In this week’s article, our wayward motorcycle correspondent Conrad G weaves a yarn of sun, sand and suffering on the 2022 edition of Scram Africa, the rip-snorting continental scramble from Fuel Motorcycles. If you’ve ever wondered what it is actually like to take one of those fancy vintage rides out into the wild unknown, read on, with gawp-worthy photography from Simone de Ranieri (@de_ranieri_simone) and Isaac Vives (@fuelmotorcycles).
Life’s most memorable experiences are often challenging and unexpected.
You usually stumble into them by accident. A stroke of misfortune puts you in a difficult and unusual position, over which you eventually triumph, creating a story worthy of crackling campfires for decades to come. When I signed up for Scram Africa I was actively looking for trouble: the kind that turns into one of life’s great escapades.
Or so I had to remind myself, as I turned off my engine and slumped, utterly exhausted, over the handlebars of my Ducati Scrambler. We were halfway through Day 4 of the Scram, still a good 150 kilometres of off-road riding from camp. Both physically and mentally, I had hit a wall. In the absence of any breeze, and beneath the oppressive weight of my helmet and body armour, the 40-degree heat of the Sahara felt more like 60.
I sucked in vain on the dry rubber tube of my Camelbak, sweating profusely and unwilling to admit that I had finished the last of my water many kilometres before. The previous day of riding, multiple tumbles, and the exertion of repeatedly digging my unsuitably heavy bike out of deep sand had all taken their toll. 800ccs of Italian displacement is a lot of fun on solid track, but it’s a ball-and-chain in the dunes. My initial scorn for the smaller-engined, more nimble Royal Enfield Himalayans and Honda Dominators I’d encountered at the start of the journey had, in a few short days, transformed to envious admiration.
I looked up towards a rocky outcrop crowned with the ruins of drystone walls, and recognized the GPS waypoint known as ‘The Jail’. The location was so remote and hellish that European colonialists had long ago sent political prisoners here to suffer – and here we were, voluntarily paying for the privilege. It was laughably absurd.
A few of the other riders skidded to a halt behind me. They looked equally defeated, but as we locked eyes and raised our eyebrows together in silent, mutual acknowledgement of the physical pain, we couldn’t help but crack a few jokes about our self-inflicted predicament. One guy had blown out the suspension on his front forks, another had broken his frame yet again after welding it back together the night before. The third had snapped off his clutch lever and chosen to swap in his front brake lever as a replacement, taking the phrase ‘all gas, no brakes’ a touch too literally. We were quite the motley crew.
It was at that moment however, as we sat together in a barren but beautiful landscape miles from civilisation, unsure whether our bikes would limp across the day’s finish line, that I suddenly felt like I was getting what I had come for. The feeling of real adventure that a sedate hiking holiday or weekender in Ibiza would always fall pitifully – and forgetfully – short of.
Fuel and Scram Africa: A Chicken & Egg Story
I first heard about Scram Africa in 2018. There are plenty of adventure trips on motorbikes to choose from, but this one stood apart. I remember each line of the description reading more crazed than the last:
2,000 kilometers in 8 days of riding, a gruelling 250km per day on average;
…across some of the most unforgiving terrain and harsh climate on earth: the Moroccan Atlas and Sahara desert;
…riding not modern machines suited to this type of off-road punishment, but specifically scrambler and vintage motorcycles only, many of which have no business appearing outside of a showroom or scrapyard, let alone off the tarmac.
The evil geniuses cooking up this two-wheeled torture are a group of crackpot Catalans running a custom motorcycle outfit out of Barcelona called Fuel. You might have encountered their chic advertising; they make rugged motorcycle kit styled in a classic way. The gear looks particularly at home on old scrambler bikes and cafe racers, evoking all the retro romance of mid-20th century motorcycle culture.
In trying to distinguish chicken from egg, I discovered that Fuel’s marque as we know it today was really born from the Scram. Karles Vives – founder and creative mastermind – started building custom motorcycles as a hobby under the Fuel name circa 2011, and ran the first few ‘Scram Africa’ trips as wild live marketing campaigns for his combustible creations. By using custom and vintage bikes that were inherently unreliable, he wanted to recreate the sense of genuine adventure and unpredictability that early pioneers of motorcycling experienced. These original expeditions were simply a bunch of guys on old bikes camping rough, with just a pick-up truck for bags and no mechanical or medical support.
