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Sahara Desert to Tomboctou…..

Updated: May 4

Spoiler alert: I’m not actually riding Tigger to Tomboctou. Tomboctou is in Mali and Mali is a country that is currently out of bounds. I am, however riding Tigger to the very nice Tomboctou hotel at the western edge of the Sahara Desert….. Read on to find out more.


By Jon Newey (retired Architect, Blood Bike rider, Adventure traveller) with Tigger (Triumph Tiger 800 XRX)


So, here I am in Fes, northern Morocco. I plan to spend two nights in Fes which means I have a whole day in the middle to wander about in the medina. It’s an ancient maze. I use the offline maps on ‘’ to help me navigate. The app works perfectly and I have no trouble finding my way around. None-the-less, at every street corner there’s a young man who says ‘Where you going? GPS no good here. I will show you’. When I reply it’s OK I have a map, the come-back is invariably ‘Oh, but that way is closed. This way is open. Follow me’ - even if I’ve just come from the ‘closed’ direction! And then you get the inevitable ‘Have you something for me?’ Ho hum. You get used to it after a while …..


There are two main streets in the medina, the Talaa Sghira and the Talaa Kbira. They run parallel to each other from the main gate, the Bab Boujloud, downhill to the tanneries at the bottom end of the slope. Fes is famous for its leather-making. Both main streets (I use the word ‘street’ advisedly; these are pedestrian routes with barely enough space for a person to get past a donkey) are thronged with people and lined on both sides with small open-fronted shops selling everything imaginable all in a riotous jumble of colourful mayhem, spilling out into the ‘street’ from both sides. Beyond these two main through-routes the buildings are all designed to face inwards to their own courtyards. As a result the backstreets, so narrow that I can touch both sides as I walk, are lined with tall blank walls broken only by the occasional grandiose set of timber doors which are usually closed. Fes is quite an experience, for sure.


For my second evening in Fes my host, Katia, cooks a meal for me. Tagine again but that’s fine. Keep ‘em coming. I spend the evening up on the roof terrace chatting to Jules, a young cyclist from Paris. He’s made use of trains and ferries and buses to help carry his bicycle this far but is now intending to spend a month cycling round

Morrocco. He’s a bicycle mechanic. He has plans to move out of Paris when he gets home, move to the country with his girlfriend and start a family. It’s a sweet story. These days you don’t have to move to a particular place in order to find a job. You move to the place you like best and your job will come to you there. That’s the modern way.


Next morning it is time to move on. After breakfast I trudge down the narrow stairs and through the alleyways to find the dingy garage where Tigger is parked, carrying all my luggage. The heaviest part of the luggage is the right-side pannier where I keep emergency spare parts and tools for Tigger. Chances are that I won’t need any of them but I just can’t travel to remote places without them. I’m sweating by the time I’ve got everything strapped onto Tigger. Tigger springs into life at the press of a button, I prod the sat nav and a few minutes later we’re out of the old medina and into the crazy traffic of modern-day Fes. It’s the twenty-first century version of the seething throng inside the medina. Garmin’s weather report says to expect sub-zero temperatures and rain in the mountains over the next few days. Oh dear. That’s where we’re heading….


Out of Fes, the road weaves through a few small nondescript towns and then over a vast rocky plain with snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Tigger and I are heading to an Abnb in the small mining town of Midelt, about 100miles to the south. I stop for lunch at a café at a filling station. There’s another biker there who is also riding a Triumph, a Rocket III. Woaaa. For non-bikers I need to explain. The Triumph Rocket III is a legend, an absolute monster of a machine. It has the biggest engine of any mass-produced motorcycle ever made, at a whopping 2300cc. You don’t see many of them about, and certainly not on a rocky plain in the middle of Morocco. The owner introduces himself. He is Hansjorg from Switzerland. His pillion passenger (the Boss…) is Therese. By chance, Hansjorg is a real Anglophile so he is very happy to meet both me and Tigger. He tells me that he has a Jag and an MG as well as the Triumph and several other bikes. He and Therese are retired and have decided to have as much adventure as they can before they get too old. I’ll drink to that! They’ve already done Route 66 on a Harley and now they’re doing Morocco on a Rocket III. We’re kindred spirits and we’re heading in the same direction so we swap Whatsapp details and agree to meet up in Midelt later.


