How to Cross a Desert using a Bike
Crossing the Sahara Desert on a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 with Fuel Motorcycles on the 2019 Scram Africa.
"Everything that touches the light ..." My Harley-Davidson Nightster 883 surveying the Moroccan desert.
"It shouldn't be here," said one of the cyclists, speaking not just of the lone tree into whose shade we had fled after our bikes ran out of gas, but of the desert as a whole. “None of us should be here. Look at this place, man! I have children! "We had spent the night before listening to a man with a broken leg cry in pain as the truck that was to take him to medical assistance spun its tires in the distance, unable to free itself from the distant dunes. Around midnight, a man on a camel delivered morphine. The screams subsided. In the morning, he would take the tires off his bike and put them on mine, hoping it would do better than him on the way back. To Marrakech.
Two months earlier, I had been introduced to Fuel Motorcycles, a classic-style motorcycle equipment company from Barcelona that organizes a couple of adventures every year. The guys from Fuel invited me to Scram Africa, a seven-day circuit for Morocco on stylish motorcycles, although certainly not qualified. The idea was to challenge yourself and do it "the old way", to cross the desert with some style and panache. I did very little research and accepted quickly, without to know that it would be one of the greatest adventures of my life.
Quick Eddie in his Triumph, followed by a classic Ténéré, a custom XR650 and an SR500.
The Scram changes slightly from year to year, but is always led by Karles Vives, the founder and creative director of Fuel Motorcycles. By 2021, your 3,000 euro registration fee covers a ferry to and from Barcelona, food and accommodation, chase trucks, GPS, and miscellaneous little things. You are responsible for getting to the ferry, bringing your bike, or arranging the rental and fuel costs. Half the nights are spent in pretty hotels, the other half in big canvas tents in the middle of the desert. Tents come complete with firm mattresses, a hot dinner, and morning coffee and breakfast.
Outside the Kenzi Menara Palace Hotel, passengers fill water bags, set up GPS units, and don armor before the trip. (Morgan Gales /) He
was an amateur off-road racer at best, although he still wouldn't have admitted it. As we prepared for the trip, I was told that my vehicle options included a Honda CRF250L and a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883. Possessed by the spirit of travel and blind naivety, I opted for the 883
Our group met at the luxurious Hotel Kenzi Menara. Palace in Marrakech, where the first wave had already finished its journey and gone, leaving only our rental bikes. This is where we first met, my 883 and I, the heavy sand-spitting, dune-spewing Harley-Davidson that would carry me through the Sahara desert and for the next seven days.
Joel drives his Auto Fabrica-built SR500 through stage one of the Scram Africa.
The bike was a Nightster 883 equipped with medium controls, patina paint, some bigger HD shocks, 2-in-1 exhaust, and a set of Bates Baja tires that someone on the first wave had run almost bald. You would see the white bead on the tire at the end of the second day. For the fourth, I would have completely cut off the mounting bolt on one of those "upgraded" shocks. But he would prove to be a faithful beast and would keep moving forward despite the abuse.
The last quarter mile of the first stage provided a glimpse of what was to come in the next few days.
In the morning we left the hotel and quickly left the city. It seemed like we were somehow in the heart of the desert after just one turn of the road, the city miles behind us. The first half of the day is spent crossing rocky courses ranging from golf balls to watermelons in size, no more scarce on our way than anywhere else. As we got farther from the city, the sand deepened, the path less defined. I was finding my balance, following the riders in front of me, not completely out of reach at the moment.
Me on the left, David in the middle in his Royal Enfield Himalayan and Liam in the Mutt on the right.
The final stretch to our camp gave me an idea of what was to come. We veered off the trail as instructed by our bar-mounted GPS and quickly found ourselves in deep, soft sand. A Sportster is made for American roads, not the Moroccan desert. The words of my colleague Justin Dawes rang in my ears: “Just release the clutch and let the wheel spin until the bike starts to move. Don't milk the clutch. You will burn it. "This soon became my anthem. The wheel spun as I walked like a crab, pushing the handlebars, and the bike finally started moving again. I was quickly exhausted and stopped at the campground, just 100 yards away, ready for some water and our one-to-two nightly beer ration.
We started each day by dialing our GPS units, filling our water packs, and drinking extra water and a bagged lunch. for a short morning briefing and hit the trail.
