Off for the Desert Challenge

A brutally early start from home, creeping through the house so as not to wake anyone. Time only for a cup of tea, then the double check: Equipment. Wallet. Passport. Brain. All there… I think.

A last look around before I close the door, and the weird pregnant quiet of a sleeping home. It’s hard saying goodbye the night before you leave.

An airport breakfast I’d forgotten midway through the last forkful. Later onboard and I watch the wingtip lifting up and down in the blustery wind while we wait on the tarmac. A not particularly vibrant start to my first trip to Morocco.

Later, from cruising height, taking in the view out of the window and I don’t see camels galumphing across the dunes in tight formation. But the country below appears more arable than I thought it would be.

Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar 2016


Like a scene from an Hieronymus Bosch painting, the Marrakech tannery seemed like a kind of hell. It certainly smelled like it.

The floor of the tannery was pockmarked with large vats full of soaking hides being worked underfoot by men up to their waists in tanning solution. Elsewhere others beat, scrubbed and scraped the hides, and then piled the skins in great smelly heaps.

As manual labour goes it’s pretty grim.

Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar 2016.

Desert lunch

There were great views from the top of this hill. It also turned into a bit of a gourmet lunch. Maurizio the assistant to the location producers suprised everyone with a fantastic Italian spread.

Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar 2016.

At work.

It was wonderfully peaceful up there looking over the dunes. To the right, the open plains, the palmery at Merzouga. To the left, the beginning of the dune sea.

Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar 2016.

Dune top

Getting to the top of this dune took some effort. Firstly some crazy driving in a 4 x 4, circling the bowls between dunes at a incredible angles of lean, getting faster and farther up the banking, before catapulting out and over the crest of the dunes walls. A bit like the wall of death stunt I imagine, but in this way we worked our way higher and higher into the dunes, up to the point where we had to continue on foot.

It certainly put Christophe Barriere-Varju skill on a motorbike into perspective. He was able to ride a bike up almost 400 feet of near vertical of dune wall, yet he still had to back the power off before summiting.

Riding Morocco: Chasing the Dakar 2016.

Farming in the shadow

This old woman was out inspecting her smallholding while we got on with our work mucking about looking for shots. Her small farm, indeed the whole village was covered in volcanic ash which is extremely fertile apparently. Hard to imagine when the landscape looked so dusty and bleak.

She turned out to be in her late 80’s and still spry enough to farm her land.

AXA. The Science of Risk. 2015.

In the exclusion zone

Here we are, nearly 3 kilometres from the crater and the feeling is eerie and surreal. A deep huffing sound, like some massive sleeping animal, rolling down the valley and across the moraine towards us.

AXA. The Science of Risk. 2015.


Even though it came from a service station, this lunch knocked the takeaway London bento boxes I’ve had into the weeds.

Looking at this shot I’m struck by how relaxed we all look. Just how risky was it being there? We’d only been here for a couple of hours and were all, if not relaxed about, then accustomed to Sakurajima exploding every ten minutes or so…

And… KABOOOOOOM! There it goes again.

The Volcanologist we were filming with, Dr. Corrado Cimarelli, was very matter of fact. Mount Ontake in Japan had erupted without any warning last year killing 57 people, and Mount Ontake had been considered pretty safe. So you could never tell. And here we were inside 3 kilometres from Japan’s most active volcano arguing over the last few pieces of sashimi.

Pass the wasabi please…

AXA. The Science of Risk. 2015.

And then…

It happened.

And it was seriously big.

Sakurajima is one of the most active volcano’s on the planet and it didn’t disappoint. I counted nearly 6 seconds between seeing an eruption, and hearing it. When the pressure wave hit, I could feel it in my guts and on my legs. It was like a punch.

AXA. The Science of Risk. 2015.


Seriously. Booooooom!

The locals have a name for Sakurajima volcano:  “ブラック神” or Barakku-shin – The Black God.

Up this close it seemed very appropriate.

Can you see that speck in the air to the bottom left of the main ash cloud?

That is about the size of a caravan.

AXA. The Science of Risk. 2015.