BY: DAVID MARVIER
Once again, I headed off to explore the Moroccan trails with a bunch of friends, some of whom I’d met on previous editions, others from the motorcycle scene in Europe. All driven by the same passion, full of energy and goodwill. There was Yannick, the former Red Bull mountain bike champion; Julien, “the American”; Stephan, the experienced rider and off-road enthusiast; Julien, the 4X4 mechanic; Vianney, the sharp guy; Jean, the poet; Vahan, the hyper-solid rugby player; and Matéo, the eternal teenager. It was a small band within the larger collection of 120 drivers who would set off from Marrakesh towards Erfoud in 7 long stages, starting on the morning of May 29, 2023.
For those who don’t know, the Sandraiders is a “Dakar revival” raid from the legendary Thierry Sabine years. We were right back in the 80’s. Outfits, bikes, spirit. For a whole week, we recreated a real African raid of the era, using only period-correct motorcycles. From the XR 600 to the XLM, from the famous Dominator to the Suzuki DRZ. It was clear that, year after year, the participants have gotten more and more into the game, and the paddock was filled with ever more superbly prepared machines.
The organization, Soloraids, headed by Pep Segura, a former Catalan rally driver, takes care of logistics, safety, and the route to offer a truly immersive rally-raid experience. He and his determined team collect everyone’s bikes in Europe a few weeks before the start. They then manage the long drive to the departure point and the arduous customs formalities. All the participant has to do is take a flight without luggage, and pick up their bike and trunk of equipment upon arrival at the hotel.
Hotels are of course included in the overall package. The accommodations are large establishments that can support the huge team and numerous vehicles. What you miss is the charm of the small, often very old, family-run accommodations, that might make for a truly authentic feel. But the 120 drivers plus the 30 or so staff members require a serious welcome capacity. In addition to the 120 bikes, there must be room for two buggies, the assistance 4X4s, the doctors’ 4X4s, a heavy-duty truck and the two enormous raid assistance trucks, scarlet red and mounted on huge wheels. One of these trucks was destined to be transformed into a mechanical garage at the end of the stage in the evening. The two sides of the trailer could be opened to create a mobile, temporary mechanical repair shop, and a generator provided the energy needed to power the soldering station, lights and other electrical tools.
Mechanical maintenance is an important part of the trip. At the end of each stage, the rider has to take care of his bike, checking the essentials such as cleaning the air filter and topping off the engine oil, but also dealing with any more serious problems that may arise. To this end, a proper team of mechanics is on hand to help those who have detected the most serious problems. The whole crew is led by Pelut, a colorful character who is an avid mountain climber and Dakar mechanic. I invite you to follow his adventures on Instagram: @pelutwall. Always determined, the mechanic team can completely dismantle an Africa Twin and put it back into working order, working tirelessly late into the night so that the rider can hit the trails again the next day. We can really pay them tribute, because the crew was soon completely overwhelmed. From the very first day, the old machines suffered on the chaotic tracks, and the list of various repairs grew exponentially.
The first day consisted of a long stage between Marrakesh and Taroudant, through the Atlas Mountain range with its magnificent arid landscapes, vertiginous roads and isolated villages. We stopped with my friend Julien “The American” to relax a bit and cool down the machines in a small village in the middle of nowhere, built of red mud bricks. Here we met a happy bunch of kids just out of school. They climbed on the bikes and tried on helmets and goggles. They didn’t speak French, so communication was limited, but we had a great time with them. Our buddies eventually joined us and it was time to say goodbye, with Stephan giving the kids a beautiful wheelie to say farewell. They were over the moon!
The next day, it was back to the mountains and their rocky, dusty roads. Every viewpoint was even more incredible than the last. I wanted to stop every two minutes to take a photograph, but I had to keep up the rhythm if I wanted to get to the day’s destination before dark! There were several ways to proceed on this adventure. Some groups left early and arrived early at the hotel. We left first and arrived last, making the most of the trails, the pretty roadside cafés, the inevitable mint tea, grilled mutton chops and succulent tagines. I also took time to shoot the other participants in action, snap portraits, chat with others, and lend a hand if necessary.
As we passed a large concrete structure, Red Bull mountain bike legend Yannick Granieri couldn’t help but think about jumping over it; a challenge immediately taken up by Stephan, an accomplished off-road rider and excellent trialist. The result was an impromptu photo session and some perfectly mastered stunts. Off we went again.
We started to descend the other side of the Atlas range and the temperature immediately rose as we reduced altitude. We were doing fine up high, but from then on we’d be continuing our journey in temperatures of at least 40°C.
The next morning passed smoothly over a flat, monotonous landscape of small pebbles and sandy red earth. You had to keep a sharp mind though, as dangerous traps were scattered everywhere. A large stone here, a deep, thick break there, a nonchalant herd of camels, a vehicle going the wrong way... in short, a maximum of things to avoid if you wanted to finish and come back in good health!
