As a keen follower of this blog you’ll no doubt remember last year’s trip to Maroc that I did on my Honda CRF 300L. If not you can read about the trip here :
My conclusions from that trip were that I wanted to do it again, but to be a bit more adventurous in terms of exploring more off-road and wanted to improve the wind protection on the bike plus having some heated grips or gloves to combat the cold. I spent what seemed like an endless amount of time going round and round the goldfish bowl trying to decide between two basic options for the next trip :
Option 1 – Do it on a bike, but preferably a “better CRF”
Option 2 – Take the van with the bike in the back

Option 1 is the more adventurous choice, but the dilemma is that having a “better CRF” capable of more easily covering the distance on the road means the bike is less suitable for tackling anything tricky once riding off-road. Plus the fact that you are relying on the bike to get you back home again.
Option 2 is the “cop out” by using the van to cover the distance and then using the bike to loop out on potentially more adventurous off road rides, always having the assurance of the “mother ship” to get you home if something does go wrong. Additional benefits of the van option are being able to take my mountain bike as well as motorbike for exploring off road and being able to take my KTM enduro bike which is a weapon off road, but not much good for road riding.

My preferred option was to do the trip on a bike and I spent some time searching for a “better CRF” and eventually found a GasGas 700 Rally which I spent some time fettling for the trip..

As last year my plan was to take the van down to Portugal (Alvor in the Algarve) and stay there for a couple of weeks before setting off for Maroc. To keep maximum flexibility I managed to fit the GasGas, KTM and mountain bike into the van for the trip South. In the end the decision as to which option to take was made for me as there was an issue with getting the registration documents for the GasGas (lost in the post) and without them I wouldn’t be able to get the bike into Maroc. They eventually turned up but too late for this trip so the van it was ! This turned out to be for the best as the first couple of days of travelling were very wet and would have been very unpleasant on a bike.

My rough plan for the trip was to take the fast ferry from Tarifa to Tanger, head down to Marrakech and spend some time there and at Essaouira on the coast. My sister Sara would be joining for a few days and I wanted her to experience both of these destinations. I also had to make a flying visit back to the UK and it was most convenient to fly from Marrakech. After that I would be free to cross over the Atlas mountains to the Eastern side of the country and the desert, which I had never experienced before despite visiting Maroc several times. After my trip last year I bought Chris Scott’s book “Morocco Overland” which is full of his recommended routes both on and off road and I had spent some time plotting out GPS tracks of these routes and validating them using Google Earth, so I felt quite well prepared. Armed with this rough plan and my prepared routes I set off and to keep things flexible I only booked one or two nights ahead to allow me to revise the plan as I went – a very wise move as it turned out…


The ferry crossing was straightforward, the van was searched a couple of times as expected, it wasn’t until I got to passport control on the Maroc side that I had some issues. For some reason the passport official was convinced I had just come in through Gibraltar wich didn’t make any sense but he clearly thought I was up to something. In the end it turned out he had misread the stamps in my passport and was looking at my visa stamps from last year’s trip. The next issue was temporarily importing my vehicles – the van was no problem, but they weren’t happy about the bike as they couldn’t work out how to categorise it. They are clearly more used to dealing with road bikes. I was a bit nervous as I knew that being an enduro bike it was in a “barely legal” grey area and knowing full well that all the homologation parts to make it road legal were sitting in an unopened box back home. Once I had explained that I was heading to Merzouga to ride the dunes and not planning to use it on the road, it was smiles all round and they managed to find a suitable category to use.

My normal first stop from the ferry is in Tanger itself, but the van presented a big issue as regards safe parking, particularly in cities. I therefore decided to head out of Tanger and down the coast to Asilah, which us a delightful place with a very arty feel to it. Just navigating through Tanger gave me a taste of what was to come – traffic everywhere and no-one following the highway code (do they even have one?). At some roundabouts I seemed to have the right of way and at others I clearly didn’t which just made no sense. The van felt very big and visibility poor to spot pedestrians, cyclists and donkey carts creeping up on you from both sides. I just pressed on in the hope that it was big and white and other road users should at least be able to see I was there. I don’t remember having any of this stress on the bike which just seemed to go with the flow and be able to nip in and out of gaps in the traffic.

