My original plan, when meeting up with Sophie for a week in Morocco, was to follow a few of the routes that I have done before solo. Show her a few places I really knew well and knew what the conditions were like.
However, when we finally got together in Morocco, we both expressed a desire to head towards the Anti Atlas and try out a few new areas. I had been through Taroudant and Tafraout on the way down towards the Western Sahara and Mauritania earlier in the year so knew the cities but little of the piste we may encounter.
The magical Morocco Overland book by Chris Scott would be our bible, as it is for so many adventurers in the region.
On this particular day, I suggested that we follow a route from Chris' book named MA1 then return via MA2. It is described as passable by "anything with a little air underneath". So, should be fine!
The route is a little bit of tarmac out of Tafraout, then a broken backroad, followed by long section down a oued (a dry river bed) before returning on newly laid tarmac to Tafraout.
We headed out and were both loving the speed and simplicity of bashing down the broken roads, sliding the bikes around the corners and generally having fun.
Turning on to the oued, Sophie was still on 100% fun mode and actually got away from me as I was still putting my gloves on after a restart. She disappeared over a berm in the pebbles of the oued.
The prickly bush
When I got to the top of the berm, I could quite figure out what I was seeing. The track turned to the right but that wasn't where Sophie was - she appeared to be parked in a bush to the left of the track, next to the wall of rock making up the side of the valley we were entering. Most confusing!
Pulling up next to her, she told me that she couldn't brake and had headed straight off the track and crashed into the bush! When we looked around, things could have been so much worse - either side of that bush was the very hard wall of rock.
Anyway, Sophie wasn't hurt, other than a new collection of prickly branches stuck to her and her BMW R1200GS, "Gertie". That's the main thing.
The bike, Gertie, wasn't just going to slide out, we were going to have to cut it out of the bush! Luckily, I had my Leatherman with me and the saw on that thing is surprisingly effective. It really did work!
After an hour of cutting away of the bush and pulling at the bike, a couple of guys in a huge truck came by, presumably working on something in the oued, though I never did figure out what exactly. They added some much needed extra muscle to get Gertie out of her prickly home and us back on the trail.
We did spend a bit of time here wondering whether it was right to continue. We figured the riding would get harder technically and we made sure we were happy on each others' bikes - I'm a little more experienced off-road than Sophie and I could always ride all 250kg of Gertie whilst Sophie could ride my tiny hire bike.
On reflection, I hadn't thought too much here about how much time we had lost extracting Gertie from the bush and I should have done. We were now into the afternoon.
Moving on down through the oued was really good fun, technical riding. Imagine riding a 250kg motorbike on Brighton beach and you'll have a remarkable accurate picture. Oh - but add in the occasional deep sand section to suck away speed and get you stuck if you don't keep the power on.
We swapped bikes on occasion and kept working our way south down the oued. It was hard going though. I had jumped on Sophie’s bike at the last rest stop to help get some distance travelled down the oued as it was certainly one of the more challenging sections.
I must have got about a kilometre ahead of Sophie at this point and waited some time before realising that Sophie must have had a problem.
I set off back to the last point we were together to find Sophie next to a stationary bike that was clearly not going anywhere.
Sophie explained that the bike was not moving in any gear. Our thoughts were later confirmed that there was a problem with the clutch and we were not going to fix this in the middle of the oued.
So, we needed to find a way to extract us and the dead bike.
Raising a posse
We discussed the situation between us really well. We knew we had a reasonable amount of water etc so that one of us could go get help and the other could wait with the bike.
Given I was finding it easier to travel on the oued, we agreed I would jump on Sophie’s bike and ride back up the oued 8km, then road to the village we passed and find some people with a 4x4 to give help.
I must admit that it was the right plan but I was worried about the fact I could hardly speak at the moment, after losing my voice. I’d find a way to make myself understood, I’m sure.
There was no mobile signal in the valley and I wanted to make sure that Sophie was not totally out of contact so I gave her my Garmin inReach and a very (!) short lesson in how it works. Honestly, that thing is worth its weight in gold in an emergency - I would trust it to get a message through under any circumstance as long as it could see they sky. Slowly, but reliably.
