Boxing Morocco on an Assortment of BMW GS Twins

A horizontally opposed cure for the common bussman's holiday

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Jon Beck

Most places I've been can pass for most anyplace else from 12,000 feet, but not this one. As the Air Maroc 737 swings around on final approach and Aeroport Mohammed V looms in my window, one thing is increasingly clear: We're nowhere near Kansas anymore, Toto. This chunk of North Africa looks more like Tuscany than the Sahara Desert. No rolling dunes down there, just olive trees and mud-brick villages surrounded by a patchwork of bright-green fields.

Welcome to Casablanca: largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco. Touching down on the tarmac, I'm officially 5980 miles from the palatial Motorcyclist offices and light-years beyond my personal comfort zone. Then again, real adventures should carry a whiff of menace. And besides, how bad can it be? One more 40-minute hop in an Air Maroc 767 and I'm hanging out with BMW Motorrad President Hendrik von Kuenheim and a few pleasantly deranged Germans and Canadians, gearing up for a little gratuitous bashing around the Moroccan hinterlands on an assortment of GS twins. What could possibly go wrong?

By nightfall I'm on the ground in Marrakech-with both my bags, thank you very much-heading through Sunday-night traffic. Imagine an open-air mental hospital during spring break and you're pretty much there. A moped packing a family of three strafes some oblivious septuagenarian on an ancient Raleigh three-speed, who is maybe 3 millimeters shy of trading paint with a baby-poop-yellow Peugeot 206 taxicab. Similar scenarios play continuously in this little rivulet of humanity all the way to our hotel without a single collision. Motorists and pedestrians are imperious, impervious, oblivious and betting heavily on divine intervention.

Spending a day on foot to shake off the potent combination of jet lag and culture shock turns out to be educational as well. Traffic jam? Locals sidestep oncoming mopeds and donkey carts on the sidewalk as casually as other oncoming pedestrians. After the obligatory haggle with a cab driver-nobody pays retail around here-the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech's old city slots in somewhere between a supersized town square and an intergalactic flea market stuck on fast-forward. Watch an apoplectic 4-year-old have his picture taken with a spitting cobra over here, buy some orange juice over there, or wonder how many dirham that guy working the Barbary Ape makes on a good Saturday. After dark, entertainers give way to a tent-city of food stalls. Take a pass on the goat heads, but don't miss the bull stew. Just don't go too far into the maze of covered shops on the square's margins without some electronic global positioning assistance or a finely tuned sense of direction. There are legions of smiling 12-year-olds willing to lead you back out, but not for free. Carry change.

It's hard to say exactly what's going on here, but this isn't exactly my first rodeo and the trouble lights on my internal console are beginning to come on. You may not be on an ordinary press junket if ... BMW North America's press guy cancels at the last minute. Your driver gets lost on the way to dinner, and then drops you off a half-mile from Dar Zellij Restaurant Gastromique Marocain because his cab is wider than the streets. You meet the relentlessly cheery Dr. Axel Thiäner, BMW's resident trauma surgeon for our four-day expedition. Most press junkets don't travel with an ER doc in the chase truck, cheery or otherwise, along with more assorted medical paraphernalia than an entire Moroccan hospital. Consider it one of the many benefits of going on vacation with a captain of global industry. We're not in El Segundo anymore, Toto. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

After one bad night's sleep, a good omen: I run into my friend Dave Russell-fellow Californian, itinerant rum aficionado and incurable motorcycle junkie-at the hotel breakfast buffet. He's spending a few weeks traipsing around North Africa on an R1200GS with Ayers Adventures, plowing through miles of sand and rock with panniers on the abysmal stock rubber. I'll be on Continental Twinduro knobbies with clean socks and underwear back in the chase truck. Why worry? Prayer is so much more effective.

Geared up and ready to go, I thank God for black coffee and light traffic heading out of town. Day one looks like an easy 138 miles or so, heading southeast on the N9 toward the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass. Built by the French Foreign Legion in 1928 to avoid paying protection money to the Glaoui brothers who ruled these mountains for 40 years, the 6700-foot Tichka road goes from spectacular to terrifying and back in the space of two corners, depending on how hard you push and who or what's coming the other way.