I used a bit of autoroute to get down to Asilah (only about an hour from Tanger) and found that the toll booths have multiple lanes with most of them dedicated to people with “beepers” – a system I use in France, but not here. This meant I could only use the one or two lanes reserved for pay-as-you-go users. Of course these were the ones everybody was using so there was always a queue, and it’s strictly cash – no cards accepted. I did come across one toll station that showed a card symbol as well as the “beeper” symbol so I went for it rather than join another queue. It turned out that it only accepted Moroccan cards not international ones, so I then had the embarassment of reversing and rejoining the cash payment queue… With no little relief I arrived in Asilah for my first overnight stop,

Staircase inside my Riad
Big, comfortable room.

I quickly unpacked and headed out into the town to find something to eat, but my first tasks were to get some money (you can’t buy Dirhams outside Maroc) and to sort out a SIM card. Not being part of the EU, data roaming is very expensive here and you have to rely on WiFi in the hotel and cafes. I managed okay last year but had to plan routes and download maps in advance and wanted to have more flexibility and a safety net with the off road riding I had planned. I have a second smart phone that I use as my navigation phone and wanted to get a SIM card for that to use primarily for route finding. I went into the main Maroc Telecom office in Asilah, feeling pretty stupid as it’s years since I bought a SIM card and had no idea how to top-up credit etc. The chap in the shop was very helpful and sorted it all out, which I would have struggled with as there are particular codes you need to enter to add credit for data and not for calls/SMS and knowing which number to dial to check your credit, etc. Being a modern establishment I had wrongly assumed he would take a card, but no it was cash only – a repeating theme in Maroc. I didn’t have enough Dirhams with me, just the ones left from my last trip, but he was happy to accept euros instead at a preferential (to him) rate, but I didn’t mind as it was pretty cheap and he had been very helpful. With that box ticked I set off to find a bureau de change to change some euros, which was very staightforward and I even picked up a couple of restaurant recommendations.

Fish restaurant in front of the Medina.

Trying out my new data connection I found it was very slow, but a bit of googling using the restaurant’s WiFi suggested some changes to the phone settings which made a big improvement and it was fine for the rest of the trip.

As last time I was using to make reservations a day or two in advance, usually in small hotels or Riads, which typically include breakfast. I quickly adopted a routine of making the most of breakfast (they were usually copious) and then just having a snack in the evening.

Huge Riad breakfast.


I had decided it was too far to try to get to Marrakech in one day so chose to break the journey at Berrechid, not far from Casablanca. I chose this place because of the location as an overnight stay with no intention of exploring the surrounding area. Unlike most of the other places I stayed ths was out in the sticks and not really walking distance to anywhere. Fortunately they provided an evening meal which I was able to eat sitting out by the pool…

Equi Palace Hotel and Spa
Tagine by the pool.
Sharing my dinner with the local moggie.
Another generous breakfast
Hotel lobby.

The next day I set off for Marrakech. Stopping at a motorway services for a coffee I took the picture below. Just a simple rest stop but you only have to look at the scenery and signs to know that you are already a long way from home…

Motorway services stop…


This bouganvillia flowering in December tells you a lot about the climate here…

More wrestling the van through the Marrakech city traffic until I arrived at my hotel which had an underground parking garage that I used last year on the bike. I was concerned about the height clearance for the van and hadn’t been able to get confirmation of the height limit from the hotel in advance. In the event the height was fine but the steepness of the access ramp was a bit more of a concern, or it would be when trying to get out with a loaded van…

The hotel was in Gueliz which is in the newer NW part of Marrakech. For me this has the advantage of being within walking distance of the medina, but also allows the possibility of a morning run to the outskirts and the Oliveraie with a view of the Atlas mountains. The hotel did have a cafe but breakfast wasn’t included so I made a habit of going out for breakfast each day.

