“Does it rain here much?” I ask. “No. Never. Just this day.” That’s how my luck goes sometimes.
It was the second day of my motorcyce ride around Morocco and a hot sun had been following me for the most part. But now, as I stopped for a late lunch on my way into Boumalne Dades, drops were starting to fall. I was hoping that, by the time I finished my tagine of spiced goatmeat, olives and veggies, the rain would pass.
The waiter seemed unfazed by my helmet, jacket, gloves and sweat-pressed helmet-hair. Being within a few miles of the famous Dades Gorge, he’d seen more than his share of adventure bikes roll by his roadside café. Mine was a BMW F800GS, which I had rented in Marrakech the day before. I was two-thirds of the way through my 1,000-kilometre loop, with one day to go.
The plan was months in the making
My contact in Morocco was Reda Jabri at his tour company Palm Road. He put together an itinerary that took me south-east from Marrakech over the High Atlas Mountains, past Ourzazate. Then, turning east then north and eventually back west to loop through Boumalne-Dades and return to Marrakech. There were many emails back and forth, plus a wire transfer that probably raised some eyebrows at my local bank. In the end, I found myself alone.
My wife wasn’t too excited by my now solo adventure plan, so I bought a Spot satellite transmitter so she could see where I was. “All is well” a few times a day. Her fears (and a few of mine, too) turned out to be unfounded, as everyone I met in Morocco was friendly and welcoming. Enough people spoke enough English for me to get by, and my rusty French and few Arabic phrases filled the gaps.
Leaving Marrakech, I followed one of Reda’s men, Mohammed, who was driving Palm Road’s pickup truck. He led me from their location near the airport, through suburban sprawl and a maze of streets and roundabouts until I reached the main road, Route N9. He pulled over, waved me by, and I was off. N9 took me out of the lowland heat and up into the chilly mountain air. It’s the highest road in Morocco. I almost wished I’d had some heated grips for the hour or two it took to get up and over, past patches of snow, fast twisties, terrifying hairpins and the occasional herd of goats. It’s only 2 lanes – one each way – so any traffic would slow me down until I got the guts up to pass.
Incredible views didn’t come free
Occasionally, there was a spot to pull over and take in the incredible views, but it usually came complete with a man trying to sell me something. At one point I bought some kind of a geode – a black rock split in half to reveal a hollow cavity inside filled with purple crystals. I’m not sure how much the pile of Moroccan Dirhams I paid was worth, but it was probably too much.
After the mountains, the road dropped and the temps went up – way up. It was near 100 as I approached Ourzazate, where I stopped for lunch. Ourzazate is surprisingly modern, with ATMs, shops and clean, new restaurants with excellent food. It’s the center of Morocco’s film industry with a few movie studios and sets scattered in the surrounding desert. Movies like Babel, with Brad Pitt, Oliver Stone’s Alexander and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were shot nearby, and the harsh, ancient yet picturesque scenery leaves no doubt as to why. Leaving town, the roads got rougher to match the landscape. It was miles and miles of rocky, sandy wasteland. But then a lush, green river crossing would appear with palm trees and a small town usually gathered around it. The contrast of the green against the browns and reds of the desert was striking.
Finding Dar Qamar B&B
The next town, where I spent the night, was Agdz. I rolled in just before dark, which was good because finding the Dar Qamar B&B down it’s narrow and bumpy alley was enough of a challenge in the light. Reda had suggested it, and my online research told me that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had stayed there during the shooting of Babel. I understood why when I went inside.
While the surrounding buildings looked like ruins, Dar Qamar’s courtyard was lush and luxurious, with a pool, wi-fi and beautifully furnished rooms. There was hot water for a shower (unlike my place in Marrakech) and even alcohol, which is hard to come by in this Muslim country. I had dinner by the pool – another tagine of meat (lamb, this time) veggies and couscous.
After a typically delicious Moroccan breakfast of breads, spreads, fruits, juices, eggs and some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, I paid my (rather expensive) bill in Euros and took off by 8am. Past Agdz I started to feel like I was really “out there.” I made a left onto R108, which took me through Nkob and Tazzarine.
