3rd
This turned out to be an easy day for us, mostly rest, breakfast and get ready for the ferry at around noon. I just had an hour or so in the local Internet cafe in Melilla to research the possibility of another auto-train or ferry to shorten the distance back from Southern Spain back to Germany. Checking in with the ferry was by now more of a routine, with the "normal" inspection by dogs sniffing for drugs on our motorbikes and bags. The actual ferry-ride took around 8 hours and was very relaxing: For the first time in our entire trip we had nothing to do, so we were sun-bathing on deck and let the Mediterranean Sea float by with the speed of 35.5 km/h controlled by GPS... Frank really had his act together with his cell-phone, Psion organizer and Garmin GPS: Route planning software, fax and SMS, waypoint navigation - you name it, he did it all. Eventually we plan to overlay the GPS track-log on a digitized map of Morocco, so we can follow our trail on the map.
Once off the ferry we stopped for dinner in some local restaurant. Somehow, after having managed all accomodations, traffic, language-barriers and cultural differences of the arabic-islamic world, being back in Spain, Europe felt so much easier and relaxed - we didn't even mind not knowing where to sleep at midnight once finished with dinner. We just rode out of town heading towards our next-day destination and found a quiet spot soon thereafter to park our bikes, lay down between them and call it a day. This particular spot was a bit of a dusty and thorny place, and it even threatened to rain for the first time in 10 days or so, but with Frank's plastic sheet cover spanned over the bikes we had an improvised rain shelter.
Thursday, October 4th
Again, getting up and away is easy if you just roll up your sleeping back and the place isn't a nice one anyway... So we took off early towards the Sierra Nevada, North-West of Almeria heading towards Granada. As one of the ultimate Enduro-highlights, we had anticipated to cross over the high peaks, Mulhacen and Pico Veleta, via Europe's highest mountain road into the basin of Granada, overlooking the surrounding landscape by some 3000m or 10000ft vertical height difference. Both of us had had the pleasure to do so before, myself in 1980, Frank in 1994 (on a BMW R1100GS). Unfortunately, the road got closed in 1997 due to environmental protection of the then newly formed National Parc. One of those instances where you basically agree with the general concept of locking out the masses, but you wish they'd make an exception for you personally ;-) Of course they didn't, so all we could do was drive up to the ranger station with the closed gate at around 2000m, look at some pictures and maps, and vow to come back one day with the mountain bike or by ski to again scale the peaks in this magnificent setting. We relaxed in the cool breeze of the refreshing mountain air before heading back down into the heat of Southern Spain. The roads have been and are continuously improved, in part cutting wide highway-style straight trenches into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Another Harley rider from Germany commented that he thought this was a waste of European tax money, since there was not even close to enough traffic to justify such costly road building projects for such remote rural areas. Maybe he just felt remorse at all the beautiful turns and windy roads being straightened out, which coincidentally takes out a lot of the fun of cruising along on the Harley...
Anyway, once down in Granada, all that was left for us was to fill up the tank for the umpteenth time and head for the highway towards the Eastern Coast of Spain, the Costa Blanca. Barreling down the autobahn on the R1150GS isn't all that much fun, the wind noise becoming almost unbearable at speeds in excess of 130km/h. So we just locked in a moderate pace, occasionally passed by by a local race bike or regular car. At least we circumvented the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada and watched the scenery of Andalusia drift by until sundown. Almost everyday we were maxing out the daylight hours, with the finest hours definitely coming with the warm, mellow colors of the evening sun. It was noticeable that we were already in October with daylight hours being much less than in June/July.
We finally reached Alicante and decided to have dinner in an upscale restaurant right in the center of the Alicante yacht harbour. Beautiful setting - we rolled up through some kind of pedestrian zone and again parked our two motorbikes right there next to our tables, a picture worthy of any fine BMW motorcycle catalogue - if it weren't for the two local policemen, who for some reason thought that even we had to follow the rules and park our bikes back down on the road where everybody else did, not here on the pavement ... probably these officials had never felt the excitement of arriving on the R1150GS...
