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Oct. 8, 2022

Watching the Last Dakar in Africa 2006

It’s been just over a month since my return from Morocco, the Sahara and the Dakar Rally, and I am still finding it hard to believe it really happened, finding it hard to believe what an extra-ordinary, life affirming experience I have just returned from. Without any shadow of a doubt it was the best week of my motorcycling life.  I have to say motorcycling life just in case anybody from my family reads this.  Obviously it doesn’t compare to my marriage in Las Vegas and honeymoon in Alaska, or the birth of my 3 children.  But you can get married more than once, and have more children can’t you?

I have just been reading through the few diary entries I made on my fund raising web-site before I went to Morocco.  Interesting reading;“I am off for the trip of a lifetime.  I will be traveling 1000 miles, off-road by motorbike through the Sahara desert in early January.  We will be averaging 200 miles per day, for 5 days solid.   We will be following parts of the Dakar Rally.”And do you know what?  That is pretty much what I did. 

Pre-trip Diary Entries…

19 November 2006

Well, what on earth have I agreed to do?  I am pretty unfit at the moment with only 7 weeks to get in some kind of shape, other than the egg shape I currently find myself in.  Still, at least it's a good time of year to get fit in, what with all the Xmas parties and the always interesting Lakeland weather to go out running in.  Brilliant.

Up until a few days ago I was training pretty well, running 5k every other day, but I have been laid up with a cold for the last few days.  Alcohol kills all known germs apparently.  We'll see.

I think 5 days of hard technical riding is going to be bloody tiring, so need to get a fit as I can in the time available.

I did interviews for Lakeland Radio and the Westmoreland Gazette last week, it may help to raise some more sponsorship.  I will be in the paper this Friday hopefully. 

The trip was mentioned on the radio on Sunday on the hourly local news bulletins.  Doesn't look like anybody sponsored me because of it yet though.

I did a 'photo session' with the Westmoreland Gazette on Friday, sitting on Juha Salminen's KTM in Triple D in Kendal.  Dressed in the full KTM kit, even orange boots.  Nice.  Let's hope the good people of Kendal respond accordingly.  Triple D have agreed to throw a few quid into the kitty, that is very good of them.  I like the irony of the fact that they support possibly the best off road rider in the world - David Knight, and me, undoubtedly the worst!Now riding in sand, that will be an interesting new experience.  I hope to get down to a sand quarry in Norfolk to give it a try.  Not quite as cool as Charley Boormans trip to Dubai ("The nearest place to experience desert conditions")  Try Norfolk next time Charley boy!

26 November 2006

Another week gone without any training, unless you count kicking over the KTM - to get used to kick starting the big 650 I will be riding in Morocco?  No?  I thought not.

I will be resuming training on Monday, I will be staying in a hotel 'darn sarf' so will try and avoid the lure of the restaurant and bar and go straight to the gym.

I am really pleased that Kriega have very kindly offered to sponsor me.  I am a big fan of Kriega kit, I already nearly have one of everything they make and am delighted they have agreed to supply me with the missing products. 

I am waiting for a kit list from the trip organisers.  What are you supposed to wear in the desert when riding a motorcycle?  I have no idea whether it is going to be hot or cold in January.  They apparently get an average of 7 days of rain in Morocco in January, surely not in the desert though?  Temperatures range from 4 to 18 degrees C.  Layers I hear you say.  Who knows…?

Now, where is that gym kit?7 December 2006

Not another bloody cold!  Is it too early to be making excuses?  I have decided to forge ahead with the training anyway.  I have been swimming, lifting up heavy things (I wouldn’t call it weight lifting) and lots of running.  I have been dosing up with vitamin C and some hippy nonsense; echinacea, for all the good it is doing.  I think a trip to the doctors might be in order.

I had a lovely package arrive from Kriega, fantastic stuff.  I wonder if they will ever branch out into clothing?  A Kriega enduro jacket would be brilliant.

The Westmoreland Gazette will publish the article on my trip this Friday.  I really think this will help raise a few more pounds.  There are lots of people in the area that know me that I do not have email contact details for.  I hope they will add to my sponsorship total.I have nearly reached the £500 pound mark, but will probably raise that to £1000.  Every little helps.

I haven't actually done any training rides, it would be great to get out over Christmas for a day, but I am hoping my experience over the last couple of years will be enough to get me through.  Sand is very soft to land in anyway, how could it possibly hurt?!!

I made the mistake of letting my wife watch Charly Boorman’s Dakar DVD last week.  There is a very sad scene in which one of the participants dies.  Rachel actually questioned whether or not I should be doing this event at all.  She might have a point. 

How do you justify riding a motorbike at all, especially when you have a young family?  I like the saying – “you’re here for a good time, not a long time.”  I guess you have to make the most of life, whilst minimising the risks.  If I did have a debilitating accident would I be able to say, it was worth the risk?  I doubt it.   

What really scares me though is the thought of being on one’s death bed at a very old age regretting that you didn’t actually make the most of the time you had.  I don’t know…

What I do know however is that before a  recent race, some poor chap was helicoptered out with a broken back, and I nearly turned around and went home, but didn’t.  After about a hundred yards of the race beginning, I stopped thinking about it and had a great time.Bring on the Sahara !