Morning run…
Breakfast Sportif…

My usual habit when in Marrakech or any big city is to spend time wandering about and just letting the place soak in. Ideally finding a little cafe with a mint tea and just sitting and watching the world go by. The mint tea varied but was invariably incredibly bitter, which they counteract by loading it with sugar. If I remembered I tried to order it without sugar but with a bit of sugar on the side so that I could add some to overcome the worst of the bitterness. I’m sure it’s very good for you ? Back home I drink herbal/fruit teas and decaff coffee, but they don’t seem to do decaff here. I eventually tried the coffee and concluded it didn’t have much caffeine in it anyway and was often more palatable than the mint tea.

Mint tea in the Cafe de France.
Cafe des Epices
Yet more mint tea…
Traffic jam in the Souk.

Sara’s Visit

I managed to persuade my sister to fly out and join me for a few days. She had never been to Morocco before – or to any “interesting” destination that wasn’t just an all-inclusive, sunshine and pool type of holiday. I was a bit concerned that the novelty of Marrakech might wear off quite quickly as I wasn’t sure that just wandering about soaking up the atmosphere was really her type of thing. With this in mind I had planned a two destination break even though she was only here for three days – a day in Marrakech, followed by heading to Essaouira on the coast for a day or so before returning to Marrakech for the plane home. Having the van was a bonus as it meant we could be more flexible than if we had to catch a bus or arrange a taxi – Essaouira is about a 3 hour drive away.

Arrivals in Marrakech airport.

As already noted I felt very nervous about driving the van in Marrakech traffic and really didn’t want to risk it at night, so I looked at other options and we ended up using the bus. The taxis at Marrakech airport seem to operate a cartel to rip off the tourist. There is an official taxi rate but none of them will offer that and they usually refuse to use the meter (it’s only about 8Km), preferring instead to negotiate a rate with the unsuspecting new arrival. The bus on the other hand is cheap and fixed price. My fears about driving in the night traffic were realised when we saw a minor accident just in front of us on the way in from the airport.

I was planning to do a short trip to the UK a couple of days after Sara’s visit, but this was complicated by the fact that, having temporarily imported two vehicles, I wasn’t able to officially leave Maroc without them. Apparently there is a procedure you can follow to get a special authorisation from customs and while I was at the airport I tried to find out more details. Having dragged around from one office to another and temporarily had my swiss army knife confiscated after one of the security scans, I found a helpful chap who explained that it was possible but could only be done on the day of travel…

Morning run…

As a fellow running nutcase, a morning run was “de riguer”, followed by a substantial breakfast. For our next entertainment I had booked us tickets to see the Majorelle Gardens, which I have seen twice before but I felt was an unmissable experience.

In the Jardin Majorelle
Koutoubia Mosque
Lunch at the Cafe des Epices, 28 degrees !
Morning run..

As expected, getting the loaded van out of the underground car park was far from easy. There was a steep ramp to negotiate, but at the top there was only a few cms space to spare at either side so while you wanted to take a run at it and build up speed, the tricky bit at the top demanded a bit more caution. In the event I stalled it half way up the ramp ! And I had a motorbike right behind me and the handbrake wouldn’t hold the van on the hill. Two attempts and a lot of tyre smoking wheelspin later we made it…

It’s about a three hour drive to Essaouira which I quite enjoy as it’s across country so you get to drive through a few small villages and get a snapshot of life out in the countryside. Sara was less impressed and would have been happy to sit reading her book until I insisted she take it all in ! We did spot the famous trees that normally have goats in – but the goats were nowhere to be seen. Don’t know if it’s the wrong season (they were there last year) or maybe just not lucrative enough to be worthwhile for the goatherd.

