Dr Frazier Morocco Adventure Riding

October 13, 2008
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Morocco Adventure Riding

We re not in Kansas any more  Toto.
With one of the harshest terrains on earth before him, Dr. Frazier was glad he had a reliable motorcycle like Kawasaki’s KLR 650 to cross the sands of the Sahara Desert.

Sand! I was hunting the sands of the Sahara to test myself and the Kawasaki KLR 650 in the desert.

The Kawasaki had been prepared for a ’round the world ride. Part of the preparation included modifying the KLR for desert riding. Since I was going to take a northern hemisphere route around the world the deserts of South America and Australia would be excluded, leaving the Gobi and the Sahara. A one month visa for Russia left little time to cross the eight time zones of that country with a side trip to the Gobi. Looking at a map of the planned route showed a slight detour on to the African continent would find me plenty of sand to play in if I rode into the Sahara Desert of Morocco.

Morocco was a test not only for the KLR but also my own fortitude. I had been in the country before, but nearly 20 years earlier, and had forgotten how motorcycle-traveler friendly and unfriendly the country could be to a solo American.

To arrive in Morocco from Spain I took an overnight ferryboat which was less than  100.00 for me and the motorcycle.
To arrive in Morocco from Spain I took an overnight ferryboat which was less than $100.00 for me and the motorcycle.

To get to Morocco I had to leave the security of the paved and organized highway system of Europe. I did this exiting Spain on an overnight ferry that carried me and the Kawasaki for less than $100.00. Arriving at the port of Ceuta was an easy exit off the boat and onto the African continent because this small area was Spanish so I needed no immediate entry permits to clear my motorcycle through to Morocco. However, a short ride out of the town brought me to the border of Morocco, and there the Immigration and Customs offices.

Like many borders of countries around the world, there were the usual hustlers waiting to lift a few dollars out of the wallets of unprepared foreigners with offers to help with the paperwork, entry stamps and insurance. The guys working this border reminded me of some of their counterparts in Central America, half a world away. They were extremely aggressive and numerous, even at 7:00 a.m.

The first handlers I turned down came back at me with offers that they’d watch my motorcycle while I was away from it, leaving everything on it unprotected from thieves. Since I had met Ali Baba’s cousins in Morocco before I was prepared this time. First I unpacked my motorcycle cover and covered the motorcycle after removing my cameras and locking the aluminum panniers. Then I agreed on the price of protection from one of the touts to hopefully insure no one broke their code of protection or tried to get anything out from under the motorcycle cover.

The next two hours were spent securing my entry permit, then converting some dollars to the local currency, and finally waking an insurance agent and purchasing the required liability/third party insurance good for a month. Then it was back to the motorcycle, pay my handler and motorcycle-watcher, and ride through the border barrier after showing the customs official my insurance. The motorcycle watcher had earned his money, $1.00, because I could find nothing missing and noted that he sat near the motorcycle the entire time I was away.

I could not read the language but could figure out the speed limit was 100 kph  or 60 mph  a speed limit no one seemed to obey.
I could not read the language but could figure out the speed limit was 100 kph, or 60 mph, a speed limit no one seemed to obey.

Once I was in Morocco I headed towards the southeast and sands. The road was paved for the next three slow days, my biggest danger being the car drivers. It seemed there were few rules for the drivers other than try to avoid potholes. In one instance an oncoming car swerved to avoid a pothole, saw me approaching, cut back too sharply, flipped and then rolled three times down the road at me taking up the whole two lanes of pavement. I opted for the ditch to avoid a head-on collision with the rolling car. Neither the driver nor I were hurt and he apologized profusely afterwards. His car was wrecked, but I concluded that he was more worried about his loss of face with respect to his poor driving skills in my eyes than he was about the loss caused by damage to his car.

Morocco has a land mass about the size of California. The terrain ranged from well-paved coastline roads to snow covered mountains with jeep trails leading to small villages. Hotels and restaurants were easy to locate in the cities and gas stations plentiful. However, once away from the larger towns finding gas was a bit more interesting, often limited to liter bottles stacked by the side of the road.

This herder offered to be photographed for free for the two stickers I pasted to his jacket.
One of the greatest things about adventure riding on two-wheels is that curiousity about motorcycles often helps overcome language barriers. This herder offered to be photographed for the two stickers Dr. Frazier pasted to his jacket.

I could often choose between riding paved or unpaved roads during the day. Well detailed paper maps purchased in Germany were more than adequate for finding my way around. Not once did I feel “lost” by not having a GPS.

Language was never really a problem. Often English was spoken, and if not, then limited French or German worked. Restaurant menus were sometimes in English.