I arrive at my Abnb. It’s comfy and quaint and the host, Mohammed is very welcoming. My room is on the ground floor and Tigger can park right outside my window. Perfect. Hansjorg and Therese have arrived in town and have booked into a hotel less than 200m away. I stroll over and we all go out to find dinner. Hansjorg has the gift of making friends instantly everywhere he goes. He already knows various people in the town and has been given recommendations for where to go to eat. We end up in a small side street at a café run by ‘Mama’, a large Sudanese

lady who loves to cook. We’re the only guests. There’s no menu. Just tell Mama what you want and she’ll cook it. You can have anything you want…. as long as it is chicken tagine and soup. We ask for beer. This is risky, because outside the main tourist areas Morocco is a dry country. Alcohol can only be consumed behind closed doors and strictly in private, but tonight we’re sitting on the street-side terrace. There’s always a work-around, though, so our beer is served to us in bottles that are wrapped in paper bags to disguise them. Three pints of your very best paper bag please bar-man…..


Next morning I have a problem. There’s no water. None in the shower, none in the tap. Mohammed soon fixes it but by then I’m up and dressed, breakfast is eaten and I’m ready to go. Hey, this is an ‘adventure’ and this is the edge of the Sahara Desert. What do I expect? I can survive one day without a shower.


I’ve agreed to meet up with Hansjorg and Therese this morning. We’ll ride together to Tinghir where we’ve all booked into the same hotel, the Tomboctou. There’s a sketchy mountain road that we want to ride – recommended to Hansjorg by his host, Ali, and the same road recommended also to me by Gerardo, my host in Ceuta. Hansjorg seems to think that Tigger will help get his Rocket out of trouble if necessary. The Rocket weighs half a ton. If it gets stuck I doubt Tigger will be able to do much about it!! Garmin says the ride will take us 6 hours, maybe 8 when we include stops. It will be quite a day for us old folk.


The first part of the ride is a main road from Midelt to Er-Rich. We fill up with petrol and then turn onto the R706 which takes us up into the High Atlas mountains. In theory it is a tarmac road. In practice that is true(ish) about 80% of the time. Tigger has no trouble with the bumpy, rocky, gravelly sections. He copes fine with the sandy parts too. Amazingly the Rocket seems to plough through everything as well. It must be the weight that does it. Riding that beast, two-up, fully laden isn’t a job for the faint-hearted. We wind our way up and up. Children wave at us in every village

(don’t believe what they say about kids throwing stones at bikers, it’s just not true). Donkeys skitter out of the way. Up and up we go. Eventually we come out onto the RN12. This is the Todra Gorge road and we’re joining it above Agoudal. The RN12 snakes down to Agoudal where we see a roadside café with a dozen motorbikes parked outside. Coffee time. I check the altitude app on my phone and find that we’re at 2,339m. No wonder it feels cold. We’re at a similar height to the Grossglockner and the Transalpina and we came down to here….


Agoudal is hardly a village. It is little more than a café and a hostel. It sits at the top of the Todra Gorge at the point where the road from the Dades Gorge joins. I chat to some of the other bikers – Poles and Italians riding Africa Twins and Ducatis – and ask them if they think the Dades Gorge road is easy. No they all say. It is not at all easy. The Tiger might just about cope but the Rocket definitely won’t. I’m in two minds about the Dades Gorge. I’ve seen it on Youtube. It’s a spectacular route, tarmac most of the way but with a gnarly gravelly section for the top 20km to take you above 3,000m. It might be more than I can cope with. ‘It will take you three hours going down to the bottom of the gorge form here’, they say. ‘Coming up from Balmoune de Dades is worse’.


Clearly we can’t do the Dades Gorge route today, we’re worn out already and keen to get to our hotel in Tinghir. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and try it without Hansjorg.


From Agoudal the RN12 snakes down through the Todra Gorge. The valley is barren and wild, steep-sided and very dramatic. Halfway down a new dam has been constructed. Beyond the damn the valley is totally dry. I assume they’re trying to fill the dam but so far there’s just a small puddle of water in the bottom. In this dry environment I imagine it might take several years to fill it.


