I had been to Morocco several times before, the most recent trip being three years ago (just before Covid) which I did in the Land Rover with Alexander. You can read about that trip here :
At the end of that trip I wanted to do it again, but be a bit more adventurous by heading further south and maybe do it on a motorbike to make it a real adventure. I had already booked to stay in Portugal (Alvor on the south coast) for January and February and would be heading down there in the van with a motorbike and mountain bike on board, so I had the idea to set off a bit earlier, leave the van in Portugal and head for Morocco on the bike.
I have no reason to go, except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance. What better reason could there be for travelling?Freya Stark
Once I had the idea a plan quickly fell into place, my goal was to be in Marrakech for Christmas and I would book accommodation as I went along to maintain maximum flexibility. Having arrived in Alvor I had to delay my departure for about a week as it was raining non stop and riding any distance in the rain is not my idea of fun. My initial goal was to get from Alvor to Tangier and then take stock and come up with a plan for the rest of the trip.
This was quite an adventure for me as I had not done any real distance on a motorbike before and my only experience of carrying all my gear was a few days with Dougie after the VINCE – which seemed to work out OK. The other aspect was doing it on my own – not knowing anyone else daft enough to want to join me. Travelling alone does have a positive side though in that you can do what you want and go wherever the fancy takes you. I knew from reading about other motorcycle adventurers that the temptation is to take too much stuff, so I was determined to travel light. I was going to be having the luxury of staying in cheap hotels and B&Bs so had no need for camping or cooking gear. I was expecting the weather to be warm so didn’t need lots of extra clothes. Going on the Honda CRF300L also meant that I didn’t need a load of tools – just things for chain adjustment and lube, a few allen keys and the ubiquitous tie-wraps. I didn’t want to have to carry tyre levers and spare tubes / puncture repair kit so had decided to stick with mousses. I changed the rear tyre from the full off road knobbie to a more suitable 50/50 tyre and wanted to do the same at the front but couldn’t remove the old tyre (the mousse was too tight) so I just left the full knobbie, which I knew would quickly wear out on the road – but at least I wouldn’t get a puncture !
I generally prefer to wear my open face trials-type helmet as it is very light, well ventilated and gives great visibility. However, it was probably not the best choice for the amount of road mileage that I ended up doing. Ear plugs were essential and I had to wear a face mask/buff most of the time as well.
My trip lasted 19 days and I covered 2300 Km. I spent 13 of those days travelling and stayed at 13 different places. On the travelling days I covered an average of 180 Km.
Total cost including ferry, fuel, hotels and food was 1450 Euros, or 76 Euros per day.
My first overnight stop was near Jerez, south of Seville after 325 Km which took me about 6 hours including stops. This was a baptism by fire and I found it hard work. The bike doesn’t offer any wind protection so you are constantly in the wind blast and even though the temperatures were reasonable (14-18) I soon started to feel cold. On some of the major roads the speed limit was 120 km/h but I was only doing 80-90 to make the ride more comfortable. Over 100 km/h the bike tended to weave – mainly due to the inappropriate front tyre. The bike would have gone faster but it didn’t feel safe at higher speeds and the wind chill was significantly worse. I had decided to make this a long leg in order to give me a shorter ride in the morning to the port of Tarifa to get the ferry.
Even though this was only the first day I was already thinking my outline plan would need to change. My initial idea had been to cover quite significant distances on major roads in order to get to the places I wanted to visit, but riding on main roads was just proving to be hard work and not much fun.
The next morning I set off early to get to the ferry. The temperature was a cool 9 degrees and I only managed half an hour before I had to stop, unable to feel my fingers. Definitely need to look into heated grips/gloves for my next trip. I arrived in Tarifa on time – 90 minutes before the scheduled sailing time only to discover they don’t let you in until an hour before.
I had used the ferry company app to book my ticket and check-in, which worked fine – the crossing for me and the bike was about 80 Euros and it takes an hour. Very few other people on the ferry.
I was a little concerned about securing the bike for the crossing, but of course they are used to it and have ratchet straps and tie down points specifically for the purpose. It was very windy and the crossing was a bit rough so just as well the bike was tied down. Passport and Covid forms to be filled in on the boat – obvious you are leaving the EU.
