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Surviving the Sahara

Words: Butch Beckett

Photos: Moto Aventures/ Butch/ Sideburn

Day 2 of 5, the approach to the edge is not too innocuous – and certainly gives no indication of the horror that lies beyond. We’ve been instructed to ride up and put the front end over the ridge then spin up the rear to dig the bike in a little so that it will sit unaided. We do that, with varying degrees of success. Now the drop-off in front of us looks steep, deep and quite, quite unrideable. It’s hard to imagine we might have to do this, but backing up and turning the bikes from here would take some doing.

By dune standards this is perhaps not so large, but it is our first encounter and the fear factor is mighty. We stand and talk for a while, ignoring the subject at hand, but team leader Johnny eventually cuts through with the bad news. He’ll demonstrate, we’ll follow. The instructions are – balls to the back of the seat, drive over and then down in first or second. Don’t hit the camel grass. I suppose that given this is his day job, it turns out that the descent is doable, and he does it. Come on down…

A supported five-day, off-road ride on KTM 450s out of Ouarzazate in Morocco sounds just the ticket to blow away those Covid blues. We lucky nine are collected up on Sunday morning in Marrakesh and enjoy a four-hour bus transfer to Ouarzazate town itself. A night in the hotel, a dip in the glaciated pool by the bar and tomorrow we ride. Though preceded by the evening meal where our guide and tour leader Johnny lays on us the realities and possible outcomes of what lays before us. We are regaled with tales of maiming and death – the cage fighter with a dislike for his goggles; ‘lost an eye’; Dutch guy playing to the camera and rides straight through the first morning’s track wash out – ‘Two broken wrists, before he even came off the bike.’ A lass who cleared a dune lip clean, only to impale herself on the bike’s head stock landing some way below; cut throat. Oh yeah, and the two guys whose bikes locked together as they were mugging for each others’ GoPros. Dead? Paralysed? Not sure, I was lying in a fetal position with my hands over my ears by this point.

But back on day two and we are, by no means, done with the dunes yet. Mid-afternoon we rock up at our overnight camp. We get to sleep in Bedouin tents tonight. After sorting out gear we’re back on the bikes to run up to the ridge of the nearest dune. It’s good-sized and some of us are getting the hang of this now. You need: power, traction, momentum and a good deal of commitment. Only with the latter might the others come. Parked up on the ridge we have spectacular views of the surrounding country amidst a sinking sun. We allow ourselves a congratulatory beer and myriad photo opportunities.


Day 3 is effectively a half day, the lightest day of the week in fact. More dune riding which some of us are taking to naturally now, while others are not. With Jason ahead of me stalled on the far ridge I back off to wait. Wilky wisely blasts on through. I’m at the bottom of a saucer of sand which quickly becomes a cauldron of despair. Of momentum and traction I have none, and after several bike drops and much digging I’m about ready to be committed. Last chance saloon; I walk the bike up the rise behind me, turn the bike and manage to mount. Dan looks down on my pit of purgatory, seemingly impassively, throughout.


After lunch at the hotel, where we will be overnighting, we have the option to head out dune riding again. I’m in two minds, but ultimately take up the challenge. We’re heading to the big one out the back of our accommodation. It’s huge. We stop at the base and stare up to the heavens, there’ll be a ridge up there somewhere. Chase me says Johnny, try and catch me – you’ll need to be running hard in fourth to make this. We accelerate on the short down hill before we hit the climb. Relief is upon me as I hit fourth gear and feel the bike hook up and drive. Another huge view from the top, but I’m done, happy to return to the hotel at this point and leave a couple of the keener and more able riders to carry on.


So it’s about 1000kms in five days, and I’d guess maybe around 850 of those on the rough stuff. And it’s not all about the dunes of course, we enjoy a real mixed bag – open plains, unsealed tracks, dry riverbeds, wet river beds, mountainous routes with amusing drop offs. All among a large array of scenery and against the back drop of the ice capped Atlas Mountains. Previous off-road experience required, indeed an absolute necessity in fact. As Gary says – this is an adventure not a holiday.


Click Sideburn Sahara 2023 for full details on the next available trip.

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