Foum Zguid, Morocco * October 12, 2008
Migo brought a copy of a book called the Tao Te Ching. It’s a slim volume of 107 pages written in the sixth century B.C. by a Chinese philosopher named Lao Tsu and is fully of pithy and tantalizingly cryptic verses and koans on wisdom, the nature the universe, and the path to enlightenment.
We stopped for a delicious couscous lunch in the small Moroccan town of Agdz in the Anti-Atlas Mountains and Migo retrieved the book from the hard Hepco-Becker Gobi panniers on his KTM 950 Adventure. We flipped through the pages, and I read the following, feeling my face flush crimson in embarrassment at the neon-bright ancient words.
According to followers of the Tao, “These are extra food and unnecessary luggage.”
They do not bring happiness.
Therefore followers of the Tao avoid them.
I had brought unnecessary luggage.
The bike was too heavy, especially for riding a sandy or even a dirt road. The damndest thing was, I knew better. Light makes right, I had told myself. Lighter is righter. It was almost a mantra for this Africa ride. Yet the motorcycle was almost comically overburdened with gear that would come in handy now and then … but was it essential?
Did it bring happiness?
Packing for a long motorbike adventure means making tough choices. Details are magnified on the road. The smallest piece of gear can pay off inordinately in convenience and gratification. In Rabat, for instance, I had found a small leather purse that I cable-tied to my tank bag and use to store my earplugs when not riding. I use it at least a dozen times a day. The earplugs are secure and clean.
On the other hand, an unattended detail can come back to haunt you. For instance, I found that I had neglected to photocopy the various routes to Timbuktu from Chris Scott’s book, Sahara Overland. Now I may need to spend an hour or more in an Internet café analyzing the routes for difficulty (i.e., deep sand), water and fuel availability, and so forth. (Carrying the full, hardcover book would be too much; I photocopied only the information I wanted … or thought I had).
View my Africa packing list ...
In retrospect, I knew dispassionately that I had set off with too much stuff. I rationalized, though, that gear could be disposed of along the way, or shipped back to the U.S. I rationalized, too, that my choice of the Suzuki DR650 had out of the gate saved me more than 30 pounds vs. the motorbike I had ridden through South America, the heavier Kawasaki KLR 650. (I know that's not what the specs say, but some independent testers have come to the conclusion the difference between the DR and pre-'08 KLR is 30 to 40 pounds).
I had opted for soft panniers from Wolfman Luggage, saving probably 25 pounds over the Happy Trail aluminum panniers and steel rack required to mount them that I had run on the KLR. And I had stripped off everything I could from the DR, or replaced stock parts with lighter aftermarket equipment.
Gone were the rear passenger pegs. Stock cable routing equipment I replaced with zip ties. Heavy front and rear turn signals I replaced with small LED lights. The boat anchor of a stock muffler was replaced with a light FMF Q2 pipe. I removed the taillight portion of the rear fender and replaced it with a smaller, lighter DR350 taillight, and fabricated a license plate mount from light aluminum bar.
My aftermarket seat from Renazco Racing was perhaps half the weight of the stock Suzuki seat, and it was so comfortable that I decided to leave my trusty Airhawk seat pad at home, saving more weight and volume. I had removed both kickstand and clutch safety switches, saving a couple of pounds and eliminating potential points of failure.
In a mad scientist mood one night in my garage, I stripped out the heavy steel stock battery box from the DR and fabricated a replacement from aluminum bar. I weighed the difference – 1 pound, 4 ounces. I was feeling pretty happy with myself.
I put the excess equipment into a box. It must have weighed 50 pounds. Six ounces here, eight ounces there, it all added up. Without luggage, the DR felt like a 350cc dirt bike.
Yet there I sat in at a plastic table at the café in Agdz, meditatively poking at my couscous and contemplating my excess of gear and the gear of my riding companions. The Things They Carried, I thought, (with apologies to Tim O'Brien, author of a splendid story of the same name about American soldiers in the Vietnam War).
On our first nite outside Lisbon, Geoff and I went out for beers and dinner. We got to talking about packing, and he shared a bit of wisdom he had picked up: “Carry half the stuff and twice the money. You can always buy stuff on the way.”
