Into Africa

Text: Simon Thomas • Photography: Simon and Lisa Thomas

Clinging precariously to the northern tip of Africa, Ceuta is the last Spanish enclave in this vast continent and the point from which our Moroccan adventure begins. At the border, it's late November and 100 degrees. We park in the shade, and Lisa has to remain behind, guarding the bikes, because, under Moroccan law, wives are still regarded as 'property'. The officials won't deal with her. Visiting the row of low beige offices, I collect an assortment of brightly colored immigration documents and start the process, which is surprisingly fast in this far-flung outpost.

Border formalities completed, we kick up the side-stands and tap through the gears, launching ourselves into the 20th country on our tour. Riding into the lush green Martil Valley, we begin to acclimatize to a different set of rules. We speed past a bizarre mix of new Mercedes and old jalopies waiting while a dusty herd of livestock ambles across the road unimpressed by the blaring barrage of car horns.

With the warm lapping waters of the Mediterranean to our left, the cool sea breeze flowing through the vents in our jackets is a welcome relief. On the outskirts of Tétouan the air is sweet, a piquant mixture of scents from the orange, almond and pomegranate orchards that encircle this ancient city. Dusk is setting in as we walk into the medina (old town) through a vast stone gate of ornate interwoven arches to squeeze our way down a smoky, teeming alley, thick with the din and perfumes of North Africa.

The Muslim festival of Ramadan has just started, and we eagerly join in the search for food as the day (and the daily fast) ends. Following the crowd, we find two plastic chairs at a small eatery. Abdul, a local silversmith, invites us to join him for his first meal of the day, celebrating the breaking of the fast. The hood of his gray-and-brown jellaba covers his head. We watch as he expertly uses only his right hand and pieces of bread to eat. We follow suit, devouring a rich mixture of syrupy sweet pastries and spicy vegetable soup, all served with strong coffee.

Riding the Rif Mountains

As we travel south of the city, the bikes are rumbling contentedly, and we hug the rugged contours of the Rif Mountain range. This is an unspoiled land of interlocking valleys and hidden gullies. Overhead, craggy limestone peaks tower, their jagged heights piercing a bright cloudless sky. We take a cautious pace, anxiously aware the region has a reputation for physical violence aimed at passing tourists who stray too close to the drug-growing areas. Fig trees, prickly pear and cacti lurk in the shadows of the steeper ravines. Thick cedar forests and olive groves blanket the slopes to our left, and the pungency of cannabis and peppermint wafts from the lower terraces. Morocco is sensory overload and it's most intoxicating.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2009 back issue.