It takes us two hours to ride the twists and turns all the way down to Tinghir on the plain below the Todra valley. Like I said, we’re booked into the Tomboctou Hotel tonight, a luxury extravagance at 50 Euros per room per night including a private garage for the bikes, a pool, wifi and breakfast. We check in. Ignoring the hotel’s own restaurant, Hansjorg, Therese and I wander down the street to find a tagine in a local eatery. We sit inside where we’re allowed to drink beer and we spend the evening swapping travel stories. Hansjorg has some belters. I do my best to match them. We both have a ‘Sinking yacht’ story but his ‘Driving a steam train in South Africa’ yarn beats my tale of ‘Yak burgers in Namche Bazaar’ I think. Eventually the local Berber cabaret drowns out all conversation and gets us scuttling back to our lodgings. Outside the hotel there are more bikes and bikers. We chat and they tell us about the coming weather. Snow is forecast on the Dades pass tomorrow apparently. For me that settles it. The off-road section of the Dades Gorge will just have to wait for another day - or another life. With my limited ‘off-road’ experience it would be foolish for me to try it alone under such conditions.


Next morning, after breakfast, I say goodbye to the Rocket Man and his Boss. They’re heading for Ourzazate whereas I have a room booked in a hotel in Ait Benhaddou. We agree to meet up again somewhere along the way in the future. Ait Benhaddou is only three hours away, so I have time to spare. I can’t ignore the Dades Gorge altogether. The first 30km is tarmac so I take a right turn at Boulmane de Dades and resolve to ride as far up as I can get. The valley has some interesting geology and the road winds its way up past hundreds of hotels and cafes lining both sides of the route. Eventually we come above all that and into the hairpins that feature on most of the photos of the gorge. Tigger takes them in his stride and before long we’re parked at the viewing point at 1,800m. All the way up I’ve been swapping places with a couple on a French-registered BMW, waving at each other as we

pass back and forth. At the top they pull in beside me. They are Jean-Paul and his wife Pasquale, both retired, taking a month to tour Morocco. I ask if they intend to go the whole length of the Dades including the off-road section and they laugh. Certainly not. They too have heard that it will be snowing there later today.


An hour later I’m back down at the bottom of the gorge, and heading towards Ait Benhaddou. On the way down I find that I am riding in the middle of a cycle race. The cyclists going downhill are going faster than Tigger. One of them overtakes us. I’ve been overtaken by 50cc mopeds before (galling…) but never a cyclist. I get my own back on the next uphill section, though, of course!


The road to Ait Benhaddou is busy and lined all the way with buildings on both sides, a never-ending slightly grimy ribbon-development along the roadside. It is twenty miles before we cross a bridge over a dry riverbed and come out into the open. In the far distance I can just about see the mountains but in all other directions there is nothing but reddish yellow rocky scrubland, the western fringes of the Sahara. A wind picks up and the horizon disappears behind distant dust clouds. The road is straight and featureless. I come to another small town and see a young girl selling Moroccan flatbreads from a stall at the side of the road. They’re about a foot in diameter and fresh-baked. I buy one to take with me for lunch. I have some cheese that I lifted from this morning’s breakfast buffet and a packet of dried apricots, so I’m well set up.


More rocky desert landscapes later and eventually I’m approaching the town of Ourzazate. Ourzazate is a gateway town to the Sahara. I ride past several places offering camel rides in the desert, quad-bike tours and 4x4 expeditions. Just beyond Ourzazate I see my first camels, two of them standing by the roadside. By now the wind has picked up stronger and it is becoming difficult to keep Tigger in a straight line. Thankfully Ait Benhaddou is not much further.


Ait Benhaddou is a Holywood superstar in its own right having featured in many films over the past 60 years. It was in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Gladiator’ as well as many others, and appears in Game of Thrones too. By the time I arrive the dust storm is in full swing so I pull up to my hotel and unload. The owner tells me to bring Tigger onto the patio-restaurant for protection. My room has a balcony, an ensuite and a double bed. All have seen better days but it will do. Looking out of the window I decide not to explore the town tonight. I’ll do that tomorrow. Tonight I just need to hunker down while the wind does its crazy thing outside.