He meant, of course, things like socks and shirts and soap. Parts for a large cylinder motorcycle are extremely difficult to find in Africa, simply because, outside of South Africa, few large cylinder motorcycles exist. Therefore, you need to carry spare parts, and all the tools required for a field repair. Geoff is nearly fully equipped, save for a chain breaker.
Like me, Geoff has engineered into his ride certain gear he envisions as being useful. He carries a hammer. I never carry a hammer; usually a rock or ratchet or vise grip can be pressed into service if needed. Yet at campsites on rocky ground, struggling to get my tent stakes into the brittle and unyielding earth, I say, “Yo bub, can I borrow that hammer?”
He has an umbrella bungeed up to the rack that supports his Touratech rear panniers. It’s not a little umbrella, but a big tri-color umbrella of blue and white and turquoise with a wooden handle. I spotted the thing the first night we camped out after teaming up in Lisbon.
“Um, dude, why do you have an umbrella?” I chuckled. “You’re expecting rain in the Sahara?” An umbrella seemed like a wholly vestigial piece of equipment for an adventure ride.
Whoa Sunshine, Geoff said. Sure, an umbrella would be handy if it happened to rain, but more importantly, it would provide shade if a flat tire needed to be repaired in the desert. I saw his point. After years of military and bodyguard service in Iraq, the dude knows his deserts.
Later, he would tell Migo and I, “There will come a time, my friends, when you are thankful you’re traveling with an Englishman and his umbrella. How do you think we conquered a third of the world? With guns and umbrellas.”
To the front of a Touratech pannier, Geoff has a little fire extinguisher fastened up. “Bub, a fire extinguisher?” I asked. Never had I heard of an adventure motorcyclist toting a fire extinguisher. Migo noticed the thing as well, and deadpanned, “What do you plan to extinguish with that?”
Once, Geoff had a motorbike start on fire because of some spilled fuel. The next time, he would be prepared.
Geoff has a stuffed desert rat cable-tied to his front fender, owing to his years in Iraq, and has great fun scaring little kids with it. Squirreled away at the bottom of a pannier is a can of stew he bought in Portugal. The stew is barely edible, he reported, having tried a first can at a campsite. It’s his emergency food ration. Only in the most desperate of circumstances would he have the stomach to actually open the thing. If he does have to open it, he has a large bottle of ketchup to smother the foul taste.
“A bottle of ketchup?” I asked.
He regarded me with a smirk. “It transforms a meal, mate,” he said.
Soldiers, British and otherwise, take pride in finely polished boots, so naturally, Geoff is packing a tin of boot polish. It’s important to protect your boots, he says, because boots are what protect your feet. He hasn’t used it much yet, though, opting instead for a cheap shoeshine in larger cities by men who approach us at cafes.
I like my boots dirty. The accumulated grit and sand and mud tells a story of the ride.
We roared through the Anti-Atlas Mountains towards the small town of Foum Zguid. The day was a perfect 82 degrees F. The tarmac road was smooth and sure and the sweepers wide. Able to see what was around the corner, I slalomed fast and hard and fell into a rhythm with the percussive thumping of the big 650cc single. Rugged, reddish mountains limned the horizon, and I marinated myself in the lovely vistas and even lovelier day.
I stopped to enjoy the view at one mountain pass, and a man tried to sell me a lizard.
“Where am I going to put him?” I said in English, laughing. “On top of my tires? In my helmet? What in the world would a motorcycle traveler do with a lizard? I already have too much stuff!”
Farther along, we hit a set of steep mountains with hairpin turns. The road was little used and in disrepair. As in the vicinity of Ouarzazate, the road was littered with sand and gravel patches. The corners were tight. I feathered off the throttle – expect the unexpected -- and found Geoff and Migo waiting for me at an intersection 30 miles down the road.
I had opted not to fuel up in Agdz, while the others had. My glance at the Michelin map showed a sizable enough town called Tazenakht about 60 miles away. I could fuel up there. Except I had misread the map slightly – Tazenakht was in fact 12 miles out of our way.
If I rode straight to Foum Zguid, it would be nearly 330 miles since my last fuel stop. I should have enough fuel with my oversized 8-gallon fuel tank, I figured. If not, Geoff was carrying a siphon and pump that we could use to cannibalize fuel from one of their bikes.