At the end of the morning, we found ourselves in a sudden sandstorm. Violent winds moved tons and tons of sand, scouring the face, seeping everywhere and drying out the lips. Things got complicated pretty quickly. The route was less easy to follow, and the traps became more hidden. The group had to stick together and watch out for each other. The first glimpses of Saharan sand began to appear. Before long, it was all sand in different forms. Rigid, very soft, in the air, and on the ground. If you wanted to avoid unpleasant surprises, it was up to the driver to find his bearings and understand the terrain correctly.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, our little team was ready for a great day of sport under a blazing sun. We threw the bags into the trucks, hit the kick or the electric starter (for the clever ones), and off we went! There was little shade this day, and not much coolness. That’s why we needed to keep as hydrated as possible and pay attention to the little details that made all the difference. A week prior, a rider from northern Europe passed away on Lake Iriki as a result of dehydration, alone in the shade of his motorcycle during a race. The news left an indelible impression, and members of the organization spoke to us about it during the morning briefing. One key word of advice, “Stay hydrated!” I gulped down between 5 and 6 liters of water every day, and I didn’t take off my helmet much to keep my sweat as moist as possible, I put myself in the shade as much as I could when I stopped, and avoided gesticulating too much. But I still had to take photos!
We took a lunch break in a place I had previously visited many times. It’s a small restaurant planted in the middle of a frankly unwelcoming area of sand and scorching sun all year round. The interior was very dark, with only tiny windows letting in a little light. It was extremely hot, but we were protected from the sun’s biting rays. Some of us were resting outside on the covered terrace, our faces marked by fatigue and heat.
After a good meal, served very hot, we had to get going again! Bravely, we climbed back onto our machines. The hotel pool awaited us with open arms! With relish, we plunged our tired bodies into it, and then got back onto our bikes in search of a welding shop for Julien’s machine, which needed a little love. In the village, we meet a merry band of kids who tried out our bikes with much delight!
The fifth stage took us out of the sand and back onto stonier terrain. We felt as if we were riding in a world without form or end. The sky was still yellow from the sandstorm, and you couldn’t really see the boundary between heaven and earth. As always, the temperature remained very high. I rode a lot on my own that day, following my Tripy, a sort of electronic roadbook. I stopped from time to time to take pictures, trying to capture this landscape where everything seemed so far away, so gigantic.
Day 06 was the marathon stage. Pep, the organizer, proposed two variants: a 250 km stage and a 380 km stage. Naturally, we took the second option! We didn’t come to take it easy! Besides, a stage of the old “Paris-Dakar” was not to be refused! From the very first kilometers, we got lost and found ourselves split into two groups. The dust was so thick you couldn’t see 3 meters ahead, and the two at the front were fast, hard-working riders. Once separated, it was too late! It was time to move on. Don’t worry though, as the bikes were all fitted with geolocation beacons that enabled the organizers to locate us at all times. A button also allowed the rider to call doctors or mechanics as needed (by signal only - no verbal communication possible).
The mountain curves here were superb. The canyons were grandiose. It was a good thing we set off at dawn to take advantage of this magical light and relative coolness. Around midday, we arrived on a large, windswept plateau, the famous Lake Iriki. A vast space covering several hundred square kilometers. Hostile and magnificent.
We stopped to take photos on a ridge with Yannick and the two Juliens. The spot was unbelievable. Here again, the sensation of riding on another planet assailed me. “I’m on Mars!” I thought. As we set off again, a serious sandstorm hit our little group. It had been a while since we had seen anyone. We had lunch at an auberge that I recognized as a place where I had slept with my brothers and parents when I was thirteen! Amazing! So many childhood memories came flooding back. I remembered these desert men all turbaned up, sitting in a circle, smoking kif and playing music late into the night with us. It was magical!
The fesh-fesh (powdery dust) afterwards put everyone to the test, especially those who weren’t used to the extremely soft sandy areas. We helped our friend Vahan who was struggling with his Dominator. He had quite a few falls and his bike was all battered, taped, and patched up as best as he could manage. His engine was full of sand, and the filter was literally puking. It hardly worked anymore. In addition, his leg hurt, and we would later find out that evening that it was clearly broken at the fibula! The guy suffered in silence and finished the stage on his bike! Madness or courage? A good dose of both, I think!
To round off our trip in style, Pep, with the help of Jordi Arcarons, a “Dakar” legend at the time and Yamaha team member, organized a beautiful ride in the high dunes of the Sahara. The sensation was unequaled, and of course required a certain level of riding ability and, if possible, a light, powerful motorcycle. In other words, the trip wasn’t the same for the beginner on a heavy, nimble Twin as it was for an expert on a XR400!
We came across a few specimens of dromedary. They were a little shy, but not aggressive, and seemed to me to have come straight out of a Star Wars film. Driving through the sand and dunes was really exhausting. When the bike’s moving and you’re keeping a certain speed, everything’s fine, but watch out if you fall! When you have to move and lift these heavy machines, and sometimes kick them hard to start them up, the energy drains very quickly! You run out of breath much more quickly than usual, a bit like a mountaineer at 5000 meters struggling with crampons and pick. Overheating started setting in! It was all about dexterity and strategy.
This trip was different from all the others in that the number of participants increased drastically, almost reaching the organization’s maximum capacity. Far from being a negative detail as one might imagine, the fact of riding and living with 120 riders for a whole week gave rise to a real spirit of camaraderie, good manners, and goodwill. Mutual aid, laughter, and good humor are the key words of this sandy, sporting, and committed adventure! Once you’ve had a taste, you only want more. Pep is opening up new roads, exploring new horizons, and will soon be offering another variant of the raid, this time in Tunisia. Instagram @sandraiders www.sandraiders.com