Step 1: Learn How to Ride; Step 2: Ride to Morocco
By Tom Caufield and James Whittle
Almost every man and woman has in his or her life dreamt the same dream: the open road ahead of them, the wind whistling through their hair, and the roar of a motorbike as they speed into the sunset. An idyllic scene for sure, but a far-fetched fantasy only obtainable by the Beckhams of this world. Or is it?
Earlier this year, we decided to try and make a childhood dream a reality and prove the system wrong. With zero motorbiking experience, we would look to mount two of the most rugged and impressive motorbikes on the market, and ride them from London to the Sahara Desert, to a boutique festival, Beyond Sahara, in under two weeks. We pitched the idea to Triumph, who apparently didn't mind the whole "no license or experience" thing, and generously agreed to lend us a pair of the Tiger 800 adventure bikes: the Tiger XCx and Tiger XRT.
Our journey began in the glamorous setting of Welwyn Garden City, England, about 25 miles north of London. Our idyllic dream was immediately tarnished as we took our first lesson in the freezing cold January rain. The ripped denim jeans of our daydreams were instead a pair of less-than-sexy waterproof trousers, and the fitted leather jacket became a more practical high-vis waistcoat.
Egos put to one side, we dedicated ourselves to the cause and hit the open roads. To make things more interesting and increase the pressure, we had only nine days from our first lesson to actually learn and pass both modules of the test; a few days after that we would be leaving for the Sahara. The look on our instructor's face when we disclosed this information summed up perfectly how most people viewed this endeavour: arrogant, not possible, and stupid. Given that we would need to pass a Module 1 (skills test, taking placed in a caged-off area with drills such as figure of eight, emergency stop, etc.) and Module 2 (40 minutes of road riding with an instructor following) we were leaving ourselves with a lot to do. We would need to pass both tests back-to-back, with no hiccups, or the trip would not be possible.
By some miracle, we both passed our tests within the nine-day window and were now fully-fledged riders! With the bikes delivered to London, a rough route through Spain and Morocco planned, and panniers packed with barely enough essentials – which included a few clothes, cameras, bike customs documents, and enough Workshop Coffee to cover us for the 18-day trip, we gingerly pulled away and rode to Portsmouth, on England's southern coast, where we would board a ferry to Bilbao, Spain, and begin our route south.
Northern Spain was the ultimate gateway to our journey, after a two-hour ride from Bilbao we climbed the Cantabria mountain range, and sat upon the roof of the Rioja region. Vineyards and bodegas spanned beyond the horizon, and we were treated to a 20-minute hairpin descent down into the valley.
We spent that evening in Logroño, the main city of Rioja, and were put in contact with a local who was going to show us around and take us on a "tour de tapas." Our night was spent wandering the cobbled back streets of the city, in what can only be described as a Spanish pub-crawl. The culinary culture here was not about sit-down meals, but meandering your way through the hundreds of tapas bars lining the streets, spending 10 minutes in one, five in another, until you are full.
Our host’s family owned the oldest tapas bar in Logroño, which served nothing but garlic mushrooms and prawns on bread. Genuinely, nothing else. This theme ran throughout the area, with establishments choosing to do one thing incredibly well, rather than lots of things to a mediocre standard. The results were testament to this way of thinking. €2 (US $2.15) would get you a tapa and a small beer/glass of wine (which were all incredible, naturally), and after spending €20 you would be suitably stuffed, and unable to walk home in a straight-line.
With a slight Riojan haze filling our heads the following morning, we brewed and our first cups of coffee to blow away the cobwebs. We were invited to visit a famous bodega (winery), just outside of the city in the heart of the vineyards. The Luis Alegre Bodega is renown in the area for producing some of the best vino in Spain. We were incredibly fortunate to be taken on a private tour of the facilities. From bottling to barrelling, we were walked through the entire process from grape to glass, an experience we both walked away from far wiser! (And drunker, no doubt –Ed.)
Our next destination was the small town of Neuvalos in the Zaragoza region, and what we expected to be a simple three-hour stint. We were wrong. This was the first time in our riding career (one day...) we had experienced strong winds. As we passed into the flat plains of central Spain, the winds grew in strength and ferocity. What started as a series of mildly uncomfortable gusts, soon evolved into something more. We were being blown fully across the road into the opposing lane, with absolutely no control over our position on the road.
We found ourselves reducing speed out of fear of falling, and leaning at an angle to counter the wind's force. Every now and again, the gusts would drop and we would wobble violently to correct our leaning postures – like having someone pull a chair from beneath you. Due to the conditions, we opted to leave the direct, major roads, and took a quieter diversion to avoid traffic. This added an hour onto our journey, but soon became one of the best decisions we made on the entire trip. We joined the smaller road (SO-150, for reference), and for the next two hours weaved through some of the most stunning scenery we'd ever seen. We didn't see another human for the entirety, and we passed through ancient looking towns, derelict and weather worn. As the sun set around us, the landscape was brushed with a pink and orange filter, and we sped on our way, grinning the entire way. It was moments like this that we had hoped for when planning the trip, and by chance, we had stumbled upon one.