3 January 2007

2 days to go, how excited am I?  I have still got a bloody cold, but it seems to be weakening.  Christmas was fantastic, no training, loads of drinking and eating, but hey, what ya gonna do?  I trained loads up to Christmas and actually ended up feeling pretty good, as well as loosing a stone. 

The level of sponsorship is fantastic, there have been some incredibly generous contributions.  I can be quite cynical about the whole charity/sponsorship thing - is it more about giving to a worthy cause or supporting a mate on some stupid venture?  I like to think the later, and the charity in question benefits on the back of it.  Either way I am feeling "a lot of love" as a hippy might say.

Poor Rachel is feeling very worried about the whole thing.  No need, it will be fine.  I have the itinary of our trip now, and we get to see the Dakar on 2 occasions, and get to pre-run one of the special tests the day before the actual racers.  How cool is that?So, I'm packed and ready to go.  Just one day left at work and I am out of here.  

Thursday 4th Jan

Having reviewed the new itinerary of the trip I can't help but feel a little disappointed. We were due to go to Merzouga and the big dunes at Erg Chebbi, but the organisers of the Dakar, to keep the riders on their toes have decided to use a different route this year which bypasses the biggest dunes in Morocco.  Apparently the likes of Cyril Dupres use this part of the world as their back garden and know it like the back of their hands.  As a 'Dakar tour' we are changing our route to see the maximum amount of the rally.  Shame, but we will have plenty of opportunity to make fools of ourselves in other dunes along the way, apparently.

Friday 5th Jan

Early days yet, but what a nice bunch of people. The first meetings were quite funny; 'Where are you from?'  It took me back to the first few days of my brief spell at university, but instead of following with ‘What course are you doing’ it was 'What bike do you ride?

The trip to Marrakech was pretty uneventful. Three hours on a 70 quid Easyjet flight.  Am I the only person to have never had a bad experience on Easyjet? 

We stayed our first night in Marrakech, but not before two of the scariest taxi rides into the Medina for lunch and some sightseeing.  If there is an afterlife please let me not come back as a cobra in Morocco.  The small amount of hassle we got was very good natured and easily dispatched.  The rumours of Morocco's friendly people seem to be holding true.  Dinner and early to bed as two four o'clock starts have left me feeling a little weary, but not before secreting a case of beer in our very limited luggage allowance.  Well you never know do you?  How did I end up sharing a room with Tony from Newbury, the loudest snorer this side of the Portuguese border?

Saturday 6th Jan

The Riders 4 Rights Dakar Ride for Life is actually 2 tours in one.  A road tour and an off-road tour, as well as a ‘Race to Dakar-esque’ support vehicle which will carry Dave, somebody’s brother, Lynne, somebody’s sister and  photographer Jay.  As I write, the off-road team including me, are in a mini-bus transferring to the start of our trip in Ouazazate. The 7 guys and one gal road team are riding their hired Transalps.  They should have a great day.  The mountain pass that we are all traveling is about 140 miles across the Atlas mountains, but takes about 4 hours, with some breath taking views and equally breath taking drops off the side of the many of the hairpin bends.  Why do guides tell you stories like the one about the eight French tourists whose mini-bus took them all to early graves only weeks ago on the same road. Cobras don't live at such high altitudes do they? The off-road world covers a broad spectrum of people, and they are all represented on this trip meet;

  • Ian - Welsh ex-grass track riding traveler
  • Mel - entrepreneurial Geordie plumbing magnate (at least I think that’s what he said)
  • Mungo - charity lovey turned diving and riding instructor. Tour Leader Bald Eagle.
  • Me - I do something in IT which is far too dull to go into
  • Mike - restaurateur and little brother to support truck Dave (Dave needs to write his own story, no, Dave owes it to all of us to write his own story!)
  • Tony - mechanic, builder, scout leader, snorer and stay at home Dad
  • Clare - engineer, off-road rookie, extremely tough and eternally cheerful.
  • Alistair - trials legend and bank manager
  • Dave - cameraman and officially the hardest bike rider since Barry Sheene
  • Phil - professor, apparently, and youth worker
  • Phil - off road rookie, Fazer riding accountant
  • Andy - something in the City turned riding instructor turned back to something in the City and possible Dakar entrant for 2009
  • Jim – top TV executive
  • Jonathon - American road race legend (swapped for beer)
  • Mike - yacht captain, resident of Spain and second possible Dakar entrant

Sunday 7th Jan

I am no longer writing this as a daily diary entry, due to the fact that the days were pretty long and tiring, and I could either sit in my room writing or in the bar making friends with bottle after bottle of excellent Moroccan beer!  “Of all the bars in all the world.”  So it’s now mid-March and I have finally got round to putting pen to paper. 

People keep asking me about the trip, and the one overwhelming thing I keep coming back to is the quality of the riding, the pistes, the speed, the vast distances and the freedom to go pretty much anywhere you want.  The trails just go on forever!  You are able to ride as fast or as slow as you like, within reason.  There are so few people around that you are almost guaranteed not to run into anybody else.  Forget grumpy faced ramblers, look-down-their-nose horse riders or out-of-breath mountain bikers, these trails are vast and unending and you can ride for hundreds of kilometers without seeing a soul.

