Bikes

Crossing the Sahara Desert on a Harley Sportster 883

“All that the light touches…” My Harley-Davidson Nightster 883 surveying the Moroccan desert. (Morgan Gales/)

“I shouldn’t be here,” said one of the riders, speaking not just of the lone tree to whose shade we had fled after our bikes sputtered out of gas, but of the desert as a whole. “None of us should be here. Look at this place, man! I have kids!” We had spent the night before listening to a man with a broken leg cry in agony while the truck meant to take him to medical aid spun its tires in the distance, unable to break free from the distant dunes. Around midnight, a man on a camel delivered morphine. The cries subsided. In the morning, I would take the tires from his bike and put them on mine, hoping to fare better than he did on the way back to Marrakech.

Two months earlier, I had been introduced to Fuel Motorcycles, a classic-style motorcycle gear company from Barcelona that puts on a couple of wild adventures every year. The guys at Fuel invited me out to the Scram Africa, a seven-day loop around Morocco on stylish though admittedly underqualified motorcycles. The idea was to challenge yourself and do it “the old way,” to cross the desert with some style and panache. I did too little research and quickly agreed, not knowing it would be one of the greatest adventures of my life.

Fast Eddie on his Triumph, followed by a vintage Ténéré, a custom XR650, and an SR500.

Fast Eddie on his Triumph, followed by a vintage Ténéré, a custom XR650, and an SR500. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

The Scram changes slightly year to year but is always led by Karles Vives, the founder and creative director of Fuel Motorcycles. For 2021, your 3,000 euro sign-up fee covers a ferry to and from Barcelona, food and lodging, chase trucks, GPS, and miscellaneous little things. You’re responsible for getting to the ferry, bringing your bike or organizing a rental, and your fuel costs. Half the nights are spent in nice hotels, the other half in large canvas tents in the middle of the desert. The tents come complete with firm mattresses, a hot dinner, and coffee with breakfast in the mornings.

Outside of the Hotel Kenzi Menara Palace, riders fill water packs, attach GPS units, and suit up with armor before the ride.

Outside of the Hotel Kenzi Menara Palace, riders fill water packs, attach GPS units, and suit up with armor before the ride. (Morgan Gales/)

I was an amateur off-road rider at best, though I wouldn’t have admitted that just yet. As we prepared for the trip, I was told my vehicle options included a Honda CRF250L and a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883. Possessed by the spirit of the trip and blind naivete, I opted for the 883.

RELATED: Scram Africa Is Fueled By Love For Scramblers And Moroccan Adventure

Our group met at the lavish Hotel Kenzi Menara Palace in Marrakesh, where the first wave had already finished their trip and gone, leaving only our rental bikes behind. This is where we first met, my 883 and I, the sand-spitting dune-dumping heavy Harley-Davidson that would carry me across the Sahara desert and through the next seven days.

Joel pilots his Auto Fabrica-built SR500 through stage one of the Scram Africa.

Joel pilots his Auto Fabrica-built SR500 through stage one of the Scram Africa. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

The bike was a Nightster 883 equipped with mid-controls, patina paint, some larger H-D shocks, 2-into-1 exhaust, and a set of Bates Baja tires that had been run near bald by someone on the first wave. I would see the white cording of the tire by the end of the second day. By the fourth I would have completely sheared off the mounting bolt on one of those “upgraded” shocks. But she would prove a faithful beast, and kept powering along despite abuse.

The last quarter-mile of stage one provided a glimpse of what was coming in the next few days.

The last quarter-mile of stage one provided a glimpse of what was coming in the next few days. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

In the morning we left the hotel and were quickly out of the city. It seemed as if we were somehow in the heart of the desert after only a single turn of the road, the city miles behind us. The first half of the day was spent crossing fields of rock ranging from golf balls to watermelons in size, no more sparse on our path than anywhere else. As we got farther from the city, the sand got deeper, the trail less defined. I was finding my footing, following the riders in front of me, not completely out of my depth just yet.

Me on the left, David in the middle on his Royal Enfield Himalayan, and Liam on the Mutt on the right.

Me on the left, David in the middle on his Royal Enfield Himalayan, and Liam on the Mutt on the right. (Morgan Gales/)

The final stretch to our campsite gave me a glimpse of what was to come. We diverted from the trail as our bar-mounted GPS instructed and quickly found ourselves in deep, soft sand. A Sportster is made for American highways, not the Moroccan desert. Words from my colleague Justin Dawes rang in my ears: “Just let the clutch out and let the wheel spin until the bike starts to move. Don’t milk the clutch. You’ll burn it out.” This soon became my anthem. The wheel spun while I crabwalked, pushing on the handlebars, and the bike eventually started to move again. I was quickly exhausted and pulled into the campsite, a mere 100 yards away, ready for some water and our nightly one-to-two beer allowance.

