Friday, 18 April 2014

Two wheels of a different kind.


Along with three friends, my son Charlie decided to cycle from London to Amsterdam, in Holland. Now, that is a long way and so they needed a support van to carry their stuff. I was happy to oblige.



Here is a video I made of their ride. They left from Charlie’s bike shop in London early one morning and arrived in Amsterdam three and a half days later.

They covered 570 kms / 356 miles.

They are very fit to do a ride like this. I am fit enough to drive the van.

Charlie is the one wearing the white helmet, until he gave it up and wore no helmet at all. He is also the one that grazed his shoulder, arm and elbow when his wheel locked up and he flew over the handlebars. Being as tough as nails, he just carried on riding after repairing his bike.

With thanks to another son, Jeremy, who helped with the filming....


London to Amsterdam Cycle Ride from Gary S France on Vimeo.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Motorcycle Touring in Morocco. Would I recommend it?


Morocco is one of those places that doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking about where to go touring on a motorcycle. I haven’t read of many people riding there, so I was a little sceptical and definitely lacking in knowledge about the country. Having just returned from a nine-day trip there, I am pleased to say it was one of my favourite places in the world that I have ever ridden in. The scenery, roads, culture and people are all wonderful. The country is amazingly diverse, from lush green farmland to spectacular mountains and dry arid desert.



There were three bikes and five people on our trip. We considered taken our own motorcycles from London, but that would have meant riding a long way through France and Spain, or sitting on a boat for part of the way. Also, as we wanted to do some off-road riding, it was far better that we rented motorcycles more appropriate than our current road bikes. So, we rented three motorcycles in Malaga in Spain – two BMW GS1200’s for my son Charlie and good friend Paul, plus a Triumph Tiger 800 for me. As I am not very tall, I went for the smaller Tiger with its lower seat, but in hindsight, getting a third GS would have been better. More on that later.



After picking up the rental bikes, we rode a couple of hours in Spain before getting a ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta. Ceuta is a small Spanish territory located in North Africa and we stayed there for the night. 

Getting the bikes into Morocco the next morning was not simple and took about an hour-and-a-half to get through the border. The Moroccan immigration system is very chaotic and with hundreds of others trying to cross at the same time, this results in a crazy zoo of people, nearly all confused about what is going on. As soon as we stopped near the border we were surrounded by Moroccan men offering help in getting through the border and we took it. If you don’t know what to do, where to queue and what papers you need to fill in and get stamped, it would be almost impossible to work this out on your own, so we were very glad for the help. It cost us 5 or 10 Euros per bike in tips, so is very cheap.

Ceuta is at the very northern point of Morocco, so for the first half of our journey, we headed mostly south and then west….



On our first riding day in Morocco we were not quite sure what hit us. The ride down from Ceuta to Tetouan was slow along the coastline, particularly around the coastal resort of Smir. From Tetouan to Chefchaouen the road improved greatly and we began to enjoy our first Moroccan twisties. Life began to get very interesting when we headed east from Chefchaouen into much higher mountains and it soon became obvious we were in drug-growing country. We were offered Hashish everywhere we stopped and also by car drivers as we were riding!

The road was fantastically dramatic and the small towns we passed through were, well, quite scary. Crowded with only men, the towns here are at the centre of life in this part of Morocco, with items for sale, workshops, rubbish on the streets, loose animals everywhere – it certainly was an eye-opener! In one town, we looked into a chicken shop. No doubt just a few minutes later some of these birds were being cooked.



The towns we encountered in the rest of Morocco were much better, but this one section of road heading east out of Chefchaouen, is probably not the best introduction to life in Morocco!

A late start due to having to sort out some incorrect motorcycle papers and the delayed crossing the border meant we reached Fes after dark. Riding at all in Morocco at night is not recommended as there are almost no street lights, plus the poor standard of driving by Moroccans and the chances of animals being on the road, means that riding in the dark is not for the feint-hearted.

We had chosen not to stay in normal hotels, but in Riads instead. These are large traditional Moroccan houses with a central courtyard or garden. Full of character and dating back many hundreds of years, these are often located in the very heart of large cities, in the old part called the Medina. These Medinas are found in nearly every large city and have narrow, maze-like streets which are almost impossible to find your way around if you are not a local.

As with almost everywhere we stopped on our bikes, we were asked if we needed help to find where we were going. We learned to take up these offers for the price of a small tip. One guy, a complete stranger, even jumped on the back of my bike to show us the way....



The Riad was stayed at in Fes was wonderful. Tiled throughout, the place had a terrific courtyard which was very cool to sit and eat breakfast in.




