Bikepacking Morocco: Dipping My Knards In The Sahara

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A three day cycling route, cut to two, through the Sahara, includes sand, camels, a dust storm and eight flat tires.

On a primitive rocky track with a long rocky ridge to my left and boundless desert straight ahead, I focused on finding lines to minimize the jarring effects of embedded stones and corrugation. Fortunately the terrain continuously evolved and offered stretches of smooth piste to break up the monotonous beating. Eventually we stumbled on a nice ribbon of single track carved out by camels and the occasional motorcycle.. The smooth and serpentine gash through the mars rock surface allowed thoughts to wander and contemplation of the people who have trudged these routes for centuries.

The desert culture is mesmerizing in these parts, albeit somewhat exaggerated in the more touristic areas. In several auberges (guesthouses), there are patterned woven wool nomad tents set up in the courtyard for sipping mint tea or leasing for the night, if you are interested in experiencing the ‘true’ nomad life. I get enough time in a tent, so if I opted for a guesthouse, it was time for a bed. We often asked locals if they knew a place to camp. This generally required hand signals to illustrate an ‘A’, for tent, then the universal gesture for sleep, tilting the head sideways and resting it on the hands, palms together. That usually resulted in someone laughingly stating, “Like nomad!?” We may have been moving from place to place with a tent, but, by measure of extremity, we were no comparison to the Berber and Touareg people. These people call the Sahara and Sahel their home and roam the desert, practicing the ancient herding traditions, living and dying by their camel. They are a people who know how to navigate a seemingly endless ocean of rock and sand, only by stars, the sight of insects, and cryptic landmarks. They must be at peace with the presence of nothing, in harmony with the risk that a well 100 kilometers away may be dry, comfortable within a silence which I find overwhelming, and unnerving at times. They have no documents, no address, no place to call home.

We decided to take this route after asking countless locals and hedging our bets with a mountain bike guide, who said, “… well it’s probably doable, but very adventurous.” A dust storm generated by the powerful siroccos and 8 flat tires would indeed add to the adventure that lay before us. The long trek east from Foums Guid, through sandy washes and vast rock gardens, lead us into the flats of the salt lake, Iriki. A dust storm generated by the powerful siroccos begins to diffuse the sun and the light became palpable. Several times we lost the track, of which were are multiple derivations. Then I saw it, maybe. A melding of swirling sand and heat created a mirage. The wind picked up and something stirred several kilometers ahead. We shift our wheels northeast where a stiff tailwind blew us across the flats, led only by the occasional cairn. We found a small village in the hills below the escarpment. There we were able to access water and camp for the night.

The storm picked up even more and dust infiltrated clothing, hair, teeth, eyes, everything. We asked a young man where we could sleep for the night, preferably in some semblance of a solid shelter, not our permeable tent. He offered to lead us to an empty auberge, 4 kilometers south, so we followed. The sweeping winds blew sand across the flats. Visibility deteriorated to a few meters as we pedaled after his puttering moped. It was a flat, scaly place and the crunch of the crust is obscured by the blinding gusts of wind. Gin had another flat tire, and we lost him. Luckily my GPS was still working, so we continued in a bolt straight trajectory after adding some air to her tire. A few minutes later, the ghastly shape of a square mud brick wall appeared only a couple meters in front of us. The building, like most in this region, wass made up of a square courtyard surrounded by rooms that create the periphery of the home. He showed us the dusty corner room where we could camp on the floor, then he left us, in the middle of nowhere, in a dust storm.

We woke the following morning with the wind still howling, although the sun was slightly visible. We weren’t sure what to do. There was no one here to tell us if the storm will get better, or worse. What if we leave and it blows up into something that is truly treacherous? There isn’t another village for 100 extremely difficult kilometers. We finally worked up the nerve to abandon ship after flagging a passing truck that I heard in the distance. The driver told us that there was another building in forty kilometers, with a well. We could make it there.

The wind persisted, and then the nonstop barrage of flat tires began. Gin had 4 more flat tires, and I suddenly get 2, back to back. We ran out of patches and Gin is left tubeless, and not in the good way. It was maddening, 8 flats in 24 hours. Luckily, within minutes we spotted the first and only vehicle we had seen on this northerly track… the track that we had clamored for in a desperate attempt to escape the deep sand that was swallowing our tires on the more southerly route. We flagged down the modified Landrover to find 2 Frenchmen, Jean Pierre and Michele, who generously offered to take us to safety. There wasn’t room for both of us in their truck, so we agreed that they will strap Gin’s bike to the roof and carry her to the oasis twenty kilometers down the “road”. I would pedal on and meet them there. To make a long story shorter, our route was further dismantled when we found the oasis no longer contained an auberge (or, as far as we could see, any resources). Jean Pierre and Michele generously reorganized and made additional room for us in their truck, strapped our bikes to the top, and drove to the small town located in 40 kilometers east. The wind was still sandblasting everything, and the French gentlemen informed us that they are going to stay at a hotel, “Would you like us to take you to the campground?” “No,” we quickly said in unison, “we’ll just follow you.”

bike touring morocco - the sahara

Stocking up on Trangia fuel before the trip. Alcool a Bruleer. Best found in open markets, look for the guy selling gasoline.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