We started each day by dialing in our GPS units, filling our water packs, and grabbing extra water and a sack lunch. Then we’d gather for a quick morning briefing and head out on the trail.

We started each day by dialing in our GPS units, filling our water packs, and grabbing extra water and a sack lunch. Then we’d gather for a quick morning briefing and head out on the trail. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

The group sat outside on brightly colored pillows, drinking mint tea and talking about prior expectations versus our current reality. I laughed, nervous but not yet aware that the first day would be the easiest.

Day two was almost entirely off-road, but ran mostly through wide-open expanses of desert, much faster than the first. Rain had come and gone, leaving the sand hard-packed. If you could find an untrodden path and were carrying enough speed, it was possible to maintain a steady course, even on a 550-pound machine like mine. We passed camels and large birds of prey, but no water. I only puked twice from exhaustion.

My tire at the end of day two, and the “new” tire installed the morning of the third day.

My tire at the end of day two, and the “new” tire installed the morning of the third day. (Morgan Gales/)

As happens with any larger ride, we fragmented into smaller groups determined by relative skill level and language spoken. We would merge and splinter from other groups, but I quickly latched on to the only person I knew before the trip, my buddy David Chang from @CafeRacersofInstagram, and my new Canadian pal Liam Cormier, proprietor of Treadwell Clothing and the lead singer of a band called Cancer Bats. David was riding a Royal Enfield Himalayan; Liam, his purpose-built Mutt, a CB200 replica that had been customized for just this trip. The Himalayan rode a little sideways after David sent ‘er 10 feet into the air, nose-first into the side of a dune. The Mutt chugged along like a champ the entire way with little issue and better fuel economy than any other bike on the trip. We called ourselves the Dune Goonz and laughed more than we crashed, which was a lot.

The right-side shock on my Sportster after shearing its mounting bolt clear off.

The right-side shock on my Sportster after shearing its mounting bolt clear off. (Morgan Gales/)

I don’t know where it happened, but somewhere in the course of the second day one of the other Sportster riders crashed hard. We had already arrived at our campsite outside of Tafraoute and didn’t notice his arrival until he had been loaded into a tent and laid out to await medical transport. He was from Chicago, and like me, had expected this ride to be much easier. He waited out the night, much quieter after receiving some pain meds, and was transported to the nearest city in the morning, where he was bandaged up and sent home. He said he’d try the Scram again next year.

I had been told the worst terrain of the trip would come on the third and fourth days, and I was already in over my head. At stops, I would stand behind my bike, staring at the bald rear tire while I bit my nails anxiously. It looked like a dirt bike tire that had been used for a month of drag racing. It was completely squared off and showing white cloth underneath the rubber. In the morning, I recruited one of the mechanics and we switched the tire from the Chicago rider’s Sportster over to my bike before continuing on to the third stage.

Experiencing the first of the “fesh-fesh” river silt. Notice the angle of my front tire—I can’t imagine this ended well.

Experiencing the first of the “fesh-fesh” river silt. Notice the angle of my front tire—I can’t imagine this ended well. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

Stage three started off easily enough, a fast ride through the M’harech Straight that turned onto a small segment of asphalt, where two Bedouin merchants were selling polished gems and silver. I bartered for a couple of souvenirs and headed on to Gara Medouar, a large horseshoe-shaped geological formation that looks like a massive crater in the middle of the desert. We rode to the top to drink some water and enjoy the view. Passing through large water wells that look like oversized anthills, we started onto a lone several-mile section of wind-chopped sand; essentially whoops. I stood on the pegs, leaned back, and stayed on the gas, bottoming out my suspension but not bounding around. I was maintaining a steady speed when I noticed my shocks get much softer. David pulled up next to me, pointing down. I had sheared off the top mounting bolt on my right shock. There was no shade while we waited for the chase truck.

Enjoying a quick lunch in Ramlia before our longest river crossings.

Enjoying a quick lunch in Ramlia before our longest river crossings. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

When the mechanics caught up with us one of them hopped out of the truck, assessed the situation, and dove back into the bed to grab a flathead screwdriver and a hammer. Using the screwdriver as a chisel, he hammered a notch into the broken bolt shaft stuck in my bike’s fender strut. When the notch was deep enough, he angled the screwdriver and used the hammer to continue hitting the bolt, now slowly turning it counterclockwise. Ten minutes after they showed up, the bolt was out. Five of us loaded my bike into the back of the truck without the help of a ramp and I hopped in. Thirty minutes later we were in Erfoud, where we found a small mechanics shop with a replacement bolt for $0.55. We refueled and were quickly back in the sand heading toward the Erg Chebbi dunes.

My experience in riding sand was really limited to the first two days of this trip, so I was figuring it out as I went, aside from Dawes’ helpful words. The sand here was not only deeper and finer than any I had ever ridden, but it seemed to go on forever.

