We knew there was something different about this trip when the doctor started taking pictures of everyone. "So I can know which limbs to re-attach to whom," said our sardonic sawbones. That our travelling physician, Axel Thiäner, a trauma surgeon from Munich, was (semi) having sport with us - German style - was little consolation. We had seen his mobile medical cabinet containing all the necessary gear to perform a roadside hip replacement. What was this? Just what had I got myself into? Our small group was about to embark on a 1,000km (mostly) off-road motorcycle ride through the heart of Morocco that would see us leave the relative civilisation of Marrakech and head south and east to Ouarzazate and Boumalne Dades, over the famed Atlas and Jebel Saghro mountains and the Gorges du Dades and traversing some of the craggiest overland passes in the world. And as dangerous as that might be, the good doctor was not here for us. No, he was here because Hendrik von Kuenheim, scion of the man who saved BMW and now general director of BMW's Motorrad division, was here. We moto journalists may revel in delusions of our own self-importance, but there really was only one man on this trip that actually was important. Put another way, if we all lost our limbs simultaneously, I knew whom the good doctor would be saving first.
I'll ride anywhere, but not having ridden anything with knobby tires for more than five years filled me with a certain amount of apprehension, an unease that turned into full trepidation when I thought of trying to muscle a 225kg R1200GS through deep sand. Ever the pragmatist (that should read coward), I insisted on riding the smaller F800GS. Northern Africa may well be full of sand dunes, but we saw none of it. What we did see were rocks. Small rocks and big rocks; sharp rocks and round rocks; bare rock still part of massive outcroppings; others seemingly strewn specifically to send the front wheel of BMW GSs piloted by nervous journalists slewing sideways. Did I mention that said rocky roads were often accompanied, in the finest tradition of Third World civil engineering, by steep and prolonged drop-offs? It was the toughest/scariest/most attention-focusing off-roading I've done in quite some time.
Sometimes, cowardice can lead to inspired choices. When push came to shove (as in trying top push a bike out of sand wash or humping, trials-like, over big boulders), the lighter 800 was the right choice. Hardly to be described as lithe, the F800 is close to 50kg lighter than the R1200, a reduction that was keenly felt during one particularly long plod through a washed-out river bed covered in the softest, wheel-swallowing, golf-ball-sized gravel I'd ever seen. Correcting the inevitable front-wheel washouts and sometimes-spectacular rear wheel slides was a lot easier riding something that didn't feel quite as heavy as a touring bike.
But what was surprising - indeed, extremely surprising - was how easily the big R1200 (outfitted with Continental TKC 80 off-road tyres) handled the rest of the off-roading. Yes, shaft drive and that bulky engine mean that it occasionally felt like trying to dock the Queen Mary without a tugboat, but thanks to that same hulking, opposed-twin engine, the centre of gravity is admirably low. And the R1200GS's front-to-rear weight balance is almost ideal. There are indeed an abundance of kilograms housed in the 1,507mm between the big GS's axles, but they are ideally situated, making traversing all but the slowest and softest terrains remarkably easy. Thanks to that lower centre of gravity and its much smoother low-speed throttle response compared with the 800, the R1200 was actually easier to navigate than the 800 on some trails, especially distinguishing itself on rough, rocky descents.
On-road, of course, the R1200GS is magical. Newly fortified with a slightly detuned version of the double-overhead camshaft, 1,170cc engine from the high-performance HP2, the 2010 GS may have lost five horsepower and a little more than five Nm of torque, but it gained an enthusiasm missing from previous versions of the Boxer engine. It responds with more low-rpm alacrity, has wonderful mid-range punch and even spins eagerly to an 8,500-rpm redline. The new engine really does change the personality of the entire motorcycle.
The F800GS, of course, can't match the 1200's on-road poise. Above 120kph, the front end feels decidedly light. Nor is its seating position as expansive or comfortable. But then very few bikes can match the R1200GS in this regard. On-road behaviour, however, was inconsequential as we rode up the Tizi-n'Tazazert pass. What poses as a road looked more like a photo of rock-strewn Mars than any terrestrial topography I've ever seen. Approaching the summit, we, of course, congratulated ourselves on our manliness, only to then watch a local, dressed in flip-flops and a baseball hat, start down the very same goat path aboard a Docker 50 scooter complete with chrome passenger floorboards and bald street tires barely an inch wide. Consoling ourselves with the fact that he couldn't make it down the tougher, south side of the pass was truly the last refuge of the once pompous.
But our five-day sojourn was far more than a simple test of men versus machine (though that eight-kilometre traipse through the rocky river bottom did threaten to turn our entire ride into a Survivor episode). Indeed, while I came to ride with von Kuenheim and test motorcycles, what I left with was an overwhelming appreciation of all that is beautiful about Morocco. Rural Moroccans, for instance, are the very epitome of welcoming hospitality. And while urban Morocco borders on the Third World (with a few luxury hotels thrown in to keep the tourists happy), the countryside is positively medieval. Kids in Marrakech often have to play football in the street because the community can't afford a playing field; kids in the dusty villages that seemingly popped out of nowhere can't even afford a ball.
Yet we were universally greeted with good cheer, even though we were often riding through their front yard/vegetable patch/laundry room (that last would be the river beds the local women use to hand pound centuries of dust from clothing). Inevitably, every kid in the village would rush out to greet us; the girls usually to wave demurely while the boys would try to enthusiastically give us all high fives.
And the food! I now have a new favourite cuisine. Move over sushi; begone you woefully bland and unhealthy French Hollandaise sauce. Everywhere we went, no matter how far off the beaten path, the repasts were nothing short of spectacular. Nothing was fancy, but its delectability lies obviously in the details. I was so captivated by a simple salad, made of mostly tomatoes and onions, that I contemplated stuffing some in my pockets to take it home with me.
And, of course, the countryside is always full of surprises, not the least of which is that Morocco would seem to be very popular with movie producers. Outside Ouarzazate, for instance, we found the "Jerusalem" set for The Last Temptation of Christ. At Aït Benhaddou, the entire ksar, or fortified city, was renovated for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. Other temporary monoliths included a miniature double of Mecca and another ruin that could have passed for anything from Agadir to the Alamo.
But, for my favourite place, we have to go back to the aforementioned Tizi-n'Tazazert. High atop the Jebel Saghro mountains, despite the incredible impassability of the trail, stands a hotel. Not like anything normally recognized as a hotel, but a rocks and mortar lodge that could have well been built a millennia ago (it was actually christened in June, 2005), so basic were its accommodations. But the food, limited though it was, was great, the peppermint tea always piping hot and the view nothing short of spectacular. There was even a presidential suite - a 4m x 2.5m single room with no private toilet, a rock floor covered with numerous blankets to soften the sleep and a small desk.
But best of all was the seclusion. Other than motorcycle adventurists and the occasional, truly mad off-road bicyclist, your world would be completely at peace. Indeed, book a room atop Tazazert and you will never be farther "away from it all." But the hard part is getting there. You might want to bring a doctor, just in case. firstname.lastname@example.org