Magic in the Spanish Desert

Words by Ben Giese | Film & photos by Sebastien Zanella

With quotes from John C. Van Dyke | The Desert, 1901

“Nature never designed more fascinating country to ride over than these plains and mesas lying up and back from the desert basin. You may be alone without necessarily being lonesome. And everyone rides here with the feeling that he is the first one that ever broke into this unknown land, that he is the original discoverer; and that this new world belongs to him by right of original exploration and conquest.” 

The desert is a strange paradox of terror and beauty.  An arid wasteland that has been scorched and forsaken, riddled with death and decay.  The haunting silence and desolation found in the desert provides a right of passage for the troubled mind and a refuge for the wandering spirit to get lost with no intent on being found. In the early days, venturing out into these merciless badlands was surely a death wish.  Skeletons buried in the sand are a ghostly reminder of the desperation seen by nomadic desert travellers who have traversed this forbidden terrain on horseback for hundreds of years.  If migrants weren’t killed by natives, outlaws, bandits, gunslingers or one of the many venomous creatures lurking on the desert floor, they would likely succumb to the suffering of dehydration, starvation, delirium, heat exhaustion, or even freeze to death beneath a cold and merciless moon.  It’s a grim environment, deprived of water and lavish with danger; but amongst all the unrelenting cruelties that define the desert, there is a great deal of majesty and solitude to be found here, and no better way to experience its ominous enchantment than from the seat of a motorcycle.

“The desert is our troubled state. It is the dwelling place of our demons. This is a land of illusions and thin air, the vision is so cleared at times that the truth itself is deceptive.”

Craving an escape with a magnitude of desolation, I linked up with my friend Nathon Verdugo from Ducati USA, and we decided to make our way across the globe to visit the driest region in all of Europe.  Located about 100 miles north of the Moroccan coastline, our destination would be the southeastern province of Almería, Spain.  Greeted by a surprisingly cold wind blowing up from the sea and passing through the white-stucco buildings of Almería, we spent the first evening of this trip planning and preparing our pair of Scramblers for the beating they were about to endure in the coming days.  The hot skies and torn valleys of the Spanish desert show mercy to no one, so being prepared and knowing that we had machines capable of handling the conditions was crucial. 

The following morning we emerged well before the sun and fired up our Scramblers to depart the city and head inland toward the wild desert basin.  As we left Almería, the crumbling pavement roads quickly transitioned to dirt, eventually leading us into a deep, rocky sand-wash snaking through a narrow canyon.  Naturally, you would think a 450lb street bike would quickly meet its maker when faced with miles of sandy riverbed, but I guess there’s no better way to put these motorcycles to the test than throwing them straight into the fire.  I knew these Scramblers would be off-road-capable machines, but I was very surprised at how effortlessly we were able to glide through the deep sand and over all the rocks and boulders.  It quickly became apparent why they named this bike the “Desert Sled.” 

Half an hour after departing downtown Almería we found ourselves passing through an Old West-style town called Fort Bravo.  Clapboard buildings featuring a saloon, a blacksmith, a jail and gallows rested alongside a Spanish pueblo and cathedral.  Two Spanish cowboys were patrolling the dirt roads on horseback, and at the edge of town we could see a group of Native American tipis resting in the valley.  Like a real-life cowboys-and-Indians scene, it was funny to be halfway across the world and feel like we were riding motorcycles in a Clint Eastwood film based in the American Old West.  In fact, we learned that Fort Bravo is often used as a movie set and has been the backdrop for many famous spaghetti-western films dating back to the Sixties.  Quite a sight to behold, this would mark the last sign of civilization before entering the devil’s playground, a country of madness known as the Tabernas Desert.

“The waste places of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts of forsaken men given over to loneliness, have a peculiar attraction of their own. The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love.” 

Lying ahead in the desert basin sat miles upon miles of splintered peaks scorched dry by the hungry sun.  This was the Wild West at its finest, and it felt like we were the original explorers, pioneers about to concur a great new land full of illusion and mystery. Inspired by the colossal majesty our eyes were absorbing in that moment, my mind couldn’t help but visualize an endless blank canvas – a desolate sanctuary beckoning our motorcycles to create their masterpiece.  

Nathon and I spent the next two days dancing with the devil, wandering back and forth across the eternal wasteland of Tabernas.  Climbing the jagged ridgelines, riding wheelies through the open plains, and roaming in circles with no plan or sense of direction was the essence of why we came here, but what we found during our displacement was something entirely different.  the sense of oneness, clarity and solitude that we experienced in the Spanish desert is something one could only feel by immersing themselves in the sublime silence of these lonely hills.   There’s an unexplainable magic to be found getting lost here, chasing your demons and finding what’s hidden deep within.  The daily stresses and worries of the outside world are quickly forgotten, and the sad state of humanity begins to fade away like a mirage hidden within the purity of this landscape.

At home in their natural habitat, our Scramblers were at peace, and so were our hearts.  I will forever have a special place within for the desert, and those of you who have experienced a motorcycle escape like this know exactly what I’m talking about.  Riding motorcycles in this desolate paradise is very cleansing, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.  Sadly, the ghost of reality came knocking yet again, and it was time to go home.  It’s never easy coming down from such a high, but at least we can find comfort in knowing that the desert will always be there, waiting for our return.  For now, we’ll keep it in our dreams, patiently waiting for the next great escape.

“Mystery – that haunting sense of the unknown – is all that remains. It is time that we should say good-night – perhaps a long good-night – to the desert.”