Day 1 saw us heading from Ouazazate to Zagor.  A trip of 220kms, which will see us in the saddle for 9 hours.

I must confess to feeling really nervous that first morning.  I have no idea why.  It felt like the nerves that you get before the start of a race.  Perhaps it was the unknown of the big heavy Honda XR650?  I have a sylph-like KTM 400 EXC at home.  Perhaps it was the fear of the new terrain and impending sand?  Whatever it was, it made no sense.  I have been looking forward to this for bloody months and I am feeling sick at the thought of doing it!  How stupid is that?  It’s not the Dakar is it after all?  Just following part of it…

Have you ever ridden with a group as large as 20 people, including guides and support team?  It takes bloody ages for everybody to be ready for the off.  I knew as soon as we were mobile I would relax, but I had to wait for an hour for everybody to get their arses into gear.  Actually it was more like 2 hours as I was so excited I was ready ages before we were due to ship out.  Big kid.

The ride on the road seemed to go on forever.  Do you know why road riders ride sports bikes and go so fast?  Because it’s bloody boring otherwise!! 

After about 40 km we stopped to regroup and have a break at the top of a mountain, in one of the many lay-bys taken over by the locals trying to sell pottery, crystals or anything else they could get their hands on.  I think that the lizards they all held were just for photo opportunities however. 

Anyway, I managed to disgrace myself by being the first person to drop their bike to the ground.  My advice - always make sure your side stand is down before walking away from your bike.  Oh great, a dropped 650 kick-start only single, that’ll be easy to re-start.

Another brief squirt along the tarmac before turning off onto our first proper ‘piste’ as they call them out here.  Pistes are basically a track through the landscape.  They vary considerably, from smooth hard pack with no discernable edge, to very very rocky moonscapes, with large boulders delineating the edge of the track.  Those later ones can be a little disconcerting.  Go slightly off course, as you often do when riding over rocks and you find yourself playing dodge ball with some sizeable chunks of the mother nature’s finest.  It’s not exactly the Lake District, but fun all the same.

Some of the pistes can be very sandy, and also very dusty, which presents problems all of its own.  You often hear about the problem of dust in relation to the Dakar.  But until you experience it, it’s hard to appreciate how little you can actually see.  Some pistes allow you to combine dust, sandy patches, random boulders, and 3 hours of night riding with a broken headlight.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s tomorrow.

It felt great to be off-road at last.  The 2 days of travel were a little frustrating, but now we were here!  The track quickly headed down hill with some wonderfully sketchy tight bends on a loose surface.  Not surprisingly the group began to spread out.  There was a broad range of off-road experience on the trip; Clare and Phil had effectively no off-road experience, where as Mel and Ian have had a modicum of off road experience.  To be honest, there were no Knighter’s.  But then this wasn’t a race, it was a holiday, sorry I mean grueling charity ride…

The riders briefing was quite interesting.  It was something that I had thought about prior to the trip.  How do you guide a group of 15 people through the desert safely?  Well this is how.  There is one GPS equipped guide at the front.  Who just happens to be the smoothest, fastest off road rider in Morocco who isn’t in the Dakar.  Seriously, I followed him for many miles, and when he was gliding round bends standing on the pegs, seemingly oblivious to the difficult terrain or the vertical hairpin bends, I would be leg out motoX style, speedwaying it round with my eyes closed!  Brad, take a bow.  Anyway, as I was saying one guide at the front, one experienced off-roader at he back, and finally a support 4 by 4 following everybody.  Our luggage was carried by road by a second 4 by 4 and trailer, complete with spare bikes.  We would stop at every ‘junction’ in the piste, or at least every 30 minutes, for everybody to regroup.  There was no pressure for anybody to go faster than they were comfortable with.  The pistes are usually clearly marked, and when not you wait for everybody to catch up and ride together.

The consequences of getting lost in the desert would be serious, no doubt about it.  But the technique used seemed to work well, and these guys run these trips pretty much every other week of the year, I never felt in any danger, well, other than the usual.

What a fantastic days riding.  The landscape is remarkable; how people live out here I have no idea.  But almost every time we stopped somebody would appear, usually kids asking for bon-bons, stylo’s or dhirams.  Imagine it, you ride for 6 hours into the desert, really the middle of bloody nowhere, and the next thing is you are surrounded by people staring at you.  What do they eat, where do they get water from, how do they scrape a living?  Where’s the nearest KTM dealer?

Lunch was at a small town, I’m afraid the name or location is beyond my recall, if I ever found out.  I love those adrenaline fueled breaks in a days riding.  Permanent brain-less grins, eyes as glossy as a newly painted radiators, talking ten to the dozen, or maybe that’s just me.  Brilliant! The food set a pattern for the next few days; tagine, tagine and more tagine.  We were treated to Morocco’s national dish at every meal time for the next three days.  Sometimes lamb, sometimes chicken, always very nice.

A quick refuel, petrol tanks and camelbacks, and back to the trails, and more of the same, fantastic. 

I guess it was getting late into the day, and people were getting tired, but accidents do happen.  They happen to the best riders in the world, and I guess it’s inevitable that they happen to the likes of us, and the odd spooked sheep. 