We had been concerned about parking the motorcycles unattended in the Medina overnight. The solution in Fes was simple, as the Riad had arranged for a guy to sleep with the bikes overnight to make sure nobody touched them. This cost just 60 Dirhams, or about £4.50 ($7).

A porter moved our luggage back to the bikes….



So far, Morocco had been surprisingly green and fertile, but that soon changed as we rode south out of Fes. We had a long ride today of 306 miles, which doesn’t seem too far, but on Moroccan roads that is a long way. It was hard to judge how far we might ride each day and soon learned that 200 - 250 miles a day would have been plenty. Most days we did over 300, which if honest, was too much. The main N8 road we used was very scenic for the first half of the journey.



Donkeys are used extensively in Morocco and they are everywhere, as are herds of sheep and goats. Very often, these stray close to or even onto the road, so you have to be aware all the time about the potential dangers of animals. Here are two horses, an unusual sight….



Our arrival in Marrakech was chaotic. We had pre-printed maps to show the way to where we would be staying each night, but generally these proved to be useless, due to the fact that while every road has a name, there are no road name signs. It is easy to get hopelessly lost, which is then the best time to employ a young man on a moped to show you the way to your Riad. Doing this is Marrakech was spectacularly good fun as he buzzed off in front of us through the crowded alleyways in the medina with us trying to keep up. There appears to be little in the way of traffic rules in the Medina, where bicycles, mopeds and now our comparatively large motorcycles tear through the streets, somehow avoiding the people walking there, plus the occasional donkey. We must have looked quite a sight! My friend Paul captured this on his video camera and as soon as he has finished making his video, I will add it here.

Staying right in the centre of the large cities is a must. The Medinas have so much character, tradition and culture, that it would be a shame to miss this side of Moroccan life. Take for example the view from the rooftop terrace of the Riad we stayed at in Marrakech, which directly overlooks the main market square. What a sight for our arrival….



The market was very busy, with traders, food, shops and entertainers all plying their trade. It was fantastic!....









In these larger cities, you can get away with speaking English most of the time. If you have a basic understanding of French, you will do just fine as French is spoken nearly everywhere throughout Morocco.

What isn’t so easy to get along with is Moroccan toilets, while are the hole in the floor type. My son Charlie calls them “long drop” toilets. They are certainly challenging to use for westerners. Without toilet paper, there is a tap and a bucket for you to clean up with. Rarely is there a sink and almost never and hot water or soap. As a consequence, Morocco is not a very sanitary country and many foreign visitors get upset stomachs. We were given good advice to take hand sanitiser bottles or wipes to keep our hands clean after handing everyday things like money. It seemed to work for us.

After a good night’s sleep in Marrakech, we didn’t need to ride anywhere that day, so we relaxed and…um… went riding!

There are a few ‘must-do’ roads in Morocco and the Tizi-n-Test Pass is one of them. Situated to the south west of Marrakech, in the High Atlas Mountains, this is shown on maps as a ‘difficult or dangerous section of road’ so of course, we headed for that! Narrow in places, with gravel or sand covering the road in places, the road twists and turns through some glorious mountain scenery. It certainly was a ride we won’t forget for a while….











It took most of the day to ride the road, but it was well worth it. In reality, providing you take the normal care demanded on a motorcycle, the road isn’t dangerous at all.

Eating in Morocco is simple. Almost every meal consists of chicken, lamb, beef or goat and is very often served with vegetables in a dish called ‘tagine’. Vegetarians will struggle to find appropriate dishes to eat in Morocco. Wholesome, plain and plentiful, tagine is what we ate most often, in very basic roadside cafes. Providing you realise and accept that Morocco does not have a superb cuisine, you will get on fine….





After a second night in Marrakech, we headed south east and rode the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass on the N9 road towards Ouarzazate (pronounced something like Wazza-zartee). Easier to ride than the Tizi-n-Test Pass, the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass is just as much fun with its faster sweeping bends that went on for mile after mile….



Then we rode what we all agreed was one of the best roads – the continuation of the N9 into the Draa Valley. With stunning scenery and very fast bends, the is one heck of a road. It heads towards the Sahara with occasional oasis and some great opportunities for some off-road riding, that we readily grasped. This is my son Charlie and his girlfriend Olivia, off-road….



Off-road tracks just waiting to be explored….



A roadside stop….



The group of us with our bikes. From left to right, Olivia and Charlie (GS1200), Me (Triumph Tiger), Paul and Una (GS1200)….