The group sat outside on brightly colored pillows, sipping mint tea and talking about past expectations versus our current reality. I laughed, nervous but still not realizing that the Day one would be the easiest.
Day two was almost entirely off-road, but it ran mostly through wide stretches of desert, much faster than the first. or. The rain had come and gone, leaving the sand compact. If you could find a clear path and had enough speed, it was possible to maintain a constant heading, even on a 550-pound machine like mine. We passed camels and large raptors, but there was no water. I only threw up twice from exhaustion.
My tire at the end of the second day, and the "new" tire was installed the morning of the third day.
As with any larger trip, we divide into smaller groups determined by relative skill level and language spoken. We would merge and separate from other groups, but I quickly held on to the only person I knew before the trip, my friend David Chang from @CafeRacersofInstagram, and my new Canadian friend Liam Cormier, owner of Treadwell Clothing and lead singer of a band called Cancer Bats. David was traveling in a Royal Enfield Himalayan; Liam, his specially designed Mutt, a replica of the CB200 that had been customized just for this trip. The Himalayas rode a bit sideways after David sent it 10 feet into the air, nose first to the side of a dune. The Mutt rode like a champion all the way with few problems and better fuel economy than any other bike on the trip. We called each other Dune Goonz and we laughed more than we collided, which was a lot.
The shock on the right side of my Sportster after cutting the mounting bolt came off.
I don't know where it happened, but sometime on the second day, one of the other Sportster riders crashed hard. We had already arrived at our camp on the outskirts of Tafraoute and did not notice his arrival until he was loaded into a tent and placed to await medical transport. He was from Chicago and, like me, he hoped this trip would be a lot easier. He waited for the night, much calmer after receiving some painkillers, and was transported to the nearest town in the morning, where he was bandaged up and sent home. He said he would test the Scram again next year.
I had been told that the worst terrain of the trip would arrive on the third and fourth days, and it was already over my head. At stops, I would stand behind my bike, staring at the bald rear tire while biting my nails anxiously. It looked like a dirt bike tire that had been used for a month of endurance racing. It was completely square and showed a white cloth underneath the rubber. In the morning, I recruited one of the mechanics and we changed the tire from the Chicago rider's Sportster to my bike before continuing to stage three.
Experience the first of the river sediments "fesh-fesh". Look at the angle of my front tire, I can't imagine this ended well.
The third stage began quite easily, a quick trip through the M'harech straight that turned into a small segment of asphalt, where two Bedouin merchants sold polished gems and silver. I swapped for a couple of souvenirs and headed to Gara Medouar, a large horseshoe-shaped geological formation that looks like a huge crater in the middle of the desert. We rode to the top to drink some water and enjoy the view. Passing through large pools of water that look like large ant hills, we began towards a lonely section of several miles of sand cut by the wind; essentially screaming. I stepped onto the pegs, leaned back, and stayed on the throttle, bottoming out my suspension but not spinning. I was maintaining a constant speed when I noticed that my blows became much softer. David stopped next to me, pointing down. I had cut the top mounting bolt from my right shock. There was no shade while we waited for the chase truck.
Enjoying a quick lunch in Ramlia before our longest river crossing.
When the mechanics caught up with us, one of them jumped out of the truck, assessed the situation, and dove into the bed to grab a flat-head screwdriver and hammer. Using the screwdriver as a chisel, he hammered a notch into the axle of the broken bolt stuck in my bike's fender strut. When the notch was deep enough, he tipped the screwdriver and used the hammer to continue hitting the bolt, now slowly turning it counterclockwise. Ten minutes after they appeared, the bolt was out. Five of us loaded my bike in the back of the truck without the aid of a ramp and I got on. Thirty minutes later we were in Erfoud, where we found a small mechanic shop with a replacement bolt for $ 0.55. Let's refuel and quickly return to the sand in the direction of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
My sand riding experience was really limited to the first two days of this trip, so I found out as I went along, aside from Dawes' helpful words. Not only was the sand here deeper and finer than any I've ever ridden, it seemed to last forever.