Next morning it is still windy but not too bad. I’m given a hearty breakfast including enough left-over bread and cheese triangles for me to take to make lunch. Cheese triangles are a staple food item throughout West Africa, apparently. Today I have two excursions planned. The first is a ride along the main N9 road which crosses the High Atlas at the Tizi n’Tichka pass, reputedly the highest tarmac road in Morocco. At first the road is easy going. It is the main connection between Ouzazazte and

Marakesh. It is wide and smooth apart from some short stretches of roadworks. The snow-capped Atlas mountains are ahead of me as I ride and before long we’re into the hairpins as we climb up towards the pass. The temperature was 10 degrees C when I started out this morning (Ait Benhaddou is at 1,300m, similar to the top of Ben Nevis) and as we climb it gets colder and colder. At the top of the pass it is hovering just above zero. There’s ice in the puddles and a freezing wind is whistling over the parking area that forms the viewing point. There’s a group of Slovenian bikers there and we chat a little but not for long. It’s too cold for that. I snap the obligatory photo, turn up Tigger’s heated grips to their highest setting and head back down the way I came. My altimeter says the pass is 2,206m above sea level. Funny, the reading I took on the road at Agoudal yesterday was 2,339m. I suspect the Tizi’s reputation for being the highest road may lack some accuracy!


On the way back down I see the shape of a Triumph Rocket chugging up the other way towards Marakesh. I wave frantically but Hansjorg doesn’t spot me and the Rocket floats on past. No bother. We’ll catch up another time. I’m not going to Marakesh on this trip. It’s too big and busy for Tigger. I can do it easily as a fly/backpack excursion another time. I took the same attitude to Istanbul, Bucharest and Sofia last year. Big cities are not Tigger’s natural habitat.


Heading back to Ait Benhaddou I allow Garmin to take me onto a gravel road for a shortcut. The ‘road’ (I use the term advisedly) wanders off across a gravelly plain going who knows where. OK, let’s assume that Garmin knows what it’s doing and go along with it…. The gravelly section is 6km long. Tigger copes with it with ease, but there are some rocky descents and climbs that are at the limit of my abilities. I’m

riding today with no luggage and a petrol tank that is almost empty. I can’t imagine doing this kind of thing fully fuelled-up and fully laden. More practice will be required I think!


Arriving back at the hotel with Tigger looking impressively dusty, I get myself ready and set off on my second excursion for the day, a walk up to the top of the ancient medina of Ait Benhaddou. The wind is howling again. The place is crowded with tourists. I stop to do a sketch but all my stuff nearly gets blown away. This is extreme plein-air watercolouring I can tell you!  The end result is OK, though, I think. Judge for yourself…


After an hour or so wandering the stepped alleyways and crumbling buildings (they are all built with adobe, a mix of mud, straw and dung and all suffered in the 2023 earthquake) I come back out and skitter back into the newer parts of the town. I scope out a restaurant for later and then head back to the hotel. The wind is in full screamer mode now. It’s a proper sandstorm. When I venture out to find my evening meal I have to cover my face to avoid breathing in the dust.


Next morning it is time to move on again. For once I have no detours planned, just a long uncomplicated ride across the bottom end of the Atlas range and out to a campsite beyond Agadir on the Atlantic coast. The road heads south at first and then west towards the coast. Tigger and I cross a wide rocky, barren plain sitting at around 1,800m. It is very desolate and quite cold. There are a few unpaved sections which we cope with just fine. We pass a garage saying 200miles to the next petrol stop. It lied. A short distance later there is a town with two filling stations. One is called Green-Oil. The other is called Petro-Fib. Oh the irony. You can’t make this stuff up.