As happened many times before, we were the last guests and still sitting there finishing our wine when they closed up shop for the night. Asking them for directions to a campground quickly inspired one of the employees to escort us with his Vespa motorcyclette. It proved fruitless, however, as the local campgrounds all had either closed for the season or otherwise gone out of business. So we released the poor guy from his duty of having to find a place to stay for us and again simply looked for and quickly found a quiet place to lay down - after all, we had survived Morocco, what more could happen to us in Spain?
Friday, October 5th
When "accomodations" were primitive or downright spartan, we decided not to take pictures so as to not cause any irritations back home; suffice it to say that we did not bring out the camera after this night either... However, we had breakfast at a gorgeous place right on the beach with the sun drying up the night dew from our sleeping bags. This was our rhythm: Spend money on food and gas, keep going as long as the sun is up and sleep right next to the bike whenever you run out of daylight or get too tired to go any further. We had another 500km or so of autobahn ahead of us today heading for Barcelona. The only noticeable event was another back tire with a small nail in it, this time on Frank's motorcycle. He fixed it with his onboard toolkit at a gas-station - this was a chance to practice hands-on what we had seen the guy in Melilla do to my back tire. Unfortunately the patch flew out after 35 km and Frank had some trouble bringing a suddenly wobbly motorbike to a controlled stop. So here we stood trying to patch the tire again right there along side of the autobahn. Maybe it was true that this technique of patching only works up to speeds of 60 km/h? (not the 120 km/h we were doing!) So we limped with the patched patch to the next exit and the nearest tire-shop a few km down the road. From there we were referred to a nearby motorcycle shop, where we got a professional repair which would hold up even at higher speeds for the rest of our return trip to Munich. Needless to say that with this unplanned stop we again lost the race against sundown to Barcelona. Once there, we checked at the ferry-harbor for the schedule of the ferry to Genova, but found that it's timing was just not right. So we rolled around the local bayside, the "Barcelonetta", in a bustling city, at it's seemingly busiest time on a Friday evening. We selected a good-looking fish-restaurant for another fabulous dinner. The waiters kept an eye on our bikes, while we surveyed the menu and then devoured another big maritime dinner. This was definitely one of the nicest times of the day, sitting outside in the evenings, having dinner with wine, talking about family, friends and future, and not worrying about anything, certainly not about where to sleep that night... Ironically, we found the less we worried about it, the easier it seemed to be to find some acceptable place to stay...
Saturday, October 6th
We got off to an early start (no pictures again); this was the destination of many a European beach getaway vacation, with the nearby "Loretta del Mar" being synonymous for cheap trips into sun and fun for many northern European on a tight budget. We didn't get to see much of that, our full attention was required for the road ahead until reaching the autobahn and crossing the Pyrenees into France again. Miles and miles went by, with only an occasional noteworthy moment like a high-speed TGV train right next to us crossing the river Rhone near the city of Orange or some small ultra-light aircraft soaring overhead. We traced back the famous "autoroute du soleil", the main North-South autobahn in France connecting Paris in the North with Lyon and Marseille in the South. We eventually got close to Grenoble, our destination for that night and finally put back the High-Octane fuel (the "good stuff") into our tanks; after all, the next days we wanted to be able to open up the gas on our bikes and go full-throttle, something which we couldn't do for almost two weeks due to the bad, low-octane fuel. (How does the American "pedal-to-the-metal" translate for motorcycles?) We checked into the small town of Vizille just outside of Grenoble, located at the bottom of the first mountain pass for the next day. After decades of motorbike riding in the Alps, Frank claims to know absolutely every noteworthy mountain road over 1500m ("been there, done that"). He took a quick look at his 14 year old classic map and figured a nice combination of passes in the French area south of the Lake Geneva. If only the weather would cooperate for just one or two more days.
We took a welcome shower and had pizza in a small bistro which felt as cozy as eating with friends right in mom's kitchen. When we finally laid down and the shouting of some local Algeria soccer fans had died down, we could hear that the light evening drizzle had turned into a full-blown, all-out down-pour - and it was going on for hours and hours; if only Morocco had a few of those every now and then, it would be heaven for them...
