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Motorcycles in Morocco

Stefan Loble
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The Idea

Two years ago, we dragged our son Jules to live in West Africa. As living here wasn't easy, for a last hurrah I wanted to give him something special during our final spring break on the continent. 

I asked him, "What kind of trip do you want to take?" Silly me, I offered boring options like backpacking, and you won't be surprised with what he chose -- a motorbike trip.

The Plan

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Our plan was to fly to Morocco, buy motorbikes and ride them until the wheels fell off.

The thing is, Jules is only 15 years old, and I don’t have a motorcycle license. So, we had to leverage the fact that in Morocco you can ride a motorbike if it's under 50cc.

I had seen old guys chillin’ on mopeds (certainly less than 50cc), which made me bound and determined to set off on something.

But, they weren't going to get over the Atlas mountains, and young guys like to go fast.

We needed something better.

The Bikes

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There’s one local bike that would fit the bill, a Yamaha DT-50. It's a two-stroke dirt bike with the power to climb the Atlas, reach the valley of 1,000 Kasbahs, and eventually the southern deserts.

In the end, they were awesome. Loud. Stinky. With so much torque, we could pop-a-wheelie taking off. They were intentionally old. In fact, our best moments were dealing with the challenge of making them go.

They are also rare, such that we had to find them first. 

Buying A Motorcycle In Morocco

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To track down the bikes, we started by asking mechanics who led us to the motorbike market, just outside the old city of Marrakech.

It was a sea of machinery in various conditions, mostly normal bikes that are clean and comfortable for Moroccan citizens. But out of 1,000 machines, there were three dusty old DT-50s, two of which people thought might have a shot at running.

After test rides, negotiation, and a whole bunch of ancillary arguing in Arabic by people who had nothing to do with our transaction (WTF?), we took our shot. We bought two motorbikes, fully registered in our name for $700.

The next day we spent another $150 on parts and $150 on labor to get them as ready as we could. We bought vegetable crates to carry our bags, stocked up on tools and other things we thought would come in handy. (The tow rope proved genius.) We insured them for three months, and took off.

When I say took off, what I mean is we pushed them to get them started every time for the next 10 days. The bikes don’t have electric starters and the foot cranks don’t work. Each time we get going, we run to get them up to speed, pop the clutch and hop on.

There is a last detail about how to buy a vehicle in a foreign land, and that's that Jules speaks French. My wife was the founding director of a French / English bilingual middle school in NYC, and Jules suffered through math, science, history and geography in two languages ever since he was 5 years old. After all the things he did to succeed within the confines of a French education, in the end he got to be the hero of this story. 

The Route

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Our route was designed around a very special short list. We wanted to:

  • Cross the Atlas mountains.
  • Reach the valley of 1,000 Kasbahs.
  • Touch the edge of the Sahara.

To see all of this requires time in the saddle. In the end, over 1,100 kilometers -- about 700 miles. And google reports that we climbed 9,000 meters -- almost 30,000 feet, descending nearly the same.

The most simple plan was to return to Marrakech and sell the bikes there. But we didn't know how strong a grip the trip would have on our spirits. And how all the breakdowns and overheating would slow our pace. Just a few days in, I messaged my team to say forget it, I’m taking a full two weeks.

In the end, we started in Marrakech and ended in the outskirts of Agdz. Pay attention, as this could be relevant to you later...

Marrakech and Outskirts

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Marrakech is one of my favorite places in the world. I love the climate, the scent of floral and spice, and endlessly wandering alleyways in the old city. It can be crowded, but the medina is so big it doesn't matter. In the early morning, you can walk the city like you were living hundreds of years ago. 

But on this visit, we got the bikes fixed and left as soon as we could.

Pre Atlas

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For us, the pre-Atlas was about getting our driving legs.

In places, it was ultra green. We spent one night near a waterfall. But others were brutally hot and dry. For protection, Jules stole my Zenith shirt, so I wore our new and upcoming Telex blazer.