The following days we had planned to make our way down the coast to Gibraltar, just of the southern tip of Spain, where we would enter Morocco via ferry. However, it soon became apparent that we had wildly underestimated the distances we had set out for ourselves on a daily basis. When planning the trip, our calculations were made with only experience of driving a car to guide us. Four hours on a motorbike and four hours in a car, are two very different things it turns out.
When riding a bike, you are concentrating every second of every minute, constantly engaged and alert. In a car, it is far easier to zone out and go into autopilot, thus making time move fast and trips more manageable. Essentially, we realised that riding to Gibraltar would require some serious stints on the bikes, with no time to actually explore and enjoy different places (something we were 100-percent committed to doing). We scrambled for alternatives, and found we could, in fact, jump on a ferry in Almeria and enter Morocco via Nador, an entry point completely void of tourism and western culture.
Our border crossing into Morocco was nothing short of chaos. We were the only Westerners crossing into Morocco, and were hounded by people trying to fill out our forms and "help" us across the border. We were initially dubious, and palmed them all off, claiming we had it all sorted. However, it soon became apparent that English wasn’t on the menu, and our broken Spanish was not cutting it with the officials. After 20 minutes or so of being surrounded by what seemed thousands of locals, touching and grabbing the bikes, we acquired the help of the most persistent of our "helpers" who guided us with ease through customs and filled out our forms (spelling almost every name and place of birth wrong, but no one seemed to care!). We paid him his dues, and his day was made. We had misjudged the intentions of those trying to help us and presumed we would be ripped off. This was not the case, and our ill-informed preconception had ended up doing nothing but hold us up.
After the three hours it took to gain entry into Morocco, we set off through Nador and into the countryside. From the pristine Spanish coastal cities we frequented a matter of hours before, we now found ourselves weaving between the carnage of Moroccan traffic. Horns, shouts, dust and goats filled every street, and it felt incredible to be a part of. We soon realised that the seemingly lawless roads were, in fact, more organised than we gave them credit, and we learnt quickly that a horn is used to signal that the driver intends to do something. What exactly he intends to do is admittedly less clear. It could be pretty much anything! We embraced our surroundings and joined the melee, weaving and beeping with sheer delight.
Our new route would take us from Nador, down a single road through Midelt and into Merzougha (the edge of the Sahara). We had some long hours on the bike ahead, but the intensity and sheer beauty of Morocco was overwhelming. We were growing in confidence on the bikes and starting to push them harder. The long, empty roads through the barren desert were the perfect runways to open up the throttle and have some fun.
We passed through abandoned towns, towering canyons, and lush, green oasis. One thing that struck us more than the incredible landscapes, though, was the reception from the local people. Every child, elderly person, policeman and goat would smile and wave at us. The outlook of these people, whose lives are filled with struggle and hardship, was infectiously positive. We took a huge amount from the people we met throughout the trip, but one person in particular made a real impact on us, leaving us speechless and humbled in equal measures: Moha, an owner of a tiny cafe in the Moroccan desert.
We had pulled in to grab some food and stock up on water, only to find we had no cash and card payments were not available. As we packed up to leave, Moha told us to sit down, and he would gladly feed and water us free of charge. The willingness to give, when he had very little, was a trait that seemed to be ingrained within most of the Moroccans we met.
Physically and emotionally far away from a cold, rainy London, we now found ourselves in the Moroccan town of Merzougha. Before us was an image we had seen countless times on Google when researching the trip: towering orange dunes, shining in the intense desert sun, for as far as the eye could see. Our two Triumphs had taken us across continents, and had never faltered once. We had started as novice riders, and arrived not experts, but confident riders with a library of memories – and a newly realised passion for motorbikes.
We rode the Tigers through a sandy back road, and left them with a local hotel owner. Their shift was up for the time-being, as our road tyres were no match (nor our skills as riders!) for the steep sand dunes. Our ferocious machines were replaced by the docile camel – for a few hours, at least. Two days of relaxation were welcome, but we soon found ourselves talking about the ride over beers and, sure enough, looking forward to getting back behind the 'bars. With bodies rested, we turned the bikes around and set our Google Maps to London. The journey home was ahead of us and we couldn't wait for what it may have in store.
Our ultimate goal for this trip was not just reaching a destination, but to show people that you don’t have to be an experienced rider to take on a trip such as ours. Many people are intimidated by long-rides, unknown roads and dodgy border crossings. We're just two guys with no experience or credentials to call upon, and we have just returned from one of the most enjoyable two weeks of our lives. So, forget the preconceptions of what you are capable of and start planning your own dream ride. It's only a dream until you make it happen.