Unfortunately Clare hit a sheep in a village, even though we were very conscious of riding slowly through the villages we came across.  The sheep soon disappeared into the mountains, but was found dead by the very angry sheppard, apparently, and it was pregnant, apparently, so that will be 70 Euros please.  

Fortunately Clare was fine, and was quickly moved on from the scene by our Moroccan support team who dealt with whole incident there and then.

Sadly the next accident was a little more damaging to human kind.  Poor old Dave, experienced rider and desert camera man, he came a cropper riding over some otherwise innocuous scenery, and his bike sandwiched the top of his leg with a very large boulder.  Ouch.  Cue pain for Dave and concern for everybody else, especially Dave’s sister and ace photographer Lynne, who was traveling in the support truck.  This was going to be the end of the road for Dave’s riding week.  Thankfully otherwise OK, Dave was able to get in the support truck for a very long and painful trip to the first nights ‘bivouac’.

It was a salutary experience for all.  What exactly would happen if you were really badly injured in this part of the world?  Call on the Great North Air Ambulance?  Umm, I doubt it.  Note to self – “ride carefully, you might die.”

Nine hours in the saddle is quite a long time, especially as most of it was off-road, and the last hour in the dark.  I had no idea about the place we would be staying in, and to be honest wouldn’t have believed them if they had told me. 

Bivouac my arse, welcome to paradise Moroccan style, plus cold beers waiting for you.  The road guys had arrived well before us and had had plenty of time to shower, change and relax.  They gave us a hero’s welcome.

You have probably seen pictures of those desert oasis camps, with a multitude of rugs covering the floors, low tables surrounded by cushions and comfortable chairs, wall coverings; deep reds, vibrant yellows and shimmering gold’s.  Beautiful.  And this wasn’t even a camp but a beautiful hotel, complete with bar, restaurant and swimming pool.  Not at all what I had expected, but a very welcome surprise. 

Dave was in some considerable pain and asked to be taken to the nearest hospital fearing the worst.  The nearest hospital was a couple of hours away, but it seemed better to be safe than sorry.  There was some good news.  Dave’s leg was only very badly bruised apparently.  They did an x-ray, and there is no break.  They offered Dave a set of crutches for £15 but our loyal Moroccan mechanic wouldn’t let him buy them as they were trying to rip him off.  So the mechanic fashioned a fine hickory walking stick himself at no charge. 

It was only on returning to London and seeking medical expertise that confirmation came; Dave had 2 considerable breaks at the top of his femur.  Not only had Dave walked on the broken leg for the last 8 days, but he had also got back on the bike for the last day and ridden for 7.5 hours! 

As the beer and wine started to flow over dinner, tagine obviously, I kept telling myself to take it easy, big day tomorrow, big week ahead.  Well you know how that works…

Monday 8th Jan

An early start for a long day.  Our guides had not ridden this route before; we were heading into the unknown, much like our brethren on the Dakar.  We were following the route of the Dakar special stage that the Rally would be following tomorrow.  Zagora to Foum Zguid, we estimated was about a 300km run, across a real variety of terrain, at least 200km of which would be off-road.  A long day we assumed. 

I don’t know if anybody expected a 12 hour ride, of which the last 3 hours would be in the dark, but I can guarantee, if we were offered the ride again, there isn’t a single person who would say no, possibly. 

A combination of fear and excitement prevailed.  Today would be our first chance to ride in some dunes.  I had read Chris Scott’s advice on riding in sand in his Sahara Overland book, but obviously reading something is very different to putting it into practice.  What you need to do, apparently, is not use your handlebars, other than for holding on to, just lean in the direction you want to go go and squeeze the throttle.  When you run up a dune, keep up the momentum, but be careful when you get to the top of a dune, as there will be a very steep drop off at the other end.  So pause, to look over the lip, but not for too long or you will bog down.  If you do, jump off your bike and run along side with the throttle nailed and leap back on when out of the soft stuff.  Simple.  

Andy managed to lighten the mood by pulling some rubbish wheelies for the camera, before remembering he had left his credit card details as a deposit for his Honda XR400.  The bikes were all Honda’s, you could choose from XR250’s, XR400’s, XR650’s or CRF450’s.  First come first served.  The guys in Morocco were awaiting arrival of 8 new KTM 400 EXC’s.  I’ve booked one of those for next year. 

A short trip on the tarmac before running into a road block.  I still have no idea why we were stopped, but our multilingual guides from Wilderness Wheels soon had us back on the road.  Another short hop and we came to the end of the road, literally.  A quick stop for coffee and a photo of a camel and we were heading into the sand!!!! 

This is going to be interesting.  This sand was very soft apparently, which basically means it is very easy to sink into, it rather than the hard variety that you are able to ride across far more easily.  The guys from Wilderness Wheels had assured me that this was where the 650 would come into it’s own.  Plenty of torque to keep you going in the sand, I’m not sure I believed them.  All it meant to me at this stage was - big heavy bike, more likely to disappear into the sand and far more difficult to pick up after dropping it into this, the world’s biggest bunker. 

Purely by chance somebody had a problem with their bike, which meant we stopped and waited for about 20 minutes.  This was an ideal opportunity to put into practice what Chris Scott had written.

