On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]

That morning, I woke up a little earlier than most days. It was going to be a serious day of riding along the Tizi-n-Test Pass through the High Atlas Mountains which stood between me and my destination of Marrakech.

I ate breakfast and packed up the bike, thanking and tipping the friendly guard who watches the parking lot all night. “Bonne Année!” he said. Happy New Year!

It will be. And this is the perfect way to start it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this ride would prove to be one of the most enjoyable, perilous, rewarding rides I’ve ever been on.

*     *     *

I rode up the straight and narrow highway for a bit, watching for landmarks and other indications that I was on the right path. This route was sort of a back road that Réda had recommended when I picked up the bike and went over my route with him. He had cautioned me a bit, asking questions to gauge my level of experience. Once he was satisfied that I could handle it, he added in his strong French accent:

“Well, nothing is without risk, but . . . is passion,” he shrugged with a smile, knowing he didn’t have to explain himself to me.

 

Although the road was not marked, soon I reached what I knew to be the beginning of the Tizi-n-Test Pass.

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The road narrowed to a single lane, but this was still technically a two-way road. The miles and miles of tight turns and curves were wonderful, carving their way up the mountain side. Higher and higher, back and forth up the mountain. There were very few areas that had any sort of guard rail; most of it was just a narrow, winding road with a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other.

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If you got cocky, there were a number of ways this road would kill you. Oncoming traffic was nearly impossible to detect until the last second because of all the blind curves. There was often sand, rock, and gravel waiting for you around these many corners; sometimes there was even that slick, mossy stream of water running across the road. If you weren’t paying attention, this mountain would let you know it.

My ascent through the High Atlas was made up of amazing vistas and invigorating stretches of intense, focused riding, punctuated by the short breaks to stop, take in the scenery, snap a photo, and breath a little.

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Amazingly, there were people up here. Scattered across this remote mountain pass were tiny roadside shops built along the cliffs. Upon closer inspection, some of these cliffs were clearly inhabited by people. This was truly Indian Territory.

Now, there had been other long stretches of road earlier on my trip that took me through tiny towns where signs were no longer printed in French and everything was strictly Arabic; modern dress was not popular in these towns, where the locals wore those traditional, long robes, and burqas on the women. Riding through these towns, there were enough suspicious glances and unfriendly gazes thrown my way that I opted to keep riding. It was comforting to know I was on a high-performance, on/off road machine that could get me out of there if I detected trouble.

But up here on the mountain, the sense of isolation among these cliff-dwelling native people was poignant. And while I’m sure they were quite friendly, I didn’t really stop to find out. Once or twice on this trip, I was stopped on the side of the road when I encountered some mildly-curious locals. Out here, no modern dress, no signs in French, and very little infrastructure typically meant very limited education in strictly Islamic madrasas, little-to-no French speaking (and certainly no English at all), and an obvious distrust/disdain toward Westerners. It was quite different in the big cities, where merchants and other locals were eager to talk to foreign travelers in French or broken English. They relied heavily on tourism, so they were quite welcoming and helpful (sometimes too helpful) because it meant making a buck dihram.

Out here it was different. They relied on themselves, their land, their flocks of sheep. I felt a bit like a trespasser on more than one occasion.  They didn’t need me there.

Fair enough.

One of those occasions was when I stopped at some shaded ruins on this lonely stretch of mountain road. It must have been a bus stop of sorts. There were several women who appeared to be waiting for something. I approached them and greeted them in Arabic with a smile. They seemed quite uninterested. I held up my camera, pointing it at myself, and asked them (in pantomime) if they would take my picture, extending the camera. The older women in the group shook their heads curtly. At first I thought it was because they didn’t know how to use the camera. I persisted in my pantomime a second time, this time petitioning a younger woman among them who looked to be in her 20’s. When I looked at her and extended the camera with a smile, motioning for her to take a picture of me and the bike, she nervously shook her head and tugged shyly at the scarf covering her head, using it to cover more of her face than had been covered before.

I took my cue and disengaged, smiling and thanking them anyway, “Shukran.”

So I took the picture you see below.

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On the other side of the mountain the colors were amazing.

I picked a remote spot on the side of the road for a quick break. While riding on dusty terrain, it’s good to keep the chain lubed up on the bike, so I stopped to give Bathsheba a little TLC.

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I grabbed a couple of oranges out of my pack that would suffice for lunch.

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The terrain transitioned from colorful, rocky canyons full of trees and shrubs, to the kind of red-rock earth and desert foliage you see in Central/Southern Utah, to this incredibly rocky, craggy, dark-colored stone.  Did I mention it’s rocky? The landscape is rocky.

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This foreign landscape passed by as I hugged the winding curves along a mostly-dry creek bed, which slowly became more and more full until I came upon a beautiful lake or reservoir colored in perfect blues and greens.

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And, like I said, people lived out here.  You’d see little towns nestled away in valleys, or built up in the least likely places.

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The curvy road was magnificent. As the terrain opened up, so did my throttle. With greater visibility and greater reaction time, I was able to go faster. And faster.

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Sexy.

 

In no time, I was back on the final stretch. A straight-away lined by well groomed palm trees and decorative street lights. And from here it was 6th gear to Marrakech.

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[ WARNING:  Professional driver on a closed course.  Please do not attempt.  Life is super dangerous, and may result in serious injury or death. ]

*     *     *

I met Réda back at Palm Road Motorcycles in Marrakech. He and his lovely wife and daughter greeted me with smiles. He asked about the bike and the route with a knowing grin, well aware that both were outstanding.

He arranged a taxi for me, and helped me with my gear. I thanked him and we said goodbye as the taxi arrived.  The driver took me to my hotel, a place in “New Town” Marrakech where I hadn’t ventured before. I got there without any trouble. Checked in, got cleaned up, and went looking for a place to eat. The sun was down, and this newer area of the city was definitely different than the “Old Town” Marrakech that I had known only a few days before. It was a relatively newer development, and the taller buildings made the alleys and walkways that much darker. There weren’t tourists everywhere, or merchants or snake charmers. Instead, groups of men gathered on every other street corner, laughing and smoking and casting glances.

I found a place to eat. It was lovely, and I was hungry.

I was ready to get back to the hotel and relax after a long day of intense riding. As I left the restaurant, I verified the directions back to my hotel. I was pretty well oriented, and I confidently wandered back to my hotel taking a different route. This part of Marrakech was definitely different from my first time around.

About the time I reached the hotel, I noticed that what was most different was ME. There was a calm confidence in my stride as I navigated these foreign streets at night, greeting the locals in their native tongue and making my way through the confusing urban neighborhood. It was me that was different. The fear of the language barrier, or being taken advantage of, scammed, or even mugged was much less of a concern. The disorientation and fear of this new place and new culture had now become cautious wonder. My guard wasn’t down entirely—not any more than it needed to be. But my perception had changed.

I had just navigated my way around the most remote, foreign land I had ever been in.  I did it alone.  I did it without GPS or a smart phone. I can read a map, and I can follow my instincts when I realize I made a wrong turn, and I can get directions from locals, language-barrier or not. I had made a dozen friends, turned away a dozen crooks, and made at least a thousand memories.

Some of you may have seen my Facebook status that night:

“Made it back to Marrakech. It’s still Mos Eisley, but this time I’m feeling less like Luke and more like Han.”

If you don’t know the reference, I’m afraid that explaining it won’t help.

Nothing is without risk, but . . . is passion.