Before leaving, I sent a message using the inReach to a mutual friend explaining our location and situation. I knew then that I could speak with our mutual friend once I was back in mobile signal and she could forward those messages on for me.
Of course, the first hurdle was a steep and very soft berm to get up. And I didn’t at first attempt! Sophie had to run across and help me push Gertie up the berm and, to be honest, help me keep her upright! Urgh - this isn’t the image of expertise I wanted to leave her in the oued with all on her own!
To be honest, I was really enjoying riding Gertie on the shale tracks in the oued. It’s just such a great place to ride and Gertie was remarkably stable and easy to slide around, especially now I’d got her into Enduro Pro mode - gimme all the power!!
There were a couple of places where I got bogged down in the soft shale/sand and had to let Gertie have a little lie down whilst I packed stones under her wheels before righting her and moving along again. How little I knew this would be an essential skill for later!
I got to the road in little under an hour and sent a few messages to let various people know what was going on. Then, headed for the nearest village, wondering all the way exactly how I was going to raise a posse rescue party.
Turns out, it’s easy. I just rolled into a village and spoke to the tallest guy in the cafe and he did all of the raising for me.
It took at least another hour to actually get them to the village - I think they came from Tafraout.
I did feel a little guilty, though, sat in the cafe watching the Sevilla - Real Betis game on the big screen whilst having a coffee, knowing Sophie was out there in the dark.
When they did eventually turn up, I wasn’t too impressed with the vehicle and did try to question it but they were very confident in the way that men can be when being questioned by a woman.
We all piled into the beaten up Toyota Hilux and headed for Sophie. I think we only got 1 km down the first section, maybe only a couple of hundred metres past Sophie’s prickly bush, before we were stuck! The wheels were turning but we were not going anywhere.
Now started a routine we would repeat many times - the guys would jump out and begin to jack up one side of the Hilux to put large stones under the tyres. I guess you can’t just get a Toyota to lie on its side for a bit like you can with an adventure bike!
Again we set off, again we got stuck. I was beginning to notice something about this 4x4 - it wasn’t actually a 4x4. Only the rear wheels were driven.
Our chief rescuer, Hassan, tried to assure me that this was not a problem at all. I wasn’t convinced. Eventually, after what must have been the fifteenth wheel jacking attempt, I convinced Hassan we should walk ahead and check on the welfare of Sophie, even if we pushed Little Donkey back part of the way and met our intrepid jackers for the return.
And he was off! He didn’t seem to think it might be useful to take me with him! I shouted that he needed me to go with him so that Sophie wouldn’t be terrified of some random Berber guy appearing out of the darkness. He almost slowed down. Hence followed just over 6 km of yomping in motorbike boots down the oued in Sophie’s direction. It was dark by now and avoiding rocks was never easy in big bike boots. This was going to be hard.
We did get mobile signal on occasions and Hassan was beginning to realise that the Hilux, whilst apparently indestructible, just wasn’t going to get through. He began to make calls to arrange a proper 4x4 (you know, like I asked for about four hours ago).
When we got within maybe 500m of Sophie, we finally saw some lights and knew she was okay - I must admit I did worry out in the wilderness on her own.
She had it all sorted! A fire going and all homely.
Hassan fussed over the bike whilst I collapsed by the fire, rather worn out after the non-stop oued crossings and unplanned yomp back to Sophie.
As our paths had diverged, we should hear from Sophie as her story on her own in the dark is the really interesting one:
Before she left, I discovered that when I’d rearranged my bags for our short day outing, I’d taken out my emergency meal, warm clothing and head torch. Superb. I grabbed a piece of rubber hose, my first aid kit and Rachel’s multitool and rain coat.
I think watched her trundle away on my bike, occasionally bouncing jerkily over large rocks leaving me alone in the vast valley surrounded by steep walls. I figured it might take Rachel two hours to get out of the valley. Then a bit of time to find someone; There are big trucks everywhere in Morocco, so it might not take that long: maybe an hour. Then two to return. So maybe just after nine.