Unfortunately, there is no money in building custom bikes or hosting once-yearly expeditions like the Scram, so Karles’ hobby was not going to be sustainable long term. Enter Isidoro – now co-owner of Fuel – who attended an early Scram edition and fell so deeply in love with the whole experience and ethos that he immediately offered to invest in Fuel and deploy the talents he had acquired as a strategy consultant. He pitched Karles a vision to build out the Fuel brand with a clothing line that would embody the untamed spirit of the Scram and, importantly, make Fuel a financially sustainable endeavour in the long term.
Today, Fuel is one of the fastest growing motorcycle brands worldwide, while Scram Africa is in its 9th edition and is now professionally organized. In the 2022 edition – ‘The Desert Rats’ – they also opened up the field to vintage 4x4s (defined as more than 30 years old), which meant our complement of 27 riders was joined by four aged Land Rovers and their seven drivers. Together with three mechanics, two medics, and a support vehicle driver, we were an expedition of forty people.
Ultimately Karles and Isidoro have set up a vehicle through which to experiment and indulge in their wildest vehicular dreams. They design gear that they love and use personally, and test their newest creations for durability on the Scram. They have nurtured an enthusiastic host of fans and fellow enthusiasts like me who together subsidise the cost of new and exciting adventures around the world. Hats (or helmets) off to them. May we all be so lucky to supercharge our passions in such a way.
Leave The Main Road
Fuel’s motto is ‘Leave The Main Road’. It is not just a figurative phrase to inspire wearers of the brand to explore off the beaten track. As I discovered, it is also a direct transcription of the words that pop up on your GPS navigation device when you are about to enter a cross-country section.
The Scram’s route changes slightly every year, but it usually kicks off in Tangier on the northern Mediterranean coast before heading directly south through Fez to the border with Algeria. The change in scenery over the course of the journey is breathtaking, from lush mountain farmland near Chefchaouen to oases precariously sustaining life in the rocky desert of Merzouga. The local language changes from Arabic-Spanish in the north, left over from the retreat of the Andalusians into Morocco in the early 11th century, to Arabic-French as you cross Midelt in the mid-Atlas down into the Sahara. The most critical cultural differences to remember for a dusty, road-weary traveler however are the symbols that distinguish a Muslim from a Berber cafe, because amongst the hospitality, only at the latter will you find a much-needed cold beer.
There were many highlights of this expedition, but for me, four shine brighter than the rest.
#1 – The Approach to Gara Medouar. We were headed to our desert camp on Day 3 and had just finished a particularly punishing 280km off-road section where even the dirt track disappeared into dusty river beds and boulder fields, causing us to progress at a crawl. We finally emerged into an expansive open plain of hard-packed dirt and the occasional forlorn acacia. In the distance, an enormous rocky caldera rose nearly two hundred feet out of the heat mirage. We opened up the throttle and sped across the plain just as the sun began to fall over the Atlas to the northwest, smiling ear to ear from the cooling relief of a speed-generated breeze.
As we drew closer to this incredible structure, we noticed a huge 40-foot stone wall guarding the entrance to the inner bowl. It reminded me of the approach to ‘The City of the Dead’ in the 1999 film The Mummy, when Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are racing treasure-hunting rivals to the city’s gate on camel back. As it turns out, that’s because Gara Medouar was in fact the filming location. This natural wonder was developed into a fortification and trading post in the 11th century, before becoming a favourite stop for Dakar Rally training and popular shoot location for several imaginary Hollywood locations, including Spectre’s lair in James Bond: Quantum of Solace. The landscape is at once otherworldly and unforgettably beautiful.
#2 – Dune Antics at Sahara Camp. Day 4 was another full day of nearly 300km off-road, half-way through which I hit my wall at The Jail. The route climaxed in a race across a huge open salt flat that stretched for several kilometres. We camped in the shadow of a massive sand dune which rapidly transformed into an adult playground, with bikes and 4x4s criss-crossing the crest at speeds to rival Evel Knievel. As the sun set, a huge group of us piled into, and onto the roofs of, our Land Rovers ‘Colonel Mustard’ and ‘The Rodent’ to take a bumpy trip to a tiny hostel 5km away for our first shower and toilet access in three days of riding. The horrors visited on those ill-equipped facilities are reportedly the subject of a new Tarantino film. You heard it here first.