A few miles down the road, the mud-brick citadel of Kasbah Telouete-former home to the aforementioned Glaoui mob-crumbles silently in a wash of spring sunlight. A bit further along, the well-preserved 11th century movie ksar of Aït Benhaddou sits just across the Oued Ounila River from our afternoon coffee stop, looking much the way it did in Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. The few people who still live there scratch out a living guiding curious tourists. Like most old actors after reconstructive surgery, Benhaddou looks more authentic from a distance. At this point, I'm more interested in the cold beer and hot shower 20 miles away at the Berber Palace Hotel in Ouarzazate. One of our relatively inexperienced Canadians joined the over-the-bars club this afternoon, and because 10 out of 10 traveling journalists prefer Casablanca Lager to intravenous morphine, I'm taking it easy.

Besides, there's a certain satisfaction that comes only with parking a dusty German Adventure Panzer in front of a five-star hotel, strolling through the lobby in full off-road regalia and watching a smiling, fez-topped barman pour the indigenous chilled malt beverage into a tall glass. Drinking it is almost anticlimactic. Almost. One day down, three to go. Meanwhile, Hendrik von Kuenheim proves to be a nice guy, a compendium of all things BMW and an excellent host. When he puts down his cell phone and gets on an F800GS, this man can go.

When our minders crack impenetrable German smiles and refer to some section of the route as eenteresting, pay attention. Especially when two of them are instructors at BMW's Hechlingen Enduro Park and the other could be if he wanted to. Upon closer inspection, the dry, loose, rocky riverbed they find so fascinating provokes more poignant reactions in my sleep-deprived neuro-circuitry. Signals from the excitable, pain-evading ones replace rational, analytical right-brain with stone-cold panic data every 30 feet, triggering the release of sweat, adrenaline and other, less welcome bodily fluids. Thanks to God, GU energy gel and Dr. Axel's effer-vescent electrolytes in my CamelBak, it's all good.

Dades Valley dirt roads are predictably unpredictable, with deep ruts, a construction crew and/or knots of waving children hiding in the dust of every village. Red dirt fades to shades of gray, set off by widening slivers of green wherever there's water. The terrain on either side goes from lush to lunar to surreal and back again, punctuated by more mud-brick burgs in various stages of collapse. Ascending a deliciously lethal section of switchbacks for some mint tea affords a breathtaking aerial view of the Dades Gorge: the major tourist attraction out here. High winds, scattered showers, a sinking sun and one suicidal goat make the last stretch of pavement a little too breathtaking, yet we roll into the Hotel Xaluca Dades behind an armada of package tour busses tired, but happy not to be a package tourist.

Thursday morning: Welcome to Day Three. The longest of the trip, and with 70 miles of it crossing the Djebel Saghro Mountains via the Tizi-n-Tazazert pass, almost certainly the hardest. Despite out best efforts, the good doctor has been limited to distributing analgesics and snappy banter. One of the Canadians had by now earned frequent-flyer miles going over the bars. Another, my new friend David Booth, was nursing one very sore shoulder-the wages of a high-speed low-side on his assigned F800GS. The Ostra Gray Panzer hadn't let me down yet, and I aim to return the favor. Climbing past the little mining village of Tiouit, riding the Tazazert isn't much harder than pronouncing it, despite the fearsome proliferation of rocks. I hate rocks, but the big GS doesn't much care. Just miss the ones that are too big to hit, stay out of those axle-deep ruts and don't look down. There's room between the big rocks for a BMW Boxer or Land Cruiser full of bombastic French knuckleheads. Not both. Beware the blind corners-you'll live longer that way. Self-defense strategies develop very quickly out here. The first one is relax. Fear chokes rational thought to a trickle, and right now, I need a fire hose.

The GS is too big for impromptu wheelies and too long to turn on a dime or a nickel or any coin in this realm, so plan ahead and prioritize. Bouncing off the mountain beats going over the cliff, which would have been Plan C if that lady selling assorted handcrafted local trinkets in the middle of nowhere had leaned any further into the trail. Dirt-poor is more than a figure of speech out here. Follow the path of least resistance, which means skirting rocks bigger than a microwave oven, hitting toaster-sized chunks head-on and not getting too worked up over the rest. With the ABS and traction control switched off, bludgeon the rest of the pass into submission like some horizontally opposed, refrigerator-sized force of nature, yielding only to a little shade, lunch and something colder to drink than the tepid dregs of this CamelBak. The best thing about this sort of fun is marinating in the hot, sweaty aftermath without a scratch.