Getting a pre-dawn start across the rough piste. We were warned that the first 20 kilometers would be a brain-beater.
bike touring morocco - the sahara
The first sight of sand dunes.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

Luckily we find single track options.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

The distant table mountains.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

The morning we left, it was calm and eerily quiet within the surreal landscape.

bike touring morocco - Surly ECR

The 27 TPI Knards on the sure footed ECR made for a magical combo in this rocky and sandy trek. Gin’s Troll doesn’t get such a glowing report… she is aching for an ECR; this is no place for 2″ tires.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

Who’d of guessed? The single track becomes smooth flowing…

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

… which gives her a rest from the rough stoney track.
surly knards in sand - the sahara
In the footsteps of camels.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

Even speed isn’t enough to keep those 2″ tires from being swallowed.
bikepacking morocco - the sahara
Just when we think we are far from civilization, this little girl pops out with her buddy.
2014-sahara-30
Gin trying her hand at goat rearing.

bikepacking lake iriki, morocco

We finally reach the flats… the dry river bed of Lake Iriki.

bikepacking lake iriki, morocco

bikepacking lake iriki, morocco

The winds start. The last vestige of road we’d see for a bit… a sand catcher.

bikepacking lake iriki, morocco

Following the cairns.

bikepacking lake iriki, morocco

The surface is chunky and crunchy.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

Out from the corner of the auberge, I sneak a shot trying not to let my camera get sandblasted.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

The interior courtyard of the auberge holds out the wind, kind of.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

The next morning, the sun is visible, but the sand and wind still whips at ground level. At least there is 40 meters of visibility.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

The deep sand becomes unbearable, so we set off in a more northerly across the mars-rock surface to try and find an alternate track.
bike touring morocco - the sahara
And we find this. Bliss.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

But all good things come to and end… even the northerly track has been engulfed in sand drifts.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

Gin in a Saharan face-off with a camel.
bike touring morocco - the sahara
This guy was by himself. The ropes keep his stride in check so he can’t make it too far.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

The makers of great tracks.
bike touring morocco - the sahara
Loaded into the back of the Land Rover.

bikepacking morocco - the sahara

The dust storm ravages the palmaraie.

bike touring morocco - the sahara

A breakfast of a berber omelette the next morning sloths the soul… probably my favorite Moroccan dish.

For more information on this route, including GPS and logistics, click here. Also, check out our growing list of bikepacking and dirt road touring routes.

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  • twowheeltravel

    dang…Another ripping good trail tale. I was just sitting down to spill my digital guts about the post-tour depression I’m feeling after 10 months of constant bike travel. The longing to be on the saddle with no exact destination in mind. Just going. Now sitting in front of a screen and working (although bike touring related) daily is sapping my soul and increasing my waistline. I needed to vent.
    Reading this, I’m equally invigorated and jealous. Nice work again. I’m constantly amazed at the resilience and tenacity the two of you display in your routes and choices along the way. The way you just roll with it. (pun intended) And of course the photography. Beautifully done.
    ~tyler

  • Rusty

    Awesome, and yet I am glad it wasn’t me! You never mentioned what was causing the flats. I have been running Stan’s in my tubes and have had no flats since. Worth a try! Also, in that kind of terrain? I think a Pugsley would be more appropriate than a ECR. :-) Amazing writing of a grueling adventure, thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks Tyler! Sorry to hear about the post tour depression… I know how you feel. Time to start planning I guess!

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks Rusty! Pugs would have been ideal, but the 29+ was pretty awesome for those conditions. I ran out of Stan’s a while ago and bought some other brand in Africa somewhere. It didn’t hold a candle to the magic of Stan’s which got me through the thorny desert in South Africa without a tube change (plus those Surly 3″ Toobs are pretty tough). For my 2 flats, it was indeed thorns. Gin’s were a mix of three faulty tubes, a couple pinch flats and a patch gone bad.

  • Patrick

    Sweet! Looks like a great trip. I love the ECR setup. What bags do you have on there?

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks! Both the saddlebag and framebag I made myself. Check out http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/packlist for more details…

  • Patrick

    Cool. Thanks! You still in Morocco? I live in Marrakech if you want to grab a beer and talk bikes.

  • Skyler

    Incredible! Looks like sooo much fun.

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Awe, would have loved to, but we are well on our way North. Cheers…

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thank! Fun and misery go hand in hand sometimes…

  • John

    Miss yall something fierce. Love the updates, hope things are going well and you’re off the surface of Mars. ttyl

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Great to hear a ‘yall’… been a while. Miss you as well, we’ll see y’all soon!

  • mikehowarth

    Awesome Logan!

    Epic adventure and sweet photos.

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks Mike!

  • Cyclinghobo

    Great pics dude. What photography gear do you use? :)

  • http://www.pedalingnowhere.com/ Logan

    Thanks! For this trip I am carrying a Canon 6d with a 135mm f/2 and a 24-70mm f/4. Next time I’ll probably replace the 24-70 with a 40/2.8 and a 24/2.8…

  • Pingback: Surly Knard Review, Velocity Blunt 35 Touring Wheel - Pedaling Nowhere()

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