For the South America ride, I had carried a fuel jerrican. I built a cage from aluminum bar and fastened up a Swiss-made Sigg aluminum bottle to the rear pannier. It held just 2 liters, but it saved me three times when I had run out of fuel. For Africa, in the sprit of light makes right, I decided against a jerrican. And here now was an occasion in which it might have proven useful.
I was in the lead in case I did run out. I spotted a group of motorcyclists parked along the road. I stopped to check them out. They were from Holland and doing some offroad adventures with enduro bikes. Their luggage was enviably minimalist. They had just come from Foum Zguid.
One of the Dutchmen told me, “We wanted to get fuel there, but the fuel station was closed. I’m not sure if there’s fuel there or not. There might at a store on the left about 500 meters past the gas station selling fuel in bottles, but we decided to press on.”
If there was no fuel in Foum Zguid, we’d have a problem. The next town, Tata, was nearly 90 miles to the west.
We percolated into Foum Zguid and a small crowd formed around us. It was a small, poor, ordinary town with one main intersection and no stop signs. I asked about fuel. From the Dutchman’s report, I expected to buy bottles, but in fact there was a hand-operated fuel pump mounted a bit curiously atop a sidewalk in the center of town.
We fueled up (at a reasonable enough black-market markup) and consorted with the locals and debated whether to press on to Tata. It was getting late. We were hot and tired. Tata would be nearly two hours away, ensuring a twilight if not later arrival.
No beer was sold in Foum Zguid, but neither could it be found in Tata, according to a carpet salesman who spoke improbably good English. That sealed it. Foum Zguid it was. A campsite and auberge, or inn, was just down the road.
The accommodations were splendid. The owner, a polite and diminutive fellow named Abdelhamid, offered Berber-style huts with a few straw-mattress beds in each for $6 USD. Palm trees grew in the sandy courtyard. And there was a plastic table with chairs, which delighted me immensely.
Not since Portugal have I camped with the benefit of a proper picnic table, forced instead to grovel about like a lesser beast with my gear atop the ground and the dirt. It’s wholly uncivilized camping, if you ask me, and I made light of the absence of a picnic table at nearly every campsite.
“You and your picnic tables,” Geoff needled me. “What we ought to do is get you a picnic table and a little trailer and you can tow it along behind you.”
With its aesthetically delightful Berber-style huts, the auberge was like pulling up to an American motel with the doors fronting to the parking lot. Perfect for motorcycle travel. Humping your heavy, unnecessary gear up a flight or two of stairs is one of the most disagreeable aspects of adventure motorcycling. As we unloaded, and Geoff summoned Migo and I over to his bike.
“Gentlemen,” he announced. “Now here is one trick piece of kit.” He extracted from a rear pannier a clear bag with something colorful inside. “I’ve never learned how to do this, and I’ve always wanted to. Someday, somewhere down the road, I’m going to teach myself how.”
He held up the bag for our inspection. I said, “A juggling kit?!”
“Fucking A, dude!” Geoff replied. “This one piece of kit can provide endless hours of entertainment.”
“It might even get you laid,” I said.
He considered this. A smile crossed his lips. “You’ve got a point, Sunshine,” he said.
We continued unpacking and chatting with a group of German motorcyclists camped in tents on the same property. Migo had apples in his tankbag and offered us some. Later, Geoff complained, ”Arg, I’ve got a piece of apple stuck between my teeth.” His mouth contorted as he tried to dislodge the thing. “Bloody hell, this is going to bug the fuck out of me.”
“Now here,” I said, “is a truly essential piece of adventure motorcycling gear.” I retrieved a small container from my tankbag. “Toothpick?”
“You’ve got toothpicks? Dude! And in a little Jack Daniels bottle, nice touch.”
Geoff and Migo strolled into town. I remained at the campsite, admiring the romantic setting of palm trees and Berber huts and watching the nearly full moon grow brighter in the desert sky. Abdelhamid had made tea. I sat at the plastic table and sipped the hot and sweet and minty beverage and took inventory of my gear.
The "Bike Krutch" would stay. I bought this piece of equipment from Aerostich to serve in lieu of a center stand, saving me maybe 13 pounds. It's made by some joker in Florida who takes little pride in his work, evidently, because it more or less fell apart after several uses. I fortified it with a new brace and lengthened it and it serves well to prop up either front or rear wheel.