The ‘dunes’ at this stage were more like 3 foot mounds, a good place to start non the less.  I tried to do exactly as advised and bugger me it worked!  I was still a little wobbly, no change there then, and the front end still had something of a mind of it’s own, but I could do this!!  I had been very nervous about the sand, I dread to think how those new to off-road riding were feeling. 

I later gave Mr Scott’s advice to some of the new guys, but I omitted to tell them that I had just read it somewhere and never actually put it into practice.  Oh how I laughed when they delightedly told me what great advice I had given them.  It was only then that I told them I had only ever read it somewhere.  It was so like that scene out of ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ where the guy that designed and rebuilt the plane admitted to only designing model aircraft before.  No it really was!  We were in the same desert.  Really.

A lot of riding is all about relaxing and trying not to panic, let the bike do it’s thing.  This is especially true in sand.  Any attempts at steering out of something will quickly have you spitting grit out from the back of your throat.  Relax and plenty of throttle that is.  The deeper and softer the sand the more throttle you need, but the old 650 kept on moving.  It was actually good fun.

I have no idea how long this ‘shallow’ sand went on for, but it must have been 20 miles or so.  It eventually gave way to very flat, hard pack terrain.  A great opportunity to really wind the bikes up.  At the same time keeping a very close eye out for the odd boulder or piece of vegetation.  I thought I was going fast until ‘King of the Desert’ and room mate Tony came hurtling past me on his CRF450.  This is brilliant.  This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life, and I haven’t even got to the good stuff yet.

We stopped after a short while to sweat off some adrenaline, hug each other and otherwise make monkeys of ourselves.  It wasn’t just me that was enjoying myself. 

We had actually made good time and the pack was well and truly split up.  We waited for quite a while.  There was an obvious piste to where we were and anyway the terrain was totally flat and you could see people’s dust clouds from miles away.  I imagine the horizon doesn’t get any further away than this.  How could it be then that a lone rider managed to scream past a group of about 10 of us, probably only 100 metres away without seeing us?  Remarkable and a reminder how dangerous it can be out here.  Our leader told us firmly to stay where we were, he had GPS remember, and off he went in hot, very hot pursuit.   No worries we were all back together in minutes.

This was probably a good time for a little pep talk.  There were a few of us who were really rather enjoying ourselves, taking some fast little sprints off-track in all manor of different directions, while other people patiently waited on the piste   We were advised that this behaviour was rather fool hardy and would inevitably lead to an accident if we continued.  So we stopped.  Amazingly.  I think we all realized what was at stake.  From my own perspective I was just practicing riding.  How often do you get the chance to practice riding completely unfettered by geographical or human constraints – trails, dry stone walls, small children, tower blocks…  and anyway, I’ve always fancied a go at speedway.

Once the whole group was together we set off at a relatively sedate pace.  I say sedate, but it was still faster than you could possibly trail ride in the UK, unless you are head-mental that is.  After a few miles something rather magical appeared, and unless I am very much mistaken, those small hills are called sand dunes.  I am struggling to think of a way of describing how I felt at seeing sand dunes.  After a few hours of riding in sand, the fear of dunes had nearly disappeared.  This was going to be brilliant.  Sorry for over-using the word ‘brilliant,’ but it was, it was, err, brilliant.

The most excited I can remember being as a kid is on Christmas mornings, especially when a new (pedal) bike was in the offing. That is the kind of excitement I was feeling now.  All of the endorphins without the fear.  I am selling bottles of that to the highest bidder, check out, for the auction site. 

Is it just me or does everybody talk to themselves in their helmets?  I do it quite a lot, usually things like, “concerntrate”, “keep on the throttle, don’t wimp out, oooww!”  Well I was certainly talking to myself now.  Trying to psyche myself up for what was to come. 

I mentioned earlier that people’s experience was mixed, so it was inevitable that some people would struggle more than others.  I have a few pictures I took looking back to this patch of pretty small dunes, and dotted across the sand are a large number of the group stuck with their bikes buried at least up to their axles.  Now obviously what I should have done was put the camera away and go back and help those guys dig their bikes out, but did I?  To my shame I did not.  In my defense I felt kind of fortunate to have got through myself and was fairly convinced that if I went back in, I wouldn’t be getting out in a hurry!  It was still great fun, and very challenging, and I was able to rely on heaps of throttle and endless torque from the Honda to literally drag me through the sand.  I did get stuck once and it really takes it out of you even in the moderate heat of Morocco’s winter sun.  You know what it is like digging in soft sand?  More falls back in the hole that you actually dig out.  Anyway, shame on me, and much respect to Tony, ‘King of the Desert’ who with a huge grin on his face went straight back into the thick of it to rescue all and sundry that needed it.  This would not be the end of Tony’s heroics today.

Once everybody, including the 4 by 4, was through the dunes we decided to break for lunch.  If you haven’t picnicked off the bonnet of a Toyota Landcruiser in the Sahara, then you haven’t lived.  Forget your Jamie Oliver’s and your Gordon Ramsey’s, this was eating!  Although quite why Support Truck Dave was carrying a 10 inch hunting knife was beyond me.  I don’t think anybody actually asked Dave, of Sicilian descent, why he had it either, can’t think why.  Anyway, it came in very handy for slicing the cheese.

