25 May 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 4

After a long day, and a few days with not all that much to eat, we were looking forward to a good meal. I'm not an especially fussy eater, although spicy food causes me problems, so I was looking forward to trying some real Moroccan cuisine.

Dinner was included in the price of our room, and started with a thick soup with beans in the bottom (no, not baked beans!), then a lamb tagine with seasonal fruit to finish – washed down with some Moroccan wine.

A tagine is a kind of casserole dish with a conical lid. The meat is put in the centre, with vegetables arranged around it before being cooked in an oven. Simple and delicious.

The local beers were pleasant enough, although in one hotel we had locally brewed Heiniken. And no, it doesn't taste any better than it does here.

The rooms were comfortable, each having a double bed and two singles. One concern about the trip was the law relating to sharing rooms where is illegal for an unmarried lady and gentleman to share a room, and with homosexuality being illegal, the scope for a potential misunderstand was definitely there – although, as with most of our concerns, they were unfounded and sharing rooms, even at one point being expected to share a (double) bed, was never a problem for our various hosts. We did ask for an extra bed though!

Wednesday was out first day together in Morocco, and the day we left the tarmac and headed for the pistes. Breakfast was bread, crepe, apricot jam, cheese, coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and omelette – some things are much the same all over the world.

We stowed our things, and rode out of the gate…. Well, almost. Mark H's bike had blown a fuse the day before, leaving him with no brake lights and no dashboard lights or speedo (it's a digital one on the KTMs), but this wasn't the problem that stopped him this morning: this time his bike died completely. No lights, no starter, no clocks, nothing at all.

Photo by Gareth Jones

Now we knew that Mark's battery was getting weak, which is why it wouldn't start my bike back in Spain, but we were getting a horrible sense of déjà vu. Thinking it through logically, we started with the rest of the fuses in the fusebox between the two fuel tanks – all present and correct (bar the one that had blown the day before). So what next? Main fuse? Bingo! The 30a main fuse, buried in the sump-guard with the battery and starter relay, had blown. Strange. Then we spotted an unplugged plug through an opening in the side of the bodywork, reconnected it, changed the fuse, and the bike started.

The only way that plug could have been disconnected was by human intervention, because it had to be pulled up out of the socket. Very strange.

With the fuse changed we were back on the road and doing the last few kilometres in to Midelt. There we branched off on to the Cirque du Jaffar, with the intention of getting to Imilchil [Ima-shil] for lunch.

The going was pretty easy: a gravelly track with gentle bends, the odd stream and relaxed uphill gradient. When we stopped for a breather, Gareth said he'd go on ahead and take some video as we rode past and to give him five or ten minutes head start – so that's what we did.

Carrying on up the track we found Gareth gesturing frantically beside a small stream, so we thought he was asking us to go a bit quicker to make it look more spectacular – but that's not what he was meaning at all.

Stopping a little way further up the track for him to catch up, we soon found out that what he wanted us to do was to stop. He'd had a bit of a crash, where the front wheel had hit a rock as he was looking backwards for a good place to film. He'd gone over the bars, and given himself a nasty bruise on his thigh (we took his word for that!). Most seriously of all, he'd hit one of his metal panniers on a rock which had severely dented it, forcing the lid off and popping the bottom out of it too.

Before we could carry on, the pannier needed to be repaired otherwise we'd be collecting his kit as it dropped out the bottom. Of course getting the pannier off the bike was the first challenge because the dents in the back of it obstructed the locking hooks. Once it was off, we needed to bang it back in to something approximately pannier shape – and I came to the rescue with a mallet.

I got a fair amount of teasing for bringing a mallet, but it wasn't the only time on the trip that it was to come in handy.

Setting off again, and climbing a little more steeply now, the piste remained wide, gravelly and easy to ride – although on one left-hand bend Mark L managed to run wide in to some boulders. Normally this wouldn't be too much of a problem, except that Mark isn't all that tall and rides a 990S which has around an extra inch of suspension travel. He's also fitted a more comfortable seat that's about an inch higher than standard too. The net result is that he can't put his feet down.

I'd ridden past him, but stopped on the next flattish bit to make sure he was OK. By this time he was off the bike and trying to roll it back on to the path – which he didn't quite manage, and gently toppled over.

Climbing off my bike I walked back to help him. We were higher than we thought at this point, and even the short walk down the track was tiring. Between us we rolled the bike backwards out of the boulders and back on to the path. He set off again while I climbed back up to where I'd stopped and took a few moments to get my breath back and take a photo of the scene:

The track gradually narrowed, and took on a sideways slope from the rock face towards the drop. The surface also changed and became looser and much less grippy – even with knobbly tyres.