I decided to scavenge wood for a fire. Partly this was busy work. But also because of Maslow’s hierarchy. By nine, it would be dark and cold. And also, if I decided that I needed a fire later and hadn’t made provision for it, hunting for scraps of wood in the dark in and amongst the boulders could be dangerous. I got two decent piles, separated into small and large. Next I collected a plastic bottle that I’d seen in the rock field. I used the rubber hose to syphon a cup of fuel out of Little Donkey to help get the fire started. Then I decided to build a little hearth out of the rocks. My logic was that it could shelter the fire from the breeze coming down the valley, but more importantly the rocks would store heat even after I ran out of fuel.
When it got dusky, I lit the fire. I have now discovered that accelerant is completely unnecessary in this environment - all of the wood is so dry that it goes up in flames with very little encouragement. I used the fuel anyway. Because fun.
Whilst Rachel is the clear heroine of this tale while I was the mere (tomboy) damsel in distress, waiting alone for rescue is not as easy as it’s cracked up to be. I had only a crazy person for company. I sat and watched the fire. Tried to guess the time that different constellations would appear. Watched the fire some more. Listened to the sound and played games of “is that a dangerous animal I can hear or just my imagination?”. It certainly wasn’t a negative experience, or not wholly negative. The evening was beautiful. Passing the time with my thoughts was tranquil and beautiful solitude. And seeing Orion rise roughly when I expected was magical.
I had Rachel’s satellite beacon which can receive text messages and key them out letter by letter with an up and down arrow. It is paradoxically like being in the future and 1997 all over again. I got a slightly garbled message telling me “Rachel says push the SOS button”. I texted back “Only for life threat situations no? Are you sure?”. Then a while later “She’s got something sorted. Should be an hour”. That message had been send 20 minutes earlier. So I had 40 minutes. It was eight pm now and I had half my fuel left (as I’d budgeted until midnight).
I decided to be a little more liberal as a giant rescue truck studded with spotlights would emerge in the distance in only forty minutes. Two hours later, I texted for a location update. I got a message back said “She’s 2km away. They are walking as the vehicle is stuck”. I was confused so asked what would happen to the bike and was told the plan was to push it. This felt implausible as just walking around in the dark around the stones and boulders was tricky.
Nine hours after leaving and just after the last log was bursting into flames, I heard voices and saw lights. First a man arrived and introduced himself, then went to test the bike. Since he had no tools or parts, I assume he was checking to see if the women who had ridden all the way here knew how to start a motorcycle. He could not make it work, so left saying he would get bigger four by four.
We sat chatting for a while, exchanging the details of our evening, occasionally commenting on shooting stars. Later, we wrapped ourselves in the space blankets from our first aid kits and settled in for the long night.
We had no idea if he would return, so we made plans to walk out the valley at first light and look for help.
I slept for a while. Rachel intimated that she heard snoring, but I suspect it was the camels that we’d seen further up the valley.
Settle in for the night
It became clear to all of us that nothing was going to happen quickly and Hassan said that he was going to arrange for a proper 4x4, just like I said we needed in the first place. He would go back and sort it whilst we would wait here, under the stars.
And what stars there were! It was amazing! Sat by the fire Sophie had prepared, watching the stars as I got my own personal astronomy lesson, seeing the occasional shooting star and aircraft heading south, was really quite magical. A wonderful way to spend the night.
Of course, it gets cold in the desert but we had enough gear with us to make it comfortable with such things as silver blankets and pocket hand warmers.
0345 in the morning, we saw lights flashing further up the oued. They were coming to rescue us!
The new 4x4 was absolutely the right vehicle for the job and they eventually reached us and lifted the motorbike onto the roof, strapping it down with a bit of farmer’s twine.
As we all piled into the 4x4 for the return journey, it became clear that, even for those who are used to such conditions, it isn’t simple travelling on the oued. We reversed our course many times as we threaded our way through the rocks that would catch under even such a large vehicle.
I’m sure I should have other priorities at that point but I did take some pride in that I covered the way back to the road much more quickly on Sophie’s BMW GS than the 4x4 did.
When we did get back to the village, Sophie volunteered to ride her GS back to Tafraout. No small undertaking given that it was now really rather cold - she wore my gore-text jack to help with the wind but still, it was cold - really cold!
We finally got to the hotel at 0645. Tired, hungry, and a few hundred euros poorer to pay our rescuers. But happy, and with a whisky to hand before bed!