Cyclist’s incredible flight-free journey to Africa from the UK by train and ferry to take part in a gruelling 830-mile ‘unsupported’ bike race, with nights spent in hotels… and on the roadside
- Josh Reid travelled to Morocco from Newcastle via Portsmouth and Santander
- Then he cycled the Atlas Mountain Race, which skirts the Sahara Desert
- READ MORE: Inside Britain’s most remote mainland community
I recently arrived in Morocco for a bike race. I could have flown, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, I travelled overland by train and also took two ferries.
How easy is it to get to Africa without flying? Pretty easy, I discovered. Naturally, the trip took longer – I was on the ferry from the UK to Spain for two nights – but, according to a carbon footprint calculator, I saved a whopping 352kg of CO2, emitting 93 per cent fewer emissions compared to flying.
Why didn’t I take the (cheaper) three-and-a-half-hour flight? Partly to reduce my carbon footprint, partly for the thrill of the Brittany Ferries mini-cruise and then the overland crossing of Spain, but also to protect my bike. Airline baggage handlers are not always kind to bicycles – even those snugly packed in toughened boxes.
Train travel is easy with a folding bike, but not so easy with a full-sized one like mine – a Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 mountain bike. I sat with it, squashed, at galley ends and was therefore never more than a few inches away from my pride and joy at most times and could mollycoddle it to Morocco. Nobody’s luggage got smothered in gunk: I cleaned the bike with Weldtite cleaning wipes before each train stage.
A bike was handy for getting between stations and for digging me out of trouble when we berthed in Africa’s biggest port. I stuffed up, you see. Instead of paying attention to the destination, I went for the cheapest sub-two-hour crossing from the Spanish port of Algeciras, using a company called Trasmediterranea, and ended up in Tanger Med. This is 30 miles from the downtown Tangier train station I needed to hit. So I cycled there, which was enjoyable because the asphalt was smooth, the traffic was light, and I had strong African sun on my skin!
Josh took a Trasmediterranea ferry from the Spanish port of Algeciras to Africa’s biggest port – Tanger Med (above)
Marrakesh – the eye-catching starting point for the Atlas Mountain Race
The Atlas Mountain Race is unsupported, so riders have to buy food, maintain their bike, and sort accommodation – usually just a sleeping bag beside the trail. Above is Josh’s Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29
It was good to be back cycling again and good preparation for the race I’d entered – the Atlas Mountain Race. An 830-mile crossing of the Atlas Mountains towards the Sahara desert and then doubling back over the Anti-Atlas mountains, finishing in the old fishing port of Essaouira. The race started on February 3, with the last riders finishing on February 11.
I managed to finish on February 10.
Everybody rides the same route, mostly on gravel trails. At times, the distances between resupply points are vast.
Riders are unsupported, so they have to buy food, maintain their bike, and sort accommodation (usually just a sleeping bag beside the trail). But I’m used to looking after myself on long rides. It’s my second overseas ultra-long-distance bike race – I sped across Europe last year on the similarly self-supported Transcontinental Race – and in 2019, I cycled back to the UK from China.
Starting in Marrakesh, we climbed to the highest point of the race at 2,540m (8,333ft) within the first 100km (62 miles). I didn’t have the best preparation in the lead-up to the event having had Covid at Christmas and a chest infection in the weeks prior.
Josh (above) reveals that he’s been suffering from a chest infection prior to the race and was coughing up blood on the way round
‘The thing that kept me going [during the Atlas Mountain Race] was the single track and the scenery,’ writes Josh
‘There was something jaw-dropping around every corner,’ reveals Josh
We reached the summit in the early hours of the morning. The cold, dry air affected many riders, including myself. I coughed up blood and struggled to breathe even on the easiest of gradients in the subsequent days.
The thing that kept me going was the single track and the scenery – around every corner there was something jaw-dropping.
I gained a lot from the race, meeting some incredible people and riding my bike through some pretty spectacular scenery.
This image shows some of the Atlas Mountain Race spectators
The race finished in the ancient fishing port of Essaouira (above)
Even though the race didn’t really go the way I’d have hoped, it was a great way to plunge into off-road ultra-racing and I was very happy to make it round.
There was more hike-a-bike than I was banking on with a long hike downhill over the top of the first pass in fairly deep snow in the early hours of the morning and then the slow stomp through the desert felt like it took several hours.
My accommodation? A fifty-fifty split between hotels and the roadside.
THE JOURNEY TO AFRICA
I started this no-flight journey by riding from home in the Jesmond area of Newcastle to Newcastle Central station to get an LNER train to London. I was travelling with an Interrail pass, and even the UK stretch was covered with this discount pass.
I cycled to Waterloo to get the train to Southampton to stay overnight with a friend before cycling the 20 miles or so to Portsmouth to catch the Brittany Ferries two-nighter to Spain. The ship, the Galicia, left at 9pm on the dot.
I could have taken the train to Paris and then on to Spain but when I was booking the journey, it was impossible to get full-sized bikes on the Eurostar service. This rule — introduced during the pandemic — has now been removed, but I think I made the right decision: it was a relaxing way to get from the UK to Northern Spain. I had a tasty vegetarian paella on the ferry, and my four-berth cabin had a warm shower and a TV pre-loaded with movies. (I watched the 2022 Elvis biopic.)