Chilling in Essaouira
Cat in the Medina
Fresh fish for lunch !
Sunset on the beach
Morning run…
It feels a long way from Preston in December

UK Trip

I had a day or so to myself after Sara’s visit before heading off to the UK for a long weekend.

A variation on the breakfast theme
Taking Earl Grey at the frightfully posh Grand Cafe de la Poste
Sunrise over the Atlas
Manchester – morning run along the canal
Coffee and gingerbread person
My favourite Manchester breakfast – Eggs Benedict at Crumbs 102


Back in Marrakech for a day before setting off across the Atlas mountains to start the second part of my trip…

Crossing the Atlas – Tizi N’ Tichka pass…


Ouarzazarte is the “Gateway to the Desert” and was my first stop once across the Atlas mountains. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky (they hardly ever see rain) and it was sunny and a reasonable 18 deg so I checked into my hotel and went for a wander about.

Mint tea…
I also ordered a smoothie but wasn’t expecting this…

When I got back to the room it felt quite chilly and I realised there were no extra blankets and the room heater barely worked – went to bed wearing some of my clothes. In the morning I was up and out before dawn for my morning run and was quite surprised to find there had been a frost and it was -2 degrees !

Freezing morning run…

I got back to the room, looking forward to a nice hot shower to warm me up – but no, it was barely luke warm. I put all the clothes on I had with me, including a fleece and coat and went down to breakfast, teeth chattering. Breakfast was in the cold and draughty hotel bar and did nothing to raise my spirits, or warm me up.

Chilly breakfast

Back in the room, sitting on the bed fully clothed, I contemplated my options. My first priority was to warm up so I went outside to the van, which was fortunately parked in the sun, and sat inside it to warm up. I then quickly decided to bin the plan I had for the second part of my trip…

In planning the trip I had looked at the daytime temperatures for the places I was planning to visit and they were all showing high teens, which I thought would be fine. What I hadn’t taken account of was the temperature RANGE of the desert climate in December. That morning it was -2 in Ouarzazate, but forecast to be 19 later in the day – that’s a 21 degree temperature range which is huge and unfortunately means that the “reasonable” temperatures are confined to a few hours in the afternoon, but the rest of the time it’s cold ! This in itself might be manageable “no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing” and all that, but the hotel I was in was unfortunatey quite typical of this part of Maroc – no real heating, no extra blankets and luke warm water. And this was supposed to be a holiday and not an endurance test, plus the feeling that the whole reason for me heading south for the winter was to avoid the cold and usually wetter weather back home in Cahors. Decision made, even though I had paid for two nights in the hotel I checked out and headed back across the Atlas to Marrakech, where it was 7 deg warmer.

En route I stopped off at a film set that was used for the 2006 horror film “The Hills Have Eyes” – a zombie apocalypse type of film, apparently. The Gas Haven is an American gas station where the film’s victims stop to refuel and ask directions.

The Gas Haven
View from one of the abandoned cars

As mentioned earlier I had researched a lot of potential off road routes over this side of the Atlas. A lot of these are routes across the desert that are called “pistes” – usually quite easy to follow and regularly used by the locals. Bit by bit these routes are being upgraded by the local authorities to proper tarmac roads, which I’m sure is welcomed by the locals but makes them a bit less adventurous for the intrepid explorer. Since Chris Scott’s book was last updated in 2017 there have been a lot of changes. See picture below for one example, which used to be a piste, but is now tarmac, even though it feels like you are driving through a Martian landscape.

On Mars


Back in Marrakech for a few days to come up with a new plan, enjoying the dramatically warmer temperatures. I decided I needed to stick to the West side of the country and the coast and the obvious destination was to head back to Essaouira and see if I could work out some motorbike/mountain bike routes from there. I didn’t feel compelled to head out on the bike from Marrakech, being quite content with aimlessly wandering about. My reasoning was that I could ride the bikes at home and in Portugal almost every day (and usually do), but soaking up the atmosphere in Marrakech is an experience not to be missed.