One of the bigger challenges I faced was finding a beer at the end of the riding day. Morocco is nearly 98% Muslim and therefore alcohol was on the forbidden list. However, Morocco is also used to seeing European tourists and catering to their tastes. While it was rare to see a sign advertizing alcohol, I often found a place to buy a beer, albeit warm. Several times when I checked into a hotel the owner would ask if I would like beer or wine. If I said yes, he would have a delivery boy bring something to my room 15-30 minutes later. What I got was often a brand name beer in a bottle, but not cold. I found the runners were being sent to some market or liquor store where they purchased my order, then brought it back and charged me 2-3 times what they paid. I discovered this after I followed one of the runners and checked on the purchase price. Not all hotels or restaurants offered alcohol though, sometimes telling me when I came in that no alcohol was available. I was comfortable living without it, but could see that some of my traveling buddies who like their cold beer at the end of the day would not be. 

Camping in the sand  the quietest camping I have done on earth.
Camping in the sand, the quietest camping I’ve ever done.

After a week I reached the sand, the edge of the Sahara Desert. To enjoy the vast silence of the huge dunes I camped most nights. Other than the flapping of my tent in light winds, the only other sounds I could often hear were the sliding of sand off the dunes or light winds blowing over the tops. It was one of the quietest places I had been to on the earth.

The Kawasaki KLR 650 did not like the soft sand. Part was due to the heavy load I was carrying. No matter how fast I tried to go I could never get the front wheel light enough to float over the top of the sand. Even after I left all my gear at a hotel and tried sand riding with the lightened load, the front wheel wanted to plow rather than float and the back wheel would quickly start to dig in when I slowed. I spent most of my time paddling. In the 100-degree temperatures I would become drained from the heat and the leg work. I soon decided that crossing the Sahara could be done, but it was going to a Herculean effort I was not interested in pursuing.

I met several German motorcyclists who were surprised to see me flopping in the sand on my over loaded Kawasaki. They had rented lightweight dirt bikes in Morocco or were on a tour that had a truck carrying all their gear. One couple told me they had hired a truck and driver to follow them, and then loaded the truck with food, water, gas and their luggage. They were on 250cc motorcycles, the bike and rider combined weight being around 400 lbs. total. My motorcycle, gear and personal weight put my combined weight at closer to 700 lbs., far too much weight for deep sugar sand riding.

Interesting though was that during five days of flogging, pushing, pulling, and slow crashing through the sands in temperatures of over 100 degrees, often in first gear and at high engine revolutions, the KLR never overheated. That was a significant credit to the motorcycle and its cooling system.

I quit the desert and did some touristing in cities like Fez, where it seemed everyone, even the tout who flagged me down as I entered town, was focused on selling me a rug. In Casablanca I spent several hours trying to find the café made famous by Humphrey Bogart in the movie by the same name as the town, but with no luck. After I left I read that an entrepreneur opened a café modeled and named after the one I could not find, possibly due to the demand I created by asking 100-200 cab drivers and pedestrians where I could find the café.

Snakes in the public market were within striking distance. I did not trust that they had been drained of venom  so left town instead. Dr. Frazier no likey-snakey.
Snakes in the public market were within striking distance. I did not trust that they had been drained of venom, so left town instead. Dr. Frazier no likey-snakey.

Marrakech was a lively market center. I managed to find an inexpensive and clean hotel in a warren of small streets in the old section of town. The manager was friendly, helping me park the motorcycle in front of my room, and then directing me to the place where the “action” was for the afternoon, the central market. There I found the snake charmers.

I hate snakes, and left as soon as I saw them, thinking that some of the snakes may have crawled away over the years and dropped into the sewer system which made for nightmares that night. The night also resulted in the hotel manager getting two of his fingers broken when he tried to steal some small things off my motorcycle and he found the rat trap I had left in one of the bags, cocked and ready to clamp down on wandering fingers. Checking out the next morning I noticed his taped and splinted fingers but did not comment on them. He tried not to make eye contact, both of us knowing how he had broken them.

Morocco could be an easy or a hard ride, depending on how you want to make it. I could have taken a large touring motorcycle nearly everywhere, except for the sand. There was no need for a dual-purpose motorcycle like my KLR 650 unless the pilot wanted to try some of the unpaved sections or sand. However, during my time there I did not see one other foreign motorcyclist on large touring motorcycles like Harley-Davidsons or BMWs. Most motorcyclists were on dual-purpose motorcycles like BMW GS models or Honda Africa Twins.

If the adventurer wants a taste of desert riding in a country far from Kansas, Morocco is an easy and fun option. There is an element of risk in riding in Morocco, from the errant drivers to the potholes and animals, like resting camels, in the road. Compared to traveling in the European Union countries like Spain, or France, the daily costs of moving through Morocco was about half.

I never felt threatened as an American in Morocco, except for the night I was asked by a small tribe of Berbers to camp in their tent with them. While they spoke no English and I no Berber, or anything else they spoke, I came to understand from their hospitality that I was being invited to be the entertainment after the sun went down. After two to three hours of sharing their meal and tea, I told them I had to leave. To make up for my uninvited departure I passed out stickers I carry and gave the leader a Kawasaki T-shirt. I could see they were disappointed in losing their fun for the night, but my small gifts more than made up for the meal and tea.

For some other tips and notes on entry, thieves and my other experiences motorcycle adventuring in Morocco go to tinyurl.com/3fleb9

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