Coming to a boulder that had fallen down the hillside, I had to ride around it and with the extra weight of my luggage, the slope and the loose surface, the rear stepped out and it was my turn to have a lie-down:

The bike landed on the pannier, which popped off it's mounting without damage (other than a dent in the bottom corner of the plastic), and the rear wheel came to rest right on the edge of the drop:

I decided that trying to pick the bike up on my own probably wasn't the best idea given the loose surface and if the bike had gone over the edge then that would be the end of the bike – although it's worth noting that we never saw an abandoned wreck anywhere in the mountains, and we suspect they get picked clean and carted off by locals in much the same way as ants devour fallen food.

Being the last person in the ride at this point, all I could do was sit and wait until they realised I wasn't with them and it wasn't long before Mark H and Gareth arrived and between the three of us we got the bike up, pointing in the right direction and the pannier re-attached.

The track remained “technical” for another kilometre or so, before widening out, losing the camber and having an easier surface.

When I caught up with the other four bikes I found that I wasn't the only faller on that section. Jason had slipped in much the same way as I had, and in his eagerness not to go over the edge had rammed the rock face with his bike, smashing his Lexan headlight guard, breaking off an indicator and putting a selection of deep gouges in to the fairing.

We rapidly came to the conclusion that if the trail had many more sections like that one, we could be in trouble and we wouldn't reach our intended destination near the Dades Gorge. We subsequently discovered by comparing maps that what was shown as a piste on one map was shown as a donkey track on another... Mapping Morocco isn't easy and you cannot rely too heavily on the maps because the condition can change dramatically, and often actual route of the road changes because of landslides, floods, upgrades etc. A route taking two hours one year can be an eight hour epic the next.

The rest of the route was much easier to ride, and a mixture of wooded sections, rocky outcrops and the occasional hairpin bend kept us entertained. By about midday the track joined a more major track, which was wide, smooth and consisted of a layer of gravel over tarmac. Possibly the worst surface there is to ride on. The track curved around the hills, and we were able to pick up the pace a bit.

A new experience for the day was riding through the many small villages. Invariably you're the day's big event, and people will stop and stare. Kids will run out of their houses and generally do one of three things: Wave and 'Hi-5', demand sweets (bonbon monsieur) or money (Dirham monsieur – or if that doesn't work, “Euro monsieur”), or throw stones.

The biggest hazard was often the number of children all trying to hi-5 you as you rode past – on both sides. The left was fairly easy, but the right was a little more tricky, and care was needed because the very worst thing that could happen was you running over one of the kids. It didn't happen, but I dread to think what they'd do to us if it did. One lesson we all learned very quickly was that the kids put their all in to the hi-5, and it hurts!

As the afternoon progressed, the sky got darker and more threatening with the odd flash of lightening in the distance. Arriving in a village at the bottom of a valley, the road was blocked by an excavator that was rebuilding the road where it crossed the river, and we had to wait for it to stop to let us pass.

As we waited, crowds of children appeared demanding sweets, money etc. and before too long I felt (and heard) something hit my helmet – great, I thought, they’re throwing stones… Except they weren’t. Another couple of pings and something bounced off and landed inside the fairing: a marble-sized hailstone! Not something we expected, but better than stones.

Eventually we took our leave, and carried on through the pouring rain. None of us were really dressed for rain, and it even got cold enough for me to deploy the headed grips. We stopped on a causeway just outside the village to check the map and see where we could change our plans. While we were stopped, a young girl wandered over and asked very politely for a sweet and it made a pleasant change. She was rewarded with a boiled sweet and a Biro.

The whole issue of giving stuff to kids is somewhat contentious. These people have very little, and are desperately poor whereas we are rich and have everything – at least in their eyes. Is it wrong for them to want a bit of what we’ve got? Or does it just promote begging and dependency? Who knows…? I certainly don’t.

From there it was a short ride to Imichil where we planned to refuel and stop for the night. The petrol station there is fairly new, and before it was built fuel  had to be pumped from barrels. While the bikes were being filled (petrol stations aren’t self-service) we were surrounded by yet more children all trying to get us to stay in their father’s / brother’s hotel or visit their shop etc. and it was very irritating.

My technique was to say a very clear “no thank you” and then ignore any repeated requests, but some of the group found the constant clamouring for attention to be very wearing – although I had to suppress a chuckle when someone, I can’t remember who, started trying to reason with one of the kids. Needless to say it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference!

Having eventually got rid of all the kids, we planned out next course of action. None of us wanted to go back through the village, so the remaining option was to carry on until we found a hotel – which is exactly what happened, just a few metres up the road.

Photo by Gareth Jones

The hotel was built on a rise just beside the road, and as we rode up the driveway we were greeted by what seemed like (and probably was) the whole family from Grandpa through to granddaughter. Of course they had rooms; would we like to eat? Yes please – what? Lamb tagine? Lovely – thank you.

Next thing we knew, Grandpa was given some money and sent in to town for supplies, returning half an hour or so later in the cab of a truck. Tea was prepared for us, traditional Moroccan tea with mint and lots of sugar. I can’t stand tea, but for good manners I had a glass (which wasn’t too bad) and a couple of biscuits.