Morning run…
Maroc Telecom gardens, Marrakech
Mint tea and smoothie at the Cafe des Epices

The cafe des epices is hidden away inside the Souk but is one of my favourite places to sit and watch the world go by. The nearby place Jmaa El Fnaa is the beating heart of Marrakech with snake charmers, fortune tellers, tame monkeys, henna tatooists and pop up food stalls that appear in the evening and look like they’re on fire in the picture below.

Place Jmaa El Fnaa from the roof top terrace of the Cafe de France
Taxi, anyone ?


Back in Essaouira and with a forecast for the Christmas period of mid twenties and sunshine every day, I decided to break my usual routine and booked into a hotel for a week.

You know you’re abroad when…
Moroccan salad near the Medina
Sunset over the harbour
Sunset parasols
Pre dawn run
Copious breakfast…

Having been here last year on the CRF I did have a couple of routes in mind and one in particular led to a remote surf shack up on some cliffs to the south of Essaouira, I was keen to see if it was still there so plotted out a route and set off on the mountain bike.

The cross country route I had selected proved to be very hard work as it wound its way through the dunes and the soft sand was treacherous. To prevent the bike digging in, you have to keep up a reasonable speed which is only possible on an electric bike, but then you’re going a bit faster than comfortable as you have very little control over the direction. I did get more used to it, but used a lot of battery in the process and, in fact, took the road route back from the surf shack and got home with only 2% remaining.

Surf shack still there…
Back to the medina for fish tagine.

Having explored some of the trails on the mountain bike I was able to study the maps and Google Earth a bit more carefully to work out other possible routes. The main beach at Essaouira is out of bounds to bikes etc. and is reserved for sun bathing, swimming and surfing – plenty of surf schools. However, to the south of Essaouira there is a 20Km stretch of beach and dunes that seem to be relatively unrestricted – there are lots of places renting quad bikes, plus camel and horse riding options. The next day was Christmas Day which is just like a normal day here and I was determined to get out on the KTM at last – after my morning run and big breakfast, of course.

On my Christmas Day morning run I came across this chap on the dusty road, which I thought was quite evocative/symbolic – no sign of any wise men though…

On the beach

A huge expanse of beach with the tide out, no-one around and a KTM to play with. What better way to spend Christmas morning?

The beach proved to be quite easy to ride. The sand was mostly quite firm, but there were some soft patches which you had to watch out for. Not much different to riding on a gravel trail.

The dunes on the other hand were a different matter entirely as I had already found with the mountain bike. By way of preparation I had looked at a few YouTube videos to pick up some tips on sand riding which proved quite useful. In soft sand you have to get up enough speed for the bike to “float” over the sand rather than dig in – the feeling was likened to a small boat and the difference between ploughing through the water and being up on the plane. That’s all very well but you have to get up to speed to begin with and then maintain that momentum. And once the bike is floating you have no control with the steering so the usual countersteering input that you might use on the road simply doesn’t work and you have to get the bike to turn with your body weight. It was a huge amount of fun playing in the dunes and the most exciting Christmas Day I’ve had since Father Christmas stopped visiting.

And if you don’t keep up enough speed, the bike digs in and you get stuck…

Very glad I was on the KTM and not a bigger bike…

Exploring Dar Sultan Palace
Got this far along the beach but now need to get over this dune…
Back at the Surf Shack
Inside the Medina
Morning run
Making donuts on the beach…
Empty beach and KTM to play with
Stuck again…
Morning run by the light of the silvery moon…

Having spent all week in Essaouira and getting out every day on either the Trek or the KTM, it was time to start heading back up North ready to take up my apartment rental in Alvor starting on the 3 Jan.