This period included our first breakdowns and episodes of towing one bike with another. As Jules' bike began to overheat, we seriously doubted we would surmount the Atlas to complete the trip at all. We kept a watchful eye on them in the distance, with our only hope being cooler air.

 

High Atlas

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I told myself I would be happy if we made it over just one major mountain pass.

The early sections of the Atlas are so big, we'd come around a corner to a 5,000 foot descent that would take a half hour. Wow, I didn't know that was there.

For any hope of staying near schedule, we needed to reach Imilchil, the kind of place high enough that there are snow closure gates on the road for the winter.

As we climbed towards it, the night got darker and darker. Yes, Jules' bike overheated, but less and less as the air cooled, so we just kept going. 

At one stop near midnight, Jules said "Dad, I can't see a single artificial light anywhere." By pushing, pulling and dousing Jules' engine with lots of water, we finally made it and woke the guys above the gas station for a room.

We woke up in the middle of the High Atlas.

Todra Gorge

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I visited the Todra Gorge 30 years ago when there was no road. It's like if you took the American Southwest and added Bedouin shepherds. As usual, we were headed down the gorge late as the sun went down when we passed a beautiful mountain lodge. We literally drove all the way by until we thought, "Damn, look at that place! We should stay there!"

We made our entrance by roaring our bikes up the steep gravel driveway in the middle of cocktail hour.

"Bonsoir, do you have a room for the night?" I inquired.

"Oui, Monsieur. With or without dinner?"

With dinner, of course... it was $90.

I retrieved our upcoming Telex blazer out of my bag, and took the restaurant by storm.

The Valley of 1,000 Kasbahs

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To me, the desert between the Atlas and the Sahara is magical. It's harsh and barren, spotted with river valleys full of palm trees and other fertile life fed by runoff from the Atlas.  

Put me in another life 500 years ago and I might choose to spend it living in a Kasbah here. But, young guys don't care much about that stuff. We were on a mission to reach the desert, and we were also on motorbikes that were fast. So, let's go fast. 

We ROARED down the roads. We'd look ahead, look behind and then hold the throttle fully open for as long as we could. The kid needed a motorbike trip. It turns out, so did I.

The Dunes

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Erg Chigaga at the bottom of Morocco is a corner of the Sahara desert just 30 miles from the border with Algeria. The Bedouins complain that they used to cross the border freely, until the Moroccan army mobilized in response to their dispute with Algeria. Two brothers living side-by-sde, with their own geography and issues not on our radar. A shame.

To reach the dunes, we dropped the bikes in M’Hamid, and switched to a 4x4. M’Hamid is a desert outpost through and through. The kind of place caravans have arrived or departed for thousands of years, as we did.

Drop me in a desert, and I am both eager to stay, and equally mindful that should things go just a little bit wrong, I would die fast.

We climbed high in the dunes, surfed down on boards and slept on carpets under the stars. 

Where We Stayed

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We never planned our lodging. With all of our breakdowns, how could we? Each night, we just slept where we could.

We stayed in rooms above gas stations. 

We stayed in palatial riads (old mansions) in palm groves and ate breakfast by the pool.

One night we rolled into what is best described as an Moroccan Best Western. I have a photo of Jules standing under a fancy chandelier, all covered in oil.

We never once made a reservation.

And no surprise, it was only the first night when we already had to stay in someone's home. We had broken down in a town so small there was no hotel. So the amazingly kind waiter at the cafe took us in. His mother kissed us like we were family, and I'm sure gave us someone's bed. They kept chickens on the roof. 

We also once stayed in a Kasbah. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

The Breakdowns

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We broke down to some degree almost every single day. Chains fell off. Chains broke. We wrestled with problems created by our neglectful mechanics because they overlooked a $.50 part.

We broke clutch and brake handles. We suffered flats. The first night we drove the bikes from the market, the tire blew out. Not the tube… the tire.

And Jules' bike overheated a lot. 

We pushed each other’s bikes. We towed them with a line, day and night.