The hotel was fairly imposing affair inside, with a large atrium with rooms arranged around the edge, and rooms off the ground floor with sumptuous carpets, for meals and tea. Custom is to remove your shoes before going in to someone’s house, but as we stopped to remove our boots we were hustled politely inside saying that it did not matter. But with light coloured carpets throughout, we did feel somewhat guilty with our dusty boots and luggage.

Our rooms were on the first floor, with a connecting door. There were three beds in one room, and a double in the other. Hmm… We asked for another bed and it wasn’t a problem – the beds were layers of foam mattresses, a bit like caravan seat cushions, so it was a simple matter to re-arrange them in to two singles from one double. The pillows were very solid and heavy, and we had to check to see if they were sandbags or sacks of concrete; neither would have been a surprise but they weren’t, just very solid pillows.

While we waited for dinner, we went and stood on the porch to watch the approaching storm. The whole sky was repeatedly split by shards of lightening and, when it came, the rain was torrential. We felt sorry for Grandpa who was going to sit on the porch all night to watch the bikes. When it came, the lamb tagine was delicious, with seasonal fruit to follow (a fresh orange). No alcohol here, just a chilled bottle of water.

The bathroom was enormous, not far off the size of my lounge, with a marble floor and beautifully tiled walls it had both a bath and a separate shower cubicle. There was also plenty of hot water, and we made the most of it before a sound night’s sleep with not even the rain drumming on the windows keeping us awake.

Next time: American tourists and bars of chocolate.

24 May 2010

KTM Forum Welsh Weekend - May 2010

Normally I would have been in Arromanches this weekend, but after my Morrocan trip in April I'm a bit short of holiday so I went to Wales instead. The KTM Forum's Adventure Wing had a fund raising trip for the Welsh Air Ambulance, because in the past they've had cause to use its services.

The plan was to go through to Rhayader on Friday evening, ride all day Saturday and again on Sunday morning before heading home. A friend, Craig, picked me up in his van on Friday en route from Norfolk (I know, I should have ridden) and we arrived just in time at the campsite - last arrival is 22.30, and we got there at 22.28!

We pitched Craig's tent in the darkness, and I went in search of my B&B - which turned out to have a four-poster bed! Never slept in one before, but I can't say it made much difference to the sleeping experience.

Saturday morning arrived and I set about getting me, my bike and my riding apparel in the same place at the same time ready to meet the others at 09.00.

There were three groups: two normal and an advanced group. I opted for the second of the normal groups partly because I'm a wimp, and mostly because the guys in the advanced group really are good riders.

We lost our first rider six miles in, before we even got to a lane: Craig misjudged a junction and toppled over at less than walking pace owing to the camber of the road. He stuck his leg out to catch himself, and pulled his ham-string in the process, putting him out of the ride. Not a good start, and it was Craig's first trip out on his new KTM 950 Super Enduro which he bought to replace his stolen 690 Enduro.

Still, onwards and, this being Wales, upwards. The lanes were an interesting mix of green, slightly rutted routes to rocky paths and the odd stream to ford.

On one lane, rising up from near a quarry, I had a bit of a crash. The surface was stony but firm and fairly smooth, except at the top of a climb there were two ruts with a knife-edge strip between them. I got cross-rutted and went down at about 20mph. I somehow managed to abandon ship while the bike slid along on its side, slewing round across the track.

Having heard an ominous 'ping' I was hoping that the damage wouldn't be either expensive or annoying - it would be too bad to have to stop with a bust footpeg, or a holed engine casing.

The sum total of the damage was a snapped engine bar where one of the welds gave-way. Damage to me, none - I even managed to stay on my feet :)

Lunchtime saw us arrive in Clyro, and one of the guys in the other group flapping fit to take off because he'd lost his wallet (or thought he had).

From there, our ninth lane of the day was a steep climb up to a gate. It was a pretty nasty one with a deep, single rut up the middle of the narrow lane. The gate had a foot-high step, albeit steeply sloped, which made for an entertaining time as people tried and failed to get through the gate.

The lane is obviously very lightly used because the surface was so loose - think freshly turned soil - and hadn't been packed-down by vehicles, horses or even pedestrians.

Attempting to escape from the single rut was futile, because the angle of the embankments ensured you just slipped straight back in.

With all the bikes finally up, we carried on through some wonderful scenery (we don't have hills in Cambridgeshire!). We stopped at one point for a rest and had a visit from a National Trust ranger making sure we were behaving. He checked his map, but even then wasn't sure of we were allowed to be where we were (which of course we were).

Some of the group was starting to tire, so while most of them set off back to Rhayader, three of us carried on. We were all tired, and on one lane my coordination abandoned me and I just couldn't ride along a fairly easy track. Time to stop, reset and try again :)

We caught up with the other group, and just we did, one of us got a puncture - and as it happened the leader of the other group's bike decided to have a bit of a fit and put on its oil light. And someone came prepared in case I had battery problems...