The camp stove and its fuel bottle, they would have to go. I had brought the stove principally to boil water for coffee, as it’s downright dangerous for me to operate a motor vehicle at high speed without being adequately caffeinated. In desperate straits, I could do as I had in the past – put some instant coffee in a water bottle, shake vigorously, hold nose, and drink.
Without the stove, I would have little use for the two packages of freeze-dried Mountain House chicken teriyaki I had bought at REI in a bout of irrational shopping exuberance. Now what about my PacSafe? It’s a lockable steel mesh bag used to secure one’s possessions, and it’s freaking heavy. It expected it to come in handy in a cheap and sketchy hotel, to lock up my tankbag and its essential contents to a plumbing fixture, or something. Does its value outweigh its weight? To be determined.
I had extra bungee cords. Motorcycling around the U.S., I had always believed that one can never have too many bungees. Geoff felt the same. But sure enough, I had too many bungees. I had a pair of external speakers to use with my iPod. They would go. So right, I had an iPod. In fact, I had bought it expressly for this ride.
An iPod! On one hand I had counseled myself that light makes right, and on the other I went out and willfully acquired a completely unnecessary piece of equipment. It could go back to the U.S.; my head was full of songs that I could play if I liked, or even if I didn’t like. (Certain songs will manifest themselves unbidden, to my great consternation. Why o why o why am I cursed with the virtually eidetic memory of Karen Carpenter signing Top of World?)
On some other ride, up to Wyoming let’s say, the iPod and the external speakers can lullaby me with some Willie Nelson or Lynyrd Skynyrd around a campfire at a proper picnic table. Also gone would be my small Grundig shortwave radio; it works well, but English-language shortwave broadcasts are fast disappearing in favor of Internet radio. On most occasions I cannot tune in an English-language shortwave broadcast. It’s virtually useless.
I had a spare camera, that would stay … what would Africa be without photographs? I had a set of tiedowns; they too would stay. Tiedowns are the quintessential bit of adventure motorcycling gear. They had been an immense help three times in South America, once securing motorbikes in the front of a bucket loader to cross the overflown Rio Grande south of Uyuni, Bolivia.
My tiedowns for Africa were new and custom-made and lighter than those available at an auto parts shop. I bought at REI industrial-strength carabiners with serrated edges that can grab a strap as fiercely as junkyard dog. I hacksawed then in certain places so they would fit on parts of the bike, used the straps from conventional (heavy) tiedowns, and voila – I had saved about three pounds.
I have a pair of Wrangler jeans with belt. Those will go to charity; I can get by with my convertible (into shorts) NorthFace pants and the pair of olive-green shorts I’d bought in Brazil that bear the amusing name Jingler. Some packing choices, I realized, were just plain dumb. Why did I bring two pairs of cold-weather motorcycling gloves, and a pair of woolen winter socks? For the mountains in Morocco and South Africa, I had reasoned, but in retrospect their weight and volume far outweighed their prospective utility.
Certain things I could not, or would not, do without. For instance, my international electricity converter and my mosquito net and see-through mesh mosquito suit, which rather preposterously resembles ladies’ lingerie. The mosquito net is a protection against malaria, as are the medications Doxycycline and Malarone, which themselves weigh something and consume precious space, but which I dare not do without.
When I do dispose of or ship gear, I realized, I could also lose the backpack in which I carried the overflow. Soon enough I will be down to my lockable SW Motech Trax top box, SealLine dry bag, and my Wolfman panniers and tank bag.
I had a French phrasebook along with my French dictionary. I could live without the French phrasebook, as well as my Moroccan Arabic phrasebook, a perfect waste of $6.50. Those I discarded at the Foum Zguid auberge, along with a Chapstick, some extra Rolaids, a broken carabiner, documentation from my flight to Lisbon, and various other flotsam and jetsam.
I left them on the plastic table and as we rode off the next day, and I wondered if the hospitable Abdelhamid would wonder if I had forgotten them.
Migo’s kit is impressively spare, especially for a first-time adventure tourer. Before leaving, he arrayed all his gear in orderly fashiun and made some of the tough choices that I did not -- he has no camp stove, for instance.
