[Jason] Well, for me this was the week I’d really been looking forward to; proper in the dirt stuff. This would require a smaller bike and because it would be my first experience of riding in the desert, I thought it would be a good idea to get some guidance and may be a support vehicle! I decided to use Motoaventures, a tour company I came across on YouTube. Having watched their video of riders gliding over the dunes, I was hooked. It looked like fantastic fun. Plus, it would give me another string to my bow; we’re bound to encounter sand next year on our trip and what a taster to this type of riding.
After taking the bus from Marrakesh down to Ouarzazate, we spent our first night in a rather plush hotel. The following morning, John from Motoaventures greeted and took us to the workshop to introduce us to our trusty steeds, which we’d be riding for the next five days. These were KTM 450s. We received a thorough briefing from our host, on the ‘Dos and Don’ts’, desert riding and our GPS systems, which we would be relying on – totally – to keep us safe. John whose no nonsense approach and quick wit agreed with me, I liked him straight away.
Our group comprised eight mates from Latvia with varying levels of riding ability, all of whose abilities exceeded my own. These guys liked to party hard and were great fun to have in the group. There were two Swedes, plus Duncan – a Scottish guy and Adam, a fellow Brit, Neil and myself. I considered myself to be a pretty good rider although soon realized I was somewhere near the bottom of the pack in terms of off-road riding ability; especially when pitted against some of the guys who were regular competition riders.
Each day was structured into several sections; all sections had to be completed before the end of the day. We had to keep in front of the support vehicle, riding after sunset in the desert wasn’t an option so we had to do all sections in a reasonable time, which on the first morning proved to be quite a challenge for Neil and I while we were finding our feet again after not having ridden off road for some time. This tour, I quickly discovered was not for those with little off road experience but I managed to find my mojo by the afternoon and for the rest of the tour I kept in front of the support wagon. In fact I started to move up the rankings and was some where in the middle of the pack by day five.
Each morning we would usually start with a trip to the petrol station, then John would give us our first section which we would punch into our satnavs at which point the race was on, well for the Latvians anyway who I wouldn’t see again till the start of the next section. The pack would quickly spread out with me somewhere near the back. The pace in the morning was usually frenetic and it was addictive to try and keep up with the lead riders but I had to keep telling myself to slow down and take the time to soak up the incredible landscapes I was travelling through. For me this trip was more than an all out dirt race it was about the landscapes, I loved the isolation and would often stop, marveling at the vastness of the desert, the incredible blueness of the infinite sky and the deafening silence. But I also liked the pace and with the support vehicle always in hot pursuit, this added a bit of spice to what could otherwise be a pleasant bimble through the desert. This would keep me focused and would see my old forgotten riding skills come flooding back.
The sections were usually quite easy to follow even without the GPS as most tracks were clearly marked on the ground by previous traffic, which required only an occasional glance at the GPS when we reached an intersection or a fork in the road but there were sections that had no tracks. This is where the GPS was the only guide. These sections I loved. The feeling that you really were in the middle of nowhere and that sudden feeling that if you lost your way, you were ON YOUR OWN, that vulnerability made me feel alive. I LOVED IT!
The desert never got boring, it was constantly changing. One moment we would be riding over sand dunes, the next we’d be picking our way down dry riverbeds, over rocky plateaus that resembled the surface of the moon, through gorges with their steep walls, over mountain passes with the most spectacular views, across huge salt pans and through scrubland dotted with acacia trees; reminiscent of east Africa. All that was missing were elephants, giraffe and zebra. The desert wasn’t devoid of people or animals, I would often come across people herding sheep, goats, and camels miles away from anywhere.
Another highlight for me was riding in the sand dunes at Erg Chebbi and area close to Ousina. This was great fun but trickier than it looked. John led us out onto the dunes for a bit of practice before we tackled one of the tallest at over 130 metres high. “Give it plenty of gas, get up into top gear as quick as possible and follow me”, instructed John, taking us up one at a time. The size of this enormous sand pile that I was about to tackle was lost on me until John took up the first rider, Neil. I watched in astonishment as John and Neil raced towards the base of the dune; they rapidly shrunk in size to what can only be described as two ants traversing up the side of an extremely large sand castle. Neil didn’t make it to the top, not enough momentum, so would have to try again. Next it was my turn, “Ready Jason?” said John and as instructed I gave it plenty of gas, accelerating towards the base of the dune, then suddenly heading skywards as we raced up the side of this sand mountain remembering Johns words “Momentum’s your friend” As we reached the top I rolled off the gas remembering also not to go over the edge as it was a long way down the other side. I’d made it to the top, what a buzz. John turned around and headed back down to pick up another rider, leaving me on the top to admire the incredible views of the dunes and the surrounding desert.
On day four after one of the longest days, riding we arrived at our bivouac on the edge of the dunes near Ousina. The wind had picked up so it was decided that we all would spend the evening inside the nearby building where we were entertained by the local guys playing on African hand drums. Most of the guys slept in the tents provided with a few sleeping indoors, I however, was determined to sleep under the stars even though it was blowing a hooley and freezing cold. So wearing all my clothes and laying under five blankets I braved the cold, for a front row seat of the Milky Way with its billion stars.
By the end of day five we had covered over 1000km, and as we pulled into the workshop I had mixed feelings of relief and sadness that it was all over. With blisters on my hands, an aching body but with a big smile, it was time to go home. Will I go back and do it all over again? You bet I will.