On arrival at the port there were more customs checks and I was issued with a small but vital piece of paper confirming that I was temporarily importing a vehicle. You have to present the same piece of paper when leaving…
From the port it was a short ride into the city to find my hotel – selected for it’s secure underground parking. This was a common theme throughout the trip – trying to find places to stay that offered some measure of security for the bike. In many places the default is simply parking in the street. The traffic in Tangier was fairly manic and a warm up for the road chaos in cities further south.
I had booked two nights in Tangier to give me time to acclimatise and plan the next stage of my trip. I still had the goal of getting to Marrakech for Christmas but needed to change from my original plan which involved too many major roads. The solution was to make use of minor roads, travel shorter distances and allow for more frequent stops that I had originally imagined.
Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive…Robert M Pirsig
Planning as you go does give much more flexibility but takes a lot of time and relies on a good internet connection. Back in the EU I take access to the internet (4G) for granted but in Morocco it is too expensive and you have to rely on WiFi in hotels and cafes.
I was wandering around in shorts and T-shirt, but the locals were dressed in hats and coats. Lots of great little places to eat and prices much cheaper than back home – my huge omelette and salad was only 8 Euros.
Meet Abdullah, my self appointed guide to the Kasbah in Tangier. He latched on to me and we started chatting and he proceeded to point out some of the interesting buildings and history. We must have wandered around chatting for half an hour, maybe a bit more. I assumed he was just being very friendly – at the start he said “don’t worry I’m not from the tourist office”. As we were parting I asked if I could give him something for his kind explanations and fished out a 50 dirham note (basic wage in Maroc is 15 dirham per hour so I thought I was being generous). He rejected it and said he wanted 200 !
With my revised plan I headed south to Chefchaouen (The Blue City) with a distance of only 110 Km to cover on minor roads. I wasn’t planning on doing any significant off road riding on this trip as I was on my own and consider it a bit risky, but also because I hadn’t researched any off road routes in advance. I was relying on Google Maps, but the lack of 4G meant that I had to download the maps in advance and use them in off-line mode which actually worked surprisingly well. Asking Google to pick a route avoiding motorways and tolls was also helpful in providing a more leisurely route.
This ride proved to be a lot more enjoyable – just trundling along minor roads at 70-80 km/h. The wind blast/wind chill is much less of a problem at lower speeds and you have time to appreciate the views. The minor roads also meander through lots of small villages and it’s fascinating to get a small snapshot of daily life in some of these places.
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure.Freya Stark
In Chefchaouen I met a German guy on a big BMW who was heading for the desert further south.
At the end of the day I made the pilgrimage up to the Spanish church on the hill above the town to watch the sunset – along with about 50 other people.
It was a 200 km ride to Meknes but I planned to stop off at the Roman site of Volubilis on the way.
The route to Meknes went past the hilltop village of Moulay Idriss, which is supposed to be the holiest place in Morocco.
I had booked into a Riad in Meknes and was assured it had secure parking for the bike – which turned out to be the pavement outside the hotel. It was in a very quiet street and not a problem.
It was becoming apparent that Moroccans prefer to deal in cash and are reluctant to accept a card even if they have a machine. Nearly every petrol station, even seemingly large ones, would only accept cash. This is not too much of a problem if you are prepared – there are plenty of cash points, but they all want to charge you a commission which seems to be in the 5-10% range. You also need a collection of coins and small denomination notes as it seems everyone expects a tip and being approached by people in the street with their hand held out is surprisingly common – maybe best to not look too much like a tourist.
Fuel was remarkably cheap at about 1.30 Euros per litre and the Honda was doing between 200-250Km between fill ups. That still required some planning ahead as fuel stations were not very common out in the countryside. Police road blocks / checkpoints are very common and seem to be setup at the entrance to every substantial town, but some seem to be in the middle of nowhere. They were clearly stopping people more or less at random and checking their documents. I only got stopped once and the guy just wanted a chat about where I was from and where I was going. I did voluntarily stop on another occasion as I was running low on fuel and wanted to know how far it was to the next station.