I stop for coffee and there’s a small shop where I buy some croissants, cans of juice and chocolate for emergency supplies. An hour later we’re coming into Agadir. This is a big city by Moroccan standards and the traffic is hellish. Mopeds, scooters, donkeys, horses, cars, bicycles, buses and lorries all dance around each other like a ballet in Bedlam. There’s me carefully doing mirror, signal, shoulder-check…  I’m clinging to the hope that these habits might just keep me alive! To the south of Agadir we come to the small slice of insanity that is Sidi Bibi. Here the four-lane N1 grinds through the centre of the town at 40kmh. There’s a gravel track running parallel each side of the main road for the local traffic. So now together with the trucks, donkeys, mopeds etc, we can add cars and pedestrians crossing in both directions from one gravel track to the other. An articulated lorry is doing a U-turn. A donkey and cart are coming the wrong way in the ‘fast’ lane (I use the term advisedly). I find a gap in the mayhem and turn onto the gravel. There’s a man in a raggedy hi-viz jacket strutting up and down waving his arms and blowing a whistle. I think he’s charging for parking but everyone seems to be ignoring him. I spot a cash-point among the buildings at the side of the road, pull over and replenish my supplies of Moroccan Dirhams. It’s amazing how fast you get through money in a cash-in-hand society. At home I haven’t used actual money for years. Here, I’m never sure how much I’m going to need. The international call-sign or the currency here is MAD. Aptly named.


We turn onto a side road and a couple of Km later we’re at our selected campsite. It looks OK. It is clean and well looked-after. There’s a grassy area for my tent to pitch next to the pool. Sadly the restaurant is closed (no cook, apparently) but the French couple that run the place are happy to give me a few eggs and some bread so I can cook myself a tuna-fish omelet. The alternative is to find a café in Sidi Bibi. No thanks. It is a big campsite with some pristine shower blocks. There are only four other guests (two camper vans) so I get a very peaceful night. There’s good wifi here and free electricity too, so I catch up on some admin and book myself some accommodation for the next few days.


There’s no rush the next morning. I’ve come to a decision. There was always some doubt about how far south I could reasonably go on this trip. In theory I could continue south for another 2,000 km or more, but the thing is that there’s only really one road from here to Tan-Tan, one (rather tedious) road through Western Sahara to Dakla, and then one (tough-going) road through Mauritania from Nouadibou to Noukchott. There’s no technical reason why I can’t do all that, but the fact that I will - at some point - have to turn round and do it all again coming back means that I don’t feel sufficiently motivated to put myself through it. It’s a bearable stretch if you’re going one way and then heading south, perhaps aiming for Cape Town. It’s a stretch that’s hard to stomach, though, if you have to do all of it twice, once going south and then again coming back north. So my decision is that Sidi Bibi is as far south as I want to go on this trip. Today I’m going to turn tail and start heading north again. There are interesting things for me to see up the coast of Morocco and in Spain and France and I’m more motivated to go there and do that than I am to keep going south from here. Maybe I’m getting too soft in my old age. Come and give it a go if you think you’re hard enough!!


I pack up my tent, load up Tigger, and we set off, heading for Essouria, 150 miles north up the coast. By allowing Garmin to take me on ‘level 2’ adventourous routes we can cut cross-country to miss out Sidi Bibi. Sounds good to me! The road takes me down to the coast giving me my first sight of the Atlantic Ocean since I was in Portugal. Soft sand has blown across the road in some places. A herd of camels emerges from the scrub and blocks my way. Excuse me! Coming through…  Before long I’m back in Agadir working my way through motorised traffic. I’m back on the N1 for a while and then we turn left to follow the coast road. This part of the Morocco is a surfing mecca. There is a series of small towns with remote beaches, big waves and places for campervans and surf boards. There are places offering surfing and kite-surfing lessons. The road is mostly tarmac and it twists and turns down into each bay and then winds its way back up again. Every now and then I have to do a short stretch on the N1 before turning back onto the coast road for the next series of hairpins. I stop in one small town to get lunch. A young Australian surfer admires Tigger and points to a delicatessen across the street. ‘That’s the best’ he says.


By early afternoon we’ve arrived in Essouria (Ess-wah-ree-ah). We ride past the huge beach, past the long row of beachfront cafes and restaurants and I can see the old medina just ahead. My hotel is one road back from the beach. There’s a quiet side road for Tigger to park on. Tonight I have a whole apartment to myself, bedroom, living room, kitchen and shower room, and I have a choice of places to go out to eat. It’s quite a change from the thin pickings yesterday. This will do just fine. I had booked for one night but I negotiate a second night for a smaller price. That means I’ll have plenty of time to explore the medina tomorrow.


Tigger miles in 2023 = 8,024

Tigger miles in 2024 so far = 3,125

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