Some of the wonderful scenery from the Draa Valley, including a familiar looking picture of somebody sitting on a road…..











Overall, the BMW GS1200’s performed very well off-road and could handle just about anything thrown at them. The Triumph was however disappointing once it left the tarmac. That might have been because the bike had road tyres fitted (by far the greatest majority of our riding was on tarmac) but it lacked grip on the loose stuff. I didn’t feel very confident off-road at all, which might be down to my lack of off-road experience, the tyres or the bike generally. On tarmac, the Triumph was almost faultless and with the tyres on this particular bike, that is where it really belonged.



Paul and Una on their rented GS1200.



After doubling back in the Draa Valley, we spent the night in another Riad, this time in Ouarzazate. We went to bed early, as we had one heck of a ride planned for the following day. We were to ride another three of the must-do’s in Morocco. Dades Gorge, Todra Gorge and the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, plus a little matter of 300 miles in between.

The road in Dades Gorge is the one picture of Morocco that nearly everyone, especially bikers, have seen. Like a mini Stelvio Pass, it climbs its way up a series of hairpin bends before reaching a spectacular viewpoint at the top….



Although it looks challenging, it is actually easy to ride. This was followed by an excursion into the spectacular Todra Gorge, formed by the Todgha River. Just a stream at this time of year (late March), the river must carry a lot more water in winter and the snow-melt season to carve such a canyon….





We had planned to ride further into Todra Gorge and make a big circuit high into the mountains. A quick check with an experienced guide told us that would be a bad idea. Fresh snow had fallen on the mountains and the pass roads could see more snow that day. We decided to skip it and were glad that we did as another group of friends from the UK who were also riding in Morocco at the same time had been caught in a blizzard.

By the time we had ridden the two gorges, we needed to rush to get to the Sahara Desert before dark. Our target was the dunes at Erg Chebbi, beyond Erfoud and after riding along a very rough gravel road for about 20kms, we made it just in time. We tried riding on the sand, but the road tyres on our bikes couldn’t cope, so we climbed the sand dunes instead by foot and made friends with one of the local guides….





The sunset as we left the Sahara was simply spectacular….





A quick beer (outside of the hotels, Morocco is a 'dry' country with no alcohol available) and meal in a proper hotel in Erfoud was followed by falling into bed, exhausted. It had been a spectacular but very long day.

Day 7 saw the start of our two-day ride back north again.

In the town of Rich, we stopped to wander around the local livestock market, where trucks, vans and cars of all shapes and sizes had been bringing goats and sheep to be sold. The sights we saw were not for animal-lovers but we had grown accustomed over the past week at seeing a hardy way of life….





We blasted back up to Fes and arrived in time for dinner on the top floor of a restaurant deep inside the very busy Medina….







Our trip was nearly over as we rode the final leg from Fes to Ceuta. We had to ride one long 20km stretch of gravel where the roads were being replaced. That was hard work, with some sections being very deep in loose stones….



It wasn’t long however before our trip was over and we caught a ferry back to Spain where we returned the rental bikes. This is Paul and Una spotting dolphins from the ferry as it approached Gibraltar….



Overall, we had a fantastic time, riding wonderful roads in glorious scenery. Combined with huge cultural differences and many learning experiences, it was everything that a long distance motorcycle trip should be. Life in Morocco is much harder than in western countries, so as a visitor you should expect to see things that you might consider unusual. Such is the joy of travelling!

Many thanks must go to Charlie, Olivia, Paul and Una for helping to make this such a memorable trip.  It was a blast!

So, what would we do differently if we were to do it all again? 1. To save the hassle of getting the motorcycles across the borders, we would fly into Fes and rent the bikes there. 2. Ride no more than 250 miles per day. 3. Have a rest day in the middle of the trip. 4. All get GS1200’s.

Would I recommend the trip to others? Without a doubt, yes!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Introducing the Blighty Boys.


One of the things that really helped me on my long ride across the USA a few years ago was the number of people that read my blog. Your words of encouragement, support and ideas were a constant companion as I made my way across America.

A few weeks ago I met a couple of guys, John and Jon, who are about to set out on a 20,000 mile ride across the USA. They are also from the UK and start their ride in early April and their route is set out on the map below. It sounds like a great trip which starts in Florida, takes in southern-most states, heads west to California, up the west coast and then across the northern states to finish in New York. I would encourage you to follow their adventures as they ride their trip of a lifetime.

If some of you show them as much support as you did to me, I would be delighted. You can find their blog here….. http://blightyboys.blogspot.co.uk/

They are going to have a blast!