Stayed 2 nights in Meknes so had plenty of time to explore. A lot of the monuments and historical attractions were undergoing renovation – a three year project due to be completed in 2023, so I couldn’t visit some of the main attractions.
From Meknes I headed south for Marrakech but it was too far to make in one day so I chose an overnight stop at a place in the middle of nowhere.
It was another chilly start, but cafes were few and far between. It was an hour and a half before my first stop by which time I couldn’t feel my fingers. I was desperate to find a place with seats in the sun so that I could defrost, but in fact the sun was so hot that I was overheating within 20 minutes – the air temperature might be cool but the sun is HOT.
As I got closer to my overnight stop I thought I would just take a short off road excursion down a trail I spotted. It started off nice and easy but got more and more difficult as the trail started to climb – I didn’t get far before turning round and seeking out my bed for the night.
The accommodation was a bit off putting from the outside, but it was actually very comfortable and Habiba (the owner) was very welcoming – tea and biscuits in the garden on arrival and a vegetarian tagine later that evening made with produce from her garden.
I met another fellow traveller at this place and he was on a 3 month tour of Morocco by bicycle. I was pleased to see he was carrying more gear than me.
I booked 3 nights in Marrakech to give me a break from travelling and allow time for exploring. As soon as I arrived I walked into the centre to experience the unmistakable atmosphere of the Jemaa el-Fna square.
I went straight to one of my favourite places in Marrakech, the Cafe des Epices buried deep inside the Medina and had a very late lunch. By the time I had finished it was nearly dusk and I went back through the main square, stopping to sample some snails at one of the pop-up food stalls that appear in the evening.
I arrived in Marrakech on Christmas Eve and wasn’t too surprised to find there was virtually no sign of Christmas. I was suprised at how busy it was and the number of tourists, no wonder I struggled a bit to find suitable accommodation. I imagine that people just had the same idea as me “Christmas in Marrakech” and as a fly-to destination it is relatively accessible. Not as many tourists evident in the other places I visited.
On Christmas Day I treated myself to breakfast at the Grand Cafe De La Poste – an upmarket cafe in a grand building that used to be the main post office. It was only after I had taken this breakfast picture that I realised there were some Christmas baubles in the background…
Outside the cafe I stumbled across a group of 3 wheelers (motorcycles with sidecar). These appeared to be Chinese copies of the original BMW flat twin design and were available for guided excursions around the city or out into the desert. This cafe is the start point for their tours.
As usual I spent the day wandering about and stopping in cafes for a mint tea and to watch the world go by. For my Christmas lunch I had a nice French restaurant in mind called the Bagatelle, which is a way out from the centre and was not too busy. They didn’t have any special Christmas dishes but for dessert I spotted the option of a “Buche de Noel” so ordered that and it did turn up with a bit of Christmas trimming…
Reflecting on my Christmas experience in Marrakech I realised there were a lot of firsts for me this year…
- First Christmas with no cards
- No presents
- Eating Christmas dinner sitting outside
- Wearing shorts and T-shirt
- No booze (well I did manage an illicit Moroccan beer)
- On my own – this would have felt very strange at home but not a problem here where Christmas is just the same as any other day
Christmas is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.Freya Stark
Having achieved my main goal of Marrakech for Christmas, the other place I was keen to visit on this trip was Essaouira – an old fishing port on the coast directly West of Marrakech.
Essaouira is a popular destination with surfers and there are plenty of surf schools and equipment rental places – lots of people out on the water too.
There is a small but busy fishing port here with some bigger boats that seem to bring in huge catches of small silver fish (sardines?). There is a much larger fleet of smaller boats who must use a different technique (line fishing?) as they bring in a much more varied catch of bigger fish including conger and moray eels.
I stayed in Essaouira for three days and took the opportunity to do a bit of trail exploring along the coast. I followed a trail that eventually led to a little surf shack/cafe in an idyllic spot – perfect for yet another glass of mint tea !
From Essaouira I had to plan a route back to Tangier – I needed to get back to Portugal to start my two month rental of an apartment in Alvor. I opted to meander up the coast with a few stops along the way.