If you have spent time riding a motorcycle through deep sand, you know that speed is usually your friend. This is terrifying at first, as the bike is unstable until you are going fast enough to keep the front tire above the sand. Once you’re moving just fast enough for a crash to really suck, the bike starts to smooth out. Unless you’re on a 550-pound Sportster, in which case stability is the stuff of legends, a myth that riders repeat around the campfire, not something you’re ever likely to experience.

We were crossing several rivers, so it was easy enough to get up some speed while dropping down the riverbanks. Riders lined up across the bank, watching as we crossed and then cheering on the others from the far side. The taller, lighter bikes crossed first with ease. Then came David, then Liam, and finally myself, wide open in second or third gear, sand spitting out in a tall arch behind me, praying I could keep that front tire above the sand. I made it through the first river, falling over only after climbing up the bank on the far side. We made it through two more river crossings, crashing a couple of times. I emptied my three-liter hydration pack while I sweated and cursed in my helmet. I knew the next day would be worse, but I also knew that the destination after the dunes was a hotel with a pool. I played in the dunes for a bit, but was jealous of the riders on lighter bikes that could make it look effortless. I was beat up and the idea of a beer next to a pool sounded like pure bliss.

Relaxing after a nice “desert massage.”

Relaxing after a nice “desert massage.” (Morgan Gales/)

I soon confirmed that it was. We each drank a couple of beers and I even sprung for a gin and tonic with dinner. Good whiskey seemed to be hard to find in this area of the world, but I was still equally affected by adrenaline from the day’s ride and anxiety about the next, and a drink seemed as good a cure as any. Before we enjoyed our large buffet-style meal and then retired to air-conditioned rooms with showers and clean sheets, I nervously asked our leader, Karles, about stage four.

“Tomorrow’s hard sections are just like today’s,” Karles said, “only longer.”

He smiled the way every veteran smiles at a rookie who’s about to get his ass kicked.

The next morning I woke up well before my alarm and was soon down by the bikes with my water pack filled, geared up and ready to go. A nice German couple had overcome the first several sets of obstacles for their vintage BMW and sidecar, but when the engine blew, they decided to just enjoy the ride stop to stop in the chase vehicles. They gave me some of their electrolyte packets. I probably looked scared. I was.

The back tire spitting out clouds of red sand, keeping the front tire barely above it. Pinned in third gear, I make it through the fesh-fesh.

The back tire spitting out clouds of red sand, keeping the front tire barely above it. Pinned in third gear, I make it through the fesh-fesh. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

The first half of the day was great. We moved steadily through some small towns. Kids would come out and run along the street next to the bikes. Some waved, some held onto make-believe handlebars and made revving motions, others flipped us off, always smiling for some reason. Once again, we turned off into the desert and headed toward my assured destruction.

We stopped for lunch in Ramlia, which really consists of one long building, likely built before the adjacent river dried up. What’s left is a wide wash full of the finest sand you’ve ever seen. Silt. They call it “fesh-fesh” in Morocco. I imagine it might not be quite as bad on a 300-pound bike, but on a Sportster, it’s quicksand.

Now out of the desert and into the mountain crossings, I am relieved beyond belief and take a moment to soak in the scenery.

Now out of the desert and into the mountain crossings, I am relieved beyond belief and take a moment to soak in the scenery. (Morgan Gales/)

Trying to remember what other riders had said at dinner, I attempted to stand on the pegs and squeeze the tank with my knees. But that’s just not how a Harley-Davidson is laid out. I crashed, picked up the bike, and spun the tire in first gear while trying to crabwalk the bike out of the sandy hole I had just created. Eventually, I would gain enough speed to put my feet back on the pegs. Then I would crash again. We took to calling it the ol’ desert massage. Luckily, fine river sand is a bit softer and crashing doesn’t really hurt, at least not the first 15 times.

I would sit, pause, regroup, and then pick the bike up and do it all over again. I learned that if I sat far forward on the bike, and could get it up to the top of second or middle of third gear, I could get about 300 feet before crashing again, sometimes farther. I got a little bruised in the ribs from one handlebar, my pants tore from another, my boots melted from being pinned under an exhaust pipe. By the time we made it to the campsite, my body felt like a bag of hamburger meat.

Karles came over and gave me a hearty pat on the back, throwing his arm around me with a huge smile. I couldn’t help noticing his face wasn’t covered in sand like mine was.

“Well, we’re almost out of the hard stuff!” he said. “You did it!”

I almost cried with relief.

“But see that?” he said, pointing. “A sandstorm that will be here in two minutes.”

We started tying up the tent flaps. I looked over to David. He knew what had to be done if morale was to be preserved. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he played Darude’s “Sandstorm.” We danced. We drank another single beer and more mint tea. We climbed to the top of a dune and watched the sunset.