#3 – Storm in the High Atlas. As we left the Sahara and climbed back up through the Atlas towards Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, on the western Atlantic Coast, we drove along hundreds of kilometres of winding mountain dirt tracks past picturesque Berber villages. As we approached the highest mountain pass on our route, we ran directly into the rolling, ominous clouds of a thunderstorm. We stopped at the crest of the mountain just in time to witness some spectacular, if rather dangerous, lightning strikes not more than a few kilometres from our location.
Lingering a touch too long, we were caught square in the storm. This resulted in us traversing the next stretch of road in whipping, icy rain which had me pining for the Sahara’s sweltering embrace. Eventually we descended into the hot farmlands around Afourer. As luck would have it, our support truck carrying our bags broke down that day, so we found a nearby hotel and spent the next eight hours at the pool in our boxers, drinking the establishment dry. The following morning was, unsurprisingly, one of the more painful of the trip.
#4 – Beach Riding. Our final night in Morocco before driving to Tangier to board the ferry back to Spain was spent near a pretty seaside town. At dusk we took our bikes onto the beach and rode through the surf, creating a spectacle that attracted some admiring local onlookers. The image of a huge 6’7” Dane, Andreas, completely hosing Isidoro with sand and sea water as he tried to get his BMW R nineT back wheel unstuck makes me laugh out loud even now. We sat down to dinner sopping wet and covered in sand, with the largest grins I had ever seen on grown men before or since.
Flying Finns and Devil-Wears-Prada Danes
The colossal Dane mentioned above was one of many colourful characters on this trip. He rode the entire 2,000 km in a single pair of white jeans and boots more suited to a catwalk than a dirt track. Despite dislocating his shoulder in a crash and spending several hours driving in rough terrain to a hospital to pop it back in, he jumped right back on his scrambler the next day with no complaints.
Other notable characters included Lauri, the ‘Flying Finn’, whose daredevil speeds on his Honda Dominator were as legendary as his uncanny capacity for alcohol; the larger-than-life Italian, Mauro, the beating heart of every boisterous dinner table who was comically scornful of mid-afternoon lattes, and Oli, the lovable and gregarious owner of the ‘Baffle Haus’ motorcycle café in Pontypool, Wales, source of much hilarity when a GoPro captured his front dentures flying out of his mouth onto the road…
Oli’s three mates Mike, Kyle and world downhill mountain bike champ Rowan were the most talented riders by far despite having some of the most banged-up vintage bikes. Then there were two Brits and a Kiwi – Rob, Dave and… Dave, driving their tricked-out Defender, ‘The Rodent’, for whom no sand dune was too vertical to approach at 50mph, nor any cliff too dangerous to perch their four tonne vehicle precariously at the edge of for a photo op. The only thing more horrifying than their disregard for personal safety was their fuel bill, at 10 miles to the gallon.
The Scram’s unparalleled charm is attributable to the sort of slightly unhinged but fundamentally handy and decent individual who signs up for a trip like this. Our group had riders from the ages of 26 to 62, however in temperament and personality we had much more in common than initial, superficial impressions suggested. As the tests and travails of the trip revealed, each of these Desert Rats possessed a strong sense of humour even in more testing moments, a real knack for creative problem solving, and an innate grit rarely encountered in an age of airbrushed Instagram holidays.
By the end of the trip, a powerful sense of camaraderie and mutual respect had developed, forged through constantly dragging each other out of sand dunes, stopping roadside after dark, hungry and tired, to help fix one another’s engines, and many laughter-filled nights recounting the day’s triumphs and calamities. My thanks to the team at Fuel who organised the trip, Ignasi at GR11 Viajes who planned the route and sorted logistics, and our wizard-like mechanics and medical team without whom neither the bikes nor the riders would have arrived home in one piece. The Scram fulfilled all of my expectations; we left the main road as promised, and in so doing discovered friendships, great escapades, and boots filled with so much sand it’s a surprise the Sahara has any left.