There's more dirt on the afternoon menu, and as beguiling as the Draa Valley looks heading out of Nekob, David and I order up pavement for dessert. More specifically, the swervy bit of N9 just beyond Agdz-a dusty little rest stop on the old caravan route between Marrakech and Timbuktu-called Tizi-n-Tinififft Pass. But first, a few miles of straight, black road that could be leading us through flat, green California pastureland if it weren't for the ubiquitous donkey carts rolling along the shoulder. Shoebox-sized, blue police cars can't be bothered with a couple of motorcycles cruising a little too fast. Low, blue-gray clouds turn harsh afternoon sunlight into a soft, even glow, and my biggest challenge is dodging the bugs that just dodged the GS windscreen. Savor the peace-it never lasts.

There are three kinds of drivers in rural Morocco: the quick, the dead and the clinically insane. Peeling off into Tizi-n-Tinififft's first fast right-hander at 130 kph, the poster boy for that last group is filling my mirrors with a Mercedes plumbing van, in clear violation of various physical laws and the posted speed limit. For those who haven't had the pleasure, Tinififft is the sound Mr. Sphincter makes whistling into a 100-kph corner at 125 with Joe the Moroccan plumber right behind you. Thank God and King Mohammed VI for this grippy pavement. Right about the time we've had enough of Joe, he fades into the distance, leaving us to take in the long, Armco-lined arcs and ups-and-downs before the N9 begins its relatively straightforward decent into Ouarzazate.

Home to maybe 80,000 people and busloads of tourists bound for that giant Saharan sandbox to the west, Ouarzazate (say War-zazat, a.k.a. The Door of the Desert) has served as a stand-in for movie cities real and imagined. Its peach-colored skyline and brilliant green foliage are instantly recognizable from miles away. The peach-colored Berber Palace Hotel, however, is a little harder to find. At least until French-speaking Booth has a short tête à tête with a similarly fluent security guard. In minutes we're washing down all that joie de vivre with bières froides. Three days down, one to go.

Another day, another epic buffet breakfast-I could get used to this. The fourth and last leg of the expedition takes us north over the High Atlas range to Demnate before turning southeast for Marrakech. Our guides call this rustic roller coaster through the Tassaout Valley a road. CalTrans and I beg to differ. The map calls N307 a scenic route, but there's more to this story. Years of erosion have undermined what was once good pavement to bad pavement or no pavement at all. Morocco Survival Strategy #58 says treat the entrance to every blind corner as if there's a 40-foot divot at the exit, or a medium-sized landslide, or 18 spastic goats. There may be a broad swath of mud across the apex, gravel, a '63 Chevy dump truck, a peewee soccer game or maybe a smiling lady doing her best to rein in one very large, very panic-stricken palomino stallion. I got around all that and a whole lot more thanks to MSS #58.5: Absorb the view from a dead-stop or risk a ride in the tiny ambulance that nearly took me out when I tried it on the fly. Sphincter says Tinififft. Gazuntite.

Then the valley opens up and so does the GS, until a looming reef of black clouds slows our post-lunch tempo. We still have some rough real estate to cover, and binning it on the last day is magnificently bad form. Flying home in a cast is worse. Aside from avoiding the sort of ninth-inning error that could throw the whole game, these last 60 kilometers give me a chance to deliberate. Morocco wasn't on my bucket-list of inter-national destinations when I left Los Angeles 100 hours ago, and it still isn't. But in spite of the baby-poop-yellow Peugeot 206 taxicabs, smoking mopeds and fatalistic pedestrians welcoming us back to Marrakesh, I'm grateful for the experience.

Finding a flight out of Madrid-Barajas while the Eyjafjallajökull volcano's ash cloud parked everything with wings was a problem I could have lived without. But if all those kids back in all those little villages can smile and wave in the face of circumstances that would crush the average first-world resident, it's like my friend Mr. Booth said: We don't have problems. For that bit of perspective, I'm eternally grateful.

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