Long before you see the village you know it’s coming. Plastic bags are snagged to the spines of the few hardy twigs that lie dormant on the desert floor. Blue, black and dirty yellow they flap like dying formless birds in the hot desert wind. Then comes the stench of burning plastic, mixed with the occasional whiff of fresh mint. The villages in the interior can be a mess, traditional mud brick houses mixed with breeze block municipal buildings, their red government flags erect in the hot air, festooned with plastic rubbish. This is a culture with no mechanism for removing the detritus; it litters their ditches, waterways and streets. It’s a recent problem for an ancient world unable to cope with the rush into modernity.
But for all that, this is a beautiful landscape. The mountains are breathtaking in their harshness. This is not an Alpine glaciated awe-inspiring view, but a heat baked, dry beauty. Where there is vegetation, the transition between lush green and desert brown is
immediate. Where there is water, there is life, where there is none, it is all but barren. In the narrow transition zones you find cobras and puff adders and prehistoric uromastyx.
On bikes, hydration is key. Sucking between six and eight litres of water a day, the bladder nipple barely out of our mouths, drinking became the first action of a stop. At its glaring peak in early May the temperature peaked at just below 45C. Gas tanks fizzed and belched, tyre rims became so pliable that no tools were required to seat the bead of a flat.
Leaving Tarmac for the first time and heading into the foothills of the Atlas was a moment filled with trepidatious anticipation. It’s an immediate conversion from a seated position, staying upright and letting the machine bounce between your legs, moving from the grippy consistency of the black-top to the constantly variable.
It demands 100% concentration and to ride slowly often feels less comfortable, less in control and more dangerous. To ride quickly felt like a natural rhythm over the dust and rocks. Before the trip, I could not have imagined ripping this 200kg machine at 30mph up loose mountain tracks, sliding the back-end out around gravel berms or hammering at 70mph down a thread of clear track the width of a Land Cruiser tyre over the flat purple desert.
Fesh-fesh is sand turned into desert dust with the consistency of talcum powder. It also became the byword for crashes, uncontrollable front-end wobbles and plain hard work. 25mph with the weight as far back as possible and not fully fighting the inevitable tank slapping wobbles is the theory. This does work when you can see the horror coming, but often we received no warning as the fesh-fesh lurked in mud ruts, hollows and dips. Before our flat bread and honey breakfast had settled, one of our party was dumped over the handlebars at 35mph onto a stony track. His new motocross shirt and armour are metaphorically blooded. It’s a nerve-jangling experience, slamming from “flow” to fear and the solution is maddening and counter-intuitive. At first it seems crazy to squirt on the power when things are turning to shit, but if you don’t, the front wheel dips and digs in like the bow of a speed boat with only one result – projection.
Get it right and riding on sand is an exhilarating experience, but let’s face facts, we are here because Morocco is poor. We are not playing on natural phenomena like a great surf break or climbing a huge cliff, but on rough communication routes between underdeveloped settlements. It is along these same lifelines that we occasionally meet the local postman on his Honda C90 and the kids who will never go to school. To recognise that we are exploiting this economic disparity for pleasure is important. Be generous with your waves, smiles and loose change.