Stories: Big Trip

Fesh Fesh sand

Fesh Fesh

Friend or foe?

Magical, mystical, the finest sand known to man dares its victims to approach with exhilarated abandon.

But beware… as slippery as ice on rock or a dry quicksand in drifts, the powder of the desert offers a riding challenge like no other. Like a cloudy abyss, it claims its victims indiscriminately. Leading the pack may be the best chance of escaping its disorientating power. Too close in its wake risks being engulfed.

This is fesh fesh, the North African phrase for the evolutionary end game, where sand becomes powder – only lighter. At two inches on rock, it creates an ice rink, at two feet in undulating pools, it’s a whirlwind of dust. On a bike, it’s either sheer madness or unadulterated fun. You decide.

All sense of direction disappears… Everywhere is sand.

Gideon Schipaanboord

For Gideon Schipaanboord, it has always been a nebulous concept, since sitting transfixed by television images of the Paris-Dakar Rally, the ultimate off-road endurance race, as an eight-year-old boy. Since then, he and brother Joshua have both lived hectic but for the most part, ordered, lives.

Gideon is strategy director with a digital creative agency, while his sibling, nine years his junior, owns a cleaning company. Their careers depend on forward planning and strict attention to detail, the very antithesis of the chaos-bringing fesh fesh. Both are based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands but the lure of the world’s biggest dust bowl simply wouldn’t leave him: “There were cool cars, big stars and models. Every entrant was battling to be first across 500 miles of sand dunes, mud and rocks each day. As a boy I thought ‘this is perfect’.”

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The dream stayed with the impressionable youngster until his late 30s and a sudden, overwhelming desire to push himself to the limits of endurance. “I couldn’t wait until tomorrow. I rang my brother, told him we were going – bullied him basically – and started planning. I’d only had my Scrambler a year after being tempted by the café racer scene,” he added.

Gideon, who joined the Scram Africa trip with Triumph riders from Spain and Italy, said: “I prepared my Scrambler, adding new tyres, grips, Ohlins suspension and a different exhaust. I thought ‘this is it, I’m going to live my dream’. We headed south and it was mainly unpaved gravel roads and the navigation was quite straightforward.”

But this is no riding country for the faint-hearted and within 24 hours, the group’s false sense of security had been shattered. It was time to face the fesh fesh.

Some days I could not walk or drink or speak, but we had this feeling that this was a trip for real men

Gideon Schipaanboord

The group covered between 200 and 400km each day through extreme heat.

But this is no riding country for the faint-hearted and within 24 hours, the group’s false sense of security had been shattered. It was time to face the fesh fesh.

“Seeing the desert was a novelty at first, but as we moved south to Merzouga, it got a lot tougher than we ever expected. All sense of direction disappears, and the GPS and maps become pretty redundant. Everywhere is sand,” he said.

Further on and the vast expanse of talcum powder sand claimed its first victim, one of the group’s Scramblers fishtailing frantically until it fell side-on into the deep pool.

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Teamwork and fitness are the only ways to survive. Fair enough on a rainy day in Rotterdam, but another matter with full armour kit in 40-degree heat and the advice not to expose your skin ringing in red-hot ears.

Gideon said: “There was no option. If one went down, the others had to help and you really do need to be fit. Fesh fesh will claim anyone it can and the people following are equally at risk of being swamped by it. There were people being physically ill it was so demanding and by the end of the day, we were all utterly mentally and physically exhausted.

Somewhere between bike safety and full-on adrenalin – and keeping your distance – is the best way to survive the debilitating dust storms created by the lead rider. The group covered between 200 and 400km each day through extreme heat, the only respite coming on the second leg into the Atlas Mountains and a relatively icy six degrees.

 

“The mountains were a real contrast, as we rolled through small villages where children came out to wave, touch us and ask for pictures with our bikes, like we were those stars in my Paris–Dakar dream. There were always offers of a drink and wherever we were, amazingly, someone always had petrol,” said Gideon.

“Now it was cold and rainy, with beautiful 3,000-metre high peaks, but one of my lasting memories wherever we camped was the view of the sky and the stars… and the donkeys. Incredible.”

The millions upon millions of tonnes of dust now seem like a memory, but one that will never fade for Gideon and his brother: “When we reached the end, we were given medals that said ‘audaces fortuna Iuvat’ – luck is for the brave – but I didn’t need any luck with my Scrambler. It performed brilliantly and, despite the minute grains of sand, never let me down.

It was an amazing experience and one I’m so glad I did with my brother. We were pretty close before, but what we saw and getting through the fesh fesh has bonded us forever.

All sense of direction disappears, and the GPS and maps become pretty redundant.

The Trip: The lows and highs of Morocco

Stage 1

Nador to Plato de Rokkam

Border crossing – takes too long, but soon we’re flying through valleys and villages.

Stage 2

Plato de Rokkam to Merzouga

Paved road ends and we’re travelling on high plateaus towards Merzouga.

Stage 3

Merzouga to Zagora

An original Paris-Dakar stage from the door of the desert through sand trails and dry lakes. Navigation is difficult. We did it in two days, camping covered by a starry sky in the middle of the desert.

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Stage 4

Zagora to Demnate

An enormous plateau of desert and fesh fesh. A great stage with a highway of desert. No rules, no one else, nothing.

Stage 5

Demnate to Ilmichil

Crossing the Atlas was difficult and beautiful. We rode stone and gravel trails through amazing landscapes totally different from the southern desert.FeshFEshMap

Stage 6

Ilmichil to Nador

Crossing the Atlas was difficult. It sometimes took us around four hours to make 50km.

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When we reached the end, we were given medals that said ‘audaces fortuna Iuvat’ – luck is for the brave – but I didn’t need any luck with my Scrambler

Gideon Schipaanboord