A new tube, and a bit of poking and prodding and we were off again. This lane had a number of water troughs, which gave some people an opportunity for a swim... 950 Adventures don't like swimming, and after a lot of fiddling around the bike still wasn't having any of it, and as it was around 19.00 we then towed it the three miles back to the road to be collected later.

We got back to Rhayader eleven hours after we left, had covered just 90 miles but had a great day out.

A few drinks seemed a good plan, and after a quick shower we made it in time for last food orders.

Sunday morning, with Craig unable to ride, we set off home again.

I've now got a very grubby bike, a broken engine bar and I ache a bit, but it was great fun - and much easier going than in January's snow. And we raised a good few hundred pounds for the air ambulance (which wasn't required this time). And I got more sunburnt in one day in Wales than 2 weeks in Morocco!

14 May 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 3

It was to be a marathon ride, and Morocco’s roads were an unknown quantity: How good would they be? How busy would they be? Will there be good signage (in roman script)?

As we soon discovered, the main roads are in pretty good order, although mostly single carriageway. Speed limits are up to 100kph outside of towns, and typically 60 or 40 within them. The standard of driving is, as you might expect, poor. This caused some of the group a lot of stress, but I decided that there was no point getting fussed by it, to just accept it, and work with it – and in the main, it worked quite well. There were no collisions between any of us and other motor vehicles.

Our route was along the N13, and traffic was light by British standards. Overtaking was easy, although staying alert was essential because the use of mirrors obviously isn’t in the driving test. Worst of all were the long-distance “grand taxis”, mostly elderly Mercedes, who would use both sides of the road, stop (and pull out) at random and engage in kamikaze overtakes at unexpected moments.

If you think we’re heavily Policed in the UK, then Morocco will come as a shock. Police check-points are common, as are speed-checks – especially on the approach to towns, and crossing bridges or causeways which often have much reduced speed limits on them. The officers aren’t clad in yellow either, just their grey uniforms. That said, we were only stopped once in the whole time we were there and that’s because we were the only traffic on the road and I suspect the officer was bored! As in France, oncoming traffic was generally pretty good at warning of speed-checks with flashed headlights – although we also got flashes because of having our headlights on. Driving with headlights on in Morocco, even at night, is not the done thing.

Unleaded petrol is plentiful, and slightly cheaper than in the UK at around 100d per litre (80p), although few filling stations accept card payments. Our first fuel stop was on the outskirts of Chefchaouen, where we drank more Red Bull with some biscuits from the shop. The picture on the packet looked promising: two biscuits with a generous chocolate cream filling, but the reality was two thick, dry biscuits with a thin scraping of something brown in the middle… Not really living up to the “Max” name on the wrapper. Still, better than nothing.

Back on the road, and getting more familiar with the Moroccan way of things, we hopped past lorries, wove around mopeds and kept a watchful eye for oncoming grand taxis! About half-way between Chefchaouen and the next city, Meknes, we stopped for a comfort stop. With lush green vegetation and rolling hills we could be almost anywhere in Europe and I had to keep reminding myself that this was Africa!

Roadworks, of which there were many, are a very different proposition compared to the UK. The general absence of cones, flashing lights, signage and the like makes them interesting and sometimes challenging affairs. At one point we came to a four-way junction where they were building a new roundabout, and as a result none of the roads were connected to each other, and the signs had been taken down too. Fun. Two of the roads set off in generally similar directions, so we took one and hoped for the best. A few hundred yards down the road we spotted a pedestrian and asked if this was the road to Meknes – and of course is wasn’t, thus adding further weight to adage that if there’s a fifty percent chance that something will go wrong then nine times out of ten it will.

Doing a U-turn on an off-camber, gravelly road, with heavy luggage and other traffic travelling in random directions was interesting as we returned to the junction and picked the other road. Care was needed to avoid other traffic, the workmen, the plant and the piles of gravel and other materials strewn around, but both of us made it through safely – even stopping to re-direct a confused local who’d also got the wrong road.

The road offered a mixture of terrain, from plains with long, straight sections to mountainous areas with entertaining twists and turns, as well as steep climes and descents. Slow moving lorries were a regular sight as the struggled up hills, and when I say slow I mean little more than walking pace. Even when they were travelling in the opposite direction you had to be aware of them because traffic behind would overtake without much attention to other traffic – especially when the overtaking vehicle was another lorry that didn’t want to lose momentum up the hill.

Arriving in a village with a sign pointing to Meknes: simple. Next junction with left or right choices and no signs: not so simple.

It's times like that where a sense of direction helps – and a map. We had maps and also an electronic version on our Garmin GPS receivers. Unfortunately the electronic version didn't allow automatic routing, but at least it gave us a pretty good idea of where we were. As it happens, we didn't use any of that to decide the direction – just instinct, which proved to be spot on. Result!