El Jadida

Coffee stop en route to El Jadida. Hot and sunny.
Moroccan salad in El Jadida

My hotel in El Jadida was one I’d stayed in before and was selected mainly because they allow parking in the hotel grounds. I arrived on the 30 Dec and had originally planned to stay for the New Year, but their room rate tripled for the night as it included a meal and some entertainment. I knew I wouldn’t be staying up until midnight so it didn’t work for me – and they wouldn’t give me a reduction if I didn’t have the meal! So the next day I went further North to Asilah.
Before leaving Essaouira I had treated the van to a jet wash to get rid of the build up of dust and sand while I had been in Maroc. It didn’t come completely clean but was a big improvement. Imagine my horror when I got to the van in the morning and discovered I had parked under the local bird toilet…

Unfortunately the screen washers didn’t work so I had to splash a bit of bottled water onto the screen in order to get some visibility. I then set off looking for a service station where I would at least be able to clean the screen properly and I must admit I was feeling pretty grumpy at this point. I called into a services and asked about cleaning the screen but two lovely chaps offered to clean the whole thing and did a great job…

Clean van !

Soon after the cleaning stop I was driving along a dual carriageway with no barriers either side. when a car a couple of hundred metres ahead in the outside lane drifted into the central reservation and threw up a cloud of dust. I started braking and he then span across the road ahead of me and rolled into the ditch. I stopped to help get them out – dazed but apparently ok. That was a close one…


After having published this article I was reminded of another near miss on the road that I forgot to include, so I’ll add it here…
This was when Sara and I were driving either to, or from, Essaouira (can’t remember which). I was generally following the satnav and knew I had to turn right at the next roundabout, but I also like to check the signs as reassurance that we are still heading in the right direction. Sure enough there was a big sign and I turned right – they drive on the right so you go anti-clockwise around roundabouts. I then found myself driving along a two lane road on the right hand side which was perfectly normal, but it just didn’t feel right. Sara hadn’t noticed anything but I spotted another two lane road just off to our right heading in the same direction which I thought was a bit odd. I quickly looked back at the satnav, which wasn’t flagging a problem, but showed that we were on a dual carriageway AND WE WERE ON THE WRONG CARRIAGEWAY ! I thought something didn’t feel right, but fortunately there was absolutely no traffic in either direction and we managed to find a spot to get across the central reservation with a big sigh of relief. A couple of Km further on we passed a police check point and though “Oh shit !” they must have spotted us, but they just waved us through. Another close one…


Back in Asilah for two nights with a bit more time to wander about and look at some of the wall art that features everywhere here..

Morning run on a deserted beach…
More beach riding on the Trek
Asilah sunset


Back to Tanger for the ferry home. I arrived early so had time for a bit of a wander round.

Into the Medina.

El Cuervo

After the crossing, this was my overnight stop en route to Alvor. When doing this trip on the bike I stopped in Seville, but I decided that the traffic and parking with the van would be too much hassle.
As usual in Spain, no food available until after 8pm so I had to make do with some gourmet crisps and a glass of wine. It was only the usual Spanish plonk but tasted like nectar – my first alcohol for about three weeks…

Reflections On The Trip

It’s now about 6 weeks since I left home and I’ve been in Morocco for about 4. As it turned out the trip wasn’t the one I had originally planned but it was always very flexible as I only book a day or two ahead.

The highlight was definitely riding the dunes in Essaouira – so much fun. It was also nice to be able to get out on the mountain bike – also good fun and lower risk than the motorbike. Couldn’t have done this without the van. On the other hand, the van felt a bit of a liability especially in the cities – big and poor visibility. There is definitely an appeal in the minimalist approach of doing it on a bike.

A big lesson learnt was the weather, or more specifically temperature (temp range) in different parts of the country…

If the weather isn’t great in France at the beginning of March I’m wondering about coming back for a couple of weeks on the bike…

Until next time…