If you've spent time riding a motorcycle through deep sand, you know that speed is often your friend. This is scary at first, as the bike is unstable until you go fast enough to keep the front tire on the sand. Once you move fast enough that a crash really sucks, the bike starts to smooth out. Unless you're in a 550-pound Sportster, in which case stability is the stuff of legends, a myth that riders repeat around the campfire, something you're never likely to experience.
We were crossing several rivers, so it was quite easy to gain some speed as we descended the riverbanks. The riders lined up on the other side of the shore, watching as we crossed and then cheering for the others from the other side. The taller and lighter bikes crossed with ease first. Then came David, then Liam, and finally me, wide open in second or third gear, sand spitting in a high arc behind me, praying I could keep that front tire on the sand. I made it across the first river and fell only after climbing up the bank on the other side. We managed to get through two more river crossings, crashing a couple of times. I emptied my three-liter hydration pack while sweating and cursing in my helmet. He knew the next day would be worse, but he also knew that the destination after the dunes was a hotel with a pool. I played in the dunes for a while but was jealous of riders on lighter bikes who could make it look effortless. They beat me up and the thought of having a beer by a pool sounded like sheer happiness.
Relax after a nice "desert massage".
I soon confirmed that it was. We each had a couple of beers and I even had a gin and tonic with dinner. Good whiskey seemed to be difficult to find in this part of the world, but it was still equally affected by the adrenaline rush of the day's trip and the anxiety for the next, and one drink seemed as good a cure as any other. Before we enjoyed our big buffet-style meal and then retired to air-conditioned rooms with showers and clean sheets, I nervously asked our leader, Karles, about stage four.
"Tomorrow's tough sections are like today," Karles said, "only longer."
He smiled like every veteran smiles at a rookie who's about to get his butt kicked.
The next morning I woke up long before my alarm and was soon approaching the bikes with my water pack filled, prepared, and ready to go. A nice German couple had overcome the first hurdles for their vintage BMW and sidecar, but when the engine blew they decided to simply enjoy the ride by stopping to stop at the pursuit vehicles. They gave me some of their electrolyte packs. He probably looked scared. I was.
The rear tire spat out clouds of red sand, keeping the front tire just above it. Fixed in third gear, I go through the fesh-fesh.
The first half of the day was great. We constantly advance through some small towns. The children would get out and run down the street next to the bicycles. Some waved, others grabbed imaginary handlebars and made rapid movements, others turned us around, always smiling for some reason. Once again, we veered off into the desert and headed toward my assured destruction.
We stopped for lunch at Ramlia, which actually consists of a long building, probably built before the adjacent river dried up. What remains is a vast wash filled with the finest sand you have ever seen. Silt. They call it "fesh-fesh" in Morocco. I imagine it might not be that bad on a 300-pound bike, but on a Sportster, it's quicksand.
Now that I have come out of the desert and into the mountain crosses, I feel incredibly relieved and take a moment to immerse myself in the scenery.
Trying to remember what other riders had said at dinner, I tried to stand on the pegs and squeeze the tank with my knees. But this is not how a Harley-Davidson is presented. I crashed, picked up the bike, and spun the tire in first gear while trying to pull the bike out of the sandy hole I had just created. Eventually, he would gain enough speed to get his feet back on the pegs. Then I would crash again. We started calling it the old desert massage. Fortunately, the fine sand of the river is a bit softer and the crashes don't hurt much, at least not the first 15 times.
I'd sit down, pause, regroup, and then pick up the bike and do it again. I learned that if I sat very forward on the bike and could get it up to the top of the second or the middle of the third, I could go about 300 feet before crashing again, sometimes more. I hurt my ribs a little on one handlebar, my pants ripped off another, my boots melted from being nailed under an exhaust pipe. When we got to camp, my body felt like a bag of hamburger meat.
Karles came over and patted me on the back, putting his arm around me with a big smile. I couldn't help but notice that his face wasn't covered in sand like mine.
"Well, we're almost done!" he said. "You did it!"
I almost cried with relief.
"But do you see that?" he said, pointing. "A sandstorm that will be here in two minutes."
We started tying the flaps of the tent. I looked at David. He knew what to do to keep morale. Pulling the phone out of his pocket, he touched "Sandstorm" by Darude. We Dance. We drank another beer and more mint tea. We climbed to the top of a dune and watched the sunset.
Stage five gradually took us out of the desert through some wide open tracks and onto some stony, rough, and more technical roads. We crossed the Saghro Mountains, stopping for a moment at the top to look back and contemplate all that we had just conquered. Then we leave the desert behind and go down to the Dadès Valley. We arrived at our hotel in the town of Xaluca, where we met the first tourists we had seen so far. A guy wearing a Philadelphia sports car shop T-shirt looked at the Sportster and smiled at me. I smiled back at him, my mouth still reddish brown from eating dust all day. Philly dude and I were having very different experiences in Morocco.
The roads in this part of Morocco are an off-road playground. Here we are descending the mountain passes towards Tabant. (Fuel Motorcycles /)
The sixth day would be the most beautiful yet, and having overcome the desert, he had found a new peace. We left Xaluca and followed a path along the Dadès river, where we saw more vegetation than the rest of the trip. We covered roughly the same distance as the other days, but on much less challenging terrain, so we were able to stop more often to enjoy the scenery or cool off in the river. We climbed gravel roads to a peak of about 10,000 feet, experiencing really cold for the first time on the trip before taking the curves into Tabant town and the Valley of Happy People. This turns out to be more than a nice name. More kids came out and ran with us as we passed. People heard the bikes and came out to say hello or just look, but they were all smiles. Something tells me you don't see Harley-Davidsons around here often.
After Tabant, we said goodbye to off-road driving; we would be on asphalt for the rest of the trip. The Sporty seemed to breathe a big, smoky sigh of relief. The asphalt was well groomed, so Liam, David, and I sped back to the hotel that night. It felt great to be in a situation where the Sportster was now suddenly one of the highest rated bikes. The landscape was lush and green, the climate sunny but mild; it was perfect. You would never know that we were only a couple hundred miles from a bitterly inhospitable desert. We went down to the small town of Bin el Ouidane, perched on the lake of the same name; a little paradise in the middle east.
Dominik on the left in his Triumph Scrambler, me in the middle and David on the right as we pass Dadès Gorges.
We all laughed and drank, finally getting more than a beer or two, knowing the next day would be a walk on the sidewalk back to Marrakech. Karles held a small ceremony after dinner, awarding each rider a medal for completing the eighth annual Scram. My medal hangs on the wall next to me like a trophy as I write this from my home office in Los Angeles. Audaces Fortuna Iuvat, says; fortune favors the bold. I may have started out naively, but in the end, I was bold. I might not know what I was getting into, but I looked into the unknown and jumped. Silly, no doubt. But knowing what I know now, I would do it again in an instant.
That last night we stayed up later than any night before, laughing with the other riders about the level of absurd shit we had just passed. Paul had somehow managed to bend both shocks on his W800, replacing them with some from a four-wheeler; they were locked. Clean jersey James was at the forefront of the pack the entire time, never giving anyone a chance to stain his neat shirt from tire splatters. Maris still had the statue of the Virgin Mary that she had been carrying the entire time. Joel had managed to pilot his expensive custom Auto Fabrica through each stage without any major damage. And the three of us, the Dune Goonz, were still laughing despite all the desert massages we had received.
The daily briefing and packet went a bit more uneventful the next morning. This noisy band of strangers from all over the world had gotten quite close during our seven days together, and now we were returning to civilization and our lives. At least it was nice to go without my chest and elbow armor for a day.
On my way back to town, I noticed black smoke coming from my Harley when I accelerated or hit the gas pedal hard. Some of that fine river silt had evidently passed through my air filter. Luckily we have insurance for the bike.
The team sits on a dune to watch the sunset after one of our toughest days. Nothing brings people together like a challenge, and this trip was a great challenge.
I must say we gave the bikes back to the very angry shop owner and headed back to the hotel for our last night. Everyone cleaned up and arrived at the pool looking like new people, ready to relax in their clean shorts and sandals before heading back to our homes in the morning. We travel by taxi to the medina of the city to enjoy worldly tourism and have dinner together. We are all motorcyclists, all adventurers, but overcoming everything we had been through made us good friends.
"Everyone says they would do it again, but on a more qualified motorcycle," Karles said. “Then they try it and they don't have as much fun. The fun is in the challenge. "
Indeed. So. Who's joining me for Scram 2021? No need to pack light. We rented Gold Wings.