Meknes, christened Milton Keynes by one of the Marks in a moment of confusion, is the largest town that Gareth and I rode through. It was much busier and more chaotic than any of the small towns and villages we’d been though, and there were Police officers, some of them female (which came as a surprise), directing traffic at junction, as well as roundabout and traffic lights. Traffic lights in Morocco have four phases: green, flashing green, amber and red before returning straight to green.

Meknes is also the home of some of Morocco’s alcohol producers, with wine and beer being produced there. We knew that there was alcohol available in Morocco despite it being a Muslim country, but we were less prepared for how readily available it was. As long as you were reasonably discreet about it, nobody paid any attention either.

Heading south out of Meknes we came across the most bizarre roadworks I’ve ever seen. A new dual carriageway is being built, and much of it is finished and in use. Some sections were only partly complete with a contraflow arrangement, and it was this that came as a surprise. Instead of a formal, marked cross-over the closed side was fenced off, with traffic carrying on around the roundabout and turning in a dog-leg on to the other carriageway with no cones, markings or any other indicators that there’s two-way traffic. When it’s time to cross back, a row of three rocks across one side of the carriageway and a bloke in a chair vaguely pointing at the central reservation is the cue to cross back – but not everyone noticed it and runaway lorries were observed still on the wrong side some distance further on. Imagine that on the M25!

It was on this stretch that we found a convoy of British registered Land Rovers and we got a cheery wave and toot as we rode past. British registered vehicles were few and far between, with French and Spanish being the most numerous, although there were quite a lot of German bikes – including, on our return journey, a long procession of Harley Davidsons, complete with Police escort, support vehicles and recovery trailer (with only one space – optimism!).

Once the road quietened down, Gareth and I rode side-by-side for a while, sharing the realisation that not only were we in Africa but that we had the biggest hurdles behind us, and with huge grins we knew we could do it and catch the others.

We’d been keeping in touch with the others via text message, and updating them on our progress. Actually, that’s not quite true: Gareth had been sending texts but was deliberately ambiguous as to whether I was there or not.

Coming to the first of the more mountainous areas, I was surprised to see a very modern variable message sign that wouldn’t have been out of place on a British Motorway. As in the UK, it’s there to show traffic information – principally whether the mountain road is open. The main difference was the provision of substantial height-bars each side of it to stop overloaded trucks from hitting it – and you could understand why when you see the amount of stuff people piled on to trucks: A triple-deck sheep carrier for example, based on a 7.5 tonne truck – and no, they don’t look all that stable.

For a hot country Morocco gets a lot of snow, even on lower ground, and snow barriers were a common sight along the route. Looking at the Atlas Mountains ahead, there was still a lot of snow visible on the tops, and later in the trip when we were riding through the mountains, rounding a corner to find a bank of snow in a shady spot was not uncommon. The temperature varied quite a lot, and you could feel the change from warm to cool and back again – although it was never actually cold.
The trouble with riding through such spectacular scenery is that you can’t appreciate it fully whilst riding, so on finding a suitable lay-by with a stunning view on the top of one of the hills we made out final comfort-stop of the day and spent a few minutes drinking in the view and taking photos.

Aware that time was marching on we pressed on towards Midelt, and hoped that we could find the hotel that the others were going to be staying in. Our third fuel-fill of the day, at a tiny Shell branded station, would see us through the last leg of the day’s journey in terms of both fuel and water.

Buying water at filling stations became a habit, as none of us were all that keen to drink the tap water (although we all did, unknowingly, at one of the places we stayed thanks to the refilled bottle trick!). A 1.5 litre bottle cost around 6d and a couple of those would fill my water-pack.

As the shadows started to lengthen, and we dropped out of the mountains for the last time that day along some wonderful sweeping bends, we drew closer to Midelt. We spied a group of three big bikes ahead and, wondering if they were the others, pressed hard to catch up. They weren’t, and keeping up the pace we soon passed them.

About 20km north of Midelt we saw a sign for an auberge ahead, and as we drew closer we spotted a bike parked outside the gate. A blue bike. A blue and orange bike. A blue and orange KTM Adventure S. We’d done it!

The look on the faces of the others that we were both there was one of astonishment, because they weren’t expecting me to be there at all, and they weren't expecting Gareth to make it there so early because they’d had a lot more trouble with the border and insurance than we had.

It was 17.15 as Gareth and I rode through the gate and parked up next to the other bikes. We’d been on the road for thirteen hours, ridden 525km, negotiated ferry and border crossings and done in one day what the others did in two and a half.

Still to come: pistes, crashes, desert and storms...

12 May 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 2

Watching the three bikes ride off was quite a sad moment, but we had slightly more pressing issues to deal with – namely how feed ourselves for the next couple of days. Spain does Sunday in a big way, and virtually nothing is open. We walked back to the supermarket: closed. Walked in to the next village and found a restaurant: closed.