Josh sailed on Brittany Ferries’ ship Galicia from Portsmouth (above) to Santander
This image shows one of the lounge areas aboard Galicia
Josh’s four-berth cabin on Galicia
Two nights later, we arrived in the Spanish port of Santander. To drizzle. Not that it mattered – I was straight on to a train, although not a high-speed one. Bikes aren’t allowed. But bags are, so I took the wheels off and wrapped the frame in bin bags offered by a station cleaner. Would the disguise work? The ticket office was game, but the guard on the first high-speed service to Madrid was having none of it. Kindly, the ticket office issued a refund for the unused reservation, and I got on a much slower regional train instead. What would have been a two-and-a-half-hour journey to the centre of Spain instead required an overnight stay in a hostel in Valladolid.
I reached snowy Madrid the following day and decided to upgrade my disguise. I bought a flimsy bag in a bike shop that covered most of the bike, with the wheels wrapped in the donated bin bags.
This time it worked, and a kind conductor allowed me on to the fast train to the port city of Algeciras. That evening I camped by the beach in the nearby Estrecho National Park and took the first ferry from Algeciras to Africa the following day. The crossing was quick, just one and a half hours, but my miscalculation (done to save money) meant we didn’t berth where I thought we would.
Above is Santander. From there Josh travelled by train to the southern coast of Spain
Josh camped by the beach in the Estrecho National Park and took the first ferry to Africa from the nearby port of Algeciras the following day
I had two backpacks, which wasn’t ideal for a 30-mile bike ride, but it was a scenic pedal on a winding coastal road past beautiful beaches.
I wasn’t planning to spend time in Tangiers (I might linger on the way back) so I jumped on the first train to Casablanca. In theory, bikes aren’t allowed on Moroccan trains. According to my research before the trip, they weren’t even allowed in Moroccan train stations!
Again, bags are allowed, so I took the wheels off and wrapped the bike in the bag I’d bought in Spain. I smuggled the cycle-shaped contraband past the exterior station guards and politely persuaded the ticket staff to sell me a ticket. So far, so good. The next step was to get past the ticket inspectors blocking the way to the platforms. Confused, they radioed for instructions, but I was eventually ushered through. Just the train guard to sweet-talk now. That worked, so I was on!
Josh ‘disguised’ his bike in a bag for trains where bicycles were banned
Josh sitting with his bike and bags on the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh
Casablanca railway station is pictured on the left, Marrakesh station on the right
Josh’s bike is pictured here outside Marrakesh railway station
The high-speed train was plush and modern. I carried the bike — sorry, bag — to the upper deck’s suitcase rack. The ‘bag’ protruded into the aisle, but I made it to Casablanca. I stayed the night in an Ibis hotel in the city centre, getting up early the next morning for the express to Marrakesh.
There was little room for the ‘bag’ so I stayed with it at the galley end of the train, sitting on my rucksack in front of a fragrant toilet. I practiced my French with my fellow passengers, who were friendly – they plied me with snacks.
Arriving in Marrakesh two and a half hours later, I calculated that the full journey from the UK had taken the best part of six days. Sure, it would have been easier, cheaper, and quicker to have flown, but taking two ferries and a bunch of trains meant I’d already had an adventure.
- To watch Josh’s YouTube video of the journey to Africa click here. And to watch his amazing video of the ‘last push’ in the Atlas Mountain Race click here. His videos documenting the initial and intermediate stages can be found here and here. There’s more from Josh on Instagram – www.instagram.com/joshreids.
The Atlas Mountain Race was first staged in 2020 and is organised by the gloriously named Nelson Trees, an ultra-distance British rider who now lives in Kyrgyzstan, where he also organises the Silk Road Mountain Race, another self-supported gravel-based cycling event.
Josh rode a Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 shod with Hutchinson Skeleton tyres set up tubeless for ‘greater rolling speed’.
He used Restrap bags on his handlebars, top tube, and hanging from the saddle. For extra water capacity — the race skirts the Sahara, remember! — he wore a Camelbak.
For night riding, his way was lit by British-made long-burn ultra-bright lights from Exposure. It was chilly at night, so his lightweight camping kit included a Robens Tents Mountain Bivvy and an Icefall Pro 300 sleeping bag.
Josh’s two-day ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in Spain cost £564 return with Brittany Ferries.
He benefitted from reduced-cost train travel with an Interrail pass – 518 euros for a 15-day first-class pass.
The iconic pass celebrated its 50th-anniversary last year. Launched in March 1972, the Interrail pass was originally for young travellers only, enabling those up to 21 years of age to explore 21 countries by train with just one rail pass. Since 1998 the Interrail pass has been available for travellers of all ages. More than 10million travellers have enjoyed ‘interrailing’ across Europe. Josh was able to meander on his return from Morocco rather than taking direct trains.
The ferry from Spain to Morocco with Trasmediterranea cost 56 euros return. The train journeys in Morocco cost just 30 euros.
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