The rest of the afternoon unfolded in a similar way, more rocky piste interspersed with stretches of very soft tricky sand and dunes. 

The classic picture you have of the Sahara of endless mile upon mile of sand dunes is not how it is, certainly not in this part of Morocco anyway.  The terrain is far more mixed.  One of the highlights of the tour was the dry lake bed that we encountered towards, what I assumed was the end of the day. 

Now, dry lake beds in deserts are very flat, for flat read fast.  Flat out in top for as long as you dare fast.  Flat out in top very closely scanning your limited horizon, due to dust, for rocks, other bikes and vegetation. 

When my wife was concerned for my safety after watching Dakar Rally videos, I explained to her that the guys that were killed on the Dakar tended to be the extremely good, fast riders who have accidents at very high speeds.  I would not be going at very high speeds, because I am keen to carry on living and enjoying my children, and a bit of a sissy.  But I am also very weak and give into temptation very easily.  So flat out in top it is in.  But not for very long.  Be honest what would you do? 

The main thing that worried me was loosing the other guys.  I think at this stage the dust turned red (mist) and everybody spread out across the lake bed.  There was no obvious piste.  We found out the following day that we weren’t the only confused ones.  We had the opportunity to make it into the Dakar Rally bivouac in the evening and some of our number got to speak to some of the very friendly riders.  Chris Blaise, new US Dakar hero told us he got very confused when he rode across the lake bed as there were loads of tyre tracks zigzagging all over the place.  He was in the top 10 at the time and could not understand how many people had managed to get in front of him.  There is no way on earth any bikes other than those in the Dakar would be out here surely?  Crazy Brits!

Before we reached the lake bed there was more dunes and soft sand to negotiate.  Even with my new found sand riding ‘skills’, getting stuck was inevitable.  When you hear about Dakar riders just giving up exhausted in the desert after digging their bikes out of the sand for the 30th time and only having traveled 5 miles in the last 4 hours, it’s difficult to comprehend what they go through.  Well I think today gave us a very small taste of what it must be like.  And I mean very small taste.  We did only half the distance they do.  I don’t think they stop for picnics, or have a bunch of people on hand to help them dig their bikes out of danger, or a support truck following them with a spare bike if they need it.  Oh, and they are racing too of course, using a road book, and not following a GPS equipped guide.

Whist riding through one particularly patch of very soft sand dunes, in which I think we all got stuck at some point, the 4 by 4 support truck unfortunately also got stuck too.  This was altogether a trickier situation.  I wasn’t there, but guess that lifting several tones of Toyota wasn’t really an option.  Again I wasn’t there but heard that whilst support truck driver and enduro expert Peter was helping some poor unfortunate re-start their bike, Dave thought it might be helpful to move the truck forward.  Oh dear, cue one very stuck truck.  Not even a 10 inch knife was going to shift it. 

Whilst those there tried everything in their power to move the truck the rest of us took shelter in the shadows of our bikes to protect us from the worst effects of the mid-day sun.  After about an hour of waiting a small party led by fearless desert King Tony headed back to found out what was going on.  Not a lot apparently, truck still stuck.  Fortunately our Tony is a scout leader and within 20 minutes he had the Toyota on firm ground again.  The solution?  Get all the spare enduro jackets out of the boot and lay them on the sand in front of the wheels!  Hey presto.  I think insurance claims for the squashed iPods and cameras are still going through.

Onwards and up wards, except for Jim those CRF had seized solid.  Still not an issue – just a quick swap for the spare bike, and strap the CRF to the back of the Landcuiser.

Time was matching on and we still had a long way to go.  The terrain wasn’t getting any easier.  Often what starts off as challenging, maximum concentration riding, after many miles becomes a pain in the neck.  Most of the rest of the day was spent riding over quite difficult rocky piste.  You really had to keep your wits about you to stay on board.  And that is the way it stayed for the next 4 hours.  It soon became clear after crossing the lake bed and regrouping that darkness was decending and we still had about 80 miles to go.  We resigned ourselves to riding in the dark.  However a couple of the guys, probably due to falls had non functioning headlights.  Not that those of us with headlights were any more confident in our trail bike lights.

The team spirit only grew.  A few of the riders were tired and suffering, so everyone paired off and provided close up lights and riding support, which in itself demands good rider skill and buckets of concentration.  Out there on the endless tracks we’d occasionally stop and realise how vast and diamond studded the Sahara sky looks at night.  I live in the middle of nowhere, but have never seen so many stars.

The next few hours were a real testament to everybody on the tour.  We were all tired, hungry, thirsty, cold and desperate to be back in civilization.  I like most people had run out of water and was privately thinking some fairly negative thoughts about the whole venture.  I had vowed though before leaving for Morocco that I would never speak or show any negative feelings towards the trip, and I don’t think I did. 

In hindsight these grueling 3 hours in the dark, riding for all you were worth and looking out for your buddies was a highlight of the trip.  Strangely we actually seemed to be making better progress in the dark than in the light.  Something to do with not being able to see what you were about to hit!

Eventually we saw some lights from our destination Foum Zguid.  It still took about another hour to get there though!  Shortly after pulling off the piste and onto blessed tarmac, I have never been so please to feel tarmac under my knobblies, we drove paste the Dakar bivouac being prepared for tomorrow night.  Good luck guys.

There waiting anxiously for us to guide us to our accommodation was one of the support team.  Again hindsight is a wonderful thing, but our accommodation for the next 2 nights was to provide some wonderful stories, if not great sleep.   After 3 nights in great hotels the auberge in Foum Zguid provided, shall I say, more basic accommodation?  Still fantastic, no complaints here, but definitely more basic.  As we walked through the door, after another heroes welcome from the road guys, we were each handed a blanket and shown to our floors, literally, just a floor .  Ok, no worries.  “Where is the beer and secondly where are the hot showers?  “There are neither.”  “Yeah, yeah guys very funny, where is the beer and the showers!!  “No really.”  “Oh.”

What can only be described as posse then approached our host, asking politely for beer.  Brad our American guide at this stage I believe hid somewhere.  The British are of course normally very reserved when it comes to expressing their desires to those that provide us with services.  I guess it was a cultural thing, but our host suggested that we all wash, then when our food was ready we could have some beer with that.  Not good.  The next thing I seem to remember was a slighty out of body experience, I just remember looking down on my dirty, tired self, who was shouting “just give us some beer!”  I wasn’t the only one.  Fortunately it came to me that we have a crate stashed in our limited luggage allowance.  Beers all round, and eye wash too for those that need it.

At first the realization that there was no hot water in the auberge was something of a dissappointment.  12 hours in the saddle, dusty, sweaty, aching and tired.  Never fear, only yards away was the local ‘haman.’  I didn’t know what one was either.  A haman is a wash room, or rather 3 rooms.  One to strip off in, watched by most of the local residents it seems, oh no the second room is where you strip off!  Sorry children.  The third room is heated below by a fire which also provides a huge trough of hot water to tip over yourself.  Absolutely brilliant.  Although surrounded by several dirty bikers (all male, no women allowed), I was for once quite glad I am very short sighted.

Back to the auberge, great food, more beer, and blessed sleep, punctuated only by flatulency, hilarity and a barking dog, who it turns out was guarding the bikes, good on ya’ Mutley.

Tuesday 9th January

Today was going to be a rest day of sorts.  A leisurely breakfast while the team from Wilderness wheels changed oil and attended to other routine tasks to keep their fleet of Hondas on the move.  My KTM’s manual suggests an oil change every 10 hours, and I would guess the Honda manual suggests something similar for their CRF’s.  Does anybody actually do that, apart from the serious race guys?  I do mine every 20 hours, and it seems that the Wilderness Wheels boys do theirs at least once a week, if not twice.  They put some serious miles on these bikes, as they are running tours at least every other week, strong testament to the bikes and the mechanics that look after them.

As already mentioned the facilities were altogether more basic, but it didn’t really matter.  We only had one set of riding gear.  I took my own, but I could have used the top quality Scott kit supplied by Wilderness Wheels.  So it seemed fairly pointless worrying about the lack of showers when you were putting back on stinky gear anyway.  Ah the smell of used body armor in the morning… The worst part was having to take a bucket of water into the toilet with you, but let’s not go into that.

You would think after a couple of years of big four-stoke single ownership that I would be used to kick starting one by now.  Well, by the start of day 3 I was kind of getting used to it.  “Just get it up to top dead centre, pull in the decompression lever for the first part of the kick , and that should do it.“ But what the heck is “top dead centre?”  I have always been too embarrassed to ask anyone!  Peter explained it well, kick it over until you feel firm resistance, and you are there.  Excellent, who needs an electric start?  Me obviously.

I had a very embarrassing incident once when I was collecting my KTM from Triple D in Kendal.  They advised we to always use the kick start when the engine is cold.  So that was what I tried to do.  My technique at the time was stand, literally both feet 3 foot in the air with the bike balancing beneath me, on the kick start and just kick it for all you are worth.  It sort of worked, except this time, with all and sundry watching, my foot slipped off the kick start and I ended up spread-eagled across the bike, almost dropping it, with some rapidly developing swelling in ones crown jewels.  The shame was far more painful however. 

Back to Morocco.  We decided to meet and have a cup of coffee, and some of the most delicious and abundantly available orange juice, in ‘town’, with everybody getting ready and leaving at their own pace.  It was nice to be able to sit in the sunshine, relax and take in the atmosphere.  But not that nice, I was just itching to get back on the bike and ride.

It’s amazing how many people are out there ‘traveling’.  There were constant sightings of people on big trailies, a few turned up in the town.  Perhaps it was the lure of the Dakar, I guess a few people had timed their travels to coincide with the Rally. 

I hate that saying; “Be a traveler not a tourist”.  There is absolutely no difference, except tourists generally smell better, and wear shoes, and spend a more money in their destinations.  You are tourists!  There it is in black and white, so it must be true.

We had had the good fortune of one of our guides living next to the guy that was organising that nights bivouac for the Dakar, so he was able to provide us with a copy of the days road book.  We therefore knew the precise location of the race that day and our guides were able to locate a couple of good vantage points for us.  This was going to be exciting.

We parked up on mass about 100 yards from the route.  The route was a well defined track at this point, so there was little danger of any errant competitor colliding with us.  Now all we had to do was sit and wait.  The first guys through should be the fast bikes.  The cars and trucks were starting from a different place today, and the bikes start first anyway.  We didn’t have to wait long.  The sound and sight of a helicopter heralded the first rider through that day.  The lead guys came through looking invincible.  Smooth as a smooth thing that has just been planed and sanded.  They looked as fresh as daisies, standing up and power sliding round the bend that we were positioned on.  Coma, Despres, Casteau, Blaise, and of course our own Mick Extance.  Riding gods.  Nearly every rider acknowledged our applause with a wave of the hand or foot!  It was amazing to see it all in the flesh, quite a privilege.

After a while the fast cars started to come through.  What a contrast!  Those boys fly.  Fire breathing machines, causing Sentinels to scream and flash into action.  Just watching from a now safe distance was scary enough.  Having to share a narrow piste with them must be terrifying, and the slower you are the more likely you are to encounter the cars.  They give no quarter and from where we were standing we saw a few very close encounters. 

When one of the locals came past on his battered Yamaha 100 he must have seriously wondered what was going on.  All he wanted to do was get his dead goat to the local market.  Why were all these foreigners screaming at him to get off the road, that he obviously used week in week out. 

The Dakar organizers radio broadcast messages telling the local population when the rally will cross their paths, and in addition send vehicles through the course three days prior to the race to keep the local people well aware of the rally passage, through handouts and loud speakers.  But in places as remote as these not everybody is going to get the message.

After a while I must confess to getting a itchy feet again.  Watching is all well and good, but to be honest I would rather be riding.  But hey, when am I going to see this again?  I few of us decided to head a little further back along the route we had pre-ridden yesterday to see if we could get a different vantage point, and just to enjoy some more riding.  I was intrigued to see some of the Dakar racing  trucks.  They have to be pretty cool.  They didn’t disappoint.  Apparently, before the trucks were part of the race, they were there only to support the cars and the bikes.  It soon became apparent that an unofficial race had developed between the truck drivers, so they simply created a class for them officially. 

One of the highlights of the day was being able to help a few of the riders on this stage where they were not going to get any help from their support teams.  I guess the sight of 17 parked bikes was too much to resist for riders that were in need of help or spares.  Probably the most amazing incident was the guy that just seemed to come to a halt right in front of us.  It seemed likes he had ran out of petrol, but his tanks still had plenty in them.  It must be a fuel blockage then.  This could take a while.  We called for our traveling mechanic to come over and help.  We presumed that he would start stripping down the fuel lines trying to locate the blockage.  The Dakar rider started to get pretty tense.  This was only the 4th day, and he was very close to the finish, he was really stressing.  Needlessly so.  Our man simply took off the petrol cap, put is mouth around the filler and blew for all he was worth!  Fuel cap back on, press the starter button, problem solved!  Cue one very, very grateful Dakar rider.

Another rider was obviously having some kind of electrical problem, as he had run out of spare fuses, fortunately we had the correct ones, and he was on his way with a smile on his face. 

The final guy to ask for help was a Spanish only speaking rider, who was riding without goggles as the only lenses he had were very dark ones, and it was starting to get dark.  I was some way away from the rest of our guys but we managed to understand each other, so I got him to follow me back to our ‘camp’ were I knew somebody would have a spare lense.  It was a happy coincidence that our only Spanish speaker, Mike was using exactly the same goggle!  Boat Captain Mike who lives in Spain is hoping to ride the Dakar in 2009, I hope his kindness is repaid when he needs it.

I must confess to a small indulgence.   When we took a ride further into the stage to view the action from a different point, we followed a track that ran parallel with the piste the Dakar was using.  When I got the Spanish guy to follow me I decided to use the piste that the rally was using.  There was me riding the Dakar, past all the cheering (jeering!) fans.  It wasn’t big or clever but I enjoyed it.

The final highlight of the day was being able to get into the Dakar bivouac.  Again our guide’s neighbour was on hand to smooth our passage.  I am not sure that we would have got in otherwise, but we just walked in anyway after he pointed to us and waved us in.  It was an amazing calm scene.  The only support the riders were getting was from a neutral tyre truck.  I guess they have to change tyres every day?  There were a few people working on their bikes, including a fraught looking woman rider who was on a satellite phone, I assumed to a mechanic.  It looked like another electrical problem.  My heart went out to her, but I was going to be no help. 

Most of the riders were getting settled for the night.  They were all sleeping together, in an open sided bivouac.  One of our number, Clare, was delighted when she got to chat to and have her photo taken with British Dakar legend Mick Extance.  It had been fantastic to be able to cheer him on earlier in the day. 

The whole atmosphere inside the bivouac was incredibly friendly, maybe it helped that we were wearing our riding gear.  I particularly like the way that everybody was thrown in together, there are obviously no VIP’s in this race.  I guess it gets tenser further into the race.

This was a day I will remember for the rest of my life.

The last couple days of riding are something of a blurr.  Just more of the same incredible riding, sights, sounds and smells of Morocco.  I can’t recommend a trip to Morocco enough.