We eventually found a newsagent that was open (run by Brits, see) and they said that there was one shop that did open on Sunday and we wandered off there to see what we could muster: sliced Chorizo, bacon, a (still warm from the oven) baguette and two apple pastries.

Back at the house, via a cup of coffee and slice of carrot cake at a café we had missed earlier, we tried to keep ourselves amused: it was too cold to swim, there was nothing worth watching on TV and a bike-ride was obviously out of the question – so we played croquet on the (billiard-table smooth) lawn. We didn’t know the rules, so we made it up as we went along; sort of golf with mallets and hoops!

Photo by Gareth Jones

All the while we were making plans: Dealer on Monday? What if it isn’t just the battery? How long will spare parts take to arrive? How do we get the bike to the dealer?

New KTMs come with KTM Assist, which provides breakdown insurance in the whole of Europe (and Morocco) while the bike’s under warranty. My bike isn’t under warranty any more, but I thought I’d give them a call anyway to see if they could help – and they could. For a fee of £250 (plus VAT), plus any costs incurred including call-out fees, recovery fees, labour charges and any parts used – ouch!

They did provide the details of two local KTM dealers, one in Marbella and one in Cadiz. They also told me there was a dealer in Ceuta [Soota], so that if I managed to get it to the ferry I might be able to get help there.

All our contingency plans for breakdowns revolved around being in Morocco, because with less than two days in Spain on the itinerary we thought that if we couldn’t keep it together there then we really would be in trouble – so we really were in trouble.

After many calls to the UK to get technical support, make requests, share problems etc. (O2 have done very well from me!) we discovered that local Ixie, Lee Bell, was back in the UK, the prime suspect was the battery, and if necessary people were willing to send parts to get me up and running.

Sunday night’s supper was an eclectic mix of what we’d bought, what we could scrounge from the cupboards in the house and some of the emergency rations we’d brought for the desert (not dessert). Bacon and cheese flavoured crisps, green olives, slices of Chorizo and bacon, some leftover cheese from the night before and a tin of baked beans (Heinz, of course). A call from the advance party confirmed their safe arrival in Morocco and that they were staying in a hotel in Chefchaouen [Chef-show-wen] – which is where we’d intended to be on Saturday night!

Monday arrived, and I called RAC’s European call centre in France who said they’d send help – but felt it necessary to explain that it wouldn’t be a RAC patrol (I was quite glad about that, for it would have taken a long time to drive to southern Spain in a Transit!). They assured me that help would arrive within 1h30. As is traditional with breakdown assistance, two hours later nobody had arrived so I called back to be told that the fax they’d sent (fax FFS!) to Barcelona hadn’t actually gone through, so they would re-send it now – and that help would arrive within 1h30. Ho hum.

Eventually, as promised, a recovery truck arrived – but how do you explain that there’s an electrical problem and you want the bike taken to Marbella when you don’t speak Spanish? I’m still not entirely sure, but the bike was loaded on to the truck, which had obviously had a very poorly car onboard recently because the deck was slick with oil, and we set off to KTM Marbella with Gareth following on his bike.

Arriving at the dealer, in a much less trendy area than the one in Malaga, and shortly before lunchtime (and the famous Spanish siesta), we managed to convey the problem to the mechanic and they wheeled the bike in to the workshop, past a very sorry-looking Bimota that had been down the road on both sides, and started checking the electrics and putting the battery on charge.

Time for the siesta, and two hours for Gareth and me to kill until the dealer reopened. Food, coffee, a stroll along the seafront, then finally back to the shop to find some interesting news: the battery had plenty of volts, so it should be able to start the bike. So what was the problem? Images of expensive electronic black-boxes, only available from Austria, ran through my mind.

 Photo by Gareth Jones

After further investigation, the battery was pronounced dead and a new Yuasa battery (140€) was fitted – but of course this needed charging too. Time crept slowly onward, and we’d looked at all the bikes in the showroom several times, watched the brand new Sherco demonstrator bikes being delivered, gone to the café next door for Coke and pastries… At long last, K2 was pronounced fit and well, so with my credit card considerably dented (although labour was only 21€ per hour), and lighter hearts, Gareth and I set a course for Sotogrande. By now it was after 20.00 and we’d heard from the others that they were now in Fes (which wasn’t in our original plan at all). We had another tin of beans and a bit of left-over bread before turning in for the night with the intention of being on the first ferry of the day to Ceuta.

My alarm woke me at 05.30, and with tired excitement we downed half a (very large) can of Red Bull and a chocolate doughnut each, stowed our luggage and, with a degree of trepidation, I turned the key in K2, pressed the starter and SHE STARTED!

There’s very little traffic in Spain at that hour, and we made good time to the port at Algeciras where we tracked down some tickets for the 08.00 boat with Acconia Trasmediterránea. It was only just 07.00 so we had plenty of time to spare, and we watched the Tangiers ferry loading including a very large orange, Dutch registered, desert truck on to the very small catamaran. It was the last to be loaded, and the boat definitely shifted in the water as it drove up the ramp!