Once, before I understood how intermittent my headlight was, I almost drove over the cliff before I learned to closely follow Jules.

When our brakes were weak, we used our gears to slow down.

It was glorious. We were alive. We were free.

Uncertainty and An Old Bedouin Man

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One night, as we were pushing hard to knock down the miles, the evening crept on us. We had 100 miles to go over two mountain passes. Things were already not going well as with all of the stops and overheating, sometimes we averaged just 25 mph.

The problem is, if you're driving amongst what feels like the most beautiful view in the world, it plays with your mind. You just want to keep going. So, we did. 

Shortly out of the last little town I picked up an old Bedouin guy. If I rode on the gas tank he could take my seat. But, I still needed my pedals to drive, which meant he had to hold out his legs. Eventually, he got tired, so we rested by the side of the road.

Traffic is sparse here. Like one car every half hour. Finally flagged a car that might take him the rest of the way. But, there was also a guy on a motorbike who stopped to help.

We asked him, "Where do you live?"

"I run the lodge at the top of the mountain" he said. As it was already almost dark, we stayed there, and WOW was it incredible.

The lodge is an old Bedouin outpost. His father, a shepherd, began by sharing tea with off road overland travelers. While the road is paved today, it still isn't marked on our paper map, nor Google. But the lodge has rooms and wonderful food atop a mountain with 360 views.

This place should be a destination all its own. Not for a night, but for a number of days.

I find this is consistently the best of travel for me. Specifically, how we didn't know where driving towards the mountains at sunset would lead. But, one good thing leads to another -- which is exactly what I wanted to experience with Jules.

The Finish

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To understand our finish, you should know that Jules named my bike "Squeaky" and his bike "Shitty". The thing is, his Shitty bike was faster than mine, but it would overheat. Just 30KM from the finish line, it finally had a catastrophic failure. The mechanic thinks it's a valve.

We had already decided to keep the bikes. We couldn't let them go, opting for them to wait for us in Morocco; at least to inspire our dreams. All we had to do is go 30 more KM under our own power on at least one bike to compelte our journey.

So, we put Jules' bag on top of mine, I got back on the gas tank - just like when I was driving the old guy - and off we went. My headlight had finally quit too, so I was driving with a headlamp in my mouth.

There are many checkpoints in Morocco, but the police most often waved us by. At nearly midnight when the cop shined his light, I thought it was over. They were going to take our bike for sure.

"Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” etc. went our conversation -- all in French. Until finally,... "Bonne journee...".

I was stunned. I quickly put the headlamp back in my mouth, pushed the bike to get it started, had Jules jump on without knocking us over and took off into the night.

Damn we giggled. Jules played music on his phone. "Forever Young" hit hard.

In the end, we made it. A friend had connected me with Hassan, whose family has owned a historic Kasbah for hundreds of years. I felt like a traveller from another time when we entered through long mud-walled passageways to arrive in a stunning atrium in the most beautiful Kasbah I’ve ever seen. Now a museum and hotel, search for Kasbah des Caids Tamnougalt in Agdz, including on airbnb.

The next morning, at 5am it was over. We caught a cab to the airport to head home.

 

Me and Jules

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My Dad likes to recite a line from a poem that goes something like: "And may God give us the sons we deserve." Frankly, I don't know what I did to deserve this one.

You might be aware that teenagers can be difficult. Jules is an amazing mix of being able to drive a motorbike 700 miles across Morocco, while still doing the frustrating, silly things that all young minds do.

In the end, this trip didn't change our relationship. Together, we are exactly like we were before it began, but with one more amazing experience in the bank.

 

The Bikes Are Waiting For You

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Now, it's time to get serous. The bikes are there. True, they are waiting for us, but they could also be waiting for you.

If you've gotten this far, you know what the trip entails. So, maybe you are up for taking it on.

French helps, but we got so far away from the cities that English became more useful if you didn't speak Bedouin or Arabic.

If you're serious, drop me a line and maybe we can make it happen. 

Stefan Loble

 

 

 

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