The country began to look like I had landed on Mars
The towns got smaller and more spread out, and the country began to look like I had landed on Mars. There was less traffic, and a few of the straightaways were so long that they invited me to see exactly how fast one of these F800GS’s can really go (answer: fast enough). It was also remote enough to make me glad that I had programmed the other button on my Spot to tell Reda “There is something wrong with the bike, or I crashed.” Fortunately, I never had to push it!
After several hours, following the excellent signage and clear, roadside kilometer markers, I passed Alnif and headed toward the larger town of Tinghir, where I detoured to the Gorge du Todra. It’s an impressively narrow gash through a low mountain where a river flows, and there were a few tourist buses parked to let their occupants walk around and buy trinkets and locally-made clothes. On the way back, I stopped to take a few pictures and heard the call to prayer resonating over the whole town.
I’d heard it a few times from my hotel rooms, even at odd hours like 4 in the morning. But it was different being outside and hearing it echo from multiple points like some kind of town-sized surround-sound system. It was nice to pull over every now and then to hear something other than the wind in my helmet, but I had a lot of ground to cover and I had to keep moving.
On & on I went
I left Tinghir for the even bigger town of Boumalne-Dades, where I would spend the next night. After locating my hotel, the Kasbah Tizzarouine, I raced up to the world-famous Gorge du Dades (dah-days) – another river canyon – only this one is on a grander scale. The road leads up, through a famously tight and twisty section, to some pull-offs that give you views to the Dades river far below.
Past that, the road descends in more gradual turns to a narrow cut where the river breaks through to the gentler terrain beyond. I rode there and back twice, trying to improve my speed and form through each turn as best as my fear would allow. It was the only point in the trip where I missed the better agility and quickness of my Kawasaki Versys, which was sitting, jealous, back in the USA.
Following the river back, those rain clouds moved in just as I stopped for a celebratory meal. My table overlooked the town’s brown, mud brick buildings set against more deep green palms by the river, and I ate as the quick shower came and went. My luck held, the road dried quickly, and thirty minutes later I was back at the Kasbah. It’s a sprawling complex contained within high walls – a fortress, which is what “kasbah” really means.
My room was one of the “cave” rooms, a space just big enough for a bed and a bathroom carved into the hillside in the back. Dinner was, you guessed it, another tagine. This time, it was chicken seasoned with lemon and with a side of olives, along with plenty of bread and a cold, chick-pea soup to start things off.
I never had a bad meal in Morocco
Day three started with another excellent breakfast. There were a few European tourists there, but I sat in a corner with some of the locals who worked at the hotel and drove the tour busses. A couple of them spoke English and we talked about history and politics. Americans were a rare sight, they told me, and they were curious about why I would come so far. I didn’t have a good answer, except that I like to travel and see different places. Since my employer had flown me to London for work, it was a relatively quick and cheap trip from there. The story would be different if I’d had to pay the airfare all the way from my home near Washington, DC.
Route N10 took me back to Ourzazate, where I turned right to rejoin N9 and return to the mountains. The cooler temperatures were welcomed this time after the late May heat of the desert, and less traffic allowed me more speed. The sand and rock turned into forests and flowers, and the towns became more numerous as Marrakech approached. With no GPS, I had plotted my course on a map and written directions down for myself, but I got hopelessly lost anyway as soon as I hit the chaos of the city.
With a little patience, though, I rode around until I saw signs for the airport and followed them. I had left early enough that morning to give me plenty of time, so I still managed to find Reda’s place and return the bike well before he closed for the day.
Marrakesh’s old city. It’s alive.
I spent the rest of that day and night like I had my first: wandering Marrakech’s “old city,” with streets too narrow for cars. I ate food from street vendors, saw dancing cobras in the main square and watched a Real Madrid soccer game at a bar full of cheering locals. But I feel like I just skimmed the surface of this country.
The trip was too short for such a diverse place – both ancient and modern, with high mountains and expansive deserts and at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The legendary dunes of the Sahara and the rugged Atlantic coastline were just out of my reach this time, but I’ll be back.