Photo by Gareth Jones

By this time someone had appeared in the Acconia check-in booth, so we rolled up, presented our tickets and boarded the seacat, Alboran, strapped the bikes down ourselves (they were the only two on the crossing), watched a couple of cars forget their roof rack loads as they drove on to the upper car-deck, and climbed up to the lounge with a serious need for coffee and food! The world’s strongest coffee con leche and most meagre chocolate muffin kept us going. The ferry was very lightly loaded, and just over half an hour later we were docking in Ceuta, which is a Spanish city in Morocco (think Gibraltar!) so it was a domestic ferry with the minimum of fuss or formality – at least on the outward crossing.

What’s “Morocco” in Spanish? We weren’t sure, but after a lap of the port, and another of the city’s one-way system, we finally worked it out and set off towards the Moroccan border – which is exactly how you might imagine an African border-crossing to be: lots of people, vehicles, animals, touts, officials, lost-looking tourists, impatient locals…

In the event, it was surprisingly painless. We enlisted the help of a chap with a (homemade-looking) ID badge, and for 20€ he pointed us at the right booths, supplied the right forms, looked after the bikes, and got us to the front of the right queues. I’m loathed to pay people unnecessarily, but we had a lot of miles to do and time was of the essence if we were to catch up the other three, who were heading for Midelt today.

Importing a vehicle in to Morocco is a serious affair: the details are recorded against your passport and you cannot leave without the vehicle you brought in. Import tax is very steep (someone mentioned 200%) so you really don’t want to have your vehicle stolen or left so that you cannot get it out again (more of that later). You are also assigned a Moroccan ID number, which is stamped in your passport and used on all the official paperwork, including your vehicle import forms and insurance paperwork, and is yours to keep for future visits.

The next challenge was finding vehicle insurance. The insurers in most European countries automatically extend cover to Morocco, but for some reason not many British insurers do. Our new friend offered to take us to the insurance office in Tetuoan [Tet-twan] – and with hindsight I’m quite glad he did.

Tetuoan is about 20km from Sebta, the Moroccan name for Ceuta, so our new friend jumped on the back of Gareth’s bike and off we went – him holding on to his cap with one hand and the bike with the other!

Before you visit a new place you often don’t know quite what to expect, and this was the case with Morocco. The main road from the Sebta border was a wide, two lane dual carriageway along the coast, with manicured lawns and flower beds, decorative street lights, and smart-looking houses, hotels and apartments. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. New places often have their own special smell, and the air was lightly scented with a fragrant fruity spicy smell, with just a hint of sewage.

All the guidebooks tell you that the official insurer is Axa, and to look for their blue sign – but obviously they lost the contract, because we discovered when they opened at 09.00 (Morocco stays on GMT all year, so in the summer is two hours behind Spain) that they couldn’t help.

We also made out first schoolboy error. The Moroccan currency is the Dirham. It isn’t a traded currency, you cannot take it out of the country, and the exchange rates are fixed by the government. But how much is a Dirham worth? We went to a cash machine and withdrew 300d each before discovering that insurance for a month is 950d…

Back to the cash machine then, and this time we took out 1000d each – which is £81. I also slipped up in that you are supposed to present your vehicle registration document to buy insurance, but all I had was my D16 import documents, passport and driving licence. Our friend had a word, and all was well!

The insurance is basic, third-party only, cover as required by Moroccan law, and makes in itself a nice memento. Again the cost of insurance is set by the government, as are the periods of cover available: one or two weeks, a month or three months. We were going to be there just over two weeks, so we took the month option.

Paperwork done, and the certificate neatly folded in to a wallet by the lady (I’m sure she must be a black-belt in origami), which was just the right size to hold your passport and D16 too, we set off back to the bikes. We’d left them in a secure, semi-underground car park, for the princely sum of 1€. When we arrived at the car park and our guide told us to ride in, we wondered what we were letting outselves in for – a very steep, curved concrete ramp and heavy bikes is an interesting combination, but there were plenty of vehicles in there, and they moved a couple to make sure the bikes were out of harms way.

The insurance office, banks and parking were in the old part of town, the Medina, with narrow streets and alleys, lots of people, shops, cars and very little in the way of directional signage. The two languages of Morocco are Arabic and French, plus Spanish in the north. Whilst I have a fighting chance with reading and understanding French or Spanish I really have no hope with Arabic, and whilst most signs are bilingual many are not. Wandering around the city centre as it woke (and warmed) up was a bit daunting. We both stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because we were European.

Sweating profusely, we got back to the bikes, gave our new friend another 20€ and made ready to leave. We asked if we could take a photo, and he initially refused because he’s a Muslim, then he relented – as long as we didn’t put it on the Internet!