Sunday, October 7th
When we woke up, it was still solid rain, apparently non-stop overnight rain. How likely is it that rain will stop after 8 hours flat? Not much in my experience. Weather miracles don't happen often, but on this day, my prayers must have been heard: When we went downstairs for breakfast, it seemed to lighten up a bit, so I thought, at least we would have only light rain for the final leg home. But I still feared - no I rationally knew without wanting to accept that the mountain passes would be covered in clouds, cold and unfriendly. So we had some more breakfast, and we saw the rain finally stop and the cloud-cover further lighten up. When we finally got our bikes out of the garage and took off, guess what: The first rays of sun burst through the clouds! And against all odds, by the time we were going up to the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer (2068m) we were greeted by a crystal-blue sky with only residual clouds quickly dissipating in the rays of the autumn sun. I couldn't believe our good fortune. I had only this one shot at high mountain roads in the French alps, and the weather turned out super-nice at the very last moment! What followed was a 7 hour thrill-ride I will never forget. For the record: Col de la Croix de Fer (2068m) - St. Jean (565m) - Col de Madeleine (1993m) - Albertville (345m) - Col des Aravis (1498m) with spectacular clear views of the Mt. Blanc (4807m) just 40km to the East - Col de la Colombiere (1618m) - and more ski-domains between the Lake Geneva and Chamonix.
We actually rode a good part (in reverse direction) of the famous Tour-de-France stage topping out in Alpe d'Huez. You could see the names of famous bike-riders painted on the roads and just wonder about the enormous strengths these athletes must have to cross so many of these high mountains at racing speeds in a single day... Autumn sun, the colors of fall, the high mountains in fresh snow, no traffic, no problems, no worries; motorbike riding at it's finest - it doesn't get any better than this! So the series of high-lights in fact did not even end here, after more than 7000 km and two weeks of non-stop travel. The only slight flaw of an otherwise impeccable safety and driving record happened that night in Monthey near Martigny, when I made a mistake in city traffic searching for a restaurant and my BMW motorbike toppled over while I tried to accelerate from a stop at a red light. How embarassing after all the sandy "piste", the rough gravel and the dirt tracks of Morocco to drop the bike on a flat paved road! I guess I was just too tired after this rush and couldn't prevent the 300kg bike from toppling over once I choked off the engine and it listed too much to one side. Even lifting this heavy-weight back up isn't exactly a piece of cake. After assessing the minor damage to plastic parts I quickly calmed down and decided not to let this lapse ruin the fresh memory of an otherwise absolutely spectacular afternoon. So we had dinner and retreated to another "spartan" overnight rest somewhere East of Monthey...
Monday, October 8th
The last day of our trip had by far the coldest morning with temperatures just below the 10 Celsius mark. Mind, Machine, Motor and Tire definitely needed a few km of warm-up - I guess I hardly ever rode as timid as on this morning. It took about an hour until we reached the sun when exciting the "Simmental" to the East towards the Thuner Lake. We had a final very nice breakfast sitting on the patio of an upscale hotel / restaurant with the sight of the famous Eiger north face towering in the distance - an electrifying view I never managed to see even though my decades of mountain-climbing in the Alps. Talk about never-ending high-lights...
We crossed the Sustenpass (2224m, cold) near Andermatt followed by the Oberalppass (2044m, light rain) - some spectacular setting on a good day, but we were getting tired of the nonstop rush and mentally headed very close to home now. Driving out to Chur and North to Bregenz (Austria) and Lindau (Germany) followed by the 2 hour autobahn back to Munich felt like another necessary piece to complete the picture, the final leg of a long journey. We had some more moments of riding side-by-side, with our cheek-to-cheek smiles brightly visible through our visors. When we finally pulled into the driveway of Frank's home in Munich and shut off the engines for the last time, we were just full of exuberance about this adventure we had just brought to a close. We had done it: Morocco without problems, 8000 km without crashed bikes or bones, without any loss or steal, any harm or illness; defying many a last-minute critic who recommended for us not to go. And we knew in that final moment that this trip will always be remembered as one of our finest motorbike vacations ever!
Latest Update: November 11, 2001; Hitcount: