The friendly country — A week of motorcycling through Morocco

(All photos from this trip can be viewed here)

Trip overview and route

This trip was planned by others (thanks!), and with a flexible riding schedule. As such, all I really needed to worry about was getting myself in and out of Marrakech, and paying for the motorcycle rental. Not a bad deal.

After route changes, sickness, and much adventure, this is how my actual itinerary ended up:

  • Arrive in Marrakech, spend 36 hours to acclimate

Camera conundrum and a blast from the past

(TL;DR of camera thoughts: I shot everything on my 4 year old Sony a5000.)

Debate over what A/V equipment to bring perhaps plagued me the most in the run-up. Of course, I’m absolutely smitten with my A7Riii. Even equipped with the standard f4/24–70mm, it’s capable of capturing stunning images in a wide variety of settings. However, even if I only brought that single lens, it’s not exactly a pocketable package. Nor would a loss be cheap or acceptable. But the image quality! After much debate, I reluctantly decided to bring only my old Sony A5000, with the standard (and small) 24–75mm power-zoom lens. I had originally bought this camera about 3 years ago as a cheap and expendable camera to pack onto my KTM for off road excursions.

It was with the a5000 that I fell deeper in love with photography — mirrorless systems in particular — and it led me to my current high-end setup. This was my primary point-and-shoot for many years, capturing many photos and experiences that I cherish deeply. However, in all my prior years of usage I hadn’t paid close attention to the editing or processing side of photography. In all those years, I had only shot jpegs.

So in many ways the a5000 on this trip was a whole new camera. I shot only in raw. I brought a pocket tripod. I applied all the lessons I’ve learned and skills I’ve developed with the larger A7 series to this “cheap” camera. I couldn’t be happier with the results. Are the images as sharp? No, at 20mps, there are limits. Is the dynamic range as broad? No, but it’s far better than I expected, and in fact not a single image was lost due to bad shadows or blown-out highlights. The a5000 even has one of Sony’s early forays into face recognition for focus tracking — and it worked quite nicely!

Another note: Drones are now illegal in Morocco. I had originally hoped and planned to bring the Mavic. Indeed, at one point they were allowed. However, some last minute Google-ing showed a recent change in drone status. So sadly there were to be no fancy aerial shots on this trip.

Overall I am extremely happy with the expressiveness of the images that I’ve returned with, and am also blissfully regret-free.

The a5000 packs a surprising punch!

The crew and riding in groups vs alone

I’ll leave these fine gentlemen unnamed, but suffice to say this was a good group of adventurers. Four of these members were new acquaintances, with one being a long-time friend and occasional riding buddy.

Although we flew separately, it was fantastic to have a group upon arrival. Exploring a new country by the hundreds of miles a day is a much less daunting task when not alone.

That said, as we acclimated and learned the rhythms of travel there, I soon found myself yearning to be alone. I wanted to ride my own pace, on my own schedule, and chase that feeling of ultimate freedom. I’ve only found this feeling while being alone on a motorcycle somewhere gorgeous, with nothing but open road ahead. So, halfway through our route I ended up splitting off from the group and rode solo. We still saw each other a number of times (there are only so many roads) and shared some meals. It was good to know there was support if needed. But being alone was what I needed most, and it was indeed glorious.

Marrakech

The city was lovely, full of good food and character, and very walkable. Early experiences here also set the tone for all people-interactions throughout the rest of the trip. Everyone we met was either extremely friendly, or blatantly asking for money (or trouble). Of the latter, it was always easy to just walk away. Of the former, the friendliness of most people really is hard to overstate or explain. It’s just there: A restaurant owner excitedly pulling out maps to share route suggestions; school kids and parents coming over to practice English in a small town (and play with the motorcycles); and even when I was lost in traffic (on the bike, in a Medina) and a teenager guided me out. I can only hope we were equally kind in return.

Outside of the Medina, Marrakech reminded me of a blend of urban zones in developing countries. Taxis, buses, mopeds and small cars clog the streets. They jostle for position and emit smog from leaded gasolines run through poorly maintained engines. Uniform buildings frame the cityscape, the inner functions often impossible to judge from outside appearances. Commercial areas smattered with some big european and american brands, interspersed with local restaurants, barbers, trinket stores, and merchants standing outside trying to sell you on their product.

It rained on and off all day. Sometimes, like here, it was down right pelting!

Inside the Medina, Marrakech takes on a decidedly tourist-oriented scene, but one that is nonetheless delightful. An open market square featuring cobra tamers, men with monkeys on leashes, horse drawn carriages, and rows and rows of stalls selling fruits, nuts, tagines, pottery, metal decorations and kitchen ware. Go in deeper and one experiences the trope so well known that it is immediately familiar: the maze-like alleyways of densely packed stalls, with corrugated metal roofing casting dappled light over everything. The peddling intensifies here, though it never overwhelms. It is exactly what you think it would be, but still fantastic to have experienced.

The medina is exactly what you’d expect. It’s still amazing.
Horses, Monkeys, Cobras, Sidewinders — animals of all sorts are put to work.
This mosque was lovely and very prominent just outside the medina
Walking back to the hotel. Props to Joe for the composition.

The Atlas mountains

Despite the cold and discomfort, I couldn’t stop smiling

Perhaps the most defining feature of the trip: the Atlas mountains. They were just always there. Always in view. Always dictating the landscape, the weather, and buoying my mood and sense of wonder.

If this looks cold… it’s because it was.

We crossed the Atlases going from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, and also ascended them via the route up into the gorges (dades) from Tinghir. Both were truly epic experiences in their own right.

The main pass we took was a highly trafficked route, but with gorgeous twisties, tour buses and local traffic, and occasional lapses of pavement to gravel and rock.

I won’t stop with these panoramas. Don’t ever ask me to.
A small village in the southern foothills of the Atlases

The gorges are an entirely different story. Truly, this was one of the most marvelous sites I’ve ever and may ever see. I could spend weeks here doing photography, paying tribute and attempting to truly capture the essence of the canyons and plateaus, and still it would remain illusive.

The bikes having just entered the gorges
Rotate 180* and you’d see a throng of tourists and giant tour buses :-D
The plateaus above the gorges are desolate, dry, and windswept.

Initially the gorges are a deeply tourist-infested area, with buses parked along the wide road. As one rides further up, the tourists quickly fade away, and the landscape becomes vast swathes of desolate plateaus, broken up by occasional switchback ascents and farming villages. As you climb it becomes colder, the winds pick up. The only traffic are other adventurous motorcycle riders (mostly fellow foreigners on BMW 1200s). The drop offs become steeper. Towards the top the wind is so strong and bitingly cold that when you hop off the bike to admire the view, the helmet stays on. You can’t get warm here, under these conditions. You can only hope to not get too cold. You go further and find alpine streams crossing the road. Small snowflakes drift in the wind. Dark clouds are on the horizon. Truly, you are in a rugged country. There is a town up ahead, with a lodge. A place to rest and warm up before heading back down. This journey, though brief in miles, has felt like days. It is henceforth indelible.

This is one of the spots where I really wished for better lens options.
Human for scale (kinda).
Motorcycle for scale
One more of the Dades being “gorgeous”
Tinghir, the gateway to the canyons

Green valleys in a windy desert

The feeling of riding south of the Atlases

In the lee of the Atlases, Morocco is a desert. If you journey a ways south, you will find the start of the Sahara. Where I’m riding it is rocky and desolate. Except for where there is water. Rivers come down from the Atlases regularly, and here there are towns and farming villages. The sizes and levels of development vary dramatically. Some appear to be relatively primitive dwellings built into the rock face, with the only apparent industry the nearby fields of green. Others are bustling markets with everything you could imagine on offer. In these towns the highway becomes a main thoroughfare, traffic slows and bustles, and always there are kids going in and out of nearby schools — a flurry of bicycles and backpacks.

The towns I stayed here are deeply memorable.

Ouarzazate: The “Hollywood of Africa” features film studio sets from many blockbuster hits, including Game of Thrones. And they’ll tell you about that. My tour guide was an extra, or as he said “I worked with Emilia Clarke”. I also was hit by Montezuma’s Revenge here, and ended up taking 2 days to recover (ouch). I became enamored with one of the local high-end restaurant featuring the best Lebanese food I may ever have.

Scenes from the sets in Ouarzazate

Tinghir: Nestled in the foothills just before the gorges, the views here were simply incredible. I was also lucky to land a night at a newly built Riad where I enjoyed a home-cooked 3-course vegan dinner and breakfast, as well as a large and lovely room.

Tourandant: Nearby to Agadir, but not overwhelmed by tourists, this was a delightful place. My Riad for the night was perhaps the most memorable. Situated in the middle of a bustling Medina, it was an experience to get the bike in and out. Once inside, the Riad was just utterly gorgeous. 4 stories tall, and each room unique and seemingly grown organically. The experience was lovely, and I would have easily spent a week here.

Tourists and the seaside

Things are always sweeter with contrast, and on this trip the seaside tourist town of Agadir was that contrast. Agadir somehow felt bigger than Marrakech. The roads are wider. The traffic more intense. And certainly, it is more full of tourists. French people flood the beaches, burnt to a crisp but seemingly hungry for more sun.

Scenes from the beach promenade in Agadir
Left: Daytime. Right: Nighttime.

I am glad to have visited. If for nothing else, spending time with the ocean in Africa was meaningful. I also had a chance encounter at a gas station and met an awesome fellow motorcycle enthusiast (Hi Zakaria!).

Views along the route from Agadir to Marrakech.

The Bike

It is with great restraint that this section is not at the top of the post, and with further restraint that I post only some thoughts and photos.

Instead, I’ll provide this executive summary:

  • I now deeply love the 1200gs
Kids love bikes. Universal truth. Therefore bikes must be good.

Being a tree-hugging, lactose intolerant vegetarian in a strange country

As a prelude to the trip, I was constantly asked: “but what will you eat?” I honestly didn’t know. I packed about 20 cliff bars and the like, just in case. That was a wise choice (especially when sick), but the food situation worked out rather well.

For future vegan-type people who go, here’s what worked for me:

  • Most places offer a vegetable tagine. They are generally bland and lack protein, but are otherwise fine. It’s cooked at high temperatures and unlikely to have meat-based broths. A safe but boring bet. Bring hot sauce.
Left: a heckin’ good vegan pizza. Mid: A standard vegetarian tagine. Right: amazing Lebanese food

Selfies

Of course, I kept the best for last…

On being windswept:

On being excited about things:

Left: excited to have found a Le Pain (I’ve now visited in 3 continents!). Right: excited to have found a KTM dealer.
Left: excited to have brought this hat during a riding break. Right: excited at my amazing room in a riad in Taroudant

Coming back

As it turns out, Morocco is about 5% larger in land area than California. That’s a lot of country to explore, but it's also something manageable and knowable.

For a return trip, I’d switch things up. Veronica should have come, and that needs to be corrected for. Next, I’d opt for a 4x4 or small SUV and to bring my full set of high end camera gear. There are so many vistas I wish I could have more richly captured.

Usually, once I’ve visited a place, my sights set towards the next target. With Morocco, I’m still staring at it, ready to go back at a moments notice.

This is worth coming back to.