So with the border formalities out of the way, insurance purchased, Dirhams in our wallets and the rest of the day ahead, we set off in hot pursuit of the others.

To be continued…

The Big Adventure - Part 1

It's May 2009 and the idea of trip somewhere on the bike takes root. My holiday calendar is already full for the year, but that means there's plenty of time to plan a trip in 2010.

The question is where to go? There are lots of interesting places to see and ride though but doing it on a hired bike just isn't the same as your own machine. Mainland Europe is convenient, but much of it has been done before. The 990 Adventure is a capable off-road bike, and wherever we went we wanted to be able to take advantage of that – why have it otherwise?

Gradually the idea of a trip to Iceland took shape: it's not too far away, many of the roads are marked as suitable for 4x4s only, it's not a particularly common destination and with volcanoes it was bound to have some amazing scenery.

Time passed and the big day dawned in April 2010: We boarded the aircraft and headed to collect the bikes... in southern Spain; destination Morocco!

Two weeks earlier we delivered our bikes, five KTM Adventures, to Southampton where they were to be taken to Cómpeta, not far from Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast. Between us we had the full range of KTM Adventure twins: A 950, two 990s, one 950S and one 990S. The S models have longer-travel suspension and, in the case of the 990, lack ABS.

The five members of the team were Gareth, Mark H, Mark L, Jason and me, Gordon. We knew each other, vaguely, through the UK KTM Forum but weren't what you might call best mates.

So to D-Day: our departure from Cómpeta, ride to Algeciras, ferry to Ceuta and ride to the Moroccan border.

The day dawned (eventually – we had an early start from our hotel at the airport) bright and sunny as we wound our way up in to the mountains. The bikes were in the care of local trail riding firm Redtread Honda, whose owners I've known for several years, and all five were there along with a mountain of luggage. Knowing that there are no KTM spares dealers in Morocco we decided to take some of the more commonly required parts with us: wheel bearings, fork seals, spokes etc. because it would be too bad to get stranded in Morocco for the want of a basic part.

As we shuffled things in to panniers, clipped them in place, got changed in to riding kit and wheeled the bikes out on to the drive, there was an air of quiet excitement.

Photo by Gareth Jones

I slotted the key in to the ignition, turned it, waited for the fuel injection and engine management systems to do their self-checks, pressed the starter, and nothing happened. Flat battery.

With all the people present, and a long downhill drive, bump-starting the bike seemed the easiest solution – so that's what we did. Unfortunately the bike had other ideas, and even once it was running it was clear something wasn't right. For some reason there wasn't enough power to run the fuel injection and keep the engine running, let alone put some extra charge in to the battery. It was a brand new battery too after similar problems in a very snowy Wales back in January.

We took the battery out, put it on charge, then did what any sane person would do in the circumstances: put the kettle on.

As the morning progressed, our plan to spend the first night in Morocco faded and we hatched another plan to spend the night near Algeciras and cross the Straits of Gibraltar the following day.

A few hours later, and (we hoped) with some fresh sparks in the battery, we tried again. It still needed a bump-start, but at least this time it kept running. We had already located the nearest KTM dealer (Malaga) and decided to call in there to see if they could give my bike the once-over.

The road down to the coast is one I have done many times in hire cars, and this time I was riding down it on my bike. The holiday had begun!

Rolling up outside the dealer, in an apparently trendy part of Malaga, we discovered that the workshop wasn't open on Saturdays. However my bike was now starting normally after a run along the Motorway, so we decided to push on and head for the ferry next morning.

Gareth's relatives own a villa in a gated development not far from the Gibraltar border and about an hour from Algeciras. After a very windy (alarmingly so at times) ride along the coastal Motorway, we found the house eventually, tucked away behind a tall hedge, and parked the five bikes in the garage before setting out to the supermarket for some dinner.

Spanish supermarkets aren't all that big on convenience foods, so we settled on a sort of pasta bolognaise with bread and beer for dinner. As the only proper meal of the day, it did the trick and we took an early night ready for tomorrow's sprint to the port.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and still windy, and we packed ourselves away, wheeled out the bikes, I pressed the starter and... nothing happened. Bother.

For over an hour we pushed the bike up and down the road attempting to bump-start it, we took a battery from one of the other bikes and we also tried jump-starting it, but all to no avail. My 990 was going nowhere.

So what did we do? Wait for the dealer to open on Monday? Leave me in Spain while the others went ahead? Keep trying to get it going and carry on to Morocco?

In the end we split-up: Gareth very kindly agreed to stay with me in Spain in the hope that we could get my bike up and running at the local dealer on Monday, while the two Marks and Jason set a course for the ferry.

Feeling rather downhearted by this point I was coming to terms with the fact that this could be the end of my trip. Months of planning, and not a little money, gone to waste. Even if we did get the bike going again, would we be able to catch up the other guys? Had I inadvertently ruined Gareth's trip too?