It was a dank grey September morning when, suddenly finding myself with nothing much left to lose and utterly bored of being me, I unglued my face from the floor beside my bed and sought guidance from the I Ching, to be thus advised: 'It furthers one to cross the Great Water'.
Fuck yeah! So I dug out my passport, licked the crumbs from my debit card, oiled the chain of my KTM and set off for a wazz around Spain via France with Morocco an option on the horizon.
France, hmm... a tedious six hours flat to the tank, unzipping her truck-choked killing fields, even once attaining absolute top speed (131mph) with my neck bones crunching and my boots flapping behind like flags in the breeze. Next day, I was up and over Tourmalet, highest col in the Pyrenees, circled by vultures, my heart soaring with freedom and loneliness, before dropping down through a sphincter-bursting series of vertical zigzags into Spain.
Crane to left of me, bulldozer to right, all unmanned and dead in the dust. Building boom's over: seems Spain woke up at last and smelt the coffee, with a shot of cheap brandy alongside. On a whim I swerved right and immediately lost myself in the Picos de Europa. Damn, it's pretty! I'll be coming back here to live out my last days among these peaks, beside any of these green rivers. Wild boar, lynx, marmots, cider, and I only hit one of those four that evening.
It was about this time, somewhere in Murcia, that my throat began to itch. I tried changing neckerchiefs but to no avail. So I shaved it away and slapped on some of my exquisite Propolis Aftershave (gathered by honeybees in their free time don't you know) and cracked on south.
I began to suspect some microbe had got into the strap of my Shoei and things deteriorated till my whole neck was on fire from chin to collarbone and I'd developed a flapping chicken skin fringe of decaying flesh. I scratched and scrabbled and screeched into the blistering wind across the plains of middle Spain.
Beautiful Segovia, fuck you in your timeless serenity. I'd have gladly trashed that precious roman viaduct if it only brought me some peace. Don't you hate being sick on holiday? That night at my tawdry campsite I even roared at a bus-full of guitar strumming hippies to shut the fuck up. And bless them they did. Sorry, dudes. On then to Granada with its fabulous Muslim palace, the Alcazar; all mirrored pools and trim hedges, plus a downtown chemist who flinched at the sight of me and my weeping scrotumnal neck sack.
Whatever pills he offered I slugged there at the counter then staggered away and an hour later found myself in a mirrored bar laughing at the wreck of me. My throat no longer itched, ah the bliss, but what am I doing here, sick and far from home? Maybe I should just piss off back there now, to chalk up yet another failure. What was wrong with me anyway? Dare I head any further south? Yet dare I turn round now, climb back on that plank saddle (thanks KTM) and meander my way northwards, wasting enough time till my friends began to miss me?
I woke in the morning in my tent under pines, itchless and feeling pretty damn fine. I showered, shaved, and slapped on the old Propolis. What the fuck? My skin's going crazy again! So I got it, at last. A hideous allergy to my most treasured unguent. I cannot
express my relief at binning this tube of horrors, climbing back on the bike and aiming south. Magical Morocco: sweet, crazy and kind. On the bike you very soon learn that in any built-up area the pedestrian has absolute right of way and that, should the traffic police detain you briefly, they merely require funds for their next ball. The locals are largely jobless yet unable to leave the country in search of work or even, with roadblocks outside every major town, to travel freely between districts. Second class citizens in their own country, they risk a lot by befriending the affluent western tourist.
Thus a lot of folk pass the time loafing beside the road gazing into the distance or overloading their transport (mainly wives, donkeys or asses) under piles of cut branches, so beware every bush you meet lest it blunder into your path. Moroccans are almost all of them generous and friendly but may waste a lot of time telling you this.
A week after arriving, light of heart and healed of throat, I left Chefchouen reluctantly, after tasting my finest ever tagines at the Grape Cafe. Hassan, what a guy! I painted a neat mural on his wall in lieu of payment, plus his handy mate next door changed the KTM’s plugs and oil for nothing but a nude photo of my ex.
Onwards then, up and over the Atlas Mountains, three separate ranges and with each the scenery grew wilder, ending in lunar landscapes of candy-striped rock and stunted vegetation unlike any scene in Europe. On day four I reached the sudden end of a tarmac ribbon supposedly heading for the town of Azrou and paused to consult the map, wondering whether to turn back. It was pretty wild out here. A small girl appeared from her hovel on my left, furiously waving her arm, aiming me forwards, shouting ‘Piste!’
So I took up the challenge, flipped her a coin and set off on the most insane forty mile journey of my life. Within minutes the surface had degraded to loose pebbles through which I spewed my way, desperate to put my feet down but terrified of losing balance. I’m not a great road rider and total shit off-road, knowing just enough to trust the bike as she lurched and slid beneath me at about eight miles an hour. Then the pebble track descended into a boggy meadow and things turned even more horrible, bike travelling sideways, bars flapping till I lost my nerve and opened the throttle, looking for a way out before I sank into the mulch or hit one of the many massive cedar stumps littering the grass. Which turned out to be the right move because speed gave me some semblance of control. Who’d have thought? Also, if I gazed way ahead instead of fixating on any particular stump, then I’d likely miss the fucker.
And at last, out from the far corner of the meadow led an almost vertical stony track up which I slithered far too fast so I panicked again, grabbed a handful, stood on the rear brake and came to rest, engine stalled, inches from a rock wall.
I wish I could tell you that the path here turned mellow and tarmacky again. Fuck, no, it got worse, much worse. This whole scene went on for hours, up and down, swapping dry shingle river beds for more swampy, tussocky bollocks . Twice I fell off the bike, gently, and neither of us got hurt. I shouted a lot, but I never once got off and pushed. I’m proud of that. Guess I was more afraid of getting lost in the dark because the sun was already going down.
At last I came out onto a rutted track through the mountains with stunning vistas and sheer drops to left and right. On and on this continued with never another vehicle in sight, only a glinting river bed hundreds of feet below. Things climaxed when I came round a bend and careered into a great pool of red mud flooding the rock. Unable to control the bike, we went slowly sideways towards the edge till I just... lay down. My beloved KTM lay down too, like a pole-axed mare she came to rest facing me, sprawled on her side.
I’m not weak, hell, I worked out once, but after all we’d just endured I was at my tether end and though I gripped the bars and heaved, she pretty much had to get up for herself. In fear and trembling I looked her over. Only scraped plastic, a ripped tent and the brake lever snapped short, phew.
And then the great orange dingus fired up at my third attempt! I don’t mind admitting I sat down and wept, and a bare half hour later I was snivelling again, in utter relief, when the descending track finally joined a tarmac road only ten kilometres from Azrou. Ahead of me the moon was coming up.