Besides Tao Te Ching, he’s carrying Ted Simon’s Dreaming of Jupiter, a sequel to the seminal Jupiter’s Travels, about the author’s around-the-world ride on a Triumph in the early 1970s. (I took some solace in that Simon’s photos of both his 1970s Triumph and the BMW he rode around the world in the early 2000s at age 70. Admittedly, he too had overpacked. “I never learn,” he wrote).
I’ve got Shadow of the Sun, a collection of dispatches from Africa by the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Geoff has The Three Rings of War, a Japanese military book written in the 14th century. When the time comes, we can trade.
We can all live without books, of course. Yet it is wonderful to have a good book to read while traveling, especially for an extended time and at a campsite or cheap hotel without TV. In South America, I had saved Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries until I truly needed it, on a six-day boat ride down the Amazon River, from Belem to Manaus. The book saved me from endless hours of crushing boredom.
One thing we cannot live without is tires. We are all carrying spare knobbies, as it is nearly impossible to find tires for a large-cylinder motorbike in Africa. Instead, we lug the things along like rubber balls and chains, cursing their weight and inconvenience every day.
Riding Morocco, it struck me as ironic that it could be nearly impossible to find a particular rubber product on a continent that King Leopold of Belgium had raped for its rubber, in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese had died in service to the King of the Belgians, virtually enslaved to harvest rubber from vines, among other toil, as the Industrial Age got into full swing and Henry Goodyear invented the pneumatic tire.
Another irony is that the weight of the spare tires makes it impractical to do much offroad riding. On a sandy road in particular, you want the bike as light as possible. The only way to ride sand without a spill is at speed. The bike’s front tire dances unnervingly atop the sand, but the bike usually stays upright with adequate throttle. Our rubber balls and chains, along with excess gear, relegates us to the tarmac for now.
The flip side to the things they carried is the things they didn’t. One reason that Migo’s kit is impressively spare is that he opted against certain spare parts. He entered Africa without an extra front inner tube, and later would order one to be shipped via DHL to the Senegalese capital, Dakar, along with an extra set of tires. Unlike Geoff and I, Migo did not bring spare clutch or brake or shift levers. If his shift lever happens to break in a fall, we may need to improvise by putting my vise grip into emergency service.
Migo is a software developer, writing Web applications in the open source Ruby language, but he didn’t carry a laptop, which surprised me somewhat. Nor did he carry anti-malaria medication, which could come back to haunt him – the three of us, actually, if we need to tend to a stricken German. He’d had a bad experience in Central America with Larium (it often induces nightmares) and decided against any sort of malarial prophylactic.
You make your choices. You choose your devil. The packing never ends.
I’ve been dreaming of high school. This weekend, my school, Mohawk Central School in upstate New York, is holding a so-called mega-reunion. Anyone who ever attended or worked there is welcome. Many hundreds from many decades were expected.
The event triggered flurries of emails among classmates who had not been in contact for years. A girl I’d had a crush on in elementary school had phoned my parents’ home, looking for me. When my father told she had called, I felt a little schoolboy crush flicker for an instant in my heart, and chuckled at the silliness of it. It would have been wonderful to attend, as I had had a marvelous time in high school.
I had been voted second place as both class clown and class wiseguy, second to a guy who would earn a living as a singer in a local hard-rock band called Alpha Centauri. Ah, the memories. In the Sahara night, with the stars twinkling above, they were as clear and hard as a diamond, and came to me in dreams.
Instead of consorting with long-lost classmates at the reunion, I was in Foum Zguid, Morocco, with Geoff Shingleton. Geoff and I made our way to a shabby restaurant and ordered a chicken dinner. The restaurant had no chicken, or any sort of meat, on hand. The owner trotted down the street to a butcher shop and returned with a slab of meat, which he claimed to be from a cow. Fine, go ahead, cook it up, we said.
About 10 cats gathered around, mewling in hunger, as the meat sizzled on a sidewalk barbecue. The owner tried to shoo them away. It’s fine, I said, leave them be. I fed them and fed myself and sipped a glass of red wine we’d managed to procure from a shop next door.
I thought of my friends and classmates from Mohawk High School, Class of 1979, at that very hour also eating and drinking and laughing and reminiscing, in a place far, far away.