This small town is set on a lagoon and I had booked a hotel with a great view over the lagoon and sea.
Further up the coast El Jadida was a much bigger place with a port and massive fortifications built by the Portuguese. The hotel had a lovely garden, which provided secure parking for the bike.
This was New Year’s Eve, but much like Christmas there was no real sign of any festivities.
I couldn’t avoid the major cities along the coast so had to visit one of them. We stayed in Rabat last time so I though I would take a look at Casablanca. It is the biggest and most modern city in Morocco which is probably great for the economy and business but not so great for the tourist.
Having been using minor roads and meandering along at a relaxed pace for the last couple of weeks I now needed to up the pace. My next stop was six and a half hours away on the minor roads so I elected to use the motorway which reduced it to four hours – still a long haul on the bike. This journey only served to reinforce my earlier thoughts that travelling distances at speed on the Honda is just no fun – more of an endurance test.
The final leg of my trip within Morocco was a short run back to Tangier to the same hotel I stayed in originally, ready to catch the ferry the next day.
Had an overnight stop in Seville on the way back….
Reflections on the Trip
The bike ran perfectly throughout, the front tyre was almost worn out (as expected) – but I didn’t get any punctures. The limitations on cruising speed and distances travelled were mine rather than the bike’s. Travelling more slowly (70-80 km/h) on minor roads was much more enjoyable than racing across country on bigger roads. Travelling at this time of year I would still prefer to have some sort of fairing on the bike and heated grips/gloves would be essential.
Throughout the trip I was pondering on what was the ideal balance between time spent travelling and time spent exploring new destinations on foot after arrival. I felt that I had come up with a reasonable compromise as I enjoyed both aspects – pootling along through tiny villages and admiring the view and then wandering about a new destination, finding an interesting place to eat and just sitting outside a cafe with a mint tea watching the world go by. What seemed to work well for me was to set off late morning, allowing time to get out for a run and have a leisurely breakfast, but also allowing it to warm up a bit before setting off. Then spend 3-4 hours riding at a relaxed place to the next stop, arrive and have time to get out and explore the new surroundings in the late afternoon. You are far enough south here that even in the depths of winter there is still 10 hours of daylight, which comes as an unexpected bonus compared to being further North.
Another dilemma you have to address is: what is the optimum length of time to stay at a destination – 1,2,3 or more days ? Obviously some places will just be a pure overnight stop to break up the journey when there may be nothing interesting nearby to warrant staying longer – that was the case for my “hole in the wall” stop at Ait Ikkou. I settled on a default of a one night stop, which could be increased to 2 nights if there was enough interesting stuff nearby to be worth spending an extra day exploring. Once you increase that to 3 days, you really need to be using the place as a base and planning an excursion into the surrounding area on the extra day. Having said that I could happily spend a good few days in Tangier, Essaouira or Marrakech.
For my trip I preferred the inland destinations, which just seemed more interesting than the generally more modern coastal stops, apart from Essaouira which is quite a special place. Of the places I visited I wouldn’t go to Casablanca again and Oualidia is really only suitable as a short overnight stop as there is little to explore.
My lightweight packing regime seemed to work out fine – in fact I could reduce it even further. I did manage to do a bit of washing in the sink of one of the hotels which helped the clean clothes supply last the trip. Having a portable kettle/jet boil would be useful for making a drink in the hotel room in the evening – only one of the places I stayed provided a kettle. The bag tied to the rear rack was easily removeable, but the saddle bags were not – which meant I had to empty the contents of them at each stop and then repack them before setting off. Not a big deal but room for improvement. My open face trials helmet wasn’t the best choice for riding at speed, but I do have a couple of other options which I need to try out (I quite like the lightweight option though).
I suppose the big question is : would I do it again ? Well that’s a definite yes, but I would do things a bit differently : be more adventurous, go further south, go to more places I haven’t been before, plan more off road riding (either to get to a destination or as an excursion once there). I would still prefer to travel at lower speeds on minor roads, so to go further would need more stops and a longer trip.
To the next adventure…
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a motorbike the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.Robert M Pirsig