Stage five gradually took us out of the desert through some wide, open tracks and into some stony, broken, and more technical paths. We crossed the Saghro mountains, pausing for a moment at the peak to look back on everything we had just conquered. Then we left the desert behind us and descended into the Valley of Dadès. We arrived at our hotel in the town of Xaluca, where we came across the first tourists we’d seen yet. Some guy wearing a Philadelphia hot-rod shop’s T-shirt looked at the Sportster and smiled at me. I smiled back with a mouth still reddish-brown from eating dust all day. Philly dude and I were having very different Morocco experiences.

The roads in this part of Morocco are an off-road playground. Here we are descending the mountain passes into Tabant.

The roads in this part of Morocco are an off-road playground. Here we are descending the mountain passes into Tabant. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

The sixth day would be our prettiest yet, and having overcome the desert, I had found a new peace. We left Xaluca and followed a path along the Dadès River, where we saw more vegetation than we had the rest of the trip. We were covering roughly the same distance as the other days, but over much less challenging terrain, so we could stop more often to enjoy the scenery or cool off in the river. We climbed gravel roads to a peak of about 10,000 feet, actually experiencing cold for the first time on the trip before hitting the switchbacks down to the town of Tabant and the Valley of Happy People. This turns out to be more than just a pleasant name. More kids came out and ran along with us as we rode through. People heard the bikes and came outside to wave or just stare, but they were all smiles. Something tells me they don’t see Harley-Davidsons out here often.

After Tabant, we said farewell to off-road riding; we would be on asphalt for the rest of the trip. The Sporty seemed to breathe a big, smoky sigh of relief. The asphalt was well groomed, so Liam, David, and I picked up speed to the night’s hotel. It felt great to be in a situation where the Sportster was now suddenly one of the more qualified bikes. The landscape was lush and green, the weather sunny but mild; it was perfect. You’d never know we were just a couple hundred miles from a bitterly inhospitable desert. We dropped down into the small town of Bin el Ouidane, perched on the lake of the same name; a little Middle Eastern paradise.

Dominik on the left on his Triumph Scrambler, me in the middle, and David on the right as we pass through Dadès Gorges.

Dominik on the left on his Triumph Scrambler, me in the middle, and David on the right as we pass through Dadès Gorges. (Fuel Motorcycles/)

We all laughed and drank, finally able to have more than a beer or two, knowing that the next day would just be a pavement ride back to Marrakech. Karles conducted a bit of a ceremony after dinner, awarding each rider a medal for completing the eighth annual Scram. My medal hangs on the wall next to me like a trophy as I write this from my home office in Los Angeles. Audaces Fortuna Iuvat, it says; fortune favors the bold. I may have started naive, but by the end, I was bold. I may not have known what I was getting myself into, but I looked at that unknown and jumped in. Foolish, undoubtedly. But knowing what I know now, I would do it again in an instant.

That last night we stayed up later than we had any night previously, laughing with the other riders about the level of absurd s—t we’d just made it through. Paul had somehow managed to bend both shocks on his W800, replaced them with some from a four-wheeler; they were locked stiff. Clean Jersey James was at the front of the pack the whole time, never giving anyone’s tire spittings the chance to sully his tidy shirt. Maris still had the Virgin Mary statue he’d been carrying the whole time. Joel had managed to pilot his much-too-expensive Auto Fabrica custom through each stage without any major damage. And we three, the Dune Goonz, were still laughing despite all of the desert massages we’d received.

The daily briefing and pack-up were a bit quieter the next morning. This rowdy band of strangers from across the globe had grown pretty close over our seven days together, and now we were heading back to civilization and our lives. At least it was nice to ride without my chest and elbow armor for a day.

Heading back to the city, I noticed black smoke coming from my Harley when accelerating or hard on the throttle. Some of that fine river silt had evidently made it through my air cleaner. Good thing we got insurance on the bike.

The team sits on a dune to appreciate the sunset after one of our toughest days. Nothing brings people together like a challenge, and this ride was one hell of a challenge.

The team sits on a dune to appreciate the sunset after one of our toughest days. Nothing brings people together like a challenge, and this ride was one hell of a challenge. (Morgan Gales/)

We returned the bikes to, I must say, a very angry shop owner, and headed back to the hotel for our final night. Everyone cleaned up and arrived at the pool looking like new people, ready for some relaxation in their clean shorts and sandals before heading back to our homes in the morning. We taxied into the town medina to enjoy some mundane tourism and have dinner together. We are all motorcycle people, all adventurers, but overcoming everything we’d been through turned us into good friends.

“Everyone says they would do it again, but on a more qualified motorcycle,” Karles said. “Then they try it, and they don’t have nearly as much fun. The fun is in the challenge.”

Indeed. So. Who’s joining me for the Scram 2021? No need to pack light. We’re renting Gold Wings.

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